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Democrats push for solitary confinement changes

Delaware Public Media

Democratic lawmakers are moving forward with solitary confinement reform legislation amid opposition from state officials.

Rep. James Johnson (D-New Castle) is looking to reduce the amount of time inmates spend in solitary and they way it’s used for punishment.

Johnson wants to reduce maximum sentences from three months to four weeks, as well as drop disciplinary maximums to 15 consecutive days or 20 days out of any 60-day period.

“They have been using it too much and they see it as a person that they feel that they, for one reason or another, they can’t reach," Johnson said. "They feel this is the only way they can reach them is by putting them into solitary confinement.”

The proposed legislation would also bar the Department of Corrections from sending juveniles or the mentally ill to solitary confinement.

Johnson says the goal is to reduce recidivism, noting that he believes excessively using solitary confinement doesn’t rehabilitate prisoners.

“I believe most of the people that are incarcerated, sometime or another they will be released and it would be much better served for us all if they would be released being able to adjust to society.”

Officials from the Department of Corrections acknowledged they are opposed to the bill in its current form, issuing a statement saying, "Inmates are held in administrative segregation for a number of reasons, including because they have demonstrated that they are a danger to themselves or others within the institution, are in need of protection, are on death row, or for disciplinary reasons.

"The Department of Correction is committed to working with legislators and others to evaluate and assess our application of administrative segregation and restrictive housing and to consider the adoption of best practices that provide inmates with necessary opportunities for socialization while ensuring the safety of our staff."

Geoff Klopp, president of the Correctional Officers Association of Delaware says he understands Johnson's concerns. "But at the end of the day, we have to use the tools the state has given us in order to keep everyone in the institution safe," Klopp said.

The problem, he notes, comes down to the system being overrun by inmates with mental health problems.

"The state hospitals are overloaded," said Klopp. "We end up with people who probably shouldn't be in there."

Instead, state officials should build a new medical facility to treat mental health issues, according to Klopp.

Johnson notes he's open to discussions with both the Department of Corrections and corrections officers.

The bill will be heard in the House Corrections Committee Johnson chairs Wednesday.