Washington state is trying to reinvent what prison solitary confinement can be, an effort that Slate reports has produced one of the nation’s most humane approaches. “Washington state is a real innovator and has been something of a pioneer on these issues,” said Allison Hastings of the Vera Institute of Justice. The program has resulted in an almost 50 percent drop in the number of people the state keeps in isolation. The initiative stands out for being geared toward rehabilitation, with correctional staff administering behavioral courses to groups of inmates in small classrooms instead of keeping them in lockdown 23 hours a day, as is typical in segregation units elsewhere.
Because inmates taking the courses are considered extremely dangerous, they are restrained at their desks with shackles but allowed enough room to move around that they can turn toward each other and participate in role-playing activities designed to teach conflict resolution and the social skills required to deal with other people peacefully. The number kept in isolation has dropped from 612 in 2011, when the program for violent inmates started, to 286 last month. It is premised on the idea that every prisoner, even the worst of the worst, deserves a chance to improve himself, instead of being left to waste away in a tiny, windowless cell with no human contact for months or even years. Elsewhere, an estimated 80,000 Americans are held in segregation units at any given time.