In a few weeks, we can anticipate that the House Concurrent Resolution 85 Task Force will release its final evaluation report on Hawaii’s prison system. Honolulu Civil Beat has been following the updates to this report in its Hawaii Behind Bars series, specifically tracking failures in the state prison system and the stories of individuals affected by those policies, The Civil Beat reports.
Last July, Jessica Forston, 30, was found to have committed suicide in her cell. She was placed in the Women’s Community Correctional Center in Kailua in a solitary confinement cell. She had a history of seizures and mental illness.
Her father, Richard Forston, received national mediation attention for decrying Hawaii prison system policies. He explained that Jessica had a history of seizures and bipolar disorder.
“What is this policy?” he asked. “If she tried this before, you’d think there’s a suicide policy. Something doesn’t sound right to me.”
Richard Forston’s grievances address two intersecting inadequacies in the prison system: solitary confinement and mental health treatment. Solitary confinement exacerbates mental health symptoms, including suicidality, self-harm, paranoia, panic attacks, hallucination and social atrophy.
Stuart Grassian, a board-certified psychiatrist and former faculty member at Harvard Medical School, estimates that about one-third of inmates in solitary confinement are “actively psychotic and/or actively suicidal.”
Another study of the California prison system estimates that up to 63 percent of individuals who commit suicide in prison were in solitary confinement.
In December 2015, the United Nations published “The Nelson Mandela Rules,” which provided a set of guidelines for the proper treatment of prisoners. The report is particularly critical of solitary confinement, claiming that it’s a form of “cruel, inhumane torture.” The report recommended limiting segregation to 15 days maximum and eliminating for all individuals with mental illness and for juveniles.
The Department of Justice released a report in January 2016 and it reiterated that individuals with mental illness and juveniles should not be isolated from human contact for any reason.
A National Trend
Research has shown repeatedly the detriment of solitary confinement to the mind. As more and more research comes out, states across the country have slowly been adopting reforms to begin limiting the use of solitary confinement.
Reform helps rehabilitate people to be reintegrated into the general population, with the intention that these individuals will return to the community.
Colorado recently ended all long-term solitary confinement in a process that took about seven years of introducing reform to now only using it as the most severe level of punishment. Rick Raemisch, director of Colorado’s Correctional Facility, wrote an op-ed for the New York Times detailing why and how Colorado was able to facilitate this massive reform overhaul.
Reform helps rehabilitate people to be reintegrated into the general population.
Hawaii’s island geography has placed limitations on its ability to provide services. As a result, it uses solitary confinement for disciplinary reasons, protective reasons and for maximum security reasons.
This is particularly disturbing because its facility “limitations” translate into entire populations of individuals being placed into solitary confinement, specifically individuals with mental illness or medical conditions like Jessica Forston.
While the state Department of Public Safety has issued statements to reassure the public that its segregated cells still include general population benefits like access to the commissary and phone privileges, these individuals are isolated from human contact for 23 hours a day. Long-term isolation leaves these individuals susceptible to the negative consequences of isolation.
Opportunity For Change
The HCR task force released an interim report in February that indicated that it wants to reform the state’s correctional facilities to follow a rehabilitative approach to incarceration. However, the task force’s report is up against political pressure to privatize Oahu’s state prison because of corporate lobbyists interested in profiting from a larger in-state prison.
The Legislature is considering its options to either invest in a public-private prison that will continue outdated prison practices of punishment or remodel Oahu’s prison to have more rehabilitative options.
The public and the media can exercise their power to advocate for individuals who are currently in segregation. The opportunity to fight for change is here now, so another tragic death like Jessica Forston will not happen.
Windows of opportunity like this are rare, but perhaps with public persuasion the Department of Public Safety and the Legislature will take steps toward reforming solitary confinement practices. Hopefully, this is an outdated practice that can eventually be eliminated from Hawaii’s correctional facilities altogether.