The Idaho Department of Correction has made efforts in recent years to reduce the use of inmate restrictive housing, otherwise known as solitary confinement, in an effort to meet Department of Justice recommendations, improve inmate behavior and simply find a more humane way to treat inmates who are in restrictive housing.
IDOC has reduced its number of long-term restrictive housing cells, is making efforts to reduce the amount of time inmates spend in solitary confinement and no longer uses so-called “dry cells,” which had no bed, no toilet, no sink and only a drain in the floor to use for waste.
The effort to reform solitary confinement has come with a variety of other changes at IDOC under Director Kevin Kempf. Much of the change has come after the state took control of its prison system from a private company. Other recent IDOC reforms have included efforts to reduce the population of non-violent drug and property offenders being held in prisons and bringing Idaho offenders back to Idaho after being housed out-of-state to prevent overcrowding.
Dougherty has spent a combined nine years in restrictive housing due to assaults he committed while incarcerated. The 31-year-old man from Vancouver, Washington, has been in and out of Idaho prisons since 1999.
While the restrictive housing inmates can be heard shouting at each other through vents in the unit, Dougherty said the isolation is challenge.
“For me, it’s a second chance,” Dougherty said about getting out of solitary confinement and being released into the general prison population.
Sharing his story, he said, is also a way to send a message to his victim, his wife, his son and the parole commission. He’ll be eligible for parole in 2022.
“Showing admin(istration) my change (and) hopefully the guy I shot can see this and have some sympathy for me,” Dougherty said.
WHAT IS RESTRICTIVE HOUSING?
Inmates are generally placed in restrictive housing, also called administrative segregation, if they are considered a danger to themselves, a danger to other inmates or a danger to staff.
They’re locked in a cell for 23 hours a day and are handcuffed and escorted by a guard when not in confinement. But at least now, they always have a bed, a sink and a toilet, which wasn’t the case with the state’s use of “dry cells.”
IDOC has removed any dry cells it previously used. The dry cells have since been renovated to include a bed, toilet and sink.
The decision came after ongoing national criticism that argued the use of dry cells in prison was an inhumane form of housing as well as a wave of allegations against IDOC’s correctional facilities. There have been nationwide efforts to reform restrictive housing efforts.
Idaho solitary confinement inmates now have beds with no ligature points and a security blanket and smock that are tear-resistant to prevent the inmate from being able to create a noose.
“We want to treat them like a human and not an animal,” Idaho Maximum Security Institution Warden Al Ramirez said about inmates in administrative segregation.
Still, the inmates are locked in a cell for 23 hours a day and taken outside for one hour. At all times they are handcuffed and escorted by guards when not in confinement.
The inmates in solitary get one hour of exercise five hours a week, as well as three showers a week.
The restrictive housing can be used for inmates who are especially violent or disruptive, but also for those inmates who are believed to be suicidal and those who are believed to be a danger to either themselves or others.
Short-term restrictive housing for one to 30 days can be used pending a disciplinary hearing or as a sanction for rule violations.
By comparison, inmates in general population are allowed to walk around the recreational areas without handcuffs and leave their cells to interact with other inmates. General population cells hold two inmates who are roommates.
The Idaho Maximum Security Institution has a capacity of 516 inmates, and is home to the state’s most disruptive male offenders. The institution is the only male prison that has long-term segregation cells, meaning solitary confinement for more than 30 days.
Five years ago, there were 320 restrictive housing cells at Ramirez’s prison. Today, there are 200 restrictive housing cells.
The Idaho State Correctional Institution, which neighbors IMSI, holds up to 1,446 offenders, but only has short-term segregation cells, meaning segregation for one to 30 days.
IMSI doesn’t track the average number of how many inmates are kept in long or short-term restrictive housing. ISCI also doesn’t track the average number of short-term restrictive housing inmates in its 78 restrictive housing short-term cells. On average, ISCI estimated there are 60 to 65 inmates in those short-term cells for one to 30 days at a time, but some of those inmates are just waiting to be transferred to another prison.
DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE
The U.S. Department of Justice has released a series of guidelines and recommendations regarding the use of restrictive housing in prisons. While the guidelines are not mandatory for all prisons, IDOC has said it is working to comply with those recommendations.
“For long-term (restrictive housing) the way we’ve been doing it, we’ve been doing a great job of incapacitating those that have been violent and disruptive, but we’ve done a really poor job of trying to help develop new social skills or deal with some of their anger problems so that they can reintegrate back into our general population or back into the community,” Ramirez said.
Some of the following guiding principles for restrictive housing were outlined in a January report from the Department of Justice:
- Correctional systems should always be able to clearly articulate the reason for an inmate’s placement in restrictive housing and have evidence to support the decision.
- Restrictive housing should always serve a specific purpose for deterrence or crime prevention.
- Staff should develop a clear plan for returning an inmate to less restrictive conditions as promptly as possible.
- Correctional staff should be trained in restrictive housing policies.
The guidelines also focused on how prisons should appropriately prepare a person for release from prison after long-term incarceration in restrictive housing.
One focus included recommending prisons do not release an inmate directly into the community if the inmate has been in long-term restrictive housing without any preparation for his or her release.
The DOJ report outlined that prisons should prepare inmates who are in restrictive housing once they reach the final 180 days of their incarceration term, stating that officials consider placing the inmate in a less restrictive area for the last 180 days if it is possible.
If that prisoner is unsafe being housed elsewhere, the DOJ recommended correctional staff provide re-entry programming to prepare that inmate for reintegration into his or her community on the outside.
The goal of Idaho’s prisons is to try and limit restrictive housing down to only 15 consecutive days.
IDOC hopes to have a new inmate restrictive housing reform plan in place by July 2017. That deadline was internally set by the department, not by the federal government or court order, Ramirez said.
Among other policies, IDOC would make efforts to implement steps and levels and phases for restrictive housing, Ramirez said. At each phase, the inmates would get more privileges and fewer restrictions, and staff would assess their behavior to see if they could be safe in the general population.
One of the downfalls IDOC faces is the lack of programming that inmates receive while in solitary confinement.
“With the current way that we’ve done restrictive housing, and not just us, but across the nation, we’ve done a great job of incapacitating people and keeping things from happening in the short-term, and keeping things calm and safe in the institutions,” Ramirez said. “But we’ve done a horrible job in preparing and giving those highest-risk inmates the opportunity to try to change those behaviors.”
For the inmates who are in restrictive housing for suicidal behavior or mental health issues, Ramirez said IDOC hopes to implement a definition of what a serious mental illness is. Currently, IDOC has no specific definition of what “seriously mentally ill” means.
The state may not legally mandate any inmate take medication for their mental health issues if the inmate declines treatment.
Ramirez said he and the correctional staff look forward to any restrictive housing reform.
“Believe it or not, dealing with a human being that’s locked up for 23 hours a day does something to the staff, too,” Ramirez said. “It has an effect on you as a human being, and you don’t want to see another human being treated like that.”
Inmate William Wallace, 37, is serving time for aiding and abetting robbery and aggravated battery. He will be eligible for parole in 2019, but while incarcerated he has served about four years in and out of a segregation cell due to assaults.
Wallace, originally from California, said coming to prison was not that big of an adjustment for him because of the lifestyle he was used to.
“At first, (I was in segregation for) the things I did for myself and for the gang,” Wallace said. “In the eyes of this world (they) were honorable, were respected, and I gained a lot of acceptance from it. So at first, for me, it was a joyride. It was like winning a trophy.”
As time went on, Wallace said he realized he was only committing these assaults to gain acceptance, and he became ashamed of his behavior. Restrictive housing can come with good and bad consequences, he said.
“It was a great experience,” Wallace said. “It was an experience to get away from the pressure, from the expectation of society, and I had an opportunity to really change. Change the way I thought about life. Change the way I thought about who I am. Change the way that I thought about the next next 10 years left of my time. (Administrative segregation) gave me the opportunity to discover some things about myself.”
One of the challenges that comes with segregation, however, is that inmates don’t know how long they will be in that lonesome cell. At least when being housed in general population, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel with a parole date, he said. Some people may spend a year in segregation, others may serve five, others may serve 10, he said.
One of the DOJ’s recent recommendations includes suggesting prisons implement a clear plan to evaluate when an inmate should be placed back into general population.
“Psychologically that can have an effect on somebody,” Wallace said on inmates who become too accustomed to being in solitary confinement.
“When it comes to the humanity of it all — isolation and solitary confinement — when that becomes a comfort zone, I think something’s wrong,” he said.
IDOC’s Cpl. Michael Clark works in the unit that holds inmates in restrictive housing at IMSI.
“Their priority is conversing rather than reprimanding people and (instead) talking about problems,” Clark said about the correctional officers in restrictive housing.
The interactions with correctional officers and inmates have changed in recent years, as well, according to Clark.
“Years ago, it was always inmate versus CO (correctional officer), no matter what, there was a lot of confrontation,” he said about the inmates in segregation. “The change is in the way they handle themselves and the way we handle ourselves.”
Clark said correctional officers in the restrictive housing unit have made efforts to try to talk these things through, providing direction and assistance with respect rather than issuing orders.
When Clark started at the prison, he was given a quote that said, “Treat everybody here like your neighbor, because one day they probably will be,” stating it is one reason to treat the inmates humanely.
While the Idaho State Correctional Institution does not have long-term restrictive housing like the maximum security facility does, the prison does have short-term restrictive housing. Short-term restrictive housing means the inmate would be held alone for one to 30 days.
ISCI Warden Keith Yordy said he hopes his prison can reduce the number of inmates in short-term segregation used for a disciplinary hearing or sanction as a rule violation. That has not happened yet.
“Our proposal will reduce that to 15 days,” Yordy said in an email. “Additionally, we are looking at alternatives in avoiding segregation altogether and yet still afford the prison safe operating conditions.
These could include the use of short-term calm-down rooms and alternative sanctions in the units. Inmates will still be held accountable but could lose privileges, such as visiting, phone and the use of electronics, he said.
Yordy said IDOC also hopes to see inmates rewarded for some positive behaviors, rather than only punishing them for rule-breaking.
Potential examples Yordy offered included extra privileges and activities, such as a concert, movies or ice cream.
“Basically, we want to develop ways to objectively measure desired behavior, giving inmates more incentives to model pro-social behavior,” Yordy said in the email. “As always, our goal is to provide a safe environment but also one that is conducive for inmate change.”