Q&A with Nancy Dockter
On January 8, 2021, decARcerate and Disability Rights Arkansas will release a report titled Solitary Confinement in Arkansas Prisons, detailing the Arkansas Department of Correction's use of this torturous practice. Below is a Q&A with the report's author, Nancy Dockter.
What are the key findings of your report?
About Solitary Confinement in General
The use of solitary confinement was uncommon in the United States throughout most of the 20th century because it was known to be inhumane, psychologically damaging, and ineffective. A national resurgence of the practice began in the 1980s, in part in response to prison overcrowding and an abandonment of a rehabilitative approach to incarceration. Since then, appeals to drastically limit the use of solitary confinement have intensified.
Advocates for reform include the professional organizations for state correctional leaders and correctional mental health workers as well as the U.S. Department of Justice, the American Bar Association, and the United Nations.
Solitary confinement requires an individual to be isolated in a tiny room with little to no meaningful activity to engage the body and mind for 22-23 hours per day.
Solitary confinement is an expensive but ineffective strategy for reducing disciplinary problems and violence in prisons. The practice is not validated by scientific evidence.
Solitary confinement creates mental illness and exacerbates pre-existing mental illness. The harmful effects may be lasting and are detrimental to successful re-entry to society.
People with mental illness or disability are more likely to be held in solitary confinement.
About Solitary Confinement in Arkansas Prisons
The Arkansas Department of Corrections, in its 2015-2020 strategic plans, declares that it wants to reduce the number of people held in solitary confinement, but Arkansas has the highest rate of use of solitary confinement in the United States, according to a 2019 national survey in which 39 state correctional systems participated. Its rate of use was 11% compared to the national median of 3.8%.
About 20% of individuals incarcerated in Arkansas prisons experienced solitary confinement during each quarter from April 2019 through March 2020, according to ADC reports. That amounts to about 2,600 to 3,500 people exposed to the harmful effects of solitary confinement during each 3-month period.
Stays in solitary confinement of more than 15 days straight pose serious mental health risks and amount to torture, according to experts. However, In October 2019, of the 1,712 people held in solitary in Arkansas prisons, 73.1% had been there more than six months, and 42.4% had been in solitary for one year or longer, according national survey data.
Black men, Black women, and Hispanic women are held in solitary confinement at a disproportionately higher rate, compared to their numbers in the general prison population.
The Arkansas Department of Corrections will not release to the public data on how long people are being held in solitary confinement.
Conditions of Confinement
While in solitary in an Arkansas prison, a person has no personal belongings and is almost entirely denied resources that would help ground them emotionally, provide intellectual stimulation, and contribute to their rehabilitation. Access to educational, therapeutic or other rehabilitative programs are denied. Library privileges are denied.
People in solitary have little to no opportunity for visits or phone calls with loved ones or meaningful interactions with anyone within the prison.
The mattress in a solitary cell is removed daily, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., so only the surface for sitting or lying down is concrete.
People held in solitary get to go outside for only one hour before daylight, three times per week, for the purpose of exercise. They exercise alone in a concrete and chain-link enclosure akin to a cage.
Placement in and Release from Solitary Confinement
Most people believe that only the ‘worst of the worst’ go to solitary confinement, but the truth is that the vast majority of solitary confinement placements in Arkansas prisons are for non-violent, minor offenses such as questioning an order or talking back to a guard. Less than 10% of the almost 25,000 infractions in 2019-2020 that resulted in a solitary confinement placement were due to a violent act or threat of violence.
ADC policy allows broad discretion in how solitary may be used as punishment and extended stays of a year or more.
The programs designed to help people ‘graduate’ from solitary (step-down programs) are ineffective, with few people achieving release from solitary.
Managing Prison Safety and Security Issues without Solitary Confinement
Best practices, when a person must be removed from the general prison population, include provision of opportunities for social interaction as well as educational, mental health, and rehabilitative programming.
There is a wide range of sanctions that can be used, and are proven effective, for discipline of infractions that does not include long-term solitary confinement.
Investing in mental health treatment, educational and job training, and other types of rehabilitative programming for all incarcerated individuals would help reduce behaviors that lead to putting people in solitary.
Re-training of correctional officers is needed to help prevent situations that lead to solitary confinement placements. Topics would include recognition of mental illness symptoms, de-escalation techniques and communication skills, and a rehabilitative philosophy and how it relates to the role of a correctional officer.
The ADC has no strategic plan to guide efforts to reduce solitary confinement placements.
Other state correctional systems have drastically reduced use of solitary confinement.
Mental Illness and Suicide
The Arkansas Department of Corrections under-estimates the number of people in Arkansas prisons who have serious mental illness. The ADC contends that only 3% of the Arkansas prison population has serious mental illness. This is contrary to U.S. Bureau of Justice findings that about 50% of people in state prisons report symptoms of serious mental illness and about 12% of the U.S. general adult population has serious mental illness. This under-recognition of mental illness means people with mental illness who are incarcerated in Arkansas do not get the treatment they need, are more likely to be disciplined with solitary confinement, and are likely to have worse mental health whenever they leave prison.
In Arkansas prisons, suicide attempts and suicides occur much more often in solitary confinement than in general population housing.
Arkansas prisons release people directly from solitary confinement to the community, which poses a serious risk to public safety.
Mental health services in Arkansas prisons are not adequate to meet the need.
What do you hope readers take away from the report?
I hope readers derive a greater understanding of this harmful and ineffective practice, widely used in Arkansas prisons. I hope that they will be motivated to speak up for reform at every opportunity.
What was the hardest part of doing the research?
The challenges were that I had a lot to learn, it was a solo project, and the prisons were on lockdown because of the pandemic, making it impossible for me to go to the prisons as part of my research. Also, I was reliant on the Arkansas Department of Corrections for data. Sometimes, the data I wanted was not available.
What was the most surprising thing you found in doing your research?
The thing that surprised me the most was the ADC’s contention that only 3% of the Arkansas prison population suffers from serious mental illness. If this were true, then the Arkansas prison population is mentally healthier than the U.S. general population, of which about 11% of adults have serious mental illness.
Please summarize your most important recommendations from doing this work. How difficult/easy would it be to implement them?
Reform starts with the informed belief that there is a better way to treat people who are in prison. Arkansas prisons won’t improve until enough Arkansans believe that reliance on solitary is a misguided, cruel, and ineffective prison management approach and want things to change.
Use of solitary confinement could be greatly reduced or eliminated through more investment in mental health care, educational, and rehabilitative programming for all incarcerated individuals; a shift away from a punitive mindset towards one that emphasizes human dignity and the potential for positive transformation; use of other types of sanctions to discipline infractions; re-training of correctional officers; and strong leadership, planning, policies and data-collection to
guide reform efforts.
There are outside consultants that specialize in helping correctional systems reduce their use of solitary confinement and institute new approaches. If Arkansas is to change, the ADC would be wise to engage consultants to help analyze drivers of its extreme reliance on solitary and then develop a strategic plan. A broad coalition of stakeholders should be involved, included incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals, as well as criminal justice experts and advocates. Addressing the prison management culture is imperative.
Change needs to be holistic. One or two new policies without addressing a whole host of systemic issues might not make a big difference. Solutions could include, however, a pilot program at one or two prisons to test new approaches.
The state of Arkansas must be willing to invest more in mental health, educational, and other rehabilitative programming for all people held in the prisons, which would enable incarcerated individuals to engage in meaningful, positive activities. This would reduce disciplinary problems.
If you had another year to either do more research or try to implement your findings, what would you do?
Building a broad coalition that supports the recommendations in the report is essential. Likely participants would include faith-based communities, groups that advocate for civil rights, the legal community, individuals working in state government including corrections, the formerly incarcerated, families of the incarcerated, and other interested citizens. Pushing for more data is also crucial. If the ADC honestly wants to reduce its use of solitary confinement, then the agency should be tracking, on an individual level, each solitary confinement placement: What was the triggering incident, how long was the placement and was it extended, why, and for how long? Only when people working on this issue – an independent outside review panel, ideally – can track what happened to a person (individual identifiers redacted, of course) when he or she is deemed guilty of an infraction and is punished by being sent to solitary confinement, can we begin to understand how this practice is perpetuated and
how to intervene to stop it.
There needs to be serious thought about prevention. That requires new thinking about the prison environment and its purposes, and whether or not prevailing notions about prisons serve our communities and society well. Nine out of 10 people who go to prison in Arkansas return to their communities. Of those, almost 60% return to prison within three years. When a person is sent to prison, it is an opportunity for positive change in a person’s life, so that they are able to
lead a productive life and never go back to prison. Putting people in solitary confinement does not support that objective.