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Liman Program Publishes Research on Policies Governing Isolation in State and Federal Prisons

The Arthur Liman Public Interest Program at Yale Law School recently published Administrative Segregation, Degrees of Isolation, and Incarceration: A National Overview of State and Federal Correctional Policies , a report on state and federal policies related to long-term isolation of prison inmates.

Working with the Association of State Correctional Administrators (ASCA), the Liman Program reviewed the written policies related to administrative segregation promulgated by correctional systems in the United States. With ASCA’s assistance, Liman students and faculty received policies from 46 states and the Federal Bureau of Prisons. The report – the first ever to survey policies across so many jurisdictions – provides a window into “administrative segregation,” – a decision made by prison officials that can result in isolation of inmates for periods ranging from thirty days to many years.

As the report details, prison administrators view the capacity to separate and segregate individuals as essential to protecting the safety of both inmates and staff. These practices, however, have generated controversy because of the indefinite terms of the separation and the varying degrees of social contact permitted. Much of the recent public discussion references “solitary confinement or “isolation” as the concern which has prompted hearings by the U.S. Senate to “reassess solitary confinement” and a report by the General Accountability Office on the U.S. Bureau of Prisons’ reliance on “separated housing.” Many correctional systems are currently reviewing their use of segregated confinement as they reconsider this form of control, its duration, and its effects.

As Judith Resnik, the Arthur Liman Professor of Law and a member of the group writing the report explained, the goal was to provide a window into the rules governing placement, the authority of decision-makers in prisons to put inmates into segregation, and the procedures for making and reviewing those judgments. From the formal policies, it was possible to gain some information about the degree of isolation, the possibility of visits, and the ways toward returning to general population and regular programming.

However, as Hope Metcalf, the Liman Program’s Director and another member of the team explained: “We were struck by the fact that, in general, correctional systems use broad criteria to place individuals in segregation. This means that the policies tell us relatively little about who is in segregation, for what reasons, or for how long. Given the diversity in procedures used to enter and to exit, much more research is needed to define the appropriate purposes and parameters of segregation.”

“Our hope is that the report, the collaboration leading up to its release, and our ongoing work with ASCA, encourage increased transparency and information-sharing among different correctional systems,” said Haran Tae ’14, one of the students who worked on the report. “Several correctional systems are taking concentrated steps to enhance procedural safeguards, utilize alternative approaches for mentally ill inmates, and introduce more rehabilitative programming; comparative analyses should assist correctional leaders to make more informed decisions when revising policies governing the use of isolation,” Tae said.