The Legislature is pondering a bill to limit how long prison officials could remove an inmate from the general population under the correction system’s ”special management” category of restricted confinement.

In general terms, such limits would seem to be both humane and necessary to avoid abuse, but it has to be remembered that there are always exceptional cases that may require different treatment.

Thus, official discretion can certainly be given better boundaries, but it should not be totally eliminated.

The bill, L.D. 1611, had a public hearing last week and is due for a work session in the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee on Friday.

If it becomes law, it would limit a prisoner’s segregation from the general prison population to 45 days at a stretch, with exceptions for prisoners who have attempted to escape or have attempted or committed a sexual assault or another act of violence. And it would prohibit the ”solitary confinement” of prisoners diagnosed with severe mental illness.

Testimony at the public hearing included civil liberties advocates and mental health professionals saying that long-term isolation made mental illnesses worse where they existed and led to their development even among inmates who didn’t have them to begin with.


Corrections Commissioner Martin Magnusson, however, testified that current policies provided sufficient safeguards against abuse and that limits on the ability of the prison system to isolate violent or otherwise uncontrollable inmates could adversely affect the safety of corrections officers and other inmates.

He said that while ”more than 90 percent” of inmates placed in segregation are there for less than the 45 days the bill would mandate, some are kept longer for their own and others’ safety, and one inmate has been segregated for more than two years.

Inmates in the state prison’s Special Management Unit – called ”Supermax” by some – are confined for 23 hours a day with only contact with corrections officers, and are given one hour of solitary outside exercise daily.

The bill, besides restricting the length of SMU stays, would bar corporal punishment and the use of chemical agents and physical restraints on special management prisoners.

It would also limit the circumstances under which prisoners could be transferred to other states with less restrictive standards for confinement.

What’s important here is that prisoners not be treated inhumanely within a structure that is necessarily designed to restrict their freedom. But that also applies to inmates who may be endangered by other inmates, as well as corrections officers who have to keep control in all possible situations.

While imposing a 45-day rule and mental illness standards are reasonable, so is the fact that some inmates can and do present a real danger to themselves and others.

Lawmakers have the responsibility to be sure that, while some new limits appear advisable, whatever rules are adopted should still take both humanity and safety fully into account.


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