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Vera Institute Federal Sentencing Reporter the Use of Segregation in the Us 2011

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Prisons Within Prisons: The Use of Segregation
in the United States

I.  Prisons Within Prisons

Senior Policy
Vera Institute
of Justice

Program Associate,
Vera Institute
of Justice

Senior Research
Vera Institute
of Justice

Since the 1980s, departments of corrections have sharply
increased the use of segregation as a discipline and management tool. For example, according to the U.S. Bureau
of Justice Statistics, in just the five years between 1995
and 2000, the number of prisoners held in segregation
beds increased 40 percent nationally.1 By 2004, more than
forty U.S. states reported having some form of supermax
housing.2 Based on the most recent data available from
the Bureau of Justice Statistics census, in 2005 U.S. prisons held 81,622 people in restricted housing.3
Segregation is used for a variety of reasons, most commonly as a form of punishment for rule violations, as a
way to remove prisoners from the general prison population who are thought to pose a risk to security or safety,
and as a way to provide safety to prisoners believed to be at
risk in the general prison population. Prisoners placed in
segregation are moved to special housing units with high
levels of restrictions and control. Prisoners may stay in
segregated housing for years without the opportunity to
engage in the types of interactions, treatment, and education experiences that would help them adjust when
reentering either the general prison population or society.
In effect, segregation is a secondary sentence imposed by
the correctional facility—one that follows long after and
usually is unrelated to the conviction for which the person
is incarcerated.
The consequences of holding an individual in these
conditions over time may include new or exacerbated
mental health disturbances, assaultive and other anti­
social behaviors, and chronic and acute health disorders.
People who have been housed in segregation for long
periods of time may also find it difficult to be in the company of others, whether in the general prison population
or later in the community. In fact, studies show that prisoners who are released from segregation directly to the
community reoffend at higher rates than general-population
Also, significant fiscal costs are associated with housing people in segregation. In the Ohio State Prison in
2003, it cost $149 a day to house a supermax prisoner,
compared with $101 per day for maximum-security and
$63 per day for an average general-population prisoner.5

The majority of these higher costs come from the need
for additional staff to monitor segregation units. In the
Ohio State Prison, the supermax facility required one
corrections officer for every 1.7 prisoners; maximumsecurity housing required one officer for every 2.5
A.  The Emergence of Segregation in U.S. Prisons

The use of solitary confinement in the United States dates
back to Pennsylvania in the late 1770s. At that time, the
philosophy was that prisoners who were isolated would
have time to repent and rehabilitate themselves. Although
this system spread to other jurisdictions and survived for
nearly a century, its use was reduced when the psychological and physical damage caused by this seclusion became
apparent.7 In 1890, a prisoner on death row in Colorado
filed a writ of habeas corpus in the Supreme Court challenging his imprisonment under an ex post facto law that
required all death row prisoners be held in solitary confinement. In a landmark decision, the Court noted some
severe effects of this isolation, stating,
A considerable number of the prisoners fell, after
even a short confinement, into a semi-fatuous condition . . . and others became violently insane; others
still committed suicide; while those who stood the
ordeal better were not generally reformed, and in
most cases did not recover sufficient mental activity
to be of any subsequent service to the community.8
Following these observations, the Court found that this
prisoner’s placement in solitary confinement “was an
additional punishment of the most important and painful
character,” and thus the application of the new law to his
situation violated the Constitution.9
This shift away from segregation was short lived,
however, and reversed when the federal government
opened Alcatraz Prison in 1934 and the United States
Penitentiary in Marion, Illinois, in 1963. Both prisons
were built to house the nation’s worst criminals; they
relied primarily on isolating prisoners who posed the
greatest behavioral and management concerns in order
to maintain control. States followed suit and began to add
segregation units to house those they deemed dangerous

Federal Sentencing Reporter, Vol. 24, No. 1, pp. 46–49, ISSN 1053-9867 electronic ISSN 1533-8363.
©2011 Vera Institute of Justice. All rights reserved. Please direct requests for permission to photocopy
or reproduce article content through the University of California Press’s Rights and Permissions website, DOI: 10.1525/fsr.2011.24.1.46.


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and threatening. The first supermax prison, built solely
to house prisoners in segregation, was Pelican Bay State
Prison, opened in California in 1989.
B.  Types of Segregation in U.S. Prisons

Segregation is used in minimum-, medium-, and maximumsecurity facilities and may have varying conditions and
restrictions. Generally, prisoners in segregation are confined to a special housing unit—essentially prisons within
prisons—unless they are sent to a supermax facility, which
houses only prisoners in segregation. The following are
the main types of segregation in the United States:
1.	 Disciplinary segregation is a form of punishment
for rule violations occurring within the prison setting. For example, a prisoner may be sentenced to a
year in segregation for assault or possession of contraband, or for a period of months for violation of a
direct order.
2.	 Administrative segregation typically is used to
remove prisoners from the general prison population who are thought to pose a threat to safety or
security, or for prisoners who are believed to have
information about an incident under investigation;
this type of segregation is not a form of punishment
for a specific violation. For example, a gang leader
believed to be responsible for coordinating gang
activities within the prison may be placed in administrative segregation even if that individual has not
been found in violation of any rules. Administrative
segregation usually lasts for an indeterminate
period of time and, for those considered a threat to
safety and security, may be of long duration. In
some systems, prisoners are not told the reason for
their transfer to administrative segregation, and
options for reevaluation or release back to the general prison population may be few.
3.	 Protective custody is the use of segregation to provide safety for prisoners believed to be at risk in the
general prison population, such as a prisoner who
provides information to correctional staff about violations committed by others, or someone who is
considered at risk due to physical characteristics or
other individual factors. Although segregated for
their own protection, restrictions on human contact
and programming for prisoners in protective custody can be as severe as for prisoners in disciplinary
or administrative segregation.
4.	 Temporary confinement is the use of segregation
while a reported incident is being investigated; it
usually lasts for a short period of time and begins
immediately after a rule violation is identified but
before a hearing is conducted.
5.	 Supermax (or closed maximum-security) prisons
may hold both administrative and disciplinary segregation prisoners. All prisoners in supermax
facilities are held in high levels of confinement,
often for long periods of time. Architecturally,
supermax prisons are built to restrict visual and

tactile stimulation for prisoners, as well as contact
with others. Educational and programmatic activities are greatly restricted in these environments.
C.  Conditions of Confinement in Segregation

The use of segregation that began in the mid-1980s was
accompanied by increasingly severe conditions of confinement, both in supermax facilities and in prison
segregation units throughout the country. Conditions in
segregation typically include intense isolation and control.
Prisoners usually spend at least twenty-three hours a
day in their cells. The federal district court in 1995 in
Madrid v. Gomez described a segregation cell at Pelican
Bay State Prison in California in these words:
Each cell is 80 square feet and comes equipped with
two built-in bunks and a toilet-sink unit. Cell doors
are made of heavy gauge perforated metal; this
design prevents objects from being thrown through
the door but also significantly blocks vision and
light. . . . [The] interior is designed to reduce visual
stimulation. . . . The cells are windowless; the walls
are white concrete. When inside the cell, all one can
see through the perforated metal door is another
white wall.10
Prisoners in segregation are generally taken out of
their cells for only one hour out of every twenty-four
hours, either for recreation or a shower. However, in some
systems, prisoners are released only one day a week for a
total of five hours. Before being taken to showers, recreation, or appointments, prisoners are cuffed and also may
be shackled at the waist and placed in leg irons. Recreation
times may occur anytime from 7:00 a.m. until 3:00 a.m.
Typically, recreation takes place in either an open cage
outdoors (called a yard) or an indoor area with an open
barred top. Because exercise areas usually are exposed to
the weather, prisoners must choose whether to use them
during extreme weather conditions or remain in their
cells. Periods of extreme weather may greatly reduce the
amount of time prisoners are out of the cell, particularly
when recreation periods are offered in five-hour blocks.
Except when overcrowding requires double celling,
face-to-face human contact—except with corrections officers—is virtually eliminated in segregation. Meal trays are
delivered through a slot in the door, visits with counselors
and mental health staff also are usually conducted through
the cell door, and exercise is taken alone. Segregation
prisoners typically are not allowed contact with other
prisoners, and visits with family members are curtailed or
may be completely prohibited for a year or more. When
family visits are allowed, they usually are conducted by
speaker or telephone through a thick glass window, precluding the opportunity for human touch. Mental health
and medical services are often extremely limited for prisoners in segregation as well, further reducing human

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II.  A New Way Forward

III.  Vera’s Segregation Reduction Project

Even with high fiscal costs and exposure to litigation
related to conditions of confinement, prison officials fear
that moving prisoners out of segregation will lead to violence and other serious violations. Two states—Ohio and
Mississippi—have tested that concern. In the mid-2000s,
Ohio and Mississippi reduced their supermax populations
by 89 percent and 85 percent, respectively, while apparently decreasing violence and disruption. Mississippi went
from 1,000 to 150 prisoners in segregation;11 Ohio went
from 800 to 90 prisoners.
Mississippi provides a particularly vivid example of
multifaceted reform. In the early 1990s, reports on conditions in the Mississippi Department of Corrections’
(MDOC) Parchman Unit 32 indicated that prisoners were
severely isolated. The unit was filthy with excrement, and
prisoners with mental illness created constant disturbances by starting fires, flooding the cells, and screaming
all night.12 Officers in the unit often responded to these
disturbances with force. The unit also became infested
with mosquitoes in the summer, forcing prisoners to keep
cell windows closed, thereby exacerbating the poor conditions. In 2005, the American Civil Liberties Union filed
suit against the MDOC related to conditions in Unit 32. In
response, the MDOC convened a task force to address the
issues identified, in particular the assignment of prisoners
to segregation.
In 2007, the MDOC voluntarily implemented the task
force’s recommendations. Within a year, the department
successfully reclassified and moved more than three quarters of its supermax prisoners to the general prison
population. Prisoners remaining in Unit 32 were allowed
to eat meals together and spend several more hours out of
their cells each day. The MDOC also physically transformed Unit 32 by building program and recreation areas
and providing access to educational programming and
mental health treatment.
Mississippi successfully implemented these changes
by dramatically revising its classification system and creating more restrictive criteria for placement in
administrative segregation. Specifically, the new objective
classification system allowed placement in Unit 32 only
for prisoners who had committed a serious infraction,
were active, high-level gang members, or had prior
escapes or escape attempts from a secure facility. Only the
commissioner had the authority to place an individual in
segregation without these criteria. In addition, the MDOC
implemented a step-down program so that prisoners with
mental illness could transition out of segregation; participants received intensive mental health treatment and
rewards for success in the program, and special training
was provided to assist officers in dealing with mentally ill
prisoners. These changes not only reduced the number of
people held in segregation but also were associated with
an almost 70 percent decrease in prisoner-on-prisoner and
prisoner-on-staff violence, and use of force by officers in
the unit plummeted.13

Inspired by the success of Ohio and Mississippi, and
informed by the Confronting Confinement report issued by
the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons, the Vera Institute of Justice launched its Segregation
Reduction Project (SRP) in 2010. The SRP seeks to safely
reduce the number of prisoners held in segregation by
facilitating policy changes that reassess violations qualifying a prisoner for segregation and that redefine prisoners’
length of stay in segregation (especially for minor violations). The project also focuses on improving conditions
of confinement in segregation and enhancing programming and support for transitions back to the general
prison population. The overall goal of the SRP is to
develop a national model that can be adapted for use in
many jurisdictions.
To that end, Vera is currently collaborating with Illinois, Maryland, and Washington to implement the SRP in
those states. Although the exact process varies depending
on the specific challenges and concerns of each state corrections system, Vera staff do the following:
•	 conduct intensive site visits to supermax facilities
and segregation units
•	 review policies and practices related to the use of
•	 complete comprehensive analyses of segregated
populations, violations resulting in segregation
time, and new violations by prisoners moved to
other levels of security
•	 provide data-based presentations to corrections officials about patterns in and outcomes of their use of
•	 in consultation with corrections staff, recommend
strategies to safely reduce segregation and improve
conditions of confinement
•	 in close partnership with corrections staff, help pilot
changes and track the outcomes of those changes
on institutional safety and new violations over time.
IV. Making a Positive Change in Segregation
in U.S. Prisons

Given the current fiscal crisis, many jurisdictions now are
looking for new and effective paths forward, away from
reliance on this expensive form of incarceration. Especially
with the current U.S. recession, states can no longer
afford these unsustainable costs. Illinois—with approximately 46,000 men and women in state prisons in
February 2010—provides one example of why it is important to reassess the use of segregation in the nation’s
prisons. Although only about 5 percent of the prison population was in segregation on any given day, more than half
(56 percent) had spent some time in segregation during
that prison stay. Reducing the use of segregation and
improving conditions of confinement in segregation
nationally will affect thousands of individuals.

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With this project, Vera hopes to demonstrate that it is
possible for states to reduce the numbers of prisoners they
hold in segregation without jeopardizing institutional or
public safety, as well as create a replicable model that can
be adapted for use in other jurisdictions. Based on observations and analyses so far, it seems clear that segregated
populations in U.S. prisons can be dramatically reduced in
a safe way. A substantial number of prisoners are being
sent to segregation for relatively nonserious types of
behavior, such as unauthorized movement, failure to
report to work or school, insolence or talking back, and
disobeying a direct order. Confinement to segregation is
often out of scale for these violations, especially when
alternative sanctions (e.g., restricted movement in their
current housing and reduction of other privileges) are
available. Policy changes that will reduce the use and longterm impact of segregation include the following:
•	 using alternative sanctions for minor violations
•	 reducing segregation time for certain categories of
•	 employing standardized incentivized reductions in
segregation time for sustained good behavior
•	 providing opportunities for gradual resocialization
to the general prison population
Changes in Mississippi and Ohio segregation practices
suggest that this change can be made safely, without loss
of staff positions, and with cost savings. Enhancing the
programming available to individuals held in segregation
also has the potential to decrease violence and disturbances and increase prisoners’ positive adjustment. The
provision of safe and healthy conditions in segregation
will benefit not only the staff and prisoners in these units

but also ultimately the well-being of facilities, systems,
and the community.
	1	 John J. Gibbons & Nicholas de B. Katzenbach, Confronting Confinement: A Report of the Commission on Safety and Abuse in
America’s Prisons (Vera Institute of Justice, 2006); Jennifer C.
Karberg & James J. Stephan, Census of State and Federal Correctional Facilities, 2000 (Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S.
Department of Justice, August 2003).
	2	Daniel P. Mears, A Critical Look at Supermax Prisons, 30 Corrections Compendium 6–7, 45–49 (2005).
	3	 James J. Stephan, Census of State and Federal Adult Correctional Facilities, 2005 (Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S.
Department of Justice, October 2008).
	4	 See David Lovell, L. Clark Johnson, & Kevin C. Cain, Recidivism of Supermax Prisoners in Washington State, 53 Crime
Delinquency 633–56 (2007); David Lovell & Clark Johnson,
Felony and Violent Recidivism Among Supermax Prison Inmates
in Washington State: A Pilot Study (University of Washington,
2004), available at
	5	 Daniel P. Mears, Evaluating the Effectiveness of Supermax Prisons (Urban Institute Justice Policy Center, 2005), available at
	6	 Id.
	7	Bruce A. Arrigo & Jennifer L. Bullock, The Psychological
Effects of Solitary Confinement on Prisoners in Supermax Units:
Reviewing What We Know and Recommending What Should
Change, 52 Int’l J. Offender Therapy & Comp. Criminology
622–40 (2007).
	8	 In re Medley, 134 U.S. 160, 168 (1890).
	9	 In re Medley, 134 U.S. at 171.
10	 Madrid v. Gomez, 889 F. Supp. 1146, 1228 (N.D.Cal. 1995).
	11	Terry Kupers et al., Beyond Supermax Administrative Segregation: Mississippi’s Experience Rethinking Prison Classification
and Creating Alternative Mental Health Programs, 36 Crim.
Just. & Behav. 1037–50 (2009).
12	 Id.
13	 Id.

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