Vera’s recommendations are based on the assessment of each corrections system, as well as on many years of experience working to reduce restrictive housing and on emerging best practices identified in other U.S. jurisdictions.Vera also drew on the guiding principles on restrictive housing established by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2016, and policy statements from associations of corrections, medical, and health professionals. Some changes are relatively easy to make, while others are more challenging and may require additional resources, especially in staffing.

Vera’s recommendations varied in response to the specific needs and challenges of each jurisdiction. There were, however, a number of common recommendations, discussed below.

The overall aim of these recommendations is to do the following: 

  • Reduce the flow of people into restrictive housing. 
  • Exclude certain vulnerable groups from restrictive housing. 
  • Shorten the length of time people spend in restrictive housing. 
  • Improve conditions in restrictive housing. 
  • Assist people in transitioning to a facility’s general population—and whenever possible, avoid releasing them directly from restrictive housing to the community. 

Conditions in Restrictive Housing

Although sometimes correctional agencies need to be able to separate people temporarily from the general jail or prison population, that should not entail excessively restrictive and isolating conditions.

  1. In particular, Vera recommended that agencies do the following:

    • Maximize out-of-cell time. This includes providing meaningful opportunities for indoor and outdoor recreation, with ample room and equipment for exercise; therapeutic programming; education; and other activities, ideally with others who are incarcerated. 
    • Adopt strategies that reduce sensory deprivation and isolation and increase opportunities for physical activity and mental stimulation. A basic way to begin is by examining the physical spaces of restrictive housing cells, units, and recreation areas and making modifications to increase their size and natural light and decrease isolation. People should have opportunities for productive in-cell activities in addition to out-of-cell activities. This could include delivering programming and activities through written materials, televisions, MP3 players, or tablets. Increasing access to telephone calls and visits with family and other supportive people can also reduce isolation. (See “Innovative programming in restrictive housing” on page 29.) 
    • Increase access to medical, mental health, and program staff. Interactions should be frequent and face-to-face — and outside of cells whenever possible, rather than through a cell door. 

Innovative Programming

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Disciplinary Segregation

    • Substantially reduce the number of infractions that can result in disciplinary segregation. Only the most serious violent infractions—such as assault—should be eligible for such a severe sanction.
    • Maximize the use of other disciplinary sanctions, such as verbal reprimands, loss of privileges, work duty, or restrictions to cell.

      Agencies should develop more alternative sanctions and encourage their staff to use them more often. It may help to create a “graduated response matrix” that provides guidelines as to which sanctions staff can use in response to which types of behavior and that emphasizes alternatives to restrictive housing.

      Instead of the formal disciplinary process, agencies could also allow corrections officers to respond swiftly to less-serious infractions on the unit through the use of predefined proportionate sanctions. This approach is supported by decades of research, largely in community corrections, demonstrating that “swift and certain” responses to behavior are more effective than more severe, delayed punishments.Amy L. Solomon, Jenny W. L. Osborne, Laura Winterfield, and Brian Elderbroom, Putting Public Safety First: 13 Parole Supervision Strategies to Enhance Reentry Outcomes (Washington, DC: Urban Institute, Justice Policy Center, 2008), 13. Valerie Wright, Deterrence in Criminal Justice: Evaluating Certainty vs. Severity of Punishment (Washington, DC: The Sentencing Project, 2010); Mark A.R. Kleiman and Angela Hawken, “Fixing the Parole System,” Issues in Science and Technology 24, no. 4 (2008); and Swift Certain & Fair.
    • Train corrections officers to use communication and de-escalation techniques to resolve conflicts and address minor infractions, without resorting to a formal disciplinary process. 

      Punitive responses to infractions often do little to identify or resolve the issues underlying problematic behavior. Training staff to use communication skills to respond to minor infractions and help prevent other rule violations allows for a more supportive and solution-oriented response. Research on community corrections shows that outcomes may improve and recidivism may decrease when officers recognize the dignity of the people they supervise and those relationships are based on mutual respect.Alison Shames and Ram Subramanian, “Doing the Right Thing: The Evolving Role of Human Dignity in American Sentencing and Corrections,” Federal Sentencing Reporter 27, no. 1, (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2014), 9-18.
    • Reduce the maximum amount of time an incarcerated person can be held in disciplinary segregation. Throughout the country, numerous states have been reducing their maximum segregation sanctions. Some states have reduced their maximum to 30 days; Colorado recently announced that no one will be held in segregation for more than 15 days.For example, see Washington State, Colorado, and Delaware. Dan Pacholke and Sandy Felkey Mullins, More than Emptying Beds: A Systems Approach to Segregation Reform (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Assistance, 2016); Rick Raemisch and Kellie Wasko, Open the Door: Segregation Reforms in Colorado (Colorado Springs, CO: Colorado Department of Corrections, 2015); Community Legal Aid Society, Inc. v. Coupe, No. 15-688 (D.D.E. Sept. 1, 2016); and Rick Raemisch, “Why We Ended Long-Term Solitary Confinement in Colorado,” The New York Times, October 12, 2017.
  1. Vera recommended that the sites introduce or expand policies, programs, and activities to promote well-being, safety, and positive behavior in the general population:

    • Expand programming, education, pro-social activities, and positive incentives in the facility’s general population.

      This could help reduce idleness, alleviate tension and stress, provide incentives for positive behavior, and address mental health, substance use, and behavioral issues. These positive effects may lower the incidence of misbehavior and violence. 
    • Develop strategies to reduce the number of people who commit rule violations in order to go to disciplinary segregation because they fear living in the general population.

      Agencies should provide supports to those in their facilities’ general population who are vulnerable to victimization (such as youth, people new to incarceration, those with mental health needs, elderly people, and those who have developmental, intellectual, or physical disabilities).

      One option is to create mission-specific housing units that mix compatible vulnerable populations in a setting that is similar to the general population in terms of privileges and out-of-cell time, but is made safer through higher levels of staffing. Implementing violence-prevention strategies—such as ones based on the “Operation Ceasefire” deterrence model used in the community—may also help reduce violence and make general population housing areas safer.Communities have experimented with group violence intervention strategies dating back to Operation Ceasefire, a gun violence– reduction effort launched in Boston in the 1990s. This approach has since been replicated in other communities and has been shown to reduce violence significantly. Unlike suppression and containment models—traditionally used by law enforcement and correctional agencies to punish individuals for singular offenses—the Ceasefire model is based on principles of deterrence and recognizes that many serious offenses are motivated by group dynamics. See National Network for Safe Communities, “Prison Violence Intervention,”; and Bernie Warner, Dan Pacholke, and Carly Kujath, Operation Place Safety: First Year in Review(June 1, 2014).

Administrative Segregation

    • Include procedural safeguards in the process for placing people in administrative segregation—such as a hearing and review by a multidisciplinary team that includes a variety of program, mental health, and security staff—to ensure that segregation is used:

      1. only as a last resort, when people cannot be housed in the general population because they pose a serious threat to the safety of others; and

      2. only when a less-restrictive setting is not sufficient.
    • Ensure that the status of each individual in administrative segregation is reviewed frequently by a multidisciplinary team, with the goal of returning people safely to a less-restrictive setting as soon as possible.
    • Provide programming and treatment in segregation, including interventions to address the behaviors that may have resulted in a person’s placement there.

      Facilities should provide instructor-led programming in a secure classroom setting. Staff should help develop clear behavioral plans for everyone in administrative segregation, with the aim of creating a road map to guide people’s return to less-restrictive housing. Individuals should also have regular opportunities to demonstrate that they can reside safely in a less-restrictive setting.
    • Create a structured reentry process or “step-down” program—with progressively increasing levels of out-of-cell time, group activities, and privileges—to address behavioral issues, provide incentives for positive behavior, and prepare people to transition to the general population as soon as possible.

      The broad goal of step-down units and transitional programs is to help people successfully reenter general population housing, and ultimately the community, after a stay in restrictive housing. These units and programs may be structured differently, but most include graduated levels of out-of-cell time and group activity. One approach that many agencies have taken is creating a phase or level system that allows incarcerated people to gradually earn privileges as they move through the program.

Specific Populations

Certain groups of people—such as youth, women, people with mental illness, and people of color—may have different pathways into restrictive housing, be likelier to end up there, or be more vulnerable to its negative effects than others are. It is important to develop targeted strategies to address people’s underlying needs and reduce the use of restrictive housing for these populations.

  1. To this end, Vera recommended that agencies adopt the following strategies: 

    • Use alternative disciplinary sanctions and other less-stringent forms of housing for members of vulnerable populations. For example, agencies should establish secure therapeutic housing units for people who have serious mental health needs and also require heightened security.
    • Establish developmentally responsive policies, practices, and programming for youth and young adults.
    • Train staff to better understand and work with members of special populations.
    • Ensure that people placed in protective custody units or other specialized housing are not in restrictive housing-like conditions. These units should mirror the general population to the extent possible in terms of out-of-cell time, privileges, and programming.
    • Adhere to gender-responsive policies and practices and make sure that incarcerated women benefit from improvements and alternatives to restrictive housing to the same extent as those devised for men.“Gender-responsiveness” can be defined as “creating an environment…that reflects an understanding of the realities of women’s lives and addresses the issues of the women.” Barbara Bloom, Barbara Owen, and Stephanie Covington, Gender- Responsive Strategies: Research, Practice, and Guiding Principles for Women Offenders (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Corrections: June 2003), page v, citing Barbara Bloom and Stephanie Covington, “Gendered Justice: Programming for Women in Correctional Settings,” Paper presented to the American Society of Criminology (San Francisco: November 2000), 11.
    • Create a multidisciplinary committee to study disproportionate contact with restrictive housing among people of color. Such a committee could help agencies better understand the issue, set goals, recommend changes to practices or policies, oversee implementation of any changes, and conduct periodic reviews of data and practice.
    • Monitor the impact of policy changes closely to ensure that they improve—and do not perpetuate or worsen—current rates of disproportionate contact with restrictive housing among people of color. 

Release from Restrictive Housing to the Community

    • Prioritize people who are within several months of release for step-down programs or other structured reentry processes, to help them transition out of restrictive housing as soon as possible and within a meaningful time before release, allowing for appropriate resocialization and reentry planning.
    • Use alternative disciplinary sanctions and housing other than administrative segregation (such as units with increased supervision but that are less isolating) for any individual who will soon be released to the community.

Systemwide Strategies

The overuse of restrictive housing in U.S. jails and prisons cannot be seen as an isolated problem. It reflects systemic challenges facing corrections departments relating to the well-being of people who are incarcerated and of staff, and to the resources available to meet their needs. Agencies cannot address restrictive housing solely by examining their use of these types of units. They will also need to improve conditions of confinement for the general population to improve the well-being, safety, and conduct of incarcerated people broadly, thereby reducing the demand for typical restrictive housing options.

    • Increase programming, mental health treatment, education and vocational classes, and other pro-social activities.
    • Continue and expand efforts to support and train staff, including strategies to address high levels of staff vacancies, turnover, and burnout; improve staff wellness; increase training on communication, de-escalation skills, and mental health and crisis intervention; and seek staff input when designing and implementing policy changes. 
    • Develop robust systems for collecting and reporting data on the use of restrictive housing and other relevant measures, such as outcomes of the disciplinary process.

      Such data should be used to measure the impact of policy changes, identify areas in which the desired outcomes are not being achieved, and ensure that all people benefit from the improvements (including populations such as youth, women, and people of color). 
    • Incentivize and reward positive behavior, rather than only responding to negative, unwanted behavior.

      Research suggests that the most effective way to modify people’s behavior is to provide a framework that acknowledges and rewards their positive behaviors, rather than focusing solely on responding to unwanted behaviors like rule violations.See Paul Gendreau, “The Principles of Effective Intervention with Offenders,” in Choosing Correctional Options That Work, edited by Alan T. Harland (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1996), 117-130, and Eric J. Wodahl, Brett Garland, Scott E. Culhane, and William P. McCarty, “Utilizing Behavioral Interventions to Improve Supervision Outcomes in Community-Based Corrections,” Criminal Justice and Behavior 38, no. 4 (2011), 386-405

      For example, research on the effectiveness of community supervision suggests that people’s compliance with rules is optimized when supervising officers reward four positive behaviors for each negative behavior they sanction.Gendreau, 1996; and Wodahl et al., 2011. These rewards need not be large—and may be as small as verbal recognition of an achievement. As with punishments, the same research found that the consistency of the response was more important than its magnitude.

      For many officers, this increased emphasis on rewarding positive behaviors required a significant change in how they understood their work. Staff should be trained to respond to incarcerated people’s positive behavior, using clearly structured policies that define the types of rewards officers can give in response to specific behaviors. Explicit policies such as this also set clear expectations for people who are incarcerated. Encouraging positive behavior and rule compliance in this way might decrease the problematic behaviors that have too often driven the use of restrictive housing.