National Initiative to Reduce the Use of Solitary Confinement Expands

State and local corrections departments nationwide can apply to receive assistance in reducing their use of solitary confinement; new research to look at impact on correctional officer health, and more

New York, NY—The U.S. Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Bureau of Justice Assistance today announced a grant of $2.2 million to the Vera Institute of Justice to continue and expand its Safe Alternatives to Segregation Initiative, currently working in five jurisdictions to reduce the use of solitary confinement, also known as segregation or restrictive housing. Also today, the DOJ’s National Institute of Justice awarded Vera a grant of more than $1.4 million to assess the national use of solitary confinement and step-down programs, as well as the impact of working in restrictive housing on the well-being of correctional officers, in partnership with the University of North Carolina School of Social Work and the Oregon Health and Science University.   

Solitary confinement is widely used in U.S. prisons and jails as punishment for all levels of infractions, to manage people who are considered challenging, and for vulnerable populations such as people with mental illness, youth, and people who may need protection from the general population. Reducing the use of this practice is one of Vera’s core priorities. On any given day, it is estimated that as many as 100,000 people in U.S. prisons are held in solitary confinement, where they often stay for months or even years at a time. But a growing body of evidence suggests that segregation leads to unwanted and harmful outcomes for the mental and physical health of those in isolation. Solitary confinement can also have potentially harmful effects on the staff that work in these environments, and there is no evidence that it benefits the safety of the facilities or communities to which people held in segregation will eventually return.   

In January, the DOJ released recommendations for limiting the use of solitary confinement in federal prisons, and President Obama said he would adopt them in an op-ed that called for rethinking the use of solitary confinement as part of a broader bipartisan push for criminal justice reform. The DOJ report highlighted the Safe Alternative to Segregation Initiative as an example of successful reform taking place at the state and local levels, and proposed including additional sites.   

“The way we currently use solitary confinement and other forms of extreme isolation is counterproductive to the safety of our prisons and communities, costly to taxpayers, and far too harmful to the health and dignity of the thousands of people who experience it,” said Fred Patrick, director of Vera’s Center on Sentencing and Corrections. “We are encouraged that corrections officials nationwide share our commitment to moving away from this practice, and are thrilled to be partnering with more of them to turn calls for reform into real change.”   

“Despite its widespread use, there is much we don’t know about who is placed in solitary confinement and why,” said León Digard, senior research associate in Vera’s Center on Sentencing and Corrections. “We also know little about the effects that this practice has on those who work to deliver it. This study will be an important step in taking stock of the full scope of the problem—a crucial component of any reform effort.” 

With the new BJA grant, Vera is inviting state and local adult corrections agencies to apply to its Safe Alternatives to Segregation initiative aimed at reducing their use of solitary confinement, also known as segregation or restrictive housing. Up to five sites will be selected in the fall to receive comprehensive assessments of their use of segregation, data-driven recommendations for viable alternatives, and assistance with implementing these changes.   

The selected sites will join the five jurisdictions who have been participating in the initiative since March 2015: Nebraska; North Carolina; Oregon; Middlesex County, New Jersey; and New York City. In the coming months, Vera will be releasing reports detailing its findings and recommendations in these jurisdictions, after which it will help the sites implement the recommendations. 

Vera will continue to expand the online Safe Alternatives to Segregation Resource Center, as well as convene the initiative’s advisory council and representatives from the selected sites biannually.   

The application is due on September 30 and can be found on Vera’s website. Selected sites are expected to be announced later in the fall.

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“Vera’s expertise has been critical for New Mexico as we’ve looked at our longstanding use of segregation. I applaud not only the commitment, but the time and talent Vera has brought to the table regarding these very important public safety reforms. I also applaud the courage of the new states and local jurisdictions that will be joining in this initiative, as they also take a closer look at their traditional approaches to the use of segregation. The commitment and expertise of Vera, combined with the courage and commitments of each correctional agency in this journey, brings us closer to the core mission for American prisons—public safety—at a time when this great country needs it most. Ultimately, almost everyone sent to prisons will join each of us and our loved ones in the check-out lanes of our neighborhood grocery stores across this country. What happens in prison matters for our neighborhoods."

—Gregg Marcantel, Secretary, New Mexico Corrections Department and Advisory Council Member of the Safe Alternatives to Segregation Initiative 

“I feel fortunate to have had the experience of working with Vera in two states on the Safe Alternatives to Segregation Initiative. The work in Washington led to significant changes, and placed the Washington Department of Corrections in a leadership role in segregation reform. The Safe Alternatives to Segregation Initiative work in Nebraska has influenced the reforms mandated by legislation, and will have a strong role in helping the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services develop effective alternatives to restrictive housing.” —Scott Frakes, Director, Nebraska Department of Correctional Services