Center on Sentencing and Corrections

Promising Practices

Step-down Program

Agency

South Dakota Department of Corrections

Summary

The restrictive housing program at the South Dakota Department of Corrections (SDDOC) was implemented with guidance from the Community Resources for Justice (CRJ )in 2014 to support incarcerated people in restrictive housing by gradually easing restrictions and providing programming through a step-down level system. This program also enforces objective eligibility criteria and effective release procedures, which include a transition unit and a support group for those recently released back into the general population. One year into the implementation of the restrictive housing program, the population of incarcerated people in restrictive housing had dropped by 18 percent, and violent incidents in restrictive housing settings significantly decreased.

Goal

The goal of this reform was to overhaul the use of nonpunitive restrictive housing, focusing on improvement of institutional safety in SDDOC facilities and mitigation of risks associated with releasing incarcerated people from restrictive housing directly into the general population. Nonpunitive restrictive housing was overused (with the population consistently exceeding 100 people), and there was no formal step-down process to help incarcerated people transition out of restrictive housing.

Process

To address the overuse and ineffectiveness of solitary confinement in South Dakota prisons, the South Dakota Department of Corrections decided to implement the Crime and Justice Institute’s Model for Reshaping Restrictive housing to reform the use of nonpunitive restrictive housing. With guidance from the CRJ, in December 2013 CJI conducted a comprehensive assessment of SDDOC’s nonpunitive restrictive housing policies, as well as practices at SDSP. After identifying areas for improvement, a steering committee was convened to redesign a nonpunitive restrictive housing system to address the assessment findings. Included in this committee were administrative and correctional staff of SDDOC, including penitentiary leadership and representatives from the Department of Social Services. Subcommittees took charge of developing proposals for reforms, defining guiding values and principles, and proposing a vision for their reform work. Beginning in September 2014, the new restrictive housing program underwent a 5-month pilot which implemented parts of the new step-down model for 37 incarcerated people. Full rollout of the new restrictive housing program began in late January 2015.

Solution

The restrictive housing program redefines eligibility for nonpunitive restrictive housing, ensures that the placement process is objective, and implements an elaborate level/step-down system that provides incarcerated people with opportunities for learning, congregation, and support through their transition back into the general population. With detailed eligibility criteria, restrictive housing is specifically focused on those who exhibit violent or dangerous behavior. An objective, informed review of placement is enforced with multidisciplinary staffing of review committees and attention to the mental health and needs of incarcerated people.

The level system uses behavior change techniques to help incarcerated people in restrictive housing move to less restrictive environments with more programming as they transition through reentry levels. Starting at level 1, incarcerated people earn their progression to the following levels with good behavior and participation in rehabilitative programs such as video programming, self-directed activities, and Moral Reconation Therapy. With level 5 serving as a transition unit back into general population, incarcerated people are supported as they gradually exit restrictive housing. All people in the restrictive housing program receive monthly reviews with a case manager to plan for a return to general population and to reinforce positive behavior.

To effectively support incarcerated people as they return to general population, the restrictive housing program utilizes objective release decision-making in which good behavior, participation in programming, and rule compliance are prioritized as factors for release. Release preparation includes communication of expectations and concerns with case managers and a graduate discussion group for the 6 months following release from restrictive housing.

Results

One year into the implementation of the restrictive housing program, the population of incarcerated people in restrictive housing had dropped by 18%. This significant decrease is attributed to a 65% decrease in quarterly admissions into restrictive housing. These reforms have also resulted in a declined rate of violent incidents and less people released from restrictive housing directly into the community. Also improved is the staff’s comfortability in their roles and their more comprehensive tracking of incarcerated people. Those in restrictive housing are given opportunities to congregate, move more freely, and participate in programming and do not abuse these privileges. Also notable is the impact of SDSP’s reformed restrictive housing program on other incarceration facilities in SD DOC that have begun to show evidence of adopting improved successful step-down programs as well.

Lessons Learned

Factors which led to the success of the restrictive housing program are detailed ongoing planning that leaves room for necessary modifications, leadership from DOC representatives as well as corrections officers, and a strong commitment to prioritizing reforms. Additionally, ownership and accountability were essential to ensuring staff buy-in and investment in the restrictive housing program. With staff on all levels engaging with the conception and implementation of reforms, the program is well-informed by the experiences of staff and is effectively enforced by corrections officers who not only understand the rationale behind these reforms, but are familiar with their objectives and content.

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.