Solitary Confinement Effects and Culture: A Look At What It Really Means For Solitary Confinement in The State of Washington
DECEMBER 2, 2021 | RALPH DUNUAN
In the recent months the Washington State Department of Corrections Secretary Cheryl Strange has stated that the department will no longer use its solitary confinement units as a disciplinary recourse upon its incarcerated population for nonviolent infractions. Although, this is but one step on a path that has been long over due, the humane treatment and rehabilitative progress of the people subject to confinement within the Washington State penal system still has a long way to go.
In any social setting culture defines how we as human beings interact with one another. It influences our social habits and social norms that impact our society. Within the culture of mass incarceration people have been infected by anti social traits and institutional trauma. One of the major contributing factors to these type of traits and traumas is the "HOLE", solitary confinement, isolation, disciplinary segregation, or administrative segregation, etc. Whatever name your state or federal DOC labels it, the affects remain the same. Changing the name of something does not equate to changing the affects or culture that these type of housing units impose upon a persons mental health or physical wellbeing.
In the statement released by the Department of Corrections, state officials concede that solitary confinement as a punishment is not effective. Secretary Strange stated "the science is clear on this, and the science says stop doing it". Also conceding that the practice of it does not effectively change negative behavior. Secretary Strange goes on to imply that only the use of the term solitary confinement is archaic, but the practice of it is OK. Its OK, because it has "programming and other benefits"!
Although, I commend Secretary Strange's willingness to have a more open-minded approach to the impact isolation has upon a persons mental welfare. I still have to wonder, how much of this is coming from survivors of solitary confinement! The truth of the matter, its not just about allowing these human beings that they house in a concrete box a program to go to for an hour, or to order a few dollars of unhealthy food so they don't feel constantly hungry. Its the mental warfare imposed upon its captives that these housing units allow to fester within the culture that is solitary confinement. Its that culture that allows the mental affects to take hold causing physical and emotional traumas that refuse to let go. Its the solitary confinement culture that the science says it needs to stop.
Out of my 22yrs in prison in the State of Washington, I have done a little over a decade of that all together in solitary confinement. Through all these years the culture of solitary confinement has forced upon its captives a number of mental warfare tactics implemented to break the will of any human being that has been subjected to the depths of its madness.
Tactics such as strip cells, where your cell and body is stripped of any and everything that isn't bolted down, including all your clothes. Leaving you naked in a concrete box until 9:30 or 10:00 at night, unless you did something to make staff mad at you, then they would leave you naked all night. Leaving someone in a dog kennel type yard in the freezing cold for hours at a time with nothing but a thin jumpsuit on. Passing your cell and not giving you your food, because you were not standing on a painted line on the floor. Or staff intentionally doing things to antagonizes people. For example, slamming the steel tray slot doors so hard it makes your ears ring. Placing mentally ill inmates that constantly bang on their walls, doors, or steel sink all day and night next to you, because you did something that they didn't like. That's what those ten years of solitary confinement looked, felt, and was day in and day out.
Even with the changes that have been made over these years, the mentality and culture of those environments are still very much going strong. The mental warfare, the tactics staff continue to impose upon people, the solitude is still there. Still inflicting trauma, still infecting people with long term affects.
I used to think that I got of there unscathed, but I was wrong. When a covid-19 outbreak hit the Washington State Reformatory Units at the Monroe Correctional Complex in December of 2020, I was apart of the first group of people to be quarantined within the Intensive Management Unit (IMU) at the facility. Once in there and that steel door slammed shut to the entrance to the unit its like something clicked and I could feel all the anger coming back, not really talking, and staff treating me like I did something wrong because I was there. Becoming argumentative to the staff's hostile treatment. Even though we were allowed to come out of our cells un-cuffed all the antisocial behaviors where right there. A defense mechanism against the concrete demon designed to break the will of men if you weren't mentally prepared to endure those four walls of concrete. Even after my quarantine was up the affects of that place remained. When brought back to the general population housing units I was still reclusive. Staying in the cell a lot, not socializing. If I found myself with a lot of people near me I could feel my anxiety begin to rise making me anxious and on edge. To the point where I felt I needed to return to my cell another little concrete box to calm my anxiety down.
Once back in the housing units, I was able to recover a little better then I previously had with what I learned in my Alternatives to Violence Project classes. Having went through those and similar programs in general population I was able to better understand the grasp the hole placed upon someone's mental awareness.
However, I am far and few in between when it comes to actively understanding the affects of institutionalization. The majority of incarcerated do not. They become consumed by these antisocial behaviors and institutional traumas. Feeding into the negativity of the environment for which they are subjected to. Trapped by the cycles of mass incarceration.
Therefore, if the Washington State Department of Corrections is genuine in its statement of commitment to "safe and humane practices", then it should thoroughly examine the culture of its segregation units, as well as the attitudes and impacts of those whom work in these units. Reinforcing its stance on that commitment with its staff that have that obligation and duty to uphold on a day to day basis.
Real change dose not come by renaming something. It comes from the redirection of actions. Because its actions that impact who and what we are as a society. Thereby, changing our culture and need to oppress our people, that will for a majority of us, return back to that society. Therefore, I implore Secretary Strange to change the culture of solitary confinement and not just the name, or policy of these housing units with the intent of building safer communities on both sides of these walls.