Thursday, April 25, 2013

Isolation, mental illness, and a call for legislative oversight of Texas ad seg

Check out a pair of op eds in the Houston Chronicle published today about solitary confinement from a former Texas Department of Justice general counsel Steve Martin and exoneree Anthony Graves, who spent nearly two decades on death row in "administrative segregation," as Texas euphemistically calls it:
Martin made, essentially, a cost-benefit argument: "Right now Texas, like many other jurisdictions, is wasting money and undermining public safety with its segregation policies and practices. We simply over-use administrative segregation. Given the lack of human contact and very limited access to treatment programs, inmates are functionally programmed to fail when held for months and years in such confinement. Because the conditions are so harsh, it should be used sparingly as the costs are high - for offenders, taxpayers and public safety." Good stuff; read the whole thing.

Like his Congressional testimony on the topic, Graves' column focused on his personal experience in isolation, concluding thusly:
I was proven innocent in 2010, and became Death Row Exonoree No. 138. Some of us on Death Row were innocent. Some were unlawfully sentenced to death and had their sentences thrown out. We all suffered the same.

If you believe in the death penalty, I hope you would at least agree that some of us - the innocent ones and ones unlawfully sentenced to die - did not deserve this torture. Even if you believe in the death penalty, these torturous conditions make no sense. They damaged guys so much they could not repent for their crimes. Guys could not focus on the wrong they had done when they had a legitimate complaint of being tortured in administrative segregation by the state of Texas. And the torture was unnecessary.

Many people housed in solitary confinement in Texas prisons are not in prison for the rest of their lives. These individuals will one day return to our communities with all the mental health issues and physical problems administrative segregation causes. Hundreds of people are released from solitary confinement directly to the street each year with no oversight of any kind. After years in solitary, these individuals will find the outside world very difficult to navigate.

Now the Texas Legislature is considering two bills - House Bill 1266 and Senate Bill 1003 - that will take a hard look at the administrative segregation policies that caused me so much harm and continue to harm so many behind prison walls. These bills call on Texas to find better solutions to solitary.

I lived through solitary and I know there is a better way. These bills should become law because solitary is simply a tool to break a man's spirit - it doesn't make him better or our communities safer.
RELATED: See more on solitary confinement and mental health and if you follow the subject don't forget to check in periodically at the indispensable blog Solitary Watch.


Prison Doc said...

For clarity, readers not familiar with prison need to that not all Ad Seg is alike. For example, I've worked in prisons ranging in size from 600 to 2000 inmates for 15 years, and have never been at a unit where LONG TERM administrative segregation is used. Smaller units usually use administrative segregation only for a period of days to weeks, and even these prisoners are [supposed to be] seen by a medical staff member daily.

The long term ad seg referred to in these articles is a different kettle of fish entirely and probably well deserving of the criticisms levelled.

I just want families at less severe units to realize that when your family member is in ad seg it probably just means that he was a bad boy in some way and has been put in "time out" for a limited time.

Doug said...

Unrelated topic but Scott, I'd be interested in your quick take on the decision by Travis County ADA to not purse felony assault charges against UT football player Cayleb Jones. Any reason to suspect favortism is at play?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Really can't say, Doug, I haven't followed it closely.

Back when I was writing about the Roger Clemens perjury allegations, I thought at one point that maybe Grits needed a Texas sports blotter, but didn't like the idea of trafficking in misery. It also quickly became apparent, upon investigation, that there are so many athletes in trouble it'd be REALLY time consuming. You could do a whole Texas sports blog just as a crime beat and it would be a full-time job.

Prison Doc, you're right that there are different categories of ad seg. Shorter stints are common at most units. But there are also some units holding inmates - often gang identified or in Anthony Graves' case on death row - who are identified when they come into prison, are placed in ad seg from the get-go, and stay in solitary till the day they're released. Can you imagine what "reentry" must be like after that when you walk onto the street in Huntsville with $50 in your pocket and another $50 waiting with your parole officer?

Anonymous said...

You know, the Ledge is addressing this very issue in the Juvenile Justice System as well. I can honestly tell you that I argued hard against prolonged segregation for what was then called the Corsicana Stabilization Unit. I sat in many meeting/hearings representing as an advocate while arguing that this prolonged segregation for youthful offenders exacerbated their current condition. Many were diagnosed with serious mental health disorders - not conduct disorders, but bipolar and other disorders that were related to frontal lobe damage. Frontal lobe damage is typically seen in children that were abused physically by parents or peers and effected their development. I argued the need for B.E.A.M testing and it was denied. That test shows the brains electrical activity, with a concentration on the frontal lobes of these kids. My arguments fell on deaf ears sadly enough. I could see those kids slipping into psychosis, and some became cationic. It was a horrible experience and when I left, I continued the argument in ATX and eventually, they repurposed that unit for violent offenders but only after several kids regressed to the point of no return. That experience still haunts me today.

Anonymous said...

I wonder what would happen if someone who had been held in AS for years were to commit an act of horror along the lines of Newtown? And I'm kinda surprised it hasn't happened yet.

Anonymous said...

Texas authorities investigate death of mental patient at Cass Co. Jail

john said...

While we've isolated the mentally ill, session will soon be over and they'll be out in public, the next two years.
Texas needs to squeeze work out of 'em annually, but there's the same change for that as term limits or their pay cuts.

crapcha captcha cha

Anonymous said...

"Long term segregation fails to solve mental health issues".
Segregation was not designed to solve mental health issues. It has several uses. Among them one of it's major functions is to separate extremely violate offenders from the general population.
As I read this posting and comments I notice everybody keeps throwing the word torture around. They talk as if Ag Seg's only purpose is to mistreat the mentally ill. Nobody suggests what should be done to keep violent offenders separate from the rest of the population. The other offenders have the right to be safe from assault.
Offenders with Mental Health issues do not belong in the prison system at all. This problem needs to be addresses at that level.
At present any offender in segregation is seen by a nurse everyday. Also, any offender in segregation is seen at 30 day intravals by a mental health provider. This requires are are strictly audited.