This article is published in partnership with The Stranger.
This was going to be the year for solitary confinement reform, Anthony Blankenship remembers thinking. A legislative coalition organizer for Civil Survival, he’d seen many bills start out with promising momentum only to die later in the legislative session. But 2023 had a different feel to it.
“I was pretty optimistic in the beginning,” says Blankenship, who is formerly incarcerated and a solitary confinement survivor. “We had a great bill. We had a strong coalition, with a lot of formerly incarcerated folks who were passionate about the issue. We had some support from the Department of Corrections. I thought we had a good shot.”
The bill, HB 1087, would have imposed a mandate on the DOC to reduce the number of people it holds in solitary confinement, to expand education, therapeutic programming, and time out of cell for the over six hundred individuals currently housed in solitary in Washington’s state prisons, and to gradually phase out the use of solitary entirely.
In the months leading up to the 2023 legislative session, Blankenship assembled a steering committee for the bill, bringing together organizations such as the ACLU and Disability Rights Washington, as well as several anti-solitary activists—including the author of this article—who had personally experienced solitary. The coalition met weekly to strategize, compare notes from discussions with legislators, and develop projects promoting HB 1087. Members shared Blankenship’s optimism, and the energy among them was humming.
Much was on the line. Dozens of experts from major universities across the globe have published research identifying solitary confinement as extraordinarily destructive to the human mind. Dr. Craig Haney of the University of California, Santa Cruz, found that exposure to solitary produces “heightened levels of anxiety and panic irritability, aggression and rage paranoia, rumination and unwanted violent fantasies, cognitive dysfunction… loss of emotional control, mood swings… and paradoxical tendencies to further social withdrawal.”
Contrary to claims that solitary is an effective rehabilitative tool, the Vera Institute reports that time spent in solitary can significantly increase recidivism, and that the persistent mental health issues solitary prisoners struggle with following release have an enormous statistical impact on their rates of homelessness, unemployment, hospitalization, and death.
In 2003, after spending two years in solitary confinement, Todd Lucas released directly from solitary to the community. “I was a mess,” Lucas says. “Even being in a grocery store was too much input, sensory overload. I had a really hard time making the transition to being around people again. The stress and the feeling of being out of place were absolutely factors in me relapsing and getting back into doing robberies.” Lucas added, “When I heard about the bill I thought, ‘It’s about time.’ The hole needs to get shut down. Especially for these young kids coming in, I’m sick of seeing them go to the hole for a couple years and come out ruined.”
Jorge Saenz had a similar experience in 2002, and again in 2007. “They released me straight from IMU [Intensive Management Unit] both times. It made everything a hundred times weirder. You’ve already got anxiety about getting out, but getting released from the hole makes it way more intense.” Like Todd Lucas, he sees the psychological impact of solitary as contributing to his return to prison. “It was a big part of my aggression back then. You can walk through any IMU and see it’s disproportionately Latino. I felt like we were discriminated against and I was angry about it. It made me not want to be part of society.”
Rep. Strom Peterson, a Democrat, introduced the bill in January. “This state has no restrictions on the use of solitary confinement,” Rep. Peterson said at the bill’s initial hearing, held in the House Community Safety Committee. He gave the Department of Corrections credit for exercising some restraint in its use of solitary, but stressed to the committee that it was only a policy choice currently being made by the DOC. “If they had a management change and decided to move back and use solitary in the way other states do, we as a legislature would have no power to change that.” This was the legislature’s opportunity to set hard limits on solitary, Rep. Peterson said.
The hearing went on to feature testimony from a diverse array of supporters, ranging from academics to community leaders, families of the incarcerated, and survivors of solitary confinement. Opposition consisted mainly of prison guards who’d had violent encounters with prisoners. Strength of feeling ran deep on both sides, and testimony was frequently heated.
There was also a stark racial gap on display. In a small-scale representation of the ideological divide that has come to characterize American society, the bill’s advocates largely represented communities of color, while the prison guards and law enforcement lobbyists opposing the bill were exclusively white. Testimony echoed familiar differences in racial perspectives on justice issues, and the two sides quickly arrived at a familiar impasse.
In the end, committee members voted to pass the bill, and advanced it to the House Appropriations Committee.
Following the hearing, a surprise: the union representing Washington’s prison guards, Teamsters 117, reached out to Rep. Peterson and the solitary bill steering committee. “They said they wanted to work with us,” Blankenship says. “It seemed like it was possible to reconcile what everybody wanted. We were really hopeful at that point.”
Then things changed. Rep. Peterson called Blankenship in late January to tell him that a fiscal note—the estimated cost of implementing HB 1087—had been released, and it didn’t look good. The price tag attached to the bill was steep, and support among Democrats was wavering. Calculated by the Office of Financial Management using models constructed by the DOC, the note advised that reducing solitary would cost $78 million in the next fiscal period, and an additional $98 million in each of the two following fiscal periods.
These were curious numbers. The average cost of housing a person in solitary is three times higher than housing that same person in general population, $25,000 annually versus $75,000 dollars annually, according to UC Irvine professor Keramet Reiter.
Why DOC would need a supplemental $274 million dollars to house prisoners in substantially less expensive living units has never been satisfactorily explained.
According to Malena Thompson, Executive Policy Director at the Washington Department of Corrections, DOC doesn’t track the cost of incarcerating people in solitary—which renders the fiscal note on solitary reduction all the more curious, and creates another mystery around how DOC concocted its fiscal note models to begin with.
“It seems unlikely that to eliminate the most expensive form of incarceration you would need more money,” says Rachael Seevers, an attorney at Disability Rights Washington who worked on the bill. “That’s not what we’ve seen in other states where solitary has been reduced. Their costs were reduced. And why would the cost go up year over year? From $78 million to $98 million? That number should go down, not up.”
Regardless of the fiscal note’s accuracy, it was enough to stymie the bill. At a House Appropriations Committee hearing on February 2, the purported price of solitary reform was repeatedly emphasized by the bill’s opponents. And in spite of an agreement between Teamsters 117 and the solitary coalition that testimony would focus entirely on costs, with no personal statements, guards again turned out to recount scenes of prison violence. After the hearing, the committee abstained from voting. The bill was finished.
Because it was never voted down, however, HB 1087 will not have to be reintroduced next year. It remains where it stalled, hibernating in the House Appropriations Committee until the legislature reconvenes January 8.
The push to advance the bill in 2024 is already underway. Anthony Blankenship continues to lead the steering committee he brought together a year ago, and over the summer and fall, coalition members are meeting with Democratic legislators to educate them on the dangers and moral crisis solitary confinement presents. They are working closely with Rep. Peterson, trying to raise public awareness, and collaborating with nonprofit groups and community organizers.
The Department of Corrections has been in contact with the solitary coalition over the past few months, making cooperative overtures.
According to a statement shared by the Washington Department of Corrections, “DOC did not support HB 1087, but Secretary Strange committed to the legislature to reduce the use of solitary confinement by 90% over the next five years.” The plan, they say, includes four hours a day out-of-cell time for incarcerated individuals in restrictive housing. “We will pursue funding for the plan, which will cost an estimated $228 million over the next five years, in the upcoming legislative session.”
But the DOC’s proposed reforms would do little to mitigate the psychological havoc solitary inflicts, Anthony Blankenship says. “Moving people from one cage to another during the day doesn’t solve the problem. You’re still in solitary, and solitary confinement is torture, plain and simple. That’s how psychologists see it, that’s how the international community sees it. If you’re subjecting people to solitary, you’re practicing torture.”
Rachael Seevers is similarly unimpressed by the notion of retooling solitary units as an alternative to closing them: “Building cages with grass in them is not a solution.”
Opponents of solitary believe the practice won’t end until a bill like HB 1087 passes and formally abolishes it. The DOC has failed to deliver on similar promises of reducing solitary confinement in the past. After Washington’s legislature in 2021 allocated four million dollars to DOC Secretary Cheryl Strange for the purpose of reducing solitary, the number of people in solitary actually rose. The four million dollar allocation was spent, but no one at the Department can say how. (The Washington Department of Corrections offered no comment on this matter.)
Many inside regard with deep skepticism the DOC’s insistence that it will eliminate solitary in good faith, and no bill is necessary. “DOC is for IMU,” says Jorge Saenz. “They’re only acting like they’re against it because they want to be in control of the narrative to stop bills from getting through. Oh no, you don’t need a bill, we’re already doing it on our own. But they’re still taking guys to the hole. Guys are still stuck for years in there.”
“It’s funny,” says Todd Lucas, “they’re putting out these public statements patting themselves on the back about how humane they are and how they’re going to stop using solitary confinement, but they’ll still cuff you up and take you to IMU as quick as they ever did. They’re telling the public one thing and in prison it’s business as usual.”
For Anthony Blankenship, it’s not about adjusting the conditions in solitary units, and lowering the number of people there isn’t good enough. “It’s about meaningful change. You don’t make adjustments to torture. You can’t just pretty it up and call it good. People are being psychologically destroyed. The community is being harmed. Maybe the bill passes this year, maybe not, but we won’t stop until solitary is finished.”
Banner photo: Intensive Management Unit at Washington State Penitentiary in Walla-Walla.