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The utilization of MP3 players correctional segregation units.

Since Michael J. Ashe Jr. took over as sheriff of Hampden County in 1975, the Massachusetts Sheriff's Department (HCSD), which administers the Hampden County Jail and House of Correction, has been at the cutting edge of corrections by delivering new and innovative approaches to correctional treatment. One of the main goals of HCSD has been and continues to be providing treatment programs to the approximately 1,500 individuals incarcerated and detained in its custody.

In 2008, Ashe empowered a committee consisting of security, human services, mental health, forensic and wellness staff to reform many of the policies in its special management segregation units. As a result of the committee's work as approved by the sheriff, the department changed its classification requirements for segregation and reduced the amount of time inmates spent in segregation by allowing the completion of their disciplinary time in general population. Double-bed cells in segregation were converted to single cells in order to assist in the prevention of assaults among the inmates. When inmates in segregation followed the rules, they would be given more privileges to reward their positive behavior. One of these privileges was the use of pre-programmed MP3 players. These players contained material such as sell-help audio programs, treatment programs, contemporary and classical music, nature soundscapes and audio books.

All HCSD inmates participate in mandatory programming on a daily basis. Prior to 2008, inmates housed in segregation did not have access to programming, largely due to security concerns. Some of the policy reforms focused specifically on providing the inmates housed in segregation with educational and treatment-based programs. In addition to providing some classroom instruction to inmates housed in segregation, the current technology of MP3 players would be utilized as a safe, secure and cost-effective vehicle to deliver programs to inmates and to prevent mental decompensation. HCSD has become, to its knowledge, the first correctional department to utilize MP3 players specifically for the delivery of correctional programming, and the MP3 players have quickly become an important tool for rewarding and reinforcing positive behavior for the inmates housed in segregation.

Information About MP3 Players

In the 1990s, technology became available to allow larger music files to be converted into smaller formats called MP3s. This essentially enabled people to store large quantities of music on small amounts of hard drive space. In 1998, some of the first MP3 players became available to the public, but were limited in their ability, with a storage capacity of 10-20 songs. As time has progressed, MP3 players can now stockpile thousands of hours of music and other content.

After much research, HCSD decided to utilize MP3 players because of their design as one-piece headset units that have the MP3 control unit built right into the headset. This design alleviates the need for corded headsets. One of the main concerns with using MP3 players in segregation was the possibility of inmates dismantling the unit and turning it into a weapon to use on themselves or others. Due to this concern, security staff disassembled the unit and found that the device, according to HCSD's judgment of its security requirements, does not contain any materials that can be used in making weapons. The units also come with headset covers that are changed for hygienic purposes every time they are given to different inmates.

Purposes of Using MP3 Players in Segregation

One of the main reasons for implementing the policy reforms and allowing inmates to use MP3 players was to prevent mental decompensation. The Washington State Department of Social and Health Services stated, "Mental decompensation is when symptoms of a mental health disorder begin to be more prominent, and the person is unable to manage or cope with their symptoms." (1) In the process of mental decompensation, inmates can endure various changes such as perceptual changes, affective disturbances, cognitive difficulties, disturbing thought content and impulse control problems. (2) Mental decompensation tends to occur at higher rates in segregation than in general population because inmates tend to spend approximately 22-23 hours per day in their cells, they can be isolated from other inmates and staff and they have minimal access to treatment and programs. (3) HCSD has developed a treatment team that consists of security, human services, mental health, forensic and wellness staff who are responsible for evaluating each inmate who arrives to segregation and providing them with appropriate services and programming. Inmates' use of MP3 players allows them to remain engaged in content rather than in their own negative thoughts.

Another reason for allowing inmates to use MP3 players is the concept of positive behavioral reinforcement. When inmates arrive in segregation, they receive an orientation to the segregation unit and a treatment plan that informs them of behavioral expectations while they are housed in segregation. When inmates follow their treatment plan and do not engage in maladaptive behavior, they are given more privileges to reward their positive behavior. These privileges can range from being given access to an exercise cell; being given the ability to participate in programs outside of the unit; being given access to the gym for walking, jogging or basketball; to being allowed to use the MP3 players. The treatment team makes recommendations based on the initial evaluation, and the inmates are allowed to use the preprogrammed MP3 players to address their individual needs. This concept follows HCSD's mission to provide treatment and productive activities to all inmates in its custody.

Additionally, "a majority of all successful prisoner suicides occur in segregation housing." (4) The MP3 players have the potential to aid in suicide prevention by keeping the inmates busy and their minds stimulated with the various content. Instead of inmates spending 23 hours-a-day locked in their cells with essentially nothing to do, they have the opportunity to spend several hours listening to music, relaxation techniques, recordings on different coping mechanisms and recorded treatment programs. This can potentially keep them from engaging in suicidal behavior because it gives them something to look forward to and they can use the content to help them better adjust to their environment.

Lastly, keeping the inmates housed in segregation busy with the MP3 players can also keep them from engaging in maladaptive behavior. Instead of creating disturbances or destroying property, they tend to be engaged with the MP3 players. The lure of the MP3 players can also aid in the inmates' decision-making processes in engaging in maladaptive behavior, because they may think twice about losing the privilege of using the MP3 players. Since the policy reforms were updated, the climate in segregation has become more positive and the correctional officers working there have reported a sense of greater well-being.

MP3 Player Contents

The MP3 players are loaded with various content to enhance the mind, body and spirit of the inmates incarcerated in segregation. The various programming includes anger management classes, substance abuse treatment and parenting classes. By uploading the MP3 players with these programs, the inmates are able to receive programming while housed in their cells in segregation. The self-help content consists of listening experiences that help the inmates learn how to handle different emotions, and how to meditate, relax and better manage their stress. The self-help content is utilized to elicit the relaxation response and teach the inmates how to cope under times of distress. According to Benson, Friedman and Meyers, "The relaxation response is the biological consequence of a wide variety of mental focusing techniques, one of which is meditation. This widely applicable and beneficial concept should be routinely integrated into psychological, behavioral and medical treatments." (5) It should be noted that MP3 players are uploaded with classical and contemporary music, along with fiction and nonfiction books as a segue to treatment content, as well as a barrier to mental decompensation.

Cost Efficiencies

Another reason the MP3 players are utilized by HCSD is for cost-effectiveness. The cost of each MP3 player is $33.25, and depending on its particular usage, it will last approximately six-12 months. So far, no units have been destroyed by inmates. However, a few units have stopped working or broken down due to vigorous use. In addition to the units being affordable, countless hours of staff time have been preserved. As an alternative to the hiring of staff to facilitate all of the various topics listed above, the classes can be delivered to the inmates via the MP3 players at any point during the day. Depending on the length of the topic, these MP3 players require between five-30 minutes to initially program. After usage, they are collected and inspected by staff, which usually takes less than a minute. The players are stored in locked cabinets for use by security or human services staff. The MP3 player can be used in the inmate's cell, which eliminates the need for additional space to conduct groups. This ability for utilization by a single inmate in a cell produces numerous cost efficiencies, reducing the need to heat and cool additional rooms and the need to utilize additional computers, projectors and other media to deliver the content with resultant energy consumption.

By keeping the inmates busy, the climate has improved and there have been less disciplinary issues in segregation. One example of how this has reduced cost at HCSD is the reduction of damaged sprinkler heads in segregation. If an inmate damages a sprinkler head, the unit has to be replaced at a cost of $53.46. Inmates typically damage sprinkler heads as a way to engage in deviant behavior, obtain negative attention from staff or interfere with staff time and resources. In addition to the cost of the new sprinkler head, there are numerous staff hours spent replacing the unit, repairing the damage, moving the inmate to another cell and cleaning up the mess. In one year, the number of incidents of damaged sprinkler heads has decreased approximately 85 percent. Another very costly problem to correctional departments are assaults on correctional staff. If a staff member is assaulted, in addition to the very human sense of empathetic camaraderie the department feels for its staff member, the department is responsible for providing the victim with medical care, psychological treatment, compensation salary and legal fees when the department presses charges on the inmate. In the event of the occurrence of an inmate suicide, in addition to the tragic loss of life, the department can be faced with numerous lawsuits. If keeping the inmates productively engaged can lead to fewer assaults on staff and fewer inmate suicides, the facility will be safer and lives will be saved.

On average, approximately 90 percent of inmates housed in segregation are eligible to use the MP3 players because of their positive behavior. About 90 percent of the eligible inmates take advantage of the opportunity to use the MP3 players. The inmates that do utilize the MP3 players get an average of 15 hours of programming per week.

Further Use

Due to the success of using MP3 players in segregation, it now appears plausible to utilize MP3 players to assist in the prevention of mental decompensation throughout the facility, as well as to deliver programs to any unit in the facility. As a result of recent budget cuts and hiring freezes, there are many correctional departments that are unable to provide inmates with educational or treatment programming due to a lack of funding. The introduction of MP3 players into these facilities will allow the accessibility and availability of programs and self-help material to inmates at a minimal cost to the department. Additionally, the MP3 players have the potential to be preprogrammed with information regarding reentry services that can help the inmates when they transition back into the community. The MP3 players can deliver information to reinforce their release plan and better explain all of the resources and services that are available to them upon their release. There is no question that corrections' newest frontier of reentry can be assisted in creative ways by the utilization of the newest innovations in technology.


By utilizing the MP3 technology to deliver various programs, self-help material and musical selections, HCSD is now able to provide and deliver educational and treatment programs to inmates housed in segregation and keep the inmates positively engaged, working against mental decompensation. The MP3 players serve as a reward for positive behavior and as motivation for the inmates to follow their treatment plans and the rules in segregation. The climate in segregation has been improved for both inmates and correctional staff. Additionally, the MP3 players have afforded the department numerous cost-efficiency benefits. According to Agha, Browne and Cambier, "Enhancing the programming available to individuals held in segregation also has the potential to decrease violence and disturbances and increase prisoners' positive adjustment. The provision of safe and healthy conditions in segregation will benefit not only the staff and prisoners in those units but also ultimately the well-being of facilities, systems and the community." (6)


(1.) Washington State Department of Social and Health Services. 2008. Mental health specialty training: Basic training for managers and caregivers. Olympia, Wash.: Author. Retrieved Oct. 29, 2011, from

(2.) O'Keefe, M. 2008. Administrative segregation from within: A corrections perspective. The Prison Journal, 88(1): 123-143.

(3.) Pizarro, J. and V. Stenius. 2004. Supermax prisons: Their rise, current practices, and effect on inmates. The Prison Journal, 84(2): 248-264.

(4.) Lanes, E. 2010. Are the "worst of the worst" self-injurious prisoners more likely to end up in long-term maximum-security administrative segregation? International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, 55(7): 1034-1050.

(5.) Benson, H., R. Friedman and P. Meyers. Meditation and the relaxation response. In Assessment and Therapy: Specialty Articles from the Encyclopedia of Mental Health, ed. H.S. Friedman. San Diego: Academic Press.

(6.) Agha, S., A. Browne and A. Cambier. 2011. Prisons within prisons: the use of segregation in the United States. Federal Sentencing Reporter, 24(1): 46-49.

By John Evon and Francis Olive III

John Evon is the training and wellness supervisor for the Hampden County Sheriff's Department. He can be contacted at, or (413) 858-0551. Francis Olive III is a former correctional counselor/correctional officer and is currently working on his doctorate in criminal justice at the University of New Haven.
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Author:Evon, John; Olive, Francis, III
Publication:Corrections Today
Geographic Code:1U1MA
Date:Dec 1, 2012
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