Texas Prisons Stop Using Solitary Confinement as Punishment, but Thousands Kept in Administrative Segregation
by Matt Clarke
On September 1, 2017 the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) changed its policy on prisoner discipline to eliminate solitary confinement as a punishment for violating institutional rules, though thousands of prisoners remain in segregation for other reasons.
According to the TDCJ, 76 state prisoners were held in punitive solitary confinement as of July 31, 2017. Under the new policy, they would not be punished by being placed in solitary; instead, prison officials would rely on penalties such as forfeiture of good conduct time and loss of commissary or phone privileges.
“There’s never been any factors that show that [punitive solitary confinement] positively rehabilitates the individual,” stated Lance Lowry, head of the Texas Correctional Employees Union, which represents TDCJ guards.
“I’m quite frankly very surprised and very pleased that they’ve made this move,” added Doug Smith, with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition.
The change in disciplinary policy will not impact the vast majority of prisoners held in solitary. The TDCJ has around 3,940 prisoners in administrative segregation due to their gang affiliations, high escape risk, death sentence or ongoing danger to staff or other prisoners. They remain confined to their cells for at least 22 hours a day.
“I’ve been concerned about their over-using administrative segregation for years,” said state Senator John Whitmire, who chairs the state Senate’s Criminal Justice Committee. “I’m convinced that, if you’re not emotionally disturbed when you go in there, you will be when you get out.”
The TDCJ has worked to reduce the use of administrative segregation in recent years. The less than 4,000 prisoners held in ad seg units in July 2017 was down from around 7,200 in August 2013.
An April 24, 2017 report by the Human Rights Clinic of the University of Texas School of Law concluded that the TDCJ’s solitary confinement policies violated international human rights standards and amounted to torture. The report focused on the Polunsky Unit, which has a large administrative segregation population – including 233 prisoners on death row, which the report said had “particularly draconian” conditions.
The report noted that prisoners in segregation are not allowed to share meals or have recreation time with other prisoners and are denied the most basic human physical contact, even with their families. One man, released from death row after his conviction was reversed, complained of a never-ending cacophony of prisoners yelling from one cell to another just to be able to talk to another person.
Texas prisoners can be held in ad seg for months or even years.
“We really need to focus a lot more on behavior modification and giving officers more tools to manage these prison populations,” said Lowry. “When you take everything away from prisoners, you have nothing to manage them with. And they can become very dangerous when they have nothing to lose.”
In regard to ending segregation for disciplinary purposes, TDCJ spokesman Jason Clark stated, “When reviewing solitary confinement as a policy and practice we determined that as a department we can effectively operate without it.”
If Texas – with the nation’s largest state prison population – can make that change, then other departments of corrections should take note.
Sources: Houston Chronicle, www.usnews.com, www.nytimes.com, www.kut.org, Associated Press