Vera Director Michael Jacobson Submits Testimony on Reassessing Solitary Confinement

NEW YORK, NY―The first-ever Congressional hearing on solitary confinement is being held today by the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights. Solitary confinement—also known as segregation—long used to manage difficult prison populations, has come under closer scrutiny by policy makers in recent years, as more jurisdictions are looking for alternatives to this exceptionally expensive and increasingly harsh form of incarceration. The Vera Institute of Justice (Vera) is currently working with Illinois, Washington State, and Maryland to develop such safe alternatives.

As Vera Director Michael Jacobson told the Subcommittee in written testimony, the use of solitary confinement by state and federal prisons has skyrocketed in recent decades. “Segregation was developed as a method for handling highly dangerous prisoners,” Jacobson said. Increasingly, however, “it has been used with prisoners who do not pose a threat to staff or other prisoners but are placed in segregation for minor violations that are disruptive but not violent.”

The reexamination of solitary confinement is driven, in part, by recent research suggesting that segregation is often counterproductive. “Long-term isolation can create or exacerbate serious mental health problems and assaultive or anti-social behaviors, result in negative outcomes for institutional safety, and increase the risk of recidivism after release,” Jacobson told the Subcommittee. The current fiscal crisis is also prompting state prison systems to curtail expensive and ineffective practices, Jacobson said. “States can no longer afford these costs,” he remarked.

Pointing to one promising advance, Jacobson described the work of Vera’s Segregation Reduction Project (SRP). Launched in 2010, SRP is the first project of its kind to work with state prison systems to reduce safely the number of prisoners held in segregation and to improve the conditions of solitary confinement for those who remain. Currently, Vera is partnering with Illinois, Maryland, and Washington State and is in the process of extending SRP to a fourth state in the Southwest. 

Based on the lessons learned thus far through SRP, Jacobson offered a series of policy recommendations that jurisdictions could undertake now to curtail the public safety and financial costs of over-reliance on segregation, including:

  • Safely using alternative disciplinary sanctions for all but serious rules violations;
  • Reducing segregation time for certain categories of violations, when safety considerations permit;
  • Reviewing the existing segregated population to better understand who is being placed into isolation and why;
  • Providing segregated prisoners with incentives for sustained good behavior, to reduce segregation time;
  • Separating special populations (for example, people in protective custody or with severe mental illness) into dedicated housing units where programming, procedures, and other conditions are tailored to their needs; and
  • Increasing programming for prisoners in segregation to enhance their chances of successfully avoiding future disciplinary or justice system involvement.

To help support such change, Jacobson recommended that Congress take steps to mandate and fund the following efforts:

  • The collection of national data on segregation. A comprehensive census with precise definitions of types of segregation is vital to inform decision-making and legislation;
  • A national study on the impact of segregation to assess the costs of the use of (different types of) segregation compared to housing in the general population, and costs associated with incarceration in prison overall; and
  • The development of national standards on the use of segregation to encourage the field to adopt best practices.

Michael Jacobson’s testimony is available on Vera’s website.