While all prison systems typically have some form of administrative segregation, Texas relies on its maximum custody status more than others. Direct comparisons are difficult; however, the most recent national count, in 2005, showed 2.7 percent of state inmates were on administrative segregation. Although the number in Texas prisons has been dropping slowly since 2006, the percentage here has been about 5.5 percent.
Last week, largely in response to concerns raised by mental health advocates, legislators ordered a detailed analysis of Texas’s use of administrative segregation, including recommendations on reducing its use and the amount of time offenders stay. “Very little is known about conditions in administrative segregation and how these conditions affect its population,” said state Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, the bill’s author.
Several state prison systems recently have begun dramatically reducing their use of isolation. In some cases, the reforms were compelled by court order; in others, they were self-initiated.
Economics is one reason. As state prison systems struggle to meet budgets, they are taking a harder look at expensive programs such as administrative segregation, which can be double the cost of regular prison units. (A Texas corrections spokesman said the state doesn’t break out costs by custody level.)
Public safety is another. Many maximum security residents — about 900 in Texas last year — complete their sentences in isolation and are released directly back into civilian life without re-acclimation or supervision. A 2007 study of similar inmates in Washington state found they had “significantly higher felony recidivism rates” and committed new crimes sooner than other offenders.
In recent years, Ohio has dropped its administrative segregation population from 800 to 90. Mississippi reduced its from 1,300 to about 300, whittling the percentage of total inmates held in maximum custody from more than 5 percent to 1.4 percent.
“If you had talked to me before we started our project to reduce the use of segregation, I’d have told you that the majority of offenders in our long-term segregation were dangerous and a threat to staff and offender safety,” Emmitt Sparkman, of Mississippi’s Department of Corrections, wrote recently. “But when we looked at their cases, we saw that many of the people we were holding in segregation were not a threat.”
In testimony before Congress last summer, Mississippi’s corrections commissioner said the move had reduced violence and saved the state $5.6 million. Illinois, Maryland, New Mexico and Washington have been reviewing their state prison administrative segregation policies to see if they might attain similar results.
Texas administrative segregation units gained notoriety in 1999, when federal Judge William Wayne Justice wrote a scathing opinion following a hearing to determine whether state prisons could be relieved of oversight after a long-running inmate lawsuit. While he acknowledged the need for maximum custody units, the judge found “the extreme deprivations and repressive conditions of confinement” violated the Constitution’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.
Testimony suggested the intensive confinement was particularly hard on the mentally ill. Justice described the units as “virtual incubators of psychoses — seeding illness in otherwise healthy inmates and exacerbating illness in those already suffering from mental infirmities.”
The prison agency has since instituted numerous reforms. Today, officials say, administrative segregation is as small and humane as possible given the dangerous and disruptive nature of its residents, mostly offenders identified as gang members.
“They belong to criminal organizations that have a propensity to commit acts of violence and engage in criminal activity not only within prison walls but outside as well,” said corrections department spokesman Jason Clark, adding that states with lower ratios of administrative segregation residents might have fewer gang members.
Yet it’s a misconception that all administrative segregation residents are “the worst of the worst,” said Jorge Antonio Renaud, a policy analyst for the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. Incarcerated for a total of 27 years in the Texas prison system before being released in 2008, Renaud was assigned to work in an administrative segregation unit while in prison. He said many offenders sent to maximum custody units never demonstrated dangerous behavior beyond their nominal gang membership.
Administrative segregation inmates are allotted an hour of recreation every day (though only two days a week need be outside). They also have regular access to health and welfare services such as chaplains and health workers, though those visits still typically occur in their cells.
The debate over keeping mentally ill inmates in isolation has also continued. “Prisoners with mental illness often have difficulty functioning in the general population and migrate to segregation,” said Angela Browne, director of the Segregation Reduction Project for the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit justice policy organization.
A recent study of Colorado inmates found most mentally ill inmates adjusted quickly to administrative segregation, with their symptoms stabilizing. Last summer, by comparison, when a U.S. Senate committee held hearings on the use of solitary confinement, University of California psychology professor and researcher Craig Haney testified that “serious forms of mental illness can result from these experiences … and a disturbingly high number (of offenders) resort to suicide.”