Five States Selected to Join National Initiative to Reduce the Use of Solitary Confinement

NEW YORK, NY – The Vera Institute of Justice announced today that it has selected five state corrections departments to participate in its Safe Alternatives to Segregation Initiative, which is helping state and local corrections agencies around the country reduce their use of solitary confinement (also known as segregation or restrictive housing). The corrections departments in Louisiana, Minnesota, Nevada, Utah, and Virginia were chosen after a competitive proposal process. They join five jurisdictions who have been participating in the initiative since April 2015: Nebraska, North Carolina, Oregon, New York City, and Middlesex County, New Jersey.

Solitary confinement is used widely in U.S. prisons and jails. But research has documented for decades its harmful impacts on the mental and physical health of those in isolation—nearly all of whom will eventually return to their communities—as well as emerging concerns about the potentially harmful effects on staff who work in these environments. It is also costlier than general population housing, with a lack of any evidence that it benefits the safety of facilities.  In recent years, a groundswell for ending the overuse of this practice has stemmed from public officials across the political spectrum, advocates, and correctional leaders. While many corrections departments nationwide want to reduce their reliance on solitary confinement, the practice is often deeply entrenched as a way of maintaining order—it is used to respond to all levels of infractions, manage people who are considered challenging, and can be overused for vulnerable populations such as people with mental illness and youth.

Through this initiative, Vera will work with the selected states to assess how they are using solitary confinement, develop viable strategies to safely reduce that use, and assist with implementing these changes. The selected states will also receive guidance from the initiative’s advisory council, which includes practitioners of corrections systems that have successfully reduced their reliance on solitary confinement, as well as experts in fields such as mental health and correctional reform. The 21-month partnership will begin in early 2017, and is supported by a $2.2 million grant awarded to Vera earlier this year by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance. The states will provide a match up to $50,000.

“The response to this initiative demonstrates that states across the nation and political spectrum are committed to taking on criminal justice reform, including a focus on the conditions of confinement,” said Fred Patrick, director of Vera’s Center on Sentencing and Corrections. “We are thrilled to now be working with ten jurisdictions to not only improve the safety and well-being of individuals, prisons, and communities in their states, but also to model promising practices for others who share this vision.”  

In the spring, Vera will be releasing a report detailing findings and recommendations from its work with the five jurisdictions who joined the initiative last year—many of whom have already begun implementing reforms. North Carolina banned the use of solitary confinement for juveniles in June, for example, and Nebraska ended the use of solitary confinement as a punishment for all disciplinary violations in July. Instead, the need to place an individual in segregation in Nebraska will be based on an assessment of the individual’s risk to the safety and security of others and facility operations.

Statements from Selected Sites:

“We are honored that we have been chosen to participate in the Vera Institute’s Safe Alternatives to Segregation initiative, supported by the Bureau of Justice Assistance. Our selection speaks to our own progress as we have already taken internal steps towards reforming the Department's restrictive housing policy based on current best practices. Vera's assistance will aid us in further examining and improving our restrictive housing policies and developing new approaches to effectively managing inmate behavior.” – James M. Le Blanc, Secretary, Louisiana Department of Corrections
“We are very pleased to be selected to be part of the Vera Institute’s Safe Alternatives to Segregation initiative. Vera’s expertise in the area of restrictive housing will give much value to the work we have already started. We always seek resources to improve ourselves, especially with this challenging population. The national interest in this topic will continue and we are even more optimistic with the signing of the 21st Century Cures Act by President Obama, addressing criminal justice reform measures related to mental health. Vera has had a significant influence in the area of criminal justice for many decades, and we are excited to be partnering in this important work.” – Tom Roy, Commissioner, Minnesota Department of Corrections
"With Vera’s assistance, Nevada will be better equipped to both reduce reliance on segregation and improve the way it is used, with the goal of preparing inmates for success when they return to their communities. This opportunity is directly in line with the mission of the department, will encourage positive development and needed reform, and will boost safety inside and outside the prison walls.” – James Dzurenda, Director, Nevada Department of Corrections
“The Utah Department of Corrections is proud to be among the states selected for technical assistance from Vera to advance our efforts to use less restrictive housing through a structured program. Over the past 18 months, Utah has significantly reduced our percentage of people in restricted housing and has provided them with opportunities for education, mental health treatment, and other programs in a safe and secure setting. We are dedicated to improving these efforts and look forward to working with Vera to enhance our practices and learn from their expertise.” – Rollin Cook,  Executive Director, Utah Department of Corrections 
 “Since 2011, the Virginia Department of Corrections has made significant progress in reducing the use of restrictive housing.  While we are pleased with the progress we have made, including recognition by the U.S. Department of Justice and the Council of State Government’s Southern Legislative Conference, we also know that there is more work to be done. We are delighted to be selected for this initiative and we welcome the opportunity to learn and share ideas with Vera and the participating departments.” – Harold Clarke, Director, Virginia Department of Corrections