The Washington State Department of Corrections announced last week that they will not use solitary confinement as punishment anymore. A recent audit by the department showed the majority of people subjected to the isolation had committed non-violent infractions. Deputy Secretary of the WA DOC, Sean Murphy, joins us to talk about the decision.


The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. The Washington Department of Corrections announced recently, it is no longer going to use disciplinary segregation for its adults in custody, meaning it won’t put inmates in what the public calls solitary confinement, as punishment. The state agency made this announcement after collecting a year’s worth of data and finding that disciplinary segregation is simply not effective at deterring negative behavior. Sean Murphy is a Deputy Secretary of the Washington Department of Corrections. He joins us now with more. It’s good to have you on the show.

Sean Murphy: Thanks, it’s great to be here.

Miller: What did time in disciplinary segregation actually look like for inmates, for adults in custody, before it was discontinued a few weeks ago?

Murphy: A person who was assigned disciplinary segregation, the events that led up to it. A person was infracted for some level of serious negative institutional behavior. They would have a hearing by an independent hearings officer, where they were afforded due process and be able to call witnesses and then a sanction was given if they were found guilty of that particular behavior. And then they were potentially given a sanction for disciplinary segregation. In disciplinary segregation a person would be isolated to a cell, or confined to a cell by his or herself for up to 23 hours a day, and not have any meaningful access to programs or visitation or some of those other program elements that promote pro-social behavior.

Miller: How long might that go on for? I imagine it might have changed or might have varied based on the kind of infraction, but what are average lengths?

Murphy: For disciplinary segregation, it’s up to 30 days at an interval.

Miller: And what kinds of infractions would have led to that kind of discipline?

Murphy: An event where a serious assault took place; two incarcerated individuals were fighting. In some cases, if they had brought in contraband, serious contraband into the institution, types of behavior like that.

Miller: How did the agency come to the decision to end disciplinary segregation?


Murphy: That’s a great question. We’ve been in the agency on a very focused path. And so one of the three ways to get into restrictive housing in our state was through the disciplinary segregation process. There are two other ways to get into a restrictive housing environment, but we’ve been working diligently with stakeholders and a variety of folks from the Vera Institute of Justice, also from the University of Cincinnati, to really work on limiting restrictive housing overall. And so this was one leg of that process, and we’ve been working closely with those agencies to find alternate solutions.

Miller: What did your own research show in terms of the effects of this as a punishment?

Murphy: Well, we found that most studies that are published on the issue really suggest that segregation doesn’t affect subsequent misconduct or institutional violence. So that changes the whole theory around disciplinary segregation deterring people from any future behavior. Some studies actually showed that segregation may even increase institutional misconduct. And so I know that there was a study out there by the National Institute of Justice. They did a meta analysis on 16 different studies and found that segregation doesn’t significantly affect incarcerated people’s rates of misconduct.

Miller: So what will happen going forward, say to an adult in custody – the new term of art for what many of us used to call, and many of us still do call inmates – for somebody who gets in a serious fight with somebody else who is also incarcerated? How is discipline going to work?

Murphy: The important distinction there is that disciplinary segregation will not be used as a disciplinary sanction. So the punishment in and of itself won’t be assignment to segregation. We’ll assign alternate sanctions for that. A person could lose dayroom, they could lose a yard or recreation activity, they could lose visitation, they could lose commissary, they could lose a variety of other things. Now, during that, a person might still be placed in administrative segregation while we get all that figured out. What that does is it helps us keep people safe while we get to the bottom of what happened, and then provide a meaningful sanction that actually we believe will deter the behavior.

MIller: Is there research that shows . . . if it seems clear now that being put in solitary confinement or disciplinary segregation doesn’t work to deter antisocial behavior, does anything work? I mean, we’re talking about people who have been put in a kind of disciplinary segregation by virtue of being in prison in the first place. That’s obviously the first level of societal segregation they’re there because they’ve broken the law, and then they continue to break the internal rules of the institution. What does work?

Murphy: So we’ve got some some things that, first of all, the sanctions that we’ve shifted to where we restrict someone or limit someone’s ability to go to yard, or go to day room, or maybe have visitation for a short period of time, seems to deter the activity better than anything else. But probably the number one thing that really supports incarcerated individuals in their return to the community, and not getting the sanctions, not going backwards in their incarceration, is effective programming. We’ve got several programs that are out there right now that are helping our individuals rethink the way they do business. Thinking for Change is a cognitive behavioral intervention program that we use, that helps that individual address their thinking patterns and come up with other choices.

Miller: You noted that there are three different ways in which somebody or reasons for which somebody would be put into some kind of segregation. And the disciplinary version of that is what you’re getting rid of. So how else might somebody be put you know in a cell by themselves, if not as punishment?

Murphy: That’s a great question. What we have left is what’s called Administrative Segregation and we use this to temporarily remove someone from the general population when they present a significant risk to the safety of staff or other incarcerated individuals, until we can review the situation and make an independent determination about appropriate housing. If at the end of that administrative segregation process there’s three options: Refer for max custody, which is a classification action which would be continued staying in that particular restrictive housing environment, or a second would be to release to general population. A third would be to refer pending transfer to another suitable facility. And so administrative segregation, and that classification action as max custody are the other two ways to get into restrictive housing.

Miller: We reached out to the Oregon Department of Corrections to get their take on this issue. They sent us a statement from the director Colette Peters. It reads in part: " ... for the last seven years Oregon DOC has also diminished our reliance on special housing and believe it should be used as a last resort. Through this work, we were able to eliminate a segregation unit and transition it into an honor housing unit. In addition to that work, we made changes in our hearings rules to allow for greater flexibility when rules are violated, which translates into less use of segregation.” They noted that there has been a 25% reduction in disciplinary segregation since that rule change in December of 2020. Is this a nationwide shift? Or is it still pretty rare?

Murphy: I think it is a nationwide shift. And first I’d like to say Colette is a leader in the industry in this area. And so our secretary and Colette are in regular communication about advances that can be made in corrections that lead to safe and humane detention until we can inevitably get folks back out in the community. And so yes, it is a nationwide effort. We’re in constant communication with folks around the country who are also challenged with improving conditions, but also keeping their facilities [and] their general population safe.

Miller: Sean Murphy, Thanks for your time.

Murphy: Thank you.

Miller: Sean Murphy is a Deputy Secretary of the Washington Department of Corrections.

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