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Eye On Boise

Idaho state prisons drop all use of ‘dry cells’ to isolate inmates

The Idaho Department of Correction announced today that it has discontinued all use of so-called “dry cells” for inmate isolation, which lack all furnishings including a mattress, sink or toilet and have only a flushable floor drain for human waste. Use of the cells has drawn attention in a long-running lawsuit over prison conditions; IDOC said it used the cells to isolate inmates who were at risk of hurting themselves or others.

Critics of the practice say it can exacerbate inmates’ mental health problems and even cause long-term psychological damage to inmates who previously didn’t suffer from mental health issues. “Research is showing us that in many cases segregation doesn’t work and is causing more harm than good,” said state prisons Director Kevin Kempf. “Knowing that 97 percent of all inmates will one day walk out of prisons and into our neighborhoods tells me we shouldn’t be adding to their risk of committing more crimes but rather doing everything we can to reduce this risk.”

“To some degree there will always be a need to temporarily isolate some inmates so they don’t hurt themselves or others, but we must not go overboard,” Kempf said. “We need to make sure we’re isolating the right inmate for the right period of time and under the right conditions.”

Kempf announced the ban on dry cells as part of a wide-ranging review of all of the department’s restrictive-housing practices. He said the goal of the review is to establish practices that keep the public and correctional staff safe while creating an environment that helps offenders turn around their lives.

Kempf also announced that later this month, senior leaders from the department will attend a 40-hour training program at the National Institute of Corrections on management of restrictive-housing inmates and how to reintegrate them back into a prison’s general population.

UPDATE: AP reporter Rebecca Boone has a full report here, and reports that Idaho has a total of 11 dry cells at the Idaho State Correctional Institution and the Idaho Maximum Security Institution near Boise. St. Anthony work camp has a dry cell with a bed that was mainly used for holding inmates for short periods of time while they waited to be taken to another facility, and there may be a few more at other prisons in the state. Kempf said none of the cells would be used until they are retrofitted with beds, sinks, toilets and water.

Betsy Z. Russell
Betsy Z. Russell joined The Spokesman-Review in 1991. She currently is a reporter in the Boise Bureau covering Idaho state government and politics, and other news from Idaho's state capital.

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