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‘A Challenge Against Insanity’: Texas & the Abuse of Solitary Confinement in Prisons

Inmates locked up in solitary confinement in Texas remain in those confinement conditions for an average of four years. Over 100 Texas prisoners have spent more than 20 years in solitary confinement. The state also holds at least 2,012 people with mental illness in isolation, according to the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas.

In 2014, the ACLU of Texas and the Texas Civil Rights Project (TCRP) studied the state’s use of solitary confinement. The organizations surveyed 147 people in solitary confinement. They “interviewed and corresponded with people in solitary confinement.” They “consulted with security and psychiatric experts and interviewed correctional officers.” They also submitted public information requests to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ).

What the organization found is that Texas “overuses” the practice. The estimated national average in solitary confinement is one to two percent of the prison population. Texas houses four times as many in solitary confinement.

There were 1,243 prisoners released directly from solitary confinement into Texas communities in 2013. Prisoners subjected to solitary confinement are more likely to “commit new crimes” than other inmates who were held in general population.

Ninety-five percent of prisoners surveyed reported development of “some sort of psychiatric symptoms as a result of solitary confinement.” The survey also found that, of those who met with a mental health worker, “sixty-five percent said their meetings were less than two minutes long.” This probably explains why those in “solitary confinement are five times more likely to commit suicide than those in the general population.”

Nathan, one of the inmates surveyed, shared, “Now I know how the caged animal must feel and why it paces the way it does.”

“I feel so angry at times and I pace this cell for hours trying to get my thoughts and feelings under control,” he added. “I feel suffocating feelings and have anxiety attacks that I feel are going to kill me sometimes—heart attack. I sometimes see things in this cell like ghosts flitting around the floor & walls. I can’t sleep for days at time and the officers count every hour and most of them bang on your door, shine their lights in your face and make you get up and show them [your] ID card—tell you make sure you
are alive.”

“I get so angry I cuss, kick the door & walls and lose any self control I have and I actually start to think about really ending this torment—I sometimes sleep so much I lose track of days at a time—sometimes several. That’s when I really feel disoriented/
confused/afraid.”

Another inmate, Greg, said, “I am an honorably discharged combat veteran diagnosed with PTSD, anxiety disorder, panic disorder, etc. Isolation is torture. There can be no other word for it.”

“‘Isolation’ simply means you are single-celled. You are not removed from the effects of other inmates’ extreme behavior resultant from ad seg,” he added. “People flood the areas by plugging toilets. Fires are routinely started so you wake in the middle of the night choking on black smoke. Electricity gets turned off. People scream, yell non-sensical gibberish all night. They bang doors 24 hours.”

It affects a person’s ability to maintain connections to family. According to Ignacio, it becomes “harder to deal with real life problems. Mainly because I feel suspended in time. No human contact. Very little human interactions.”

““[Solitary confinement] has been the reason I’ve really & truly never gotten any true rehabilitation in getting rid of these problems that have made me so aggressive!” Carlos shared.
*

The report features a vivid story from Alex about what he goes through in solitary confinement. Alex’s cell is “sixty square feet in size.” When his arms are lifted, Alex’s fingertips “almost graze the walls.” Alex is not allowed to put anything on the four concrete walls of his cell.

Alex’s door is solid metal “with a slot for a food tray and two thin Plexiglas rectangles” so prison guards can see him. Alex sleeps on a steel bunk, which has a “thin plastic mattress.” Alex has a toilet in the corner of his cell, which means his cell often smells like “mold and urine and feces and filth.”

 

The only contact Alex typically has with another human is the “hand that slides his food tray through a slit in his cell door. Weeks pass in which Alex never sees another person’s face or looks another person in the eyes.” Alex has no window in his cell. Alex has trouble sleeping at night and typically only gets about four hours of sleep in a night.

There is “constant banging, clanking, rage, anger” from prisoners in neighboring cells. Alex can hear them scream. Some of the prisoners cut themselves or eat their own feces. And, although he is supposed to get an hour of recreation several times a week, guards often go “for weeks without letting people on his block leave their cell for recreation.”

Alex, however, is doing better than most. Alex has a journal. Alex picks words out of the dictionary and learns a new word each day. Alex feeds the lizards that enter his cell. Alex still wants more of an education before he is released from prison. Alex is holding it together as best as he can.

“Everyday someone is getting hurt or hurting themselves. Everyday theres fire and floods and complete chaos & hate. Everyday there’s loneliness,” Alex recalled. “I woke up last night to someone screaming ‘Let Me Out of Here’ (again) over and over with so much anguish there was no doubt he was screaming from his very soul. But he was just screaming what we are all thinking.

“Everyday is a challenge here. A challenge against insanity.”

Alex has been in solitary confinement for ten years.

*

Texas prisons will put prisoners in solitary confinement if they have a “gang affiliation” or “gang association.” Once an inmate is in solitary confinement for a “gang affiliation,” the only way to get out is to participate in the Gang Renouncement and Disassociation Process (GRAD). It involves “nine months of programming on substance abuse, alcohol abuse, group
classroom instruction, anger management, and criminal-addictive behavior.” But there are very few spots in the program for inmates and a person must be in solitary for a year before qualifying for the program.

Further evidence of irrationality is the story of Tom. He is twenty-four years old and he has been in solitary for forty-one months. He was sent there because the prison accused him of being a member of the Aryan Brotherhood.

…Tom was on the waiting list for the GRAD program, his only avenue to get out of solitary, but he was recently kicked off the list for not shaving. TDCJ policy forbids all facial hair; but Tom was only permitted to use a razor when he showered. When Tom missed his chance to shower, TDCJ determined that his “scruff” violated TDCJ policy—a policy that bears no connection to gang activity, and represents no security threat. On account of that minor infraction, he was sent to the bottom of the waiting list for participation in the GRAD program…

As the study recounts, in the early twentieth century solitary confinement had mostly been abandoned by prisons. The United States Supreme Court had observed in 1890, “A considerable number of the prisoners fell, after even a short confinement, into a semi-fatuous condition, from which it was next to impossible to arouse them, and others became violently insane; others still, committed suicide; while those who stood the ordeal better were not generally reformed, and in most cases did not recover sufficient mental activity to be of any subsequent service to the community.”

The “tough on crime” movement revived the practice.

…In 1984, there was only one “supermax” facility in the United States. By 1999, there were sixty supermax facilities in thirty states. In 2000, the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated that a over 80,000 people were held in solitary confinement in federal and state prisons. That was a forty percent increase from only five years earlier, even faster than the rate of growth of the general prison population, which had increased twenty-eight percent over the same period…

Texas was “at the forefront” of this movement. When its guards struggled with the tens of thousands of prisoners the state had incarcerated, the state opted to warehouse many of the prisoners in permanent solitary confinement. They even incorporated cells that were similar to the model used in the 19th Century to impose “total isolation.”

In the Texas case, Ruiz v. Johnson, a federal judge described solitary confinement as “virtual incubators of psychoses—seeding illness in otherwise healthy inmates.” It was concluded that Texas solitary confinement amounted to cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution.

Depriving prisoners of basic mental health needs and the reducing of environmental stimulation was seen as violating “evolving standards of decency that mark progress of a maturing society.” Texas was also accused of showing deliberate indifference to the risks posed by subjecting the mentally ill to isolation. And the study suggests the state is still violating the constitutional rights of inmates by subjecting them to what amounts to torture.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."

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