Alaska looks to reform its solitary confinement practices

A cell in the punitive segregation unit at the Anchorage Correctional Complex. (Photo by Anne Hillman, Alaska Public Media – Anchorage)

The Department of Corrections and the ACLU are working together to reform the department’s solitary confinement practices. They brought in a team of experts from New York University to tour facilities and their segregation units this week and develop suggestions that will improve conditions for both inmates and staff.

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Through heavy metal doors of the Anchorage Correctional Complex, down a plain white hallway, is a plain white room lined with tiny two-person cells. Day light seeps in through thin slits in the cell walls falling on shiny metal toilets that are just feet from where the inmates sleep and eat. This is the punitive segregation unit at the Anchorage Correctional Complex. Inmates who live there have some access to phones, visiting hours, puzzle books, and other activities, but they’re in their white cells for the vast majority of the day.

“Segregation is known to be psychologically detrimental to those who are in there for any length of time,” Bruce Busby, DOC’s director of Instiutions said.

A 2015 report from the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics showed just over 4 percent of all federal and state inmates nationwide were in restricted housing in 2012. Busby said in Alaska, it was closer to 10 percent.

“The problem is it’s really easy, and I’m going to call it lazy, right?” Busby said. “An inmate does a bad thing and we just throw them in seg. It’s easy for us. It’s hard on the individual.”

But recently the department has tried to reduce that number – it’s currently at 8.5 percent. Busby said the department is looking for alternative ways to punish disciplinary problems whenever possible.

“If you have an inmate who is always going to be bashing heads out in general pop, he has no business being in general pop,” Busby said. “If it’s an inmate who has a drug problem, maybe we can intercede in another way, maybe through treatment or alternative sanctions.”

That includes things like restricting access to commissary or requiring work service.

Busby said many people also choose restricted housing because they fear for their safety in the general population. He said the department is looking at different housing options that make people feel safer.

“We want to house the goldfish with the goldfish and the sharks with the sharks,” Busby said.

And making prisons safer is one of the main goals of reforming segregation practices according to Dan Pacholke, a researcher with New York University who was invited to Alaska by the DOC and the ACLU.

“We want safe, humane environments,” Pacholke said. “You can reduce segregation rates and create safer environments both for staff and offenders at the same time.”

Those are things Pacholke accomplished during his 33 years with the Washington state corrections system. He says when walking through the Anchorage facility, he noticed that staff seemed thoughtful and inmates didn’t shout as he passed by and greeted them — all positive indicators about conditions in the institution.

The department is also learning from other institutions across the country to help inmates who are in segregation learn social skills and coping skills. Busby said they now have tables at the Spring Creek Correctional Center with handcuffs strung through them. That way inmates can sit together and have group sessions without hurting each other. Some cells also have fenced in porch-like areas that let them talk to people in the day room but not physically interact.

Other new innovations try to combat the effects of sensory deprivation.

The Green Room at the Anchorage Correctional Complex will soon be painted and allow inmates a chance to immerse themselves in nature imagery and sounds.

Soon segregated inmates will be able to sit alone in a secured, green-painted room with a giant flat screen TV and immerse themselves in sounds and images of nature – everything from snow falling to flamingos playing. Other prisons in the US have shown it reduces stress and anxiety and can de-escalate situations before they get violent.

NYU researcher Sandy Mullins said that segregation doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and over the next few months and years they’ll be looking at everything from Alaska’s policies and procedures regarding entering and leaving segregation to what’s influencing inmate behavior.

Mullins said segregation is a tool for disrupting behavior, not an answer in and of itself. She said we need to remember that almost everyone who is incarcerated, will at some point be released.

“You want to do no harm,” Mullins said. “You don’t want to create a person who’s more person than when they came in. So while prison isn’t inherently therapeutic, it can definitely be more humane. More of a generative environment where people are growing and thinking and more ready to be on the outside.”

The move toward reforming segregation in Alaska’s prisons was prompted by the local ACLU, which was concerned about youth being placed in solitary when at adult facilities. The process will include interviews with prison staff and current and former inmates, and doesn’t have a set timeline yet.