Utah Prison Joins Initiative To Curb Solitary Confinement

Dec 22, 2016

The Utah Department of Corrections has signed on to a nationwide initiative to put fewer inmates in solitary confinement. Corrections officials say it will enhance efforts already underway.

The maximum security unit at the Utah State prison is an intimidating place.

Jerry Pope, Director of the Division of Prison operations is showing me around.

“What you’re looking at is we’ve got six sections in this building,” he says. “This officer, he watches them and they get out about an hour and a half a day together.”

He says something like assaulting staff or other inmates will get a prisoner solitary confinement. But prior to recent changes, the rules for who went into solitary, and how long they stayed there were inconsistent.

“There was really no rhyme or reason to the program,” Pope says. “There was no program.”

Now, a committee of prison officials convene once a week to evaluate the individuals causing trouble. And they’ve created a three-tier system, in which inmates earn more and more privileges until they’re reassigned to the general population. Pope says it gives inmates a light at the end of the tunnel, where there was none before.

“For those that want to progress and those that want to do better, I think it’s working,” he says.

In the last year, Utah has gone from having one of the highest rates of prisoners in solitary confinement to a number more comparable to the national average. 

Utah is one of five states that will be working with the Vera Institute of Justice over the next 21 months to improve their policies even more. Jean Casella with the group Solitary Watch says with this partnership, Utah can treat inmates more like other Western countries where solitary confinement is rare because it’s not an acceptable practice.

“It also tends to lead to more prison violence because it breaks it breaks down people’s psyches and makes them very angry and depressed and anxious,” Casella says.

Back at the prison, Jerry Pope says inviting more scrutiny will make the facility a safer place for inmates, staff and the public should offenders in solitary confinement eventually be released.