Restrictive Housing May Be Under Fire in Fight Against Prison Gangs—but Training’s Value is Constant

Most readers are undoubtedly aware how unpopular the larger practice of solitary confinement, closely linked to “restrictive housing” or “administrative segregation” (“adseg”), has become in recent years. Researchers spanning numerous fields of study have long decried the act of walling off inmates, claiming the damage to the mental health of the individual and societal recidivism were likely too broad for any one discipline to fully record. Undoubtedly spurred in part by the growing body of research, President Barack Obama’s 2015 push to severely limit the practice came a scant three years before current President Donald J. Trump’s prison reform signed similar ideas directly into law, placing restrictions on holding juvenile inmates in solitary confinement. They remain one of few areas where the two Commanders-in-Chief appear to agree on paper, and perhaps the sole area where legislation from one aligns with the other’s overall plans and policy.

In corrections, an industry designed to house people for whom society has no other valid space, the practical and PR concerns of a practice like solitary confinement are substantial, but may ultimately just serve as a foundation for something larger. This is where gangs come into play. A scourge so big its membership rate exceeds the overall prison’s population several times over, the organizations are defined by power and money at the top ranks, yet serve as an indiscriminate source of violence, destruction, and general unrest for the facilities in which they operate.

A 2018 National Institute of Justice (NIJ) piece on the trend summarizes the issue. Though controversial from the outset, immediately moving known gang members to restrictive housing was at one point considered effective. The potential results were impactful enough, in fact, that many within the industry deemed it a “silver bullet” for a problem that had doubled since the 1980s. In removing gang members from the general population, the paper contends, corrections decision-makers thought they had discovered a way to keep insidious elements from catalyzing a highly volatile day-to-day environment. With that thought increasingly called into question over the years (alongside every other facet of adseg), what can prisons do to minimize the violent, all too often deadly, impact of gangs within their walls?

Gang restrictive housing by the numbers: Big results, big questions linger

Returning to the NIJ piece, author David C. Pyrooz claims that gang members usually end up in adseg because they have broken facility rules. He argues that they are in need of protective custody, or there is administrative need or mandate to place them there. The third category forms a foundation for both automatic placement and the criticism surrounding it, Pyrooz says, because it requires little action on the restricted inmate’s part. In theory, a prisoner could be a model citizen in every other regard and still end up in a harmful adseg environment due to the company they keep.

The paper also notes limited research surrounding the practice seems to support the idea that less gang contact equals a less challenging environment to manage. Two of the three landmarks quoted in the piece claim that “the wholesale placement of affiliates in restrictive housing” respectively resulted in “major reductions of homicide and assault,” and “a 30-percent reduction in overall violations [following segregation].” The third, an Ohio-based study that claimed gang-affiliated inmates do worse in terms of behavior following a stretch in segregation, seems to hold little relevance to the practice’s overall effectiveness.

Finally, one must consider that gang members are likely to find their way into protective custody at some point even when they are not directed there as a matter of policy. The exact figure here varies from location to location, but NIJ’s research claims a given gang member is anywhere from six to seventy-one times more likely to land in adseg, compared to the average inmate. However, Pyrooz — along with numerous critics of automated restriction — asks readers to consider that data with caution. A gang member caught violating a drug policy will go to “the boot” with a clear idea of when they will be coming back, while one immediately shuttled off to segregation may have to wait for parole or put their life on the line by offering damning information on their fellow members to earn the same right.

What can prisons do without adseg?

Getting rid of adseg, of course, is not as easy as simply removing the option. Administrative, economic, and safety concerns all place heavy demands on a prison system, and segregation, controversial though it may be, is often entrenched in the individual facility’s daily operation.

Consider a rather critical article on the Texas prison system, originally published in 2017. Though the state had moved away from using solitary confinement as a means of punishment, neither the law nor the prison system considered adseg a form of disciplinary action. Thus, thousands of prisoners — including gang members, troublemakers, and those who pose a continual security risk — found themselves spending unspecified amounts of time in a new “housing situation” that looked, felt, and largely operated in a way identical to the solitary confinement of old.

Given the problems prison gangs pose inside and outside facilities, the argument can be made that automatic segregation is less about punishing the individual prisoner and more about protecting the remainder of the incarcerated population. In California, a state whose prison and criminal justice systems at times seem singularly devoted to combating the swell of gang violence, “prison” gangs carry an influence that extends far beyond the walls. A crime writer covering the beat wrote that combating gang violence is becoming as “important to many towns and communities as the mayor.” From an outsider’s perspective, stories coming from the state pose automatic segregation as a necessary response, yet one capable of contributing to the cycle of gang violence. Since “validated” gang members can only remove themselves from adseg by “debriefing,” or providing actionable information on another person, any road an inmate chooses comes with at least the threat of violence, and likely worse.

Thus, in the absence of viable short-term solutions, what, precisely, should a prison filled with gang populations do when solutions such as automatic segregation are no longer available?

Turning again to the NIJ paper, solutions posed by Pyrooz and others undoubtedly hold merit, but only in the long term. Striving to understand a gang’s ways and means and using that data to make meaningful change (a common charge among critics of solitary confinement, adseg, et al.) is akin to hiring engineers to stand around and take notes on a flooding dam: they are highly useful, but only when deployed alongside an immediate reaction.

Conclusion: Better training necessary while corrections, gangs, evolve

In total, then, it is hard to say whether corrections will move away from automatic segregation as a means of stopping so-called “security threat groups,” or what best practices will arise to fill the void. With limited results suggesting immediate impact and a prison system designed by default to roll with changes it has little control over, it is hard to imagine another measure gaining steam with as strong or immediate of an impact. As the story on Texas prisons shows, moving away from something so ingrained into the culture is difficult, even with a legislature making an effort to do just that.

Regarding longer-term initiatives, training presents an opportunity for institutions to keep their employees and inmates safe. At their core, gangs are organizations built to survive despite the massive resources poured into stopping them. By proxy, much of a successful gang’s continued operation comes down to its ability to evade the newest and best detection and elimination techniques. In a field with notably high employee turnover problems — and one where gangs have recently turned to identifying and isolating guards with high potential for manipulation as their latest power play — an ongoing stream of education, coupled with strict documentation standards, may well be the only practical move in a facility’s playbook.

Indeed, with their daily activities riding the line between facility needs and inmate management, frontline guards may be best equipped to benefit from education initiatives on one side and collect information on the other. Training, already key in helping officers recognize the early signs of pending violence, could just as surely help floor-level personnel zero in on hard-to-spot identifiers. Because the most successful gangs have moved away from the overt violence and conspicuous operation of years past, and because their members are — again — highly skilled at masking the activity, every added minute on an  officer’s training docket is another chance to stop a problem that thrives on evading detection until it’s too late. Perhaps more encouraging yet, factors like added training and expanded authority/responsibility are seen as ways to counteract the industry’s woeful turnover rate, [PDF LINK] according to RAND; following the logic, an officer who receives added authority in identifying confirmed members and the training necessary to do so may do an above-average job over a longer-than-average period.

With outcomes like the above, improved training efforts will likely remain key to successful operations no matter how the industry moves on automatic segregation. Whether personnel are trained on identifying the newest threat group, or educated on new policies following their return to population, a program or policy is only as effective as the institution’s ability to convey it to personnel. While no “silver bullet” may ever be uncovered against an opponent as fluid as the modern prison gang, that makes education the undisputed front line — and behooves stakeholders to revisit their training policies in service of honing their response.

Posted on Oct 22, 2019