ASCA, Liman Program Release New Report on Restrictive Housing

A new report, jointly authored by the Association of State Correctional Administrators (ASCA) and the Arthur Liman Program at Yale Law School, reflects a profound change in the national discussion about the use of what correctional officials call “restrictive housing” and what is popularly known as “solitary confinement.” Just published, Aiming to Reduce Time-in-Cell provides the only current, comprehensive data on the use of restricted housing, in which individuals are held in their cells for 22 hours or more each day, and for 15 continuous days or more at a time. The report also documents efforts across the country to reduce the number of people in restricted housing and to reform the conditions in which isolated prisoners are held in order to improve safety for prisoners, staff, and communities at large.

The 2016 publication follows the 2015 ASCA-Liman report, Time-In-Cell, which documented the use of restricted housing as of the fall of 2014. As ASCA explained then, “prolonged isolation of individuals in jails and prisons is a grave problem in the United States.” Today, a national consensus has emerged focused on limiting the use of restricted housing, and many new initiatives, as detailed in the report, reflect efforts to make changes at both the state and federal levels.

The 2016 report is based on survey responses from 48 jurisdictions (the Federal Bureau of Prisons, 45 states, the District of Columbia, and the Virgin Islands)—that held about 96% of the nation’s prisoners convicted of a felony. That number excludes people held in most of the country’s jails (housing hundreds of thousands of people), in most of the country’s juvenile facilities, and in military and immigration facilities.

Tallying the responses, the new 2016 report found that 67,442 prisoners were held, in the fall of 2015, in prison cells for 22 hours or more for 15 continuous days or more. The percentages of prisoners in restricted housing in federal and state prisons ranged from under 1% to more than 28%. Across all the jurisdictions, the median percentage of the prison population held in restricted housing was 5.1%.

How long do prisoners remain in isolation? Forty-one jurisdictions provided information about the length of stay for a total of more than 54,000 people in restricted housing. Approximately 15,725 (29%) were in restricted housing for one to three months; at the other end of the spectrum, almost 6,000 people (11%) across 31 jurisdictions had been in restricted housing for three years or more.

The report also chronicles efforts throughout the country and the world to reduce the use of restricted housing. In August of 2016, the American Correctional Association (ACA) approved new standards, calling for a variety of limits on the use of isolation, including a prohibition against placing prisoners in restricted housing on the basis of their gender identity alone. The standards also included provisions that pregnant women, prisoners under the age of 18, and prisoners with serious mental illness ought not be placed for extended periods of time in restricted housing. Further, in some jurisdictions, prison systems (sometimes prompted by legislation and litigation) have instituted rules to prevent vulnerable populations from being housed in restricted housing except under exceptional circumstances and for as short an amount of time as possible.

As the report also details, several jurisdictions described making significant revisions to the criteria for entry, so as to limit the use of restrictive housing, as well as undertaking more frequent reviews to identify individuals to return to general population, thereby reducing the number of people in restricted housing by significant percentages.

In short, while restricted housing once was seen as central to prisoner management, by 2016 many prison directors and organizations such as ASCA and the ACA have defined restricted housing as a practice to use only when absolutely necessary and for only as long as absolutely required. The goals of ASCA and the ACA are to formulate and to apply policies to improve the safety of institutions and communities by ensuring that the separation of individuals to promote safety and well-being need not be accompanied by deprivation of all opportunities for social contact, education, programming, and other activities.

As Leann K. Bertsch, President of ASCA, explained:

“What we are seeing is that prison systems are motivated to reduce the use of isolation in prisons and are actively putting into place policies designed to reduce the use of restrictive housing.  Restricted housing places substantial stress on both the staff working in those settings as well as the prisoners housed in those units. Our highest priority is to operate institutions that are safe for staff and inmates and to keep communities to which prisoners will return safe.”

The full report is available here.