More than 6,500 Texas prisoners are languishing in solitary confinement, including many who have not misbehaved or suffer from mental illness, according to a report released Thursday.
Inmates who are put in isolation spend an average of four years confined to a 60-square-foot, windowless cell, and some go for weeks when the only human contact they have is a hand passing them a food tray, according to the report by the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas and the Texas Civil Rights Project. Over 100 prisoners have been in solitary for more than 20 years.
While the report focused on Texas, "you could virtually write the same report about every state in the country," said Amy Fettig, a senior staff counsel with the ACLU in Washington.
She said that states "have become addicted to solitary confinement" as a panacea for dealing with the violence and disciplinary problems that arise from overcrowding, a side effect of tough-on-crime initiatives in the 1980s.
Fettig said that over the past four years, as the "throw away the key" approach to incarceration has begun to moderate in the face of concerns about its human and economic costs, the number of those in solitary has started to come down.
While that trend is true in California because of the prison-overcrowding litigation there, California is still "one of the biggest abusers of isolation in the country," she said.
Based on a written survey of 147 inmates in isolation, the report contains stories of inmates like "Alex," who said he has been in solitary for 10 years and described a hellish environment where the only human contact is often the screams of fellow inmates who have gone insane. There is "constant banging, clanking, rage and anger," he told the ACLU of Texas, "like a jammed packed area for a boxing match with everyone screaming murder."
The report does not include details about why inmates were put in solitary because, the ACLU said, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice would not provide information on inmates or policies.
"In order to enhance staff and offender safety, offenders who are confirmed members of the most organized and dangerous prisons gangs, as well as offenders who are escape risks and who committed assaults or multiple other serious disciplinary offenses are incarcerated within administrative segregation," said Jason Clark, a spokesman for the department, in a statement. He said the population in solitary has dropped by 35% since 2006.
Burke Butler, one of the authors of the report, said that nearly half the inmates in isolation are there simply because they are or are suspected of being connected with a gang.
She said that isolation is a particular concern when it is used for people who are mentally ill because their conditions may be greatly exacerbated by the experience. She said that about a third of the people in solitary in Texas have some form of mental illness.
"Solitary confinement is a particularly horrific form of confinement that, as we have documented, causes mental damage," she said.
The report says that reforming the use of solitary confinement is not just a humanitarian issue, but a matter of public safety and economics. In 2013, Texas released 1,243 people directly from solitary confinement to Texas communities, it said.