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Exploring the Use of Restrictive Housing in the U.S. Issues, Challenges, and Future Directions

Date Published
November 14, 2016

Restrictive housing is a common practice in corrections and is one of the more extreme measures of confinement available to prison and jail officials. In 2015, as many as 100,000 people in prisons and jails in the U.S. spent time in restrictive housing. Although this practice, commonly referred to as administrative segregation or solitary confinement, is widely used, the long-term effects and effectiveness of this practice are relatively unknown.

To address these shortcomings, NIJ has produced a volume of research that represents the most comprehensive review to date of emerging issues and concerns surrounding restrictive housing. Topics explored in this volume include the roles that gangs, violence, and mental health play in the management of individuals in restrictive housing. Taken together, the chapters are a precursor to further research and program development. They will lay the groundwork for other applied research and they will assist with the coordination of research and evaluation efforts sponsored by NIJ and partnering agencies.

 “What we wanted to do with the volume was pull together everything that we could find in these 10 particular areas to say to the field ‘Here’s what we know, here’s what we don’t, and here’s what we need to move forward,’” said Marie Garcia, a Social Science Analyst with NIJ.

The goal of the volume is to provide a roadmap to assist corrections practitioners when making changes to their use of restrictive housing. Additionally, the volume proposes a research agenda for the corrections research community. Each chapter was designed to address critical issues for corrections in general and for restrictive housing specifically.

As one of the papers in the volume outlines, today’s use of restrictive housing lacks a theoretical foundation. Its use is primarily based on perceived management needs, as a punishment for rule violation, or both.

Another chapter concludes there is too little credible research to support the effectiveness of restrictive housing. The practice may produce benefits, such as improved behavior among the incarcerated and reduced recidivism, but it may also generate unnecessary harms, including worsened behavior and mental health and higher rates of recidivism.

While restrictive housing carries with it a negative connotation, one paper in the volume examines the benefits of this practice. The author writes that the implementation of treatment programs within the context of restrictive housing units can be an important component of efforts to reduce institutional misconduct and enhance post-release behavioral outcomes. Many of the strategies discussed in the recommendations of this paper attempt to reconfigure restrictive housing units into placement options that can support the rehabilitation of the person convicted of a crime. Additional research in these areas, as well as those topics included in the volume, are ripe for exploration. This volume serves as a compilation of what is already known about the use of restrictive housing and NIJ encourages the continued discussion of the use of this important and controversial practice.

Chapters include:

About this Article

This article is based on the volume Restrictive Housing in the U.S.: Issues, Challenges, and Future Directions (pdf, 424 pages).

Date Published: November 14, 2016