Isolating prisoners less common in Washington than most places
Darrell Massey was in and out of solitary confinement during the first 10 years of his sentence for a gang-related killing on Tacoma’s Hilltop in 1989.
He’s not interested in going back to that while he finishes the last five years of his sentence in the general population at Stafford Creek prison near Aberdeen, and the Department of Corrections has no interest in sending him there.
“You have to really like yourself to be able to survive out there in (segregation),” said Massey, who was convicted of first-degree murder for his role in the death of 17-year-old Brenda Harris. “You’re definitely going to get to know yourself in there.”
Minimizing the use of segregation in prison has become the goal of corrections officials in a handful of states, with supporters saying the reduction is healthier for prisoners and cheaper for prison systems with dwindling budgets.
Washington has long had a low rate of prisoners in segregation – about 2.7 percent of Washington’s roughly 17,800 prisoners are housed in what the state calls intensive management units. But lately it has been garnering recognition for the innovative ways it works to keep those numbers down.
In a report last fall, the Vera Institute of Justice commended the state’s use of alternatives to avoid sending inmates to isolation – which include restricting privileges and confining an inmate to his or her cell instead of removing them from the general population entirely.
“The states that are involved now are really pioneers in these efforts,” said Angela Browne, who leads the Segregation Reduction Project for the Vera Institute. “It’s only been in the last few years that states have started to work on this. … Washington is one of those pioneer states.”
In some states, litigation has forced prison systems to review their use of isolation. In Washington, reforms to solitary confinement have their roots in changes prison officials began making voluntarily 15 years ago to quell conflicts between inmates and guards at the Shelton prison’s segregation unit.
Department of Corrections officials say they have become increasingly careful about reviewing who gets sent to solitary and have worked to improve the process of transitioning inmates out of segregation. That’s allowed them to close down some intensive management units and better prepare prisoners for release into the community.
SOLITARY GROWS UP
Massey, 42, has done three stints in segregation, the longest being 16 months for a group gang fight, he said.
He says he felt pressure back then to join that isn’t an issue now that he’s put in his time, making him the “old man in prison.” It’s been more than 10 years since the last time he was in solitary.
“I grew up,” he said.
Washington’s segregation system grew up with him; changes that started at the Washington Corrections Center in Shelton and spread throughout the state have made intensive management units more livable for both inmates and staff, officials say.
In prisons director Dan Pacholke’s 30 years with the Department of Corrections, one constant has been the goal to minimize the use of segregation, he said.
“Overall, we’ve always had a kind of philosophy around not overbuilding at the maximum security” level, Pacholke said.
But Washington’s methods toward that end have evolved, according to researcher David Lovell, who studied the system from 1994 to 2011 as part of a team of University of Washington faculty contracted to assist the department with prison management.
“A lot of things that people said were impossible and could never happen when we began studying these things in the late ’90s are now standard practice,” Lovell said.
It was in the 1990s when turmoil at the Shelton prison prompted officials to rethink how to manage problem prisoners. Offenders were damaging their cells and flinging feces and urine at staff, creating potentially volatile conditions, said Scott Frakes, the state’s intensive management unit administrator.
“The staff were certainly not always professional under those circumstances,” Frakes added. “… Staff day in and day out were faced with that sort of assaultive, abusive behavior.”
The prison’s then-administrator started “asking the question pretty loudly: ‘Is there not some things that we could do differently to make our intensive management units safer for staff and … healthier for the offenders?’” Frakes said.
Officials began focusing on building relationships with the inmates. Guards made walk-arounds of the intensive management units, asking inmates how they were doing.
“It was just as simple as taking the time to stand in front of the cell front … and listen to their concerns,” Frakes said.
Today the relationship between staff and offenders is more civil, he said. “… The evolution has been very rewarding to watch and to be a part of.”
The Shelton prison also pioneered a more gradual transition for inmates coming out of segregation, Lovell said. About 12 or 13 years ago, the prison began slowly giving inmates more freedom and group activity prior to release back into the general prison population.
Lovell said that provided a solution to one issue with segregation. If “you put them in a place where they physically are unable to hurt anyone else, you also are putting them in a place where you can’t observe their behavior; there’s no way of testing how they would be in the presence of others,” he said.
The Department of Corrections continues to look for ways to increase group activity in solitary. Officials recently ordered a set of chairs for the Walla Walla prison that restrain inmates while still allowing them to write – which Frakes said would be useful to create classroom settings.
Some prisoners in Washington’s maximum security units are there for their own protection, such as if they might be targeted by other inmates in a facility’s general population.
Deputy prison director Pacholke said they try to meet with protective custody prisoners individually and to reintroduce them into another facility. But they’re also looking to improve that reintegration, he said.
Massey said gradual transition is important, especially to keep inmates from being released straight from segregation to life outside of prison – a social shock he said no one should go through.
“I would be angry as hell if I was being released from the hole,” he said.
Prison officials also worry about the public safety risks posed by offenders fresh out of isolation. Corrections spokesman Chad Lewis said inmates are still occasionally released to the community directly from solitary, but the Department of Corrections has reduced the frequency.
One program at the Clallam Bay prison has been especially effective in keeping chronic violators of prison-safety rules out of solitary.
It’s called the Intensive Transition Program, and about 80 percent of inmates who graduate from it stay out of segregation afterward – compared to 50 percent of most intensive management prisoners, according to the Department of Corrections. The department doubled the program’s capacity last year.
It uses gradual transition back to group activity to get prisoners back into the general population. Each phase is color coded and gives inmates increased freedom after they complete different programs and meet requirements, such as for behavior and hygiene.
Inmates also can earn GEDs as part of the program.
“With each phase they get a little bit more responsibility for their own conduct,” researcher Lovell said, adding that staff also work to place inmates close to family and to connect them with prison jobs after the program.
Limiting segregation makes fiscal sense for prisons.
When Massey was in solitary confinement, he had one hour each day to shower, exercise and use the phone. The rest of the day was spent in his cell.
That level of security involves handcuffs and two escorts every time an offender is moved.
The Department of Corrections can’t provide an exact cost of Washington’s segregation units because budgets are broken down by prison instead of level of custody.
But it’s safe to say that costs increase as a prisoner has less freedom. At Clallam Bay – a higher custody prison than most – the average daily cost is $104 per prisoner, compared to a systemwide average cost of $90 per prisoner.
“Certainly maximum custody is the most expensive custody you’re going to operate,” Pacholke said.
Washington eliminated an intensive-management unit when it closed its McNeil Island prison last year a decision prompted by tightened state funding.
Because of the state’s work to carefully review who goes to solitary, as well as to gradually transition offenders out, the Department of Corrections didn’t need to replace those beds, spokesman Lewis said.
Solitary is probably the farthest thing from Massey’s mind now. He has his eyes on release. He had a third of his sentence knocked off for good behavior, has taken a class in psychology and speaks to youth programs and visiting legislators.
He likes being at Stafford Creek, because it’s closer to his children, a 16-year-old daughter in Lacey and a 12-year-old son in Tacoma, where his current wife lives.
His kids, who were born while he was serving his sentence, have been a driving force to stay out of segregation. He saw them only through glass during no-contact visits while he was in isolation. Now they’re able to visit several times a month, he says.
“I’m proud of the things I did here,” Massey said. “… I’m not prepared for (solitary) no more. I’m real fearful of ever losing my (current level of) custody. … It’s designed to be the ultimate punishment, and it is.”
Browne, of the Vera Institute, expects more states to follow Washington’s example.
“As states take steps to reduce their use of segregation, and then find that they can do that safely, I expect this trend to grow,” she said.