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Restrictive Housing

About

The Washington State Department of Corrections (DOC) has a long history of leading prison reforms, including use of restrictive housing (RH) in its prison facilities. Over the last several years, the department has implemented improvements that significantly reduce the use of restrictive housing, improve conditions within restrictive housing, and that increase out-of-cell time for individuals housed in segregated environments. The department has also collaborated with stakeholder groups including Disability Rights Washington (DRW) and the Vera Institute of Justice (Vera), and in 2019 the department partnered with Vera to further reform and reduce the use of restrictive housing. These improvements reflect the DOC’s commitment to improving both safety and health of incarcerated individuals, through effective collaboration, transparency, and strategic resource allocation.

This information summarizes our history of restrictive housing reform, highlight policy and process improvements, and describe our progress towards our goals. The department remains committed to identifying and implementing safe and effective strategies that improve conditions within our facilities, and that decrease the use of restrictive housing.

Highlights:

  • DOC reduced maximum custody population by over 50% between 2012 and 2021
  • Initiative in partnership with the Vera launched in 2011 and again in 2018
  • Partnership in 2015 with DRW for Dr. Jeffrey Metzner for consultation of RH
  • Partnership with University of California Irvine 2016
  • Reforms Implemented:
    • Policy Adjustments
    • Training for all staff who work in Restrictive Housing
    • Repurposing of restrictive housing beds into lower custody beds
    • Working with national experts/organizations concerning process improvements

Past restrictive housing efforts (pdf) and initiatives moving forward (pdf) can be reviewed.

Background: A History of Change

Restrictive housing is the practice of housing some incarcerated persons separately from the general prison population, resulting in restrictions on their movement, behavior, and privileges. In DOC, there are two types of restrictive housing: Administrative Segregation, and Maximum (MAX) custody. These are described as follows:

  • Administrative segregation is used to temporarily remove an individual from the general population when they present a significant risk to the safety of staff or other incarcerated individuals, until a decision can be made about appropriate housing.
  • Maximum (MAX) custody is the highest custody designation within the department; individuals are classified to maximum custody when they are determined to pose a significant risk to the safety and security of department employees, incarcerated individuals, or others.

1980s-1990s

In June of 1984, the Washington State Department of Corrections opened a 96-bed high security Intensive Management Unit (IMU) on the grounds of the Washington State Penitentiary (WSP) located in Walla Walla. At that time this “state-of-the-art” building was designed to help officials manage high risk individuals with chronic behavioral and security issues by removing these individuals away from the general population setting. The design and operating procedures for the IMU were based on a simple principle that “no one incarcerated individual or staff ever gets hurt”.

The Department of Corrections subsequently opened several other segregation /IMU units to continue to house those who pose a repeated or serious threat to the safety of others, risk of escape, or another repeated or serious threat to facility security. The impact on the general population was improved safety. However, the absence of out-of-cell time with increased social and environmental stimulation has led to a variety of other challenges that need to be closely monitored and improved for the individual assigned to maximum custody and long-term administrative segregation.

2000s-Present

Prior to 2011, Intensive Transition Program (ITP) at Clallam Bay Corrections Center was established and had successfully reintegrated individuals assigned to MAX into general population. The ITP was identified as a promising program in a study conducted in 2010 by Dr. David Lovell, PhD, MSW Research Associate Professor, University of Washington.

In 2011, subsequent review of past procedures identified many antiquated processes which needed updating to align with the Agency’s vision and mission. Procedures identified as needing improvement included:

  • Maximum (MAX) custody utilized for containment and control.
  • MAX custody utilized as an extension of Administrative Segregation.
  • MAX custody was utilized as a disciplinary mechanism.
  • Specific placement timeframes were given to individuals assigned to MAX custody.
  • Individuals assigned to MAX custody for different reasons (violence, protective custody, security threat group (STG) behavior) were all managed the same way.
  • MAX custody offered little to no programming.
  • MAX custody offered little to no congregate programming or face to face interaction.

In 2011, the first congregate classroom in a restrictive housing unit was established at the Washington State Penitentiary. This classroom provided individuals assigned to MAX custody to interact with other individuals and staff in classroom setting while receiving group programming. The department also implemented significant policy changes and created a Headquarters Administrator position with statewide oversight of restrictive housing.

In 2013, additional members were added to the committee that reviews all placements on, and removals from, MAX custody, in order to improve review and oversight of placements and consideration of restrictive housing alternatives. In 2014, the department eliminated serious infractions for self-harm and suicide. This elimination included retroactive reviews of past infraction histories and restoration of time lost when applicable. In 2017, the department established its first Transition Pod in restrictive housing at Monroe Correctional Complex. The pod facilitates a gradual transition from MAX Custody conditions back to a general population setting by providing additional time out of cell, unrestrained, with other incarcerated individuals and staff. The Transition Pod has been very successful, and the department plans to build on this model and develop similar pods at other facilities.

In 2015, the department partnered with DRW and asked national expert Dr. Jeffrey Metzner to review the agencies policies, procedures and living units. Once the in-person review was conducted Dr. Metzner provided numerous suggestion/recommendations which would lead to improvements. Many of these suggestions were implemented. During the same year nationally recognized Suicide Prevention expert Lindsay M. Hayes was asked to review agency policy, procedures, and general population/restrictive housing living units. As with Dr. Metzner, Mr. Hayes provided a report with several suggestions/recommendations to improve suicide response within the Department of Corrections.

In 2016, DOC welcomed University of California, Irvine professor Keramet Reiter and her research team to conduct a 3-year study regarding the effects of restrictive housing on incarcerated individuals and staff. In 2021, “Reducing Restrictive Housing Use in Washington State” (pdf) was completed for publication. “This project, unprecedented in scope and scale, relied on Washington State DOC’s partnership, commitment to transparency, and vision for reform”. The study identified several areas where DOC is progressive and implemented reforms have been effective. It also identified several areas where extensive improvements need to occur.

In February of 2018, the department created a statewide Restrictive Housing Steering Committee, an internal workgroup made up of a variety of staff from different positions and disciplines at facilities around the state. The committee has been meeting regularly—16 times between February 2018 and December 2020—to help the department develop and implement reforms. Also, in 2019, sub-committees were formed at each facility, to allow more staff to participate and to facilitate effective implementation of reforms at each facility.

Data

The department has been reviewing restrictive housing data since approximately 2014, and we continue to improve how we collect, use, and present data. As part of the VERA Safe Prisons, Safe Communities: From Isolation to Dignity and Wellness Behind Bars, the department committed to reducing the restrictive housing population by 20% over the course of the project. DOC shared specific restrictive housing data quarterly with Vera researchers, who conducted analysis to monitor and assess the impact of reforms. In early 2020 (prior to the COVID-19 pandemic), this analysis indicated that, with recent changes and numerous additional reforms in the works, the department was well on its way towards achieving the goals of the project.

The demands of responding to the COVID-19 crisis, by necessity, temporarily slowed the department’s reform work. But the commitment to reforms persisted. Vera’s recent data analysis (pdf) shows that despite the unprecedented challenges posed by the pandemic, DOC has not only avoided a significant increase in the use of restrictive housing, it has also continued to make some progress towards the reform goals (pdf).

Moving Forward

The department continues its efforts to implement reforms and process improvements, even amid significant challenges imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Upcoming initiatives which have recently been implemented or will be in the very near future include:

  • Repurposing of restrictive housing beds into Enhanced Closed custody beds.
  • Repurposing of Administrative Segregation beds into Transfer Pod beds.
  • Eliminating the use of Disciplinary Segregation as a disciplinary sanction.

We continue to identify and implement strategies that increase out-of-cell time to four hours or more a day and improve conditions within restrictive housing. Programming has become an instrumental piece of MAX custody placement and is often targeted towards behaviors that resulted in assignment to MAX custody. Additionally, individuals may also have the ability to access programming and treatment not available in general population due to policy criteria and sentence timeframes, this can include Substance Abuse Treatment and GED. A list of available programming can be viewed on the Restrictive Housing Fact Sheet (pdf).

The Special Offender Unit (SOU), located within the Monroe Correctional Complex (MCC), has 72 designated beds utilized for Individuals that have been assigned to MAX custody and are identified as being Seriously Mentally Ill (SMI), this program is also known as Intensive Treatment Unit or ITU. Individuals at SOU receive more intensive mental health treatment than other facilities and ultimately the goal of this approach is to ensure necessary treatment is provided while drastically reducing the number of individuals with SMI which are housed in restrictive housing.

Safe and Strategic Policy

As reforms are implemented, the department recognizes that eliminating restrictive housing all together is not a viable option. DOC is tasked with keeping all incarcerated individuals, staff, volunteers and the public safe. Unfortunately, after an individual has been placed in restrictive housing, returning an individual to general population without careful consideration is irresponsible and unsafe. Many factors must be considered for an appropriate/safe housing assignment to be identified for each individual in our care. These factors include but are not limited to assigned custody level, STG involvement, protective custody issues and facility prohibited placements/keep separates with other individuals. Additionally, there are individuals housed in restrictive housing that: refuse placement in any general population setting, have been targeted by individuals in general population due to the notoriety of their crime or continuously assault other incarcerated individual/staff. In some cases, the later includes some individuals that are seriously mentally ill.

Vera Institute of Justice Partnership

In 2017, the department applied to participate with VERA on an upcoming restrictive housing reform partnership. After being selected, DOC’s partnership with VERA to reduce and reform the use of restrictive housing, called Safe Prisons, Safe Communities: From Isolation to Dignity and Wellness Behind Bars began in 2018 and ended in 2020. This partnership has helped advance reforms.

The partnership had several ambitious goals:

  • Eliminating the use of restrictive housing for non-violent and low-level behavior, and for particularly vulnerable populations—including people with serious mental illness.
  • Significantly reducing the length of time people spend in restrictive housing, moving towards a long-term goal of ending prolonged restrictive housing.
  • Improving conditions in restrictive housing units, including but not limited to a less isolated environment, additional out-of-cell time, opportunities for meaningful human interaction, and access to programs and services.
  • Addressing any racial and ethnic disparities in the use of restrictive housing.
  • Achieving at least a 20 percent decrease in total restrictive housing population by the end of the project, putting the department on the path to reduce it by at least 50 percent in the next four years.

A full-time Project Manager was brought on in 2019 to facilitate additional reforms as the partnership with Vera. Although the official Safe Communities partnership has ended, the department continues to have regular contact and interaction with Vera.

COVID-19 Pandemic Impacts

Despite the enormous challenges of responding to COVID-19 in correctional facilities, the Vera Institute’s data analysis demonstrates that the department has not significantly increased its reliance on the use of restrictive housing. In fact, it has continued to reduce its use of Administrative Segregation and seen an overall decline in people’s median lengths of stay in both Administrative Segregation and Maximum Custody. This reflects the fact that even while battling COVID-19, the department has continued to appreciate the importance of reducing the use of restrictive housing for improving the safety and well-being of incarcerated people, staff, and the community.

The department’s years of restrictive housing reform have also contributed to its COVID-19 response. Data analyzed by Vera does not include the number of people housed in medical isolation or quarantine due to COVID-19. However, WADOC and Vera have been working to find ways to make conditions in medical isolation and quarantine markedly different from restrictive housing (despite their inherent isolating nature). The department has drawn on strategies that have been used previously to make restrictive housing units less isolating and punitive, and will continue to strive for improvement in this area going forward, including providing the following amenities for those in medical isolation:

  • TVs and hand-held video games in cell
  • Quarterly food packages
  • Commissary
  • Phones at cell front – or alternatives
  • Personal property in cell
  • Regular health and mental health checks

Resources

Policies

Below are Department of Corrections (DOC) policies that apply to Restrictive Housing.

Laws & Regulations

Publications & Job Aids

Publications

Job Aids

Resource Links