Center on Sentencing and Corrections

Promising Practices

Restrictive Housing Unit (RHU) Pilot


Virginia Department of Corrections

Brief Summary

The Virginia Department of Corrections (VADOC) recognized that, historically, the assignment and management of individuals to restrictive housing relied primarily on risk control methods for managing behavior. Based upon the success of the Wallens Ridge (WRSP) and Red Onion State Prison (ROSP) Restrictive Housing Reduction Step-Down Program, the department developed in 2014 a task force to review, use, and develop strategies to reduce the number of people being held in restrictive housing. This included providing opportunities for short-term restrictive housing residents to successfully reintegrate into the general prison population.

The Goal

The goal of this approach—known as the Restrictive Housing Unit (RHU) pilot program—is to build upon the gains already realized through the WRSP ROSP Restrictive Housing Reduction Step-Down program and the Steps to Achieve Re-Integration (STAR) program. This will be achieved by encompassing evidence-based principles and national best practices into daily operations to safely assist with the reduction of individuals placed into short-term restrictive housing. In the 12 months preceding implementation of the RHU pilot (April 2015 through March 2016), there were 1,895 admissions to segregation at the state’s four pilot sites. In the first 12 months after RHU implementation (May 2016 through April 2017), there were 1,328 admissions to RHU. This represents a 30 percent decrease in admissions.

The Process

The impetus for reform was initiated by the VADOC based upon evident success seen in the WRSP ROSP Segregation Reduction Step-Down Program. VADOC established a 70 plus-member task force that included all levels of staff from institutions, regional office, and headquarters. The reform was piloted for two years at four multiple-level facilities in the three regions: Greensville Correctional Center (Security Level 3, 192 beds), Buckingham Correctional Center (Security Level 3, 64 beds), Pocahontas State Correctional Center (Security Level 3, 20 beds), and St. Brides Correctional Center (Security Level 2, 20 beds). The institutions were selected based on their medium security level, diverse geographic location, and varying number of restrictive housing beds. The task force began collaboration in 2014 to develop operations later applied to the pilot in April 2016. All staff at the pilot sites received a Core Communications training refresher that enhanced effective communication skills. The Change Companies® certified select staff to effectively facilitate evidence-based Interactive Journaling®. To engage staff level of readiness, learning plans were created and utilized in learning teams within each pilot facility. Wardens conducted town hall meetings to provide a consistent message to staff, demonstrate support, and allow for voiced concerns.

The Solution

The purpose of the RHU pilot was to develop and test a statewide approach to enhance the effectiveness of restrictive housing while utilizing evidence-based practices that decrease risk and increase the likelihood of an individual’s success upon return to the general population. The target population displayed behaviors posing a threat to public, staff, or another offender’s safety and could not be immediately managed in the general population without a threat to the orderly operation of the facility.

The RHU pilot utilizes various statuses associated with differing levels and incentives. The RHU is operated under maximum-security regulations and procedures for the personal protection or custodial management of incarcerated people. Individuals who maintain proper behavioral goals and programming participation are reviewed by a multi-disciplinary team for the appropriate advancement into varying levels of Step Down 1 (SD-1), Step Down 2 (SD-2), or a mainstream general population.

Staff who work directly with individuals in restrictive housing on a regular basis were carefully selected based on their knowledge, skills, and abilities. Operating procedures were modified to encourage the consideration of alternative housing prior to the placement of an individual into restrictive housing, eliminate disciplinary sanctions as a penalty for the violation of institutional infractions, and enhance time out of cell with recreational opportunities.

The Results

The VADOC is continuing to expand the RHU pilot statewide. In May 2018, VADOC field units, work centers, and security level 2 and 3 institutions transitioned into the piloted restrictive housing operations. Significant results indicate that incarcerated individuals participating in the RHU pilot are spending, on average, seven fewer days in restrictive housing than they were under previous practices. In the 12 months prior to implementation of the RHU pilot (April 2015 through March 2016), individuals who were released from restrictive housing at the four pilot locations spent a median of 14 days in restrictive housing. Individuals released from restrictive housing during calendar year 2017—January- December 2017, following implementation of the pilot— spent a median of 13 days in restrictive housing. There was also a 15.2 percent-reduction in the number of disciplinary offense report convictions that resulted in an individual’s management in restrictive housing between April 2015-March 2016 (pre-Pilot period) and calendar year 2017.

Upon implementation of the RHU pilot, staff frequently conveyed skepticism about the initiative. However, most staff looked upon the reform positively. Staff and incarcerated individuals have expressed greater communication between them, resulting in a safer working environment. In the 2017 VADOC Staff Survey, 80.9 percent of all VADOC staff surveyed indicated that the RHU pilot procedures have a positive impact on the behaviors of participants at the pilot program institutions; 81.3 percent felt the RHU program should be implemented in all major institutions.

Lessons Learned

To ensure success of the program, it was imperative that staff was prepared and understood “the why” prior to implementation. This was accomplished through training, town hall meetings, learning teams, and asking staff questions to ensure that they understand. The process utilized for the implementation of the RHU pilot has proven effective. If provided the opportunity to go back and do something differently, one should consider piloting restrictive housing operations at a variety of security levels to allow for maximum understanding of the impacts and outcome.

This Promising Practices section of the SAS Resource Center was developed as part of a collaborative effort with the Vera Institute of Justice, University of Michigan Law School, and Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights. We are also deeply grateful to the many leaders across the country who created and implemented each of the reforms cited throughout this section for their efforts to reduce the use of restrictive housing in prisons and jails across the country.

Please note that Vera and our partners do not specifically endorse the practices and policies included in this section. The Promising Practices section features segregation reforms being implemented in prisons and jails around the country. Our goal is to serve as a resource to other jail and prison systems interested in implementing similar practices and policies by highlighting those jurisdictions that report successful reforms.