Saturday, April 3, 2021 | 2 a.m.
Trapped in solitary confinement for more than 20 years inside a small, dark Nevada prison cell, Frank De Palma initially knew his delusions were nonsensical, but he couldn’t help it.
Then reality began to slip away from him, De Palma told the Nevada State Senate Judiciary Committee on March 26, during a hearing for Senate Bill 187, which would place restrictions on solitary confinement practices in state prisons.
Desiring human connection, De Palma soon began to piece together elaborate, months-long visions. In one, he met a woman, started a relationship, fell in love and got married.
“These fantasies literally lived on, longer and longer and longer, eight, nine months at a time,” said De Palma, who served more than 40 years for murder and attempted murder. “It got to a point where those fantasies that I lived no longer fulfilled me, they couldn’t sustain me, my need for love.”
The legislation, introduced by state Sen. Pat Spearman, D- North Las Vegas, stipulates that use of solitary confinement — or segregation — would only be allowed as a last resort, and for the shortest time possible, she said. Inmates would have to be found guilty of an offense, which would have to be confirmed by a hearing.
“Even if they are guilty, they are still human beings,” Spearman said. “And we should treat them as such; it doesn’t take anything away from the punishment that they have been prescribed.”
Offenders would be submitted to psychological evaluations, and alternative rehabilitation measures would be required for certain inmates, including women, children and those with mental illness, unless they pose a physical threat, Spearman said. She called solitary confinement a “harmful and inhumane practice,” which she hopes is eventually banned altogether.
If passed, the law would require a yearly report from the Nevada Department of Corrections to outline how it uses isolation, and data on the cases and the demographics of those placed in it.
The bill would give teeth to SB402 from the 2017 legislative session, also introduced by Spearman. That law — similar to the new proposal — called for the Department of Corrections to establish provisions on how it imposes segregation, and accommodations for afflicted inmates.
Solitary confinement, which the United Nations deems torture after more than 15 consecutive days, can cause severe mental and physical problems, proponents of the legislation said.
Mary Buser, a former deputy chief of mental health at the solitary confinement unit at Rikers Island, remembers her supervisor telling her on her first day of work that “if they had no mental health issues before solitary confinement, they do now,” she told lawmakers.
She told lawmakers that their job “was to dole out medication: antidepressants, anti-anxiety, sleeping pills, antipsychotic, mostly to people who had never taken any of this prior to solitary.”
Buser still remembers “grim” scenes of being summoned to cells of prisoners whose medications no longer worked. There were “makeshift nooses, slashed arms, blood-soaked T-shirts, incoherent babbling, headbanging, and agonized shell-shocked faces begging for a reprieve.
“I was shocked, frankly, to discover just how grueling this punishment is,” she said.
But Spearman, who said the practice of solitary confinement remains “unabated” today, noted that there’s no data to find out how isolation is used or if any of changes were made since SB402 became law. A report by the Vera institute of Justice released in 2019, and commissioned by the Department of Corrections, determined that more than 12% of the prison population was “in some form of segregation.”
Ely State Prison Warden William Allan Gittere told lawmakers that his prison has been making changes to its solitary confinement practice since 2017, when former Department of Corrections Director James Dzurenda ordered policy changes.
Dzurenda told Spearman about mentally ill inmates who’d been in solitary confinement for years, which triggered the 2017 legislation.
Gittere said the Ely prison, which is a maximum-security facility, in 2016 had 88% of its population segregated. That number plummeted to 12% two years later, he said, adding that violent incidents committed by offenders against corrections officers dropped 50%.
However, inmate-on-inmate violent incidents increased three-fold, and hospitalizations doubled, Gittere said.
David Green, the mental health director of the corrections department, told lawmakers that a “great deal of resources” would be needed to safely implement the law.
He was echoed by Deputy Director Harold Wickham, who called the legislation “important.”
Corrections officials noted in testimony that for the changes to work, the department would need to hire more corrections officers, administrative staff and mental health professionals.
Wickham said the department would “love to be able to accomplish these things. With the proper resources, I think we would be able to do a great service for this state.