DOC and ACLU working to reduce solitary confinement

Published: Jun. 14, 2017 at 5:35 PM AKDT
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A new partnership between the Department of Corrections and the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska is focused on reducing the use of solitary confinement in jails and prisons the state.

The effort comes more than a year and half after Dean Williams, who was appointed DOC Commissioner in early 2016, completed a report highlighting the overuse and misuse of solitary confinement throughout Alaska jails and prisons at the end of 2015.

"With the overuse, the problem is it's really easy and I'm going to call it lazy," said Bruce Busby, Director of Institution. "An inmate does a bad thing and we just throw them in segregation and that's easy for us. It's hard on the individual."

On Wednesday, the DOC and ACLU of Alaska, were joined by New York University's Segregation Solutions, a group that specializes in solitary confinement.

Throughout the week, the will be touring Alaska prisons. They're here to see help DOC work toward reducing its reliance on segregation.

"I think what you have to do when you think about segregation, is think about what is the prison system trying to achieve," said Dan Pacholke, Senior Research Scholar, NYU. "There is a requirement to run a safe operation. So how do we maintain safety for the staff that work here and inmates that live here, and next to that, how do we increase public safety outcomes."

"We're very pleased to see that DOC has committed to this partnership, but we are still at the very beginning of this endeavor, the hard work is yet to come," said ACLU of Alaska's Legal and Policy Director Tara Rich. "We are eager to work together to find creative solutions to protect people, both inside corrections and to create healthy environments so that when they return to society, we protect their communities as well."

DOC officials say the goal of the partnership is reexamine procedures, including how an inmate can request segregation and offering alternative sanctions. They also hope to make it more difficult to get in to solitary confinement by vetting prisoners on the front end, and finally, making it easier for inmates to get out.

"How it is now," said Busby. "An inmate can request segregation, and rather than argue with them, we'll let them go and we won't talk to them again for 30 days. That's when they're due for their next hearing. So we're going to put more checks in the way during the 30 days to get them to come out."

DOC has also created a "Green Room." A room that will allow inmates to spend an hour each day watching and/or listening to nature. Pacholke says this room will help reduce anxiety.

"What you just saw in that green room is a fairly modern approach towards reducing anxiety," said Pacholke. "So if someone is having to a certain degree an anxious moment in their cell, bringing them in and showing them nature imagery is a way to de-escalate people."

In the coming months, Segregation Solutions will review data, speak with staff, inmates and inmates' families, before completing an assessment and making recommendations to the DOC.