North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation
The North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (NDDOCR) reduced their segregation population by limiting infractions that made someone eligible for segregation to violent incidents. They also redesigned their administrative segregation unit into five specialized wings, each with a focus on incentivizing behavior and individualized planning—two of these units function as a step-down to general population. After implementation, there was a 68 percent decrease in the number of people in administrative segregation, without an increase in institutional violence.
The goal of this policy change was reducing the number of people in administrative segregation. Prior to these changes, NDDOCR had seen a drastic increase in its prison population, and use of restrictive housing had risen in response. In 2013, the administrative segregation unit was expanded from 60 to 108 beds. However, the department saw no difference in institutional safety, and made efforts to reduce their reliance on administrative segregation.
The overall goal was to reduce the use of all restrictive housing.
NDDOCR decided to reform its administrative segregation unit because it was becoming increasingly difficult to operate and did not actually achieve its purported goal of increasing prison safety. On a trip put together by the US-European Criminal Justice Innovation Program, NDDOCR administrators visited correctional facilities in Norway and studied their alternatives to segregation. Inspired by the Norwegian model of trying to normalize life in prison as much as possible, and the research demonstrating the potential harmful impacts of segregation, NDDOCR officials set out to reform NDSP’s administrative segregation unit. These reforms began in 2015, and they emphasize using administrative segregation as a time to employ behavior-based interventions with the goal of preparing individuals to re-enter general population.
While this change was not directly modeled after Norwegian facilities (NDDOCR started the changes before our staff was exposed to the European criminal justice model), after Norway our agency did shift our focus toward building positive relationships between staff and residents of the unit through conversation, joint leisure activities, and prosocial skills practice. Our initial focus had been on implementing cognitive-behavioral intervention strategies. In contrast, today our focus is on implementing cognitive-behavioral intervention strategies with particular emphasis on building rapport.
Accordingly, staff required additional training in cognitive-behavioral techniques, behavioral modification, and relationship skills in order to implement the changes we decided to make.
NDDOCR first limited the behaviors that made someone eligible for time in restrictive housing, and then restructured its administrative segregation unit (ASU). The ASU is divided into wings A-E, each with a different function and target population. Most people begin in Wing B, where they await assessment and placement. People are assessed within five days, then they are either moved to another wing or general population.
Wing A has the highest level of security and is intended for those with the most violent behavior. The wing also utilizes individualized behavior plans including skill training, daily interactions with staff, and meetings with behavioral health staff.
Wing C, the behavior modification wing, is designated for individuals who do not require the level of security found on Wing A, but still exhibit behaviors that must be addressed before being moved to less restrictive housing. People housed in Wing C receive individualized behavioral plans that identify “risky” behaviors and “goal” behaviors, with the ultimate goal of moving to less restrictive housing. Wing C staff members are encouraged to interact with the people housed there through engaging in conversation, asking motivating questions, and practicing particular skills—group therapy may also happen three times a week. Goal behaviors are rewarded with items such as stamps, food, batteries, access to TV and radio.
Lastly, Wings D and E compose the administrative transition unit (ATU), a step-down program from restrictive housing to general population. In this unit, restraints are not regularly used and individuals have access to some general population activities. People can participate in programming twice a week and participate in group treatment.
The number of people in administrative segregation decreased by 68 percent without an increase in institutional violence. Both staff and incarcerated people have responded positively, with some staff members reporting that their work environment has improved. Staff members also report improved behavior by incarcerated people, and one incarcerated person reported improved relations with staff.
It is important for agencies to communicate “the why” and the long-term plans with line staff from the beginning. Develop a mass communications plan to share progress and challenges. Also, it is critical to communicate early and often with staff at all levels. Be comfortable with having some difficult or uncomfortable conversations amongst the team as things move forward. Be comfortable with healthy debates and differences of opinion. Engage corrections officers in decision making and task them with developing creative out of cell activities and other aspects of the implementation. Truly listen to their feedback. Overall, as an agency we believe our initial challenges were the “growing pains” necessary for our progress. The main takeaway from our experience is the value of communicating with agency staff earlier and in a more transparent and purposeful way. Lastly, we believe that the staffing ratio within the unit was critical to our success, as it allows for officers to be a part of the behavior change process and to focus on relationship and rapport building.