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Washington DOC Ends Use of Solitary Confinement (Sort of)

by Jacob Barrett

On September 16, 2021, headlines trumpeted the end of solitary confinement in Washington state prisons, even quoting Gov. Jay Inslee (D) to call it “the right thing to do.” So come March 2022, why was the state Department of Corrections (DOC) still holding some 600 prisoners in isolation?

As DOC Secretary Cheryl Strange was quick to point out in a follow-up press release on September 30, 2021, the agency had ended the use only of “disciplinary segregation.” All those other prisoners still locked up alone were being held either in “administrative segregation” or “maximum custody,” both of which DOC still uses.

If it looks like a duck, as the saying goes, it’s still a duck.

Disciplinary segregation—isolating a prisoner as punishment for misbehavior—wasn’t working, DOC determined, after reviewing more than 2,500 uses in 2019 and 2020 to find that over half the time the prisoner was being punished for a nonviolent offense.

“The science is clear on this, and the science says stop doing it,” Strange insisted.

Except DOC hasn’t stopped doing it. There is still administrative segregation, which isolates a prisoner for an indeterminate period up to 30 days so that “a decision can be made about appropriate housing based on behavior.” See: DOC 320.2.

But 30 days is apparently not a firm limit. In a report issued in April 2021, Assistant Corrections Ombuds Angee Schrader cited “multiple” cases in which a prisoner was held in Administrative Segregation for more than 30 days—in one instance 112 days, in another 56 days, and 257 days in still another.

Then there is “maximum custody,” in which a prisoner is isolated for “valid protection needs” or “serious mental illness” or for posing “a significant risk to the safety and security of employees, contract staff, volunteers or other individuals.” It can last much longer, with assignments subject to review after a period “up to 180 days.” See: DOC 320.25

DOC Deputy Secretary Sean Murphy promised that the agency “is committed to safe and humane practices, where we address violent behavior when necessary, but do not use segregation as a form of punishment.”

Yet changing the name doesn’t change the adverse effects of isolation, including depression, anxiety, psychosis and thoughts of self-harm. Nor does it make isolation any more effective at deterring negative behavior. A June 2020 report in the Cornell Chronicle quoted a study by Human Ecology Prof. Christopher Wildeman that found a stint in solitary “increased the risk of being convicted of another crime within three years after release by about 15%.”

A bill that died in the state House of Representatives during the 2022 legislative session, HB 1756, would have limited the use of isolation to a few emergencies or medical crises, while also cutting the number of days it could last. A companion piece of legislation in the state Senate, SB 5639, also failed to make it out of committee. As PLN has reported over the years, the Washington DOC has been ending or limiting long term solitary confinement since at least the mid-1990s yet never quite seems to actually do so, just changing the name. That the DOC operates numerous Intensive Management Units (IMU) for long term solitary confinement of prisoners seems to belie any notion that it is changing its actual practices. 


Additional sources: Associated Press, South Seattle Emerald, Salem Statesman Journal


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