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When I woke up to my daily job as a prisoner at the Washington State Reformatory, I had a cup of freeze-dried coffee and watched the local morning news. One story immediately caught my attention: The reporter said the Washington Department of Corrections (WDOC) had decided to stop using racial segregation as a punishment. Could that even be possible? I convinced myself that I must have misunderstood something.

The department claimed it had not used disciplinary segregation in two weeks and had no plans to use it in the future. But as someone who lives in the violent and repressive US prison system and has experienced solitary confinement first hand, I knew the truth: The solitary confinement was not over yet – they had just decided to call it different.

The reality is that “disciplinary separation” is just one of the many terms that correctional departments use to describe solitary confinement. States like Michigan, Texas, and Virginia routinely keep prisoners in isolation, but deny that it equates to solitary confinement. Simply renaming the practice will not fix the damage it caused.

The press response to the WDOC’s announcement was overwhelmingly positive. Some media outlets alleged that the state was ending solitary confinement entirely, prompting the department to issue a clarification on its own press release, indicating that it “continues to use segregation for non-disciplinary purposes such as investigation, security, protective custody and classification”.

We need to take a much deeper look at what is actually being changed.

From my point of view, this political change lags far behind the massive reform that the ministry is calling for. In its press releases, the WDOC admitted that the actual number of days individuals spent in designated disciplinary segregation was low, as inmates had often already served a period of solitary confinement with administrative segregation while awaiting their hearings.

The WDOC has not yet determined which penalties will replace the disciplinary separation. One worrying possibility is to lock prisoners in their cells, which is often used as a disciplinary measure. In some cases, people are held in detention for a month or more. This approach is really no different from being housed in a separate, empty cell made for solitude, with nothing but the concrete walls to keep you company.

Many of us now suffer permanent damage to our mental, emotional and psychological well-being. Self-harm, suicide, an increased risk of relapse, physical discomfort and even a lower life expectancy are documented side effects of solitary confinement. Will there be liability for the damage we have suffered?

Since the announcement of the end of disciplinary segregation, the WDOC has continued to use solitary confinement as a means to punish, abuse and intimidate prisoners. This minor change in policy will do nothing to contain the abuses of this system of state violence.

Forgive those of us who are directly affected by the violence of this system if we hesitate to hand out trophies and awards. To do this, we need to see real change; Until then, we will continue to work behind these walls to end the brutal practice of solitary confinement in all its forms.

Christopher Blackwell is serving a 45-year prison sentence in Washington State. He co-founded Look 2 Justice and is currently working on the publication of a book on solitary confinement. This column was produced for The Progressive magazine and distributed by the Tribune News Service. Copyright 2021 Tribune Content Agency.

Copyright 2021 Tribune Content Agency.


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