Washington state is at the forefront of a national re-examination of solitary confinement, reports the Seattle Times. Instead of facing nothing but forced solitude, inmates in solitary units — called Intensive Management Units, or IMUs — are increasingly being let out for hours to attend classes, see counselors, or hit the gym. It is a clear move to the left in prison management, but one prison managers say is rooted in data. More emphasis on rehabilitation appears to calm behavior in the prison, and cuts violent recidivism on the streets, experts say. It is also a cost-saver: Solitary confinement costs about three times as much as keeping a prisoner in general custody.
University of Washington Prof. David Lovell studied solitary confinement in the state and found the isolated inmates were most often gang members serving long sentences for violent crimes. Up to 45 percent were mentally ill or had traumatic brain injuries. Once in solitary, they stayed in for nearly a year, on average because prison staff were reluctant to send likely violent inmates back into the general population. Those who were released often returned, after committing new assaults on corrections officers or other inmates. Most disturbing, Lovell found a quarter of inmates were released to the streets directly from solitary confinement. Unaccustomed to human contact, they were more prone to quickly commit new violence. Despite those findings, Lovell, now a criminal-justice analyst in California, said inmates in isolation "are not permanently dangerous."