Photo of a solitary confinement cell.

OPINION: Washington’s DOC Is Trapping Incarcerated Men in Solitary Confinement

by Emma Hogan and Hannah Bolotin

One man currently looking at over a year in solitary confinement as he waits to start mandatory anger management programming writes: “Currently, they aren’t doing anything because no one knows this is going on and those who do don’t care.”

Over 200 individuals currently in solitary confinement in Washington State are being subjected to cruel and unusual punishment due to the Department of Corrections’ (DOC) severe mishandling of COVID-19 adjustments. Incarcerated individuals who receive violent infractions have historically been sent to solitary confinement for a year or less as they complete a required behavioral change class — though the DOC was already moving away from using solitary confinement in recent years as evidence builds that this practice increases future behavioral issues, induces trauma, and catalyzes existing or new mental health issues. However, during the pandemic, this issue has taken on a new level of what is widely considered torture: The DOC has responded to COVID-19 restrictions by keeping the same course completion requirements but cutting class sizes in half, resulting in waitlists for required courses over a year long. And as a result, the majority of these individuals are forced to spend extended periods of time in solitary confinement. 

This blatant malpractice was detailed by one of the many individuals experiencing it — a man who is trapped in solitary and is expected to remain on the waitlist for at least 13 more months — in a letter to his mother that she has since circulated in an effort to spread his message. 

Individuals in solitary confinement are locked in a cell for 22–24 hours per day with no social contact. The effects of solitary confinement on the human mind and body range from anxiety, depression, and heart palpitations to deteriorating eyesight, paranoia, and psychosis. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that approximately 25% of people in prison and 35% of those in jail who had spent 30 days or longer in solitary confinement during the previous year had symptoms of serious psychological distress. The rates were similar for those who only spent 1 day in isolation.

Perhaps the most disturbing consequence of solitary confinement is its skyrocketing effect on rates of self-harm and suicide among incarcerated individuals: Though only 3–8% of the incarcerated population in the United States is in solitary confinement, they represent 50% of prison suicides.

Though the criminal justice system is fraught with brutality and dehumanization, its greatest depths of cruelty and negligence are evident in solitary confinement’s disproportionate impact on People of Color and those struggling with mental illness. In Washington State, the disproportionate number of Hispanic men in solitary is particularly concerning: while Hispanic men represented 13% of the total male prison population in 2016, they comprised about 30% of the male prison population in solitary confinement. The letter stated, “the majority of prisoners assigned MAX custody are People of Color who are unlikely to leverage appeal processes effectively or persuade racially biased DOC administrators. Furthermore, mental illness afflicts many in segregation, leading to further disadvantage.”

To a staggering degree and on a nationwide scale, incarcerated individuals are not receiving the life-saving, tax-payer-dollar-saving programming that they need. They are locked out of educational programming, barred from vocational training, and unable to access substance abuse treatment. There are grave consequences for this inadequacy on the part of the DOC, both for the incarcerated individuals themselves and for society at large. The very programming designed and proven to increase individuals’ chances of finding employment, securing housing, getting a college degree, and becoming contributing members of their community upon reentry are kept out of reach, and instead, individuals return to their communities with lower chances of success than they had at the time of their original arrest. Prominent researchers have labeled this denial of rehabilitative services in itself to be cruel and unusual punishment, in violation of the Eighth Amendment.

For those who are in solitary confinement, it’s a double-edged sword. In the open letter from one of the men currently facing at least another year of solitary confinement while waiting to start the mandatory programming, he details the devastating reality the DOC has created: 

“DOC is currently keeping over 200 Washington prisoners in segregation for 2 years because COVID[-19] restrictions have limited access to mandatory classes. A ‘MAX custody program’ is a long-term solitary confinement placement given to prisoners who have committed a violent infraction that requires they complete a behavioral change class before being released from IMU (the hole). Historically, a prisoner would spend about a year or less completing their requirements. But since COVID[-19], DOC’s social distancing practices have cut class sizes in half, making them nearly inaccessible to the vast majority of prisoners. For example, with only 4 people allowed in class at a time, DOC’s Aggression Replacement Training course has a wait of over 13 months. By the time someone completes the 3-month course and transfers, they will have spent 2 years in solitary confinement. Keeping people in the hole for that long because of COVID[-19] is unacceptable.”

A DOC official confirmed that there are currently 643 incarcerated individuals in Washington State currently held in solitary confinement (synonymous with the DOC’s revised name, “restrictive housing”). Of this group, 248 are assigned to “maximum custody” or “MAX custody” as referred to in the letter above, and the rest are held in administrative segregation.

The letter continues:

“DOC justifies this practice by citing evidence-based findings that these courses reduce future aggressive behavior and ensure the safety of DOC staff and other prisoners from those that have acted violently. These two aims are undeniably important, however, they do not justify DOC’s use of inordinate and harmful lengths of solitary confinement that are entirely COVID[-19] related and fixable. Currently, DOC is doing nothing to address the fact that many prisoners will spend close to 2 years in segregation before completing their release requirements. This practice is unaligned with widespread evidence that long term segregation is deeply traumatizing and actually increases future behavioral issues. It also conflicts with the changes DOC has made in recent years to reduce reliance on this form of punishment. It is likely that more harm is being done by these lengths of solitary confinement than are being rectified by the courses themselves. The course might work, but not under conditions that inflict known trauma.”

We were able to speak with Suzanne Cook, who is active and personally invested in the fight against the use of solitary confinement — her husband spent an entire year in solitary confinement beginning March 2020 in the same indefinite waiting period described in the letter.

She recalls her persistent arguments with the DOC as they simultaneously insisted that her husband complete this specific programming and that they were unable to provide it, saying, “Do something else! There are many in-cell programs that can happen, so if you’re holding him for the programming that you cannot give to him then that is just blatant abuse of the system.”

This is what finally happened for Cook’s husband. After nine months of sitting in solitary confinement, he was transferred to a different facility where he was able to return to the general population unit after spending another three months completing an in-cell program entitled “Cage Your Rage.” This is a curriculum published in the 1990s as “An Inmate’s Guide to Anger Control,” including cartoon books. Cook purchased the books herself on Amazon after learning of this programming taking place for her husband, stating, “It’s juvenile, and it has no benefit other than DOC being able to check a box.” Cook says that her husband is adamant about “not succumbing to the trap” by the DOC to label himself as an individual with mental illness. She continued, “He is clear about what he’s not going to give them. At the same time, he needs support, he needs help — and ‘Cage your Rage’ ain’t gonna do it.” 

We were also able to speak to the mother of the author of this letter, to whom it was originally sent. She is a longtime advocate for many areas of prison reform and has been speaking up about the use of solitary confinement since long before the onset of the pandemic and doubling of time spent in these conditions. When asked why she thinks that DOC administrators, in general, are unable to let go of the use of this practice as clearly inhumane, she responded:

“Fear, probably, would be a word that comes to mind. People think these are dangerous, awful criminals and they deserve what they get, so shame on them for fighting … The DOC jargon is that it’s for the safety of staff and other prisoners that they put people in solitary, but it doesn’t ever really address the situation … prison is a violent place to live.”

She believes that it could be just as effective to separate individuals from the general population for a shorter period of time — around 10 days — to allow intense emotions to de-escalate. In situations that do call for programming to work on anger management, there are effective ways to facilitate these in-cell. Both of these cases avoid the permanent, devastating effects of long periods in solitary confinement mentioned above. Though these solutions sound radical compared to current DOC policy, this is actually outlined by the United Nations as the maximum extent to which solitary confinement should be used as punishment without being considered inhumane.

While time spent in solitary confinement has nearly doubled for these individuals in Washington State, it is important to note that 2 years is approximately 50 times the 15-day limit for what is considered humane by the United Nations according to the Nelson Mandela Rules adopted in 2015. Rule 43 states, “In no circumstances may restrictions or disciplinary sanctions amount to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. The following practices, in particular, shall be prohibited,” under which the second bullet point is “Prolonged solitary confinement,” defined as “solitary confinement for a time period in excess of 15 consecutive days.” Cook acknowledged that for individuals without family on the outside fiercely advocating for them, there is no limit on the years they might spend in these conditions. 

There should no longer be debate over the ethics of solitary confinement: It is both proven to be ineffective, and periods of longer than 15 days are considered unacceptable from a global human rights perspective as a form of torture. Until the DOC finds a viable solution, over 200 incarcerated men remain on an ever-growing waitlist, surviving in conditions known to inflict them with more trauma, intensified mental health issues, and increased behavioral issues, all of which they will carry with them as they return to the main prison setting — and eventually, return to society.

The letter concludes:

“This issue can be fixed. The year plus wait is entirely COVID[-19] related. DOC has instituted many innovative practices over the last year to deal with the pandemic. It is time they do something to help the most isolated population in Washington State and stop subjecting people to this trauma. Currently, they aren’t doing anything because no one knows this is going on and those who do don’t care. Please help be our voice on this issue. Without outside pressure, DOC will continue its unrestrained use of excessive solitary confinement.”

The Washington State DOC hosted the Statewide Family Council meeting on Saturday, July 24, which included an hour-long session focused on quality of life and access to services for individuals in solitary confinement. A recording of the meeting can be viewed here.

Emma Hogan is an applicant and student services counselor for the Post-Prison Education Program. She recently graduated with a B.S. in computer science from Siena College, where she completed an undergraduate honors thesis on the role of technology in correctional education. In the fall, she will begin her Ph.D. in computer science at the University of California San Diego studying paths to dignified careers in the technology industry for formerly incarcerated individuals.

Hannah Bolotin is the director of development and policy for the Post-Prison Education Program. Before joining Post-Prison, Hannah was a researcher at Boston College, Wesleyan University, and Yale University, where she studied criminal justice reform, racial bias in criminal proceedings, and the development of theories of punishment and justice across cultures.

📸 Featured image is attributed to Brook Ward (under a Creative Commons, CC BY-NC 2.0 license).

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