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Using Restrictive Housing to Manage Gangs in US prisons
By David C. Pyrooz, Ph.D., NIJ "News & Views"
Published: 12/03/2018

Prison cell w Author’s Note: Findings and conclusions reported in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Gangs remain one of the more formidable issues that corrections officials face in managing prisons. About 200,000 of the 1.5 million U.S. inmates are affiliated with gangs, and there is no sign that prison gang activity is abating [1]. Gangs are responsible for a disproportionate amount of prison misconduct and violence, and their presence and actions challenge ongoing efforts to maintain control, order and safety in prisons [2].

Numerous responses to combat gangs have been implemented throughout U.S. prison systems, but only one has been described as a “silver bullet:” removing gang affiliates from the general population and placing them in restrictive housing [3]. This practice started in large prison systems (e.g., California, Texas) to constrain gang influence and violence, and expanded to other prison systems with the proliferation of prison gangs since the 1980s.

Moreover, the use of restrictive housing to manage gangs is considered one of the most controversial correctional practices because it places gang affiliates in restrictive housing, not because they have earned it (e.g., being disciplined for rule violations) or needed it (e.g., protection from self or others), but for the purpose of managing the threat they may pose to the institution. It is not uncommon to observe the wholesale placement of entire gangs or all gang affiliates in restrictive housing for indeterminate periods [4]. The Pelican Bay hunger strikes, along with the Ashker v. Governor of California class-action lawsuit in 2012 and settlement in 2015, brought considerable attention to the condition of gang affiliates in restrictive housing [5].

This article summarizes key findings from Chapter 4, “Gang Affiliation and Restrictive Housing in U.S. Prisons,” which examines gang affiliation and the use of restrictive housing in the National Institute of Justice published volume, Restrictive Housing in the United States: Issues, Challenges, and Future Directions. More details of the reviewed studies and their findings can be found in the full volume [6].

Why place gang affiliates in restrictive housing?

Gang affiliates fit squarely into the logic underlying the use of restrictive housing [7]. Gang affiliates commit both violent and nonviolent misconduct at higher rates than inmates not affiliated with gangs [8]. Removing them from the general population is expected to deter both misbehaving inmates and the prison population at large from disruptive behavior, incapacitate highly-disruptive inmates, normalize prisons and soothe tensions.

Corrections officials have, overwhelmingly, endorsed the use of restrictive housing for gang affiliates. Between 55 and 67 percent of jails, prisons or prison systems use restrictive housing as a response to gangs [9]. Nearly half of the 600 prison wardens surveyed by Dan Mears and his colleagues at the Urban Institute agreed that gang affiliates should be placed in restrictive housing; 83 percent endorsed its use for gang leaders [10]. Of the 37 gang-knowledgeable personnel in respective prison systems surveyed by John Winterdyk and Rick Ruddell, nearly all (94 percent) reported that restrictive housing was a “very effective” (75 percent) or “somewhat effective” (19 percent) method to combat gangs [11].

Does the widespread use of restrictive housing result in an over-representation of gang affiliates in prisons? Thus far, the best evidence indicates this may be true. However, our understanding of this relationship is limited to only a few states. Administrative data from prison systems in California, Colorado and Texas show that gang affiliates were overrepresented in restrictive housing [12]. Despite constituting a minority of the custodial population in these states, the majority of inmates in restrictive housing were gang affiliates, who were between 6 and 71 times more likely to be placed in restrictive housing than inmates who were not.

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David C. Pyrooz, Ph.D. is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Colorado Boulder. He is also a faculty associate in the Problem Behavior and Positive Youth Development Program in the Institute of Behavioral Science


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