Solitary Confinement: Isolation & Administrative Segregation

On February 26, 2014, Justice Fellowship’s President Craig DeRoche testified before the Senate Judiciary subcommittee during the second hearing on solitary confinement (Reassessing Solitary Confinement II). In case you missed it, you can view the clip of Craig's testimony below, or READ Craig's full written testimony.

You can also watch the first Senate hearing on solitary confinement HERE.


In theory, solitary confinement (also: isolation, segregation) is for the worst of the worst prisoners—those who cause serious, usually violent, disruptions in the general prison population. In practice, these kinds of prisoners make up only a small minority of the segregated population in U.S. prisons.

The Harmful and Dangerous Overuse of Solitary Confinement

The prolific use of solitary confinement (also: isolation, segregation, and restrictive housing) in our nation’s prisons and jails is cause for genuine concern. A prisoner in solitary confinement will generally spend 22 to 24 hours a day in a cell with little or no meaningful human contact or recreational activities. This can continue for years. The Bureau of Justice Statistics found that in 2005, U.S. prisons held 81,622 people in some kind of segregated housing.

This is yet another example of the government allowed to grow unchecked, creating a burgeoning bureaucratic system loathe to produce results. Taxpayers and victims of crime count on a return for our investment in the criminal justice system. In theory, solitary confinement is for “the worst of the worst” prisoners. Yet, the data often reveals a very different story.  The Vera Institute’s Segregation Reduction Project found 85 percent of prisoners were sent to disciplinary segregation for minor rule infractions in Illinois.Common violations included being out of place, failing to report to an assignment, and refusing an order.

Prisoners in solitary confinement are often released directly from isolation to their communities upon completion of their sentence. One study found that prisoners freed directly from solitary confinement cells to the community had recidivism rates that doubled those of prisoners who were given a period of transition into the general prison population before release.This phenomenon poses a serious public safety concern that should be more thoroughly researched and addressed.

The disproportionate and arbitrary use of solitary confinement is not only immoral, it is a missed opportunity to break the cycle of crime. This approach does not increase public safety and is contrary to Justice Fellowship’s goals for the criminal justice system—accountability and restoration.

Solitary Confinement and Mental Illness

Many studies have documented the detrimental psychological and physiological effects of long-term segregation.Mental illness is too often punished rather than treated.  In many ways, this is a systemic problem that starts long before people enter the criminal justice system.  Jails have become the de facto mental institutions in our country.  One way to address this systemic issue is by passing the Justice and Mental Health Collaboration Act, which equips law enforcement with Crisis Management Teams to respond to people displaying signs of mental illness and provide them with the resources they need before they are booked into jail.4 Additionally, the legislation includes a specific provision providing the Attorney General with the ability to award resources to correctional institutions to develop alternatives to solitary confinement.

Maximizing Opportunities for Interaction and Healthy Relationships

We should never lose sight of a person’s humanity and their need for fellowship.  If someone needs to be placed in segregation because they pose an imminent danger, the environment must be as safe and humane as possible.  Men and women who are in segregation for legitimate security reasons should be afforded the maximum opportunity possible for interaction with other human beings, communication with family and mentors, books, and other productive activities.

Alternatives and Strategies

A growing number of jurisdictions have requested assistance through independent experts available to address the overuse of solitary confinement through the National Institute of Corrections as well as nonprofits like the Vera Institute’s Segregation Reduction Project, which launched in 2010.5 Below are some of the promising alternatives and strategies used in several of these jurisdictions that have reduced the use of segregation as a result of this assistance:

  • Creating “missioned housing” that allows for services targeted to the needs of prisoners with mental illness, developmental delays, or those at risk of sexual victimization.  These units provide a smaller community setting for these vulnerable populations without placing them in solitary confinement.
  • Whenever possible, offering alternative responses to disruptions such as anger management and behavior programs, reduction of privileges, or restricted movement in the prisoner’s current housing.
  • Providing incentives for positive behavior such as increased privileges, enhanced education, and job training.
  • Providing training for staff on motivational interviewing to communicate with prisoners in a supportive manner that promotes pro-social behavior.
  • Screening prisoners for cognitive disabilities and providing specialized training for staff on how to redirect and communicate effectively with this population.
  • Staff training and enhanced interventions for developmentally and intellectually delayed prisoners.

Jurisdictions employing these strategies have not only reduced their use of segregation, but have also tracked concurrent reductions in the use of force on prisoners and the number of prisoner grievances.6

A Path Forward: Changing the Culture

In prison culture, many tolerated norms are antithetical to societal standards.  Justice Fellowship believes that the overuse of solitary confinement is a direct result of this lost culture war.  Teaching people to become good citizens, rather than just good prisoners, is the charge entrusted to correctional officials by taxpayers.  Skilled wardens understand that developing pro-social communities within prison walls is paramount to public safety—both inside and outside of prison fences. Part of creating safe communities inside prisons includes removing individuals who violate societal norms by placing themselves or other’s safety at risk.  Skilled wardens also understand, however, that this removal process must be temporary, and that a clear path back into the community must be not only clearly available, but achievable. Skilled wardens and corrections officers should welcome oversight, performance measurements, and independent review to ensure their use of segregation increases safety in the prison and the safety of the community upon prisoners’ reintegration.


1Reassessing Solitary Confinement: The Human Rights, Fiscal and Public Safety Consequences: Hearing Before the Subcomm. on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights of S. Comm. on the Judiciary, 112th Cong. 4 (2012) (statement of Michael Jacobson, President & Director, Vera Institute of Justice) (available at

2See, e.g., Lovell, et al., Recidivism of Supermax Prisoners in Washington State, 53 CRIME AND DELINQ. 633, 633–56 (Oct. 2007).  

3See e.g., Stuart Grassian & Nancy Friedman, Effects of Sensory Deprivation in Psychiatric Seclusion and Solitary Confinement, 8 INT’L J.L. & PSYCHIATRY 49 (1986); Craig Haney & Mona Lynch, Regulating Prisons of the Future: A Psychological Analysis of Supermax and Solitary Confinement, 23 NEW YORK UNIVERSITY REVIEW OF LAW AND SOCIAL CHANGE 477-570 (1997); Craig Haney, Mental Health Issues in Long-Term Solitary and “Supermax” Confinement, 49 CRIME & DELINQ. 124 (2003). 

4S. 162, 113th (as reported by S. Comm. on the Judiciary, June 20, 2013).

5Segregation Reduction Project, VERA INSTITUTE OF JUSTICE, (last visited Feb. 20, 2014).

6Sec’y Bernard Warner, Restrictive Housing, (2013) (DOC Internal Report). 

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