In October of 2019, the Texas Civil Rights Project(TCRP) issued a report, “Torture by Another Name: Solitary Confinement in Texas,” that showed there were (as of May 2019) 4,165 inmates housed in long term solitary confinement in the Lone Star State. The number of inmates held under these harsh circumstances number “more than all the other states and the Federal Bureau of Prisons combined.”
Solitary confinement is a penal tool of control. To mete out punishment and demonstrate “control,” prisoners are confined to single solitary cells in cellblocks that generally have iron metal doors with only a food slot giving them access to other human beings. Behind the steel doors are a metal or concrete bed (covered by a worn mattress), a stainless steel toilet and sink, and a metal or concrete table for writing. Generally six by 9 feet, these cells have less square footage than the average American bathroom. Inmates are confined in these enclosed spaces for 23 hours out of every 24, with the remaining hour used for exercise and showering, also alone.
Solitary confinement, more commonly referred to by penal administrators as “Security Housing Units” or SHUs) is used for three primary reasons:
- Isolate inmates for varying periods of time for disciplinary infractions (physical attacks on personnel, fighting, drugs, or possession of contraband).
- Segregate known or suspected gang members who pose a “threat” to each other or the institution’s security.
- Offer “protection” for inmates who cannot, for any number of reasons (fear of personal safety, the nature of one’s charge, generally a sex offense, or the high public profile nature of the inmate’s case) safely live in what’s known as “general population.”
Decades in Solitary Confinement is Torture
The time spent in solitary confinement ranges from a few months to decades. For example, the “Angola Two” (two former Black Panther militants convicted for killing a prison guard in 1972 at the Louisiana State Penitentiary) spent more than four decades in solitary confinement.
Living conditions in solitary confinement are deplorable: lack of mental and physical health treatment, unsanitary food service practices, little or no reading material, lack of air conditioning or inadequate ventilation, incessant debilitating noise, and no human social contact. Some reports show that the suicide rate in solitary confinement is five times higher than the suicide rate in the prison’s general population.
Worse yet, solitary confinement reflects the systemic racism rooted in the American penal system.
People of Color Over-Represented in Solitary
A 2018 analysis by the Association of State Correctional Administrators found that inmates of color are overrepresented in solitary confinement. Black inmates are the most targeted group of inmates for solitary confinement, followed by Latino inmates.
Torture By Another Name
Penal solitary confinement in the United States, especially in Texas, has become what the TCRP calls “torture by another name.” The psychological stress caused by solitary confinement isolation has been documented as the equivalent of “physical torture.”
The TCRP pointed out that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice announced in 2017 that it would no longer use solitary confinement for “punitive reasons.” Still, the department has done very little, if anything, to fulfill this commitment.
The United Nations’ Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT) defines the term “torture” as an act “by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed.”
The following excerpt from the 2018 TCRP report illustrates why the manner in which the TDCJ uses solitary confinement amounts to “torture” within the meaning of CAT:
“Responsiveness to medical needs is also extremely lacking in administrative segregation units. Prisoners with acute medical needs have reported being left to endure days of pain and suffering until unit administrators will take action and seek medical attention for physically ill prisoners. Routine medical needs are also left ignored and unaccommodated. For example, one prisoner who receives frequent dialysis treatment—which requires nourishment proximal to treatment in order to allow the body to recover—describes how he is routinely forced to wait for hours after treatment before he receives any food. Often, he is forced to go almost 12 hours between meals on treatment days despite a pressing clinical need for prompt nourishment.
“Crucially, the severe aforementioned conditions are endured for inexcusably long amounts of time. Again, Texas leads the nation in holding people in solitary for the longest periods of time. In fact, as of August 2018, over 3,000 Texas prisoners had been in isolation for longer than one year. 654 people had been there for a decade or longer and 145 people had stays that exceeded two decades. 59 These unconscionable durations serve no legitimate penological purpose and are astoundingly inhumane.
“In addition to Texas holding people in conditions that are cruel and unusual, Texas’ inadequate policies and procedures violate prisoners’ Fourteenth Amendment due process rights. First, the process for classifying a prisoner as STG (Security Threat Group) is ad hoc and arbitrary and lacks adequate avenues for appeal and review. A number of prisoners held in isolation also strongly dispute their classification as an STG member. STG classification requires only the barest of allegations that a prisoner has exhibited behavior confirming his or her affiliation. Many prisoners suspect they were identified as a member of an STG group based on weak circumstantial evidence, such as wearing a particular kind of jewelry, being from a particular hometown, or possessing artwork depicting certain imagery. People are left to speculate because they are rarely given notice of the evidence used to confirm them leaving them with no way to adequately defend themselves.
“Additionally, the reviews for any prisoner housed in isolation in Texas usually last a few minutes, and most people are inexplicably kept in solitary. Based on our surveys, 73 percent of prisoners rated the quality of their hearings as poor. These hearings do not offer an individualized assessment of each person as a person’s age, health, disciplinary record in solitary and statements on their own behalf seem to have little to no bearing on the decision to keep someone held in isolation. In fact, the hearing review form lists a series of check boxes and does not require a hearing officer to indicate specific reasons for the denial of release. This process forces people into a helpless situation where they can do nothing to earn their way out of solitary and deprives them of the hope of ever getting out. Furthermore, prisoners cannot have legal counsel, are not informed about the evidence used to justify continuing to house them in isolation, and are refused the opportunity to defend themselves against allegations before they are placed in isolation. Thus, TDCJ does not offer adequate procedures by which isolated prisoners can understand the evidentiary basis for their continued isolation, nor does it provide protocols for identifying these individuals and/or allowing them to affirmatively dispute their status.”
Texas Use of Solitary Meets U.N. Definition of Torture
The TDCJ intentionally utilizes solitary confinement in a torturous manner, with little or no process or means for relief. There is no other way to assess it.
In a January 21, 2020 piece for the Texas Observer, Michael Barajas pointed to the case of Roger Uvalle, who in 1993 was placed in solitary confinement for fighting and possession of contraband. Guards tagged him as a member of the Mexican Mafia. He was still in solitary confinement under an STG label when Barajas published his piece—a period of 26 years. At 47 years of age in 2020, Uvalle had spent more than half his life in Texas’ highly punitive solitary confinement.
Roger Uvalle is not an exception. Barajas explained:
“At last count, according to TDCJ, about 1,300 Texas inmates had been in isolation for six years or longer. More than 680 had been in solitary between six and 10 years, 450 between 10 and 20 years, and 129 between 20 and 30 years. Eighteen Texas prisoners have been in solitary for more than 30 years—living in isolation since at least 1990 when George H.W. Bush was president”
The use of solitary confinement skyrocketed in the nation’s prison systems in 2020 as the COVID-19 virus began its rampant spread throughout society—an actual increase of 500 percent. The pandemic has allowed, and in some instances in Texas, encouraged the use of solitary confinement as a “precaution” against the spread of the virus.
Long-term solitary confinement, both before and after the pandemic, stands as an illuminating reminder that America—which has the highest penal incarceration rate in the world—does not have the intellectual ability, moral character, or political fortitude to confine or rehabilitate its inmates humanely.
The American prison concept is also incurably stupid. There is no doubt that American prisons are inhumane. Prisons operate absurdly incompetently, from the wardens to the lowest level guard. Two out of every three inmates released from an American prison will return for a new offense within three years.
That is FAILURE, in the worst possible degree.
But perhaps that is precisely what America’s prison system desires.
Prison Industrial Complex Profits from Torture
Our nation has developed its own corrupt expertise in creating social conditions to ensure a steady flow of human traffic into its $200 billion “industrial prison complex.” This complex is such a failure that it must keep thousands of inmates restricted in torturous long-term solitary confinement because it is too inept (and that is a remarkably kind description) to know how to deal with them in a positive, productive, and humane manner.
Only in America could profit be made from such a failure.
And, of course, most of the tortured inmates are people of color, a natural byproduct of the systemic racism that infects America’s entire criminal justice system.
This reality leads many rationally thinking people to recall the history of forced labor, inmate leasing, and chain gangs and consider the prison system a form of modern-day slavery.