by Heidi Sadri
In 2020, a man incarcerated at Monroe Correctional Complex was accused of organizing a hunger strike (a prison organizing tactic with a powerful history) and placed in solitary confinement for a total of 112 days. Not as a punishment, though — 112 days of administrative segregation, nearly four times the 30-day limit allowable under Department of Corrections (DOC) policy. One hundred twelve days is the time it took for the prison to complete its investigation, issue an infraction, and then transfer the man to another prison where he would finally be released from solitary confinement. An investigative report by the Office of the Corrections Ombuds (OCO) found multiple instances in 2020 and 2021 of the Monroe prison holding people in administrative segregation for extended periods of time while they investigated alleged infractions. One man was isolated for 257 days until inquiries by the OCO prompted his release.
Evidence of the devastating immediate and long-lasting effects of solitary confinement is abundant and widely recognized. According to the Vera Institute of Justice, “The characteristics that define segregated housing — social isolation, reduced environmental stimulation, and loss of control over all aspects of daily life — create a ‘potent mix’ that produces a litany of negative impacts,” leading to new and worsened mental illness. People in solitary confinement make up 6–8% of the total prison population but account for half of prison suicides. It is difficult to overstate the cruelty of what we inflict through this practice.
In late 2021, DOC announced that it had ended disciplinary segregation, the use of solitary confinement as a punishment for rule violations. “The science is clear on this and the science says stop doing it,” said DOC Secretary Cheryl Strange, citing the harmful impacts of isolation and its ineffectiveness at deterring negative behavior. Administrative segregation and maximum custody — other forms of solitary confinement — remain in practice. In its decision to eliminate only one type of segregation, DOC affirmed that it recognizes the senseless harm of solitary confinement while simultaneously confirming that it will not be ending the practice on its own.
There are currently approximately 600 people in solitary confinement in Washington prisons. Administrative segregation is applied broadly, including in circumstances that undeniably resemble discipline, like the cases of the Monroe men. Note the open-endedness of its defined purpose: “Administrative Segregation is used to temporarily remove an individual from the general population until a timely and informed decision can be made about appropriate housing based on their behavior.” That decision may be an assignment to maximum custody: A non-temporary designation used to house people determined to pose a risk to others. Reviews of maximum custody classifications may be as infrequent as every 180 days, according to DOC policy. The persistence of these classifications and DOC’s inaction necessitate legislative intervention to address the issue of solitary confinement.
HB 1756 sought to dramatically restrict the use of solitary confinement in Washington prisons. The bill aimed to limit the allowable reasons for placing someone in solitary confinement, permitting the practice only in certain emergency and medical situations or at the voluntary request of an incarcerated person. It also would have prioritized the use of less restrictive options, imposed shorter time limits for isolation, tightened restrictions on the isolation of vulnerable people, required regular medical evaluations of people in isolation, and established standards for living conditions in solitary confinement. The bill did not survive the 2022 legislative session.
Consider the hundreds of people currently in solitary confinement in Washington who will continue to wait for lawmakers to decide that they may be released from what the United Nations considers psychological torture. HB 1756 would have been a step in the right direction, but the call to release people from solitary confinement should not be misunderstood as a suggestion that the general population of a prison is an acceptable standard. The conditions there, too, fall far short of the dignity due to people in our state’s custody. This is a call for just partial relief for the hundreds of people in perhaps the cruelest and darkest depths of our criminal legal system.
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Heidi Sadri is a second-year M.P.A. candidate at the University of Washington Evans School of Public Policy & Governance, where she focuses on criminal legal system policy.
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