Thursday, March 12, 2020

Solitary in Texas

by Thomas McLaughlin 

Allow me the opportunity to introduce myself, I am your personal artist. I hope to accurately paint the picture for you on the daily and yearly experiences from a Texas Prison. I am the author, hoping to reach at least one person in the world, outside these walls, and positively change or better their mindset as concerns prisoners, Though I am an inmate and will speak from an inmate’s perspective I will constantly strive to portray an accurate, honest picture of life behind these walls. As the reader I hope that each and every one of you will remain open minded and receptive to my message. 

In solitary confinement, one is confined to a cell varying in range from seven by eleven feet on the large end to 5 by 10 feet (or smaller) on the low end, for an average of twenty-two hours a day can prove to be an ordeal. Depending on your personal outlook, glass half empty or half-full, the experience of being relegated to this type of housing will either make you or break you. It could be a personal transformation period or a living hell that will not end. 

Are you a strong minded individual with concrete personal will? Or, maybe you are feeling weak and uncertain at this time in your life. These things matter to someone in the solitary confinement life. I see the ability, or lack thereof, to cope with solitary around me every day. The inability to come to terms with one’s self and one’s daily life can be quantified by looking at the yearly suicides coming out of the solitary population alone. 

On the Coffield Unit, to the best of my knowledge through word of mouth, there were roughly more than thirty suicides during the year of 2010 – from one prison alone The majority were from the solitary population, which in the Texas Prison System, was called Administrative Segregation until the last quarter of 2019, when the identifying name was changed to “Restrictive Housing.” A slick name change to rebrand without actually changing anything. 

Thirty plus suicides - that number adds to the feeling of bleakness and semi-hopelessness of the reality of prison. Watching a dead man get carried down a stairwell and get laid on a stretcher as the correctional staff make an honest effort to revive him was an experience that stays with me. I’ve come to accept the fact that some experiences are beyond comprehension, accepting instead that whatever issues those men were experiencing is over and they have moved on, is the only realization left. No matter who they were or what they did, they still mattered, and will be remembered. 
The Coffield Unit is located in Tennessee Colony, and I believe, is the largest unit housing prisoners in Texas. With just under five thousand inmates, one could go so far as to compare the Coffield Unit to a very small city, the city of Coffield, population five thousand. Here on the Coffield Unit, there are two housing buildings that, with the exception of two wings, solely house segregation, or as it is now called, restrictive housing (RH) offenders. The RH offenders number slightly under seven hundred and fifty inmates. That is over seven hundred individuals who cannot go any lower in life. The fact is demonstrated by some of the daily acts of aggression and the prevalent thoughts and behavioral patterns of individuals living here. 

Once you get to segregation, if you are not careful, you can get stuck in the system. However, if you have the willpower to change the negative characteristics that were affecting your behavior and can remain trouble free, you might get back out to population. A report by the ACLU states that one in every twenty individuals incarcerated in the state penal systems (as compared to the federal penal system) had spent time in segregation. They also reported that the average stay in segregation lasted 2.7 years.  My own experience confirms this time average. I was told that I would be guaranteed a stay of a minimum of two years, specifically, I was told that after two years the administration would begin to think about releasing me back to population. Though on the opposite spectrum, there are some who have surpassed the 2.7 average by more than double. 

Recently, in an article by Kevin W. Bliss concerning the Virginia department of corrections, ACLU referred to their use of solitary confinement and included information on proposed reforms.  A couple of key points surprised me, and also provided me with hope. I say hope because it serves as proof that there are people who have taken an interest in the hardships of life in prisoners. 
One of the interesting points was that isolation for more than fifteen consecutive days, under the Mandela Rules, is considered torture. I was most surprised to read that because in an environment where segregation is considered normal, I would never have thought that such a thing would be considered torture according to the United Nations. I was also emboldened to read some of the points, or recommendations suggested by the ACLU for reform in the Virginia DOC were concerns about solitary confinement in general. 
Understanding that segregation is a crucial issue, while also understanding that the issue is a bit confusing or troublesome is important. Once again, I reiterate the fact that we can all agree that circumstances require something to provide the control that is needed in this environment, but that we individually and collectively should seek to address the harms of the current method and find a healthier, safer alternative. For now, we can rest easier knowing that in some corners of this country progress is being made. 

There are a lot of emotions circulating in these walls, and sometimes it feels like steam boiling up in a pot that threatens to explode. Everyone is going through something and dealing with his own personal struggles. This applies to the correctional staff as well as the inmate population. The hard part is getting both sides to meet in the middle with mutual understanding. To further inflame matters is the fact that there are certainly individuals who need special management with honest attempts at behavioral/thoughts adjustment. But I feel that too often certain people are assigned to restrictive housing and are then forgotten. Brutal honesty is understanding that restrictive housing is used as a tool for the management of inmates in the majority of cases, but it can still be unduly hazardous and harsh to the same men/women who need that management. To go further is the fact that without putting forth effort to find a workable replacement then conditions and circumstances will never change. There is a real need to analyze different options then to put those options into effect. 
I had the opportunity to meet an older man in 2018, who though had been assigned to the Coffield Unit, and then was shipped to the neighboring Michael Unit. The change of housing location was due, in his case, specifically, medical issues. Michael Unit is classified as a medical unit. Over time, I was told by this gentleman that he had been in seg for more than forty years. Now in fairness, he was placed in seg, or RH, due to the fact that he was one of the main guys who started a criminal organization here in Texas way back in the day. Unfortunately, this same reason was why he was unable to be released to the general population. This happens to be a time when one can understand why he was handled the way he was, but still, I wish there was another way to control him in a less restrictive manner. Though the older gentleman had spent decades in a small cell, his state of mind was something to envy. Taking into account all his time and experience. he remained a soft-spoken, mild-mannered, respectful man. Sadly, he passed away in the mid 2019. I bring this gentleman up to show that while accounting for security risks posed by dangerous individuals or those who have certain control/power, there is no reason why progressive change should be so slow to come. 

Violence of all kinds is the norm n this environment. In general population, also known as G2, violence is often resorted to in order to settle disagreement/problems. Of course, not everyone behaves in this manner, but there are enough people who do to keep the more restrictive housing classification fully housed. The housing classification proceeds in order from general to restrictive. The order is G2 or population then G4 or medium custody and finally, G5 or High Security. Beyond this the only classification is segregation and super-segregation. Taking into account this order, those who make up the majority of segregation are those who have had repeated violent episodes over time, or were in G2 population and committed one very violent act, like stabbing, or assaulting correctional staff. However, some of the individuals in this group come to segregation and remain in the negative mindset and act out which has a further negative impact on the environment. 

The last general group by activity are those people who pushed the envelope too far and are deemed of respect by correctional officers. The position of power tends to warp the outlook of the staff. In some it is passive, but in others, readily apparent. While the comments or actions of the passive group are easy to write off, staff that are actively anti-prisoner are far more difficult to ignore. Being openly disrespected often leads prisoners to some form of conflict that in turn perpetuates the cycle. While the vast majority of us inmates made the mistakes and choices that landed us in prison, having to deal with problems and disrespect above and beyond the prescribed punishment is unbearable. Rehabilitation is not and cannot be built from such a foundation. These actions cannot be construed as positively breaking someone down in order to rebuild them better than before, but rather cruelly breaking someone down for no purpose at all. I’m only speaking on a small portion of the negatively perpetuate by the corrections staff. Being in a position of authority and then encountering a confrontation with an inmate can lead to acts that qualifys as abuse of duly appointed authority. These acts are common, and consist of but are not limited to, physical abuse, destruction of personal property, withholding food, writing false disciplinary cases, and can continue from the petty range to very serious that can cause damaging repercussions for the inmate in question. In most cases there is not much the accused can do when up against a staff member. An interesting note is, that during disciplinary proceedings an inmate can be found guilty based solely on officer testimony. Though there are security cameras placed around the units, they have a strange way of not being on when an inmate needs them for evidence. I’ve seen it happen during my incarceration. 

Navigating the waters of prison is indeed difficult especially when the deck is stacked against you. Feeling hopeless is not a good feeling for anyone, and I personally believe it detracts from time that could be used for more productive efforts. Being incarcerated will never be a positive experience. But, while at odds with the continuance of the profitability of the prison industry, those who find themselves incarcerated should put forth more effort to educate themselves towards their release, and the administration should stand behind this effort, and promote these types of activities. The current efforts to cut recidivism are not enough. Why not really push education, and make efforts rewarding to improve one’s self rewarding? And include all the inmate population, not just a select few. Trial and error will prove out what works, and what does not, and actions all start with a small step followed by more small steps until improvement is seen and felt. Now that is something I look forward to.

Follow Up

I was not completely sure whether I was going to write about this specific incident that happened today (Sunday 10/20/19). The strange thing is that I was just putting the “Solitary in Texas” essay down on paper and attempting to convey the realities involved. I had just stated the suicide rate here at the Coffield Unit, and took a minute to reflect and admire the few trees outside through the famous windows that were the reason for the unit’s nickname “glasshouse,” when the inmate from population who cleans up started yelling, and ran to the front of the walk-way. Everyone was startled and confused about what was going on. I currently am housed on the fourth vertical row, which is the highest floor. The cleaning inmate, called an SSI, ran from the row underneath mine and I could clearly see him as he ran to the front. Though I understood that he ran from a cell to my right, I wasn’t sure what was going on. Activity increased, and the appearance of two staff members, the situation came together quickly. The Hispanic man in a cell under my row was hanging from a cord connected to his locker. Shock set in. as there were no prior hints or issues, that might even slightly suggest an impending suicide attempt. No words, no warning. Just a quiet try. If that SSI hadn’t been walking past at that exact moment, I believe the man would have died. Because the SSI acted quickly, the man lived.

The even more crucial point for me personally were the actions and emotions exhibited by the female officer working the wing. Though there were two officers on duty on the wing, the raw energy of that female officer surprised and touched me to the core. She ran to the closed cell door, and yelled multiple times to the officer working in the control rotunda, who was hesitant, to open the door. In complete fairness there are protocols to follow during such events, and unfortunately for most cases. opening the door like she did, was outside those parameters. Then, once the door opened, she immediately went in. Due to my position, I cannot be sure what she did, but she told us that she picked him up and placed him across her knee to provide slack in the cord, and the male officer went to work on the noose. Once again, surprising when you take into account the size difference between staff and inmate. The Hispanic man is large while she is not at all. And he had already passed out, effectively relegating him to the status of dead weight. The adrenalin rush and her raw instincts provide her not only the tools to accomplish what was needed, but also enough independent thought process to disregard the protocols of such a situation.

To add icing on the cake, the whole time she was in that cell she kept saying the same thing, “Not on my watch.” She did what she had to do without a doubt, but what gained her a rare respect in more than a few men's minds were those words. How she acted was rare. What made it so is because she didn’t do what she did for her job. She acted as she did because she cares, and there is the heart of the issue. The circumstances could have gone a different way with the end result of a life lost. Instead a life was saved. And hope for the future was witnessed by many men today. 

Thomas McLaughlin 2020026
Coffield Unit
2661 FM 2054
Tennessee Colony, TX 75884

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