By Lance Lowry
Prison administrators and correctional unions sometimes go against what the science of numbers tells us on reducing prison violence and assaults on staff. Looking out after the safety of correctional staff should be the greatest concern for correctional administration and the unions that represent correctional officers. Unfortunately corrections is not an exact science and is often driven by unfounded beliefs rather than examining the numbers themselves. Resistance to change in correctional institutions is a common practice seen all across the United States. In the past refusing to change practices in prisons has resulted in riots and staff getting hurt or killed.
During the last two decades, the United States had an explosion in the use of solitary confinement (Administrative Segregation) for federal, state, and local prisoners and detainees. Today, more than 2.3 million people are imprisoned in the United States and over 153,000 people are incarcerated in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. If Texas were its own country we would have the highest incarceration per capita in the world. According to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics, the United States holds over 80,000 people in some kind of restricted housing (Administrative Segregation, Solitary, Super-max). Statistics show in Illinois, 56% of inmates have spent some time in segregated housing.
Originally the use of segregated (special housing, solitary, transient isolation, protective custody) housing in Texas was reserved for inmates that exhibited the most violent behavior, the practice is now being used more frequently to isolate certain gang members, LBGT inmates, all male death row inmates (regardless of prison conduct), special needs inmates, and inmates exhibiting abnormal mental conditions. Some inmates have been locked up in administrative segregation for decades now.
The intended use of administrative segregation was to reduce violence on staff and inmates. Unfortunately reductions in violence on staff has not been the case in Texas. Serious staff assaults in Texas has risen with the increased use of administrative segregation. Serious assaults on Texas correctional staff has gradually risen over 104% during the last 7 years. In 2013 over 79% of the 499 reported intentional exposures to bodily fluids occurred in segregated housing areas of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. None of the exposure assaults involved regular general population offenders.
Most inmates in administrative segregation are often confined to small cells without windows, and little audio / visual stimulation. Such extreme isolation can have serious psychological effects on inmates and can lead to increased aggression towards staff, mental illness, self-mutilation and suicide. Inmates in administrative segregation have little social contact aside from abnormal communications involving yelling at offenders in other cells. Lack of normal social contact breeds increased aggression which increases aggression towards staff who may be the only normal social contact this segment of the offender population has.
In a February 2014 study published in The American Journal of Public Health found that New York City jail inmates placed in solitary confinement were nearly seven times as likely to harm themselves as those in the general jail population. The study found the effects of solitary conditions on juveniles and the severely mentally ill was profound.
Most correctional officers are opposed to the changes in administrative segregation, fearing a breakdown in prison order and risk to their own safety. Unfortunately the data is telling changes are desperately needed. States such as Maine and Mississippi have substantially reduced the use of administrative segregation as punishment without an increase in prison violence towards staff or other offenders. Mississippi went to extremes and reduced its administrative population by more than 75 percent, which has resulted in a 50 percent reduction in prison violence.
On the national level the Obama Administration’s 2014 budget request for the Department of Justice, confirms that the Obama administration has failed to see the damage being inflicted on both officers and inmates through increasing use of administrative segregation, seeking to open a second ultra-secure supermax prison within the next two years. Changes are being pushed on the national level with Senator Dick Durbin (D / Illinois) and Senator Ted Cruz (R / Texas) holding hearings on solitary confinement starting February 25th. Both groups on the extreme right (Republican Tea Party) and left have joined forces seeing the cost savings, reduction in damaging psychological impact, and reducing prison violence.
AFSCME Texas Correctional Employees is taking a proactive stance on reducing staff assaults and the negative impact administrative segregation has on correctional staff. The employees union has broke against the wall of resistance held by correctional officers nationally and is seeking to reduce the growing assaults Texas correctional officials face everyday. The union last session supported legislation to increase studies on the usage of administrative segregation. Unfortunately state administrators refuse to fund the $100,000 needed for the oversight committee study. Complacency , personal attacks, and ignorance will not reduce the violence in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
Proper management of positive and negative behaviors is the key to reducing staff assaults. States such as Louisiana and Massachusetts are going high tech with the introduction of mini-computer tablets as a new management tool that can reward good behavior or be a lost privilege for bad behavior. With new secure computer technology, access to streaming TV can be restricted or modified to insure compliance with treatment programs such as anger management, positively impacting staff with less assaults and aggression by correcting negative behavior. The new technology would allow more education and rehabilitation programs to be delivered to offenders without increasing prison traffic and movement. Use of computer technology such as Jpay systems has implemented reduces contraband and allows better screening of mail. With virtual communications, offenders would be allowed automated mail systems that would allow gang intelligence to archive messages and reduce correctional officer's work load.
Offenders in administrative segregation areas may receive audio and visual stimulation from use of mini computer tablets, reducing the psychological damages of isolation, that can result in less assaults on staff. In 2013 TDCJ saw a 98 percent increase in offender suicide attempts over a 10 year period. With the Texas prison system now becoming the largest mental health care provider in Texas, these numbers will likely increase unless major intervention is done. In 2012 Texas prison saw a record number of suicides with 36 offenders successfully killing themselves. With diminishing conditions for offenders comes diminishing conditions for staff. Texas needs to be more proactive.