Stepping out from solitary confinement

Washington prisons are putting more emphasis on rehabilitation

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SEATTLE — Being alone in your own head 23 hours a day in a 48-square-foot poured-concrete cell makes, inmates say, the mad madder and the bad even worse.

"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 past 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 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, the new approach has slowed a revolving door of hardened inmates.

"We wonder why didn't we do this 10 years ago," said Assistant Secretary Dan Pacholke of the Department of Corrections.

About 400 of Washington's1 7,500 inmates are in IMUs, 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 that 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.

At Clallam Bay, the path out of isolation runs through the Intensive Transition Program (ITP).

About 30 inmates, all volunteers, agree to a nine months of 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.

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."