Anna Thomas, a spokeswoman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah, said her organization is "really pleased" with the announcement because it indicates that the department is building on momentum gained from policy changes in recent years.
"In general, correctional facilities are really opaque and what happens inside them tends to be hidden from public view," Thomas said, but the move to bring in an independent agency for evaluation is evidence of "good-faith efforts" within the department to be transparent about practices that might otherwise "leave prisoners vulnerable to abuse."
Restrictive housing, also known as solitary confinement, is used for managing inmates whose presence in the general prison population would threaten staff members, other inmates, themselves or the orderly operations of the facility, the release states. Inmates in restrictive housing spend at least 22 hours in their cell each day.
Director of Prison Operations Jerry Pope and Warden Alfred Bigelow clarified that inmate behaviors that cause "serious safety concerns" — such as assaults with a weapon, gang-related attacks or homicides — are what lands someone in restrictive housing, not a simple "shoving match."
A placement-review board meets weekly to assess the cases of prisoners who pose a risk, Bigelow said, and the committee decides which inmates are placed in restrictive housing.
"We used to put them in [restrictive housing] for a myriad of reasons," Bigelow said. "We don't put them in there just because we're mad at them anymore. It's a philosophy change."
Restrictive housing works on a three-tier basis, he said, progressively exposing inmates to more social interaction in an effort to help ease their adjustment back into general housing. Prisons in Utah currently house about 6,200 inmates.
Recent policies have provided access to treatment and counseling to prisoners who have mental-health problems, Bigelow said, and in-cell education is available to people in restrictive housing.
"Housing inmates in the least restrictive setting necessary helps ensure their safety and that of our staff and the public," the Corrections Department's executive director, Rollin Cook, said in the release.
The department sought input from the Utah ACLU, Disability Law Center and Utah Prisoner Advocate Network while making changes in protocol.
Thomas described the practice of solitary confinement as "really expensive" and "detrimental to mental health." The practice has a "terrible rehabilitative outcome" and ultimately "reduces public safety," she said, so the ACLU supports "any and all efforts to reduce its use."
The ACLU also plans to follow the partnership closely "to ensure these efforts are yielding fruit and providing a safer environment" for everyone involved, Thomas said.
Rep. Eric Hutchings, R-Kearns, said the new initiative goes "nicely" with efforts made over the past few years in the state Legislature, "only using practices that prove to be effective and having a positive impact on the safety of the individual and the people around them."
"The only thing we have to be careful of is making sure we still have the ability to protect others," he said, "especially for those with life sentences."
Some inmates are "incredibly dangerous," he said, and through the process of reducing use of restrictive housing, prison officials must be cautious.