Many corrections systems isolate certain prisoners from the general prison population—a practice known as solitary confinement or segregation (1). Vera's Segregation Reduction Project (SRP) works with states to decrease the number of people they hold in segregation, provides recommendations tailored to their specific circumstances and needs, and continues to assist them while they plan and implement change. The project draws on methods Ohio and Mississippi used to reduce their segregated populations by 85 to 89 percent (2).
The SRP is currently partnering with the Illinois Department of Corrections, the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, and New Mexico’s Corrections Department to:
- review criteria to determine who should be held in segregation and who could be moved safely to the general prison population;
- assess disciplinary sentences and lengths of stay in segregation;
- enhance programs to transition prisoners out of segregation;
- improve programming and conditions of confinement for those who remain; and
- track the effects of moving prisoners from segregation back to the general prison.
The project also collaborates with the Washington State Department of Corrections to assess its segregation policies and practices, analyze the effects of its use of segregation, and implement recommendations for enhancing responses to protective custody, disciplinary, and intensive management populations.
Why work to reduce correctional segregation?
Since the 1980s, prisons in the United States have increasingly relied on the use of segregation to manage difficult populations in their overcrowded systems. According to the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, the number of people in restricted housing units nationwide increased from 57,591 in 1995 to 81,622 in 2005. At the same time, conditions of isolation have become increasingly severe, not only in supermax units and facilities, but also in segregation units throughout the country. Evidence now suggests that holding people in isolation with minimal human contact for days, years, or even decades is exceptionally expensive and in many cases counterproductive. Correctional systems also use segregation to sanction prisoners who have committed relatively minor violations within prison—despite evidence that long-term segregation can create or exacerbate serious mental health problems and antisocial behavior among incarcerated people, have negative outcomes for institutional safety, and increase the risk of recidivism after release.
The tide is now shifting. Vera’s Segregation Reduction Project points to a new and effective path forward, away from overreliance on this costly form of incarceration. With this project, Vera plans to demonstrate that it is possible for states to save money and achieve better outcomes by significantly reducing the numbers of prisoners held in segregation without jeopardizing institutional safety, and to create a model that can be adapted for use in many other U.S. jurisdictions.
(1) Angela Browne, Alissa Cambier, and Suzanne Agha, “Prisons Within Prisons: The Use of Segregation in the United States,” Federal Sentencing Reporter 24, no. 1 (October 2011): 46–49.
(2) Terry Kupers et al., “Beyond Supermax Administrative Segregation: Mississippi’s Experience Rethinking Prison Classification and Creating Alternative Mental Health Programs,” Criminal Justice & Behavior 36 (2009): 1037–50.