How administrative segregation can be used for rehabilitation

While often considered punitive, administrative segregation units can provide unique opportunities for treatment success


By Harold Goldstein and Dana Gabriel

Successful adaptation to prison life requires an inmate to become an expert at time management.

Prison life is regimented with set times for meals, counts and movements that provide structure to each day. Doing time requires routines and rituals that take the inmates from one point in the day to the next with minimal opportunity for dead space.

For individuals unaccustomed to thinking deeply about themselves and their lives, empty time leaves them alone with very discomforting thoughts and feelings. Whether inmates spend long hours watching television, listening to the radio, working at institutional jobs or immersing themselves in the drama of the housing unit, the underlying goal of each day is to make time pass quickly. If the central task of corrections is to find activities that allow inmates to escape the suffocating monotony and tedium of life in general population, then the challenge is that much greater in administrative segregation.

AdSeg units in prisons and jails are restrictive housing units typically comprised of one or two-man cells where rights and privileges are significantly curtailed with extended periods of inactivity. Inmates are typically placed in these units for weeks or months after breaking institutional rules.

There has been a recent effort to provide inmates with opportunities for rehabilitation in restrictive housing units by introducing educational, social, work, substance abuse and religious group programming. This is a positive development that allows inmates to utilize their time in AdSeg toward self-improvement, but still takes place in an environment where the primary mission is punitive.

These housing units are designed for maximum security status inmates and are intended to maintain separation between inmates. Custody staff is taught to prioritize strict adherence to heightened security procedures and any deviation from the routine is viewed as problematic. Inmates in AdSeg are also considered poor candidates for programming because they are viewed as a homogenous population of rule breakers who are not amenable to treatment.

An alternative perspective views AdSeg inmates as a population with significant variability in personality style, maturity level and interest in change. Prioritizing inmates for rehabilitation services based on their receptivity and motivation for change rather than their risk for recidivating or other considerations is considered an efficient approach to portioning out treatment resources. Once inmates are identified as possessing the desired characteristics for inclusion in an intensive treatment experience, AdSeg can present unique opportunities for rehabilitative programming that are not available in general population.

Restricted movement
There may be a benefit to offering programming in a unit where the inmates remain confined 24 hours a day, seven days a week, aside from visits with family, medical trips and court dates. Yard is considered part of the unit because the inmates remain in the company of other program members. The absence of mobility can be a strength of AdSeg programming because distractions are limited and it may instill a greater sense of community among inmates who attend groups with each and share the common goals of change.

Motivation for change
Most inmates in restricted housing find a rhythm to AdSeg life and ways of occupying themselves. They take advantage of the limited opportunities to interact with each other or get lost in the minutia of the day, but even the most successful adaptations leave many hours with nothing to distract from experiencing their internal worlds.

For some inmates this means deeper entrenchment in rigid attitudes and antisocial cognitive sets that explain and give meaning to their past and current behavior. However, for a portion of these inmates, an extended AdSeg sanction weakens their defenses and a sense of doubt and futility begins to seep into their consciousness. They fear that they will be unable to break the cycle of self-defeating behavior that has plagued them throughout their lives. In this desperate state, inmates recognize that they need the help of others if there is to be any improvement in their lives. From this perspective, those who experience AdSeg as a failure - as a continuation of self-destructive behavior patterns they are seemingly helpless to change - may be ripe for a program that encourages introspection.

Treatment milieu
If inmates are selected from AdSeg to join a program, it is often the first time they are chosen for something positive with no ulterior motives. Living in a unit with other like-minded individuals can provide a sense of positive belonging and acceptance.

Topics of conversation in the unit differ from typical prison banter. Discussions focus on insights learned in group, and it is also more acceptable to speak about wanting to change one’s behavior, friends, lifestyle and future.

All of these positive shifts from the normal prison culture encourage participants to focus less on maintaining and strengthening their defenses and promote an investment of energy in self-exploration. The objective is to create an environment where individuals feel safe enough to lower their guard and experiment with new ways of self-expression.

A stepwise model of rehabilitation for inmates advocates for programming based on a model of merit where the process of identifying and selecting appropriate inmates is of central importance. This concept is similarly true when selecting participants for an intensive AdSeg program. The goal of the selection process is to identify inmates who are adequately motivated, possess a certain degree of insight into themselves and are able to receive feedback. Such individuals can most efficiently be found through collaboration between custody and civilian staff.

More importantly, AdSeg programming is not just possible, but recommended. While the more prevalent view is still that AdSeg is overly punitive and even detrimental, AdSeg units do provide unique opportunities for treatment success. 


About the Authors
Harold Goldstein received his Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology at Fordham University. He has 29 years of experience as a mental health clinician in correctional institutions and is currently the clinician supervisor at a local correctional institution.

Dana Gabriel has a Psy.D. in Clinical Psychology from American School of Professional Psychology. She has eight years of correctional experience and is currently working as a clinician at a local correctional institution.

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