Can Prisons Find Alternatives to Solitary?

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Harlem, NY protest against solitary confinement. Photo by Felton Davis via Flickr

Correctional authorities should take steps to reduce the impact of solitary confinement by gradually allowing inmates more “control” over their surroundings, a Vera Institute of Justice study recommended.

The study, examining the impact of the so-called “Step Down” pilot program administered by the Virginia Department of Corrections (VADOC), found that the number of individuals held in restrictive housing or administrative segregation decreased from five percent in 2016 to three percent in 2018.

The pilot program was launched in December, 2016 in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs and Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA).

Virginia was one of five states to join a program called the Safe Alternatives to Segregation Initiative, which aims to assess how corrections agencies use segregation, and provides.  recommendations on ways they could safely reduce its use. Other states who have joined  the program include Louisiana, Minnesota, Nevada, and Utah.

The recommendations from Vera, drawn from studying the program’s results in Virginia, included the need to “progressively introduce opportunities for individuals to make decisions, exercise agency, and control aspects of their environment.”

“Research shows that the lack of control incarcerated people have over their surroundings and their inability to make many decisions can lead to ‘institutionalization’ or ‘learned helplessness,’ the study said.

The data collected from the report came from five facilities in Virginia: Greensville Correctional Center (GCC), Buckingham Correctional Center (BKCC), Red Onion State Prison (ROSP), Marion Correctional Treatment Center (MCTC), and River North Correctional Center (RNCC).

According to the department’s data analysis, at the end of January 2016, 1,513 incarcerated people were in restrictive housing status, representing 5 percent of the total population of VADOC facilities. But at the end of July 2018, there were 870 people in some form of restrictive housing, representing 3 percent of the total population.

Since 2016, there has been a reduction in the number of people released directly to the community from segregation (though not a complete elimination of the practice), the study showed.

In 2016, 312 people left VADOC custody and returned to the community directly from restrictive housing; three of those individuals were released directly from the generally longer-term restrictive housing. In 2017, 232 people returned to the community directly from restrictive housing.

In addition to fewer people being released directly from restrictive housing, there has been an increased focus on providing reentry programming and preparation, even for people at the higher security levels, authors noted.

Also, in 2016, the Restrictive Housing Pilot Program (RHPP) was launched at four facilities, including Greensville and Buckingham Correctional Centers, with the intention of testing the program before eventually rolling it out to all facilities statewide.

The program sought to eliminate the use of disciplinary segregation, reduce the number of people who are placed in restrictive housing for purposes of security, and decrease the amount of time people spend in restrictive housing, the study said.

Since then, both the Greensville and Buckingham pilot sites reported that their restrictive housing units often had many empty beds since implementation of the pilot program began. Staff attributed some of the reduction to the reforms brought by the pilot program, particularly the focus on increased communication with incarcerated people and using alternatives to restrictive housing whenever possible.

Significantly, staff at the two pilot sites noted a significant cultural shift towards more communication—among staff and, notably, between staff and incarcerated people—as well as a growth in receptiveness to utilizing alternatives to segregation.

Staff at Greensville and Buckingham reported that greater efforts are now employed to resolve conflicts by moving people to different housing units.

The data also showed that staff at facilities implementing reforms were generally positive about reforms.

For example, staff at RNCC shared their enthusiasm and support for reform efforts in general and specifically for the Positive Behavioral Units (PBUs) that facility staff were instrumental in developing, which promote and reward positive behavior through greater incentives and privileges, such as a microwave on the unit, more commissary, and increased out-of-cell time.

Notably, a substantial number of people in restrictive housing have a mental health diagnosis, and in 2016 half of those with the most serious mental health needs were in restrictive housing conditions in mental health units, authors said.

According to VADOC data analysis, in July 2017, while 25 percent of the general population had a mental health diagnosis, 40 percent of people in short-term restrictive housing had a diagnosis, a disproportionately high percentage.

The Vera Institute’s recommendations included:

  • Eliminate restrictive housing at lower-security level facilities, for inmates who have not recently exhibited violent behavior or the level of serious infractions that might land someone in restrictive housing.
  • Transform conditions in restrictive housing to be the least restrictive possible;
  • Promote transparency and communication by continuing and increasing engagement and information-sharing with “external stakeholders,” including Virginia government officials, the media, families of incarcerated people and of VADOC staff, advocacy organizations, and the general public.

Authors of the study were Byron Kline, Elena Vanko and Léon Digard, PhD, of Vera’s Center on Sentencing and Corrections.

The full report can be downloaded here.

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