Prison bars/Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.com Prison bars/Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.com

A Georgia practice of releasing prisoners directly from solitary confinement to freedom sets them up for failure and poses a risk to the public, lawyers for prisoners held in isolation say.

In a letter sent Tuesday to state corrections officials, lawyers with the Southern Center for Human Rights also raise concerns about mentally ill prisoners being held in solitary confinement. They ask the officials to “reassess and take meaningful steps to limit the use of solitary confinement in Georgia’s prisons.”

The lawyers urge corrections officials to ensure that prisoners in solitary confinement nearing the end of their prison terms be put in a “step-down” program to connect them with re-entry assistance and to help them adjust to social interaction. They also say mentally ill prisoners should be placed in solitary confinement only in rare circumstances, if at all.

The Southern Center represents prisoners in a lawsuit challenging conditions at the Special Management Unit, or SMU, of the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson, the state’s most restrictive solitary confinement facility. Prisoners are generally placed there because for disciplinary or security reasons.

The letter cites findings in a report completed for the Southern Center by University of California, Santa Cruz psychology professor Craig Haney as part of that litigation.

Haney called the 192-bed unit “one of the harshest and most draconian” he has seen and wrote that it is “so severely and completely deprives prisoners of meaningful social contact and positive environmental stimulation that it puts them at significant risk of very serious psychological harm.”

Department of Corrections spokeswoman Joan Heath on Friday declined to comment on the letter, citing the ongoing litigation. But lawyers for the state said in a court filing last month that they have “worked tirelessly” with Southern Center lawyers to come to an agreement to address its concerns but have not been successful. The state also contends it has already taken steps to address the Southern Center’s concerns.

Most prisoners are held in SMU for three to four years, but nearly 20 percent of those currently there have been there for six or more years, the letter says. Between 2010 and 2016, more than a quarter of prisoners who left the unit had completed their sentences and most of them were released to freedom.

People held in long-term, isolated confinement involuntarily “adapt in socially pathological ways,” Haney’s report says. They change the way they think, act, and feel to cope with the isolation. Those released directly from those harsh conditions are more likely to reoffend and have trouble maintaining relationships and keeping jobs, the letter says.

There’s a growing national consensus that it’s bad public policy to release prisoners directly from solitary confinement, the letter says, noting that the Colorado Department of Corrections eliminated the practice after a former corrections commissioner was killed by a man who was released directly from isolation.

Haney found that about 39 percent of SMU prisoners were receiving outpatient treatment for mental illness and wrote in his report that solitary confinement is “singularly inappropriate” for those prisoners.

In the court filing last month, state lawyers said a new program has been implemented to more successfully transition SMU prisoners back into the general prison population and that mental health evaluations on all SMU prisoners would begin July 30. Additionally, SMU prisoners have been given tablets loaded with music, educational programs, and the ability to store emails and are given weekly access to email.

Tables with restraints that will allow SMU prisoners to be given the opportunity to leave their cells for four hours a day and to talk with other inmates should be installed by Sept. 1, the filing says. The Department of Corrections has shifted resources to allow all SMU prisoners to go to an outdoor recreation pen for an hour a day five days a week, it says.