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Reducing solitary confinement

This is good.

Sheriff Ed Gonzalez

Almost five years after images surfaced of a mentally ill inmate wallowing in a cell full of human waste and bugs, the Harris County jail has cut in half its use of solitary confinement.

The decrease is due in part to a decision to stop putting rule-breakers in solitary, officials say, and in part to the creation of two rehabilitative mental health units that provide a path out of isolation.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” said Anthony Graves, a death row exoneree who has spoken out against the use of solitary confinement since his release. “It says that people are now getting serious about criminal justice reform.”

In the fall of 2014, the jail had 240 inmates isolated in so-called administrative separation. By March of this year, that number had plummeted to 122, or just over 1 percent of the jail’s population, according to data from the office of Sheriff Ed Gonzalez.

[…]

“There’s a nationwide trend where correctional facilities are moving away from the use of administrative separation and in keeping with best practices and current practices, and also trying to do what’s best for the inmates themselves,” [Sheriff’s Office Major John] Martin said. “There are a lot of studies out there that suggest keeping them confined by themselves might not be best so gradually we started changing a lot of our practices. I think a difficult part is changing mindsets – just getting people to think differently.”

The following year, in an effort to shift mentally ill inmates out of isolation, the jail launched the first of two pilot programs. The 2015 initiative, now known as the Social Learning Program and housed in the 2L unit at the 1200 Baker complex, holds just under two dozen inmates who get 16 hours of out-of-cell time per day.

“They were in the hole — but now they’re not because of the program,” said Major Mike Lee, who oversees the jail’s mental health and diversion programs.

In the 2L unit, arrestees get programming and cognitive behavioral therapy-based groups twice a day. Groups focus on communication skills, medication management and anger management.

“It’s so they won’t resort to the same behaviors when they get out,” said Sean McElroy, the jail’s mental health program administrator through The Harris Center.

But part of the goal is also that, after some time spent in the program, the inmates can be transferred back to general population.

“It’s something we feel is in everybody’s best interest,” Martin said.

Michele Deitch, a criminal-justice expert and senior lecturer at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Austin, concurred, adding that mentally ill inmates are often at a higher risk for landing in solitary.

“It’s well-established that solitary confinement is detrimental to the health of people, especially people with mental illness,” she said. “People with mental illness are far more vulnerable than other populations in the jail. They are more likely to be exploited by other inmates, they’re less likely to be able to follow directions, they are more likely to deteriorate under the conditions of confinement in the jail and, because of their frequent inability to conform their behavior to the rules, they are disproportionately likely to end up in solitary.”

This is what I want to see. This change in policy is more humane, will lead to better outcomes, and will ultimately cost the county less money. And it’s just heartening to see the Sheriff’s office staying on top of staying on top of the research and following the best practices. We deserve and should expect nothing less.

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