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Overview of Restrictive Housing

Date Published
November 14, 2016

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​There is growing interest around the country in understanding the use and impact of restrictive housing in corrections. Restrictive housing, also called administrative segregation and ​solitary confinement, has a long history in the U.S. corrections system. The empirical literature on this important issue has grown, and in recent years, scholars have continued to systematically study how restrictive housing is used in correctional settings and what effects it has on those who are incarcerated, corrections staff and the prison organization at large.

NIJ supports rigorous research on restrictive housing practices and outcomes by funding external research, working with federal partners and bringing experts together to identify and discuss the most pressing questions and research needs.

Research on Restrictive Housing

NIJ has funded two completed longitudinal studies on restrictive housing.

Psychological Effects of Administrative Segregation

The potential for incarcerated persons to experience psychological harm is often cited as a concern in discussions about the use of restrictive housing. Results from one study on the psychological effects of the long-term use of restrictive housing in Colorado’s corrections system, however, showed that the those in restrictive housing did not experience a decline in mental health during the one-year study period.

The study was conducted with three populations of incarcerated persons: those in restrictive housing at Colorado State Penitentiary, a general prison population and residents of a psychiatric care prison at San Carlos Correctional Facility. The researchers used self-administered surveys every three months to measure the psychological states of incarcerated persons for one year.

Results showed some initial improvements in psychological well-being for all of the incarcerated persons in the study, followed by relative stability in their well-being for the remainder of the study period. As expected, segregated individuals were elevated on multiple psychological and cognitive measures; however, elevations were also present for the comparison groups, which suggests that psychological disturbances were not unique to a segregated environment. Those with mental illness, regardless of their setting, had higher scores for a number of psychological symptoms, such as depression and anxiety. However, individuals with mental illness in restrictive housing did not show faster or more extreme psychological changes than those without mental illness.

There are important limitations to consider when interpreting the findings. Study findings may not generalize to other prison systems, particularly those with different restrictive housing policies and practices. The study sample was limited to literate adult men, so study results may not apply to other populations of incarcerated persons. Additionally, because the incarcerated persons involved in the study filled out the instruments at three-month intervals, the researchers note that it is possible that some individuals experienced brief but severe episodes of elevated psychological symptoms between surveys.

Learn more about the study:

Effects of Solitary Confinement on Misconduct in Prison

A study supported by NIJ’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program in the Social and Behavioral Sciences examined whether the experience of restrictive housing and the length of time an individual spends in this confinement status had an effect on later misconduct in prison. The study analyzed longitudinal data on 14,311 incarcerated persons admitted to the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction between July 2007 and June 2010. The study sample included male and female individuals. All of the participants in the sample had spent at least one year in custody and had also served time in restrictive housing.

Results of the analysis showed that neither the experience of restrictive housing itself nor the length of time spent in restrictive housing had an effect on subsequent violent, non-violent or drug-related misconduct in prison.

More research is needed to determine whether these findings apply to other restrictive housing settings and incarcerated individuals.

Read an abstract and access the final report by the researcher, “Effect of Solitary Confinement on Institutional Misconduct: A Longitudinal Evaluation.”

Topical Working Group on the Use of Administrative Segregation in the U.S.

In October 2015, NIJ convened a two-day topical working group on restrictive housing with more than 80 experts from federal, state and local corrections agencies, advocacy groups, academia and research organizations and the Department of Justice. Major topics covered at the meeting included:

  • What we know and do not know about those who are placed in restrictive housing
  • The relationship between institutional violence and restrictive housing
  • Issues related to the mental health of incarcerated individuals and their placement in restrictive housing
  • The relationship between correctional officer safety and wellness and restrictive housing
  • Civil rights enforcement and the use of restrictive housing
  • Safe alternatives to restrictive housing
  • Gaps in empirical research and data collection efforts

Download meeting notes (pdf, 39 pages).

In spring 2015, NIJ commissioned a white paper and an executive summary on the use of administrative segregation in U.S. corrections systems. The executive summary was provided to meeting participants to help guide discussions at the two-day topical working group. The paper and executive summary, co-authored by Natasha A. Frost and Carlos E. Monteiro of Northeastern University, provide a synthesis of the current empirical literature on this controversial policy and practice in corrections, as well as research gaps and next steps.

Read the Executive summary (pdf, 8 pages) or the complete white paper Administrative Segregation in U.S. Prisons (pdf, 42 pages).

The working group generated thoughtful and innovative discussions about a host of issues, including how to improve the use of restrictive housing and important empirical questions that would inform corrections professionals. NIJ has used this information to guide the development of an open solicitation on institutional corrections that includes opportunities for research on the use of restrictive housing. 

Date Published: November 14, 2016