The Cost of a Cage: Solitary Confinement in Texas
When offenders leave prison after having served their sentence, the hope is that they will have learned from the experience and make a serious effort to reintegrate into the community. Ideally, they will return to their families and finish their education or gain employment. The last thing that is intended is that they exit prison more likely to offend than before.
Unfortunately, the overuse of solitary confinement in the Texas correctional system increases crime among released inmates and wastes taxpayer dollars.
When used appropriately, solitary confinement can be a useful tool for correctional officers. When inmates become dangerous to others or are in danger themselves, it can be necessary to temporarily separate them from the group. This gives them an opportunity to cool down or for the danger to dissipate.
However, solitary has become drastically overused by the Texas system. In other states, inmates in solitary confinement account for 1 or 2 percent of the incarcerated population. In Texas they account for 4.4 percent, many of them with mental disorders.
This number raises serious safety concerns. In 2013, more than 1,000 inmates in Texas were released back into the community directly from solitary confinement. Research has proven that inmates who are released directly from solitary confinement are 35 percent more likely to reoffend. This significantly increases their danger to communities.
Even if an inmate in solitary is not violent or threatening to begin with, time spent in solitary, which involves 23 hours in a cell with no stimulation, can increase that danger. Thousands of inmates sent to solitary confinement in Texas are already suffering from mental disorders. Research demonstrates the dangers of solitary on the mentally ill, but it only requires common sense to realize that restricting someone who is already disturbed to what is essentially a box for months will exacerbate their condition.
Additionally, the argument that solitary is only being used to increase institutional and public safety does not hold up. Mississippi has managed to substantially lower their solitary population, while seeing a decrease in prison violence and the rate of recidivism upon release. Additionally it is estimated that if Texas lowered their solitary incarceration rate to Mississippi’s 1.4 percent, they would save taxpayers $31 million a year.
For example, any incoming inmate who is suspected of a gang affiliation is automatically placed in solitary confinement. This encompasses about half of the solitary population and does not take into account actual misconduct or active gang membership. Given that the only way out of solitary for these offenders is a nine-month program that sometimes has a waiting list, their stay is often extended unnecessarily.
Instead, correctional systems should introduce a tailored approach to solitary confinement. Inmates should be entered based on behavior or risk levels, and they should be regularly evaluated, gradually allowed more out-of-cell-time, and ultimately released as their behavior provides sufficient indication that they no longer pose a risk. Other states, such as Colorado, have found alternative methods to secure inmates with mental illnesses including diverting them to secure treatment programs.
The current practices surrounding solitary confinement are failing everyone. Inmates are made more dangerous and then often released right back into the communities. Security in prisons is lowered at an increased cost to taxpayers. Policies in correctional facilities need to be significantly altered.
Cages come with a cost, and this cage costs everyone.
Originally posted at The Statesman.