Texas Weekly: Can Solitude Of Death Row Drive Prisoners Insane?


The Texas Observer asks, Can prolonged solitary confinement drive prisoners insane? For more than 300 inmates on Texas’ death row, it is not a hypothetical question. Their lives are confined to 60-square-foot cells in which they languish 23 hours a day, alone in a featureless room, behind a solid steel door, cut off not only from what they call “the free world,” but from nearly everyone. 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, another inmate–or themselves.

Death row inmates at the Allan B. Polunsky Unit near Livingston live in a special segregation unit–a prison within a prison. The cells have a small window at one end. The steel door has a narrow window and, at the bottom, a slit through which guards slide trays of food. Death row inmates can receive books and paper tablets for writing and drawing. Some have radios. They are released from their cells 10 hours each week–two hours a day for five of seven days–and shuttled into the recreation area, which is a larger cage. (Two days a week, they remain in their cells 24 hours, except for a few minutes to shower.) They exercise individually, though they can talk to an inmate in the neighboring recreation cage, one of their few opportunities for conversation. They are isolated 94 percent of the time.

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