Making Washington’s prisons safer and more humane
Clarification: On September 30, 2021, the Department of Corrections issued a press release announcing the end of disciplinary segregation. Some news outlets have reported that DOC is ending the use of all ‘solitary confinement.’ This has led to confusion, and the department feels it is important to clarify that it is ending the use of segregation, also known as solitary confinement, for disciplinary reasons only. The department continues to utilize segregation for non-disciplinary purposes such as investigations, safety, protective custody, and classification.
Since the 1980s, correctional systems have heavily relied on restrictive housing — also known as disciplinary segregation, isolation or solitary confinement. It was originally intended as a way to manage people who commit violence while incarcerated by restricting movement and privileges.
But in recent years, a growing body of research (such as the 2018 Southern Poverty Law Center’s report on solitary confinement), found excessive use of restrictive housing can harm the physical and mental health of people held in such conditions. The detrimental effects of disciplinary segregation can persist even after release. They can also create more obstacles for incarcerated people as they prepare to re-enter the community, since time in restrictive housing limits access to programs, re-entry preparation and positive social interaction.
Correctional leaders in Washington are aware of this phenomenon and are taking steps to make state prisons safer and more humane. As of Sept. 16, the Washington State Department of Corrections (DOC) stopped using disciplinary segregation agency-wide.
“This is indeed an historic moment in the department,” DOC Secretary Cheryl Strange said. “This is definitely a key step in becoming a human centered organization by advancing proven correctional practices and methods that support individuals in change. The science is clear on this and the science says stop doing it.”
The decision follows an agency approach to gather data to inform decisions whenever possible, and will consider new options to support positive and progressive outcomes.
“Disciplinary segregation has been proven to be ineffective in our state correctional facilities and ending their practice as a form of discipline is the right thing to do,” Gov. Jay Inslee said. “I’d like to thank Secretary Strange and the entire DOC team for their dedication to improving human-centered operations for incarcerated individuals.”
The DOC collected data over a one-year period (Sept. 1, 2019 to Aug. 30, 2020) to see whether disciplinary segregation was effective in addressing negative behavior.
The results found:
- Approximately 2,500 disciplinary segregation sanctions were given during the year.
- 57% of those sanctions given were for non-violent infractions (1,441 of 2,525).
- The average length of time given in segregation was 11 days for non-violent infractions and 16 days for violent ones.
- The number of actual segregation days individuals served after a disciplinary hearing was very small. Most individuals who were given segregation had already been in Administrative Segregation awaiting their hearing and were given credit for time served and returned to general population.
Prison officials have also expressed dedication for finding alternative methods to deal with violent incidents including examining and modifying the classification process and referring incarcerated individuals for a custody demotion if necessary.
“We know a lot more now than we did years ago when our practices were designed,” says Mike Obenland, prisons assistant secretary. “We must continue to examine our processes and make meaningful changes that are both safe and humane. The data shows that the use of disciplinary segregation has many shortcomings, including failing to improve negative behavior.”
The department has been working with stakeholders on finding alternatives to restrictive housing for the past several years, including an ongoing partnership with Vera Institute of Justice. The partnership, known as Safe Prisons, Safe Communities: From Isolation to Dignity and Wellness Behind Bars, aimed to reduce the department’s use of restrictive housing by finding safer and more effective alternatives. Safe Prisons, Safe Communities launched in May 2019.
Vera has worked with correctional departments across America to help make changes to reduce restrictive housing. The current partnership with Washington has several goals, including eliminating the use of restrictive housing for vulnerable individuals, especially those with serious mental illness, improving living conditions and significantly reducing the length of overall time people spend in such housing.
“DOC is committed to safe and humane practices, where we address violent behavior when necessary, but do not use segregation as a form of discipline,” said Sean Murphy, DOC’s deputy secretary.