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

(Continued from page 1)

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

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, said Lovell. "It shows you that people can get used to anything. I'm not sure how heartwarming that conclusion is."

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, bald and weathered, a corrections officer out of central casting. "The novelty of living in a box has worn off."

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 -- is important, he said.

"These are the guys who are going to be in the grocery store line next to your daughter one day," Blakeman said. "This is an ethical and legal responsibility we have to the community."

The four-step program starts in a row of steel cages, inmates chained to floor-mounted chain hooks beneath metal desks. Earnest Collins, 24, 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-aged 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," said Lovell.

 

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