Trends and Transitions | May 2014



Solitary Gets a Second Look

As many as 82,000 inmates are in solitary confinement in state and federal prisons today, but the practice has come under increasing scrutiny. Some lawmakers, psychologists and even prison officials argue long-term isolation is overused, inhumane and expensive. 

A photo of hands in handcuffsSolitary confinement, also called administrative segregation, varies from state to state, but the central concept is the same: Inmates are confined to a cell for all but one or two hours a day for a shower and exercise. Contact with others is limited, and meals are provided through the cell door. It can last from a few days to several years, and is used generally for three reasons: to punish a prisoner for violating rules, to segregate a prisoner who might harm others, or to protect a prisoner from being harmed by others. Also, it may be the only housing option in some states and the federal system that bar juveniles from having any contact with adult inmates.

Solitary confinement was used as a short-term punishment for much of the 20th century. That changed in the 1980s, when the U.S. prison population exploded and officials used extended stays in solitary to help manage the growth. Those who support the practice argue it is needed to provide discipline, control behavior, prevent violence and protect inmates. 

Concern centers on the harm it might cause prisoners, as several studies indicate inmates who have been isolated for long periods often report paranoia, aggressive fantasies, chronic depression, hallucinations and suicidal thoughts.

Critics also point out it is expensive because it requires more single cells and staff. Colorado has estimated it will save nearly $8 million over two years by closing a prison in 2012 that housed only segregated inmates.
For the most part, solitary confinement is an administrative regulation. But state laws often determine which inmates may be placed in solitary and for how long. Some states have limited its use as a punishment. In Massachusetts, for example, isolation is limited to 10 days in a local jail and 15 days in a state prison for each disciplinary violation; however, the law does not limit the time for inmates who are there for the safety and security of the prison.
Other state laws include:

  • Missouri corrections staff must conduct status reviews 30 days after initial confinement and every 90 days thereafter to ensure that it is still appropriate. 
  • Oklahoma bans solitary confinement in youth detention centers.  
  • A number of states have limited or barred its use for mentally ill inmates.
  • Vermont limits segregation to 15 days for disciplinary purposes and 30 days when the inmate requests such a placement. 
  • A half a dozen states require solitary confinement for inmates who have been convicted of first-degree murder. 
  • Illinois mandates that gang leaders be separated. They can be moved to a less restrictive environment if it’s deemed appropriate.

New York Assemblyman Jeffrion Aubry (D) and Senator Bill Perkins (D) recently introduced legislation calling for a 15-day limit on solitary confinement.

Drug Tests for Benefits? It’s Complicated

Anyone who receives government benefits should have to pass a drug test, many lawmakers believe, but federal courts have made such mandates tricky to impose.

Mississippi is the ninth and latest state to pass a law requiring some form of drug test or screening for public assistance recipients, and bills are pending in another 18.

Florida blanket-tested all benefits applicants for drugs until December, when a federal judge ruled the practice violated constitutional protections against unreasonable searches. The case was brought on behalf of Luis Lebron, a Navy veteran and student who was caring for his disabled mother and raising a young child as a single father. Lebron, who applied for state benefits, argued it was unfair to make him take a drug test because there was no reasonable suspicion he used drugs.

The Florida court agreed, reinforcing a similar Michigan Court of Appeals ruling in 2003. 

 Many lawmakers have wanted some form of drug testing for people receiving public assistance since federal welfare reform passed in 1996. But because of the court rulings, most states have proceeded cautiously on the issue. Many have included screening policies in administrative rules rather than in statutes.

The nine states with laws take various approaches. Kansas screens applicants and recipients if their demeanor, police records, work records or prior drug screenings suggest they are possible drug abusers. If the drug test is positive, the person is required to complete treatment and job skill programs to be eligible for benefits. The law also makes those convicted of a drug felony after July 1, 2013, ineligible for cash assistance. First-time offenders are ineligible for five years; repeat offenders, forever.

In North Carolina, if there is reasonable suspicion of drug use, applicants or recipients must take, and pay for, a drug test. Those who test positive are denied benefits. 

 In the first year of Utah’s program, the state spent $31,000 to administer 466 tests, with 12 positive results. Another 247 applicants, however, quit the process after they were told to expect a drug test, Representative Brad Wilson (R) told the Huffington Post, saving the state $369,000 in avoided benefits over the year, he said.

In Minnesota, Representative Rena Moran (DFL) is carrying a bill to modify a law that mandates random drug testing of welfare recipients who have been recently convicted of a drug felony. Moran told the law costs more time and money than it will save, concerns only a fraction of welfare recipients and encourages the general public to view welfare recipients through a “negative lens.”

—Rochelle Finzel

Leading the Charge

More electric and hybrid cars are sold in California than in any other state, but other states are catching up, thanks in large part to incentives. Last year, Americans bought more than 96,000 plug-in electric vehicles, an increase of almost 43,000 over 2012, according to the Electric Drive Transportation Association.
Helping boost those sales were financial incentives and benefits offered by at least 39 states and the District of Columbia, including free parking; exemptions on high-occupancy vehicle lanes, vehicle inspections and emissions tests; and fee or utility rate reductions. State rebates or tax credits range from $1,000 in Maryland to $6,000 in Colorado. The current $7,500 federal tax credit will expire once each electric car manufacturer sells 200,000 cars.

—Kristy Hartman

From Weeds to Seeds

Community gardens are sprouting up across America and Canada, where experts say some 18,000 are under cultivation. A “community garden,” according to the University of California’s Marin Master Gardeners, is any piece of public or private land gardened by a group of people, on either individual or shared plots. It may produce fruit, vegetables or flowers and may be found in neighborhoods, schools or connected to institutions such as hospitals. They face some obstacles, however, such as the lack of long-term leases or access to water, along with liability concerns that some legislatures are trying to tackle.

A new California law (similar to one in Missouri) is expected to grow more gardens. The Urban Agriculture Incentive Zones Act, which went into effect Jan. 1, allows cities and counties to create incentive zones in urban areas for local gardens and greenhouses. Property owners who turn over their vacant land for small-scale agriculture for at least five years are rewarded with significantly lower taxes. 

The five-year minimum helps overcome what’s been a big barrier to community garden organizers—uncertainty about how long they can stay on a particular parcel before the owner decides to sell or develop, forcing them to leave. To qualify, parcels must be at least one-tenth of an acre but no more than three acres. The Urban Agriculture Act’s sponsor, Assemblyman Phil Ting (D), says community gardens help reduce urban blight by turning weedy, neglected parcels into green spots; strengthen communities by bringing neighbors together to work on a project; increase availability of fresh, local, healthful foods; and improve the environment and public health. The bill passed with strong bipartisan support.

California has taken other steps to encourage gardening, including leasing state land for gardens and allowing schools to sell produce they grow. Tennessee and New York also have enacted laws to improve the regulatory environment and provide opportunities for community gardening.   

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