January 13, 2013

In Focus: Prisons parting company with isolation

Data showing that being locked up alone 23/7 does more harm than good is finally getting through.

By JONATHAN MARTIN The Seattle Times

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.

Clallam Bay Prison
click image to enlarge

Bettina Hansen/Seattle Times/MCT Earnest Collins, 24, says he’s open to change after fights twice landed him in the Intensive Management Unit at Clallam Bay. “If you’re not mentally strong, it’ll drive you crazy,” said Collins. “You hear a lot of crazy things in IMU.”

McClatchy Newspapers

"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 Department of Corrections 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.

(Continued on page 2)

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