Updated, May 21, 6:55 p.m.:
The House on Tuesday tentatively approved Senate Bill 1003, which would require a now-defunct legislative oversight committee to hire an independent party to review solitary confinement conditions in Texas prisons and juvenile lockups.
The Austin American Statesman reported that the Criminal Justice Legislative Oversight Committee, which under the bill would be assigned to hire someone to conduct the review, has been defunct since 2009. It used to be a joint committee of legislators from the House and Senate.
Under SB 1003, an independent third party hired by the committee would review policies for the use of administrative segregation — otherwise known as solitary confinement — and report to legislators on why it is used, the conditions of confinement and what happens to inmates after they are held in "ad seg."
"They’re going to let us know what's going on, essentially," said state Rep. Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City, the House sponsor of the bill by state Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas. "Their task is to look at what's going on in ad seg and what's going on after ad seg."
Carona told the Statesman that Gov. Rick Perry's office requested that the legislative committee be tasked with hiring an independent reviewer. “I presume there will be a committee to do that,” he told the newspaper.
Efforts to gather data and develop recommendations to reduce the use of solitary confinement in Texas jails and prisons seem to have withered this session in the face of opposition from officials who oversee those facilities.
“There’s not a temperature for it,” said state Rep. Marisa Marquez, D-El Paso.
Both Marquez and state Rep. Ryan Guillen, D-Rio Grande City, said their proposals, which would require agencies that house adult and juvenile inmates to report information about their use of administrative segregation, were running out of time as critical deadlines in the House passed recently. While Texas Department of Criminal Justice officials said they don’t take positions for or against legislation, Brazos County Sheriff Christopher Kirk said he and his colleagues who oversee local lockups across the state opposed the measure. They worried that it would be a step on the path to eliminating their ability to use “ad seg” to protect inmates and prison staff.
The measures proposed by Marquez and Guillen would require agencies that house inmates to report how often they use ad seg, why they use it, which types of prisoners are isolated and what happens to prisoners who are confined alone for extended periods of time.
“The purpose of the bill was to get TDCJ to report these issues so that we could make policy decisions based on solid numbers,” Marquez said.
In fiscal year 2012, more than 830 inmates were discharged from ad seg directly to the streets, according to the TDCJ. Another 613 were released on parole and mandatory supervision.
At legislative budget hearings, Marquez said, TDCJ officials were unable to adequately explain how much it costs to house inmates in ad seg or how many of those prisoners had some kind of mental or physical illness. Her bill would have required the gathering of such data along with recommendations for reducing the use of solitary confinement.
“I can’t imagine someone getting better for being in a place 23 hours a day with only an hour to go out,” Marquez said. “I cannot see how that’s rehabilitative.”
Many lawmakers, she said, don’t understand that some inmates go directly back to the streets, into their constituents’ neighborhoods and communities, after long-term solitary confinement. And TDCJ officials, she said, buck at the notion of additional oversight.
“They continue to want the flexibility to do whatever they want,” she said.
Kirk said that in local lockups like his, ad seg is used differently than in the TDCJ. It’s not always used as a disciplinary tool to punish inmates who break the rules or act aggressively. Often, he said, it is used as a safety protocol to isolate those who have a contagious disease or who might be preyed upon by other inmates. Those inmates, he said, have the same access to programs in the jail and to commissary and other privileges despite being housed in ad seg.
Sheriffs are already required to report to the Texas Commission on Jail Standards about their use of ad seg, Kirk said, though not in as much detail as the legislation would require.
“The sheriffs would argue that this is a necessary classification for certain inmates,” Kirk said. “It is important for jails to have the capabilities to use it when it’s needed.”
From 2009 to 2012, 88 inmates committed suicide in Texas county jails, according to the Texas Jail Project, and nearly half of them were housed in single cells.
Diana Claitor, director of the Jail Project, said she finds the sheriffs’ resistance to the measure ironic given that they have complained bitterly in recent years about the lack of funding for mental health services in Texas, which has resulted in a dramatic rise in the number of mentally ill inmates in their facilities. If lawmakers understand the scope of the problem and how often those inmates must be housed in isolation, Claitor said, they might be inclined to provide resources for counties to cope with the issue.
“It’s a pitiful state of affairs when we’re all so concerned about the ever-increasing number of mentally ill in jails and we are not willing to at least try to look at some alternative solutions,” she said.
Marquez’s bill, House Bill 686, didn’t receive a vote from the House Corrections Committee. Guillen’s bill, House Bill 1266, was approved by the committee but died in the Calendars Committee, which had a Tuesday deadline to post House bills for consideration on the floor. Marquez attempted to add her bill to the TDCJ omnibus bill, but the amendment failed. Neither lawmaker, though, was prepared to admit defeat on the issue.
There could be some hope in Senate Bill 1003 by state Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, which would require ad seg reports from TDCJ and TJJD but not from county jails. It has been approved in the Senate, and the House Corrections Committee passed the measure on Thursday.
“You don’t have to pass a bill to change things is what I’ve learned,” Guillen said, “And I think we’re making progress.”