SB739 will end solitary confinement for prisoners with serious mental illness in Oregon

For individuals with Serious Mental Illness (SMI), solitary confinement is now well understood as a sure way to promote decompensation and in many cases, cause or exacerbate dangerous behavior. It is for those reasons that the American Bar Association[1], the American Psychiatric Association[2], and the United Nations[3] all oppose solitary confinement for people with mental illness.  U.S. courts have noted the profound impact of solitary confinement on mental health in a long line of cases that begins with an 1890 U.S. Supreme Court decision.[4]  When applied to prisoners who already suffer from serious mental illness, one judge compared solitary confinement to putting an asthmatic in place with little air to breathe.[5]  That understanding is echoed in a series of recent legislation and settlement agreements across the country.

Oregon’s Department of Corrections has recognized that solitary confinement can significantly decrease a prisoner’s ability to conform his actions to rules and thus create a disastrous cycle of lashing out and increased penalties. This cycle is catastrophic for the affected prisoners and dangerous for prison personnel. It provides a potent growth medium for avoidable escalations that end in the use of physical force against psychotic prisoners. In this way, it also subjects the correctional officers to considerable risks when they enter the cells of prisoners who have lost the ability to behave rationally.

Senate Bill 739 was prompted by DRO’s nearly completed investigation of conditions at the Behavioral Health Unit at the Oregon State Penitentiary.That investigation reveals that prisoners in the BHU spend months and sometimes years in 6 x 10 foot cells, with no natural light, no access to the outdoors or fresh air, and only rare opportunities to speak with another person.  Life in the BHU is eerily similar to what is seen across the country wherever individuals with Serious Mental Illness live in solitary confinement: men in cages pace incessantly; they pound the walls, mutter to themselves or scream; horrific levels of self-harm and mutilation are a regular occurrence.

If enacted, Senate Bill 739 will break this destructive cycle of punishment and psychological decompensation by ending solitary confinement for prisoners with serious mental illness. Senate Bill 739 will:

  1. mandate that prisoners with serious mental illness receive five hours of structured therapeutic activities and two hours of unstructured activities per day; and
  2. limit the planned use of force against prisoners with serious mental illness to situations that cannot be safely addressed by the intervention of trained mental health professionals.


Text of SB739 (PDF format)

Legislative tracker for SB739



[1] ABA STANDARDS FOR CRIMINAL JUSTICE: TREATMENT OF PRISONERS No. 23-2.8(a) (2010) (“No prisoner diagnosed with serious mental illness should be placed in long-term segregated housing”)

[2] See American Psychiatric Association, Position Statement on Segregation of Prisoners with Mental Illness (2012) (“Prolonged segregation of adult inmates, with rare exception, should be avoided due to the potential for harm to such inmates.  If an inmate with serious mental illness is placed in segregation, out-of-cell structured therapeutic activities (i.e., mental health/psychiatric treatment) in appropriate programming space and adequate unstructured out-of-cell time should be permitted.”)

[3] See, e.g., Interim Rep. of the Spec. Rapporteur of the Human Rights Council on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment of Punishment, U.N. Doc A/66/268 at 221 (Aug. 5, 2011) (“given their diminished capacity and that solitary confinement often results in severe exacerbation of a previously existing mental condition . . . its imposition, of any duration, on person with mental disabilities if cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment”).

[4] In re Medley, 134 U.S. 160, 180 (1890)

[5] Madrid v. Gomez, 889 F. Supp 1146, 1261 (N.D. Cal 1995).

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