CLALLAM BAY -- Until recently, Charles Sheshane lived alone inside a small, locked, concrete cell, with fluorescent lights that never went dark. He ate, exercised and slept in the cell 23 hours a day, for months and years at a time for a total of nearly seven years.
His social contacts were the desperate shouts of other caged, isolated men and the handcuffed escort to the shower or "yard," a grim, empty room, save a worn pull-up bar and a phone.
Each time Sheshane emerged from the hole, he was edgy and paranoid. He'd get into fights or try to escape -- only to wind up back in solitary confinement, officially called the Intensive Management Unit.
"I've seen IMU destroy some guys," said Sheshane, an inmate at the Clallam Bay Corrections Center serving a 59-year sentence for two murders.
"You'll see them eating on the mainline, playing cards, working out in the yard, and they seem totally normal. Then they'll get into trouble and go into the hole for a couple of years, and they'll come out wacky."
State prison officials are slowly acknowledging that sentiment -- that long stints in isolation are bad for inmates and society -- which may seem like an obvious opinion. But for the Department of Corrections, it represents a fundamental shift, after decades of viewing solitary confinement as semi-permanent homes for "the worst of the worst."
"There was a hopelessness about it that bred hostility, and that bred oversensitivity that bred conflict," said Steve Blakeman, supervisor of Clallam Bay's Intensive Management Unit. "It was an end-of-the-road kind of place."
These days, even as the state builds more ultra-secure, segregated units, the department is working to keep people out of them. Instead of simply isolating people for years, some prisons have created "step-down" programs to help violent and chronically difficult inmates stay out of trouble.
The programs take inmates through anger-management training and provide "advanced living" skills, cognitive-behavioral therapies and basic education, while gradually increasing their level of freedom. As part of a department mandate to reduce the state's recidivism rate, which has inched upward, the programs also prioritize inmates about to leave prison.
A University of Washington study published last year found that inmates who went directly from long-term isolation to the community committed new crimes at a significantly higher rate than inmates who had never been isolated. The study also found that inmates released directly from isolation reoffended sooner than inmates who were also isolated, but had time to "decompress" with other prisoners before going into the community.
"We have basically said, whether or not this is the intention of your policy, there are consequences," said the study's author, David Lovell, a research associate professor at the UW's Department of Psychosocial and Community Health.
Lovell hypothesized that solitary confinement induces social anxiety and festering anger, and that the transition from controlled isolation to free society is too disorienting.
One inmate, he recalled, had struggled with regulating his voice. "He said, 'Am I talking real loud? Am I talking loud enough?' He had no idea if he was being appropriate."
Long-term segregation generally lasts six months to two years, but some inmates have done a decade or more. Although some inmates -- child molesters, reputed snitches -- are segregated for their own protection, common reasons for confinement include prison assaults, vandalism and disturbing behavior, such as throwing feces.
Many inmates have poor impulse control, difficulty adapting or untreated mental health problems. Gang rivals in particular often view fighting and lockdown as essential costs of hard time. Of the state's 18,000-prisoner population, a fraction -- 325 -- were in long-term isolation last month.
"A lot of these guys don't think they can change," Blakeman said. "You wake up in the cell and it's hard to tell yourself, 'Hey, I can be something different.' We start to address the way they think.
"It really is the right thing to do. Because they're going to move in next door to you."
'Feel Like An Animal'
On a recent day at Clallam Bay -- a barbed-wire fortress of 900 inmates on the coastal tip of the state -- F Unit echoed with the muffled yells of men, each behind an impenetrable door.
One shirtless man was doing bicep curls with a rolled mattress. A few watched TV from a concrete bed. A set of pale wrists, belonging to a one-eyed man, emerged through a slot in one of the doors to be handcuffed. He was going to see a counselor.
"Hey, how about the feces mark on the wall in the outside yard?" someone in another cell yelled. "I'm sure that's still there; it's been there since last April."
Blakeman recalled how the unit was once filled with rampant hostility, with entrenched gang rivalries and frequent assaults on staff.
"It was, 'Come and get me, copper!' " he said. "But I've had one 'use of force' in this unit in the last four months. It's incredible."
He attributes the changes in part to the prison's new step-down program, which starts in a cramped "classroom" of phone booth-sized cages, one for each inmate, where someone has scratched: "B More Careful."
Sheshane, who graduated from the program last year, said he found it helpful in creating a higher quality of life while incarcerated. Now 43, he won't get out until he's in his 80s.
"I'm just more tolerant," he said. He used to harass child rapists, but has stopped. "I murdered two people who had families and friends. There's untold ripples of what I did, so I try not to judge people anymore."
For 29-year-old Rolando Mireles, who is getting out in November, the program helped him think about his future.
In the past, he did two years in the hole, mostly for gang fights. Then he got out of prison, got caught with stolen property and went back in. Soon, he was back in the hole.
He had grown up in a gang; it was all he knew. Gang fights were "his job."
But after finishing the step-down program this week, Mireles is determined to leave his old life behind. He's got his wife and daughter to see, and can't tolerate the thought of isolation again.
"You feel like an animal," he said. "You catch yourself talking to yourself, which people don't admit to, because it's like, 'Dude is wiped out or something.' "
Prison experts applaud the Washington department's shift, but call it merely a step in the right direction.
"Pieces of it were there before," said Kristyn Fix, a community corrections officer who supervises violent, mentally ill offenders in Seattle. A recent case of hers illustrated a problem the new approach hasn't addressed.
One of her unit's clients, a violent man with a schizoaffective disorder, went to prison on an old forgery charge. He got into fights in prison. Although Corrections had already classified him as a Dangerous Mentally Ill Offender, the man spent a year in segregation, without medication, Fix said.
"There's a huge communication breakdown," said Fix's supervisor, Dave Aiken. "That's why the mental health population in prisons and jails is so high."
When Fix and her colleagues went to pick up the man from prison, they found him incoherent, rambling and fixated on irrational thoughts.
As they watched him hole up in his cell, refusing to leave until threatened with pepper spray, they were aghast.
He had once been sociable.
P-I reporter Vanessa Ho can be reached at 206-448-8003 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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