Years of recurring budget shortfalls for the state of Washington have led to a rehabilitation of government spending, with an increased focus on efficiency and effectiveness.
The state corrections budget is a prime example. Wardens used to routinely lock prisoners into solitary confinement as a form of punishment. Not anymore. With steady budget cutbacks, the prison system has been forced to examine whether that decision makes sense. Research has shown that it doesn’t, and some courts are ruling that such confinement without a rational purpose amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.
It’s one thing to isolate prisoners because they are an immediate danger to guards and other prisoners. It’s quite another to use that as a form of punishment when there are other options. That’s just counterproductive, because most prisoners will be released one day, and those who dwelled in solitary confinement are apt to become more dangerous. Plus, in the short term, it costs three times as much to segregate them.
More access to mental illness treatment will help limit the use of solitary in the long term. But in the meantime, corrections officials still need to cope.
In recent years, the state corrections system has cut spending by $300 million, and eliminated 1,500 positions. Officials have had to become much smarter in managing budgets while ensuring public safety. To do that, they’ve turned to research.
University of Washington professor David Lovell found that 45 percent of prisoners locked up in solitary confinement were affiliated with gangs, and either mentally ill or victims of brain injuries, according to a Seattle Times article. Being alone for 23 hours a day increased the chances they would suffer a breakdown. Some became angrier. Some became sicker. Upon being released, many returned to solitary after assaulting a fellow prisoner or guard. Perpetuating this cycle is worse than flushing money down the drain, because about one-fourth of solitary inmates are released to the streets.
In addition, federal courts are taking a dim view of the practice. Indiana is scrambling after a federal court recently determined that its practice of isolating mentally ill prisoners is cruel and unusual punishment. At least 11 inmates have committed suicide while locked in cells no larger than a closet.
However, research also shows that the damage from confinement isn’t necessarily permanent, so Washington has begun an intensive transition program that serves as a decompression chamber for the mind. Inmates are given coursework on general morality and how to act inside and outside prison. If they attend, they are rewarded with more family visits and other privileges. Since the program has been in place at Clallam Bay Corrections Center, the return rate to solitary confinement had dropped considerably.
Experts point to programs like this was the wave of the future. Financial pressures are one reason. Another is the realization that sometimes being “tough on crime” means being stupid with public safety.