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Corrections looks to Norway for inspiration on reforms

February 12, 2020

By Janelle Guthrie

DOC Communications

Three individuals in front of Ila prison in Norway

Department of Corrections Mission Housing Administrator Tim Thrasher, Secretary Stephen Sinclair and Clallam Bay Corrections Center Superintendent Jeri Boe in front of Ila Prison in Norway, the national preventative detention facility for men serving Norway’s maximum penalty violent and sexual crimes. (Photo Courtesy of Jeri Boe, Clallam Bay Corrections Center)

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TUMWATER – As the rain intermittently spills from the skies in Shelton, it is a typical busy Friday morning at Washington Corrections Center. Lieutenant Dan Wistie juggles staff to transport incarcerated individuals needing medical attention to the local hospital while keeping an eye on the complicated business of transporting incarcerated individuals at the state’s correctional intake facility to and from facilities across the state.

A newly incarcerated individual comes in for a dry cell watch, meaning he is suspected to have ingested contraband drugs and requires 24/7 observation in case of an overdose. At the same time, a “John Doe” has just arrived, recently convicted of felony burglary out of San Juan County and he refuses to provide any form of identification.

The infirmary is as busy as any local emergency room on a Saturday night, with incarcerated individuals waiting for a variety of treatments from dentistry and intake physicals, to mental health assessments and other more urgent health needs.

These are just a few of the realities facing the staff working every day at the Washington State Department of Corrections.

At the same time, Corrections is shifting its mission to improve public safety by positively changing the lives of those incarcerated in its care. The Washington State Department of Corrections is one of the most progressive Corrections departments in the nation, yet leaders are constantly striving to improve.

Work with Vera

Last fall, Department of Corrections Secretary Stephen Sinclair entered into a new partnership with the Vera Institute of Justice (Vera), an independent, nonpartisan, nonprofit center for justice research, policy and practice, working to continue efforts to reduce the use of restrictive housing as part of Vera’s Safe Prisons, Safe Communities: From Isolation to Dignity and Wellness Behind Bars Initiative.

“Washington is continuing to shift its culture,” Sinclair said. “We know that this initiative will positively change the lives of those incarcerated in Washington and it will improve the well-being of the correctional staff who work here and the environment they work in. Ultimately, we’ll see better outcomes for all.”

When necessary, Washington uses restrictive housing to segregate incarcerated individuals from the general population. Corrections uses administrative segregation to temporarily remove an individual until a decision can be made about appropriate housing. Individuals who pose a significant risk to the safety and security of other people may be housed in maximum custody.

Since 2011, Corrections has implemented a number of measures to reduce and reform restrictive housing—including providing group programming in classrooms for people in restrictive housing and creating a transition pod to safely transition individuals from segregation back into general population. This work has continued through the department’s Restrictive Housing Steering Committee, led by Mission Housing Administrator Tim Thrasher.

“Our goal now is to make sure people go into restrictive housing for the right circumstances and only as long as necessary,” Thrasher said. “Our big emphasis right now is repurposing restrictive housing. Right now, we have the lowest number of individuals assigned to maximum custody we have experienced. In 2011, we had over 600 in max custody and now we are right around 265. We are ensuring that before we assign someone to max custody we are exhausting all other general population options.”

Vera worked with Washington on its previous reforms and has returned to help the department build on progress made so far. Vera’s work is rooted in the belief that jails and prisons should separate people from the general population only as a true last resort, only as a response to serious, violent behavior, for the shortest time possible, and with the least-restrictive conditions safely possible.

As Washington and Vera continue their partnership, their latest goals include:

  • A significant reduction in the total restrictive housing population (with the long-term goal of reducing it by at least 50 percent over the next four years)
  • Decreasing the amount of time people spend in restrictive housing
  • Transforming conditions in restrictive housing
  • Eliminating the of restrictive housing for particularly vulnerable populations such as people with serious mental illnesses
  • Addressing racial and ethnic disparities present in the state’s use of restrictive housing

Looking to Norway

As part of the project, Vera hosted a study trip to visit two Norwegian prisons with Sinclair, Thrasher and Clallam Bay Corrections Center Superintendent Jeri Boe Oct. 30 through Nov. 2.

Recognized as a leader in progressive incarceration, the Norway system is based on the idea that courts are for punishment and correctional facilities are for creating better neighbors. Norway’s correctional policies and practices are rooted in respect for the human dignity of incarcerated people and staff. Their primary goals focus on rehabilitation, resocialization and re-entry.

It is a concept that is particularly relevant to Washington as the Department of Corrections embraces a new mission, vision and values centered on improving public safety by positively changing lives. Given that the average length of sentence for individuals released from Washington’s correctional facilities in the last year is just shy of two years, Corrections recognizes the importance of treating individuals with respect and preparing them for crime-free futures in their communities.

Trip participants had the opportunity to learn how Norwegian facilities manage incarcerated populations, respond to behavior, and address other challenges without the widespread or extensive use of restrictive housing – or solitary confinement– as it exists in the U.S.

This was one of several trips abroad organized by Vera to help correctional leaders and other decision-makers stimulate ambitious prison reforms here in the U.S. by learning about, and seeing firsthand, the dramatically different approach to incarceration in Norway and other countries.

Next steps

The visit to Norway provided detailed lessons and gave inspiration that will contribute to the Department’s continued efforts for positive change this year.

The Department of Corrections’ Restrictive Housing Steering Committee continues to meet with staff and leadership across the department to turn the lessons learned into new restrictive housing policies that safely narrow the reasons incarcerated individuals may be placed into restricted housing.

The committee is recommending, among other things, a 30-day limit on how long an individual may remain in administrative segregation and other changes that will specifically address the needs of those with serious mental illness, neurocognitive disorders, etc. The Department is also developing plans to transform some restrictive housing units into other, non-restrictive types of housing.

Boe, superintendent at Clallam Bay Corrections Center, says these changes are welcome.

“As an officer, I worked the majority of my time in the Intensive Management Unit (IMU),” Boe said. “I expected to find those housed in IMU to be the most dangerous and some of them were. However, I found several who really could not cope with life in general population and requested to be in IMU. I have also seen mental health struggles and those who had the revolving door, constantly in and out.

“Over the years, I have seen the positive impacts that have been made by the department regarding restrictive housing,” she said. “When I was an officer, it wasn’t unusual for someone to spend upwards of a year in IMU and I know what that can do to someone. I am very supportive of the changes we, as a department, are making.”

Representatives from Vera joined the Prisons Division's superintendents February 2020 meeting and will continue to support the reform work through the end of September.

* Editor’s note: Watch for a future story about Corrections’ work with Amend, a University of California San Francisco program that offers an international exchange, officer training, and technical assistance intervention to adapt practices from the Norwegian Correctional Service for implementation in the United States.