Of all the statistics that point to an urgent need to reform the use of solitary confinement in Texas prisons, there’s one that is most striking: The Texas Department of Criminal Justice released more than 1,200 people directly from solitary confinement back into Texas communities in 2013.
Imagine for a moment languishing alone in a 60-square-foot cell for 22 hours a day, for months or even years. Then one day, suddenly you’re left to successfully re-enter society.
This practice needs to stop.
If there were evidence that the current use of solitary confinement in Texas was serving to protect law-abiding Texans from harm and make prisons function better, then this scenario would be defensible.
The truth is that the practice serves no one. It endangers the communities into which they’re released, and it inflicts destabilizing misery on prisoners.
A report recently published by the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas and the Texas Civil Rights Project found that 4.4 percent of the prison population housed by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice is held in solitary confinement.
The average term of solitary is almost four years. And for more than 100 Texas prisoners, solitary confinement has lasted more than 20 years.
Let me repeat that, with emphasis. The average time spent in solitary is almost four years. For more than 100 Texas prisoners, that isolated cell has been “home” for more than 20 years.
The cost of this isn’t just borne by the prisoners. It’s shouldered by Texas taxpayers, the communities into which prisoners are released, and prison staffers.
The cost of putting prisoners in solitary confinement is approximately 50 percent greater than housing them in the general population. People released from solitary confinement are more likely to commit new crimes than people released from the rest of the prison system.
Even the rates of violence against prison staff members which solitary confinement is intended in part to reduce seem to be increasing as a result of the practice.
In fact, the head of the largest correctional officers’ union in Texas recently testified at a federal hearing that serious assaults on correctional staffers have more than doubled during the past seven years. He attributed this rise in substantial part to the increased use of solitary confinement.
Prisoners with mental illness are especially ill-served by solitary confinement. As a psychiatrist, and the executive director of a mental health foundation, I find it hard to imagine a worse prescription for those with mental illness than to put them in the most haunting and psychologically oppressive spaces in the already destabilizing context of incarceration. It’s a recipe for further trauma and decompensation.
For too long solitary confinement has been deployed as a routine disciplinary measure, rather than as an extreme practice reserved for rare circumstances. This needs to change.
Among other reforms, we should better train our correctional officers to work with people with mental health issues. We should have an incentive program that allows prisoners in solitary to earn their way, with good behavior, back into the general population. And we should ban releasing people directly from solitary confinement back into the community.
In recent years, the Texas criminal justice system has begun to tilt the balance back toward rehabilitation for all but the most violent offenders. In the same spirit, we are overdue for a far-reaching, but entirely common sense, rethinking of the way that solitary confinement is used in our prisons.
Octavio N. Martinez, Jr. is the executive director of the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health at The University of Texas at Austin and the chair of the Behavioral Health Integration Advisory Committee at the Health and Human Services Commission.
A version of this op-ed appeared in the Houston Chronicle.
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— Texas Perspectives (@TexPerspectives) February 16, 2015