Opponents to Solitary Confinement Call It an Impediment to Rehabilitation
By Samuel Stark
Emmanuel Akueir was 17 when he died by suicide alone in a cell at the Fort Bend County Jail outside of Houston. He was on day two of a 30-day sentence of solitary confinement.
Akueir, booked in jail on charges of aggravated robbery and evading arrest, had been placed in disciplinary segregation, or solitary confinement, after throwing or spitting water at other inmates, according to a report prepared for a lawsuit by Akueir’s family.
“When he was put into solitary as a part of his discipline, he (couldn’t) see his mom or any of his family members. Not only is he in solitary, but his privileges, including visits, (are) taken away,” said Randall Kallinen, a civil rights lawyer representing Akueir’s mother, Mary Louzi.
“It seemed to be the major reason for (Akeuir’s) suicide was solitary confinement,” Kallinen said.
Solitary confinement was once intended to be used as a last resort disciplinary consequence, but now is used to punish low-level offenses and for administrative separation. Solitary confinement can have disastrous psychological consequences for inmates. Now, advocates in Texas on opposite ends of the political spectrum have called recently for reforming solitary confinement rules, both in Texas and federally, so there are fewer cases such as Akeuir’s.
“It’s not really partisan at all. Everyone can kind of get behind this,” said Ilanit Turner, co-author of a report for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank in Austin.
Solitary confinement is a “miscarriage of justice,” said Noelle Collins, who, like Turner, is a policy scholar at the Texas Public Policy Foundation and co-author of the report. “You will find that a prisoner uses bad language (or) gave a dirty look and then they end up in solitary confinement. … If you’re looking at the code, they’re not supposed to be in solitary confinement.”
An inmate is in solitary confinement if segregated from the inmate population in prisons and in jails for 22 hours or more each day, according to the United Nations’ standard minimum rules for the treatment of prisoners. Solitary confinement is often referred to as administrative or disciplinary segregation.
The authors of the TPPF report compiled research on solitary confinement in federal prisons over the last few decades. Their paper painted a grim depiction of life in solitary confinement.
“Psychiatric disorders, whether developed in or aggravated during a prisoner’s stint in solitary confinement, only worsen as a prisoner’s time spent in solitary lengthens,” the authors wrote. Suicide is also not uncommon when an inmate is in solitary.
A 2020 study of people released from North Carolina prisons found that a person was 24% more likely to die, especially by suicide, in their first year out of prison if they spent any time in solitary confinement than those who did not.
“The root of the problem is the lack of transparency and the lack of accountability within the (Bureau of Prisons) processes,” Collins said
Enhancing a right to due process, increasing transparency and expanding efforts on suicide prevention are a few of the reforms they recommend.
“Ninety-five percent of people get released from prison. … Where do we want them to be? Do we want them mentally unstable? That’s an issue for them, and it’s an issue for you,” Collins said.
Last year in Texas, state Rep. Thresa Meza, D-Irving, filed two bills aiming to address solitary confinement. One bill would have reduced the maximum stay in solitary confinement to 10 days.
“We sentence people to prison to be punished for crimes and rehabilitated to be released back into society. We should not be destroying people’s mental health with lengthy periods of time in solitary confinement,” Meza wrote in a press release regarding her House bills in March 2021.
Meza said the bills did not make it to the House floor for a vote. “If re-elected, I may refile as early as November of this year,” Meza said.
The number of people incarcerated in solitary confinement in Texas prisons dropped from 8,701 in 2010 to 5,919 in 2020, according to TPPF. The number of inmates in solitary confinement in state jails was under 100 that same year, according to the report. However, Texas leads the nation in holding inmates in long-term isolation – isolation for six years or more.
As of Feb. 25, 9,190 federal inmates are in special housing units – another term for solitary confinement. This makes up nearly 7% of the inmate population in the Federal Bureau of Prisons custody.
The authors of the TPPF report said inmates often end up in solitary confinement for “low level offenses.” Louzie’s legal team believes the behavior that sent Akeuir to solitary confinement fits that description.
“He was involved in what an employee of the jail said was horseplay. He’s 17 years old. … He was spitting water at somebody. It was like a joke,” Kallinen said. “(His segregation sentence) was the highest amount of punishment a person could get.”
Dr. Keelin Garvey is a forensic psychiatrist who was hired as an expert witness by Kallinen’s legal team to review Akeuir’s death.
When Akeuir arrived at the Fort Bend County Jail, a medical report obtained by Garvey described him as “very tearful” and said that “he thinks about (suicide) often because he doesn’t know how to cope with life situations.” One day later, Akeuir was taken off suicide watch because he told another doctor he wasn’t suicidal.
When Akeuir was sent to isolation, the organization providing medical and mental health care to the jail, Corrective Care Solutions (CCS), did not check on Akeuir’s mental state, according to Garvey’s report. The report says that’s despite a CCS policy that states, “Experience has demonstrated that patients are at elevated risk for suicide when placed in isolated settings.”
“The lack of documentation suggests they did not follow CCS’s Segregated Inmates Policy, effective 02/16/2016, to screen Mr. Akueir prior to lockdown placement,” Garvey’s report said. “There is no documented contact between Mr. Akueir and any member of mental health staff between his placement in lockdown and his death.”
Over five years since her son died, and after other attempts in court, Louzi is suing CCS for negligence.
CCS, now called Wellpath Care, told Reporting Texas that it would be inappropriate to comment on a pending lawsuit.
Akeuir was taken into custody on Jan. 2, 2017, after he reportedly hit a resident of his apartment complex on the head with a C02 pellet gun. An officer was dispatched “in reference to a subject with a gun.” Akeuir then attempted to leave but was taken into custody, according to Garvey’s report.
Louzi said her son threatened the man who called the police with a pellet gun because he was bullying Akeuir.
Akeuir had been booked into custody on two more occasions before his final arrest. One was for evading arrest and criminal trespass and another for assault, according to Garvey’s report.
Akeuir died by suicide before his trial.
Louzi described her son as reserved and said he loved basketball. They were so close that they often slept in the same bed.
She spoke to Reporting Texas on what would have been Akeuir’s 23rd birthday. Louzi is a South Sudanese refugee who moved to Texas 16 years ago after living in Egypt for a few years. She spoke through tears and a thick South Sudanese accent. She has three more children in addition to Akeuir.
“So sad — like something you’re never going to forget about,” Louzi said.
When Akeuir was sentenced to disciplinary segregation he also lost privileges to speak to his mother over the phone.
“You’re not going to put somebody in a place alone. And one month, you’re not going to talk to anybody. Nobody going to see you,” Louzi said.