The Problem with Ad Seg
Updated: Apr 22
What does "ad seg" stand for? The full phraseology is “administration segregation.” The meaning of this phrase in the context of individuals who are incarcerated in the US prison system is literally "to ensure that those placed in segregation maintain their medical and mental health while physically and socially isolated from the rest of the population."
Before I really get rolling here, I want to make it clear that after working with the families of victims, I stand behind them every step of the way. No one can imagine what it's like to be, or to have a loved one, assaulted, raped, or murdered until it happens. The results have lifelong, devastating implications.
But my position shouldn't preclude me from also standing behind families of the incarcerated, for they too are suffering the unmeasurable impact of being traumatized by a loved one committing a crime, and the long prison stays that come with violent crime. And then there are the families of the wrongfully convicted, never truly trusting any outcome.
Whatever your personal thoughts are about individuals who are incarcerated, the ACLU purports that since 1970, the prison population has increased by 500%, with over 2 million people serving prison sentences today (https://www.aclu.org/issues/smart-justice/mass-incarceration). The US keeps its citizens in prison longer than any other nation. These facts are not in dispute. Incarceration touches innumerable families and social circles in one way or the other.
Many who don't have contact with the prison system might like to think in black or white, guilty or innocent, break the laws and pay the price. But those with experience know there are no hard and fast truths. Administration segregation is important to individuals whose lives are threatened in prison, for those who are sick and vulnerable, or for those who are incorrigibly violent. But ad seg has been weaponized in ways it was never intended to be used, and we should all be concerned with this medieval turn of events.
In January of 2022, prisoner Dennis Hope of Texas brought a case before the Supreme Court asking them to consider whether such prolonged isolation can violate the Eighth Amendment, which bars cruel and unusual punishments (https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/14/us/supreme-court-solitary-confinement.html). He has lived in a 9x6 cell for 27 years as the result of a series of armed robberies.
Sit with that for a moment. Although Hope's robberies scared the bejesus out of the victims involved, he never physically assaulted, raped, or killed anyone. He did escape from prison. This is the same for Steven Jay Russell, who has lived down the hall from Mr. Hope in the Polunsky Unit of the Texas prison system for 25 of those years. The two men leave their space - which is about the size of a compact car - possibly a few hours a month. They have no human contact, so have likely never met, and the conditions in Polunsky are dire.
Since the place is so dire, there are always staff shortages. "There is disrespect towards everyone. In 25 years, 29 men have committed suicide. There is tons screaming, yelling and screeching at others. Many cut themselves with razor blades. Some inmates set fire their cells on fire on a daily basis." This is from a letter I received from Steven Jay Russell this week. It's far from the romantic notions of the movie "I Love You Phillip Morris" (based on Russell's life).
Russell is currently serving a 144 year sentence for a series of frauds and escapes he committed in the middle of his life. Russell is not innocent of these charges. But, in my humble opinion, 144 years is draconian and entirely punitive; it is not justice for his crimes. Now imagine you had made mistakes in judgment, had untreated mental illness, had a drug problem, were in the process of living as a Black or Latino person, or were poor and that landed you in this very same position. It happens daily in the US with little recourse.
So, what can we do as a society?
In April of 2008, my late husband, Jeffrey Felshman, wrote about Tamms Supermax prison in Illinois after hearing the story of Reginald Berry, who served 8 torturous years in the prison built for the purpose of ad seg (https://chicagoreader.com/news-politics/hell-in-a-cell/). Sure, Berry was a murderer, a gang member, and a drug dealer. But, Berry also later became a responsible husband, a father, and a son and a brother himself. After he was released in 2006, he eventually had the strength of mind to create Saving Our Sons Ministries, Inc., a non-profit to help those like himself.
Jeffrey was one of dozens, then hundreds of people who took exception to Tamms and fought its existence. His article was a galvanizing touchstone for a topic that had rarely been written about in the mainstream press. He died the next year and never lived to see the outcome.
Tamms Supermax was closed in December of 2012. Inmates around the state were found with his article in their cells, even though they'd been in ad seg for years. (https://chicagoreader.com/blogs/life-inside-a-supermax-prison/)
I'll be watching Dennis Hope's case and praying it is the beginning of the end of purely punitive measures, like ad seg, that go on in our prisons. "Cruel and unusual punishment" is something that our society should abhor and stand against. It is past due time to reevaluate what justice looks like within the justice system.
For Steven J. Russell, you can act today: contact Melissa Bennett Chairperson, State Classification Committee PO Box 99. Huntsville, TX 77342-0099. Phone: (936) 437-6571. Fax: (936) 437-6276 firstname.lastname@example.org and let her know you believe Steven should be moved from ad seg to general population.