By Joseph Shapiro
The thing Sara Garcia remembers from the day her son, Mark, got out of prison was the hug — the very, very awkward hug. He had just turned 21 and for the past two and a half years, he’d been in solitary confinement.
“He’s not used to anyone touching him,” Garcia says. “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 I can finally give him a hug and a kiss on the cheek.”
Mark, who was released directly from solitary confinement into his mother’s arms, is one of tens of thousands of inmates that NPR and The Marshall Project — a journalism group that focuses on the criminal justice system — found as part of a state-by-state survey. We wanted to know: How many people 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 — as well as the federal prison system — say they don’t count, or couldn’t provide, numbers.
Often, inmates in solitary confinement serve all or most of their sentence. So when they are released, they don’t get parole services to help with re-entry that’s offered to most ex-prisoners.
Mental health experts and researchers say that long stays in solitary confinement often emotionally damage people, both teens and adults, and can create lifelong mental illness. When those prisoners come home, they often struggle to get along with people, including the family members they depend upon most.
Prison officials say they need solitary confinement to control the most violent prisoners. In Texas, for example, it’s used often to break up prison gangs.
Garcia’s son went to a Texas prison for robbing a store with a gun. At the time, he was 14. She says that her son was manipulated by some older men; prosecutors say he acted alone.