Advocates Urge Prison Officials to Reconsider Death Row Isolation

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Unlike other inmates in Texas' sprawling prison system, inmates who receive the ultimate punishment are automatically sent to solitary confinement. On Texas' death row, they spend 23 hours a day in their tiny cells. They can't work, watch television, have physical contact with family members who visit, or access educational or rehabilitative programs. 

Advocates hope that the living standards and privileges for the more than 270 inmates on death row could change now that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice is reviewing and updating its Death Row Plan. The plan defines the responsibilities of staff who working on the row and activities in which inmates there are allowed to engage. 

Department spokesman Jason Clark said in a statement that despite the review of the plan, "there are no significant changes anticipated." He added that it is a routine review and that there is no scheduled completion date. 

A coalition of inmates’ rights activists including mental health groups, religious officials, security experts and civil rights advocates this week sent TDCJ its suggested revisions to the plan. The groups say that solitary confinement is costly, increases staff stress and inmate suicide and gives inmates no incentives for good behavior. Under the advocates' proposed changes, inmates could earn the opportunity to receive more visits from family members. They could participate in group recreational and religious activities, work in on-site jobs, and use the television and the phone.

Before 1999, when death row inmates lived in the Ellis Unit in Huntsville with other inmates, the prisoners could participate in such activities. After convicted murderer Martin Gurule’s 1998 escape from death row, the TDCJ moved the row to the Polunsky Unit in Livingston and adopted the current solitary confinement arrangement.

 

Lance Lowry, president of the Huntsville American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said the creation of the current system was a knee-jerk reaction to Gurule’s escape and did not address the problems of training and equipment for prison employees. The TDCJ increased the physical security and upgraded facilities in the prisons but failed to better equip the staff, Lowry said.

“This has not been a positive thing for the inmates or the staff," Lowry said. "There has been increased aggression toward officers."

While prison officials individually assess other inmates to determine the type of security and housing arrangements that are appropriate, as they are in many states with the death penalty, those with death sentences are sent automatically to solitary confinement. They have no opportunity to work their way out with good behavior.

But in a ruling in November, a federal district court in Virginia ruled that the state violated death row inmates' right to due process by automatically sending them to solitary confinement in much the same way Texas does. The court, calling that state's death row "dehumanizing," found that death row inmates did not inherently present a bigger risk to the prison system and that, like other inmates, they were deserving of rehabilitative resources in the event that their appeals to the court might one day lead to their release. 

The National Alliance on Mental Illness says the TDCJ’s current system of long-term solitary confinement has been shown to cause mental health disturbances, suicide, depression, paranoia, psychosis and other antisocial behaviors. Greg Hansch, the policy coordinator for NAMI Texas, said it fosters an unsafe environment for both inmates and staff.

“Sticking with the status quo is alarming,” Hansch said.

It is also more expensive to house inmates in solitary confinement, and the advocates' proposed revisions that would allow for inmates with good behavior to live in units with non-death row inmates who are serving time for similar crimes. Lowry suggested that the TDCJ could redirect the savings toward training and incentives for solitary confinement staff to reduce turnover.

TDCJ spokesman Clark said in a statement that the agency is reviewing the suggestions like it would any public input. 

 

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