Solitary Diversion: Reforming Restricted Housing Units for Individuals with Severe Mental Health Diagnoses



Magnuson, Shannon

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Pennsylvania is the sixth largest carceral system in the US and confines over 40,000 people across their prisons. From 2014 through 2016, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (PADOC) experienced concurrent external pressure from the US Department of Justice Civil Rights Division and the Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania to rethink how they punished in-prison rule-breaking and confined individuals with severe mental health diagnoses (SMHD) inside their segregation units. Following both an investigation by the US Department of Justice and a settlement agreement with Disability Rights Network, PADOC operationalized legal agreements into several policy reforms for individuals with severe mental health diagnoses. These policy reforms included: (1) using disciplinary segregation as a last resort, and when using it, reserving it for the most serious rule-breaking offenses; (2) when an individual is sentenced to segregation, placing them in a new Diversionary Treatment Unit (DTU) and changing the "look and feel" of this new unit to include more out-of-cell time, access to group therapy and increased contacts with psychology staff, and; (3) sentencing individuals to the new DTU only for 30-days and releasing individuals earlier when appropriate and as bed space allows in general population. Using both administrative misconduct data and interview data from individuals confined in the DTU and staff working in the DTU, this dissertation considers the degree to which PADOC met each of the specific disciplinary segregation policy reforms. Importantly, this dissertation considers the totality of the progress on these policy reforms and offers a broader discourse about the realities of externally mandated change, the importance of intersectionality as a lens for talking about incarcerated individuals with SMHD, and the need to reconceptualize punishment for, arguably, the most vulnerable carceral population – individuals with severe mental health diagnoses.



Solitary confinement, Prisons, Organization change, Severe mental health disorders, Prison misconducts, Prison reform