prisons, jails, mass incarceration
The following roundup features noteworthy news, reports and opinions on solitary confinement from the past week that have not been covered in other Solitary Watch posts.
• According to the tally kept by The Miami Herald, 104 of the 166 men held captive at Guantanamo are now on hunger strike, with 44 being force-fed and two hospitalized. The Miami Herald also reports that the House of Representatives, disregarding a White House veto threat, has passed a $638 billion defense bill that would block President Barack Obama from closing the military prison.
• PBS Frontline reports on the abusive use of solitary confinement in the United States, citing the recent critical findings of two separate investigations by the DOJ (covered by Solitary Watch here) and the GAO (covered by Solitary Watch here), noting that both reports “mark an ‘historic’ level of scrutiny of the use of isolation.”
• Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity reports that California’s new solitary confinement policy is a “human rights disaster,” stating that “the new program keeps most of the objectionable elements of the old program and adds some new elements which make it even worse.”
• Cell-Out Arizona reports on AFSC Arizona’s response to a statement made by Charles Ryan, Arizona DOC Director, claiming that solitary confinement doesn’t exist in Arizona prisons. The story states that “this claim demonstrates either a misunderstanding or deliberate obfuscation on Director Ryan’s part of what constitutes solitary confinement.”
• Cell-Out Arizona reports on racial disparities and prejudice in Arizona supermax prisons, stating that “not only are people of color more likely to end up in prison, but once in an Arizona prison the chances of ending up in long-term isolation are also higher!”
• BBC News reports on steps that people held in solitary confinement can take to mitigate the potentially psychologically devastating effects of isolation, concluding with the words of a man who who experienced solitary firsthand: ”And smile and be happy – and don’t be afraid of anybody.”
• Huffington Post Live discusses the recent exposures of inhumane conditions in prisons around the country with noted criminal justice and prison reform advocates, including Lois Ahrens of the Real Cost of Prisons Project and Peter Wagner of Prison Policy Initiative.
• San Francisco Bay View reports that, with weeks before statewide hunger strikes are set to resume, the CDCR has implemented a new policy at Pelican Bay State Prison which requires guards to conduct “welfare checks” on people held in SHU every 30 minutes, resulting in “chronic sleep deprivation for prisoners in solitary confinement.”
• ArchDaily reports on Roman Mars’ recent discussion on the ethics of architects taking on jobs that call for the design of prisons to hold people in solitary confinement or that contain execution chambers. Solitary Watch covers the “Alternatives to Incarceration / Prison Design Boycott Campaign” in a guest post by Raphael Sperry.
• CounterPunch reports on “judicial ignorance and bias” in the case of Ahmed Abu Ali, currently held in government-imposed Special Administrative Measures (SAMs) at ADX, the notorious federal supermax in Colorado.
• The Associated Press reports that advocacy group The Promise of Justice Initiative has filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of three people held on death row at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, stating that the men “are forced to live in poorly-ventilated cells that lack air conditioning, and average temperatures exceed 95 degrees during the summer.”
• The Atlantic reports on the recent revelations on “the systemic abuse and neglect of inmates, and especially mentally ill inmates” in prisons around the country, concluding that “in our zeal to dehumanize criminals we have allowed our prisons to become medieval places of unspeakable cruelty so far beyond constitutional norms that they are barely recognizable.”
Records kept by the Colorado Department of Corrections show 61 instances from March 1, 2012 to March 1 of this year of corrections officers using force on men held at the Colorado State Penitentiary (CSP), where prisoners are held in administrative segregation on lockdown for 23 hours a day. The “use of force” log, obtained by Denver’s Westword, documents varying levels of physical contact used in each incident, some of which required mild force, and others which prison officials deemed it necessary to use brutal control tactics, including restraint chairs and pepper spray.
This story comes from Alan Prendergast, who writes for Westword and has reported on Colorado prisons for years:
At Colorado’s state supermax prison, inmates get into confrontations with guards — over food, hygiene, privileges, a refusal to “cuff up” or whatever — out of boredom, mental illness or plain orneriness. Some claim to be provoked by staff.
Whatever the reason, it’s a contest the prisoner is going to lose every time.
Like many prisons throughout Colorado and across the nation, people with mental illness compose a large part of the population at CSP. Prendergast writes on the potential impact of solitary confinement on people with mental illness:
Although proponents of supermax prisons claim that they act as a deterrent to violence elsewhere in the corrections systems, the facilities also become repositories of “problem” inmates, whose failure to follow the rules tends to prolong their stay in solitary confinement — and possibly exacerbate any preexisting mental problems. (As we’ve previously reported, roughly a third of CSP inmates have been diagnosed with some form of mental illness.)
The article continues, describing the varying levels of force that were used, which should be in accordance with DOC regulations calling for “an escalating spectrum of force, depending on the level of perceived threat”:
…DOC regulations call for an escalating spectrum of force, depending on the level of perceived threat.
The log lists twelve instances of “emergent need entry” into cells, generally triggered by an inmate being unresponsive or refusing to obey rules (such as refusing to put hands through the food slot to be cuffed before staff entry); ten cell extractions, including five using pepper spray; 31 episodes of varying degree of force to subdue inmates, from “soft empty hand control” to “hard intermediate control;” four uses of the restraint chair; and four occasions when a SORT team was activated but no use of force was required.
Prendergast notes that the names of several prisoners show up more frequently in the log, including Manuel Rodriguez and JJ Alejandro, both of whom had five documented incidents.:
Two inmates kept the teams particularly busy. Rodriguez, serving 35 years on drug and weapon charges, was the subject of five call-outs, including two that ended in the restraint chair. JJ Alejandro, doing twelve-to-life out of Larimer County, racked up five “emergent need entry” calls. Two other inmates show up on the list three times each; one, Floyd Martinez, was involved in three use-of-force reports in one day. Martinez and Rodriguez have both been moved to other prisons since March.
The article concludes, sharing “another side to the story,” as maintained by people held at the facility:
[I]f the same prisoners’ names show up in many of the incidents, perhaps the same is true for the guards. One CSP resident told Westword that the same two sergeants have been involved in several of the incidents over the past six months: “What they are doing is antagonizing inmates verbally when they are escorted to and from showers, and when an inmate comments and turns [his] head to respond, these [officers] are slamming them to the floor, then saying the inmate made an aggressive act/gesture so force was needed to subdue inmate…”
Last year we covered the case of Troy Anderson (here and here), a man held at CSP who suffers from mental illness. Anderson challenged his twelve years of solitary confinement at CSP. In an important decision, a federal judge ruled that CSP’s use of solitary confinement qualifies as “a paradigm of inhumane treatment,” ordering the prison to allow Anderson to go outdoors three hours a week.
William Van Poyck, 58 years old and on death row at the Florida State Prison in Starke, is scheduled to die at the hands of the state tonight at 7 pm. In 1987 he was convicted of murdering prison guard Fred Griffis in a failed jailbreak attempt. Poyck has spent nearly 26 years on death row in solitary confinement. He has written to his sister about his life in prison, and in recent years she has published his letters to a blog called Death Row Diary. In these letters, Poyck writes about everything from the novels and history books he is reading and shows he has watched on PBS to the state of the world and his own philosophy of life–punctuated by news of the deaths of those around him, from illness, suicide, and execution. He also comments on the bill recently passed by the Florida legislature that will accelerate the schedule of executions in Florida. The excerpts selected here focus on the inhumane treatment he and other individuals on death row endure as they move ever closer to their own finalities. His last entry was written on May 28, when he had “15 days left to live.” –Abby Taskier
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January 4, 2012
Well, another year is upon us. I feel like I ought to have something profound to say but all I can think of is the too many – over 40 – years I’ve spent sitting in a cell or prison dormitory watching another new year slide into my life. New Year’s is supposed to represent hope and potential but it’s hard to convince yourself that hope and potential abounds when you’re doing hard time! Anyway, 2012 is the supposed end of the world according to the Mayan calendar…I don’t put too much stock in apocalyptic predictions; humans have been making them since the dawn of time, after all, without any success, and I’m an optimist by nature. But I confess that as I survey the world around me and what we humans are doing to planet earth it is increasingly difficult to envision a good ending…
The search team came and tore up my cell last week; it was a surgical strike (they came for me alone) and I was later told that “someone” wrote a snitch kite on me claiming (falsely) I had a weapon in my cell. I’m fairly certain it was someone trying to get a DR (disciplinary report) dismissed by dropping a dime on me on the hope they’d shake me down and find something, any kind of contraband, and the rat would then get credit for it. But I had no contraband so the snitch struck out. If the administration had any integrity they’d write the rat a DR for “lying to staff.” I spent several hours putting my cell back in order; it looked like a hurricane came through, all my property scattered everywhere. This is the kind of bullshit you have to put up with in prison; it’s the nature of the beast…
I just learned that Governor Scott has signed another death warrant and someone is on death watch on the bottom floor of Q-wing. Scott didn’t waste any time after the holidays; he seems determined to execute a record number of people at the pace he is setting…This is a depressing turn of events, a lousy way to begin the new year, at least from my perspective. The execution, when it occurs, will undoubtedly please some people, so it’s all a matter of perspective…
February 9, 2012
Yesterday the prison was locked down all day for the standard “mock execution”, the practice run which occurs a week prior to the actual premeditated killing. For the mock execution they lock down the joint, bring in an array of big wigs, and go through a dry run to make sure the death machine is in working order, everyone on their toes. The big wigs are just voyeurs, here to vicariously kill someone while allowing themselves the bare moral cover of not actually pushing the knife between the ribs. Their minions do the actual dirty deed while they can go home with technically clean hands. These mock executions are as depressing as the real thing, in the sense that it’s dispiriting to watch an entire organization (a prison, with all its constituent parts) so seriously dedicate their time and energies to practice killing a fellow human being, as if this is a good and natural thing to do. It takes some peculiar mental (not to mention moral) gymnastics to justify this to oneself, but we humans have proven ourselves immensely adept at self-delusion and hypocrisy, especially when we bring religion into the equation. We are really, really good at killing others in the name of God. We are a strange species, aren’t we?
February 25, 2012
Robert Waterhouse was scheduled for execution at 6:00pm this evening. In accordance with the established execution protocol he was strapped to the gurney and the needles were inserted into each arm about 45 minutes prior to his appointed time. Just before 6:00, however, he received a 45-minute stay which morphed into an almost 3-hour endurance test as he remained on the gurney as the seconds, minutes and then hours slid by at an excruciatingly slow pace, waiting for someone to tell him if hope was at hand, if he would live or die. Just before 9:00 he received his answer, the plungers were depressed, the syringes emptied and he was summarily killed. Here on the row we can discern the approximate time of death when we see the old white Cadillac hearse trundle in through the back sally port gate to pick up the body, the same familiar 1960′s era hearse I’ve watched for almost 40 years, coming in to retrieve the bodies of murdered prisoners, which used to happen on a regular basis back when I was in open population. I’ve seen a lot of guys, both friends and foes, carted off in that old hearse. Anyway, pause for a moment to imagine being on that gurney for over three hours, the needles in your arms. You’ve already come to terms with your imminent death, you are reconciled with the reality that this is it, this is how you will die, that there will be no reprieve. Then, at the last moment, a cruel trick, you’re given that slim hope, which you instinctively grasp. Some court, somewhere, has given you a temporary stay. You stare at the ceiling while the clock on the wall ticks away. You are totally alone, not a friendly soul in sight, surrounded by grim-faced men who are determined to kill you. Your heart pounds, your body feels electrified and every second seems like an eternity as a Kaleidoscope of wild thoughts crash around franticly in your compressed mind. After 3 hours you are drained, exhausted, terrorized, and then the phone on the wall rings and you’re told it’s time to die…
June 10, 2012
…Doing my own laundry (most of us do it) has become even more of an imperative over the last year or two. For starters, you cannot exchange your state clothes for clean stuff at the weekly laundry exchange because all the laundry issues now are old, ripped-up rags, stuff right out of a cartoon version of the rags Napoleon’s army wore as they withdrew from Russia. There is no money available here for any new clothing. The sheets, towels, socks, T-shirts and drawers are almost black with filth; they look like what mechanics use in garages to clean up with. The laundry has taken to cutting all the sheets in half lengthwise and cutting all the towels in half (sewing up the edges) to try to make things stretch. More basic than that, though, is that for at least a year, maybe two, the laundry has simply quit using any soap when it “washes” the clothes. They stuff they pass out stinks worse than it does when it’s turned in. If you do get something from the laundry, the first thing you and have to do is wash it. Most people do what I do, they bribe someone to get ahold of a couple of new sheets and a new towel, and then they just keep them, washing them by hand every week. Since we cannot obtain any laundry soap (for reasons unknown they stopped selling it to us 10 years ago) we’ve gotta use canteen-bought shampoo to do our laundry (VO-5 is the cheapest). And of course, we’ve gotta wash all our stuff in our toilets; this sounds gross to the uninitiated, but we keep our stainless steel toilets scrubbed clean. You then plug it up and flush it until it fills, then add shampoo and laundry and go to work. This is old-school and is universal in prisons around the country (although 95% of prisons have made this obsolete by offering real laundry services. But Florida in general and Florida State Prison in particular are 30 years behind the times and the administration seems to revel in its backwardness). Hell, this prison doesn’t even have hot water to the cells…
September 13, 2012
In the early morning hours of August 30, my friend Tom, who lived 2 cells down from me groggily awoke to find his face and pillow covered in blood and his tongue bitten about half off. He had no memory of what occurred. That morning his speech was slurred (over and above his extreme difficulty in speaking with a then-swollen, bloody tongue) and I noticed his thinking was confused. I told him he’d most likely had a seizure in his sleep (he has no history of seizures) and that because he was on high cholesterol medication he may have had a small stroke. Over the following days Tom suffered progressively severe headaches almost constantly and began sleeping excessively. His speech became increasingly slurred and his mental faculties were clearly compromised. I, and others, constantly urged Tom to try to get up to the clinic to see a doctor (even though the two doctors here are notorious quacks) and so he began trying to stop any passing nurses (who go down our row to deliver medications to some) to explain his situation, but none of them were interested. Most just said “put in a sick call slip.” At my urging Tom declared a “medical emergency” which is supposed to get you right up to the clinic. But instead, a nurse came to the wing, briefly examined Tom’s swollen (and now infected) tongue, gave him two Tylenol and told him he was just “out of luck” since no doctor was on duty on a Saturday night.
Meanwhile, day by day, Tom got worse. He knew something was wrong with him but seemed unable to figure out what to do. I wrote up a sick call slip for him (by this time his handwriting was illegible and he could not put his thoughts together) and the next day a “nurse” or M.T. (medical technician) came to “examine” him. He listened as Tom labored to explain what happened, starting with the seizure, then told Tom “Well, some people do this [bite their tongues almost in half] to get attention.” The M.T. then walked away…
October 2, 2012
…I stuck my mirror out, upon hearing the door roll, and saw Tom, a big bandage on his head, tottering slowly and unsteadily down the tier to his cell. That was on the 13th. For the next 5 days he laid on his bunk, often moaning, while receiving no medication at all (despite the surgeons having prescribed many drugs). Finally, after 5 days he began getting some, but not all, of the prescribed meds (no pain meds, of course). Importantly, he did not get the most crucial one, the one to stop his brain from swelling. So he was suffering mightily until just 5 or 6 days ago when he finally saw a free-world oncologist who was shocked that he was not getting the brain swelling medication. After another 3 days he finally began getting that one and he told me the relief was immediate. I knew it was bad when he kept telling me he had fluid coming out of his ears. He’s been told he’ll get chemo and radiation treatment but that remains to be seen…
October 25, 2012
Well, the execution has been cancelled, to the dismay of some around here. Ferguson was scheduled to die on the 16th, but just before then he got a 48-hour stay. Over the next week he got three such temporary stays from three different courts, with the sole issue being his sanity to be executed. Finally, it was supposed to happen for sure 2 days ago, on the 23rd, and we woke up to the standard execution-day procedures, eating all three meals very early, the entire prison being on lockdown, and all guards wearing their dress uniforms. As execution time (6:00 pm) neared the old white hearse pulled up outside the back sally port gate waiting to come in and pick up the body. As 6:00 came and went I assumed the execution had occurred but around 7:30 a guy on the other side of my wing, which looks out on the back gate and the rear of Q-wing (the death house), called me through the vent and said the hearse never came in, but instead had finally driven off. On the 11:00 news it was reported that the US Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, in Atlanta, had given Ferguson a stay of execution and that the US Supreme Court then approved the stay. (The accuracy of that precise chronology is debatable because reporters are notorious for mangling stories involving court decisions). At any rate, he got some kind of stay; how long that stay is remains unknown to me. I heard on one news report that the Eleventh Circuit granted the stay in order to decide “whether it is unconstitutional to execute the insane”…Now we go back on lottery watch, waiting to see whose death warrant the governor signs next, which is a great mood elevator for the upcoming holidays…
Last night’s mail brought me (and others) a notice that the mailroom had impounded and confiscated the latest issue of Newsweek because, the notice stated, it contained an article about “pot use in America.” Censorship like this, which implies serious First Amendment principles, used to be, and is supposed to be, rare. Only when an article clearly and unequivocally creates a substantial threat to the security of a prison should it be censored. But, over the years, the Florida DOC has gotten progressively petty (and ignorant) on this issue (since the law now practically forbids prisoners from filing law suits anymore) until we’ve reached our present state where these impoundments have become almost daily and for the most absurd reasons imaginable… With nothing to keep them in check (lawsuit-wise) the prisons do just whatever the hell they want to, knowing they are immune from challenge…
November 8, 2012
Another death row guy has died of cancer. I ran into Michael Bruno (whom I’ve known for over 20 years) in late July when I took a day trip to RMC (Regional Medical Center) for my upper GI tests. Bruno looked weak and had a persistent cough (the same cough Tom now has) and he’d just been diagnosed with lung cancer…He seemed to be doing pretty well, but on Friday, October 19th, he suddenly got ill and two days later he was dead. The cause of death, we were told, was septic shock, and I’m guessing the infection found its way into his system via the “port” they’d inserted into his chest to funnel the chemo directly into his lung. Prisons are filthy so putting a port into a guy’s chest while making him live in a cell is pretty much a prescription for disaster. This is especially true here in Florida where the DOC long ago quit issuing and buying (we used to manufacture them) the various cleaning chemicals we used to use to clean our cells and the whole prison, from powdered soap, liquid soap, disinfectants, bleach; all that is gone now and we must buy and use shampoo from the canteen to wash our clothes and clean our cells. This whole decrepit building is filthy and falling apart…
February 27, 2013
My old pal Tom died on Friday, Feb 8th at 4:10 pm, alone in the clinic isolation cell at UCI. I hate that he died alone, locked in a tiny cell with no property (no radio, TV or anything to occupy his mind) and nobody to converse with, just laying on his bunk, staring at the ceiling, waiting for his final escape. His loved ones, who were able to travel from Texas and North Carolina to visit him for three hours just two days before he passed away wrote and told me that he was very weak and gaunt, could not keep down any food or liquids, but was lucid enough for a meaningful visit, though just barely so. Although I know his death was inevitable and imminent, I’m surprised at how much it has affected me. I’ve seen an awful lot of death during my many years in prison (way too much death, in all its myriad variations), including some friends, but Tom’s has knocked the wind out of me.
Later last night they moved Paul off death watch on Q-wing and put him in the lone empty cell on my floor [after he received a stay of execution]. That’s gotta be a Hell of a transition; you are hours away from execution, you’ve had your final visits (imagine how emotional that is), made your peace with the inevitable, perhaps eaten your last meal, then, in a finger snap, you’re told you won’t be dying after all (at least not that night) and you are back on a regular death row cell talking with the Fellas. I’ve seen a number of guys go through this over the years, one of whom was just twenty minutes from execution in the electric chair when he got his unexpected stay. They moved him next to me and I was startled to see that his hair had turned almost entirely white during the six weeks he was on death watch. He died quietly in his sleep from a heart attack about six years later, right here on this floor.
It’s surprising to me that more prisoners here don’t kill themselves given the long term extreme isolation and punitive conditions, the hopelessness that comes from being confined for years in a tiny cage with virtually no property and certainly no programs or anything to engage the mind or offer any shred of hope. I’m referring specifically to the 1,000 men in close management status here (close management being a euphemism for long-term solitary confinement lasting years and years). Death row conditions are marginally better; at least we get visits and we can buy a little TV or radio (or now an MP3 player), but the flip side is that we spend decades in these cells and unless you possess a stout mind (and body) this inevitably erodes your constitution, often without you even knowing it. I’ve seen too many men go insane, a sad and scary thing to behold, or just throw in the towel and kill themselves, or get the state to do it for them by giving up their appeals and demanding to be executed…
April 10, 2013
On April 10, Larry Mann was executed downstairs. Seven days later Governor Scott signed another death warrant, for a guy out of Orlando named Elmer Carroll, who happened to be my next door neighbor. We were out on the rec yard when a lieutenant holding a bunch of chains showed up and took Elmer away, and while they didn’t tell him why they were taking him in I knew something was up. When I came back in, his cell was stripped and he was down on the bottom floor of Q-Wing on death watch…
The governor is wasting no time executing people, he’s killing a guy every 60 days, as regular as a metronome. Still, that is insufficiently bloodthirsty for a majority of our state representatives. This morning I watched, on the local Public Television Channel, the floor debate in the House on a bill designed to “speed up the death penalty.” Various politicians stood up to argue pro and con, and several invoked the Bible (notably the Old Testament) to justify killing us all as quickly as possible, while one guy repeatedly referred to all of us as “animals.” I have not read the bill so all I know about its particulars is what I could glean from the comments made by those who spoke up for or against it…One representative stated that if the bill becomes law (and it surely will) Florida “will execute between 13 and 90 prisoners in the next six months.” I don’t know if that’s accurate but he must have had some basis to come up with those particular numbers. Those who argued against the bill, urging caution and reminding the crowd that Florida leads the nation (by far) in death row prisoners exonerated, often 10, 15, 20 years after conviction, were steamrolled down by the Republican supermajority and the bill passed by a wide margin…
May 3, 2013
Today Governor Scott signed my death warrant and my execution date has been scheduled for June 12th, at 6pm. I wasn’t really surprised when they showed up at my cell door with the chains and shackles; for the last month or so I’ve had a strong premonition that my warrant was about to be signed, but that wasn’t something I wanted to share with you.
Sis, you know I’m a straight shooter, I’m not into sugar coating things, so I don’t want you to have any illusions about this. I do not expect any delays or stays. This is it. In 40 days these folks will take me into the room next door and kill me…
When your warrant gets signed so many things suddenly become trivial. I’ve already thrown or given away 95% of my personal property, the stuff that for years seemed so important. All those great books I’ll never get to read; reams and reams of legal work I’ve been dragging around, and studying, for 2 decades and which has suddenly lost its relevance. My magazines and newspapers stack up unread; I have little appetite to waste valuable, irreplaceable hours reading up on current events. Does it really matter to me now what’s happening in the Middle East, or on Wall Street, or how my Miami Dolphins are looking for the upcoming new season? What’s the point? Ditto the TV; I’m uninterested in wasting time watching programs that now mean nothing in the grand scheme of things. The other day I caught myself reaching for my daily vitamin. Really?, I wondered, as the absurdity hit me. Likewise, after 40 years of working out religiously, that’s out the window now. Again, what’s the point?…
May 12, 2013
On Tuesday they came and measured me for my execution/burial suit. Sometime soon I’ll be given the details on how “the body” will be disposed of following the legally required autopsy (will my cause of death really be a mystery?). I understand the State will pay for a cremation should I choose this form of disposal (I do) and my ashes will be available at a Gainesville Funeral home; but don’t quote me on that yet. Discussing the practical aspects of my upcoming death was a little disconcerting, but I took it in stride.
I’ve been on death watch for 10 days now and I have 31 days left to live. (It seems surreal when I write that out, and just as surreal that all those around me accept this as a normal and natural thing). My cell (one of three) is next to the execution chamber so I won’t have far to walk. There’s another guy down here with me, his execution is set for 2 weeks before mine so assuming he doesn’t get a stay I’ll have a front row seat to how the final days and hours play out. Aren’t I lucky?
May 19, 2013
I’ve got 25 days left to live. It isn’t normal to be able to write something like that, and that sense of surrealism permeates every hour down here. Making a man spend his last six weeks ticking off every minute, hour and day of his life left on earth constitutes cruel and unusual punishment by any definition. And it certainly constitutes, as a matter of law, two of Florida’s statutory aggravating circumstances (used by the state to justify the imposition of death sentences), to wit: 1) the killing is cold, calculated and premeditated; and, 2) the killing is heinous, atrocious and cruel. Although I’ve fully accepted my circumstances, I know it’s going to happen and I’ve come to terms with it, that does not obviate the fact that it just isn’t right to do this to people, and for society to accept this as normal or natural, well, it speaks more about our society than it does about those being so efficiently dispatched down here in the bowels of this penitentiary…
There are now three of us down here on death watch; all our executions are spaced 2 weeks apart. The guy with senior status (Elmer) is set to die on May 29th, 2 weeks before me. Last week the Florida Supreme Court denied his last-ditch appeal and he’s got no place left to go. He does not know much about the law or court procedures but he told me he knows there is now nothing between him and his date with death. He’s resigned to his fate and I hear him pacing the floor a lot, a pacing that is gradually morphing into a listless shuffling, as if all hope has deflated from his body, like air leaking from a punctured tire. It’s a sad, melancholy sound when you know its context. I choose to remain active, vital and alive, my spirit, intellect and even my humor undiminished, and I’ll remain so until they shoot that poison into my veins and snuff out the candle of this physical vehicle…
May 22, 2013
I have 21 days left to live. The fickleness, the arbitrariness, the fleeting nature of life itself is on display daily throughout our world but as good an example as any occurred here on Monday morning when, as I was being dressed out here on Q-Wing for a visit, a sudden radio call brought the wing officers rushing upstairs where they found a prisoner (non-death row) hanging in his cell. After 20+ years in prison this guy (Earl) had finally given in to the utter hopelessness that can seize the heart and spirit of any man mired forever in an American maximum security prison. The irony wasn’t lost on me that while 3 of us on death watch are fighting to live, this poor soul, living just 10 feet above us, stripped of all hope, had voluntarily surrendered his life rather than continue his dismal existence. When nothing but a lifetime of suffering lays ahead – with no hope, no promise, no opportunity to change your fate – the idea of utter annihilation can come to look appealing in contrast. When everything has been taken from you, the one thing you have left, that nobody can take away, is the decision to live or die. In that context choosing death can look like freedom…
Today my neighbor, Elmer, went on Phase II of death watch, which begins 7 days prior to execution. They remove all your property from your cell while an officer sits in front of your cell 24/7 recording everything you do. Staff also performs a “dry run” or “mock execution”, basically duplicating the procedures that will occur 7 days later. This is when you know you’re making the final turn off the back stretch, you know your death is imminent, easily within reach, you can count it by hours instead of by days. Right now I’m on deck; when Elmer goes I’ll be up to bat (that’s enough sports metaphors for now)…
May 28, 2013
Tomorrow Elmer will be executed and I’ll be next up to bat, with 15 days to live. A situation like this tends to make you reflect on the elusive nature of time itself, which some folks – physicists and metaphysicists alike – claim is an illusion anyway. Real or not it sure seems to be going someplace quickly!…
This may be my last letter to reach you before you begin your journey down south to be by my side for my final days. These many visits I’ve recently received from those who love me have been a blessing for me. I’m acutely aware that some guys on death watch have absolutely nobody to help them bear their burden during their last days and hours on earth, not a soul willing to share some love. It’s a terrible thing to die all alone…
I read in a recent newspaper article that the brother and sister of Fred Griffis, the victim in my case, are angry that I’m still alive and eager for my execution. These are understandable human feelings. I have a brother and sister myself and I cannot honestly say how I would deal with it if something happened to you or Jeff at the hands of another. I have thought of Fred many times over the years and grieved over his senseless death. I feel bad for Fred’s siblings though if seeing another human being die will truly give them pleasure. I suspect when I’m gone, if they search their hearts, they will grasp the emptiness of the closure promised by the revenge of capital punishment. There’s a lot of wisdom in the old saying “An eye for an eye soon makes the whole world blind…
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Update: William Van Poyck was executed by lethal injection, and pronounced dead at 7:24 pm on June 12, 2013.
Yesterday we published a guest post by the Human Rights Coalition (HRC) about the U.S. Department of Justice’s scathing report on the Pennsylvania prison SCI Cresson. According to the DOJ, “Cresson routinely locks prisoners with serious mental illness in their cells for roughly 23 hours per day for months, even years, at a time. At Cresson, the prolonged isolation is all the harder for many prisoners with serious mental illness to endure because it involves harsh and punitive living conditions and, often, unnecessary staff- on-prisoner uses of force.”
Unsurprisingly, “Cresson’s practice of subjecting prisoners with serious mental illness to prolonged periods of isolation under [these] conditions…has resulted in harm, including trauma, bouts of hysteria and extreme paranoia, severe depression, psychosis, serious self-injury and mutilation, and suicide.”
One of the suicides was that of Brandon Palakovic, who hanged himself in his solitary confinement cell at SCI Cresson in July 2012. He was 23 years old, had a long history of mental illness, and was serving a short sentence for a burglary in which no one was hurt. According to the Human Rights Coalition, “After his death, an employee of SCI Cresson’s medical staff told the Palakovic family that four days prior to his death Brandon had refused to take his medication. He was issued a misconduct report for refusal to obey a direct order as a consequence and sent to solitary confinement in the Restricted Housing Unit (RHU) as punishment.”
After reading the DOJ report, Brandon Palakovic’s mother, Renee Palakovic, wrote the following statement, which was published by HRC:
My son was more than just a prisoner confined to a cell in a state correctional institution. I have spent nearly a year reminding myself of this fact, remembering the good times and trying to heal my broken heart. While time does not heal the wound, it does help me to learn to live with and deal with the pain that is always lingering right at the surface, ready to bring me to my knees at any moment.
So, on Friday, May 31st , when I read the news articles and eventually the Justice Department report later in the weekend, the pain that I have been fighting to control and manage every minute of every day came flooding back in a real and powerful way that I was not prepared for.
Brandon was not an angel by any stretch of the imagination, but he was a human being with feelings and needs. He had ongoing mental health issues for most of his life and there were plenty of records to support that. So when he entered Cresson SCI, he was quickly seen by the psychiatrist(s) and placed on medication to “regulate” his behaviors. But for some reason, because he was in a prison, the need to have follow-up sessions, discuss side effects and work to determine proper dosing was left to fall by the wayside. Why? What psychiatrist does this to a patient? He was ignored. Placed in solitary for extended periods of time and treated like an animal. Taunted by guards who found amusement in toying with his mind and his emotions and given the opportunity to harm himself.
To read the Justice Department’s report and find that his requests for help were ignored, his visits with the psychiatrist skipped and his treatment reduced to ongoing and never-ending confinement in a small cement cell made my heart break all over again and quite frankly, made me mad as hell.
My son was an intelligent, helpful, loving, funny, handsome and charming young man with his whole life ahead of him. Yes, had made some serious errors in judgment and had only himself to blame for those mistakes. He needed to pay for the crimes that he had committed, but not like this. Not in a way that degraded his humanity and assaulted his self-esteem daily. Not in a way that made him believe that he had no self worth, had nowhere to turn and would be better off dead.
My son was more than just a prisoner confined to a cell in a state correctional institution. I will keep telling myself this, because it is true. But until state correctional institutions believe it and operate based upon it, more and more sons and daughters will become victims of the callous and irresponsible treatment seen behind the walls of Cresson SCI.
U.S. DOJ Documents Torturous Treatment of Prisoners with Mental Illness in Pennsylvania Solitary Confinement Unit
Editors’ Note: The following article is reprinted from a special edition of the PA Prisons Report, a publication of the Human Rights Coalition. HRC is a Pennsylvania-based ”group of prisoners’ families, ex-prisoners, and supporters” which believes that “the prison system reflects all inequalities in our society, and it does not work in its current incarnation.” Among its activities is a campaign to end solitary confinement in Pennsylvania’s prisons.
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On Friday May 31, the United States Justice Department issued a report on its 18-month investigation of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections’ (PADOC) prison in Cambria County, State Correctional Institution (SCI) Cresson, finding that the solitary confinement of people with serious mental illness and intellectual disabilities is in violation of both the U.S. Constitution’s 8th Amendment and the Americans with Disabilities Act. The announcement came in a findings letter detailing the results of its investigation of SCI Cresson by attorneys with the Justice Department’s Special Litigations Section of the Civil Rights Division, working in partnership with the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Western District of Pennsylvania. The letter also notified PA governor Corbett that both agencies are expanding their investigation to include all 28 prisons under the control of the PADOC.
The investigation, launched in December 2011, set out to find whether SCI Cresson was violating the constitutional rights of prisoners to be free from cruel and unusual punishment by subjecting mentally illl prisoners to the psychologically damaging conditions of long-term solitary confinement and depriving them of mental health care.
SCI Cresson, built in 1987, housed the PA Department of Corrections’ second-largest Secure Special Needs Unit (SSNU), a type of solitary confinement unit used for the isolation (and on paper, the treatment) of mentally ill prisoners. In January 2013, the PA DOC announced its intention to close the prison–three months after members of the investigation team met with PA DOC leadership and Cresson Superintendent Kenneth Cameron to discuss concerns about information received during the investigation. As of April 2013, the SSNU had been emptied and the prison held less than 400 prisoners (down from approx.1600).
Warehousing the Mentally Ill
The Department of Justice’s (DOJ) letter, briefly summarized in a press release, catalogs a long list of human rights violations that will be familiar to readers of the Prison Report, centering on conditions of extreme isolation coupled with additional cruel and degrading punishments inflicted by staff, presided over by a prison administration that not only ignored wrongdoing by prison staff, but also actively prevented seriously mentally ill prisoners from receiving treatment.
The DOJ found that “Cresson routinely locks prisoners with serious mental illness in their cells for roughly 23 hours per day for months, even years, at a time. At Cresson, the prolonged isolation is all the harder for many prisoners with serious mental illness to endure because it involves harsh and punitive living conditions and, often, unnecessary staff- on-prisoner uses of force.” The report noted that placement of mentally ill prisoners in the prison’s solitary confinement units was intentional; not the consequence of a failure to identify those who are most vulnerable to such psychologically destructive conditions, but as a matter of systematic and deliberate practice.
The resulting harms have been catastrophic: “Cresson’s practice of subjecting prisoners with serious mental illness to prolonged periods of isolation under the conditions described in this letter has resulted in harm, including trauma, bouts of hysteria and extreme paranoia, severe depression, psychosis, serious self-injury and mutilation, and suicide.” Corroborating this conclusion is the fact that although less than 10% of the prison’s total population is held in solitary confinement, during the previous year and-a-half, 2 of the 3 suicides and 14 of the 17 suicide attempts at SCI Cresson occurred in these units. Both of the suicides in the solitary units (which HRC reported on shortly after they happened) occurred after requests for mental health care were ignored by staff.
(Links to HRC reports on the 2 suicides in Cresson’s solitary units: “In Memory of Brandon Palakovic” and “Prison staff scramble to cover up circumstances of suicide at SCI Cresson.”)
In one of the more graphic examples of self-harm described in the DOJ report, one prisoner was said to have “tore open his scrotum with his fingernail while housed at the RHU after experiencing isolation and a lack of adequate treatment there for three months. In the three days preceding this incident, BB cut his arm with a staple, smeared feces on himself while complaining of hearing voices, and tore off a fingernail. After the incident involving BB injuring his scrotum, he told staff that ‘mental health won’t listen to me so I’m pulling my nuts out.’”
A prisoner who has spent more than 7 of the last 12 years in solitary confinement in PADOC prisons told the DOJ that “isolation makes me want to rip my face off.” Emphasizing the seemingly endless duration of indefinite isolation, another prisoner stated that confinement in the SSNU “feel[s] like it will last the rest of [your] life.”
Torment and Punishment
Among the most disturbing of the investigation’s findings is the degree to which dehumanizing and harmful treatment of prisoners at Cresson was normalized and incorporated into the routine operations of the prison. Though the SSNU was supposedly intended for the treatment of seriously mentally ill prisoners, by policy and practice unit staff were encouraged to react to behavior symptomatic of severe mental illness with “aversive” measures intended to punish. Shouting, throwing feces, or banging one’s head into the wall were consistently responded to with violence by prison staff. The routine use of full-body restraints for extensive periods of time (avg 10.5 hours), using tasers on prisoners who were already fully restrained, forcing prisoners to sleep on cold concrete without a mattress, denial of food, exercise, visits and reading materials, were all regular tools of SCI Cresson staff.
Readers of the Prison Report, former prisoners, and family members will recognize these as regular tools of staff at most or all PA DOC prisons. Punishment of those with mental health needs results in a predictable cycle of dysfunction wherein psychological decompensation is exacerbated by violent repression. This recurring cycle is a phenomenon that is noted in virtually every human rights report, academic or clinical study, court case, or government report assessing conditions of solitary confinement across the country during the past 30 years. The DOJ report described the cycle of dysfunction as follows:
“At Cresson, prisoners with serious mental illness are often subjected to a toxic combination of conditions that include: prolonged isolation, harsh housing conditions, punitive behavior modification plans, and excessive uses of force. These conditions, intended to control these prisoners’ behavior, serve only to exacerbate their mental illness. Frequently, these conditions combine to do serious harm in the following way: a prisoner with serious mental illness is placed in isolation with inadequate mental health care, causing him to decompensate and behave negatively; staff respond by subjecting the prisoner to harsher living conditions, denying him stimuli, and/or using excessive force against him; the prisoner’s mental health continues to deteriorate, and he begins to engage in self-injurious conduct (e.g., banging his head hard and repeatedly against a concrete wall, ingesting objects, or hurling himself against the metal furnishings of his room) or attempts to kill himself; staff eventually respond by placing him in the MHU – a unit where a limited amount of treatment is provided; as soon as the prisoner begins to stabilize, he is returned to isolation, and the prisoner’s mental health again spirals downward.”
Noting that Cresson views “serious mental illness [as] intentional misbehavior that must be punished rather than treated,” the DOJ found that prison staff responded to “behaviors mostly or entirely derivative of mental illness” by deprivations such as “forcing the prisoner to sleep on cement slabs without a mattress; denying the prisoner access to warm food and instead giving him nothing but “food loaf” to eat; denying access to reading materials; denying the prisoner access to the caged, exercise pens; denying the prisoner access to showers; and restricting or eliminating the prisoner’s already limited ability to make phone calls or engage in non-contact visits with loved ones or friends.”
The culture of abuse on display at Cresson included tasering and pepper-spraying suicidal prisoners and leaving their arms and legs strapped to a concrete slab or bed for more than 10 hours at a time. In one incident, prison guards responded to an act of self-harm by placing the prisoner in four-point restraints, and tasering him with “a handheld electronic body immobilization device” when he requested that a mattress be placed on the metal bed prior to his being strapped down. He remained strapped down for nearly 15 hours. Another prisoner was placed in a restraint chair after slamming head first into his cell door, and was tasered seven times and pepper-sprayed in the face twice during the 24-hour period he was in the restraint chair.
In some instances prisoners were double-celled in the solitary confinement units with violent, predatory prisoners, including one case where a diagnosed schizophrenic poured boiling water on another prisoner, who was himself a diagnosed paranoid schizophrenic suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and with an IQ of 48. The boiling water caused blistering of the skin.
The DOJ concluded that Cresson lacks a “functioning residential treatment unit,” and that the SSNU does not “even resemble” a treatment unit. When prisoners in the isolation units are provided out-of-cell therapy, “the therapy is generally provided to the prisoner while he sits in a small cage roughly the size of a telephone booth.” According to the DOJ, one of the major causal factors of these conditions are staffing shortages that make it impossible for mental health professionals to provide necessary care.
Instead of any semblance of the residential treatment unit or programming, the DOJ found a prison where the sick torture the sick, and the endless depths of isolation are punctuated only by guard violence, self-mutilation, suicide attempts, and death.
The impact that the release of the DOJ/US Attorney’s Office investigation findings will have remains unclear. Because conditions at Cresson appear to be indicative of systemic patterns throughout the PA DOC, the DOJ has now taken the unprecedented move of expanding the investigation to include all solitary confinement units of the state’s prison system. However, the office of the DOJ tasked with the investigation–the Special Litigations Section of the Civil Rights Division–does not have the power to prosecute, and under the controlling statute–the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA)–the PA DOC is allowed the opportunity to voluntarily remedy the unconstitutional conditions found by the DOJ. Failure to do so means that the DOJ will be permitted–but not required–to file a lawsuit in federal court to enforce the Constitution.
At this time, it appears that all PA DOC staff complicit in the abuse, torture, and negligent treatment of severely mentally ill prisoners at SCI Cresson have not in any way been held accountable for their actions by either PA DOC or law enforcement agencies–in fact, the opposite has occurred: the prison’s chief psychologist James Harrington, who presided over the atrocities in Cresson’s “treatment units,” was recently promoted to the newly created position of Regional Chief Psychologist, in charge of overseeing the mental health services of seven PA DOC prisons.
Coming tomorrow: Statement by Renee Palakovic, mother of Brandon Palakovic, a young man who committed suicide while imprisoned at SCI Cresson in July 2012.
The following roundup features noteworthy news, reports and opinions on solitary confinement from the past week that have not been covered in other Solitary Watch posts.
• According to the tally kept by The Miami Herald, 104 of the 166 men held captive at Guantanamo are now on hunger strike, with 41 being force-fed and four hospitalized. The Miami Herald also reports that the U.S. Southern Command has requested additional guards for Guantanamo prison camps. According to the article, all but 15 of the detainees are being held in solitary, where they have remained following a raid in April that put Camp 6 under lockdown.
• The Richmond Times-Dispatch reports that ”a Rastafarian inmate who spent more than 10 years in segregation for refusing to cut his hair said fears for his health and safety led him to give in last month.”
• Courthouse News Service reports that a federal judge has ordered the state of California to provide deaf people in solitary confinement with sign-language interpreters, noting “inmates there are 33 percent more likely to kill themselves.”
• The Future of Freedom Foundation reports on the overuse of solitary confinement in the United States, detailing conditions in solitary, its history and its used today.
• Juvenile-In-Justice publishes a guest post by Grace Bauer, the mother of a man held in solitary confinement. Bauer writes, “I have witnessed the long-term impact of my son’s time in isolation and prison… I have sat across from him, trying to maintain my own composure, while mentally cataloging and assessing the bruises and wounds on his body… I listen to him talk about how useless he is and how he has no worth.”
• The Daily Beast reports on the solitary confinement of Bradley Manning as his trial continues. The article notes that Manning was “forced to sleep naked without pillows and sheets on his bed, and restricted from physical recreation or access to television or newspapers even during his one daily hour of freedom from his cell, all under the pretense that the private was a suicide risk.”
• The Boston Globe publishes an editorial on the heavy use of solitary confinement by prisons in Massachusetts, stating that “[o]ther than Arkansas, only Massachusetts allows prisoners to be sentenced for up to 10 years in isolation for disciplinary infractions, according to the Boston-based Prisoners’ Legal Services.”
• Wired reports that photographer Richard Ross, whose work features children caught in the juvenile justice system, voluntarily spent 24 hours in solitary confinement in a juvenile detention facility to gain an understanding of what kids in isolation go through.
• Inter Press Service reports on the increasing use of solitary confinement in the U.S., stating that “the country’s federal prisons authorities have failed to carry out studies on the effects of this practice.” Solitary Watch covers GAO’s recent report questioning the widespread use of solitary confinement in federal prisons.
The New York City Board of Correction (BOC) voted on Monday to reject a petition to limit solitary confinement in New York City’s jails. The petition, developed by a grassroots advocacy group called the Jails Action Coalition (JAC), sought to bring sweeping reform to a jail system with one of the highest rates of prison isolation in the country.
On Rikers Island, which holds more than 10,000 of the average 13,000 men, women, and children in the city’s jails, approximately one in ten individuals is in “punitive segregation” at any given time. Many are placed there for nonviolent misbehavior, including drug use, foul language, and “horseplay.” The jail complex includes special punitive isolation units for people as young as 16, and for those with mental and physical disabilities.
“Solitary is torture, and it’s affecting people with mental illness and regular prisoners because it’s so extensive, so out of control, and so unmonitored, said Leah Gitter, a member of JAC who has a family member with mental illness on Rikers Island. Gitter, who was present at Monday’s meeting, told Solitary Watch: “We have to have the rules changed in order to make sure that we stop this form of punishment.”
The new rules outlined in JAC’s petition, if adopted, would have directed the New York City Department of Corrections to end the use of isolated confinement except as a last resort to prevent violent behavior; increased daily out-of cell time for those placed in solitary; and banned altogether the isolation of children, young adults, and people with mental and physical disabilities.
The BOC, which makes rules and provides oversight for the city’s jails, debated the petition during its public meeting on Monday morning in front of a packed audience that included more than a dozen members of JAC, who held signs reading “We Can’t Wait: End Solitary in New York.” In the end, the Board elected not to proceed with “rulemaking” in response to the petition, but instead to appoint a committee to study the practice.
BOC member Dr. Robert Cohen, a Manhattan physician and expert on prison health and mental health care, vocally supported JAC’s petition. He called the use of solitary “dangerous,” especially for people with mental illness and adolescents, who are confined in punitive segregation at particularly high rates. “During the past three years,” he pointed out, ”the percentage of prisoners languishing in solitary confinement has increased dramatically, without benefit in terms of decreased violence or increased safety on Rikers Island,” either for corrections officers or the prisoners themselves.
“I have regularly visited solitary confinement areas on Rikers Island,” Cohen stated. “On any given day, the vast majority of prisoners spend 24 hours a day in their cells, except for brief showers. In the Central Punitive Segregation Unit, the majority of prisoners spend their day lying on the beds, their heads covered by a blanket.” Setting rules for the use of isolation, he said, was part of the BOC’s “statutory responsibility.”
BOC Chair Gerald Harris, a retired criminal court judge, made efforts to close the discussion on JAC’s petition, but members Catherine Abate, who heads the Community Healthcare Network, and Pamela S. Brier, CEO of Maimonides Medical Center, insisted on a clear deadline for the study. The Board agreed that it would be completed by the summer’s end and discussed at the September meeting.
Sarah Kerr, staff attorney at the Prisoners’ Rights Project of The Legal Aid Society, was among the JAC members present at the meeting. In a statement released by JAC, Kerr said that the DOC’s use of punitive segregation is “inhumane and violates standards of decency.” She continued, “The Board of Correction’s decision not to initiate the rulemaking process means that the damaging effects of isolation continue in our jails.”
The consequences of time spent in solitary confinement include destructive (and sometimes irreversible) effects on mental health, including hypersensitivity to external stimuli, hallucinations, panic attacks, obsessive thinking, insomnia, and paranoia. Studies have shown that common patterns of depression, anxiety, anger, and suicidal thoughts often leave individuals psychologically damaged and more prone to unstable and violent behavior, which can in turn lead to higher rates of recidivism.
In recent years, a handful of states have made moves toward reducing the use of isolation in prisons and jails, in some cases reporting both budgetary savings and decreases in prison violence. In contrast, the New York City Department of Correction has expanded its punitive segregation capacity by 27 percent in 2011, another 44 percent in 2012, under the leadership of Commissioner Dora S. Schriro and with the support of the correction officers’ union.
The DOC is currently incarcerating at least 1,000 people in solitary confinement for up to 90 days, and by the end of the year will have 1,215 isolation cells–giving New York City a rate of solitary confinement that is more than double the national average of approximately 4 percent.
In response to a request by Solitary Watch, Department of Correction spokesperson Robin Campbell did not comment on the BOC’s vote or JAC’s petition, but stated in part that beginning in July, the DOC would be partnering with the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to implement a new model of “needs-appropriate responses to mentally ill and severely mentally ill inmates who violate rules, as well as system-wide reforms affecting misbehaving inmates with no mental health diagnoses. These changes are part of an ongoing series of practical punitive segregation reform.”
The New York City Department of Correction is one of the few local jail systems that has an independent monitoring board empowered to make rules for the treatment of its prisoners. JAC members highlighted this role in a rally prior to the meeting, where despite the morning’s pouring rain about a dozen demonstrators stood outside Manhattan’s Municipal Building for close to an hour, holding signs that read statements such as “BOC: DOC Puppet or Independent Monitor?” and “Will the Board Defend Human Rights, or is it Business as Usual?”
Among the demonstrators was Five Omar Mualimmak, a civil rights advocate and survivor of solitary confinement. He later expressed frustration at the Board’s decision not to immediately reform the DOC’s use of solitary despite evidence of its detrimental effects on the human mind and body. “This is no environment for a 16 year old—or any human being in this great City of New York—to be contained for 23 hours a day for months on end,” Mualimmak said. “As an example to the world, we should be better than this.”
This essay is by Shawn Smith, who is serving time for drug sales and assault in New York. He is one of some 4,500 individuals currently being held in isolated confinement in the state’s prison system. In a letter to Solitary Watch, he writes “I’m so lonely that I dream of human contact with the outside world…and I was hoping that you could find it in your heart to embrace me as a friend and help me get my essay up on your website. So that people can become aware of the levels of injustices and sorrow that has been bestowed upon me involving my solitary confinement experience…I feel so hopeless that I’ve spilled out my heart into this essay and I’m sending it to you in hopes that some change can come to me from it.” Shawn Smith’s mailing address is #07A1605, Elmira Correctional Facility, P.O. Box 500, Elmira, New York 14901-0500. –James Ridgeway
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Four walls! A ceiling! And a floor eight by ten feet in dimension! In my eyes, this is the worst torture device in the history of the universe! Within this small enclave many men have fallen apart and broken down mentally into a deep stage of sorrow. That has made us (myself included) drop to our knees with lakes of tears under our eyes that cascade down our face. As we ask God “Why me? Why must I suffer this unbearable pain and burden?”
This place has made me feel so hopeless that I’ve dosed on pills two times and was rushed to the hospital where they pumped my stomach clean of the many painkillers and anti-depression pills that I digested in hopes of going to a better place! I’ve hung up with a self-made noose and sliced my wrist, because this place has driven me to the brink of insanity and I felt like I would rather be dead than live like a dog in a cage at the unwanted animal shelter.
In this place, I’ve lost and found my sanity time and time again. What really shook me up and made me find the inner strength to fight for the willpower to want to live my life and fight to survive in this place was when I saw the COs carry a friend I made in the brother in the cell next-door to me away in a black bag!
I’ve seen this hellhole made many men convert into almost every religious Islam, Judaism, Christianity, Rastafarian, Buddhism, NOI, and an assortment of other beliefs. As they sought to find an inner place of peace within themselves from this day to day madness that the state of New York calls the SHU (special housing unit). I believe I’m in the most inhumane place that has ever housed people since the Nazi concentration camps of World War II. I called this place for the longest a living purgatory. Where racist COs torture us for fun. I can’t believe that I’ve done over 14 years of my life trapped in a tiny space of the world called a cell. That’s more years out of my life that I’ve wasted away locked in solitary confinement than I have as an adult free out in society!
All I hear around me is arguing! Prisoners arguing with prisoners over the most childish things I’ve ever heard! Prisoners arguing with COs for not giving them their food! COs just straight deading dudes on their meals. I’ve had a CO eat my tray of food right in front of myself like it was the funniest joke in the world, but I start and lost weight. Prisoners arguing with the nurses for not providing them with proper medical care. Prisoners arguing with the law library officers for not providing them with the law books that contains the keys to their freedom. Prisoners arguing with the mental health staff for not providing them with the proper meds that they need and not placing them in the proper environment that’s best suited for their mental condition. All I hear around me is arguing!
I feel like I’m in a living nightmare! I’m surprised I don’t have any gray hair. I’m surprised I haven’t lost all of my hair… After all of this insanity that I’ve been through. I’ve been rushed, attacked and assaulted by these draconian COs over twenty times! I’ve had nightsticks smashed into my head dozens of times. Boots stomped into my face until it turned black and blue in pure acts of racism. I’ve had so much torture inflicted upon me you would scream like the devil was torturing you if you could feel uses of force that was rendered upon me! I’ve written grievances and complain about this abuse and all has been brushed under the rug by all the upstairs big dog like it never happened. So I work out every day to be prepared for when they decided to run in up my cell or attack me when I’m going to shower. The thoughts never leaves me of all the screaming I’ve heard from all the prisoners I witnessed being beaten. They’ve thrown away all of my property three times and act like they never did it. All of my photos of dead loved ones and of my only memories of the streets. They cruelly threw them away, important items to me that have been discarded like it doesn’t mean a thing to anybody, things I can never get back.
Tears roll down my face in my solitary confinement box where nobody can see and know of my pain and suffering! They have stripped me of everything and treat me anyway they feel like. I’ve written to many officials for help, but I never receive a response and when I do their investigations favorably never find no wrongdoing on their CO Buddies that belongs to their occult of officers.
Sometimes, I stand in front of the mirror and stare at myself trying to find the answers to the questions that be flowing through my brain and I ask myself “Why doesn’t anybody love me?” I know I’m not ugly, I always been considered handsome even define more than a few times. That’s my word, this place got me tripping! I’m so lonely that my heart yearns and aches for some form of human interaction with the outside world. I feel like I’m dead to the world and that I’m a part of a forgotten race. That people out there don’t have no mercy and compassion for us!
I know I’m not a bad person, don’t get me wrong I’ve done my dirt, but I did what I did to survive and on top of that I repented for my wrongdoings. God! My sentence by the judge didn’t include all of this inhumane abuse. Nobody would give this food to their dog at home, but yet they serve this nasty trash to us with the pride of a slave master giving his slaves slop and pig guts! It’s 2013 but nothing has changed over here. I feel like I’m trapped in the 1920s. Did you know that they pay a grown man twelve cents a hour to work like a mule, and at the end of a two week pay cycle he doesn’t even have enough to buy a bottle of lotion, a bar of soap, a deodorant and a bag of chips at this ever price raising commissary? How can they up the prices of commissary items every week but never not once raise their slavery pay wage, which is the lowest of every state prison in this country! Who is allowing them to do this? Why has nothing changed for the better around me? I recently read a Pro Se magazine that said New York State’s solitary confinement is the worst inhumane system in the whole world and this is what I have to live through every day!
One thing this hellhole has given me is the insight to never want to come back to it and the means to guarantee that! Because, throughout this tormenting ordeal I read so many books that I gotten tired of reading them and I started writing my own books. I’ve written seven novels so far. I find that writing takes me to another place mentally and allows me to escape from this torture chamber. Tonight I’m going to try to write in my newest novel I’m creating, but there’s so much noise and arguing I know that’s going to be virtually impossible. The only time in here when it’s peaceful is when the gate monsters or gates bangers are asleep. We call people who love to yell beef and argue over everything and disrespect people locking around them for nothing, gate monsters or gate bangers!
“Damn!” There goes the mail cart again just rolling past my cell, it’s wheels don’t even screech at my door as it smoothly rides by. I can’t believe how people have just neglected me! This box has got me twisted, I be over here just dreaming of getting some mail from somebody who would send sincere like to be my friend, get to know me and help ease my pain from the suffering loneliness that I’m haunted with. I’ve never been this lonely in my life, I feel like my heart is shattered into a million pieces. “Damn!” Here they go arguing again, I can’t even hear myself think. I wish I could just open up a letter from someone who is displaying a genuine interest and concern for my pain, sorrow, and loneliness. “Damn!!!” This is the lonest place in the world!!!!!
The following roundup features noteworthy news, reports and opinions on solitary confinement from the past week that have not been covered in other Solitary Watch posts.
• The Guardian reports on an open letter written by hunger strikers at Guantanamo Bay, stating “[t]he signatories protest that the forced feedings administered by military physicians at Guantánamo are ‘extremely painful’ and ‘in violation of the ethics of your profession.’”
• The Winston-Salem Journal reports that the warden of Central Prison in North Carolina has been promoted and given a 15 percent raise, despite recent reports on a lawsuit alleging his failure to stop the “systematic beatings of handcuffed and shackled inmates held in solitary confinement at the Raleigh facility.” Solitary Watch covers the federal lawsuit, which was filed on behalf of eight people held in solitary at Central Prison.
• ABC News reports that a federal civil rights investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice has concluded that the State Correctional Institution at Cresson in western Pennsylvania has held people with serious mental illnesses in solitary confinement for months, and in some cases, years at a time. According to the article, “the Justice Department said the misuse of solitary confinement could extend to prisons statewide. The department is expanding its probe to include all state prisons.”
• Ceasefire Magazine reports on the extradition of British citizens Babar Ahmad and Talha Ahsan, both of whom have been held in solitary confinement at the Northern Correctional Institute in Connecticut since October of 2012. In an effort to define what constitutes solitary confinement, (and mentions Solitary Watch’s recent visit to London.)
• The ACLU reports on the federal lawsuit it has filed along with the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Law Offices of Elizabeth Alexander on behalf of people incarcerated at East Mississippi Correctional Facility (EMCF), which the article describes as a “cesspool.” According to the ACLU, “[the] conditions at EMCF are blatantly unconstitutional and we fully expect to prevail in the lawsuit.”
• The Ella Baker Center reports that SB61 has passed the California Senate floor, stating that “SB 61 will provide a uniform definition of solitary confinement, prohibit its use for punitive reasons, require data collection, and encourage the inclusion of family members on local juvenile justice commissions to help monitor such practices.”
• The Life of the Law discusses the ethics of designing prisons with the intention of isolating people, suggesting that architects should have an ethical code that takes into account human rights in prison design.
• A letter to the editor in the Albany Times-Union references a lawsuit on behalf of a woman who was “forcibly raped by a correctional officer while she was incarcerated for a minor offense.” Forced by a supervisor at the prison to relate the incident to him, the woman was then placed in SHU for eight days and nights, where she was “deprived of her clothing, reading materials and medications…” The piece responds to a commentary claiming that solitary is reserved for people who have inflicted suffering on another.
• The American-Statesman reports on the high suicide rate among people held in solitary confinement in Texas, stating that “[b]etween 2007 and 2012, the 8,000 to 9,000 state prisoners housed in administrative segregation made up between 5 and 6 percent of the total prison system census. Yet in a given year… their suicides have accounted for as high as 40 percent of the self-inflicted deaths.”
• The American-Statesman reports on the heavy use of solitary confinement by Texas prisons compared to other states, stating that “Texas relies on its maximum custody status more than others.”
The U.S. Bureau of Prisons currently holds more than 12,400 individuals in 23-hour-a-day lockdown, making it the largest practitioner of solitary and other forms of isolated confinement in the nation, and most likely the world. Yet the BOP does not know whether its use of “segregated housing” has any impact on prison safety, how it affects the prisoners who endure it, or how much it all costs American taxpayers. This according to a comprehensive report released yesterday by the Government Accountability Office.
The GAO documents a dramatic rise in the use of isolated confinement, continuing over the past five years. Yet “BOP has not assessed the impact of segregated housing on institutional safety or the impacts of long-term segregation on inmates.” The report also questions recent steps taken by the BOP, ostensibly to address its use of isolated confinement. ”In January 2013,” the report summary states, “BOP authorized a study of segregated housing; however, it is unclear to what extent the study will assess the extent to which segregated housing units contribute to institutional safety.” The report summary continues: ”As of January 2013, BOP is considering conducting mental health case reviews for inmates held in SHUs or ADX for more than 12 continuous months. However, without an assessment of the impact of segregation on institutional safety or study of the long-term impact of segregated housing on inmates, BOP cannot determine the extent to which segregated housing achieves its stated purpose to protect inmates, staff and the general public.”
According to the cover letter released with the report, the study of the BOP’s use of segregated housing was done at the request of three members of Congress: Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL), who last year convened a Judiciary Subcommittee hearing on solitary confinement in which he sharply questioned BOP director Charles Samuels; Elijah Cummings (D-MD), ranking member on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform; and Bobby Scott (D-VA), ranking member on the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations. The letter states:
There is little publicly available information on BOP’s use of segregated housing units. Given the potential high costs, lack of research on their effectiveness, and possible long-term detrimental effects on inmates, you requested that we review BOP’s segregated housing unit practices, including BOP’s standards, reasons for segregating inmates, and costs.
The report is indeed a mine of information on a subject that has been largely hidden from the public by the BOP, which bars press visits to its solitary confinement facilities and which collects, aggregates, and publishes little data on its use of prison isolation.
The GAO begins by outlining the various types of isolated confinement units operated by the BOP. Individuals can be placed in Special Housing Units (SHUs) in either “administrative detention” (for classification or security reasons) or “disciplinary segregation” for breaking prison rules; they are supposed to be there for finite terms. Those in Special Management Units (SMUs) are most often classified as members of a gang or other “disruptive group” or have “a history of serious disruptive disciplinary infractions.” Those held at the Administrative Maximum facility in Florence, Colorado (ADX) are supposed to be “inmates whose placement in another facility poses a risk to inmates, staff, or the public or good order of the facility; and/or inmates whose status before or after incarceration does not allow them to be safely housed in another facility.”
In all three types of isolated confinement, individuals remains in their cells for at least 23 hours a day, eat meals in their cells, have minimal exercise and programming and limited visits and phone calls. Those in the SHUs or SMUs may be double-celled; those at ADX are always alone. (The BOP’s two Communications Management Units, or CMUs, are included only as an appendix, the report states, because individuals imprisoned there have some out-of-cell time.) People are placed in isolated confinement through various types of hearing processes that rely solely on prison officials to provide evidence and make judgments, and are kept there according to review proceedings that are often appear somewhat or entirely pro forma.
As far as numbers go, the report states: “Of all federal inmates in BOP facilities, about 7 percent are held in segregation and, as of February 2013, BOP held the majority of segregated inmates—81 percent, or 10,050 inmates—in SHUs. The second largest population held in segregation is SMU inmates, who comprise about 16 percent of all segregated inmates, or about 1,960 inmates. ADX holds 450 inmates, including 15 inmates in the ADX Step Down Units at the high security United States Penitentiary (USP) Florence.”
According to the report, the numbers are growing, primarily due to the ongoing expansion of the SMUs: “From fiscal year 2008 through February 2013, the total inmate population in segregated housing units increased approximately 17 percent—from 10,659 to 12,460 inmates….By comparison, the total inmate population in BOP facilities increased by about 6 percent since fiscal year 2008.”
A large section of the report focuses largely on how the BOP monitors and documents how it runs its various isolation facilities. “BOP Headquarters (HQ) has a mechanism in place to centrally monitor how prisons implement most segregated housing unit policies,” it states, “but the degree of BOP monitoring varies depending on the type of segregated housing unit. In addition, we identified concerns related to facilities’ documentation of monitoring conditions of confinement and procedural protections.” The report finds particular fault with monitoring procedures at ADX, and with the level of documentation in all areas at nearly all facilities.
The GAO also looks at how the BOP tracks–or fails to track–the increased cost of housing individuals in isolated confinement. “BOP does not regularly track or calculate the cost of housing inmates in segregated housing units. BOP computes costs by facility or complex, and does not separate or differentiate the costs for segregated housing units, such as SHUs, SMUs, and ADX that may be within the complex.” (Solitary Watch ran into this precise obstacle when it filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the cost of holding prisoners at ADX.)
However, for the first time, apparently in response to requests from the GAO, ”BOP budget officials provided a snapshot estimate that compares the daily inmate per capita costs in fiscal year 2012 at ADX, a sample SMU, a SHU at a sample medium security facility, and a SHU at a sample high security facility” on January 31, 2013. According to the report, ”BOP estimates the daily inmate per capita costs at ADX are $216.12 compared with $85.74 at the rest of the Florence complex. According to BOP estimates, the inmate per capita costs at the sample SMU facility are $119.71, which are higher than per capita costs in general population in BOP’s sample high security facility, which are $69.41.” In other words, it costs more than $78,000 a year to keep someone at ADX–more than three times the cost of a regular high-security prison. The overall annual cost of isolated confinement, as calculated by the GAO, runs well into the tens of millions of dollars.
Perhaps the most damning portion of the report comes near the end, where the GAO points out that the BOP has no evidence to show that its costly use of isolated confinement makes its prisons any safer. “BOP has not assessed the extent to which all three types of segregated housing units—SHUs, SMUs, and ADX— impact institutional safety for inmates and staff. Although BOP has not completed an evaluation of the impact of segregation, BOP senior management and prison officials told us that they believed segregated housing units were effective in helping to maintain institutional safety.”
This “belief,” the report points out, runs in the face of evidence from states that have reduced their use of isolated confinement. “After implementing segregated housing unit reforms that reduced the numbers of inmates held in segregation, officials from all five states we spoke with reported little or no adverse impact on institutional safety.”
Finally, the BOP also has no real idea of the effect this grand experiment in isolation may be having on the prisoners in its care. “While BOP conducts regular assessments of mental health of inmates, BOP has not evaluated the impact of long-term segregation on inmates. BOP’s Office of Research and Evaluation (ORE) officials said they have not studied the impact of long-term segregation on inmates because of competing priorities related to studying impacts of prisoner reentry, drug treatment, and recidivism.”
Yet, according to the GAO, “While most BOP officials told us there was little or no clear evidence of mental health impacts from long-term segregation, BOP’s Psychology Services Manual explicitly acknowledges the potential mental health risks of inmates placed in long-term segregation. Specifically, it states that BOP ‘recognizes that extended periods of confinement in Administrative Detention or Disciplinary Segregation Status may have an adverse effect on the overall mental status of some individuals.’ In addition, according to BOP’s mission statement, BOP protects society by confining offenders in prisons that are, among other things, safe and humane…In addition, BOP’s ORE is responsible for conducting research and evaluation of BOP programs, but ORE has not conducted studies on the impact of long-term segregation on inmates.
The GAO adds an understated, but damning statement about the BOP’s lack of accountability for its actions: “Further, according to generally accepted government auditing standards, managers should evaluate programs to provide external accountability for the use of public resources to understand the extent to which the program is fulfilling its objectives.”
In response to its findings, the GAO recommends that the BOP improve its documentation and monitoring of segregated housing, especially at ADX, and some sort of assessment to determine “the extent that segregated housing contributes to institutional safety” and “the impact of long-term segregation on inmates in SHUs, SMUs, and ADX.”
According to the report, the BOP has “concurred” with these recommendations, and promised to improve its practices and conduct assessments accordingly. This surely will not happen quickly. Whether it happens effectively, in a way that genuinely changes the day-to-day reality of the 12,400 federal prisoners who live in isolation, remains to be seen, and may depend largely on Congress’s willingness to keep pressure on the BOP.
One sobering development to keep in mind is the federal government’s simultaneous plan to renovate and open a second federal supermax prison in Thomson, Illinois, at a cost of nearly $60 million, reportedly to relieve overcrowding and house “SMU and ADX type inmates.” This move (facilitated in part by Senator Dick Durbin) would suggest that the U.S. government does not plan to significantly reduce the number of people it holds in 23-hour lockdown–at least, not any time soon.
The immigration reform bill approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee last week includes an amendment that would curtail the use of solitary confinement on immigrant detainees. While the measure’s reach is limited, its passage by the Committee nonetheless represents a significant step for human rights activists working to help shape the Border Security, Economic Opportunity and Immigration Modernization Act, which will be debated by the full Senate in June.
The amendment, Blumenthal 2, was drafted by Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT). It sets limits on the use of solitary confinement for adults–in most cases, 15 days–and bans it for all children under 18 years old. The measure also explicitly prohibits the use of solitary confinement to “protect” detainees based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.
While the amendment does make it more difficult, it falls short of banning solitary confinement for detainees with mental illness. Detention centers that opt to isolate mentally ill individuals are required to have a medical professional visit with the immigrant at least three times each week as well as weekly visits by a mental health clinician for regular evaluations.
Lastly, the amendment has an oversight component so that detention facilities must submit both the reason for and the duration of all solitary confinement sentences to Congress annually for review.
The Senate’s attention to solitary confinement is relatively historic. Last June the first-ever congressional hearing, led by Richard Durbin (D-IL) was held to discuss the legal, economic and psychological costs of solitary confinement. While a host of local groups have cropped up to fight solitary confinement on the state level, Congress has largely avoided the issue.
The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of more than 200 national organizations, sent a letter in support of Blumenthal 2 to Senator Patrick Leahy and Senator Charles Grassley, Chairman and Ranking Member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, respectively. The letter said, “The amendment balances the operational needs of facilities that hold immigration detainees with basic respect for the health and human rights of detainees subject to solitary confinement.”
The American Civil Liberties Union also gave vocal support to the passage of the amendment and said, “The adoption of the amendment takes positive steps forward in fixing a serious injustice the extent of which has only recently come to light.”
Due to increased enforcement measures put in place by the Obama administration, the immigration detention population has dramatically increased. There are 85 percent more immigrants detained today than there were in 2005, and these detentions are usually indefinite sentences. Individuals are held, often for months at a time, until either they voluntarily sign deportation documents or until immigration authorities decide whether to deport the immigrants or let them stay.
Observers argue that while placing U.S. prisoners in solitary confinement is problematic, placing alledgedly undocumented immigrants in solitary confinement is even worse because these individuals are not even serving criminal sentences, but are simply waiting for civil deportation hearings. Beyond that, critics argue that solitary confinement hurts detainees’ ability to fight their cases due to highly restricted access to telephones and other means of communication.
In March, Homeland Security Secretary, Janet Napolitano said that she believes “solitary confinement should be the exception, not the rule.” She asked federal immigration officials to report back with greater detail about the usage and implementation of solitary confinement in federal facilities.
A March 2013 article by the New York Times and The Investigative Reporting Workshop found that on any given day, U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement (ICE) officials hold approximately 300 immigrants in solitary confinement at the 50 largest detention facilities across the country. Their research showed that nearly 50 percent of these individuals are kept in solitary confinement for 15 days or more–a point that psychiatric experts say detainees are at risk for severe mental harm. The study found that about 35 detainees are kept for more than 75 days.
Senator Charles E. Schumer, Chairman of the Senate Judiciary’s subcommittee on immigration, responded to the report by sending a letter to John Morton, director of ICE urging him to change their use of solitary confinement. “This report suggests an overreliance by the ICE on the harshest forms of incarceration,” Schumer wrote.
In 2012, the Heartland Alliance’s National Immigrant Justice Center and Physicians for Human Rights, surveyed conditions in many detention centers and county jails that work in conjunction with the ICE. This was the first comprehensive study on the effects of solitary confinement on immigration detainees. The research showed that solitary confinement is often arbitrarily and punitively applied, inadequately monitored and damaging to detainees’ health; investigators also found that most immigrants are denied any meaningful avenues of appeal. Additionally, they found that ICE failed to hold detention centers and jails accountable for their use and abuse of solitary confinement.
Blumenthal 2 would be first federal legislation to place limitations on the duration and circumstances under which detained immigrants can be placed in solitary confinement. It is unclear at this point whether the amendment will pass the full Senate or the House.
The measure would apply only to those held in immigrant detention, and not to all federal prisoners. The U.S. Bureau of Prisons is estimated to hold at least 10,000 individuals in isolation in prisons across the country, and is not subject to any laws that that regulate, monitor, and restrict the use and abuse of solitary confinement in federal prisons.
• According to the tally kept by the Miami Herald, 103 of the 166 men held captive at Guantanamo are now on hunger strike, with 34 being force-fed and 5 hospitalized. President Obama again referenced the prison camp in his speech on national security on Thursday, but appears to have taken no concrete action.
• The Vancouver Sun reports that in Canada, a Cree woman who spent more than three years in solitary confinement in federal prisons has won a lawsuit filed on her behalf by the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, claiming she was treated “illegally and inhumanely.”
• The Charlotte Herald reports that the state Senate in North Carolina has rolled out a new budget eliminating a $2.89 million contract with North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services. In a recent post, Solitary Watch covers a federal lawsuit filed by the legal advocates on behalf of eight people held in solitary at Central Prison.
• Emptywheel reports that the legal counsel of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, dubbed the first ”underwear bomber,” is appealing his conviction and sentence, arguing that “solitary confinement made him increasingly incompetent to represent himself as time wore on.”
• An opinion piece by state legislator Leland Yee in U-T San Diego argues against the use of solitary confinement on kids, stating that “archaic and damaging punishments for trivial offenses will only work to cement anti-social behavior and push children away from rehabilitation.” Yee has introduced legislation that would severely curtail the practice.
• The Texas Tribune reports that the Texas House tentatively approved SB1003, a bill that would require the Criminal Justice Legislative Oversight Committee to appoint an independent party to review solitary confinement conditions in Texas prisons and juvenile detention facilities. In the same week, according to the AP, the Texas Senate approved a bill that includes a plan to study the use of solitary confinement on children in county juvenile jails.
• The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that the Senate Judiciary Committee has adopted a proposal that would better define and limit the use of solitary confinement on immigrant detainees by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials.
The following was written by Troy Hendrix, who is currently serving a life sentence at Elmira Correctional Facility, a maximum security facility located in south central New York State. For the last seven years, Hendrix, 29, has been held in administrative segregation, meaning that he’s in solitary confinement indefinitely. In this powerful piece, Hendrix asks readers to imagine the agonizing conditions to which he is subjected day after day in extreme isolation. “This is your imagination,” he writes, ”but this is my reality.”
Hendrix’s entry comes from his blog on Between the Bars, a prison blogging platform that facilitates correspondence and human connections between people who are incarcerated and people on the outside. —Lisa Dawson
. . . . . . . . . . . . .
Imagine this:… 4 walls and steel doors… Being isolated to a cell 22-24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year… Being confined this way indefinitely… Being isolated for years upon years, until you are psychology, and emotionally damaged… Being isolated for so long, that your thinking becomes distorted, behavior becomes irrational, and mood becomes unstable… Being amongst individuals who become so overwhelmed by this isolation, that self harm and suicide seems to be the only outlet… Being in isolation, where daily idleness results in lethargy… Being in extreme isolation, where minds are rotted out, hearts become frigid, and spirits become broken… This is your imagination, but this is my reality.
SOLITARY CONFINEMENT… Two words that ring loud and clear in your mind’s eye, whenever you hear it spoken, or see it written. But solitary confinement is far more worse than what you picture in your mind’s eyes, because the actual reality of this confinement is devastating. Everything about this environment is abnormal, but after spending the last 7 years in this environment, I have become a product of it. The abnormalities of this environment, that I once viewed as abnormal, now seems “normal” in my mind. I do not exactly know when I began to view my surroundings as “normal,” but somewhere along the way, my thinking changed. This happens frequently in solitary confinement, because most of the time, you do not even realize that you are miserable, bitter, delusional, socially withdrawn, hypersensitive, and mentally and emotionally damaged. Someone usually has to point this out to you.
The abnormality of this environment is clear for everyone to see, but only those living, or working in it are truly affected. The following picture that I paint (vividly), will show you this abnormality… It begins with the cells and the structure of them. They vary in size at each facility, but they all have the same effect, and impact on the mental. The doors are steel, and the 4 walls that surrounds us, seem to close in at times. These same walls are painted a dull white, or beige color, which is a very depressing sight. The cells consist of a sink, toilet (some facilities have showers inside cells), and a mattress as hard as the floor we walk on. The definition of “bathroom,” is “a room containing a bathtub or shower, and usu. sink and toilet.” So the reality is that we eat, sleep, and spend 22-24 hours a day in a “bathroom.” From the outside looking in, these cells give off the impression of a cage, used to confine a wild monkey. (The cages used for daily 1 hour recreation outside, give off this impression also). Long periods of time spent in this confinement, and one could lose himself, and actually become as wild as a monkey.
The barbarous and uncivilized behavior, is a very big part of this environment, and many are a product of it. Arguments amongst solitary confinement prisoners, is the daily norm. Frustration, misery, and bottled up rage, lead to verbal degradation, and this is done at the highest level possible. Since there isn’t any physical contact, verbal degradation is carried out instead. “Biological warfare,” is another form of savagery that is done at the highest level possible. This “warfare” involves feces, urine, and/or saliva, and is one of the worst forms of degradation in solitary confinement, if not the worst. It is common for an officer or prisoner to have these things thrown, or spit on or at them. Another tactic in “war” that is used, entails depriving one of sleep, by kicking and banging on their walls whenever they attempt to sleep. I have not taken part in any forms of savagery, but when I witness it, or hear of it occurring, I am no longer disgusted because I’ve become numb to this type of behavior.
Despite all the loud babbling, shouting, cursing, and banging, that occurs on a daily basis, solitary confinement is a very lonely place. In these cells, one’s thoughts are in constant overdrive, and creating a fantasy world in one’s mind, is most common. Escaping reality for awhile is necessary, but many become so engulfed in these worlds, that at times they find it difficult distinguishing fantasy from reality.
During the past 7 years that I’ve spent in this extreme isolation, I experienced, and still experience bouts of depression, hopelessness, loneliness, anxiety, bottled up rage, and mental anguish. Living in this extreme isolation for long periods of time, will take a toll on your psychological, and emotional well being. Whether you notice it or not, this confinement will take a part of you, it is inevitable. There is nothing beneficial or therapeutic about extreme isolation, it only breeds despair, depression, rage, loss of impulse control, anxiety, misery, distorted thinking, hypersensitivity, and mental illness. Spending your days, weeks, months, and years isolated indefinitely, in an abnormal environment… Is your imagination, but this is my reality.
In the a Florida prison called the Reception and Medical Center, a corrections officer appears at a cell door and begins mocking fake sign language to the man inside, who is deaf. Then he pulls Sam Hart out of the cell and escorts him for a haircut. After half his hair is shaved off one side of his head, the guard orders the haircutter to stop.
As Hart describes in a letter, the officer then says, “Look, not only is he deaf but now he even looks dumb.”
Hart, who was born hearing and can speak and read lips, replies, “Don’t play with me, I do not play with you and I do not disrespect you.”
“Fuck you,” says the officer. “Mother fucker.” The next day the same officer stops by Hart’s cell. “Did you get to show it to the warden, dummy?” he asks.
“The abuse experienced by deaf prisoners housed in the Florida Department of Corrections defies imagination” Talila Lewis, founder and president of HEARD (Helping Educate to Advance the Rights of the Deaf ), a group that supports deaf prisoners, wrote in the op-ed pages of the Sun Sentinel, the south Florida newspaper. She continued:
The Florida Department of Corrections (DOC) has systematically created a culture of fear and hopelessness for disabled prisoners. The DOC’s failure to provide adequate accommodations for and protections to this vulnerable population is beyond reproach. Countless deaf prisoners, their family members, and advocates have expressed concern for the safety and well-being of these prisoners in Florida’s state prison facilities. Many of Florida’s deaf prisoners, fearful of brutal retaliation and assured of prison official’s apathy or complicity, have all but given up hope of ever living safe from fear of sexual and physical assault.
Lewis said her information is based on 21 deaf prisoners out of a total of 40 in Florida, held in six different prisons across the state. Overall, Lewis writes, “HEARD’s Deaf and Deaf-Blind Prisoner Database includes information on more than 400 men and women, in 38 states, the District of Columbia, and the Federal Bureau of Prisons. The abuse and violations occuring in Florida are, by far, the worst that we have seen.”
Lewis said she has sent letters to the Governor Rick Scott, Department of Corrections head Michael D. Crews, and state prison inspector general Jeff Beasley. So far she has received no replies. She also wrote to and met with officials in the Justice Department’s disability rights section, and received no response from there, either. Inquiries by Solitary Watch to Ann Howard, press spokesperson for the Florida Department of Corrections, so far have not been answered.
“This past year, one deaf prisoner [later revealed to be Sam Hart] risked his life to report to the Office of the Inspector General horrendous physical and sexual abuse of other prisoners with disabilities as well as other serious violations occurring at the prison [Tomoka Correctional Facility],” Lewis wrote in her op-ed. She continued:
Though this prisoner’s complaint resulted in at least two officers being fired and numerous prisoners being transferred out of the facility, the Office of the Inspector General informed staff at Tomoka that this prisoner was responsible for lodging this “anonymous” complaint. As a result of this breach of confidentiality, this prisoner’s life has been threatened by staff and prisoners at Tomoka. Just last week, despite numerous requests from advocates not to send him back to this facility, the Florida Department of Corrections sent this prisoner back to what can only be described as a living hell for this man who sacrificed his own safety to protect others. As of the writing of this letter, he has not been heard from by any of those community members with whom he consistently maintains contact.
Lewis told Solitary Watch she “fears Hart will be killed just as soon as he is released from solitary in late May.”
In their letters to the governor and other officials, HEARD documented conditions and events at Tomoka over the past year, based on the diary-style reports provided by deaf men held there. Some excerpts from these reports appear below:
This place is infested with the mice and rats that I told you about before. In fact its more infested with mice and rats since the last time I told you about it. They have had time to breed. Its so full of mice and rats that you have to stay awake when the lights go out or they will actually crawl up on the bunk with you…They [the cells] have foot lockers bolted to the walls that set higher then the bottom bunk that almost level with the top bunk that these mice and rats will climb up on, run along the foot lockers and jump off in the bunk where you are laying…
…Deaf prisoners filing grievances were beaten by other prisoners, threatened with and put into solitary for 60-90 days…
…A man was stabbed in the head and chest because he was thought to be a “snitch”…
…Deaf [man] got robbed of his wedding ring and a chain…
….One deaf-blind prisoner was robbed again by two men and another extortion attempt by a prisoner…
….The man assigned to help the blind inmate has been stealing this blind man’s money and stamps when they come in…
Lewis summarizes: “One deaf-blind prisoner at TCI has the intellectual capacity of a young child. He is constantly subjected to sexual assault. Multiple elderly (70+ years old) wheelchair users are housed here and are beaten by their impaired assistants. These impaired assistants regularly withhold food and refuse to take blind or wheelchair bound prisoners to the bathroom or shower if these individuals do not perform sexual acts for or with these and other persons. They have been known to spend days in their own feces and urine, afraid or unable to leave their cells. Two of our deaf prisoners attempted to help the blind guys when they could by helping them get showers from time to time. These prisoners (blind and wheelchair users) are beaten (bones have been shattered and heads split open) when they complained to guards.”
Lewis says that on September 19, 2012, HEARD wrote to Ken Tucker, then secretary of the Florida Department of Corrections, informing him of the abuse of deaf, elderly, and disabled prisoners under his care. “A little more than a week after we sent the letter to Secretary Tucker, a guard threw the only TTY [special telephone for the deaf] in the facility to the ground and shouted, ‘Now try to call someone!’ Around the same time, the deaf man who wrote the most detailed of the letters was sent to another camp, and many of the deaf men who were in a unit together at Tomoka were split up, with the most severely disabled prisoner–a deaf-blind prisoner with diagnosed mental retardation who was taken care of by other deaf at Tomoka–being placed alone in the worse dorm on the compound.”
On October 18, 2012, HEARD also received a message from another man in Tomoka stating similar facts that “[name omitted] was raped and all of his things stolen. Please help.”
Around Christmas, Felix Garcia, a deaf man held at Tomoka,described another deaf prisoner being put in solitary confinement because a cell phone was found in his locker. According to Lewis, “He says that a gang member in the dorm that planted this phone, and these cell phones are coming in by the guards. It’s common knowledge that guards will charge inmates $20 for 5 minutes use on a cell phone.”
On January 5, 2013, deaf prisoner Robert was reportedly locked up for a cell phone planted in his locker. When cell phones are found in the facility, not only are prisoners removed from the dorm and subjected to 30 days in solitary, but their visiting privileges are banned for the rest of their sentences. It seems that there is no investigation when these cell phones are found, despite the fact that these men are deaf, cannot communicate on such a phone, and are unable to text due to illiteracy.
• Coverage of Guantanamo was heavy again throughout the past week as the hunger strike reached its 100th day. An estimated 102 of the 166 detainee are refusing food, and some 30 are being subjected to force-feeding in violation of international human rights standards.
• A (somewhat overly sanguine) CBS News piece reported on the federal government’s internal plan to review its use of solitary confinement, and noted reductions that have taken place thus far in a handful of states.
• Mashable reports that hacker Andrew “Weev” Auernheimer has been placed in solitary confinement in his minimum security federal prison to prevent him tweeting and posting phone calls to his soundcloud.
• As a guest column in the Orlando Sun-Sentinal notes, the Youth in Solitary Confinement Reduction Act failed to make progress in the current legislative session. It’s sponsor has vowed to reintroduce it in the next session, as awareness of children held in solitary grows in Florida and around the country.
• An op-ed and letter to the editor in the Albany Times-Union argue that solitary confinement as practiced in New York is both brutal and futile. The pieces respond to an article in the Times Union on the effects of solitary, and a subsequent op-ed by the local corrections officers’ union supporting the practice.
• The New York Times reports that after years of litigation and negotiation, a federal judge has “approved a settlement meant to guarantee alternatives to segregation for mentally ill inmates in Massachusetts prisons.”
Lawyers at North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services have filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of eight people held in solitary confinement at Central Prison against officers and administrators at the facility. As reported by the Associated Press:
A federal lawsuit on behalf of eight inmates at North Carolina’s Central Prison alleges correctional officers used “blind spots” out of view of security cameras to beat handcuffed and shackled inmates.
An amended complaint filed last week in U.S. District Court by lawyers at North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services says the beatings occurred in Unit One, a cell block known as “The Hole” where inmates are kept in solitary confinement for disciplinary reasons.
The inmates’ abuse claims are supported by medical records documenting blunt-force injuries that occurred while they were segregated from other prisoners, including broken bones, concussions and an inmate who is still unable to walk months after his hip was shattered.
N.C. Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Pam Walker said the agency would not comment on pending litigation.
The lawsuit names as defendants 21 correctional officers accused of participating in the abuse, as well as two wardens at the maximum security prison in Raleigh. The lawsuit alleges that former prison administrator Gerald J. Branker and current administrator Kenneth Lassister knew about the problems.
The suit seeks to eliminate this problem going forward, calling for the Court to order installation of surveillance cameras throughout the hallways of Unit One, stating “Given the history at Central Prison’s Unit One, these measures would benefit prison officials, prisoners, and the taxpaying public, and are required by the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution.”
The article goes on to describe several instances of guard brutality:
One violent beating was Dec. 3, 2012, and left inmate Jerome Peters in a wheelchair, according to the lawsuit.
[Jerome] Peters, 48, was handcuffed and escorted by two correctional officers from his cell to an outdoor recreation area when the lawsuit said one of the guards punched him in the face while the other grabbed a leg and pulled him the ground. The lawsuit said a third correctional officer then helped the other two kick, stomp and punch Peters.
When they were finished, the lawsuit said the officers put shackles on Peters’ ankles and ordered him to walk. He couldn’t, the suit said, because his pelvic bone was broken…
Peters was taken to an emergency room and diagnosed with a broken right hip, and fractured bones in his hand and face. He also had blurred vision and numerous cuts and bruises, according to the lawsuit. He underwent surgery, but more than five months later is still unable to walk.
The complaint also includes an account of an incident in which the ribs of a person held at the facility were broken. According to the Associated Press:
…Riddle was removed from his cell so that officers could search it. While he was waiting in handcuffs, the lawsuit alleged a correctional officer punched him in the face. Two officers then took Riddle to a secluded area of holding cells inmates call “The Desert” because they are not covered by video cameras.
There, three officers are said to have punched and kicked Riddle in the chest and torso. Riddle was then locked back in his cell, where his pleas for medical attention were ignored, according to the lawsuit.
It took 11 days before prison staff took Riddle to see a physician assistant, who ordered an X-ray. He was diagnosed with multiple rib fractures.
In another instance of brutality by Central Prison corrections officers, the Associated Press reports:
Chardan Whitehead got in an altercation with a guard. One sprayed him in the face with pepper spray and two officers took him to “The Desert.”
There, the lawsuit said three officers beat the restrained inmate unconscious. He was later taken to a hospital and diagnosed with a concussion and received several sutures to sew up cuts on his head and face. He was also blind in his left eye for several weeks.
Whitehead was later released after serving about six months for larceny of a motor vehicle.
This is not the first time prisoner abuse at Central Prison, where around 600 people are held in “Close Custody,” or solitary confinement, has come to public light. In 2012, Solitary Watch reported that people held at the facility had launched a hunger strike in protest of various prison conditions, the demands of which included “[a]n immediate end to the physical and mental abuse inflicted by officers” and “[t]he end of cell restriction.”
Today we arrive in London, where on Thursday we will speak at a forum entitled “Extradited to a Future of Torture: The Reality of Solitary Confinement in America.” Hosted by the International State Crimes Initiative (ISCI) at Kings College London, the event features the premiere of a film made by the Yale Visual Law Project, The Worst of the Worst, about Northern Correctional Institution, Connecticut’s supermax prison. It will also include talks by Tessa Murphy of Amnesty International and Hamja Ahsan, the brother of Talha Ahsan, a young British national who is currently being held in pre-trial solitary confinement at Northern.Talha Ahsan is one of five UK residents extradited last year to the United States to face terrorism-related charges. The story of their extraditions was not big news in the United States (though we covered it on Solitary Watch, here, here, and here). In the UK, however, it was a huge and controversial story involving inside British politics and the European Court of Human Rights. The story of the extraditions–and particularly, of Talha Ahsan, who suffers from Asberger’s Syndrome and is accused under vague “material support” charges of participating in a jihadist website–is told in dramatic detail by the ISCI’s Ian Patel in a recent New Statesman article, “The Impossible Injustice of Talha Ahsan’s Extradition and Detention,” which deserves to be read in full.
Talha Ahsan is a poet who has continued to write throughout his imprisonment. The following poem was composed while he was being held in (comparatively unrestrictive) detention in Her Majesty’s Prison Long Lartin. It refers to ADX Florence federal supermax prison in Colorado, which is where Ahsan, with good reason, fears he will end up. –Jean Casella and James Ridgeway
. . . . . . . . . .
Five years ago they brought me to a cell
and ever since a waiting game plays here.
As they decide on sending me away,
my parents grow so grey and sad at home.
How will they manage visiting me there
or must they wait until the end of time?
Ma, hear my oath, by him whose hand is time,
bars stand in worship with me in this cell.
So even if I’m extradited there
and taken from my humble parents here,
then tell them paradise is our true home
whose gardens years will never fade away.
To Florence prison I’ll be sent away
It doesn’t matter what will be my time.
No prison ever can be called my home,
how ever long they put me in a cell.
A higher power occupies me here
who’s closer to me even over there.
Perhaps they’ll clean their hands of me once there.
And then my country feels I’m wiped away.
Though germs stay always floating from me here:
these particles will gather born in time,
a culture breeding from a tiny cell,
to carry on infecting every home.
Theresa May, a minister at home
though feeble servant to her masters there;
a solitary torture chamber cell,
To put me in, she’ll simply say, ‘Away!’
So let me while I can devote my time
to work for my own justice over here.
I pitch a tent for battle waiting here.
And in this heart of mine you’ll find a home,
free from the crumbling effects of time
or any rotting thoughts of being there.
It is a sin for me to run away
As patience brings my glory to this cell.
For time will be a brief sojourning here,
and there, or anywhere I make a home -
Away! A caravan escapes my cell.
–HMP Long Lartin, 19 July 2011
• Media coverage on the urgency of closing Guantanamo was heavy throughout the past week, with an estimated 100 of the 166 detainees hunger striking. Most recently, Al Jazeera publishes a Guantanamo prison military document exposing the brutality of the force-feeding. According to the story, detainees “undergo a brutal and dehumanising medical procedure that requires them to wear masks over their mouths while they sit shackled in a restraint chair for as long as two hours…”
• The New York Times reports that New York City is planning to change the way it disciplines incarcerated people with mental illness, creating alternatives to the use of solitary confinement. “[T]he city Correction Department will transfer severely mentally ill inmates to an internal clinic where psychiatrists will administer treatment and medicine, and the less seriously mentally ill will go to counseling programs designed to help them change their future behavior.”
• The Los Angeles Times publishes an editorial on the harm inflicted on kids who are subjected to isolation, stating “[s]olitary confinement is ultimately a mental health issue for anyone who goes through it, and the practice, if it is to continue, should at the very least be documented for public review and monitored by mental health professionals.”
• The Seattle Times reports on a new program at Washington State Penitentiary seeking to to ease violence in some of the most dangerous units inside the prison, minimizing the liklihood of reoffending. “Rival gang members — Norteños and Sureños, Bloods and Crips, white supremacists — all brought together to discuss ways to stay out of trouble, both in prison and when they get out.”
• Angola 3 News reports on a federal lawsuit filed by Russell Maroon Shoatz’s lawyers protesting his 22 consecutive years in solitary confinement. The story also features a recent interview with activist Bret Grote and Shoatz’ lawyer, Dan Kovalik, taking a closer look at the lawsuit and confronting human rights abuses in U.S. prisons.
• Momentum builds to end the solitary confinement of youth, with The Nation calling for support in urging U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to ban the use of solitary confinement on youth. The post links to an open letter “in support of a call by the National Religious Campaign Against Torture and the ACLU imploring [Holder] to ban the practice of holding young people in federal custody in solitary confinement.”
• The Republic reports on a federal lawsuit alleging that correctional officers at North Carolina’s Central Prison brutally beat prisoners held at the facility, using “blind spots” to avoid being seen by security cameras. “An amended complaint filed last week in U.S. District Court by lawyers at North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services says the beatings occurred in Unit One, a cell block known as “The Hole” where inmates are kept in solitary confinement for disciplinary reasons.”
• NDTV reports on the solitary confinement of Boston marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev at a high-security housing unit at a federal medical detention center in Massachusetts. “The only time Tsarnaev gets out of his tiny cell, that contains a sink, toilet, shower and a bed bolted to the floor, is for an hour of recreation every day.”
• The Colorado Independent reports that Colorado’s El Pueblo Boys and Girls Ranch held Kiondre Davison, a 14-year old with an array of developmental disabilities, in solitary confinement for 25 days. “Of particular concern is imposing isolation on developmentally delayed kids. Kiondre is typical of such cases. He struggled to understand what was happening to him and so only loosely tied his actions at El Pueblo to the consequences they brought.”
• Alan Prendergast reports that the legal team of Troy Anderson, who is currently incarcerated at Colorado’s supermax prison, has filed court papers contending that Department of Corrections officials have failed to comply with a previous ruling by a federal judge that Anderson is entitled to three hours a week of outdoor activity. Anderson’s attorneys assert that “their client is worse off than before, with less effective mental health treatment, following a transfer from the supermax to solitary confinement at the Sterling Correctional Facility.”
• In an op-ed published on Times Union, Donn Rowe, President of New York State Correctional Officers & Police Benevolent Association, responds to a recent story on the harm inflicted on mentally ill people who are subjected to solitary confinement. According to Rowe, “Special Housing Units are for inmates who are a danger to others and themselves.”
• SFGate reports that Colorado has banned a youth treatment center in El Pueblo from placing teens in solitary confinement. The state found three violations of Colorado regulations in its investigation, which followed complaints by the ACLU that the program was violating the constitutional rights of youth.
• Black Agenda Report reports that people held in isolation at California’s Pelican Bay may once again go on hunger strike, stating that “more than 200 inmates at the [facility] have been in solitary confinement for between five and ten years and nearly 100 have been shut off from most human contact for 20 years or more.” The story also calls for outside support, emphasizing the importance of having support networks in place beforehand.
• New York City Councilmember Daniel Dromm denounces solitary confinement as “cruel and unusual” in a recent editorial, stating “[a]s a matter of fundamental human rights, how the DOC uses solitary confinement must radically change.”
• The Boston Globe reports that the use of segregation units has come under increased scrutiny in Massachusetts, where approximately 500 of the state’s 11,000 prisoners are held in isolation on any given day. According to the story, “Prisoner-rights advocates, legislators, and even corrections commissioners in other states are increasingly denouncing the use of solitary confinement, while others defend the practice as an essential part of prison management.”
Thanks to our amazing Social Media Manager, Lisa Dawson, Solitary Watch now features a large and growing archive of multimedia resources on solitary confinement, including audio, video, and infographics. Art and photography are coming soon!
Send suggestions for additons to the multimedia pages to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Shawn Fisher, who is serving a life sentence at Massachusetts Correctional Institution–Shirley, has written to Solitary Watch making the argument that the treatment of many elders in prison is in fact a form of solitary confinement. An organization of lifers in Massachusetts has urged the state legislature to adopt some sort of compassionate leave act that would let the old out to die in the free world. There is no hospice in the Massachusetts corrections system. So far, nothing has happened. For more on aging prisoners in Massachusetts, read my article ”The Other Death Sentence.” –James Ridgeway
. . . . . . . . . .
I would contest that the “Skilled Nursing Facility” (called the Health Services Unit [H.S.U.]) falls under solitary confinement. The cells are 4-5 man wards but they are locked in that ward for 24 hrs a day. They are not permitted to leave the HSU area for any reason. They cannot attend religious services, programs, or Law Library. There are also several single cells that house four permanent inmates. Those inmates are in their cells, alone 24 hours a day. One inmate has nothing but a mattress and a chair in the cell. NOTHING ELSE. He suffers from dementia and stands at his window, talking through the glass to no one in particular for long periods of the day.
Another inmate who suffers from the same thing, lays in his bed all day long, with no one to engage or talk with. The argument can be made that they don’t know where they are, but just the same it is the most inhumane site you will ever witness.
Here at MCI Shirley prison, the effects of the aging prisoner have already had an impact on the population at large. In the last five years several elderly inmates have died in the bowels of the hospital services unit (HSU) called the “skilled nursing facility.” Most, if not all, died alone with nothing but a bed to comfort them in their last days. What’s even more disturbing is oftentimes friends of these men who are housed in the general population do not hear of their passing for days, sometimes weeks later. For some this may seem like a trivial matter but it is indicative of a more serious issue that is slowly taking root among many of the lifer population; hopelessness, particularly the younger men serving life sentences.
Policies enacted here at MCI Shirley prohibit inmates from visiting anyone housed in HSU area, that is, unless they work in the HSU as runners. This policy further prohibits anyone who lives in the HSU from leaving the HSU to attend programs, library, and religious services; in effect punishing individuals for being sick. Many of these men have served 10, 20 and 30+ years in prison. In that time some have lost contact with family and friends who live on the outside. In most cases, they’ve been incarcerated for so long that there’s just nobody left to contact. In almost every instance these men have formed bonds with other prisoners that they’ve serve time with—creating a family unit amongst each other. Men serving long term sentences serve more time living together than the ideal family unit, and yet, when one becomes sick it’s very likely that neither of them will see each other again.
Imagine being told that a hospitalized “family” member is not your concern, nor can you visit them! Imagine being that individual who is terminally ill and knowing that you can no longer see, talk, or spend time with the very person you care for and consider “family.” It is a dire situation that the younger population sees and realizes, “this is what my future holds for me!” The hopelessness that instills deep within one’s soul is palpable. To know that the only thing you have to look forward to at the end of your days is not friends or family or religious community, but rather, a bed and four walls which the D.O.C. considers a humane way to die.
The restrictive policy of denying ill prisoners a sense of humanity in their dying days creates a climate of hopelessness that in turn creates resentment toward a system they truly feel is “killing them.” So much so, that this dark, bleak, and foreboding outlook has become a reality to them. This “reality” has generated conversations among lifers that no one should ever have to have. Some of the men have expressed a desire to commit suicide before they get to that stage; some have even made pacts with someone they know to have them be smothered with a pillow; some have even gone so far as to make promises to one another that they will slip the other some medication to die of an overdose. In many instance inmates are refusing treatment and refusing to seek medical attention so as to avert being placed in the HSU area. The idiom among the men is to refer to HSU placement as a “death sentence.”