A federal lawsuit filed on Wednesday alleges that the Illinois Department of Corrections misuse of solitary confinement is “cruel, inhumane [and] offensive to basic human decency.”
“We send people to solitary for far too long, for far too little,” said Alan Mills, an attorney on the case.
Mills said people can be put in solitary confinement for minor infractions, like rolling their eyes at a guard.
“No one I know has come out of long term isolation without being severely mentally injured,” he said.
Brian Nelson said he spent 23 years in solitary confinement.
“I paced 18 hours everyday and they had to cut blood blisters off my feet,” Nelson said. Consider an animal in the zoo, we don’t put them in an environment like that.”
Nelson said after solitary he had to be on multiple psychiatric drugs and see a psychiatrist. Even five years after his release, he still struggles with daily tasks, like riding a train or bus.
Those of us who have been in solitary all “have a little closet somewhere. I got a placement in the basement I can go hide,” said Nelson.
The federal lawsuit was filed on behalf of three inmates, but is seeking class action status for all individuals who have been or are currently in solitary in Illinois prisons. According to the complaint, about 2,300 people in Illinois prisons are in solitary on any given day.
The Illinois Department of Corrections would not comment on the case.
After a press conference about the suit, a small group of reporters gathered around Nelson to take pictures of him in a tiny mockup cell.
“Because of this cell here, my psychiatrist didn’t want me to come today,” he said. “As I talk about it, I can taste the cell again—raw, dusty concrete.”
Shannon Heffernan is a WBEZ reporter. Follow her @shannon_h