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Administrative Segregation in U.S. Prisons
By Dr. Natasha A. Frost and Dr. Carlos E. Monteiro*
Published: 04/25/2016

Inmate jail The following was reprinted from NCJ 249749.

On September 1, 2015, newspapers across the country announced that a settlement agreement had been reached between the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) and inmates incarcerated at Pelican Bay State Prison, one of the most well-known supermaximum (supermax) security facilities in the country (St. John, 2015). The settlement agreement, which should result in the return of close to 2,000 inmates from supermax confinement back to the general population, is expected to end the CDCR’s practices of housing inmates in supermax confinement indefinitely and of routinely incarcerating those with suspected gang affiliations in solitary confinement. Although California’s practice of confining gang members in administrative segregation is certainly not the norm around the country, long-term segregation in restrictive housing units is more common, and the California settlement was announced amidst a more general and growing concern about the practice of solitary confinement (or near solitary confinement) through administrative segregation.

In a speech before the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in July 2015, President Barack Obama questioned the practice of solitary confinement by calling for a Justice Department investigation into its use across the United States:

I’ve asked my Attorney General to start a review of the overuse of solitary confinement across American prisons. The social science shows that an environment like that is often more likely to make inmates more alienated, more hostile, potentially more violent. Do we really think it makes sense to lock so many people alone in tiny cells for 23 hours a day, sometimes for months or even years at a time? That is not going to make us safer. That’s not going to make us stronger. And if those individuals are ultimately released, how are they ever going to adapt? It’s not smart. (White House Office of the Press Secretary, 2015) [1]

President Obama is not alone in his reservations about the practice. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy has repeatedly made clear his concern about solitary confinement across several venues, including by using largely unrelated cases to question the policies of long-term solitary confinement (Liptak, 2015). In May 2015, the United Nations (UN) passed the Mandela Rules, which represent the first modification to the UN’s standards on the treatment of prisoners in 60 years (United Nations, 2015a). Rule 43 of the Mandela Rules prohibits both indefinite solitary confinement and prolonged solitary confinement (defined as lasting more than 15 days) (United Nations, 2015b). Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) have each published reports condemning the use of solitary confinement for both juvenile and adult correctional populations (American Civil Liberties Union, 2014; Amnesty International, 2012; Human Rights Watch, 2000; Human Rights Watch & American Civil Liberties Union, 2012). Individual state chapters of the ACLU have published fairly scathing critiques of more localized practices, for example, in Colorado and Texas ( Butler & Simpson, 2015; Wallace, 2013). The perspective of these advocacy organizations is clear and unapologetic: They seek an end to the practice of solitary confinement in juvenile correctional settings and extensive restrictions on its use among adult correctional populations.

Across the political spectrum, there is growing concern about the efficacy and utility of administrative segregation practices, particularly those that involve extended solitary confinement, and growing support for finding ways to safely reduce its use across correctional systems. In 2006, the bipartisan Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons, co-chaired by the Honorable John J. Gibbons and the former U.S. Attorney General, Nicholas de B. Katzenbach, noted that the rapid increase in the use of solitary confinement across the country had outpaced the remarkable growth in overall correctional populations (Gibbons & Katzenbach, 2006). The Commission deemed solitary confinement both expensive and counterproductive and recommended limiting its use. After the publication of the commission’s Confronting Confinement report, research organizations also turned their attention to solitary confinement. Researchers at the VERA Institute of Justice recently published a report on solitary confinement, identifying what they describe as 10 common misperceptions about solitary confinement (Shames, Wilcox & Subramanian, 2015). Among the misconceptions identified was the common belief that segregated housing deters violence and misbehavior and that segregation helps keep prisons and jails safer. The VERA Institute of Justice (Shames, Wilcox & Subramanian, 2015) has also launched the “Segregation Reduction Project,” partnering with four states (Illinois, Maryland, New Mexico and Pennsylvania) to assess the criteria for placement in segregation with the explicit goal of reducing the use of segregation across those states. Several other states, including Arizona, California, Colorado, Indiana, Michigan, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, Ohio and Wisconsin, have already begun working to reduce the number of inmates in administrative segregation, with more states passing reforms related to the use of solitary confinement in 2014 than in the previous 16 years combined (Hager & Rich, 2014).

Although the spotlight seems to be shining especially bright at this moment, the practice of solitary confinement has a long and storied history in corrections. Some of the earliest American correctional facilities — the early Quaker-inspired penitentiaries in Pennsylvania— were built on a model of extended solitary confinement intended to bring about penitence (Rothman, 1971/1990). Although the “Pennsylvania model” was abandoned relatively quickly in favor of a model based on the more congregate style of confinement that is still prominent, the use of solitary confinement — usually for behavioral control and management — never went away. All correctional systems (including those for men, women and juveniles) have cells or units and, in some cases, entire facilities designed to isolate some inmates in more restrictive housing units for administrative purposes. Segregated confinement is sometimes solitary. Whether they involve complete solitary confinement or not, segregation units are intended to offer a more secure alternative for those who cannot be safe toward others, be kept safe, or be adequately controlled in the traditional congregate correctional setting.

Within correctional contexts, the terms used to describe segregation policies and practices vary greatly across jurisdictions. Although they represent conceptually distinct practices, it is difficult to separate the literature on disciplinary segregation from the literature on administrative segregation because researchers have tended to study solitary confinement without carefully distinguishing the various types of segregated restrictive housing units. As we became increasingly bewildered by the sheer number of terms used to describe various practices, we decided to avoid using “administrative segregation” as an umbrella term in this white paper, instead opting for either segregation or segregation in restricted housing units. Where possible, we will distinguish between (1) solitary confinement through disciplinary segregation and (2) solitary confinement through administrative segregation. As we will explain, the former refers to short-term confinement after a specific infraction and the latter to long-term classification to the supermax unit or facility within a correctional system. Most of our early discussion will focus on administrative segregation (rather than on disciplinary segregation), but when we begin discussing the empirical research, we will refer more broadly to the practice of solitary confinement. Although we recognize not all units and facilities used for disciplinary and administrative segregation follow a strict regimen of solitary confinement, we will describe the empirical research that has been conducted in settings that do (as it is clearly solitary confinement that most troubles those who have expressed grave concerns about correctional segregation policies).

[1] Although President Obama has called for a Justice Department review of solitary confinement practices nationally, two recent and substantial inquiries were made into the federal use of administrative segregation (Baker & Goode, 2015). In May 2013, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued its report on the use of segregated confinement across the federal prison system (United States Government Accountability Office, 2013). After the publication of that report, the CNA Institute for Public Research conducted an independent assessment with the cooperation of the Federal Bureau of Prisons (McGinnis et al., 2014).

To view the whole report click here.

Natasha A. Frost, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, where she also currently serves as associate director. Dr. Frost holds a B.S. in psychology from Northeastern University and a Ph.D. in criminal justice from the CUNY Graduate School and University Center. Her research interests are in the area of punishment and corrections, with a particular focus on mass incarceration and its impact on individuals, families and communities. Her book, The Punishment Imperative: The Rise and Failure of Mass Incarceration in America, co-authored with Todd Clear, was published by NYU Press (2014).

Carlos E. Monteiro, Ph.D., is a senior research associate at the Institute of Race and Justice at Northeastern University. Dr. Monteiro earned a M.S. degree from the University of Connecticut and his Ph.D. in criminology and justice policy from Northeastern University. With combined expertise in education and criminal justice policy, Carlos’s research interests have long centered on the factors affecting access to, and quality of, education for young adults of color. His scholarly interests are tied to race, ethnicity and educational access, but in particular, as those interact to produce disparate outcomes across the criminal justice system and within corrections specifically.

*Dr. Natasha A. Frost and Dr. Carlos E. Monteiro prepared this paper with support from the National Institute of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice, under contract number 2010F_10097 (CSR, Incorporated). The opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the Department of Justice.


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