By Matt Clarke
At around 5.5%, the segregation rate in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) is over twice the national average of 2.7%. Segregating so many prisoners raises questions about the mental health effects of isolation. The urgency underlying those questions is punctuated by the fact that the suicide rate among segregation prisoners in Texas is very high. An analysis by the Austin American-Statesman showed that 11 of the 24 Texas prisoners who committed suicide in 2011 were segregation prisoners.
Unlike disciplinary segregation or solitary confinement, which is a short term of isolation as punishment for a disciplinary infraction, administrative segregation (ad seg) prisoners are kept in long-term isolation for reasons such as gang membership or having a high risk of escape. Prisoners in ad seg spend 23 hours a day by themselves in their cells. They are fed and many are showered in their cells. They only are allowed out of their cells for one hour a day of recreation, usually indoors in a cell-like area.
Experts have found that such prolonged periods of isolation can cause psychiatric symptoms in some prisoners and worsen pre-existing psychiatric illness. The potential for segregation causing psychiatric symptoms and the fact that prisoners with pre-existing mental illness have difficulty in general population and often end up in ad seg may help explain why about a quarter of the segregation prisoners in Texas have been diagnosed with mental retardation or mental illness. This, in turn, helps explain a portion of the high suicide rate among segregation prisoners since 28 of the 56 Texas prisoners who killed themselves between 2007 and 2012 had been diagnosed with mental illness.
From 2007 until 2012, the number of Texas state prisoners housed in segregation fluctuated between 8,000 and 9,000, making up between 5 and 6% of the total prisoner population. The suicide rate among ad seg prisoners, which has been on the rise in recent years, was consistently more than ten times that of prisoners in general population, accounting for as much as 40% of the total self-inflicted deaths in the prison system.
A common reason prison administrators give for segregating a prisoner is membership or affiliation with a "security threat group," a gang that is considered dangerous to prison operations. Texas has the gang renunciation and disassociation (GRAD) program to allow some prisoners to work their way out of ad seg by renouncing their gang affiliation and taking classes on topics such as cognitive awareness. Currently, there are 550 prisoners enrolled.
Suicides by prisoners in ad seg can lead to liability on the part of prison officials. Ad seg prisoners are supposed to be under the tightest scrutiny of all prisoners. Guards are supposed to check on them no less than every 30 minutes. Yet, when Casey Meyers, 30, was discovered hanging in his McConnell Unit ad seg cell, rigor mortis had already set in—a process that requires up to four hours.
Such lapses subject prison officials to liability for prisoners’ deaths. For instance, in 2009, the mother of a Thomas Schmerber, 29, a mentally ill prisoner who hung himself in his ad seg cell at the William Clements Unit, received a $85,000 settlement from the prison system after it was discovered that guards falsified records showing that they checked the clearly suicidal prisoner every 15 minutes.
Bipolar prisoner Christopher Brockham hung himself in ad seg at the Michael Unit in 2006. By the time his body was discovered, the blood had already pooled in his lower extremities. His mother filed a lawsuit, but it filed too late and dismissed.
Lance Lowry, an official for a union representing Texas prison guards, said it was no surprise that guards fail to make checks of prisoners and falsify the paperwork because working in ad seg is very stressful and that stress is magnified by chronic short staffing.
"The work is nonstop," said Lowry. "They're tasked with doing an almost impossible job. They're literally having to run to get things done."
In May 2013, the Texas Legislature passed SB 1003 requiring a detailed analysis of the use of ad seg in Texas and requiring recommendations for reducing the use of ad seg and the amount of time prisoners are kept there. This was largely in response to concerns about the effect of prolonged ad seg on prisoners' mental health.
"Very little is known about conditions in administrative segregation and how these conditions affect its population," said John Carona (R-Dallas) the state senator who authored the bill.
There are good reasons to reduce the number of prisoners in administrative segregation besides the potential liability for prisoner suicides. Chief among them is the high cost of incarcerating a prisoner in ad seg—almost double that of general population. Public safety is also a concern since statistics show that prisoners released from ad seg have a much higher recidivism rate than those released from general population. In 2012, around 900 Texas prisoners were released directly from ad seg to civilian life.
Ohio has reduced its ad seg population from 800 to 90 in recent years. Mississippi dropped its ad seg population from 1,300 to around 300, shrinking the ad seg rate in its prison system from over 5% to 1.4%. The move saved the state $5.6 million and reduced violence in the prison system according to testimony before Congress by Mississippi's corrections commissioner. Mississippi's success led the states of Illinois, Maryland, New Mexico and Washington to examine their segregation policies with an eye toward revising them in hopes of achieving similar results.
"If you had talked to me before we started our program to reduce the use of segregation, I'd have told you that the majority of offenders in our long-term segregation were dangerous and a threat to staff and offender safety," said Emmitt Sparkman of the Mississippi Department of Corrections. "But when we looked at their cases, we saw that many of the people we were holding were not a threat."
Administrative segregation in Texas was given a scathing review by federal District Judge William Wayne Justice who, in 1999, called the seg unit "virtual incubators of psychoses—seeding illness in otherwise healthy inmates and exacerbating illness in those already suffering from mental infirmities." Texas prison officials say they instituted numerous reforms since then, making the ad seg system as small and humane as possible given that [some prisoners are dangerous enough to justify such extreme measures of confinement.
"They belong to criminal organizations that have a propensity to commit acts of violence and engage in criminal activity not only within prison walls, but outside as well," said TDCJ spokesman Jason Clark, noting that states with lower ad seg rates might have fewer gang members.
But not all ad seg prisoners are gang members and not all gang members are dangerous according to Jorge Antonio Renauld, a policy analyst for the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition and former long-term Texas prisoner who said that many prisoners in Texas ad seg never demonstrated any dangerous behavior beyond suspected gang membership or association with gang members. Therefore, we can hope that the review of the Texas ad seg policy will lead to policy changes similar to those made in Mississippi.
Source: Austin American-Statesman
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