Transcript: Testimony of Center for Effective Justice Director Marc Levin on solitary confinement – Feb. 25, 2014

Partial transcript of the testimony of Marc Levin, Director of the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, on solitary confinement. The Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights hearing on “Reassessing Solitary Confinement II: The Human Rights, Fiscal, and Public Safety Consequences” was held on Feb. 25, 2014:

Thank you, Mr. Chairman, for your leadership on this. And I want to thank as well the Ranking Member, who I’ve known…for many years, Sen. Cruz.

We are a conservative think tank –

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas):
And I’ll note on that you did find something you disagreed with the Chairman on.

[Laughter]

Marc Levin, Director of the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation:
Well, we are a conservative think tank but I will tell you that if we believe in making government less intrusive, personal responsibility and accountability, we have to shine a light in the darkest of places and the most restrictive areas of government control, which is solitary confinement. So, I’m pleased to be here today.

One of the issues that we feel strongly about is ending the practice releasing inmates directly from solitary confinement. This is a major problem in Texas with over 1,300 such releases directly from solitary confinement in 2011 from Texas state prisons.

In Washington state, a study was done on their super max unit that found that inmates released directly from solitary confinement were 35% more likely to commit a new offense and even more likely than that to commit a new violent offense as compared to comparable inmates with similar risk and offense profiles who were not released directly from solitary confinement.

I also want to point out the successes that we’ve seen in states around the country.

Mississippi, as noted earlier, has gone down from 1,300 inmates in 2007 in solitary confinement to today only 300, and that has saved them over $6 million because that’s less than half the cost. But I think most importantly violence in Mississippi prisons has dropped 70% since they made those reductions.

And in Maine, for example, they’ve gone from 139 in solitary confinement at their Warren unit to between 35 and 45 today, just in the last couple of years.

And what I want to note is their Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte has noted that the downsizing of solitary confinement has led to substantial reductions in violence, reductions in the use of force, reductions in the use of restraint chairs, reductions in inmates cutting themselves up, which used to happen every week. He said it’s been almost totally eliminated as a result of these changes.

Part of what they’ve done there is reducing the duration of solitary confinement. For example, those that used to go there for drugs, they may still go, but if they test clean for drugs, they can graduate out of solitary confinement. And if someone’s being kept there for more than 72 hours, that decisions is reviewed by the Commissioner.

I also want to note that one of the keys in Texas to reducing our solitary confinement has been the gang renunciation and disassociation program. Inmates can earn their way out of solitary confinement by exemplary behavior and renouncing their gang membership.

I also want to point out that using sanctions and incentives behind bars as a way to provide for incentives that lead inmates to behave better, which therefore reduces the need for solitary confinement.

One of the models is the parallel universe model used in Arizona through their getting ready program.

So for example, inmates who with exemplary behavior may have a longer curfew. Those who misbehave have maybe denied certain privileges, such as making phone calls and for example also access to the mail and other things except for their attorneys. And so this creates a positive incentive.

By the same token, we know that there are things like the…hope programs swift and certain sanctions work. And so there is a wall for 24 hour time-out for example. But again, we have to make sure that we’re not overusing solitary confinement for long periods.

One of the perhaps strongest incentives is, of course, earned time. And I will tell you we’re very pleased that Sen. Cornyn, Sen. Whitehouse, and other members are supporting earned time legislation, particularly for non-violent offenders in the federal system.

Clearly by reducing the number of dead-enders, we can make sure folks have an incentive for good behavior in prison.

And also, by the way, a study has shown 36% fewer new offenses for those released to parole as opposed to discharge without supervision.

I want to go over a list of recommendations that we would urge you to do in addition to, of course, ending the release directly from solitary confinement.

Those include:

Eliminating any rules that deny any reading materials to those in solitary confinement;

Improving training and de-escalation techniques for prison personnel, training in mental retardation and mental illness;

Also using that parallel universe model that creates incentives for positive behaviors and self-improvement.

Creating a matrix of intermediate sanctions. Now, this wouldn’t be for those who do serious bodily injury on staff members or others, they should go to solitary for an extensive period. For those who commit minor violations behind bars, they would have the intermediate sanctions that can be used to get their attention and correct their behavior before it leads to solitary;

Reducing the number of dead-enders through the earned time policy;

The mission housing, which was mentioned earlier. For example, recent earned protective custody – former police officers, those who are mentally ill, those who are in the process of leaving a gang. Unfortunately, those individuals often end up in the same 23-hour a day cell as those who are being punished for disciplinary violations when we know these smaller housing communities with a better staff-inmate ratio can address that issue.

And I can tell you that if we can address the overcrowding that helps immensely. Because when you have inmates piled in day rooms with inadequate staff ratio, that makes it more difficult to defuse the very tensions that often lead to placement in solitary confinement.

So, I want to thank the committee for their work on this, and I truly believe we’re on the path to solutions that will both increase our order in prisons and make the public safer when these inmates are discharged.

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