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Psychologist: Prison segregation sometimes 'completely unwarranted'
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Psychologist: Prison segregation sometimes 'completely unwarranted'

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In the six months this year that psychologist Stacey Miller worked at the Tecumseh state prison, segregation units -- where inmates spend 23 hours a day for weeks or months at a time -- were filled with upset inmates yelling back and forth.

No access was granted to outdoor exercise or sun, which is known to have positive effects on mental health.

Anger poured over to prison staff.

"And when you have staff that are frustrated and working very long hours, that dynamic between inmate and staff becomes very, very scary," said Miller, a former psychologist with the state Department of Correctional Services.

The Legislature's Department of Correctional Services Investigative Committee questioned the subpoenaed witness Tuesday about her experience working with inmates with mental illness. About 40 percent of the 1,033 inmates at the Tecumseh State Correctional Institution had some mental health problems, and about 15 percent had major mental illness, Miller said.

The committee was conducting what may be its last hearing on prison issues, this one delving into solitary segregation of inmates and whatever mental health treatment was available.

Rebecca Wallace, staff attorney at the Colorado American Civil Liberties Union, said segregation of inmates -- also called solitary confinement -- is defined as any time an inmate is alone in a cell 22 to 23 hours a day, in a tiny room where he or she eats, sleeps and defecates.

It denies meaningful human contact and necessary human touch, she said, and there is usually little or no natural light and minimal visitation with others. The goal is sensory deprivation, she said. And it results in serious mental health complications.

Most states focus solitary confinement on inmates who are mentally ill, cognitively disabled or habitual minor rules violators, she said.

It was developed to punish prisoners for acting out or to segregate violent and dangerous inmates who can't be managed in the general population.

If that's true, Wallace asked, what will happen when those inmates are released back into their communities?  

Miller, the Tecumseh psychologist, left after six months because she said her philosophy about mental health treatment and the prison's did not jibe. At times, she said, power struggles developed between segregated inmates and staff.

"There were times that I witnessed and experienced individuals getting time in administrative segregation that was completely unwarranted," Miller said.

Guidelines were not specific for when inmates would be put into segregation or how they would get moved out.

"It was just kind of this subjective decision that somebody made," she said.

One inmate who was threatening to harm himself was put in 45 days of disciplinary segregation for disclosing that to the psychologist, she said.

"In the world of mental health and psychology, we appreciate when people share thoughts of harming themselves, because then we can do something about it," Miller said.

She was able to get the punishment overturned, she said, but it shouldn't have happened in the first place.

Miller said that with approximately 400 inmates in need of some type of mental health treatment or programming, there was never enough staff to meet needs.

William Spaulding, psychologist with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, testified earlier in the morning. He said that beginning about 10 years ago, more and more people in Nebraska with mental illnesses began ending up in the state's county jails and prisons because of the loss of state hospital beds and adequate mental-health providers to treat them in their communities.

People with mental illness -- especially those with lifelong disabling mental illness -- aren't getting the care they need, he said. And they are moving into the prison system with frequency.

Wallace said researchers are learning after three decades of growing prison populations and increasing use of solitary confinement that when prisons don't focus on rehabilitation, inmates and prisons become more violent, which justifies the need for the building of more super-max prisons.

Nationwide, she said, the No. 1 goal must be to protect the public. Across the country, 95 percent of inmates are released back to the public.

"So if prisons don't work on rehabilitation, the public is going to pay the price," Wallace said.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7228 or jyoung@journalstar.com. On Twitter @LJSLegislature.

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