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date: 23 February 2018

Disciplinary Segregation in Prison

Summary and Keywords

Disciplinary segregation is a punishment that prison officials impose in response to inmate violations of prison rules such as assaulting another inmate or disrespecting an officer. Disciplinary segregation is distinct from other types of restrictive housing (e.g., supermax confinement, administrative segregation), but it is the most commonly used form of restrictive housing in most states. Inmates housed in disciplinary segregation typically spend 23 hours a day in a cell, with limited interaction with other inmates or prison staff. Inmates’ access to other privileges such as recreation, programming, and visitation is also restricted during their time in disciplinary segregation.

Prison officials have the discretion to place inmates found guilty of violations of the inmate rules of conduct in disciplinary segregation, and indeed, segregation is a common response to rule violations. It is expected that confinement in disciplinary segregation will deter inmates’ subsequent rule breaking, but some scholars argue that confinement in disciplinary segregation amplifies inmates’ misbehavior via labeling or by stimulating mental health problems that ultimately result in problem behaviors (e.g., rule violations). Despite these assertions, there is little evidence regarding the impact of disciplinary segregation on inmates’ behavior or mental health. Precise estimates of the extent of the inmate population exposed to disciplinary segregation (and their level of exposure), and studies of the factors that influence prison officials’ decision to place inmates in disciplinary segregation are also limited. The frequency with which disciplinary segregation is used, its greater cost compared to general population confinement, and calls for the equitable and effective use of restrictive housing in prisons by civil rights advocates, the U.S. Congress, and former President Obama underscore the need for further research on the topic.

Keywords: segregation, discipline, misconduct, inmate, prison, solitary confinement, rule violation

Disciplinary segregation is a type of restrictive housing used in prisons that entails separation from the general inmate population, as a punishment that prison officials impose in response to inmate violations of institutional rules (Browne, Cambier, & Agha, 2011). Disciplinary segregation is often used interchangeably with terms such as “segregation,” “solitary confinement,” “the hole,” or “restrictive housing,” but it is distinct from other types of restrictive housing such as long-term administrative segregation, temporary confinement, protective custody, or supermax confinement. Prison officials use long-term administrative segregation to remove prisoners who are deemed a threat to the safety or security of an institution from its general population. Temporary confinement is short-term segregated housing that prison officials use to hold inmates during an investigation and prior to a hearing for a rule violation. Protective custody is used to provide safe housing for inmates who are considered at risk for victimization or self-harm in the general population. Supermax confinement is long-term restrictive housing typically used for inmates deemed a threat to other inmates or staff. Prison officials only use disciplinary segregation as a punishment for inmates convicted of prison rule violations (Baumgartel et al., 2015; Browne et al., 2011). However, disciplinary segregation is the most commonly used type of restrictive housing in most states (Baumgartel et al., 2015).

Conditions of Confinement in Disciplinary Segregation

The conditions of confinement in disciplinary segregation vary across states but typically involve increased isolation and control relative to what the general inmate population experiences. Disciplinary segregation cells typically range from 70 to 90 square feet, and are more sterile than the cells used for the general population (Foster, 2016). The cells are usually located within a designated unit within a prison that is separated from the general population housing. Inmates are confined alone in their cells, although overcrowding in some states has forced double bunking in disciplinary segregation units (Foster, 2016). Inmates are provided with a mattress, blanket, and pillow, and they are permitted to shower and shave at least three times per week. Food is delivered through tray slots in the cell doors and inmates are required to eat in their cells. Aside from their clothing and personal hygiene products (e.g., toothbrush), inmates access to their personal possessions is typically restricted during their time in segregation (Baumgartel et al., 2015; Browne et al., 2011).

As a result of the punitive nature of disciplinary segregation, inmates confined there typically receive fewer privileges than inmates in general population housing or other types of restrictive housing (Foster, 2016). Inmates are typically allowed out of their cells for only an hour per day. When inmates are allowed out of their cells, they are typically placed in hand and leg restraints while officers escort them to their designation. Social contact with other inmates and staff is limited. Many states also restrict inmates’ access to reading materials, recreation activities, rehabilitative programming, visitation, and telephone calls during their time in disciplinary segregation (Baumgartel et al., 2015; Browne et al., 2011).

The additional structural and staffing security measures required to house inmates in disciplinary segregation makes the use of this type of confinement more costly than general population confinement (ACLU, 2015; Briggs, Sundt, & Castellano, 2003; Butler, Steiner, Makarios, & Travis, 2017; Metcalf, Resnik, & Quattlebaum, 2015; Shames, Wilcox, & Subramanian, 2015). In many states, the cost can be two to three times higher per year to house an inmate in restrictive housing relative to the general inmate population (e.g., ACLU, 2015; Shames et al., 2015).

The Prison Disciplinary Process

The official rules of inmate conduct describe the behaviors that are formally prohibited within a prison. Some of these acts would be crimes if they were committed outside of prison, while other acts are disallowed because they interfere with the daily prison routine (DiIulio, 1987; Eichenthal & Jacobs, 1991; Steiner & Wooldredge, 2014). To illustrate, the rules of conduct for inmates incarcerated in the state of Ohio (Ohio Administrative Code 5120-9-06, 2014) are presented here:

State of Ohio Inmate Rules of Conduct

  1. 1. Causing, or attempting to cause, the death of another.

  2. 2. Hostage taking, including any physical restraint of another.

  3. 3. Causing, or attempting to cause, serious physical harm to another.

  4. 4. Causing, or attempting to cause, physical harm to another.

  5. 5. Causing, or attempting to cause, physical harm to another with a weapon.

  6. 6. Throwing, expelling, or otherwise causing a bodily substance to come into contact with another.

  7. 7. Throwing any other liquid or material on or at another.

  8. 8. Threatening bodily harm to another.

  9. 9. Threatening harm to the property of another, including state property.

  10. 10. Extortion by threat of violence or other means.

  11. 11. Non-consensual sexual conduct with another, whether compelled by force, threat of force, intimidation other than threat of force, or any other circumstances evidencing a lack of consent by the victim.

  12. 12. Non-consensual sexual contact with another, whether compelled by force, threat of force, intimidation other than threat of force, or any other circumstances evidencing a lack of consent by the victim.

  13. 13. Consensual physical contact for the purpose of sexually arousing or gratifying either person.

  14. 14. Seductive or obscene acts, including indecent exposure or masturbation; including, but not limited, to any word, action, gesture or other behavior that is sexual in nature and would be offensive to a reasonable person.

  15. 15. Rioting or encouraging others to riot.

  16. 16. Engaging in or encouraging a group demonstration or work stoppage.

  17. 17. Engaging in unauthorized group activities.

  18. 18. Encouraging or creating a disturbance.

  19. 19. Fighting—with or without weapons, including instigation of, or perpetuating fighting.

  20. 20. Physical resistance to a direct order.

  21. 21. Disobedience of a direct order.

  22. 22. Refusal to carry out work or other institutional assignments.

  23. 23. Refusal to accept an assignment or classification action.

  24. 24. Establishing or attempting to establish a personal relationship with an employee, without authorization from the managing officer.

  25. 25. Intentionally grabbing, or touching a staff member or other person without the consent of such person in a way likely to harass, annoy or impede the movement of such person.

  26. 26. Disrespect to an officer, staff member, visitor or other inmate.

  27. 27. Giving false information or lying to departmental employees.

  28. 28. Forging, possessing, or presenting forged or counterfeit documents.

  29. 29. Escape from institution or outside custody.

  30. 30. Removing or escaping from physical restraints or any confined area within an institution.

  31. 31. Attempting or planning an escape.

  32. 32. Tampering with locks, or locking devices, window bars; tampering with walls floors or ceilings in an effort to penetrate them.

  33. 33. Possession of escape materials; including keys or lock picking devices.

  34. 34. Forging, possessing, or obtaining forged, or falsified documents which purport to effect release or reduction in sentence.

  35. 35. Being out of place.

  36. 36. Possession or manufacture of a weapon, ammunition, explosive or incendiary device.

  37. 37. Procuring, or attempting to procure, a weapon, ammunition, explosive or incendiary device; aiding, soliciting or collaborating with another person to procure a weapon, ammunition, explosive or incendiary device or to introduce or convey a weapon, ammunition, explosive or incendiary device into a facility.

  38. 38. Possession of plans, instructions, or formula for making weapons or any explosive or incendiary device.

  39. 39. Unauthorized possession, manufacture, or consumption of drugs or any intoxicating substance.

  40. 40. Procuring or attempting to procure, unauthorized drugs; aiding, soliciting, or collaborating with another to procure unauthorized drugs or to introduce unauthorized drugs into a correctional facility.

  41. 41. Unauthorized possession of drug paraphernalia.

  42. 42. Misuse of authorized medication.

  43. 43. Refusal to submit urine sample, or otherwise to cooperate with drug testing, or mandatory substance abuse sanctions.

  44. 44. Gambling or possession of gambling paraphernalia.

  45. 45. Dealing, conducting, facilitating, or participating in any transaction, occurring in whole or in part, within an institution, or involving an inmate, staff member or another for which payment of any kind is made, promised, or expected.

  46. 46. Conducting business operations with any person or entity outside the institution, whether or not for profit, without specific permission in writing from the warden.

  47. 47. Possession or use of money in the institution.

  48. 48. Stealing or embezzlement of property, obtaining property by fraud or receiving stolen, embezzled, or fraudulently obtained property.

  49. 49. Destruction, alteration, or misuse of property.

  50. 50. Possession of property of another.

  51. 51. Possession of contraband, including any article knowingly possessed which has been altered or for which permission has not been given.

  52. 52. Setting a fire; any unauthorized burning.

  53. 53. Tampering with fire alarms, sprinklers, or other fire suppression equipment.

  54. 54. Unauthorized use of telephone or violation of mail and visiting rules.

  55. 55. Use of telephone or mail to threaten, harass, intimidate, or annoy another.

  56. 56. Use of telephone or mail in furtherance of any criminal activity.

  57. 57. Self-mutilation, including tattooing.

  58. 58. Possession of devices or material used for tattooing.

  59. 59. Any act not otherwise set forth herein, knowingly done which constitutes a threat to the security of the institution, its staff, other inmates, or to the acting inmate.

  60. 60. Attempting to commit; aiding another in the commission of; soliciting another to commit; or entering into an agreement with another to commit any of the above acts.

  61. 61. Any violation of any published institutional rules, regulations or procedures.

The acts listed in the inmate rules of conduct for Ohio are typical of those prohibited by most states. Violations of the rules of conduct are subject to disciplinary procedures that result in a determination of guilt and the imposition of punishment such as disciplinary segregation (Butler & Steiner, 2017; Howard et al., 1994). Most states developed formal prison disciplinary procedures in response to several federal court decisions (Butler & Steiner, 2017; Howard et al., 1994; Marquart & Crouch, 1985).

Prior to the 1960s, the federal courts took a hands-off approach to cases involving inmate issues (Jacobs, 1980). Prison officials used disciplinary segregation and other forms of punishment frequently (and often for lengthy periods) to manage inmate behavior. Officials regularly imposed segregation arbitrarily and without any due process for the inmates charged with rule violations (Marquart & Crouch, 1985). However, federal courts began to hear cases that dealt with inmate issues in the 1960s and 1970s alongside the United States civil rights movement (Jacobs, 1980).These cases helped to formalize a number of procedures related to prison governance, including those pertaining to inmate discipline.

In Wolff v. McDonnell (1974), the United States Supreme Court held that inmates charged with prison rule violations are to be afforded some due process rights, including the right to written notice of the charges against them, the right to a fair hearing by an impartial body, the right to present evidence and call witnesses in their defense, and the right to a written statement of the evidence used to determine guilt and whether a punishment was deserved. In subsequent decisions, the Supreme Court clarified that the due process protections provided to inmates under Wolff only applies in cases where inmates’ liberty interest are at risk. The criteria for determining whether inmates’ liberty interests are at risk are: (1) the duration of confinement and (2) whether the punishment decision affects inmates’ release date. The Supreme Court has also held that states are not required to provide inmates with certain due process rights during prison disciplinary proceedings, such as the right to counsel, the right to cross-examine witnesses, or the requirement that guilt be proven beyond a reasonable doubt (e.g., Babcock, 1981; Butler & Steiner, 2017; Ciszak, 1996; Sandin v. Conner, 1995; Wilkinson v. Austin, 2005; Wolff v. McDonnell, 1974).

The Supreme Court decisions prompted states to implement formal processes for prison officials to follow when responding to inmate rule violations (Babcock, 1981; Flanagan, 1982; Howard et al., 1994). In most states, prison disciplinary committees decide whether an inmate is guilty of a rule violation and mete out the corresponding punishment (Butler & Steiner, 2017; Crouch, 1985; Howard et al., 1994). After a prison staff member files a rule violation report, a hearing in front of the disciplinary committee or relevant prison official is scheduled. Inmates receive written notice of the hearing and the charges against them. Hearings are typically held soon after the alleged rule violation (e.g., seven days), and inmates are allowed to be present at the hearings and call witnesses in their defense. However, the hearings are closed to the public (Butler & Steiner, 2017; Crouch, 1985; Howard et al., 1994). At the conclusion of the hearing, the disciplinary committee provides inmates with a written statement of the decision(s), and if relevant, the corresponding punishment. Inmates then have the option to accept the decision or appeal it to the designated prison official(s) (e.g., warden).

Social scientists have found that few inmates are successful in challenging charges against them stemming from prison rule violations, and the limited due process protections provided by the Supreme Court afford prison disciplinary committees considerable discretion when imposing punishment in response to violations (Butler & Steiner, 2017; Flanagan, 1982; Freeman, 2003; Thomas, Mika, Blakemore, & Aylward, 1991). Prison officials impose disciplinary segregation frequently in response to inmate rule violations, but officials also impose other punishments such as privilege restrictions, extra work duty, room restrictions, or removing sentencing credits (Butler & Steiner, 2017; Cochran, Toman, Mears, & Bales, forthcoming; Stephan, 1989).

Theories of Prison Officials’ Use of Disciplinary Segregation

Although inmates charged with rule violations have fewer rights during the prison disciplinary process than criminal defendants, the punishment phase within prisons is still similar in many respects to criminal sentencing. Like criminal court judges, prison officials have the discretion to impose a number of different punishments (including disciplinary segregation) in response to a rule violation, though the severity of the violation typically dictates the range of punishments that can be imposed in most states (Metcalf et al., 2013; Steiner & Cain, 2017). Given the similarities between the punishment process within prisons and criminal sentencing, scholars have framed studies of the use of disciplinary segregation within theories typically applied to the criminal sentencing process (e.g., Butler & Steiner, 2017; Cochran et al., forthcoming). Application of these theories contributes to a more reasonable explanation of why particular incident, inmate, and prison characteristics may influence prison officials’ use of segregation.

The theories of criminal sentencing that researchers have applied to the prison disciplinary process include uncertainty avoidance (Albonetti, 1987), causal attribution (Albonetti, 1991; Bridges & Steen, 1998), and focal concerns (Steffensmeier et al., 1998). The uncertainty avoidance and causal attribution perspectives posit that prison officials have an interest in controlling institutional rule breaking; therefore, their punishment decisions are shaped by appraisals of inmates’ risk of reoffending in prison (Butler & Steiner, 2017; Steiner & Cain, 2017). However, prison officials typically have limited information concerning inmates’ risk of future rule breaking, which results in uncertainty that officials navigate by relying on a bounded rationality that is the product of habit and social structure (Albonetti, 1987, 1991; Steiner & Cain, 2017). Prison officials develop patterned responses to similar violations, which are linked to inmate and incident characteristics that they consider to be related to inmates’ odds of subsequent rule breaking. Past experiences, prejudices, and stereotypes regarding particular types of violations and inmates, as well as whether officials attribute blame for inmates’ rule breaking to personal factors (e.g., lack of remorse, impulse control) or external factors (e.g., gang involvement, economic marginality) provide the foundation for these beliefs (Steiner & Cain, 2016, 2017). Officials impose harsher punishments such as disciplinary segregation in response to inmates found guilty of rule violations they perceive to be caused more by personal factors than by inmates found guilty of violations they believe to be the result of environmental influences (Albonetti, 1991; Bridges & Steen, 1998; Steiner & Cain, 2016, 2017). Inmates with a greater history of institutional rule breaking (and related punishment), for instance, may be viewed as more culpable because they have demonstrated an unwillingness to respond to punishments in the past. Similarly, the overrepresentation of minorities, males, and younger individuals in the inmate population may lead officials to perceive inmates with these characteristics to be more culpable, which could cause officials to impose harsher punishments in response to rule violations that involve inmates with these characteristics (Steiner & Cain, 2017; see Wooldredge, Griffin, & Rauschenberg, 2005 for a parallel argument pertaining to judicial sentencing decisions).

The focal concerns perspective also recognizes that prison officials have an interest in controlling inmate rule breaking but make punishment decisions in the face of uncertainty driven by limited information concerning inmates’ likelihood of rehabilitation (Butler & Steiner, 2017; Cochran et al., forthcoming; Steiner & Cain, 2017, and see Steffensmeier et al., 1998 for an application to criminal sentencing). Prison officials reduce the uncertainty involved in punishment decisions by developing perceptual shorthand based on experiences and stereotypes associated with individual and incident characteristics. The focal concerns perspective further theorizes that three domains of references guide prison officials in their responses: (1) an inmate’s blameworthiness, (2) an inmate’s risk to the prison community, and (3) the practical consequences of imposing the relevant punishment for an inmate and/or the justice system (Butler & Steiner, 2017; Cochran et al., forthcoming; Steiner & Cain, 2017).

Blameworthiness is associated with the retributive philosophy of punishment, such that an individual’s punishment corresponds directly to their culpability for the offense and the degree of injury inflicted (Johnson, 2006; Steffensmeier & Demuth, 2001; Steffensmeier et al., 1998). For instance, inmates convicted or more severe rule violations might be considered more blameworthy because violations that are designated as more severe are generally those that involve a greater level of culpability and have the potential for more significant harm to the victim or the institution (e.g., assault, possession or manufacture of dangerous contraband) (Flanagan, 1982; Steiner & Cain, 2016).

Prison officials concerns related to an inmate’s risk to the prison community are linked to the incapacitive and deterrent goals of punishment and involve forecasts about future offending based on attributions linked to incident and inmate characteristics (Butler & Steiner, 2017; Cochran et al., forthcoming). Prison officials’ perceptions regarding which inmates are at risk for subsequent rule breaking are shaped by case characteristics such as the nature of the violation(s) for which an inmate was convicted (e.g., violent versus property) and individual characteristics such as their rule violation history or criminal history (Steiner & Cain, 2017). For instance, prison officials may consider inmates with more extensive rule violation histories a greater risk for subsequent rule breaking, given the link between prior violations and subsequent offending in prison (Steiner, Butler, & Ellison, 2014).

Practical consequences and constraints associated with the organization and inmates affect prison officials’ punishment decisions (e.g., Butler & Steiner, 2017; Cochran et al., forthcoming; Steiner & Cain, 2017). This is because prison officials are sensitive to the necessity of maintaining functional working relationships in an interdependent justice system (Steiner & Cain, 2016). Prison officials are also cognizant of the consequences of imposing punishment on particular individuals (Butler & Steiner, 2017). For example, prison officials may be less likely to impose disciplinary segregation in cases involving inmates with children because visitation is often restricted in segregation and officials may not want to further disrupt the tie between a parent and his or her child (Cochran et al., forthcoming).

The Extent of Disciplinary Segregation Use in U.S. Prisons

The preceding discussion pertaining to the uncertainty avoidance, causal attribution, and focal concerns perspectives illuminates why prison officials may impose segregation in response to rule violations, and an overview of the evidence pertaining to the factors that influence officials’ use of segregation is presented in a subsequent section of this article. Regardless of the mechanisms by which they are placed there, however, a notable percentage of inmates confined in state and federal prisons are exposed to disciplinary segregation during their time in prison. Findings from a national survey of state departments of corrections conducted by the Liman Program at Yale Law School in collaboration with the Association of State Correctional Administrators revealed that, on average, 6.6% of the inmate population within each state is held in some form of restrictive housing (range = 2.1%–14.2%). The survey also uncovered that an average of 2.5% of the inmate population in each state is held in restrictive housing for administrative (not punitive) reasons (range = .1%–7.5%) (Baumgartel et al., 2015). Other studies have generated estimates that indicate between 5% and 8% of the U.S. prison population is held in some form of restrictive housing (Shames et al., 2015). Although a precise national estimate of the percentage of inmates confined in disciplinary segregation is not available, the findings from the survey conducted by Baumgartel et al. (2015) permit a reasonable inference that on a given day approximately 3% to 4% of the U.S. inmate population is confined in disciplinary segregation.

Data collected as a part of the most recent (2011–2012) National Inmate Survey show that nearly 20% of prison inmates spent time in some form of restrictive housing in the previous year (or since coming to their current facility, if shorter). Approximately 10% of prison inmates spent 30 days or longer in restrictive housing (Beck, 2015). Again, these estimates are not limited to disciplinary segregation, and so the percentage of inmates exposed to disciplinary segregation is likely lower than the percentage provided by the National Inmate Survey. Nonetheless, the estimates provided by Beck’s (2015) analysis of the survey data do permit the inference that a significant percentage of inmates are exposed to disciplinary segregation during their time in prison. In addition, both Baumgartel et al. (2015) and Beck (2015) found significant variability in the use of restrictive housing across states and across prisons. For instance, Beck (2015) found that less than 10% of inmates spend time in segregation in approximately 40% of prisons, while more than 25% of inmates spend time in segregation in roughly 28% of prisons.

Findings from studies of the influences of prison officials’ use of disciplinary segregation also help illuminate the percentage of inmates exposed to disciplinary segregation. For instance, Stephan (1989) analyzed data from a national survey of state inmates collected in 1986. He found that roughly 53% of the inmates were charged with a rule violation during their time in prison, 94% of which were found guilty. Stephan (1989) also found that approximately 31% of these inmates were placed in segregation for their most recent violation. From these numbers, it can be inferred that at least 15% of inmates spend some time in disciplinary segregation during their time in prison, though the figure is likely higher because the survey did not capture time spent in segregation for violations committed prior to (or after) the inmates’ most recent violation.

The limited evidence suggests that prison officials use disciplinary segregation with some frequency, and a significant percentage of all prison inmates spend time in disciplinary segregation during their period of imprisonment. However, the level of disciplinary segregation use varies across prisons and across states. Given the frequency with which prison officials use disciplinary segregation, it is important to understand the effect of segregation on inmate behavior. Some scholars have also observed that exposure to segregation has damaging effects on inmates’ mental health (e.g., Haney, 2003; Smith, 2006), and it is imperative to determine whether short-term confinement in restrictive housing, as is typically the case for disciplinary segregation, causes mental health problems among inmates. An overview of the evidence related to these issues is described in a subsequent section of this article. Competing theories regarding the effects of segregation on inmates’ subsequent behavior are presented here; these theories highlight why particular behavioral consequences may result from exposure to segregation.

Theories of the Effect of Exposure to Disciplinary Segregation on Inmate Behavior

Disciplinary segregation functions as jail within a prison (Browne et al., 2011), and placement in disciplinary segregation is expected to specifically deter inmates from engaging in subsequent misbehavior (Mears, 2013; Steiner & Cain, 2016). Disciplinary segregation is designed to be an unpleasant experience, and thus the costs associated with confinement in disciplinary segregation should reduce the expected utility of violating prison rules (Steiner & Cain, 2016; see Nagin, Cullen, & Jonson, 2009 for a parallel argument pertaining to prison). Deterrence theorists emphasize the importance of the certainty, celerity, and severity of punishments such as segregation. This is because an individual’s estimate of the certainty of punishment and the severity of punishment form the basis for their calculation of the costs versus the benefits of misbehavior (Becker, 1968; Grasmick & Bursik, 1990; Nagin et al., 2009; Nagin & Paternoster, 1993). The celerity with which punishment is applied affects an individual’s association of punishment with the related behavior (Taxman, Soule, & Gelb, 1999). As noted, formal policy stemming from the prison disciplinary procedures in most states mandates the certainty and celerity with which disciplinary segregation can be imposed regardless of the type of rule violation an inmate is found guilty of (Metcalf et al., 2013; Steiner & Cain, 2016). However, disciplinary segregation is more severe than other sanctions that prison officials may impose (e.g., privilege restrictions), and longer sentences to segregation are more severe than shorter terms. The confinement experience in segregation is also more severe than general population confinement (Pizzaro & Stenius, 2004; Riveland, 1999). Thus, it is reasonable to expect that the imposition of disciplinary segregation and longer periods of segregation could deter inmates from engaging in subsequent rule breaking (Morris, 2016; Steiner & Cain, 2016; see also Nagin et al., 2009 for a similar argument related to imprisonment).

In contrast to deterrence theory, labeling/deviance amplification perspectives theorize that inmates who experience punishments such as disciplinary segregation may have greater odds of future rule breaking (Lemert, 1951; Marx, 1981; Smith & Paternoster, 1990; Steiner & Cain, 2016; Wilkins, 1964). Inmates placed in disciplinary segregation are often labeled troublesome or problematic inmates (King, Steiner, & Breach, 2008; Riveland, 1999; Steiner & Cain, 2016). Inmates may identify with this label, be restricted from participation in rehabilitative programs, associate with other problematic inmates, and ultimately engage in subsequent rule breaking (secondary deviance). The official response to inmates who have served time in disciplinary segregation may also intensify, which would increase the likelihood that subsequent rule violations are detected (Lemert, 1951; Marx, 1981; Steiner & Cain, 2016; Wilkins, 1964). For these reasons, placement in disciplinary segregation could amplify inmates’ involvement in subsequent prison rule breaking.

Inmates may also experience long-term consequences resulting from the labeling or isolation endured during their time in disciplinary segregation (Haney, 2003; Haney, Weill, Bakhshay, & Lockett, 2016; Smith, 2006; Toch, 2001). Some researchers have found that prolonged isolation may result in increased anger, frustration, mental health problems, and an adaptive response to isolated conditions, each of which could amplify inmates’ odds of further rule breaking (Haney, 2003; Haney et al., 2016; Kupers, 2008; Smith, 2006). These effects might be more evident among inmates exposed to disciplinary segregation more frequently or for longer periods (Steiner & Cain, 2016).

Evidence Regarding the Use and Impact of Disciplinary Segregation

To date, very little research has examined the factors that affect prison officials’ decision making regarding the use of disciplinary segregation, or the behavioral consequences of exposure to disciplinary segregation. Considerably more research has been directed at the effects of exposure to long-term restrictive housing on inmates’ mental health; few studies have focused on the effects of short-term confinement in restrictive housing (e.g., disciplinary segregation) on inmates’ mental health. A brief review of the research pertaining to each of these areas is provided in the following two sections of this article, but it is important to note that the review is not exhaustive. Kapoor and Trestman (2016), Morgan et al. (2016), Smith (2006), and Steiner and Cain (2016) provide more comprehensive reviews of aspects of this literature.

The Use of Disciplinary Segregation

The limited research pertaining to prison officials’ use of disciplinary segregation prohibits drawing meaningful conclusions from this body of literature. Most researchers have focused on the effects of incident characteristics (e.g., type of violation) and inmates’ demographic characteristics (e.g., age, sex) on prison officials’ decision making regarding the use of disciplinary segregation. In general, the existing studies have revealed that prison officials are more likely to place inmates found guilty of more serious offenses (e.g., assault) or inmates with lengthier violation histories in segregation (e.g., Butler & Steiner, 2017; Cochran et al., forthcoming; Crouch, 1985; Flanagan, 1982; Lindquist, 1980; Schafer, 1986; but see Howard et al., 1994). Most researchers have also found that prison officials are more likely to place younger inmates in segregation than they are older inmates (Butler & Steiner, 2017; Cochran et al., forthcoming; Flanagan, 1982; Lindquist, 1980). Researchers have also found that officials impose segregation more frequently for violations committed by men compared those perpetrated by women (e.g., Butler & Steiner, 2017; Cochran et al., forthcoming; Lindquist, 1980; Stephan, 1989; but see McClellan, 1994). On the other hand, studies have generally found that blacks are no more likely than whites to be placed in segregation (Butler & Steiner, 2017; Cochran et al., forthcoming; Crouch, 1985; Flanagan, 1982; Howard et al., 1994; Lindquist, 1980; Stephan, 1989), but Cochran et al. (forthcoming) did find that prison officials used segregation more frequently for violations perpetrated by Hispanics than those committed by blacks.

It is important to note that there is considerable variability in the samples and analytical techniques used across studies of prison officials’ use of disciplinary segregation. Howard et al. (1994), for instance, examined cases processed in a federally operated prison, whereas Cochran et al. (forthcoming), Crouch (1985), Flanagan (1982), Lindquist (1980), McClellan (1994) examined cases processed in prisons located in one state. Butler and Steiner (2017) and Stephan (1989) assessed self-report survey data from national samples of inmates. Some analyses were descriptive or only involved the use of one control variable (e.g., Flanagan, 1982; Lindquist, 1980; McClellan, 1994; Stephan, 1989), whereas other studies employed multivariate analyses that included at least 10 other variables in their models (Butler & Steiner, 2017; Cochran et al., forthcoming; Crouch, 1985; Howard et al., 1994). Butler and Steiner (2017) also found that prison characteristics influence officials’ use of disciplinary segregation across prisons, while other studies have not examined between prison differences in segregation use. Cochran and his colleagues uncovered variation in the length of time prison officials placed inmates in disciplinary segregation, whereas most other studies have only focused on whether officials placed inmates in segregation.

The limited research devoted to understanding the factors that influence prison officials’ decisions regarding the use of segregation and the differences between the existing studies highlight the need for continued research on the topic. In particular, it is important to assess whether the uncertainty avoidance (Albonetti, 1987), causal attribution (Albonetti, 1991; Bridges & Steen, 1998), or focal concerns (Steffensmeier et al., 1998) perspectives discussed in the section of this article pertaining to theories of the use of segregation are relevant for explaining prison officials use of disciplinary segregation. Such research would not only shed light on the factors that influence prison officials’ decision making pertaining to segregation use but also inform whether officials are using segregation in a fair manner. Study findings could inform the development of strategies designed to curb disparate treatment of inmate groups that may result from prison officials’ decision making regarding the use of disciplinary segregation.

The Effects of Segregation on Inmate Behavior

Similar to the research pertaining to prison officials’ use of disciplinary segregation, there is not enough research on the behavioral effects of confinement in disciplinary segregation to form any meaningful conclusions. Researchers have also used different samples and different types of study designs across the existing studies, raising questions about the comparability of the results from these studies. For instance, Wolff, Morgan, and Shi (2013) examined the effect of days spent in disciplinary segregation on aggression among soon to be released (within 24 months) inmates confined in prisons in one state. After controlling for a number of potentially relevant covariates, they found that men who spent more days in segregation displayed increased aggression, but days spent in segregation were not related to aggression among women.

Labrecque (2015) used a pre- and post-design to assess the effect of confinement in disciplinary segregation and length of confinement in segregation on different types of rule violations (e.g., violent, drug) for a sample of Ohio inmates who had spent at least one year in prison and served time in disciplinary segregation. He observed that neither confinement in disciplinary segregation nor length of time spent in segregation-affected inmates’ subsequent rule breaking. Labrecque (2015) also found that the effects of disciplinary segregation and length of time spent in segregation were moderated by inmate mental health and gang involvement. In other words, inmates with mental health problems and gang- involved inmates who were placed in segregation or who spent more time in segregation were more likely to commit subsequent rule violations and committed a greater frequency of violations after they were placed in segregation. Morris (2016) examined the effect of confinement in disciplinary segregation in response to violent rule violations on subsequent violent rule breaking among Texas inmates who had served at least three years in prison. A comparison of inmates confined in disciplinary segregation to a matched sample of inmates not confined in segregation revealed that confinement in segregation had no effect on subsequent violent rule violations.

Scholars have also examined the effect of the level of disciplinary segregation use on rates of rule violations and/or violence across prisons (Huebner, 2003; Steiner, 2009; Wooldredge & Steiner, 2015). These studies have aimed to understand whether a greater use of disciplinary segregation in a prison generally deters inmate rule breaking. For the most part, findings from these studies have shown that disciplinary segregation use has no effect on rates of rule violations and violence.

Although the pattern of results from the studies pertaining to the effects of disciplinary segregation on inmate behavior indicates that segregation does not affect inmate rule breaking, there are too few studies to draw reliable inferences. More research is needed to determine whether exposure to disciplinary segregation deters, amplifies, or has no effect on inmate misbehavior. Researchers may also consider examining whether exposure to disciplinary segregation is linked to self-injurious behavior. Findings from several studies of the effect of long-term segregation have revealed such a relationship (e.g., Kaba et al., 2014; Lanes, 2009). Finally, in light of Labrecque’s (2015) findings, it also seems worthwhile to examine whether exposure to segregation affects some inmates (e.g., gang involved) differently than others.

The Effects of Segregation on Inmate Mental Health

The majority of the existing research concerning the potential relationship between confinement in restrictive housing and mental health problems stems from studies of inmates confined in long-term administrative segregation or supermax prisons. The evidence derived from this body of research is mixed (Frost & Montero, 2016; Kapoor & Trestman, 2016); some studies indicate that long-term confinement in restrictive housing stimulates (or worsens) mental health problems (Haney, 2003, 2008; Smith, 2006), while others do not find a relationship (Bonta & Gendreau, 1990; O’Keefe et al., 2013). Most studies of short-term confinement in restrictive housing, such as would be the case for disciplinary segregation, indicate that short-term confinement in restrictive housing does not have enduring effects on inmates’ mental health (Bonta & Gendreau, 1990; Frost & Montero, 2016).

Scholars have noted a number of methodological shortcomings with the body of research pertaining to the relationship between confinement in restrictive housing and inmate mental health problems. Some of the more notable limitations of many of the existing studies include the use of volunteers, failure to compare the mental health outcomes for inmates confined in segregation to the mental health outcomes for a control group or for a group of inmates with similar characteristics, and the use of cross-sectional research designs (Frost & Montero, 2016; Kapoor & Trestman, 2016; Smith, 2006). The limited amount of research pertaining to effects of confinement in disciplinary segregation on inmate mental health problems, the mixture of findings from the research pertaining to the relationship between long-term confinement in restrictive housing and mental health problems, and the methodical limitations of the existing research underscore the need for further research on the topic. Future researchers should be sure to address the methodological limitations of the existing studies.

The Importance of Studying the Use and Effects of Disciplinary Segregation

Institutional safety and order are high priorities for prison administrators, but inmate rule violations threaten the safety and order of an institution (DiIulio, 1987; Gendreau, Goggin, & Law, 1997; Steiner & Wooldredge, 2009; Steiner, Butler, & Ellison, 2014; Toch, Adams, & Grant, 1989). The imposition of disciplinary segregation is a common response to inmate rule violations that prison officials use to regulate inmate behavior and promote order and safety within their institutions (Browne et al., 2011; DiIulio, 1987; Mohr, 2014; Stephan, 1989). Disciplinary segregation functions as jail within a prison (Browne et al., 2011), and it is expected that placing inmates there will reduce their misbehavior (Mears, 2013; Steiner & Cain, 2016). Yet, it remains unclear whether the use of disciplinary segregation is achieving its intended effect. Other scholars have argued that exposure to disciplinary segregation might amplify inmates’ misbehavior via labeling or by stimulating inmate mental health problems that lead to problem behaviors (Haney, 2003; Haney et al., 2016; Smith, 2006; Steiner & Cain, 2017; Toch, 2001), though evidence regarding either of these assertions also remains elusive. Precise estimates of the number of inmates who spend time in disciplinary segregation during their imprisonment or a reliable body of research regarding the factors that influence prison officials’ decisions to place inmates in segregation are also unavailable.

The questions raised in this article are important for both research and practice. Disciplinary segregation is frequently used within most state and federal prisons (Browne et al., 2011; Mohr, 2014; Stephan, 1989), and its use is more costly than general population confinement (ACLU, 2015; Briggs et al., 2003; Butler et al., 2017; Metcalf et al., 2015; Shames et al., 2015). Civil rights advocates, the U.S. Congress, and former President Obama have also called for the equitable and effective use of restrictive housing in prisons (e.g., Amnesty International, 2014; Obama, 2015; U.S. Senate Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights, 2014). In light of these concerns, it is imperative to continue to study the use and impact of disciplinary segregation in prisons, so that a better understanding of how it is used and the consequences of exposure to disciplinary segregation can be translated to prison administrators and policymakers.

Further Reading

Baumgartel, S., Guilmette, C., Kalb, J., Li, D., Nuni, J., Porter, D., & Resnik, J. (2015). Time-in-cell: The ASCA-Liman 2014 national survey of administrative segregation in prison. Public Law Research Paper No. 552. Yale Law School 1(3).Find this resource:

Beck, A. J. (2015). Use of restrictive housing in U.S. prisons and jails, 2011–12. NCJ 249209. Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics.Find this resource:

Browne, A., Cambier, A., & Agha, S. (2011). Prisons within prisons: The use of segregation in the United States. Federal Sentencing Reporter, 24(1), 46–49.Find this resource:

Butler, H. D., & Steiner, B. (2017). Examining the use of disciplinary segregation within and across prisons. Justice Quarterly, 34(2), 248–271.Find this resource:

Ciszak, M. C. (1996). Sandin v. Conner: Locking out prisoners’ due process claims. Catholic University Law Review, 45(3), 1101–1145.Find this resource:

Flanagan, T. J. (1982). Discretion in the prison justice system: A study of sentencing in institutional disciplinary proceedings. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 19(2), 216–237.Find this resource:

Howard, C., Winfree, L. T., Mays, G. L., Stohr, M. K., & Clason, D. L. (1994). Processing inmate disciplinary infractions in a federal correctional institution: Legal and extralegal correlates of prison-based legal decisions. Prison Journal, 74(1), 5–31.Find this resource:

Kapoor, R., & Trestman, R. (2016). Mental health effects of restrictive housing. In National Institute of Justice (Ed.), Restrictive housing in the U.S.: Issues, challenges, and future directions (pp. 199–232). Washington, DC: National Institute of Justice, Office of Justice Programs.Find this resource:

Morris, R. G. (2016). Exploring the effect of exposure to short-term solitary confinement among violent prison inmates. Journal of Quantitative Criminology, 32(1), 1–22.Find this resource:

Smith, P. S. (2006). The effects of solitary confinement on prison inmates: A brief history and review of the literature. Crime and Justice, 34, 441–528.Find this resource:

Steiner, B., & Cain, C. M. (2016). The relationship between inmate misconduct, institutional violence, and administrative segregation. In National Institute of Justice (Ed.), Restrictive housing in the U.S.: Issues, challenges, and future directions (pp. 165–198). Washington, DC: National Institute of Justice, Office of Justice Programs.Find this resource:

Stephan, J. (1989). Prison rule violators. NCJ 120344. Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics.Find this resource:

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