Solitary confinement is legal at the D.C. Jail. (Courtesy photo)
Solitary confinement is legal at the D.C. Jail. (Courtesy photo)

A D.C. Council member has sponsored a bill that would prohibit solitary confinement in the District’s correctional facilities.

On July 18, Council member Mary Cheh (D-Ward 3) introduced the “Eliminating Restrictive and Segregated Enclosures Solitary Confinement Act of 2022” which would limit the use of safe cells that are used by D.C. Jail officials to house residents at risk of harming themselves and mandates those with mental health challenges get the care needed. The bill would apply to the D.C. Jail and the city’s youth detention facilities. Additionally, the legislation would require the Department of Corrections and the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services to devise a plan to eliminate solitary confinement and to report to the council on the impact of changing the current policy.  

Cheh said solitary confinement doesn’t rehabilitate residents.

“Studies have shown that solitary confinement has many negative effects, including increased risk of addiction, recidivism and suicide,” she said. “I am proud to continue my previous work on this issue by moving the District forward and severely limiting the instances in which solitary confinement can be used.”

Cheh has attempted to advance this bill in some form during past council periods but now has the support of Council members Brianne K. Nadeau (D-Ward 1), Janeese Lewis George (D-Ward 4), Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5), Elissa Silverman (I-At Large) and Robert White (D-At Large).

Cheh’s bill emerges as a national movement to ban solitary confinement gains ground. Unlock the Box serves as an advocacy group that has called for local, state and federal officials to adopt the United Nations Nelson Mandela Rule which limits the use of solitary confinement for incarcerated residents up to 15 days and bans it totally for children, pregnant people, new mothers and others in vulnerable populations.

Patrice Sulton works as the executive director of the DC Justice Lab, an organization seeking to make the District’s criminal justice system fairer for people of color and those with low incomes. 

Sulton embraces Cheh’s bill.

“This bill is extraordinarily important,” Sulton said. “Solitary confinement is a cruel, inhumane and degrading form of punishment and amounts to torture under international law. Any amount of time in solitary confinement increases the chances of suicide, opioid addiction, death by homicide and recidivism upon release.”

Sulton said complaints by residents of the D.C. Jail escalated when the coronavirus pandemic struck the District with the facility in lockdown mode for most of time.

“People complained about the isolation and not being able to see or touch their family members, especially children,” she said. “They also complained about having limited time outside of their cells. This is not right for people who are mainly there waiting for their trials to begin.”

Eric Weaver, the founder and chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Returning Citizens, agreed with Sulton.

“This is a good bill and it is about time,” Weaver said. “Solitary confinement negatively affects the mental state of mind of people in the D.C. Jail. Suicides are a result of people staying in solitary confinement too long.”

The council stands at recess until Sept. 20 when further legislative activity will take place.

James Wright Jr.

James Wright Jr. is the D.C. political reporter for the Washington Informer Newspaper. He has worked for the Washington AFRO-American Newspaper as a reporter, city editor and freelance writer and The Washington...

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