by Sean Stewart, NCCE

Corrections professionals are encountering an increasing trend challenging the use of administrative segregation. The conflict is mostly being stirred up by the media, legislatures, inmate advocate groups and the public. Some have tried to link isolated incidences where segregated confinement was in use with an in-custody death and or other situations regarding an inmate’s behavior, often tied to mental health issues. These groups are calling for the complete elimination of, or, at a minimum, an extremely limited use of administrative segregation.

As evidence, in recent years, at least 15 states have passed or have tried to pass legislation to govern or restrict the use of administrative segregation within their states. Evidence of this appears at the national level with the United States Congress, where in the 113th session House Bill 4618 was introduced but without success. Currently, H.R. 3399, “The Solitary Confinement Study and Reform Act of 2015″, is being touted as a possible resolution with bipartisan support. The National Institute for Jail Operations (NIJO) has met with and continues to meet with Representative Jason Chaffetz (UT), in order to convey the importance of administrative segregation as an inmate management tool in correctional facilities. It is critical that Congress understands the issues from the viewpoint of a correctional professional, specifically, those issues that pertain to the safety and security of both inmates and personnel as applied in the usage of administrative segregation.

As a corrections professional, working in this field for over 23 years, I can assure the usage of administrative segregation is an extremely important inmate management tool. When used correctly and legally, it is exceptionally effective and, in many cases, the only option available to correctional officials. The importance of allowing the use of this procedure pertains to SAFETY. The safety and security of not only the public but both the inmates and staff within a correctional facility.

A few years back, I was conducting a classification interview with an inmate known as a gang member engaging in activities that were adversely affecting the safe and harmonious operation of the facility. The inmate made a few noteworthy statements that emphasize the need for administrative segregation being made available as an inmate management tool.

“There are only two groups of inmates in the system, sharks and guppies. I choose to be a Great White.”

What this individual was trying to convey to me during this interview is within the inmate population, he viewed others as either a predator or prey. He also went on to explain how he ran a crew of inmates who would use violence to intimidate inmates to the point where their families would have to pay for protection. “I had a wrecking crew of three (3) or four (4) individuals who would run up on new fish (inmates) beat them down, not hurting them too bad, but to the point where they would call mommy and daddy to get them to pay for protection. That was big business for me and I made a lot of money.”

With this realization and knowing as correctional professional I have a legal duty to take reasonable measures to protect inmates from violence, I had no choice but to isolate this predatory individual from the rest of the inmate population by assigning him to administrative segregation. Otherwise, I would be derelict in my duty to take reasonable measures protecting inmates from violence.

Administering a correctional facility is a complex process involving the difficult task of balancing inmates’ interests against the critical efforts to establish and maintain the safety of staff, inmates and the public; facility security, order, discipline and inmate control. Among the many factors corrections officials must manage are the facility climate and profile of the inmate population; the dynamic and fluid chemistry within the inmate population; the ongoing and continuous efforts of inmates to undermine security,safety,and discipline. These are issues and problems which cannot be effectively managed by persons who are not familiar with these various factors and the unintended consequences of imposing one-size-fits-all solution to complex problems in an environment where inmates actively engage in efforts to defeat or compromise security.

As the Supreme Court has recognized:

[T]he problems that arise in the day‑to‑day operation of a corrections facility are not susceptible of easy solutions. Prison administrators therefore should be accorded wide‑ranging deference in the adoption and execution of policies and practices that in their judgment are needed to preserve internal order and discipline and to maintain institutional security.[1]

Maintaining safety and order at detention centers requires the expertise of correctional officials, who must have substantial discretion to devise reasonable solutions to problems. A regulation impinging on an inmate’s constitutional rights must be upheld “if it is reasonably related to legitimate penological interests.[2]

Safety and security decisions are peculiarly within the responsibilities and professional expertise of correctional officials. Many inmates present difficult management challenges that require corrections officials to be able to respond to changing situations. These inmates are often manipulative and unpredictable and spend hours in efforts to undermine the security, order, discipline and control that are essential to the safe and effective management of correctional facilities. Administrative discretion is, thus, essential to deal with the fluid and evolving problems that occur in correctional facilities. Officials must be given the authority and discretion when attempting to provide a safe and secure environment for inmates and staff alike.

[1] Bell v. Wolfish, 441 U.S. 520, 547 (1979) (emphasis added).

[2]Turner v. Safley, 482 U. S. 78, 89 (1987) (emphasis added).


Sean Stewart is a Captain at the Pima County Sheriff’s Office, AZ, and has over 20 years of experience. He is the Division Commander of Housing Operations and has overseen multiple management and tactical operations in his career. Sean is a NSA (CJE) Certified Jail Executive and instructs on a national basis. He currently serves on the NIJO Jail Advisory Committee. Sean provides continuous assistance to outside law enforcement agencies and also provides expert defense services in defending jails against prisoner litigation.



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