By Published: Nov. 15, 2016

While criminal-gang members are routinely imprisoned in 'restrictive housing,' evidence justifying the practice is slim, CU Boulder researcher finds

Members of criminal gangs are disproportionately placed in restrictive housing when they are imprisoned in the United States, but the evidence supporting this practice is “weak,” says University of Colorado Boulder criminologist David Pyrooz, who advocates more rigorous research on whether widespread isolaton of gang members is based on the best empirical evidence.

Pyrooz, an assistant professor of sociology and faculty associate in the Institute of Behavioral Science at CU Boulder, is the author of a chapter in an edited volume on restrictive housing, commonly called solitary confinement, released by the National Institute of Justice, which is the research, evaluation and development agency of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), this week.


David Pyrooz

Pyrooz’s chapter on gang membership and restrictive housing is one of 10 included in the volume that aims to understand how, when and why prisons employ restrictive housing.

In July 2015, President Obama asked the DOJ to review “the overuse of solitary confinement across American prisons.” An estimated 100,000 of the United States’ 1.6 million prisoners are in restrictive housing. About 200,000 U.S. prisoners are gang members.

Pyrooz, an expert on criminal gangs, is focused on the use of restrictive housing of gang members. “The available evidence indicates that gang members are housed in restrictive housing prison cells and units at much higher rates that non-gang inmates—their risk is anywhere from six to 71 times greater in states such as California, Colorado and Texas,” according to Pyrooz.

The reason for this overrepresentation is violence and maintaining safe prisons. “Some gang members are involved in misconduct, others need protection, while many states contend that being a gang member puts the entire order of prisons at risk,” said Pyrooz

Many prison systems do not have to automatically segregate gang members, yet are still able to achieve low levels of violence.”

A few studies show a correlation between the greater use of solitary confinement and lower rates of prison violence, Pyrooz noted.

But those studies do not account for other shifts in the prison systems. Rigorous examinations of prison violence would also consider other policies, not just those related to gangs, that could make prisons safer. “Were there more correctional officers hired? Were there demographic changes to the prison system at that time? Those are the types of things we want to look at before we reach firm conclusions,” Pyrooz said.Asking such questions does not discount the findings of the less-rigorous studies, Pyrooz said. However, he said, “What you want to see is more rigor when you’re trying to identify the effect of restrictive-housing policies on violence.”

Additionally, Pyrooz said, research should address questions of how gang members, once placed in solitary confinement, can get out of restrictive housing.

“In about a third of the states in the U.S., simply your status of being a gang member is good enough to get you into solitary,” Pyrooz said. Typically, new prisoners—or “new fish” in prison parlance—are screened by classification officers who seek to determine whether prisoners are affiliated with gangs.

When prisoners are deemed to be gang members, they are often housed accordingly: sometimes with fellow gang members, sometimes with people of the same race, sometimes in solitary confinement.

“Other guys have to earn their way into restrictive housing, whereas gang members get in there based on their status, which has drawn the ire of prison-reform advocates and the inmates themselves,” Pyrooz said.

Those prisoners can remain in solitary confinement for years, during which time the prisoners’ connection and affinity with gangs can wane, according to Pyrooz. “Many prison systems do not have to automatically segregate gang members, yet are still able to achieve low levels of violence,” he said.

More than 30,000 prisoners in California went on hunger strikes in 2011 and 2013 to protest widespread use of solitary confinement. Afterward, a class-action lawsuit yielded significant changes in California prisons’ use of solitary confinement.

The president’s initiative on solitary confinement last year underscored the fact that there is a “severe shortage of information on the topic,” Pyrooz said.

Some state prison systems—particularly Washington, Pennsylvania and Ohio—are known for allowing researchers wide access to study their prison systems. “Other states are a little bit more difficult to gain access to.” Pyrooz is currently leading a study of gangs in the Texas prison system, however.

But even when states are open to independent research by scholars like Pyrooz, inmates themselves can be wary of sharing information.

“This is a difficult and highly charged topic. Gangs are not easy to deal with behind bars, and studying them can be challenging, too,” Pyrooz said.

In street settings, officials have implemented reasonably effective intervention and prevention programs. “We simply don’t have a strong knowledge base on the consequences, both good and bad, of restrictive housing even though correctional officials believe that it is the most effective solution to dealing with gangs,” Pyrooz said.

Pyrooz notes that strong opinions exist among prison-reform advocates and prison officials. “What we want to see is for people to base their arguments not on anecdotes or ideological grounds, but empirical evidence, and the empirical evidence is wanting at this time.”