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Cognitive Intervention Programs in Segregate Confinement: Facilitating
Cognitive intervention programs now being implemented in select maximum-security prisons throughout the
United States represent the latest reform movement in the field of corrections. This paper will compare conditions
of confinement in both the congregate and segregate systems of imprisonment and examine the impact
cognitive intervention programs are having on these systems. The purpose of this study is not to argue the merits
of cognitive intervention programs, but rather to show that the segregate system of imprisonment provides the
best venue for implementation of the programs. Policy implications suggest a modification of the process by
which inmates come to be assigned to either congregate or segregate housing units.
At the present time, most inmates congregate in one form or another for as much as twenty-four hours each
day. This congregate environment facilitates considerable violence and disorder. According to the Florida
Department of Corrections (2000), six major prison gangs recognized nationally for their participation in
organized crime and violence have been identified in America's prisons. Drug dealing, stabbings, and sexual
assaults occur with distressing frequency.
Recent trends in inmate management have focused on the use of super maximum-security prisons,
wherein recalcitrant inmates who fail to adjust to the routine of congregate imprisonment are transferred
to segregate housing units where they live in solitary confinement up to twenty-three hours per day. Federal
and some state governments are constructing "super-max" prisons to isolate inmates who commit serious crimes
in the course of serving their time. Authorities say construction of the solitary cells is absolutely necessary due to
the viciousness of the new generation of prisoners -- prisoners who have killed correctional officers or other
inmates, or are known gang leaders who must be separated (National Center for Policy Analysis, 1997).
But inasmuch as segregation units assist prison officials in the management of violent inmates, isolated
confinement has been criticized for inflicting psychological trauma on those confined to such idleness and
deprivation. Persistent scrutiny by human rights activists has prompted legislators and prison officials to
provide segregated inmates with programs designed to make solitary confinement more humane. Some
prison administrators have remedied the situation by introducing cognitive intervention programs to inmates
Cognitive intervention programs are designed to restructure the offender's thinking patterns and facilitate
more prosocial thinking. The movement began in Canada in the 1980s when the National Correctional Service
chose cognitive restructuring as its principal treatment strategy. By 1995 similar treatment programs could be
found in many states including Oregon, California, Georgia, Vermont, and Michigan (Baro, 1999).
Standard corrections policy mandates that convicted felons sentenced to prison be placed in congregate systems
of confinement upon admission. When the harsh conditions of confinement cause inmates to lash out at officers
or other inmates, they are transferred to segregation. The purpose of this research is to document how
cognitive intervention programs affect conditions of confinement in segregation. If such strategies prove successful
at reducing the harsh conditions of isolation while simultaneously transforming the attitudes and beliefs of
offenders, then placing inmates in segregation at the onset of their sentences may prove to be the most humane
and truly corrective method of incarcerating offenders.
A qualitative review and analysis of literature documenting conditions of confinement in both the congregate
and segregate systems of imprisonment, as well as cognitive intervention programs being implemented,
was conducted. Among the literature reviewed was Interpersonal Violence and Social Order in Prisons
(Bottoms, 1999), which places interpersonal violence within the framework of the prison's everyday
social functioning. The study defines what interpersonal violence is, how it can be measured, how frequently
it occurs, and how prison environmental conditions influence the level and types of interpersonal violence.
In Prisons in Crisis, Selke (1993) calls attention to the futility of incarcerating nonviolent offenders in
congregate prisons populated with dangerous criminals where violence, corruption, and racism comprise a
typical day. 'Infamous Punishment': The Psychological Consequences of Isolation (Haney, 1993) examines the
brutal conditions of confinement in Pelican Bay's Security Housing Unit. These and other studies provide the
context for a comparison between the congregate and segregate systems of confinement.
In conjunction with specific research on cognitive intervention programs, this researcher made a visit to Florida
State Prison (FSP) and engaged in a complete tour of the institution under the direction of Randall Scoggins,
manager of FSP's cognitive intervention program Rethinking Personal Choice. Officials at FSP modeled the
pilot program after Colorado's Progressive Reintegration Opportunity Unit. These and other cognitive
intervention programs being implemented in U.S. prisons were examined and summarized.
Bottoms (1999) defines interpersonal violence in prisons as "the unjustified use of, and threats of, actual
physical force in prison" (p. 214). In his essay on the subject, he explains that measuring the level of
interpersonal violence in prisons is difficult since a considerable proportion of assaults and physical threats are
known only to the parties concerned and therefore do not find their way into the official prison assault
figures. Bottoms cites as an example a study conducted by Silberman (1995) of a male maximum-security prison
in the United States. The prison used a classification system known as the Adult Internal Management System
(AIMS) to differentiate prisoners who are aggressive and independent, from those who are passive and
dependent, and those who fall into neither of these categories. According to Silberman's self-report survey,
inmates classified as aggressive and independent reported threatening or assaulting inmates and staff
significantly more often than the other two groups did. Silberman additionally reported that the detection rate
for assaults was higher among the aggressive group because they were subjected to closer official
surveillance (Bottoms, 1999).
In Prisons in Crisis, Selke (1993) presents a startling comparison of American prisons to Danish prisons. He
states that in the United States, "harsh conditions of imprisonment are purposeful, and it is claimed that prison
must be unpleasant in order to deter. In Denmark, on the other hand, the loss of liberty, in and of itself,
is considered sufficient punishment. To release prisoners in no worse condition than when they were admitted is
the practical aim of Danish prisons" (p. 59).
The use of segregation units remains a point of contention for many prisoner rights activists who argue that
human beings are gregarious by nature and require interaction with other humans in order to survive. A
Human Rights Watch publication in recent years claimed that at Indiana's Wabash Valley Correctional Facility there
is a tendency to keep difficult prisoners in segregation longer than is required in the interests of security and
longer than is wise for the prisoners' well-being. Controversy surrounds allegations that the facility does nothing
to encourage the prisoners' ability to reintegrate successfully into the general prison population or society
(Human Rights Watch, 1997).
A clinical observation of fourteen inmates at the Massachusetts correctional institution at Walpole revealed
serious psychiatric consequences of solitary confinement, including hallucinations and difficulties with thinking
and concentration. However, the Walpole study also indicated that several inmates tolerated solitary
confinement fairly well before mail, television, and radio privileges were revoked (Romano, 1996). This may
indicate that solitary confinement, in and of itself, is not sufficient to produce psychiatric disorders, but rather
that such disorders are manifested when stimulating activities are withheld from the inmate.
Canada revised its policy on super-maxes in 1990 to make the units more program-oriented. Canada's
central objective is "to motivate and assist dangerous inmates to reduce their risk to an acceptable level and
facilitate their successful reintegration into a lower security institution as early as feasible" (National Institute
of Corrections, 1993, p. 13). The restructuring of beliefs and attitudes shaped by past experiences is at the core
of cognitive intervention programs. Inmates are taught to rethink critically their available choices for
handling dilemmas through a variety of methods including anger-management training and other prosocial
Robinson, Grossman, and Porporino (1991) conducted an evaluation of cognitive intervention programs in use
in Canada during the preceding ten years of their study. They concluded that several indicators of program
success provided encouraging support for the effectiveness of cognitive intervention programs. An examination
of recidivism rates and some intermediate target measures revealed that, in comparison to non-participants,
program participants recidivated at a lower rate and made substantially greater improvements on
Departments of corrections throughout the United States have recently followed Canada's lead in the area
of cognitive interventions. Key programs are presented here for the purpose of illustrating the spread of
cognitive intervention programs throughout the United States and to demonstrate the type of housing units in
which they are being implemented.
Baro (1999) conducted a study of the effects on inmates of Strategies for Thinking Positively (STP), a
cognitive intervention program in operation at the Michigan Reformatory in lonia. Michigan Reformatory is
a maximum-security congregate housing facility for young male offenders (Michigan Department of
According to Baro (1999), Phase I of Michigan Reformatory's STP program is made up of 14 lessons presented as
a series over an 8-week period. Phase I groups meet twice per week in 90-minute sessions. Two STP-trained staff
are assigned to each group as teachers and facilitators. Successful completion of Phase I consists of
having demonstrated, in group sessions and homework assignments, familiarity with the basic principles and
tasks involved in the STP program.
During Phase II of STP, inmates live in a 40-bed housing unit and are assigned to treatment groups usually
consisting of 8 participants. Two staff facilitators are assigned to each group. Groups meet three times per week
in 90-minute sessions. A typical session involves one inmate presenting a thinking report about a recent
situation. The group listens to the report and provides assistance in identifying "thinking errors" and/or more
positive cognitive patterns. Phase II inmates have regular homework assignments and one-on-one
counseling sessions to review their journals; they also undergo regular staff review of progress in the program
Florida State Prison
Florida State Prison's Main Unit, constructed with the death chamber in 1961, operates as a maximum-
security segregate housing facility for adult male inmates who have proven to be serious management problems
in other institutions. Fifty-one television units have recently been installed in individual segregated cells on FSP's
I-wing. Participating inmates spend the morning watching videotapes about topics such as substance abuse,
the power of motivation, and mental and physical relaxation techniques. They complete workbook assignments
and end the five-and-a-half-hour session with cell-front instruction. George Smith and Randall Scoggins, managers
of the program, walk along the narrow corridor and stop in front of each cell to assist and chat with inmates.
"We look at their workbooks and see if they're having problems with reading and writing," Smith said. The
average grade level attained by the prisoners is sixth grade, while others can barely read or write." The goal of
FSP's Rethinking Personal Choice is to have inmates who have proven to be management problems in other
facilities, graduate from the seven-month curriculum and successfully reintegrate to a congregate system
of confinement (Fisher, 2000).
Colorado State Penitentiary
Colorado State Penitentiary (CSP) is a 504-bed management control unit, housing the department's most violent
and dangerous offenders. The Progressive Reintegration Unit (PRO) at CSP was developed about two years ago
on the principles of cognitive restructuring. In this system, inmates work their way to increased incentive
levels, which offer expanded privileges through demonstration of appropriate behavior and self-discipline
(Colorado Department of Corrections, 2000).
The program encourages inmates to evaluate decisions in how they relate to other people, as well as how to
make better decisions that have a more productive outcome for everyone. Of the 134 inmates who have
graduated from PRO and moved back to other prisons, only two have continued to have problems and were
returned to the maximum-security prison (Fisher, 2000).
The feasibility of implementing cognitive intervention programs in congregate versus segregate housing units is
the focus of this discussion. If the ultimate goal of imprisonment is to prepare the inmate for reintegration to a
free society, then it seems appropriate to begin the process at a place where freedom is most restricted,
namely, segregation. An inmate in segregation is a more captive audience for cognitive intervention because he is
not subject to the influences and distractions of other inmates to the extent afforded in congregate confinement.
Baro's (1999) study illustrates the inherent drawback associated with using congregate housing units as the
venue for cognitive intervention programs. According to Baro, of the approximately 500 inmates who had
completed Phase I since 1993 in Michigan's congregate facility, only about 20% entered Phase II. Transfers to
other facilities for security or disciplinary reasons appears to be a major reason why enrollment in Phase II
This research challenges the current process by which inmates are assigned to either congregate or
segregate housing units. Currently, inmates begin in congregate confinement and are transferred to segregation
for rule violations. A wiser placement strategy might situate all inmates in segregation with cognitive
intervention training, followed by gradual integration into congregate confinement. Cognitive intervention programs
in segregated housing units suggest that isolated confinement can be a productive, prosocial experience.
Housing inmates in segregation units equipped with cognitive intervention programs at the onset of their sentences
is the most humane and truly corrective method of incarcerating offenders. Efforts at future prison reform will
be facilitated by longitudinal studies of cognitive intervention programs in this context.
Baro, A. L. (1999). Effects of a Cognitive Restructuring Program on Inmate Institutional Behavior. Criminal
Justice and Behavior. Vol. 26, No. 4, December 1999, pp. 466-484. American Association for Correctional Psychology.
Bottoms, A. E. (1999). Interpersonal Violence and Social Order in Prisons. Prisons. In Crime and Justice: A Review
of Research. Vol. 26. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.
Colorado Department of Corrections. (2000, November 27). Colorado State Penitentiary.
Fisher. L. (2000, September 11). Behaving behind bars. Gainesville Sun.com.
Florida Department of Corrections. (2000, September 13). Major Prison Gangs. Gang and Security Threat
Group Awareness. .
Haney, C. (1993). 'Infamous Punishment': The Psychological Consequences of Isolation. The National Prison
Project journal. Spring, 1993, pp. 3-7, 21.
Human Rights Watch. (1997, October). Cold Storage: Super-Maximum Security Confinement in Indiana. ISBN:
Michigan Department of Corrections. (2000). Correctional Facilities Administration. Michigan Reformatory.
National Center for Policy Analysis. (1997, August). Crime and Gun Control. "Super-Max" Prisons. Idea
National Institute of Corrections. (1993). Summary for Corrections Administrators. Prepared by staff of LIS, Inc.
for the U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Corrections.
Oregon Department of Corrections. (1999, March). Corrections Briefings. Vol. 2, Issue 2.
Robinson, D., Grossman, M., and Porporino, F. (1991). Effectiveness of the Cognitive Skills Training Program:
From Pilot to National Implementation. The Research and Statistics Branch, Correctional Service of Canada.
Romano, S. M. (1996). If the SHU Fits: Cruel and Unusual Punishment at California's Pelican Bay State
Selke, W. L. (1993). Prisons in Crisis. Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press.
Silberman, M. (1995). A World of Violence: Corrections in America. CA: Wadsworth.
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