Suicide of Texas Prisoner Highlights the Psychological Effects of Solitary Confinement

solitary confinement

Increasing numbers of prisoners are spending long periods locked up alone in the United States. Experts say solitary confinement is putting severe psychological pressure on inmates and was likely linked to the death of a prisoner in Texas.

Russell Johnson took his life after living in solitary confinement for over two-and-a-half years, the Texas Observer reported.

The report noted Johnson was placed in solitary confinement in the Coffield Unit in eastern Texas for punching a guard in 2016. His condition deteriorated fast in isolation. He claimed his prison was haunted and said voices tormented him in his cell. He was found dead with a self-inflicted wound in July 2019.

The suicide highlights an apparent crisis in the prison system. In 2018, 40 people committed suicide in the custody of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ). The Houston Chronicle noted the figure was a 20-year high, Suicide attempts in Texas prisons doubled over the past five years.

Johnson was imprisoned at the age of 18 for 30 years. He attacked and robbed an elderly store owner in 1998, breaking his arm with a pipe wrench in the process.

After spending most of his life behind bars, Johnson made parole on June 24, 2015. Tambra Marsh, his sister, told the Observer he was excited about getting out of prison.

However, in January 2016, just eight days before Johnson’s sister was due to pick him up at the prison gates, officials looked at his file and said his sentence “had not been calculated correctly.” They concluded he would have to spend another seven years behind bars.

Johnson became irritable after the decision. He punched a prison guard on the rec. yard. He admitted assaulting a public servant, a third-degree felony. He was given an additional eight-year sentence and sent into solitary confinement.

Marsh would visit her brother at the Coffield Unit. She said he became increasingly disturbed, his social skills broke down, and he refused showers and opportunities to leave his cell. Johnson told his sister to stop filing complaints just weeks before his suicide.

The Texas Civil Rights Project warned prison staff often fail to properly screen inmates held in solitary confinement for potential mental health problems. The organization talked to scores of Texas prisoners held in isolation. Many of them said they only interacted with mental health providers during check-ins at their cell door. Typically, these only lasted a minute and most of the questions were superficial.

Although solitary confinement has been increasingly used in the 21st century, some states are reevaluating its use in prisons. The Observer noted the Texas Department of Criminal Justice has more than halved the total number of inmates in isolation, from over 9,000 people a decade ago to about 4,200 today.

However, the American Psychological Association points out prisoners’ stays in solitary confinement were relatively short in the 20th century.

Over the last two decades, the lengths of time inmates spent in solitary confinement increased. So-called “supermax” prisons where many occupants spend 23 to 24 hours a day locked up have become increasingly popular.

Many studies suggest solitary confinement causes extreme psychological issues for some inmates. An article in Psychology Today stated chronic social isolation associated with solitary confinement can cause physical changes to the brain. This affects the region of the brain associated with memory, learning, and spatial awareness.

Psychology Today also noted sensory deprivation caused serious health impairments including alternations of circadian rhythms, the internal biological clock that regulates the proper functioning of the human body.

Incarceration is detrimental even if you are not held in solitary confinement. Texas prisons have an unenviable reputation for being overheated, overcrowded, and often violent. If you or a family member has been accused of a crime, you should talk to our Dallas criminal defense lawyers as soon as possible. We will work with you on strategies that aim to keep you out of prison. Please contact us at (214) 720-9552.

Mick Mickelsen is a nationally recognized criminal trial attorney with more than 30 years of experience defending people charged with white-collar crimes, drug offenses, sex crimes, murder, and other serious state and federal offenses.