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Bill would put limit on time prisoners can be held in solitary confinement, citing mental health impacts

UPDATED: Wed., Feb. 10, 2021

Sen. Claire Wilson introduced a bill that would restrict the amount of time a person could be held in solitary confinement.  (Maggie Quinlan)
Sen. Claire Wilson introduced a bill that would restrict the amount of time a person could be held in solitary confinement. (Maggie Quinlan)

Joseph Wolf was 16 when he was first placed in solitary confinement. It was not punishment. Instead, he said prison staff hoped to protect him from others.

His longest consecutive period in isolation was nine months, according to his testimony before a committee of state senators Tuesday. He believes that time “severely impacted” his ability to understand the world around him and directly led to his suicide attempt after his release from prison.

“Almost a decade later, that long-term isolation embedded hopelessness,” Wolf said. “We don’t want to encourage hopelessness in the people we return to our communities.”

A proposed bill would change how prisoners experience solitary confinement in Washington by putting a maximum limit on the length they could be isolated. It’s indefinite now, but under the new legislation the maximum would be 15 days.

That period lines up with the United Nations’ Nelson Mandela Rules, which lay out the minimum expectations for treatment of prisoners.

Those rules prohibit prolonged solitary confinement, defined as 15 days or longer in confinement that involves 22 hours or more per day without “meaningful human contact.”

The bill follows a year during which COVID-19 created long extensions in solitary confinement for some state prisoners.

Jonothan Delay was only supposed to be in solitary confinement for 30 days after he was suspected of sneaking drugs into Airway Heights Corrections Center.

When 30 days stretched into seven months, he led a demonstration in the Intensive Management Unit on Jan. 11, he said over the phone from Washington State Penitentiary Wednesday.

By Jan. 11, more than 70% of the prisoners at Airway Heights had tested positive for COVID at the time of the demonstration. Now, 92% have tested positive.

As staffing in the kitchen reduced with the prison’s growing COVID outbreak, Delay said men in solitary confinement saw their hot meals reduced to daily bologna sandwiches, before those were reduced to hummus sandwiches that often came late and barely filled Delay’s belly, he said.

In protest after waiting for another late meal, he and 15 other prisoners clogged their toilets to flood the floor. Corrections officers responded by shutting off the water and pepper spraying them, he said. With no running water to rinse off the spray, the prisoners waited 18 hours to be allowed out of their cells to shower, according to his account.

Delay said he doesn’t know if 15 days is a reasonable cap for prison staff to work through the process of investigating and hearing an infraction, but he said many situations that lead to solitary confinement don’t require it.

“The intent of this bill – the agency is really not opposed,” said Washington Department of Corrections Secretary Steve Sinclair, head of the agency, at the Tuesday hearing.

As proposed, Sinclair said the legislation creates a significant expense. The agency would’ve preferred, he said, for legislators to bring ideas to the DOC before moving ahead with such a bill, though others said the department had plenty of opportunity to put forth ideas.

Rachel Seevers, an attorney with Disability Rights Washington, testified that her organization’s legislative workgroup presented the bill to the Department of Corrections last year and didn’t receive suggestions in response. She called the agency a “system that relies on outside agitation to move forward.”

Sinclair said his agency has been working to reform some “restrictive policies” for a decade and has made “significant gains,” though the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 threw a wrench in some efforts. He also pointed out that solitary confinement is useful for prisoners who try to escape.

“I’m not defending maximum custody as the way to go. I’m a strong believer we have to change,” Sinclair said. “As much I appreciate the legislature’s interest in this, it’s a little late to the party because this has been a pretty big effort.”

Sen. Claire Wilson, a sponsor of the new bill, introduced legislation in 2020 that strictly reduced solitary confinement for juveniles. Wilson said legislators haven’t received proposed ideas for legislation from the DOC.

“If you put nothing out, you don’t have that conversation,” Wilson said. “Sans waiting for something to come, oftentimes this is the way to move forward.”

Joanna Carns, director of the state’s Office of the Corrections Ombuds, said although people often think of solitary confinement as a disciplinary measure, it’s actually often used for situations when prison staff “essentially doesn’t know what to do with a person.” At that point, administrative issues can lead to extensions and then more extensions, as prisoners end up isolated for months longer than originally intended.

Professor David Cloud said he supported the bill based on nearly a decade of work as a research director at Amend, a University of California San Francisco program that conducts research and provides training related to changing correctional culture.

“There’s overwhelming scientific evidence that solitary confinement is a brutal practice,” Cloud said. “It continues to haunt and traumatize people after incarceration.”

At the hearing, former prisoners described remembering every crack in the walls of their cell, losing sense of reality, suicidal feelings, and, once released from prison, feeling alien in tasks as small as opening doors.

Richard Carmichael, now 62 and released from prison 18 months ago, lived in solitary confinement for 25 years, he testified. Despite his last three years in prison outside of solitary confinement and the last 18 months as a free man, he said he hasn’t recovered. Things that used to be easy are daily or hourly challenges, he said.

“I’m barely able to function out here. I can’t even begin to tell you how much harm it causes and it never goes away,” he said.

“I’m confused a lot, I’m not able to comprehend things very well, I don’t want to be around people, I isolate myself still to this day.”

He said he has “no conversation” to offer. While other people his age have a lifetime of experiences, close to half of his existence was “completely blank.”

Eleven state senators are sponsoring the bill. All are Democrats from the West Side .

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