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Trial by Fire - Did Texas execute an innocent man?

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The fire moved quickly through the house, a one-story wood-frame structure in a working-class neighborhood of Corsicana, in northeast Texas. Flames spread along the walls, bursting through doorways, blistering paint and tiles and furniture. Smoke pressed against the ceiling, then banked downward, seeping into each room and through crevices in the windows, staining the morning sky.
Buffie Barbee, who was eleven years old and lived two houses down, was playing in her back yard when she smelled the smoke. She ran inside and told her mother, Diane, and they hurried up the street; that’s when they saw the smoldering house and Cameron Todd Willingham standing on the front porch, wearing only a pair of jeans, his chest blackened with soot, his hair and eyelids singed. He was screaming, “My babies are burning up!” His children—Karmon and Kameron, who were one-year-old twin girls, and two-year-old Amber—were trapped inside.
Willingham told the Barbees to call the Fire Department, and while Dia…

Death Row Solitary: 'Their Walls Have Driven Them Mad'

Typical Texas death-row cell
Typical Texas death-row cell (Source: Minutes Before Six)
Anthony Graves emerged from solitary confinement over 6 years ago to become a national crusader for justice reform, but it took a recent report by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin to add new urgency to his campaign to reform the practice in his own state.

Graves spent more than 18 years in the Texas prison system, including 16 years in the all-solitary Allan B. Polunsky Unit, after being convicted for murders that he didn't commit. He was released in 2010 after DNA evidence helped exonerate him - but the trauma of his nearly 2 decades behind bars is with him still.

Graves started his own foundation - with about $250,000 the state compensated him for the years he was wrongfully imprisoned - to support his efforts. His argument that solitary confinement on death row is inhumane has been reinforced by the study published earlier this spring by the Human Rights Clinic at the University of Texas School of Law-Austin, entitled "Designed to Break You: Human Rights Violations on Texas' Death Row."

The study's title, he believes, couldn't be more accurate.

"Every day you have something going on in solitary confinement," Graves, who spent some 12 years of his solitary confinement on death row, told The Crime Report.

"From men going insane, to men dropping their appeals, to men overdosing on their medication - and some men not even being men because their walls have driven them mad."

Texas death row inmates, according to the report, are subjected to a total ban of visits from attorneys, friends and family; "substandard" physical and psychological health care; and lack of access to what human rights activists would consider "sufficient" religious services.

"Prolonged solitary confinement has overwhelmingly negative effects on inmates' mental health, exacerbating existing mental conditions, and causing more prisoners to develop mental illness for the 1st time," the report said.

As of April 2017, 233 men were on death row in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's Polunksy Unit in Livingston, which "Texas Tough" author Robert Perkinson called the "most lethal" death row prison "anywhere in the democratic world." Another 6 women are housed in death row at the Mountain View Unit in Gatesville.

According to the UT-Austin study, inmates on death row spend an average of 14 years and 6 months housed there - most of the time in solitary.

According to a 2014 ACLU brief, Texas death-row prisoners had most of the same privileges as those in the general prison population until 1999, when they were effectively confined to permanent solitary confinement until their execution. Under current conditions, according to the report, inmates on solitary are confined to 8 by 12-foot cells for at least 22 hours per day, and are banned from socializing or eating with other inmates. Inmates are only able to see out a small window in their cells by rolling their mattresses and standing on them.

A bill calling for an Office of Independent Oversight Ombudsman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ), which would increase transparency in the prison system was considered by the Texas legislature this session, but failed to move forward.

The problem is not confined to Texas. According to the UT-Austin Human Rights Clinic researchers, more than 3,000 death row inmates across 35 states are in solitary confinement. Most are isolated due to their original capital conviction - and not for behavior while in prison.

Some states have reformed conditions. 7 - California, Alabama, Georgia, Missouri, Nevada, Ohio and Indiana - now allow visits on death row with family and attorneys, for example.

But the number of exonerations has focused attention on what happens to all prisoners who experience solitary confinement.

Graves said he was fortunate to have a support system when he was released from prison. However, he says he suffered from PTSD, sleep deprivation and loneliness. He was so used to having only himself for company that he had a difficult time adjusting to the company of others.

"It's like landing on Mars," Graves said of his return to civil society. "The whole word has changed, and you have to deal with that. You're starting to feel like maybe you can't make it out here and you start to deal with it psychologically.

"The sad part is there are no facilities or programs trying to deal with these issues."

He believes inmates held in solitary confinement are set up for failure when it comes to rehabilitation, and that runs counter to the purpose of any criminal justice system. Considering that even inmates on death row could be released, as he was, on new evidence that exonerates their charges, authorities should not exclude those inmates from reform measures.

Researchers found "self-injury" is 8 times more likely, and suicide 5 times more likely, in Texas' solitary confinement than in the general population.

"Men are literally going insane and attempting suicide because of the way we're allowing the state to house death row inmates," he says.

A 2015 American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Texas report backs up Graves' claim. Researchers found "self-injury" is 8 times more likely, and suicide 5 times more likely, in Texas' solitary confinement than in the general population.

Nevertheless, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) counters that its processes and procedures are working effectively.

In a statement emailed to The Crime Report, identical to one published in The New York Times, and other publications, TDCJ Director Jason Clark said: "Offenders on death row are individuals who have been convicted of heinous crimes and given the harshest sentence possible under the law. TDCJ will continue to ensure it fulfills its mission of public safety and house death row offenders appropriately."

Clark declined further comment on solitary confinement or any of the study's findings.

Graves believes that conditions on death row will only improve if Texas and other states stop seeing solitary as a "weapon" used only to punish prisoners.

"Solitary confinement shouldn't be a weapon," he said. "But the way it's designed (currently), there is no way to properly get them ready to send them back out to the general population (in prison) or into the world.

"It's a recipe for disaster."

Nevertheless, Doug Smith, a policy analyst at Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, who was instrumental in pushing the bill forward, said there is evidence of progress.

A law went into effect Sept. 1, 2015 mandating that correctional departments conduct a mental health assessment prior to placing prisoners in solitary confinement. The legislation was a direct result of the ACLU study, which called for TDCJ to exclude people with mental illness from being placed in solitary confinement.

Smith, an ex-inmate who served some of his sentence in solitary, acknowledges that TDCJ now offers improved services to different segments of the prison population, including a program to help some inmates transition from administrative segregation back into the general prison population.

But other states have gone much further.
Polunsky Unit, Livingston, Texas
Polunsky Unit, Livingston, Texas

California loosened its stringent solitary confinement policies after a successful lawsuit in 2015 that followed a series of hunger strikes staged by inmates across the state in protest over "inhumane conditions and degrading conditions of confinement."

The strikes, deemed the largest of its kind, garnered worldwide attention and led to a series of legislative hearings including a lawsuit that ultimately ended the use of long-term solitary confinement in the state.

"We argued that prolonged solitary confinement is torture and cannot be imposed on any prisoner," says Rachel Meeropol, senior staff attorney and associate director of legal training at CCR, which joined the lawsuit in 2012.

"We successfully settled the case based on California agreeing to release thousands of prisoners who'd been in solitary confinement for decades into general population prisons. Under the settlement, California no longer puts prisoners in solitary based on gang association alone which is how so many people ended up there for so long."

Meeropol said Texas appears to be out-of-step with the rest of the country which is moving away from solitary confinement.

"We've seen several states over the last decade recognize that solitary confinement is not necessary for prison security," she states. "In fact, it's counter-productive, and based on the (UT-Austin) report, it seems clear that Texas' solitary confinement system violates the Eighth Amendment and is desperately in need of reform."

In March of this year, 3 death row prisoners in Louisiana filed a lawsuit on behalf of all death row inmates at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, asking for a change to the prison's policy that automatically places all of them in solitary confinement without opportunity to challenge their placement.

Betsy Ginsberg, director of the Civil Rights Clinic and clinical associate professor of law at Yeshiva University's Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, believes such lawsuits can set a pattern for change elsewhere in the country.

"Prisons have a set of factors to take into account to determine what level of security a prisoner needs," she said. "It doesn't need to rely just on someone's sentence..... It should be how well they behave inside a prison."

Ginsberg said the growing opposition to solitary confinement has been boosted by statements from Supreme Court Justices Stephen Breyer and Anthony Kennedy.

"Window" of a typical Texas death-row cell (Source: Minutes Before Six)
"The view that is gaining consensus is that it is inhumane," she said.

That's encouraging to Graves, who has been crisscrossing the state to provide resources to the wrongfully convicted and ensure they have support to re-enter back into society. Graves was influential in convincing a key witness to testify in Alfred Brown's case, the latest Texas death row exoneree.

He has also in demand as a speaker on criminal justice issues at universities and organizations across the country. Recent appearances include: the American Bar Association Death Penalty Representation Project's 25th anniversary with retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens and the Anti-Defamation League's Summer Association Program.

Graves also testified at the U.S. Senate Judiciary Hearing on Solitary Confinement led by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill), and frequently presents at ACLU Continuing Legal Education workshops.

Even as he sees reform happening in other states, he worries he will still wait a long time before anything changes in his home state.

"Texas laws are disconnected from the reality on the streets," said Graves, who is now studying for a criminal justice degree through an online program with the University of Maryland.

"[It's] one of the worst states when it comes to inhumane punishment."

Source: thecrimereport.org, Christine Bolaños, June 1, 2017. The author is a freelance writer based in Austin, Texas. She covers government, education, human interest features and business for numerous international, national and local outlets. Her work can be accessed at https://www.linkedin.com/in/christinebolanos/ or https://christinebolanos.contently.com/ She welcomes readers’ comments.

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