Credit: George Danby / BDN

The BDN Opinion section operates independently and does not set newsroom policies or contribute to reporting or editing articles elsewhere in the newspaper or on

Christopher Blackwell is serving a 45-year prison sentence in Washington. He co-founded Look 2 Justice and is currently working toward publishing a book on solitary confinement. This column was produced for The Progressive magazine and distributed by Tribune News Service.

As I woke up for my daily job as a prisoner at the Washington State Reformatory, I drank a cup of freeze-dried coffee and watched the local morning news. One story instantly caught my attention: The reporter said the Washington Department of Corrections had decided to stop using segregation as punishment. Could this even be possible? I convinced myself that I must have misheard something.

The department claimed it had stopped using disciplinary segregation for two weeks now and had no plan to use it in the future. But, as someone who lives in the violent and oppressive U.S. prison system and has experienced solitary firsthand, I knew the truth: Solitary confinement wasn’t over — they had just decided to call it something else.

The reality is that “disciplinary segregation” is just one of the many phrases corrections departments use to describe solitary confinement. States including Michigan, Texas and Virginia routinely hold prisoners in isolation while denying that this is the same as solitary. Simply renaming the practice fails to address the harms it causes.

The press response to the Department of Corrections’ announcement was overwhelmingly positive. Some outlets claimed the state was ending solitary confinement entirely, prompting the department to issue a clarification to its own press release, noting that it “continues to utilize segregation for non-disciplinary purposes such as investigations, safety, protective custody and classification.”

We need to take a much deeper look into what is actually being changed. From where I sit, this policy shift falls far short of the massive reform that the department is claiming. In its press statements, the department admitted that the actual number of days individuals spent in designated disciplinary segregation was small because inmates had often already served time in solitary under administrative segregation while awaiting their hearings.

The department has not yet specified what forms of punishment will be replacing disciplinary segregation. One troubling possibility is confining prisoners in their cells, which is often used as a disciplinary sanction. In some cases, people find themselves in cell confinement for a month or even longer. This approach is really no different than being placed in a separate, empty cell designated for solitary, with nothing but the concrete walls to keep you company.

Many of us now suffer permanent damage to our mental, emotional and psychological well-being. Self-harm, suicide, a higher risk of recidivism, physical ailments and even a lower life expectancy are all documented side effects of solitary confinement. Will there be accountability for the damages we have suffered?

Since announcing an end to disciplinary segregation, the department has continued to use solitary confinement as a means to punish, abuse and intimidate prisoners. This minor policy change will do nothing to stem the abuses meted out by this system of state violence.

Forgive those of us directly affected by the violence of this system if we are reluctant to start handing out trophies and accolades. To do that, we need to see real change; until then, we will continue advocating from behind these walls to end the brutal practice of solitary confinement in all its forms.