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Solitary Confinement Is Broken, and Prison Guards Are Trying to Fix It

Some separated inmates feel the experience has so dehumanized them they don’t want to leave.
Apr 29, 2016· 10 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

With a top hat and a penetrating grin on his perfectly round, luminescent face, Mr. Hamburger watches over 11th Street in Huntsville, Texas, from atop a 25-foot-tall signpost. Inside the eponymous fast-food joint, hungry visitors can order a variety of burgers whose names give a cheeky nod to the prison down the road: the Killer Burger, the Warden, Old Sparky—the latter referring to an electric chair used in the executions of 361 people between 1924 and 1964.

Known by locals as “the Walls” for its foreboding 20-foot-high red-brick ramparts punctuated by corner watchtowers, the Texas State Penitentiary at Huntsville houses the state’s sole death chamber. Early prisoners at the Walls, the first penitentiary in the state, were put to work in a textile factory making uniforms for the Confederate army. It’s one of seven correctional facilities in the Huntsville area that together employ 3,759 people. Twenty-five percent of Huntsville’s population is behind bars. The city of roughly 40,000 people, which includes the correctional institutions’ population of 15,429, is a prison town, through and through.

(Photo: Giorgio Fochesato/Getty Images)

Huntsville is also a locus of the nationwide movement to reduce the use of solitary confinement. Over the last several years, the issue has caught the attention of activists, civil rights litigators, state legislators, and the federal government. Reform bills, lawsuits, and prisoner-led hunger strikes are leading some to wonder whether corrections officers are over using the practice. A 2012 lawsuit that was settled in federal court last year argued that prolonged isolation of inmates at California’s notorious Pelican Bay State Prison violates the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The settlement required the state to end indefinite solitary confinement and to reduce the number of people in solitary by no longer isolating them on the basis of alleged gang affiliation. (In 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review a similar case brought by an inmate in Virginia.)

Now, people inside the prison walls are joining the usual array of criminal justice reform advocates. Lance Lowry, sergeant of correctional officers at a prison intake facility and president of the local chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, used to work at a high-security prison unit in Huntsville that houses part of its population in solitary confinement. He says the practice isn’t just bad for prisoners—it’s bad for guards too. As labor activists have done throughout history, Lowry is advocating for better, safer working conditions. Isolating fewer prisoners for 23 hours a day in 60-square-foot cells would go a long way toward achieving that goal, he believes.

Punishing the Victim

Prisoners who report rape are often penalized with solitary confinement.

“When you cut out social interaction, you’re dealing with a person who has nothing to lose, and that’s extremely dangerous,” Lowry says of solitary confinement. “If you were to build a sanitized version of hell,” it would look a lot like the other side of a steel door at his workplace. Solitary confinement, he says, is “where people lose their minds.”

The damaging effects of solitary confinement, also known as administrative segregation or secure housing, are well documented. Research has shown that such isolation can provoke or aggravate mental illness and increase the risk of suicide. Prisoners who’ve emerged from solitary tell stories of hallucinations, panic attacks, and paranoia. “[Solitary] is there to dehumanize you, to break you physically, mentally, and spiritually,” says Danny Murillo, who spent seven years in solitary confinement at Pelican Bay. Last March, New York City teen Kalief Browder took his life after spending two years in solitary confinement at the Rikers Island jail complex, where he was isolated after scuffling with another inmate. Arrested at 16, Browder waited without trial on charges of stealing a backpack and insisted on his innocence. Before his death, Browder described his time in solitary to ABC News as “hell on Earth.”

Sergeant of Correctional Officers Lance Lowry, shown outside the Texas State Penitentiary at Huntsville, has worked to reduce the state's use of solitary confinement in its prisons and jails. (Photo: Drew Anthony Smith)

Lowry is well acquainted with stories like Browder’s—and with the risks that come with the job of guarding people deemed too dangerous for a prison’s general population. More than once, Lowry has been assaulted while working in the administrative segregation unit. Bodily fluids flung from confinement cells have sent him to the hospital. “It’s horrendous,” says Lowry. “You have to get tested [for hepatitis and HIV], and you’re worried about taking something home to your family.” But these confrontations with prisoners, along with the list of colleagues injured or murdered over his 20 years in law enforcement and corrections, have only cemented his belief that prisons need less isolation, not more.

“Assaults on staff have more than doubled in the last decade” in Texas prisons, Lowry says. “Part of it is the increased use of administrative segregation. I look at what we’re producing, and it’s not good.”

The number of prisoners in solitary confinement nationwide is difficult to track, because many states don’t keep data on how many people are in isolation or for how long. Available data suggests the practice is widespread: Yale Law School and the Association of State Correctional Administrators estimated last year that between 25,000 and 80,000 people are kept in some form of isolation in the U.S. at any given time. The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics says that around 20 percent of all inmates—local, state, and federal—have spent time in solitary at some point during their incarceration. As the rate of incarceration in the U.S. (the world’s highest) has grown, the percentage of inmates held in solitary has climbed even faster.

Typically used as a means of separating prisoners with histories of violence behind bars, or to prevent those with alleged gang affiliations from conspiring, solitary is now wielded as punishment, as a blunt tool for protecting the prison population from the unpredictable behavior of the mentally ill, or a means of protecting vulnerable prisoners, such as youths or transgender inmates.

In January, President Obama issued an executive order banning the solitary confinement of juveniles in federal custody (of which there are few). The Department of Justice then called on state corrections departments to limit their use of solitary confinement, issuing guidance and asking the National Institute of Corrections to incorporate that guidance into officer training, The Guardian reported. Supreme Court justices have repeatedly gone out of their way to denigrate the practice in their opinions.

Texas State Penitentiary in Huntsville. (Photo: Drew Anthony Smith)

In 2014 Lowry and colleagues at AFSCME, one of the nation’s largest labor unions, wrote an open letter to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice calling for reduced use of solitary confinement on death row. The letter recommended giving inmates who follow the rules in solitary access to television and computer tablets. “Lack of visual or audio stimulation result in increased psychological incidents and in costly crisis management,” wrote Lowry. The letter also called for more training for prison staff assigned to death row and a salary hike to incentivize officers to seek alternatives to solitary for misbehavior. Today, he and his union colleagues continue to push for reform.

“Prison conditions are working conditions, and when we have inhumane institutions, they’re inhumane for everybody,” says Amy Fettig, senior staff counsel for the ACLU’s National Prison Project. “That’s part of the reason corrections officers have such high PTSD rates, lower life-spans, and terrible health indicators.”

Many prison guards, including some Lowry works with, don’t share his view. His advocacy, he says, has meant a trade-off in his personal life: “I’m not the most popular man in town, but I can sleep at night.”

Some prisoners have even resisted being moved out of solitary, says Rick Raemisch, executive director of the Colorado Department of Corrections, who initiated reforms to reduce reliance on administrative segregation three years ago: “They were scared, dehumanized, and desocialized; they couldn’t see themselves mixing with the general population.” Raemisch and Lowry are not alone. When Bernard Warner, the former secretary of the Washington State Department of Corrections, began his corrections career 36 years ago, he was assigned to an administrative segregation unit at Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla.

“I saw firsthand the conditions and environment in those housing units,” Warner says. “It was pretty horrific.”

When Warner became the chief of the department in 2011, he invited the Vera Institute of Justice, a criminal justice research nonprofit, into the state’s prisons to assess the solitary confinement population. Warner says the results didn’t surprise him: Isolated inmates were disproportionately mentally ill, “gang entrenched,” or bouncing back and forth between the general population and segregation because of behavioral problems.

Warner and his staff developed a series of programs to help people return to the general prison population, remove the mentally ill from confinement, and address aggression issues among those who remained isolated. He converted a utility closet in an administrative segregation unit to a classroom, where eight to 10 inmates at a time, restrained to their desks, are able to interact with one another in classes led by corrections officers. Over the course of three years, the state’s solitary confinement population dropped by 50 percent.

“We haven’t had any assaults in these classrooms,” says Warner. “We’re able to reach people who have not had any programming for a long period of time—people who are returning to the general [prison] population” or, often, being released back into the community. He says he was able to find common ground with the corrections union—everyone wanted safe facilities, and staff were open to the possibility that solitary confinement was hampering that objective. “The union understood that we have a shared goal: We don’t want violence; we don’t want staff assaults,” Warner says. “The success in being able to do this is getting buy-in from the people who work in that environment. It’s not done most effectively with a top-down approach.”

Labor unions are beginning to weigh in on the broader picture of mass incarceration. Maria Robalino, senior program specialist for the Civil, Human, and Women’s Rights Department at the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, the largest federation of unions in the U.S., is working with union leaders around the country to mobilize corrections and justice system workers in reform efforts. Corrections staff “are as much victims of this broken system as the inmates,” says Robalino. “They want to do their work with dignity, and they want to be part of changing the system.”

Colorado Department of Corrections Executive Director Rick Raemisch spoke about solitary confinement at a 2013 press conference. (Photo: Andy Cross/Getty Images)

Raemisch took office in 2013, after a former inmate who had spent several years in solitary confinement and was released directly into the community shot and killed his predecessor. Like Warner, Raemisch undertook an assessment of who was in solitary and why and worked with staff to develop a series of programs to reduce the population and ensure no one was released from prison straight from solitary—a common occurrence. “Everybody can see the way the courts are going,” Raemisch says. “This old way of doing business is going to be a part of the past.”

Raemisch spent 20 hours in solitary confinement in one of his prisons with the hope that writing about his experience for the Department of Corrections newsletter would help garner the support of staff at all levels. “I thought I’d walk the talk, and that would help change the culture,” says Raemisch. He says he is pleased with the program’s success thus far and feels supported by most staff members, but shifting the tide of reliance on isolation in prisons saw opposition from a surprising group. As Colorado began the process of decreasing the state’s solitary confinement population, roughly 200 inmates refused to come out of segregation. “It was too ironic to physically force someone out of a cell we’d probably physically forced them into,” Raemisch says.

Lowry spoke before the Texas State Senate Criminal Justice Committee in March. (Photos: Drew Anthony Smith)

Using a combination of “at-the-door therapy” (in which a clinician speaks with an inmate through a cell door), promises of long-forbidden canteen items, and therapy dogs, Colorado prison staff were able to coax most of those prisoners out of isolation.

Resistance from corrections staff and high-level administrators remains a roadblock to reform for many states. Staunch opposition from the New York City Correction Officer’s Benevolent Association, the largest municipal jail union in the country, to reducing the use of solitary persists. Following President Obama’s executive order not to isolate juveniles, COBA President Norman Seabrook published an editorial decrying the decision as out of touch with “the reality that correction officers face every day” and criticizing the president for not bringing those officers into the conversation.

Seabrook argued that teenage inmates in New York City became “emboldened and even more dangerous” after the city banned isolation for inmates 21 and under in 2015. “Without this deterrent…what would we do with the scores of inmates who throw feces, urine, and blood at officers? These inmates must be separated for the safety of everyone on the inside,” wrote Seabrook.

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It is a common refrain. In New Mexico, Secretary of Corrections Gregg Marcantel has worked with organizations such as the ACLU to reform solitary confinement. (Marcantel made media waves when, somewhat like Raemisch, he went undercover in his own prison system as an inmate in solitary confinement in 2014.) But it hasn’t been easy, in large part because he doesn’t have support from guards.

“He’s having huge problems reducing the use of solitary confinement because of the resistance of unions who have relied on its use for so long,” says Matt Coyte, president of the New Mexico Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, which has long pushed for reform. “It’s harder to tackle a problem than it is just to carry on what you’ve been doing forever.” (Marcantel’s office did not respond to requests for an interview.)

Another obstacle has been the lack of mental health services behind bars. As prisons and jails are increasingly used as housing for the mentally ill, and funding mental health care outside the criminal justice system is cut, training for corrections officers hasn’t caught up in most places.

“Corrections has evolved into more of a social work position,” says Lowry, who advocated for a bill last year that would have created more mental health training for officers. It passed the state House and Senate, but Gov. Greg Abbott vetoed it, saying it “unnecessarily micromanages the state prison system.”

“The prison system has been tasked with being a mental health provider for the state of Texas,” Lowry continues. “Officers get hurt because they don’t understand mental illness. That’s why a lot of people get put in administrative segregation.”

In late March, Lowry traveled to the state capitol in Austin for a Senate Criminal Justice Committee hearing on mental illness in the state’s jails. Spurred by the death of Sandra Bland in July 2015, the committee heard from county sheriffs, mental health providers, and police officers to better understand the prevalence of suicide in these facilities. Lowry testified at the hearing, describing the lack of information provided to the prison system by jails on the mental health status of inmates during transfers. That contributes to outbursts from untreated, unmedicated inmates who are then confined in administrative segregation cells, Lowry explained.

Lowry concedes that mental illness aside, a few inmates are simply too dangerous not to be isolated. “The Hannibal Lecters of the world really do exist,” he says. “They’re diligent, and they just want to hurt people.” When asked how many people in Texas’ solitary confinement cells fit that bill, Lowry estimated “less than 1 percent.”

Raemisch and Warner agreed, noting that not everyone can function safely in a prison’s general population—but that description fits very few people.

“We have one inmate like that out of 20,000,” says Raemisch. “He has said, ‘I’ll come out if you want me to, but I’ll kill someone.’ But that doesn’t mean you give up on him. You keep trying.”

Correction: April 29, 2016

An earlier version of this article misstated Lance Lowry’s rank and stated that he currently works at a high-security prison unit.