North Dakota Prison Officials Think Outside The Box To Revamp Solitary Confinement Thousands of inmates serve some of their time in solitary confinement, locked down in small cells for up to 23 hours a day. North Dakota is changing its thinking on this segregated housing.

North Dakota Prison Officials Think Outside The Box To Revamp Solitary Confinement

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There are slightly more than 2 million people who are incarcerated in the U.S. That is nearly equal to the entire population of the city of Houston. Among those prisoners, thousands serve time in solitary confinement, isolated in small, often windowless cells for 22 to 24 hours a day, sometimes for months, even years. This practice has been criticized as cruel and ineffective. North Dakota, though, is one state where the prison system is changing. Here's NPR's Cheryl Corley.

CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: Solitary confinement goes by many names. The hole, segregation, the SHU - for special housing unit. Whatever the name, its designed purpose was to punish disruptive inmates who broke rules and to keep the prison safe by removing them from the general population.


CORLEY: As the gate opens at the prison in Bismarck, chief of security Joe Charvat walks over to the West Wing.

JOE CHARVAT: And this area used to house our administrative segregation unit which has now since been moved to another area.

CORLEY: That's their name for solitary confinement. Charvat says the solid metal doors of the cell were considered safer for staff, and there was little contact between corrections officers and those behind the doors. The penitentiary's warden Colby Braun says for years North Dakota's isolation unit operated like many others.

COLBY BRAUN: It was 23 hours a day lockdown. So you had one hour of recreation a day to include your shower. That was five days a week. So on the weekends, you were generally locked down for 24 hours. And that means you're in your cell. You do not come out for any reason.

CORLEY: Now things are different. There's much more recreation time. Prisoners spend several hours learning new skills. They focus on changing their behavior. North Dakota's director of corrections and rehabilitation Leann Bertsch is behind the change. Her inspiration came after a trip to Norway organized by U.S. prison reform groups. Bertsch called it a defining moment and decided to speed up changes already in the works.

LEANN BERTSCH: There is just such an overemphasis on punishment and punitiveness. You know, Norway talks about punishment that works. And when they mean it to work, it's to actually make society safer by getting people to be law-abiding individuals and desist from future reoffending.

CORLEY: So North Dakota prison officials met to figure out how to do that. Bertsch says they worked to define what would land people in segregated housing in the first place.

BERTSCH: There was a lot of different behaviors that could get you in before. So we really narrowed it down.

CORLEY: They dropped minor infractions, like talking back to a corrections officer, and created a top 10 list of dangerous behaviors, like serious assault, using a weapon, and murder. The new name for the prison's segregated housing became Behavior Intervention Unit, or BIU. Clinical director Dr. Lisa Peterson says the goal is to help people succeed after they leave. She says it was clear the old way wasn't working.

LISA PETERSON: The idea that somebody's just going to sit there and think about what they did and magically know how to handle a situation differently in the future is not accurate.

CORLEY: The state penitentiary in Bismarck can house about 800 inmates. In late 2015, when North Dakota started making its change, there were 80 or 90 in isolation. On this day, there are only about 20. The people in the unit go through a mental health screening to determine in part whether they have any suicidal thoughts. They participate in group therapeutic sessions. They're taught skills like how to cope with anger. As correctional officers make their rounds, they talk with inmates about how they're doing. Skill building and rapport building is big here.

BRAUN: One-zero-two, Barb.

CORLEY: Warden Colby Braun walks into Room 102, one of the empty cells in the solitary unit. It measures 7 feet by 13. The door has a long, vertical window, plus a slot for food. Inside, there is a metal toilet and sink, a metal bed, a small metal desk and seat. Here's where it gets different. There are several electrical outlets in the room. Some prisoners who own TVs or tablets are allowed to bring them in the cell. Another narrow, vertical window lets in light from outside.

BRAUN: So when you get closer to the end of the wing, when a person looks out, they can actually see cars going by.

CORLEY: Medical groups have issued strong warnings about how prolonged isolation causes human damage - depression, anxiety, a loss of contact with reality and suicide. The United Nations and other groups have called it torture and say in most cases solitary confinement should be banned. In North Dakota, the average stay for inmates, with some exceptions, is 30 to 45 days.

OLAY SILVA: My name's Olay Silva.

CORLEY: A few years ago, a prison stabbing put Silva in the old solitary unit for about six months.

SILVA: You're shut off from the world. You wait. You just sit there and wait.

CORLEY: Silva says it could get tense. Inmates would curse and try to destroy things. Correctional officers, he said, would ignore prisoners and not get things they needed.

SILVA: There's tit for tat stuff, you know? That's not really the case, you know, a lot now. It's, like, they reward you for being involved. You know, they don't let you sit back there no more and just basically dwell.

CORLEY: But changing the system was a hard sell. Some staff felt they'd be at risk, that violence would increase. Case manager David Roggenbuck oversees the officers and the activities in the BIU. He used to be an officer in the old solitary unit, and at first was skeptical about the change.

DAVID ROGGENBUCK: Kind of the mindset is, if you didn't like being in prison, don't come. Don't commit a crime. Don't come. You're here? Well, tough cookies. I've really looked at that, and, what does that accomplish?

CORLEY: Another staffer, Sergeant Frantz Jean-Pierre, says now he gets to know the people in restricted housing on a more personal level, not just as some inmate locked up in a cell. He says the change has made a difference. In the past, he dealt with an incident on his shift at least three or four times a week.

FRANTZ JEAN-PIERRE: And, by an incident I mean, like, someone trying to commit suicide, or someone trying to flood their cell or being completely disorderly, stuff like that. We haven't had hardly any of that. So, I mean, everything's completely changed.

CORLEY: Corrections officials here admit that changing the prison's solitary confinement policy may be less difficult in a state with a smaller and more homogeneous prison population, and with fewer prison gangs. Even with the reform efforts, though, North Dakota officials say there are some prisoners too dangerous to eliminate segregated housing completely. Corrections director Bertsch says even so, prison has to be about providing an opportunity for change - so North Dakota's effort to use solitary confinement as little as possible and in a different way makes sense. Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Bismarck, N.D.

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