Solitary confinement goes by many names, including restricted housing, maximum custody, special housing and isolation. Whatever the bureaucratic categorization, solitary confinement is characterized by imprisonment in a cell for 22 or 23 hours a day, restricted opportunities for recreation, social interaction and sensory deprivation. Solitary confinement is widely recognized to cause significant and often long-lasting psychological harm to many of those who experience it, particularly people with mental illness.
The Washington state Department of Corrections’ recent announcement that it will end the use of disciplinary segregation addresses only a fraction of the people in solitary confinement and leaves hundreds in conditions that the international community has deemed torture. The vast majority of people in solitary confinement are in administrative segregation, awaiting a hearing or investigation, not in disciplinary segregation. Under the DOC’s new changes, people in administrative segregation can no longer be sentenced to solitary confinement as punishment after a hearing, but the change does nothing to address the fact that most of these people have already spent an extended period in those same barbaric conditions.
The DOC claims it is committed to ending long-term solitary; reports and data prove otherwise. The Vera Institute, a national body the DOC contracted with to help reduce its solitary population, issued a report that shows as of September 2020 people spent on average almost 29 days in administrative segregation, with many staying well past that amount. The situation has not improved. In August the Office of the Corrections Ombuds issued a report on administrative segregation. Its report found that many people remained there for well over 100 days. Following the report, the Ombuds office recommended that the DOC draw a hard line at 30 days in administrative segregation. The DOC refused.
While administrative segregation represents by far the greatest number of people in solitary — almost 500 people as of July 2021 — it is not the only form of solitary confinement. Approximately 220 people are currently in maximum custody, which is often indefinite, long-term solitary; 157 of them have been there for more than 500 days, some for a decade or more. Dozens of those people have a serious mental illness, and self-harm and suicide rates are both far higher in solitary than in the general population.
Advocates have been pushing for the DOC to end the use of solitary confinement for more than a decade. If the DOC recognizes solitary confinement is harmful to people, they should abolish all solitary, not just a fraction of it. And if the Department of Corrections wants to rely on data to guide its practices, then all data should be considered, not just what the DOC cherry picks to thwart true change.
The Washington State Board of Health issued a Health Impact Statement on the use of solitary confinement in Washington and found unequivocally that it is detrimental to the health of incarcerated people. This finding was in line with years of scholarly research on the issue, and not surprising to advocates, incarcerated people and their loved ones. The Board of Health also cited research finding that the use of solitary confinement does not reduce violence or staff assaults in prisons, something that even the DOC’s data demonstrates.
To truly employ evidence-based practices, the DOC should abolish long-term solitary confinement entirely. Last year, a bill was introduced in the Legislature that would have done just that; the DOC did not support it. Passing that legislation, SB 5413/ HB 1312, would ban long-term solitary and prohibit its use entirely against vulnerable populations, including people with mental illness. We demand real reform from our leaders, not smoke and mirrors, and the DOC should make good on its stated commitment to end this tortuous practice by banning solitary confinement in every form.