Solitary Confinement Is Not The America I Believe In

February 9th, 2015 No Comments   Posted in Prison Reform

Rogelio Baca stands in his cell in the administrative segregation wing of the Estelle Unit in Huntsville.

Allow me to paint a picture for you of a small room, only 60 or 70 square feet large. Inside this room, a bed, toilet, and sink are nailed to the cement floor. Surrounding them are four windowless, cement walls, all lit by an angry fluorescent light that never goes off. Living in this cell, it is common to go weeks without seeing another person’s face – only their hands as they slide masses of unidentifiable food under the door. Yet it is not quiet. In a constant symphony of the crazed, the people next to this cell bang and bang on their doors, yelling and screaming and smearing feces on their faces.

This is the sad reality of solitary confinement in Texas today.

It is not a reality that fits well into the America that I have been told about, and not one I like to consider. America, as taught to me and my peers in history classes growing up, is a country that values freedom, family, and the opportunity for self-betterment. It should, supposedly, give everyone the chance to become a valued member of society. Yet the above image shows an element of the Texas jail system that is a disgrace to everything our country – and the state of Texas – claims to stand for.

Here are the facts, according to a report released by the ACLU of Texas and the Texas Civil Rights Project: In Texas, 6,564 people live in solitary confinement. Of these, 33% are in jail for non-violent crimes due mostly to gang affiliation, even if they are low-level or inactive members. The average length of stay is 3.7 years, at which point most inmates have developed psychiatric symptoms such as hallucinations and physical outbursts or lost their ability to interact with other human beings.

A Solitary Failure: The Waste, Cost and Harm of Solitary Confinement in Texas (Report, February 2015)

Inmates in solitary confinement are not allowed to try to improve themselves. They are not allowed to get treatment for mental illness, addiction, or anger management. They can’t even attend religious services. One man cried on a medical trip to Galveston because it was the first time he’d seen the sun in years. Many are driven to suicide. Is this the point of jail, or is this just torture?

Solitary confinement isn’t just bad for prisoners. It is bad for all of us. Most violent crimes against guards come from those living in solitary confinement. When inmates from solitary are released, they are often sent straight back into society, where they are 25% more likely than other prisoners to commit crimes again. This is not the kind of person I want moving into my neighborhood, and yet we Texans pay $46 million a year for this program that does not work.

The good news is that some states are finding ways to remove solitary confinement from their jails. In the past five years, Maine, Illinois, Colorado, Mississippi, New York, and California have taken steps to vastly reduce such forms of punishment to great success. They are saving money, making their jails and neighborhoods safer and treating their prisoners with the decency all humans deserve. It is high time that Texas do the same. We should care about the livelihoods of those we send to prison and give them a chance to return as useful and safe members of society. If we can’t do that, we should at least care about the safety of our neighborhoods and the correct use of our tax money.

Before becoming an intern at the ACLU, I was content to ignore the fact that the state and country in which I am so proud to live sanction such draconian measures. But we must confront the facts: it does. Now, we need to start considering what our use of solitary confinement says us as Texans and Americans. Let’s end a form torture that helps neither our prisoners, our guards, nor our communities. Let’s be people who act on the values we so proudly teach our children. Let’s end the use of solitary confinement.

Ellen Trinklein is a communications intern at the ACLU of Texas’ home office in Houston, where she’s pursuing B.A.s in German Studies and Policy Studies at Rice University.

Dawson State Jail targeted for closure by, well, everyone

Topping the list of potential Texas prison closures is the Dawson State Jail, a high-rise building on the bank of the Trinity River in downtown Dallas. The Texas Tribune reported this week that more than two dozen organizations signed a letter urging legislators to shutter the facility, citing failures in oversight and provision of healthcare. (UTMB provides actual healthcare services at the unit, but an investigative report last year found that staff “did not follow proper procedures by failing to call for help” in a high-profile death case.) In addition, whereas closing the Central Unit took longer than expected to wind down operations, the contract with Corrections Corporation of America to operate Dawson runs out at the end of this fiscal year. So the budget savings would be both more certain and immediate than closing the century-old, state-run Central Unit. No doubt there are other criteria for judging potential prison closures, but Dawson seems to be a likely candidate by almost any measure.

Orignally Posted by Gritsforbreakfast

Highlights from 2013 the Symposium

On Feb 10, 2013, we held a Symposium in Austin to find a cure to our state’s addiction to mass-incarceration. We learned from the best and most experienced: folks at the grassroots level, from the ACLU of Texas professionals who deal with the Texas Legislature every day and from an ACLU professional who has won victories in Florida, a state not unlike ours. Listen to what they think needs to happen in Texas.

Hope and Naz Mustakim | One Couple’s Battle Within a Broken Immigration System

Howard Simon | Using Electronic Communications to Enact Social Change

Panel Discussion| Key Policies to Focus on in 2013

ACLU of Texas | 75 years of protecting your liberty

Mass-incarceration is not the answer to all of our social problems like drug addiction or undocumented immigration, yet our country spends billions to lock people up instead of investing in real solutions. Want to help us end mass-incarceration in Texas? Be our eyes and ears in your part of the state when you join the Community Action Network. We need people like you to stand with us. Together we can make a difference.

Texas Leads Nation in Executions

December 21st, 2012 No Comments   Posted in Death penalty, Prison Reform

By Gislaine Williams, ACLU of Texas Outreach Coordinator

Texas continues to lead the nation in executions, according to end-of-year reports from the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC) and the Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (TCADP).

The DPIC reports 43 total executions around the country in 2012, with 75% of them carried out in Texas, Oklahoma, Arizona, and Mississippi.  This constituted the second lowest number of executions since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.

Texas carried out 15 executions, the highest in the country. The executions included the controversial case of Marvin Wilson, who was declared intellectually disabled and executed despite the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that executing the mentally disabled is unconstitutional.

Six inmates received stays of execution.  The executions were stopped pending review of DNA evidence, the mental competency of the inmates, and claims related to ineffective legal counsel. Three people received reduced sentences and were taken off death row.

The TCADP report found that the use of the death penalty is geographically isolated to only a few counties in the state. There were nine new death sentences this year, over half coming from the Dallas/Ft. Worth area.  Texas jurors in 4 capital cases rejected the death penalty, choosing to sentence defendants to life without the possibility of parole.

TCADP also highlighted the arbitrary nature of the death penalty in Texas and the disproportionate impact on African-American and Hispanic defendants. Over the last five years, 75% of new death sentences have been given to people of color.

Read the full report: Texas Death Penalty Developments in 2012: The Year in Review

Since 1982, Texas has executed a total of 492 people – 253 of the executions were carried out under Governor Rick Perry. There are seven executions already scheduled for 2013, starting with the January 29th scheduled execution of Kimberly McCarthy.

Take Action

Attend the ACLU of Texas Symposium & Lobby Day Feb 10th & 11th in Austin to call for changes in the Texas criminal justice system. Click here to sign-up.

Send a letter to the editor of your local community newspaper demanding for an end to the death penalty in Texas.

Building a new life

By Dione Friends
Online Media Coordinator

Being released from prison isn’t just about being free. Former inmates face serious obstacles to rejoining society as productive members.

Mental health issues, lack of education, and minimal work experience are huge barriers on the path to a “normal life.” The latest national data indicates that about two-thirds of released prisoners are arrested within three years.

The transition from prison to home just got a little easier thanks to our coalition partners at the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. Their new website features resources for youth and adults seeking to rebuild their lives.

Housing services, legal clinics, employment services, educations assistance, and other services are only a few clicks away with this new tool. See the website in action by double clicking the video below to watch it full screen. Or try it out for yourself.

Please note that by playing this clip YouTube and Google will place a long-term cookie on your computer. Please see YouTube’s privacy statement on their website and Google’s privacy statement on theirs to learn more. To view the ACLU of Texas’ privacy statement, click here.

The Texas Criminal Justice Coalition works on issues across Texas’ criminal and juvenile justice systems to create stronger families, less taxpayer waste, and safer communities

Criminal law reform is a priority of the ACLU of Texas. We seek to end excessively harsh criminal justice policies that result in mass incarceration and stand in the way of a just and equal society. Learn more about our campaign goals by visiting

Follow our criminal law reform campaign on facebook and twitter.

Growing Up Locked Down

Read the Growing Up Locked Down report

The ACLU and Human Rights Watch recently released the report Growing Up Locked Down which looks at the practice of placing youth in solitary confinement (22-23 hours a day isolated from human contact in a small cell).  The report outlines a myriad of concerns associated with this practice.

Holding youth in solitary confinement causes psychological, physical harm, and social and developmental harm.  Isolated youth exhibit mental health issues such as increased risk of suicide, self harm, and exacerbation of existing mental health issues.  Youth held in this form of confinement also rarely receive the kind of exercise necessary for a normal young person leading to physical harm.  Finally, youth in solitary confinement often do not have significant contact with family members, do not have meaningful educational services, and rarely receive counseling and other basic services.  This problem is particularly dramatic for youth with intellectual disabilities or mental health issues.  The report recommends a number of reforms to address this litany of issues, but in general this practice simply should be used minimally or never.

In Texas, youth are placed in solitary confinement in the following settings:

  • County (adult) jails
  • State run juvenile facilities
  • County run juvenile facilities
  • Juveniles certified as adults may be placed in solitary while incarcerated in state prison facilities

In each of these settings, youth face the same risks of harm identified in the national report.  In some cases, for example youth housed in county jails awaiting trial, the youth awaiting trial are placed in solitary confinement without a criminal conviction.  In county jails, youth are placed in solitary confinement to protect the youth from the adult population in these facilities, but ironically this protective placement causes many other problems.

To address these issues in Texas, the ACLU of Texas is asking legislators to support two important reforms.  First, the ACLU of Texas along with a number of partner organizations is working to end the use of solitary confinement as punishment.  Solitary confinement has such a negative impact on youth, it should only be used in emergency or dangerous situations for short stints of time.  It should not be a punishment for failing to clean one’s cell or having contraband reading material.

Second, we are asking legislators to create basic review for any youth placed in solitary confinement.  Drawing on the example of West Virginia, we have recommended that legislators pass a bill requiring the following:

  • Any facility that houses youth in solitary confinement must create an oversight committee or an Administrative Segregation Committee
  • An Administrative Segregation Committee will include at least one medical professional (either a mental health or medical expert)
  • The Committee will review initial placement of all youth placed in solitary confinement in the facility
  • The Committee will continue to regularly review the placement of the youth for the duration of placement
  • The Committee will create a Behavior Improvement Plan for the youth which provides a graduated return of privileges and a roadmap for the youth to leave solitary confinement and return to a less isolated setting

The negative impact of solitary confinement, the human toll of this suffering, and the practical impact on recidivism rates of mishandling our wayward youth all argue for reforms to the use of solitary confinement.  Ultimately, almost all youthful offenders will return to our communities and it is in our collective interest to ensure that they receive the kind of treatment and services that allow for success.  Tell your local newspaper we cannot afford the lost lives or the increased prison population that is caused by overusing solitary confinement.

John Balentine: The Importance of Mitigating Evidence and Competent Representation

By Nimrah Siddiqui
ACLU of Texas Volunteer

Americans expect that they will not be found guilty without a fair trial. A similar principle applies to sentencing of individuals found guilty of a capital offense which, according to our laws, includes the opportunity to provide evidence that the death penalty is too harsh in the circumstances of their case. On August 22, 2012 the U.S. Supreme Court stopped the execution of John Balentine for precisely this reason. The cancellation came just one hour before his execution was set to take place.

Balentine’s lawyer, Lydia Brandt, has argued that extenuating conditions in his childhood, such as violence and delayed emotional development, were not considered when the district court of Potter County handed him the death penalty. According to Brandt, Balentine’s lawyers in his original trial and early appeals failed to present evidence that could have persuaded jurors to give him a life sentence. Brandt cited a recent court ruling from Arizona regarding the issue of ineffective counsel, Martinez v. Ryan, to request a review of his case.

There are two phases in the death penalty trial. First, the jury decides whether the defendant is guilty. If the jury finds the defendant guilty, then the jury decides the punishment. This is called the sentencing phase. In the sentencing phase, attorneys can present mitigating evidence to prove that the defendant should not have to face the death penalty. The majority of death penalty cases involve defendants who have experienced extraordinary circumstances, such as traumatic life experiences or intellectual disabilities, that sometimes convince jurors the death penalty isn’t deserved.

While the system allows for the presentation and consideration of mitigating evidence, the system is also plagued by “randomness” and wantonness, according to a 2011 report from the Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC). The report looks at how capital cases are arbitrarily assessed and reveals how factors other than the severity of the crime or the guilt of the criminal can influence the decision to use the death penalty.

Ineffective legal representation often plays a role in death penalty cases, as well. In many cases, defendants who are unable to pay are represented by inexperienced or over-burdened attorneys. The DPIC has compiled a long list of cases in which the competency of the lawyer or the right to an attorney is at issue.

The Texas Defender Service is an organization that works toward access to competent defense and ensuring a fair criminal justice system in Texas. There current cases of interest include Duane Buck, Marcus Druery, Yokamon Hearn, Ricky Kerr, and Scott Panetti.

John Balentine was the fifth prisoner on Texas’ death row to receive a stay of execution in 2012. There are nine more executions scheduled this year, with two scheduled in September. Robert Harris is scheduled to be executed September 20th, and Cleve Foster is scheduled for execution September 25th.

U.S. wins the wrong kind of “gold”: US incarceration rate leads the world

By Alex Wagner
ACLU of Texas Legal Intern

Test your knowledge about over-incarceration in Texas

The University of San Francisco Law School and the Center for Law and Global Justice recently published a report comparing the American criminal justice system with that of other countries. The results were not flattering.

Compared to the rest of the world, the United States incarcerates for longer periods of time for less serious offenses. That’s why the U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world, despite the fact that several European countries actually exceed the United States in prison admissions per capita per year. According to the report, the sentencing practices of the United States are not only out-of-step with the rest of the world and fail to address rehabilitation.

Drug offenders in America are incarcerated for much longer than their international counterparts. Possession of one kilogram of cocaine could earn an American offender a decade in prison, while an offender in Britain would only receive a six-month sentence for the same offense.

And America has many more prisoners serving life sentences without the possibility of parole than any other country in the world. There are about 42,000 prisoners in the US serving life sentences, compared to 59 prisoners serving life in Australia and 41 in England. In most countries life sentences are reserved for extremely heinous crimes such as multiple homicide, whereas in America life sentences can be meted out for much less. Thanks to habitual offender statutes (California’s “three strikes law” being an infamous example), Americans can receive decades in prison for stealing a pair of shoes if the infraction is the third strike.

The report also blames our high incarceration rates on lack of judicial discretion and mandatory minimum sentencing, the frequent use of consecutive sentencing, and the rise in prison privatization. Private prisons hold about 6 percent of state prisoners and 16 percent of federal prisoners. Private prisons benefit financially from laws that require longer sentences, and the industry therefore lobbies against shorter sentences.

The report makes several recommendations to shorten prison terms and bring our sentencing practices more in-line with the rest of the world:
• Abolishing mandatory minimum sentences in favor of more flexible sentencing guidelines;
• Reserve life without parole sentences for only the most extreme cases;
• Retroactively applying new sentencing laws when the new law would reduce the sentence of an offender; and
• Consider international legal standards when codifying sentencing laws.

The ACLU has worked to address over-incarceration nationwide by promoting the passage of the National Criminal Justice Commission Act. Several states, including Texas, are also starting to address the issue and have passed bipartisan reforms to reduce incarceration rates.

Purchase tickets to see Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness in Houston October 2nd.

Texas Executes Man With IQ of 61

By Gislaine Williams
Statewide Advocacy Coordinator

Community advocates gathered in vigils across the state yesterday as Texas carried out the controversial execution of Marvin Wilson Tuesday evening. The United States Supreme Court refused to stop the execution, despite significant evidence that Mr. Wilson was intellectually disabled. In its 2002 case Atkins v Virginia, the Court ruled that executing people with intellectual disabilities violates the Eight Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
With an IQ of 61, Mr. Wilson was declared intellectually disabled by a board-certified neuropsychologist. Texas argued that Wilson was not intellectually disabled using its own standards, known as the “Briseño factors” – standards that are not used by medical professionals and that the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities called “fundamentally incompatible with the scientific and clinical understanding of intellectual disability.”

The case grabbed national and international headlines this week, with calls to stop the execution coming from the Dallas Morning News and The New York Times, among others.

The family of author John Steinbeck also issued an appeal to stop the execution. The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals used Lennie Small, a mentally handicapped character in Steinbeck’s novella Of Mice and Men, as a benchmark in the case establishing the Briseño factors. Thomas Steinbeck wrote that his father’s “work was certainly not meant to be scientific, and the character of Lennie was never intended to be used to diagnose a medical condition like intellectual disability.”

Lee Kovarsky, attorney for Mr. Wilson, released this statement once the US Supreme Court denied a stay of execution:

We are gravely disappointed and profoundly saddened that the United States Supreme Court has refused to intervene to prevent tonight’s scheduled execution of Marvin Wilson, who has an I.Q. of 61, placing him below the first percentile of human intelligence. Ten years ago, this Court categorically barred states from executing people with mental retardation. Yet, tonight Texas will end the life of a man who was diagnosed with mental retardation by a court-appointed, board certified specialist. Read the full statement.

Mr. Wilson, 54, was sentenced to death for the 1992 murder of Jerry Williams. His execution marks the 484th execution in Texas since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. It is the 245th execution under Governor Rick Perry. There are currently nine more executions scheduled for 2012.

Learn more about the Texas death penalty at the Criminal Law Reform campaign website.

Tell Texas to stop executions: Take action here

Find a vigil near you: Texas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty vigil schedule

More questions about Texas executions: The case of Marvin Wilson

By Nimrah Siddiqui

Texas is once again set to execute a man who may be mentally disabled.

Marvin Wilson is scheduled to be executed by the State of Texas on Tuesday, August 7th for the murder of Jerry Robert Williams.  Mr. Wilson’s lawyers have challenged the constitutionality of his execution because he has been declared intellectually disabled. The United States Supreme Court, in Atkins v. Virginia (2002), declared that executing persons with diminished intellectual ability is cruel and unusual punishment because, as most states recognize, their mental impairments make them less culpable.

Mr. Wilson, now 54, is a native of Beaumont, Texas. His intellectual disabilities have prevented him from achieving in school, keeping jobs, and sometimes even taking care of himself. A court-appointed neuropsychologist submitted a report in 2004 that diagnosed him with mental disabilities, measured his I.Q. at 61 (less than 70 signifies “significant impairment”), and noted that he had demonstrated impaired skills before the age of 18. Despite all the signs of Mr. Wilson’s intellectual disabilities and the diagnosis of the court-appointed neuropsychologist, the District Court of Jefferson County concluded that Mr. Wilson is not mentally retarded.

In Atkins v Virginia, the Supreme Court defined intellectual disability using clinical criteria from the American Association on Mental Retardation (now known as the American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities or “AAIDD”). The Court, however, did not lay down specific standards that states have to use to determine intellectual disability. As a result, states can come up with their own standards identifying whether offenders qualify as mentally disabled and what punishments may be used against them.

Texas, known for its aggressive use of the death penalty, adopted its own set of criteria called the Briseño factors, to address and interpret Atkins. These factors, however, are not supported by the AAIDD and are not used in the scientific community. In fact, the AAIDD criticized the Briseño factors in another case (Chester v. Thaler), stating that the test is “impressionistic,” and uses criteria “based on false stereotypes about mental retardation that effectively exclude all but the most severely incapacitated.”

Mr. Wilson’s case highlights the problems with Texas’ use of the death penalty for defendants with intellectual disabilities. Does the state of Texas have any scientific basis for using the Briseño factors?

Mr. Wilson’s lawyers have filed a petition with the US Supreme Court to stop the execution, questioning the use of the Briseño factors.  The AAIDD has also spoken out about the case and has asked the State of Texas to stop the execution.

Learn more about the case: Amnesty International Fact Sheet Marvin Wilson (PDF)

Tell the State of Texas to stop the execution: Take Action Here

Tell Texas legislators to end the death penalty: View a sample letter.

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