Multiple studies have arrived at the same conclusion: Heavy control results in more rather than less violence behind bars. According to Causes and Prevention of Violence in Prisons, “Recent research confirms that… the more coercive the prison environment, the greater the potential for violence.”
This research repeatedly has shown what does not work: solitary confinement, shackling, and the physical and mental abuse of prisoners. Especially in light of these research findings, the use of restraint chairs by the New York City Department of Correction (DOC) to keep the most violent prisoners isolated and unable to move is regressive—reminiscent of methods used to torture and debase captives in medieval times and American slavery.
Senior officials at the DOC claim that inmates are in restraints “because of safety concerns for staff and other inmates,” and that restraint desks are used “instead of throwing young adults in solitary confinement.” Correction officials say these inmates are also offered educational programs while chained.
But being in chains may have nearly the same negative effects as solitary confinement (or punitive segregation), especially on younger inmates and the mentally ill. The Prisoners’ Rights Project dubs these “extreme, harsh housing conditions” as “appalling, frightening, and wholly inappropriate to our standards of decency and humanity.”
The DOC was required to stop using solitary confinement, especially for inmates under age 19, via a federal consent decree with the U.S. Department of Justice. Other elements of that decree included a federal monitor, additional security cameras and more rigorous injury reporting. Rikers has obtained four extensions for ending youth solitary confinement, claiming violence erupted when it moved too many inmates from punitive segregation into the general population.
But multiple studies have shown that solitary confinement does not reduce violence. Legal Aid has noted that “there is no correlation that increased use of punitive segregation reduces violence. [It] is a failed practice, increasingly discredited and limited by the world community, and determined to cause damage to developing brains in young persons” and particular harm to those with mental illness.
What does work? Causes and Prevention finds that, “prisons that provide more opportunities for prisoner participation in education and vocational programs and promote self-efficacy [have] reduced levels of rule violations and violence.” Successful programs include creating a sense of community involving prisoners and staff, increased prisoner autonomy, a clear system of rewards for good behavior, strong anti-bullying policies, staff recruitment and training (including screening out inappropriate candidates), and conflict resolution for officers and inmates.
The DOC’s approach is not novel. Another study, Reducing Prison Violence, from the Civil Society Prison Reform Initiative, examined political underpinnings including the view that “violence and the threat of violence [is] a sustaining component of the punitive function of imprisonment… [supported by] public expectation that prison must be tough, painful and unpleasant.” However, this view has led to a prison system that does not result in rehabilitation or safe custody, but rather delivers a steady increase in violence.
Research findings show that prisons in which a large percentage of the prisoner population was involved in educational, vocational, and prison industry programs reported lower rates of violence—especially when prisoners engaged in meaningful programs that offered opportunities for self-improvement and not just activities that kept them busy. Participation in such programs encourages inmates to avoid violent encounters, which could cause them to fall behind in their educational program, lose their industry job, or worse be transferred to a more control-oriented prison. Inmates also must see that a prison operates according to its own rules, and that needed services are funded and staffed with trained employees. Indeed, in the recent prison uprising and hostage situation in Delaware, inmate demands were for exactly such programs and policies.
Making Prisons Safe a study by the Prison Reform Trust, examines the impact of jail policies and conditions, material deprivations, and difficulties that arise between inmates with poor conflict resolution skills, learning disabilities or mental illness, whose tactics tend to escalate rather than resolve conflict. Early intervention by officers and peacekeeping as conflict resolution were most effective at reducing violence, including improving communication between parties, having sufficient staff, and providing impartial mediators to resolve conflicts before they escalate into violence. Prison management can reduce situational conflicts by “fulfilling prisoners’ basic human needs, protecting prisoners’ personal safety, providing opportunities to exercise personal autonomy, and building in mechanisms for prisoners to resolve conflicts.” Data shows a drop in overall prisoner misconduct immediately after implementing improved staff training and service programs.
This information is not new. I have been writing on this subject for over five years, and saw the effectiveness of violence-reduction programs first-hand during my 29 years as a corrections officer and captain at Rikers Island. My City Limits article, “How to Stop an Explosion of Violence on Rikers Island,” based on my detailed 26-point prison reform program to reduce violence among adolescent inmates, described empirical research showing that extreme control and violence by officers against inmates only worsens the atmosphere of conflict, tension and hostility.
The DOC is apparently unwilling to implement effective violence reduction programs other than chaining people up so it is impossible for them to attack anyone, despite the fact that studies have shown that extreme control measures result in more violence, not less. Reviving a cruel practice will not do this. Unless we want to encourage the revolving door of recidivism, we need to provide these young men with some skin in the game, so they can re-enter the job market, education, family, and community as full citizens. This population critically requires mental health services, substance abuse treatment, practical education, vocational training, physical recreation and prison jobs. Currently they have none and feel totally hopeless.
We know “what works,” and just shackling or isolating people will not solve the problem. It will take a multidisciplinary team, and a multi-modal approach, implementing many moving parts simultaneously, to address the serious issue of violence behind bars. We simply must develop the will to expend the money for services and staff, rather than on restraint chairs and solitary cells.
David A. Fullard, Ph.D., is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Empire State College, teaching Criminal Justice and the Social and Behavioral Sciences. He is also licensed by the State of New York Board of Regents as a Mental Health Counselor (LMHC). He retired in 2011 as a captain with the New York City Department of Correction (NYCDOC) after 30 years’ service.