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What We Know — and Don't Know — About Restrictive Housing

Terri McDonald; Nicole Taylor; Dan Mears

What do we know about the use of restrictive housing in jails and prison in the U.S.? Leading practitioners and researchers discuss what the current evidence can tell us about how restrictive housing is used, who is in restrictive housing, its effects on inmate populations, and what else we need to learn to identify alternatives to restrictive housing.

McDonald: We certainly use research that helps us understand the risk associated with the population that we receive as it relates to who really needs to be placed in a segregated bed, versus, who can be managed in a more restrictive environment, higher staffing levels, safer design. Often times we’re making those decisions based on gut level feeling, when the reality is risk tools that would help inform our decision as one part of the decision making process would be very helpful.

Taylor: I think what we’re really missing in this field is robust, empirical data, and we need to know a lot more about what type of programs work really well with the population and there is differences within the population that we would want to know what type of programming works best.

Mears: I would like it to be where state, by state, by state, they could answer directly and easily. and the corrections officials could - simple questions about how much disorder and violence do they have, about a range of causes, you know cause one through cause twenty, what’s causing this, and what are they doing to address it? Included in that would be information on an array of strategies that they have. Segregation would be one of those, but there would be others as well, and ideally states would have the ability to easily document what’s going on and what’s working for them.

McDonald: What kind of programs are evidence based, that help us place inmates in segregation into, to begin to prepare them for reentry, whether that’s reentry into the jail environment, reentry back to the streets, or actually reentry and then taken to a state prison system. We do programming, but it would sure be nice to know, what does the evidence show us that really works.

Mears: There is a host of things that we don’t know. What we do know is mostly anecdotal, or it’s a case study, or it’s one study here or there. We know that segregation clearly is needed sometimes, we also know that it’s also inappropriately used often times. We know that there are alternatives to super-max incarceration and segregation that might work as well if not better, but we don’t have really great research on that.

What are the conditions in prison systems that give rise to violence and disorder, because that’s what segregation is built in part to address and so the first question really is how much of disorder and violence do we have, and what is causing it? Segregation is probably one part of the solution to that, but it’s only one part, so without information about the prevalence of these outcomes, and the causes of them, then we won’t know how to address them, and so indirectly that would help us answer questions about how much segregation should we have and for whom should be it be used.

One of the big needs, I think, is to build in the ability to do research and I don’t just mean one-time research studies, I mean operations research, knowing how the system is operating. That’s not a one-time study, that’s building in the information technology, the database, the staffing, to be able to document what’s happening in all parts of the prison system.

So it is totally possible today, to learn from say inmates and officers, prison wardens, what’s going on the ground, they can have direct feedback on what is going on, to document problems, to document also what’s working, so you can make minor tweaks and adjustments rather than these really big swings that we sometimes see in corrections where we go from one philosophy to another philosophy.

McDonald: And so we need to make changes, incrementally, safely and smartly, because you’re really talking about the safety and security of the facility. Inmates that live in that community, and the staff that have to work there.

Date Created: April 1, 2016