Segregation Policies: Change Is in the Air

Posted Aug 25, 2016

by Jayne Russell, MEd, CCHP-ANCCHC board chair Jayne Russell

Restrictive housing is a practice that is used in nearly all correctional facilities as a necessary management tool. There are many types of solitary confinement or segregation in jails and prisons, with varying rules and policies regarding isolation.

Due process is required to place an inmate in disciplinary segregation. There must be a policy and process to determine culpability and subsequent terms of the discipline. Protective custody or administrative segregation is used when the inmate poses a serious threat and requires close supervision. Administrative segregation is also used when there is good reason to believe that the inmate may be in danger if housed in general population and should be placed in segregation for protection. “Supermax”—the highest level of classification—can also be considered segregation, and the housing restrictions are similar to any other segregation.

Segregation housing ranges from minimally restricted status to significant isolation. It affects many housing functions and imposes limits on movement and access to routine operations, and may necessitate mechanical restraints for transport. Various forms of segregation can impact recreation, exercise, visits and phone calls, commissary and use of television and radio. Routine hygiene may be reduced to only several showers weekly with minimal clothing and bedding exchanges. These restrictions may be mandated by state legislation. Time out of cell can be greatly reduced; the opportunity for paid work assignments, good time credit, education and programs can be denied or greatly diminished.

Reforms Underway
The practice of long-term isolation has received a great deal of attention in recent years. Studies suggest that extended isolation may lead to psychosis and suicidal behavior. At the very least, long-term isolation, defined as more than 15 days, can lead to depression, maladjustment and despair.

Amid this heightened awareness, last year President Obama ordered the Department of Justice to review the use of solitary confinement. Although firm numbers are difficult to determine, segregation is a widespread practice in the United States, with the DOJ report stating that up to 100,000 prison inmates are held in solitary on any given day. Some facilities employ solitary confinement 23 hours a day for years at a time or indefinitely.

Based on the DOJ’s findings, in January Obama ordered the Federal Bureau of Prisons to adopt the report’s recommendations for reforming the use of solitary. He also expressed the hope that these new policies would serve as a model for state and local correctional systems.

Many prison and jail systems are reexamining their use of solitary confinement and some have begun to minimize it. In some cases, these actions are being undertaken as a result of lawsuits associated with bad outcomes from long-term segregation. One of those is in the State of California, which is reviewing solitary confinement policies; anticipated reforms have the potential to remove a significant number of inmates from long-term lockdown status.

More broadly, there is national movement to eliminate solitary confinement of all incarcerated juveniles. The DOJ report recommended this measure, and it is now banned in the Bureau of Prisons. In New York City, Rikers Island jail has ended solitary confinement for inmates under the age of 21.

Similarly, mentally ill inmates are a population of concern as these individuals often have “acting out” behaviors that result in excessive disciplinary time. Some institutions have eliminated solitary confinement for these inmates.

Devising Strategies
There is no easy solution or expedient answer for enacting reform and change. It is a fact that certain individuals cannot be housed safely with others, and correctional facilities have an unequivocal responsibility to protect everyone: officers, staff and other inmates in danger of being housed with violent inmates or the severely mentally ill.

We need to create strategies for individuals who cannot be housed or mix with others. This is a challenge facing all institutions that manage the most difficult of inmates. Some systems offer controlled program time, enhanced clinical services and daily staff rounds to visit these inmates. Health and welfare checks should become a routine part of monitoring, with a minimum of routine officer checks at every shift.

Socialization activities, even in confinement, can increase positive stimulation and learned coping mechanisms to combat the stress of solitary lockup. Positive behavior changes may allow certain inmates greater freedom and socialization, and eventually a return to general population housing.

Medical and mental health providers should work closely with custody staff to share information and observations, and to help determine meaningful interventions.

Consider the cumulative years of these human beings in solitary incarceration; it is a sad and staggering reality. I am hopeful that we, as a nation, will humanely modify these practices and enact positive solutions and policies that support a better quality of life, one that illustrates the dignity and values of our justice system.

Readers, what steps has your facility taken to decrease the use of solitary confinement? Please write to us at

Jayne Russell, MEd, CCHP-A, is 2016 chair of NCCHC’s board of directors and serves as the Academy of Correctional Health Professionals’ liaison to the board. She works as an independent consultant in correctional health care.