Solitary Confinement in WA DOC

In a letter dated December 5, 2019, WA DOC Deputy Prisons Director Scott Russell stated the following:

“…the Washington State DOC does not use ‘solitary confinement’ or ‘isolation’ in any form. As you noted, and thank you for doing so, the department is currently partnered with the Vera Institute for a project to reform the use of ‘Restrictive Housing’ in the Washington DOC system. This project is sure to positively change some of the current practices that Washington DOC uses administrative segregation [sic] and we look forward to the recommendations that come from that partnership.”

Russell is correct in one sense. WA DOC’s solitary confinement Intensive Management Units are technically buildings that, depending on the local prison facility, house over a hundred people at a time, and prison staff do interact with prisoners through slits in cell doors and by escorting cuffed prisoners from cells to showers or “outdoor recreation” areas (concrete walled spaces, often not much larger than a cell, that may have an open-air window, vent, or ceiling and some pull-up bars). In that sense, WA DOC IMU prisoners are not “isolated.” But each prisoner in an IMU building is most certainly isolated from other prisoners, and from any meaningful human contact, in a dismal concrete one-man cell. The cell is large enough to take five paces and then turn, approximately eleven by eight feet. Each cell has a toilet, a sink, a shelf, and a concrete slab with a Correctional Industries foam pad for a “mattress.” At night, sleep is constantly interrupted by tier checks every half hour—the slamming of heavy metal doors and the sound of correctional officers’ combat boots pounding down the hallways. Prisoners also fear falling asleep, for if they are not standing in just the right place at their door at the time the meal cart rolls by or when staff come at odd hours of the night to offer various services or access to showers and exercise, then the prisoners have no opportunity until many hours or days later. When prisoners are taken out of the cell for showers, they are required—while in handcuffs and leg irons—to walk backwards out of the cell like livestock being backed out of a trailer, and are not allowed to turn their head or look down while doing so, even when being asked to step over a metal lip at the bottom of the solitary cell door frame. Sounds pretty isolating.

When Deputy Director Russell was subsequently asked how WA DOC defines the terms “isolation” and “solitary confinement”, since he was asserting in his letter that WA DOC does not use these practices, he wrote the following response in a December 19, 2019 email:

“In following up to your questions regarding how we define isolation and/or solitary confinement. DOC uses ‘restrictive housing’ and ‘Administrative Segregation’ as our means to manage certain individuals and circumstances. 

Restrictive Housing: Restrictive housing is housing for individuals whose continued presence in general population would pose a serious threat to employees/contract staff, themselves, other individuals, or to the security of a correctional facility. Restrictive housing includes Administrative Segregation

(Ad Seg.), pre-hearing confinement, disciplinary segregation, Maximum (MAX) custody, and close observation. Restrictive Housing will operate in compliance with Department-established policies and guidelines. 

Administrative Segregation: The purpose of Administrative Segregation (Ad Seg.) is to temporarily remove an individual from general population until a timely and informed decision can be made about appropriate housing based on his/her/their behavior. Procedures governing Ad Seg. Of individuals in Prisons will comply with WAC 137-32

An individual may be asigned to Ad Seg. When he/she/they:

A.      Poses a threat to self, employees, contract staff, volunteers, other individuals, property, or the orderly operation of the facility.

B.      Requests protection or is deemed by employees/contract staff to require protection.

C.      Is pending transfer or is in transit to another facility,  more secure facility

D.      Poses a serious escape risk.

E.       Is pending investigation.

Additionally, WAC 137.028 [sic; see WAC 137-28] still identifies ‘solitary confinement’ as a permitable [sic] serious infraction sanction. DOC has removed the possiility [sic] of this sanction being utilized from policy langauge [sic].

Did you hear that, Hundreds of WA DOC IMU Prisoners?! WA DOC has removed the possibility of solitary confinement being used as a sanction for serious infractions! But they will still slam you in the hole for 23 hours a day for even things that wouldn’t lead most people to put a dog in a crate. They’re just putting lipstick on it now and calling it “restrictive housing.” (And let’s not forget that WA DOC writes its own WACs.)

This email was at least a helpful overview of some WA DOC jargon and processes relating to solitary confinement, but Deputy Director Russell seems to be engaging in the sort of evasive answering of direct questions that we might be accustomed to seeing in televised political debates. Whether Deputy Director Russell wants to call these practices “restrictive housing,” “administrative segregation,” or “Happy Time With Obligatory Level Management Program Packets” (see PDF pg. 14, document pg. 13), the practice entails keeping individual prisoners isolated in a small cell for 23 hours a day with no meaningful human interaction, and with sadistic barriers imposed to obtaining reading materials, adequate nutrition, adequate hygiene products, etc.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur of the Human Rights Council Juan E.
has this to say about the definition of solitary confinement (August 2011):
“For the purposes of this report, the Special Rapporteur defines solitary confinement as the physical and social isolation of individuals who are confined to their cells for 22 to 24 hours a day. Of particular concern to the Special Rapporteur is prolonged solitary confinement, which he defines as any period of solitary confinement in excess of 15 days… …Meaningful contact with other people is typically reduced to a minimum. The reduction in stimuli is not only quantitative but also qualitative. The available stimuli and the occasional social contacts are seldom freely chosen, generally monotonous, and often not empathetic.”

On February 6, 2019, Washington State Representative Strom Peterson convened a multi-stakeholder solitary confinement working group, which has yet to meet a second time. Attendee notes for that initial meeting can be found here.

On October 1, 2019 WA DOC sent a list of updates to the Washington State Governor’s office on its progress with the Vera Institute.

In March 2020, the following exchange occurred between families of WA DOC prisoners and WA DOC concerning WA DOC’s exclusion of the Statewide Family Council from its collaborative work with the Vera Institute on solitary confinement reform:

See also:

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