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Shane Habermann, 38, talks about his time spent in the revamped administrative segregation wing at the North Dakota State Penitentiary in Bismarck last month. As part of the therapy in the unit, staff teaches inmates techniques to avoid conflict, such as drawing representations of paced breathing and relaxation skills. Habermann is skeptical. "I don't know about learning anything. It plants a seed. The institution is trying to do something about it instead of just throwing us in the hole and forgetting about us." 

The new motto in the state penitentiary's solitary confinement unit is "behave your way in, behave your way out."

Only the most serious behavior should land an inmate in segregation. Only good behavior, not just time served, can get one out.

Recently, administrators defined actions that can land someone in segregation. These include assaults causing serious bodily injury, sexual assaults, homicide, arson and inciting riots. Repeat rule violations are occasionally punished with short periods in isolation, but not with long-term segregation.

Prisoners accused of acting out are placed in the segregation unit temporarily while their case is investigated. If a person is in segregation for more than a few days, he will be assessed for behavioral and mental health issues.

During the assessment, staff watch how prisoners give back food trays, talk to officers and maintain their cells. If a committee of administrators decide the person has serious behavioral problems, he will be placed in segregation and assigned a set of goals to be met in order to return to general population.

"This guy could be a risk to the institution and get in a fight, balanced with the harm that is done to the person in segregation," said Karianne Wolfer, director of correctional practices.

If they are found guilty in the investigation and placed in segregation, they may enter a more or less intensive prison wing.

In both wings, staff come by to talk or practice skills with inmates twice a day. In the more intense wing, inmates are visited by a psychologist. In the less intense one, they do group therapy three times a week. 

Officers ask inmates questions like, "What is one way you've grown in the last year?" and "What keeps you going when life is difficult?" They teach skills with names like "thought-stopping" and "using self-control." 

By participating, inmates work their way out more quickly. They also get "reinforcers," often a cup of coffee or extra food.

Inmates who show improved behavior and willingness to participate are moved to a transition wing meant to help them adjust back to life with others. They eat lunch in the dining room, hang out with other transitioning inmates in a room plastered with motivational posters and join the general population inmates in the yard once a week.

Administrators think the program makes inmates less violent, but data so far is mostly anecdotal.

Wolfer said that, after three days of holding group, one prisoner who tended to isolate asked to join in. Staff have noticed that prisoners ask them to come by and practice skills, instead of throwing trays or banging on the door for attention.

Peterson said she gets fewer cat calls as she walks the tier. Sgt. Travis Krein said he has a better rapport with the men.

"I don't know about learning anything," said Shane Habermann, an inmate who has participated in the program. "It plants a seed." 

He could rattle off some of the lessons staff try to teach: coping with people, alternatives to violence, not losing one's temper.

But he believes people need to choose change for themselves.

Habermann, who was sent to solitary after he fought with another inmate, still struggles to balance pride and sense.

"If you're walked on, you're a carpet," said Habermann, who concedes that he has an "institutional mindset" from years inside, but said he wants to earn his way back to general population. 

Habermann, who is in prison for escaping Dickinson's Southwest Multi-County Correctional Center in 2015, said he has spent time in solitary in other prisons. 

He said the program shows that the state penitentiary is trying to do something for them. It also improves relationships with guards.

"The program forces them to interact with us. It rubs away that barrier a little bit," he said.

Reach Caroline Grueskin at 701-250-8225 or at