Texas prisons stop using solitary confinement as punishment
The change only impacts the roughly 75 prisoners in punitive solitary, leaving close to 4,000 state prison inmates isolated in "administrative segregation" untouched
By Keri Blakinger
HOUSTON — Texas correctional officials this month quietly eliminated the use of solitary confinement as a punishment for jailhouse rule-breakers, positioning the state at the forefront of a nationwide push to end the practice.
"I'm quite frankly very surprised and very pleased that they've made this move," said Doug Smith, a policy analyst with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition.
The change effective Sept. 1 only impacts the roughly 75 prisoners in punitive solitary, leaving untouched the nearly 4,000 state prison inmates isolated in so-called "administrative segregation" due to gang affiliation or other security threats. The number of inmates in administrative segregation used to be more than twice that size, but has since been reduced by innovative programs.
Still, prison reform advocates and elected leaders say there's more work to be done.
"I've been concerned about their over-using administrative segregation for years," said Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, chair of the Texas Senate's criminal justice committee. "I'm convinced that if you're not emotionally disturbed when you go in there, you will be when you get out."
Before the administrative change was implemented this month, Texas prison officials had made sharp reductions in its solitary confinement population. In August 2013, there were 215 inmates in punitive solitary confinement. By July 2017, that number was down to 76. In the same time frame, the number of inmates placed in administrative segregation decreased from approximately 7,200 to 3,940.
The policy changes have come in response to evolving national dialogue about the use of various types of isolated confinement, a Texas prison spokesman acknowledged.
"Restrictive housing has been a topic of discussion across the nation for a number of years and as an agency over the last several years we've really looked at ways to reduce it," said Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokesman Jason Clark of the September policy change. "When reviewing solitary confinement as a policy and practice we determined that as a department we can effectively operate without it."
Although tough-on-crime supporters of isolated confinement have long contended that it's necessary for prison safety, Lance Lowry, who heads the Texas Correctional Employees union in Huntsville, said the change doesn't pose any major security changes.
"I think it does open up the state to less liability," he said, touting the move as an effort to "modernize" the prison system. "There's never been any factors that show that it positively rehabilitates the individual."
Now, rule-breakers will face other punishments, such as loss of good time or loss of commissary privileges, Clark said.
Those who persistently pose safety threats with violent behavior could face administrative segregation, which typically involves at least 22 hours a day alone in a cell.
"The only time an inmate is released from a cell is for up to an hour a day in 'recreation,' which is essentially a slightly larger cage, and for a shower," said Michele Deitch, an attorney who teaches at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin. "They must be shackled any time they leave their cell."
By another name
For advocates, the continued use of administrative segregation is troubling, even though it's on the decline.
"TDCJ still has wide discretion to use solitary confinement - they're just calling it administrative segregation," said Matt Simpson, a senior policy strategist with the ACLU of Texas.
Since at least 1985, Texas prison officials have assigned members of a number of violent gangs to administrative segregation based on their membership. The population in solitary confinement ballooned, and by 2006 included nearly 10,000 prisoners. Even after reductions the Texas administrative segregation population outpaced most other states by 2011, according to Houston Chronicle archives.
"I know part of the problem - they overbuilt the damn number of ad seg cells," Whitmire said. "The number for how many we need was just pulled out of the air. But when you build them you gotta use them."
But in the wake of changing national attitudes concerning incarceration, along with pushes from legislators like Whitmire and a growing awareness of the potential harms of long-term isolation, Texas has shifted away from its reliance on isolation.
A successful gang renunciation program, administrative segregation diversion and a transition program to help move prisoners back into the general population have all helped eat away at the thousands of restrictive administrative classifications in the Texas system.
During the same time, there's been no dramatic change in major prison violence, Clark said, though the numbers have crept upward, In 2012, there were 96 serious assaults on staff and 1,242 on other prisoners.
In 2016, there were 108 serious staff assaults and 1,456 serious inmate assaults.
In theory, the continued use of administrative segregation might keep the worst of the worst out of the general population.
"You still need security detention because the Hannibal Lecters of the world are still out there," Lowry said. "There's still some bad actors in prison that will hurt people."
Reforms take hold
The changes in Texas come amid a sea change nationwide.
In California, a class action suit on behalf of inmates who had spent years in extreme isolation netted a sharp decrease in the use of solitary. In Colorado, the chief of corrections made waves by choosing to spend a day in solitary, even as the state worked to cut back its use. And in New York, a lawsuit reformed the use of solitary and isolated populations have since decreased.
At the latest count, the Empire State had just under 3,000 prisoners in its most restrictive form of punitive solitary confinement, known as SHU, and an unknown additional number in a less-restrictive type of isolation called keep-lock, according to Scott Paltrowitz, an attorney with the advocacy group the Correctional Association of New York.
But with an inmate population of around 50,000, New York has roughly a third of the 145,000 inmates in the Texas system.
According to the most recent figures, the Lone Star State is holding just 2.7 percent of inmates in administrative segregation, Clark said.
And even in light of Texas' nose-diving numbers, some advocates questioned whether the elimination of punitive solitary confinement would just result in a shift back to classifying those same inmates as threats worthy of administrative segregation.
The state capped punitive solitary stays at 15 days; administrative segregation can last for months or years.
"This is the highest-risk population and we need to acknowledge that the vast majority of them are coming home one day," Smith said. "You can't write off this population because they're the worst of the worst."
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