Prison System Versus Critics’ Views on the Use of Restrictive Housing: Objective Risk Classification or Ascriptive Assignment?

Published date01 March 2019
Date01 March 2019
Subject MatterArticles
/tmp/tmp-17TwhqhLIQZWPR/input 825492TPJXXX10.1177/0032885519825492The Prison JournalLabrecque and Mears
The Prison Journal
2019, Vol. 99(2) 194 –218
Prison System Versus
© 2019 SAGE Publications
Article reuse guidelines:
Critics’ Views on the
DOI: 10.1177/0032885519825492
Use of Restrictive
Housing: Objective
Risk Classification or
Ascriptive Assignment?
Ryan M. Labrecque1 and Daniel P. Mears2
Despite the widespread use of restrictive housing in correctional institutions,
little is known about the factors associated with placement in this setting.
This study advances two theoretical arguments about the use of this practice.
The prison system view argues this housing is essential for institutional order
and that, accordingly, only inmates who pose an objective risk to safety get
placed in such housing. By contrast, the critics’ view argues this housing
causes adverse effects and disproportionately targets certain inmates based
on their ascriptive characteristics, such as their mental health status or race.
The results indicate support for both perspectives.
restrictive housing, solitary confinement, administrative segregation
Restrictive housing—what scholars sometimes refer to as solitary confine-
ment, administrative segregation, or supermax incarceration—involves the
1University of Central Florida, Orlando, USA
2Florida State University, Tallahassee, USA
Corresponding Author:
Ryan M. Labrecque, Department of Criminal Justice, University of Central Florida, 12805
Pegasus Drive, Orlando, FL 32816, USA.

Labrecque and Mears
isolation of an inmate in a setting that provides little to no opportunity for
meaningful contact with staff or other inmates (Frost & Monteiro, 2016;
Mears, 2016; Pizarro, Zgoba, & Haugebrook, 2014). Inmates in restrictive
housing, regardless of what these settings are called or why prison officials
place inmates in them, typically are confined to a single cell for 22 to 24 hr
per day and are further subjected to increased cell restrictions and heightened
security procedures (Browne, Cambier, & Agha, 2011; Metcalf et al., 2013).
Although these inmates may be granted limited access to education, voca-
tion, visitation, recreation, and other services available to the general prison
population (Gendreau & Labrecque, 2018), failure to comply with institu-
tional rules can and does reduce or eliminate such access (Kurki & Morris,
2001; Shalev, 2009).
Prison officials often describe restrictive housing as a mechanism for
ensuring greater institutional safety and control. Scholars highlight how pro-
ponents of the housing theorize that solitary confinement provides a deterrent
and incapacitation effect (King, 1999; Mears & Reisig, 2006; Pizarro,
Stenius, & Pratt, 2006). From this perspective, only inmates who pose an
objective risk to institutional safety or security should be and are placed in
restrictive settings; from this perspective, too, stays in restrictive housing
should be relatively short, with lengthy stays constituting the exception, not
the rule. By contrast, critics argue that such housing increases strain, isolates
individuals from social networks that might promote prosocial behavior, and
provides few, if any, opportunities for rehabilitation (Kurki & Morris, 2001;
Riveland, 1999; Shalev, 2009; Toch, 2003). In addition, they contend that
prison officials disproportionately use restrictive housing for certain types or
groups of inmates, such as the mentally ill and minorities, and place inmates
in this housing for excessively lengthy periods of time (DeRoche, 2014;
Haney, 2012b; Taub, 2000). Which view accords with actual use remains
uncertain. As recent reviews highlight (Frost & Monteiro, 2016; Mears, 2013,
2016; Smith, 2006), little is known about the characteristics of inmates sent
to restrictive housing at all much less for different periods of time (see, for
example, Butler & Steiner, 2016; Mears & Bales, 2010; O’Keefe, 2008).
This study seeks to address this gap in knowledge and, more generally, to
contribute to scholarship aimed at understanding better ways in which prison
systems impose what arguably constitutes the most extreme form of punish-
ment available in corrections. More specifically, it tests what we term the
prison system theory versus the critics’ view about the use of restrictive hous-
ing. We do so not by examining whether the housing deters violent behavior
(see Butler, Steiner, Makarios, & Travis, 2017; Labrecque, 2015; Lovell,
Johnson, & Cain, 2007; Mears & Bales, 2009; Morris, 2016). Rather, we
examine how prison officials use it in practice. Our focus centers on the

The Prison Journal 99(2)
extent to which objective risk factors, as the prison system perspective antici-
pates, or ascriptive characteristics of inmates, as the critics’ perspective antic-
ipates, or both, are associated with placement of inmates in restrictive housing
for varying durations.
Restrictive Housing: The Debate
Prison administrators are responsible for ensuring institutional safety and
order (DiIulio, 1987; Reisig, 1998; Useem & Reisig, 1999). During the 1970s
and 1980s, prisons across the United States experienced an increase in distur-
bances and riots (see Colvin, 1992; Useem & Kimball, 1991). One of the
ways policy makers and prison officials sought to regain control of these
institutions and to prevent further violence from occurring was to expand the
use of restrictive housing (King, 2005; Riveland, 1999).
Restrictive housing represents a containment approach to offender man-
agement, whereby prison officials separate those inmates they deem to be the
“worst of the worst” from the general population for up to 24 hr a day in
isolation, and provide them with few, if any, services or privileges, including
visitation, and, by design, opportunities to harm others (King, 1999; Shalev,
2009). Estimates indicate that jail and prison systems in the United States
house approximately 64,000 inmates in restrictive housing on any given day
and that, over the course of a year, more than 320,000 inmates experience a
stay in solitary confinement (Beck, 2015; see also Liman Program and
Association of State Correctional Administrators, 2015).
Proponents contend that restrictive housing is responsible for improving
safety and security throughout the prison system (Angelone, 1999; Gavora,
1996; Stubblefield, 2002). According to scholars, this view anticipates that
reducing privileges and increasing restrictions will lead inmates to refrain
from disruptive behaviors out of fear of being placed in such an unpleasant
environment (Mears, 2016; Pizarro & Stenius, 2004; Riveland, 1999). The
housing, too, may provide incapacitation benefits for the duration of time that
inmates spend in it.
By contrast, critics argue that restrictive housing contributes to the pains
of imprisonment, which inadvertently increases, rather than decreases, anti-
social behavior (Haney, 2012a). From this perspective, the harsh conditions
and idleness induced by solitary confinement increase one’s propensity
toward criminal behavior upon release (Gordon, 2014; Hartman, 2008;
Lippke, 2004; McShane, 1989; Toch, 1982; Toch & Kupers, 2007; Ward &
Werlich, 2003). Critics also challenge the use of restrictive housing on moral,

Labrecque and Mears
ethical, legal, and financial grounds. Concerns about the housing are evident
in media accounts (Gawande, 2009; Guenther, 2012; Keim, 2013) and cri-
tiques from human rights groups (Fellner, 2000; Fellner & Mariner, 1997)
and scholars (Haney, 2009; Kupers, 2008; Lovell, 2008; Toch, 2003). A
national survey of prison wardens highlights that critiques of restrictive hous-
ing exist within the correctional system as well (Mears & Castro, 2006; see,
generally, Bruton, 2004; Goode, 2012).
The Use of Restrictive Housing
Despite the ongoing and frequently contentious debate about restrictive hous-
ing, there remain few empirical studies that systematically examine its use.
Indeed, a common theme underlying reviews of this literature is a call for
more rigorous empirical analysis of restrictive housing both to advance the-
ory and research on this topic and to understand better its uses and misuses
and its potential benefits and harms (Frost & Monteiro, 2016; Kurki &
Morris, 2001; Labrecque, 2016; Mears, 2013, 2016; Morgan et al., 2016;
Shalev, 2009; Smith, 2006; Ward & Werlich, 2003).
Although assessments of the effect of restrictive housing are of scholarly
and policy relevance, estimating the use of this housing constitutes a critical
and logical prior step, one of importance for understanding how prisons oper-
ate and the disparities that may arise in managing inmates. A central chal-
lenge, however, to understanding how, or for whom, prison officials use the
housing is the lack of consensus on what constitutes restrictive confinement
(Frost & Monteiro, 2016; Naday, Freilich, & Mellow, 2008). For example,
much of what is known about the prevalence of restrictive housing focuses on
one particular type, the supermax, which entails housing inmates in single-
cell, long-term isolation for managerial purposes and, in particular, for pro-
moting prison system safety (King, 1999; National Institute of Corrections,
1997). These studies typically equate supermax confinement with extended
stays in restrictive housing and so...

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