Texas won't be doing away with the death penalty anytime soon, but another form of criminal punishment could be up for consideration in the near future. There is a new push to curb or eliminate solitary confinement in U.S. prisons, based on research out of the University of California-Santa Cruz showing that inmates kept in solitary for long periods often end up with increased mental instability and are more likely to commit violent crimes after being released than other inmates. Critics have seized on that research to call for an end to solitary confinement, with a recent column in the journal Scientific American calling solitary "cruel and ineffective."
There are now about 80,000 people held in solitary confinement in the U.S., according to Census data. Texas StateSenator John Whitmire (D-Houston), who chairs the state's Criminal Justice Committee, tells KTRH that the system does have flaws that need to be looked at. "(In Texas,) if you're a gang member sentenced to prison, you immediately, no questions asked, go to solitary confinement," he says. "I personally think that is an overuse." However, Whitmire does not agree that solitary confinement should be eliminated altogether. "Someone who has assaulted a corrections officer, or assaulted another inmate, certainly you've got to put them in solitary confinement," he says.
Whitmire admits that his committee is willing to look at changes to improve the solitary confinement system in Texas. One change he would like to see is a transition program for solitary inmates before they are released back to the public. "We have individuals that spend their entire sentence in solitary confinement, and then the next day they're released to the streets of Texas...to me that seems nuts," says Whitmire. Nevertheless, he cautions that in the criminal justice system, public safety must remain the priority. That means some need for solitary confinement. "Inmates that have assaulted a corrections officer or another inmate, you have to confine them," says Whitmire. "You have to confine them by themselves."