Podcast: How to Fix America’s Solitary Problem

An inmate is extracted from his segregation cell at the Maine state prison.

An inmate is extracted from his segregation cell at the Maine state prison.

April 22, 2014

Critics say it’s expensive, ineffective and even dangerous, but the U.S. puts more people in prolonged isolation than most other countries in the world. Now, some officials at the state and federal level are beginning to review the practice.

FRONTLINE brought together some of these officials for a conversation about the use of solitary confinement in the state and federal prison system today. We wanted to understand what’s happening on the ground, what works, what doesn’t, and what the future looks like for America’s prisons.

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Jim Austin

Jim Austin
President, JFA institute. Austin has advised several states on reforming their use of isolation, and consulted with FRONTLINE on the making of Solitary Nation.

Bob Hood

Bob Hood
Former warden, supermax federal prison in Florence, Colorado. Hood is currently a national security specialist.

Bernie Warner

Bernie Warner
Secretary, Washington state Department of Corrections. Under Warner, Washington has begun to reform its policies on isolation.


The U.S. is one of the few nations in the world that regularly locks up prisoners in solitary confinement. Corrections officials don’t call it solitary. Instead they talk about segregation or restricted housing or special housing units. These inmates are locked down for 22 or 23 hours a day with minimal human contact.

There’s roughly 80,000 people in cells like these across the country. The mentally ill and even juveniles sometimes end up in solitary. Most psychiatrists who study the issue agree that prolonged isolation can erode an inmate’s mental health or even make them more dangerous. At the same time, segregation hasn’t been shown to reduce prison violence. It’s more expensive. And nearly everyone who spends time in segregation is eventually released to the streets.

Now some prison officials across the country are trying a new approach. But there are no easy answers.

I’m Sarah Childress, a reporter for FRONTLINE. In order to understand what’s working and what isn’t in this new push for reform, I’ve invited three corrections experts to tell us about their real-world experience with solitary confinement. It’s part of our ongoing coverage of this issue, which includes a feature film Solitary Nation, that goes inside a solitary confinement ward in Maine. It airs on Tuesday, April 22 on PBS stations and will be available online at pbs.org/frontline.

FRONTLINE: So thanks again all of you for being here today. Bob, I want to start with you because you were the warden of the most secure federal prison in the nation for nearly three years. It’s also one that relies heavily on the use of segregation. So tell us what we mean when we talk about solitary confinement or isolation. What is it? How do people get there?

HOOD: Administrative segregation as the bureau uses it — it might be a little bit different in some of the states — that’s a form of separation from the general population, and it’s used when the continued presence of that inmate within the general population would pose a serious threat to the institutional security, the staff, the public, etc.

So the inmates housed there are normally there for protective custody, those who cannot go into the local populations. They might be holdovers. They might be there getting ready to be traveling to another institution, so you put them in an administrative type of a setting. And those awaiting hearings — you know, they might be technically not accused. Let’s say someone assaulted an officer. You might put them in the administrative detention section pending the outcome of a disciplinary hearing committee.

WARNER: I think that for reasons that Bob has talked about that we have sort of changed our discussion around this, because there’s so many different terms used by different states and different systems, and have simplified it to mean two things: one is, what are the inmates who are in restricted programs and what are those who are in general population. The kinds of strategies we wanted to have were targeted towards anybody who couldn’t really make it in the general population because they either felt like they could be a protected victim or that they presented a risk towards staff or other inmates.

FRONTLINE: So Bernie when you’re talking about this restrictive — what are the conditions for an inmate like that?

WARNER: Well they’ll vary, and I think that’s part of the challenge. I think what they have in common is that there’s sort of more clarity about how you get in to the restricted status and less clarity about how you get out. And sort of the focus of what happens in those programs might be different in the conditions, their access to programs.

I think there’s been a national interest by correctional administrators to, even if you’re in restricted programs, to better understand why people are there and sort of target those behaviors or target those risks so that they can ultimately transition back to general population of the prison, or in some cases they’ll be released directly back into the community.

FRONTLINE: So Jim, I want to bring you in here. I know you’ve worked with a lot of states in making changes. Why is this happening now? Why are so many states looking to make changes?

AUSTIN: Mostly it’s litigation. They are being sued — not all the states obviously, but the early reforms which occurred in Ohio, Mississippi, were brought up after litigation was brought forward.

And the issues in the litigation — I think Bernie kind of hit it on the head — there were due process issues in terms of the reasons why you could be admitted to a segregated housing status. And then even more troubling was how do you get out once you’ve been committed.

So the courts have kind of come in and said you have to have some kind of objective criteria that would justify placement in these — these are like jails within the jail or prisons within the prison.

And then there’s conditions of confinement — often there were deficiencies in mental health treatment, medical care, access to programs, visitations, phone calls — stuff like that.

And then the other key part was people were spending a lot of time and there was no clear means to the inmates to get out of that unit.

So what I see is that mostly it was litigation that brought it about and now a lot of states are doing things on their own to avoid the litigation.

FRONTLINE: And there’s also been some legislation as well, correct?

AUSTIN: Well the legislation is kind of coming in late. It’s coming in, but it’s kind of after the fact, after they’ve gotten some lawsuits filed. So I don’t think the legislation has been that significant. I would say far and away, to me, in my experience, has been the threat of a lawsuit or an actual lawsuit.

FRONTLINE: Bernie, in Washington state you haven’t had either, right? So what’s been the motivation there?

WARNER: Well, I’ve worked in states in which they’ve had considerable litigation and I just, I don’t think litigation necessarily can be the most constructive way to reform because I think people feel they’re required to do it rather than they believe it’s the right thing to do.

I think that Washington’s motivation is that even though this is 3 percent or — it varies in states, but 96, 97 percent of your population can function in sort of the general prison environment — those that can’t represent a serious risk to other inmates or to staff. And so that deep end of your system — small numbers — is really an important population to pay attention to.

And so our approach really was really to understand why are people in segregation. And the one-size-fits-all has generally been the approach in corrections. You present a risk and therefore you’re in a very restricted, confined environment.

But as we continue to peel back and try to understand why they’re in there, because that’s the only way you develop strategies for them to get out, we understood a large percentage of that population had mental health issues. A significant percent of that population were entrenched in gang activity. And then there are those who we call chronic recidivists, who just bounce in and out because they don’t have the skills or the ability to function in a prison environment, in a safe manner.

FRONTLINE: And this is for any of you. You’ve mentioned a lot of the different populations that end up in this kind of confinement — the mentally ill, people who are recidivists, people in gang activity, people who pose a risk to staff or other inmates. What are some of the solutions that the states are taking a look at?

HOOD: Well again, each system is a little different. For the 119 federal prisons, each have their seg units. Each have that ability to take people from the general population and secure them as needed.

But within the system we’ve created the supermax, it’s only the third federal supermax prison in history — Alcatraz, Marion and now the one in Colorado, in Florence.

So we’ve taken 219,000 inmates, the whole federal system and we decided to have our seg units in every one of those prisons, but also have the supermax, which is, no matter what you want to call it, to me, is one big seg unit. It’s one big lockdown.

As Jim and others have said, there are some people that it’s time-tested, not just their immediate offense, but their continued issues, and some are just high-visibility inmates. They’re terrorists, they’re spies, they’re people that have created major problems. And so the conditions even for them would not be about rehabilitation, would not be about, “Well how do we get this person back to work at the local Burger King?” It’s just not designed that way.

And some, beyond being in isolation — meaning in separate cells — some of the inmates are put under a restriction that the states couldn’t replicate — they’d probably go to federal prison if they replicated it. We have special administrative measures — we call them SAMs — and so when the attorney general orders the director of the Bureau of Prisons, who eventually orders the warden, like my past position, to take an inmate and say, “You will be in an isolated area. You will have no contact, verbal or visual contact, with any other inmate, you will get an newspaper, but it’s going to be a specific name of a newspaper, USA Today, and it’s going to be 30 days old when you get it” — those kinds of prescriptions are not what the public is used to hearing. They’re used to hearing about someone going to prison. If they get in trouble, they go to seg. They get that. But then there’s some other restrictions on top of the seg, if you will, that enhance it to such a degree that it does impact the inmate in so many ways.

FRONTLINE: Tell me more about the impact on the inmate, the conditions. You mentioned briefly the time in seg. How long do people spend there? What’s it like for the typical prisoner. Bernie, what do you think?

WARNER: There are a variety of reasons why people are placed in segregation, and I think what’s important to understand is that you look at those behaviors, and then you try to address them and figure out what do they have to accomplish to get out of a restricted environment, and put some responsibility on them. There’s certainly a punishment component, particularly for some serious behavior that involves assaulting staff or inmates, but I think it’s important to put some responsibility on recognizing that the more time they spend in a segregated environment, the more difficult it is to return them to general population.

FRONTLINE: And why is that?

WARNER: Why is that? Well because traditionally in segregation, you have minimal contact with other people. It is all in a very controlled environment. There’s no congregate activities at all. There’s no contact visits. It’s a very restricted environment.

And so in Washington for example, [which is] a smaller state, smaller system, but we had 50 people three years ago who were released right from segregation because they maxed out their time, who went to return to their community. And they had no supervision, and I just know that if one of those folks, one of those inmates, was my neighbor, I’d want the system to do something to be able to provide some intervention, some skills, so that they didn’t continue to pose that risk.

So I think what surprised me is a couple of things. We have found that even the toughest inmates are willing to participate in programming. We started out in our penitentiary, we took an old broom closet and converted it into a classroom, and we developed desks in which inmates could be restrained, because they were concerned. But we’ve been able to have gang members from different gang groups be in the same classroom dealing with the same kinds of programs without any kinds of assaults either against each other or staff.

So it’s the willingness, I think, of people to participate, and also the willingness of our staff, who have worked in seg for a long time, and who sort of defined what the culture needs to be, and the fact that they’ve had an open mind to doing things differently.

FRONTLINE: I wonder if you’d just elaborate quickly on the point you made about the concern about people coming out of segregation and going into the community. What’s the concern there?

WARNER: Well picture yourself in an environment where you have no contact other than in restraints, where you are taken to shower or your food is delivered in your cell. You are there in some cases at least 20 hours a day, in some systems up to 23 hours a day.

Picture yourself in that environment — really almost sensory deprivation — for months. And then you get a bus pass, you walk out the front gate of the prison and go into the community.

In some cases, you may even have been incarcerated for two decades, and things we take for granted like smartphones and computers and even mass transit is so unfamiliar. And I think that that is not a good situation.

HOOD: I think one of the catalysts for this whole discussion occurred a year ago March, when Tom Clements, the director of the Colorado Department of Corrections was killed by an inmate that was released directly from solitary confinement. And to be honest, for 36 years I’ve been going to prison conferences — I’ll be going next week to Memphis for the national warden’s conference — and I can tell you, I’ve never heard more discussion from wardens until recently about the mental illness, the impact of solitary confinement, the new classification systems.

And I guess to my surprise, it seems more reactive than proactive, that until the unfortunate death of a prison director, I now see at the federal level, they spent $498,000 to come up with a special housing review and assessment that they’re in the process of doing. They’re studying that.

So some of it’s reactive, simply saying, a state director dies from a guy directly released from seg. And so I think all 50 states are looking at that and saying, “What are we doing right and wrong?” If you asked them a year ago, how many guys do you have in restrictive housing throughout the entire federal system, they would’ve said 13,500. If you asked them today, they’d say around 9,000.

The cost of long-term incarceration, just the pure economic cost, but also the psychological cost and the impact of people getting right out of seg and going to the public is something that we’re finally looking in the mirror and saying, guess what? All 50 states and the federal government can do better.

FRONTLINE: Jim I want to bring you in here because one of the things that sometimes people talk about — and I think you’ve mentioned — is that there’s a real difference between isolation that Bernie was mentioning can be detrimental to inmates, and separation. Can you talk a little bit about that and the kind of solutions that you might use for the inmates who are particularly concerning?

AUSTIN: Just to give you some specifics, I did work in Colorado with Tom Clements. Forty percent of the segregation inmates were being released right to the streets. It happens very frequently, more so than we think. So that’s an issue. I just want to put that specific out there.

On the conditions, a lot of these segregation inmates are double-celled now, which is interesting. When I started out in corrections way back, segregation was almost always a single cell, and the duration was very short. When I sat on the disciplinary committee, the most you’d give someone was 15, maybe 20 days. You go to Illinois today and they hand out segregation terms of hundreds, thousands of days.

So that whole length of time is really ratcheted up quite a bit, and it just starts snowballing in that the inmates just can’t get out. Their conditions start deteriorating, the corrections officials will say they should get out at least one hour a day. That “at least” never happens. It’s always maybe one hour a day, and then if the inmate stops coming out, they don’t come out at all.

FRONTLINE: And what happens?

AUSTIN: What happens? Well, this is where litigation starts happening. They just start decompensating. It gets pretty ugly. Smearing feces, cutting on themselves, becoming, literally crazy. The longer they stay in there, and you really — these are not easy cases, though. These are not virgins in the prison system. They have done something pretty significant, usually, to get there.

So I think special leadership, special staff, special commitment to work in these units and maintain a constitutional level of care — and recognizing that what you’re actually trying to do is to protect everyone that’s involved in the prison system.

FRONTLINE: What about the role of the prison staff? These kinds of conditions — what kind of impact does that have on the staff and the people who are administering it?

WARNER: I think, obviously, staff are key for any kind of reform or change in an environment. But staff, they need tools to be able to do it. So we provide a lot of training to our staff, engage them in the decision-making.

As Jim mentioned earlier, there’s always going to be a need to provide some enhanced security around some inmates who pose a threat or a risk. I think part of our responsibility is to better understand why they’re presenting that risk, and develop some strategies to change that, rather than just saying you know what, if we put you in segregation for a few months or a few years, all of a sudden you’re going to change because you’re isolated from the rest of the prison population.

So I think if staff feel that they have some tools, if they have some say, if it’s not driven as a court expectation or a law, they believe it allows them to operate in a safer environment and they can see some change in the population, then what I would say, our reforms are really staff driven.

AUSTIN: I was going to ask Bernie and Bob, the question I always have. Should we be trying to turn over staff at some point? Granted, they need the training, but I also worry about staff that spend too much time, too many years, working in those units. And I’m not sure what your reactions are to that, but it’s something that I see. You kind of get numb to the situation and it’s hard work, and it can take a toll on the staff.

WARNER: If it’s a stagnant environment and you’re constantly, frankly, at war with conditions, that are very difficult to face and an extreme, negative side of segregation environment, then, I agree that’s not healthy for our staff. I think if they can engage in a way to change that environment and see that as really influencing it, then we actually find our staff is pretty motivated.

AUSTIN: The other issue I would like to add is the architecture of these places. I would say the gold standard is the ADX in Florence. The bureau was lucky enough to get a lot of money to build a state-of-the-art high-security unit. A lot of states don’t have that. They are trying to operate this in what was standard cell block design. And that also makes it more dangerous and unhealthy all the way around in terms of just basic things, like ventilation, sight, sound, access to recreation yards.

WARNER: One of the things that isn’t talked about much in this discussion is, we think about it after the fact when someone’s placed in a restricted environment or segregation, and how do we manage it. We don’t think much about a deterrence model that focuses on your population in high-security areas to keep people from going into segregation.

Part of our strategy is more than just once they’re in, managing it is to look at, whether it’s gang entrenchment or mental health issues, that allow for more structure and stability in the general population, and keep people from going in and out of segregation. So one of the strategies we’re testing, for example, is one that’s been used in the community in the last couple decades, called CeaseFire. It was used in Boston as a deterrent around gang behavior. So we’ve worked with David Kennedy from John Jay College, and looking at that for gang behavior in our high-security areas.

HOOD: I think that culture, in changing the overall culture of a facility is so critical. I agree with Bernie because in the BOP [Bureau of Prisons] every three years, the wardens are transferring to a new facility. When you size up some of the obstacles, what are some of the issues, at least for me, it was instead of going into the seg unit and trying to decide, well, how can we stop this person from committing suicide, or enjoy getting up in the morning, even though they have 30 more days or 100 more days in segregation.

It’s what you’re doing outside of seg that makes a difference as Bernie is saying. So to take those classes and to say not only we want you to, but you will take Alternatives to Violence. You will take some kind of cognitive restructuring, thinking a little differently about crime. And sometimes the inmate might not want to do that, but most inmates we’ll say: “Well, you do have a visit, you do have two children coming to visit you every Saturday. How’d you like to increase the time there. How’d you like to do this or that?” As a warden, I would take the biggest, toughest, inmate on the yard, and when I realized they have some humanity left, they truly do have some reason to live, and they have something positive going for them, — I tell you what, we can increase, we can work with you on that visiting day to see your kids if you go through my Alternatives to Violence or parenting programs.

FRONTLINE: Jim, tell me more about the specific steps that the states you’ve worked with are taking to make some changes.

AUSTIN: It’s pretty straightforward. What we do is, we go in and reach some consensus quickly with the department of corrections officials on who should be there, what the criteria is for admissions. So we immediately apply that criteria, and lo and behold, what we usually find is that there’s a significant number of people that they say, well, maybe we shouldn’t have put in there. That’s happened because of a decentralization of the admissions process. So we have to tighten up the control of who can go in there.

The second part, which we haven’t talked about too much, is determining how long they should stay. We’ve done a lot of research now in several states and the one finding that is clear is that if you look at what’s called recidivism, which is people who leave segregation units and then come back, it doesn’t seem to matter how long they spend in the unit. So if they did six months, 12 months, 24 months, you get about the same results. It’s much like prison incarceration. Length of stay does not seem to have much of an impact, if any, on recidivism.

So that gives us an opportunity to start identifying people from a risk point of view that have a good probability of not going back to the seg unit, we can get them out sooner. So the length of stay in these units is a fact.

And then we look at the severely mentally ill, make sure they’re put in a mental health unit. Protective custody inmates, we try to get them removed.

The other big picture thing though, I feel like I have to say is, if you look at this thing historically, these segregation populations began to rise as the prison population began to dramatically expand. And in some ways in some states, and I was in one of them, Illinois, they created these units in a frantic attempt to try and maintain control of a rapidly expanding prison population that required hiring lots of staff, new facilities and creating pretty unstable situations.

In both Ohio and Mississippi and Colorado, one of the things we also worked on was lowering the prison population in general, because a lot of the stuff that you see going on with people who go to segregation is predatory behavior. And if you’re not controlling your yard, your prison yard, your prison population, those predators are going to try to manipulate and take advantage, and that tends to get people scared. They want to be locked up [in segregation for protection]. You have fights occurring, stabbings are occurring. Because control is going to happen one way or another. It’s either going to be done by the staff, or it’s going to be done by the inmates. One way out of this is to start lowering the prison population in general.

FRONTLINE: Do gangs complicate the picture? I know this is something that California in particular is struggling with right now. They’ve got an entrenched gang problem and they talk about needing some sort of segregation to maintain control. Is there an exception to be made for gangs?

AUSTIN: A lot of this is gang-related. Bob and Bernie can speak to that in their states. But a lot of the disruptions that are occurring in the general population are tied to gangs trying to get the upper hand on controlling the prison economy and other aspects of prison life. So yeah, absolutely, it’s very important.

FRONTLINE: Bernie, is that an issue for you in Washington as well?

WARNER: Well it is, and to tie in the point earlier around addressing that in your facilities: In some states, their practice is that every validated gang member is placed in segregation. And if you do that, just because in Washington state like most states around the country, we have had a 300 percent increase in gang members over the last two decades or so. So you will continue to build systems then that tend to segregate your population unless you’re willing to look at strategies of managing the gang behavior and your complete system, not just using segregation as a tool to manage that. That’s what we’ve tried to do, and we reserve segregating gangs in high-security areas only for the highest-risk population, and the rest are integrated in our prison populations.

FRONTLINE: How is that working for you, with the approach you’re trying now?

WARNER: We’ve been doing it for about 18 months. Staff assaults are down, violence is reduced. I’m reluctant to say anything’s a success, because you need to continue to work on it.

But I think you need to have incentives for positive behavior. I think you need to give people opportunities to move away from the gang entrenchment in institutions. We bring in what’s called A Moral Voice, where we bring in leaders from the community and meet with gang members. So it really is a broader strategy of recognizing that we’re probably not going to change a person’s gang affiliation, but we can set clear expectations about behavior that’s acceptable in prison.

FRONTLINE: I also want to talk about the future, and I’d love to get the perspective from all of you on this. As one of you mentioned, the U.S. really only started to use segregation maybe 30, 40 years ago. Where do you see the U.S prison system moving in the next 10 or 20 years on the use of segregation? What do you think it’s going to look like? What are we going to be doing?

WARNER: I think the point earlier that unfortunately, the horrific tragedy, the loss of my colleague Tom Clements, certainly brought this to the spotlight. But I think many states really having been working at strategies, recognizing, as Jim said earlier, that there were a variety of reasons why seg populations exploded. The way we change things in corrections is to institutionalize the practice and develop policies and procedures that allow for that reform, and I think that’s what we’re working toward, and we’ve set those up.

Hopefully, it’s not something that’s just a spotlight around a tragedy that lasts for a year or two, but is continued improvement in having responsible, humane prison systems in the future.

FRONTLINE: Bob, what do you think?

HOOD: I see a push for, beyond more accountability, a push for more missioned housing, where the staff that are in that geographic part of the country or assigned to that specific institution is trained to work specifically with that mission. I think most of our staff are really down on understanding the labels for gangs. They know how to intervene, they know how to do certain programs.

But I think the mental illness issue, where we, meaning the prison systems, have become the mental institution of the day. We are not trained for that. We truly are not trained, so what happens is we try to run a quiet yard. We try to work with the inmates, and they try to work with us for the most part. But the easy clean up, if you will, to keep a quiet yard is to put someone who maybe just isn’t getting it, doesn’t understand the order, doesn’t understand the command, and is placed in seg based on their disability, based on their lack of wiring that most of us are fortunate enough to have.

When you look at it that way, our future prisons have to be looking at this missioned housing so we’re realizing that this facility has more mental-health issues than a facility that’s designed for a re-entry center with two years of sentencing.

FRONTLINE: Jim, any thoughts for the future?

AUSTIN: I think they will start declining, the size of [the segregation populations] will start declining. I think we’re going to see more specialized compartments of this population. I think you’ll see dedicated protective custody units, units that are almost like mental-health units and run by a psychiatrist, with security provided. I think, I hope, that we will see periods of shorter times in these units that will start emerging.

There’ll probably be a wave here of litigation. I know several states are in the pipeline to be sued, and are going to be sued. And I think that’s not bad for right now. I think a lot of good things do come out of litigation. But after the dust settles, hopefully we’ll have much safer, and humane, and smaller segregation units.

WARNER: The impact of these reforms is that they’re not cheap. And there’s a cost associated with a lot of mental health staff, additional medical staff, additional training and programming. And it’s not that it’s not the right thing to do, but it’s not just easy for someone to say, “OK, let’s come up with a lot of additional resources to invest in a small segment of our institutions.”

I think it is important to prioritize it because it does have significant safety implications, but I also understand the pain that some systems have to be able to afford to do it.

FRONTLINE: It will be very interesting to see what happens, certainly with this new momentum. Well, I think that’s all we have time for today. I want to thank all three of your for taking the time to join us today. I really appreciate it.

And for our listeners, you can visit pbs.org/frontline for ongoing coverage of this issue and to see our upcoming films on incarceration in America: Solitary Nation, airing April 22 and Prison State on April 29.

For FRONTLINE, I’m Sarah Childress.

Sarah Childress

Sarah Childress, Former Series Senior Editor, FRONTLINE

Michelle Mizner

Michelle Mizner, Series Producer & Editor, FRONTLINE



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