The Psychological Effects of 60 Days in Administrative Segregation

By Zinger, Ivan; Wichmann, Cherami et al. | Canadian Journal of Criminology, January 2001 | Go to article overview

The Psychological Effects of 60 Days in Administrative Segregation


Zinger, Ivan, Wichmann, Cherami, Andrews, D. A., Canadian Journal of Criminology


In Canada, the percentage of segregated prisoners has more than doubled in the last ten years, now representing approximately 5.5% of federally sentenced prisoners (Pierson 1988; Kane 1997). However, little research has been conducted on these prisoners. Moreover, many scholars have assessed the literature on penal segregation as sparse, conflicting, rife with speculations, and based upon far-fetched extrapolations and generalizations (Barak-Glantz 1983; Brodsky and Scogin 1988; Suedfeld, Ramirez, Deaton, and Baker-Brown 1982; Wormith, Tellier, and Gendreau 1988).

Notwithstanding the inadequacy of the existing research, two conflicting perspectives on the effects of segregation on prisoners have emerged. Some researchers describe segregation as "cruel and unusual punishment" and psychologically damaging (Benjamin and Lux 1975; 1977; Grassian 1983; Immarigeon 1992; Jackson 1983; Korn 1988; Luise 1989; Martel 1999), whereas others provide evidence that segregation has little, if any, negative psychological effect on prisoners (Bonta and Gendreau 1995; Ecclestone, Gendreau, and Knox 1974; Gendreau, Freedman, Wilde, and Scott 1972; Gendreau and Bonta 1984; Suedfeld et al. 1982).

Resolving the question of the impact of segregation carries important policy implications for areas such as: (a) the level and frequency of monitoring and assessment required for prisoners in segregation (mandatory vs. upon request); (b) programming to reduce mental health deterioration (need for, and type of, intervention programs); and (c) the adequacy of current assessment strategies (what aspects of psychosocial functioning are important to assess, and which are less affected by segregation).

This article contains two sections. First, a review of methodological issues highlights the current unsatisfactory state of the literature on the effects of segregation. This review shows that supporters of one view often fail to appreciate the findings of the opposing view, as well as to recognize the limitations of their own findings when drawing their conclusions. The ability to generalize the results of these studies is affected to varying degrees by improper attention to methodological shortcomings of the research conducted. Second, the findings of a research project which addressed the shortcomings of the existing literature is presented.

Part I: Evaluation of existing research on segregation: A review of methodological shortcomings

1. Reliance on qualitative data (casual observations, interviews and anecdotes)

Many authors use anecdotal evidence to support their claims (Benjamin and Lux 1975, 1977; Brodsky and Scogin 1988; Grassian 1983; Jackson 1983; Korn 1988; Martel 1999). These authors often take selected but powerful excerpts from interviews of segregated prisoners or mental health professionals with experience with segregated prisoners to provide general evidence of the harmful effects of segregation. Some authors rely on testimony on the use of isolation in the 19th century to produce corroborative evidence of the harmful effects of segregation in today's correctional context (Grassian 1983; Immarigeon 1992; Luise 1989). Others cite human rights violation litigation to depict the general conditions of confinement and treatment of segregated prisoners, as well as the psychological and physical harm that ensues (Benjamin and Lux 1977; Birkinshaw 1981; Jackson 1983; Luise 1989).

The evidence of the damaging effects of segregation on prisoners adduced by these authors is very disturbing, and cannot be ignored. Because of the nature of the methodology, it is often unclear whether the pathologies displayed by some segregated prisoners were directly attributable to the conditions of confinement in segregation or whether these prisoners displayed similar pathologies in the general prisoner population or in the community, prior to being segregated (Gendreau and Bonta 1984).

In addition, Suedfeld et al. …

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