Vera President Nicholas Turner Submits Testimony on Solitary Confinement for Senate Hearing

Vera President Nicholas Turner Submits Testimony on Solitary Confinement for Senate Hearing  

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

Drawing on the experience of Vera’s Segregation Reduction Project, Vera President Nicholas Turner told the Subcommittee in written testimony that the use of segregation by state and federal prisons has skyrocketed in recent decades. 

“Segregation was developed as a method for handling highly dangerous prisoners,” Turner 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 segregation 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,” Turner told the Subcommittee, adding that the current pressure on states’ budgets is also prompting many to reduce their reliance on this costly form of incarceration.

Since the Subcommittee held the first-ever Congressional hearing on segregation in June 2012, Turner noted that policymakers and practitioners as well as the general public have become increasingly focused on the issue and that “the opportunity exists for radically reforming conditions of confinement in more constructive, more effective, and less costly ways.” 

The experience of a growing number of jurisdictions demonstrates that prison systems can reduce their use of segregation and still protect institutional and public safety. For evidence, Turner pointed to Vera’s Segregation Reduction Project (SRP). Launched in 2010, SRP is the first project of its kind in North America 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, New Mexico, and Washington State.

In addition to outlining findings from SRP’s intensive assessments of 21 prison facilities in the United States, Turner shared progress reports from the project’s partner states. He concluded his testimony by offering a series of policy recommendations that jurisdictions could undertake now to curtail the public safety and financial costs of over-reliance on segregation, including:

  • Reducing intakes to segregation by using alternative sanctions for all but the most serious violations.
  • Limiting the violations for which segregation is a sanction, and segregation time for categories of violations.
  • Reviewing currently segregated population.
  • Providing tiered incentives to reduce segregation time for sustained good behavior.
  • Increasing protective custody (PC) bed availability to prevent prisoners from remaining at higher custody levels than necessary.
  • Creating or expanding “missioned” general population housing targeted to the needs of prisoners who are mentally ill, developmentally delayed, or at risk for sexual victimization or other bodily harm.
  • Increasing programming for prisoners in segregation.
  • Improving basic physical conditions.
  • Increasing mental health and social work staff across facilities and special needs/protective custody units to enhance the delivery of treatment and programs and reduce disruptions.
  • Implementing transition programs and housing to transition segregation prisoners to the general population prior to their release from custody.

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

  • The collection of national data on segregation, as there are currently no reliable national statistics on different forms of segregation;
  • A national study on the impact of segregation to assess how much (different types of) segregation cost 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.