prisons, jails, mass incarceration
A mass prisoner hunger strike rocked California’s prison system this past summer, drawing international attention to the extensive use of solitary confinement in the United States. Increasingly, solitary is finding its way into the mainstream media and onto activist agendas. Nearly all of the attention, however, has focused on solitary confinement in men’s prisons; much less is known about the conditions and experiences inside women’s prisons.
During October’s legislative hearing on solitary confinement in California, lawmakers asked prison officials about women in solitary confinement. Officials from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) stated that 74 women were held in the Security Housing Unit at the California Institution for Women (CIW) and a handful of women were awaiting transfer from the Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF). CDCR does not separate people in the SHU with mental illness from those without mental illness. CDCR officials did not address the number of people in the Administrative Segregation (or Ad Seg) Unit.
According to CDCR statistics, as of September 2013, 107 women were held in Ad Seg at CCWF, which has a budgeted capacity of 38. The average stay was 131 days. Twenty women had been there longer than 200 days, two had exceeded 400 days, and another two women had exceeded 800 days. At CIW, 34 women were in Ad Seg with an average stay of 73 days. Two women have exceeded 200 days.
Lawmakers’ inquiry prompted advocacy group California Coalition for Women Prisoners to send an open letter to Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner requesting that she investigate conditions of solitary confinement in women’s prisons. The group noted that, with the conversion of Valley State Prison for Women to a men’s prison and the transfer of several hundred women to California’s other two women’s prisons, the use of solitary confinement has dramatically increased.
To justify the increase, CDCR has cited “enemy concerns” or a documented disagreement between people that may have led to threats or violence. Those designated as having “enemy concerns” are locked in their cells 22 to 24 hours a day and lose all privileges. CDCR reports do not separate the number of people in Ad Seg or the SHU for rules violations versus those confined because of “enemy concerns.” The California Coalition for Women Prisoners has noted that many of these “enemy concerns” are based on incidents that happened years ago and may not be valid today.
Dolores Canales has a son who has spent thirteen years in Pelican Bay’s SHU. Canales has also had firsthand experience with solitary confinement. While imprisoned at CIW, she spent nine months in Ad Seg, where she was confined to her cell twenty-two hours a day. “There, I had a window. The guards would take me out to the yard every day. I’d get to go out to the yard with other people,” she recalled. But the isolation still took its toll: “There’s an anxiety that overcomes you in the middle of the night because you’re so locked in,” she described. Even after being released from segregation, Canales was unable to shake that anxiety. She broke into a sweat and panicked each time she saw a group of officers even though she had broken no rules. “I just can’t forget,” she stated years after her release from prison.
Although the spotlight on solitary has focused largely on California, every women’s prison has a solitary confinement unit. Florida’s Lowell Correctional Institution for Women has a Closed Management Special Housing Unit (CM SHU) where women are confined to their cells 23 to 24 hours a day. “There is no free movement or social interaction,” reported one woman. “We just sit locked in a concrete and steel room the size of a small residential bathroom.”
In Indiana, Sarah Jo Pender has spent nearly five years in solitary. “My cell is approximately 68 square feet of concrete with a heavy steel door at the front and a heavily barred window at the back that does not open,” she described. “Walls are covered in white; the paint chipped off by bored prisoners reveals another layer of primer white. No family photos or art or reminder notes are allowed to be taped to the walls; they must remain bare. Our windowsills would be a great place to display greeting cards and pictures, but those are off-limits, too… There is a concrete platform and thin plastic mat, a fourteen-by-twenty inch shelf and round stool mounted to the floor, and a steel toilet/sink combo unit. We get no boxes to contain our few personal items. Everything must fit on the shelf, bed or end up on the floor.”
Her cell is searched daily by guards although, like everyone else in the prison, she is strip searched any time she leaves the unit for a doctor’s appointment or a no-contact visit. When she is taken to the showers, she is handcuffed, then locked into a 3 foot by 3 foot shower stall with a steel cage door for a 15-minute shower. As is the case across the country, visits are conducted behind glass.
Pender was placed in solitary confinement after successfully escaping from prison in 2008. With the assistance of a guard, who had been having sex with her and several other women in the prison, she escaped. After 136 days, she was found, re-arrested and returned to prison, where she began her unending stint in solitary confinement. Because Pender is considered a high escape risk, the administration has taken steps to isolate her even within the segregation unit. “Other women could talk to each other through their doors, but they were instructed to never talk to me or else they’d be punished,” she recounted. “The male guards were never to speak to me unless there was a second guard present, and only to give me orders. Female guards only spoke when absolutely necessary, per orders, except they chatted freely with any other prisoner.”
As in many jails and prisons, those with mental health concerns are often placed in segregation. “One of them is going to be released to society this month,” Pender wrote. “She has been in solitary for six or eight months because she has repeatedly cut herself with razors, including her throat, several times. Their solution: lock her in a room and don’t give her a razor.” Another woman spent 2 ½ years in segregation, originally for disruptive behavior. Her stay was extended each time she hurt herself. “She cut her wrists in the shower, they found her, took her to the hospital, stitched her up, put her back in lock and wrote her up for self-mutilation. She ripped the stitches out and got another battery write-up. Threw a mop bucket at the sergeant for another assault write-up and was completely maxed out on her sentence, so they let her go home from solitary. She returned that same year with new charges. She never got therapy while here—or any mental health care that she obviously needed.”
While Pender did not enter with preexisting mental health concerns, years of little to no human contact has taken its toll. At times she feels lethargic and depressed. In 2010, she had a psychotic break, which lasted nine months. Since then, she has been on and off half a dozen kinds of psychotropic medications. “I didn’t need the meds for the two years I spent in godawful Marion County Jail, and didn’t need them for five years at Rockville prison,” she recalled. “But when you lock people in rooms for long periods of time, the isolation degenerates us into madness, or at least depression.”
Others with no preexisting mental health conditions have also been affected. “I watched a woman claw chunks out of her cheeks and nose and write on the window with her blood,” Pender said. “My neighbor bashed her head against the concrete until officers dragged her out to a padded cell. Two other women tried to asphyxiate themselves with shoestrings and bras.” In Florida, faced with the prospect of ten months in CM SHU, a woman attempted suicide. “I had hung myself and was quite dead when the guards cut me down. My heart must’ve stopped because of the loss of involuntary functions, but still they wrapped me in a sheet and rushed me to medical and succeeded in reviving me,” she recalled.
Despite being locked in a cell the size of a bathroom for the foreseeable future, Pender hopes the increased outrage about solitary confinement leads to concrete changes. What would she ask people to do?
They can help by contacting their legislators and judges about their views on long-term solitary confinement. They can help by supporting small groups of activists and organizations who are passionate about this topic. Many people don’t have the desire to donate two hours of their week or month to a group, but what about two hours of their monthly wages? Or the book of stamps and box of envelopes that has been collecting dust since email was invented? There are lots of ways to help change the system. Whatever you choose to do, just DO something. Just having conversations with others about the subject is doing something. Someone else might volunteer to type up and format a newsletter. Help design a website. Circulate the info. Make phone calls to organize events. Anything is better than turning the page to the next article and forgetting about us, leaving us alone in our cells.
TOMORROW: Many women’s prisons utilize solitary to punish those reporting staff sexual assaults or harassment.
The post Women in Solitary Confinement: “The Isolation Degenerates Us Into Madness” appeared first on Solitary Watch.
In preparation for Human Rights Day tomorrow, groups opposing solitary confinement have sent letters to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, urging them to grant the request of the UN’s main torture expert for more information on and access to New York’s prisons.
Juan Méndez, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, has repeatedly asked the United States State Department to visit American prisons, specifically in California, Colorado, and Pennsylvania as well as New York, stating that his “main concern is the use of solitary confinement.”
Méndez has long condemned the use of prolonged solitary confinement in prisons and jails as torture. In a report to the General Assembly of the UN in August 2011, Méndez called this practice inhumane punishment, and concluded that 15 continuous days in solitary must be the limit before harmful physical and psychological effects take place. The United States has kept incarcerated people in isolation for far longer; some have been in continuous solitary confinement for years or even decades.
Méndez said specifically that he needs to be able speak to those currently held in solitary confinement during the visits in order to understand “who is put into isolation and why,” as well as the conditions of punitive segregation. Méndez has emphasized that while no one should be held in isolated for a prolonged period of time, certain vulnerable categories of incarcerated people should never be put into solitary, including pregnant women, people with mental illness, and children.
In his report to the UN General Assembly in August 2013, Méndez specifically condemned the “degrading conditions of detention” in New York state prisons. He further stated that under New York’s State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS), incarcerated people could be in extreme isolation for an indefinite amount of time, because New York State does not place maximum limits on sentences of isolated confinement.
Prior to this report, Méndez had written to the United States government, urging it to investigate and prevent mistreatment of those incarcerated in solitary confinement, highlighting three specific cases of prolonged isolation. Méndez appealed to the State Department on the behalf of these three men – William Blake, Stephen Poole, and Kenneth Wright – citing their difficulty in obtaining adequate medical attention as well as the severe mental and physical health risks involved in keeping people in solitary confinement indefinitely.
Méndez alleged both in his letter and the report to the General Assembly that these practices in New York prisons constituted torture, citing evidence that many people are held in isolation for years without an end date, and that many end up with solitary confinement sentences for committing nonviolent offenses.
In its letter John Kerry last week, the Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement (CAIC) urged the secretary of State to provide the information requested by Méndez immediately. A letter to Andrew Cuomo urged the governor to facilitate the release of information, and of Méndez’s ability to enter New York’s solitary confinement units to conduct fact-finding.
“With Human Rights Day approaching,” both letters conclude, “we join in calling on you to take these steps to honor the humanity and dignity of New Yorkers suffering the torture of solitary confinement.”
CAIC, which brings together human rights, civil liberties, and religious organizations with formerly incarcerated people and family members of those in solitary confinement, will join the New York City Jails Action Coalition and American Friends Service Committee to host a vigil in Lower Manhattan’s Foley Square tomorrow at 4 PM “to protest the routine use of extreme and prolonged isolation in New York’s state prisons and city jails.”
The post Activists Urge U.S. Government to Grant UN Torture Expert Access to New York’s Prisons appeared first on Solitary Watch.
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.
• Syracuse.com reports that a New York judge has ordered that the state pay former prisoner Andre Melette $1,170 for the 39 days he spent in solitary confinement in the special housing unit at Marcy Correctional Facility in 2012.
• A blogger for The Guardian reports on the solitary confinement of Carol Lester, who was refused needed cancer medication while held in isolation at a prison in New Mexico for 34 days. Noting that “[w]hat was once supposed to be a last resort punishment for violent and dangerous prisoners now seems to be dished out indiscriminately,” the piece calls for the U.S to review the abuse of solitary as a punishment.
• The Pueblo Chieftain reports that the Colorado Department of Human Services’ has announced it will allow the reopening of two “therapeutic intervention cottages” at El Pueblo, a youth treatment center shut down the last April following a complaint filed by the ACLU of Colorado against the facility for placing kids in solitary confinement.
• The National Radio Project reports on reforms to the prison industrial complex in a show entitled “2013: The Year the Prison System Changed?” The piece features “voices of prisoners, activists, and officials speaking about solitary confinement, prisoner hunger strikes against torturous conditions, and campaign victories to help families stay in touch without phone companies’ price gouging.”
“I found solitary confinement the most forbidding aspect of prison life. There is no end and no beginning; there is only one’s mind, which can begin to play tricks. Was that a dream or did it really happen? One begins to question everything.”
–Nelson Mandela, from his 1994 autobiography The Long Walk to Freedom
Nelson Mandela spent 27 years in prison. He had received a life sentence in 1964 for conspiring against the apartheid regime, and spent the first 18 of those years on Robben Island, off the coast of Cape Town. There, along with other leaders of the liberation movement, Mandela was housed in a special section of the prison and did hard labor in the island’s lime quarry. He was allowed one visit a year and one letter every six months. Mandela was in and out of solitary confinement during those years, but he also managed to earn a law degree and establish himself as a leader among his jailed comrades.
Mandela’s period of long-term isolation began in 1982, when he was transferred from Robben Island to Pollsmoor Prison on the mainland. By then, Mandela had become a world famous symbol of his cause. His supporters believed the move was made because he was exerting too great an influence on younger people being brought to the island prison, which had become known as “Mandela University.”
Mandela spent much of the next six years in solitary confinement. In 1988, after spending time in the hospital for tuberculosis, he was moved to Victor Verster Prison, where he lived under less harsh and restrictive conditions, and entered into clandestine negotiations with the government to bring an end to apartheid. In 1990, amidst international pressure, he was released from prison at the age of 71. He lived nearly 24 more years, until his death this week–a model of courage and leadership not only to his people, but to political prisoners around the world.
With the considerable attention focused on solitary confinement in California, Solitary Watch has observed inconsistent and widely varied statistics provided on the number of individuals housed in solitary in the state. We have reviewed and compiled statistics reported monthly by each prison through the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s (CDCR) COMPSTAT reports (Computer Statistics or Comparative Statistics), which CDCR publicly releases.
Available through COMPSTAT data are the number of individuals housed in Administrative Segregation Units (ASU) and SHUs. Further, COMPSTAT includes the number of individuals on single-cell status as of the final day of the month being reported, including the number of individuals in the ASU and SHU on single-cell status, as well as the average length of stay in the ASU. COMPSTAT further differentiates between prisoners placed on single-cell status for temporary stays and those on single-cell status who are labeled “S” Suffix. “S” Suffix prisoners are those placed on single-cell status long-term due to being deemed a threat to security.
What follows is a presentation of the most recent set of data that may be of interest to Solitary Watch readers. Excluded is the California Rehabilitation Center (CRC), which reported faulty numbers to COMPSTAT. As CDCR began its reforms of the SHU in October 2012, we are comparing and contrasting data from October 2012 to September 2013, the most recent set of data.
For your convenience, Solitary Watch is making available the spreadsheets used to generate graphs and statistics used in this report. For the Excel sheet for October 2012 click here. For the Excel sheet for September 2013 click here.
Total Number on Single-Cell Status
CDCR does not officially acknowledge the use of “solitary confinement” as a term or concept, and so COMPSTAT does not reflect “solitary confinement.” Instead, CDCR reports “single-cell” housing. A relatively broad designation, it means people may be single-celled voluntarily or involuntarily. They may be housed in segregation units (SHUs, ASUs) or in general population. They may be on single-cell status because they’ve committed a rules violation (e.g. murder, assault) or for their own protection. Further, they may be housed on single-cell status for days or years at a time.
Given this, there is considerable variation in the circumstances that constitute single-cell status, but it is the closest researchers can come to what would be called “solitary confinement.”
First, a chart presenting the number of individuals on single-cell status at each facility, in October 2012 and September 2013:
Most significantly, this reveals, among other things, a dramatic drop in the use of single-cell housing at Calipatria State Prison, which has long served as a holding facility for California prisoners awaiting transfer to a SHU facility. Meanwhile, it appears that other state prisons have been fairly consistent in their use of single-cell housing, particularly the maximum security facilities (the first nine presented in the chart).
In October 2012, out of a prison population of a population of 124,718:
- There were 6,281 individuals on single-cell status, or, about 5.03% of the prison population
- Of these, 4,572 were “S” Suffix, or, about 72.7% of those on single-cell status
In September 2013, out of a prison population of 125,168:
- There were 5,938 individuals on single-cell status, or, about 4.78% of the prison population
- Of these, 4,439 were “S” Suffix, or, about 75% of those on single-cell status
With 450 more prisoners in California prisons than in October 2012, there are 343 fewer California prisoners on single-cell status as of September 2013.
Security Housing Unit Population
California’s use of long-term solitary confinement came to international attention this past summer with a two-month-long hunger strike that began with the participation of 30,000 people in prisons across the state, and ended with 40 hunger strikers who refused meals for 59 days. The most recent hunger strike was a continuation of two statewide hunger strikes that took place in 2011, which began in July and September, respectively, and each lasted three weeks.
At the heart of the hunger strike were the “five core demands” which centered around conditions in the Security Housing Units (SHU), where prisoners suspected of gang affiliation have historically been housed for indeterminate terms until they either complete their prison sentence or snitch on their prison gangs. With meaningful and constructive programming few and far between, those housed in the SHU are typically kept in small cells for 22.5 hours a day, if not the whole day. Those housed in Pelican Bay State Prison’s SHU are generally housed in solitary confinement, as the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) insists they are the worst of the worst.
There are currently three other SHUs in California, located at California State Prison, Corcoran, California Correctional Institution in Tehachapi, and California State Prison, Sacramento (aka New Folsom). There is a smaller SHU unit for women at the Correctional Institution for Women (CIW).
As previously mentioned, CDCR implemented reforms to SHU policy in October 2012. CDCR redesigned the criteria for being designated a Security Threat Group (STG, or prison gang) member or associate, designations that previously led to indeterminate terms in the SHU. CDCR claims that its revised criterion are more behaviorally based and thus greater weight is put on actual rather than suspected prison gang activity. Further, CDCR created a Step Down Program (SDP) that hypothetically allows individuals to transition out of the SHU and back into general population through a six year program. Through the SDP, people could either be held in the SHU for theoretically indefinite terms or as little as one year. As part of these reforms, CDCR announced that it was conducting case-by-case reviews of all those in the SHU for gang affiliation to determine whether they should be housed in the SHU at all and if so, what step of the SDP they ought be placed in.
According to an October 2013 press release, CDCR had conducted 528 reviews of SHU prisoners. Of them, 343 were approved for placement in either Step 5 of the SDP (placement in a maximum security facility, though not in the SHU) or general population. An additional 150 were placed in different phases of the SDP. The remaining 35, according to CDCR, are retained in the SHU for their own protection. CDCR has told Solitary Watch that these individuals are generally gang members who have renounced their gang affiliations and thus must be protected from possible retaliation.
When these reform began in October 2012, there were 3,923 individuals in Security Housing Units:
- Pelican Bay State Prison had 1,121 in the SHU, with 931 on single-cell status (83%)
- California Correctional Institution had 1,232 in the SHU, with 356 on single-cell status (28.8%)
- California State Prison, Corcoran had 1,389 in the SHU, with 528 on single-cell status (38%)
- California State Prison, Sacramento had 93 in the SHU, with 34 on single-cell status (36.5%)
- CIW had 88 in the SHU, none on single-cell status (0%)
Combined, there were 1,849 individuals in the SHU on single-cell status (47%).
In September 2013, there were 3,881 individuals in Security Housing Units:
- Pelican Bay State Prison had 1,179 in the SHU, with 809 on single-cell status (68.6%)
- California Correctional Institution had 1,250 in the SHU, with 373 on single-cell status (29.8%)
- California State Prison, Corcoran had 1,259 the SHU, with 548 on single-cell status (43.5%)
- California State Prison, Sacramento had 88 in the SHU, with 40 on single-cell status (45.5%)
- CIW had 105 in the SHU, two on single-cell status (1.9%)
Combined, there were 1,772 in the SHU on single cell status (45.6%).
Over the course of a year, the number of people in the SHU was reduced by only 42, with 77 fewer SHU individuals on single-cell status.
Administrative Segregation Unit Population
Administrative Segregation Units (ASUs) serve a number of functions and are in existence at all prison facilities. People may be placed in ASUs during an investigation, for their own protection, or to serve short-term segregation terms for disciplinary purposes. As ASUs are supposed to serve as temporary housing units, some ASUs are notably lacking in programming opportunities for prisoners housed in them.
First, a chart on ASU population by prison illustrating the wide variation in use of ASUs.
In October 2012, there were 7,007 individuals in ASUs:
- Of them, there were 1,547 on single-cell status (22%)
- Salinas Valley State Prison had the largest ASU population (395) and the largest population of ASU prisoners on single-cell status (202)
- Valley State Prison reported only having two people in the ASU
- Some prisons reported having no single-celled ASU prisoners: Chuckawalla Valley State Prison, California Correctional Center, San Quentin State Prison, and Valley State Prison for Women
In September 2013, there were 6,734 individuals in ASUs:
- Of them, there were 1,685 on single-cell status (25%)
- California State Prison, Los Angeles County had the largest ASU population (412)
- Salinas Valley State Prison had the largest number of ASU prisoners on single-cell status (254)
- Several facilities reported having no single-celled ASU prisoners: Chuckawalla Valley State Prison, Folsom State Prison, and San Quentin State Prison
While there were 273 fewer prisoners in ASUs in September 2013 compared to October 2012, there were 138 more prisoners on single-cell status in ASUs in September.
Administrative Segregation Unit Average Length of Stay
Solitary Watch has previously reported on notable exceptions to the “temporary” aspect. Earlier this year, women transferred to Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF) following the re-purposing of Valley State Prison for Women to serve as a male facility (now, Valley State Prison) with enemy concerns were housed in ASUs for their own protection. Despite not doing anything wrong, they spent months in ASUs, including on single-cell status, treated the same as individuals placed in the ASU for violence and other rules violations.
In addition, ASUs commonly serve as housing units pending transfer to the SHU or as overflow units to house SHU-status prisoners. Solitary Watch has received an essay from one former Calipatria State Prison ASU prisoner who spent 22 months in the ASU. Further, conditions in ASUs, particularly in the context of long-term solitary confinement, can and have been associated with suicides. This year, Dr. Raymond Patterson, a court-appointed suicide prevention consultant to CDCR, reported that 40 percent of the first 15 suicides in 2012 took place in ASUs. A further 9 of 34 suicides (26 percent) in 2011 took place in ASUs. Solitary Watch has previously reported on the suicide of Alex Machado in Pelican Bay State Prison’s ASU in 2011. Machado had a history of suicide attempts and was extensively documented to be suffering from hallucinations, paranoia, and panic attacks.
Fortunately, COMPSTAT provides some glimpses into how long people spend in ASUs. A chart generated by Solitary Watch of the average ASU terms in October 2012 and September 2013:
As can be seen, ASU terms vary from institution to institution. What can also be observed is that the average stay at in the ASU can last for months at a time. California State Prison, Centinela has the longest average length of stay of 188 days, or just over six months in “temporary” segregation units. As previously discussed, the temporary nature of ASUs mean that they come with limited programming opportunities. As a result, spending months in ASUs not only means spending months in segregated confinement with relatively little to do, but also months without constructive, productive programming.
Unfortunately, the COMPSTAT data does not provide the average length of stay for people housed in single-cell housing in either general population or either of the two types of segregation units presented here (SHU, ASU).
There are a few takeaways from this data.
First, this data is limited in what it actually tells us. What we can know from this data is the number of people who are on single-cell status. What we don’t know is how long people spend on single-cell status. CDCR only makes available the average length of stay of individuals in ASUs, but not the average length of stay of all prisoners on single-cell status.
Second, comparing September 2013 to October 2012, it appears that CDCR has slightly reduced its use of single-cell status despite a rising prison population. It has also reduced the SHU population and the number of people in the SHU on single-cell status. It has also reduced the use of ASUs. However, it has increased the number of people in ASUs on single-cell status. Why it has done this is is unclear.
Third, some prisons seem to have taken more significant reductions in their use of single-cell units and segregation units. Whether this is due to greater use of alternative sanctions or some other factor is also unclear.
We also don’t know whether there is any association between increased use of single-cell units and lower institutional violence. CDCR itself admitted in a recent legislative hearing it doesn’t really know the effect of segregation units on actually producing a safer prison system. And finally, we also don’t know how many people are currently suffering from the heavily documented effects long-term solitary confinement can have on a person, particularly emotionally and psychologically vulnerable people in state prisons.
Solitary Watch will continue to monitor COMPSTAT data and present further information in the future.
The post How Many People Are In Solitary Confinement in California’s Prisons? appeared first on Solitary Watch.
• The Los Angeles Times publishes an editorial calling for lawmakers to apply Pelican Bay’s restrictions on solitary confinement at correctional facilities statewide. “As lawmakers prepare for the second half of their two-year session, they ought to work through the various definitional challenges — What constitutes solitary? What qualifies as mental illness? — and put forward a bill to apply the Pelican Bay ban to all California inmates.”
• The Nation reports on the embracement of “special administrative measures” (SAMs) by prosecutors “to keep terrorism suspects guilty until proven otherwise” since 9/11. According to the story, “One of the primary mechanisms tilting the scales against the accused is to hold him (or her) in jail before trial and impose so-called [SAMs]. SAMs impose severe and extraordinary restrictions on the defendant’s ability to communicate with anybody outside his prison cell, and impair the ability of his lawyer to represent him.”
• KOB-TV reports that Carol Lester, 73, is suing the New Mexico Women’s Correctional Facility in Grants for depriving her of needed cancer medication while held in solitary confinement for 34 days.
• The Juvenile Justice Information Exchange (JJIE) reports on the ACLU’s request for a ban on solitary confinement in youth facilities, as well as the group’s new report documenting the harm done to children subjected to isolation. According to the story, Amy Fettig, Senior Staff Counsel for the ACLU’s National Prison Project, told JJIE that “about 70,000 young people are being held at any given time in juvenile facilities nationwide and that in many facilities solitary confinement is ‘routine.’”
• Al Jazeera America reports on the Center for American Progress’ new study, Dignity Denied, which raises concerns about the solitary confinement of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) immigrant detainees held in U.S. detention facilities. Often placed in isolation as a protective measure, the story notes that use of the practice “actually does more harm than good. The report points to the U.N. Special Rapporteur on torture, who finds the effects of ‘prolonged’ use of solitary confinement – at or above 15 days – may produce irreversible psychological effects.”
• ThinkProgress reports on the alarming story of New York teen Kalief Browder, who was held at the notorious Rikers Island without conviction or trial for three years. According to the story, the teen “says he spent more than 400 days in solitary confinement, was deprived of meals, and was assaulted and beaten both by officers and fellow inmates. Browder attempted suicide at least six times. Last month he filed a lawsuit last month against the city and several agencies.”
• As part of its Human Rights Day 2013 campaign, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT) shares If the SHU Fits: Voices from Solitary Confinement, a theater piece which “shares voices of survivors of solitary confinement and their loved ones. This resource powerfully weaves together excerpts of letters, blog entries, government reports, and speeches of family members and survivors.”
This essay by John Jay Powers was published by the Colorado Independent, with the following introductory note by editor Susan Greene. Greene has corresponded with Powers for years, and included him in her multimedia investigation of solitary confinement, The Gray Box.
“Jack Powers is an inmate in the federal Bureau of Prisons convicted of bank robbery and escaping from prison. He spent more than a decade in extreme isolation at the ADX where he amputated his fingers, earlobes, a testicle and his scrotum. He has tried several times to commit suicide. ‘The world outside is like another planet,” he wrote from ADX. “I feel like I am trapped within a disease.’ Powers is a plaintiff in a civil rights lawsuit against the federal government regarding its use of longterm solitary confinement for the mentally ill. – S.G.”
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
After 12 long, hard years at the ADX Control Unit Supermax Prison in Florence, Colorado, I’m finally out and among the living. Oh, I’m not on the streets. I’m here among the general population of a federal penitentiary in the dry and dusty desert of Tucson, Arizona.
For a guy who has lived alone in a cement box for more than a decade, the transfer here was really something. First there was a bus and then air-service called “Con-Air” – big passenger jets flown around the U.S. by the Marshalls Service. I had the opportunity to speak with other prisoners and see a couple of cities both from land and air. It was a trip for me for sure.
When we pulled up at the pen, I was all prepared to go straight to the segregation where, once again, I’d be put into solitary confinement. Instead, a number of prison officials met me inside the door and told me that I’d be going directly into the population – into the best unit, in fact, where I’d have single cell. I was so shocked by this turn-around that I began to shed tears.
After being alone in a tiny space for so many years, I had adjusted to a kind of self-sufficiency. My eyes had adjusted to seeing things only up close. To be trusted to be around other people without handcuffs, leg irons and belly chains was incredible. I kept waiting for someone to tell me to place my hands behind my back and turn around. But nobody did. Suddenly, I was a regular prisoner in a regular prison. To most people I figure may be reading this, I realize it may not sound like great fortune. But to me, it’s big luck to be back among the living.
Still, now free to walk and talk among other prisoners, I’m starting to notice the effects that solitary confinement had on me. The noise and movement all around me is disconcerting. My conversational skills aren’t that good (as if they ever were) and I’m talking too slowly and pausing too often to gather my thoughts. If someone came up behind me, I’d jerk around to assess whether he meant harm. If somebody clasped my shoulder, I might whirl around and strike him because I’m not used to being touched, especially in a friendly way.
And there’s another thing. Because I have tattoos on my face and head that make me look like an avator/avatar, I get a lot of looks. My appearance makes other prisoners wary of me. They ask where I had come from – what joint. And when I tell them, they shake their heads knowingly. They understand that I’ve been damaged.
The years I spent at ADX have taken their toll in ways I couldn’t have expected.
Like the first night here in Tucson when I tried to play basketball in the rec yard. I could dribble all around. But when I tried to take a shot the ball felt like a brick. Actually, a cinder block. The years I spent playing in my cell with a sock as my ball and a paper rim taped by my wall had destroyed my actual skills.
Same thing when I tried to play the guitar. I amputated my fingers while at ADX. They can no longer work strings to make music. And I have no confidence that I’ll ever play again.
What I can still do is write. And so I put these words onto paper, hoping that the experience of coming out of long-term solitary is something even people who’ve never spent even a day behind bars could find interesting.
Everything seems surreal. It’s like I am dissociated, floating around in a fog, observing this new world from an emotional and psychological distance. In the chow hall, everyone sits in sections according to race and affiliations. It is segregated by the prisoners themselves. But I can go to any table and sit down and no one objects because they understand that I am no one and everyone at the same time. They know by the way I look and by the way I carry myself and by what they have already heard about me. They realize I carry some burden that was born from pain. Some of them offer me extra food, even by silently placing it next to my tray. One man offered two sugar cookies that I concealed in my sock. I got back to the unit unscathed by a shakedown, went into my cell, closed the door and ate them in the dark.
For the most part, the unit I’m housed in is quiet. But whenever the inevitable idiot begins to holler, I get instantly stressed out. After so many years of silence, I long for the quietude. There is something inherently annoying about loud noise that everyone except the noise-maker knows about. As strange as it may sound, I’ve been tempted to pack up my meager belongings and head back to solitary. I feel like mutilating myself again. I feel like committing suicide. But I don’t feel like screaming because that is the worst.
To give credit where credit is due, the lawsuit that was filed by Ed Aro of Arnold & Porter in Denver was the reason for my release from the ADX-Supermax. If not for them and for the Assistant U.S. Attorney Amy Padden in Denver and the editor of The Colorado Independent, Susan Greene, I would still be in a deep, dark hole and likely would not be alive right now. I think they know that a lot of bad stuff happened, and I think they are doing their best to fix it.
All in all, I do not know where I’ll go from here. I will continue my mission to promote “The Manual,” a guide to getting by that I wrote at ADX. I’ll try my best to adjust to this new life with the fewest setbacks possible. And, if anyone wants me to, I’ll write about my experiences again for The Independent. Perhaps the writing itself – and the readership – is my catharsis. I want to be accepted. I want to be normal. I want to be the best human being I can be. But it may just be that I’m forever outside and beyond those possibilities. The intent of injury to my heart and mind is unclear as of yet, and right now I’m somewhat confused.
After wearing pants without pockets for a long, long time, even having pockets is weird. I was just now standing by the door with my hands in my pockets and a guard came by and told me to take my hands out of my pockets. I complied, but then involuntarily went back to doing it – as if each hand needs the tight darkness. It makes sense to me. So much sense that I wonder whether I’ll be sent back to solitary for nothing more than sauntering around with my hands in my pockets.
The post Voices from Solitary: “Finally Out and Among the Living” appeared first on Solitary Watch.
“This Draconian System of Punishment and Abuse”: An Interview with Former Political Prisoner Ray Luc Levasseur
The following is a partial transcript of an interview with Ray Luc Levasseur, a former political prisoner who spent over fifteen years in solitary confinement, primarily at USP Marion and ADX Florence. Levasseur was raised in Maine, born to a working-class family of Quebecois origin. He became politically radicalized about race and class at a young age, first after serving a term of duty in Vietnam, and again after he spent two years in a Tennessee prison. After his release in 1971, Levasseur worked with Vietnam Veterans Against the War (VVAW), as well as a prisoners’ rights group Statewide Correctional Alliance for Reform (SCAR). In 1975, Levasseur and several others founded the United Freedom Front (UFF), a revolutionary Marxist organization aimed at challenging racism, imperialism and corporate greed, primarily by targeting institutions complicit in South African Apartheid and regime brutality in Central America. Levasseur and his comrades conducted a series of robberies and bombings against military facilities, military contractors and corporations, always forewarning the selected sites in an effort to avoid casualties. UFF members lived underground for nearly a decade before eventually facing arrest.
After his 1986 conviction for the bombing offenses, Levasseur was sent into solitary at the Control Unit at USP Marion. In 1994 he was transferred to the newly built ADX Florence, most likely for refusing to work for the Federal Prison Industries (UNICOR) since it produced military equipment for the Department of Defense. Levasseur was released from prison in 2004 and now lives in Maine. He continues to organize against solitary confinement and support political prisoners on the inside.
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AS: First, I’d like to hear a little bit about the work SCAR did, because I found it really fascinating and inspiring. Maybe for people who don’t know as much about working from a prisoner abolitionist or a prison justice perspective, could we here a little more about the political perspective you worked from in SCAR?
RL: This was back in the early 1970s, where there was a surge of anti-prison activism in the US at the time, because this was still in the years of the Attica Rebellion, and George Jackson, there was a lot of revolts and rebellions throughout the US prison system, culminating in the massacre of prisoners in Attica. But this set the stage for people being more interested in alternatives to this draconian system of punishment and abuse. And there was more about it in the media – there was an opportunity there to do community organizing that had some roots in prison work, jail work, working with former prisoners, and generally criminal justice issues.
And our program with SCAR was based on the early Black Panther Party programs, what they called “survival programs”. So that instead of just going into a neighbourhood or a community and spouting a bunch of radical rhetoric – or rhetoric of any kind – it was like we felt we had to have some programs that addressed some needs in the community.
For example… there was a problem in poor communities. They have a bail program in the United States, where if you were accused of an offense, there was supposed to be a monetary bail placed on you, so that can be secured and you can be released before your trial. A lot of youngsters were being held in jail because they couldn’t afford the bail money. If bail is 50 or 100 dollars and you don’t have it, it might as well be 100,000 dollars, so we started a community bail fund, and we would screen people that were arrested and put into country jail to try to get them out trough this bail fund, and then work to see that they had proper legal representation and get them employment if they needed it, or other basic needs, and try to work it from that angle, in terms of keeping them from falling any deeper into the system.
AS: Something that really struck me while I was reading your trial statement from ’89, where you talked about being inside and fighting the KKK and the prison administration, and not even being able to tell the difference between the two at times. I wondering if you could speak about how your time in prison shaped you as an anti-racist activist.
RL:. …[T]here’s a convergence of class and race in the American prison and it was extraordinarily clear to me when I was in this Southern prison that first of all – almost everyone that’s in there is from a working class background, and second, there’s a large disproportionate number of Black prisoners in there. And to see the abuses and the awful conditions under which we were kept… Prisons in this country are like concentration camps for the poor. We are the surplus value of the capitalist system. They don’t have any need for us. We’re expendable. You spent too much time hanging on street corners, and they think you’re potentially a threat to them. They need the prisons, and the prison gulag in this country has exploded in population since the prison experience you were referring to back in 1971.
Concurrently, with this direct experience inside, I was doing a tremendous amount of reading on my own, and talking to other prisoners. So my political ideas were being further formulated, based on that experience. And the reading and studying that I was doing – I read Marx, I read Lenin, I read Ho Chi Minh, I read Che Guevara, I read anthologies of labour history, feminist history. And I was trying to come up with an alternative vision of society based on historically what had happened after that point, and this was in the wake of major anti-colonial struggle around the world.
You don’t see this a lot today. I find that in a lot of activists there’s a lack of vision of what’s possible. But back then, a lot more seemed possible to more people…
AS: I wanted to talk to you a bit about your time in prison in the 80s and the 90s. First, could you talk a bit about your time in Marion – your most vivid memories, or anything else you’d like to share?
RL: Well, I was in Marion almost five years, and at the time that I was there, it was the government’s most extremely punitive prison that kept you in your cell 22 ½ hour a day, basically solitary confinement. Marion was never designed with that in mind, but that’s ultimately what it was used for. The physical structure – it was not initially built for extreme isolation.
So after I’d been in there for almost five years, they built a new scheme, the federal government. They build a new prison from the ground up that, from the time the first brick was put down, it was physically designed for extreme isolation. That was ADX, that’s what they’re using as supermax today. And so when ADX was completed, those of us in Marion were the very first prisoners sent to ADX.
AS: And what were your first impressions of Florence were when you were transferred there, after being at Marion?
RL: Would you like me to read you something I just wrote? I’ll just read an excerpt — as part of my writing a section on Marion and ADX, and I just finished, this is my second draft….
So the section I’m going to read to you starts up from the day I arrived at ADX…[Levasseur’s description of life inside ADX Florence has been posted separately as a Voices from Solitary, and is available here.]
AS: And when you were in Marion or ADX, around all of that, what tactics did you use to stay as safe or as sane as you could?
RL: First of all, solitary confinement does not respect any ideology, or any idealism, religion. It doesn’t respect any of that because it doesn’t respect a person’s basic humanity. It’s designed to basically erode a person’s sense of worth as a human being. And to be a healthy functioning human being. So whoever’s in that situation, there is no immunity. It’s going to affect different people in different ways. My position is that nobody should be subjected to long-term solitary confinement – its anti-human. But, there are certain people that are more vulnerable than others to its effects….
…The first thing [that helped me stay sane] is knowing why I was in prison. I think if I had gone to prison for stealing or slinging drugs, I think it would have had even more of negative impact on me. If I had been in that situation for doing something strictly for my own benefit or profit. But I had come off a commitment and a sacrifice where I was part of a group that was challenging, trying to expose the criminal activity of the United States government, and to bring that to the public’s attention, and to try to be part of a larger movement to bring an end to these crimes…
I always kept in mind why I was there, I felt like people had questioned my tactics, but they can’t question our hearts, that we felt we were on the right side of history, no matter if we lost this battle, we were fighting for the people that mattered most…
… So, I think that was a big factor right there. When I got to Marion a good friend of mine wrote to me and he said, “alright, now you no longer have access to all the militant tools in your political toolkit you have to write”. I did a lot of writing when I was on the inside. I stayed as politically engaged as I could.
I think that my political identity and my political life – that was a big part. It’s a political identity, not a criminal identity. And the more I wrote, the more I got published, mainly essays and some collections, the more those circulated, the more people wrote to me, the more they wrote to me the more correspondence I had, I was dialoguing with activists all over the country, essentially. They couldn’t visit me, but at least I could write…
AS: When you heard the ECHR [European Court of Human Rights] ruling about Florence [ADX], tell me how you felt about the ruling itself. Whether you were surprised, and also in the judgement, how they talked about the “step-down” program meaning that isolation wasn’t indefinite, or that isolation wasn’t complete because prisoners were able to shout through the rafters, all of that.
RL: ADX opened in 1984 and there were people there like me, who arrived at the beginning of it. Those people are still there. Not all of them, no, but I know individuals who have never gotten out of it, from the time it opened up. ’94 is… 18 years ago. And they did the same thing at Marion. The program in terms of how you can get out of there is so arbitrarily instituted that for any and no reason they can just keep you there…
And as far as the ruling goes, was I surprised? I wasn’t surprised by the ruling. I mean, it’s the Europeans. They’re not noted for their humanity. Obviously the prison policies in a number of European states are much better than in the American prison system, there’s no doubt about that. But it didn’t surprise me because I think the US, the power of the United States government reaches into every other country on this globe, and extrapolate that into their institutions, their influence is tremendous…
What I took away from [the ruling] was essentially that the European Court [the ECHR] took every affidavit submitted by the Federal Bureau of Prisons in this country saying, “there’s nothing wrong with ADX or the way we implement long-term solitary confinement”. They took every one of those affidavits and credited them, completely, without question… Which is what you see the courts in this country do. And [the ECHR] discredited, basically, anything that came from a prisoner or a critic or a human rights organization about the policies and practices at ADX.
AS: You were transferred out of ADX into the general population in a prison in Georgia. What was it like to go into general population?
RL: It was challenging for a couple of reasons. One that was when I got there, to Atlanta Georgia, which is a maximum security prison, but it’s what you call “open population”, people have jobs, recreation yard, some educational activities, you go to a mess hall to eat, but it’s still maximum security.
The first was that they wouldn’t let me into [general] population, they kept me in solitary, what you call the hole, sometimes they’re called special management units – segregation units, essentially….[But] after months of pressuring and lobbying from people outside, they finally relented and let me into the regular part of the prison.
And it was clear, right away, even from the other prisoners, one look at me and they know that I came from ADX, because I was totally wired. I was hard wired for – I wasn’t used to being around all these other men. I wasn’t used to being around everybody moving at one time to go to the mess hall, and I’d get into the mess hall and the noise level… in a place like ADX your senses start to constrict, because that’s the purpose of a boxcar cell and the whole isolation regime, is to reduce your senses to the absolute lowest common denominator, and between the pressure of isolation and your own withdrawing senses… then you get into a regular prison, and all those things – sight, smell, sound, movement… it all grates at you. You’re not prepared for it. It’s like, my head was on a swivel…
AS: And did that just take time to adjust to?
RL: Yeah, that takes time. All you’re doing is adjusting to a maximum security prison! But when I got out, mind you later, I had to make significantly more adjustments, because behind of that I had years of being in Marion and ADX and various segregation units. The residue of that never completely leaves you, it never does, and it never will.
I would defy anybody who spent years in supermax cell to say that it had absolutely no effect on them. Everyone comes out scarred or burned to some degree – it’s a question of degrees and how that meshes with the individual, and how that individual carries it to the outside world.
AS: My last question – I read in Becky Thompson’s book that the first time you got out of prison, you really saw the importance of having prisoners be key leaders in social movements, and the importance of engaging in solidarity with prisoners. I was hoping you could just talk a little bit about your experiences of solidarity – your perspective as someone who’s engaged in work both from the outside and from the inside….
RL: When I first got out of prison in was in the early 1970s, and it was a much different political climate then. I’m a believer in self-determination – that communities of people that are oppressed, that are being exploited, the leadership and direction for that [these political struggles] – change – should come from those people.
..And that’s why I think with Muslim prisoners it’s necessary that people from the Muslim community get more directly involved in supporting these prisoners and around issues related to the whole spectre of federal agents and others saturating Muslim communities and infiltrating and spying and all of this. Like I said the leadership and direction has to come out of those communities.
As far as supporting people on the inside, there’s a lot of things to do… One of the ways I survived was all that people that wrote to me – sent me cards, sent me books, sent me photographs, stayed in consistent contact with me through letters. And I did a speaking gig in some college in Boston about a month ago and I mentioned that when I was at ADX, I had received a letter out of nowhere from a Vietnam vet I didn’t know. He was in Canada at the time and he had put a maple leaf that was changing colour into the letter. Now they don’t allow things like that at ADX, they don’t allow – you don’t see a blade of grass in ADX. I got a letter with a leaf in there, they’ll call it a “nuisance item”, they’ll remove it as contraband but somehow, some way the mail room missed this leaf, and I got it in my cell and it was red and orange and yellow, it was changing colours. And the fact that I can talk about it twenty years later – that’s something that no matter how lonely I got, I know that I’m not alone. Because there’s people like that that remember you. They found that in a cell search a few days later, they found that leaf – I couldn’t hide it well enough, and they took it. But that was an important strand in the web of humanity that reached out to me and that I reached out to, that enabled me to get through those days and weeks and months and years in there.
So I don’t think anything should be thought of as too trivial or too small. That kind of human contact is essential to get yourself through a dehumanizing situation. Not just to survive it, but to survive it with your own humanity intact…
Former political prisoner Ray Luc Levasseur was raised in Maine, born to a working-class family of Quebecois origin. He became politically radicalized at a young age, first after serving a term of duty in Vietnam, and again after spending two years in a Tennessee prison. In 1986, Ray Luc Levasseur was convicted for militant activities conducted with the United Freedom Front. He would ultimately spend about 15 of his 18 years in prison in solitary confinement. First sent to the Control Unit at USP Marion, he was transferred to the federal supermax, ADX Florence, after refusing to work for the Federal Prison Industries (UNICOR) since it produced military equipment for the Department of Defense. Levasseur was released in 2004 and now lives in Maine. (For more on Ray Luc Levasseur, see the interview published in conjunction with this piece.)
The following is an excerpt from a larger piece that Levasseur is writing. It describes the day he arrived at ADX Florence and his initial experiences at the prison. –Aviva Stahl
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Approaching the federal prison complex, I saw majestic snow capped mountain peaks in the distance, an image to cherish when all else disappears behind closed walls. We rode through the complex: minimum security camp, medium security prison, maximum security prison, and continued to the end of the compound of the federal prison system.
ADX, administrative maximum, a prison where the building becomes the shackles. From outside ADX look half-buried, built against an earth berm. It wasn’t underground but might as well have been, once you’re inside. The mountains and the reminder of the outside world were erased as were entered the first door. We were led through a maze of polished hallways and bright lights, bar grills, steel doors and ubiquitous surveillance cameras. My travelling companion and I were placed in cells on an unoccupied tier. The cells were brand-spanking new, never before occupied. I had never had a new house, a new car or a new apartment but I now had a new prison cell.
This is a boxcar cell, designed to suppress human sound and constrain the five senses. I spoke to the walls. “Ray Luc, present and accounted for!” My voice echoed throughout the cell, a cough sounded like a racket ball carom. There would be no casual conversations with my one neighbour.
When fed through a shoe-box sized slot in the door the meal looked like dog-food on noodles. We missed the regular feeding time and this tray was sitting around somewhere. I hadn’t eaten all day so despite my trepidation I pushed the dog food aside and ate the noodles with a plastic spoon. I spent most of that first night retching and vomiting into the stainless steel commode. Food poisoning. Forty-eight years old and I’ve entered a new phase in my life – a mid life crisis embodied in a techno-fascist architectural wet dream.
Society reflects the self in a microcosm of prison. In a class based, economically driven, racially motivated life, devolved of a series of Chinese boxes. A set of boxes decreasing in size so that each box fits in the next larger one. I’m in the smallest box.
The essence of ADX is the boxcar cell. This boxcar doesn’t move. It is a cage within a box encased by concrete. Entry is through a solid steel door that contains a small Plexiglas observation window. And then the trap – dead space. Then a series of vertical steel bars which forms the front of the cage and a second door. I am confined to the boxcar cell 157 hours of each 168 hour week. I am allowed 11 hours a week into a barren concrete area adjacent to the cellblock between Mondays and Fridays. The rec space (i.e. recreation space) is like the deep end of a dry swimming pool with walls. I see only walls, except straight up through the wire mesh, steel cables and joists a section of sky. That’s the term, ‘outside rec’.
Other men begin occupying the cells on my tier. The boxcar cell is designed to gouge prisoner’s senses by suppressing human sound and communication with others. It puts blinders on one’s eyes and limits on touching to that which is lifeless. A boxcar cell is designed to inflict physical, psychological, and spiritual isolation. You will feel the pain. You will not leave the boxcar cell except in restraints. Within months it seems endless. Every morning begins with a loud grating of the steel gate opening to the tier. One at a time, each of the electronically controlled doors opens, a guard steps to the second barred door and slides the food tray through the slot, then steps back while the door is closed, with a vengeance. On down the line, until the last tray is delivered. A half hour later we go through the paces again until the last tray is retrieved, followed by silence.
At my first visit with a friend and lawyer from Chicago, she said, “Ray, you seem agitated.”
I had a thousand yard stare by then, and responded: “Hey, you’d be agitated too if you felt like your face was slapped every morning you get up in this shithole.”
“Okay, I understand but why don’t you sit down while you’re talking? You step left to the wall, then right to the wall, you don’t sit still.”
“You see what I got to sit on? A concrete stump – it’s a ******* post- same as in my cell. Why would I wanna sit on that?”
“But you’re unfocused at times, you’re jumping all over while you’re talking. First you talk about your kids one minute, then tell me about a prisoner in seg [segregation] who’s tearing his flesh with his teeth. Then without missing a beat you’re into Agent Orange and Vietnam.”
“Look, there’s nothing wrong with me, alright, nothing that the shining light of freedom wouldn’t fix. I know why I’m in prison in ADX, I’ll be a witness to what’s happening here. That’s what I’m doing, that’s what I’m writing about. They’re keeping that segregation prisoner in four point restraints, you understand. He’s four pointed to a concrete slab. They say every time they unchain him, he’s back to tearing at his flesh. Even the hacks are spooked by him. You know, what is it about this place that makes a man do that to himself. Several prisoners have already been a packed off to the pscyh ward at Springfield.”
“How do you know this?”
“I know it from prisoners rotating in and out of segregation unit, otherwise there could a major riot in the cellblock next to mine and I wouldn’t know about it, sound doesn’t travel far here. You can’t see beyond immediate walls and doors.”
“You’re in the same environment Ray, it’s got to affect you.”
“It does, it ******* enrages me, I get homicidal thoughts and migraines that begin with a spider crawling up my cervix and injecting a twelve load jolt of mind-******* pain into my skull. But you know what, in the immediate aftermath of physical pain I feel good. It takes the absence of pain to feel good here. It’s scary, the psychological is not always as evidence as the physical.”
“Unless you’re eating your own flesh.”
“Right, unless you’re eating your own flesh, or your own shit, I saw that in MCC [Metropolitan Correctional Center] in New York.”
I didn’t dwell on if or when I’d extricate myself from ADX because this line of thinking would drive me into deeper depression.
The post Voices from Solitary: “A Prison Where the Building Becomes the Shackles” appeared first on Solitary Watch.
• The new ACLU report A Living Death describes the more than 3,000 Americans serving life without parole for nonviolent crimes. The report was the subject of a New York Times editorial entitled “Sentenced to a Slow Death.” Included in the dozens of personal stories featured in the report are many accounts of long stays in solitary confinement.
• Cyber-activist Jeremy Hammond was sentenced to ten years in federal prison for hacking a private intelligence firm, reports Rolling Stone. Hammond spent months in pre-trial solitary confinement at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in lower Manhattan.
• A man incarcerated at the Potosi Correctional Center in Missouri reports that 15 people in the prison’s administrative segregation unit have been on hunger strike since October 13.
• The ACLU Blog of Rights reports on the federal lawsuit Coleman v. Brown, which is “the first statewide case aimed at getting all mentally ill people in California out of solitary confinement.”
• Fahad Hashmi, who is being held at the federal supermax ADX Florence following his controversial conviction on terrorism-related charges, has been banned from receiving an issue of The Nation that contains an article about his own imprisonment.
• The New York Times reports on the extensive use of solitary confinement on adolescents with mental illness on New York’s Rikers Island.
• The ACLU has released a new report, Alone & Afraid: Children Held in Solitary Confinement and Isolation in Juvenile Detention and Correctional Facilities. The report documents, the psychological, physical, and developmental harm done to children subjected to isolation.
• Slate recounts the history of the US Penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, and its ”transformation…from a progressive facility to an isolating and restrictive ‘Special Management Unit,’ or SMU—a shift that mirrors the evolution of the U.S. prison system in general.”
• BuzzFeed published a feature on the Photo Requests from Solitary project, in which people held in long-term isolation are given the opportunity to request one image, and photographers volunteer to fulfill their requests.
• Common Dreams documents the retaliatory measures still being faced by individuals who participated in the California Prison Hunger Strike. Many have been charged with rule violations that could extend their time in solitary or endanger their chances of parole.
• The New Mexico Department of Corrections has announced that it will “review” the nearly 10 percent of its prisoners who are held in isolation, and seek to reduce their numbers significantly, according to the Albuquerque Journal.
• The National Religious Campaign Against Torture has released a “toolkit” on “Confronting Solitary Confinement in an Age of Mass Incarceration,” in preparation for Human Rights Day on December 10.
Last week, representatives of six nonprofit organizations critical of solitary confinement met in a closed-door meeting in Washington, D.C., with the team hired to conduct an internal audit of the federal Bureau of Prisons’ controversial “segregation” policies.
The idea for an audit came out of Senator Dick Durbin’s June 2012 Senate hearing on solitary confinement, where BOP director Charles Samuels was grilled on the federal prison system’s use of solitary, especially on prisoners with mental illness. Further criticism emerged from media coverage, lawsuits, and a scathing report from the Government Accountability Office, which found that the BOP did not know whether its use of “segregated housing” had any impact on prison safety, how it affected the individuals who endure it, or how much it all cost American taxpayers.
The audit team is led by Ken McGinnis, the former warden who directs correctional programs at CNA, a Virginia think tank known primarily for military contracting. CNA is beginning a one year, $498,211 contract to provide a “Special Housing Unit Review and Assessment” for the National Institute of Corrections, which is itself an arm of the Bureau of Prisons.
On November 11, McGinnis and several colleagues met with representatives from the American Civil Liberties Union National Prison Project, National Religious Campaign Against Torture, CURE, Vera Institute for Justice, National Association for Mental Illness, and Prison Fellowship–a group that, according to participants, hopes to function as a sort of advisory committee to the auditors. Among other things this group has asked to receive briefings as the study progresses and to provide feedback to the final report. The group does not include any formerly incarcerated people or family members of those currently held in solitary.
According to individuals who attended the meeting, McGinnis described his plans to tour several different prisons, including the government’s notorious supermax, ADX Florence in Colorado, as well as Special Housing Units (SHUs) and Special Management Units (SMUs). An overview of the audit provided by CNA states that the project will make “an operational assessment of 8 BOP special housing units that will include at a minimum 1) Florence ADX, Florence SHU and Florence SMU; 2) Either Allenwood SHU and SMU or Lewisburg SHU; 3) Three additional SMU’s are yet to be to be determined.” (For descriptions of SHUs and SMUs, see our earlier post on the subject.)
In the end run, according to McGinnis, as many as 13 units may be inspected. Teams of experts will be dispatched to these facilities over the next few months to tour the facilities, and talk with the people who run them and the prisoners held there. McGinnis did not say whether prisoners would be interviewed without corrections staff present, or given the opportunity to fill out anonymous surveys–methods that are widely considered to be the only way to get candid information from people who are currently incarcerated.
Among CNA’s tasks will be “a comprehensive review of the Bureau’s mental health assessment process.” This controversial subject has been addressed in recent lawsuits and media reports, which show that numerous individuals with serious mental illness are being held at ADX, in violation of the BOPs own clear policy directives.
The audit will also review “the application of inmate due process rights…during duration of placement within SHU at ADX and or SMUS.” These due process rights, for the most part, consist of pro forma hearings and reviews, presided over solely by prison officials. Some critics argue that these processes lack even a semblance of fairness or independence.
The audit will pointedly not include “any inmates with Special Administrative Measures (SAMs),” which ban virtually all communications between those in prison and the outside world, and even permit monitoring of attorney-client communications. The auditors will not enter the section of ADX called H-Unit, which holds a group of the most restricted, high-security prisoners, including Ramzi Yousef (1993 World Trade Center bombings), Zacarias Moussaoui (9/11), and Ahmed Ghailani (US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania).
According to one court document, individuals in H-Unit have had their mail suspended and their phone privileges and contact with immediate family members denied. Every phone call, every piece of mail is closely monitored by the FBI–and some, according to the prisoners, is discarded, including pleas for help to attorneys. H-Unit banned prisoners from receiving books by President Obama, along with such innocuous publications as a book on world history, sports magazines, and even a magazine on crocheting. Individuals held at in the unit have been subjected to force feeding when they go on hunger strikes. (See “Voices from Solitary: Life in H-Unit, ADX Federal Supermax.”)
What is particularly unusual about H-Unit is the extent to which the FBI appears to be involved in it operation. (The FBI has no statutory authority to operate inside of federal prisons.) According to court documents, FBI agents listen in on phone conversations, read mail, and dictate punishments–even when BOP personnel object.
Solitary Watch asked Shaina Vanek, the contracting officer in charge of the study and a National Institute of Corrections spokesperson who attended the meeting, confirmed in an email: “the review of the Bureau of Prisons use of Restricted Housing excludes a review of inmates with Special Administrative Measures (SAMs) and also the H unit at the ADX. The BOP has a population of approximately 219,000, and 54 inmates have SAMs.”
While the numbers are indeed small, these individuals are subject to the most extreme, and potentially torturous, form of solitary confinement; their exclusion means that such practices will receive no review whatsoever.
According to one attendee at the November 11 meeting, McGinnis and his team seemed eager to secure “buy in” from the advocates present and to produce a report that will be accepted by them. One of the advocates was asked to represent the group in future communications, and another meeting may take place in the new year.
The post Federal Bureau of Prisons Details Plans for Limited “Audit” of Solitary Confinement Practices appeared first on Solitary Watch.
The excerpts that follow come from a declaration by Mahmud Abouhalima, who was convicted of taking part in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center (a charge he still denies). Sentenced to 240 years, he initially spent most of his time in the general population at federal maximum security prisons, where he was permitted to hold a job, make phone calls, visit family, watch television, read what he chose, and pray with other Muslims.
On 9/11, Abouhalima was placed in solitary confinement, and eventually transferred to ADX Florence in rural Colorado, the federal government’s only supermax prison. In 2005, after exchanging letters with a Muslim prisoner in Spain, he was subjected to “Special Administrative Measures” (SAMs), which ban virtually all communications with the outside world, and placed in ADX’s H-Unit.
The declaration, which describes Abouhalima’s life in H-Unit, was compiled for Ayyad v. Holder, a civil action filed in Federal District Court in Colorado. It challenges his confinement on the grounds that it violates his right to due process. Among other things, it claims that the FBI is deeply involved in managing prisoners in the unit, even to the point of overriding Bureau of Prisons officials. The declaration has been heavily redacted by the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office. –James Ridgeway
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Since September 11, 2001, through today, I have been in administrative detention and faced brutal and systematic mental, spiritual, and psychological cruelty. I never believed that such an unusual punishment would be extended up until today, where I have lived in a prison cell for the last ten years that is the size of a closet. I am fed like a zoo animal through a slot in the door, and manacled and chained at the hands, waist, and legs when I leave the cell. A black box with heavy lock is placed on top of my wrist chains in addition to this when I am escorted out of the unit, like to the hospital or to a visit…
Sitting in a small box in a walking distance of eight feet, this little hole becomes my world, my dining room, reading and writing area, sleeping, walking, urinating, and defecating. I am virtually living in a bathroom, and this concept has never left my mind in ten years. The toilet only works if you flush it once every five minutes, so if I press the flush button twice by mistake, I have to wait for up to an hour, with the smell of urine and defecation still there, everywhere I go, sit, stand, or sleep.
For my first four years in segregation, I kept fighting paranoia. I became suspicious of everything around me. If I heard the range door open, I stood up, feeling that they were coming to take me away, even though I didn’t expect to go anywhere. The one hour a day of rec outside the cell didn’t heal a damn thing. I struggled with myself, telling myself that maybe next month, next year it will be better and I would be out of solitary confinement. Eventually I lost all hope of getting out of segregation.
I lost appetite and just wanted to sleep. This was the first time in my life that I experienced the brutality of force feeding. I also heard and saw other inmates being taken by guards and medical staff in combat gear and with cameras. Sometimes an inmate screamed so loud that I could hear him…
I subscribed to a few magazines, like crochet and sports magazines, the Nation, and the Atlantic Monthly. When the first issue of the sports magazine arrived at the prison, SIS staff forwarded a copy of the magazine to the FBI office and refused to release it to me without FBI approval. The same thing happened to all of the magazines. The crochet and sports magazines were returned to me after a few weeks’ delay, with a few pages removed. However, other magazines with political articles were reduced literally to only a few pages.
For example, the first several issues of the Nation magazine were reduced from around fifty pages to only fifteen to twenty pages. I was told that the FBI removed all articles related to politics, as they don’t want us to read anything about politics. The same thing happened with the Atlantic Monthly, Time, Newsweek, and other magazines. A simple book like the world almanac was rejected twice because, according to the FBI, certain information in it could be used for terrorism. I filed administrative remedies and they were all denied, because the BOP could not override an FBI decision…
Over the last six years, three of my uncles, my grandfather, my aunt, and my uncle’s daughter have all passed away. I submitted request after request just to send condolence letters to my family mourning these deaths. I also requested to speak with my aunt before she died of cancer. They denied all of these requests…
An incoming letter in Arabic from my mother and brother was rejected because my brother wrote that an old friend said hello to me. The letter was sent back to Egypt after sitting in the FBI office for two months…
It is clear to me now that the FBI, not the BOP, is the agency that objects at each program review to my advancement into a tiny little program that would allow me to be on the same range, inside the same unit, with one or two inmates for only one hour…
In or around March 2011, a member of the ADX executive staff told me that, from the BOP perspective, they have no problem approving me to Phase 3 [a lower security level], and that everything they are told by the FBI about my letters to my children are absolutely irrelevant to prison management, but because they are not in control of the SAMs, the ADX or the BOP cannot do a thing…
I asked the FBI agent about the requests to contact family relatives that I had submitted over the past five or six years. She said to submit four names to her, as the FBI office had now decided that it would only approve four such requests. I asked her how long it would take for the FBI to approve the requests, and she said two months. I submitted all of the required information on the form they provided me, and resubmitted this information with additional information on March 5, 2011.
I tried to question the FBI agent on her misinterpretation in her report, but they wouldn’t let me. I asked her about another FBI report I had read, commenting on one of my letters in English to my son encouraging him to respect, to love, to cherish the parents’ bond with their children, as a call to an illegal and criminal act. She said that she didn’t remember that. I pulled the report out of a small envelope I had, but again Mr. Brieschke stopped me and said not to give her anything, because this was not the time or place to discuss such things. I was confused, and said they had told me I could ask questions…
I pray that the court will order a meaningful process for these SAMs renewals and a program to follow to get the SAMs restrictions removed from me and ultimately liberate me from the indefinite solitary confinement of the ADX and into an open and less restrictive prison.
The post Voices from Solitary: Life in H-Unit, ADX Federal Supermax appeared first on Solitary Watch.
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 ACLU reports on a landmark ruling by a Virginia federal court in a case brought by death row prisoner Alfredo Prieto. According to the story, District Court Judge Leona Brinkema has ruled that “the state’s automatic placement of death-row prisoners in solitary confinement… violates the right to due process guaranteed by the Constitution.”
• The Associated Press reports that a federal judge has rejected efforts by the state of North Carolina to dismiss a lawsuit over prisoner beatings that took place in Central Prison’s solitary confinement unit. “‘Your case is about sunlight, where you claim there were systematic violations,’ Boyle told the lawyers for the inmates. ‘What we need to do with this lawsuit is not bury it in a deep, dark hole and proceed with discovery.’” Solitary Watch reports on the case here.
• The Advocate reports on Albert Woodfox’s November 13 hearing to end daily strip and cavity searches, stating that U.S. District Judge James J. Brady “took Wednesday’s evidence and testimony under advisement.”
• The Atlantic reports on the story of Sam Mandez, who has been held in solitary confinement in the state of Colorado for the past 16 years for non-violent, petty prison rule violations. “[M]ade severely mentally ill by prison policies and practices, left untreated in that condition year after year by state officials, Mandez personifies the self-defeating cruelty of America’s prisons today.” Mandez’ story is featured in a new film by the ACLU, Out of Sight, Out of Mind, about mentally ill prisoners held in solitary confinement.
• In a piece entitled “Swallowing the Mentally Ill Whole,” a blogger for Psych Central discusses the inhumane treatment of prisoners with mental illness in U.S. prisons. Underscoring the detrimental effects of solitary confinement, the post states, “Because man, at his very core, is a social animal, [UCLA's Steven] Cole believes that there’s no greater risk to health problems, including mental health problems, than isolation.”
Karl ChuJoy is currently serving three years in solitary confinement in the Special Housing Unit (SHU) of Elmira Correctional Facility in upstate New York, for possessing a laptop computer. He writes in a letter to Solitary Watch: “I’ve been incarcerated since I was fifteen (15) years old. I am now thirty-six (36)…I’m halfway through these three (3) years [in the SHU]. I’ve been in SHU before, quite a few times. But this is the first time in five (5) years. My introduction to SHU began when I was sixteen (16) years old, in 1993. I’ve since learned to sidestep the bullshit in prison and stay out of trouble (but can you really pass up a laptop in prison? Come on, think about it).” The following are further excerpts from his letter. He welcomes letters at the following address: Karl ChuJoy, #94-A-5418, Elmira Correctional Facility, PO Box 500, Elmira, New York 14902-0500. –James Ridgeway
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Being alone is totally different than being lonely. Being alone signifies being physically apart from others. Being lonely is complete a state of mind: “feeling” alone. The latter holds all of the negative aspects of solitude. In the SHU this feeling is magnified exponentially due to the constricted lack of freedom and relative lack of brain-stimulating activities.
Mail is manna from heaven. When I hear the squeak, squeal and rumble of the mail-cart being pushed down the gallery, I start saying to myself, “You’re not getting any mail, so don’t even expect it. Nobody knows you anymore. No one wrote, so stop it!” Then, as the cart squeaks and squeals and rumbles a bit louder as it gets closer, I’ll jump off the cot and start pacing. Then I’ll squat in front of one of my spiders (the SHU Prisoner’s Loyal Pet) and I’ll start talking to it (you talk to your pets, too, don’t you?!) I’ll say, “Come on! Hope with me that we get a piece of mail. Come on! If you hope with me then we’re guaranteed a letter,” and I’ll do a little fist pump. I get real animated. I won’t do it everyday, though. It becomes a quotidien ritual when I haven’t received a letter in a month or more, because I’ll start to worry. Only my mother and sister write to me, once a month usually…
Literary media is the lifeblood of a sane mind in the SHU. Reading makes on think outside the box. National Geographic Magazine is my Travelocity, my trips to the Museum of Natural History, my Smithsonian, my MOMA and the Louvre, my trips to the Bronx Zoo and Sea World; GQ is my afternoon window-shopping stroll down 5th Avenue;…Popular Mechanics and Scientific American are my brain snacks–I was super excited when it was announced that circumstantial evidence was detected of the existence of the Higgs boson particle. Will I be able to open a wormhole in my call and go on a furlough one day? Quantum mechanics offers infinite possibilities, so I’ll keep my antennas up!
Book! Books! Book! A man in SHU lives on books as much as on food (and they taste better). Non-fiction has the potential to feed one’s knowledge pool. Fictoin has the potential to feed one’s empathy. Two different parts of the brain. Both necessary to build a fecund mind. I cannot say enough about books, my friends. I love books. I LOVE books. Books are my teachers, my guides, my companions. They enrich me with new [to me] concepts and ideas to digest. They take me to other worlds, lands, times, realities, life experiences. They introduce me to characters who become close friends….And my companions take me out of the SHU almost completely. Only my physical self is locked in a cell with the chaos around me. My spirit is elsewhere, walking through the woods, living vicariously, a silent partner. When I return, dusk may have turned to dawn and sometimes I’ll be surprised/confused when breakfast is being served. That’s the magic of books: they are teleportation machines for the spirit.
For the uninitiated in society who want to know somewhat how the SHU experience feels: go to your bathroom and lock yourself in there (a regular 10′ x 6′ sized bathroom, not a mansion sized one). Then truly imagine being locked in there for days, weeks, months…years–with no way to get out. All your meals are slid under the door. You don’t see anyone, but you hear others. Although, you wish you didn’t…
Because all day, and parts of the night, you are being assaulted by the deafening sounds of others yelling at each other to be overheard, chess players shouting numbers a hundred feet apart from each other, others screaming the foulest profanities and threats at each other for ten hours non-stop to emerge the victor in the argument/mouthfight. The worst are the ones who scream at the top of their lungs at 2 AM, 3 AM, 5 AM, as if they’re on fire just ’cause they’re assholes, and others who growl-yell-scream as if they’re transforming into werewolves of battling a demonic entity in their cell at 2 or 3 in the morning, while others start barking like large dogs. Yes, actually barking for a minute at a time…like a Rottweiler. You can wake up and really believe you died in your sleep and you’re in hell. But nope…you’re just in the SHU. Welcome.
In States That “Reduce” Their Use of Solitary Confinement, Suffering Continues for Those Left Behind
Under pressure from activists, lawsuits, and even a few reformers within the corrections system, several states have significantly reduced the number of people they hold in solitary confinement in their prison systems. These reductions, achieved largely through “reclassifying” prisoners and returning the least troublesome ones to the general population, have rightly been celebrated by opponents of solitary confinement.
In recent months, however, reports by organizations and investigative journalists have documented what happens to those who remain behind when the use of solitary is “reduced” rather than eliminated. In doing so, they show the pitfalls involved in opposing the “overuse” of solitary, rather than confronting all extreme isolation as torture.
A case in point is Maine, where the use of solitary confinement in the supermax unit of Maine State Prison has been reduced by more than 60 percent. The changes in Maine followed a grassroots campaign against solitary, the introduction (though not the passage) of legislation to limit solitary, and finally the appointment of a new corrections commissioner who decided to review and reduce the prison system’s use of solitary. Many advocates declared victory, some going so far as to call what had happened the “Maine miracle.”
Helping to spur these changes was a series of articles by Lance Tapley in the Portland Phoenix, exposing the hidden brutality inside the supermax. This week, Tapley has a new article in the Phoenix, along with a series of photographs. These are based on a visit he was permitted to make to the supermax unit where those who did not benefit from the “reduction” still languish.
Tapley was shown cells that had ”what looked like blood on the floor” and “faintly stank of shit,” and walked through cellblocks where he ”heard undulating cries and saw shadowy faces behind the steel doors’ tiny windows.” He writes:
Maine corrections commissioner Joseph Ponte has reduced the typical number of prisoners in isolation from close to 100 to 40 or so in a 900-man prison. Of the supermax’s four cellblocks or “pods,” two, of Administrative Segregation, have 50 cells each, and one is now empty. The Mental Health Unit, where solitary confinement has never been total, has two pods of 16 cells each, one for “acute” prisoners, one for “stabilization.” Together they held 17 men the day I was there.
Stays in the supermax also are much shorter now, and there’s a lot less prisoner “cutting up” and fewer brutal cell “extractions” by guards to tie prisoners into the restraint chair. For his reforms, Ponte has deservedly received national attention…
But the Maine supermax is still there, and it’s still grim. While 40 prisoners may not sound like many, it’s the total, according to one report, that England and Wales, with 56 million inhabitants, keep in isolation — isolation less severe than in American supermaxes.
And the supermax is part of a prison from which I receive constant reports of guard cruelty, inadequate medical care, understaffing, deliberate mixing of predators and the vulnerable, and — currently — turmoil because scores more men are being forced to double-bunk. Corrections says the double-bunking is being done for proper “classification” of prisoners. Critics suspect it’s being done to save money…
Tapley notes that the state in fact has plans to open twenty more cells in the supermax’s Mental Health Unit to house ”violence-prone patients from the state’s chief psychiatric hospital” and “unconvicted jail inmates whom the courts have concluded should be examined for their sanity.”
Maine’s is not the only prison system that has been praised for its dramatic reductions in solitary confinement, but condemned for its treatment of those who still remain in isolation.
Mississippi has been held up as a “model of reform” in the area of solitary confinement after it reduced its use of solitary by approximately 75 percent and closed down a notorious supermax unit. In 2012 it’s corrections chief, Christopher Epps, was featured in the front-page story in the New York Times, and invited to testify before a Senate Judiciary Subcommittee hearing on solitary to share his success story.
Yet a lawsuit filed by the ACLU and Southern Poverty Law Center in May 2013 alleges a “massive human right violation” at East Mississippi Correctional Facility. One ACLU lawyer described the privately run prison, which is supposed to provide treatment for prisoners with mental illness, as a “cesspool,” and stated: ”When you combine solitary confinement, abuse, lack of basic medical and mental health care, and denial of basic human needs, it’s a recipe for disaster.” An ACLU press release details conditions at EMCF:
The lawsuit…describes a facility where prisoners are often locked in filthy cells and ignored even when they are suffering from serious medical issues. Many cells lack light and working toilets, forcing prisoners to use trays or plastic bags that are tossed through slots in their cell doors. Rats often climb over prisoners’ beds, and some prisoners capture the rats, put them on makeshift leashes, and sell them as pets to other inmates.
Although designated as a facility to care for prisoners with special needs and serious psychiatric disabilities, EMCF denies prisoners even the most rudimentary mental health care services….The prison also seriously underfeeds prisoners…a correctional health expert notified the Mississippi Department of Corrections of this problem after reviewing prisoner records that showed a pattern of prisoners losing significant amounts of weight at EMCF – some more than 20 or 30 pounds.
Despite evidence demonstrating the adverse effect of long-term solitary confinement on prisoners’ mental health, the prison continues to place prisoners in isolation for weeks, months or years at a time with little stimulation or access to showers and medical care. Prisoners in solitary confinement frequently set fires or flood their cells to get attention for medical treatment.
In Colorado the story is much the same. The state reduced the number of people it holds in solitary in the supermax Colorado State Penitentiary, under the leadership of corrections director Tom Clements–who, in an instance of grim irony, was murdered last spring by a man who had just been released directly from solitary onto the streets.
But those who remain in CSP–a majority of them suffering from mental illness–are “warehoused” in 23-hour-a-day lockdown, often for years, according to an ACLU report published in July. The report ”chronicles instances of solitary confinement driving untreated mentally ill prisoners to a psychotic state, leading them to attempt suicide, attack others, eat their feces, or ‘bang their heads against the wall in an effort to drown out the voices in their heads.’”
And then there is the federal prison system, which claims to have reduced the population of its Special Housing Units (SHUs) by about 25 percent following the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee hearing and a scathing GAO report on the Bureau of Prisons’ extensive use of solitary. The federal government is responsible for some of the most brutally isolating prison conditions in the world, which have driven many individuals to madness and suicide.
Beyond this, it is far from clear where prisoners are going when they are removed from the SHUs. Some may be returning to the general population, but others apparently are being placed in other kinds of segregation units, like the Special Management Units (SMUs), where they are still locked down 23 hours a day, but with one or two others in the same cell. This allows the BOP to say it is reducing its use of solitary, while retaining prisoners in other forms of extreme isolation that are just as bad or worse.
Live from Lockdown–a site that publishes “authentic & uncensored voices from inside maximum security & supermax prisons & control units”–recently published this series of tweets based on messages from individuals in federal SMUs:
@lockdownlive Comrades are happy 2 hear of talk around #solitary but are quick 2 point out- inside it appears no one cares & things are getting worse
@lockdownlive For example, in all the real deal fed spots, not Camp Cupcake, #solitary aint solitary any more
@lockdownlive Now picture 2 and 3 people in a 5 x 9 cell 23 hours or more a day, yea we might be out of #solitary but shit aint get better
The post In States That “Reduce” Their Use of Solitary Confinement, Suffering Continues for Those Left Behind appeared first on Solitary Watch.
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.
• Lance Tapley of The Portland Phoenix provides readers with a look inside Maine State Prison’s Special Management Unit, which he describes as “a physical manifestation of the banality of evil.”
• In a must-read story reporting on the abuse of isolation in U.S. prisons, GQ states that “[s]olitary confinement has become the United States’ next great human-rights scandal.”
• In a segment featured on Katie, Katie Couric talks with death row exoneree Anthony Graves about his 18 years time on Texas’ death row, 12 of which he spent in solitary confinement.
• AlterNet reports on sentences to solitary confinement in the state of California, where people are held in prolonged isolation for months, years, even decades, writing that “the only evidence needed to get someone thrown in solitary is a tattoo, letter, photo or piece of political material.”
• The American Public Health Association (APHA) adopts a new policy statement opposing solitary confinement, asking corrections officials to “discontinue solitary confinement as a punishment and to create alternatives for prisoners living with mental and chronic illness.”
• In The Atlantic, Andrew Cohen reports on a hearing held by the Senate Judiciary Committee on “oversight” of the federal Bureau of Prisons. The senators posed a few tepid questions on solitary confinement to BOP chief Charles Samuels, but nothing in the way of “true accountability and transparency,” Cohen writes.
• According to Jeff Kaye, writing for Firedoglake’s “The Dissenter,” A task force of medical, legal, and ethics experts has denounced portions of the Army Field Manual on interrogations as abusive and torturous. These promote the use of prolonged solitary confinement, along with sensory deprivation, sleep deprivation, “dietary and environmental manipulation,” and “the exploitation of fear.”
• The Los Angeles Times offers a profile of a formerly incarcerated Berkeley student struggling with a long-term–and possibly permanent–effects of spending eight years in solitary confinement.
• Live from Lockdown–a site that publishes “authentic & uncensored voices from inside maximum security & supermax prisons & control units”–sends a message about what’s really happening with regard to soltiary confinement inside federal prisons:
@lockdownlive Comrades are happy 2 hear of talk around #solitary but are quick 2 point out- inside it appears no one cares & things are getting worse
@lockdownlive For example, in all the real deal fed spots, not Camp Cupcake, #solitary aint solitary any more
@lockdownlive Now picture 2 and 3 people in a 5 x 9 cell 23 hours or more a day, yea we might be out of #solitary but shit aint get better
An important new report and accompanying press release issued by the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty (NMCLP) and the ACLU of New Mexico (ACLU-NM) finds that solitary confinement in New Mexico prisons and jails is both “overused” and understated.
The report further states that the use of isolation, as practiced by the New Mexico Corrections Department (NMCD), violates the human rights of those subjected to it by isolating people suffering from serious mental illness and permitting the use of prolonged segregation. Findings of the study are based on a year-long investigation into the use of solitary confinement in the state’s correctional facilities. According to the release:
Solitary confinement means detaining a prisoner in 23-hour-a-day lockdown in small cells, where the person is banned from most out-of-cell activities and social interaction. The investigation found that both state prisons and county jails hold hundreds people in solitary at any one time around the state. The average length of stay of solitary in the prisons is almost 3 years. In the jails, it can last for months, or even years at a time.
“Inside the Box: The Real Costs of Solitary Confinement in New Mexico’s Prisons and Jails” states that New Mexico houses approximately 16 percent of its total prison population in some form of solitary confinement, also noting the substantial increase in the cost associated with holding a prisoner in solitary as opposed to that for a prisoner held in the general population. “While it costs more money to detain prisoners in isolation than in the general population, it does not improve public safety or reduce prison violence.” The report also elaborates on the detrimental effects inflicted on people subjected to the practice:
[I]mposing extreme isolation on prisoners, without allowing for social interaction, education and opportunities for rehabilitation, can have dire consequences. Countless studies have shown that otherwise mentally stable people can experience severely adverse effects from even short periods of enforced isolation. Symptoms can include social withdrawal, panic attacks, irrational anger, loss of impulse control, paranoia, severe depression, and hallucinations. The effect on children and those already suffering from mental illnesses can be particularly devastating.
Mentioned throughout the study was the challenge associated with obtaining clear information on New Mexico’s use of solitary confinement, a problem largely attributable to reporting by NMCD that “lacks adequate transparency at both the state and local level.” The release states:
“The amount of information we were able to gather is dwarfed by the amount of information we still lack,” said Steven Robert Allen, Director of Public Policy at the ACLU of New Mexico. “New Mexico desperately needs to implement uniform transparency requirements to fully reveal how and why solitary confinement is being used in our prisons and jails.”
Not surprisingly, the report further elaborates on the paucity of data available on the state’s use of segregation:
This research project illuminated just how difficult it is to acquire clear data on the use of solitary confinement in New Mexico. For example, it was impossible to determine with any degree of certainty either the percentage or raw numbers of prisoners held in solitary confinement in New Mexico jails because this data simply is not compiled in an accessible, uniform manner.
Solitary Watch reports on the obstacles encountered by journalists in reporting on solitary confinement in U.S. prisons here and here. Based on their findings, the NMCLP and ACLU-NM identify key areas in need of urgent reform, proposing that the NMCD implement the following measures (each of which are expanded upon in detail in the report):
• Increase transparency and oversight of the use of solitary confinement
• Limit the length of solitary confinement to no more than 30 days
• Mandate that all prisoners be provided with mental, physical and social stimulation
• Ban the use of solitary confinement on the mentally ill
• Ban the use of solitary confinement on children
NMCLP and the ACLU make a point to commend NMCD for its willingness to cooperate with their investigation, and for efforts at reform already underway:
NMCD is now looking at new ways to reduce the use of solitary confinement in its facilities. In June 2012, NMCD invited the Vera Institute of Justice (www.vera.org) to conduct a comprehensive assessment on its use of solitary confinement at state detention facilities. This process will hopefully lead to a sensible reduction in the use of solitary confinement in New Mexico prisons with corresponding taxpayer savings and an increase in prison and public safety.
“We got in the habit of making it to easy to lock down prisoners,” says Jerry Roark, NMCD Director of Adult Prisons. “Right now, we have way to many non-predatory prisoners in segregation. We need to change that, and we’re working on it.”
The post New Report Criticizes Use of Solitary Confinement in New Mexico Prisons and Jails appeared first on Solitary Watch.
Two recent reports provide a scathing picture of how solitary confinement is employed as a routine disciplinary measure on Rikers Island and in other city jails. The reports are particularly critical of the use of extreme isolation and deprivation on individuals with psychological disabilities, including mentally ill teenagers.
The two reports were prepared for the Board of Correction (BOC), which functions as the oversight agency for the New York City jail system, ensuring that all city correctional facilities comply with minimum regulations of care. In recent months, under pressure from local activists, the BOC has been reconsidering the liberal use of solitary confinement in the city’s jails, and conducting fact-finding on the subject.
The first of two reports commissioned by the BOC was released in September 2013. Dr. James Gilligan and Dr. Bandy Lee authored the report, addressing the use of solitary confinement in the city’s jails. This past June, Dr. Gilligan and Dr. Lee were asked to assess whether the city’s jails were in compliance with the current Mental Health Minimum Standards set forth by the Board of Correction.
On Rikers Island, which houses more than 10,000 of the 13,000 women, men and children in the city’s jails, 1 in every 10 people is in isolated confinement at any time. Many are placed there for nonviolent offenses at the discretion of corrections officers. This distinguishes New York as a city with one of the highest rates of prison isolation in the country–about double the national average.
The report’s findings are a resounding criticism of the current use of punitive segregation, and point both to violations of the Mental Health Minimum Standards as well as to practices within the jail system that are harmful to those who suffer from mental illness. The report’s authors point to snapshot data in which the number of people with mental illness in solitary confinement is almost double the number of those with mental illness in the jail population generally. The authors conclude that mentally ill people in the jail system are being disproportionately placed in solitary confinement.
The report also claims that the nation’s prisons and jails have become “de facto mental hospitals,” pointing to the fact that roughly 95% of people with mental illness who are currently institutionalized are in correctional facilities, while only 5% are in mental hospitals.
The Mental Health Minimum Standards mandate that mental healthcare be provided in a setting that is conducive to care and treatment. The report contends that prolonged use of solitary confinement for mentally ill people violates these Standards, because it has been used punitively, to create a stressful environment and to remove social contact, rather than to provide therapeutic services.
Moreover, the report holds that the Standards should be amended to emphasize that those with mental illness should not be held in segregation. As the report states, “The goal of mental health treatment (and also of correctional practice) should be to do everything possible to foster, enhance and encourage the inmates’ ability to…behave in constructive and non-violent ways after they have returned to the community from jail.”
The city responded to the report with a point-by-point rejection of its findings, claiming that the principal conclusions drawn by Drs. Gilligan and Lee were based on an erroneous legal interpretation of the Mental Health Minimum Standards and that the report’s conclusions and further recommendations were unsupported by sufficient evidence. This response was put forth by a multiple agencies, including the Office of the Mayor, the Department of Corrections and the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
Drs. Gilligan and Lee responded in turn, claiming that a strictly legal interpretation ignored the changing conditions of the current prison system as well as a misunderstanding of human psychology and behavior. In order to reach a true understanding of the harm caused by punitive segregation, the authors say, we need to take into account the psychological effects of isolation, as well as the recent influx of people with mental illness into our prisons and jails.
One week after Drs. Gilligan and Lee published their report, the BOC voted unanimously to begin rulemaking to limit the use of solitary confinement in New York City.
These events follow a meeting held in June, in which the Board of Correction voted against limiting solitary confinement in the city’s jails, rejecting a petition put forth by the grassroots group known as the Jails Action Committee (JAC). The petition, if it had been accepted, would have limited solitary confinement as a last resort punishment for violent behavior only, and banned it entirely for children, young adults, and those with mental and physical disabilities.
BOC member Dr. Robert Cohen, a Manhattan physician and expert on prison health and mental health care, vocally supported JAC’s petition. At this June meeting, 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.
Dr. Cohen’s statement rings especially true after the release of the most recent BOC report in October, one month after the first report was published. Providing new information about the suffering of mentally ill youth placed in solitary confinement, the report describes the experiences of three adolescent boys at Rikers Island, each held in punitive segregation for more than 200 days, each suffering from mental illness. Youth and adolescents are among the most vulnerable populations in New York’s jail system; the report makes clear, however, that segregating mentally ill youth as a form of punishment is both negligent and dangerous. The city has yet to respond to this latest criticism of solitary confinement.
The consequences of time spent in solitary confinement are lengthy and harmful, Cohen and other experts say; they include negative effects on mental health, including severe depression, anxiety, hallucinations, paranoia, insomnia, and panic attacks. Furthermore, studies have shown that common patterns of depression, anxiety, anger, and suicidal thoughts often leave individuals more prone to unstable and violent behavior, which can in turn lead to higher rates of recidivism.
The post Reports Condemn Solitary Confinement in New York City’s Jails, As Officials Weigh Its Future appeared first on Solitary Watch.
• A comprehensive new report, Inside the Box: The Real Costs of Solitary Confinement in New Mexico’s Prisons and Jails, was published this week by the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty and the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico. The result of a year-long study, the report found that extreme isolation is routinely used on the incarcerated in New Mexico, including many with mental illness.
• Out of Sight, Out of Mind: The Story of Sam Mandez, a new film produced by the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado, had its debut last week in Denver. The film depicts “one inmate’s descent into madness and the penal system’s crazy reliance on “administrative segregation” to manage a wide range of behavior issues.”
• KQED reports on a presentation by survivors of solitary confinement, along with artist Laurie Jo Reynolds, at the Creative Time conference on art and social activism. The author describes the performance and calls it “one of the most moving experiences of my so-called art life: an unscripted moment of profound humanity.”
• As the Los Angeles Times reports, that videotapes released by a federal court “show mentally ill prisoners in California being forced from their cells by guards who douse them repeatedly with pepper spray…Lawyers representing some 30,000 mentally ill prisoners say the tapes show excessive force, the abuse of men who may have little understanding of what is happening to them or why.”
• A commentary on the conservative website Red State calls solitary confinement “A Punishment in Need of Reform.”
• In an op-ed appearing in the Albany Times-Union, an “odd couple of prison reform” join to advocate for reform of prison isolation. Martin Horn, now of John Jay College, is a former corrections commissioner for the City of New York and the state of Pennsylvania; Michael Mushlin, now of Pace University Law School, is a past director of the New York City Legal Aid Society Prisoners’ Rights Project and author of Rights of Prisoners.
• The National Religious Campaign Against Torture has released a free ”Human Rights Day Toolkit” for download by congregations and activists. The subject of the campaign for Human Rights Day (December 10) is “Solitary Confinement in an Age of Mass Incarceration.”
Margo Schlanger is Professor of Law at the University of Michigan Law School. The following post is based on an article that appeared in the Michigan Journal of Race & Law (see link below). The article was presented as introduction to a symposium held at the University of Michigan Law School in February 2013, Inhumane and Ineffective: Solitary Confinement in Michigan and Beyond.
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There is remarkably little systematic information available about who is held in segregated confinement in our nation’s prisons and jails. I recently pulled together what little quantitative data exist. What I found is preliminary, but it suggests that in many states the harsh conditions of solitary confinement are probably disproportionately affecting prisoners of color. Full details on sources, methodology, etc. are available in Margo Schlanger, Prison Segregation: Symposium Introduction and Preliminary Data on Racial Disparities, 118 Mich. J. Race & Law 241 (2013).
The best sources of demographic information about prisoners are the various surveys and censuses conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). While no BJS publication directly addresses the issue, and no BJS dataset allows its full analysis, it is possible to glean something from the most recent BJS prison census, the 2005 Census of State and Federal Adult Correctional Facilities. I present in the Table that follows data derived from that census for seven state facilities. I also include, for comprehensiveness, information from a 2012 NYCLU report on New York supermax confinement. (Even so, the table covers only a very small portion of the nation’s tens of thousands of supermax prisoners.)
The table includes all the facilities in the 2005 BJS prison census that meet all the following criteria:
- Reported physical security as “supermax.”
- Reported 80 percent or higher share of facility prisoners as housed in maximum (or higher) custody.
- Provided demographic data for 95 percent or more of prisoners.
Given the limited available information, the table is merely suggestive—but it does support a working hypothesis of current racialized impact for isolated confinement. In four of the eight columns (Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, and New York), non-white prisoners are substantially overrepresented in the highlighted facilities; statistical testing confirms that the difference is statistically significant. (In three of the other four—Massachusetts, New Jersey, Rhode Island—the small overrepresentation is not statistically significant; likewise, the tiny proportion of underrepresentation in Maryland lacks statistical significance..)
Of course evidence of disproportion does not demonstrate racial discrimination; it is possible that whatever disproportion exists has other explanations. But whether or not the source is detectable bias, the demographic impact of supermax and similarly isolated custody seems to me worthy of analysis. In short, it seems high time for corrections researchers to more systematically examine race in this area. American jails and prisons are themselves vastly racially skewed in their populations, and what we are likely to find is an even more extreme skew for those who are on the receiving end of isolated confinement’s harsh effects.