There’s a growing consensus among mental health experts and corrections officials that solitary confinement is not just expensive but also harmful for inmates, staff and the communities to which those inmates may return. In fact, the psychological distress that has been connected with long periods in solitary are so well established that the United Nations defines solitary confinement beyond 15 days as torture.
At last count, more than 1,300 Texas prisoners have been held in solitary confinement for five years or more, including some who are eligible for parole.
“That’s been one of the main tools the Texas prison system has used to keep violence at pretty low levels, compared to other big prison states,” Barajas says.
Heavy use of solitary confinement in Texas began in the 1980s, Barajas says. Prisoners won reforms and protections from abuse. At the same time, the guard population was not large enough to control larger number of inmates who were being sentenced, and who were more forthright in seeking their rights.
Barajas says at last count, 18 people have been held in solitary for 30 years or longer. He spoke to men who live in solitary confinement, but was unable to view the cells in which they live.
Barajas says some prisoners in solitary confinement were convicted of serious crimes, including murder. Others find themselves there because of a series of smaller crimes and missteps while in prison.
Barajas wrote about solitary confinement of six years or more, which mental health professionals say is the point at which such confinement takes a long-term toll on inmates. Texas leads the nation in the number of prisoners confined alone for six years or more.
“Six years-plus is kind of an arbitrary distinction, but that’s what’s counted right now,” Barajas says.
For those who are already at risk for mental illness, solitary confinement for even a relatively short time can do damage. Long-term solo confinement leads to recurring mental health trauma, he says.
“They pretty regularly have delusions that test their grip on reality,” Barajas says. “They experience hallucinations on a pretty regular basis. They have thoughts of suicide, self-harm. The effects are pretty well documented. ‘Torture’ is a pretty extreme word, but I think that’s why it’s used.”
The Texas Department of Criminal Justice told Barajas that the state has cut the number of people in solitary confinement by half in the past decade – to 4,500 prisoners from 9,000.
Families of prisoners have repeatedly asked the Legislature for an independent oversight mechanism – “something akin to what the juvenile justice system did in Texas about a decade ago,” Barajas says.
Written by Shelly Brisbin.