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Reflections on Colorado's Administrative Segregation Study

NCJ Number
NIJ Journal Issue: 278 Dated: March 2017
Date Published
March 2017
7 pages
Publication Series

The author, a researcher who specializes in corrections, discusses the strengths and limitations of Colorado's administrative segregation study, as well as the impassioned response to its findings and areas needing further research.


This NIJ-supported study of administrative segregation in Colorado's prisons was a longitudinal study of the psychological effects of solitary confinement, particularly for inmates diagnosed with a mental illness. At the time of the study (2007-2010), long-term segregation in Colorado's correctional facilities was known as administrative segregation (AS). Inmates were placed in AS for one serious violation or a series of lesser violations. It involved confinement in a single cell approximately 23 hours a day for an indeterminate period (2 years on average). Inmates participated in cognitive behavioral programs and a quality-of-life incentive system that rewarded positive behavior with increased privileges. At the start of the study, 5 percent of Colorado's 21,897 prison inmates were in AS. The prevalence of mental illness among these AS inmates was high, as it was across the Nation. The study hypothesized that inmates in segregation would experience greater psychological deterioration over time compared to inmates in the general-population prisons. The study found that the AS inmates had elevated psychological and cognitive symptoms compared to normative adult samples; however, there were elevations among the comparison groups as well, suggesting that high degrees of psychological disturbances are not distinctive among AS inmate populations. Contrary to one hypothesis, inmates in AS with mental illness did not deteriorate more rapidly and severely than those inmates without mental illness. This report reviews many of the criticisms of the study and advises that findings should not be generalized to other prison systems. How to better manage the small percentage of inmates who pose a serious risk of harm to staff and other inmates needs more research. 26 notes

Date Published: March 1, 2017