Since the 1980s, corrections systems in the United States have increasingly relied on the use of restrictive housing—also known as segregation, isolation, or solitary confinement—which is typically characterized by confinement in a cell for 22 to 24 hours a day, with minimal human interaction or sensory stimuli and limited access to programming, treatment, and constructive activity. Originally intended to manage people who committed violence within jails and prisons, restrictive housing has become a common tool for responding to all levels of rule violations, from minor to serious; managing challenging populations; and housing people considered vulnerable, including those living with mental illness.

Increasing evidence suggests this practice is counterproductive to the safety and security of correctional facilities and the communities to which most incarcerated people will return. Holding people in isolation for days, years, or even decades can create or exacerbate serious mental health problems and anti-social behavior, can have negative outcomes for institutional safety, is a significant barrier to successful reentry programming and planning, and is costly to resource-strained agencies. Furthermore, the negative impacts on staff wellness of harsh working conditions in restrictive housing are beginning to be investigated and better understood.

Reducing the overuse of restrictive housing has been a key priority of Vera’s since 2010. Through the Segregation Reduction Project (funded by the Robert W. Wilson Charitable Trust) and then the Safe Alternatives to Segregation Initiative (funded by the U.S. Bureau of Justice Assistance and the Wilson Trust), Vera partnered with 16 state and local corrections departments around the United States to assess their use of restrictive housing, provide recommendations for safely reducing that use, and assist with implementing reforms.

In 2019, Vera launched the latest round of this work, Safe Prisons, Safe Communities: From Isolation to Dignity and Wellness Behind Bars. Through this project, Vera is partnering with two systems—the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections and the Washington State Department of Corrections.

Vera will collaborate with Louisiana and Washington over the next 18 months to design and implement innovative reforms to significantly reduce their use of restrictive housing while promoting safety and wellness for those who live and work in their institutions. The project’s overarching goals for each system are:

  • Eliminating the use of restrictive housing for non-violent/low-level behavior and for particularly vulnerable populations—including youth under 18 and people with serious mental illness.
  • Significantly reducing the length of time people spend in restrictive housing, moving towards a long-term goal of ending prolonged restrictive housing.
  • Improving conditions in restrictive housing, including but not limited to a less isolated environment, additional out-of-cell time, opportunities for meaningful human contact, and access to programs and services.
  • Addressing any racial and ethnic disparities in a system’s use of restrictive housing.
  • Decreasing the agency’s total restrictive housing population by at least 20 percent by the end of the partnership, putting them on the path to reducing it by at least 50 percent in four years.