Profile of Offenders in Administrative Segregation: A Review of the Literature

Shauna Bottos
Research Branch
Correctional Service Canada


Administrative segregation is a form of confinement that offenders may enter voluntarily or involuntarily. Although it is not meant to be a form of punishment (Solicitor General of Canada, 1998), removal from the general inmate population may have adverse affects on the individual and may also impede reintegration efforts. As a result, there is a concern surrounding the potential overuse of administrative segregation as an offender management tool, particularly for those who request segregation voluntarily (Arbour, 1996). This latter group tends to remain in segregation for considerably longer periods of time than inmates placed in segregation involuntarily (CSC, 2005). A better understanding of the characteristics of offenders in segregation may aid in the development of a screening protocol for identifying offenders at-risk for such placements. This paper provides a review of this literature, as well as the evidence concerning the impact of segregation on offenders.

Most offenders in administrative segregation are placed there involuntarily, typically because they pose a danger to staff, other inmates, or the security of the institution. When offenders request segregation, it is most often because they fear that their personal safety is in jeopardy in the general inmate population (Wichmann & Nafekh, 2001).

A variety of case-specific factors assessed during admission to federal custody distinguish offenders placed in administrative segregation (i.e., voluntary or involuntary) from those who are not. Segregated inmates are most likely to be single, male offenders in their late 20’s to early 30’s, slightly younger than the non-segregated population (Wichman & Nafekh, 2001). Offenders placed in segregation tend to have more extensive criminal histories, more violent offence convictions, lower reintegration potential ratings, and higher security classifications at intake, than inmates who are not subsequently placed in segregation. The former group is also more likely to be assessed as higher risk and need. Throughout their sentence they show the greatest adjustment difficulties while incarcerated.

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In contrast to the similarities in the profile of male and female inmates placed in administrative segregation, gender differences become apparent when comparisons are drawn between those admitted voluntarily and those placed there involuntarily. For men, very few characteristics differentiate voluntarily and involuntarily segregated inmates, suggesting that their profile is best captured by that of the administrative segregation population as a whole. For women offenders, several factors distinguish these groups. Women placed in segregation involuntarily are more likely to be Aboriginal offenders, to have started their criminal careers earlier, and to exhibit more continual involvement in criminal activity, than women in voluntary segregation. Involuntarily segregated women are also more likely to have been placed in disciplinary segregation and commit considerably more institutional misconducts than their voluntarily segregated counterparts. This suggests that involuntarily segregated offenders have greater difficulty adjusting to the institutional environment.  Those who experience both involuntary and voluntary segregation, however, appear to be the highest risk and need offenders.

Placement in administrative segregation may have far reaching consequences. There is evidence that segregation may reduce offenders’ ability to be moved to lower security-level classifications and that segregation hinders access to programming (Luciani, 1997). Administrative segregation may also influence early release decisions. Segregated offenders have been found to be significantly less likely to be granted a discretionary release, more likely to be released at their statutory release or warrant expiry date, and to recidivate at higher rates, than non-segregated offenders (Motiuk & Blanchette, 2001; Wichmann & Nafekh, 2001). In contrast to speculations, there is no evidence to suggest that inmates’ psychological functioning is adversely impacted by the segregation experience (Zinger & Wichmann, 1999). Whether these outcomes differ according to voluntary and involuntary admissions has not been examined.

Given the changes in the federal offender population over the years, an update of the profile of offenders in administrative segregation would be useful, including an examination of the reasons offenders enter segregation voluntarily. These will be important steps toward the development of early risk identification protocols and more effective offender management strategies.