Lawmakers introduce bill to reform solitary confinement in Washington prisons

Ted S. Warren/AP
·3 min read

Lawmakers are considering legislation to reform solitary confinement in Washington state.

The proposed legislation would bring the state of Washington in line with the United Nations’ Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, also known as The Nelson Mandela Rules.

Rep. Strom Peterson, D-Edmonds, is the prime sponsor of House Bill 1756 and talked about the intent of the bill during a House Public Safety Committee last week.

“I think it’s important that we as policy makers have a statement to make regarding the care and welfare of people that are in our charge,” Peterson said. “Every incarcerated individual is in our care.”

Peterson said he thinks the bill moves the Department of Corrections in the right direction, and said he wanted to make it clear that legislators had policy goals that would not only benefit the mental and physical health of incarcerated individuals but also the Department of Corrections “as a whole.”

The bill would change multiple things.

First, it would codify a definition for “solitary confinement” as “confinement of an incarcerated person in a cell or similarly confined holding or living space, alone or with other incarcerated persons, for 17 hours or more per day.”

Second, state facilities would no longer be able to use solitary confinement except in certain circumstances such as emergency situations, medical isolation, or if an incarcerated individual specifically requests it.

Third, it adds restrictions on the use, including time limits, limiting solitary confinement for “vulnerable persons” in state facilities, and establishing “standards for living conditions.”

And finally, the legislation would require facilities to track information about the use of solitary confinement before the law is officially implemented on July 1, 2023. The Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs will collect that information and report findings back to the Legislature.

Currently there are no state restrictions on the use of solitary confinement in adult facilities.

Several incarcerated individuals testified in favor of the bill, including Christopher Blackwell, a journalist who has written extensively about the use of solitary confinement.

“Solitary dehumanizes and desensitizes those forced to endure its horrendous environment and the traumatic effects often remain throughout our lives, in turn denying its victims the chance for a healthy reintegration back into our communities,” said Blackwell. “Furthermore, the effects reach far beyond those forced to endure its conditions of solitary firsthand, often causing collateral trauma to families.”

Corrections Secretary Cheryl Strange said the department too supports the elimination of restrictive housing as it exists today. She said DOC has come a long way to find alternatives, and urged the need to continue mental health programs and evidence-based practices for incarcerated individuals.

Although most people who testified at the hearing were in support, Jenny Graham, R-Spokane, was among those who voiced concerns about the safety of correctional officers if they can’t use solitary confinement for violent offenders.

There are currently 716 people in custody at Washington facilities living in solitary confinement, according to the DOC. According to Disability Rights Washington, “mental health experts have found that solitary causes anxiety, depression and PTSD, often leading to serious self-harm and even suicide.”

They noted too that people with disabilities are more vulnerable to the effects of living in solitary confinement.

Additionally, a Washington study found that recidivism rates were higher with individuals who had spent time in solitary confinement prior to their release.

In 2020, the Washington state Legislature voted to eliminate the use of solitary confinement for juveniles.

The U.N. officially recognized the use of solitary confinement as torture in 2015.

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