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'Restrictive Housing' Is Normalized in Many Prisons Despite Ill Effects

Restrictive housing, also known as solitary confinement, is a policy that isolates prisoners for up to 23 hours a day, sometimes for months or years. Speakers on an Urban Institute webinar said research has shown overuse of restrictive housing can result in adverse health outcomes for those who experience it, despite the argument by correctional administrators that it makes facilities safer.

Research by the Lyman Center at Yale University in collaboration with the Correctional Leaders Association shows that in 2021 on any given day, from 41,000 to 48,000 prisoners are in restrictive housing in state and federal prisons.

That number far lower than the Lyman Center found in 2015, when an estimated 80,000 to100 000 people were in restrictive housing.

Several U.S. senators have introduced legislation to reduce the use of solitary confinement in federal prisons.

"The Solitary Confinement Reform Act limits solitary confinement to the briefest term and under the least restrictive conditions possible, because the overuse of solitary confinement threatens public safety, strains prison budgets, and violates fundamental human rights," they said.

Solitary confinement is still common in prisons throughout the nation. In Texas,185 men on death row are suing the state for, "violating the inmates’ constitutional rights by holding them in permanent solitary confinement in some cases for more than 20 years," reports The Guardian.

In one Texas prison, 18 men have staged a hunger strike for a month to protest solitary confinement, according to Texas Public Radio.

Sara Sullivan, a senior policy adviser at the U.S. Department of Justice, said restrictive housing can be classified in three ways: disciplinary segregation, administrative segregation, and protective custody.

Disciplinary segregation focuses on people who violate the rules of a facility and are sanctioned for a period of time in segregation before returning to the general population.

Administrative segregation or "preventative segregation" is not a direct response to a violation but a determination that someone should be placed in segregation "in order to limit their availability or access to commit a violation."

Protective custody focuses on preventing prisoners from being harmed by placing them in a separate environment away from the general population. Sullivan said the environment in some protective custody facilities is similar to those of the general population. Other facilities make protective custody similar to restrictive housing.

Prof. Keramet Reiter, Vice Chair of Criminology, Law, and Society at the University of California said restrictive housing causes severe psychological and physical consequences and long-term impact.

"...there's a constellation of symptoms you experience like, depression, anxiety, insomnia, problems, managing your anger, problems with nightmares," Reiter said. The symptoms are often referred to as "shoe syndrome" and resemble post-traumatic stress disorder.

"As people have started to look at solitary confinement use they find incredibly high rates of these kinds of psychological symptoms," Reiter said. In a sample of just over 100 people Reiter studied, she found that as many as half experienced significant psychological symptoms, including self-harm or suicide.

The physical harm of restrictive housing is easier for the courts to recognize, while psychological implications are more difficult to detect.

According to Reiter, studies have shown that the brains of individuals subjected to restricted housing have the possibility of shrinking. Other physical symptoms include cardiovascular problems such as heart failure and musculoskeletal problems due to limited mobility.

"Health care in prisons can be pretty limited in the best case scenario ... in solitary confinement often people just literally have trouble getting in touch with anyone who can help them if they're in crisis or if they have a chronic health condition," Reiter said.

Sullivan said part of the reason restrictive housing has become a divisive issue is that it may be needed only for extreme situations but is a tool that prison administrators have "used for so long (that] it had become in a lot of systems the go-to response for any type of violation."

Another reason restrictive housing has become normalized is due to a lack of training officers receive about having corrective responses for dealing with people who have mental issues, substance abuse, or anger issues.

"A lot of them do not have the appropriate training for how to manage that in a way that's not just sending them to restrictive housing which sometimes is the easiest and sometimes most efficient way even if it's not the most effective and a very damaging way to respond to it," Sullivan said.

Speakers suggested engaging more with prison staff at all levels when introducing reforms, implementing behavior modification, and legislation to make reductions in restrictive housing easier.

Repurposing solitary confinement units could also reduce its usage, "If you completely change the layout and the structure of those units and use it for a completely different purpose that makes it a lot harder to then start filling it up with restrictive housing beds again," Sullivan said.


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