Texas must stop overusing solitary confinement in prisons and jails

July 19th, 2012 Posted in Prison Reform, Prisoners' Rights, Youth rights
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By Kate Vickery
Legislative Intern

In June, for the first time in US history, a congressional subcommittee hearing was held on the use of solitary confinement. Senator Dick Durbin opened the congressional hearing by noting that over 80,000 U.S. inmates are currently held in solitary confinement, the highest number in history.  This wasn’t always the case.

“We now know that solitary confinement is not just used on the worst of the worst. Instead we’re seeing an alarming increase in isolation for those who don’t really need to be there and for many vulnerable populations like immigrants, children, LGBT inmates…supposedly there for their own protection.”

The testimony of people who had experienced solitary was incredibly moving, particularly that of Texas death row exoneree, Anthony Graves, who was housed in isolation for 10 of his 18 years behind bars. Mr. Graves was an innocent man.

Mr. Graves, was one of many. Texas prisons contain about 10 percent of the nation’s isolated prisoners, who spend an average of three years in solitary.

Last month, a group from Texas Impact visited the Hughes Unit, one of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s maximum-security prisons.  An excellent editorial in the Austin American Statesman this week describes the experience:

“We spent the day touring the prison facility with Warden Edward Smith and heard about all of the programs available for inmates. But the image of that small room, the huge doors and the men who languish there stayed with me.”

As Senator Durbin noted, incarcerated juveniles are increasingly held in isolation as well.  While hard numbers are nearly impossible to get, we know that youth are held in solitary confinement in both state and local facilities.

Using isolation as a punishment is technically prohibited for youth in Texas Juvenile Justice Department (TJJD) facilities. However, 24-hour isolation is a viable option in order to “control behavior that disrupts programming.” This loophole in policy allows youth to easily be placed in isolation, when it should be used only as the absolute last resort.

Isolation has particularly devastating effects on juveniles because of their incomplete psychological and emotional development.  This fact was the primary argument for the Supreme Court’s recent decision to eliminate life without parole (LWOP) as a sentencing option for juveniles. The Supreme Court continues to affirm that children who commit crimes are fundamentally different from adults. They should be given every rehabilitative opportunity while incarcerated in order to increase their chances of leading a productive life upon release. Every hour spent in isolation decreases that chance.

Current Texas policies are far too weak to prevent the overuse of isolation.  Reforms need to be made to ensure that solitary confinement is used only in the most extreme circumstances.

The ACLU of Texas is committed to protecting the civil rights and civil liberties of all persons in Texas, including the incarcerated. Unfortunately, the overuse of solitary confinement in Texas prisons and jails violates those civil rights, is exorbitantly expensive, jeopardizes public safety, and has devastating effects on an individual’s mental health.

To help reduce the use of this practice in Texas prisons, sign up for the ACLU of Texas Community Action Network.

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