On Oct. 7, 600 inmates at Clallam Bay Corrections Center went on a food strike to protest ongoing issues with conditions at the prison.

Inmates were concerned about collective punishment, the high costs for goods and services coupled with low pay for work, quality of food and other issues. Two days later, 36 people — including the food strike leaders — were shipped to Walla Walla State Penitentiary and 15 of them were placed in solitary confinement, also known as the Intensive Management Unit or IMU.

Solitary confinement means being locked in a prison, jail or detention for 22-24 hours a day with no social contact, limited access to family and limited or no access to rehabilitation or education programs.

Those subjected to solitary confinement often suffer anxiety, hallucinations, paranoia, cognitive decline and many other issues. While people in solitary confinement are between 3% and 8% of the prison population, they make up 50% of prison suicides.

Called by a number of names, the use of solitary confinement is shockingly common in the U.S. According to a 2015 study by Yale Law School, an estimated 80,000 people are in solitary confinement across the country on a given day. And while the U.N. adopted “Mandela Rules” in 2015 saying solitary should be used only in exceptional cases and prohibiting the use of solitary confinement beyond 15 days, the Yale study showed 81% of those held in solitary were held between one month and over six years. 

So why should we care what happens to 36 people locked up in the northwest tip of the state? Isn’t the point of prison to punish? What difference does it make if they are in solitary or not?

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If we are judged as a society by how we treat the most marginalized, we must care about the treatment of those hidden away in the world’s largest system of mass incarceration.

One of the most surprising aspects of the use of solitary confinement is the use of “administrative segregation,” which is ostensibly used by prisons and jails to maintain order, or to “protect” inmates rather than punish them.

According to Nick Straley, Columbia Legal Services’ lead attorney representing the Clallam Bay inmates, those in administrative segregation can be held for longer periods of time at the discretion of the prison. While for a small infraction, an inmate would be held in disciplinary segregation for no more than 20 days, administrative segregation — like the type used against the food strikers — requires no infractions and allows people to be held up to 47 days before reevaluation.

Unsurprisingly, this segregation method has become popular in prisons, with the majority of people in solitary now held in administrative segregation, according to the 2015 Yale study. The longest periods in solitary are also now in administrative segregation, with 14% held a year or longer, compared with 2% held a year or longer in disciplinary segregation.

Andres Pacificar, 60, knows firsthand what solitary does to a person. Pacificar is a leadership fellow with the Robert Wood Johnson’s Forward Promise program and a YMCA of Greater Seattle Alive & Free outreach worker, focused on support for court-involved youth. From 1990-2008, Pacificar served time in prisons from Clallam Bay to Walla Walla after pleading guilty to murder. While in Clallam Bay, Pacificar founded the Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Awareness Group (API-CAG) to help the administration understand the needs of API inmates as well as work with younger people on gang and violence prevention.

After founding API-CAG in 1994, Pacificar said he was put in solitary three times. The first time was for 13 months, purportedly for a phone violation, but he believes the real cause was retaliation for his work to improve conditions in the prison. He said the experience was life changing.

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“The mental pain that IMU creates breaks men down,” Pacificar said. “You know, I used to question my existence for so long. I would talk to myself because you get so used to being inside your own head and not having anyone to talk to. You’re not sure [the difference between] reality and just thoughts. Where’s the line?”

Ultimately, Pacificar said, this mental brutalization is not just inhumane, it’s self defeating.

“At the end, those people that they’re creating in those IMUs will one day be your next-door neighbor,” he said, and the anger and mental deterioration created in solitary confinement are antithetical to the goals of successful rehabilitation and integration.

“I’ve seen many, many prisoners break and succumb to the torture that it is,” he said.

U.N. investigator Juan Méndez also warns against “the severe mental pain or suffering solitary confinement may cause,” saying it “can amount to torture.”

The Department of Corrections (DOC) said that since 2011, it has cut the number of people in restrictive housing and is working on other improvements. And as of last Thursday and following delivery of a letter to the governor by advocates demanding the inmates’ release from solitary, the DOC said the last of the transferred inmates were removed from solitary at Walla Walla. But for those trying to advocate for better conditions at Clallam Bay, the damage might already be done.

Straley said through the retaliatory transfers and solitary confinements, the DOC sent a clear signal.

“The message that I think people are hearing is that if you are concerned about the serious conditions in prison, you can suffer … the most serious consequences, which is being thrown in solitary confinement. And that message is heard … by all the men at the prison.”

Ironically, many of the issues raised by inmates at Clallam Bay were echoed in the Nov. 1 release of the first annual report of the Office of the Corrections Ombuds, which said efforts should be made to build connections between inmates and their families to foster reintegration; healthy, quality food should be prioritized; and more opportunities for job skills created.

In addition to the DOC adopting those recommendations, Washington state policymakers should take a hard look at the use of solitary confinement and consider adopting the U.N. standards, so that Washington state can truly recognize the dignity of all people.