Maryland’s Solitary Confinement Reform Bill Stalls in the Democratic State Legislature

Maryland’s Solitary Confinement Reform Bill Stalls in the Democratic State Legislature

Maryland’s Solitary Confinement Reform Bill Stalls in the Democratic State Legislature

Lawmakers “had the opportunity to do something that would have made a huge systemic change and put the state on the right path—and they didn’t,” said the bill’s author.

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Chloe Scheibe entered Maryland’s prison system in 2016. Unsure where to house a transgender woman in a male prison, officials placed her in administrative segregation. Administrative segregation, or ad seg, as it’s often called, is not intended for punishment, but nonetheless keeps a person in isolation.

Scheibe spent nearly a year in segregation before being transferred to the Western Correctional Institution, another male prison, where she remains today. When she arrived, she was assigned to a cell with a man who was a known gang member, making her more vulnerable to assaults, rape, or even death. She told a prison officer and was placed in ad seg for eight months.

In 2021, Scheibe was placed in ad seg for another month after she told officers on her housing unit about receiving rape and death threats from other incarcerated people. None of the staff took her complaint or launched investigations, as they are required to do under the Prison Rape Elimination Act, Scheibe said. Instead, after another month of continual threats, she was moved to ad seg.

Each time she was placed in segregation, Scheibe sank into a deep depression. She started having suicidal feelings and she relapsed into self-harming behaviors. And the isolation didn’t prevent her from transphobic harassment from incarcerated men, who yelled insults, slurs, and threats at her all day. Sometimes, the guards refused to let her out to shower. Sometimes, they passed her over when handing out meals. She had to file medical request slips to receive her approved hormone therapy. Sometimes, Scheibe said, staff would not provide her with the request slip or would fail to place her completed slip in the request box.

One month after she was placed in segregation, staff offered her a choice. She could sign a body waiver, in which she would accept the purported risk of returning to general population, or she could remain in isolation. “Had I not signed the body waiver, I very well might have killed myself,” Scheibe told Solitary Watch and The Nation. “I would rather take my chances in general population than be locked in a six-foot cell.”

Had the Maryland Mandela Act (SB 459/HB 385) been in place, it would have limited Scheibe’s ad seg to no more than 15 days in any 365-day period. While the act, which is modeled after New York’s HALT Solitary Act, would allow a person to request to be placed in segregation if they felt it was the safer option, it would prohibit prisons from isolating them pending investigation or simply because they are trans.

The impact would have been significant. In 2022, Maryland state prisons incarcerated a total of 15,807 people. That same year, it made 11,953 placements in restrictive housing.

However, the act has lingered in the state legislature, despite receiving support from an unlikely source: unions representing jail and prison guards. AFSC 3, the union representing state prison guards, sent a brief letter of support for the Maryland Mandela Act. So did Law Enforcement Action Partnership, or LEAP, a nonprofit group of police, prosecutors, judges, and other law enforcement professionals.

“Isolating people is easy for correctional authority and requires no skill and brings great harm,” LEAP’s letter stated. “These Bills attempt to significantly reduce harms and improve your correctional system of oversight. We owe that to our constituency.”

But this unprecedented support was not enough to win passage for the bill, which faced sharp criticism from sheriffs and county jail administrators. The Maryland Correctional Administrators Association called the bill’s exclusion of vulnerable and seriously mentally ill people from time in solitary, “arbitrary and subjective definitions” and cited the high cost of training administrators and staff to comply with the new law. The Maryland Chiefs of Police Association and Maryland Sheriffs’ Association gave similar reasons in their letters of objection.

This opposition was no surprise. Prison and jail staff, including labor unions representing correctional officers, have often opposed limits and other reforms to solitary. More than 10 years ago, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), which represents Illinois prison guards, challenged the governor’s order to close Tamms, Illinois’s notorious supermax prison, where men had been held in long-term isolation. The union argued that Tamms was necessary to maintain prison safety and to maintain jobs in southern Illinois, despite the fact that all of the union members employed at Tamms had been guaranteed jobs in other prisons.

In New York, the most vocal and sustained opposition to the state’s HALT Solitary Act, which was signed into law in 2021, has come from the New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association, which represents state prison guards. In May 2021, the union filed a federal lawsuit to overturn the state’s new HALT law. While that lawsuit was ultimately unsuccessful, the union continues to oppose—and, some advocates say, resistimplementation of the law.

More recently, the California Mandela Act was opposed by the state’s powerful corrections officers union. Democratic Governor Gavin Newsom, who received $1.75 million from the union during his recall campaign, vetoed the bill. And in Connecticut, opposition from AFSCME Local 387, which represents state prison guards, was a clear factor in Democratic Governor Nick Lamont’s veto of the PROTECT Act, which also limited solitary to 15 consecutive days and guaranteed at least six and a half hours out of cell each day. The following year, after the union dropped its opposition to a somewhat scaled-back bill, he signed the 15-day limit into law.

But unlike these other bills, the Maryland bill never made it to a vote. Instead, members of the judicial proceedings committee sent it for an interim, or summer, study. Lawmakers “had the opportunity to do something that would have made a huge systemic change and put the state on the right path—and they didn’t,” said Kim Haven, director of Reproductive Justice Inside and the person who drafted the Maryland Mandela Act.

The first time Dakim was sent to solitary was in 1999 for talking to another student during GED class. The teacher sent him back to his housing unit. At the insistence of the officer supervising the classroom, the teacher also wrote him a disciplinary ticket. (Dakim asked to be identified only by his first name to protect his and his family’s privacy.)

That ticket landed Dakim in solitary for 20 to 25 days. That was to be the shortest of his nine stints in isolation during his nearly 26 years in Maryland’s state prison system. Once, he was isolated for 11 months, his longest continual time in isolation. But Maryland also permits prisons to place two people in the same segregation cell, and another time, Dakim spent 10 months in segregation with a series of cellmates.

Sometimes he spent a month in solitary only to have the charges against him dismissed. Once, he recalled, an officer gave him permission to go to another area. The officer in charge of that area gave him a ticket for being “out of bounds.” He was placed in segregation for 30 days waiting for his disciplinary hearing. At the hearing, the charge was dismissed. Waiting 30 days for a hearing was not unusual, he told Solitary Watch and The Nation. Sometimes, men would spend twice as long waiting for that hearing.

Each time he was released from solitary, he had to readjust to being around other people. He found himself speaking loudly and trying to talk over others, something he had become accustomed to from shouting conversations through his cell door to his equally isolated neighbor. He was leery of being in crowds, waiting to be the last person in line for meals even though that shortened the amount of time he was able to eat before guards cleared the cafeteria.

“It’s not the fear of being harmed,” he explained. “It’s that you’re used to being alone.”

Dakim was released from prison in mid-April. Even surrounded by the family that he sorely missed, he finds he has to consciously shake the lingering effects of solitary. He has to force himself to leave his room to join his family. “That comes from being locked in solitary so many times,” he said.

Within the past two years, eight other states have introduced similar bills limiting time in solitary for no more than 15 days, the limit recommended by the United Nations’ Mandela Rules for the treatment of incarcerated people. In nearly all of them, advocates have been pushing—and unions representing prison officers have often been pushing back.

But that wasn’t the case in Maryland, which makes the bill’s failure to pass even more disappointing to advocates, family members, and those in the state’s prisons.

“We’ve won the moral argument on solitary—that there is solitary confinement and that solitary is bad,” Jessica Sandoval, director of Unlock the Box, a national advocacy campaign to end solitary confinement in the United States, told Solitary Watch and The Nation. But the second part of advocates’ fight—to create the political will for change—is still in flux, she said.

Sandoval notes that it’s not unusual for lawmakers and advocates to introduce legislation limiting solitary several times before succeeding. Since 2014, advocates, including currently and formerly incarcerated people, pushed New York lawmakers to limit time in solitary, succeeding in 2021. Last year, California governor Gavin Newsom signed a law limiting solitary for juveniles, but vetoed limits for adults.

The Maryland Mandela Act is named after South African political prisoner and president Nelson Mandela, who spent 18 years in solitary confinement. It was originally introduced by Susan Lee, then a state senator. But in January 2023, Lee was appointed as Maryland’s secretary of state and bill sponsorship was passed to Mary Washington, a state senator from Baltimore who had authored a 2014 bill to prohibit restraints on incarcerated people during childbirth.

Washington told Solitary Watch and The Nation that, while she understood the overall damage wrought by long-term isolation, solitary confinement is a new political issue for her. Because she had not been part of the bill’s drafting or initial advocacy, she viewed summer study as an opportunity to learn more about how the bill might be implemented—and its implications.

“From the opponents’ testimony, it appears that solitary is used to address gaps in behavioral health services,” she said. “If you have someone self-harming, or throwing feces, or any number of things they reported [as reasons for isolation], the current solution is to separate them. But then they don’t get treatment. We need other ways to address individuals who, if they are in general population, would be a danger to themselves or others.”

Washington says she will work with the committee during the interim study session. She plans to draft a similar bill for the legislature to consider when lawmakers reconvene in January 2024.

“It’s important that people understand that 95 percent of the people that we incarcerate come home,” said Kim Haven. “The trauma that we inflict, and the trauma that we exacerbate, is what they bring back to our communities. That’s what everybody should care about and should support and want to see the Mandela Act passed.”

Dakim agrees. “If you can prevent people from having these long-lasting effects, why not do it?” he asked. “You’re limiting how long people will be sitting behind a door, rotting away, losing any last bit of mind that they have.”

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