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Posted On: December 12, 2002          Updated On: December 12, 2002
© Terence T. Gorski, 2001

The Post Incarceration Syndrome (PICS) is a serious problem that is just beginning to make the news.  As more and more inmates are released from prison, our communities will be flooded with people who have serious problems as a result of their incarceration.  There are currently over 2.2 million people in prison.  Of these prisoners, at least 330,000 are nonviolent offenders incarcerated for the personal possession or use of drugs.  Most are addicted. Less than 20% will receive treatment.  All will be damaged by their time in prison.  Those in extended solitary confinement, about 120,000 people or 6.5% of all prisoners, will be the most damaged of all.  Here's an article from USA Today that discusses the problem.  Angel Coronado, the released inmate used to illustrate the problem, was arrested on alcohol and drug related charges numerous times but never received treatment.  I guess this is another victory for the war on drugs. Read the article and decide for yourself.

From extreme isolation, waves of felons are freed Young inmate reflects dangers of returning to society without receiving rehabilitation

By Kevin Johnson

HUNTSVILLE, Texas -- His last evening in solitary confinement, Angel Coronado forced himself to go to sleep before dusk. After nearly two years of maddening isolation in a tiny, windowless state prison cell, he hoped that would make the hours leading to his release pass quickly.

The next morning, after a pancake breakfast -- as always, shoved into his cell at 3:30 a.m. -- Coronado, 20, received a set of prison-made clothes, a one-way bus ticket back home to South Texas and a check for $100. And then Coronado, who would pace for hours in his 6- by 10-foot cell to fight off frustration and loneliness, was free -- and overwhelmed.

''It's hard to say how good this feels,'' he said, his teeth chattering in the cold wind last month after he walked out of prison and took in a sight from the past: the sky. ''There are no cages to keep me.''

But even before Coronado had packed his few belongings in an old onion sack, Texas prison officials seemed to be planning for his return. They told police in Donna, Texas, Coronado's hometown near the Mexican border, that the gang member who was sent to prison here on an assault conviction was headed their way.

The call was similar to thousands of warnings to local police this year about felons like Coronado, who after spending years in extreme isolation are returning to America's streets with little or no rehabilitation -- and what analysts suspect are slim hopes of avoiding a return to crime. Of the record 630,000 felons projected to be released this year from state prisons, the thousands who were kept in solitary confinement for much or all of their sentences could pose the most danger, authorities say.

Many are killers, rapists, drug dealers and others who have been in ''super maximum''-security prisons, which are the showpieces of the prison building boom of the 1990s. The scores of new ''super max'' prisons across the USA symbolized a crackdown on crime in which states made sentences tougher and seemed to abandon any pretense of trying to rehabilitate inmates.

As was the case with Coronado at the Coffield prison in Tennessee Colony, Texas, inmates at super max prisons typically are kept in small cells for 23 hours a day. They have no one to talk with, little or no television, no windows, restricted visitation with family members and little help in dealing with what analysts call the physical and psychological atrophy that can result from such conditions.

Now, in record numbers, those convicts and other felons are getting out. It's an ongoing exodus that some law enforcement officials believe is at least partly to blame for last year's 2.1% increase in major crimes nationwide, the first such rise in more than a decade.

It's unclear how many inmates are being released directly from isolation cells into communities; states do not keep uniform statistics on such inmates. But Texas, which has more than 9,000 inmates in isolation, the most in the nation, says it released 1,321 in 2001. During the past 21 months, Florida has set free nearly 1,000 inmates who were in isolation.

Prison officials say some released from super max prisons this year had been in isolation for a decade. Others, like Coronado, are gang members who wound up in isolation for shorter periods after breaking prison rules or getting into fights with other inmates.

States are just beginning to examine the threat that such convicts pose after their release. But law enforcement and prison officials agree that the percentage of formerly isolated inmates who are likely to be arrested within three years of their release easily surpasses the 62% recidivism rate for all felons that has been reported by the Justice Department.

''This class of prisoner represents the highest possible risk,'' says former Texas District Court judge Fernando Mancias, who sent Coronado to the general prison population three years ago, before Coronado's discipline problems landed the inmate in isolation. ''We've been destroying these people, denying them access to rehabilitation and releasing them to communities resentful and angry.''

Mancias, now a lawyer in Mission, Texas, says he hopes that Coronado will turn his life around. But Mancias, who opposes the broad use of solitary confinement, says that most inmates like Coronado are ''doomed to failure.''

Construction of super max prisons has fueled a jump in the number of inmates held in isolation nationwide. A recent survey of 34 states and the District of Columbia by the Criminal Justice Institute, a national research firm in Connecticut, found that the percentage of isolated prisoners in those jurisdictions rose from an average of 4.5% in 1994 to 6.5% last year.

Prison officials say the increasing use of isolation cells has made their facilities safer and more manageable -- and broken the hold that gangs had on some prisons. But mental health specialists say the lack of attention to how isolation can affect inmates long after their release has put the public at increased risk.

The Justice Department has moved to reduce that risk. This year, it allocated more than $150 million to states to help violent offenders before release with basic social skills, education and job training. But in some states, inmates in isolation are denied access to rehabilitation programs for security reasons.

''The prison system has forgotten that one of its missions is to increase the safety of the public when these people are released,'' says Stuart Grassian, a Harvard University psychiatrist who has studied the long-term effects of solitary confinement.

''When everybody was talking about getting tough on crime, all we really did was get tough on ourselves. Our system has succeeded in making prisoners as agitated and violent as humanly possible,'' Grassian says. ''What people forget is that 95% of these (inmates) get out at some point. These people have no clue about how to get along in a real-life setting. The only thing you can do is pray they don't pick you as their next victim.''

'Thanks for going Greyhound'

Except for the exaggerated swagger of a prison gangster, there is nothing scary looking about Angel Coronado.

Of the 25 just-released inmates boarding the southbound Greyhound out of Huntsville, Coronado -- short, wiry and unassuming -- looks the least like a hardened criminal. But he has been in trouble nearly half his life.

He says he began snorting cocaine when he was 12. A juvenile rap sheet followed, highlighted by incidents of criminal mischief, two burglaries and an escape from a youth home in South Texas.

He fell in with a gang as a teenager, and, barely a month out of treatment for cocaine abuse in June 1999, he was the triggerman in a shooting in Donna, a town of nearly 15,000 on the southern tip of Texas. Coronado was sentenced to six years' probation, avoiding prison largely because no one was hit by the shotgun blasts he fired while in a cocaine-induced haze.

''I don't remember their names,'' he says, recounting the incident and his intended targets. ''I wanted to hurt them, yeah. Kill them? I don't think so.''

Less than four months later, his probation was revoked when he ran over a friend while driving drunk. The friend survived, but Coronado was sent into the state prison system.

Like his older brother, Daniel ''Danny Boy'' Coronado, 21, a convicted burglar who now is in solitary confinement for assaulting a prison guard, Angel Coronado spent time in several prisons before being moved into isolation.

In 2000, about a year into his three-year sentence, Coronado was first put into isolation -- Texas calls it ''administrative segregation'' -- when guards found two shanks he had fashioned from coils in a hot plate. Coronado briefly was returned to the general prison population, only to be sent back to ''AdSeg'' for good when he joined a gang brawl in a prison chapel.

For much of the past two years, he spent 23 hours a day in a cell at Coffield that was furnished only with a single bunk, a steel toilet and a narrow ribbon of concrete floor where he paced -- five steps one way, five steps back -- to blow off steam.

''It can really drive you crazy,'' Coronado says now, staring blankly out of the bus window. The lack of human contact, even with other inmates, was the most difficult part of his confinement, Coronado says.

Before he was taken from his cell at Coffield, driven 75 miles south to the main state prison unit at Huntsville and then released, his only visitor in nearly a year was a USA TODAY reporter who sought his cooperation for this article. His mother's poor health, his relatives' busy work schedules and lack of money kept many potential visitors away, Coronado says.

In an interview a week before he was released, a nervous Coronado shook as he spoke. His eyes darted from point to point. Asked whether he had requested medical treatment to deal with the effects of isolation, Coronado said he had met with a psychiatrist for a couple of months ''just to have somebody to talk to.''

''It was getting to me,'' he says.

When he wasn't pacing the cell, he occupied himself by following a routine of sleeping, reading (mostly true crime stories) and writing letters. His daily ritual was interrupted only by the rigid schedule of meal deliveries:

Breakfast: 3:30 a.m.

Lunch: 9 a.m.

Dinner: 3:30 p.m.

Exercise time, about 30 minutes to an hour each day alone in a separate caged area, generally depended on which side of the prison unit the guards serviced first. Showers were optional. When Coronado did go to wash, he was put in shackles and was under close watch until he was returned to his cell.

''There ain't nothin' to see but walls,'' he says. ''It's like I could feel the anger building inside of me. The only way I could get myself away from my cell was to write letters to my family. I tried to get the letters to carry me out of there.''

Leaving prison, he settles into one of the bus' window seats on an overcast Friday. Coronado says the tall, brick prison walls passing by him are like scenes from his daydreams back in maximum security.

As the bus turns on to Interstate 45 south toward Houston, many of the inmates aboard shriek in delight. There are high-fives and a few middle fingers pointed back toward the prison. A smiling Coronado never looks back.

''Thanks for going Greyhound,'' the stocky bus driver calls out.

'Very little is being done'

In nearly every case in which American Civil Liberties Union attorney David Fahti has challenged the conditions of solitary confinement in super max prisons, the lawsuits describe how long-term isolation promotes physical deterioration and mental illness in the inmates.

In Wisconsin, Connecticut, New Mexico, Ohio, California and Florida, Fahti and the ACLU have gone to court to protest what the attorney describes as a ''life-shattering'' policy of punishment that stops just short of the death penalty.

Under the terms of one settlement with the ACLU, Connecticut officials last year withdrew inmates the state had sent to a super max unit in Virginia, which had extra prison space. The ACLU alleged that the inmates were unfairly confined in extreme isolation.

In Massachusetts, a campaign has been launched by the American Friends Service Committee to abolish the practice of disciplinary segregation. Legislators also are sponsoring proposals that would force the state to track inmates released from solitary confinement as a way to more accurately measure recidivism.

''This should be a huge concern in this country, not just because of what is happening inside prisons, which is catastrophic,'' Fahti says. ''Very little is being done to help these people transition back home. And most of them are getting out.''

Grassian, the Harvard psychiatrist who has testified in cases brought against prison systems, says some of the hundreds of inmates he has interviewed have called him after their release ''in desperate straits.''

''In some cases, their ability to think and to reason is totally gone,'' Grassian says.

Texas prison spokesman Larry Fitzgerald makes no apologies for the state's use of disciplinary segregation. He says that in the mid-1980s, when violent prison gangs virtually ruled some facilities, prison officials began to use isolation cells to restore order and break up criminal groups.

Fitzgerald credits the strategy with reducing Texas' prison homicides from 20 to 30 a year in the 1980s to single digits now. Since September 2001, there have been four slayings in Texas' prison system, which has nearly 150,000 inmates, he says.

''Given our clientele,'' Fitzgerald says, ''you could go to any city of equal size and probably not find those kind of numbers. Clearly, this plan works.''

Since 1995, the number of beds assigned to segregation units in Texas' prison system has jumped from 7,066 to more than 9,000 this year. Although a few other states have a higher percentage of their inmates in isolation, Texas' prison system -- the nation's second-largest behind California's -- has far more inmates in such units than any other state, according to the Criminal Justice Institute survey.

Though prison officials laud inmate isolation plans, there is growing concern among some Texas officials about how isolated inmates adjust to freedom.

Within six months, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice plans to start providing education and ''re-entry'' programs to inmates who are in isolation, lifting a prohibition that has been in place for years.

''There is a significant need for release preparation services to be developed and offered to this particular population,'' the department said in a recent report, adding that isolated inmates ''pose a serious risk to the community.''

The challenges back home

Seven hours into Coronado's 340-mile trip home, he is still enthralled by the passing scenery. He is dazzled by the lights in the small towns of Refugio, Robstown and Kingsville. During a stop in Refugio, Coronado savors a burger from Dairy Queen.

When his eyes aren't glued to the window, he picks through the onion sack for letters he received in prison. One of the last ones came Nov. 2 from his brother, who was being held in a segregation unit less than a mile from Coronado's cell.


I hope you play it cool out there and look out for Timmy (at 16, the youngest of the Coronado brothers). He's still young, even though he says he knows what he's doing. Look out for Mom, Angel. Help her find a good place to live. I'll be back here waiting for my day to come.


Danny Boy

In a sense, the letter is a reminder of what Angel Coronado faces back in Donna: relatives who have gotten on with their lives, the temptations of street life, a difficult hunt for a job, and a decision on whether to try to finish his last two years of high school.

He has no special skills and only vague plans.

''Eventually, I'd like to get a job in construction,'' he says.

His grandfather, Natividad Nino, a longtime local carpenter, says he'll try to teach the trade to his grandson. But skilled craftsmen are struggling along the U.S. border, Nino says, where cheap Mexican labor rules the market.

'I might go cruising'

What seems to worry Coronado the most is how he'll handle his first encounter with the homeboys he left behind.

''I might go cruising with them,'' he says. ''But I have to know when it's time to go home. I can't go back'' to prison.

Mancias, the former judge, says Coronado is ''coming back to one of the poorest counties in the nation. It's a bad, bad place for somebody like Angel. His experience in prison will make things more difficult. I'd say the chances are less than 25% he'll be able to stay out'' of prison.

It is nearly 1 a.m. Saturday -- about 13 hours after his release -- when Coronado finally arrives at his mother's crowded apartment in Donna, setting off an explosion of emotion.

Two sisters, several nieces, brother Timmy and Coronado's mother, Trinidad, swarm him in a family embrace in the dirt front yard.

''This is a day I've been waiting for,'' Trinidad Coronado says when the family scrum moves inside. ''I've got one more son (Danny) to go and that will complete my life.''

Ten days later, Coronado landed a job as landscaper's helper, making $5.20 an hour. He pulls weeds and plants shrubs and says he hasn't hung out with his old gang.

He says he's happy.

''I like being outside.'' 

Read More About PICS

Beyond Forced Psychiatry
Criminal Recidivism- Statistics 12-12-02
Drug Treatment for Addicted Mothers
Offender Treatment - Comparison of Prison & Non-prison Treatment
One in 32 American Adults Are in the Corrections System
PICS In The Pews - 12-12-02
PICS Reading Assignment 01 - Inside Valley State Prisone for Women
PICS Reading Assignment 02 - Colorado's ADX Supermax Prison 010831.htm
PICS Reading Assignment 03 - Supermax Red Onion State Prison Virginia
Post Incarceration Syndrome (PICS) & Relapse
PTSD Checklist Civilian Version
PTSD Checklist Military Version
States Reconsider Crime Policies
Supreme Court Upholds Three Strikes Legislation
Treatment of Women Prisoners
Voting Rights of Convicted Offenders - Defeat of Amendment To The Voting Rights Act Of 2001
Young Inmates More Likely Than Adults to Return to Crime


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