Texas Prisons Need Major Reforms in Use of Solitary Confinement

By HPJC Executive Committee member Jimmy Dunne

Jimmy Dunne’s address to Board members of Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Aug. 26, 2022

I am here today with the support of the Houston Peace and Justice Center.  We recommend that all inmates in solitary have an independent group review each case every 60 days and determine if the inmate stays in solitary or is transferred to the general prison population.  Violence or threats of violence would keep that inmate in solitary for another 60 days.We urge each of you to take a stand for treating all inmates with respect and giving them humane treatment while in custody of the state. We also recommend education and reading material for all prisoners so that when they return to society, they are better prepared to lead a good life.

I was motivated by the NYT 2/15/2022 story titled, “27 Years in Solitary, and a Plea for Help.” It said that Dennis Hope, 53, has spent 27 years in solitary confinement in a Texas prison cell that measures 9 feet by 6 feet, smaller than a compact parking space. He suffers from depression and paranoia and fears he is going insane. I have written a letter to him at the Ellis Unit in Huntsville and received a reply.

Texas is a leader in the use of prolonged solitary confinement. More than 500 prisoners have served more than 10 years in solitary and 138 have served more than 20.  I was shocked that so many inmates have spent 5, 10, and more than 20 years living in tiny rooms in near total isolation with virtually no contact with other human beings.  This is very depressing and a horrible way to treat our fellow human beings.

Sen. John Whitmire, chair of the Texas Senate’s criminal justice committee said, “I’ve been concerned about their over-using administrative segregation for years. I’m convinced that if you’re not emotionally disturbed when you go in there, you will be when you get out.”

Psychiatry experts agree that solitary confinement can harm any prisoner, but it is especially detrimental for those with mental illness: The isolation and sensory deprivation often exacerbate symptoms and lead to increased suicide.

In 2008, prison administrators from blue states began listening to myriad studies that showed conclusively that exposure to long-term isolation cells makes prisoners more dangerous, that it creates and worsens mental illness and engenders a sort of radical personality change that destroys the ability of these humans to relate to other people. In short: solitary confinement cells are recidivism generators, not tools for improving behavior.   

hanks for all you do to improve the Texas prison system.  You can be proud of what you do.
Jimmy Dunne,   Houston