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Restrictive Housing

Leading Prison Reform

About

The Washington State Department of Corrections (DOC) has a long history of leading prison reforms, including use of restrictive housing and solitary confinement. In 2023, DOC released an innovative Solitary Confinement Transformation Project Plan(pdf).

Restrictive Housing

A housing assignment for incarcerated people whose presence in general population is deemed to present a danger to self, others, or facility security. Restrictive housing uses enhanced security buildings with single-occupancy cells to separate those individuals from the general population.

Solitary Confinement

An operational status in restrictive housing where the individual is confined to a single-occupancy cell for more than 20 hours a day without meaningful human contact, out-of-cell activities, or opportunities to congregate.


Historical Milestones:

  • DOC announced plans to reduce solitary confinement by 90% over five years (2023).
    • DOC formed the Solitary Confinement Transformation Project team to work with staff, incarcerated, and stakeholders to be humane in corrections by safely increasing meaningful time out of cell.
  • 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 Disabilities Rights Washington (DRW) for Dr. Jeffrey Metzner for consultation of Restrictive Housing
  • 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)can also be viewed.

Moving Forward

In early 2023, Department of Corrections (DOC) Secretary Cheryl Strange pledged to reduce the use of solitary confinement in Washington state prisons by 90% over the next five years - dependent on funding.

A team including DOC subject matter experts, corrections industry experts Falcon and consultants Integrated Solutions Group has spent the past six months developing a comprehensive plan to make that vision a reality.

Read more about the Solitary Confinement Transformation Project Plan(pdf)in its entirety.

The plan focuses on finding ways to provide four hours a day of meaningful out-of-cell time for incarcerated individuals in restrictive housing, or four times the current one hour a day they currently are given. The Solitary Confinement Transformation Project team says this can be achieved by:

  • Improving staff training and staffing ratios with a focus on safety for everyone.
  • Expanding access to programming in the general population, especially for those at risk of placement in restrictive housing.
  • Enhancing the options and alternatives to solitary confinement.
  • Increasing the efficiency of movement within the restrictive housing system.
  • Providing more opportunities for out-of-cell time in restrictive housing areas.

The team that compiled the report conducted workshops and visited prisons across the state to gather insight from both staff and the incarcerated about what is currently working and what is not when it comes to solitary confinement.

DOC will proceed with solitary confinement reform when funding is secured.

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 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 pandemic, 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.

Quarterly Data Report

DOC publishes a report on the demographics, population, and length of stay regarding restrictive housing each quarter.

Mission Housing

In June 2013 the department created a Mission Housing Administrator position to advance efforts to reform conditions in restrictive housing units statewide. Mission Housing has become a specific effort to address the needs of safety and security of our facilities and balancing those needs with specific care needs of the incarcerated population.

From the highest level of classification (Maximum custody) and management of restrictive housing units to units designed to safely house vulnerable populations with intellectual delays or developmental disabilities (Skill Builders Unit); Mission Housing uses a multidisciplinary approach to deeply dive into the histories of behaviors, mental health impacts, custody and facility eligibilities and programmatic needs of each specific case.

Mission Housing focuses on the Department’s mission and strategic plan by applying tactics, techniques and philosophies designed to operate safe and humane corrections systems and improve the lives of staff and incarcerated individuals while keeping people safe.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the Solitary Confinement Transformation Project (SCTP)?

The Solitary Confinement Transformation Project is an initiative envisioned and created by the Washington State Department of Corrections to reduce our use of solitary confinement by 90% over the next five years.

What is solitary confinement?

Solitary confinement is the security protocol in which an incarcerated individual is in a single-person cell for more than 20 hours per day- without meaningful human interaction, programming, or congregate opportunities. These conditions exist within restrictive housing areas such as Intensive Management Units (IMUs), Administrative Segregation (AdSeg) Units, Close Observation Areas (COAs), or other isolated settings within prisons.

What is restrictive housing?

Restrictive housing is the physical structure/unit in which individuals who pose a safety concern are housed, separated from the general population. Restrictive housing uses single occupancy cells to separate incarcerated individuals from the general population due to elevated safety and security concerns.

What is Administrative Segregation (Ad Seg)?

Administrative segregation is a temporary process to safely house an individual who possesses a significant risk to the safety and security of staff or other individuals, requests protection or is deemed to require protection, is pending transfer to a more secure facility, possesses a serious escape risk, or is pending investigation for behavior that represents a significant threat. Its purpose is to temporarily remove and individual from the general population until a timely and informed decision can be made about appropriate housing based on behavior.

Does this mean that everyone in solitary confinement is going to general population?

No. Reducing the use of solitary confinement by 90% does not change the housing assignment for individuals who pose a serious threat to others or the safety and security of the facility, but rather the conditions and length of stay an incarcerated individual experiences while separated from the general population.

How are we going to accommodate more out-of-cell time without more staff?

Staffing levels adequate to ensure the safety of staff as the top priority will be an absolute necessity for this initiative to be successful. Secretary Strange has made it clear: this cannot be done without staffing resources and will require support from the legislature to proceed.

What about extremely violent or notorious individuals who live in the restrictive housing for safety?

The focus on safe and humane operations does not exclude extremely violent or notorious people. Significant efforts will be made to improve conditions for all individuals in restrictive housing. However, in some cases some individuals may require limitations to out of cell time to maintain safety based on individually assessed, imminent risk demonstrated by or related to the individual.

Some incarcerated individuals repeatedly return to restrictive housing. What are the intervention strategies planned to reduce future placement in restrictive housing for these individuals?

As part of this initiative, DOC will conduct clinical risk assessments through all custody levels and implement responsive evidence-based programming and Cognitive Behavioral Interventions for those at high risk for placement in restrictive housing. This, combined with alternatives to Administrative Segregation and trimming the length of stay in restrictive housing, will reduce the incidence of placement in restrictive housing, and lower the number of those housed under the conditions of solitary confinement.

What if an incarcerated individual will not come out of their cell?

All incarcerated people will have time out of their cell scheduled, and unless deemed too dangerous, that time will be offered. An incarcerated individual is allowed to refuse time out of cell, but that will be tracked and acceptance of time out of cell will be encouraged. When an individual appearing to require a clinical intervention refuses to leave their cell, it may be necessary to consult a clinician for recommended strategies to arrive at a balanced plan for the person, matching risks and needs with responsive programming and classification. Opportunities for out-of-cell time will continue to be offered, regardless or refusal or amount of time in restrictive housing.

How does this benefit staff?

Prison is an inherently dangerous environment, and restrictive housing is one of the most intense, high-stress and challenging places to work within prisons. Shifting the prison culture in a way that blends rehabilitative practices for individuals, greater positive interactions with staff and lower violence has been shown to create a safer, more positive working environment. DOC recognizes that based on existing research, the average life expectancy for correctional officers is only 59 years of age. By implementing the Washington Way initiative, the agency is committed to creating a healthier work environment for our staff, more positive interactions with incarcerated individuals, and a better overall work-life balance by reducing the life stressors that our staff experience.

Why are we doing this, anyway?

Solitary confinement has the potential to cause long-lasting harm to some incarcerated individuals. While it can be an effective way to prevent violence, spending prolonged periods under these conditions can have devastating effects on an individual’s mental and physical health long after they leave our facilities. In other states under legislative mandates requiring elimination of solitary confinement, the result has been an immediate and significant increase in violence against staff and other incarcerated individuals, creating an environment profoundly detrimental to the safety and security of the entire prison community. The agency is committed to internally developing a proactive approach and providing more safe and humane prison system for all, because it’s the right thing to do.

When does more out-of-cell time start, and is it a phased approach?

Some of these initiatives are already under way at certain facilities, while others will require additional funding for staff, programs and new spaces for recreation and programming. Over the next five years, as legislative appropriations are received, DOC will expand its resources and systematically offer more out-of-cell time as it becomes possible. By the end of the five-year period, all in restrictive housing units will have the ability to offer at least four hours out-of-cell for all incarcerated individuals.

Which populations are counted in the 90%? Is it just those in restrictive housing, or those in other areas under the conditions of solitary confinement too?

Solitary confinement protocols only exist within restrictive housing units. Medical units and Close Observation Areas (COAs) are examples of settings that might not typically be considered restrictive housing, but where solitary confinement protocols may apply. In those areas, individuals will continue to be tracked and reported for transparency.

Does SCTP change access to visiting, mail or phone calls between the incarcerated and their families and loved ones?

While in some instances, additional time out-of-cell may create more visitation opportunities, particularly if the agency is appropriated the resources needed to construct additional program space; however, there should be no additional restrictions on these communications and visitation as a result of the SCTP.

What programming is going to be offered?

As part of this initiative, DOC will implement responsive evidence-based programming and Cognitive Behavioral Interventions for those at high risk for placement in restrictive housing in all custody levels.

Where can I find more information on the Solitary Confinement Transformation Project?

Please visit Solitary Confinement Transformation Project Plan to view the entire plan. You may also email questions to DOC Solitary Confinement Transformation Project.

Resources

Policies

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

Laws & Regulations

Publications & Job Aids

Publications

Job Aids

Resource Links