A new legal challenge aims to sharply curtail the use of solitary confinement as discipline in Oregon prisons — arguing the practice is cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the U.S. Constitution.
The Oregon Justice Resource Center asked the state appeals court Wednesday for a temporary restraining order prohibiting the Oregon Department of Corrections from sending inmates to solitary confinement for more than 15 days while justices consider the motion.
“Disciplinary solitary confinement is not only harmful to people’s mental and physical health, it is not even effective in achieving the goals that (Oregon Department of Corrections) has for it,” Ben Haile, a senior lawyer for the Oregon Justice Resource Center, said in a statement.
Oregon prisoners in solitary confinement spend an average 23 hours a day in their cells, with 40-minute breaks five days a week for exercise and showering, according to the Oregon Justice Resource Center, a Portland-based nonprofit focused on civil rights and legal representation issues. They may also leave for medical care, court hearings or while meeting their attorney.
The motion does not challenge the use of solitary confinement for nondisciplinary purpose.
A spokesperson for the Oregon Department of Corrections did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Long stretches of solitary confinement make Oregon an outlier among some neighboring state corrections departments.
Washington state abolished the use of disciplinary solitary confinement in September, while Idaho and California generally limit solitary confinement to 10 or 15 days, with some exceptions, according to the legal filing. Nevada, however, allows isolation punishments of up to a year.
The United Nations General Assembly and the World Health Organization, among others, oppose long-term solitary confinement, citing evidence of harm to physical and mental health.
Oregon Justice Resource Center Executive Director Bobbin Singh said the Corrections Department “is making a choice” to use solitary confinement, and that administrators can end the practice at any time without changing the law.
Singh said in a statement, “A punishment for the mere purpose of inflicting pain and suffering is torture.”
Prison officials currently face a separate lawsuit filed by the Oregon Justice Resource Center on behalf of jailhouse lawyer Mark James Wilson, punished with 120 days in solitary confinement this year after a prison law librarian placed a toy phone on his desk as a joke and guards determined it was contraband.