PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — Elton Simpson has been out of prison for more than a decade, but he still recalls the 90 days he spent in solitary confinement at the ACI.
“I think solitary confinement is mental torture,” he told a special legislative study commission at a public hearing Wednesday night.
Simpson described spending 23 hours a day in the cell, with a frosted window that doesn’t give natural light, as a “depressing” experience and the worst one of his years behind bars.
“If you’re not a mentally strong person, you’re going to carry that experience with you for a long time after you get out,” Simpson said.
The special commission is studying the repercussions of solitary confinement, also commonly known as segregation; the R.I. Department of Corrections calls it restrictive housing. Lawmakers, corrections officials, community activists and other leaders are members of the commission, which will eventually propose improvements to the solitary confinement system in Rhode Island.
A handful of other former inmates testified before the commission Wednesday night, along with some current inmates who wrote letters from the ACI.
“I’ve witnessed men lose their minds,” wrote Jared Raymond, an inmate who sent in a letter. He said he spent more than a year in restrictive housing.
Richard Ferruccio, president of the Rhode Island Brotherhood of Correctional Officers union, jumped in several times to read off lists of disciplinary infractions, commonly known as “bookings,” received by each inmate who testified; swearing, masturbation, fighting and even more serious violence and sexual aggression were on the list.
But multiple commission members chimed in, saying they felt the nature of the infraction was irrelevant to the matter at hand, which was the condition of the restrictive housing units and the treatment of the inmates.
“There are instances to me that certainly sound like torture,” said state Rep. Aaron Regunberg, D-Providence, the chairman of the commission. He has proposed legislation to limit solitary confinement to 15 days or less.
“Ultimately, the goal is to try to get a better understanding of how exactly this disciplinary tool is being used,” Regunberg said. “If there are weaknesses or flaws in the way it’s being used. And if there are … what can we do to make sure that we’re creating a system that is the best that it possibly can be.”
A.T. Wall, director of the Department of Corrections, said while he’s open to criticism, he doesn’t support any legislation on the matter.
“It doesn’t afford us an opportunity for the flexibility we need for situations that are occurring now,” Wall said in an interview after the hearing. He is also a member of the commission.
Instead, Wall said administrative policies could be changed within the DOC. He also isn’t sure that “torture” is the right word to use to describe restrictive housing.
“I wouldn’t say that it’s torture or not torture,” he said. “I think a lot depends on how we manage it … solitary confinement is a term that can encompass an awful lot of variations. In some places, it may look Draconian. In others, it doesn’t.”
The next meeting of the commission is Jan. 5. At that meeting, the group plans to discuss the availability of mental health treatments in restrictive housing.