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From Solitary to the Street

What happens when prisoners go from complete isolation to complete freedom in a day?

Brian Nelson leaves his office at Uptown People’s Law Center in Chicago, Ill.
Brian Nelson leaves his office at Uptown People’s Law Center in Chicago, Ill.

B y the time he had served five years for armed robbery, Mark had lost 80 pounds. He had developed a new tic — tightly closing his eyes, as if blinking back bad thoughts. But the biggest change, his mother said, was in his face. It had hardened. A deep crease ran along the bridge of his nose.

This story was reported in partnership between NPR News Investigations and The Marshall Project. Read more of this investigation: Part 1, Part 2.

When Mark, who had just turned 21, walked out of a maximum-security prison in Huntsville, Texas, last July, he had spent the last two-and-a-half years in solitary confinement. Prison officials sent him to segregation when he was 18 for allegedly threatening to run away.

For roughly 30 months, he was locked in a 60-square-foot steel-and-concrete cell for 23 hours a day with little human contact, except a guard’s gloved hand passing food through a slot in the door. When his mother, Sara Garcia, drove six hours from Austin to visit him, she was separated from her son by plexiglass. (Mark and his family spoke on the condition that he be identified by his first name only, for fear that he could face retribution from guards.)

Mark was not approved for parole while in segregation. As in many states, parole boards in Texas consider inmates’ disciplinary histories when deciding whether to release them early. Instead, he “maxed out” and served his full five-year sentence (the first half in a juvenile detention facility), which meant he had no parole officer supervising his return to society. On the bright July morning he was sent home, prison guards removed Mark’s shackles, handed him a check, and let him go.

Like many released straight from solitary, he would soon be back.

Sara Garcia with Mark on the day of his release from solitary and prison in July 2014.

Sara Garcia with Mark on the day of his release from solitary and prison in July 2014.

Every year, prisons across the country send thousands of people directly from solitary confinement back into their communities. An investigation by The Marshall Project and NPR found that 24 states released more than 10,000 people1 from solitary last year. The actual total is higher, as 26 states and the federal Bureau of Prisons could not say how often it happens.

These individuals go from complete isolation one day to complete freedom the next, yet they are in many ways the least equipped to make the transition home. Inside prison, those in solitary — many of whom suffer from mental illnesses that were either triggered or exacerbated in segregation — often cannot participate in the classes or services offered to other inmates approaching their release date. And in several states once those inmates in solitary are freed, they are more likely to be released without the help of a probation or parole officer. Those who make the jarring leap from solitary to the streets can easily end up jobless, homeless — or back in prison.

Or worse. Last week, 22-year-old Kalief Browder committed suicide two years after coming home from New York City’s Rikers Island jail, where he had spent nearly all of the previous 17 months in isolation. Browder received national attention after a 2014 New Yorker profile detailed the horrific three years he languished in jail awaiting trial for charges that were ultimately dismissed. His family said Browder deteriorated during his time in solitary, where he twice tried to kill himself. He remained there until the day he was sent home.

In Mark’s home state of Texas, 1,174 prisoners were freed straight out of administrative segregation — prison jargon for solitary units housing suspected gang members or others deemed a threat to prison security — in fiscal year 2014. More than 60 percent of them emerged without any supervision, compared to only 14 percent of other prisoners released that year.

Percent of Texas prisoners released without supervision, fiscal years 2011-2014

Prisoners who go straight to the street pose a danger to public safety. Analysts for the Texas Legislative Budget Board found that more than 60 percent of state prisoners released from solitary were rearrested within three years, compared with 49 percent of overall prison releases. Similar studies in Washington and California found people coming out of segregation cells had recidivism rates as much as 35 percent higher than those leaving the general population.

When Mark emerged from the brick building known as “The Walls,” Garcia ran towards him. He was wearing clothes the prison collected from church donations: wrinkled grey slacks and a peach button-down several sizes too big. Mark squinted and tripped over his own feet as he walked toward her.

“I was happy, I wanted to cry,” Mark said. “I really didn’t know how to hug my parents again.”

Garcia grabbed and kissed him, but Mark remained stiff. His smile was strained, more grimace than grin. “You think he's going to be jumping up for joy,” Garcia said. “It was nothing like that.”

Still, she felt relieved. Okay, the nightmare is over, she thought.

M ark had battled mental illness and developmental problems for much of his life. In preschool, he was placed in special education classes to help with his speech impediment and difficulty reading. He was diagnosed in his teens with schizoaffective disorder, emotional disturbance, and mild mental retardation. Garcia always knew Mark was “different,” but it wasn’t until middle school that the true severity of his disabilities became clear. He grew aggressive, one time shoving a teacher. After that incident, he was sentenced to nine months of probation.

Mark always looked older and acted younger than his true age. When he was 14, he weighed 250 pounds but had the intellectual capacity of a six-year-old, by some psychological measures. The combination made him an able bodyguard for his special education classmates when they were teased by other students — but also someone who could be easily manipulated, Garcia said. Mark was arrested at 14 for a string of armed robberies — including a gas station, a pizza parlor, and a dollar store — over a two-week period in McAllen, Texas, where he was living with his father. Mark and his family claimed his older cousins got him drunk and stoned, handed him a gun, and sent him into stores while they waited in the car. Prosecutors said he acted alone. After nearly two years of legal proceedings, Mark took a plea deal for five years in prison. He would be held at juvenile detention facilities until he turned 18.

Garcia with Mark in 2009.

Garcia with Mark in 2009.

Dealing with the other kids at one of the juvenile facilities, Crockett State School, seemed to overwhelm him. He often retreated to his cell to pace, talk to himself, and cut his arms. His behavior was not new. In the year before his sentencing, Mark made nine trips to state mental hospitals in Austin and San Antonio for cutting and other psychotic episodes. Mark also picked up a new conviction for assaulting a guard, for which he was given three years to be served concurrently. After evaluating him three months before his 18th birthday, psychologists at Crockett concluded: “It is recommended that he be provided therapy….[and] would benefit from a program to learn independent/daily life skills.”

Instead, Mark was soon moved to a maximum-security adult prison, the Telford Unit in New Boston, Texas. And within six months, he landed in a segregation cell for allegedly threatening to escape.

Mark had told his mother that he was nervous around the older prisoners, particularly his cellmate. He had stopped taking his Seroquil and Abilify for schizophrenia, because he said they made him groggy and unable to stay alert and on guard. The other prisoners referred to him as “Crazy Boy.”

Mark was initially relieved when he was moved to solitary, thinking he would be safer. But as his mother observed, solitary was no place for people who “live in their mind.” Mark’s learning disabilities made it difficult for him to fill the time reading books or writing letters. So he paced his cell and listened to the radio. Without any other distractions, his anger and depression worsened. “You have nobody to talk to but yourself,” Mark said. “All I remember doing was just thinking about the people who hurt me.”

During their monthly, no-contact visits, Garcia saw Mark’s behavior change. He began swearing at her, flipping her off, and telling her not to come. “He wasn’t like that when he went in,” she said. She tried to pacify him by recalling happier times — their yearly trips to Disney World, the birthday parties she threw for him. But Mark could not remember any of it.

Mark’s father Fernando also noticed Mark’s building frustration, though Garcia was more often the target. “He was becoming more aggressive,” said Fernando, who asked that his surname be withheld so as not to identify his son. While Mark had always had anger issues, “this was different. Before he would let it go quickly, and now it was continuous.”

Research indicates that people with mental illness are more vulnerable to the trauma of isolation. In a 2014 study of the use of solitary in Mississippi, psychiatrist Terry Kupers found that what begins as a minor psychiatric issue could devolve into full-blown psychosis within the confines of a segregation cell. “Prisoners prone to psychotic episodes will predictably have a ‘breakdown’ triggered by the stark isolation and idleness of segregation, and prisoners prone to despair, self-harm, and suicide will tend to have crises and harm themselves,” Kupers wrote.

As of March 31, inmates receiving mental health care made up 17 percent of the Texas corrections population, but 27 percent of the inmates in isolated in administrative segregation cells. A spokesperson for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, Robert Hurst, said that mentally ill offenders released under supervision are referred to mental health providers in the community. But those who max out their sentences are just given a directory with contact information for different mental health services. Mark’s family claims he came home without even a prescription for psychiatric medication.

Kupers said any confinement longer than two weeks in solitary can take a serious toll on prisoners both with and without pre-existing mental illnesses. In 2014, the average length of time that Texas inmates were held in administrative segregation was three-and-a-half years, according to data provided by the state corrections department. People who have spent time in solitary, Kupers said, are often so overwhelmed and afraid of the outside world when they come home that they can barely leave their rooms. “You take someone and systematically destroy their social skills and their productive capabilities,” he said. “They just break down.”

Illinois prisoners released from segregation, 2008-2014 Source: Illinois Department of Corrections

Brian Nelson, who was convicted of murder and armed robbery at the age of 17, went into solitary in an Illinois supermax prison with no diagnosed mental illness. He spent the last 12 years of his 28-year sentence in isolation. “I never had mental health issues before. I never saw a psychiatrist. I never took psychotropic medication,” said Nelson, who was released in 2010. He ended up with multiple prescriptions for his “major depressive illness” and a sleep aid, according to a lawsuit. “I understand getting beat up. I don’t understand what them walls did to my head,” he said.

Talking about his time in solitary still triggers flashbacks: of pacing like “an animal in the zoo” until large blood blisters erupted on the soles of his feet; of jumping off his bed in an attempt to break his neck on the cement shelf in his cell. (The shelf broke.) He is not alone: a 2014 study on self-harm and segregation found that “inmates punished by solitary confinement were approximately 6.9 times as likely to commit acts of self-harm,” after controlling for other variables.

Nelson is now the prisoners’ rights coordinator for the Uptown People’s Law Center, a legal nonprofit in Chicago, where he corresponds with Illinois inmates and investigates their complaints. At first he worked in an office he and his colleagues called “the cell”: a small, windowless room that held only his desk, chair, and a bookshelf of dusty legal volumes. “He was very comfortable there, so we didn’t push him to move,” said his boss, Alan Mills, executive director of the UPLC.

Nelson has since relocated into a slightly larger office with a window, but it is upstairs and separate from the law firm’s busy storefront. “As long as I’m alone, I’m okay,” Nelson said. Five years after getting out, he still refuses to take public transit. During lunch at a crowded diner, he has to step outside several times to calm down. “I am afraid of people. Sometimes I think I don’t belong out here.”

The 20 or so other men Nelson knows from supermax have had an even harder time adjusting. “All of us have a basement, somewhere we can hide,” he said. “They come out at night,” when there aren’t as many people around. Very few have jobs. Most live off their families or receive disability benefits.

Finding and maintaining employment is a challenge for anyone who has spent time in prison, in part because so few employers are willing to hire people with criminal records. But those who have returned from solitary confinement said finding work was even more difficult after spending years in isolation. While prisoners in the general population may be able to work within the facility or take classes that teach them a trade, people in solitary generally cannot. Mark’s uncle, Rolando Garcia, who took courses during his time in federal prison, said his nephew came out unequipped for most entry-level positions. “He didn’t know how to use his hands,” Rolando said. He tried to teach Mark basic carpentry and mechanical skills.

After spending long stretches of time with minimal human contact, many who came directly from solitary said they had lost the basic social skills needed to hold a job. “Solitary turns a person unworkable, always frustrated, over-sensitive,” said Five Mualimm-ak, who was dropped off in Manhattan’s Times Square in 2010 after five years in the solitary unit of a New York prison. (After stepping off the bus, Mualimm-ak had a panic attack he mistook for a heart attack and was rushed to the hospital.)

University of Arizona anthropologist Dr. Brackette Williams has studied how long stints in segregation affect reentry. In her 2012 research, she met with 44 people coming home after spending time in solitary, most of whom ended up unemployed and homeless. Some slept under the open sky of the Tucson desert. Others sought smaller spaces, like the Phoenix woman who could only fall asleep in a phone booth. The prospect of sleeping in a dormitory-style shelter alongside dozens of strangers was often too much for those who had spent years by themselves. “To them, going to the shelter was another prison,” Williams said.

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These reactions, she said, were not unusual given where they had come from. “There was no transition programming,” she said. After a stretch in isolation, “you have to step up your tolerance for being in the presence of a lot of people.”

A fter his release, Mark rarely left the one-story bungalow he shared with his father on Austin’s gentrifying east side. His mother would drive up and find him sitting alone on a lawn chair on the front porch, holding one of the many beers she said he drank every day. Other times, he could be found in his room, furnished with little more than a twin bed and a dresser. The walls were blank, the windows covered with cardboard and duct tape while his father renovated the house. Mark spent his time either pacing from one wall to the other or sitting and glaring at himself in the mirror. “I don’t know what he saw,” Fernando said.

One afternoon, as Garcia was parking the car at their local grocery store, Mark asked her to buy him a case of beer. When she said no, he started screaming expletives and threatened to bash her head in with a hammer. Garcia got out of the car and called her brothers for help. Mark, fearing the wrath of his uncles, took off running through the parking lot. Garcia had to call a mental health crisis center to help her coax him back home.

“I hate to say it, but you put an animal in a cage, you’re not able touch or hug them, what’s going to happen?” Garcia said. “They get aggressive.”

One of Mark’s psychiatric evaluations.

One of Mark’s psychiatric evaluations.

Garcia was used to seeing people change after being kept in isolation. Her younger brother, Rene Garcia, had returned from four years in solitary in 2012 after he was arrested for stealing a car. Rene claims he was a former gang member at the time of his arrest, and he spent his entire prison sentence in segregation, he said, as prisons routinely separate gang members from the general population for security.

After coming home to Austin, Rene collected scrap metal for money and stayed close to his brother’s house. “When I got out, I didn’t like to be around people...because I didn’t know how to act,” he said. “I thought they might hurt me.” He still avoids crowds for fear that he will overreact to a small slight. “I know how I am, I have an anger problem. If I get into a fight, I’m not going to stop.”

Mark’s family said that all they were given to support his transition home was a charity’s pamphlet about reentry in the prison waiting room. Garcia took time off from her two part-time jobs to try and get him into counseling, job training, and on food stamps.

Mark needed a job where he wouldn’t have to interact with people. But he had never worked — having been incarcerated since he was 16 — and had not used a computer in over two years. Garcia eventually found Mark a job power-washing oil rigs with a cousin in Oklahoma. His first weekend there, Mark got drunk. His coworkers heard him talking to himself. After three weeks on the job, he was fired.

D uring a 2012 state senate hearing on the use of segregation, advocates and lawmakers criticized the Texas Department of Criminal Justice for not better preparing prisoners for release. “Over-reliance on the isolating and restrictive qualities of administrative segregation is dangerous for inmates, staff, and the public,” wrote Travis Leete, then a policy attorney for the liberal think tank Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, in his testimony. Leete noted that hundreds were coming out directly from segregation cells in Texas prisons without any supervision.

"That's scary. We need to review this whole process," said committee chairman John Whitmire in response to the numbers. “Why not give them some life skills or some faith-based programs…that can prepare them for when they get out, rather than just turning them loose?"

Texas has since expanded programs created in 2004 and 2012 that provide classes on life skills and anger management to some in administrative segregation as they approach the end of their sentence. “There is no required out-of-cell programming…. Offenders do have opportunities for out-of-cell activities such as phone calls from the office, meetings with staff and visitation,” said TDCJ spokesperson Robert Hurst, in an email. Many of the courses are administered through in-cell computers. In fiscal year 2014, 710 Texas prisoners in segregation were provided such programs — but hundreds more were not. Hurst noted that there are several other programs targeted at prisoners in administrative segregation with a mental illness.

Many states have developed similar initiatives. The Washington Department of Corrections created a nine-month “Intensive Treatment Program” to gradually increase prisoners’ abilities to interact with others, or, as supervisor Steve Blakeman put it, “staged socialization.” Participants begin the program sitting in a six-person classroom where each student is restrained in his chair. By the end of nine months, they are free to roam the yard among teachers and other inmates. Several states, including California, South Carolina and Louisiana, have created “step-down” programs that allow people in solitary to earn their transition to the general population through good behavior or renouncing gang membership.

Ana Yanez-Correa, executive director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, believes that such classes are not nearly enough. “If you know that administrative seg is going to cause so much damage, so much that you need to implement all these programs, then why use it the way it's being used?” she asked. “From a public safety outcome, it's a complete failure.”

Colorado prisoners released from administrative segregation, fiscal years 2008-2014 Source: Colorado Department of Corrections

In January 2013, Evan Ebel was paroled from a Colorado prison four years early as a result of a clerical error. He had been released directly from years in solitary. Less than two months later, he managed to remove his ankle bracelet, showed up on the doorstep of state corrections director Tom Clements, and shot him. Months before he got out, Ebel had filed multiple grievances asking, “Do you have an obligation to the public to reacclimate me, the dangerous inmate, to being around other human beings prior to being released and, if not, why?”

Clements’ death shocked the department into more swiftly changing how it prepared segregated prisoners. “It’s one of those things take a step back and go, ‘What the hell were we thinking?’” Clements’ successor, corrections director Rick Raemisch, said in an interview. Clements had already been working to reduce the use of solitary in the state’s prisons and ease prisoners reentry into the community. “If they’ve spent lengthy periods of time in segregation and then are released with no supervision, that’s a recipe for disaster.”

In 2012, 188 Colorado prisoners came home directly from administrative segregation. Since March 2014, there have been zero. Inmates who are 180 days away from being released from segregation are now placed in a step-down program that connects them with case managers and mental health staff that help them adjust to social interaction. Fewer prisoners are also being placed in solitary in the first place, as those with disciplinary problems that can be attributed to mental illness are now moved to a treatment unit. Contrary to concerns about staff safety, which has been cited as a reason for the use of segregation, Raemisch said that inmate-on-staff assaults are the lowest they have been since 2006.

Nebraska faced a similar crisis in August 2013, when Nikko Jenkins killed four people within two weeks of being released directly from solitary. In a hearing about the crimes, state ombudsman James Davis testified to a committee investigating prisons that he had asked prison staff to move Jenkins into a transition program. He pressed a prison official to explain what he would say to a legislator if Jenkins “got out and murdered his constituents...?”

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The director reportedly replied: “What am I going to tell the families of staff? What am I going to tell the families of inmates if we release Nikko in general population and he kills somebody?”

Garcia at Travis County Correctional Complex where Mark is currently awaiting sentencing.

Garcia at Travis County Correctional Complex where Mark is currently awaiting sentencing.

Raemisch believes that is no reason to hold inmates in segregation until the end of their sentences. “If we can’t deal with them, how can we expect the community to?...I consider myself pretty hardcore law-and-order...but what this is’s not to add additional victims.”

In May, Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts signed a new law outlawing the use of complete solitary confinement (defined as “an individual cell having solid, soundproof doors and which deprives the inmate of all visual and auditory contact with other persons”) and limiting the use of “restrictive housing” where inmates have fewer than 24 hours of out-of-cell time a week. The legislation also requires the Department of Corrections to compile annual reports on the use of restrictive housing, including how many inmates are released directly from such units.

Federal prisons have also struggled with how to handle high-security offenders whose sentences will soon expire. A 2014 audit commissioned by the National Institute of Corrections on the use of segregation in federal prisons found that the Bureau of Prisons did not keep data on the number of releases from solitary in federal prisons. Auditors also found that “inmates often abruptly transition from extended stays in restrictive housing to the general population or the community without any meaningful step-down programming.”

Staff at the federal supermax prison in Florence, Colorado (known as ADX), where all the inmates are in solitary, reported to auditors that they try to avoid releasing prisoners directly, preferring to transfer them to a federal prison closer to their hometown. But Ed Aro, a lawyer who represents Florence inmates in a class-action suit against the Bureau of Prisons, claims that can be misleading.

“They have transferred someone to a penitentiary close to their home, put them in the hole for two weeks, and then released them,” Aro said. He recounted the 2011 story of one former Florence prisoner, who said he was shackled and driven to a federal prison closer to home to spend one night in a solitary cell. The next day, he was released to his grandmother after eight years in maximum security prison. (The man declined to be interviewed.) “Technically, they didn’t release him from the ADX, but his decompression process consisted of a cross-country drive chained up in the back of a van.”

Aro said that the Bureau of Prisons is working on pre-release planning for ADX inmates, particularly for those with mental illnesses. A counselor now works with inmates on pre-release issues, and several longtime ADX inmates have been transferred to lower-security facilities a few months before going home. “While we are very gratified that the BOP is looking at this issue, it remains to be seen how widely these steps will be applied,” Aro said.

The Bureau of Prisons did not respond to a request for comment.

O n Nov. 24, 2014, Mark left his father’s house around 6 p.m. and walked a few blocks to the Shell station where he often went to buy beer and chips. Mark entered the gas station with a knife and left with $400.

When cops picked him up the next day, Mark immediately confessed. The local news station reported that he told police he robbed the store “because he had a hard time finding a job and needed to help out his dad.” His uncle Rolando suspected another reason. “He couldn’t handle the world, he couldn’t handle the freedom,” he said. “So what do people do? They go back.”

Mark had lasted four months outside.

Texas prisoners released from administrative segregation, fiscal years 2008-2014 Source: Texas Department of Criminal Justice

He is awaiting trial for armed robbery at the Travis County Correctional Complex. Because of his prior convictions, he faces 25 years to life in prison. Some days, Mark feels hopeful. “I’m trying to change my ways,” he said recently. “I’m trying to learn how to deal with society.” But other times he is not as sure.

Three months after he was sent to jail, his uncle, Rene Garcia, joined him. He was arrested for violating his bond on a pending weapons and drug possession charge by not completing a class, and spent three months in jail.

While they were both locked up, Sara Garcia scheduled back-to-back visits at the Travis County Correctional Complex every Wednesday, where her 20-minute conversations were conducted through the small television screen of the video visitation system. The audio had a few seconds delay, making conversations halting and full of interruptions.

During a visit in March, Mark smiled when his mom picked up the phone. “Hi mijo. How are you?” she asked. “I love you. You know I love you, right?” She let out a small, high-pitched laugh. “You forgot?”

He didn’t have much to report. He spent a lot of his time the way he did when he was in solitary: pacing in his room, listening to his radio.

Mark spoke close to the phone and looked down at his lap. He squinted. Garcia’s smile faded.

“Really?…Ok, well we’ll talk about that next time,” she said as the timer at the bottom of the screen counted down to zero. Mark stood up to leave. Garcia was left staring at an empty plastic chair.

Before he walked away, Mark told her that he missed solitary. He wanted to go back.

1In reporting this story, the Marshall Project contacted corrections departments in all 50 states and the federal Bureau of Prisons to ask what data they collect on the prisoners being released directly from any kind of segregated housing unit into the community. We asked for annual release counts from 2008 through 2014.

Twenty-four states provided some kind of data, which we have published here in their original form. The quality and coverage of the data we received varied widely. Some states were able to give numbers for releases from administrative segregation (for prisoners considered to be security threats), disciplinary segregation (for people that violate prison rules), and protective custody (to protect a prisoner from others). Other states could only provide numbers on releases from administrative segregation. Some states count these releases by calendar year and others by their own fiscal year. And several states could provide numbers for only a few of the years requested.

Despite compiling data tracking releases from solitary in these 24 states, the inconsistencies of how each state defines solitary and the different time spans provided prevented ranking or comparing them to any significant degree.

Journalists: Help give this investigation a local focus. Here are tips on how to use our data to write your own story.