OLYMPIA — An effort to reduce interactions between incarcerated gang members has led to a decrease in violence at Washington state’s prisons, corrections officials said Tuesday.
Violent infractions declined statewide by about 5 percent in each of the past two years, said Department of Corrections spokesman Chad Lewis. At individual prisons, the decrease has been as significant as 20 percent.
Prison administrators credit several changes in recent years, including reducing the number of rival gang members who are housed in the same living units.
Lewis said that in 2008, the department started identifying gang-affiliated inmates at the men’s reception center in Shelton before deciding where to place them.
Corrections officials said that gang members are responsible for 45 percent of incidents of violence, even though they only make up 20 percent of the prison population.
Deputy Prisons Director Dan Pacholke said there was an escalation of violence throughout 2007, including an increase in group attacks against one or two people at a time. That trend led the department to reassess its strategy on how to prevent such attacks, he said.
“There’s no quick fix, there’s no magic cure, but it’s definitely going in the right direction,” Pacholke said.
Lewis said other factors, such as increased focus on in-prison chemical dependency and education programs, increased visits from family members, and the department’s recent rule to allow inmates to e-mail family members, has helped reduce problems.
“If you just get one or two visits per year you are significantly less likely to commit a violent infraction,” he said. “They have hope, they have a reason to want to do good.”
Lewis said that since most prisoners will eventually be released, it’s a matter of public safety.
“The more we can reduce violence in prison, hopefully the more we can reduce violence outside prison,” he said.
Only one prison has seen a slight increase in violence recently: the Washington Corrections Center for Women.
Pacholke said the increase at the women’s prison is due in part to the influx of new inmates after the closure of another women’s prison because of state budget cuts. Pacholke said that the increase was minor, jumping from one violent incident in April to five, and that most of the incidents involved fighting.