According to Dennis Hope, life in the Allan B. Polunsky Unit is like being in a “never-ending torture chamber,” where he must constantly fight to keep his sanity. He has seen others lose the battle — hanging themselves or slicing open their wrists and faces. Some in Polunsky have responded in even more extreme ways: In 2004, Andre Thomas, a man with paranoid schizophrenia, gouged out his eye and ate it.
The Polunsky Unit is a maximum security Texas prison that houses Texas’ Death Row, and is notorious for its restrictive conditions. The men held in its most secure sections are confined to small cells for at least 22 hours per day, and even the few hours they are allowed out are spent in isolation. Most remain there for years or decades.
There is a growing consensus, encompassing everyone from mental health experts to the United Nations, that forcing people to live in such circumstances amounts to torture. Solitary in Texas has faced particularly harsh condemnation. A report from the University of Texas, titled “Designed to Break You,” concluded that solitary confinement in Texas is a form of torture that violates international human rights standards. Even Texas’ largest corrections officers’ union has advocated for the use of solitary confinement in the state to be curtailed–unusual, given that prison unions tend to oppose reform.
But Dennis Hope, who was convicted of aggravated robbery with a deadly weapon in 1990, is not facing the death penalty. Nor was he placed in the Polunsky Unit as a result of violent acts in prison. Hope, like hundreds and perhaps thousands of others across the country, is being held in indefinite solitary confinement because he is considered a permanent escape risk.
In September 1990, Hope slipped out of his handcuffs while correctional officers were loading him into a van. He took off running, not pausing when an officer threatened to shoot him, and stripped down to his underwear. When a police officer approached him, he claimed he was training for a triathlon, and the officer let him go.
Eventually, Hope was caught and returned to custody with ten years tacked onto his sentence. In 1994, after the appeal for his case was denied, he escaped again. This time, he and two others turned off the power to the unit, disabled the backup generators, and jumped the fence. Correctional officers shot at him but missed. He ran 26 miles to another town, but was caught again a little over two months later.
This time Hope was given 25 years for the escape and placed in solitary confinement, where he has been ever since. Because his cumulative sentences add up to more than a life sentence, he will likely remain there until he dies.
While Hope is reviewed every six months to determine his eligibility for release from solitary, the outcome of the hearing has never once, in 22 years, been positive. Each time he is reviewed, he is told that he will remain in solitary because of his 1994 escape. “That will never change,” Hope wrote in a letter to Solitary Watch, “so what’s the purpose of the hearings? We are denied meaningful reviews and they could care less how it effects our mental health.”
Hope is not the only one suffering indefinite isolation in Polunsky for escape. Steven Jay Russell, a nonviolent con artist convicted of stealing over $200,000, also escaped multiple times, including by feigning a heart attack and faking his own death from AIDS. He once walked out of a facility after using highlighters to dye his prison uniform green, the color of the prison doctors’ scrubs.
These glimpses of the free world were relatively short-lived, and happened decades ago — his most recent re-capture was in 1998. But they permanently cost Russell his freedom. With 144 years on his sentence, he too will spend the rest of his life in prison — and, almost certainly, in solitary confinement.
Though Administrative Segregation, where Hope and Russell are imprisoned, is separated from Death Row, the increased security and more extreme restrictions affect the entire unit. Hope describes more lockdowns, fewer hot meals, and a greater number of forbidden items (the list includes everything from nail clippers to boxer shorts with elastic). He also alleges that the guards beat up prisoners who speak to them the wrong way, to “teach them a lesson about respect.”
The harsh conditions at Polunsky have deeply affected the mental and physical health of the people incarcerated there. Hope says he deals with anxiety daily and rarely manages more than two hours of uninterrupted sleep. He also struggles to maintain focus and remember words during conversations. Russell, meanwhile, is in a wheelchair due to osteoarthritis that contributed to a hip fracture, and that was likely aggravated by long-term confinement in a small cell.
Yet compared to some of the others incarcerated at Polunsky, these men are relatively healthy. Hope says he “manages the madness” through routines to keep his mind and body in shape. Even so, the “chaos” of Polunsky — with its constant cacophony of people yelling, talking to themselves, cursing, and banging on walls — threatens to overwhelm him sometimes. “If you don’t block it out,” he says, “it will consume you and you’ll be the one arguing with others, cursing out the officers or trying to kill yourself.”
The practice of placing escapees in indefinite solitary, with no chance to ever get out, is a national phenomenon. Amy Fettig of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project says that it is common to find “prison systems inflicting permanent isolation on prisoners who attempt to escape — even years or decades after their attempt — no matter what their behavior has been in the interim.”
Richard Matt and David Sweat, for example, made headlines after escaping from Clinton Correctional Facility in New York State in 2015. Both were eventually shot; Matt was killed and Sweat was wounded and captured. Sweat is now imprisoned in solitary, where he is confined for 23 hours a day in a cell specifically designed to “limit movement.”
Meanwhile, Joyce Mitchell, the correctional officer who helped them escape, received a sentence of up to seven years in prison. The disparity between the consequences for Sweat and Mitchell reflects a dynamic typical of prison escapes: Escapes are, Fettig says, “all too often linked to staff misconduct, incompetence or both,” but it is the prisoner who take the fall.
Fettig attributes this outcome to prisons “reacting with humiliation and extreme vengeance” against escapees. Nothing angers prison staff more than an escape, even a failed one, especially if it has garnered media attention. And since it is prison staff alone who determine who gets placed in solitary confinement — and how long they remain there–most captured escapees don’t stand a chance. Even in states that are reducing their use of solitary confinement, offering “step-down” programs to individuals with records of violent behavior in prison, escapees are usually exempt.
Russell agrees, describing his placement in solitary as “political.” His current physical disabilities would appear to render him incapable of escaping again. But his multiple successes at tricking the prison system — which in 2009 became the subject of a feature film — caused extreme humiliation to his captors, and brought down a response that to many seems grossly disproportionate to his entirely nonviolent crimes.
Such revenge-based policies, Fettig says, are unnecessary and counterproductive. They ignore the basic security problems that lead to escape — or, as Russell puts it, prisons’ failure to “keep the front door locked.”
Ultimately, placing escapees in indefinite solitary confinement “doesn’t lead to safer, more secure prisons,” Fettig says. “It leads to inhumane institutions that harm people and fail to learn from mistakes.”
Banner Photo: Police stand over David Sweat after he was shot and captured near the Canadian border June 28, 2015, in Constable, N.Y. | AP