In the hole 

Prison homicide puts solitary confinement under scrutiny

Shaun Duncan Morrison calmly watched his own homicide trial play out around him in a Powell County district courtroom last month. Flanked by four prison guards, he watched passively through thick black-rimmed glasses, choosing not to take the stand to tell his side of the story.

A jury convicted the 30-year-old Helena man of deliberate homicide for the murder of fellow Montana State Prison inmate 53-year-old Julio Santiago Jr. Their conflict started over a pair of stolen earphones.

Morrison first entered Montana correctional facilities in 2001 on theft and burglary charges, and received additional time after he assaulted a prison official. With the added murder conviction, he now faces the prospect of life in prison.

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  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • After spending the majority of his time at Montana State Prison in locked housing, Shaun Duncan Morrison lasted 15 days living with fellow inmates before murdering one over stolen earphones.

"Morrison was classified high security at the time of the [homicide], but he spent the majority of his time here in locked housing due to his behavior," says prison spokesperson Linda Moodry.

While Morrison's case appears straightforward, the American Civil Liberties Union is troubled by one key detail in stories like Morrison's: the amount of time spent in locked housing. Locked housing is Montana's term for solitary confinement, also dubbed "supermax" or "the hole."

In locked housing units, inmates are housed alone in their cells for 23 hours a day with very little human interaction, according to Anna Conley, an attorney with the ACLU Montana Prison Project. The isolation is aimed at correcting rowdy behavior, but solitary confinement is coming under scrutiny for actually having the opposite effect in some inmates.

Conley describes Montana State Prison's solitary confinement unit as rows of single cells that have small openings in the doors to look in and out of.

"It's generally very quiet unless there's somebody in a padded cell for behavioral modification," Conley says. "In those cases, I've heard extensive yelling and screaming."

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In Conley's experience, solitary confinement is particularly damaging to inmates prone to mental illness. At Morrison's trial, a psychologist testified about his chaotic upbringing and a track record of hospitalizations for mental illness. One psychologist testified that Morrison killed family pets as a child, and he once set fire to the mattress where his father lay sleeping.

State courts have consistently held that the use of solitary confinement for mentally ill prisoners is unconstitutional. The Department of Justice estimates 56 percent of inmates at state prisons nationwide have some sort of mental health problems. Those inmates are also twice as likely to be involved in prison conflicts than their mentally stable counterparts.

In Montana, the ACLU reached a settlement with Montana State Prison this year over the use of solitary confinement on juvenile and mentally unstable inmates after a 17-year-old prisoner attempted suicide four times in locked housing. Suicide attempts are higher in solitary confinement than in general inmate housing, according to Conley.

Groups like the ACLU don't necessarily advocate the abolition of solitary confinement as a correctional tool, but there's concern the practice is being overused. The ACLU estimates about 80,000 inmates nationwide are being held in solitary on any given day—that's about 1 percent of all incarcerated individuals.

"There are some people who can go into prolonged solitary and have minimal negative impacts, but they're the exception," Conley says. "For most inmates in solitary, it's psychologically detrimental. For the mentally ill in solitary, it makes them more dangerous than when they went in."

Morrison slashed Julio Santiago multiple times on the head and neck with an improvised weapon made from two razor blades, fastened to a pen with wires stripped from the inside of an extension cord. Photos of Santiago's bloodied body were deemed too graphic for the jury and were consequently withheld.

Morrison's behavior is consistent with what Conley observes in other inmates who've spent prolonged time in solitary.

"Solitary confinement is generally going to make [inmates] more paranoid, more angry, more hostile, more suspicious, less able to interact with others," Conley says.

Morrison and Santiago were housed in the highest security level below solitary confinement. But Morrison was somewhat new to living with others; he'd only been in general population housing for 15 days before he fatally attacked Santiago.

Morrison told investigators he'd felt threatened by Santiago's behavior, that he was being "stared down" and that he felt challenged to do something about his stolen property. Morrison said he never intended to kill Santiago, but rather he only wanted to rough him up so he'd be left alone.

Morrison has not yet been scheduled for sentencing, but the prosecution has already said it does not intend to pursue the death penalty.

Clarification: Although the ACLU is actively involved in solitary confinement issues, it has not specifically investigated Morrison's case.
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