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How to Get Out of Solitary — One Step at a Time

New programs are easing inmates out of years of solitary confinement with surprising outcomes for both prisoners and corrections officers.

A segregation (solitary confinement) cell at Alger Correctional Facility, where men in the Incentives in Segregation program work their way to placement in general population through good behavior. At stage 4 prisoners are allowed to watch television. Maurice Chammah/The Marshall Project

B efore solitary confinement became a widely acknowledged national problem—before the hunger strikes and class-action lawsuits, before the Senate hearings, before a Supreme Court justice’s condemnation of the “human toll wrought by extended terms of isolation,” before corrections leaders described holding more than 80,000 prisoners alone in a cell for 23 hours a day as a “grave problem”—Catherine Bauman did something a bit less dramatic. She called a staff meeting.

This story was produced in collaboration with The Atlantic.

Bauman, a small woman with long red hair, is the warden of Alger Correctional Facility in Michigan’s upper peninsula, a remote prison near Lake Superior, just across from Canada. She’s hard to miss; the staff are mostly husky white men from nearby small towns, and the inmates are mostly black men from urban areas hundreds of miles away. In the summer of 2009, Bauman had been warden for less than a year when her bosses at the Michigan Department of Corrections—in the wake of a lawsuit over a prisoner’s death in an isolation cell—asked prisons throughout the state to come up with ways to reduce the number of prisoners held in what the department calls “administrative segregation,” or “seg.”

Bauman volunteered, and she did not have trouble getting her staff interested. Fully half of Alger’s 500 inmates were housed in three seg wings, and nobody liked working in them, even if they believed they were necessary for safety. The officers didn’t like the smell of urine, feces, body odors, smoke; or the sounds of banging and shouting; or how often they had to suit up in riot gear—the “goon squad”—to tackle men wielding shanks or lighting fires in their cells.

For many policy makers and activists, curbing the use of solitary confinement is a moral imperative: Depriving prisoners of human contact exacerbates and even produces mental illness, increases the risk of suicide, and generally engenders a sense of hopelessness. But for the nation’s prison administrators and officers—whether their motivations come from political pressure, court orders, the high cost of solitary cells, or genuine human concern—the problem is practical. Many of those in solitary are mentally ill or were placed there for their own protection and can be shuffled out quickly. But what about the prisoners who landed there by attacking other inmates or officers?

Bauman’s staff needed a way to minimize risk. Over the course of 25 meetings, they devised a system of six “stages” that the men could pass through on their way from solitary to a lower-security status. On the way, there would be perks: At one stage, they would get recreation equipment, like a basketball, during their hour per day out of the cell. Later on, they would be able to keep a television in their cells. Most importantly, they would be able to call family members, which is normally forbidden in solitary.

Prison is an environment that breeds antagonism and psychologists have long agreed that solitary confinement only exacerbates a cycle of recalcitrance and retribution. Prisoners resist their punishments, thereby driving officers to punish them more. At Alger, the staff found it could reverse this process simply by giving prisoners a reason not to be violent.

Since it began in 2009, Alger’s Incentives in Segregation program has allowed the prison to transform one of its three 88-man segregation wings into a general-population wing. The program has spread to multiple prisons in the state, and the daily average number of Michigan prisoners in administrative segregation has dropped by nearly 20 percent, from 1,204 in 2008 to 982 in 2013.

There were other benefits: Alger saw a 76 percent drop in the yearly rate of “critical incidents,” such as physical assaults and rapes, and an 88 percent drop in smaller rule-breaking, such as smoking in a cell. Also, it smelled better. The riot gear sat unused for longer periods. “If you were an officer who left six years ago and came back today,” Joe Naeyaert, a counselor at Alger, told me, “you would not believe how quiet it is down there, how clean it is, a prisoner in a seg cell saying, ‘Thank you’ or ‘Please.’” In the calmer environment, mental illness has also become easier to spot.

Alger was one of the first prisons to experiment with this sort of program, and in the six years since it began, more than 30 states have developed similar ones, using words such as “step-down,” “levels,” and “incentives.” They have become an integral part of a nationwide shift away from solitary confinement at a moment when policy makers—President Barack Obama chief among them—are questioning the severity of U.S. prisons and sentencing laws more broadly. Taylor Pendergrass, an attorney with the New York Civil Liberties Union, has written that “the search for a way out of solitary confinement mirrors the effort to reduce mass incarceration,” and both efforts “will come down to the same question: can we respond to violence differently?” Programs like the one at Alger are asking that question as their officers attempt to find the balance between the rights of prisoners and a concern for safety, person by person, thousands of times a day.

Some opponents of solitary confinement remain wary of these programs since they continue to keep prisoners in harsh conditions while also giving wide latitude to officers to decide their fates. But an imperfect solution can be better than nothing, and such programs also offer ammunition to activists trying to hold other facilities more accountable in their use of solitary, a practice that remains widespread. The New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision recently announced it would create a “step-down” program as part of a legal settlement after the agency was sued for its widespread use of solitary. Last July, Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote that soon he and his fellow judges might be asked to examine “whether workable alternative systems for long-term confinement exist” and if prisons that don’t use them should be required by law to put them in place.

T here are many ways to get sent to solitary confinement. Stoney Harris punched an officer. Jimmie Griffin attacked another prisoner. Carl Parker El was found with a piece of fiberglass sharpened into a weapon. He intended to stab his cellmate, who had been stealing the meat sticks and noodles Parker El bought from the commissary. All three of these men have been in the Michigan prison system for more than a decade on long sentences for murder or armed robbery, and all three are familiar with what it is like to go into segregation and have little sense of when they would be coming out.

In 2009, when Bauman and her staff developed Incentives in Segregation, Harris—who is 43 but looks younger, with a shaved head and bright, wide-open eyes—had been in segregation for more than two years. A decade into a life sentence for murder with no possibility of parole, he was acclimated to prison life. He had also been put in seg before. It had not made him more docile: Whenever officers finally did let him go back to general population, “I’d be angry,” Harris told me. “Do something violent.”

Harris’s most recent trip to seg came after he assaulted an officer who was trying to restrain Harris’s friend. When they put him in solitary, Harris kicked at his window and cursed at the officers when they strolled by his cell.

Stoney Harris, who is now in general population, went through the incentives program in 2009.

But this time, the officers gave him a manual detailing the new Incentives in Segregation program, in which Harris had automatically been enrolled. (Inmates cannot opt out.) He read that the program was designed “to motivate prisoners to demonstrate appropriate behavior.” He read that his behavior would be evaluated during each eight-hour shift by officers and reviewed once a week to see if he could move up through the stages. Harris would start at stage two of six—so he’d have something to lose—and automatically receive a basketball or another piece of equipment during his daily hour in the rec yard.

Stage three: crossword puzzles. Stage four: a television and one 15-minute phone call per month. Stage five: two phone calls. Stage six: approval for general population. Along the way, there were smaller rewards. Harris volunteered to clean a cell after its occupant was transferred. He strapped a mask to his face to protect it from the cleaning fumes. An officer gave him a box of cookies.

At Alger, there are two primary ways to advance through the stages. The first has to do with behavior. Prisoners must not be “threatening towards staff or prisoners” and must speak to staff “without yelling, swearing, or exposing.” Also, cells must be kept clean, and the prisoners “must maintain proper hygiene” and shower three days a week.

Nationally, step-down programs range widely on what is expected of prisoners and what is given in return, but the emphasis on clean, positive behavior is a common theme, bordering on parental discipline—treating prisoners as wayward children in need of polite but stern correction. A memo from Wisconsin’s corrections secretary, Ed Wall, to his staff in April 2014 made this explicit. “Any of us who are parents know that when we discipline our children, we can choose various strategies,” Wall wrote. “We may punish the child by taking away activities or privileges, but we also want to teach the behaviors that we see as more appropriate.”

The second way men at Alger move up through the stages is by writing essays, which must describe the crimes that got them placed into solitary and their efforts to avoid repeating them. Most of the essays are less than a page long and describe remorse over having done something violent. They range from rumination (“If you take responsibility and blame yourself, you have the power to change things”), to regret (“I usually call [my family] twice a week. Now, I can’t ever do that cause I let my pride and my mouth get in the way”), to philosophy (“Just as the small seed is responsible for the giant tree, thought is to action”), to excitement (“I am absolutely gaga over receiving my television last week!”). The essays force the men to reconsider their actions. “I think about an angry moment, and I realize it boiled down to nothing,” Parker El said.

Motivation also comes from watching other seg prisoners go through the stages and ultimately earn their way out—“positive peer pressure,” Bauman calls it. But the biggest motivator is often family. Many of the prisoners are from cities in southern Michigan, meaning they are hundreds of miles from loved ones (Detroit is a six-hour drive), and visits are difficult. Before the incentives program, Harris did not know when he would go back to general population and be able to call home. “I went years without talking to my mother,” he told me. Once the program started, few things were as motivating as a desire to get to stage four, to get 15 minutes of his mother’s voice.

O f course, no two programs are the same, and some are more successful than others. As step-down plans have spread throughout U.S. prisons—there are now more than 30 such initiatives—they have often been developed independently. As a result, they can look radically different. Alger enrolls every seg prisoner in the program and gives self-help books to interested prisoners, while in Washington state, prisoners participate in role-playing games to learn conflict resolution. A program run by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice focused on getting men to renounce their ties to prison gangs offers “nine months of programming on substance abuse, alcohol abuse, group classroom instruction, anger management, and criminal-addictive behavior.” But adding programming can be expensive and can limit how many prisoners are able to participate; the Texas program, for one, has been criticized for its long waiting list.

Some psychologists are critical of giving staff full control over how fast prisoners move through the stages—this is the case at Alger—as opposed to setting unambiguous standards the prisoners have to meet (such as taking a substance-abuse class, for example, or going to counseling). James Austin, a corrections consultant and former director of the Institute on Crime, Justice, and Corrections at George Washington University, said, “It’s like a college saying after four years, ‘You may graduate based on how we feel about you.’”

The recreation area at Alger Correctional Facility used by men in the Incentives in Segregation program.

Austin was part of a group of experts who made recommendations for the step-down program at the federal “supermax” prison in Florence, Colorado. The program takes 24 months to complete, which prisoners and advocates consider far too long. In an ongoing class-action lawsuit filed against the federal Bureau of Prisons, a group of plaintiffs have alleged that the program can take years to finish even with perfect behavior and that minor mistakes can send prisoners back into solitary. (The bureau did not respond to requests for comment.)

Ironically, Colorado, the same state that houses the federal supermax prison in Florence, is also home to a state prison agency that is consistently cited by reformers as one of the most progressive in the country in its efforts to abolish solitary. Rick Raemisch, who runs the Colorado Department of Corrections, initially tried a “levels” program like the one at Alger to move men out of solitary, but he eventually ended it after finding that too many prisoners were not advancing through the system quickly enough. “We decided that when someone goes in, they should know when they’re coming out,” Raemisch said recently at a Vera Institute of Justice conference in Washington, D.C. Now, anyone placed in solitary will, by policy, spend no more than a year there.

“There are those that say, ‘What about the most dangerous people?’” Raemisch said. Wouldn’t it be too dangerous to let them all back into the general population of the prison? “Well, I have an inmate population of about 20,000. I have one individual I’m too concerned to let out. ... We can deal with the ‘ones’ in the world.”

Compared with many states, Alger’s Incentives in Segregation program is relatively short. And there’s no doubt some men have finished, returned to general population, and acted out violently again, only to go back into solitary. Staff say they do not have the resources to track how many men have gone through the program, or how many have gone through it more than once. But Bauman is convinced her program works: After all, there’s one fewer seg wing, violent incidents are down dramatically, and overall behavior is the best it has been in years.

C orrections officers talk about the ways step-down programs have transformed the behavior of prisoners. But they are less outspoken about the ways the programs have transformed them.

Earlier this year, I toured the Penitentiary of New Mexico, in Santa Fe. The state’s prison system’s spokeswoman, Alex Tomlin, led me through a solitary-confinement wing, much of which is used to isolate members of prison gangs from one another. New Mexico has a program that allows men to get out of solitary if they leave their gangs.

At one point, Tomlin stopped at the door of a solitary wing, where a piece of paper was posted with the names and pictures of the men inside. She tapped the face of a man named Daniel Herrera—whom she evidently knew—and said to a corrections officer nearby, “What happened?” The officer explained that Herrera had renounced his ties to a gang and been transferred to another prison. But then he started to recruit for the gang he claimed to have left. “It’s so disappointing,” Tomlin said, looking genuinely discouraged.

Step-down programs have had the unintended consequence of encouraging those who work in prisons to see prisoners in a more sympathetic light. At Alger Correctional Facility, the essays the prisoners write help them develop a rapport with officers and other prison staff. By reading the essays, prison staff learn about the mental struggles of the men, which in turn makes the staff more likely to sympathize with them, and to work to motivate them to continue through the stages. “It surprised me, that I would tell the truth,” Harris said of his essays. “I used to not share anything with staff except cussing words.”

Inmates in the Incentives in Segregation program are rewarded for the good behavior with television privileges, phone calls, and food items.

The officers read the essays, but they don’t share them or talk about them. When I received some of the essays, many of the authors’ names were redacted, not for secrecy but out of respect for their privacy.

“One of the worst features of the isolation craze is the deterioration of relationships between staff and prisoners,” says Terry Kupers, a San Francisco psychologist who has spent decades studying the psychological effects of solitary confinement. If officers are encouraged to see prisoners as people capable of change for the better, they “can actually serve as mentors and role-models.”

In some places, the positive effect on staff has been quantifiable: Maine credits their step-down program with a steep reduction in worker’s compensation claims from prison staff citing stress and anxiety due to their jobs. Claims dropped from nearly $200,000 in 2013 to less than $40,000 in 2014.

Prisoners in the Incentives in Segregation program at Alger have also noticed a new attitude among the officers. “Some officers, I always thought, didn’t give a damn about you,” Parker El said. “Now they help you. I laugh with them.” Prisoner Courtney Betts even wrote a thank-you note to a staff member who had recommended he read the Harry Potter book series: “It can pass your time and take you to a world of fiction, which apparently can take your mind out of this terrible setting [where] we are currently residing!”

After I spoke with Stoney Harris, one of the men who had been through the Alger program, I asked Ron Harris, the prison official who runs the program, about what had gotten Stoney locked up for life with no chance of parole. Ron told me that Stoney was involved in the shooting of two people at a drug house in Detroit: “He was just part of the wrong crowd, the street mentality. The stuff that goes on in Detroit every day.” I have visited more than a dozen prisons in several states, and it is rare to hear a corrections worker speak with so much sympathy about a prisoner convicted of such a serious crime.

So I asked Stoney Harris how he felt about the officers since the program began. “At first, you think all the officers are bad, aren’t human beings,” he said. “Now, it’s not a relationship. But it is respect.”