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Prison segregation – the limits of law
Ellie Brown with an in-depth look at dehumanising and destructive segregation.

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Ethnographic study into prison segregation

Dr Ellie Brown, through her work as Head of Strategy at Crest Advisory, discusses her new book on segregation in this guest blog. Ellie is also a door tenant at 7BR, a trustee of the Bromley Trust and committed to prison reform efforts.

Segregation units are a challenging part of the prison system. They are units within prisons where prisoners are locked alone in their cells for 22 to 24 hours a day. Segregated prisoners cannot associate with other prisoners, often have limited visitation rights and cannot take part in the full range of prison activities. Segregation is a “place” (a unit in the prison) but it also occurs as a “practice” on the wings, where prisoners are confined to their cells for long periods, without association, often outside the legal safeguards afforded to those in the segregation unit.

Segregation has not been without its critics. Back in 2017, Richard Vince, the Executive Director of the Long Term and High Security Estate, criticised the extent of its use, the form it takes and the impact it has on prisoners. The Independent Monitoring Board routinely raises concerns about the use of segregation, in their reports, and the Prisons Inspectorate (HMIP) has raised concerns, in numerous annual reports (see the reports of 2020-21 and 2021-22). Some of the concerns are raised, again, by HMIP in its 2022-23 annual report, which finds that segregation units continue to offer limited regimes, little purposeful activity and have poor material conditions (some cells lacking even basic provisions like electricity).


Some of these findings echo my own in my new book Prison Segregation: The Limits of Law. However, my book adds texture to – and, at times, departs from – this latest HMIP report. I identify the complexities of staff-prisoner relationships and the distinct cultural characteristics which can make segregation units difficult, dehumanising and destructive places, for both staff and prisoners.

I spent five months conducting fieldwork in a high-security prison, interviewing 25 prisoners and 17 staff and spent time on the wings and in other parts of the prison. With a background practising law, I was interested in the relationship between law and practice – “law in the books” versus “law in action”. The main themes I explored are:

  1. How segregation is used and why;
  2. How it is experienced, by both staff and prisoners; and
  3. How, if at all, the law affects how it is used and experienced.

I trace the history of segregation units and map them to the legal and regulatory framework over time. I also analyse case law, to understand how the law has been used by prisoners to challenge segregation practices and conditions.

I pay particular attention to how the unit accommodates individuals with many needs, often contradictory ones. It is intended to be a place of punishment for those who violated prison rules; a space to care for those at risk of suicide or self-harm; and a place of utility for those who engineered a move to segregation with hopes of forcing a transfer out of the prison. Importantly, I found that segregation is not always a “last resort”.

The culture of segregation

In the book I explore the culture of the unit, particularly its role in the interpretation and implementation of rules and laws. I found that a dominant staff culture can erode oversight and accountability mechanisms, and how rules and laws can be subsumed within a unit’s culture. And this has important implications for  policymakers whose efforts to drive reform will always be constrained by the prevailing operational, organisational and cultural conditions of the unit.

I also examine legal safeguards, such as segregation review meetings, and highlights how inadequate these can be – for both staff and prisoners. I describe how law becomes “proceduralised”, whereby rules, processes and paperwork seep into the unit, at the expense of both procedural and substantive justice. Justice was seen to be done but it wasn’t substantively done.

Although at times the book paints a picture of despair, it isn’t a hopeless narrative. In my concluding chapter – Challenge, Change and Hope  – I provide a number of recommendations aimed at getting to the root of the toxicity of prison culture and consider alternatives to segregation:

Segregation survives in our penal system as a result of entrenched thinking: ‘that’s the way it has always been done’. Segregation is the accepted response to threats of violence and disorder in prison. When we talk about abolishing segregation or changing current policy, we are not discussing alternatives to something that ‘works’. Instead, we are acknowledging that the risks and problems of segregation, as currently stand, are no longer ones we can tolerate. We choose something different; not out of bravery, not out of curiosity but out of a responsibility to victims, offenders, society and what remains of our democracy. It is not just about asking whether there is an appetite (or political will) for something new, but we should also be asking whether there is any moral, ethical or practical basis for continuing with the old.

The book

The book is one of the first research studies of its kind: an in-depth ethnographic study of law, culture and norms within the segregation unit. It relies on the voices of prisoners and staff, as well as observations and descriptions, to bring experiences to life. The accounts from staff and prisoners – sometimes joyous, sometimes harrowing – provide access to, and insights into, parts of our criminal justice system that are typically impenetrable. It is a study of law and power in segregation units – and prison more broadly – but it is also a very human account of lived experiences. It will be of real interest to those working in law, sociology, criminology and sociology, and contains pragmatic recommendations which would appeal to practitioners, lawyers, prison-managers and policy makers.

You can buy the book from Routledge here.

I am keen to continue conversations about segregation, prisons and work on policy and reform efforts. You can contact me by clicking below:
Email Ellie

Thanks to Andy Aitchison for kind permission to use the header image in this post. You can see Andy’s work here

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