The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), along with California-based Prison Law Office and their co-counsel in federal class action lawsuit Parsons v. Ryan, has released a series of 26 reports alleging extensive problems with the Arizona Department of Corrections’ (ADC) healthcare program and its use of solitary confinement.
Prison Law Office director Don Specter stated the groups requested the reports from national experts in prison healthcare as part of a lawsuit against the ADC. The reports, which were released ahead of next month’s federal class action trial against the ADC, assert that medical, dental and mental healthcare in Arizona State prisons has declined to unsafe levels and that solitary confinement is excessive, with prisons placing people in isolation because prison beds elsewhere are full.
In 2012, the ACLU, the ACLU of Arizona and the Prison Law Office filed a lawsuit seeking competent medical, dental and mental healthcare for prisoners and challenging the use of solitary confinement in Arizona State prisons. The suit includes 33,000 people held in 10 Arizona State prisons. The federal class-action lawsuit is set to go to trial October 21, 2014.
A September 9, 2014, press release issued by the ACLU states:
To show the dangerous inadequacies of health care and other conditions in Arizona’s state prisons, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Prison Law Office, and their co-counsel in Parsons v. Ryan filed reports yesterday with the U.S. District Court from seven experts in medicine, psychiatry, dentistry, and related fields. These experts toured the prisons on multiple occasions. They found incidents of illnesses and injuries so neglected by prison staff that they caused extreme suffering, permanent damage, and even death. The reports also detail significant harm caused by the Arizona Department of Corrections’ use of solitary confinement.
According to a recent press release by the Prison Law Office:
“[T]he chronic shortage of mental health staff, delays in providing or outright failure to provide mental health treatment, the gross inadequacies in the provision of psychiatric medications, and the other deficiencies identified in this report are statewide systemic problems, and prisoners who need mental health care have already experienced, and will experience, a serious risk of injury to their health if these problems are not addressed,” wrote Dr. Pablo Stewart, another expert hired by plaintiffs’ counsel to tour ADC’s prisons and review prisoners’ medical records… (11/8/13 report, page 10).
Dr. [Pablo] Stewart, a psychiatry professor with expertise in prison mental health care, uncovered numerous preventable suicides by prisoners, lengthy and serious delays in care, insufficient and unlicensed staff and inadequate medication protocols. One prisoner hanged himself after ADC neglected to give him his prescribed mood stabilizing drugs for more than three weeks, Dr. Stewart found (11/8/13 report, pages 21-23).
The release also touches on “significant, dangerous problems with the ADC’s use of solitary confinement,” stating that people are placed in solitary “simply because other beds are full” and that people with mental illness are often placed in isolation because the ADC does not have “treatment alternatives.”
According to the Arizona Public Media:
The reports, “Come to the unanimous conclusion that the Arizona healthcare system is…an abysmal failure,” [Specter] said.
Arizona’s correctional system puts prisoners at serious risk of sickness and death because of a lack of access to adequate healthcare, he added.
Specter said the use of solitary confinement is also a large problem in state prisons.
The reports pointed out that mentally ill prisoners are often put into isolation units, where limited human contact can cause their mental condition to significantly worsen.
Of the ACLU’s 26 expert reports, eight focus on the ADC’s use of solitary confinement.
One expert commissioned by the ACLU, Mr. Eldon Vail, is a “former corrections administrator with nearly thirty-five years experience working in and administering adult institutions” whose experience “included responsibility for… the mentally ill population and their custody, housing, and treatment.” Vail spent five days inspecting three Arizona State prisons, during which time he interviewed over 100 people held in solitary confinement. According to his expert opinion:
In the name of safety and security, the ADC engages in multiple practices that are counterproductive to its states aims and harmful to the prisoners in its custody. Overreliance on isolation as a primary means of control results in a harmful environment for all inmates, and especially those with mental illness. Moreover, the actual operations of those units—extreme levels of isolation and idleness, frequent use of pepper spray, and unstable, infrequent, and incoherent “programming”—results in a correctional environment that exacerbates the already grave risks presented by ADC’s over-use of isolation. A predictable and stable custody environment that would help mentally ill prisoners feel safe is essential to prepare inmates to be ready to engage in treatment. That environment does not currently exist within ADC.
Another expert called on by the ACLU to provide his opinion of the ADC’s use of solitary confinement was Dr. Craig Haney, Ph.D, J.D., Professor of Psychology at the University of California at Santa Cruz. The following are excerpts from Haney’s report:
My inspections of the ADC isolation units, my substantial cell front and on-on-one confidential interviews, and the extensive documents that I have reviewed pertaining to the policies, procedures, and conditions that are in operation in ADC’s isolation units confirm that they do indeed impose “solitary confinement” on Arizona prisoners. These are precisely the kinds of isolated and isolating conditions that have been identified and described in the scientific literature as producing adverse effects. Indeed, in my experience, they represent an extremely harsh version of the kind of isolation that has been studied by researchers and condemned my human rights and professional organizations. . .
Based on my experience studying these kinds of environments and their psychological effects for nearly four decades. . . I can offer the strongly held opinion that the range of egregious conditions, practices, and policies and practices that I have described . . . can be remedied through system-wide relief that is ordered by the courts.
The ACLU commissioned yet another expert, Dr. Brie Williams, a licensed and practicing physician in the state of California who is board certified in Internal Medicine, Hospice and Palliative Medicine, and Geriatrics, to prepare an expert report on conditions of confinement in isolation units at three ADC prisons. Williams interviewed prisoners, inspected housing units and other areas to which prisoners have access and reviewed medical files. The following have been excerpted from Williams’ report:
Prisoners of older age, with chronic medical conditions, and/or with physical disabilities are at high risk of immediate and future harm from isolated confinement as practiced in ADC. In addition, some of these prisoners are receiving dangerously inadequate medical care. . .
Loneliness, both actual and perceived social isolation, is an important risk factor for the development and/or worsening of many serious medical conditions. . . [S]tudies show that social isolation has a significant adverse effect on physical and mental health, immune responses, functional ability, and important health behaviors capable of hastening the onset and course of medical illness. . .
Williams goes on to cite other health problems that can be brought on by or exacerbated by isolated confinement as practiced by the ADC, including memory impairment, osteoarthritis, hypertension, and hearing impairment, insomnia and type 2 diabetes mellitus. After detailing her visits at the prisons, Williams concludes:
For all of the reasons set forth in this report, it is my opinion that isolated confinement as practiced in ADC poses a substantial risk of serious harm, including increased morbidity and mortality, to prisoners of older age, with chronic medical conditions and/or physical disabilities.
Corrections officials have disputed the reports, which were made public earlier this month after the ACLU won a federal court hearing to have them unsealed. The Arizona Daily Star reports:
State prison officials declined to comment in detail on the case and the recent release of the ACLU reports because the matter remains in the courts. But a spokesman did provide a brief statement disputing the ACLU’s claims.
“While the plaintiffs have sought to try their case in the media, the ADC will present its evidence and arguments in Court, where it will offer its own expert opinions that paint an accurate and realistic picture of inmate health care and conditions of confinement,” ADC spokesman Doug Nick said.
• AP reporter Adam Geller published an investigation into why so many individuals with mental illness are held in solitary confinement in local jails across the country. He notes, “There has been little attention to the use of isolation in the country’s 3,300 local jails, increasingly the biggest mental health treatment centers in many communities.”
• The National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms held an event that explored the human rights abuses endured by terrorism suspects since 9/11, including the use of solitary confinement. Affected family members told their stories. A local community radio station covered the event.
• The Journal Star (Lincoln, NE) published an editorial criticizing the state’s “overuse” of solitary confinement and calling for reform.
• The BBC published an hour-long documentary about the efforts of the Maine State Prison to reduce the use of solitary confinement. (Video not available in the United States.)
• Florida’s Department of Corrections has fired 32 individuals accused of misconduct or illegal activity, including the officers recently sued for the death of incarcerated 27-year-old Randall Jordan-Aparo. He was serving an 18-month sentence when he was found dead in solitary confinement, allegedly as a result of being gassed multiple times with “noxious chemicals.”
• Mother Jones writer and solitary confinement survivor Shane Bauer published a critique of a recently released Atlantic article entitled “How Gangs Took Over Prisons.” Bauer is especially critical of the language used in the article to describe Pelican Bay’s Secure Housing Unit, which holds men in extended solitary confinement, sometimes for decades.
• George Lavender of In These Times published an interview with George Kendall Director of the Public Defender Initiative, who is representing Robert King and Albert Woodfox of the Angola 3 in their lawsuit against Louisiana prison officials. Woodfox has been in solitary confinement for over four decades; King spent 29 years in isolation before being released from prison in 2001.
• Matthew Hale, a 43-year-old self-proclaimed white supremacist incarcerated at the federal supermax in Florence, Colorado, has offered to drop his $19 million lawsuit against prison officials if he is permitted to play his violin in his cell. He was quoted as saying, “It’s really the kind of hubris, stupidity, and downright sadism that one should expect from the federal government… I suspect the defendants could not bear the thought of my actually enjoying myself by my being able to play my beloved violin in my prison cell.”
• Two Ohio law firms have filed suits alleging inhumane conditions at the Multi-County Juvenile Detention Center, on behalf of three individuals formerly incarcerated there. According to the lawsuit, young people at the jail were placed in solitary confinement for to up forty days, in cells with temperatures in the mid-50s.
In October 2012, five individuals were extradited from the United Kingdom to the United States to face terrorism charges. The transfer came after the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled that prison conditions at ADX Florence–where the suspects would likely be held if convicted–were not incompatible with Article 3 of the European Convention of Human Rights, which prohibits “inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” They did so based on assurances from the U.S. government, despite considerable evidence to the contrary.
All five men have ended up serving long pre-trial terms in solitary confinement in the United States. A series of additional extradition requests made by the US, perhaps most notably that of Gary McKinnon, prompted a national debate within the UK and triggered more recent parliamentary efforts to evaluate the existing US/UK extradition agreement. Last week, the House of Lords Select Committee on the Extradition Law received written evidence for the purposes of evaluating “whether [the Act] provides an effective and just extradition procedure.”
A group of experts who have studied the systemic due process injustices faced by terrorism suspects in the United States, including lawyers at the Center for Constitution Rights and members of the No Separate Justice campaign, prepared a submission, available here. Their evidence focuses extensively on the conditions of confinement endured by those charged with terrorism offenses, both before and after trial.
Their central findings with regards to conditions of confinement include the following:
• Link between detention in US supermax facilities and the military prison at Guantanamo Bay: “There is a continuum between US military prisons abroad and territorial US civilian prisons. Indeed, the ADX ‘supermax’ prison in Florence, Colorado, where extradited men convicted of terrorism-related crimes are often held, provided the blueprint for imprisonment at Guantanamo.”
• Conditions of confinement pre-trial: Prior to trial extradited terrorism suspects are often held on the Metropolitan Correctional Center’s (MCC) “highly restrictive” 10-South wing. Individuals on 10-South are held in almost complete isolation and are often subject to additional restrictions known as Special Administrative Measures (SAMs). “Given the harm that solitary confinement inflicts on mental health, defendants have a strong incentive to preserve their sanity by accepting a plea deal that will relax the conditions of their confinement, irrespective of the merits of the case.”
• Conditions of post-conviction imprisonment: Upon conviction, these individuals are often transferred to the federal supermax prison, Florence ADX. Human Rights Watch has noted that prisoners at ADX can be subjected to “years of confinement in conditions of extreme social isolation, reduced sensory stimulation, and rigorous security control.” Convicted terrorists at ADX are often held on “H-Unit” under additional restrictions, including SAMs.
• Concerns regarding the ECHR Decision in Babar Ahmad & Others v. the UK: The process by which the ECHR reached its decision in this case was flawed, namely, “the US Department of Justice provided misleading data on the length of time terrorism convicts are held in solitary confinement at ADX.” The US also submitted other misleading evidence, e.g. that there is significant communication between staff and prisoners at ADX, and that ADX prisoners are able to communicate with one another.
The deadline for submissions to the House of Lords Select Committee on the Extradition Law comes as a sixth British man, Haroon Aswat, awaits the final word on whether he will be sent to the United States to face terrorism charges. In April 2013, the European Court of Human Rights stayed his extradition under Article 3 of the Convention, finding “there is a real risk that the applicant’s extradition to a different county and to a different and potentially more hostile, prison environment would result in a significant deterioration in his mental and physical health.” Aswat has been diagnosed with schizophrenia.
The US Department of Justice subsequently provided assurances that Aswat would have access to mental health services if held at MCC, prompting the British High Court to rule earlier this month that his extradition may go forward. He will be transferred into US custody unless the British Supreme Court intervenes.
The authors of the submitted evidence note: “Haroon Aswat’s case points to the underlying weakness of assurances as a remedy for concerns about the treatment of terrorism suspects in US prisons. No mechanism is available for verifying the claims made in the assurances. Even accepting the validity of the assurances at face value, they offer inadequate remedies for the inhumane conditions within ADX and MCC. Unfortunately, the British and European courts have not fully recognised the severity of those conditions, the secrecy that surrounds them or the threats to mental health they present.”
• The American Civil Liberties Union released 26 reports alleging extensive abuses in Arizona’s prisons, including claims that individuals are being placed in solitary confinement because prison beds elsewhere are full. A federal class-action lawsuit against the state’s Department of Corrections is set to go to trial next month.
• The Bronx Defenders, a criminal defense nonprofit in New York City, released a report documenting the conditions their clients experienced in solitary confinement on Rikers Island. Nearly 60 individuals were interviewed for the report, entitled “Voices from the Box”, including one 18-year-old placed in isolation for over 1,000 days. (Reported on by The Village Voice, WNYC, others)
• Mayor Bill DeBlasio signed into law a bill that mandates New York City correctional authorities to publish quarterly data on the use of solitary confinement at Rikers Island. The bill also requires the city to release other information, including attempted suicides in isolation and the use of enhanced restraints. Meanwhile, Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte announced new reforms at Rikers, including in the use of solitary confinement.
• The mother of Bradley Ballard, who died in isolation on Rikers Island in September 2013, has filed a lawsuit against the city and correctional officials, as well as a contractor that provides medical services at the jail and several medical personnel. The one-year anniversary of Ballard’s death was marked by a Jails Action Coalition vigil in front of the Bronx District Attorney’s office.
• The recent death of another individual held in isolation on Rikers Island has been ruled accidental. Jerome Murdough, who struggled with mental illness, died this past February when temperatures in his cell rose to over 100 degrees.
• The family of a man who died while in solitary confinement in a San Diego County jail in March 2013 has filed a wrongful-death lawsuit in federal court. Bernard Victorianne, 28, swallowed a bag of drugs while he was being arrested for a DUI. Jail staff allegedly placed him in isolation, rather than the jail’s medication-observation unit, despite knowing he had consumed the drugs and “obvious signs of overdose.”
• Sarah Shourd, a contributing editor at Solitary Watch, published an article on Guernica entitled “Torture Chambers of the Mind.” She writes that the “majority of people subjected to prolonged isolation are not there for violent acts, but petty prison infractions like talking back to a guard, walking too slow or possessing contraband.”
• Jose Padilla, a US citizen once held as an “enemy combatant” at a South Carolina military prison, has been resentenced to 21 years on a 2007 terrorism conviction. A federal appeals court had previously ruled his original 17-year sentence too lenient, but prosecutors agreed not to seek more than 30 years if Padilla’s lawyers agreed not to utilize records documenting what he endured while in military custody. Padilla has claimed he was tortured for the three and a half years he was held in South Carolina, including through the use of sensory deprivation, “truth serums” and extreme isolation; in 2012 the Supreme Court declined to reinstate a lawsuit filed against US officials.
The following comes from Timothy Trujillo, 35, who has been incarcerated at California Correctional Institution (CCI) in Tehachapi close to 15 years, approximately four of which he has been held in the SHU (Security Housing Unit), or solitary confinement, on 23-hour-a-day-lockdown. According to his stepfather, Trujillo has spent his time in prison seeking “to expand his knowledge and his quest for spiritual enlightenment.” In his piece, a rap entitled “Dare to Think,” Trujillo writes that his mind “remains free.” He can be reached by writing: Timothy Trujillo, P32319, California Correctional Institution, 4B SHU-3A-201, P.O. Box 1906, Tehachapi, CA 93581. –Lisa Dawson
From the Mother Country’s womb
livin’ in bondage deep within this tomb
I refuse to be consumed so my body is doomed
but my mind remains free
that is one thing they’ll never take from me
because I see with clear eyes
I can recognize the landlords’ lies
see through their disguise
Why do so many accept poverty and neglect?
They infect our posterity, blinding their clarity
filling them with false hopes and dreams
turning our young into dope fiends and things
no longer human beings
The police siren screams
This system is falling apart at the seams
In the ghetto, another youth is slain in vain
People with heroin-filled veins
Methamphetamines fill the nostrils
Everyone is livin’ hostile
Mothers cry, children die, nobody’s askin’ why
Lookin’ to the sky for unanswered prayers
you begin to wonder-who really cares?
Millions of sisters and brothers, fathers and mothers
sittin’ in cages for ages
My mind constantly rages, saddened by history’s pages
So many people up in prisons it’s like a human aviary
pointin’ their finger, tryin’ to tell me,
sell me to a private prison
Are you listenin’, envisionin’ what I’m sayin’?
There is plenty but millions go hungry
Doesn’t it make you angry?
People homeless and unhealthy
allowing a few to grow wealthy
How far will this sideshow go?
The capital flows in the opposite direction,
too many starving and needlessly dyin’ in my section
And say goodbye to education in this nation
hello false indoctrination
Do we really know what we’re facin’
I’m in my cage pacin’
Ponderin’ the unending war spending
When will we begin the mending and befriending?
Let’s stop pretending like everything is okay
and if we turn a blind eye it will all just go away
There’s got to be another way
They play with our lives usin’ us as cannon fodder
Today someone lost a son or daughter
Global warming, it’s only getting hotter
They’re polluting all our air and water
Where are we headed?
Maybe a nuclear war or disaster
caused by the power-hungry master
What comes after? Does it really matter?
By now it’s surprising we all don’t have cancer
If something isn’t done now-what will be the cost?
It appears humanity is lost
Will it all end in a global holocaust?
I have so many questions
but my pen is out of ink
Why am I in prison you ask?
Because I dared to think. . .
UPDATE (September 18, 2014): Solitary Watch received the following statement via email from North Carolina Department of Public Safety spokesperson Keith Acree:
The evolving lockdown situation at Scotland Correctional Institution has affected about 600 inmates in close custody regular population housing. The medium custody (~540) and minimum custody (~240) populations have not been affected nor have those on control status (~230). The entire prison population today is 1,663.
We implement lockdowns when needed to ensure the safety of inmates and staff and to prevent injuries. The December lockdown was prompted by a series of fights between large groups of inmates at Scotland that resulted in injuries to inmates and staff. Since the beginning of 2014, the institution has recorded 61 actual or attempted assaults on staff and 20 actual or attempted inmate on inmate assaults.
At this point, the lockdown for close custody regular population (RPOP) has stepped down to a point that we call “managed observation”. Close custody RPOP inmates are now allowed about 4 hours of out-of-cell time daily (compared to about 8 hours before the Dec. 28 fights that began the lockdown).
Visiting, outdoor recreation, telephone use and canteen privileges have resumed. Vocational and educational programs are in session and the prison’s two Correction Enterprises plants (a sewing plant and the Braille plant) are operating normally. Inmates continue to receive hot meals brought to their cells. All activities are occurring in small groups. Religious services have not yet resumed. A new chaplain began work this week.
Since the lockdown began Dec. 28, restrictions have been lifted in 11 progressive steps, based on inmate behavior and cooperation, to reach the point where we are today.
Katy Poole has been serving as acting administrator at Scotland CI since Aug. 1 when Sorrell Saunders retired.
Across the United States, even prisoners who have not been placed in solitary confinement or any form of “segregation” can be subjected to a “lockdown” in which they may be held in solitary-like conditions, confined to their cells nearly round-the-clock. Brief lockdowns are a common occurrence, and lockdowns lasting months or more are not unusual. Individuals subjected to lockdown are generally denied even the pro-forma review processes afforded to most others placed in solitary confinement.
In the “Close Custody” unit–a single celled, high-security unit–at North Carolina’s Scotland Correctional Institution, nearly 600 men have been on indefinite lockdown since December 28, 2013.
Individuals subjected to the lockdown have been confined to their cells for 22 to 23 hours a day for eight months and counting.
When asked by Solitary Watch about the status of Scotland, North Carolina Department of Public Safety (NC DPS) spokesperson Keith Acree stated that he was unaware that the prison was on lockdown.
In January of this year, the Laurinburg Exchange reported on the lockdown:
According to Keith Acree, spokesperson for the state department, the institution’s “closed custody” population, which numbers about 800, has been confined to cells since a “series of fights between inmates and minor assaults on staff members” occurred shortly after Christmas.
Acree said injuries to staff members were “nothing serious,” but that several were “hit or bumped. . .”
A lockdown means prisoners cannot have visitors, make calls, or leave their cells for meals. They cannot visit the canteen, Acree said, but orders from the canteen can be delivered to their cells.
Acree said he could not remember when the last time the institution was on lockdown, but he was not aware of the current lockdown until he received an inquiry from The Laurinburg Exchange. In 2011, the prison was one of six in the state placed on lockdown after a surge of gang violence.
About a dozen people from Scotland’s Close Custody population have written to Solitary Watch describing conditions at the prison. Some people wrote to describe the conditions at the prison in general, while others detailed particular incidents.
One man recalls the day the Scotland Correctional Institute was put on lockdown:
On December 28, 2013, two individual fights took place at about 5:35 PM. No one was stabbed or cut, and no staff was hurt. Prison officials labeled the incident a gang fight and shut down the whole facility. For almost a month we were not allowed out of our cells or allowed to take showers. When they did allow us to take showers, we had to do so in cuffs once a week.
Another man wrote to describe the general conditions at the prison since the lockdown has been put in effect:
We don’t get but two hours out of our cells a day. In that two hours, 24 people have to use the phone, take showers and get anything done that requires any assistance by the staff because once you’re in your cell, it’s like your forgotten. Then you spend 22 hours in this room. . . The things that go on here are uncalled for. This is supposed to be a place of rehabilitation but it does no one any good the way the staff at SCI mistreats people and writes you up for actions you didn’t commit. It just sends everyone’s minds or actions and feelings back to square one.
The following comes from a man describes the restrictions at the prison as counterproductive to the point where he’s “about to lose [his] mind”:
This prison has been on 22-hour-a-day lockdown for months. . . When I got here, I wanted a chance to earn my GED, but his prison is not helping me to better myself in any way. I have not been able to eat hot meals or go outside for fresh air ever in months. The treatment here is cruel and unusual and I’m about to lose my mind behind these doors.
Another member of the Close Custody population elaborates on the the varying levels of restrictions seen since the lockdown began:
While on lockdown, we’ve been through different stages. Stage one, we were on lockdown for 24 a day hours without being allowed to shower. It was like this for a month. Then the officers started taking us to the shower one day out of the week with handcuffs on so tight that it made it difficult for us to wash. Stage two, they let 12 of us out of our cells to rec in the dayroom for one hour. Next, they let 24 of us out for two hours. We haven’t had any outside rec since December 28, 2013, and our skin and health is showing that.
Another man writes to convey the intrusiveness of his confinement, portraying how little privacy he was given, even while showering:
The first month there was no recreation. Everyone was confined to their cells for 24 hours a day. There were no showers. When they started allowing showers, you had to go in full restraints with two officers standing at the shower watching with sticks out. . .
No visitors have been allowed for the past three months, nor are we provided with any religious services. . .
Since we have been on lockdown, we have been having trouble with the officers doing their jobs. If we ask them for writing paper, envelopes or request forms, they will not bring it, especially if we’re housed on the upper tier. One inmate asked an officer for some toilet paper. She said, “I’m not walking upstairs to give you any toilet paper. You better use a shirt,” and left the block.
He also describes an instance when another prisoner had fallen in his cell and his pleas for help were ignored by staff:
The major problem we have is that officers do not respond when we hit out call buttons. . . Nobody ever comes to see what we want until we start kicking on the cell doors. There were several incidents where an inmate was feeling dizzy and pushing his cell button every couple of minutes. Nobody came. He passed out and we had to kick on the doors for about 20 minutes before anyone came.
Another member from the Close Custody population describes a similar incident:
An inmate’s back gave out on him and he fell to the floor. He started banging on the door with his brush for 15 minutes but no one came to check on him. So we started kicking on the doors, and kicked for almost an hour before an officer came. She looked in his cell and started laughing at him. She left and came back with another officer. She looked in at him again and laughed. They both left and came back with a sergeant, who looked at the inmate and said, “Why don’t you just do us all a favor and die.” Then the sergeant called nurse and they came and took him to Medical – after he’d laid on the floor for about an hour and 10 minutes. . .
We’ve been asking why they are punishing 600 inmates for something four people were involved in. Those inmates were put in segregation, found guilty of their charges and punished for them. But so are we.
One man discusses a health condition with which he’s been diagnosed, yet is not being treated for:
Recently I was diagnosed with high blood pressure. For the last two and half weeks, my blood pressure hasn’t been checked and I haven’t received my medication to treat it.
Another man writes of problems he has had sending and receiving mail:
Due to the lockdown, I wrote a grievance to the North Carolina Department of Public Safety and mailed it to them on 2/20/14, so I thought. . . But it was opened, taken out of the stamped envelope and signed by the unit manager and the screening officer and returned to me almost a month later. Before my grievance was returned, my mail started coming in late after mail had already been passed out and sometimes not until the next morning. Then I would either not receive mail or it would come looking like it’d been deliberately cut up. . .
He closes his letter:
I have not seen my family since my trial ended and I would love to see them. . . No religious services, no visits, no type of outside activity, no books from the library, no school – all this, for no reason. . . I, along with other inmates, are being punished for no reason at all. I have not caused any trouble and do not deserve this cruel and unusual punishment, which is a violation of my Eighth Amendment rights.
Another prisoner describes the disturbing situation, emphasizing that the deprivations faced by these men are unwarranted:
To think violence or disrespect is right? That is exactly what they’re doing to us: Disrespecting us and violating us as human beings. We don’t get to stretch our muscles, we don’t get any sunlight. . . We are treated like M-con status inmates, and we haven’t done anything to deserve it. . . They tell our families that they are understaffed, but that isn’t our problem. We are imprisoned inside a prison. . . We have been on lockdown since December 28, 2013, and enough is enough.
Since these letters were written to Solitary Watch, Scotland Correctional Institution has modified the conditions of confinement in Close Custody. According to people held at the prison, the men are now allowed out of their cells twice a day for approximately for two hours and allowed outside for recreation for one hour twice a week. However, they have not resumed hot meals or any religious services for people held in the unit.
• The American Civil Liberties Union has submitted letters to the Michigan Department of Corrections alleging widespread human rights violations at the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility in Washtenaw; the organization claims that the prison is holding women with mental illness in solitary confinement, amongst other abuses. One professor who has interviewed those on the inside commented, “A lot of these women, they throw them in segregation for months on end are mentally ill … and then they deteriorate. It’s horrible to see them deteriorate.”
• A 17-year-old sentenced to life in prison in the killing of a Korean War veteran, has also been ordered to spend each anniversary of the murder in solitary confinement. Jordan Legg, who won’t be eligible for parole for at least 20 years, will now spend every 30 March in isolation.
• Albert Woodfox, the last remaining incarcerated member of the Angola 3, appeared in federal appeals court requesting legal permission to sue Louisiana prison officials for depriving him of “basic human needs” and violating his constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment. Woodfox has been held in solitary confinement nearly without break for the past forty years, the longest of any prisoner held in the United States.
• The Director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project condemned Nebraska’s Department of Corrections for its “extraordinarily high” use of solitary confinement. According to questionnaires recently sent out by a legislative investigative committee, about 18.6% of the state’s inmates had been in some level of restrictive housing during the queried six-week period.
• A 27-year-old Wisconsin man has been found not guilty by reason of insanity in the killing of three family members and committed to permanent hospitalization with no chance for appeal. According to Rashard Riddick’s defense attorney, the time he spent in prison as a young man contributed to his decline. “The consequences of nearly four years of solitary confinement was to transform Mr. Riddick from a troubled teenager into an extremely dangerous man…With no program for treating mentally ill inmates or aftercare for people held for long periods in isolation, Mr. Riddick was released into society (without rehabilitation) and with no support services. This cycle happens every day in our society, and the violent tragedies that ensue should surprise no one.”
“While waiting for an officer to handcuff and escort me back to the cell that awaited me after showering, I sat on the floor holding a razor used for shaving,” W writes to me. “Today was the day I decided to end my life.”
I do not know W. I have never met him. I have no idea whether he is black or white, tall or short, old or young. I don’t know what he’s done that’s landed him in prison, or why the prison system has seen fit to place him in solitary confinement.
Every week I receive 50 or so letters from people like W. He is one of 80,000 men, women, and children who live in states of extreme isolation in U.S. prisons and jails. They spend their days and nights in cells that measure, on average, 6 by 9 feet. They live sealed off from the world, sometimes without a window, usually behind a solid metal door with a slot where a guard can slip in a food tray. If they are lucky they are let out a couple of times a week to shower, or to exercise for an hour in a fenced or walled pen resembling a dog kennel.
There is no education in these solitary confinement cells. No work. The people who are held there may or may not be allowed reading materials, or a set of headphones to plug into a wall jack with a few radio stations. They are rarely permitted to make phone calls, or have visitors. Some are allowed to have family photographs, but usually only a limited number—so if a new one comes in, they have to decide which one to give up. Most are forbidden to hang the photographs on their walls.
If they are ever taken out of their cells, they are flanked by guards, wrists and ankles cuffed and shackled to a black box at their waists. They may have trouble walking, not only because of the shackles but because it’s been quite some time since they were able to take more than a few steps in any one direction. They will probably have trouble seeing, as well, since they’ve had no use for their long-distance vision.
They are escorted down the tier amidst a din of screaming prisoners—some with underlying mental illness, others driven mad by “the box”—who cut themselves, pelt their own cell walls and the corridor with piss and shit and blood. At night the screaming continues, sometimes turning into the sounds of a barking dog, dying down to where you can only hear the sobbing, the voices begging for their mothers, for the sight of a child last seen ten years ago—and frequently, begging to die.
This is what they tell me in their letters—the letters that at first trickled in every once in a while, when I first began writing about solitary confinement, and now come by the dozens. People in solitary sometimes manage to communicate by shouting, by tapping on pipes, and by “fishing”—passing things along lines constructed from sheet threads and skimmed across the corridor floor, from the crack under one cell door to another. Some, it appears, have shared my address, and the fact that I am interested in knowing what life in solitary confinement is like.
I am a journalist. I’ve been taught to report what I see and hear and know, and nothing else. These letters should be nothing more to me than documentary material—and perhaps not even that, since the conventional wisdom is that prisoners’ accounts can’t be trusted. No need, really, to write back, even though that’s what my correspondents are clearly hoping for.
“Mail is manna from heaven,” R writes me. “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…”
So I write back with a few bits of news, a few lines of encouragement. I write half a page to B, who has been in solitary for more than 25 years. He writes back 20 pages, telling me the story of a mouse he had begun feeding in his cell. The mouse’s back legs were injured, so he’d built it a little chariot out of Styrofoam and bits of cloth. The mouse had learned to get around with on his makeshift wheels when a corrections officer discovered it and stabbed it to death with a pen. “I had three dogs that I loved when I was growing up, and I loved Mouse every bit as much as I had loved them,” B writes. “For the months he had been with me he had been good company in a place that can be a lonely world, and I would miss him dearly.”
B wants nothing more than to share his thoughts, to know that there is another human being, somewhere in the world, who is interested enough to read them. Others want things. G wants me to look up a long-ago high school girlfriend. He hasn’t heard from her in 25 years and doesn’t know where she lives. He wants her address so he can write to her. I know I can’t send it to him, so I don’t even look.
D manages to write to me in spite of that fact that, like about a third of the people in solitary, he suffers from severe mental illness. After a while he asks for a sex magazine, even though receiving one could get him in deep trouble. When I refuse, he asks for—and I send—some Spiderman comic books. Next he asks for a Bible. He seems to sound less suicidal than usual, so I quickly send that as well. D writes me that it never arrived, so I track the package on Amazon, which says the Bible was delivered to the prison. Apparently someone stole it. Then D asks if I can put his name on my website so “I can have penpals…and maybe find that special someone.”
J writes on behalf of another person he met in prison: “During my stay at the mental health unit, I came to know a man named G. Mr. G was clearly not a quick thinker and had mental health issues. On one occasion an emotionally unstable corrections officer opened G’s cell and slapped him across the face because he had taken too long in giving the officer back a food tray after a meal. In another example, involving these two, I witnessed the corrections officer direct a nurse not to give G his mental health medication because G could not decide in a timely manner if he wanted to take the medicine or not…These two incidents happened in a mental health area reserved for suicidal prisoners.”
I know that thousands of people in solitary are like G—too ill, or not literate enough, to write at all. They are completely cut off, trapped in their own minds as well as in their cells. But I have a hard enough time dealing with the people who write to me, and try hard not to think about the people who are not writing.
Y reports: “I’ve witnessed officers…encourage a mentally ill prisoner who had smeared feces all over his control cell window, to lick it off, and they would give him some milk. And this prisoner licked most of the fecal matter off of the window, and was ‘rewarded’ by the officer who threw an old milk to the prisoner through a lower trap door to the cell.”
Along with the tirades about certain guards there are copies of painfully hand-printed legal documents, full of “whereas” and citations of this or that federal court case, written in the hope that some judge will read it and get the author out of solitary. But the judges, with few exceptions, have ruled that solitary confinement is not cruel and unusual punishment. Not even for the man who drilled a hole in his head to try and stop the pain.
There are so many letters now that I cannot possibly reply to most of them, even with a couple of volunteers to help. So I buy packages of cards, and gather up all the ones sent to me for free by wildlife groups as thank-you gifts for donations. I start sending people in solitary pictures of polar bears and endangered gray wolves, with just a few handwritten words: “Thanks for your letter. Stay strong.” They write back with a level of gratitude totally disproportionate to my lame missives.
A man writes me about the sound of rain in a drainpipe. It is his weather report. Another writes about the parade of cockroaches down the corridor at night, which he watches through the slot in his door, desperate for any sign of another living thing. Still another writes to thank me for the smell of perfume that he detected on an envelope containing a card. The smell lingers in his cell, he says, and fills him with dreams of the outside world.
Some people manage to pick up information about what is going on in that outside world. They write to ask for more news about the hearing on solitary confinement held in Congress, about whether things are changing. I can’t bear to tell them that it may be years or decades before anything changes for them—though some already know it. “I heard the head of the Bureau of Prisons in Congress (on radio) saying they do not have insane inmates housed here,” writes J, who has spent a decade in the federal supermax prison. “I have not slept in weeks due to these non-existing inmates beating on the walls and hollering all night. And the most ‘non-insane’ smearing feces in their cells.”
Some of these people have done very bad things in their lives. Others not so much. People get sent to solitary in the United States for a panoply of absurd reasons—having too many postage stamps, smoking a cigarette, refusing to cut their hair. But after reading these letters, I can’t accept that even the worst of them deserve to live this way.
J, who is in solitary for trying to escape, remains defiant. “I refuse to embrace the solitude. This is not normal. I’m not a monster and do not deserve to live in a concrete box. I am a man who has made mistakes, true. But I do not deserve to spend the rest of my life locked in a cage–what purpose does that serve? Why even waste the money to feed me? If I’m a monster who must live alone in a cage why not just kill me?”
I know that some people, in fact, do prefer to die rather than live this way. In barren cells, they become ingenious at finding ways to kill themselves. They jump head-first off of their bunks.
They bite through the veins in their arms. About five percent of all American prisoners are in solitary confinement, but half the prison suicides take place there.
The rest find ways to keep going. What keeps D alive is his mother. For B, it’s his writing. For J, it’s the small window in his cell. “Every now and then a pair of owls roosts on the security lights,” he writes. “This spring they had two babies. We watched them grow up and fly away. On any given day the sky here is breathtaking. The beauty out my window stays in my mind. I look around this cage at plain concrete walls and steel bars and a steel door, a steel toilet and I endure its harshness because I am able to keep beauty in my mind.”
Sometimes, now, I spend entire days reading letters from these people, these criminals, these models of human fortitude. I can’t do much of anything for them, except keep on reading.
A second letter comes from W. “I want to apologize to you for my previous letter,” he writes. It must have been very uncomfortable for you to read that letter. It was extremely wrong for me to express such a personal issue to people I don’t know. But my lack of interacting with people on the outside sometimes causes me to come out and express things that I probably shouldn’t. So I hope you can somehow empathize with my situation and forgive me for the context of my previous letter.”
W is alive.
This post is the next in a series of pieces Solitary Watch is publishing as part of a project calling for people held in solitary confinement to write on various proposed themes. Our first suggested theme, “A Day in the Life,” calls for writers to describe a day in his or her life in solitary confinement (read previous entries here).
The following piece, entitled “The ‘Hole’ Truth,” comes from Nathan Brewer, 29, who has spent six of the last eight years incarcerated in the Indiana prison system, during which time he was sentenced to solitary confinement multiple times for nonviolent offenses. In his piece, Brewer, who has been diagnosed with both anxiety and dysthymic disorders, describes the way in which he was treated while held in administrative segregation at Hamilton County Jail in Noblesville, Indiana.
He writes, “The conditions and treatment to which I was subjected were gravely oppressive and unethical on every front.” Released from Westville Correctional Facility in March of this year, Brewer continues to suffer from severe anxiety, which he states was only exacerbated by his time in isolation. He writes from his sober living home, Celebrate Freedom, in Indianapolis. He can be reached by writing: Nathan Brewer, P.O. Box 88033, Indianapolis, IN 46208. –Lisa Dawson
Involuntary Protective Custody in County Jail
I have spent six out of my last eight years incarcerated. Two of these years were served at Hamilton County Jail (HCJ). Throughout this period, I was sentenced to solitary confinement, a.k.a. “the hole,” a total of three times. Two of these sentences were for nonviolent, petty offenses, which included note passing and allegedly possessing tobacco. One of these stints, however, landed me in protective custody (PC) for 15 days (which coincided with both Christmas and New Year’s), the cause of which was another detainee using my telephone voice password to prank the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) hotline. Although I was sentenced to the hole for a prank which I had nothing to do with, jail staff refused my requests to listen to a recording of the alleged phone call that I made, ultimately preventing me from defending myself.
In this essay, I write to inform readers about what it is like to be in indefinite solitary confinement, which in this particular case was involuntary protective custody (PC, which in my instance could also stand for “Punitive Confinement,” considering I was punished for being the victim of a prank).
Each morning, I was rattled from my sleep by a jarring, intrusive squawk over the intercom box in my cell. This untimely disruption, which naturally came at a time when I was in my deepest stage of sleep, was the voice of a corrections officer (CO) announcing my hour out: “BREWER! DO YOU WANT YOUR HOUR OUT?!” This rude awakening required a prompt “yes” response, as no response qualifies as “no” by default, and this opportunity for a short time out of my solitary hovel would be missed until the next rude awakening 24 hours later.
Despite being roused from my sleep, I never once turned down my time out, regardless of how tired I was, withstanding the fact sleep is the only escape in jail and is invaluable. I recall being so psyched to get out of my cell that first day in PC, but soon discovered that I would not be getting a full hour out during my “hour out.” No, the staff at HCJ had devised a way to shortchange those held in solitary of this basic right. Each day, I was permitted 30 minutes out in the day room, during which I was expected to shower, clean my cell, order commissary, make one phone call and, when possible, interact with anyone else also on their hour out (oftentimes nobody).
After just 30 minutes, guards would order us to return to our cells: “LOCDKDOOOOWN! LOCKDOWN!” This was unless of course you opted to go to the “recreation room,” which was a small, freezing cold, trapezoidal-shaped room, with nothing in it but a chessboard with no pieces. The room reeked of the distinct smell of a grain bin (to this day, I haven’t figured this out) and the floor was grossly covered in toenail clippings.
With that said, it was no small wonder that most chose to decline this optional 30-minute time offered for “recreation.” On most every occasion, I chose to return to my cell, which only underscores how successful the guards were in their strategically designed plan to restrict people’s full hour out to just half that time, and we played right into their hands. This is precisely what the staff wanted, and the sham “rec time” offered is how they managed to give us just 30 minutes out of our cells, as opposed to the required 60 minutes – and they were justified in doing so, since they did indeed offer “rec time.”
“Non-Punitive” Protective Custody?
While held in PC, I was not permitted to attend any of the programs which I had been frequenting for nearly the past two years, including Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Overcomers, a group which provides Christ-centered substance abuse counseling. I have picked my brain for legitimate reasons why jail staff would not permit me to attend these programs, which serve no other purpose than to rehabilitate me. I was also denied access to the facility’s law library, an insurmountable hindrance to someone defending himself pro se, preventing me from effectively corresponding with the courts in accordance with their formal trial rules and procedures, indelibly having a negative impact on my case.
But what fired my indignation most of all was staff’s refusal to allow me to attend my weekly worship services, which they knew full well was my custom. And because my time in PC happened to coincide with Christmas and New Year’s, I missed the holiday worship service, which I had been anticipating all year. In fact, my absence at these worship services did not go unnoticed, as clergymen and volunteers who facilitated these programs visited me multiple times while in solitary. It was clearly not these people who had lobbied against my attending their programs. It was unquestionably jail officials who had denied me these basic privileges and rights.
With one blanket, a mat, no pillow and an incessant draft, I was always cold in my cell. Meal trays, served three times daily, provided no relief, as the upper tier was always served last, meaning my one hot meal was cold by the time it reached me in a Styrofoam tray, which had the capacity to hold only the scantest of portions. The other two meals were served cold to begin with. Also aggravating was the florescent security light, which was on 24/7. Even closing my eyes allowed no relief, as its electronic hum was a inescapable reminder of the artificial environment and oppressive conditions to which I was subjected during each of my stays in solitary confinement.
When I was unable to distract myself, however, I spent my time in my cell in a constant state of anxiety and depression, with overwhelming feelings of hopelessness and despair. Many times, I would lie prostrate on the frozen floor of my cell, praying fervently, pleading with God, imploring him, to free me from my agony. I demanded vindication! No one deserves the treacherous plight to which I had been assigned. Never had I witnessed such callousness and ignorance (feigned or real, I’ll never know) as that which I saw in the guards and jail staff as a whole. My frustration mounted to the point where all I could do is just sob and continue to pray. I was being tested to my limits.
As a diversion from my cold surroundings, I would write letters, draw (with an anti-shank, short flimsy pen, as pencils were contraband), read my Bible (the only book permitted), meditate, or, if I was lucky enough, go back to sleep. Somehow I was able preserve enough peace in my heart and soundness in my mind to endure the darkest and most daunting chapter of my incarceration.
Punitive Isolation vs. Rehabilitative Incarceration: Night and Day
My time in isolation was nothing more than a roadblock to my rehabilitation that served only to magnify my depression and anxiety disorders, which directly resulted in my Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which I was diagnosed with following my release. These lingering psychological effects are primarily attributable to my stints in the hole, including the time I spent in involuntary PC for something over which I had no control; this in turn discouraged my faith in the system, my faith in humanity, and ultimately my faith in God, which is imperative for me – someone genuinely trying to come out rehabilitated and able to live a pro-social life.
Following my incarceration at HCJ, I was sentenced to the Indiana Department of Corrections (IDOC) and transferred to Westville Correctional Facility, where I was placed in the facility’s Therapeutic Community (TC), a program which unfortunately accepts only a limited number of people. Here, in a social environment conducive to rehabilitation, as opposed to punitive isolation, I thrived. In TC, I reached the “Top of the House,” a position in which I served as Dorm Elder, or overseer of all program departments. I also held the position as Orientation Facilitator, the most respected and challenging position in all of TC, which involved instructing new peers entering TC on the fundamentals of the program.
Based on these two very different experiences (HCJ PC and Westville TC), it is clear that the oppressive and overused practice of solitary confinement in all of its forms is not only unethical, but also counterproductive and downright destructive to any person’s hope for a successful recovery from a criminal lifestyle, substance use disorder, or any efforts at positive, lasting behavioral change. And nowhere in the equation to rehabilitate offenders and to reduce recidivism do I see a place for the practice of solitary confinement.
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.
• A federal judge approved the state of California’s plan to reduce the solitary confinement of prisoners suffering from mental illness. According to a recent story in The New York Times, about 740 prisoners will be relocated to “less restrictive settings” under the policy revisions. The story notes that the new policies “also provide for improvements in mental health treatment and suicide prevention.”
• The National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT) issues a release responding to New York City’s new legislation increasing oversight of the use of solitary confinement at Rikers Island. The release quotes Rev. Laura Markle Downton, Director of U.S. prisons policy and program at NRCAT: “Though not an end in itself, we celebrate Mayor de Blasio’s signing of the legislation requiring quarterly data reporting on who is in solitary at Rikers Island and under what conditions, because we recognize it as an important step in the process of ushering in humane alternatives.”
• New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio enacted legislation that will create greater transparency around the use of solitary confinement at Rikers Island and other city jails. According to a recent piece by The New York Times, the law will require the Department of Correction to publish four annual reports detailing the number of individuals held in isolation, the length of time each person is held in isolation, and whether they sustained any injuries or were assaulted during their time in solitary. Despite these measures, the story also states that the law “does not include any provisions that would directly curtail guard brutality. . . or the use of isolation as a punishment.”
• The Treatment Advocacy Center posts a blog entry, “Long Waits for Psych Beds Keeps Many Languishing Behind Bars,” in which it shares the story of Kyle, 24, who was held in solitary confinement for close to six months at the San Diego Central Jail while awaiting treatment for severe mental illness.
• In a blog entry entitled “Criminalization of Mental Illness: It’s a Crime,” the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) briefly touches on the dangers of placing people with psychiatric symptoms in isolation, which the writer likens to “pouring gasoline on a fire.” In its post, NAMI links to its new fact sheet on solitary confinement, as well as to Solitary Watch’s recent story highlighting several videos showing inhumane treatment of prisoners with mental illness by guards.
• The Drug War Chronicle outlines the various ways in which the Record Expungement Designed to Enhance Employment (REDEEM) Act, introduced earlier this summer by Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Rand Paul (R-KY), aims to fix the criminal justice system. According to the story, one initiative of the REDEEM act is to restrict the use of solitary confinement on kids, “except in the most extreme circumstances in which it is necessary to protect a juvenile detainee or those around them.”
• The Juvenile Justice Information Exchange publishes an op-ed presenting various international perspectives on the solitary confinement of youth. The piece underscores the severe emotional and psychiatric harm inflicted on kids subjected to the practice, stating, “Social isolation worsens the trauma and mental health issues already prevalent [in] this vulnerable population. It also leads to further withdrawal with negative consequences for reintegration.”
On July 17, 2012, Brandon Palakovic, 23, committed suicide by hanging himself in his cell while housed in a solitary confinement unit at State Correctional Institution (SCI) Cresson, a Pennsylvania prison that has since closed its doors.
Nearly two years later, on July 8, 2014, Palakovic’s parents filed a lawsuit against the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (PADOC). Represented by Bret Grote in association with the Abolitionist Law Center, Mike Healey, and Jules Lobel, Renee and Darian Palakovic seek damages for the alleged role the PADOC had in exacerbating Brandon’s mental health problems and in his passing.
The PADOC and those involved with the management of SCI Cresson stand accused of intentionally withholding necessary health treatment from mentally ill prisoners such as Brandon Palakovic, and repeatedly isolating them in solitary confinement—a practice deemed unconstitutional by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). The defendants declined to comment on the allegations when contacted by Solitary Watch.
The suit alleges that during his thirteen months at Cresson, Palakovic was subjected to the wanton infliction of physical and psychological pain. The complaint argues that prison administration and staff neglected his requests for counseling, his history of self-harm, and his mental health needs, and continued to place him in Restricted Housing Units (RHUs) time and again.
While at Cresson, Brandon Palakovic was prescribed Celexa, an anti-depressant that has documented side effects including suicidal thoughts and impulses. Palakovic had a long, troubled history with medication since childhood, trying to manage his ADHD and Oppositional Defiant Disorder, and Celexa only made him more anxious. He reportedly told his mother that “it [Celexa] made him have crazy thoughts and he hated the way he felt when he was on it. But, they told him he was easier to deal with when he was on it, so he took it.”
Brandon Palakovic was not the first prisoner to commit suicide at SCI Cresson. In December 2011, the federal Justice Department began an 18-month investigation of SCI Cresson and found “Cresson’s use of long-term and extreme forms of solitary confinement on prisoners with serious mental illness… violates their rights under the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).” After the discovery of such conditions at SCI Cresson, the DOJ expanded its investigation to include all 28 prisons managed by the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections.
In an email interview with Solitary Watch, Renee Palakovic said they “were interested in filing some type of lawsuit almost immediately after Brandon took his life,” but had trouble finding an attorney to represent them. Three attorneys turned them away citing the difficulty, and perhaps futility, of taking on such a “huge, governmental system.” The Palakovics had all but given up when Bret Grote approached them about building a case. Grote had previously dealt with the family as an activist with the Human Rights Coalition, but was now a lawyer and founder of the Abolitionist Law Center.
In a statement made to Solitary Watch, Grote shared his thoughts on the case and how it fits into the modern, American philosophy of punishment:
Brandon Palakovic was a casualty of what Dr. Craig Haney has aptly called the war on prisoners. For more than thirty years prison practices in the United States have systematically sought to deprive prisoners of agency and power, creating warehouse prisons characterized by forced idleness, overcrowding, unemployment, the absence of educational and vocational programs, barriers to maintaining familial and community relationships, inadequate to non-existent medical and mental health care, and routine imposition of solitary confinement. These conditions are designed to inflict pain, and serve no constructive social purpose. … he [Brandon] was treated with ritual, institutionalized dehumanization until he could no longer tolerate it.
Grote and the Palakovics hope that, bolstered by the DOJ’s report, they may achieve some posthumous justice for Brandon Palakovic, and help protect others like him who have the misfortune to be young, psychologically disabled, and at the mercy of the prison system.
The author of the following piece, K. Kabasha Griffin-El, is currently part of the general population at Pennsylvania’s SCI Greene. In this reflection, Griffin-El describes visiting his brother, Jerome Griffin, whom he hadn’t seen for more than two decades. Griffin-El has been incarcerated for 19 years and experienced solitary confinement firsthand, but nothing prepared him to witness the effect solitary had on his younger brother. He describes the experience as “one of the most difficult emotional bombardments of my life.” Jerome Griffin, 41, has been held in solitary confinement for 22 years following an assault on a corrections officer. Over that time he has developed a number of mental health problems that have only recently been acknowledged by the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (PADOC).
Earlier this year, the Justice Department released the findings of its investigation into the PADOC’s use of solitary confinement on those exhibiting serious mental illness. Within this document, two case studies are used to exemplify the shortcomings of the PADOC when dealing with mentally ill prisoners, the second of which, involving “Prisoner BB,” is believed to summarize Jerome Griffin’s experience with solitary. Griffin has since been transferred to SCI Pittsburgh where he is confined to a Secure Residential Treatment Unit (SRTU). –Maclyn Willigan
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
I imagine that it must be difficult for those that haven’t actually experienced it, to understand the ills of solitary confinement. I’ve endured it, so I know that it’s a cold, cruel, inhumane, and torturous methodology that must be abolished. It directly assaults the very being of men and women, often creating mental illness in those victimized by the callous—if not sadistic—practice. It had that horrible effect upon my younger brother, Jerome Griffin. The outrageous experience of witnessing what has become of my brother as a direct result of solitary confinement, compels me to use my words to expose the terrible consequences of that dehumanizing practice, as it’s used deep within the dark, hopeless hideaways of Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections.
It took several months of diplomacy—making my request to visit with my brother known to a psychologist, counselors, lieutenants, captains, a major, and deputy superintendent. I found myself super excited, anxious, and even a bit worried once authorization was granted. I didn’t know what to expect next. I wondered how my brother would respond to me, if he would be angry for my absence from his life. I just wanted things to go well, so I did my best to prepare for the big day. Soon it was painfully apparent that there was no way to prepare for our time together. No more so than a person could prepare to drown. Once I entered that room, I was in too deep. I choked, and gasped on every sight, on every scent, and nearly every word beyond his initial, “hi brother . . . hi brother.”
You see, on the morning of March 20, 2014, at approximately 9am, I experienced . . . endured . . . and survived one of the most difficult emotional bombardments of my life. Until that time, I hadn’t seen my younger brother Jerome, for approximately twenty-three years. At this point, I’m three months shy of the nineteenth year of my own imprisonment. So although “warned” by prison personnel that it might be a very difficult experience—seeing my brother in his present state of mind—I thoughts that there was nothing that would be too much for me to handle, but it was . . . too much for me to handle.
As I entered the room, smiling on the opposite side, a frail, hairy man stood wearing a bright orange jump suit with a thick, brown leather belt wrapping his waist. A large metal loop attached to the front was somehow connected to the handcuffs that securely clutched his writs, locking his hands in front of him, right at his lower stomach. A customized cage separated us, splitting the room horizontally, evenly cutting across a table of sorts that sat off to the left side of the room. A single dirty beige plastic chair sat on each side of the dimly lit . . . depressing hole in the wall. There was a small cutout in the cage (likely used by Attorneys to pass legal documents through during legal visits).
“Hi brother! Hi brother!” Those were his first words to me—the first time that I had heard his voice in at least twenty-three years. Immediately, I knew something was wrong . . . his words, although beautiful, sounded as if they were flowing from the lips of a young child. But this was a “grown man,” speaking through extremely dry, flaky, painful looking scaly lips. Politely, I returned his greeting, but I didn’t recognize him . . . standing there with his would be afro, that was nothing more than mounds of foul smelling, filthy matted hair. His face too was full of wiry patches of hair, unkept, and merely sprouting from his face like wild weeds. The huge smile upon his face revealed at least three missing upper teeth, dead-center of his mouth. His bottom teeth were obviously rotting away. The rotting ones slightly darker than the other orangish, yellowish-brown, darkly stained teeth that survived whatever happened through the years.
I recall the fleeting thought that perhaps I was in the wrong room . . . “this brotha couldn’t be my brother.” But he was. As our conversation continued, I quickly realized that my brother wasn’t all there, but he wasn’t all gone either. He remembered much from our childhood (the names of neighbors, family members and childhood friends). It was apparent that he had consumed and digested much from books, letters, and stories that others had shared with him through the years. Like a mental alchemist, he mixed each of those experiences with his imagination, creating his very own version of reality. He spoke of his expensive clothing, houses, and cars—clothing, houses, and cars he never had. He spoke of his days in the Marine Corps, and he (now at age forty-one) has been in some form of lock up since the age of thirteen. The terrible truth is that for the past twenty-two years, Jerome has been subjected to the agonizing cruelties of solitary confinement—kept locked in a prison cell for at least twenty-three hours each day.
Seeing my brother in his present state of mind . . . I wanted to run out of that room. I wanted to scream and yell, “WHAT HAVE Y’ALL DONE TO MY BROTHER?” I wanted to destroy something. I wanted to tear down that cage between us, grab my brother and urn out of that hellish place. Yet, I knew that wasn’t possible. I resisted the urge to correct his fantasies. I didn’t dare tell him that he was never married, that he had no children, and that he never owned a house or car. I fought back my tears; choked on my emotions, and nearly gagged on the stench of his body. Outwardly I remained calm, strenuously hiding my outrage . . . my pain, until he started muttering, trying to say something that simply made no sense. That happened frequently. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, he cried out, “oh my god, Jesus f—ing Christ.” It happened a few times as if he had Tourette syndrome. The storm of emotions that I fought so desperately to suppress, swell in my chest, rose up and before I could catch myself, escaped my lips as a whimper.
Rationally, I was fully aware of the appalling truth that I was experiencing (the joyous moments, pain, anguish, outrage), all of it was due to grace. No one had to allow my brother and I to visit with one another. My request could have been denied. Fortunately for us, on that day we were graciously granted two hours to express our loving concern for one another. I spoke with my brother, hopeful that he could fully understand as I opened my heart saying, “I love you brother. I’m so sorry that I wasn’t here to support you earlier.” “It’s all right. It’s all right. I’m fine. I’m fine. It’s about me and you. I’m happy. I’m just happy.” Those words rushed out of his mouth as if they were prepared in advance and waiting on the tip of his tongue. We were locked in each others eyes at that time, and nearly throughout the entire visit. He watched my every move, just as I watched his. Before we parted—just as I had done several time during the visit—I reached through that small cutout in the cage. “Let me touch you brother.” Once more he smiled at my request, leap to his feet, and did his best to shove his bound hands in my direction. Reaching further in, I grabbed his hands, and held them.
• Shane Bauer, who has written extensively about solitary confinement for the outlet Mother Jones, was forcibly escorted out of the American Correctional Association conference by armed guards.
• Snake River Correctional Institution in Oregon is experimenting with a “Blue Room”, where prisoners held in solitary confinement can view nature imagery for about 40 minutes each day, in lieu of the standard recreation time they would otherwise be offered. The Oregonian published an in-depth piece about the origin of the idea and why it might calm nerves and reduce disciplinary infractions.
• A correctional officer at Mercy County Correction Center in New Jersey allegedly threatened to file criminal charges against at least one female prisoner, extend her solitary confinement and deny her meals unless she performed oral sex on him, according to criminal charges filed last week. At the time, Officer John Ledbetter was a supervisor in the female solitary confinement unit; an attorney for one woman “there could be up to a dozen victims assaulted by Ledbetter.”
• New York’s City Council passed legislation that will create greater transparency around the use of solitary confinement on Rikers Island. The Department of Correction will now issue four annual reports detailing: the number of individuals held in isolation; why and for how long they are held in isolation; the number of recorded suicide attempts and any related follow-up care.
• Daniel McGowan, an environmental activist and former prisoner, was arrested from his halfway house and placed in solitary confinement in April 2013 after writing a HuffPost blog. Last week, he sued the Bureau of Prisons alleging that the arrest was unconstitutional, claiming he was retaliated against for expressing his views about the Communication Management Units, where he was held for several years.
• Florence Finkle, the deputy commissioner in charge of internal investigations at Rikers Island, has resigned from her post amidst allegations of a “deep-seated culture of violence” at the jail and the “excessive and inappropriate” solitary confinement of teenagers. According to a recently published federal report, Ms. Finkle’s office conducted “inadequate” investigations into the use of force at the facility.
• The family of a teenager who died while in solitary confinement at Rikers Island in April 2013 has filed a wrongful-death suit. According to the lawsuit, Andy Henriquez, 19, complained about chest pains and breathing but was ignored by guards; he eventually died of a ruptured aorta.
New York City Officials and Advocates Push for Change to the “Culture of Brutality” on Rikers Island
Update, 8/22/14: On Thursday, August 21, the New York City Council passed legislation introduced by Councilman Danny Dromm of Queens that would require corrections officials to release quarterly reports documenting information about inmates being held in solitary confinement at Rikers Island jail. Presenting this information to the New York City Board of Corrections would create increased transparency and oversight concerning the jail’s use of punitive segregation. The legislation is now awaiting the signature of Mayor de Blasio, who has said he supports the bill.
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New York City advocates and public officials gathered on the steps of City Hall on Monday to demand an end to the “culture of brutality” emerging from New York City’s Rikers Island, the second biggest jail in the country. The demand followed recent reports released by the United States Department of Justice and the New York City Board of Corrections, as well as months of investigative reporting by the New York Times, exposing brutality, violence, and excessive use of solitary confinement by officers specifically against mentally ill and teenage inmates. One previously incarcerated advocate that spoke at the event described Rikers as “worse than Dante’s Inferno.”
At the press conference, organized by the New York City Jails Action Coalition, speakers expressed support for legislation introduced by Councilman Daniel Dromm of Queens that would bring about much needed transparency and oversight to Rikers. The bill will be voted on this Thursday in the City Council. Speaking at the event, Dromm recounted his tour of Rikers saying, “I saw the horrible conditions inside of solitary people have to endure—a very small cell, the smell of urine, graffiti, a bed that was rusted, a mattress that had mildew on it, a blower of heat directly on top of the bed blowing down.” Strong criticism of Rikers Island has surfaced most recently after a series of exposes in the New York Times covering the staggering rise in violence at Rikers since 2009.
The Times managed to uncover an internal report conducted by the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene that documented, during an 11 month period, 129 cases of violence by corrections officers towards prisoners yielding injuries so serious they could not be treated at the jail’s clinic. Individuals incarcerated at Rikers suffered fractured jaws and eye sockets, wounds needing stitches, and severe back and head trauma. The report found that 77 percent of those seriously injured had a diagnosis of mental illness. Yet in not one of the 129 cases was a corrections officer prosecuted. Over half of the 80 prisoners interviewed by health department staff admitted to being intimidated by officers during their treatment, making it easier for staff to cover up the violent episodes.
According to the same article, about 4,000 out of 11,000 people held at Rikers have a mental illness. This number is about 40 percent of the jail population, a 20 percent increase from eight years ago. Few corrections officers have received any in-depth training on how to deal with individuals with mental illness.
Criticism of policies at Rikers Island continued to rise after August 4, when the United States Department of Justice unveiled a secret three-year investigation of Rikers conducted from 2011 to 2013. The investigation concluded that there is a “deep seated culture of violence” at the jail and that the New York City Department of Correction (DOC) has violated the civil rights of adolescent males ages 16 to 18, by subjecting them to and not protecting them from excessive force and violence. For example, the report said, “In FY [Fiscal Year] 2013, there were 565 reported staff use of force incidents involving adolescents… (resulting in 1,057 injuries).”Teenagers at Rikers suffered extreme violence by officers including “…broken jaws, broken orbital bones, broken noses, long bone fractures, and lacerations requiring sutures.”
The Department of Justice (DOJ) report released by the office of Preet Bharara, the United States Attorney in Manhattan, also condemned the use of solitary confinement against adolescents held at Rikers. The report reads: “Moreover, DOC relies far too heavily on punitive segregation as a disciplinary measure, placing adolescent inmates—many of whom are mentally ill—in what amounts to solitary confinement at an alarming rate and for excessive periods of time.”
While New York State prisons, under pressure from a lawsuit by the New York Civil Liberties Union, recently placed strict limits on the use of solitary confinement for juveniles under the age of 18, that reform does not apply to city jails. However, almost a year ago last September, the New York City Board of Corrections, the body that oversees the city’s jails, voted to draft new specific rules and criteria on who can be placed in solitary on Rikers Island. The Board is especially concerned with the use of solitary confinement on adolescents and people with mental illness.
In addition to a climate of brutality and violence at Rikers, the DOJ report also revealed that many cases of violence go unreported. When cases are reported, the officers are rarely punished. The report was also highly critical of the investigative division of the Department of Correction, saying it was understaffed and very slow, with out of date methods for processing investigations.
Mayor Bill de Blasio has promised to systematically bring Rikers under control and quell the rising violence. He began by appointing a new corrections commissioner, Joseph Ponte, who is known for reform, and by allocating funds to hire more correctional officers and to spend on mental health programming. However, amidst these promises, the city still has only 49 days to release a plan to implement major changes or risk federal intervention. This Thursday, the New York City Council has the chance to pass legislation which would bring about greater transparency and oversight to Rikers.
City Council Member Daniel Dromm (D-25) of Queens spoke at the press conference regarding the legislation he introduced in April, which would require the Department of Correction and the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to submit a quarterly report detailing the use of “punitive segregation”- solitary confinement used for punishment. The report would also require the DOC to document the number of inmates enduring additional restraints such as shackles, waist-chains, and hand mittens. The bill currently has 26 sponsors within the Council.
The bill has also received support from the Mayor. An article published Monday by Capital New York quoted Mayor de Blasio’s spokesperson Marti Adams saying “Mayor de Blasio is supportive of this bill, and the Speaker and Council’s efforts to encourage more transparency and use data to more effectively develop, manage and monitor programs that support better outcomes for the individuals incarcerated in our city’s jails.” The Mayor is given 30 days to either veto or sign the bill if passed by the City Council.
Council member Andy King of the Bronx, a supporter of the bill, commented at the press conference that this new legislation would allow the City Council to get proper information in order to hold the institution of Rikers accountable. “We need to make sure these young men get treated like human beings, not like animals, not like dogs. This is not a way to treat human beings…We’re supposed to do everything we can to rehabilitate these young men and help them reintegrate into society.”
In addition to advocating for the new legislation, Councilman Dromm as well as other speakers pointed to the responsibility of Norman Seabrook, president of the New York City Correction Officer’s Benevolent Association (COBA), to decrease violence at Rikers and bring about positive change. Dromm recounted an incident he experienced with Seabrook while touring Rikers in which Seabrook questioned what right Dromm had to be there. Dromm retorted that he had every right and went on to tell the audience “Seabrook needs to stand up and take accountability for what’s going on at Rikers. Norman Seabrook needs to stand up and be a part of the solution not the problem.”
The press conference was organized by the New York City’s Jails Action Coalition (JAC), a group of activists comprised of the formerly incarcerated, currently incarcerated, family members and other community members that work to “promote human rights, dignity and safety for people in New York City jails.” Speaking at the event were individuals representative of many groups including the Incarcerated Nation Campaign, the New York Civil Liberties Union, the Fortune Society, Education from the Inside Out, Just Leadership USA, the Bronx Defenders and the Brooklyn Defenders Services.
Johnanna Miller, the Advocacy Director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, summed up the sentiment of the day in saying “The city is failing to protect the basic human rights of New York citizens at Rikers… This is happening to New Yorkers that haven’t even had their day in court.” She went on to say “Transparency is only the first step. The culture of brutality must stop.”
Update, 8/20/14: Yesterday, the Sylvia Rivera Law Project released a new call to action to “Demand Safer Housing for Trans People in New York State Prisons.” After once again citing our investigation, SLRP tells the story of Synthia China Blast, a transwoman who has spent a decade in isolation in New York’s prisons, with an accompanying video featuring actor and activist Laverne Cox.
The call to action also includes an online petition for individuals to sign, to the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision.
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Earlier this month, Solitary Watch published an in-depth investigation by Aviva Stahl into the experiences of transgender women held in New York’s state prisons. It found that most transwomen in men’s prisons were subjected to long-term solitary confinement simply for being themselves. Many also faced sexual assault by staff as well as other prisoners.
Shortly after the investigation was released, four organizations – the National Center for Transgender Equality, Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York, the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, and the Trans Women of Color Collective – submitted a letter to the Acting Commission of New York’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) citing the article and demanding change.
“The women who shared their stories with Solitary Watch described a pattern of automatic, prolonged, and traumatic solitary confinement in men’s prisons,” the letter reads. “Their stories tragically demonstrated that solitary confinement does not prevent sexual abuse and other harms to vulnerable incarcerated persons, but instead inflicts further harm.”
The signatories call for DOCCS to “take swift and decisive action” to ensure full compliance with the Prison Rape Elimination Act’s (PREA) protections for transgender people. Specific demands outlined in the letter include: “housing transgender people consistent with their gender identity;” “establish[ing] entirely voluntary transgender housing units;” and “eliminating the prolonged use of isolation (including disciplinary, administrative segregation, and protective custody) for all individuals.”
The letter can be viewed in full here.
Interested parties can write to the Acting Commissioner of DOCCS at the following address: Mr. Anthony J. Annucci, Acting Commissioner, Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, 1220 Washington Avenue, Building 2, Albany, NY 12226-2050.
• A man who survived three years in solitary confinement in a New Jersey prison has had his lawsuit against the state’s Department of Corrections dismissed, on the grounds that he had not exhausted all available remedies to challenge the conditions. Lester Alford, who is still incarcerated, had alleged that he was denied legal assistance and endured deplorable conditions while held in solitary confinement.
• New York’s City Council will shortly vote on a bill that, if passed, would require the Department of Corrections to compile detailed data on the use of disciplinary segregation on Rikers Island.
• A Florida NPR station hosted a debate on how Florida should address the deaths of inmates in the prison system. Randall Justin-Aparo died in solitary confinement in September 2010. Investigators believe that staff may have gassed him, then covered up his death.
• The UK’s Morning Star published a front-page article about the experiences of Talha Ahsan, who was extradited to the US two years ago on terrorism charges and subsequently placed in solitary confinement in a Connecticut prison. Ahsan, who has been diagnosed with Asperger’s, was sentenced to time served in July and is awaiting deportation back to England.
• The American Civil Liberties published a briefing paper, “The Dangerous Overuse of Soltiary Confinement in the United States”, along with a blog post written by an individual whose brother has spent nearly ten years in isolation.
• A Pittsburgh man will receive a $30,000 settlement for allegedly being placed in solitary confinement a form of retaliation, after he spoke up on behalf of another inmate whose food was being tampered with by staff. The state has paid out $386,000 in lawsuits related to staff misconduct at the State Correctional Institution.
• Writing for the Huffington Post, Solitary Watch contributor Sarah Shourd describes seven audio recordings and videos recently released by Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC), in which immigration detainees experience arbitrary solitary confinement and other abuses.
• After she reported being sexually assaulted by her roommate at Arizona’s Eloy Detention Center, a transgender woman notified staff that she felt suicidal and was sent to solitary confinement for two days. Marichuy Leal Gamino and her supporters believe that she was being punished for reporting the assault.
• According to the latest report published by New York City’s Board of Corrections, more than 90% of those placed in disciplinary segregation at Riker’s Island do not receive their daily, legally-mandated hour of recreation. The report’s findings were covered by a variety of outlets, including the NY Daily News.
• The Department of Justice released a report which concludes that “there is a pattern of practice of conduct at Rikers that violates the constitutional rights of adolescent inmates,” and that the Department of Corrections “relies far too heavily on punitive segregation as a disciplinary measures.” The New York Times wrote an editorial supporting the extensive recommendations outlined in the report, including a reform of the “institutional culture of the jail system to ensure that violence is no longer tolerated.”
• The Bronx District Attorney has declined to prosecute any Rikers staff in an alleged 2012 assault on two prisoners, which was described in detail in the New York Times last month. Several individuals, including civilian staff members, had previously come forward to tell investigators what they had witnessed, but this week DA office announced that there were “inconsistencies and contradictions in testimony.”
• In the June/July 2014 issue of Correctional Law Reporter, Fred Cohen, LL.B., LL.M., convenes a panel of experts on prisons and the law in a “symposium” examining the use of and alternatives to solitary confinement in three hypothetical cases that illustrate the conditions, circumstances, and types of offenders consigned to “administrative segregation” in prisons around the U.S. Written for prison and jail administrators and their legal counsel, the bimonthly Correctional Law Reporter covers legal and constitutional issues in corrections.
• A federal judge has allowed a class-action lawsuit against the Arizona Department of Corrections to move forward, dismissing the state’s request for the summary judgment. The suit alleges that more than 33,000 prisoners in Arizona have endured poor prison health care and excessive solitary confinement. A trial is set to start in October.
• Solitary Watch’s Victoria Law published an article on Gothamist exploring “what it’s like to be 16 and in solitary on Rikers Island.”
• A trial against the New Jersey Department of Corrections continues this week. In the lawsuit, Lester Alford alleges that the DOC violated his rights against cruel and unusual punishment and that he was placed in disciplinary isolation without a proper hearing. In court he stated, “they locked me in a cell behind a cage like an an animal. I didn’t get to see my own face for three years.”
• A North Idaho teenager charged with murdering his father and brother has been removed from isolation in an adult facility and returned to a juvenile detention center. The ACLU of Idado had previously filed documents stating that Eldon Samuel III’s treatment in the Kootenai County Jail is “worse than the Guantanamo Bay detention camp.”
It was Gay Pride weekend in New York City, but the event’s celebratory spirit was absent from Michelle Scott’s tidy second-floor apartment on a leafy street near Brooklyn College. Her child, Carey Smith, is a transgender woman currently locked up in solitary confinement in Upstate Correctional Facility, a men’s supermax prison located in the Adirondacks.
“Sometimes I’m on my bed, I’m crying,” she told Solitary Watch. “I wake up at five o’clock in the morning thinking about it, and I say, ‘God my son is stuck in a cell for 23 hours a day,” said Scott, who seems to accept Smith’s transition but still uses male pronouns. “And I pray and ask God, ‘Please give him the grace to do it.’” Smith is in disciplinary segregation, known as the Special Housing Unit, or SHU.
In an era of unprecedented victories for LGBT rights, especially in liberal New York, people like Carey Smith are still paying a high price simply for being who they are.
Over the past several months, Solitary Watch has been in contact with seven transgender women currently or formerly incarcerated in New York’s men’s correctional facilities. They each described enduring long-term solitary confinement as a result of identifying or being perceived as female/feminine instead of male, the sex they were assigned at birth. And about half of the transwomen interviewed by Solitary Watch specifically disclosed being sexually assaulted by guards in isolation, and described the psychological distress of enduring such brutality while locked up alone.
Here are the stories of three of those women, and the continuing efforts of their families, lawyers, and activists to obtain justice for transwomen behind bars.
Solitary as “protection,” solitary as punishment
Carey Smith, 32, was born in Jamaica and followed her mom to Brooklyn at the age of twelve. After many years struggling with addiction, in 2010 she landed in prison on a seven-year sentence for two robbery charges. Although she had come out as transgender in high school, it was not until she arrived at Coxsackie Correctional Facility–a prison just south of Albany where Smith was incarcerated before Upstate–that she requested and received regular access to hormone therapy. As Smith’s body changed, she began experiencing numerous sexual threats and violence from both inmates and staff.
One night last winter, Smith became overwhelmed with the constant harassment and told the Correctional Officers (COs) she felt unsafe, according to a letter sent to Solitary Watch. But when a sergeant and lieutenant arrived they dismissed her concerns, informing her that she needed to pursue transfer requests through the available bureaucraticchannels. “I then told the Lt., ‘What if I flood my toilet,” and he said, ‘You would be doing a lot of SHU time.’” Then she explained, “Right then and there I took the bait I’ve been locked up since.”
On any given day, about 3,800 people in New York’s prisons are in the SHU. That means spending 23 of 24 hours in a cell the size of a parking space, with no telephone privileges, few personal possessions, and no access to activities, programs, or classes. Meals are served through a slot in cell door. Even the one-hour of recreation permitted each day is spent alone.
Solitary confinement can be a harrowing experience for anyone. But as Smith’s journey story underlines, for many transwomen there are multiple and contradictory meanings attached to isolation: Although it is sometimes perceived as a place of safety, it is also frequently experienced as a form of punishment.
Her story also illustrates the very limited options available to transwomen to push back against the cruelty and indifference exhibited by staff. Mik Kinkead is an attorney for Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York, which provides representation to indigent prisoners on issues associated with their conditions of confinement. “I’ve had several clients who have tried to stand up for themselves when DOCCS staff refer to them as “it” or “thing” or use the wrong pronoun even after my clients have explained what pronoun to use and why not doing so is hurtful and emotionally cruel,” he said in a recent phone interview. “However standing up for yourself in prison often results in a Misbehavior Report and being placed in solitary.”
“Trans and gender nonconforming people are disproportionately punished in prison and isolation is a common form of punishment,” explained Alisha Williams in an email to Solitary Watch. She is the Director of the Prisoner Justice Project at the Sylvia Rivera Law Project (SRLP), a NYC-based non-profit that provides advocacy for poor people and people of color who are gender non-conforming. As Williams pointed out, transwomen can even be punished for possessing panties if they have not been given the appropriate clearance by DOCCS staff. The SRLP extensively documented the experiences of transgender and intersex people in New York State’s men prisons in their 2007 report, It’s War in Here.
Sometimes, the “crime” that lands transwomen in isolation is simply appearing feminine, and therefore more vulnerable to physical or sexual violence in the general prison population. In New York and across the country, transgender people are often sent into involuntary protective custody (IPC) – another form of isolation–against their will, along with other prisoners perceived to be at risk. Other trans people elect to sign into voluntary protective custody (often referred to as ‘PC’) in order to escape a dangerous environment in general population.
According to New York’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (NY-DOCCS) Directive 4948, prisoners in PC and IPC are supposed to spend a minimum of three hours per day outside of their cells, participate daily in at least two group meals, and have regular access to library and counseling services, telephone calls, visits and their personal property–in other words, conditions are not supposed to mirror the SHU.
But according to women on the inside and advocates on the outside, few facilities make such distinctions. And because the vulnerable populations that end up in PC/IPC necessarily come under increased institutional surveillance, what begins as a protective measure may end as a punitive one.
Geri, 48, a German-born transwoman who asked that her last name be withheld, is twenty years into a twenty-five year sentence for second-degree manslaughter. In series of letters to Solitary Watch, she described how she spent the first 17 years of her sentence in the closet–until one day, when three gang members assaulted her. She wrote:
“[W]hile I fought, I was quickly beaten to shower floor. Cold, hard, wet–slippery. Kicked and incapacitated. So fast, with kaleidoscope of images and thought swirl in my overwhelmed mind.” She goes on to describe the rape in detail.
Geri explained that after her assailants left, she cleaned herself up and scrubbed the floor, all the while hoping she could get back to her cell without COs noting the incident. But as she crossed the recreation yard, a guard noticed she was bleeding; she taken to the facility hospital, where she was swabbed and her boxers confiscated. After being given minimal treatment, she was escorted to IPC wearing only a small towel tied around her waist.
But Geri’s difficulties did not end there. Instead of receiving additional medical care, she was issued two disciplinary tickets: one for not reporting an injury, and the second for a positive marijuana test. After a hearing on the charges before other prison staff, she was sentenced to six months in the SHU, which she served primarily at Upstate prison. Like many, once in “the box” Geri received additional tickets, and she ended up spending four years there.
Sexual assaults by prison staff
As Geri’s story suggests, the most significant factor that lands transwomen in protective custody is actual or perceived risk of sexual violence. However, isolation is oftentimes an equally or even more dangerous place. In fact, it was during Geri’s transfer to the SHU at Upstate that she experienced her most recent episode of prison sexual violence.
“At layover stop [to Upstate],” she wrote, “I am escorted by staff member, and cuffed behind my back. I was directed into small room and to sit on bench. Staff member closed door, made some reference to rape incident, exposed semi-erect penis and standing in front of me told me to: ‘polish his knob.’”
She continued: “I was absolutely shocked, but recovered enough to bluff. I told him he’d better just ‘pull the pin’ (personal alarm). He backed off, rezipping pants, tried to play off as he was just ‘joking’ with me. No sane, rational person would believe these actions as mere ‘joke’.”
Although no data exists tracking transgender experiences of assault New York prisons, accounts like Geri’s, as well as data from other studies, suggests that it is an commonplace ordeal for transwomen locked up. In a 2007 study of California prisons, for example, 59% of transwomen polled reported experiencing sexual assault while on the inside–a rate nearly 13 times higher than average amongst the state’s prison population.
According to recent Bureau of Justice Statistics data, nearly half of the alleged instances of sexual violence in prisons and jails across America are actually committed by facility staff. In short, placing transwomen in “protective” custody may actually increase their vulnerability to predatory staff members, while simultaneously closing down potential avenues to report assaults.
For Yvette Gonzales, 37, who spent three years of her seven-year sentence in solitary confinement, the notion of isolation as “protection” could not be farther from the truth. Gonzales was first arrested in 1998 and eventually pled guilty to criminal possession of a weapon. She narrated her experiences to Solitary Watch from the Midtown offices of Housing Works, the HIV/AIDS advocacy organization where she now works as a testing coordinator.
“Things were going good for a while,” at Franklin Correctional Facility, where Gonzales was first transferred after sentencing, “until my whole femininity thing just started becoming an issue for a lot of correctional officers.” Guards starting harassing her, and when fights started breaking out in the dorms, she said, they were blamed on her. “I went to the box, supposedly to keep me safe.”
At first Gonzales was placed at the front of the tier. Then, one night, a CO moved her to a cell at the very end of the corridor, out of sight from the bubble where other guards would stand watch. A few nights later, the same guard returned and informed her he would be searching her cell, ordering her to stand in front of her bed and strip. Then, the CO came towards her.
“I remember, he punched me so hard in my ribs, that I could barely breathe… he hit me so hard that I grabbed myself on the bed and that’s when he came behind me and he was grabbing me, choking me and hitting me, pinning me down… there was a point I couldn’t even move.”
“He made me give him oral sex and he turned me around and that’s when he attacked me sexually – he raped me and this went on for a few weeks.”
Gonzales also told Solitary Watch that she never received medical attention. “When I tried to complain to the captain he told me that I was lying. So I had to endure that for a long period of time when I was in the box.”
Both advocates and many of the transwomen in touch with Solitary Watch stressed that when prisoner’s account of a staff assault is disputed, unless videotape evidence is available, the CO’s word will almost always be accepted as truth.
In an e-mail, Assistant Public Information Officer Linda Foglia told Solitary Watch, “DOCCS has not identified a systemic problem of transgender women being sexually victimized by either other inmates or staff.” She added that DOCCS is in the process of launching a new sexual victimization-screening tool, which will include information about individuals’ sexual orientation and gender identity, and sensitivity training for reception and guidance staff.
The trauma and toll of isolation
There is a growing understanding both across the country and the world that prolonged solitary confinement causes severe emotional distress, and often amounts to torture. After communicating with over 100 individuals who had served significant time in the state’s SHUs, the New York Civil Liberties Union concluded that “extreme isolation causes emotional and psychological harm, including apathy, lethargy, anxiety, depression, despair, rage and uncontrollable impulses, even among the health and mentally stable.”
Chris Daley is the deputy executive director of Just Detention International (JDI), a human rights organization that is committed to ending sexual violence in detention. “[Solitary] is an incredibly harmful way to protect someone,” he told Solitary Watch in a recent phone interview from the organization’s Washington DC office.
“The emotional and psychological damages that comes from being placed in solitary… can oftentimes be just as bad as the physical violence, it just manifests differently, and it is not something you can as clearly point to in an individual case.”
Gonzales told Solitary Watch that being in IPC had undoubtedly affected her well-being. “There’s nothing for you to do [in the box]. You sleep, you lose track of time. You start talking to yourself, you start hearing, you start imagining, you start inventing, you start making up stuff.”
The Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), passed in 2003, recognizes the psychological toll of isolation by requiring facilities to assess all alternative remedies before placing a vulnerable person individual in IPC–like relocating perpetrators, increasing staffing, or housing those at risk in single-cells within general population. The legislation also states that involuntary segregation for those at risk should not last longer than 30 days.
NYDOCCS told Solitary Watch that its facilities are PREA-compliant in these specific areas. These assurances were disputed, however, by every advocate interviewed for this article.
Being placed in solitary confinement–whether for protection or punishment–is often particularly psychologically distressing for transwomen: not only because of the violence they face in isolation, but also because they are cut off from transgender-affirming avenues of support, like family or friends on the outside or LGBT peers in general population.
In a note to Solitary Watch, Smith described the level of distress she has encountered in the SHU. “Last year before this I was in another facility… I was being treated badly by the staff as a whole in Woodbourne [Correctional Facility] while in an extremely intense solitary confinement especially because the space was so small. I asked the officer for mental health and he told me he would not get mental health for me.”
Smith felt trapped. The day before, a prisoner who had twice assaulted her had been let out of the box; she believed she was kept in “because of all the attention [she] was getting.”
“I took them off [my reading glasses], broke them up and started to slice and cut up my wrist and arm. After all the blood and cuts mental health was called and I was out of solitary for 5 days. It’s sad I have to mutilate my own body just to get something done.”
Transwomen do not only pay a price psychologically – they also pay in time. “I have multiple clients who have been denied parole because they spent their entire time in protective custody,” Kinkead told Solitary Watch. Almost without exception, prisoners outside of general population are unable to access programs mandated by the courts – like anger management – that might otherwise enable them to be seen favorably at parole hearings.
Proposed solutions for staying safe(r)
As Chris Daley of Just Detention noted, it is the environment within men’s prisons that puts transwomen at such a high risk of sexual violence – in that their bodies become a means for both prisoners and staff to assert their masculinity. In letter to Solitary Watch, Geri explained, “Being in a men’s prison lets you know how (many) men really feel about women – and makes me feel more vulnerable to sexual violence/abuse than ever before.”
As a result, some advocates have suggested that the answer to keeping transwomen safe is creating policies for them to be more easily housed in women’s facilities, as has been done in a number of cities and states, including Denver, Washington, DC, and elsewhere. And certainly being transferred to a women’s facility is a priority for many transwomen locked up in New York and across the country. Under PREA, correctional facilities are supposed to determine housing for trans people on a case-by-case basis, taking into account where the individual feels they would be safest.
When asked, however, most of the transwomen in touch with Solitary Watch named a different solution–creating specific pods, floors or even entire facilities dedicated to housing LGBT prisoners.
According to Daley, LGBT-segregated units can sometimes heighten vulnerability to violence, for example, if staff predators gain access. He thinks the idea is more a reflection of the dire nature of current realities than a solution in itself. “[The request for LGBT-units is] shorthand for ‘I want to be someplace where they’re going to call me by the right name, use the right pronouns, and not threaten or intimidate me. That’s about conditions of confinement. And everyone should be in a facility where those things happen.”
Last February, the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) reached a tentative agreement with the state that will remove a number of vulnerable populations from isolation, including juveniles, pregnant women, and those with developmental disabilities—but makes no reference to transgender people.
The Humane Alternatives to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act, introduced into the New York state legislature this past winter, aims to establish strict limits on the amount of time any prisoner could spend in isolation.
“HALT also recognizes that certain people should never be placed in isolation for any length of time because either isolation itself can have more devastating effects on them or they are more vulnerable to abuse while in isolation,” explained Scott Paltrowitz, Associate Director of the Prison Visiting Project at the Correctional Association, a non-profit advocating for a more humane criminal justice system in New York. ”Transgender people and other members of the LGBTI community are given additional protections under HALT primarily for the latter reason.”
Within the broader movement against solitary confinement in New York and across the country, advocates face a difficult dilemma: namely, how to provide immediate and much-needed relief to the most vulnerable of populations without leaving everyone else to languish in the box.
Jason Lydon, 31, is the founder of Black & Pink, an organization that aims to build support between LGBTQ people across prison walls, primarily through a pen-pal scheme.
“When we fight for the reduction of solitary confinement for certain individuals,” he told Solitary Watch, “we are saying that solitary confinement is okay – that there is a certain amount of torture that is okay for certain kinds of people – for [non-trans] black men, for example.”
He added, “We’re not looking to create a pink door in a prison wall for LGBTQ people to walk out of. While centering [LGBTQ] experiences, our efforts are tied to this larger call for abolition for everybody.”
For its part, NYDOCCS has also stated that it is taking steps to better accommodate the needs of trans prisoners. In an email, Linda Foglia told Solitary Watch:
“In July 2012, DOCCS convened an internal multi-disciplinary ‘GID Task Force’ (now the GD Task Force) to study the needs of transgender individuals, and to review policies to ensure an appropriate balance between individual needs and the agency’s mission. The work of this Task Force continues and keeps DOCCS at the forefront as corrections agencies across the nation work to identify best practices for working with LGBTI inmates.”
An unconditional love
While popular mobilization and policy change may seek to improve conditions on the inside, when it comes down to it, most transgender women locked up in New York and across the county rely on friends and family to survive.
In a June letter to Solitary Watch, Smith wrote, “the biggest thing that bothers me [about conditions in the SHU] the most not hearing my mom’s voice to ease her worries and mine.”
From her home in Flatbush, Smith’s mother, Michelle Scott, explained why her emotional support is so central is to her child’s survival on the inside. “Carey sees [my] unconditional love when everyone else turns their back… He sees the unconditional love when he goes out there and I’m walking with him on Flatbush. I see guys looking at him and say, ‘Oh, you batty man’…. They cut him down and I hold his hand and we cried, and I said, ‘This is my child.’”
Michelle Scott hopes that love will help keep Carey strong even as he endures isolation and abuse in prison. “I never in my life fathomed he would go through this,” she said.
For a firsthand account of one transgender woman’s experience in solitary confinement in New York, see the accompanying piece Voices from Solitary: Cruel and Unusual Punishment for Transgender Women.
Solitary Watch is interested in hearing from other transgender individuals and their families about their experiences in New York’s prisons and jails. Please write to Aviva Stahl, c/o Solitary Watch, Box 165, 123 7th Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11215 or email aviva.stahl (at) gmail.com.
Dee Dee is a transgender woman serving a sentence of 60 years to life in New York State, where she has been held in men’s prisons. After being raped twice in general population, she was placed in solitary confinement “for her own protection,” in conditions virtually identical to those used for punishment. In this letter to Solitary Watch, Dee Dee describes in detail the conditions of extreme isolation and deprivation in which she lives, and the effect they have had on her. For more stories and information on transgender women in the New York State prison system, see the accompanying article, “Transgender Women in New York State Prisons Face Solitary Confinement and Sexual Assault.” –Aviva Stahl
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I’m currently in solitary confinement under the status of Involuntary Protective Custody (I.P.C.) since 2-14-2013. Overall, I’ve been in continuous solitary confinement for 4 straight years.
I’m allowed only 1 hour outside to use weights (if available), phone and T.V., or to play cards or basketball (if they’re provided but usually aren’t). The one hour goes by too quickly. We inmates spend so much of it talking and socializing. You can readily identify the detrimental effects of our solitary existence by the harried way we socialize. The personal contact is a great need; the interaction is non-stop about everything, anything and nothing as guys try to work-out or play games. Mostly, its guys complaining how bad things are for us and negative talk of possible “solutions” which go nowhere. Nothing really constructive is discussed.
Our cells have solid doors with a small window about the size of two paperback novels placed side-by-side. You can only see directly in front of your own cell. You can’t really hear anything outside the cell due to blower vents in our cell that circulate air in and out of our cells being so loud. The walls are basically sound-proof being of solid cement. Although the cells are designed for disciplinary solitary confinement it is nice because it’s supposed to house 2 inmates, but when used for protection use, inmates are housed by themselves; hence, plenty of room. But the main thing is the inability to hear anything outside your cell. And to compound this, when lists are taken for our 1 hour yard or 10 minute gallery phone use, CO’s rarely announce themselves or that a list is being taken. Inmates new to the unit have no idea what is going on because no rule book is available, nor does staff give a rundown of how things run in the unit. Many miss the lists. I suffer daily anxiety by waiting at my door a ½ hour before the lists are supposed to come just so I don’t miss it because C.O.’s come with the lists at anytime a ½ before or after the list is supposed to be taken.
There are no interactions from your cell with anyone for 23 hours a day aside from C.O.’s delivering your food trays 3 times a day. You can try to yell through the door but it’s a hassle because your voice barely gets through and you have to repeat yourself over and over. We have a recreation pen (rec. pen) at the back of our cells where you can go outside but it’s like being in a dog kennel. We’re told that the rec pen is our “additional out-of-cell” time; indicated in the New York Department Directives for protective custody units.
Our phone access is restricted even though we are not disciplinary restricted; as phone use is a privilege that can only be restricted by a disciplinary hearing sanction for rule violations. We wrote grievances but even when we win the staff in this block refuse to obey the decisions. They adhere to their own unwritten policy.
Our protection unit is housed in the Special Housing Unit block (SHU), which is a disciplinary solitary confinement unit for inmates who’ve violated facility or department rules and regulations. And because of that staff can quote “security reasons” as a basis for any unfair restrictions they arbitrarily apply to us to make their jobs easier. There’s no rule book and the block is run in part (to resemble legitimacy) by what Department of Corrections policy and directives dictate and what staff have made up in order to allow us the VERY MINIMUM (most time we have less than) what we’re entitled to.
We have a general library cart with about 40 books that is sent about every 3 months that’s brought cell-to-cell every Tuesday night. The books are all garbage and not worth reading. Grievances and complaints were made and the general librarians’ response was to fill the cart with really bad choices. Even the CO who rolls the cart around said it was a shame. This is just one example of the treatment we endure besides the having to endure 23 hours of solitary.
I personally went on hunger strike to bring attention to the conditions and treatment here. And although I obtained a one-on-one audience with the Executive Staff of the facility I was just “yes’d” to death and NOTHING was done to change anything. Their only response was to transfer everyone they could who wrote grievances or complained. However, myself and 4 others cannot be transferred due to the safety needs we require. Transfers are always staff’s response in any facility, to problems they face when inmates speak up.
In addition, staff harasses us for the grievances we write. One inmate had his cell’s contents destroyed during a “random” cell search. His 3rd in a few weeks. And he got a disciplinary ticket for misc. thing, as an attempt to put him in disciplinary solitary confinement. Retribution is and has always been a tactic staff employs to deter inmates from writing grievances and/or shedding light on the staff’s “policy and procedures” we have to endure.
I’m blessed to have support and fill my 23 hours of lockdown by doing legal work, studying, reading, and drawing some. However, I’ve been here over a year with no access to a pencil sharpener; because this block is a SHU block and one isn’t provided. The only allowable pencil sharpeners we’re allowed to order from outside vendors are no longer produced. I’ve written grievances and complained but nothing is being done.
I find solitary confinement here very detrimental to one’s mental health. Cell lights are kept on at night for SHU inmates for legitimate security reasons, but they’re put on for us as well. When I complained I was told that they stay on (even though they can specifically turn ours off) because we’re housed in a SHU block, so we get treated the same. Yet, SHU inmates have a mailbox wheeled to each of their cells to ensure their mail is actually being sent out. But we, on the other hand, are told we don’t get a mail cart because we’re not SHU inmates. So CO’s pick our mail up by hand and we hope they put it in the mailbox to go out. However, grievances and mail of complaints have been known to disappear and never get to the mailbox. Which can be detrimental to any legal or policy time constraints. The mental stress of this and other flip-flopping “policy” is very intense. You never know where you stand.
I had a friend, DeMario Parks, who was in this SHU back in 2001. He mentally broke and hung himself. A few years later the Office of Mental Health did a study on the effects of solitary confinement. This study resulted in being the backbone of a lawsuit against the NY State Dept of Corrections that produced sweeping changed for inmates who were mentally ill and placed in solitary confinement where their mental conditions deteriorated and they wound up getting more and more disciplinary tickets that would keep them in solitary for years. The study, I encourage you to read, is available from the Office of Mental Health or the “New York State Commission of Corrections,” which is a watchdog agency.
The restricted contact with others is the hardest part to deal with. As humans we need to socialize in order to stay relevant with societal norms, etc. Prison is already a very lonely place for many of us. This lack of interaction promotes anti-social behavior. I’ve stayed in my cell for months because I felt anti-social, frustrated, angry etc and wanted nothing to do with anyone here. I’m currently doing so now . The mental ups and downs are an ordeal. Mental health is no help. Their services are either to prescribe medications or instruct you in “coping skills” so you can endure more of this cruel & unusual punishment INSTEAD of alleviating the root of the problem causing the distress.
Most letters to staff go ignored. You’re basically screaming on deaf ears. Our one hour of yard is usually 45 minutes due to staff bringing us out late or bringing us in early. Our minimum is ONE HOUR, but we rarely get it. A grievance, from experience, gets you harassed and/or not let out for yard at all. Staff knows if you complain of a missed yard it can’t be rectified, so they get away with it.
There’s no programming or classes or any type of rehabilitation work you can do in here either. The mind stagnates. The only thing offered is “cell study” which is for inmates looking to get a GED which they’ll never take a test for until they get out of solitary. Cell study is totally self-study by text books with no instruction at all. I currently convinced the cell study staff to provide me with vocational text books, so that I can study on my own topics such a Masonry, Home Electrical Wiring and Business Practices. That’s all one can do.
The frustrations here are immense. Tempers flare all over. Mostly because a lot of what goes on makes no logical sense. And I know staff sees that but they don’t care.
Currently, I’m trying to get a transfer somewhere very beneficial to my long-term future in prison. I have 35 more years before I see parole board. So I have to stay out of trouble by staying below the radar with staff so as to not to jeopardize it. So I accept the oppression and mistreatment and meekly do what I need to do to get out of here (hopefully). It’s a sad existence but it is what it is. We are basically voiceless here.
Others are unfortunately left to endure this oppressive lonely place. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve talked myself out of self-destructive behavior or harmful behavior here out of the frustrating desperations I experience here.
Solitary confinement is punishment, sure but it’s a cruel and unusual punishment that benefits no one and nothing about it rehabilitates anymore thus confined. Their behavior stays the same (and/or gets worse) and they usually stay within the cycle of coming back to solitary or never getting out of it.
Lastly, I’d like to mention that in December of 2001 I was released from prison (on a previous incarceration). I was sent directly into society after 2 years of solitary confinement for protection. No transitional program or preparation was provided. No assistance or guidance or counseling either as to what to expect or what I needed to do on the outside after 10 years in prison. From 23 hours of solitary confinement to 24/7 wide-open society in the snap of your fingers. I arrived in New York City post 9-11 paranoid, nervous, bitter, and scared of everyone around me. It was too much to handle at once. Six days later, still feeling way, way out of place, I killed my boyfriend in a domestic dispute. I believe the solitary confinement in addition to no outside help or counseling by the office of parole contributed to this tragedy. I was just left to my own devices that were woefully inadequate for the task.
The HALT bill is a good start but applicability will be a challenge–especially due to funding. Money, sadly, dictates not what is best but what we can only afford. For one of the richest countries on earth we should be able to do better.
I encourage everyone to add to our voices to advocate for change so that your friends and your loved ones who are unfortunately are incarcerated return to society better mentally and emotionally then when they came to prison. Even if you’ve no friends or family in here, they still will be among you in society–so do what will benefit society as a whole. It all affects us. Rehabilitate don’t punish.
STOP SOLITARY CONFINEMENT.
“Loneliness is a destroyer of humanity.” –Jesse Wilson, held in solitary at ADX Florence federal supermax prison
Based on the evidence amassed by researchers in the last several decades, we have reached a point in time when we may unequivocally state that solitary confinement inflicts psychological damage and distress on those subjected to it. Even in individuals with no prior history of mental illness or instability, extended periods of isolated confinement have produced severe psychological symptoms, and left deep and often permanent psychological scars.
More recently, such findings have been bolstered by the field of neuroscience, which is progressively discovering evidence that long-term isolation has the potential to actually alter the chemistry and structure of the brain.
Among the early researchers investigating the link between solitary confinement and mental abnormalities is Stuart Grassian, who became interested in the subject after visiting Walpole State Penitentiary in 1982 and interviewing several men in solitary confinement. Grassian realized “these people were very sick.” Those he spoke with exhibited symptoms such as hallucinatory tendencies, paranoia, and delirium—a collection of conditions he designated “SHU Syndrome.” Several other studies have since supported the existence of such a syndrome. The American Friends Service Committee, among others, also cites hypersensitivity to noise and touch, insomnia, PTSD, and uncontrollable feelings of rage or fear.
The rise of supermaxes and solitary confinement units across the country in the 1990s and early 2000s has intensified the problems associated with prison isolation.
According to an American Journal of Public Health study, 53.3 percent of self-harm incidents took place among those in solitary, who make up only about 5 percent of the prison population. Likewise, about half of all prison suicides take place in solitary confinement. When their sentences are complete, individuals housed in solitary are often released directly to the streets—a practice that has been linked to increased recidivism rates.
Only recently, however, have researchers begun discussing the neurobiological effects of prolonged isolation. This research was showcased earlier this year at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), at a panel discussion during which neurologists and activists alike shared their experiences with solitary confinement’s destructive capabilities.
Panel member Craig Haney, a psychology professor from the University of California Santa Cruz, has spent the past thirty years both evaluating solitary confinement units across the country and documenting the effects of long-term isolation. One notable effect of such seclusion on prisoners, Haney states, is identity disorders that result from the lack of social interaction:
So much of who we are depends on our contact with other people, the social context in which we function, and when you remove people from that context, they begin to lose their very sense of self.
Huda Akil, a neuroscientist at the University of Michigan and also a member of the panel, concedes the fact that there are limitations when attempting to work with prisoners directly, but is confident in a connection between solitary and mental abnormalities because of existing evidence tying the absence of stimulus with changes in the brain:
The physical lack of activity, the lack of interaction with the natural world… the lack of interaction with other human beings, the lack of visual stimulation, the lack of touch—Each one of those has been studied not just only in humans, but in animal models… And each one is by itself sufficient to change the brain, and change it dramatically depending on whether it lasts briefly or extended. And by extended I mean days, not decades…
Given the opportunity to document changes in segregated prisoners’ brains, Akil is certain the findings would support the theory that solitary confinement can fundamentally alter the structure of the brain.
When one considers the wealth of knowledge that behavioral science has contributed to establishing a connection between isolation and brain degeneration, along with the relatively new, concrete evidence offered by neuroscientists, the existence of a causal relationship is convincing.
In an article published by AEON Magazine Shruti Ravindran presents a collection of first-hand accounts and recent scientific research supporting the panel’s central claim: “solitary confinement fundamentally alters the brain.” Among her resources are formerly incarcerated persons and renowned neuroloscientists, who have devoted themselves to documenting the negative effects that prolonged isolation can have on a person’s psyche.
Ravindran begins by introducing us to Robert King, a former prisoner and member of the AAAS panel, who spent 29 years in solitary at Louisiana’s Angola State Prison. King describes his experiences in and out of solitary confinement, and the lasting side effects. Even after his release thirteen years ago, he says, he often feels introverted, struggles with paranoia, and suffers from bouts of depression.
In an ongoing effort to prove the existence of a causal link between solitary confinement and its devastating mental consequences, neurologists like Elizabeth Gould, Mark Rosenzweig, and Marian Diamond have conducted experiments that demonstrate structural changes in the brain itself. Gould, a Princeton neuroscientist, and Alexis Stranahan, a postdoctoral researcher, together investigated the underlying reasons behind the isolated brain’s decline and found hormones to be somewhat responsible. They found that isolated rats could not effectively regulate stress hormones, leading to a dangerous buildup that was causing neurons to die. Normally, an animal would be able to maintain a hormone balance that preserves, and even grows neurons. But in a stress-inducing environment, such as the one isolation imposes, the ability to regulate hormones is lost and the body’s systems deteriorate.
Rosenzweig found that rats subjected to supermax-like conditions “had fewer connections between neurons and thinner cerebral cortexes” than those that were raised in stimulating, engaging environments. Diamond revealed the fragility of the cortex by demonstrating that environmental changes, positive or negative, had the potential to alter both the size and cellular makeup of the cortex at any point in a person’s life. “The cerebral cortex,” Ravindran contests, “… is the part of the brain that makes us most human.” If the cortex is in fact one of the most crucial areas of the brain, it is alarming to find that it is so susceptible to environmental changes, especially the drastic sensory deprivation associated with solitary confinement.
As evidence of solitary’s biological affects accumulates, a valid question arises: What does this all mean for the future of solitary confinement? At a minimum it will strengthen every argument against the practice on both ethical and practical grounds. Prisoners are suffering not only mental anguish but also permanent physiological harm that will hinder their efforts to reintegrate into society.