At Clallam Bay, prisoners seek an escape from solitudeon July 19, 2012 @ 4:57 am (Updated: 3:45 pm - 7/19/12 )
It was the first time in a long time that Gilbert was allowed a contact visit while behind bars. In and out of solitary confinement, his visits typically took place through a pane of glass.
"Absolutely not. You hold that baby!" his sister demanded. "She's going to want to know you. I will not bring her to you if you're behind glass. Just because you're doing life, doesn't mean you can't have one. Act like it."
It was more than a wake-up call. It was a gut punch, Gilbert said. He could not go back to the hole.
Jeremiah James Gilbert, 35, was convicted on two counts of first degree murder in 1993 and sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. When he was 15, he said, he ran away from home and went on a "dope and drinking run." He ended up taking the lives of two men in Klickitat County: Robert David Gresham, 35, and Loren Evans, 26, of Vancouver, Wash.
With no hope of release, Gilbert decided early on to do prison "his own way." As one official put it, Gilbert would "raise hell" on the yard.
"I couldn't walk to the chow hall and back without getting an infraction," Gilbert said.
He estimates he has spent seven to eight years of his time behind bars in and out of solitary confinement, or "the hole," as prisoners call it.
He served an 18-month stretch for being deemed, "a threat to the orderly operation of the institution." He was suspected of assault, arranging assaults and being a ringleader in what is called a "security threat group." His latest stretch in isolation was served in the Intensive Management Unit (IMU) at the Clallam Bay Corrections Center, where he was transferred after assaulting an officer while at the correctional complex in Monroe.
On lockdown for 23 hours each day, Gilbert got to thinking.
"As a lifer, you get to that point where you wake up, look around like, "O.K., this can be the best it ever is. Am I OK with that? No way,'" he said. "There's a better way to do my time. A better way to exist; to live."
It was at Clallam Bay that Gilbert was introduced to the Intensive Transition Program; a unique opportunity to escape his life of solitude. The program attempts to ease inmates out of solitary confinement and into the general population, or prepare them for release into society.
"At some point their sentence is done and we're going to drop them off at a bus station and they're going to be standing in the grocery store line behind your daughter," said Steve Blakeman, the IMU supervisor at Clallam Bay. "So we have to do something with them. We have to consciously, intentionally strive to help them be better at each phase of the incarceration than when we received them."
Inmates who volunteer for the program will go through the process with up to five other prisoners. Through four, color-coded phases, inmates earn increased freedom as they complete classes and other requirements.
"It introduces them to no more shackles, no more chains," said Jeri Newman, correctional unit supervisor. "They're getting to day room three times a day and go to classes regularly."
"They're slowly introduced to being around more people," said Matt Roman, a correctional specialist with the program. Being around more people can be a difficult concept for those who have spent a long period of time in isolation, he said.
Since it began in 2006, 115 inmates have successfully made it through the Intensive Transition Program. Eighty-percent of those who graduate will remain out of the IMU, according to the Department of Corrections. Fifty-percent of those who do not go through the program will return to the hole.
Compared to other states, Washington has a relatively small number of prisoners in solitary confinement to begin with: 2.7 percent of the population. Dan Pacholke, director of prisons, said the state has taken a "reasoned approach" to putting inmates in isolation, and the goal is to reduce that number even further.
"We try to apply effort to get them down to lower security levels because they are cheaper to operate and they foster pro-social behavior. People tend to behave better in those environments," he said.
Through the ITP program, inmates like Jeremiah Gilbert have been able to escape isolation for good. He was the second person to graduate without getting an infraction, and has not returned to solitary since.
Along with other ITP graduates, he now teaches classes to other inmates trying to stay out of the hole. He also participates in the dog program, and helps to train a husky-lab mix named Lilly for adoption.
"I look at 20 years of waste," Gilbert said of his previous time in prison, spent in and out of solitary. "I chose to exist rather than live because it was easier. I didn't have to feel."
Due to a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Jeremiah Gilbert could eventually be eligible for parole despite his sentence. To hear more about his case, listen to 97.3 KIRO FM's Seattle's Morning News on Friday, July 20.
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