Washington prisons do away with solitary confinement under Inslee

Washington State Penitentiary

OLYMPIA, Wash. — Solitary confinement has been a tool used by the United States’ prison systems for decades, but correctional leaders in Washington state are moving away from it due to research suggesting this tactic has lasting impacts on prisoners’ mental and physical health.

In an announcement on Thursday afternoon, WA Governor Jay Inslee announced that the Washington State Department of Corrections (DOC) stopped using ‘disciplinary segregation’ (AKA isolation or solitary confinement) on September 16.

This decision was made based on internal and external research suggesting that this practice does more harm than good. Washington’s DOC collected data over a one-year period starting in Sept. 2019 to determine whether solitary confinement was effective in addressing negative behavior.

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In that time, 57% of approximately 2,500 disciplinary segregation sanctions were doled out for non-violent infractions. They resulted in an average of 11 days in isolation for non-violent infractions and 16 days for violent infractions. Most individuals placed in solitary confinement returned to the general population shortly after their hearings.

“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.”

As cited by Governor Inslee, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s 2018 report on solitary confinement was another crucial study highlighting the damning repercussions of solitary confinement, which include higher suicide rates and harsh impacts on youth and disabled people.

“This is indeed a 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.”

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Washington corrections leaders are working with stakeholders to find alternatives to solitary confinement that better align with the values of their partners at the Vera Institute of Justice. As part of the DOC’s collaboration with Vera entitled Safe Prisons, Safe Communities: From Isolation to Dignity and Wellness Behind Bars, Washington correctional facilities aim to reach the following goals:

  • Eliminating the use of restrictive housing for vulnerable individuals,
  • Improving living conditions, and
  • Significantly reducing the length of overall time people spend in such housing

“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.”

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