"Why solitary confinement puts death row guards in jeopardy," is Steve J. Martin's OpEd in today's Dallas Morning News. He's a corrections expert and served as general counsel to the Texas Department of Corrections in the 1980's.
Here's an extended excerpt from the beginning of this must-read:
Anyone who lived in Texas in 1998 remembers the sensational headlines: Seven condemned men escaped from death row. Six were caught before they could leave the prison, but one — Martin Gurule — scaled two razor-wire fences and disappeared. Two days later, he was found dead, having drowned near Huntsville in the Trinity River.
After that, life for male death row prisoners changed dramatically for the worse. The condemned men were moved to a new, more secure prison, where the prison system imposed permanent solitary confinement. Today, men on death row are locked in their cells 22 hours a day, emerging only under close guard to shower and recreate — alone. They do not work, they worship in their cells alone, they cannot watch television, they cannot have contact visits, nor can they telephone their families or lawyers like other Texas prison inmates.
Later this month, the prison system will revise its death row procedures. A broad coalition of organizations — including security experts, correctional officers, religious leaders, and lawyers — has called on the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to abolish permanent solitary confinement for all death row inmates.
For some Texans, TDCJ’s restrictive procedures may seem only just. After all, death row inmates face execution because they’ve killed. Why should these men enjoy creature comforts when their victims can’t? And doesn’t the Gurule escape show the risk of less restrictive custody?
I began my working life as a correctional officer in the Texas prison system and was assigned periodically to guard death row. After college and law school, I returned to the prison system, eventually becoming general counsel. I therefore believe I am qualified to address why Texas should allow inmates who demonstrate good behavior access to group recreation, work, contact visits and communal religious services. In a word: security.
Last week, journalist Mike Ward reported, "Should Texas death row inmates have more privileges?," in the Austin American-Statesman.
For their part, Texas officials insist the review is routine. “No significant changes are expected,” said Jason Clark, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which runs the state’s death row that on Wednesday housed 250 condemned men. The eight women facing execution are housed under similar restrictions at the department’s Gatesville prison.
For most Texans, the thought of giving any privileges to the most heinous convicts might be unthinkable. But as courts have been raising increasing questions about the legality of long-term solitary confinement, and as the related costs of security and medical and psychiatric treatment for prisoners kept on permanent lockdown have been increasingly scrutinized, prison officials in other states likewise are examining possible changes to their policies.
A federal court decision this month prohibited officials from automatically housing death row prisoners in solitary confinement — the policy in Texas and many other states — unless a particular need to do so is proven. A Virginia convict had challenged the policy as a violation of his constitutional right to due process.