Over the past several decades, U.S. corrections agencies have increasingly relied on the use of restrictive housing—also called solitary confinement or segregation—as a routine strategy to manage difficult, violent, or vulnerable populations. Segregation remains a mainstay of prison management, despite mounting evidence of the negative impacts of its use, including the potentially devastating psychological effects of being placed there. In recent years, a wide range of advocates, policymakers, national and international bodies, and corrections practitioners have called for prisons and jails to reexamine their use of restrictive housing.

Despite this national interest, restrictive housing remains a hidden issue, and with many unanswered questions about exactly how it is used: who is placed there and why, how long people stay there, how conditions and practices vary across the country, and how the environment affects those who work there.

With funding from the National Institute of Justice, Vera is conducting research to answer many of these questions.

What are the different types of restrictive housing in use around the country and how many people are held in these units?

Vera will develop a taxonomy to describe the various types of restrictive housing across the country and count how many people are held in each kind in state prison systems and a representative sample of jails.

How is segregation used in U.S. prisons, and what factors are associated with being placed in segregation?

Current figures often do little more than define the scale of the use of restrictive housing in aggregate terms, and do not delineate the factors (demographic, behavioral, and procedural) that are associated with its use. To address this conspicuous gap, Vera will analyze administrative data from eight state prison systems using descriptive statistics, logistic regression and multiple-linear regression to uncover who is placed in segregation, why, and for how long.

What are the different types of “step down” options used by prison systems to facilitate people in segregation’s return to general population? How widely available are these options?

Many prison systems have step down programs whose goal is to shorten the length of time people stay in segregation and increase the likelihood of remaining in general population through the provision of programming and increasing privileges, out-of-cell time, and congregate activity. Vera will identify the prevalence of these programs and describe their content and delivery.

What is the impact of working in restrictive housing settings on corrections staff?

The research team will examine—in Oregon and North Carolina—the effect of working in restrictive housing, relative to general population units (GPU), on corrections officers’ wellbeing through officer surveys and interviews, prison observations, and administrative data.