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One Year Longitudinal Study of the Psychological Effects of Administrative Segregation: Abstract and Summary

by Maureen L. O'Keefe, Kelli J. Klebe, Alysha Stucker, Kristin Sturm, and William Leggett

ABSTRACT:  One of the most widely debated topics in the field of corrections - the use of long-term administrative segregation (AS) - has suffered from a lack of empirical research. Critics have argued that the conditions of AS confinement exacerbate symptoms of mental illness and create mental illness where none previously existed. Empirical research has had little to offer this debate; the scant empirical research conducted to date suffers from research bias and serious methodological flaws. This study seeks to advance the literature in this regard.

This study tested three hypotheses:

  • Offenders in AS would develop an array of psychological symptoms consistent with the security housing unit (SHU) syndrome;
  • Offenders with and without mental illness would deteriorate over time in AS, but at a rate more rapid and extreme for the mentally ill; and
  • Inmates in AS would experience greater psychological deterioration over time than the comparison groups.

Study participants included male inmates who were placed in AS at Colorado State Penitentiary and comparison inmates in the general population (GP). Placement into AS or GP conditions occurred as a function of routine prison operations. GP comparison participants included those at risk of AS placement due to their institutional behavior. Inmates in both of these study conditions (AS, GP) were divided into two groups - inmates with mental illness (MI) and with no mental illness (NMI). A third comparison group of inmates with severe mental health problems placed in San Carlos Correctional Facility, a psychiatric care prison facility, was also included. A total of 302 inmates were approached to participate in the study, and 55 refused to participate or later withdrew their consent. Participants were tested at 3-month intervals over a yearlong period.

Standardized test data were collected through self-report, correctional staff, and clinical staff measures. Tests with demonstrated reliability and validity were selected to assess the eight primary constructs of interest:

  • Anxiety;
  • Cognitive impairment;
  • Depression/hopelessness;
  • Hostility/anger control;
  • Hypersensitivity;
  • Psychosis;
  • Somatization; and
  • Withdrawal/alienation.

Extensive analyses of psychometric properties revealed that inmates self-reported psychological and cognitive symptoms in reliable and valid ways.

The results of this study were largely inconsistent with our hypotheses and the bulk of literature that indicates AS is extremely detrimental to inmates with and without mental illness. Similar to other research, our study found that segregated offenders were elevated on multiple psychological and cognitive measures when compared to normative adult samples. However, elevations were present among the comparison groups too, suggesting that high degrees of psychological disturbances are not unique to the AS environment. In examining change over time patterns, there was initial improvement in psychological well-being across all study groups, with the bulk of the improvements occurring between the first and second testing periods, followed by relative stability for the remainder of the study. Patterns indicated that the MI groups tended to be similar to one another, but were significantly elevated compared to the NMO groups, regardless of their setting. Contrary to our hypothesis, offenders with mental illness did not deteriorate over time in AS at a rate more rapid and more extreme than for those without mental illness. Finally, although AS inmates in this study were found to possess traits believed to be associated with long-term segregation, these features cannot be attributed to AS confinement because they were present at the time of placement and also occurred in the comparison study groups. Implications for policy and future research are discussed.

Posted Tue, Jun 21 2011 10:09 AM by Tracey Vessels


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