About 700 inmates are currently housed at the state penitentiary. Close to 30 of those prisoners live in solitary confinement, which for years meant total isolation.

North Dakota State Penitentiary Warden Colby Braun says, “Anytime you put someone in a solitary situation where really their sight and sound is taken away from them, it’s damaging to anyone.”

The old prison system’s name for solitary confinement was ‘Administrative Segregation.’ Back then, corrections officers and inmates had minimal contact, and this is how most isolation units across the country work.

Inmate Lynn Myers says, “I spent a year and a half one time; another time I spent nine months.”

Myers says it was tough to learn how to socialize and reintegrate into the general prison population when you had little to no human interaction all day.

Myers adds, “You felt awkward and like you didn’t belong and stuff.”

Another inmate Derek Thoreson shares, “It’s a lot of seclusion. You’re just in there; you’re just in your house, you know, in your cell all day 23 hours a day.”

On the weekends, there was no out of cell time. It was a 24-hour a day lockdown.

Inmates Sheldon McHugh adds, “I would go to the infirmary or dentist or something, just so I could look around a little bit.”

As of October of 2015, the State Penitentiary made changes, starting with changing the name ‘Administrative Segregation’ to the ‘Behavioral Intervention Unit’.

But that wasn’t all that changed.

Warden Braun elaborates, “So now each guy has an opportunity of about four, four and a half hours of out-of-cell time.They go to group three times a week. We have recreation activities on Friday afternoons where the guys are able to get out.”

These days, prison staff actively interacts with those in isolation.

The warden explains, “Every interaction a staff member has with a person, it’s intentional. It’s about how do we change behavior.”

Myers adds, “I feel a lot better about myself, and I feel more at ease around people and about getting out on the street.”

Braun says prisons across the U.S. are also working to alter solitary confinement, but North Dakota is a pioneer. 

Before changes were made in 2015, 42 percent of inmates placed in isolation returned there at some point.

The Behavioral Intervention Unit cut the re-admission rate in half, with only 21 percent of inmates returning to solitary.