I spent nearly six years leading the mental health department at the Allan B. Polunsky Maximum Security Prison in east Texas.
This prison housed “death row” (DR), as well as a significant number of offenders in administrative segregation (AdSeg), more widely referred to as “solitary confinement.”
While the following conclusions apply specifically to this prison, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) and the larger prison system of Texas, it is likely that other U.S. states have taken similar approaches and, thus, have analogous issues.
Offenders on DR and in AdSeg experience “cruel and unusual punishment” that is, sadly, not unusual.
Why would I say such a thing? One needs to know the history and context for my opinions and convictions.
I grew up in a modest home of parents who expected my siblings and myself to know right and do right. It was a core part of my parent’s identity. We were also a family of faith, which eventually led me to training and serving as a pastor for 33 years in four churches around Texas.
I took advantage of an opportunity later in my ministry to gain a second master’s degree in psychology and counseling, which allowed me to become a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) and later a supervisor for interns who were working on the LPC (LPC-S).
A family emergency with my wife’s mother pushed me to retire as a pastor so that we could relocate to East Texas to help Anna’s only surviving sibling care for their mother who had suffered a massive stroke and been diagnosed with Alzheimers.
When I say “surviving” sibling, I speak of a horrific violent attack on our family where Anna’s two brothers were murdered while out camping in the woods of New Caney after Christmas in 1996.
This tragedy is a significant part of our family history because of what would later transpire as I became the Mental Health Manager at Polunsky.
This family experience of violence plagued us for over 20 years until the offender died in prison. Only then was the family truly safe.
That brings us back to the question, “Why is DR as practiced in Texas and AdSeg cruel and unusual punishment?”
First, a bit of history on DR in the Texas prison system.
The O.B. Ellis Unit housed men on DR from 1965 to 1999. Incarcerated persons (called inmates at the time) were often in cells with another person with bars permitting them to see out, come out of their cells, socialize, play basketball and worship together.
Jonathan Bruce Reed stated, “We can afford you some sort of reasonable life – within security confines” and noted that death row inmates “lived as humans.” Reed was a DR offender whose sentence was reduced to life in prison.
Moving the men on DR from the Ellis Unit to the Alan B. Polunsky Unit in June 1999 profoundly changed these dynamics, as it stripped away all the humanity that offenders were provided at the Ellis Unit DR.
At Polunsky, the men were alone in cells that only had a window in the secure steel door, with some having a small window to the outside. They were in their cell about 23 hours a day, allowed out only for legal and family visits, showers and exercise.
They were deprived of any physical caring touch because they are only touched by security placing them in restraints or conducting a strip search. Any other touch is done by infirmary staff.
What are the problems with this?
First, prison becomes exclusively a form of punishment.
DR, while slow in navigating all the legal hurdles, usually ends in death for the offender – unless their sentence is commuted to life in prison without the possibility of parole or they commit suicide.
The Polunsky DR and, for that matter, ADSeg simply adds more punishment to the already punishing environment.
When does a person suffer enough punishment for their crimes?
They are already stripped of freedom and sentenced to die (at this point by lethal injection) at some future date. They are exposed to the indignity of strip searching, of being yelled and cursed at, and of being alone in a cell with nothing but a radio most of every day. Their cell is small and air conditioning, while court ordered, is marginally functional.
Under such conditions, the isolation takes a toll on the DR offender.
While I was running the mental health department, I referred to some offenders as “puddling,” which is a non-technical term meaning we are seeing all that is human slowly melt away.
Second, solitary confinement exacerbates mental health issues.
A person could come into the DR or AdSeg environments with no mental health diagnosis but, over time, develop crippling depression or anxiety. A mentally ill offender sentenced to death in Texas could spiral into psychosis or worse.
Third, while the rest of the prison population outside DR or AdSeg are given the opportunity to worship with other inmates, that is denied to this population.
Visits by the chaplain are made, but any spiritual nurture is not permitted.
While TDCJ has allowed para-church ministries inside the prisons, up to 2014 when I left my role in Polunsky, this opportunity was not available for DR offenders.
Fourth, this approach diminishes the humanity of those who oversee and guard the offenders.
Prisons are “dark places,” but DR and AdSeg are more than that. The maltreatment and mistreatment of another human being impacts the security officer, along with their family and community.
Correctional officers experience higher rates of divorce, substance abuse, depression and anxiety than the general population, and the average life expectancy of a corrections officer is 59, compared to a national average of 75.
Finally, the way society treats the incarcerated diminishes us if we allow or ignore such inhuman practices to continue.
One of the basic, fundamental needs of human beings is to be treated by others with dignity and respect – even when they have hurt or killed others.
Jesus spoke of visiting the prisoner as an act of devotion to God, and other religious traditions have similar exhortations.
People of faith have a sacred responsibility to affirm everyone as made in the image of God and, despite their negative behaviors, carry that sacred imprint within.
So, that is why I have come to believe that DR and AdSeg, as practiced in Texas, is cruel and unusual punishment.