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Respite From Solitary: Troubled Inmates Come Together For Yoga, Conversation

KUOW Photo/Patricia Murphy
Inmate Joshua Burgoyne, 31, watches Sgt. Mike Acree explain how negative self talk can be turned around. The program for offenders in long term isolation is an attempt to help lower infractions while in prison and when they're released.

For prison’s toughest inmates, the hardest yoga position is simply closing their eyes.

That’s because these men, housed at Monroe Correctional Complex north of Seattle, have been in solitary confinement, unable to communicate with each other. Until recently, they spent 23 hours a day alone in a cell, without books, without TV, without anyone to talk to. 

Prisoners in the Intensive Management Unit are the states’ most troubled and expensive to manage and their recidivism rates are nearly two times higher. Though it remains to be seen whether the program will benefit inmates once they leave the highly structured environment, the new Reintegration and Progression Program is one of the first of its kind in the country to tackle what prison officials have long suspected: Isolation doesn’t work.

“It’s detrimental to their mental health,” Monroe Superintendent Robert Herzog said during a recent press tour of the program  “They’re too risky to just kick them out into the communities and expect them to make it there.”

[asset-pullquotes[{"quote": "These guys have been isolated for so long they can barely have a conversation, an appropriate conversation with anybody.", "style": "inset"}]]Mike Walker, program manager for the unit at Monroe, agreed.

“These guys have been isolated for so long they can barely have a conversation, an appropriate conversation with anybody,” Walker said.

Joshua Burgoyne, 31, is serving a sentence for kidnapping assault and robbery and is set to be released in 2019. He has been in isolation for nearly five years. He said he rarely spoke at all before this program. These men were not allowed to interact with each other.

“This is a lot better man, because it’s social,” Burgoyne said. “You’re having a bad day or something – you can talk to somebody you never would have talked to before. “

The Washington State Department of Corrections hopes the program will help keep the prisoners and the staff safer. When an inmate in isolation is out for a shower or exercise, it takes two custody staff to manage them. Some are gang members; many have complicated mental health problems. The 14 inmates in the program represent just a small fraction of the mentally ill inmates in state custody.

Walker sees the program as a chance for offenders to learn how to succeed both in prison and once they’re released. Yoga is just one part of the program that also includes classes and discussions.

In a stark bare room inside the Intensive Management Unit, four men sat shackled to their metal chairs. Their hands were chained, and they took notes with small, prison-style bendy pens. These men spend several hours a week in this room, learning about social skills and self-reflection that may seem obvious to outsiders: Saying thank you or giving a compliment.

During the press tour on Friday, psychologist Lindsey McIntyre asked the students: “If we take a statement, ‘There’s nothing wrong with my behavior,’ and turn it into a new positive thought, what could that thought be?”

“I’m finally able to succeed,” they responded. “I’m finally able to change. Anybody can change.”