“I’M LOSING my sanity,” one prisoner wrote.
“You could not tell day from night,” another reported. “You were always backward. . . . No light coming in the building. You be lost.”
“The depression and self-destructive behaviors I have have intensified consistently,” said yet another.
Inmates told of paranoia, hallucinations, bizarre sleep habits, self-mutilation and constant screaming.
These aren’t accounts from a prison in some third-world dictatorship. They are stories that the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas collected from those the state warehoused in solitary confinement. The group is set to release a report Thursday detailing the responses it got from inmates it surveyed — and calling for further reform.
We say further because, despite the horrific accounts the ACLU dredged up, Texas is not the worst state in the nation when it comes to imposing the hell of solitary confinement on its prisoners, and its record has improved in recent years. Among other things, Texas has slashed the number of inmates in solitary by 34 percent since 2006.
But its solitary confinement policies still throw away too many lives. The ACLU found that more than 4 percent of Texas’s prisoners — more than 6,000 people — are in solitary, spending an average of nearly four years in near-total isolation, locked in 60-square-foot cells for at least 22 hours a day. By contrast, Mississippi knocked down its solitary confinement rate to 1.4 percent after a spate of violence in its solitary units inspired a strong reform program. Rick Raemisch, Colorado’s reform-minded prison director, has said that only four or five people need to be placed in solitary long-term in his state.
Part of the problem is that Texas, like many other states, throws mentally ill inmates into solitary when instead they need comprehensive, specialized treatment. Their symptoms often get worse. Another part of the problem is that the state commits members of various gangs to isolation cells to tamp down prison violence. But the deeply counterproductive toll solitary takes on inmates has led even the Texas prison guards union to favor a change in policy.
There are plenty of things for these states to do. Marc Levin, a conservative criminal justice advocate in Texas, says it’s possible the legislature will end the practice of releasing people immediately from solitary onto the street when their terms are up. That would battle the high recidivism rate among those who emerge from isolation. The system also needs more and better mental health screening. Prisoners who require particular attention or who are somehow at risk should get specialized confinement with well-trained staff, apart from the general population but not in solitary.
No one foresees the end of solitary confinement anytime soon. Just getting Texas down to Mississippi’s rate, the ACLU’s Terri Burke told us, would make criminal justice reform advocates very happy. But in Texas and elsewhere, reform can’t come fast enough for the men and women wasting away.