This commentary originally appeared in the Austin American-Statesman on October 5, 2015.
California recently announced that it will move approximately 2,000 of their 6,600 prisoners in solitary confinement to the general prison population, settling a lawsuit filed nearly six years ago.
The settlement also changes the parameters by which inmates are eligible for solitary confinement and only allow its use for those who commit heinous acts while in prison or for inmates with certain mental illnesses.
California’s solitary confinement reforms should be applauded and implemented across the country. Solitary confinement, which segregates inmates in a 60-square-foot cell for up to 23 hours a day alone, has consistently shown to increase crime at a much greater cost to the taxpayer.
Almost 68 percent of all ex-inmates are arrested within three years of release, an unacceptably high rate that can be reduced, improving public safety while saving money.
However, several studies have shown that recidivism rates for individuals directly released from solitary confinement into society with no supervision are much higher than those released from general population. For example, in Washington State, offenders released directly from solitary confinement were 35 percent more likely to commit a felony post-release when compared to their general population counterparts.
In Florida, inmates who spent time in solitary confinement were 18 percent more likely to commit a subsequent violent crime.
In Texas, recidivism rates went up by over 12 percent for offenders directly released from solitary.
Along with poorer success rates, solitary confinement hurt the taxpayer as well. In the Lone Star State, it costs $61.63 per day per inmate housed in solitary confinement. Alternatively, it only cost $42.46 per day per inmate in general population. With approximately 6,564 prisoners in solitary confinement in Texas, the increased cost for this failing practice is in the tens of millions each year.
Solitary confinement is a necessary tool to manage corrections populations. However, federal and state corrections systems should implement certain policies to minimize the psychological damage that being placed in isolation for decades in some cases has on individuals attempting to restart their lives once they are released.
Direct release from solitary to the outside world should be avoided, if possible. Carve-outs in placing individuals under community supervision for a portion of their sentence would allow the person to assimilate into society while still being under the jurisdiction of the corrections department. This will force the offender to abide by the requirements of the ordered supervision, such as checking in with their probation department, drug testing, and participation in mental health, vocational, and educational programs.
These programs should also be used for inmates in solitary. It is well-documented that a greater emphasis on re-entry success can greatly reduce the chance of reoffending. Due to the higher levels of recidivism within the solitary confinement community, a greater emphasis here is critical.
Many inmates will spend their whole tenure in prison under solitary confinement. It is not uncommon for a prisoner to spend decades in isolation, rendering them helpless or hostile once they re-enter society. Sometimes, this isolation is an unfortunate requirement, such for the severely mentally disabled and the most violent offenders.
However, people are routinely placed in solitary indefinitely for minor prison infractions based on vague and overly broad corrections standards. Clearer guidelines, along with graduated penalties, such as taking away certain privileges in response to minor disciplinary infractions that do not threaten staff or other inmates, will prevent the overuse of solitary confinement.
Some 95 percent of inmates are eventually released back into society. We must take necessary steps to minimize their chances of committing another crime and allow them to become self-sufficient, not burdens on our resources. Simple reforms to solitary can do just that.
Glod is a policy analyst with the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.