Criminal Justice System

40 Years in Solitary

I love the writings of Clarence Darrow. I have written before about Darrow’s dream that as a society we might grow out of our need for more and tougher prisons and even the death penalty. See, e.g., “Darrow’s Dream” (uploaded to my website).

Darrow’s writings are filled with cutting criticism of our society and many of its people. But generally there are also statements of hope – predictions that we as a society are evolving. In a short piece entitled “The Most Cruel Nation on Earth,” Darrow writes about how the United States is “obsessed with the idea of punishment” and the people of the United States have “bade farewell to mercy, kindness and charity and only of vengeance.” (from The Island Lantern, Vol 6, No. 6 at 1; you can find it here). Still, he writes hopefully, “Sometime the pendulum will swing back.”

In 1916, Darrow wrote a chapter entitled “Punishment” for The Chrysalis, where Darrow refers to courts, juries and lawyers as “blind condemners of the blind.” Darrow goes on to observe that the educated among us already know that prisons don’t really work:

The hopelessness of it all lies in the fact that the scientist, the student, the humanitarian, the best and greatest of the world have always known these things, and still the stupid and blind mediocre class which rules and has always ruled the world, has met hate with hate and fear with fear and added all the brutal strength to burden the hearts of men and add to the suffering and misery of the world.

Darrow, Clarence, “Punishment” from The Chrysalis, 1916 at 35-36.

But even through this scathing assessment of the criminal justice system of 100 years ago, Darrow adds hopefully,

Still, in spite of this a new sense is coming over the world and it will not be so many years until humanity will ask pardon of the millions of victims whose lives have been broken in prison walls … .


Well, fast-forward to 2014 and the case of Wilkerson, et al. v. Goodwin, et al., No. 13-31289, 5th Circuit, Dec. 17, 2014, available here.  Wilkerson is a 1983 civil rights case where a due process challenge was leveled by three prisoners claiming that they were left in solitary confinement in Louisiana prisons for extended periods of time without adequate review. Here is how the lower court described their conditions:

 Extended lockdown, also known as closed cell restrictions or administrative segregation, is a form of incarceration … that is similar to solitary confinement. The prisoners thereto assigned remain alone in cells approximately 23 hours each day. During the other hour, a prisoner may shower and walk along the tier in which his cell is located. Three times a week, the prisoner may use this hour to exercise alone in a fenced yard, if the weather permits. The prisoners in extended lockdown also face additional restrictions on privileges generally available to inmates such as personal property, reading materials, access to legal resources, work, and visitation rights. In contrast, inmates in the general prison population live in a dormitory setting where they can interact with one another, attend religious ceremonies and take advantage of educational opportunities, training, and other privileges denied to those in extended lockdown.

 Wilkerson, et al. v. Goodwin, et al., No. 13-31289, 5th Circuit, Dec. 17, 2014 (quoting Wilkerson v. Stalder (Wilkerson II), No. 3:00-CV-304 at *2 (M.D. La. Dec. 17, 2013)).

How long were they left there?

One of the plaintiffs was held in solitary for over 40 years.

One had been held in solitary since 1972, with the exception of a three-year period.

One was held in solitary confinement almost 28 years.

So is Louisiana somehow unique in their use of “administrative segregation?” Here is the TDCJ’s description of administrative segregation:

 Administrative segregation separates inmates from the general population for safety and security reasons rather than for disciplinary reasons (for example, an inmate is a known gang member). These inmates are held in their cells at least 23 hours a day and some participate in in-cell, video- or computer-administered programs.

TDCJ Capacity and Population Report FY 2012. The report states there are 9,465 administrative segregation beds in TDCJ, with 8,065 of them occupied. Ad seg is ad seg, whether we are in Louisiana, Texas, or a federal “supermax.” It is solitary confinement and it is heinous. And just judging by TDCJ’s description, one can see how someone can end up in administrative segregation – a/k/a “solitary confinement,” for years and years.

Yep, this is Amurica in 2014.

In 1916, Darrow wrote:

“Before any real constructive work can be done to abolish the cruelty of prison, man must learn that punishment itself is illogical, unscientific and unspeakably cruel.”

The Chrysalis, at 36.

Darrow seems to have thought we would have evolved to this point in 100 years.

He was wrong.

Greg Westfall

December 21, 2014.