WALLA WALLA – Six inmates, each shackled and chained to a chair, face the front of a room at the Washington State Penitentiary as two instructors guide them through conversations about managing anger and avoiding confrontation.
Rival gang members – Nortenos and Surenos, Bloods and Crips, white supremacists – all brought together to discuss ways to stay out of trouble, both in prison and when they get out.
The inmates are part of a new program aimed at easing violence in some of the most dangerous units inside the penitentiary, reducing the number of prisoners in solitary confinement and making them less likely to reoffend.
And they’re leaning on one another through the process.
“The guys who used to be your enemies are now your friends,” said Anthony Brennan, a 30-year-old member of the Surenos gang from Centralia serving time for assault.
About 400 prisoners currently sit in solitary confinement at the prison in Walla Walla. They represent a small percentage of the state’s total prison population of some 18,000 inmates, but they are three times more likely to be affiliated with gangs or suffer from mental illnesses. They also pose the greatest risk to the safety of other inmates and staff. They also take up a significant portion of the prison budget because solitary confinement is more costly than general population.
A 2011 study by the Vera Institute of Justice, an independent, nonprofit research and policy group focused on improving justice systems, found that while Washington’s prisons were clean, orderly and quiet, they offered few educational opportunities and programs for isolated prisoners.
In addition, the study concluded that prisoners in segregation units had few chances to interact socially, exacerbating mental health problems and poor behaviors when they are abruptly transitioned back to the general population.
Those concerns are heightened when solitary inmates are released to the street. Washington prisons last year released 60 inmates who had completed their sentences from solitary confinement to the public with no community supervision.
“We realized we needed to do more,” Corrections Secretary Bernie Warner said. “We have two responsibilities. One is to run safe prisons in the community, but we also need to provide opportunities to break the cycle of criminal behavior.”
Prison officials are working to improve mental health care at several facilities, and have asked for $2 million in additional funding in the next state budget for that purpose.
They also developed the pilot program where a half-dozen inmates at a time gather for classes on such issues as communication skills in hopes of working their way out of isolation.
Solitary confinement generally means 23 hours each day alone in a small cell, with one hour in a recreation area or outside, also alone.
Wayne Royse coordinates the voluntary anti-violence program, which could be expanded to other prisons if successful. A third-generation prison worker, Royse has been at the prison for 17 years, first as a guard, then as a counselor.
Back in the day, inmates just got locked up with basic needs met, he said. Then, the prison would release them and forget about them – until they returned.
“If you take an individual and you warehouse him for 20 years, you’ve taught him nothing. Actually, you’ve created a better criminal,” he said.
And given that only a scant 3 percent of Washington’s inmates are expected to spend the rest of their lives in prison, more time must be devoted to teaching inmates social skills, basic health and financial management so they are better equipped to live in the community, in “all our neighborhoods,” he said.
Among the inmates in the program is Donald Button, who is serving time for bank robbery. This is Button’s third stretch behind bars, and he has spent much of his time in solitary confinement.
Long a leader of the Aryan Brotherhood in Washington’s prison system, Button led prison fights, assaulted other inmates and, most recently, had five years added to his sentence for plotting to kill a corrections officer.
He joined the program, he said, with hopes of returning to the general prison population and building a law-abiding life.
“Hopefully, I’ll get out of solitary, eventually,” he said. “This is a step toward that.”
Prison officials may find out quickly whether the program is having results.
Micah Nelson, the youngest member of the group at 21 years old, has been transferred to a lower-security facility in Spokane in preparation for his release from prison in July. He was convicted of residential burglary and trafficking in stolen property.
“This is my first time in prison,” he said, “and my last.”