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Book Excerpt: The Isolation Debate

For the past several years, law enforcement has been under an intense scrutiny from the media and the public. This attention has resulted from such incidents as use of deadly force, staff misconduct, jail suicide and escapes from maximum security prisons. These incidents are the exception rather than the rule. The overwhelming majority of law enforcement and corrections personnel are professional, well trained and very conscientious of their missions of civic duty and keeping the public safe.

Also under scrutiny is the use in corrections of segregation-or what some call isolation or solitary confinement. There have been criticisms of policies that make possible the isolation of inmates in corrections facilities. There have been concerns raised on the mental and physical effects of segregation on inmates. In response, some agencies have modified their policies on the use of segregation. However, there are two undeniable facts: first, some inmates, due to their behavior need to be isolated for the safety of staff and inmates. Second, correctional officers must practice safety and common sense when maintaining custody of them as well as providing for their needs.

The following is an excerpt from the upcoming 2016 book: The Correctional Officer: A Practical Guide Third Edition, by Gary F. Cornelius, published by Carolina Academic Press. Reprinted with permission of Carolina Academic Press.

The Use of Solitary Confinement: The Current Debate

The public and the correctional field are debating the use of isolation or solitary confinement. In some facilities, this is called segregation; other experts call it penal isolation. In any case, the debate concerns the best way to use isolation to meet both the security needs of the staff and the needs of the inmates, specifically their physical and mental well-being. Placing an inmate into isolation, whether administrative or disciplinary, is a serious matter—and all correctional officers must be aware of the possible effects that this type of housing may have.

While a correctional officer may encounter some inmates who prefer to live alone, and may misbehave or violate institutional rules to be placed in isolation, some inmates will find isolation difficult to deal with. Social interaction with other inmates is greatly reduced, and there is little distraction (such as television or recreation) from the same four walls that surround an inmate twenty-four hours per day. In every institution, there are inmates who because of their behavior and actions run the risk of being locked away by themselves.

Solitary Confinement: Common sense Guidelines for Correctional Officers

The rank and file line correctional officer will not be in the decision-making process to place an inmate in segregation or isolation. But, the input of information from the officer in factual reports and observations will play a key role. Correctional officers should keep in mind the following when assuming a post that houses inmates in either administrative or disciplinary segregation:

- Review your paperwork, such as logs, that indicate when the inmate was seen by medical staff, mental health staff, and so forth. If details are lacking, notify your supervisor. Remember, if it was not written down, it did not happen. If an inmate refuses a shower or meal, write it down. Replace logs that are filled up, file them away, and transfer the main information to the new log.

- Know why an inmate is in isolation. Is the inmate assaultive, or seriously mentally ill? Is the inmate an escape risk? Is he or she suicidal?

- Use both physical and mental caution: if an inmate is possibly assaultive and is supposed to be escorted in restraints, remember your training. Cuff the hands through the food slot, preferably behind the inmate’s back. If restraints are to be applied, have ample correctional officers present as backup. If you must open the cell door, and the inmate is a manipulator and possibly may accuse you of unethical conduct (for example, an inmate of the opposite gender accuses you of voyeurism, sexual harassment, and so forth) have a supervisor or fellow correctional officer standing by as a witness as often as possible.

- Search the inmate’s cell regularly: The hard core, institutionalized inmate is ‘banking’ on correctional officers just performing cursory checks. He or she could be manufacturing a weapon or suicidal instrument.

- Be very inquisitive about who is in the area, mainly trustees. Trustees, or inmate workers, perform feeding and laundry duties. They have also been known to pass contraband and messages to and from an inmate who is isolated.

- Remember that you are part of a team: if you see behavior or an incident happens with a segregated inmate, this must be reported in writing to your supervisor and forwarded to classification, and medical and mental health staffs.

- Remember that isolation can have serious, often negative effects on an inmate, especially if the inmate is mentally ill. If you notice any of the effects described in this chapter, report them to medical and mental health staff through the report writing process.

- Interact with the inmate. Generally in correctional facilities, supervisors make rounds to isolation housing areas to speak to the inmates. Correctional officers working posts can also frequently interact with inmates in segregation.

Reference: Cornelius, Gary F. (2016) The Correctional Officer: A Practical Guide: Third Edition. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press.

Lt. Gary F. Cornelius retired in 2005 from the Fairfax County (VA) Office of the Sheriff, after serving over 27 years in the Fairfax County Adult Detention Center. His prior service in law enforcement included service in the United States Secret Service Uniformed Division. His jail career included assignments in confinement, work release, programs, planning/ policy and classification.