‘Moral blight’: Prisons in MO, KS use solitary more than national average, report says
Prisoners in Kansas and Missouri are placed in restrictive housing, including solitary confinement, at higher rates than the national average, according to a report released Tuesday.
Solitary confinement, which is sometimes referred to as administrative segregation, is a “day to day assault on the mind and soul,” Antwann Johnson, a prisoner at Jefferson City Correctional Center in Missouri, told The Star.
Some men could not handle the lights being on all day, Johnson said. Others were called racist names by guards. A few resorted to killing themselves, he recalled.
Nationally, more than 122,000 people were in restrictive housing for 22 hours or more on a given day in mid-2019, the report found.
Across the U.S., about 6% to 7% of prisoners were in restrictive housing in state and federal prisons. In Kansas, though, that figure was 10.5%, while in Missouri, it was 11.9%.
Between state and federal correctional facilities, that meant 3,356 of 28,172 prisoners in Missouri were in restrictive housing in 2019. In Kansas, it was 1,010 of 9,631.
Nearby Arkansas sat at 13.5%. Nevada topped all other states at nearly 26%.
The report was put together by Solitary Watch, a nonprofit watchdog group, and Unlock the Box, a campaign advocating for the end to solitary confinement. They called it a first-of-its-kind analysis that compiled data on solitary in jails and prisons across the U.S.
Karen Pojmann, spokeswoman for the Missouri Department of Corrections, said the report’s data “is more or less accurate for Missouri state prisons,” but clarified that not every state has the same definition for segregated housing. In the last year, about 2,500 to 3,000 people on average were in some form of restrictive housing on a given day in Missouri prisons.
Missouri DOC has three types of restrictive housing: administrative segregation, used for institutional security; disciplinary segregation, where prisoners with conduct violations can be sent; and protective custody, used for the safety of prisoners.
But Pojmann said what the report refers to as “solitary” is not like what people see in movies.
“In the vast majority of cases, people in restrictive housing in Missouri are housed with cell mates,” Pojmann said. “They’re also surrounded by other people in other cells, and they’re able to correspond with and visit with family members.”
David Thompson, a spokesman for the Kansas Department of Corrections, said officials were not familiar with the organizations that wrote the study or their analysis, so they could not confirm their findings.
However, he said, residents placed in restrictive housing can include those sentenced to death and violent or high profile residents who may be targeted.
Still, U.S. Rep. Cori Bush, a Democrat from St. Louis, told NBC News that the report emphasizes a “catastrophe.”
“Inflicting solitary on one person is a moral blight on this nation,” she told the outlet. “Inflicting it on hundreds of thousands of people — disproportionately Black, brown and Indigenous people — is a disaster. We as public officials must act now to stop this widespread infliction of torture.”
Bush tweeted Monday about the U.S. Supreme Court declining to hear the case of Dennis Hope, who has spent 27 years — more than half his life — in solitary confinement in a 54-square-foot Texas cell. Saying Hope spent that time “without meaningful human contact,” Bush called on Congress to end the use of solitary confinement.
Johnson, who was convicted of a 1997 murder in St. Louis, said he has been placed in solitary confinement four times; the longest stay was nearly two years. He was locked in a cell for 23 hours a day and “pretty much left alone with just your thoughts.” He got one hour of recreation time in what he described as a dog-sized pen.
The experience is designed to break you mentally, physically and spiritually, he said.
Johnson’s experience is backed by research, which shows solitary confinement can cause severe psychological damage, anxiety and hallucinations, among other health issues. One study of nearly 230,000 people released from North Carolina prisons found that those who spent time in solitary were more likely to die prematurely within a year of their release by suicide, homicide or opioid overdose.
Mark Powell, a prisoner in eastern Missouri who was convicted of a sex crime, said he had problems getting health care in “the hole,” as solitary is sometimes referred to, and that he knows of people who had died by suicide.
“Mentally the hole is to break you,” he said.
Pojmann’s said Missouri DOC created a restrictive housing committee last year to review practices and “find ways to reduce” the number of people in restrictive housing. It made recommendations that will be “piloted” at two facilities in August.
Ensuring that restrictive housing is being used as “a last resort” is a significant part of the plan, Pojmann said. Units for reintegration will also be used to assist prisoners in segregation to “readjust to the general population,” she said.
Nearly 20 years in solitary
Another man, who asked not to be named out of fear of retribution, served about three years in the Kansas Department of Corrections for a sex offense. He has been released, but his account echoed the Missouri prisoners’ experiences.
Solitary is “incredibly lonely,” he said, it can break a person.
He was put in solitary confinement about six times. Solitary was 24/7 — they did not get one hour out, he said.
His cell was about the size of a walk-in closet and had a bunk, toilet, sink with a drinking fountain and a stainless steel mirror. Food was distributed through a port for trays. Some guys made “fishing lines” out of strips of sheets, which they tossed to other prisoners so they could trade items like food or stamps.
The man said the Kansas Department of Corrections should improve its process for reviewing who is placed in solitary and for how long. Some prisoners were there for months, he said, and felt like they were “lost through the cracks.”
On average, residents are placed in restrictive housing for 190 days, Thompson, with KDOC said. As of Thursday, the longest current resident in restrictive housing had been there for 3,523 days, or over nine years.
In 2016, the Kansas Supreme Court ordered judges to consider a prisoner’s duration in solitary when considering if their rights had been infringed upon.
That landmark decision came in the case of James Jamerson, who was erroneously held in solitary for more than 1,000 days at El Dorado Correctional Facility.
In another case, a prisoner named Richard Grissom — who killed three women in Johnson County — was put in solitary in 1996 on accusations that he was trafficking narcotics. Between El Dorado, the Lansing Correctional Facility and Hutchinson Correctional Facility, he remained there for “nearly 20 years before being returned to general population in 2016,” according to court records.
One of the reasons he stayed in “administrative segregation,” as Kansas prisons call it, was because he had a history of “influencing and compromising staff and other offenders who will supply him with contraband, including cell phones,” a warden once said.
Grissom reported suffering from insomnia and paranoia. Detached emotionally, he said human contact caused him discomfort. His marriage “collapsed” because of his psychological changes.
An appeals court in 2018 noted that Grissom, now 62, was “not totally isolated” from other prisoners while in solitary.
“Inmates stated in affidavits submitted by Grissom that inmates in segregation communicated by speaking through vents and even played chess that way,” the judges wrote.
More recently, a lawsuit filed in 2020 against the Kansas Department of Corrections argued that its policy at the time to “automatically and permanently” hold prisoners who are sentenced to die in solitary confinement was unconstitutional. They could only get out of solitary if their death sentence was overturned or they died.
One of the prisoners suing, Sidney Gleason, was held in solitary confinement for more than 14 years at El Dorado Correctional Facility, his lawyers said. The other, Scott Cheever, was in solitary for more than 12 years at Lansing Correctional Facility.
In response, the Kansas Attorney General’s Office said the policy the suit challenged was already being revised.
KDOC adopted a new policy in 2021 so that residents convicted of capital offenses “will not be placed in administrative segregation based solely on that conviction.” A four-step review process was implemented with the goal of housing death-sentenced prisoners in general population, according to filings in the lawsuit, which the prisoners then moved to dismiss.
Similarly, prisoners on Missouri’s death row generally are part of general population at Potosi Correctional Center.
However, lawyers for Johnny Johnson, who is scheduled for execution on Aug. 1, say he has been in solitary confinement because of his severe mental illness.
Kent Gipson, an attorney for Johnson, said administrative segregation makes people with serious mental illnesses even worse off.
“It’s a sad situation,” he said.
The Tuesday report cautions that the data was self-reported by correctional facilities and does not include numbers from immigration detention centers or youth facilities, indicating that the actual number of people held in restrictive housing is likely higher.
“Even given all these excluded factors, the numbers far exceed those of other recent counts, which, in the absence of more comprehensive figures, have been widely quoted by media outlets and even scholars and advocates,” its authors wrote.
The authors issued recommendations, such as limiting solitary confinement to minutes or hours for emergency situations and prohibiting its use with the most vulnerable.
No measures on the use of solitary confinement were proposed by state lawmakers in Kansas or Missouri, according to bill searches for the 2023 sessions.