“We just needed to open the door”: a case study of the quest to end solitary confinement in North Dakota

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Abstract: Solitary confinement is a widespread practice in US correctional facilities. Long-standing concerns about the physical and mental health effects of solitary confinement have led to litigation, legislation, and community activism resulting in many prison systems introducing policies or implementing legal mandates to reduce or eliminate its use. Yet little is known about the nature and effectiveness of policies that states have adopted to reduce their use of solitary confinement and exactly how various reforms have actually impacted the lives of people living and working in the prisons where these reforms have taken place. Methods: We conducted an embedded case study, analyzing changes in policies and procedures, administrative data, and focus groups and interviews with incarcerated persons and staff, to describe the circumstances that led to changes in solitary confinement policies and practices in the North Dakota Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (ND DOCR) and the perceived impact of these changes on incarcerated persons and prison staff. Results: North Dakota’s correctional officials and staff members attributed the impetus to change their solitary confinement policies to their participation in a program that directly exposed them to the Norwegian Correctional Service’s philosophy, policies, and practices in 2015. The ensuing policy changes made by North Dakota officials were swift and resulted in a 74.28% reduction in the use of solitary confinement between 2016 and 2020. Additionally, placements in any form of restrictive housing decreased markedly for incarcerated persons with serious mental illness. In the two prisons that had solitary confinement units, rule infractions involving violence decreased at one prison overall and it decreased within the units at both prisons that were previously used for solitary confinement. Although fights and assaults between incarcerated people increased in one of the prison’s general population units, during the initial months of reforms, these events continued to decline compared to years before reform. Moreover, incarcerated people and staff attributed the rise to a concomitant worsening of conditions in the general population due to overcrowding, idleness, and double bunking. Both incarcerated persons and staff members reported improvements in their health and well-being, enhanced interactions with one another, and less exposure to violence following the reforms. Conclusions: Immersing correctional leaders in the Norwegian Correctional Service’ public health and human rights principles motivated and guided the ND DOCR to pursue policy changes to decrease the use of solitary confinement in their prisons. Ensuing reductions in solitary confinement were experienced as beneficial to the health and wellness of incarcerated persons and staff alike. This case-study describes these policy changes and the perspectives of staff and incarcerated persons about the reforms that were undertaken. Findings have implications for stakeholders seeking to reduce their use of solitary confinement and limit its harmful consequences and underscore the need for research to describe and assess the impact of solitary confinement reforms.




Cloud, D. H., Augustine, D., Ahalt, C., Haney, C., Peterson, L., Braun, C., & Williams, B. (2021). “We just needed to open the door”: a case study of the quest to end solitary confinement in North Dakota. Health and Justice, 9(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40352-021-00155-5

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