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Tales From the Local Jail - Inmates in Isolation: The Need for a Serious Dialogue
By Gary F. Cornelius, First Lt. (Retired)
Published: 02/05/2018

Prison cell w In the past several years, corrections has come under criticism for using isolation, with critics and researchers citing the detrimental effects on inmates who are isolated for long periods of time.

I am not going to get in a dialogue about how bad isolation or restrictive housing (RH) is for the inmates. As a former jail deputy and classification director, I dealt with inmates in three groups-those inmates that had to be placed in isolation, and those who, after a taste of it, were given a second chance. These two, with the seriously mentally ill (SMI) in isolation, represent the critical issues in the use of isolation. I’ll explain.

Let’s discuss the first group, in which the reasons for isolation are clear-and are common sense. There inmates who because of their criminal record or behavior in the institution makes placement in segregation a logical choice. If you work inside a large jail, as I did, and an inmate is booked in who is a known gang leader charged with a serious violent crime, you do not want him in the general population, boasting the gang philosophy, recruiting inmates and bragging about his crime. Or-you could have an inmate of notoriety, such as the BTK killer or the DC Snipers. An inmate could be a recaptured escapee, known for his reputation for pulling off daring escapes. You may get in an inmate who is well known to you from prior stays-for starting fights and arguments inside cellblocks. They like to tease and harass other inmates, or assault them or staff. They steal food and commissary items and try to control the television. They repeatedly violate the jail disciplinary code, and after several suspended sanctions held over their heads, a hearing officer decides on a term of disciplinary segregation. And finally-an inmate commits a crime such as an assault on a staff member, drug smuggling or assaulting another inmate which results in a serious injury or death. He or she is criminally charged and isolated. It’s jail-and that is the way of it at times. But sometimes isolation is a necessary precaution, such as in the case of protective custody or to prevent an inmate from being assaulted. Some inmates want segregation and their reasons may be valid.

In the second group-the inmates who have had a taste of isolation and think-really THINK about not going back to it-staff can be somewhat humane- but only if the inmate ‘wises up’. As a classification officer-with two tours in my career-I learned how to drive this point home. I asked the inmate-“Do you want to go back to population?” After the emphatic “yes!” I would patiently explain the reasons for segregation, the staff’s view of his behavior and if the inmate could show he could behave, I would seriously consider a move back. In other words-they have to earn reassignment. Placing an immature, horseplay prone inmate in segregation for a few days can be a valuable learning tool. For example, if a jail has a treatment unit for substance abusers who are court ordered into it. An inmate arrives there and by his actions, thinks that he or she can ‘run’ things or act up. The program counselors, unit deputies or correctional officers (COs)-who I respected and seriously considered their views, writes the inmate up for immaturity, horseplay, etc. They recommend be removal. The inmate can be segregated pending reclassification-and he can be told that he could get one-just one- more chance, or the classification director will hand carry the report and a letter to his sentencing judge. So-the inmate is given a choice. I have seen inmates quickly improve their behavior after several days of segregation, bemoaning the facts of no television, being locked in, etc.

The third group illustrates a problem. It is one that jails, their jurisdictions, law enforcement, the courts and the mental health profession will have to come up with a practical, realistic and humane solution. This group is the seriously mentally ill who are confined in local jails. Some mentally ill offenders can be managed by medication and intervention by qualified mental health professionals and specially trained COs. For example, an arrestee is booked in for petty theft and tells the staff that he is a high ranking official who works inside the White House. In reality, he lives on the street and is apparently mentally ill. With medication and a detailed evaluation by the jail mental health staff it may be possible to house him with other inmates-who also may be mentally ill. But-if an offender is violently psychotic and acting irrationally, he or she must be segregated. How can staff place in population inmates who smear feces on themselves, attack staff, bang their heads on the cell walls or drink water from the toilet? Many of these offenders need treatment and supervision by mental health professionals-not jail.

There is one critical aspect that runs through the issue of placing inmates in a jail on segregation. That is safety: the safety of correctional officers and staff and the safety of inmates. If staff, in their collective wisdom based on experience, and in examining the potential for violence based on the inmate’s record and behavior, thinks segregation is necessary for the good of the many-then segregation it is. The length of time may vary-no one size fits all.

All correctional staff must be aware of the following when supervising inmates in segregation:
  • Inmates vary in their ability to cope with segregation. While prisons have some inmates segregated for longer periods of time than jails, some inmates may suffer detrimental effects of isolation. Without normal human interaction, inmates in segregation reportedly suffer from mental health problems. These include panic, insomnia, anxiety, depression, paranoia, and aggression. An inmate may become suicidal after one day in segregation. Human contact and interaction is key, no matter what the inmate has done or whatever his mental state [1]. Staff must interact with them.
  • According to a U.S. Department of Justice Special Report, the use of restricted housing (RH) is linked to mental health issues. In prisons, 29 percent of inmates with current symptoms of serious mental illness or psychological distress were in RH. In jails, the rate was 22 percent [2].
  • Among inmates who had spent 30 days or more in RH since coming to the facility or in the last 12 months, over half had been in a fight, or had been ‘written up’ for assaulting the staff-54 percent in prisons, and 68 percent in jails [3].
  • Although an inmate can be placed in segregation in an emergency, such as an incident of assault, attempted escape, serious mental health issues pending evaluation, being considered suicidal, to place and keep an inmate in RH requires due process-a hearing where the facts are examined. This also means that the inmate cannot be forgotten about. And-before you think any further on this consider the Slevin case in New Mexico. After mediation by a federal court, inmate Stephen Slevin was awarded $15.5 million. He had been arrested in 2007 for drunken driving, never went to trial and was segregated for 22 months after a staff member noted that he was suicidal. He suffered dental problems, pulled out his own tooth and suffered from his toenails growing into his foot [4]. No doubt this had a negative mental effect on him as well.
  • Length of time and conditions: As a classification director, it was my job to number one-maintain the safety and security of the jail, and number 2-do what I could to humanely confine the inmates. There were inmates in RH that I hoped would turn their behavior around and could be returned to population. But there were many that because of their attitude, actions and criminal histories could not be in population. Conditions in RH should be sanitary and humane. As for the length of time-with some inmates, like the serious ones I have described, it is difficult to put a time limit on RH. Some inmate rights groups advocate a limit of 15 days, banning RH of young, elderly, pregnant and mentally ill inmates. Also advocated is giving isolated jail inmates at least 4 hours per day outside of their cells each day [5]. While I do agree that isolation can be hard on an inmate, and I and other good, professional COs do not want inmates to unduly suffer. But some questions and issues need to be raised:
    1. If jails place a limit on RH, there are some inmates that may not be ready to come off RH. Is it SAFE to bring them out? If one, ONE CO, staff member and/or inmate is hurt or killed, it’s too late. The decision had better be a thoroughly discussed informed one.
    2. As for increased out of cell time, how can this be regularly accomplished in a severely understaffed jail? Has any though been given by advocates on how to deal with the inmate who gets in the face of his post CO, pounding on the door, demanding, DEMANDING his time out of the cell?
    3. Jail is a negative environment, and no one in his or her right mind would want to be incarcerated in one. Does anyone ask this question:

      What did the inmate do, or how did he or she act to warrant the precautionary placement in restrictive housing?

    4. Actions of the inmates determine the responses of staff. Some inmates never get that message-and so isolation is a valuable tool for safety-of inmates, staff and the public.
    5. While emergency placement in segregation is necessary at times, the due process decision to place an inmate in administrative or disciplinary must be a careful, serious one. While the safety and security of the jail is first priority, administrative panels and classification committees must remember at all times that the inmate, a human being, will be housed in an environment that can be negative and depressing. All factors, especially the effect on the inmate, must be considered.
It’s time for a more frank dialogue about segregation, restrictive housing or isolation-with more of the views of corrections officers included. Let’s bring everyone to the table.


[4] Associated Press. “New Mexico inmate left in solitary confinement for 2 years gets $15.5 million”. Fox News, March 7, 2013. http://www.foxnews.com
[2&3] Beck, Allen J. Ph.D. “Use of restrictive Housing in U.S. Prisons and Jails”. October 2015, U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics: http://www.bjs.gov
[5] Correctional Association of New York. “NY sets new rules for solitary confinement in local jails”, October 18, 2017, http://www.correctinalassaociation.org
[1] Weir, Kirsten. “Alone, in ‘the hole’”. Monitor on Psychology, 43, no. 5 (May 2012): http://www.apa.org

Lt. Gary F. Cornelius retired in 2005 from the Fairfax County (VA) Office of the Sheriff, after serving over 27 years in the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center. His prior service in law enforcement included service in the United States Secret Service Uniformed Division. His jail career included assignments in confinement, work release, programs and classification.

He has been an adjunct faculty member of the Criminology, Law and Society Department at George Mason University since 1986, where he has taught four corrections courses. He also teaches corrections in service sessions throughout Virginia, and has performed training and consulting for the American Correctional Association, the American Jail Association and the National Institute of Justice. His latest book, The Correctional Officer: A Practical Guide: Third Edition was published in April 2017 by Carolina Academic Press. He has authored several other books in corrections. Gary has received a Distinguished Alumnus Award in Social Science from his alma mater, Edinboro University of Pennsylvania and an Instructor Appreciation Award from George Mason University.


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