A solitary confinement cell in the Intensive Management Unit of the Monroe Correctional Complex. Despite reforms, hundreds of people in state prisons are still isolated for more than 22 hours a day. (Office of Corrections Ombuds)

A solitary confinement cell in the Intensive Management Unit of the Monroe Correctional Complex. Despite reforms, hundreds of people in state prisons are still isolated for more than 22 hours a day. (Office of Corrections Ombuds)

Prison reform curbs some solitary confinement, but how much?

Washington has ended “disciplinary segregation.” But in practice, scores of prisoners remain isolated.

MONROE — When a prisoner at the Monroe Correctional Complex was sanctioned for trying to incite a hunger strike last fall, his punishment was supposed to be 20 days in solitary confinement.

Instead, he spent 112 days alone inside a cell as a drawn-out disciplinary process unfolded, according to a report by the Office of Corrections Ombuds, a state agency that monitors conditions in Washington prisons.

Since July 2020, at least five other people at the Monroe prison were held in solitary for over a month while under investigation for infractions, the report says.

The state Department of Corrections has for years tried to cut back on use of solitary, increasingly recognized by corrections experts as both inhumane and ineffective in addressing criminal behavior.

The department announced Sept. 30 that it had discontinued “disciplinary segregation,” or the use of solitary as punishment, saying the practice does not deter prisoners from acting out.

Corrections Secretary Cheryl Strange heralded the change as a “historic moment” for the agency.

“This is definitely a key step in becoming a human centered organization by advancing proven correctional practices and methods that support individuals in change,” Strange said in a news release. “The science is clear on this and the science says stop doing it.”

The policy change stops far short, however, of eliminating solitary confinement in Washington prisons.

Despite reforms, hundreds of people in state custody are still isolated in cells for 22 or 23 hours each day, according to data recently released by the department.

Inmates may still be placed in “administrative segregation,” confined alone while prison staff seek suitable housing for them. They can also be assigned to “maximum custody,” a single cell where they typically remain for months — sometimes years — until they complete behavior correction courses, or until Corrections officials decide they can be returned to the general population without putting others at risk.

State policy calls these practices “restrictive housing.” They are mostly meant for violent inmates who would assault staff or other prisoners if given the chance, Corrections officials say.

But prisoner rights advocates say the terms are synonymous with solitary confinement — and part of a lexicon invented by the department to obfuscate how many incarcerated people are isolated and why.

The state’s latest public push to curtail solitary is “all smoke and mirrors,” said Suzanne Cook, whose husband is incarcerated in Monroe. She serves on the state prison system’s family council.

Starting in March 2020, her husband was held in solitary for a year, she said.

“Isn’t all of prison ‘restrictive housing’?” she asked.

‘Declining to fix it’

As of Wednesday, state prisons housed roughly 400 people in administrative segregation and about 300 more people in maximum custody, according to Corrections. Of those, 90 were at the Monroe Correctional Complex.

Washington has roughly 13,500 prisoners.

One in 10 of those in solitary have “serious mental illness,” data show. And research has shown the psychological toll of isolation often haunts inmates long after they leave.

Even with Corrections’ claimed reduction, “there are still a huge number of people who are living in circumstances that we consider to be torture,” said Rachael Seevers, an attorney with Disability Rights Washington. She visited Monroe prisoners and others at major Corrections facilities last summer as part of a program that advocates for incarcerated people living with disabilities.

The United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, known as the Nelson Mandela rules, prohibit “prolonged solitary ” — in excess of 15 consecutive days. Anything more than that is torture, the rules say.

Corrections officials maintain that isolation is the best option in certain situations. The prison system has come under fire for allowing dangerous inmates too much leeway. The consequences can be deadly.

In 2015, prisoner Benjamin Price stomped another inmate to death while being held in medium security in Monroe. Staff had raised concerns about Price’s poor mental health and questioned why he wasn’t in a unit with tighter security. The state paid $1.5 million to settle a lawsuit brought by the family of the victim, Gordon “Casey” Powell.

In addition to segregating someone who is violent, prisons might also use solitary to house a person who needs protection from other inmates, or is likely to escape, or is awaiting transfer to a more secure prison.

Last summer, state prison officials rejected a stricter limit on its use of solitary.

Exercise area

After reviewing six months of data from the Monroe prison, the ombuds office recommended in its May report that the department “create a hard deadline that a person must be released from solitary within 30 days” — either to the general prison population, another facility or a “transitional housing pod” with better conditions.

Strange replied in a June 8 letter, saying it would be too risky, for both inmates and staff, to adopt the 30-day rule “across the board, regardless of circumstance and situation.”

She cited the department’s administrative segregation policy saying a person can be “housed in segregation for a maximum of 30 days.” But with special approval from headquarters, staff can segregate someone for longer.

The response undermines Corrections’ commitment to reduce solitary, Seevers said. The department appears unwilling to “have actual rules to guide their own practices,” she said.

“When faced with evidence that their own policy is not working,” Seevers said, “they are declining to fix it.”

‘No real deadline’

The inmate who was accused of orchestrating a hunger strike was taken to a solitary cell on Nov. 3, 2020, according to the ombuds office’s report. Meanwhile, prison staff began investigating the allegation.

The prisoner, a Black Puerto Rican man, stayed isolated pending the outcome of the 44-day investigation. Two weeks later, he officially “received the infraction,” the ombuds office found.

After a hearing, prison staff imposed a “facility prohibition, requiring a transfer and additional time in administrative segregation,” the report says. Forty-six days later, he was transferred out of solitary.

The prisoner later complained to the ombuds office, which launched an investigation.

Nothing in the ombuds report indicates that he had engaged in violent behavior or posed a threat.

The watchdog agency determined that, in his case and five others, potential security risks “did not justify” the length of time spent in solitary.

“There’s no real deadline, and as our report demonstrated, some individuals can be held for quite lengthy times even for relatively minor infractions,” said Joanna Carns, director of the Office of Corrections Ombuds.

Prisoners’ names are not included in the report “to protect confidential information.”

State Corrections policy allows prisoners in administrative segregation three 10-minute showers each week, as well as five hour-long recreation sessions in a small room. They are afforded other “minimum privileges,” including reading materials, mail, limited telephone access, 10 personal photos and up to $10 a week to purchase stationary and toiletries from the prison commissary, the report says.

A recreation area in the Intensive Management Unit of the Monroe Correctional Complex. Prisoners in “administrative segregation” are allowed one hour of recreation time, five days a week. They spend most of their remaining time alone in a cell. (Office of Corrections Ombuds)

A recreation area in the Intensive Management Unit of the Monroe Correctional Complex. Prisoners in “administrative segregation” are allowed one hour of recreation time, five days a week. They spend most of their remaining time alone in a cell. (Office of Corrections Ombuds)

Another inmate, a man described as Asian, was accused of rioting. He spent 56 days in solitary confinements last spring before investigators concluded he wasn’t involved in the uprising and returned him to general population, according to the report.

A white prisoner was in solitary for 257 days. Following a two-month investigation, he was charged with an infraction for trying to receive mail with contraband. Corrections officials initially said they could only house him in segregation, the report says. But after the ombuds office met with the department and raised concerns, he was transferred to the general population at the Monroe prison last April.

Secretary Strange said in her response letter that the DOC “has investigated the situations cited in the report and has worked toward resolution of both those cited and overall time spent in administrative segregation.”

When extensions are granted to segregate someone for more than 30 days, it’s usually because an outside police agency is investigating a crime within prison walls, or because Corrections is investigating a complicated incident, said Sean Murphy, the department’s deputy secretary of correctional operations.

Corrections is now making a “concerted effort” to only allow extensions in cases where more time is really needed to make a decision on an inmate’s placement with everyone’s safety in mind, Murphy said in an interview last week.

“In some cases,” he added, “there are complex infractions that occur that need extended investigations. Those are outlier cases and are very rare. But they do exist.”

‘A long way to go’

Debate over the loophole in Corrections policy comes at a time when lawmakers are considering a two-week limit on solitary.

A bill introduced in the last legislative session would prohibit state prisons from holding someone in solitary “for more than 15 consecutive days, or for more than 45 cumulative days during a single fiscal year,” except in the case of a “facility-wide lockdown.”

State Rep. Strom Peterson, who sponsored the House version of the bill, wants the limit to apply to every prisoner, no matter how they are classified by the agency.

“I think there’s some vagueness in exactly who is in solitary and for what reasons,” said Peterson, D-Edmonds. “We really need to come up with clear definitions.”

Lawmakers are still discussing details of the bill with Corrections.

“I have to give DOC a lot of credit really over the last five to 10 years. They have reduced the use of solitary in basically all of the institutions,” Peterson said. “We’re better than most states. But that doesn’t mean we’re in good shape when it comes to the treatment of these men and women.”

Last year, the state passed a law barring correctional facilities from holding children in solitary confinement.

Since 2014, 12 states have passed laws that restrict the use of solitary on adult prisoners, according to a recent review of the Washington proposal. In April, the governor of New York signed a law prohibiting prisons and jails from holding inmates in solitary for more than 15 consecutive days, The Associated Press reported.

Corrections “agrees with many practices” in the new bill, but the 45-day maximum for a single year would be unsafe, department spokeswoman Jacque Coe said in an email.

“We house individuals that are dangerous and if given the opportunity they will hurt other incarcerated individuals or staff,” she said. “Making a blanket statement does not translate to the environments our staff work in and the incarcerated individuals live in.”

Many of the reforms in the proposed law are already in place or planned, Coe said.

Corrections intends to reduce the 30-day administrative segregation maximum to 14 days next year, Murphy said in an interview. The department’s policy will still allow for that maximum to be extended in special cases.

State prison leaders will also repurpose more “restrictive housing” space, to allow prisoners more time unrestrained. The department has also requested state funding for staff to ensure at least four hours of out-of-cell time a day for certain prisoners in restrictive housing, Murphy said.

“We definitely still have a long way to go, and we’re going to ask for the resources to get there,” he said.

The proposed law would restrict the use of solitary in state prisons to lockdowns, protective custody, medical isolation and cases with “a substantial risk of imminent serious harm to the incarcerated person or others, as evidenced by recent conduct.” It would also bar the use of solitary on a person who “is a member of a vulnerable population,” such as someone who is mentally ill, under 25, over 60 or living with a serious health condition.

‘Put there and forgotten’

Prisoners in Corrections’ most restrictive housing “frequently experienced” depression, anxiety, serious mental illness and self-harming behavior, according to a state-commissioned study by researchers at the University of California, Irvine. The setting also affected prisoners’ physical health, causing skin irritation, weight fluctuation and pain in muscles and joints, says the study, released this year.

The Washington State Board of Health found “strong evidence” that reducing solitary would “improve health outcomes” for imprisoned and formerly incarcerated people. It could also lower recidivism rates.

People with mental illness are disproportionately represented among those held in solitary. Nearly 10% of Washington prisoners in restricted housing have “serious mental illness,” compared to 5% of the total prison population, according to a memo recently published on the DOC’s website.

“As long as we have solitary, it will be used,” Seevers said. “And in order to ensure it’s not used, and to ensure that people with serious mental illness are not put there and forgotten, then we need to ban it.”

In an op-ed in The Seattle Times on Wednesday, she called on Corrections to “abolish all forms of solitary.” She co-wrote the article with Christopher Blackwell, who is incarcerated at the Washington Corrections Center in Shelton and often writes about criminal justice issues. He had been held at the Monroe prison until months ago.

“If the DOC recognizes solitary is harmful to people, they should abolish all solitary, not just a fraction of it,” the essay says. “And if the Department of Corrections wants to rely on data to guide its practices, then all data should be considered, not just what the DOC cherry picks to thwart true change.”

Suzanne Cook’s husband, a 63-year-old Black man, has been in the prison system for three decades. In the 1990s, he was convicted of rape and, in a separate case, murder.

Last year, after an altercation that started when a white prisoner threatened him, she said, he was put in solitary in Monroe and transferred to the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla. There, he was required to complete a rehabilitative program before he could be released to the general population. But he never had the chance to take it, she said.

Prisoners have complained wait lists are long for those courses, which typically occur in a classroom setting. During the pandemic, Corrections had to cut class sizes, worsening the backlog.

Cook’s husband was later returned to the Monroe prison, where he was able to complete another course from inside a cell, she said.

“People are still in ‘the hole’,” she said, referring to solitary confinement. “They’re being put in the hole for the same reasons they always have been.”

‘One bite of the apple’

Corrections leaders have for years touted the strides they’ve made to slash the number of inmates in solitary. They’ve sought input from experts at Disability Rights Washington and the Vera Institute of Justice, a New York-based nonprofit that advocates for criminal justice reform.

The Monroe prison and other state correctional facilities have opened “pods” that allow prisoners in maximum custody to spend more time out of their cells as they prepare to transition to the general population.

Already, policy revisions have narrowed the reasons someone can be placed in solitary. Staff have been trained to use it as a last resort.

From 2012 to 2021, the DOC reduced the number of prisoners in maximum custody by more than half, the department says on its website.

“We believe we’re on the right path,” Murphy said. “And we’re really taking a thoughtful, deliberate approach, one bite of the apple at a time.”

Overall, the number of people in DOC custody is on the decline, too. As of August, the agency’s prison and work release population was 13,380 — roughly 4,000 fewer than it was in 2009, according to another report from the department.

Civil rights groups are still frustrated with a “lack of progress,” said Jaime Hawk of the ACLU of Washington.

“We recognize that DOC has been working with Vera and taking some very important steps,” said Hawk, a legal strategy director for the Washington Campaign for Smart Justice. “We have further to go.”

Data suggest reforms aimed at reducing solitary have yielded mixed results.

The UC Irvine study of Washington prisons noted that, on average, prisoners were spending more time in solitary over a typical sentence.

Between 2002 and 2017, the cumulative time each inmate was in restrictive housing nearly doubled, from an average of 43 days to 82 days. The percentage of the total prison population being held in solitary increased, too, from 1.6% to 3.3% during the same period.

The DOC partnered with the Vera Institute in February 2019 with a goal of reducing the total restrictive housing population by at least 20% by the end of 2020. But the COVID-19 pandemic stifled their progress, according to a memo from the institute. From the start of the project to the early days of the pandemic, the decrease was 9.1%.

The public health crisis stymied inmate transfers between facilities, leading some prisoners to be segregated for longer than usual.

Still, during the Vera partnership, the average length of stay for maximum custody inmates decreased from 424 days to 348 days.

“However, these are still very long periods to spend in restrictive conditions,” the Vera Institute concluded. It advised Corrections to “transform conditions in Maximum Custody to ensure that people housed there have ample out-of-cell time, meaningful human interaction, programming, and treatment, so that MAX no longer constitutes restrictive housing.”

Inmates in administrative segregation were held there almost 29 days, on average, when the partnership ended, the memo says.

A footnote in the memo says one person was segregated for more than 1,000 days.

Rachel Riley: 425-339-3465; rriley@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @rachel_m_riley.

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