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Lawmakers, Advocates Revisit State's Approach to Solitary Confinement

As solitary confinement grows in the national spotlight, Texas lawmakers and advocates are concerned about the re-entry of prisoners held for years without much human contact. For many, it's a matter of public safety.

By Maurice Chammah, The Marshall Project
Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, chairman of the Texas Senate Committee on Criminal Justice, at a Sept. 4, 2012, hearing.

Solitary confinement has been referred to by many names, including "special housing units," "lockdown" and "the hole." In Texas, it's called "administrative segregation," and prison administrators reserve it for inmates considered particularly dangerous, including those affiliated with a prison gang.

While solitary confinement in prisons is rising as a national issue because of concerns about its psychological effect on individual inmates, Texas lawmakers are worried in particular that inmates are released with no transition between solitary confinement and the free world.

"The longer you leave someone in there without rehabilitation, there is a possibility they will come out more dangerous,” Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire, D-Houston, said Tuesday at a committee hearing.

Though the U.S. still leads the world in its rate of solitary confinement, Texas has seen a slight decline in its number of inmates held in administrative segregation. There are 8,144 inmates (including roughly 80 women) under the classification in Texas, down from 8,701 in 2010 and 9,752 in 2005. The average stay in administrative segregation is 3.2 years, but some inmates have been there for more than two decades.

Solitary confinement gained traction nationally in the 1980s, when the federal prison system turned increasingly toward “supermax” prisons in response to the growth of prison gangs. Texas followed, placing inmates deemed members of “security threat groups” into cells for 23 hours a day, letting them out only for recreation and showers.

According to Jason Clark of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, gang members were threatening the families of guards if they didn't let drugs into the prison, and strict custody was needed to keep these inmates from communicating with gang members outside the prison. Administrative segregation cells are located in 22 of Texas' more than 100 state prisons.

Meanwhile, the psychological impact of such conditions continues to become a national issue, and Texas advocates aren't ignoring it. Travis Lee of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition discussed a letter from an inmate who had been in administrative segregation for 18 years. “I have difficulty concentrating while reading and talking and I forget what I was trying to say mid-sentence,” the inmate wrote. “I’ve watched sane men slowly go insane, become a person I’ve never seen before. They lose their ability to rationalize.”

“This gives you a picture of the conditions people are being removed straight from,” Lee said, “and placed straight into the community.”

“We're taking people we're mad at and making them into people we're scared of,” says Matt Simpson, a policy strategist with the Texas ACLU. “I think what we need is a better classification system." He says Texas should look to Mississippi, which over the last nine years has drastically decreased its population in solitary confinement through graduated incentives, anger management programs and more recreation.

“I ain’t worried about their comfort level, to be honest,” Whitmire said at Tuesday’s hearing. He is concerned about the release and re-entry of inmates held in these conditions, which mostly do not allow for educational or rehabilitative programs. “Is there something we could be doing with this population,” he asked, “to see if we can make an imprint, a change in their behavior?"

According to Brad Livingston, the executive director of TDCJ, his department is looking at educational programs for inmates in administrative segregation. At the Estelle Unit near Huntsville, officials have placed television monitors in some of their cells for educational viewing, as part of the Serious and Violent Offender Reentry Initiative Program. Livingston says there are plans to expand the program if all goes well.

"I'm looking out for public safety that they're not in Ad Seg their whole sentence and then they come back to the streets,” Livingston said. This year, 878 inmates have finished their sentence and were released directly from administrative segregation.

According to Livingston, TDCJ is looking to expand opportunities for inmates to get out of administrative segregation by renouncing their gang affiliations. He estimates that 60 percent of inmates have ended up in this classification due to their membership in a gang, and that with more resources these inmates can get back into the general population. "It's not in our interest to have inmates in administrative segregation that could be housed in general population," he said.

Whitmire recommended a working group be convened to study the best way to rehabilitate these inmates. “Removing people from that, and not providing them with resources or some assistance, is obviously detrimental to public safety,” he said. 

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State government State agencies Texas Department Of Criminal Justice