Segregation: A necessary evil

Though research is still needed on the topic of segregation, meeting present needs takes precedence

By William Daly, C1 Contributor
Article published courtesy of American Jails, American Jail Association, or

In recent years, due to the extensive construction and use of maximum security facilities, the topics of solitary confinement and segregation, both long- and short-term, have been brought front and center not only by those in the field of corrections but increasingly among professions such as behavioral health, academic scholars, and researchers.  Such confinement has been described as a “necessary evil” of correctional administrators. Current research by academics and researchers may be a bit austere and premature to argue against the use of such confinement.
What is “super max”?

“Over the last two decades, super-maximum custody (or “super max”) prisons have become increasingly common throughout the American correctional landscape.”1 By many standards, the United States has become the Mecca of maximum security prisons, with approximately sixty such classified facilities. It is important to note that such solitary confinement is not unusual and has been around since the early years of prisons. The practice’s roots date back to the first forms of American incarceration, Eastern State Penitentiary in Pennsylvania being one of the first.2

It’s evident that there is no accurate representation of what occurs behind the walls of our nation’s jails and prisons. Most public perceptions of super max prisons, jails, and local lockups are illustrated on television and in movies. Nearly all of these secure facilities are run by the individual states in the union.

An appropriate definition of those in need of super max, segregation, and/or isolation today are those who are recalcitrant: those who require a single, high-security facility to create greater levels of order throughout the systems in which they are housed.3 It can be further defined as a free-standing facility, or a distinct unit within a facility, that provides control of  inmates who are designated as violent and disruptive, a threat to safety and security, and/or  whose behavior needs to be controlled by separation, restricted movement, and limited access to staff and inmates.4

Some additional requirements may also include twenty-three-hour lockdown, single-cell housing, no contact, in-cell feeding, tight and restricted movement, limited or no opportunities for educational or vocational training, and constant video surveillance. These requirements may also apply to individual facility punitive segregation units within a facility, not necessarily classified as super max, but which operate under the same premise. These are typically referred to as the SHU (special housing unit), SMU (special management unit) and other comparable names often found at many facilities in this country.

Segregation and isolation have been around for years; the extended use is just the next evolution of adjudicating punishment for those deviants who cannot and/or will not comply with prison regulations, the “end of the line” for the “worst of the worst”.5

For those not in the field of corrections, the bleak and disturbing images described above may pale in comparison to the research of academic scholars and behavioral health professionals who go much deeper into effects that segregated isolation  may have on inmates, specifically from the psychological vantage point. Although the staunchest opponents of jails and prisons generally would not object to the main theory of controlling those in custody, what does appear to differentiate practitioners and those “outside looking in” is the methods correctional administrators employ to determine who should or should not be classified in such segregation/isolation units. Questions have been raised about retribution, rehabilitation, incapacitation, and deterrence having lost their effectiveness and may instead create inadvertent consequences.

Why it’s used

Correctional administrators manage such facilities and methods of confinement to address their immediate management obligations of institution security and that which hampers the systematic operations of their respective facilities. They are living in the immediate present, using their knowledge, skills, and abilities to navigate not only their own worlds but responding to political calls for action by those external to their venue.

The use and necessity of such methods of confinement may be considered subjective to each individual jurisdiction and institution.  However, those looking in from the outside are arguably concerned with the effectiveness, costs, and unintended consequences of these conditions.

In the last several years, concerns regarding isolation tactics have been raised by correctional professionals. One of the unintended consequences regarding segregation and long- and short-term isolation can lead to social withdrawal. Long-term stays in isolation have the potential for ominous destructive precipitation of various forms of psychopathology.6 These conditions often result in exacerbated feelings of rage and resentment, which then exacerbates the already tough situation faced by corrections personnel.

However, a more recent study by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) examined the psychological effects of solitary confinement in corrections and showed that the mental health of most inmates in isolation did not decline during the course of the year, contrary to the findings of previous reports and studies.7

So what is the correctional administrator to do? How do they resolve the dilemma of controlling violent, unruly, and disruptive inmates in the best interest of the facility? Research often outlines deficiencies but falls short in identifying solutions, which is what’s needed by correctional administrators.

Working together

Jails and prisons are the custodial part of the judicial system, relatively limited in resources and yet burdened with the responsibility of controlling a commonly violent environment inhabited with society’s deviants. They are expected to resolve the social ills of those who come through its doors. Society and the judicial system cannot be dependent upon jails and prisons to be “de facto” mental hospitals, education systems, and social service departments for those criminal and deviant.

Yet administrators are confronted with such challenges both internally and externally each and every day.

There is remarkably little research that exists for how system-wide order and segregation/isolation is related or codependent upon each other.8 Those who have only devoted a “minute of time” inside our nation’s jails, using very small samples of inmates, not only contest but ridicule the work done by correctional administrators instead of working with them. This is important since critics often disbelieve and/or question the validity of practitioner claims.

The often whimsical and broad descriptions of the use of these segregation units and facilities fails to resolve what could contain legitimate cooperation and concerns on both sides. But let us not dismiss the correctional administrator’s necessity for flexibility and autonomy to expeditiously and instantaneously manage an explosive backdrop. 

Administrators need to be proactive in controlling situations, rather than waiting to respond after lives are in danger. This may include segregation and isolation methods. The use of the dispersion model, which dictates inmates being dispersed across several locations within a department, is a preferred method used by correctional facilities to control problem inmates. Others may use single locations within a building to isolate those who are disruptive.

As a whole, segregation is used to isolate those that have been deemed disruptive and behavior which is egregious. Is there misuse? Surely. But for opponents to cherry pick a few instances and broadly paint the use of segregation units in negative light is not wise either.

The authority of classification, discipline, and due process is that of correctional administrators.  Work undoubtedly needs to be done for a more consistent use of segregation and isolation, but for some to suggest that it is based upon “flimsy” evidence, weak justifications, and lack of due process is a flawed argument.

This does not imply there should be a discounting of scholarly or professional behavioral research. But there may be some disconnect between research and practical theory, as there is with all professions and academia. What needs to be understood is correctional administrators are faced with an ever-growing population of violent deviants, mentally ill, and various other social issues that are transported from society’s communities to inside the walls of jails, prisons and local lockups.

Increasing pressure to manage budgets and reduce fiscal spending, all while maintaining a safe and secure environment for staff and inmates alike, should not be a vindication, but is reality.  Because super max and segregation facilities are by nature restrictive, there is no doubt they will be subject to scrutiny, challenges, and lawsuits by external groups and organizations as well as inmates.

There is a need to encourage research and collaboration between those in the field of corrections and those outside to ensure the decision-making process is sound, applicable, lawful, and does not cause further damage or result in the corrections profession moving backward. Practitioners require relevant research and should be open to new theories, while researchers need to be open to solving relevant and practical issues that are easily accessible and understandable to correctional administrators.

The ability to precipitously manage a disruptive, volatile, and violent environment is not executed flippantly and cannot be controlled by those who do not walk in the shoes of the men and women in this profession. The jail and/or prison setting will never be a picturesque place and those of us in this field will persevere, scrutinize, and observe ways to perfect upon our current state of operations. 

It is clear, a difference in opinion is present on the use of super max, segregation, and isolation facilities; however, since little research is available and daily operational needs are ever present, the utilization of such facilities will be the “necessary evil” until more studies and alternatives can be flushed out.

1. Daniel P. Mears and Michael D. Reisig  The theory and practice of supermax prisons
Punishment & Society  January 2006  8: 33-57, doi:10.1177/1462474506059139
2. Daniel P. Mears and Michael D. Reisig  The theory and practice of supermax prisons
Punishment & Society  January 2006  8: 33-57, doi:10.1177/1462474506059139
3. Daniel P. Mears and Michael D. Reisig  The theory and practice of supermax prisons
Punishment & Society  January 2006  8: 33-57, doi:10.1177/1462474506059139
4. Henningsen, R. J. (1999).  Corrections Management Quarterly  Volume:3  Issue:2  Dated: Spring 1999  Pages:53 to 59.
5. Daniel P. Mears and Michael D. Reisig  The theory and practice of supermax prisons
Punishment & Society  January 2006  8: 33-57, doi:10.1177/1462474506059139
6. Haney, C. (2011). Infamous Punishment: The psychological Consequences of Isolation,  Latessa, Edward and Holsinger, Alexander  Correctional Contexts: Contemporary and Classical Readings.
7. Phillip Bulman, Corrections Today magazine, American Correctional Association, June/July 2012  p58.
8. Daniel P. Mears and Michael D. Reisig  The theory and practice of supermax prisons
Punishment & Society  January 2006  8: 33-57, doi:10.1177/1462474506059139

William Daly, is a veteran in the corrections field, in his 26th year.  Daly is a retired Captain from the New York City Department of Corrections and is currently the Director of the Salt River Department of Corrections in Scottsdale, Arizona.  He is a Certified Corrections Executive (CCE) and Certified Jail Manager (CJM) through the American Correctional Association and American Jail Association respectively, as well as, a Certified Public Manager (CPM).  He can be contacted at

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