The Alaska Department of Corrections will join the American Civil Liberties Union in a first-time effort to reduce the use of solitary confinement in Alaska prisons, the two organizations announced this week.
As part of the effort to reduce solitary confinement, a group of New York University experts on Wednesday will begin a tour of three prisons — the Anchorage jail, maximum security Spring Creek Correctional Center in Seward and Goose Creek Correctional Center in Point MacKenzie.
The NYU-affiliated group, Segregation Solutions, will help the department to devise a plan for reducing its use of solitary confinement, known in corrections jargon as "segregation."
Inmates in solitary confinement live in extreme isolation, separated from peers either for punishment or their own protection. Sometimes, that means 23 hours a day locked alone in a cell, with an hour for exercise.
Today, about 8 percent of prisoners in Alaska's jails and prisons are in segregation status at any given time, according to corrections commissioner Dean Williams, though not all types of segregation mean full 23-hour-a-day, in-a-cell solitary confinement.
The fact that the corrections department and the ACLU are working together on the reform is significant and unusual, Williams said.
"I don't know that this has been done anywhere else in the country," he said. "I couldn't be happier that the ACLU and I are working together on things, rather than being in a contentious position or having some litigation."
Williams said cutting back on the use of solitary confinement is a priority because "of the damage it does to a person. When you put someone in a place for 20-plus hours a day it's destructive of an individual's well-being. And because 90 percent of these people are eventually getting out of prison, it's not good for the public."
The 8 percent in segregation in Alaska include a few juveniles being tried in adult court who are held alone to keep them away from adult prisoners.
"That's a really tough nut for me to crack," Williams said. "We have one person who is a minor who is in a very small living unit, where there would normally be five or six other (minors) and he's alone. He's out of his cell for five or six hours a day, but it is still not ideal."
Another inmate serving a life sentence at Spring Creek Correctional Center has been in solitary-like conditions for more than 20 years, despite efforts on the part of staff to reintegrate him into the broader prison population. Inmates who spend too much time in solitary risk being "institutionalized" in it, making it even harder to safely have them live among other prisoners again, Williams said.
Solitary confinement causes long-lasting psychological harm, the ACLU says.
"We know that when we lock people down, we take away their life skills. They are released back into our communities far more damaged and less capable of dealing with life's challenges than when they went in," Tara Rich, the ACLU of Alaska's legal and policy director, said in a statement.
Williams said the percentage of prisoners in segregation has been reduced from 10 percent to 8.5 percent over the past year and a half or so. But he doesn't think the practice will be eliminated.
"It is not the goal to eliminate it entirely — there are dangerous things that happen in prison and we have to have a way to dividing (inmates) out."
Williams called Colorado prisons chief Rick Raemisch his "hero and mentor" on solitary confinement. Colorado reduced its proportion of inmates in segregation status from about 10 percent to just over 1 percent, Williams said.
Already, Alaska is trying some techniques to keep unstable and violent inmates from committing infractions that put them in segregation to begin with.
In Seward, some violent inmates are allowed to play cards — but while they're handcuffed to the table. That way, Williams said, "they can interact with each other but not beat each other up."