We don’t want to overlook a powerful article called “Solitary Men” that appeared in the Texas Observer earlier this month. The author, Dave Mann, spent time talking with inmates on Texas’s death row, who are housed in a “prison within a prison” at the Allan B. Polunksy Unit near Livingston in southeast Texas. The unit which holds more than 300 men in 23-hour-a-day solitary confinement in 60-square-foot cells. As Mann writes, “Inmates endure this isolation an average of 10 years—though some have been on death row more than 30—until their appeals are exhausted and their sentences are commuted or carried out. Or until they’re killed by disease, old age or another inmate. Or until they kill themselves.”
The article includes detailed descriptions of the daily lives of the men on death row, and a rundown of the “growing body of research [that] suggests this kind of extreme isolation amounts to torture.” Mann does a particularly good job of debunking any notion that this is how death row has always been–or has to be:
Prison isolation is a recent development in Texas as well. Until 1999, death row inmates were housed at the Ellis Unit outside Huntsville, where they enjoyed more freedom. They could work morning and afternoon shifts at the prison garment factory and had several hours a day of group recreation. They could play board games with each other. They could watch television. They were alone in their cells only at night. They received education programs. They were occasionally permitted “contact visits,” meaning they could be in the same room with visitors.
That all began to change on Thanksgiving Day 1998, when seven condemned prisoners escaped from the Ellis Unit. Six were quickly captured and the seventh committed suicide soon after leaving the prison, but the security breach led the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to crack down. Prison officials suspected the seven planned their escape during work duty. So in 1999, when the agency moved death row about an hour east from Huntsville to the more modern Polunsky Unit in Livingston, department officials eliminated the work program and ensured that death row inmates were isolated.
Texas has perhaps the harshest death row conditions in the country. Most states keep death row prisoners in permanent solitary confinement. But Texas is one of two states—Oklahoma is the other—that doesn’t allow death row inmates to watch television, according to a survey by the Northwestern University Law School. Eleven states permit contact visits with death row prisoners. In Texas, contact visits are never allowed.
Mann interviewed three current and former death row inmates–a “long timer” who has spent more than 20 years and experienced the move to the Polunsky Unit; a “short timer” who says he want to be executed immediately; and “the free man” who spent 18 years on death row before he was exonerated. Most interesting is the fact that “all of them suggested subtle reforms—more hours outside the cells, group recreation, replacing the cells’ solid steel doors with bars—that would ease the isolation.” Mann concludes: “Death row will never be enjoyable. It’s not supposed to be. But it could be more humane. As one prisoner, who’s been on death row more than 15 years, put it, ‘It’s Hell. It really is.’” The profiles of the three prisoners make the article well worth reading in full.