By Polly Keary, Editor
Twelve years in the hole.
It sounds like a blues song or a movie, and a far-fetched one at that; 12 years is an unimaginable time to spend locked up alone in a tiny concrete room.
Not for Derek Correa.
A three-strikes prisoner who was sentenced to life without the possibility of parole in 1996, he entered prison at 28 and immediately became a chronic problem. He fell in with gangs, wouldn’t obey orders, got in fights.
That got him thrown in solitary over and over, for increasing stretches of time. In all he has spent, by his estimation, between 12-15 years in solitary confinement, locked in a cell alone for 23 hours a day.
He’s still there. But last week, chained hand, foot and waist to a desk in a classroom with three other long-term residents of “the hole,” he took a class designed to help him learn basic things about how to interact with other human beings.
It’s part of a new effort at the Monroe Correctional Center to try something never attempted in the state before.
They are trying to offer group mental health services to people in solitary confinement in hopes that the offenders, many of whom are mentally ill, will learn how to function around others, sometimes after years of isolation.
Long-term isolation falling out of favor
The move to find ways to get people out of the state’s IMUs, or Intensive Management Units, started with state Department of Corrections Secretary Bernard Warner.
“Secretary Warner wants to look at what we can do so offenders can earn their way down,” said Monroe Prison Superintendent Robert Herzog.
Nationwide, there is a movement away from the use of solitary confinement for several reasons, including controversy over human rights (the U.N. recently called for an international ban on the practice) and the high cost of intensive management; it cost two to three times as much to house a prisoner in a supermax.
Another reason segregation is falling out of favor is that studies show it can actually make prisoners more dangerous, making some sane inmates unstable and some unstable inmates even worse.
Studies suggest that long-term isolation causes nervousness, anxiety, sleeplessness, withdrawal, rage, hallucinations and suicidal thoughts, even in prisoners with no history of mental illness.
And about 40-50 percent of the inmates in Monroe’s IMU are, in fact, mentally ill.
“We know long-term isolation is not good for the mentally ill,” said Herzog.
Between those who were always mentally ill and those who lost the ability to interact successfully with other people after years of isolation, there have been a lot of prisoners returning to the general prison population who were likely to continue to be a serious problem.
“Some of them have been isolated so long they can barely have an appropriate conversation,” said Mike Walker, Program Manager at IMU.
And a recent University of Washington study found that people released directly from IMU to the streets go back to prison at twice the rate of prisoners in general.
In the past, there has been some attempt to do one-on-one therapy with some IMU inmates.
But that didn’t help those inmates learn how to be around other inmates.
Since August 6, however, a first-ever program in which mental issues are addressed in a group setting in the IMU has been turning in results that prison officials describe as profound.
Healthy Choices, Healthy Life
In a small classroom Wednesday, four orange-clad men, shackled to their desks at hand, foot and waist, listened as a psychologist and a specially-trained sergeant read questions off a whiteboard.
“If you think, ‘I’m not going to succeed,’ what are you feeling?” asked psychology associate Lindsey McIntyre.
“Anxiety,” said one heavily-tattooed young man.
“If you think, ‘I can succeed,’ then what are you feeling?” she asked.
“Happy,” “confident,” and “excited,” came responses from the four men, all readily engaged in the exercise.
The class is part of the new program, called Healthy Choices, Healthy Life. The goal of this part of the program is to make the men aware of the connection between their thoughts and feelings, and ultimately to help them change their thoughts and, as a result, their behaviors.
More than that, the men are learning to communicate with other people in a functional way.
You can forget how to communicate if you’re alone in a cell long enough, one offender said.
“After a while, you don’t want to be around people,” said Joshua Burgoyne, 31, who has spent a total of about five years in isolation. “You become a loner.”
For three of the four men at the desks, the twice-weekly classes are the first face-to-face interaction they’ve had with other offenders in years.
That’s what makes the difference, said Superintendent Herzog.
“The cool thing is that, for the first time, they aren’t in a cell 23 hours a day,” he said. “We are putting them in a classroom with others suffering the same thing and helping them identify and manage it.”
But what are those offenders suffering?
Some have profound mental illnesses like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.
But quite a few do not.
Bruce Gage, Chief of Psychiatry at the prisons, who has spent 40 years working with the mentally ill, said that many people who are the most difficult to manage don’t have the kind of disorders that can be treated with medication.
But quite a few of them do have one thing in common, he noted.
“They have usually been victims of serious child abuse,” he said. “The most challenging are those who have been abused as children.”
Abused kids don’t always become criminals, he said. But some people are at a higher risk.
“Someone with a genetic predisposition to high emotion and externalized behavior, combined with abuse, can have chaotic relationships and leave a wake of disaster,” he said.
A lot of those prisoners might not have turned criminal had they been adequately treated in the community, he added, saying that the rest of the system has “dropped the ball.”
“Prisons are trying to address problems they were never meant to address,” he said.
Since the four-month program began this summer, the Healthy Choices, Healthy Life program seems to be addressing those problems quite well. Among the 14 offenders selected by staff for the pilot program, destructive behavior has dropped dramatically.
“We got guys who were getting two or three infractions a week who have gotten zero since August 6,” said Walker. “It’s working.”
In a convict, out a leader
If results continue to be as good as they have been so far, more offenders could enroll, and other prisons might try it.
That could help move more and more people out of long-term isolation, and perhaps make them less likely to break the law again when they finally get out of prison, as most will.
Already, one group-based mental health program that has been in place in the Minimum Security Unit for about four years has also been quite promising.
Offenders can go to the MSU when they have four years or less left to serve, as long as they haven’t gotten in a lot of trouble in prison.
Some mentally ill offenders who have earned the privilege now can take the Crossroads program, designed to help them manage their mental illnesses in society.
The offenders live together in a barracks, learning to make decisions for themselves again after years of having very few choices, learning to manage their own medications, and learning how to work well with others.
It’s too early to decisively gauge the success of the Crossroads program; recidivism data is based on how many people reoffend within three years, and the program is not yet four years old.
But Andrew Corso, the Crossroads Transitional Mental Health Program Director, said that he’s tracked the 17 or so graduates of the program who are now free, and so far, none has yet gotten in trouble again.
“We released one guy today who was a new man,” said Corso. “He came in a convict and left a leader in our community. He did all he could here, and shook my hand and looked me in the eye on the way out. You can see the difference in the way these guys carry themselves.”
A life sentence worth living
Staying out of prison is a worthy goal, but for some of the men in IMU, getting out won’t happen for a long time from now, if ever.
They have more immediate goals. One man wants to visit his family in a regular visiting room.
“I don’t want my children to see me behind glass anymore,” said Burgoyne.
Another said he wants to be able to survive on the “mainline” when he’s allowed back there in about six months.
Derek Correa will never get out. He had convictions for assault and burglary before he got a three-strikes sentence for tying up an 85-year-old man and stealing his truck. The man died before he was found four days later.
Correa wants to get married to his pen pal, but he can’t do that until he’s back in population.
“That motivates me,” he said.
For most of the men in IMU, they only hope for the best life they can have under the circumstances, and that means learning how to stay out of the hole.
“I’m here till 2062,” said Daniel Perez, 31, who will be 76 that year. “Until then I want to be able to have a life worth living.”