The cost of solitary confinement doesn’t add up, critics say

AUSTIN - The United Nations last month adopted rules saying no prisoner should spend more than 15 days of solitary confinement.

Yet in Texas, inmates can do decades in solitary under a system that not only costs $46 million annually but also endangers taxpayers by releasing inmates who are more likely to re-offend than those incarcerated in the general prison population, according to a recent American Civil Liberties Union of Texas study. 

Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has just called on lawmakers to study how Texas prepares inmates, including those in administrative segregation, for re-entry to civilian life.

But while studies continue, experts are urging action to reduce Texas’ reliance on what some call a failed experiment in correctional policy. 

“With the settlement of the Ruiz v. Brown class action lawsuit, California has diminished its use of solitary drastically,” psychiatrist Terry Kupers said in an email interview. “Texas stands alone as the biggest abuser in regard to solitary confinement.” 

The law suit Kupers referred to focused on solitary confinement in California’s Pelican Bay State Prison Security Housing Unit, or SHU.

The plaintiffs argued that long-term solitary confinement was cruel and unusual punishment, and violated due process rights.

The suit was recently settled, and ended indeterminate solitary sentencing in California.

In Texas, according to the ACLU report, the average Texas solitary prisoner stays there nearly four years; more than 100 have done over 20 years in solitary. 

“The conditions in which these people live impose such severe deprivations that they leave prison mentally damaged,” the ACLU report said. “As a group, people released from solitary are more likely to commit more new crimes than people released from the rest of the prison system. 

“Yet in 2013, (Texas) released 1,243 people directly from solitary confinement. These prisoners return to society after living for years or decades in a tiny cell for 22 hours a day, with no contact with other human beings or access to educational or rehabilitative programs.”

Kupers has long studied solitary confinement. 

“We need a form of separation, to keep enemies away from each other or to separate someone who causes trouble on the yard or somewhere in the prison,” Kupers said. “But once they are separated, they should always be involved in meaningful activities and congregate activities, because that is how they will learn the skills they need to succeed at going straight after they are released.”  

Melissa Hamilton, a University of Houston Law Center visiting scholar, said the best chance for changing things in Texas may to be educate policy makers on the cost of keeping the status quo.

By one calculation, Texans could save an annual $33 million by cutting its solitary confinement rate from 4.4 percent of the prison population to Mississippi’s rate: 1.4 percent.

Said Hamiltion, “The only traction you’re going to get is to argue the money aspect.”

But Texans also need to factor in the cost of returning inmates who’ve been in solitary for years to the streets, Kupers said.

“The basic question is whether what we do to prisoners makes them more or less capable of succeeding at going straight after they are released,” he said. “Ninety three percent of prisoners will be released. 

“Solitary damages prisoners and makes them less capable of succeeding at going straight. There is no rational basis for doing that.”  

Houston attorney Burke Butler, a co-author of the ACLU study, said there’s evidence that like officials elsewhere, Texas lawmakers may be willing to recalculate the price of solitary confinement policies.

“This year the Legislature passed a bill requiring a mental health study of anyone placed in solitary confinement,” Butler said. “That’s a step forward.”

John Austin covers the Texas Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach him at

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