When Alexis de Tocqueville penned his meditation on the American prison system in the 1830s, the country's experiment in solitary confinement was a half century old, begun in 1786 by pacifistic Pennsylvania Quakers as an alternative to execution. As the Frenchman noted, it hadn't worked:
Nowhere was this system of imprisonment crowned with the hoped-for success. In general it was ruinous to the public treasury; it never effected the reformation of the prisoners.
In order to reform them, they had been submitted to complete isolation; but this absolute solitude, if nothing interrupts it, is beyond the strength of man; it destroys the criminal without intermission and without pity; it does not reform, it kills.
It took an additional half century for the U.S. Supreme Court to reach a similar conclusion, which it did in an 1890 decision a Colorado man's death sentence on the ground that the 45 days of solitary confinement that were to precede his hanging under Colorado law -- not, mind you, the hanging itself -- would be inhumane.
A considerable number of the prisoners fell, after even a short confinement, into a semi-fatuous condition, from which it was next to impossible to arouse them, and others became violently insane; others still, committed suicide; while those who stood the ordeal better were not generally reformed, and in most cases did not recover sufficient mental activity to be of any subsequent service to the community.
Subsequent research has confirmed that solitary confinement does more harm than good, and yet, thanks largely to tough-on-crime policies (thanks 1980s policymakers!), Texas keeps nearly 7,000 prisoners in isolation at any given time, with an average stay there of 3.7 years.
That's according to a new report from the ACLU of Texas and the Texas Civil Rights Project, which teamed up to examine the continued widespread use of solitary confinement in Texas. Their conclusion: the overuse of solitary confinement damages prisoner, wastes taxpayer money, and endangers public safety by disgorging ex-offenders who are significantly more prone to recidivism. But first, they provide a brief taste of what life in solitary is like:
Alex is one of 6,564 Texas prisoners who live in a solitary-confinement cell. It is sixty square feet in size; he can cross its length in six paces. If he lifts his arms to their full wingspan, his fingertips almost graze the walls. The cell is completely bare; just a concrete floor and four concrete walls. Alex is not allowed to place anything on his walls, not even a calendar. The door is made of solid metal with a slot for a food tray, and two thin Plexiglas rectangles to allow officers to see in.
Alex calls this cell his "house"; and for the past 10 years, it has been the only home he has known. Alex's entire life is confined within the four corners of his "house." He eats sitting on the floor or on his bed. He sleeps on a steel bunk along one wall, covered in a thin plastic mattress. He goes to the bathroom in the toilet in the corner. The cell smells "[l]ike mold and urine and feces and filth," Alex writes. "Like a downtown subway restroom. Like a locker room that's never been cleaned."
Most days, Alex's only contact with another human being is the hand that slides his food tray through a slit in his cell door. Weeks pass in which Alex never sees another person's face, or looks another person in the eyes. He can only talk to people by shouting to other prisoners through the concrete walls. He cannot practice his Christian faith with a community of others who share his beliefs. He cannot play sports or games with other people. When his niece comes to visit, he cannot hug her goodbye; he must talk to her through a pane of glass.
We aren't told Alex's last name or what he did to wind up in prison, but that's not terribly relevant as a matter of public policy. What is relevant is that Texas' solitary confinement practices are dumber than Mississippi's. Mississippi is the dumb fat hillbilly kid of states, the one that, no matter how fat or uneducated or unhealthy we are, Texans have always been able to point to and say Well, at least we're not them.
Mississippi's solitary confinement rate is 1.4 percent. Texas' is more than triple that, 4.4 percent. At a cost differential of $19.17 per day for keeping an inmate in solitary versus the general population, Texas spends $31 million per year more than if it shared the Magnolia State's low solitary usage. It would also make guards safer. Attacks on Mississippi corrections officers dropped by 70 percent when it dropped its solitary population from around 1,000 to around 150. The nearly 400 Texas officers whom prisoners in solitary exposed to bodily fluids in 2013 would no doubt appreciate a similar drop.
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The report acknowledges that solitary can be unavoidable in certain cases, but it argues that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice should minimize its use.It recommends a host of potential reforms, most of which have the ring of common sense: TDCJ should avoid putting mentally ill people in solitary; inmates should be able to work themselves back into the population through good behavior; stop automatically locking certain people (e.g. gang members) in solitary, steering them instead into alternative housing; offer social opportunities and recreational program to inmates so they don't go crazy while they're locked up. And so on. It's what de Tocqueville would want.
Send your story tips to the author, Eric Nicholson.