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Washington Corrections Continues Restrictive Housing Reforms

October 28, 2020

By Rachel Friederich

DOC Communications

The Washington State Department of Corrections reduced the number of people in administrative segregation (pdf), one of two types of the department’s restrictive housing measures, by approximately 10 percent during the first half of calendar year 2020—despite the challenges of responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s one of the outcomes of an ongoing partnership with the Vera Institute of Justice. The partnership, known as Safe Prisons, Safe Communities: From Isolation to Dignity and Wellness Behind Bars, aims to reduce the department’s use of restrictive housing by finding safer and more effective alternatives. Safe Prisons, Safe Communities launched in May 2019.

The leader of Washington’s state correctional system, Secretary Stephen Sinclair, wants to continue reevaluating the practice of restrictive housing, which has drawn criticism in recent years from civil rights organizations, policymakers, the media and even correctional leaders. By implementing changes to restrictive housing, Sinclair believes correctional departments around the nation can find safer and more effective alternatives.

Historical Use of Restrictive Housing

Since the 1980s, correctional systems have heavily relied on restrictive housing, (also known as segregation, isolation or solitary confinement). It was intended as a way to manage people who commit violence while incarcerated by restricting their movement and privileges.

However in recent years, a growing body of research, highlighted in several reports (such as the 2018 Southern Poverty Law Center’s report on solitary confinement (pdf)), has found excessive use of restrictive housing can harm the physical and mental health of people held in such conditions. The research also found these detrimental effects can persist even after release. It can also create more obstacles for incarcerated people as they prepare to re-enter the community, since time in restrictive housing limits access to programs, re-entry preparation, and positive social interaction.

“There’s a growing understanding in corrections that many departments rely far too much on the use of restrictive housing,” said Elena Vanko, a senior program associate at Vera who leads the partnership with Washington. “All too often it is being used as a ‘catch-all’ to respond to even minor, non-violent disciplinary infractions. While it’s intended to safely manage people who have committed violence within prisons, research is actually showing no conclusive evidence that using restrictive housing achieves its goals of making facilities safer. So if it doesn’t work and it’s harmful, it makes sense to change course.”

Changes in Washington Correctional Facilities

Washington Corrections believes that partnering with Vera will help the department continue to make strides in restrictive housing reform, a focus of the department’s since a previous partnership with Vera in 2011.

Vera has worked with correctional departments across America to help make changes to reduce restrictive housing. The current partnership with Washington has several goals, including eliminating the use of restrictive housing for vulnerable individuals, especially those with serious mental illness, improving living conditions and significantly reducing the length of overall time people spend in such housing.

The Washington State Department of Corrections has pro-actively integrated some of these changes. For example, the department has made revisions to its restrictive housing policies, including narrowing the reasons people can be placed there: only people who pose a significant risk to the safety of others can be sent to restrictive housing. Non-violent behavior, such as horseplay, tattooing, and failing a urinary analysis test are not automatically considered a risk that merits restrictive housing, and are instead addressed through alternative disciplinary sanctions. The department has also added protocols for those who have significant mental health disorders, including an increased emphasis on finding appropriate housing for individuals within the general population.

The maximum period a person can spend in administrative segregation has also been reduced, from 47 days to 30, and the department continues to emphasize to staff that individuals should be released from restrictive housing as soon as safely possible. Additionally, individuals in administrative segregation may now receive visits from approved visitors.

The department has also made changes to maximum custody, the department’s most restrictive custody level. The department has reduced the number of levels a person in maximum custody must progress through from four to three, to help people transition back to the general population faster. It also modified policy to allow visits with anyone on an individual’s approved visitation list, rather than just immediate family members. (Editor’s note: Visitations at all facilities have been temporarily suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the visits for those in restrictive housing will be allowed when regular visitations resume.)

This isn’t the first time Washington Corrections has worked with Vera. After the partnership in 2011-2012 analyzed the agency’s use of restrictive housing and made recommendations for change, the department began implementing reforms. Changes included creating group classrooms to safely provide programming to people in maximum custody, eliminating the use of solitary confinement as a method to protecting incarcerated people from self-harm, and partnering with Disability Rights Washington to seek guidance from an external consultant on restrictive housing practices for those with mental health concerns.

Continued Work Despite COVID-19 Delays

The partnership with Vera initially scheduled to conclude in September 2020, has been extended through December 31, 2020, as demands of responding to the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily slowed the reform work.

Analysis of correctional data by Vera researchers shows the department not only avoided a significant increase in the overall use of restrictive housing during the pandemic, it has also continued to make progress toward some of the partnership’s goals for reform. The progress includes the decreased population in administrative segregation, as well as an overall decline in the length of time spent in restrictive housing.

The department’s years of restrictive housing reform have also contributed to its COVID-19 response. Washington Corrections has drawn on strategies that can be used to make restrictive housing units less isolating and punitive to make conditions during medically-necessary isolation more humane. This includes providing people in medical isolation with more amenities, such as televisions, quarterly food packages, commissary and phone access, and personal property allowances, as well as ensuring regular wellness and mental health checks.

Looking Ahead

While continuing to address the pandemic, Washington Corrections remains committed to further reforms—during the rest of the partnership and beyond—to reduce the use of restrictive housing and transform the conditions of confinement for people who are separated from the general population.

“Washington state takes an innovative and forward-thinking approach to correctional practices,” said Secretary Stephen Sinclair. “There are various ways to introduce new concepts and alternatives to isolation. We need to remember why we’re in this business—to improve public safety by positively changing lives.”