ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
In prison, long stays in solitary confinement can cause psychological damage and mental illness. Almost all of those prisoners eventually come home where they struggle to get along with people, even close family members they depend on. That's especially true for teens. People are talking about this subject now after a young former inmate, Kalief Browder, committed suicide last Saturday in New York. Now NPR's Joseph Shapiro tells us about the strains on another family when their son came home from solitary confinement to Austin, Texas.
JOSEPH SHAPIRO, BYLINE: The thing Sara Garcia remembers from the day her son got out of prison was the hug - the very awkward hug.
SARA GARCIA: He's not used anybody touching him, so he's not used to hugs, and, I mean, we grabbed him. I mean, we hugged him. We held him. I mean, it was just surreal to just know that he - I can finally give him a hug.
J. SHAPIRO: On that day, outside a Texas prison last July, Mark had just turned 21. He'd been convicted of armed robbery and for the last two-and-a-half years was in solitary confinement. That means 23 hours a day alone in his cell. Hospital records show state doctors diagnosed him with an intellectual disability - mild mental retardation the doctors put it - plus schizoaffective disorder, a condition that includes the wild mood swings of bipolar disorder and the psychosis of schizophrenia. That diagnosis came before he was put into solitary. Garcia says her son, alone with just his thoughts, got more and more angry, and it showed on the day of that reunion.
GARCIA: He looked at us weird with that frown, that anger, and, I mean, I actually still have pictures of how he looked.
J. SHAPIRO: The picture on her cellphone shows a muscular man, his head cocked. He looks scared and on guard. NPR and The Marshall Project, a journalism group that focuses on the criminal justice system, did a state-by-state survey. We wanted to know how many people like Sara Garcia's son are released directly from solitary confinement to the streets. There were at least 10,000 in 2014. That's from information provided by just 24 states. The other 26 states, and the federal prison system, said they don't count or couldn't provide numbers. It matters because often inmates in solitary confinement serve all or most of their sentence. When they get released, they don't get parole services, the help with the re-entry that's offered to most ex-prisoners. So when Sara Garcia's son came home, she became his case manager. She found the psychiatrist. She found the job leads. She wrote out the applications for food stamps and disability income, even though she already had two jobs. Still, she had no idea that time was already running out for Mark.
GARCIA: He needed a lot of healing, and I knew it wasn't going to happen overnight. I knew it wasn't going to happen in six months. I didn't realize that he was going downhill quick.
J. SHAPIRO: Here's the thing that got Mark to prison - he robbed a store with a gun. At the time, he was 14. Just days after he turned 18, Mark was moved to an adult prison. When his mother came to visit, he said he was afraid of the older inmates.
GARCIA: It didn't help because at that time he was on medication. He goes, I'm sleepy and I need to be alert, so he decided to quit taking medication.
J. SHAPIRO: Officials from the Texas Department of criminal Justice declined to speak to us, but sent a statement noting they've started new alternatives to segregation for a limited number of inmates, including those with mental illness, and that the number of prisoners in solitary has been going down. Prison officials say they need solitary confinement to control the most violent inmates. In Texas, it's used often to break up prison gangs. Solitary is the place where vulnerable prisoners, like teens, often end up, supposedly for their protection. Mark was put in solitary after he said he wanted to escape. In a small cell, he paced back and forth, talking to himself for hours. At Christmas, he drew the outline of a Christmas tree on his mattress. He hallucinated. He cut himself.
GARCIA: I believe that when he was confined his anger grew. That's all he would live off of, were his thoughts.
J. SHAPIRO: The survey by The Marshall Project and NPR looked at inmates who get released from Texas prisons. Of those released from solitary, 63 percent come home with no supervision compared to 14 percent of all others.
BURKE BUTLER: And so the only safety net that is out there for you when you're released is your family.
J. SHAPIRO: Burke Butler is a Texas public defender.
BUTLER: And the frightening thing about solitary is that when it erodes your ability to interact with other human beings, it - in turn that trauma is inflicted upon your family members.
J. SHAPIRO: Another report, one that Butler co-wrote earlier this year for the Texas Civil Rights Project and the ACLU of Texas, found that inmates in solitary spend an average of four years in isolation and that solitary confinement often destroys an inmate's relationship with family.
GARCIA: We're in Del Valle at the Travis County Correctional Facility. We're coming to see Mark, my son.
J. SHAPIRO: Just four months after Sara Garcia's son came home, he was arrested again. The accusation - he robbed a convenience store and held a knife to the neck of the clerk. Garcia asked us not to use Mark's last name because, awaiting trial, he's almost certainly headed back to prison, and she's worried that he'll be targeted by inmates or guards. We went inside the jail and spoke to Mark on a videophone. Officials would not let us bring the tape recorder. Garcia was worried that day because Mark said he wanted to go back to solitary to get away from people. But this week, reached by phone from jail, Mark was asked if he still wanted to return to solitary. And he had a different answer.
MARK: I'm trying to change my ways, so it's kind of hard to say. You know, I really want to be - I really want to be isolated from everybody, but at the same time I'm trying to learn how to talk to people with respectful words and just, like, you know, just learn how to get along with people.
J. SHAPIRO: That's hard to do in prison, but Mark says he's taking his medications now, that he talks to his cell mates. He's likely to serve a long prison sentence, so he's either got to learn to get along there or face going back to solitary confinement. Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.
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