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BEHIND BARS
Advocates hit use of isolation at ACI
BY STEVEN STYCOS

An inmate at the Adult Correctional Institutions says he was subjected to "cruel and unusual punishment" when he was handcuffed to a bed and given no sheets or blankets for two days. The complaint is the latest criticism of the state Department of Corrections’ use of isolation cells.

William DeGregorio of Pawtucket says he was moved to a cell in the psychiatric ward of the Intake Service Center on December 19 after another inmate reported that he received a "balloon" of drugs during a visit from his wife. After being searched, DeGregorio says, he was placed alone in a cell without a working sink or toilet. One hand was handcuffed and one leg shackled to a bed with only a mattress, he adds. For two days prison staff ignored his repeated requests for sheets and a blanket, DeGregorio says. Repeated requests for water were also ignored, he says, because prison officials were concerned he was trying to "flush" the drugs. A bedpan was supplied when he needed to urinate or defecate, he adds.

ACI nursing notes confirm DeGregorio’s story, record his denials of drug use, and show no evidence of drug use during his two days in isolation. The notes do not, however, document requests for bedding or water.

DOC spokesman Albert Bucci says visitors sometimes pass drug-filled balloons to inmates by kissing them. When prison officials suspect such a transfer of contraband, he continues, they confine the prisoner to a cell with no running water so that when the balloon is excreted in a stool, it cannot be washed down the drain.

DeGregorio says he recognizes the need for "dry cell" confinement, but he argues that his handcuffing and shackling was unnecessary. "To me, this was done out of harassment or punishment," he says.

Bucci refuses to comment on the specifics of DeGregorio’s case, but says restraints are used when a prisoner is combative or a danger to himself. DeGregorio, he adds, "showed characteristics that gave the impression that he was under the influence of narcotics." The nursing notes, however, indicate no dangerous behavior and record DeGregorio’s temperature, heart rate, blood pressure, and respiratory rate as normal.

Isolation and segregation are commonly used to discipline prisoners. Nicki Sahlin, executive director of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill in Rhode Island, however, says isolation is also used inappropriately for inmates with psychiatric problems. Inmates are confined for up to three days in seclusion for observation — a practice, she says, that "can make psychiatric symptoms worse." In recent meetings of the House commission studying conditions at the ACI, Sahlin also argued that mentally ill inmates are sometimes sent to segregation for disobeying rules they are not capable of understanding or following.

Meanwhile, DeGregorio’s wife, Karen, says her husband, who was due to be released in March, is considering suing the state for his stint in isolation.


Issue Date: April 2 - 8, 2004
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