State prisons rethink solitary
January 13, 2013 - Updated: 1:33 p.m.
CLALLAM BAY CORRECTIONS CENTER, Wash. – Being alone in your own head 23 hours a day in a 48-square-foot poured-concrete cell makes the mad madder and the bad even worse, inmates say.
“One guy told me he had, like, 15 faces on tissue paper, and he had names on them,” said inmate Michael Richards, who spent about seven of the last 11 years in solitary confinement at Clallam Bay Corrections Center. “He’d say, ‘Hey Bob, good morning.’ He’d talk to them through the day, just to keep that contact, because he couldn’t talk to anyone else.”
For centuries, solitary confinement has been the big stick of prisons, the harshest means to deter rule-breaking.
But the benefits are being reconsidered, and Washington state is at the forefront of a national re-examination. Instead of facing nothing but forced solitude, Washington inmates in solitary units – called Intensive Management Units, or IMUs – are increasingly being let out for hours to attend classes, see counselors or hit the gym.
It is a clear move to the left in prison management, but one that Washington prison managers say is rooted in data. More emphasis on rehabilitation appears to calm behavior in the prison and cuts violent recidivism on the streets, experts say. It is also a cost-saver: Solitary confinement costs about three times as much as keeping a prisoner in general custody.
At Walla Walla, hard-core gang members assigned to isolation units are chained to classroom desks for nine hours a week. At the Monroe Correctional Complex, a special unit for inmates with mental illness and traumatic brain injuries – who often end up in solitary confinement – is in the works.
At Clallam Bay, once the so-called gladiator ground of the state prison system, the new approach has slowed a revolving door of hardened inmates who returned, again and again, to isolation.
“Now that we’ve got it up and running, to look at it through the rearview mirror, we wonder why didn’t we do this 10 years ago,” said Assistant Secretary Dan Pacholke, a 30-year Department of Corrections veteran.
Solitary confinement’s history is a pendulum swing between concepts of punishment and rehabilitation. It was pioneered in the early 1800s so inmates, alone with just a Bible, could repent. It fell out of favor when the U.S. Supreme Court in 1890 found inmates, unreformed, instead grew “violently insane” or suicidal.
It returned to wider use in the 1990s as states, drifting from rehabilitation, built “supermax” prisons; by 2005, 40 states had at least 25,000 prisoners on lockdown 23 hours a day. A series of recent lawsuits, alleging the practice violates the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment, led to court orders curtailing its use.
Washington avoided such lawsuits but began reconsidering solitary after violent clashes in IMU units at Shelton in the mid-1990s. About 400 of the state’s 17,500 inmates are in such units, which also house death-row prisoners and those in protective custody.
University of Washington professor David Lovell studied solitary confinement in the state under a DOC contract and found the isolated inmates were most often gang members serving long sentences for violent crimes. Up to 45 percent were mentally ill or had traumatic brain injuries.
And once in solitary, they stayed in – for nearly a year, on average – because prison staff were reluctant to send likely violent inmates back into the general population.
Those who were released often returned, after committing new assaults on corrections officers or other inmates.
Most disturbing, Lovell found a quarter of inmates were released to the streets directly from solitary confinement. Unaccustomed to human contact, they were more prone to quickly commit new violence.
Despite those findings, Lovell, now a criminal justice analyst in California, said inmates in isolation “are not permanently dangerous.”
“What we found most surprising was how intact many of them were” even after months of solitude, Lovell said. “It shows you that people can get used to anything. I’m not sure how heartwarming that conclusion is.”
Angela Browne of the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonpartisan think tank, said Washington is on the edge of a national wave that is causing prison systems to rethink solitary confinement.
Financial pressures from the recession have contributed, because such units are so expensive. “And there’s a willingness to not just say, ‘Punish, punish, punish; they deserve it,’ ” she said.
Life in solitary is spare: no personal effects except what can be posted within a 12- by 18-inch space on the wall; meals slid through a door; and one hour a day for showering or for exercise in a small, walled yard, with two officers in escort.
At Clallam Bay, the path out of isolation runs through the color-coded tiers of the Intensive Transition Program, housed since 2006 in a unit originally built for juveniles.
About 30 inmates, all volunteers, agree to a nine-month program stocked with coursework such as “moral recognition therapy” and “self-repair,” gradually earning more freedoms.
“Someone needs to say, ‘I want this,’ ” said IMU supervisor Steve Blakeman, a corrections officer.
Isolation has a purpose, Blakeman said, comparing it to the “adult version of having to stand in the corner.” But Lovell’s data – especially on the recidivism for those released directly to the street – was important, Blakeman said.
“These are the guys who are going to be in the grocery store line next to your daughter one day,” he said. “This is an ethic and legal responsibility we have to the community.”
The four-step program starts in an unusual classroom: a row of steel cages, inmates chained to floor-mounted chain hooks beneath metal desks. Earnest Collins, a 24-year-old serving a life sentence for murdering a SeaTac cabdriver, volunteered after two fights earned him trips to solitary.
The program, he acknowledged, also would allow him more visits with his toddler son. Family visits are highly restricted while an inmate is in isolation.
Collins insists he is “open” to change, reading, at Blakeman’s suggestion, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.”
“I wish life were like ‘The Butterfly Effect,’ ” said Collins, recalling a 2004 movie about a man using supernatural power to alter past events. “I wish I could go back.”
Before the program started, inmates released from isolation returned more than 50 percent of the time. Since then, 131 inmates have graduated; 107 have not returned.
“It works because it’s rational for someone to choose to live in a way that doesn’t have them locked in a hole,” Lovell said. “If you give them the choice, it’s a rational decision to make.”