“The most locked-down state in the nation” is how Robert Perkinson, author of the book Texas Tough, describes the Lone Star state. Texas, he writes, has “led the way in criminal justice severity” in everything from executions to trying juvenile as adults – and solitary confinement is no exception. In 2010, Texas held 8,701 of its 154,795 inmates in what it calls “administrative segregation”–the second highest number in the country after California. And Texas was one of the few states that last year saw its number of inmates in segregation increase while its overall prison population decreased.

Texas’s administrative segregation units deprive prisoners of all human contact. Bartlett Whitaker, in solitary confinement on death row, writes: “I am not even sure that a man who has completely disconnected from the world should still be called ‘human’ to be honest with you.” For 23 hours every day, inmates stay in tiny and often windowless cells; most are permitted one hour of solitary recreation time. Texas segregation units forbid contact visits for inmates, while telephone use is severely limited and sometimes prohibited altogether. Inmates do not have access to rehabilitative or educational programs. Prisoners placed in solitary remain there, on average, for more than four years, though some have been in isolation for up 25 years. Former inmates say that once placed in isolation, it is extremely difficult to be allowed to re-join populated prison units and many prisoners finish their sentences in solitary cells.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) states that administrative segregation is intended for inmates who “pose a risk to the physical safety of others or who present a threat to the security of the facility.” Administrative segregation units in Texas prisons are filled with members of prison gangs, which authorities call “Security Threat Groups,” who are deemed likely to physically attack fellow inmates or guards.

In addition to this, however, segregation is also handed out as an internal prison sanction to punish inmates for non-physical offences. Although the TDCJ states that administrative segregation is non-punitive, it is constantly used as punishment for internal disciplinary infractions. These offences can range from drug possession to verbally insulting a prison guard, and anything in between. Former inmates say that punitive time in administrative segregation is dished out easily and for prolonged periods of time.

One inmate incarcerated for drug offences in Texas, Terrence Hazel, used his existing legal training to offer fellow inmates pro bono legal assistance while doing his time. When prison staff noticed his activity, Hazel explained in an interview, they became alarmed and falsely accused Hazel of illegally starting his own enterprise, placing him in segregation. Though TDCJ rules state that inmates will be placed in solitary confinement for no longer than thirty consecutive days (unless they are on death row), Hazel was once placed in isolation for six full months, in Bill Clements Unit in Amarillo. Hazel would periodically refuse to eat in order to be taken to the medical facilities – a popular method used by inmates to get out of segregation temporarily and receive some human contact.

After 20 years in a number of Texas prisons, constantly in and out of administrative segregation, Hazel stopped offering legal help to inmates. He was almost immediately removed from segregation and within a year was given parole. Segregation is ultimately designed to isolate and punish, and has formed the backbone of internal prison order in Texas. Hazel’s case is just one of many that demonstrates how segregation allows prison staff to punish unruly inmates and anyone else they perceive to be a threat.

In addition to being used as an internal prison sanction, administrative segregation units in Texas, as elsewhere, are used as holding cells for the large numbers of inmates with serious mental illness. After visiting the segregation units of several Texas prisons on behalf of a federal court in 1999, psychologist Craig Haney painted a disturbing picture of a place rife with mentally ill prisoners:

I’m talking about forms of behavior that are easily recognizable and that are stark in nature when you see them, when you look at them, when you’re exposed to them. In a number of instances, there were people who had smeared themselves with feces. In other instances, there were people who had urinated in their cells, and the urine was on the floor…. There were many people who were incoherent when I attempted to talk to them, babbling, sometimes shrieking, other people who appeared to be full of fury and anger and rage and were, in some instances, banging their hands on the side of the wall and yelling and screaming, other people who appeared to be simply disheveled, withdrawn and out of contact with the circumstances or surroundings. Some of them would be huddled in the back corner of the cell and appeared incommunicative when I attempted to speak with them. Again, these were not subtle diagnostic issues. These were people who appeared to be in profound states of distress and pain.

The 2006 report by the Commission on Safety and Abuse in American Prisons found some segregation units to constitute “torturous conditions that are proven to cause mental deterioration” In 2010, the TDCJ claimed that 6.08% of its inmates suffered from mental health issues, including schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and major depression In reality, the proportion of inmates in need of psychological treatment is probably much higher, not least because the official figure includes only the most extreme mental disorders.

Perhaps the grimmest conditions of all are found on death row in the infamous Polunsky Unit, where 312 prisoners currently reside. Unsurprisingly, Texas is also one of the states with the harshest death row conditions in the country.  All are kept in solitary confinement in cells that measure 60 square feet and are locked by a solid steel door. Texas is one of two states that do not allow death row inmates to watch television, and one of a handful not to allow contact visits. The average time spent on death row before execution is 10.6 years, though the longest time is 31 years.

Death row inmates with disciplinary infractions can be sent to “Level 3,” where they are deprived of all privileges, including radios, fans, and toothpaste. As Alvin Kelly, who was executed in 2008, described it: “The atmosphere down here is filled with animosity. The people back here are denied anything beyond the meager necessities to survive in any sort of dignity or humanity. It is an evil and vile place. The atmosphere is filled with cussing, beating and banging and floods, fires, feces and urine being chunked on people, gas being sprayed in peoples’ cells or the day room where everyone has to breathe it in.”

The constitutionality of the Texas prison system and its use of administrative segregation have been called into question, most notoriously in the 1974 Ruiz v. Estelle case. Federal oversight led to some changes in Texas’s treatment of prisoners, but when the case again went to trial in the 1990s (as Ruiz v. Johnson), investigations revealed that Texas segregation units still held inmates in shocking conditions, and also knowingly isolated many with serious mental illness. According to Federal District Judge William Wayne Justice’s 1999 ruling:

It is found…that inmates in administrative segregation…are deprived of even the most basic psychological needs. More than mere deprivation, however, these inmates suffer actual psychological harm from their almost total deprivation of human contact, mental stimulus, personal property and human dignity…Furthermore, plaintiffs submitted credible evidence of a pattern in TDCJ of housing mentally ill inmates in administrative segregation…As to mentally ill inmates in TDCJ-ID, the severe and psychologically harmful deprivations of its administrative segregation units are, by our evolving and maturing society’s standards of humanity and decency, found to be cruel and unusual punishment.

Despite the court’s damning findings, then-Governor of Texas George W. Bush paid little attention to the ruling. “The governor’s idea of prison reform was to build new prisons and tighten their hold,” writes Perkinson in Texas Tough, and “there was little that an isolated district court judge could do about it.” The case was appealed to the federal Fifth Circuit, which ordered it terminated in 2002, without it having the reforming impact Judge Justice intended.

Texas continues to have the second highest prison population in the country (after the much larger California) and its second highest incarceration rate (after neighboring Louisiana). It also has the second highest level of corrections spending, and has been forced to seek ways to slash its corrections budget.  In 2007, the Lone Star state did adopt a criminal justice reform package known as the “reinvestment movement,” that shifted state funds from prisons to rehabilitative programs such as drug and alcohol treatment, as well as probation and parole plans. For the first time in Texas history, the last two years saw prison numbers decrease slightly, no doubt partly due to these reforms.

These small steps towards a less criminalized state, however, do not seem to extend to the use of solitary confinement. Though there have been several prison reforms ameliorating medical facilities and cell conditions over the decades, they seem to have bypassed administrative segregation. After a slight drop in previous years, the number of inmates in segregation in Texas actually increased last year from 8,639 to 8,701.

The introduction of House Bill 3764 in the Texas legislature earlier this year, designed to move a portion of inmates out of administrative segregation, offers a glimmer of hope to the thousands of inmates kept in isolation. Introduced by Rep. Marisa Marquez in March 2011, the bill would not only attempt to reduce numbers of inmates in segregation but would also set up programs to gently help segregated inmates integrate into the free world on their release. The bill would also, significantly, lead to increased transparency in the prison system by pushing the TDCJ to report on the mental and physical effects of segregation and provide information on reasons why inmates are placed there. But HB 3764 failed to make it to the House floor before the legislative session ended.

“Ad seg issues keep being thrown under the bus,” says Scott Henson, who writes the “Grits for Breakfast” blog on the Texas criminal justice system. Henson argues that the reason for this and the failure of the bill is that there is no strong constituency in Texas pushing for segregation reform. Unlike in other areas of prison reform, segregation inmates tend not to have paid attorneys on the outside or anyone with an economic interest in representing them. And though much advocacy work has been done to ameliorate segregation conditions, organizations do not necessarily have the resources to finance a full-blown campaign for a bill.

In this period of budget cuts, one way the state of Texas could be convinced of the merits of HB 3764 is by being shown the savings it would incur. “[The bill passing] is much more likely on economic reasons than on the principle. There is room for budgetary arguments to make a lot of hay there,” Henson says. If an economic study calculating the savings incurred of moving thousands of inmates from segregation to populated units were presented along with a positive risk assessment of reclassified segregation inmates, the bill could have a chance of passing. Henson says this is how Texas probation reforms were passed in 2005.

The passage of HB 3764 could produce data which would support the above cost-benefit analysis of administrative segregation. If the absence of an adequate constituency willing to make segregation reform a priority continues, however, change will stay out of reach.  And while the Lone Star state makes baby steps towards a less draconian criminal justice system, administrative segregation will remain alive and well and continue to play an integral role in the state’s prison system.

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