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Rethinking Restriction Housing, Vera Institute of Justice, 2018

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May 2018

Rethinking Restrictive Housing
Lessons from Five U.S. Jail and Prison Systems
Léon Digard, Elena Vanko, and Sara Sullivan

About This Report
This project was supported by Grant No. 2014-DB-BX-K009, awarded
by the Bureau of Justice Assistance. The Bureau of Justice Assistance is
a component of the Department of Justice’s Office of Justice Programs,
which also includes the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the National Institute
of Justice, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, the
Office for Victims of Crime, and the Office of Sex Offender Sentencing,
Monitoring, Apprehending, Registering, and Tracking. Points of view or
opinions in this document are those of the author and do not necessarily
represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.

From the Director
Throughout the country, government officials,
policymakers, the nonprofit sector, advocates, allies,
and others are working to reimagine justice systems in
ways that respect the human dignity and potential of
all people. This cannot be achieved without confronting
one of jails’ and prisons’ most troubling practices — 
the use of restrictive housing (sometimes referred to
as ‘solitary confinement’ or ‘segregation’). This type
of housing is widely considered “a prison within
a prison” for the young people, men, and women
who reside there. The deprivation of human contact,
physical activity, and mental stimuli associated with
such dramatic isolation has been shown to cause
adverse effects for many people that often last long
after their release.
As Vera began the Safe Alternatives to Segregation
Initiative, our instincts told us that we would see the
same trends in restrictive housing that exist in U.S.
justice systems overall — from arrest to sentencing
to conditions in jails and prisons. Although the data
varies among our project partners, this proved to be
true. Minor nonviolent offenses are too often met with
extreme sanctions instead of finding other ways to
hold people accountable for their actions. People are
frequently detained and confined, but they rarely get
the treatment or support they need to grow, adjust, or
heal. In short, just as systems have come to rely too
heavily on incarceration, departments of corrections
now rely too much on restrictive housing within their
facilities. And, as in other parts of the justice system,

restrictive housing affects disproportionate numbers
of young people, people living with mental illness, and
people of color.
These problems can be solved. Our partners in this
initiative are acting boldly to tackle these challenging
issues. Agency leaders opened their doors to our staff
with a commitment to examine and rethink their
policies and practices, drawing on Vera’s expertise in
reducing the use of restrictive housing. They did so
knowing that the people in their care must be treated
with decency — and that this form of incarceration
can be detrimental not only to incarcerated people and
corrections staff, but also to the public. Placement in
restrictive housing can prevent people from accessing
the services and social supports that help them adjust
to life after release and become successful members of
their communities.
Our partners’ work shows that agencies can take
steps to reduce their use of restrictive housing. Other
leaders who are serious about rethinking conditions of
confinement can benefit from the practical solutions
described in this report.

Fred Patrick
Director, Center on Sentencing and Corrections
Vera Institute of Justice




Five partner sites committed to change


Findings on restrictive housing in practice

Conditions in restrictive housing



Disciplinary segregation



Administrative segregation


20 	 Specific populations


27 	 Release from restrictive housing to the community

28 	 Recommendations
29 	 Conditions in restrictive housing


Disciplinary segregation


32 	 Administrative segregation


34 	 Specific populations


35 	 Release from restrictive housing to the community



Systemwide strategies

38	Conclusion
40 	 Endnotes



fter decades of misuse and overuse, the tide appears to be turning
on the role of solitary confinement in U.S. jails and prisons. In
recent years, this practice — also known as restrictive housing or
segregation — has been the subject of increased scrutiny from researchers,
advocates, policymakers, media, and the government agencies responsible
for people who are incarcerated. In restrictive housing, a person is held
in a cell, typically 22 to 24 hours a day, with minimal human interaction
or sensory stimuli. Since the 1980s, the rise in its use has mirrored the
exponential rise of incarceration. 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, especially those living with mental illness.1 Also
reflecting incarceration trends, evidence suggests that in a substantial
number of jurisdictions, younger people, people of color, and those living
with mental illness are held in restrictive housing at higher rates.2 In
light of this information and growing evidence that restrictive housing
may harm people without improving safety in facilities, a number of
departments of corrections are taking steps to reduce their reliance on this
type of housing.
The effects of being held in restrictive housing can be significant. An
extensive body of research in psychiatry, neuroscience, epidemiology, and
anthropology spanning more than 150 years has documented the potential
detrimental effects of restrictive housing on the health and well-being of
incarcerated people.3 This evidence confirms what is perhaps understood
intuitively: the practice can result in physical and psychological damage
whose negative repercussions can persist well after release, making the
transition to life in a prison’s general population or in the community
considerably more difficult. Social isolation, sensory deprivation, and
enforced idleness are a toxic combination that can result in psychiatric
symptoms, including anxiety, depression, anger, difficulties with
impulse control, paranoia, visual and auditory hallucinations, cognitive

Rethinking Restrictive Housing: Lessons from Five U.S. Jail and Prison Systems


disturbances, obsessive thoughts, hypersensitivity to stimuli, posttraumatic stress disorder, self-harm, suicide, and psychosis.4
At an institutional level, restrictive housing is extremely resourceintensive, although research provides no conclusive evidence that it makes
facilities or communities safer.5 Attention has also turned toward the
impact restrictive housing has on staff. Studies have demonstrated that
corrections officers working in general-population units face stressors
that can negatively affect their mental and physical health and family
relationships.6 Researchers have recently started to explore whether
working in the unique conditions found in restrictive-housing units is
associated with depression, stress, or trauma — or with other markers of
safety and well-being, such as injury and sick leave.7

Research provides no conclusive
evidence that restrictive housing
makes facilities or communities safer.

For more than a decade, Vera has been working to shed light on the
use of restrictive housing in U.S. jails and prisons, and to partner with
departments of corrections to address the issue head-on. In 2005, Vera
established the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons.
The following year, the commission published a comprehensive report of
its findings and recommendations, drawing attention to the overuse of
restrictive housing.8 Vera launched its Segregation Reduction Project in
2010 and worked with corrections agencies to put those recommendations
into practice and develop new strategies to reduce the use of restrictive
Vera’s work with local and state agencies has been part of a national
movement to rethink the use of restrictive housing. Mainstream journalists
and media outlets are focusing on the conditions in these settings, while


Vera Institute of Justice

advocacy organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union and
the National Religious Campaign Against Torture have mounted highprofile campaigns against its use.9 In recent years, corrections officials
and policymakers have joined the call for change and are leading these
efforts throughout the country. Some of the most prominent steps taken to
address the use of restrictive housing in recent years include the following:
›› The Association of State Correctional Administrators and the





American Correctional Association passed new principles and
standards regarding the use of restrictive housing.10
The National Commission on Correctional Health Care issued a
strong position statement calling for the elimination of restrictive
housing longer than 15 consecutive days.11
The U.S. Department of Justice published a report that called for
far-reaching revisions to the Federal Bureau of Prisons’ restrictive
housing practices and outlined a number of principles to guide local
and state jurisdictions seeking to make similar changes.12
The National Institute of Justice issued a report that questions
whether restrictive housing achieves the intended goals of
maintaining safety and order.13
The United Nations General Assembly unanimously adopted the
revised Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners
(known as “the Nelson Mandela Rules”), which prohibit restrictive
housing that is indefinite or prolonged and support restrictions on
its use with juveniles, pregnant women, and people who have a
disability or mental illness.14 

Against this backdrop, many U.S. jurisdictions are changing their
approach to restrictive housing.15 A growing number of corrections leaders
want to tackle this issue, motivated by a desire to improve the safety and
well-being of those who live and work in their facilities; make better use
of their resources; respond to interest from external stakeholders; and
ultimately enhance public safety in the communities to which people
will return after their release.16 In 2014, administrators from 40 state
departments of corrections reported that they had recently conducted
reviews of their restrictive-housing policies; by 2016, many of those

Rethinking Restrictive Housing: Lessons from Five U.S. Jail and Prison Systems


jurisdictions had planned or enacted changes to reduce their reliance on
this type of custody.17 But the task is a challenging one. Jails and prisons
are complex environments, and many forces are at play in changing their
policies, practices, and cultures. Correctional staff have become so reliant
on the practice of placing people in restrictive housing that in many jails
and prisons it has become a part of everyday life and institutional culture;
any attempts to reduce its use must therefore be carefully and strategically
implemented. What’s more, to solve a problem one must first define and
understand it — yet in many jurisdictions, antiquated record systems make
it difficult to assess how restrictive housing is being used.
In 2015, Vera expanded its efforts to support departments of corrections
in doing this work by launching the Safe Alternatives to Segregation
Initiative, with funding from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau
of Justice Assistance. Through this initiative, Vera partnered with five
corrections agencies on the local and state level to assess their policies and
practices, analyze related outcomes, and provide recommendations for
safely reducing the use of restrictive housing in their jails or prisons. While
these were tailored to each agency’s needs, many recommendations could
be effective in addressing the use of restrictive housing in jurisdictions
across the country. Vera recommends that jails and prisons use restrictive
housing only as follows:
›› as a last resort;
›› as a response to the most serious and threatening behavior;
›› for the shortest time possible; and
›› with the least-restrictive conditions possible.

For the initiative, Vera selected five sites through a competitive
application process, based on their willingness to address this difficult
issue head-on. By reducing their use of restrictive housing, the partner
sites hope to promote a culture of safety and security in their facilities
and increase opportunities for rehabilitation. Through these efforts, the
department leaders believe they can improve the well-being of people who
live and work in their systems.18
This report summarizes the key findings and recommendations
Vera presented to its five partner agencies:


Vera Institute of Justice

›› Middlesex County Adult Correction Center (New Jersey)
›› Nebraska Department of Correctional Services
›› New York City Department of Correction
›› North Carolina Department of Public Safety
›› Oregon Department of Corrections

Conducting this work in five jurisdictions that vary by size, mission, and
geographic location has given Vera an unparalleled opportunity to describe
in detail how restrictive housing is being used in a cross-section of U.S.
jails and prisons. Vera has been able to identify differences among these
locations, but also many commonalities.

Types of restrictive housing: Terminology
A number of terms are used to describe the practice
commonly known as solitary confinement. The definitions
associated with these terms also vary. For example, the
American Correctional Association recently defined
“restrictive housing” as the confinement of a person to a cell
for 22 or more hours per day. In conducting its assessment
and in this report, Vera used a broader definition of this
term, including any form of housing where a person was held
separately from—and in more confining conditions than—a
jail’s or prison’s general population. This included units where
people were held in their cells for 22 hours a day or more,
but also less-restrictive units where people may have been
allowed out of their cells for longer periods or given more
opportunities for human interaction.
Different jurisdictions use different terms to describe
restrictive housing, including segregation, special housing,
and isolation. Each jurisdiction typically has more than one
type of this housing within its jails or prisons. The following
are the most commonly used types:
Disciplinary (or punitive) segregation: This form of
housing is used to sanction incarcerated people found guilty
of violating facility rules, ranging from minor infractions, such
as swearing, to serious ones, such as assault. A set length
of time in disciplinary segregation is typically given as a

sanction, often by a hearings officer. The officer considers
the evidence and circumstances of a charge before making
a determination of guilt or innocence and deciding on a
sanction, if any. While awaiting a hearing, the incarcerated
person is sometimes held in another type of restrictive
housing known as “pre-hearing detention.”
Administrative segregation: This housing is usually
used to remove people from a jail’s or prison’s general
population if they are thought to pose a risk to the safety
of others, the security of an institution, or both. This may
be determined on the basis of an escape attempt, violence,
or low-level but persistent disruptive behavior. In some
jurisdictions, placement in administrative segregation may
also be determined by a person’s status (such as the type of
offense for which he or she was incarcerated or whether an
investigation is pending, for example) and not just behavior.
Placement in administrative segregation can last indefinitely.
Protective custody: This type of housing is used to remove
incarcerated people from a facility’s general population
when they are thought to be at risk of abuse, victimization, or
other harm. Some people in protective custody are housed in
conditions similar to that of typical restrictive housing units.
Other protective custody units allow for privileges and out-ofcell time similar to those granted in the general population.

Rethinking Restrictive Housing: Lessons from Five U.S. Jail and Prison Systems


The report provides background information on each site and a
description of Vera’s assessment process. It then presents highlights of
Vera’s findings about how the systems use restrictive housing, as well as
recommendations for changes in policy and practice to reduce that use
safely. This paper offers a high-level overview of the project; Vera also
produced detailed technical reports for each site, which interested readers
should consult for further information about a specific jurisdiction,
including descriptions of the methods used and data analyzed. (Visit to find those reports.)

Five partner sites
committed to change


he five correctional agencies Vera partnered with are diverse
geographically, operationally, and in terms of their size and use of
restrictive housing. They include state prison systems in Nebraska,
North Carolina, and Oregon and local jail systems in New Jersey’s
Middlesex County and New York City.19 The following summaries
briefly describe the sites as Vera encountered them at the start of the
Safe Alternatives to Segregation Initiative in early 2015. Since this time,
however, each agency has taken steps to address its use of restrictive
housing; the figures presented below should be considered a baseline
against which the impact of current and future efforts can be measured.
Middlesex County Adult Correction Center (New Jersey):
The Middlesex County Adult Correction Center (MCACC) is a jail
responsible for the care and custody of almost 900 people. MCACC
is a facility with 20 housing units, ranging in custody level from daily
work-release to maximum security. From January 2015 through January
2016, approximately 6 percent of the population was held in restrictive
housing at any given time — and other than a small number of women in


Vera Institute of Justice

administrative segregation or protective custody, all of these people were
housed in individual cells for at least 23 hours a day, with no access to the



New York

County, NJ



Nebraska Department of Correctional Services: The Nebraska
Department of Correctional Services (NDCS) operates 10 prisons designed
to hold 3,275 people. Nebraska has one of the most severely overcrowded
systems in the country, however, and has been operating at almost 160
percent capacity (with more than 5,000 people) in recent years. Vera found
that 13.9 percent of the population was held in some form of restrictive
housing, on average, during a two-year period ending June 30, 2015. About
half of these people were in highly restrictive settings where they were
kept in their cells for approximately 23 hours a day. The other half were in
less-restrictive environments, which placed limits on out-of-cell time but
typically allowed for more than one hour per day out of their cells.
New York City Department of Correction: The New York City
Department of Correction (NYC DOC) jail system has 12 facilities, two
hospital wards, and 16 court-holding facilities in the city’s five boroughs. In
2015, the department had an average daily population of approximately

Rethinking Restrictive Housing: Lessons from Five U.S. Jail and Prison Systems


10,240 people in custody. On average, about 3 percent of NYC DOC’s
population was in some form of restrictive housing: 1.6 percent of people
were in highly restrictive housing (in their cells 20 to 23 hours per day) and
another 1.6 percent were in less-restrictive settings.

To assess the use of restrictive housing in each jurisdiction,
Vera used information gathered from three main sources:
departmental policies; visits to jails and prisons, where Vera
spoke with line staff, supervisors, administrators, and people
who were incarcerated; and administrative data. For more
detail on the methods used in each jurisdiction, refer to the
technical reports. (To read those reports, visit
Policy review: Vera reviewed each agency’s policies
relating to all forms of restrictive housing to understand the
mechanisms by which people are placed in such housing,
the conditions there, and the processes used for their release
to other forms of housing. Vera staff also looked at policies
relating to special or vulnerable populations (such as people
with mental illness or those younger than 18) and policies
relating to the facilities’ general population that might
affect incarcerated people’s conduct (such as disciplinary
procedures or rewards systems that provide incentives for
positive behavior).a
Site visits: Project staff visited correctional facilities in
each jurisdiction to understand how policies are applied in
practice, the challenges staff face in their work, the various
cultures of each system, and the physical constraints
imposed—and opportunities presented—by the buildings’
architecture. During site visits, Vera met with staff from all
disciplines and levels of authority (including corrections
officers, unit managers, mental health staff, counselors,
medical staff, and education and other programming staff),
toured the facilities, observed relevant proceedings (such as
disciplinary hearings), and conducted focus groups with staff
and with incarcerated people.
Data analysis: Vera analyzed administrative data from each
jurisdiction to identify who was being placed in restrictive


Vera Institute of Justice

housing, the reasons they were placed there, how long they
stayed, and where they went upon release from these units.
To accomplish this, Vera staff requested individual-level
data relating to disciplinary charges and hearings, people’s
housing and movement among units while in custody,
demographics, and mental health information. This data
referred to all people who were in the agency’s custody
during a period of time prior to the assessment. Time frames
varied, depending on the start date of the partnership, the
timing of any recent changes to the use of restrictive housing,
and the availability of data.b
Correctional data systems vary in their quality and
completeness—for example, not all systems track mental
health needs or gang affiliation—meaning that Vera staff
were sometimes limited in the conclusions they could draw
from a site’s data. This report notes instances when data
limited Vera’s scope of inquiry. At the time of the assessment,
no individual-level data was available for the Middlesex
County Adult Correction Center, so Vera was unable to
conduct data analyses when assessing that facility.
People who have experienced violence in a facility, including sexual
assault, may be considered vulnerable. This may also be true of
individuals who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, and/or transgender—or
are perceived to be. More data about these populations is needed
and was not consistently available as part of this initiative.


NDCS provided data for July 1, 2013 to June 30, 2015 (FY 2014 and
FY 2015); NYC DOC provided admissions and movement data for
January 1, 2014 through August 31, 2015, as well as infraction data
from January 1, 2014 through December 31, 2015; NCDPS provided
data for July 1, 2014 through June 30, 2015; and ODOC provided
data for January 1, 2014 through July 22, 2015.


North Carolina Department of Public Safety: The North Carolina
Department of Public Safety (NCDPS) oversees the care and custody of
more than 37,000 incarcerated people in 56 facilities, 44 of which had
restrictive housing units at the start of Vera’s assessment. Slightly less
than 8 percent of the prison population was housed in “typical” restrictive
housing — where an incarcerated person spends approximately 23 hours
a day alone in a cell — and 1 percent of people were housed in restrictive
housing units that allowed more out-of-cell time.
Oregon Department of Corrections: The Oregon Department of
Corrections (ODOC) operates 14 state prisons, six of which hold the vast
majority of Oregon’s restrictive housing population. At the beginning of
April 2015, the total population in Oregon’s prisons was 14,934, and 7.5
percent of people were in some form of restrictive housing. The majority of
these people were in a highly restrictive setting, confined to their cells for
22 to 24 hours.

Findings on restrictive
housing in practice


era identified a number of commonalities in agencies’ use of
restrictive housing, in addition to their leaders’ motivation and
desire to study and change their practices. This section presents
key findings related to the conditions in restrictive housing, the use of
disciplinary and administrative segregation, the demographics of people
placed in restrictive housing, and the practice of releasing people directly
from such housing to the community. Examples from the jurisdictions
illustrate each point. (The use of protective custody varied widely among
Vera’s partners and is addressed in each site’s technical report.)
A few caveats should be kept in mind when considering these findings.
First, the data presented refer to the period directly before the initiative

Rethinking Restrictive Housing: Lessons from Five U.S. Jail and Prison Systems


started and do not reflect changes agencies have made to their policies and
practices since then. Second, some variations in the agencies’ operations
and use of restrictive housing were substantial, so not all of the findings
discussed here are relevant to all jurisdictions. A more detailed picture of
each department can be found in the technical reports provided to each site.20

Conditions in restrictive housing
Finding: Conditions in restrictive housing units were marked by
isolation and sensory deprivation.
Although the physical and operational characteristics of restrictive housing
units — such as cell sizes and types of recreational areas — varied among
the partner agencies and within them, incarcerated people in these units
were typically held in stark, isolated environments with little sensory
stimulation or social interaction. In the most-restrictive housing, people
were held in their cells for at least 23 hours a day, with up to one hour of
out-of-cell recreation, often held in a small caged area or a bare concrete
space, sometimes with limited access to fresh air and direct sunlight.
In some systems, barred indoor enclosures were used for recreation at
times. Many cells were small, sparsely furnished, and lacked fresh air,
and some had no windows or natural light. Opportunities for therapeutic
programming or any form of productive activity were scarce.

Disciplinary segregation
People are placed in disciplinary segregation (sometimes referred to as
“punitive segregation”) as punishment for behavior that violates a facility’s
rules, typically including minor as well as serious infractions. A sentence
to disciplinary segregation is usually given after a disciplinary hearing,
when the case is reviewed and a finding of guilt is made. Depending on
the policies of the jurisdiction, this decision may be made by a disciplinary
hearings officer — who may be a designated officer with special training
and the specific responsibility of hearing disciplinary cases; or a staff
member, such as a sergeant or lieutenant, who hears cases in addition to
performing other duties. In some jurisdictions, a disciplinary committee


Vera Institute of Justice

made up of multiple staff from the facility may make this decision.
Incarcerated people are sometimes placed directly into restrictive housing
for a period of pre-hearing detention while their cases are investigated
Finding: Low-level nonviolent offenses were among the most common
infractions to result in disciplinary segregation sanctions.
All five sites participating in the initiative frequently used restrictive
housing to respond to nonviolent infractions. In Nebraska, North Carolina,
and Oregon, “disobeying an order” was the most common infraction to
result in disciplinary segregation. (See Table 1 on page 17.) In New York
City, a higher proportion of disciplinary segregation sentences were
given in response to violent infractions; even there, however, disobeying
an order was still the fifth-most-common charge to receive a restrictive
housing sentence. Sentences ranged from a couple of days to several
months — though in some jurisdictions, a person charged with multiple
rule violations at the same time may have been required to serve multiple
sentences back-to-back. Some people were released to the general
population at the end of their assigned sentence and some were released
earlier, but others were transferred to other forms of restrictive housing
upon completing the sanction, thus extending their stay in restrictive
In Nebraska, North Carolina, and Oregon, the most common infractions
resulting in disciplinary segregation were low-level nonviolent offenses.
In Nebraska, “disobeying an order” accounted for 28 percent of such
sentences. In North Carolina, none of the top 10 infractions resulting
in disciplinary segregation were among the most serious charges as
determined by the Department of Public Safety. And in Oregon, 58 percent
of disciplinary segregation sentences were for nonviolent infractions.
It should be noted that since Vera conducted these analyses, the
North Carolina Department of Public Safety has significantly altered its
policies governing disciplinary practices and the Nebraska Department
of Correctional Services has ended its use of disciplinary segregation

Rethinking Restrictive Housing: Lessons from Five U.S. Jail and Prison Systems


Finding: Disciplinary segregation accounted for a substantial
proportion of the people in restrictive housing.
Punishment of misbehavior was a substantial driver of the populations in
restrictive housing at Vera’s five partner sites. The charts below show the
percentages of people in restrictive housing held for disciplinary reasons
in three jurisdictions, either serving time in these units in response to an
infraction or awaiting a disciplinary hearing.
Figure 1 shows that a substantial proportion of people in restrictive
housing are held there for disciplinary reasons. What’s more, many of those
who end up in this type of housing enter through disciplinary segregation
before being transferred to administrative segregation or another form of
restrictive housing. For example, approximately 90 percent of incarcerated
people in Oregon who spent time in any type of restrictive housing first
entered through the disciplinary unit.

Figure 1

Percentage of population in restrictive housing held in
disciplinary segregation
Disciplinary segregation


Other restrictive housing







(as of June 30,

(as of April 30,

(Average daily



Source: Vera Institute of Justice analysis of data from the New York City Department of Correction, the North
Carolina Department of Public Safety, and the Oregon Department of Corrections. Note that in New York City,
disciplinary segregation includes people held in the Central Punitive Segregation Unit, Punitive Segregation
Unit II, and Restrictive Housing Units. These units range from 17 hours in a cell per day to 23 hours. This data
includes people who are pending the results of an investigation or hearing, as well as those charged and sent
to disciplinary segregation.


Vera Institute of Justice

Overall, the number of people who serve time in disciplinary segregation
can be high: in Nebraska, for example, 44 percent of all incarcerated people
had been placed in restrictive housing as punishment for an infraction or
pending an investigation during the course of their incarceration.

Table 1

Top five infractions leading to disciplinary segregation sanctions




North Carolina




New York City









Disobeying an order


Disobeying an


Disobedience of
an order I


struggle with an
inmate; no injury


Use of threatening
language or




Inmate assault I


Assault on staff with
injury or attempted




tobacco use


Inmate assault II


struggle with an
inmate resulting in


Swearing, cursing,
or use of abusive
language or gestures


Sexual act


Disrespect II


Assault on inmate
with injury or
attempted injury






Disobedience of
an order II


Disobeying staff


Data refer to all charges that resulted in a sentence to disciplinary segregation, though does not necessarily mean that the sentence was served. Nebraska (N=6,769) July
1, 2013-June 30, 2015; North Carolina (N=60,528) July 1, 2014-June 30, 2015; Oregon (N=9,846) January 1, 2014-July 22, 2015; New York City (N=9,793), calendar year 2015.
Note: Data for infractions at the Middlesex County Adult Correction Center was not available for analysis. Facility staff there reported that the most frequent infractions
to receive adjudication and lead to disciplinary segregation were “conduct which disrupts,” “possession of narcotics/drug paraphernalia,” and fighting. Disciplinary
segregation in New York City ranges from 17 hours in a cell per day to 23 hours.

Rethinking Restrictive Housing: Lessons from Five U.S. Jail and Prison Systems


Finding: Staff and people who are incarcerated believe that some
individuals committed infractions in order to be placed in restrictive
housing because they feared victimization or violence in the
general population.
This finding is difficult to quantify using administrative data. Still, at many
of the facilities Vera visited, staff and incarcerated people reported that
they believed people sometimes violated rules with the express purpose
of being placed in restrictive housing because they feared for their safety
in the general population. The reasons cited for these concerns included
belonging to a vulnerable group (such as people who are young), being
targeted by gang members, and a fear of violence. Perceptions of threat
and insecurity therefore appear to increase the number of infractions
committed (actions that often cause physical, emotional, and material harm)
and the number of people in restrictive housing.

Administrative segregation
People held in restrictive housing for reasons other than punishment for
violating rules are held in what is typically referred to as administrative
segregation. This type of housing is often used to manage someone who is
considered dangerous or disruptive or to hold someone temporarily while
certain administrative processes, evaluations, or paperwork are completed.
Vera’s technical reports about each site discuss these uses of administrative
segregation in greater detail. This report focuses on one use of such housing
that Vera found contributed substantially to the population in restrictive
housing across partner sites: indefinite administrative segregation to
manage people staff considered dangerous or disruptive. This determination
may have been based on factors such as an incarcerated person’s previous
behavior or information relating to a threat an individual posed.
Finding: Infrequent reviews and the lack of set release dates and
clear pathways out of administrative segregation contributed to long
stays there.
Placing people considered dangerous or disruptive in administrative
segregation without a predetermined release date was common practice.
In North Carolina, for example, more than 1,200 people were being


Vera Institute of Justice

held in indefinite administrative segregation at the time of Vera’s initial
assessment. For these individuals, as in other jurisdictions, release from
restrictive housing was granted only when their cases were reviewed by
a staff member or committee and they were judged ready to return to
the general population. Vera found that these reviews were conducted
infrequently. In Oregon, for example, people who were incarcerated
typically spent between 60 and 150 days (approximately two to five
months) in the Intensive Management Unit — a form of administrative
segregation — before their first review.22
In many jurisdictions, the criteria used to make release decisions from
administrative segregation were unclear. People were often required to
demonstrate that they did not pose a threat to the safety of others in order
to be granted release from this type of unit — for example, by participating
in programming or interacting with other incarcerated people and staff.
But such opportunities were rare; most agencies offered little in the way of

Stuck in segregation









In Oregon, 59%
of people who
entered the moststringent form of
segregation spent
more than a year
in some form of
restrictive housing.


In Nebraska,
the average
length of
stay in
was 172 days,
and 16% of
people in
this type of
housing spent
at least 300
days there.









In North
the average
of stay in
the state’s
three most
forms of
were 267
days, 629
days, and
1,818 days.


Note: Data refers to 2015. Since then, NCDPS has restructured its “control” status housing and introduced a
new step-down process designed to provide programming and cognitive behavioral therapy while progressively
introducing less-restrictive housing conditions to people in long-term restrictive housing.

Rethinking Restrictive Housing: Lessons from Five U.S. Jail and Prison Systems


meaningful programming or congregate activity in which the incarcerated
person could demonstrate positive behavior. Further, the harmful effects
that isolation can have on a person’s mental well-being and behavior
may have made it increasingly difficult for people to “earn” their release
from administrative segregation through good behavior.23 Opportunities
to engage in therapeutic programming were often limited to in-cell
workbooks or absent entirely.

Echoing disparities seen throughout
the criminal justice system, Vera’s
analysis found that people with
mental health needs, young men, and
people of color were more likely to be
held in restrictive housing.

These factors contributed to long stays in administrative segregation.
In addition, people were sometimes transferred directly to administrative
segregation from disciplinary segregation or other types of restrictive
housing, leading to even longer continuous periods in such settings.

Specific populations
In addition to understanding the reasons people are placed in restrictive
housing and how long they stay, it is also important to look at who is
placed there. Doing so helps identify groups that are disproportionately
affected by a system’s policies and practices, as well as populations that may


Vera Institute of Justice

have unmet needs. More research is needed about groups of people who
are likelier to be held in restrictive housing and why.24 Echoing disparities
seen throughout the criminal justice system, Vera’s analysis found that
people with mental health needs, young men, and people of color were
more likely to be held in restrictive housing than was true of other
incarcerated people.
Finding: People with mental health needs had high levels of
placement in restrictive housing.
Identifying how frequently people with mental illnesses are held in
restrictive housing can be difficult; some data systems do not record
incarcerated people’s mental health status, and systems that do may include
only limited information, such as whether an individual has ever used
mental health services. During the initiative, data indicating the mental
health needs of people held in Nebraska prisons or the Middlesex County
Adult Correction Center were unavailable. This lack of clear, precise data
makes it difficult to gauge how often people with mental illness are sent
to restrictive housing. It also presents challenges for the unit officers who
are responsible for people who are incarcerated, and for the disciplinary
hearing officers who try to appropriately respond to or adjudicate their
behavior. Still, Vera’s assessment suggests that people with mental health
needs were often placed in restrictive housing in the partner jurisdictions.
In the New York City jail data system, for example, the electronic
records of incarcerated people who have had a certain level of contact with
mental health services are indicated as having an “M” designation. It does
not necessarily indicate that the individual has a diagnosed mental illness.
It is, however, the only information consistently available to officers and
disciplinary hearing staff regarding the incarcerated person’s mental wellbeing. As shown in Figure 2, people with an M designation accounted for
the majority of people held in the New York City jails’ most-restrictive
form of disciplinary segregation.25 People in this type of unit are held in
their cells 23 hours a day. The numbers in Figure 2 do not include people
held in the disciplinary segregation units specifically for those who have
an M designation; these units allow more out-of-cell time incrementally
after the first week.

Rethinking Restrictive Housing: Lessons from Five U.S. Jail and Prison Systems


Figure 2

Highly restrictive disciplinary segregation population in
New York City, by “M” designation

No M
(Average daily

Source: Vera Institute of Justice analysis of data from the New York City Department of Correction for the third
quarter of 2015. An M designation indicates a certain level of contact with mental health services during an
incarceration period, but does not necessarily mean that the person has a diagnosis of mental illness. Note
that this chart presents the average daily population of people held in the DOC’s most-restrictive disciplinary
segregation setting, the Central Punitive Segregation Unit.

In Oregon, the majority of people in disciplinary segregation units
were those identified as having mental health needs ranging from mild (the
person has a diagnosis but no need for immediate treatment) to severe.26

Figure 3

Disciplinary segregation population by identified
mental health needs in Oregon
health need

No mental
health need
Source: Vera Institute of Justice analysis of data from the Oregon Department of Correction as of April 2015.


Vera Institute of Justice

In North Carolina, incarcerated people are classified using a mental
health scale from 1 (no mental health needs) to 5 (most-significant mental
health needs). As Figure 4 shows, 41 percent of people with the most
serious health needs (designated “M5”) were in segregation in June 2015.

Figure 4

People with each mental health code in restrictive housing in
North Carolina
Restrictive housing





General population






Source: Vera Institute of Justice analysis of data from the North Carolina Department of Public Safety as
of June 30, 2015. Note that M1 indicates no mental health treatment needs; M3 means that treatment is
being provided by psychology and psychiatry staff; and M5 reflects a level of need equivalent to inpatient
psychiatric treatment.

Finding: People of color were placed in restrictive housing at higher
rates than white people were.
Overall, people of color at Vera’s partner sites had higher rates of contact
with restrictive housing than white people did — especially with the
most severe types of this housing.27 Figure 5 shows, for example, that in
Nebraska prisons, a combined group of Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders,
Latinos, and Native Americans had the highest rates of contact with
restrictive housing, with 17 percent in the most-restrictive settings as
compared to 9 percent of white people.28 In addition, black people were less
likely to be placed in the less-stringent forms of restrictive housing (the
Rethinking Restrictive Housing: Lessons from Five U.S. Jail and Prison Systems


Figure 5

Percentages of people in each racial and ethnic group in
Nebraska prisons who spent time in restrictive housing
during an average month
Very restrictive

Less restrictive






Asian American +
Pacific Islander + Latino
+ Native American



(Average daily

(Average daily

(Average daily population=851)
Source: Vera Institute of Justice analysis of data from the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services for the
year ending June 30, 2015.

majority of which is considered “protective custody”): 4 percent of black
people, as compared to 9 percent of white people.
Similarly, Vera’s findings in the other jurisdictions reflected higher
rates of placement in the most isolating forms of restrictive housing
among people of color, who were also underrepresented in more
treatment-oriented forms of restrictive housing and in other less-stringent
›› In Oregon, people of color made up 26 percent of the total

incarcerated population but 34 percent of those in restrictive
housing. Black and Latino people were overrepresented in the most
punitive forms of administrative segregation and underrepresented
in the most treatment-oriented and least-restrictive housing units.


Vera Institute of Justice

›› In North Carolina, while 35 percent of the white incarcerated

population had spent at least one night in restrictive housing during
the previous year, this was true of 47 percent of black people and 50
percent of Native Americans. Black people were overrepresented in
all forms of restrictive housing except the least-restrictive type of this
housing (which North Carolina calls the “Protective Control Unit”),
where there was a disproportionately high rate of white people.
›› In New York City, black people were admitted to punitive
segregation at 5.7 times the rate that white people were; however,
they were less likely to be admitted to units designed as alternatives
to restrictive housing for people with severe mental illnesses who
had committed infractions, entering those units at 0.6 times the rate
that white people did.
Finding: Young people were overrepresented in restrictive
housing populations.
Younger people were more likely than older people to be placed in
restrictive housing. For example, as Figure 6 shows, at the time of Vera’s
assessment in North Carolina, Vera found substantial disparity in the

Figure 6

Percentage of each age group in restrictive
housing in North Carolina

Age 26 and older
(n=31,203) (2,384 in RH)

Ages 18 to 25
(n=5,931) (1,024 in RH)

Age 17 and younger
(n=75) (24 in RH)




Source: Vera Institute of Justice analysis of data from the North Carolina Department of Public Safety as of
June 30, 2015.

Rethinking Restrictive Housing: Lessons from Five U.S. Jail and Prison Systems


placement of people in this type of housing by age group. At the end of
June 2015, 8 percent of adults age 26 or older were held in restrictive
housing, while nearly a third — 32 percent —  of the incarcerated population
age 17 or younger was held in restrictive housing. As Figure 6 shows,
incarcerated people ages 18 to 25 in North Carolina were also more
likely than older adults to be in restrictive housing. Notably, the state
has since abolished the use of restrictive housing for those age 17 or
younger. (Similarly, New York City has eliminated the use of disciplinary
segregation for people who are 21 or younger.)
The placement of young adults in restrictive housing followed a similar
pattern in Nebraska, as shown in Figure 7.
Disproportionate restrictive housing by age was also apparent in
Oregon, where people ages 18 to 25 represented 11 percent of the total
prison population but 30 percent of those held in disciplinary segregation.
By contrast, people ages 41 and older represented 44 percent of the prison
population but just 15 percent of those in disciplinary segregation.

Figure 7

Percentage of each age group in highly restrictive
housing in Nebraska

Age 25 and older
(Average daily population=3,880)

Age 24 and younger
(Average daily population=846)



Source: Vera Institute of Justice analysis of data from the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services for the
average daily population from July 2014 through June 2015.


Vera Institute of Justice

Finding: Women were less likely than men to be placed in restrictive
housing but had high levels of mental health needs.
In all five jurisdictions, women were placed in restrictive housing at a
lower rate and for shorter periods, on average, than men were. But in
Oregon and North Carolina, where mental health information about
women in the prison systems was available, the level of mental health
needs among these women was high.
In North Carolina, 5 percent of women were in some form of restrictive
housing. These women had higher rates of serious mental health needs,
with 38 percent requiring some level of psychiatric treatment, as compared
to 18 percent of women in the general population. In Oregon, 84 percent
of women in restrictive housing had been diagnosed with a mental
illness that required treatment, compared to 53 percent of the total female
population. And 27 percent of those in restrictive housing were assigned
the department’s highest indicator of mental health need, while this was
true for 11 percent of women in the general population.

Release from restrictive housing to the
Finding: Contrary to best practices, incarcerated people are
sometimes released directly to the community from restrictive
housing, often with little preparation for reentry.
Reentering the community after a period of incarceration is often a
difficult process — psychologically, emotionally, and in practical terms,
especially in regard to securing housing, health care, and employment or
other financial supports. This can be especially true for people who are
released directly from restrictive housing, moving from an environment of
extreme isolation into one of autonomy and complex social interactions.
Nevertheless, it is a practice that Vera regularly observed. (It is worth
noting that circumstances may make it difficult to avoid releasing someone
from restrictive housing — for example, if an individual’s release date was
unanticipated or for people who fear for their safety and refuse to reenter a
facility’s general population.)

Rethinking Restrictive Housing: Lessons from Five U.S. Jail and Prison Systems


In Oregon, Vera identified 348 people who were released directly to the
community from restrictive housing during an 18-month period ending
April 30, 2015, after spending an average of almost five months in such
housing immediately prior to their release.
In North Carolina in 2015, 1,892 people were released from restrictive
housing directly to the community — roughly 35 people every week.
Among them, 15 percent spent more than six months in such housing
immediately prior to their release. In both states, programming and
preparation for release from restrictive housing were inadequate.

Vera staff based their recommendations on the findings from the
assessment of each site, as well as on many years of experience working to
reduce restrictive housing in other systems 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 public health professionals.29 Some changes are relatively easy
to make, while others are more challenging and may require additional
resources, especially in staffing.
Just as Vera’s assessments showed variations in the sites’ use of
restrictive housing, its recommendations also varied to respond to the
specific needs and challenges of each jurisdiction.30 There were, however, a
number of common recommendations — discussed below — which aim to
do the following:
›› Reduce the flow of people into various types of restrictive housing.
›› Exclude certain vulnerable groups from restrictive housing.
›› Shorten the length of time people spend in restrictive housing.


Vera Institute of Justice

›› Improve conditions in restrictive housing.
›› Assist people in transitioning to a facility’s general population — and

whenever possible, avoid releasing them from restrictive housing to
the community.
Vera commonly made the recommendations below, although not
every one of them applied to all partner agencies. The recommendations
are summarized here in six categories: conditions in restrictive housing;
disciplinary segregation; administrative segregation; specific populations;
release from restrictive housing to the community; and systemwide policy

Conditions in restrictive housing
Although in some circumstances correctional agencies need to be able to
remove people temporarily from the general jail or prison population, that
should not entail excessively restrictive and isolating conditions.

Innovative programming in restrictive housing
The following examples reflect innovative uses of technology,
design, and programming for those held in restrictive
housing, with the potential to decrease the harmful effects of
the environment and improve people’s well-being.

temporary “time-out” to cool down. These rooms often have
soothing wall colors, dim lights, and a comfortable chair.
People can listen to calming music, use exercise balls, read,
and participate in art therapy while there.

MP3 players: The Hampden County Sheriff’s Department in
Massachusetts distributes preprogrammed MP3 players to
people in restrictive housing as a reward for positive behavior.
The content provided in the MP3 players includes self-help
and treatment material, contemporary and classical music,
nature sounds, and audiobooks. The department has found
MP3 players a cost-effective way to keep people engaged in
positive activities and to reinforce constructive behavior.

“Blue Rooms”: In 2013, Oregon created the first Blue Room
in a state correctional system, to give people in restrictive
housing the opportunity to view nature videos. Staff as well
as people who were incarcerated said that the room was
helpful and led to a calmer atmosphere in the unit. According
to preliminary data, the rate of disciplinary infractions
appears to be lower for people who had access to the Blue
Room as compared to those who did not.a

De-escalation rooms: The Colorado Department of
Corrections has introduced de-escalation rooms in its
restrictive housing units, where a person can go for a


Bryan Denson, “Oregon Prison Tackles Solitary Confinement
with Blue Room Experiment,” The Oregonian, August 21, 2014,

Rethinking Restrictive Housing: Lessons from Five U.S. Jail and Prison Systems


Minimize social isolation and provide access to programming and
mental health treatment. Improving conditions in these ways respects
the dignity of all people held in restrictive housing and can reduce its
negative effects. In particular, Vera recommended that partner 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.

Disciplinary segregation
Revise disciplinary policies and practices to emphasize proportional
sanctions in order to minimize the use of restrictive housing for
disciplinary infractions in facilities. Vera encouraged its partner
agencies to use the following strategies:
›› Substantially reduce the number of violations that can result

in disciplinary segregation. Only the most serious violent
infractions — such as assault — should be eligible for such a severe


Vera Institute of Justice

›› Maximize the use of alternative disciplinary sanctions, such as

verbal reprimands, loss of privileges, work duty, or cell restrictions.
Agencies should develop additional alternative sanctions to
disciplinary segregation and encourage their staff to use them more
often. It may help facilities to create a “graduated response matrix”
by providing guidelines as to which sanctions staff can use in
response to which types of behavior and emphasizing 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.31
›› Train corrections officers to use communication and de-escalation
techniques to resolve conflicts and address minor infractions on the
unit 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.32
›› Reduce the maximum amount of time an incarcerated person can be
held in disciplinary segregation. Throughout the country, numerous
states have been reducing the maximum disciplinary-segregation
sanctions that can be handed out. Some states have reduced their
maximum to 30 days, and others have even moved to a 15-day cap.33
Implement preventive strategies to reduce the occurrence of
behavior that violates facility rules and often leads to placement in
restrictive housing. Vera recommended that the sites introduce or expand
the following policies, programs, and activities to promote well-being,
safety, and positive behavior in the general population:

Rethinking Restrictive Housing: Lessons from Five U.S. Jail and Prison Systems


›› 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 some 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 reduce violence and make general
population housing areas safer.34

Administrative segregation
Minimize the placement of people in administrative segregation and
shorten the length of time people spend there. Vera’s recommendations
included the following strategies to reduce this type of restrictive housing:
›› Include procedural safeguards, such as frequent multidisciplinary

team reviews, in the process for placing people in administrative
segregation, to ensure that it 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. The hearing process for
classification in administrative segregation should provide ample
review by a multidisciplinary team that includes program, mental


Vera Institute of Justice

health, and security staff, to assess each individual’s situation and
determine whether such placement is warranted.
›› Ensure that the status of each individual in administrative
segregation is reviewed frequently and by a multidisciplinary team.
The goal of these reviews should be to return people safely to a lessrestrictive setting as soon as possible.
Take actions to make people’s time in administrative segregation
more productive and ease their return to the general population.
Vera recommended the following strategies to provide needed behavioral
interventions and pathways out of this type of restrictive housing:
›› Provide programming and treatment in administrative segregation,

including interventions to address the behaviors that may have
resulted in placement there. Facilities should provide instructorled 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
structured 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.

Rethinking Restrictive Housing: Lessons from Five U.S. Jail and Prison Systems


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 or vulnerabilities and reduce the use of
restrictive housing for these populations.
Prohibit the use of restrictive housing for certain populations.
In particular, Vera recommended that its partner corrections agencies
prohibit the placement of youth (younger than 18), pregnant women,
and people who have serious mental illness, developmental disabilities,
or neurodegenerative diseases in any form of restrictive housing that
limits meaningful access to social interaction, exercise, environmental
stimulation, and therapeutic programming. To this end, Vera recommended
that agencies adopt the following strategies:
›› Use alternative disciplinary sanctions and other less-stringent forms

of restrictive 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, and train staff to better
understand and manage members of special populations.
›› Ensure that people placed in protective custody units or other
specialized housing are not placed 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. (At some sites, protective custody units already
look and operate like those in the general population. For more
information, see the technical reports for Vera’s partner agencies.)


Vera Institute of Justice

Take the following steps to give special consideration to other
specific populations:
›› 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.35
›› Create a multidisciplinary committee to study disproportionate
contact with restrictive housing among people of color. Such a
committee could help the agencies better understand the issue, set
goals, recommend and consider 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 among people of color.

Release from restrictive housing to the
Never release people directly to the community from restrictive
housing. Vera recommended that its partner jurisdictions prioritize
people who are within months of release for step-down programs or
other structured reentry processes. This is 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
that are less isolating) for any individual who will soon be released to
the community.

Rethinking Restrictive Housing: Lessons from Five U.S. Jail and Prison Systems


Systemwide strategies
The overuse of restrictive housing in U.S. jails and prisons cannot be
seen as a separate, isolated problem. It reflects systemic challenges facing
departments of corrections 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 need for
typical restrictive housing options.

Research suggests that the mosteffective structured approaches
to behavior modification provide
a framework for officers to
acknowledge and reward incarcerated
people’s positive behaviors.

Jurisdictions must pursue system-level strategies to foster people’s
well-being and positive behavior in their facilities’ general population
and ultimately reduce their use of restrictive housing. In addition to
improving policies and practices directly related to restrictive housing, Vera
recommends the following actions:
›› Increase programming, mental health treatment, education and

vocational classes, and other pro-social activities available to
incarcerated people.


Vera Institute of Justice

›› 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. Research suggests that
the most-effective structured approaches to behavior modification
provide a framework for officers to acknowledge and reward
incarcerated people’s positive behaviors rather than focusing solely
on responding to rule violations.36 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.37 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. To help staff make
this adjustment, they 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.

Rethinking Restrictive Housing: Lessons from Five U.S. Jail and Prison Systems




t the start of the Safe Alternatives to Segregation Initiative, Vera
encountered five vastly different corrections systems at various
stages in the process of reducing their use of restrictive housing.
Many of the agencies were already planning and implementing alternative
strategies to ensure safety and security and promote pro-social behavior.
Through a careful analysis of data and policies and in-depth conversations
with incarcerated people and corrections staff, Vera was able to create a
detailed picture of how such housing was being used in each jurisdiction
and recommend strategies to safely reduce its use. This would not have
been possible without the commitment, transparency, and critical,
innovative thinking that Vera’s partners demonstrated. For too long,
restrictive housing has been a deeply hidden issue — and most departments
of corrections have allowed it to remain that way. The five sites that
participated in this initiative are commended for opening their doors to
Vera and for welcoming assistance as they tackle this urgent issue.
These agencies are now embarking on the critical work of implementing
the recommendations and have all actively made changes to their systems
during the assessment process. For example, they have taken steps to limit
or end the use of restrictive housing for certain populations or in specific
situations. North Carolina has enacted new policies that prohibit the use
of restrictive housing for anyone 17 or younger; New York City has ended
the use of disciplinary segregation for people aged 21 and younger. New
arrivals to the Middlesex County jail are no longer automatically held
in this type of housing while going through the intake process but are
instead held in conditions much more like those for the general population.
North Carolina, New York City, and Nebraska have implemented
programs that divert people with serious mental illness from restrictive
housing into units better suited to their treatment needs. Similarly, the
Oregon Department of Corrections, in conjunction with the nonprofit
Disability Rights Oregon, has sought to improve the quality of life in its
administrative segregation unit for adults with serious mental illness by


Vera Institute of Justice

increasing and improving the therapeutic programs and leisure activities
available there.38
North Carolina has created a step-down program designed to move
people safely out of long-term restrictive housing and into a prison’s
general population, while providing programming and treatment to assist
them with the transition. New York City has capped the time someone can
serve in restrictive housing at 30 consecutive days and 60 cumulative days
in a six-month period. Nebraska recently took the rare step of eliminating
the use of disciplinary segregation as a punishment for rule violations and
now uses such housing only to “manage risk,” based on the assessment of
an individual’s risk to the safety of others or the security of the institution.
In enacting substantial changes to their policies and practices,
these corrections agencies are affirming their dedication to providing
accountable, safe, and secure administration of jails and prisons, while
respecting the dignity and worth of those in their care and the staff
who are responsible for providing it. As these sites continue to build
on the progress they have made, their examples will provide motivation
and practical ideas for other jurisdictions willing to rethink their use of
restrictive housing.

Rethinking Restrictive Housing: Lessons from Five U.S. Jail and Prison Systems



Angela Browne, Alissa Cambier, and Suzanne Agha, “Prisons Within
Prisons: The Use of Segregation in the United States,” Federal
Sentencing Reporter 24, no. 1 (2011), 46–49.


Lionel Smith, “Why We’re Studying the Causes and Consequences
of Solitary Confinement,” Think Justice Blog, Vera Institute of
Justice, January 26, 2017,


Association of State Correctional Administrators (ASCA) and The
Arthur Liman Public Interest Program, Yale Law School, Time-In-Cell:
The ASCA-Liman 2014 National Survey of Administrative Segregation
in Prison (New Haven, CT: Yale Law School, 2015), 4; and Allen J.
Beck, Use of Restrictive Housing in U.S. Prisons and Jails, 2011–2012
(Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice
Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 2015, NCJ 249209), https://


John J. Gibbons & Nicholas de B. Katzenbach, Confronting
Confinement: A Report of the Commission on Safety and Abuse
in America’s Prisons (New York: Vera Institute of Justice, 2006),


To view recent work by such organizations, see https://perma.
M7SN-UKBQ, and


Craig Haney and Mona Lynch, “Regulating Prisons of the Future:
A Psychological Analysis of Supermax and Solitary Confinement,”
New York University Review of Law and Social Change 23 (1997),


Stuart Grassian, “Psychiatric Effects of Solitary Confinement,”
Washington University Journal of Law & Policy 22 (2006), 325;
Craig Haney, “Mental Health Issues in Long-Term Solitary and
‘Supermax’ Confinement,” Crime & Delinquency 49, no. 1 (2003),
124-156; Peter Scharff Smith, “The Effects of Solitary Confinement
on Prison Inmates: A Brief History and Review of the Literature,”
Crime and Justice 34, no. 1 (2006), 441-528; Stuart Grassian and
Nancy Friedman, “Effects of Sensory Deprivation in Psychiatric
Seclusion and Solitary Confinement,” International Journal
of Law and Psychiatry 8, no. 1 (1986), 49-65; Paul Gendreau,
N.L. Freedman, G.J. Wilde, and G.D. Scott, “Changes in EEG
Alpha Frequency and Evoked Response Latency During Solitary
Confinement,” Journal of Abnormal Psychology 79, no. 1 (1972),
54; Fatos Kaba et al., “Solitary Confinement and Risk of Self-Harm
Among Jail Inmates,” American Journal of Public Health 104, no.
3 (2014), 442-447,; and Lars Moller
et al., eds., Health in Prisons: A WHO Guide to the Essentials in
Prison Health (Copenhagen: World Health Organization, 2007), 36,

10	 In August 2016, the Standards Committee of the American
Correctional Association voted to pass standards for restrictive
housing. In 2012, the Association of State Correctional
Administrators (ASCA) teamed up with the Arthur Liman Public
Interest Program at Yale Law School to survey directors of state
and federal correctional systems on their policies regarding
administrative segregation. The results of that survey were
published in the report Administrative Segregation, Degrees of
Isolation, and Incarceration: A National Overview of State and
Federal Correctional Policies (New Haven, CT: Yale Law School,
2013) and updated in 2015 with Time-in-Cell: The Liman-ASCA
2014 National Survey of Administrative Segregation in Prison.
Additionally, in 2013, the ASCA issued Restrictive Housing Status
Policy Guidelines, available at


Daniel P. Mears and William D. Bales, “Supermax Incarceration and
Recidivism,” Criminology 47, no. 4 (2009), 1135; and Natasha Frost
and Carlos E. Monteiro, “Administrative Segregation in U.S. Prisons”
(Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute
of Justice, March 2016, NCJ 249749R.M), citing Ryan Labrecque,
“The Effect of Solitary Confinement on Institutional Misconduct: A
Longitudinal Evaluation” (PhD diss., University of Cincinnati, 2015).


Michael D. Denhof, Caterina G. Spinaris, and Gregory R. Morton,
Occupational Stressors in Corrections Organizations: Types,
Effects and Solutions (Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice,
National Institute of Corrections, 2014, NIC 028299, https://perma.

11	 National Commission on Correctional Health Care, “Position
Statement: Solitary Confinement (Isolation),” https://perma.
12	 See U.S. Department of Justice, Report and Recommendations
Concerning the Use of Restrictive Housing: Final Report
(Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, 2016), https://perma.
cc/WLQ6-8YFK; and Frost and Monteiro, 2016.
13	 Frost and Monteiro, 2016, 23.
14	 “Prolonged solitary confinement” is defined as the confinement of
prisoners for 22 hours or more a day without meaningful human
contact for a period longer than 15 consecutive days per the United
Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the
Nelson Mandela Rules), General Assembly Resolution 70/175, U.N.
Doc. A/Res/70/175 (2015), Rules 43-45, Two U.S. corrections officials and members of Vera’s Safe
Alternatives to Segregation Initiative advisory council were involved
in drafting the rules.
15	 See U.S. Department of Justice, 2016, pages 74-78, for descriptions
of states and counties that have actively sought to reform their
restrictive housing practices, including Colorado, Washington, New
Mexico, Virginia, and Hampden County, Massachusetts.
16	 ASCA and the Liman Program, Time-In-Cell, 2015, 58.


Vera Institute of Justice

17	 Association of State Correctional Administrators and the Arthur
Liman Public Interest Program, Yale Law School, Aiming to Reduce
Time-In-Cell: Reports from Correctional Systems on the Numbers
of Prisoners in Restricted Housing and on the Potential of Policy
Changes to Bring About Reforms (New Haven, CT: Yale Law School,
18	 Vera Institute of Justice, “Vera Selects Five Corrections Departments
for Initiative Aimed at Reducing the Use of Solitary Confinement,”
press release, March 24, 2015,
19	 While prisons are operated by state-level departments of
corrections and hold people convicted of crimes, jail systems are
usually operated by a local (county or city) agency, and hold
people awaiting trial as well as people serving shorter sentences.
20	 For more information and to read the technical reports, visit https://
21	 In Nebraska, the Department of Correctional Services may impose
a range of sanctions in response to a rule violation — such as
extra work details or limiting certain privileges — but placement in
restrictive housing is no longer a routine response to an infraction.
Placement in restrictive housing is instead based on an assessment
of the risk a person poses to the safety and security of others and
to facility operations.
22	 Oregon’s Intensive Management Units are restrictive housing units
for people who demonstrate behaviors that are difficult to control
in the general population because of their severity. These behaviors
include chronic rule violations, escape activity, or security threat
group (gang) activity.
23	 Grassian, 2006, 325.
24	 Benjamin Steiner and Calli M. Cain, “The Relationship Between
Inmate Misconduct, Institutional Violence, and Administrative
Segregation: A Systematic Review of the Evidence,” in Restrictive
Housing in the U.S.: Issues, Challenges, and Directions (Washington,
DC: U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice, 2016,
NCJ 250315),
25	 In New York City’s jail data system, an “M” designation indicates
that, during one period of incarceration, a person has had contact
with mental health services at least three times or is prescribed
a certain class of psychiatric medication. It does not necessarily
indicate that an individual has a mental health diagnosis or
the severity of diagnosis. It is therefore an imperfect measure
of people’s mental well-being. It does, however, provide some
indication of a higher level of mental health need.
26	 By administrative rule in Oregon, people with severe mental health
needs are not sanctioned to stays in disciplinary segregation
units beyond 30 days. Facilities are required to divert people with
severe mental health needs to other environments at or before the
30-day mark.
27	 Pathways to restrictive housing are complex and many factors and
decision points contribute to someone being placed there. Vera’s

analysis describes the outcomes of the use of restrictive housing;
it does not assess the determinants for those outcomes or make
inferences about causality.
28	 Vera used the racial and ethnic categories that existed in the
administrative data provided by each site.
29	 U.S. Department of Justice, 2016, 94.
30	 Because of this, not all of the recommendations presented here
are relevant to all corrections agencies; the individual technical
reports are the best sources for a complete understanding of
each jurisdiction Vera worked with and a comprehensive list of all
31	 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, https://perma.
cc/3WV9-4623. 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,
32	 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.
33	 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); and Community Legal
Aid Society, Inc. v. Coupe, No. 15-688 (D.D.E. Sept. 1, 2016).
34	 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),
35	 “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-

Rethinking Restrictive Housing: Lessons from Five U.S. Jail and Prison Systems


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.
36	 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,
37	 Gendreau, 1996; and Wodahl et al., 2011.
38	 Oregon Department of Corrections, “The Oregon Department of
Corrections Agrees to Reduce Isolation and Improve the Care of
Seriously Mentally Ill Adults in Custody in the Behavioral Health
Unit,” press release (Salem, Oregon: ODOC, January 13, 2016),


Vera Institute of Justice



The authors wish to thank the entire SAS Initiative team at Vera for
their work on this project, and the five corrections agencies whose
partnership was crucial to the initiative’s success—the Middlesex
County Adult Correction Center, Nebraska Department of Correctional
Services, New York City Department of Correction, North Carolina
Department of Public Safety, and Oregon Department of Corrections.
In particular, we would like to thank the leaders of these departments
and the staff who served as our site coordinators, our main partners in
this work. We would also like to thank the incarcerated people and staff
who shared their time, opinions, and experiences with us.

© Vera Institute of Justice 2018. All rights reserved.

This report, and the SAS Initiative, would not have been possible without
the support of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice
Assistance, and in particular Juliene James, Andre Bethea, and Ruby
Qazilbash. The authors also thank Mary Crowley, Allison Hastings,
Christian Henrichson, Jim Parsons, Fred Patrick, and Ram Subramanian
for their thoughtful reviews and comments. A special thank you to Jules
Verdone for her skillful editing; Erika Turner and Karina Schroeder for
providing editorial support; and Paragini Amin for designing the report.

About Citations
As researchers and readers alike rely more and more on public
knowledge made available through the Internet, “link rot” has
become a widely-acknowledged problem with creating useful and
sustainable citations. To address this issue, the Vera Institute of Justice
is experimenting with the use of (, a service
that helps scholars, journals, and courts create permanent links to the
online sources cited in their work.

An electronic version of this report is posted on Vera’s website at www.
Cover image: Marjorie Kamys Cotera/Bob Daemmrich Photography/
Alamy Stock Photo
Graphics: Paragini Amin
The Vera Institute of Justice is a justice reform change agent. Vera
produces ideas, analysis, and research that inspire change in the
systems people rely upon for safety and justice, and works in close
partnership with government and civic leaders to implement it.
Vera is currently pursuing core priorities of ending the misuse of
jails, transforming conditions of confinement, and ensuring that
justice systems more effectively serve America’s increasingly diverse
communities. For more information, visit
For more information about this report, contact Ram Subramanian,
editorial director, at For more information
about Vera’s work on restrictive housing, contact Sara Sullivan at

Suggested Citation
Léon Digard, Elena Vanko, and Sara Sullivan. Rethinking Restrictive
Housing: Lessons from Five U.S. Jail and Prison Systems. New York: Vera
Institute of Justice, 2018.

Rethinking Restrictive Housing: Lessons from Five U.S. Jail and Prison Systems


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