Another 469 individuals during FY 2011 were paroled directly from ad-seg, Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) executive director Brad Livingston told the committee. As was pointed out in Texas Criminal Justice Coalition's written testimony, "Inmates on parole have the advantage of being able to participate in a District Reentry Center, which generally offers more robust programming and resources during the transition into the community." The greater number, though, who are released directly from ad seg, leave prison completely unsupervised.
All told, around 8,100 Texas prison inmates are presently locked up in solitary confinement, down from 9,500 in 1996, said Livingston. According to testimony from Travis Leete of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition (TCJC), "2,060 individuals in administrative segregation were identified with a serious mental health or mental retardation diagnosis in 2011. This is an increase from 1,960 in 2010." Sen. Whitmire said in his opinion TDCJ built "too many" ad seg units during the 1990s prison expansion.
Nationwide, "The U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) estimates that the number of people in restricted housing settings increased from 57,591 in 1995 to 81,622 in 2005," according to Leete's written testimony for TCJC. In Texas, those in ad seg are locked up in a 6'x9' room for 23 hours per day (Whitmire said they're "being held essentially in a closet") and let out for one hour per day for recreation, though even then they're by kept themselves in small, fenced in areas away from the general population.
Mike Ward at the Austin Statesman had the only substantive MSM report from the hearing ("Senators push for rehab programs for the state's most violent prisoners," Sept. 5) which conveyed Chairman Whitmire's disgust at the idea that inmates who were deemed to dangerous to be in the general prison population were being released directly to the streets:
Livingston and Rick Thaler, the agency's assistant director over prisons, said the toughest convicts are the hardest to safely provide programs for. They cannot be included in regular treatment and rehabilitation programs offered to the state's other imprisoned felons "because we can't endanger the offenders in general population," Thaler said.To Grits, the notion that TDCJ is releasing so many people from ad seg to the streets without giving them the opportunity to go through the gang renunciation program seems especially troubling. Regular readers will recall that Texas prison gangs are responsible for an extraordinary amount of north-to-south "spillover violence" along the Texas-Mexico border, with groups like Barrio Azteca serving as soldiers and hit men for Mexican drug cartels. Death totals attributed to Texas prison gangs in Mexican border towns run into the thousands. So to me, encouraging gang renunciation while in prison - right down to providing tattoo removal services and intensive monitoring during reentry - is of critical, immediate importance, particularly as it relates to reducing violence along the border. To learn that many gang members are released while still on the GRAD waiting list - many of them without even being supervised on parole - was particularly discouraging.
"But you can let them discharge onto the street when they finish their sentence, straight from spending every day for 15 years locked up alone in a small cell?" Whitmire asked. "Why not give them some life-skills or some faith-based programs or something that can prepare them for when they get out, rather than just turning them loose?"
Other states offer a variety of programs for felons in administrative segregation, especially for those who are due for release within a year. Several senators questioned whether Texas should consider modifying its isolation policy.
Sen. Joan Huffman asked Brad Livingston if offenders "earn their way into ad seg" and he answered, "for the most part, yes," but it became clear during questioning, as Chairman Whitmire later noted, that a large number of inmates are placed in solitary due solely to TDCJ's classification judgments as opposed to misbehavior once incarcerated.
There are two ways offenders get into ad seg, Livingston told the committee: Being identified as a member of a "security threat group" (read: "prison gang") or misbehavior, especially violence against staff or other inmates, while locked up. Of those, about 60% are in ad seg because they're members of a security threat group, with the other 40% in ad seg because of their behavior. Those in prison gangs are identified by tattoos, past associations, or their inclusion in the statewide prison and street gang database and may be placed into ad seg from the get-go, sometimes serving their entire sentence start to finish in solitary. Others are identified through gang associations established at their unit, or put there because they're determined to be a threat to prison staff and/or other inmates. According to data provided by TCJC, "about one-third of the individuals currently in administrative segregation in Texas were originally incarcerated for nonviolent offenses." Some of those result from misbehavior once inside, but many are there because of alleged gang affiliations.
There is a program for gang members to theoretically earn their way off of ad seg called the Gang Renunciation and Disassociation (GRAD) program, but there is a significant waiting list (officials couldn't tell the committee how long it is) and the program's current capacity is only 61 inmates. To enter the program, the inmate must go through a 12-month observation period (until recently it was 24 months) during which it's supposedly determined if the offender has ceased gang-related activity.
Chairman Whitmire suggested many experts would say such an assessment needn't take even 12 months and asked what I thought was a very good question: Given that ad seg inmates are afforded no human contact except with guards, how can they possibly demonstrate gang renunciation? "What evidence are you looking for?" he asked. The answer was basically monitoring inmate correspondence, in-cell behavior, and assessing their interaction with guards who feed them and take them to their (otherwise solitary) one-hour recreation sessions. That seems like a sparse dataset indeed for making such a judgment.
That said, there has been some, minor movement toward improving ad-seg corrections policy. This July, TDCJ began to offer programming (mostly via in-cell video) to 67 ad seg inmates in the Estelle unit, and the agency hopes to expand the program going forward, said Livingston. Sen. Huffman asked if the goal was eventually to provide programming for everyone in ad seg, but Livingston hemmed and hawed, saying it might be a long-term goal but wasn't immediately something they were working toward.
Vikrant Reddy of the Texas Public Policy Foundation told the committee about a program in Mississippi launched in 2003 which he said successfully reduced that state's number of prisoners in ad seg from 1,000 to around 150 today, which seems like a remarkable achievement, and saved more than $5 million annually. Searching around for more detail on that effort, I ran across this academic paper (pdf) describing the process. Mississippi adjusted its front-end classification system regarding who is placed in ad seg, began holding regular group treatment sessions with four ad-seg offenders each, and created a "step-down unit" where ad seg prisoners go for an average of 3-6 months before being reintegrated into the general population. Prisoners "are considered ready for discharge from the program when their treatment plans have been accomplished and their conditions have become stable. After being discharged, a prisoner may be readmitted [to ad seg] if he experiences a relapse."
Notably, reducing the number of ad seg prisoners by 85% not only didn't increase prison violence, in fact, "the number of incidents requiring use of force plummeted (e.g., spraying a prisoner with immobilizing gas or taking down a recalcitrant prisoner). Monthly statistics showed an almost 70% drop in serious incidents, both prisoner-on-staff and prisoner-on-prisoner." That's a remarkable achievement, both from a policy and a political perspective. If Mississippi can accomplish that - and they're as red as red states come - one imagines Texas could safely reduce its ad-seg population as well. Presently, about 1% of Mississippi prisoners are in ad seg units, compared to more than 5% in Texas.
According to recent testimony before Congress from the Vera Institute of Justice, Ohio reduced its ad seg population using similar methods to Mississippi. Their number of ad seg prisoners "went from 800 to 90" as a result of Buckeye-state reforms. The difference between ad seg in Texas compared with Mississippi and Ohio is mainly one of scale. But if they can reduce their ad seg populations so dramatically, Grits sees no good reason why Texas couldn't pull it off.
For more background on the effects of ad seg when offenders re-enter society, see a report published in August by the American Friends Service Committee titled "Lifetime Lockdown: How Isolation Conditions Impact Reentry" (pdf). And as always, the blog Solitary Watch remains a go-to source on all things ad seg.
MORE: A reader alerts me to a recent, related NY Times column from philosopher Lisa Guenther titled, "The Living Death of Solitary Confinement." AND MORE: See coverage of the hearing from the Texas Tribune.