Earnest Collins says he's open to change after fights twice landed him in the Intensive Management Unit at Clallam Bay. "If you're not mentally strong, it'll drive you crazy," he said. Photo by MCT
Being alone in your own head 23 hours a day in a
48-square-foot poured-concrete cell makes the mad madder and
the bad even worse, inmates say.
"One guy told me he had, like, 15 faces on tissue paper, and
he had names on them," said inmate Michael Richards, who
spent about seven of the last 11 years in solitary
confinement at Clallam Bay Corrections Centre.
"He'd say, ‘Hey Bob, good morning.' He'd talk to them through
the day, just to keep that contact, because he couldn't talk
to anyone else."
For centuries, solitary confinement has been the big stick of
prisons, the harshest means to deter rule-breaking.
But the benefits are being reconsidered, and Washington state
is at the forefront of a national re-examination. Instead of
facing nothing but forced solitude, Washington inmates in
solitary units - called Intensive Management Units, or IMUs -
are increasingly being let out for hours to attend classes,
see counsellors or hit the gym.
It is a clear move to the left in prison management, but one
that Washington prison managers say is rooted in data.
More emphasis on rehabilitation appears to calm behaviour in
the prison, and cuts violent recidivism on the streets,
experts say. It is also a cost-saver: Solitary confinement
costs about three times as much as keeping a prisoner in
At Walla Walla, hard-core gang members assigned to isolation
units are chained to classroom desks for nine hours a week.
At the Monroe Correctional Complex, a special unit for
inmates with mental illness and traumatic brain injuries -
who often end up in solitary confinement - is in the works.
At Clallam Bay, once the so-called gladiator ground of the
state prison system, the new approach has slowed a revolving
door of hardened inmates who returned, again and again, to
"Now that we've got it up and running, to look at it through
the rear-view mirror, we wonder why didn't we do this 10
years ago," said Assistant Secretary Dan Pacholke, a 30-year
Department of Corrections (DOC) veteran.
Solitary confinement's history is a pendulum swing between
concepts of punishment and rehabilitation. It was pioneered
in the early 1800s so inmates, alone with just a Bible, could
repent. It fell out of favour when the U.S. Supreme Court in
1890 found inmates, unreformed, instead grew "violently
insane" or suicidal.
It returned to wider use in the 1990s as states, drifting
from rehabilitation, built "supermax" prisons; by 2005, 40
states had at least 25,000 prisoners on lockdown 23 hours a
A series of recent lawsuits, alleging the practice violates
the Constitution's Eighth Amendment prohibiting cruel and
unusual punishment, led to court orders curtailing its use.
Washington avoided such lawsuits but began reconsidering
solitary after violent clashes in IMU units at Shelton in the
mid-1990s. About 400 of the state's 17,500 inmates are in
such units, which also house death-row prisoners and those in
University of Washington professor David Lovell studied
solitary confinement in the state under a DOC contract, and
found the isolated inmates were most often gang members
serving long sentences for violent crimes. Up to 45 percent
were mentally ill or had traumatic brain injuries.
And once in solitary, they stayed in - for nearly a year, on
average - because prison staff were reluctant to send likely
violent inmates back into the general population.
Those who were released often returned, after committing new
assaults on corrections officers or other inmates.
Most disturbing, Lovell found a quarter of inmates were
released to the streets directly from solitary confinement.
Unaccustomed to human contact, they were more prone to
quickly commit new violence.
Roy Marchand, serving 10 years for manslaughter, did 27
months in isolation, but lasted just 30 days before getting
into a fight and going right back.
"The minute you think it's disrespect time or what not, it's
time to jump, because usually the one who jumps first gets on
top," he said.
Path out of isolation
Life in solitary is spare: no personal effects except what
can be posted within a 12- by 18-inch space on the wall;
meals slid through a door; and one hour a day for showering
or for exercise in a small, walled yard, with two officers in
At Clallam Bay, the path out of isolation runs through the
colour-coded tiers of the Intensive Transition Programme
(ITP), housed since 2006 in a unit originally built for
About 30 inmates, all volunteers, agree to a nine-month
programme stocked with coursework such as "moral recognition
therapy" and "self-repair," gradually earning more freedoms.
"Someone needs to say, ‘I want this,' " said IMU supervisor
Steve Blakeman, bald and weathered, a corrections officer out
of central casting. "The novelty of living in a box has worn
Isolation has a purpose, Blakeman said, comparing it to the
"adult version of having to stand in the corner."
But Lovell's data - especially on the recidivism for those
released directly to the street - was important, Blakeman
"These are the guys who are going to be in the grocery store
line next to your daughter one day," he said. "This is an
ethic and legal responsibility we have to the community."
The four-step programme starts in an unusual classroom: a row
of steel cages, inmates chained to floor-mounted chain hooks
beneath metal desks.
Earnest Collins, a 24-year-old serving a life sentence for
murdering a SeaTac cabdriver, volunteered after two fights
earned him trips to solitary.
The programme, he acknowledged, also would allow him more
visits with his toddler-aged son. Family visits are highly
restricted while an inmate is in isolation.
Collins insists he is "open" to change, reading, at
Blakeman's suggestion, "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective
"I wish life were like ‘The Butterfly Effect,' " said
Collins, recalling a 2004 movie about a man using
supernatural power to alter past events. "I wish I could go
Before the program started, inmates released from isolation
returned more than 50 percent of the time. Since then, 131
inmates have graduated; 107 have not returned.
"It works because it's rational for someone to choose to live
in a way that doesn't have them locked in a hole," said
Lovell. "If you give them the choice, it's a rational
decision to make."
'A safe harbour'
In prison lingo, they are called "dings" - inmates suffering
psychotic episodes, banging on sinks, smearing feces on
themselves and their walls, shouting in their solo cells.
Inmates with mental illness have historically clustered in
isolation units, sometimes because of their behavior,
sometimes voluntarily checking into protective custody.
Clallam Bay's ITP has two staff psychologists, one of the
biggest added costs.
Pacholke, the assistant DOC secretary, said the planned
isolation unit at Monroe for inmates with mental illness or
traumatic brain injuries will include group mental-health
care, a result of work with disability advocates.
"You want to somewhat create a safe harbour," he said.
Angela Browne of the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonpartisan
think tank, said Washington is on the edge of a national wave
that is causing prison systems to rethink solitary
Financial pressures from the recession have contributed,
because such units are so expensive. "And there's a
willingness to not just say, ‘Punish punish punish, they
deserve it,' " she said.
It's a complicated shift for a prison.
Richards, the Clallam Bay inmate, had already graduated from
ITP when he was interviewed by The Seattle Times last summer.
He'd been a member of the Surenos gang. A tattoo across his
neck reads, "Test Your Fate."
He said he'd also graduated from seven anger-management
classes "but had little to show for it," and was set to be
released this summer, after serving 15 years for residential
burglaries. So he said he bought into the ITP's behavioural
"I put my heart into it," he said. "No one expects me to gang
bang. Everybody respects that I'm out of the crap, out of the
In November, he went back into solitary confinement, pending
an investigation into gang activity.