In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Disciplinary Segregation in Prison

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Deterrence and Disciplinary Segregation
  • Disciplinary Segregation as a Criminogenic Source
  • Effects of Disciplinary Segregation
  • Disciplinary Segregation and Mental Health
  • Gender and the Use of Disciplinary Segregation
  • Race/Ethnicity and the Use of Disciplinary Segregation
  • Time Served in Disciplinary Segregation

Criminology Disciplinary Segregation in Prison
H. Daniel Butler, Jennifer Beatty
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 July 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 July 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0306


Correctional administrators are tasked with providing and maintaining safety and security for incarcerated individuals and staff. One strategy that is used to maintain safety and security includes the separation of individuals from the general population of a prison following a rule violation. Referred to broadly as disciplinary segregation, individuals are confined within a cell for twenty-three hours a day for a determinate amount of time, often in isolation, and with a loss of amenities and privileges that are afforded to the general population. The purpose of this review is to understand the purpose, effectiveness, and problems associated with the use of disciplinary segregation.

General Overviews

Disciplinary segregation is a form of restrictive housing used in correctional settings. The Bureau of Justice Statistics report Beck 2015 defines restrictive housing as a form of solitary confinement that includes disciplinary and administrative segregation. It is important that attempts to discuss and synthesize research related to the use of disciplinary segregation provide concise definitions that distinguishes its use from other forms of restrictive housing. Briefly, administrative segregation is the removal of an individual from the general population of a prison for purposes of prison management, such as the threat an individual may pose to the greater security and safety of a prison. Disciplinary segregation, however, is typically used as a response to a prison rule violation that requires the removal of an individual from the general population of a prison for a finite amount of time (typically shorter in duration than administrative segregation). Unlike disciplinary segregation, administrative segregation is often longer in duration that does not require a rule violation to take place. As an example, Butler, et al. 2013 (cited under Effects of Disciplinary Segregation), an examination of state policies on the use of administrative segregation, reveals that posing a threat to institutional security is one reason individuals may be removed from the general population of a prison. Additionally, Labrecque 2016, a chapter in the National Institute of Justice report on the use of restrictive housing, includes protective custody as a form of restrictive housing. Unlike the other types of restrictive housing, protective custody is used when an individual is susceptible to victimization in the general population, and the removal from the general population is for protective purposes. The many types of restrictive housing leads to confusion and difficulties in identifying how many people are serving time in solitary confinement. As Mears, et al. 2019 (cited under Gender and the Use of Disciplinary Segregation) notes, the duration, use of solitary confinement, loss of amenities, and admission criteria vary substantially across jurisdictions. Despite these limitations, the examination of restrictive housing in Beck 2015 reveals approximately 20 percent of incarcerated individuals have served at least one day in restrictive housing within the past twelve months. Baumgartel, et al. 2015 also finds that approximately sixty-six thousand individuals in forty-one state jurisdictions are serving time in a restrictive housing setting. Pyrooz and Mitchell 2020 finds that individuals with gang affiliations are also overrepresented in the use of disciplinary segregation, and that the relative risk of placement in disciplinary segregation is three times greater for individuals with gang affiliations compared to individuals without gang affiliations. Given this information, it is important to understand the purpose of disciplinary segregation, the effects of disciplinary segregation on subsequent behaviors and mental health, and to examine whether there are differences in the use of disciplinary segregation across gender and race/ethnicity. Therefore, this overview begins with the theory regarding the anticipated effects of disciplinary segregation. Subsequent sections include overviews of the controversies surrounding its use and reviews of the empirical evidence.

  • Baumgartel, S., C. Guilmette, J. Kalb, et al. 2015. Time-in-cell: The ASCA-Liman 2014 national survey of administrative segregation in prison. Yale Law School, Public Law Research Paper No. 552.

    A survey conducted in 2014 of restrictive housing practices in different jurisdictions across the United States examining the use of restrictive housing, the demographics of those in restrictive housing, and the different degrees of isolation.

  • Beck, A. J. 2015. Use of restrictive housing in U.S. prisons and jails, 2011–12. Washington, DC: Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice.

    A report looking at the results from the National Inmate Survey (2011–2012) that includes estimations for the time individuals in both prisons and jails serve in restrictive housing units.

  • Labrecque, R. M. 2016. The use of administrative segregation and its function in the institutional setting. In Restrictive housing in the U.S.: Issues, challenges, and future directions. Edited by U.S. Department of Justice, 49–84. Washington, DC: National Institute of Justice.

    Discussion of the different forms of restrictive housing utilized within correctional institutions that includes administrative segregation, disciplinary segregation, and protective custody.

  • Pyrooz, D. C., and M. M. Mitchell. 2020. The use of restrictive housing on gang and non-gang affiliated inmates in U.S. prisons: Findings from a national survey of correctional agencies. Justice Quarterly 37.4: 590–615.

    DOI: 10.1080/07418825.2019.1574019

    Scholarly work that provides a comprehensive overview of the use of restrictive housing in the United States as it relates to the management and confinement of individuals with gang affiliations. The findings indicate that individuals with gang affiliations are at greater odds of placement in various forms of restrictive housing including disciplinary segregation.

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