Advocate Staff Photo by Mark Saltz -- The front gate at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, the state's maximum-security prison, shot in 2009.

Mark Saltz

Prison reformers, in cooperation with state corrections officials, will spend the next two years studying the use of solitary confinement in Louisiana's prisons in an effort to cut down on a practice that's been labelled counterproductive and, in some cases, cruel.

Previous studies have shown that wardens use solitary confinement to punish minor offenses and that racial minorities are disproportionately put in segregation, said Sara Sullivan, project manager for the Vera Institute of Justice, which will partner with the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections starting early next year.

The nonprofit launched the Safe Alternatives to Segregation Initiative in five jurisdictions in 2015. Since then, North Carolina has stopped using solitary confinement on juveniles, and Nebraska has restricted its use as a punishment, according to a DOC news release.

Vera estimates that nationwide 80,000 to 100,000 people are currently being held in segregation and considers the use of solitary confinement — also known as restrictive housing — to be a safety and even a human rights matter.

"Increasing evidence suggests this practice is counterproductive to safety and security. Holding people in isolation with minimal human contact for days, years, or even decades can create or exacerbate serious mental health problems and anti-social behavior, have negative outcomes for institutional safety, lead to increased risk of recidivism after release, and is costly to resource strained corrections agencies," the institute wrote on its website.

Vera officials haven't yet set goals for their work in Louisiana prisons, though in current studies they've looked at reducing the amount of time inmates spend in isolation, alternatives to segregation and and best practices for reintroducing people in restrictive housing to the prison's general population.

Sullivan said they will look at all restrictive housing, including lock-up areas where inmates are allowed out for an hour or two every day. The nonprofit will also focus on specific groups, including juvenile offenders as well as prisoners with mental illnesses.

The Vera Institute is also interested in ensuring that people are placed in segregation for the right reasons — namely, to protect other inmates and staff. As the state Department of Corrections noted in its statement, when Nebraska scaled back its use of solitary confinement, it decided to make decisions "based on an assessment of the individual's risk to the safety and security of others and facility operations."

However, Sullivan said restrictive housing is often used for punishment, even for minor and non-violent offenses.

"In some situations, it becomes the go-to response for any rule violation," she said.

Louisiana is renowned for its use of restrictive housing, specifically in the cases of the so-called "Angola Three," who were held in segregation for decades at the state penitentiary at Angola. Albert Woodfox, implicated in the murder of a prison guard in the 1970s was released earlier this year after his sentence was overturned.

Sullivan said the state is enthusiastic to begin addressing the use of solitary confinement.

"Our selection speaks to our own progress as we have already taken internal steps toward reforming the Department's restrictive housing policy based on current best practices," DOC secretary Jimmy LeBlanc wrote in a statement.

Vera's work, funded by a U.S. Department of Justice grant, is scheduled to take 21 months. The state prisons in Minnesota, Nevada, Utah and Virginia will also be evaluated.

Follow Steve Hardy on Twitter, @SteveRHardy.