After ACI suicides, Felix, Acosta, advocates
rally to reform solitary confinement
Rep. Felix, far left bottom, and Sen. Acosta speak at a May 9 rally to reform solitary confinement.
STATE HOUSE – After three high-profile deaths at the Adult Correctional Institutions (ACI) in Cranston, Sen. Jonathan Acosta and Rep. Leonela Felix were joined by survivors of solitary confinement and advocates from around the state to draw attention to the need for reform.
Three men have died, reportedly by suicide, while incarcerated at the ACI over the past few months.
“Brian Rodenas should be alive today,” said Representative Felix. “He had been placed in solitary confinement not because he was violent, but he was suspected of hoarding medications. This is a clear abuse of the solitary confinement system. Individuals sentenced to serve time should not be subjected to such harsh conditions that it leads them to take their own lives. This system is in desperate need of reform.”
The family of one of the men, Brian Rodenas, 27, of Pawtucket, spoke at the rally. They have been told by the Department of Corrections (DOC) their son had been in solitary confinement for around ten days at the time of his death because he was suspected of hoarding medications.
Rodenas’ family disputes that account, saying he was held in solitary confinement for much longer. They received a letter from their son, dated March 15, saying he was in solitary confinement and would only be able to call for ten minutes every 30 days. He was in solitary confinement when he was found dead on May 2. There is currently no oversight process and correctional officers are not required to report when, and for how long, individuals are held in solitary confinement.
“My son was begging for help and no one would help him,” said Elizabeth DePina, Rodenas’ mother. “He had such a good heart, how could they treat him like that?”
One of the other deaths, Dana Thomas Leyland, 39, of Pawtucket, had been awaiting sentencing on a drug offense. The third man has not yet been identified.
The deaths were not surprising to Brandon Robinson, who was raised and lives in Providence. He served a fifteen-year sentence at the ACI and got out in 2019. While incarcerated, he worked as a porter, cleaning the solitary confinement cells.
“Individuals in solitary confinement taking their own lives was a regular occurrence,” Robinson said. “They would be in solitary so long they would start hallucinating, seeing things that aren’t there. They just couldn’t cope. When a suicide would occur, it was my job to clean the blood off the walls and untie the knots in the sheets of those who took their lives.”
Solitary confinement, also called restrictive housing, involves securing incarcerated individuals in a small cell, around eight by ten feet, without human contact.
Defenders of the practice say it is a necessary tool to maintain control in a difficult environment. By separating violent inmates from the general population, they argue, correctional officers can best keep inmates safe. And creating a disincentive to violent behavior, they say, is crucial to preventing fights.
But advocates argue that overusing solitary confinement is counterproductive and leads to more violence. They point to studies in states such as Massachusetts, Virginia, and Maine that all found lower reports of violent incidents after they restricted and regulated the use of solitary confinement. They also point to the fiscal costs of solitary confinement. Keeping an inmate at the high security center costs the state roughly $216,000 per year, according to the Department of Corrections 2021 annual report.
Robinson, who has since received his bachelor’s degree and is pursuing a master’s degree from Roger Williams University, also spoke at the rally.
“When I was serving my time, I saw people who were violent who needed to be separated from the rest of the population,” he said. “But I also saw people get put in solitary because their t-shirt wasn’t tucked in or they didn’t stand up fast enough at count. Right now, there’s no accountability, no regulations. A correctional officer having a bad day could literally torture you with no repercussions or oversight.”
A bill by Senator Acosta (D-Dist. 16, Central Falls, Pawtucket) and Representative Felix (D-Dist. 61, Pawtucket) (2023-S 0617, 2023-H 6161) would establish an oversight committee to monitor the use of solitary confinement in Rhode Island. The bill would also lay out clear guidelines for when solitary confinement could be used and when it couldn’t. The practice would be restricted to punishment for violent offences and prohibited, except in emergencies, for inmates with developmental or psychiatric disabilities and no one could be kept in solitary confinement for more than 22 hours each day.
The United Nations defines keeping inmates in solitary confinement for more than 22 hours a day as torture. Robinson and other former inmates say they were regularly kept alone in their cell for 23 or 24 hours a day.
The Senate bill was heard in the Senate Committee on Judiciary on March 21. The House bill was heard in the House Judiciary Committee on April 4. Both bills are currently being held for further study.
“This bill is not about banning solitary confinement,” said Senator Acosta. “It’s about reforming the system to ensure accountability and ensure the practice is used as a last resort. The General Assembly funds the ACI. It is incumbent on us to exercise oversight and ensure taxpayer dollars aren’t funding the arbitrary torture of our neighbors. These are human beings, and their lives have value.”