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Washington State Eases Inmates Out Of Solitary


California has announced that it will restrict the use of solitary confinement in its state prisons. Some of California's inmates have spent years in solitary. Because of a successful lawsuit brought by prisoners, some eighteen-hundred inmates must now re-enter the prison's general population. Bernie Warner has an idea of what is ahead for California's prisons. He's in charge of Washington state's Department of Corrections. They have dramatically reduced the use of solitary confinement. Many of those in solitary are the most violent prisoners. I asked him, what programs can help prepare people to move back into the general population?

BERNIE WARNER: So anything you do has to be measured, but there are opportunities. Generally, if someone is in solitary confinement or segregation, their only contact is with a correctional officer who has them in shackles and is escorting them to a shower. They're fed through a cuff port. So one of the things we did is try to create an environment that gave them more contact with staff and other inmates. So we took an old utility closet and converted it into a classroom. Now, the inmates in the classroom are shackled, but we were able to have up to eight to 10 inmates in a classroom. We trained our staff on delivering programs that provided specific skills that are proven to be effective to reduce violence.

WERTHEIMER: Could you give us an example of a way in which you would try to sort of turn aside bad thinking into some more productive areas?

WARNER: What we do is a specific role playing around an interaction with another inmate. And what may be typical in that interaction is it could escalate to more aggression and more violence. And we provide some skills in terms of how they can diffuse that and really have it be a more normal conversation. Or we could simply create a process in which they're thinking, the best thing for me to do is walk away from this.

WERTHEIMER: It seems like a strange thing to think about, but I assume that if you are in solitary confinement and suddenly, you have the opportunity to be in a classroom with six or eight other inmates, that in itself would be a huge change.

WARNER: It's a big change, not just for the inmates, but for our staff as well. The programs in the classroom are actually led by correctional staff and that's really giving them an opportunity for buy-in to support this change. And they have seen the change in the interactions with inmates. And I think that has really been very significant. We've seen a reduction in grievances. We've seen a reduction in use of force. So it's important when you implement these programs to make sure you're sharing that information with staff and that they see that there really is benefit to this.

WERTHEIMER: Now in Washington, you still have inmates in solitary confinement, something on the order 300 people in the strictest form of isolation, is that right?

WARNER: We have people - I wouldn't call it solitary confinement. We have people who are in segregated environment, which means that they are - have some programming, but again they don't have access to normal prison services and programs.

WERTHEIMER: Well, what is the kind of person that you put into this situation? When you're in the process of trying to track people out of it, who are the people that are left in?

WARNER: Well, they are people who have committed very serious crimes in the institution. They are people who have said that if you let me out of the segregated environment, I will assault staff or I will assault other inmates. And so, as you decrease the numbers - and again we've reduced about 50 percent. And it may mean that you still end up having an environment in which someone is not in the normal prison general population, but it doesn't mean they have to be confined for 23 or 24 hours a day. There's a percentage of people who will leave this environment and return to the community. And I think the general public expects that when someone's incarcerated that they leave that prison environment posing less of a risk to the community.

WERTHEIMER: Bernie Warner is the secretary of the Washington State Department of Corrections. Mr. Warner, thank you very much.

WARNER: Thank you, Linda. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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