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One Year Longitudinal Study of the Psychological Effects of Administrative Segregation: Introduction

by Russ Immarigeon, MSW, Editor, Corrections and Mental Health

In October 2010, the Colorado Department of Corrections released a research report on the impact of administrative segregation (solitary confinement) on mentally ill and non-mentally ill prisoners. In One Year Longitudinal Study of the Psychological Effects of Administrative Segregation (O'Keefe et al., 2010), researchers Maureen O'Keefe of the Colorado Department of Corrections and psychologist Kelli Klebe and colleagues from the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs report the results of their investigation.

The Colorado researchers were surprised by their findings, which suggested that administrative segregation was far less harmful than they expected. Segregated prisoners in Colorado were found to experience elevated levels of psychological and cognitive change, much like non-segregated prisoners in the study's control group. Mentally ill prisoners were more aggravated by their experiences of isolation than non-mentally ill prisoners, but this was true whether they were in segregation or general population.  Moreover, prisoners seemed to improve as they initially entered administrative segregation.

Much dialogue over the past three decades on the use of solitary confinement has revolved around the premise and belief that solitary confinement is harmful, although the extent and nature of this harm was not always clear. Still, stories of harm from prisoners who have experienced solitary confinement are engaging and worthy of review. Moreover, American and European studies have described the deterioration and survival of severely isolated prisoners. So criticisms of the Colorado study quickly emerged: Was it methodologically sound? Was it conducted properly? What do its findings actually mean, not just for the treatment of prisoners, but also for the extent and nature of solitary confinement in penal institutions?

Corrections & Mental Health invited O'Keefe and Klebe, the primary investigators of this report, to contribute a summary of their study. A diverse mix of top-flight national and international researchers and practitioners were also invited to comment on the report. Finally, O'Keefe and Klebe have submitted their own responses to these commentaries. In all, beyond this brief introduction, eight articles were solicited that describe the report's findings, identify its deficiencies and strengths, and project future responses to its findings. All the authors, as you will read in their biographies, or you will know because of your familiarity with their work, have contributed to our collective knowledge base about the use of solitary confinement in "supermax" and other prisons. These assignments were not made with detailed or even very specific instructions. Authors were asked simply to respond to the report in ways based on their experience with these issues. The result is a rich, though-provoking assortment of observations and perspectives, which are hopefully helpful not just to other researchers, but also to community-based and institutional practitioners working in criminal justice and corrections.

These commentaries and responses were written under a tight deadline. Consequently, all the authors undoubtedly have more to say, and it is hoped that readers of these articles will also have responses of their own. As you read these articles, please note that you have the opportunity to contribute your own comments through NIC's website. The use of solitary confinement will remain a matter of controversy regardless of the strengths or weaknesses of this report. As several commentators, as well as the authors of this report, have noted, more research is necessary. But more discussion, too, is necessary, especially on those topics related to solitary confinement that have not been covered here. For example, assuming further studies also find that administrative segregation is not terribly harmful, is it still best practice? If not, what practices should be put in its place? The choices before us, as these commentators and researchers suggest, is not a simple matter of polar opposites.

The Colorado study is an important report, and it will be the subject of further discussion. The May/ June 2011 issue of the publication Correctional Mental Health Report, for example, also contains a series of articles from various practitioners and researchers on this study.

Author's note: Russ Immarigeon, MSW, is the Editor of Corrections & Mental Health. Email:


O'Keefe, M.L., K.J. Klebe, A. Stucker, K. Strum, and W. Leggett. 2010. One Year Longitudinal Study of the Psychological Effects of Administrative Segregation. Colorado Springs, CO: Colorado Department of Corrections.

Posted Tue, Jun 21 2011 11:34 AM by Tracey Vessels


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