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Will Texas prisons dial back solitary confinement?

Prisons chief suggests that numbers will decline even more, as other states quickly move away from isolation.

More than three years after he left a Texas prison, Chente Navarro still experienced the night sweats, the depression and the occasional disorientation that came with spending almost five years locked in solitary confinement as a suspected member of a prison gang.

“It made me more and more mentally unstable,” he said in December, recounting how he believes his days as a free man are scarred by being locked up in a small, concrete-walled prison cell for 23 hours a day, every day. “I still go back there (mentally), once or twice a month.”

Just as Navarro became a poster boy three years ago for reforms in the state’s longstanding solitary confinement policy, which reform activists claim was a punitive system that was driving many prisoners crazy, Texas prison officials moved to reduce the number of prisoners in isolation from 9,600 in 2006 to 7,000 now.

Now, at a time when other states are reducing the number of prisoners they keep in solitary confinement, a new move is underway in Texas that could reduce the numbers even more.

Brad Livingston, executive director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice that operates the 109-prison state corrections system, told the American-Statesman that he expects an ongoing review of solitary confinement policies — known as administrative segregation, or ad seg, in prison lingo — could drop the numbers further.

“It’s likely that there will be further reductions as we continue to improve our policies,” Livingston said. “We’re exploring program options that we expect will have that effect. We’re going to continue creating more pathways out of ad seg.”

On Tuesday, a U.S. Senate subcommittee held a hearing in Washington on how to reduce the ill effects of solitary confinement nationally, a move that comes after several states — including New York, Mississippi, Washington and Colorado — have recently taken steps to curtail or restrict the use of keeping convicts in isolation. Lawsuits are pending in several states seeking the same end.

As part of a proposed settlement of a lawsuit challenging solitary confinement, New York is now the largest prison system in the country to bar the use of isolation cells for disciplining prisoners under age 18 and limiting the use of such cells for adult convicts, officials said. Other states also have recently banned solitary confinement for juvenile offenders, except for short periods of time.

Recently, the Colorado prison system’s director spent 20 hours in solitary confinement to test the conditions, and he left reporting that he was “twitchy and paranoid.” He quickly announced that policy changes are planned to limit the use of isolation there.

With likely the largest number of convicts in solitary confinement, Texas faces increasing questions over its policies.

Livingston and other prison officials note that more than half of the 7,200 convicts in solitary confinement are housed there because of violent behavior against staff and other prisoners or because they are escape risks. The rest are members of violent crime gangs.

The average stay in solitary confinement in Texas is just under two years, prison statistics show, longer than those in other states.

“The intended use of administrative segregation was to reduce violence on staff and inmates. Unfortunately a reduction in violence on staff has not been the case in Texas since the state greatly increased the use of administrative segregation in the 1990s,” Lance Lowry, a correctional officer who is president of a Huntsville union local for guards, said in testimony submitted to the Senate committee.

“The overreliance on solitary confinement in Texas may be a direct result of lack of trained and experienced staff. … A better-trained and experienced workforce could better manage an increasing mental health population, reducing the overuse of solitary confinement,” he said.

In addition, Lowry and prisoner-rights advocates agree that Texas’ practice of releasing convicts from administrative segregation directly to the streets isn’t a good idea. Advocates have complained that is a sure recipe for new crimes to be committed.

Jason Clark, a spokesman for Texas’ prison system, said that in 2013, 1,243 felons were released directly from solitary confinement to the streets — including 500 who served their entire sentence and 743 who were released on various forms of parole supervision. Statistics weren’t immediately available on how many of those convicts had come back to prison for new crimes.

“When I got out, I had no idea what to do, where to go,” said Navarro, who was freed from solitary confinement and immediately boarded a bus from Huntsville to Houston. “It was a mental shock, a culture shock, man. I was disoriented, unstable, angry. I went from living in a little box to the big, old free world with no programs, no skills, no nothing.

“Somehow I was able to get back on track,” he said, explaining how he has worked in construction in San Antonio for more than a year without problems. “Many other men don’t make it, can’t make it.”

That’s the message that Marc Levin, director of the Texas Public Policy Foundation’s Center for Effective Justice, delivered in testimony Tuesday to the Senate panel. “Unlike most states, most of Texas’ ad seg prisoners are suspected gang members — and alternative programs could be implemented to graduate inmates from ad seg to the point they are released rather than discharging them to the street,” he told the Statesman.

Prison officials said improving that transition for the state’s toughest and most violent convicts is a goal of the current review of Texas’ solitary confinement policies.

“We’re dialed in on this issue to extend the successes of our treatment programs to this population,” Livingston said. “Consistent with our commitment to public safety, I don’t think the current number of 7,000 is the floor. I think we can do better.”

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