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New Solitary Confinement Policies in California Bring Small Changes and Raise Big Questions

Thu, 07/03/2014 - 11:53

The latest and largest of three hunger strikes in California prisons began nearly a year ago, on July 8, 2013.  The strike brought international attention to California’s liberal use of indefinite solitary confinement and resulted in legislative hearings and the introduction of bills to curb solitary in both houses of the California state legislature. (Only one of these bills  State Senator Loni Hancock’s SB892, remained in play at the end of the legislative session in June, passed by the Senate and waiting to be taken up by the Assembly in the next session.)

For decades, California prison officials have placed individuals with real or suspected prison gang affiliation in SHUs for indeterminate terms with few means available of being released from the SHU. As a consequence, thousands of people in the California prison system have spent years, some even decades, in small, isolated prison cells for up to 24 hours a day, with few rehabilitative or educational resources made available to them. There are currently SHU facilities in five California prisons: Pelican Bay State Prison, California State Prison, Corcoran, California State Prison, Sacramento, California Correctional Institution, and at the California Institution for Women.

In light of the various pressures of international, federal and state legislative scrutiny, it appears that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) has made some modifications to its use of the solitary–at times, in favor of expanding double-celled lockdown in the place of solitary. In 2012, the CDCR announced its intent to reform the status quo gang management strategy. The CDCR sought to revise the standards by which it defined gang affiliation and the creation of a Step Down Program (SDP) by which individuals housed in SHUs for gang affiliation would be able to gradually receive privileges, accesses to constructive programming, and ultimately release to the general population so long as they refrained from gang activity.

As the CDCR seeks to codify these reforms in the California Code of Regulations, there have been criticisms of the reforms by, among others, the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity coalition, a grassroots organization created in 2011 to support the goals of the hunger strikers to reform gang management policy. Critics are concerned that in reality, the CDCR policy will continue to authorize the prolonged solitary confinement of individuals who have been validated as prison gang affiliates. While there is a system by which individuals in the SHU may leave the SHU, individuals could be held indefinitely in the SHU should they be deemed active prison gang affiliates. Significantly, the opportunities for educational programming are non-existent for 2-3 years for those who are deemed active gang affiliates.

Chief among the concerns, also articulated by individuals such as attorney Charles Carbone during a hearing on gang management policy in February, is that the proposed CDCR reforms would actually expand the number of individuals classified as gang affiliates who may end up in segregation units.

This concern was echoed by Claude Marks from the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity coalition, who in a statement to Solitary Watch, wrote that “we think that the ‘changes’ to the Step Down Program and issues of validation are a smokescreen to broadening the bases of gang validating (now called Security Threat Groups…Under the guise of improvement of conditions, and re-evaluating the basis for long-term solitary, the CDCr is actually attacking the basic human rights struggle by denying responsibility for damaging human lives with decades of solitary and by expanding the ways in which leadership can be validated and further punished,” says Marks.

To evaluate the concern that the revised policies are broadening the numbers of gang affiliates and individuals in solitary confinement in the SHU, Solitary Watch has reviewed population figures of the number of individuals currently identified as prison gang affiliates, and the number of individuals held in solitary confinement in the SHUs over the past year.

Earlier this year, the OIG released its third report on the progress the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has made in implementing its Future of California Corrections Blueprint. The blueprint was released in 2012 with the overarching goals of ending federal court oversight of the state prison system, improving the state prison system, and saving taxpayer money. Pursuant to these goals, the blueprint placed a focus on revamping the inmate classification system, gang management strategies, and enhancing access to rehabilitative programs, among other reforms.

In total, as of February 24, 2014, there were 2,832 individuals identified as prison gang affiliates in the California prison system. Of them, 2,281 are held in a SHU facility. The remaining 551 validated gang affiliates are housed in some other segregation unit, including Administrative Segregation Units and, increasingly, general population facilities. The graphic below comes from the latest OIG report showing institutional breakdowns on the numbers of prison gang affiliates.

In comparison, the following figures come from the first OIG report in 2013, showing similar breakdowns in gang affiliate numbers using data from January 2013:

These figures indicate a few interesting trends. First is the decline in the number of validated gang associates. This may be due to more stringent standards for what constitutes a “gang associate,” as gang associates are considered individuals who perform acts in conjunction with or on behalf of prison gangs but are not themselves members of the prison gangs. Second, the decline in the number of gang associates has driven a slight decline in the total number of identified gang affiliates. In the past year, there has been a net growth in the number of identified full fledged prisons gang members by seven. Lastly, there has been an increase in the number of validated gang associates and members housed in Pelican Bay.

Ultimately, it appears that, since the implementation of reformed standards, there have been small decreases, rather than an expansion, in the number of individuals identified as prison gang affiliates. This may be a result of the case-by-case reviews CDCR has been conducting since October 2012. Every gang affiliate held in the SHU or some alternative segregation unit, such as Administrative Segregation Units pending openings in a SHU, will be re-evaluated under the revised standards for a determination of where in the 5-step Step Down Program they will be housed. Step 1 is essentially no change from the current situation and Step 5 is placement in the general population.

According to CDCR spokesperson Terry Thornton:

  • As of March 25th, CDCR has conducted 498 case-by-case reviews of validated inmates in Security Housing Units and 238 reviews of validated inmates in Administrative Segregation Units.
  • Of the case-by-case reviews in the SHU, 338 were released to general population, and six are participating in the debriefing process
  • Of the case-by case-reviews in ASU, 150 were released to general population, 34 retained in ASU for disciplinary, safety or are debriefing

Those not released to general population or retained for safety or debriefing issues are placed in Steps 1-4 of the Step Down Program.

The following chart created by the OIG shows the distribution of placement in the Step Down Program as of March 4th:

The OIG has conducted a review of 150 individuals who have already been reviewed and has produced the following chart of their outcomes:

The OIG has determined that 17 of the 22 who regressed to Step 1 had refused to participate in programming requirements for progression in the SDP.

The OIG estimates that the case-by-case review process may take up to four years to encompass all validated gang affiliates.

Solitary Watch has previously conducted a survey of CDCR COMPSTAT data to determine the number of California prisoners held in solitary confinement. According to our review, in September 2013, there were 5,938 individuals held in “single-cell” housing, or about 4.78% of the California prison population. This figure includes 1,772 individuals held in the SHU, or about 45.6% of the total number of SHU inmates at the time.

Single-cell housing as a category is the best measure available of the number of people in solitary confinement. Aside from the metric of single-cell housing, trends in the increase of double-celling individuals in the SHU brings with it its own set of problems. Having a cellmate “under this circumstance forces you to modify your daily life to account for the mood swings, biological activities, and other idiosyncrasies of someone who is always – no matter how far in this tiny cell you go – only 2 steps away from you,” writes a group of individuals in the SHU at Corcoran.

The most recent figures reported by CDCR are available here. Consistent with Solitary Watch’s previous review, the data shows that, between December 2012 and December 2013, the number of people held in the SHUs remained fairly stable. In December 2012, there were 3,897 housed in a SHU, and in December 2013, there were 3,906 housed in a SHU. Taken together with the OIG numbers, it appears that while there have been declines in the number of inmates held in the SHU for gang affiliation, there have been increases in the number of inmates held in the SHU for rules violations. In other words, despite the transfer of hundreds of individuals out of the SHU for gang affiliation, there were fairly constant population levels in the SHU, suggesting that CDCR still heavily relies on SHU housing for disciplinary purposes.

Recent data from COMPSTAT indicates that there have been notable, though slight, decreases in the number of individuals single-celled in the SHU. Between December 2012 and December 2013, the number of single-celled individuals in the SHU declined from 1,891 to 1,654. As a result of this decrease, the percentage of individuals in the SHU held on single-cell status fell from 48.5% to 42.3%, including a 4% decrease between September 2013 and December 2013, likely reflective of greater numbers of once single-celled gang affiliates being released to the general population due to the case-by-case reviews.

For opponents of solitary confinement in California, it does appear that the number of individuals held in solitary are on the decline. It further appears, for now at least, that the CDCR reforms are reducing the number of people being held in the SHU and are giving some of those held in the SHU some greater opportunities to access constructive programming opportunities in and out of the SHU. Further scrutiny is warranted to ensure that this not just a temporary trend, and Solitary Watch will provide updates in the future on this matter.

The post New Solitary Confinement Policies in California Bring Small Changes and Raise Big Questions appeared first on Solitary Watch.

Seven Days in Solitary [6/29/14]

Sun, 06/29/2014 - 23:34

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.

• On the Pacifica Evening News, religious leaders, families of people in prison, and state prison officials went on air to discuss the issue of solitary confinement.

• Writing for Pacific Standard Magazine, Jessica Pishko asks, “Are we approaching the end of solitary confinement?”

• Solitary Watch contributor Aviva Stahl covered a recent demonstration by the New-York based Jails Action Coalition, calling for justice for a man who died after spending seven days in isolation at Rikers without access to life-saving medication. Bradley Ballard’s death was ruled a homicide by the medical examiner, but thus far correction officers have been fired or indicted.

• About a dozen members of a Unitarian Universalist Congregation held a protest against solitary confinement outside of the Nassau County Correctional Facility.  Since 2010, five prisoners have committed suicide at the jail.

• According to the NY Daily News, of the “11 suicides in New York City jails over the past five years show that in at least nine cases, safeguards designed to prevent inmates from harming themselves weren’t followed.”  One of the inmates hung himself in solitary confinement after telling correctional officers he was suicidal. The documents were uncovered by the AP.

• The NY Daily News reports that people with mental illness at Rikers Island often face long-delays in accessing psychiatric treatment, which may lead to increased violence at the jail.  In May, one inmate was attacked by rival gang members, both of whom owed time in “the box” but were deemed mentally ill and awaiting treatment.

•  Two writers posted commentaries about solitary confinement on The Huffington Post, each beginning with the portrayal of isolation on the hit-television show Orange is the New Black (here and here).

•  The Center for Investigative Reporting published a new documentary, “Alone,” about teens held in solitary confinement.

• Jane Doe, the 16-year-old transgender girl who was held in solitary confinement in both men and women’s adult facilities despite not facing any criminal charges, has been moved to a psychiatric center for children.

• A friend of the Boston Marathon bombing suspects is being held in solitary confinement in a Plymouth County jail.  Khairullozhon Matanov is being charged with interfering into the ongoing investigation into the attack.

The post Seven Days in Solitary [6/29/14] appeared first on Solitary Watch.

Prayers for People in Solitary Confinement

Sun, 06/29/2014 - 16:49

Editor’s Note: The following prayers, along with more than a hundred others, were delivered to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation on Thursday. The same small selection of prayers was printed in Solitary Watch’s latest quarterly print edition, which goes out to some 800 individuals currently in solitary confinement. The complete collection of prayers can be found here.

.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .

In advance of Torture Awareness Month this June, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, California Families Against Solitary Confinement, the American Friends Service Committee, and T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, issued a national call for people of faith and conscience to compose and share prayers for all who remain in conditions of isolated confinement, and in remembrance of the significance of the upcoming one year anniversary of the historic peaceful prisoner hunger strike throughout California prisons which began July 8, 2013, with more than 30,000 participating.

The national response to the call for prayer was moving and overwhelming, with more than one hundred prayers submitted in a matter of days. The prayers share an urgent call for restorative justice and an end to the cruel and inhumane treatment of long-term isolation, and for an end to systems and practices that sow division and distrust.

On June 26, the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, an interfaith clergy delegation will meet with the California Department of Corrections to deliver a collection of the prayers printed on prayer cards, with a request that the cards be delivered to those who remain in SHU in California.

The spirit of this interfaith and nationwide effort extends to all who remain in solitary confinement. We share a small selection of the prayers with the hope that they will serve as a reminder to you, reader, that you are not alone, that you are not forgotten, and that the prayers of our global family continue for you. We believe in freedom and will not rest until it comes.

—Rev. Laura Markle Downton, National Religious Campaign Against Torture

.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .

May you know in your being that there are people who care about your suffering and who think of you and your pain. May you know that there are those who are fighting for the injustice being done to you. May you find relief from the pain of isolation and confinement. May you know that you are not alone. May you feel held in the web of life. In love and care —K.R.P.

Lord be with all your children in Seg or SHU right now, wrap your arms of love and grace around them and fill them all up with your love, peace, joy, rest, stillness and an inner strength, I pray, and also that they be removed from SHU or Seg right now. So many have been in for nothing and they need to be released and rehabilitated too to mainline. Encamp your angels all around them also I pray. Amen. — D.C.

I humbly seek your guidance Heavenly Father for all the men and women without voices that are screaming to the Heavens using their bodies! Heavenly Father, watch over these men and women held without human contact, without hope, except in you Heavenly Father. Father you aided me when I was one of these men and helped me carry my burden, for I would not have been able to do this without your loving arms to support me. These men are sacrificing the health and possible life in their endeavors to be treated humanely. All things are possible through the Heavenly Father, His Only Son and the Holy Spirit. —B.N., Your Brother in Struggle

For world peace and personal happiness, please chant
Nam-Myoho-Renge-Kyo.
It is a wish-granting jewel of a prayer.
Nam, mee-yo-ho, rin-gay, kee-yo.
Say it three times, with conviction in your heart, that
ultimately, you are a Buddha.
It is true. You. Are. A. Buddha.
Nam, myoho, renge, kyo. —L.B.

In the name of Allah, the most Gracious, the most Merciful
Praise be to Allah, lord of the worlds
The most Beneficent, the most Merciful
The Only ruling Judge on the Day of Judgment
You alone do we worship, from you alone do we seek help,
Guide us along the straight path
With those of whom have your favor
Not those who have earned your anger,
Not those who go astray. Amen. —M.M.

Jesus, Incarnate God, our blindness to your gift of Life led to your judgment, imprisonment, and sentence to death.  You are present now in all who are imprisoned, whether justly or unjustly.  Be with each one in compassion and light.  Awaken each one to the gift of your holy truth and infinite, personal love.  May each one experience the freedom that comes of accepting you in faith.  Amen. —Sister H.R.

Dear God, I ask you to comfort those who are in solitary confinement. Please don’t let them give up hope or lose their dignity. Let them know that they are not forgotten. I thank you for the many people who are moved to act to end the huge overuse of incarceration and solitary confinement. Please help us to create a society where everyone is treated with love. —A.

Dear one, May the God of Justice –the Holy One who cries with us when we weep, listens to our pleas and delivers us from evil–hear our cries this day. May your bravery inspire the people of this state to rise up and ban solitary confinement once and for all. May the God who never leaves us or forsakes us bring you strength, courage and encouragement, even in your darkest days. You are not alone. —M.

In hunger you made a stand to end a punishment most unusual and cruel of being kept apart from your fellow man so here is a prayer that this unfair treatment may end and you rightfully restored to the human race again. Blessings to you. Love with Peace. —D.S.

A mí y a mucha gente nos indigna la injusticia que Uds. están viviendo.
Sepan que no descansaremos hasta que este horror de saparezca del mundo.
A Uds. van dirigidos nuestros más tiernos sentimientos y más altos pensamientos.
Que Dios borre del mundo toda esta miseria humana.
Amén —A.N.

Please know that God is ever present everywhere. That means holding you and surrounding you even in Man’s prisons. You are a Child of God and loved deeply by your Source of Life and Love and Light. I pray you experience this Truth. We are all connected as One in the Universe.
‎The Ubuntu saying is “I AM, BECAUSE WE ARE ”
‎And You Are. Amen. Best Wishes & Blessings. —S.M.

You are loved. You are not forgotten. You are not invisible. We will not stop fighting for you, and for us all. We stand outside in solidarity, inside our one heart, our collective soul, our spirits calling out for change, our hands working for it. We will not give up. —J.S.

Great Spirit, You who are That which connects each of us to each other ~ each of us drops of water, leaves, animals and people ~ keep us always aware that we are in you One, through prison walls of concrete and steel, that all the oppression of our sisters and brothers in prisons and prisoners’ families, oppresses us, that their victories are ours. —C.F.L.

Immanent God, God who is near to the broken-hearted, God who is found even in the darkest places, you alone can penetrate any wall, break through any barrier, enter every heart. So I pray that you accompany each and every person in solitary confinement today and every day. Be with them. Fortify their spirits. Comfort their hearts. Strengthen their minds. Keep alive in them hope. God who sees and knows all,

May those in isolation believe, indeed know in the hidden recesses of their hearts, that there are many of us who are working to bring their hidden stories into view. May this bring them encouragement. May they feel in their souls, that there are indeed thousands of us who feel in our souls a deep and sharp pain for all they endure. May they feel and may they know that there are thousands of us who care for them, who are fighting for them, who have not forgotten and who will not forget them.

Dearest God – source of life of every one of us – every parent and every child, console the hearts, encourage the spirits and strengthen the resolve of the friends and families of those in isolation. May they, and their loved ones in isolation know that in their struggle – they are not alone.

—Rabbi R.G.

The post Prayers for People in Solitary Confinement appeared first on Solitary Watch.

What It Means to Be Human: A Philosopher’s Argument Against Solitary Confinement

Tue, 06/24/2014 - 14:34

The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.  –Fyodor Dostoyevsky

In recent years, resistance to the widespread use of solitary confinement has gained significant traction in the United States. Opponents of the practice have drawn upon everything from psychology and neuroscience to criminology and economics to show the many harms caused by solitary.

Lisa Guenther, associate professor at Vanderbilt University and author of the new book Solitary Confinement: Social Death and Its Afterlives, draws upon her knowledge of philosophy to make a thought-provoking argument against the practice of isolating human beings for extended periods of time.

Guenther refers to the tenets of phenomenology, which deals primarily with the development of the consciousness through first-person experiences—the formative relationships we share with one another and the objects that surround us. Solitary confinement, she argues, eliminates the opportunity for incarcerated persons to form these meaningful connections. Although the necessities of survival may be provided, those held in solitary deteriorate nevertheless. She describes it as an unhinging of the person’s psyche.

In an AEON Magazine article, Guenther contests, “We do not exist as isolated individuals,” but rather as constantly changing and adapting reflections of our living environment. Phenomenology suggests that while we may believe ourselves to have intrinsic characteristics unique to us, at heart we are products of the environments we interact with on a day-to-day basis.

Solitary confinement effectively removes all meaningful stimulus from prisoners’ environments, rendering them unable to ground themselves in a reality created by sensory connections. Guenther, in an article published in the New York Times, explains these sensory phenomena in simple terms:

Think about it: Every time I hear a sound and see another person look toward the origin of that sound, I receive an implicit confirmation that what I heard was something real, that it was not just my imagination playing tricks on me. Every time someone walks around the table rather than through it, I receive an unspoken, usually unremarkable, confirmation that the table exists, and that my own way of relating to tables is shared by others.

While these may seem like insignificant interactions with one’s environment to an average person, a phenomenologist would say that these are reassuring occurrences that should not be taken for granted. Being deprived of these interactions, as people in solitary confinement are, leads them to question their reality and develop symptoms associated with extreme isolation such as paranoia, hallucinations, and introversion.

Five Mualimm-ak, who spent a total of five years in solitary confinement later reflected on the experience: “The very essence of life, I came to learn during those seemingly endless days, is human contact, and the affirmation of existence that comes with it.” Without these subtle yet countless affirmations we experience daily, we too would have trouble discerning what is grounded in reality and what is solely in our heads.

While we don’t have to undergo this questioning of reality that individuals subjected to solitary confinement must, we on the outside are not unaffected by its practice. From a phenomenological standpoint, the complete seclusion of these prisoners from our shared environments restricts our capacity to understand the world in which we live. Solitary confinement is purposefully concealed from the public eye—out of sight, out of mind—and because of this we are denied the first-person experience so important in forming our thoughts, feelings, and judgments.

More transparency in our prisons would allow the public to better understand the treatment that isolated inmates undergo, and give them a greater ability to critique and formulate alternatives to their practices. The absence of isolated prisoners from our common consciousness perpetuates their suffering and our ignorance, a dangerous combination.

Accepting that humans are relational beings, Guenther suggests that the sensory deprivation that people in solitary undergo is sufficient to unhinge their minds. They are forced to question everything with which they interact. And as they begin to reflect their morbid environment, they lose their sense of what it means to be human.

This phenomenological argument makes a strong case for the inclusion of human contact in the list of fundamental human needs—and for the use of solitary confinement to be seen as a violation of fundamental human rights.

The post What It Means to Be Human: A Philosopher’s Argument Against Solitary Confinement appeared first on Solitary Watch.

Seven Days in Solitary [6/22/14]

Sun, 06/22/2014 - 17:20

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.

• In The Daily Beast, Solitary Watch contributor Sarah Shourd explores the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s recently proposed “obscenity regulations” – the rules that govern what mail can go into and of the state’s prisons and jails.  As one interviewee comments, ““These prisoners are essentially being punished for trying to alert the media to conditions of extreme solitary confinement inside California’s prison.”

• Bonnie Kerness, director of the Prison Watch program of the American Friends Service Committee, writes about solitary confinement and Torture Awareness Month for Truth-Out.

• ABC News “Nightline” followed Gregg Marcantel – the Secretary of Corrections for New Mexico – as he went undercover to spend 48 hours in solitary confinement.   The outlet also published “prison diaries” from other individuals in isolation.

• In light of the recently released second season of Orange is the New Black, the ACLU published a blog post on the “scariest villain” in the prison – solitary confinement.

• A family in DeKalb County, Missouri has filed a lawsuit in the death of Timothy Harris, a 36-year-old who was being held at the Deaviess-Dekalb County Regional Jail pending trial when he passed away.  Lawyers for Harris’ family allege that he was kept in solitary confinement for twelve days without a toilet, sink or running water.

• Motherboard featured an interview with Raphael Sperry, president of the Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR).   The organization recently launched a crowd-sourcing campaign to get the American Institute of Architects to “prohibit the design of spaces that inherently violate human rights in their code of ethics,” particularly solitary confinement cells and supermax prisons.

• A South Carolina paper, The Post and Courier, published a feature piece on Randy Poindexter, who spent 16 years in solitary confinement in a state facility.  “His story illustrates the challenges in providing therapeutic care in an underfunded, understaffed correctional system built more for punishment than redemption. It also shows the resiliency of the human spirit and its ability to bounce back from a time when painting the cell walls red with his own blood was the only thing that brought Poindexter peace.”

• An individual serving a life sentence in connection to the 1998 bombing of the US embassy in Tanzania has won a federal appeal, after the FBI limited his contact to 32 people.   He is incarcerated in the supermax facility in Florence, Colorado and also subject to Special Administrative Measures, which further constrain his communication with the outside world.

• A news outlet has obtained video that follows the last few hours of Christopher Lee Lopez’s life, while he is strapped into restraints at the San Carlos Correctional Facility in Pueblo, Colorado.  Lopez had recently been removed from solitary confinement after spending nine and a half months in “the box”; the video shows him having a grand mal seizure in the restraint chair, and prison guards only coming to his assistance over thirty minutes later.  A lawsuit has been filed in federal court.

The post Seven Days in Solitary [6/22/14] appeared first on Solitary Watch.

In a Maryland Jail, Teens Charged As Adults Face Isolation and Neglect

Tue, 06/17/2014 - 10:49

“Trays up!” the CO yells. It’s about 5 am, and breakfast trays are here. I’ve been up since midnight, studying the workbooks that a friend sent to me. When everyone is asleep, and the TV is off, it’s the quietest time, and I can really focus.

As I get my tray every morning, I ask myself, “How much longer?” It’s been about 7-1/2 months on 23/1, and I continually thank God for my strength through this. While I am finishing my tray and putting it back on the port, I sit there and imagine a sunrise.

Where I’m located in the jail, there are no windows, no sunlight, and no fresh air. It’s like my cell is a box inside of a bigger box. Since I’ve been here, I’ve only seen sunlight seven times, and those were my court dates.

I try not to dwell on what I don’t have, because that will make the day extremely long.

–“Luke,” age 17, held at Harford County Detention Center in Maryland since August 2013

Last month, Attorney General Eric Holder recorded a video message condemning the “excessive” use of solitary confinement in juvenile facilities. He made no mention, however, of the children held in isolation in adult jails and state prisons.

These young people, thought to number in the thousands across the country, are trapped in a kind of purgatory–facing charges in adult court and held in adult facilities, but kept in involuntary lockdown for “their own protection” from the adult prisoners who surround them.

This has been the experience of five teenagers held in a county jail in Bel Air, Maryland, a suburban community northeast of Baltimore that is perhaps best known as the birthplace of John Wilkes Booth. Over the last few weeks, Solitary Watch has interviewed these young men, the townspeople who have been trying to help them, and the sheriff who disputes their accounts.

Eileen Siple, 51, used to be a special education teacher but now stays at home to care for her disabled son. She told Solitary Watch that she has always lived a comfortable life. “If you had said to me three years ago that I’d be talking to all these kids in prison, I’d say you were crazy.”

Then one day, about two and a half years ago, her daughter came home from school upset. A classmate at C. Milton Wright – the local high school in Bel Air – had been arrested in connection with his father’s death, and she wanted to help support him.

Siple quickly grew close to the teenager, Robert Richardson. Siple understood that the boy had been charged with a serious crime, but she was shocked at the conditions in which he was being held at the Harford County Detention Center (HCDC).

An isolation cell at the Harford County Detention Center. Photo: Aaron Cahall, The Dagger

In a recent letter to Solitary Watch, Richardson describes what he experienced for his first ten months at HCDC, when he was 16 years old. He is now in state prison at the Maryland Correctional Training Center in Hagerstown, serving an eighteen-year sentence, the result of a plea bargain on manslaughter and firearm offenses.

“From day to day, it’s always the same,” he wrote. “Isolation, 24 hours a day. The light stays on, the door stays closed, no human interaction. I felt like an animal. I was always in the same cage, naked save for a paper hospital gown.”

During this period, Richardson says he was locked up alongside adults. “I could hear the others in the isolation ward, but I couldn’t see them. The others were all mentally ill. They would scream all night long. I couldn’t sleep, with the screams and the banging… And the smells…smells of urine and feces from the others. They wouldn’t bathe. They would lie in bed and defecate on themselves or sling their waste

Eventually, Richardson was transferred from the isolation tier to a unit called T-Block. The unit is used primarily to hold recent adult arrestees while they are processed into general population, and through the small window on his door Richardson saw the many adults circulating on and off the block. But soon he realized that in addition to himself there were other teenage boys being held on the tier for weeks and months at a time, and he started to talk to them through his door and the pipes that ran through his small cell.

Before long, Eileen Siple was supporting these other boys, too. She provided Solitary Watch with the names of fifteen different young men allegedly held on T-Block, as well as written statements from five of them.

Boys Spend Months in Solitary Confinement

During the 1990s, amidst a national rise in the juvenile crime rate and an emerging paranoia about child “superpredators,” states across the county made it easier to kids to be charged as adults. In Maryland, children 14 years or older automatically enter the adult system if they commit the most serious crimes, including first-degree murder or rape, as do sixteen and seventeen-year-olds charged with one of 33 crimes ranging from firearm offenses, to robbery, to manslaughter.

The Maryland law means that many teenagers, even those who are eventually found innocent or waived down into juvenile court, spend weeks or months in adult facilities awaiting transfer hearings or trials. In nine of Maryland’s 23 counties, including Harford County – where HDRC is located – established guidelines call for kids facing charges in the adult system to be held in pre-trial solitary confinement.

Solitary is supposed to protect young people, and general population is admittedly known to be a patently unsafe place for minors. But the emotional and detailed accounts written by Richardson and the four other young men previously held on T-Block raise serious questions about whether juveniles are facing abuse in the name of their own safety.

The young men were charged with various offenses. Solitary Watch has changed several of their names for their protection. “Luke” was arrested a month after his 17th birthday on sex abuse charges related to a minor; he is still under 18 and currently in segregation. “Ryan,” who is facing rape, incest, and sex abuse charges, was also arrested at 17, but has since turned 18 and is now being held in general population at HCDC pending trial. “Adam” was arrested at 16 on armed robbery and theft charges; he has since pled guilty and was sentenced to just over four years in prison. Will Downs was arrested at 17 on assault charges and eventually pled guilty, although he and his family maintain his innocence. He was released in April on time served, and was interviewed over the phone from his home.

In their accounts, the boys describe being held in 23-hour lockdown in small cells, for periods ranging from a few weeks to many months. In an account dated in late April 2014, Downs wrote: “T-Block was the worst month and a half of my life! On T-Block you are locked down 23 hours a day. You are in a 7 by 11 cell and I can almost touch the wall with my wingspan and if you are by yourself is even worse. I had no body to talk to relieve stress.”

Some of the boys were forced to wear a smock, which they referred to as the “turtle,” when they first arrived. One young man said he felt so cold during this time that he wrapped toilet paper around his feet. Ryan, then age 17, writes: “I was escorted to T Block, and they put me in a cell that was maybe 12’ x 7’, had a light that stayed on all of the time, a desk, a stool, a double bunk, a toilet, and a sink. They told me to strip down to my blue shorts (like boxers) and gave me a smock. The smock was like a sleeveless robe that fastened with Velcro and very heavy fabric.”

As is standard policy for kids held in adult facilities, the boys were not able to mix freely with the adult population, so could not access any programming in the jail – including counseling, education or church. Even the boys’ one-hour of recreation time was conducted indoors, so they would only see sunlight when they were taken to and from court hearings.

In a recent phone interview, Downs described what it was like to be on lockdown. “All the worst things go through your head when you’re in there, because you feel like nothing’s happening. Every day moves so slow, every day was like a week.” He said that although some of the boys were bunked in pairs for periods of time, he was primarily held alone.

Ryan felt jealous of the many men passing through T-Block for processing. “We watched people come in and leave, all the time. It hurt so bad to watch these people leave, knowing that I couldn’t even see the sun or feel a breeze or have anything to do with the outside.”

The boys’ accounts also describe being at the complete mercy of corrections officers. Downs recalls having “to beg [guards] for ice so you can have fresh water to drink”, adding “if they have a bad day you are going have an even worse day.”

According to Eileen Siple, the time in isolation took a significant psychological and physical toll on all of the boys. Of the four she communicates with regularly, one started hearing voices during his time in solitary, and was placed on a series of psychiatric medications; the other three were also prescribed either anti-anxiety medications or anti-depressants.

According to a 2012 report by Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union, young people are particularly vulnerable to the stressors of “the box,” in part because they haven’t acquired the same coping mechanisms as adults.  Moreover, the author notes, “because they are still developing, traumatic experiences like solitary confinement may have a profound effect on [kids'] chance to rehabilitate and grow.”  In 2007, the Campaign for Youth Justice, a Washington-based nonprofit that advocates for children to be kept in the juvenile justice system, found that kids held in adult prisons and jails are 36 times more likely to commit suicide than young people held in juvenile facilities.

The young men’s accounts also detail the poor medical care they received while on T-Block. One of them describes not receiving needed heart medication for about two and half months, despite asking for it.

Local Sheriff Denies Accounts

Sheriff Jesse Bane has run the Harford County Detention Center since his election in 2006. In a series of phone calls, the Sheriff provided Solitary Watch with a different account of what happens to juveniles when held at the facility on adult charges. He said that young people are sent to the Behavioral Health Unit, which was originally built for prisoners with mental illness but now houses both populations.

“There is a recreation yard, a general dining area, a television, and they are free to roam the area where they’re incarcerated.” In a later conversation, he clarified that that adults and minors held at the BHU are strictly separated, and rotate the time they spend out of cell.

When specifically asked why there would be accounts from as recently as 2013 and 2014 of juveniles being held in long-term isolation at HCDC, Sheriff Bane reiterated that “you can’t hold people in those conditions,” adding that in an election year, you “get things like this that come up.” (His post is up for re-election this fall.)

Sheriff Bane also said that kids are given psychological evaluations upon their arrival, and can be placed in isolation on the unit for days or weeks if medical personnel believe they pose a threat to themselves. Queried about the “turtle,” Bane stated that young people who express suicidal ideation are asked to wear the garment since it cannot be torn, tied, or made into a noose.

When asked about accounts that young people held been held on a processing tier for adults, he told Solitary Watch, “I’m not sure that I know what you’re talking about,” stressing several times that the law requires “sight and sound” separation between children and adults.

In fact, although the decades-old federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) requires “sight and sound” separation between children and adults, these protections do not currently apply to young people charged as adults.

The 2003 Regulations on the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) mandates separation, but there are no accountability mechanisms to enforce the standards in county facilities. In 2012, the Harford County Sheriff’s Office was awarded $163,648 to better enable compliance with PREA, although it is unknown if the grant had any relation to how minors are held in the facility. (Bane’s office declined to provide copies of the application; Solitary Watch has since filed a FOIA request to obtain additional information.)

When asked about T-Block, the Sheriff commented although some individuals are held on T-Block for no more than 24 hours pending classification, “that does not include juveniles.” He also said, “You cannot keep a person indefinitely in a lockdown status in isolation because it adversely impacts their mental health and we are not going to do that.”

Diane Tobin, the Deputy State’s Attorney, declined to comment on any specifics but stated that young people at HCDC are held in accordance with federal law. Solitary Watch contacted the lawyers for all five boys who submitted statements; none returned calls or emails for comment.

In a phone interview, Solitary Watch asked Downs to respond to Sheriff Bane’s assurances that there was “sight and sound separation” between juveniles and adults. “We could talk to the adults on T block, we would tell them to come to the door, and they would talk to us,” he said.

Asked to reply to Sheriff Bane’s assertion that juveniles are not held on T-Block, Downs said, “What? I was on T-Block the whole fucking time.”

According to Eileen Siple, the move from T-Block to the BSU happened about six weeks ago. She told Solitary Watch that last month she was invited by the Sheriff to tour HCDC; at the BSU she saw two minors being held alone on the top tier, with adults with mental illness held below. Siple, who is in touch with one of the two boys, said that they only spend a few hours out of their cells each day.

Kara Aanenson is the Campaign Strategist for Just Kids, a Maryland advocacy organization that works with kids automatically charged as adults. When interviewed by Solitary Watch, Kara Aanenson also disputed the Sheriff’s account that the kids have long been held at the BSU. She said that when she toured HCDC about a year ago, she personally saw young people being held on T-Block.

Use of Isolation Widespread

According to Aanenson, what happened to Richardson and the other boys at HCDC – however horrific – is far from an isolated instance of abuse. “It was shocking to me, but it’s also a process that doesn’t just happen in Harford County,” she told Solitary Watch. “It happens to lots of kids in the state of Maryland.”

An infographic recently published by Just Kids identifies the nine counties across Maryland, including Harford, which holds kids facing charges as adults in pre-trial solitary confinement. Eleven counties house these young people with the rest of the adult jail population, and the remaining three counties have dedicated juvenile units within adult facilities. Just Kids’ research is based on established guidelines for handling minors as outlined in jail handbooks.

Nor are the numbers of youth admitted to adult facilities small. In 2011, 771 Maryland youth were admitted to adult facilities, according to a report produced by the state’s Department of Juvenile Services. Sixty-eight of these children entered jails in one of the nine counties that hold young people charged as adults in solitary confinement.

Advocacy groups have endeavored to change the law. During the now-closed 2014 legislative session in Maryland, a coalition of groups pushed for the passage of Senate Bill 757 / House Bill 1294, which would have required youth facing adult charges to be held in juvenile detention centers pre-trial. The bill failed to even pass onto the state House or Senate floor, although there is hope it may make progress next term.

Colorado passed similar legislation in 2012. Across the county, over ten states have laws on the books either requiring or permitting that young people facing charges in the adult system be held in juvenile facilities.

For Will, Luke, and the other teenage boys held at HCDC, there were only two sure ways to escape solitary confinement. The first was turning 18.

“After 7 months in T Block, I finally turned 18,” Ryan wrote. “They moved me to general population. It was like Heaven! Yes, it’s still jail, but it’s so much better than being locked down all day. I can walk around. I can talk to my family on the phone. I can see the sun through a window. It might sound like very little to some people, but to us, it’s HUGE!”

Aside from aging out, the only other way the boys could get off the tier was pleading guilty to their offenses, since convicted minors can be held in general population. Eileen Siple told Solitary Watch that at least two of the teenagers entered a plea to escape the conditions on T-Block, although this could not be independently verified.

The combination of existing state law – which mandates charging certain kids as adults – plus county-specific policies and national legislation about how to house these youth, mean that many minors across Maryland endure conditions that are significantly worse than those faced by adults. “Just because of your age and your offense, you’re getting punished for something you’re just accused of doing, for lengthy periods of time,” Aanenson said.

For many advocates, where kids are held pending trial is just one small part of the problem. The recently proposed legislation is a “first step in the right direction,” Aanenson added. “But what we ultimately need to be doing is stopping youth from being tried as adults.”

Aanenson’s sentiment was echoed by Amy Fettig, the Senior Staff Counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union National Prison Project. “We think the best thing to do is send these kids back to the juvenile justice system. Sometimes that requires changing the state law.” In 2013, the Maryland General Assembly created a task force to examine the issue of automatic transfer.

In the meantime, however, General Eric Holder’s recent comments may simply be too little too late for the many young people across the county held in solitary confinement in adult facilities – trapped by a patchwork of local, state and federal laws that recognize their vulnerability as children while simultaneously prosecuting them as adults.

“They take your personality when they put you in segregation,” Ryan said. “They have everything, mentally, physically, and emotionally. They say it helps us, but it makes everything even worse. I wish that upon nobody. This is what really happens behind closed doors.”

The post In a Maryland Jail, Teens Charged As Adults Face Isolation and Neglect appeared first on Solitary Watch.

Seven Days in Solitary [6/15/14]

Sun, 06/15/2014 - 16:48

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 Court of Appeals has ruled that the Indiana Department of Corrections erred in sending a man to solitary confinement for using a computer after prison officials asked him to pull documents from the internet.  The court wrote, “It is more than a little surprising to encounter an argument by a prison system that an inmate may be penalized for obeying an order by the prison’s staff.”

• The New York Times published an editorial in support of a recent settlement which will eventually end the use of solitary confinement in Ohio’s juvenile facilities.  The editorial staff also called for implementation of the policy nationwide.

• According to the NY Daily News, nearly 20 incarcerated individuals were attacked on Rikers Island in May – making it the bloodiest month at the jail in more than a decade. Union leaders blame the rise in violence on the reduced use of solitary confinement at the jail.

• In light of recent legislation passed in the state, The Durago Herald profiled a young man whose mental illness was exacerbated by his time in maximum security protective custody.

• The ACLU published a report on privately run immigrant detention centers in Texas. Researchers found that SHU quotas at these facilities are sometimes set as high as “10% of the total contracted prison beds,” which is “nearly double the percentage of prisoners kept in isolated confinement in BOP-managed facilities.”  Kevin Gosztola wrote about the report and its findings with regards to solitary confinement here.

• Corrections officers in Bernalillo County, New Mexico are concerned about recent proposals to eliminate disciplinary segregation at the local jail, the Metro Detention Center.  CO Union President Stephen Perkins said, “You would sentence our officers to injury by eliminating segregation because basically you become a referee in daily fights.” County Commissioner Art De la Cruz responded, “What’s disappointing to me is that the vast majority are mentally ill. So instead of getting treatment they’re put into segregation where it only exacerbates the problem.”

• A new report by the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency documents the impact of prosecuting certain kids in the state as adults, often automatically. The report also addresses the impact of holding young people in solitary confinement in adult jails and prisons.

• Against the Grain aired an episode about Bobby Sands and other prison hunger strikes, including more recent ones in California and Ohio.

• A federal judge has canceled a hearing about whether to issue an injunction against Connecticut officials, who have been detaining a teenage transgender girl in solitary confinement for about the past two months.  The young woman was transferred into prison custody after child welfare officials said she was too violent; a private treatment center in Massachusetts has offered to admit her for treatment, but it is unclear when or if she has been transferred.

The post Seven Days in Solitary [6/15/14] appeared first on Solitary Watch.

Voices from Solitary: 23 and 1

Fri, 06/13/2014 - 18:03

The author of the following piece of memoir, Shaka Senghor, served nearly two decades in Michigan state prisons for a murder committed when he was 19-years old. On his website, he states: “Writing about my wrongs was the first of many steps that I took to atone for taking a man’s life. Through the transformative power of writing, I accepted responsibility for my decisions and have used my experience to help others avoid the path that I took in my youth.” Now back in the free world, he is a “speaker, mentor, and author” who has published several books and given TED Talks at several venues.

The following narrative, which describes the author’s first day in solitary confinement, is excerpted from a longer piece that appears in a new volume writing, Fourth City: Essays from the Prison in America. The collection is edited by Doran Larson, a professor of English at Hamilton College and founder of the American Prison Writing Archive. Currently a work in progress, it will be the first archive dedicated to prison writing, and “will be a place where incarcerated people can bear witness to the conditions in which they live, to what is working and what is not inside American prisons, and where they can contribute to public debate about the American prison crisis.”  –Jean Casella

.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .

In my first year in prison, I found myself serving a one-year stint in solitary confinement for “assault on an inmate,” “assault on staff” and “dangerous contraband.” I split that year in the hole between the Michigan Reformatory and Standish Maximum Security Prison. It was my first foray into the abysmal subculture that was the subject of whispered conversations on prison yards and behind the closed doors of the administration’s office. It was a place where a twisted game of tug of war played itself out between the humane and inhumane. It was in this cold, dark, heartless place that I came face to face with a gruesome reality: the isolation and inhumane conditions of solitary confinement were responsible for distorting the psyche of countless men and women.

My first stint in the hole was the first time I had witnessed the tearing asunder of the human soul. At nineteen years old, I was thrown head first into a subculture of despair, loneliness and deep-seeded anger. I remember when the officer placed the burning cold handcuffs on my wrists and told me I was being taken to the hole. I literally thought they were going to throw me in a dirt-covered hole in the ground until they were convinced I had changed my behavior. I twisted and jerked around in the handcuffs as everything inside me told me to fight to get free; it was a deeply entrenched defense mechanism encoded in my DNA. I was a descendant of a slave people, and I was sure that my ancestors had rebelled against their captors. It felt natural for me to resist as much as I could, even though I knew deep inside that I couldn’t burst out of the handcuffs. But resist I did.

After being subdued by several officers, I was carted off to the hole and thrown into the shower where I was strip-searched. The officer conducting the strip search nearly broke my arm as he pulled it out of the slot in the cage to remove the cuffs. I had assaulted one of his co-workers and he was letting me know that he didn’t appreciate it. Once the cuffs were off, I was forced to strip out of my clothes. As I stood in the middle of the shower room naked, I felt like a slave on an auction block. When the officer returned, he threw an oversized brown jumpsuit through the slot. I dressed hastily and was then escorted to a segregation cell. When I realized the “hole” was nothing more than another cell block, I calmed down a little. At the time, I was at a new regional facility called Carson City so the cell was modern and clean. A smirk crossed my face as I looked around. I thought to myself, if this was all they had to control me, they would be in for a surprise when I was released. It wasn’t until a couple days later that I realized I was the one in for a shock.

One evening after chow, I was told to pack up all of my property; I was getting transferred in the morning back to the Michigan Reformatory in Ionia where I would be placed on long-term segregation status. In prison vernacular, we called it “lay down.” When I first came to the hole, I asked one of the inmates who had been in prison for a while why they had given it that name. He responded with a laugh before saying, “Because down here, all you can do is lay your ass down and read, lay your ass down and write, or lay your ass down and talk shit all day. So it’s up to you young blood how you do it, but all I can tell you is, don’t take this shit laying down.” The administration, on the other hand, chose to use the much more lofty euphemism “administrative segregation.” It sounded politically correct, and oh so professional, but when they weren’t on record, they called it the “hole” like the rest of us.

During the forty-minute ride back to Ionia, thoughts of what the “hole” would be like tumbled through my head like a gymnast. Horror stories of how inmates in the hole had been found hung in their cells, or mysteriously suffocated with their own socks, or how the officers would come into your cell with the goon squad and beat you two breaths short of death, all ran tirelessly through my mind. What about all of the resistance I had put up? What if the officers at the other prison had called their buddies to give me a nice work over? After being processed, I was escorted to the hole in a cellblock known as the “Graves.” It had earned the moniker from the captives there because once you were thrown in the “Graves,” it was like being entombed in a place where you lost sight of time. It was as though you were dead to everyone in general population, and the cells were so small that you felt like you had been squeezed into a coffin.

Being sentenced to “lay down” was to be sentenced to an indeterminate amount of time in hell. The first thing I noticed when I entered the cellblock was the gloomy ambiance. The windows were painted a gray and the only natural light present was the few streams that snuck through when the officers were nice enough to leave one of the windows cracked, which was very rare. Being stripped of all personal belongings, with the exception of the bare necessities, made it impossible to tell if it was morning or night unless you asked the officers or the windows were open. Other than that, I had to guess the time based on when my meals were passed out.

As I was escorted down to my cell, I had to navigate my way around spoiled food, empty milk cartons, fecal-stained towels, and piles of shredded and soiled paper. I kept my head straight forward as I walked toward my cell, but out of the corner of my eye, I could see several captives standing at their bars looking out curiously. I had learned from day one inside of the Reformatory not to look into another captive’s cell. It was an old code of respect. Since we were already being deprived of so much by the system, we didn’t want to deny each other the last semblance of privacy, so we didn’t look into each other’s cell. Not everyone stayed true to this code, and it was often the cause of conflict, leading the Peeping Tom to be stabbed on the yard, or flashed with genitalia. I had no desire to see another man shaking his private parts in anger, nor did I have a desire to stab anyone or get stabbed for looking in someone’s cell, so I always kept my head forward.

When I reached my cell, the bars squeaked open and the officer ordered me to step inside. Once the bars closed shut, he removed the handcuffs and left. I looked around at the dingy cell in disgust. The bed was six inches off the floor and the toilet was stuffed behind a small footlocker. In order to sit down and take a dump, I had to remove my whole jumpsuit so that I could fold my legs behind the locker. After my initial observations, I stood at my cell bars for the next hour waiting on the officer to make his round so that I could get some cleaning supplies to sanitize my cell. To my surprise, it was relatively quiet, but as I would soon learn, this was the calm before the storm. Most of the captives in the hole slept the bulk of their days away only waking up to get their food trays. Once the final meal of the day was passed out, the cellblock would come alive with activity.

When the officer returned, I asked him for some cleaning supplies and was informed that the porters would pass them out after lunch, so I continued to stand at the bars until lunch. There was no way I was going to sit or lay down on a mattress that someone else had sweated and farted on without it being sanitized. When the porters arrived with our food trays, I took mine and stood at the bars eating the hastily thrown together meal. The portions were nearly a half-size smaller than what I was used to receiving in general population. I devoured the small meal in all of five minutes like a ravenous wolf and placed my tray on the bars. I didn’t really like drinking milk all that much, so I left the carton sitting on the locker. When they came around to pick up trays, one of the porters whispered that I had better hide the milk in my locker unless I wanted to be placed on food loaf. I placed the milk back on the tray as I looked at him curiously. I had never heard of food loaf, but from the way he conveyed the message, I could tell it was something very bad. I also realized his “Man, you crazy” look was letting me know that it in the hole, no food was to be wasted. That milk I threw back on the tray could have bought me a bag of cereal, a juice, or an extra piece of toast. In the hole, everything pertaining to eating and smoking was to be bartered and nothing was to be wasted. Once they banned smoking, a cigarette smuggled in could net you three dollars in store items. It was in the hole that I learned to start eating Brussels’ sprouts and dressing and a few other things I would have never eaten if I were in general population. Every time I ate green beans or Brussels’ sprouts, I thought about all of the times my parents had tried to get me to eat them when I was a child, and I felt some shame.

After the trays were picked up, a porter came back and handed me some cleaning supplies. I swept beneath the small bunk and was surprised at how much dirt and dust came from under the bed. I washed the mattress, toilet and sink down before making my bed. After I cleaned up and laid back on the bunk, I drifted off into a fitful sleep. My mind was full of thoughts that I had stuffed deep down inside where they were safe. All of the things I had hidden from while in general population by watching television or playing basketball to exhaustion now came rushing back to the forefront of my mind. I dreamt of how soft my son’s mother’s lips used to feel against mine. I dreamt of how good it used to feel to guzzle down an ice cold forty ounce on a hot summer day. I dreamt of the late night laughter that echoed through the ‘hood as we sat on the porch at two in the morning playing the dozens. My dreams were a kaleidoscope of all that my life had been, and all that it could have been.

I was awakened by the sound of the chow cart squeaking down the tier. I retrieved my tray and sucked down the bland slop that they called dinner, and this time I drank the milk. Despite my aversion to plain milk, it sure beat the brownish water that drizzled out of the old porcelain sink in my cell. I set the tray on the bars, laid back on my bunk and forced myself back to sleep in an attempt to retrieve those lost and stolen dreams, but to no avail. After the officers picked up the food trays, they passed out mail and the cellblock was pretty quiet for the next few hours. The hum of a few conversations could be heard as inmates discussed religion, politics, and stories of their lives on the streets. Stories shared between inmates were our way of staying connected to the neighborhoods we came from. It was one of the few means we had of touching, tasting and smelling our former lives, if only for a few minutes. It didn’t matter if you were part of the conversation or not, you could relate, because when it was all said and done, most Black communities were pretty much the same. So when I sat back on my bunk listening to a guy from Flint, Saginaw or Lansing talking about their neighborhoods and what they had been through, it was like reliving my own memories of life before prison.

One of the things about prison is that you have some very amusing storytellers with expansive imaginations, capable of creating the kind of vivid imagery that would put Hollywood screenwriters to shame. I have always marveled at how a person could remember the exact color of their socks, how much money they had in their pocket to the nearest dime, and all the ingredients that were used to make the meal on the day they got shot, had sex for the first time, or made their first thousand. When retelling a story, everyone has a tendency to embellish things a little, but in the hole, there were a few captives who were infamous for their ability to tell a lie-filled story that was so entertaining that each night everyone would grow quiet as they recounted their neighborhood exploits.

As the voices hummed about from cell to cell, I found myself thinking about how I had arrived at this point in my life. Growing up, I never imagined that I would be living my life out caged in a cell like a wild animal. I was too smart for this shit, I thought angrily as I stared up at the paint-chipped ceiling. But no matter how many times I closed and opened my eyes, my nightmarish existence was still there. After speaking with several captives at length, I realized that most of us go through this extreme feeling of disbelief. At some point, we all think this is a nightmare, and that at any moment we will awaken and be back home in the warm comfort of our own bed. But we all learn after years of incarceration that prison is all too real. And for me, things were about to get more real than I could have ever imagined.

After getting bored listening to the conversations going on around me, I decided to get up and write a few letters. The first, I wrote to my son’s mother, and then to my ex-girlfriend in Ohio. Before I knew it, I was writing to everyone I knew. The hours spun past quickly as I scratched out letter after letter with a dull two-inch pencil. When the third shift came on at ten o’clock, I was still immersed in writing letters. It was through writing letters home that I realized writing was my escape. With a pen and piece of paper, I could get away whenever I wanted to. I could go stand on the corner in my neighborhood and no one could stop me. I could drive down the freeway and go see my ex-girlfriend in Ohio if that was what I wanted to do, and the bars and wired fences couldn’t hold me back. Writing was freedom! So I wrote until midnight when they cut the power off and my fingers became sore to the bone.

When the lights went out, the cellblock had an eerie feel to it. I was on the bottom tier toward the end, and there were no lights in the hall near my cell so I couldn’t stand at the bars and read or write like guys who had lights in front of their cells. I climbed into my bunk and prayed that I could drift off into a deep sleep before the dreams of my life before prison came back to haunt me. I had to get away from them; otherwise I knew I would go insane. There was nothing I could do to change my reality, and I didn’t need to be constantly reminded by the dreams. As I lay there trying to capture sleep, the world around me exploded into chaos.

“Get y’all bitch ass up. Ain’t no sleep around here,” a loud voice called, followed by a sound as loud and startling as a shotgun blast in a small church. Boom! Boom! Boom! The sound came relentlessly as the voice banged the lid down on his footlocker over and over, which set into motion a chain of events that was unlike anything I had ever imagined. For the next four hours, the hole became an anarchist stronghold as inmates banged lockers and hurled racial epithets and disparaging homosexual remarks through the air like hand grenades. Some stuffed their toilets with sheets and flushed until water cascaded over the tier like Victoria Falls. I stared out of my cell in disbelief as the floor quickly became a small wading pool. Trash and sheets that had been set on fire flew out of countless cells. After their initial attempts to restore order by turning off the water supply to all of the cells, the officers gave up. As dawn slowly crept upon us, everyone settled down and the cellblock grew quiet again.

The only thing that seemed to be stirring was a giant rat the size of a possum, who the captives had named “Food Loaf,” after the loaf of bread-sized brick of mashed up food that was fed to recalcitrant captives. I watched as “Food Loaf” sludged through the murky water to retrieve the soggy bread and rotted apple cores that had been thrown out onto the cellblock floors. He moved with a quiet confidence about him that came as a result of being around hundreds of people every day. The rest of the vermin that darted in and out of the cells were more cautious. I often wondered why no one had killed “Food Loaf,” but then it dawned on me. In a lot of ways, he was a lot like us. He was an outcast, and for the most part, he was despised by everyone and we could all identify with that. Though the term “rat” had been used over the years to describe someone who told on others to protect their own asses, “Food Loaf” had won over our respect and was therefore allowed to coexist with us.

The post Voices from Solitary: 23 and 1 appeared first on Solitary Watch.

Seven Days in Solitary [6/8/14]

Sun, 06/08/2014 - 23:24

• On Monday, June 2, the New York City medical examiners office ruled the death of a man who died in a Rikers Island jail cell last fall to be a homicide. Bradley Ballard died of complications of diabetes along with the results of genital self-mutilation. According to the Associated Press: “Ballard, who family members said had been diagnosed as schizophrenic, was discovered lying in his own feces in a cell with a rubber band tied around his scrotum. He had been confined to his cell in a mental observation unit at Rikers for seven days for making a lewd gesture at a female guard…Documents obtained by the AP show Ballard was not given his medication for much of the time he spent locked in his cell in a mental observation unit…Ballard’s death and the death of another inmate who died in an overheated cell have prompted a city lawmaker to schedule an oversight hearing. On Monday, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a new task force that would overhaul how the corrections system treats the mentally ill.”

• Reporting on the Federal District Court decision granting class-action status in a California lawsuit, Erica Goode wrote in the New York Times: “Legal experts say that the ruling, which allows inmates at Pelican Bay who have been held in solitary confinement for more than a decade to sue as a class, paves the way for a court case that could shape national policy on the use of long-term solitary confinement.” The Times quotes Jules Lobel, president of the Center for Constitutional Right, which brought the suit: “’This would really be the first case about whether the confinement itself is cruel and unusual punishment,’ Mr. Lobel said, ‘and about who can be legitimately confined in this way, given the draconian nature of the confinement.’”

• The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI) released newly revised juvenile detention facility standards at its annual conference this week. As the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange reported, the revised standards call for an end to the solitary confinement of children “except as a short-term response to behavior that threatens a youth or others.”

• The Augusta Free Press reported on June 4: “Attorneys for the ACLU and the ACLU of Virginia filed a friend-of-the-court brief today in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit on behalf of nine correctional experts, arguing that automatic solitary confinement for death row inmates is unconstitutional. All Virginia offenders who are sentenced to death are assigned to solitary confinement for the remainder of their lives or until their sentence is overturned. Typically, inmates serve at least six years in solitary while they pursue their appeals.”

• On June 5, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on upheld the class-action status of a lawsuit filed by the ACLU and the Prison Law Office, alleging that Arizona’s prison system overuses solitary confinement and provides inadequate health care. As Bob Ortega reported in the Arizona Republic: “The ruling essentially clears the way for the suit to go to trial in October. It also means that the more than 34,000 inmates in Arizona’s 10 state-run prisons will be part of the suit, first filed in 2012, seeking wide-ranging changes in how the state’s Department of Corrections confines inmates and treats — or fails to treat — their health- and mental-health-care problems.”

• On June 6, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper signed into law a bill that bans the placement of people with serious mental illness in solitary confinement in the state’s prisons. Some have warned, however, that the prison system’s narrow definitions of both “major mental illness” and “solitary confinement” allow many to slip through the cracks of  these reforms. In addition, the new law does not apply to local jails.

• A front-page New York Times story published on June 7 described the “squalor and unconcern” in which people with mental illness live in the solitary confinement units at Mississippi’s main facility for prisoners with psychiatric disabilities:” Open fires sometimes burn unheeded in the solitary-confinement units of the East Mississippi Correctional Facility, a privately run state prison in Meridian…Inmates spend months in near-total darkness. Illnesses go untreated. Dirt, feces and, occasionally, blood are caked on the walls of cells.” The story stands in sharp contrast to another front-page story by the same reporter, published in 2012, which featured Mississippi as a success story and praised its Corrections chief, Christopher Epps, for reducing the state’s use of solitary. Epps is among the defendants named in the lawsuit against East Mississippi Correctional Facility, which was filed by the ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The post Seven Days in Solitary [6/8/14] appeared first on Solitary Watch.

Voices from Solitary: Playing “The Con Game” at Pelican Bay

Fri, 06/06/2014 - 14:28

In Fall 2012, California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) unveiled its “Step Down” program to evaluate prisoners with indefinite terms in its notorious Security Housing Units (SHUs) for release to general population. The program immediately drew criticism from both prisoners and their advocates, who charged that even those who have spent years in the SHU may not be released under this program.

In February 2014, shortly before legislative hearings around solitary confinement,  CDCR released new proposed regulations around its gang policies. Former hunger strikers and their outside allies continue to decry the program. Among their concerns is the requirement that SHU prisoners fill out a sequence of journals as part of completing the programming.

Lorenzo Benton is one of those who has voiced outrage about the proposed Step Down program. Benton is currently in the SHU at Pelican Bay State Prison, participated in both 2011 hunger strikes as well as the 2013 hunger strike. He describes the problematic nature of The Con Game, the first of the journals that SHU prisoners in Step Three are required to fill out. Other individuals in California’s SHUs have expressed similar concerns about the coercive content found in the journals.

These critiques comes at a time when California’s solitary confinement policies are being debated in both houses of the state legislature, where bills have been introduced, as well as in the federal courts, which have granted class status to men in long-term isolation at Pelican Bay in a lawsuit against the state. In addition, the CDCR recently proposed new rules that would expand the definition of contraband to include any publications and correspondence it deems unsavory–perhaps leaving some individuals in solitary with little to read other than the likes of The Con Game.  –Victoria Law

.  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .

Recently, I had the (un)fortunate opportunity to peruse what is being presented as the initial stage of the CDCR (California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation) tentatively approved/implemented Security Threat Group (STG) Step Down Program (SDP) for those who have been classified by prison officials as being affiliated with such a group, meriting a SHU (Security Housing Unit) placement for an indeterminate period of time in accordance with the SDP. This program, as currently structured, requires its participants, at the initial stage of the SDP, to take part in the completion of a total of fourteen self-directed journals in a 26-week period, subject to review and evaluation by prison officials, the same institutional classification committee officials who have held us in SHU all these years and who will now be responsible for continuing to make arbitrary decisions on whether or not one’s responses in these journals are satisfactory enough for advancement within this program as one works towards general population release.

Now as for my own observations and analysis of the first self-directed journal that I was introduced to (titled The Con Game), it does not embody and/or address the needs of the majority of us in SHU, of what and who we are nor is it indicative of what’s in our best interest. This journal is comprised of a series of questions that are designed to elicit a response more so of one who continues to hold true to a criminal conviction as opposed to one who has risen above that and now lives one’s life in accordance with a more humane existence.

I am of the opinion that anyone with even an inkling of integrity would not respond in the affirmative to the majority of these questions (if not all) given that just about all of these questions are centered around one answering in the affirmative (yes) to a negative character trait, further acknowledging such a trait within oneself (whether one has it or not) and as an explanation of it. For example, “Do you have a problem when people correct you, even if they do it in a supportive way? Yes/No. Give an example of how you might think and/or act in this way.” “Do you ever play the ‘Con Game’? Yes/No. Explain.” And so on. All of the questions in this journal follow a similar pattern and one can’t help but believe, if one does not respond in the affirmative to said questions, that the reviewers/ evaluators of said responses would deem one a program failure, not suited for advancement within said-program because the overseers of this SDP view us all as flawed in character with no social or moral compass.

Furthermore, when I read The Con Game, I just about responded in the negative to each question except for one, so can reasonably conclude by doing so that I will be viewed as a program failure, stuck in purgatory (precluded from advancing forward to the next level) until one succumbs to the program, which is a form of brainwashing that is not in one’s best interest.

As one looks into the minute details and its overbroad effects, one can also reasonably conclude that this Step Down Program in its current form is some type of Machiavellian debriefer tactic with a one-to-five year installment plan, designed to break one’s spirit and then one into informants for the prison system. Now with the CDCR catapulting this program to the forefront while knowing full well that the majority, if not all, of us on indeterminate SHU status would not be receptive to its introduction nor of the mindset to participate in it as a result of us seeing it for what it is is surely a sign of the CDCR’s attempt to undermine any foreseeable real change in response to our five core demands. This attempt to thwart our forward motion and break our spirits will be futile because, as real men and women seeking humane and just treatment, we refuse to play their game (a “con game”). We are not debriefers and should not be treated as such!!!

Now as for those of us who survive the CDCR’s policies of torture and control, it has not always been an easy task, but through fortification of will and understanding, many of us have been able to keep our priorities intact (life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness).

It should also be noted, as one now takes an intense look into what’s being instituted, via this Step Down Program, that it will be utilized as a means of institutionalized abuse and distrust as the CDCR carries out its latest gang management policies. These policies can subject one to a STG classification with a SHU assignment of one to four years or more for those who fall under its classification. Many of us who have already been in SHU on indeterminate status for the last five, ten, twenty, thirty years of more, who fall victim to this program, should be afforded time served and all prisoners who have spent the last four years held in SHU/Ad-Seg should and shall be released to the General Population forthwith if they have not received a SHU determinate term!!!

In conclusion, with the STG Step Down program now before us, in contrast to the previous six years’ policy whereby one only had to remain allegedly gang-activity free for six years to be eligible for release to General Population, this SDP requires only four years. But these four years can be just as long as the previous six years in practice because advancement in the Step Down program is not guaranteed, leaving one stuck in the SHU indeterminately. Assigning people to SHU under STG Step Down program under the illusion that one is eligible to get out of the SHU sooner, as opposed to later, is something we stand in opposition to, so with this glimpse into the imperial effects of the CDCR’s gang management policy, one can expect for them to be duplicated if they are not successfully challenged and/or deterred in their attempts to circumvent real change (today).

End all solitary confinement!!!

End all indeterminate SHUs!!!

Restore a determinate SHU to all!!!

The post Voices from Solitary: Playing “The Con Game” at Pelican Bay appeared first on Solitary Watch.

The Odyssey to Pelican Bay: Families Journey to California’s Notorious Supermax Prison

Tue, 06/03/2014 - 12:37

On Memorial Day weekend, close to a hundred visitors traveled by plane, train, bus, and car to Pelican Bay State Prison. The long weekend, with the prospect of not having to rush back to work on Monday morning, meant that relatives could make the expensive, lengthy trip to the Northern-most tip of California, where a cluster of boxy-beige nondescript buildings warehouse the 1,500 men in the Security Housing Unit (SHU), in the most extreme conditions of solitary confinement in the state.

Crescent City is 736 miles from Los Angeles, where many of the men held at Pelican Bay Prison are originally from. That can easily amount to a fifteen-hour drive, the last four of which are on a dark, sinuous road flanked by ancient redwoods. For families with limited money and resources, making this trip can be akin to the obstacle-laden course navigated by Odysseus on his ten-year journey home from Troy.

“At least three family members made it up this weekend that have never come before and would never have been able to make it on their own,” said Dolores Canales, co-founder of the California Families to Abolish Solitary Confinement (CFASC), “people have health problems, the trip is too expensive—some are scared to come up.”

By pairing families together to share hotel rooms and carpooling through the night, CFASC has been able to winnow the cost of the trip down to one hundred and fifty dollars per person. For some of the families this literally opens up the opportunity to see their loved ones for the first time in ten years—the same eternity it took Odysseus to get home.

The Intake Room

A nervous carload of mothers, wives, and a lone brother are greeted at the gate by an overly cheerful Correctional Officer (CO). He chuckles as he sorts through their IDs, “SHU or Main?” he asks.

“SHU” several people say in unison, piercing the last ten minutes of silence. That means their loved ones live in cramped, windowless cells 23 hours a day; that their only opportunity to glimpse the world outside their cells is an hour a day in a slightly larger, open-air cell; and that visits with their friends and family will be through thick glass, with no physical contact allowed.

Inside the waiting room, about 25 women and 2 men wait impatiently for the CO to call their names and make sure their clothing complies with Pelican Bay’s regulations. No bras with underwire, no tight or revealing clothing, no skirts above the knee. A pregnant young woman gets sent back to her car to change her pants, deemed inappropriately tight. Others have to change their shirts if the fabric is too thin, take off earrings and leave behind letters and pictures they’ve brought—there is a limit of ten pictures and only stud-earrings are allowed.

On the wall in the waiting room is a mounted glass case filled with sweatshirts for sale. “Pelican Bay State Prison,” one reads, “Hard Luck Café.” “Security Housing Units,” reads another, “Like Two Peas in a Pod.”

“I probably would have laughed at that years ago,” says one woman,“assuming all these guys deserve what they get.”  She says she’s made the trip to Pelican Bay four times a year since her son was sent here in 1997. “Now that it’s my son,” she adds, “I know better.”

This room of mostly women makes one think of the gaping holes left in communities during times of war, when traditionally it’s the women who step up to fulfill the roles and responsibilities of brothers and husbands in their absence.

“I’m goin’ crazy just sitting here waiting,” says one older woman, “I’ve been sick,” she continues, “I can’t fly. I can’t drive anymore. Here I am to see my son after thirteen years.”

As if on cue a frustrated young woman begins shaking the vending machine when her chips don’t drop down. One-by-one, family members are asked to creep sideways through a hypersensitive metal detector, the alarm constantly going off.

“When we first started coming up in 2011,” said Canales, “the visiting room would sometimes be empty—now we worry if we’re even gonna get in. This is a good thing.”

Families United

In 2011 the second major hunger strike began in California’s prisons, one of the core demands being the end of long-term solitary confinement. Canales and a few other mothers were at the center of outside support, “After that hunger strike ended we realized we needed to form a group and keep organizing. After all, our husbands and kids were still in solitary.”

Since then Dolores and CFASC have been at the center of it all. In 2013 another hunger strike erupted; this time 29,000 prisoners refused meals and a devoted core lasted over 60 days. CFASC was involved at every level: organizing demonstrations, sitting on the Mediation Team to negotiate the terms of ending the strike with prison officials and finding ways for families on the outside to constantly stay involved. “A lot if times it was the guys inside Pelican Bay that told their family members to call us,” said Canales, “they urged them to get involved in the political process.”

Groups of 15 are shuttled in a van to the SHU visiting room. Each person has received a number, and they make their way to the small booths where they will spend the next three hours talking to their loved ones through thick glass, their mouths pressed to a plastic phone receiver mounted to the wall beside them. Visitors are allowed access to a vending machine where they can buy soda and snacks, but they can’t share them. No contact is allowed, nothing but words can be passed between them.

Most these men are validated gang members or associates which means that “evidence” such as a letter, an address, drawing or possession of the wrong book is enough to place them in solitary confinement for year, decades or indefinitely. Many have never committed a violent act in prison, they are deemed guilty by association and the only chance they have to get back to the mainline is to debrief, which mean giving information, often false, on other prisoners.

Every once in a while, a young woman overcome with emotion will rush towards the public bathroom, her child in tow. Others press their hands to the glass to “touch” their husband, brother or son on the other side. The men are pale and smiling, wearing blaring white jumpsuits tied in the front like a backward hospital gown.

“Since the hunger strike,” Canales said, “The men inside have been allowed to order additional items from the canteen. They’ve been given shorts and bowls; a pull-up bar and access to a handball—you have to remember that for decades they’ve had nothing to work out with. More recently, the visits have been expanded to three hours instead if what used to be more like an hour and a half.”

Though these improvements have been largely well received by prisoners and their families, Canales points out that they do nothing to end the practice of long-term solitary confinement. “We definitely oppose the new legislation presented by Loni Hancock,” Canales continues, referring to the recently proposed California Senate Bill 892, “unless it’s amended. There are a few good aspects to it, but others are problematic. Ultimately, it still allows for the use of indefinite solitary confinement, no end in sight, that’s completely unacceptable.”

Leaving The Razor Wire Behind

Cars line up behind the security booth in the afternoon heat, eager to speed off and leave the razor wire and boxy-beige buildings behind, where they’re husbands, sons and fathers remain, many with no end in sight. Some will make their way to local restaurants to try and fill the nagging emptiness with warm food, while others will need to immediately start the long drive back to Los Angeles.

“Visits mean everything to these guys,” Canales says while sitting down to eat with a small group of CFASC members, “It can often put their routines back on a positive course. You hear stories of guys that have been doing nothing but watching TV months, they don’t even want to go out to yard. The guys call this ‘checking out’ and it can be dangerous, the worst cases ending in suicide. After a visit some of these guys turn their lives around and start being productive again.”

A small group of CFASC members stop for a walk in the redwoods.  One mother in her 70s pierces the silence by telling scandalous jokes in Spanish and soon no one can stop laughing. “That’s why my visits keep my son going,” she exclaims, “I can always make him laugh.”

These women seem heartened by the simple joy of being together and the success of this weekend’s journey. “So many of the men don’t get visits,” comments one woman, thinking of the hundreds of men who went without, “I feel terrible for them.”

The post The Odyssey to Pelican Bay: Families Journey to California’s Notorious Supermax Prison appeared first on Solitary Watch.

Seven Days in Solitary [6/1/14]

Mon, 06/02/2014 - 12:37

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.

• California Senator Loni Hanock’s prison reform bill has passed through the Senate and now goes to the State Assembly.  Both prisoners and prisoners’ rights advocates have voiced their opposition to the legislation, since it writes into law the state’s policy of placing individuals in solitary merely for suspected gang membership.

• Lawyers for a man who recently pled guilty to killing a prison guard are now fighting to keep him out of the federal supermax facility in Florence, Colorado.  Attorneys for James Ninete Leon Guerrero explained that he “is not challenging the fact of his confinement, but rather the conditions of confinement.”  Guerrero has a documented intellectual disability and has also been diagnosed as bipolar.

• Solitary confinement survivor and Solitary Watch contributor Sarah Shourd published a piece in The Daily Beast entitled, “How solitary confinement destroys women.”

• A trial date has been set for a New Jersey Superior Court case brought by a prisoner who claims he was placed in solitary confinement without sufficient due process.   Lester Alford also hopes to prove that his time in solitary confinement – eight years and counting – amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.  In a letter last month to a local outlet, Alford described the conditions he has endured:  “I eat every meal that is served in my cell. If I am allowed to use the unit phone, I have to use it in my cell. I am not allowed to go to the law library, gym, or anywhere else inmates congregate. The conditions on the MCU unit (Management Control Unit) is one that can only be described as bleak, hopeless, and explosive.”

• The Colorado Independent published an in-depth analysis of last week’s federal ruling in Thomas Silverstein v. Federal Bureau of Prisons.  Silverstein, 62, has been held in complete isolation for 31 years – longer than any other federal prisoner.  The journalist quotes from an article posted last week on Solitary Watch by the site’s editors, Jean Casella and James Ridgeway.  Artwork made by Silverstein and his accounts of his conditions in solitary are also incorporated into the piece.

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Voices from Solitary, Analyzing Isolation, Part III

Wed, 05/28/2014 - 14:45

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 second suggested theme, “Analyzing Isolation,” calls for writers to provide their analyses of solitary, discussing ways in which the practice is harmful and counterproductive. 

The following comes from Leon Benson, who spent 10 consecutive years in a 7 by 12-foot cell on 23-hour-a-day lockdown in the Secured Housing Unit (SHU) at Wabash Valley Correctional Facility.  In this powerful piece, excerpted from an essay entitled”Moral Lobotomy: Abolish Prolonged Solitary Confinement and the Mental Disorders it Causes,” Benson, 38, calls for a ban on prolonged isolation, asserting that the practice causes mental breakdowns in those subjected to it. He can be reached by writing: Leon Benson #995256, Pendleton Correctional Facility, 4490 W. Reformatory Rd., Pendleton, IN, 46064. –Lisa Dawson

Leon Benson speaks from his tray slot at Wabash Valley Correctional Facility in IN (Photo: Screenshot from MSNBC’s Lockup series: “Shakespeare in the SHU“)

≡≡≡≡≡

If I ever have known hell, it occurred during my years in solitary. I still can hear the unrelenting screams from other prisoners and the metal clanks of cell doors opening and closing. I still can smell the stench of fear. Existential purgatory is another way to describe it: You have no clue of when you will be released back to general population–it could be in 30 days or in 30 years.

Allow my words to be the catalyst for the much larger debate: Does prolonged segregation in Indiana cause mental breakdowns in prisoners? The answer is yes. The U.N. has long declared that prolonged solitary confinement is cruel and unusual punishment. (Articles 1 and 16 of the U.N. Convention Against Torture). This type of prolonged confinement is especially harmful to mentally ill prisoners. After class action litigation, Indiana federal courts, in December 2012, finally ruled to ban all mentally ill prisoners from being housed in any of Indiana’s segregation units; deeming the units toxic to prisoners with mental illness.

But what about segregation, especially if extremely prolonged, being harmful to any prisoner? [...] These individuals are practically buried alive. Mainly due to administrative and not disciplinary reasons: A vindictive warden can lock a prisoner in solitary for years on mere speculation of wrongdoing.

Some of these men break down mentally and become zombies full of psyche medication. But most will be left with functional psychological damage. More than 80% of these prisoners will be released back into society someday. Dr. Terence T. Gorski proposed that these prisoners will suffer from what he calls Post Incarceration Syndrome (PICS). There is mounting evidence that PICS is a major contributing factor to the high recidivism rate.

Dr. Gorski’s concept of PICS in emerged from his clinical consultation work and rehabilitation programs with incarcerated and newly released prisoners. And he established that PICS is a set of symptoms that are present in many prisoners that are caused by prolonged incarceration in general population settings. However, the symptoms are most severe and prisoners subjected to prolonged solitary confinement.

PICS is a mixed mental and personality disorder with five clusters of symptoms:

• Institutionalized personality traits resulting from the common deprivations of incarceration–a chronic state of “learned helplessness” in the face of prison authority and antisocial defense in dealing with a predatory prison environment.

• Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) caused by traumatic experiences before and during incarceration with symptoms such as flashbacks, intense distress, irritability, hyper-vigilance, and paranoia.

• Antisocial personality traits, the direct result of internalize coping behavior required to survive in a harsh environment that has two sets of survival rules–passive aggression with guards and active aggression with predatory prisoners.

• Social sensory deprivation syndrome caused by the effects of prolonged solitary confinement that imposes both isolation and sensory deprivation. Symptoms include chronic headaches, inability to concentrate, we pressed rage, and obsessive thinking.

• Reactive substance use disorder which often occurs with prisoners who use addiction and drugs to cope with PICS.

Releasing these prisoners back into society with such severe symptoms will only create devastation and chaos. They will be less likely to get and maintain jobs and more likely to commit crimes, disrupt families, and to need healthcare. All of which will bring a heavier toll on community stability and tax payer money better spent in other areas…

This epidemic of systematically destroying prisoners’ lives beyond repair can be prevented. All that needs to be done is to change the ineffective policies that promote high incarceration rates for nonviolent crimes, the use of extreme prolonged solitary confinement, and the restrictions on educational, vocational, and rehabilitation for people while in prison. To promote alternative laws and policies would reap huge benefits, not only for the many prisoners currently suffering the trauma of prolonged solitary confinement, but for the greater good of all society.

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Seven Days in Solitary [5/25/14]

Sun, 05/25/2014 - 23:40

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 Texas woman has filed a lawsuit alleging that in 2012, she was forced to give birth in solitary confinement without medical assistance, leading to her baby’s death.  Nicole Guerrero was being held at the Wichita County Jail on drug charges when she went into labor; according to her account, the nurse on staff ignored her screams and pleas for help as the contractions intensified.  A correctional officer eventually helped her deliver the infant, but the umbilical cord was wrapped around her neck and no efforts were made to resuscitate her.

• An appeals court has denied a request by a man held in solitary confinement continuously for the past 30 years to be released into general population. Thomas Silverstein, 62, was alleged to be a leader of the Aryan Brotherhood prison gang. He is currently incarcerated at ADX Florence, the federal supermax in Colorado.

• The Associated Press has uncovered grisly details in the death of another person held in solitary confinement on Riker’s Island. In September 2013, Bradley Ballard was found naked and covered in feces in his cell at the jail, with his genitals mutilated and infected.  He died several hours later in the hospital.  Ballard was a diagnosed schizophrenic and had allegedly been denied his medication.

• Five corrections officers at a New York state prison have been placed on administrative leave following an internal investigation into claims that they forced individuals held in solitary confinement to fight each other. The guards at Greene Correctional Facility also allegedly went to great lengths to scare the prisoners out of filing complaints, according to one source even threatening prisoners by placing plastic bags over their heads.

• After spending 48 hours in solitary confinement in the late spring, New Mexico Department of Corrections Cabinet Secretary Gregg Marcantel has reportedly begun making changes to the way the practice operates in the state. According to news sources, 60-80 individuals have been moved from isolation into general population since Marcantel spent two days in the highest security cell at the State Penitentiary in Sante Fe.

• Martin Horn, the former Commissioner of the New York City Department of Correction, has written a blog for The Crime Report questioning whether the extreme conditions of confinement endured by alleged Boston bomber Dzhokar Tsarnaev are justifiable. Tsarnaev is being held in almost complete isolation from the outside world.

• ThinkProgress has reported that despite claims to the contrary, those incarcerated in Charlestown when 10,000 gallons of chemicals leaked into West Virginia’s water supply were not supplied with sufficient clean water.  Prisoners reported that they were given as little as 16 oz of water a day, and also said that the medical segregation unit became so full that that sick inmates were sent to disciplinary segregation instead.  In interviews, current and former inmates also reported that they were punished with lockdown or solitary confinement after staging protests to demand more clean water.

• A British, Egyptian-born imam was convicted in New York on 11 terrorism-related charges. Mustafa Kamel Mustafa, commonly known as Abu Hamza, was extradited to the US in 2014 with four other terrorism suspects after a long battle in UK and European courts, in which the defendants argued that the long-term solitary confinement they would likely face if convicted amounted to torture.  A sixth individual, Haroon Aswat, is still awaiting a decision on whether he will be extradited. The Daily Mail (UK) published an article about the conditions at ADX Florence, where Abu Hamza may serve his sentence.

•  The Durango Herald published a long-form article on why people with mental illness in Colorado often end up in solitary confinement in the state’s jails.

• According to a recent article in The New York Times, assaults on civilian staff at Riker’s Island have increased by 144% since July 1, 2013, the start of the fiscal year. Some have claimed that the rise in assaults is at least partially due to changes in the way Riker’s manages people with mental illness, including reducing the use of solitary confinement.

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Holder Makes Obama Administration’s First Public Statement on Solitary Confinement

Sat, 05/24/2014 - 20:07

Photo: Richard Ross, “Juvenile In-Justice”

In a weekly video message earlier this month, Attorney General Eric Holder made the first public statement on solitary confinement to emerge from the Obama White House (or, as far as we know, any U.S. presidential administration).

statement accompanying the 3-minute video on the Department of Justice’s website outlines the position taken by Holder–and, by implication, the DOJ and the Obama administration as a whole:

Attorney General Holder spoke out against excessive use of isolation and solitary confinement for young people with disabilities at juvenile detention centers, saying that juvenile incarceration must be used “to rehabilitate, and not merely to warehouse and forget.” Citing reports that described young people being held in confinement for up to 23 hours a day, the Attorney General called for an end to unnecessary or excessive seclusion of youth with disabilities, which can be counterproductive and in some cases extremely harmful.

Any statement on solitary by the nation’s top justice official is certainly significant. Yet it would be difficult to add more qualifiers to Holder’s denouncement of solitary confinement. His criticism is limited to the use of solitary on the most extremely vulnerable (and sympathetic) victims–children with mental illness and other disabilities–and even then, only to “unnecessary or excessive” isolation.

Holder’s video ends without any concrete commitment to take action, although the ACLU has for some time been calling on the Attorney General to ban the use of solitary for all youth held in federal custody. But a week later, on May 21, the Justice Department released some news that signaled its intent to back Holder’s statement, even if on a limited basis:

The United States and private plaintiffs announced today that it has reached an agreement with the state of Ohio, under which the State Department of Youth Services (DYS) will dramatically reduce, and eventually eliminate, its use of seclusion on young people in its custody. DYS will also ensure that young people in its juvenile facilities receive individualized mental health treatment to prevent and address the conditions and behaviors that led to seclusion.  The order resolves allegations that the state subjects young people with mental health needs in its custody to harmful seclusion and withholds treatment and programming, in violation of their constitutional rights.

“Overreliance on solitary confinement for young people, particularly those with disabilities, is unsafe and counterproductive,” said Attorney General Eric Holder.  “This agreement will help ensure that incarceration in Ohio’s state facilities is humane and that appropriate treatment is provided for young people with mental illness.  The Justice Department will continue to evaluate the use of solitary confinement so that it does not become a new normal for incarcerated juveniles.”

This move, which comes after years of litigation, will end one particularly abominable use of solitary confinement, and will improve the lives of countless children in juvenile facilities in Ohio. And it may set a precedent for similar DOJ action in other states. In this sense, it is a laudable example of incremental change.

But the agreement does not extend to the tens of thousands of children held in adult prisons–a significant percentage of whom, evidence suggests, may experience solitary confinement. In fact, in his video address, Holder explicitly acknowledges that isolation a necessary tool for controlling captive populations, including youth.

Furthermore, by criticizing solitary only for one small a specific group, Holder’s statement more than implies that the use of isolation is all right for everyone else. This conviction is borne out by other actions taken by the U.S. DOJ and the Obama administration more broadly, including its treatment of detainees both at Guantanamo and on American soil. It was, after all, the White House and its friends in Congress who engineered the purchase of a prison in Illinois slated to house men in extreme isolation, on the order of the notorious ADX Florence in Colorado.

In fact, one day after it announcement the Ohio settlement, the DOJ, successfully beat back a Constitutional challenge from Thomas Silverstein, who is perhaps the most brutally isolated man in America. A federal appeals court ruled that Silverstein’s 30 years of solitary confinement under a “no human contact” order in ADX and a series of other federal prisons does not constitute cruel and unusual punishment. (Read Silverstein’s description of his time in solitary here, and judge for yourself.)

 

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Voices from Solitary: “That Which Does Not Kill Us…”

Mon, 05/19/2014 - 07:30

The following comes from Glenn T. Turner, 40, who has been held in solitary confinement at the Wisconsin Secure Program Facility (WSPF), since 2010, when he was assigned to the facility’s General Segregation Program Process. In his piece, Turner, who has been in and out of solitary confinement since 1992, provides a firsthand account of the devastating effect isolation has on people. He can be reached by writing: Glenn T. Turner #244614 A, WSPF, P.O. Box 9900, Boscobel, WI 53805.  –Lisa Dawson

 .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .

A cell at supermax Wisconsin Secure Program Facility in Boscobel (photo: Nathan J. Comp, Yahoo Contributor Network)

I am a prisoner housed in the Wisconsin Department of Corrections at the state’s most secure institution, that being the Wisconsin Secure Program Facility (WSPF). I am presently on a status called Administrative Confinement (A.C.) which is allegedly a non-punitive indefinite solitary confinement status. Thus far I’ve been on this status since May 10th, 2010. That’s on this particular stay on A.C. and I say “this particular stay” because this is not my first time placed on this status by DOC officials…

I speak not as a passive observer, nor from hearsay or second, third, or fourth hand information. I do not imagine the things I speak of, for I personally live it daily.

I’ve been incarcerated since October 18, 1991, and I have completed to date a total of nineteen and a half (19 ½) years of my bit in solitary confinement of one sort or another with very brief moments in general population. I have never been on voluntary segregation confinement, involuntary protective custody, or voluntary protective custody. I have completed every form of program available to me while in solitary confinement and DOC officials have continued to maintain me on A.C….

What has now become a convenient cause to put prisoners on administrative confinement for indefinite segregation in solitary confinement for years on end is to label the prisoner a “gang leader…” In this prison system that has never had a history of serious gang activity, this practice is suspect.

The German philosopher Nietzsche [said], “That which does not kill us makes us stronger,” which may or may not be valid. From my own experiences and observations from being in solitary confinement over the years…I have witnessed men having mental and emotional breakdowns so intense that they need to be prescribed anti-psychotic medications and clinical therapy.

I’ve seen prisoners who were unable to endure such long terms of confinement in solitary attempt to commit suicide, smear their fecal matter over their bodies, cells, and even eat their body waste. I’ve witnessed them cut themselves, and some who – lacking any sharp object to cut themselves with, use their teeth to rip their flesh so as to expose their veins and rip those out to spray their blood all over their cell doors, windows, floors, etc.

I’ve seen yet others simply cry like unfed, hungry babies all day and all night, and some lash out yelling and screaming all day, all night, banging on walls and cell doors, trying to get some form of acknowledgement from their jailers that they are human beings, only to be sprayed with various forms of chemical agents, left incapacitated in their cells. Only then to be taken and have their cloths cut from their bodies and put nude into a yet more restrictive type of segregation status, called “control status.” There, they have nothing in their cell but a concrete slab to sleep on, a stainless steel sink and toilet combo, a surveillance camera and 24 hours a day of bright light cell illumination.

Removal from this status is determined by “a white shirt” [supervisor]. No standards or process is due or available. We only have a potentially mentally and emotionally disturbed prisoner at the mercy of a sadistic and possibly masochistic white shirt, who knows no limits and has no psychiatric training.

While the prisoners mentally and emotionally regress, [a prisoner with mental illness] is often cheered on and encouraged by bored corrections officers to regress even lower. 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 “awarded” by the officer who threw an old milk to the prisoner through a lower trap door to the cell.

This is the jailer who finds this misery excitement from the long boring and mundane hours spent doing nothing, who then goes home and recounts the details of these events at the bar while bragging on how he gets paid for sitting on his ass doing nothing – while his fellow men rot. And there are those prisoners who seek the ultimate out who kill themselves. I have seen this happen as well. I have been awoken from my sleep by a guard…to tell me another prisoner I did not know had committed suicide, an attempt to discombobulate me.

Lastly, there are these few prisoners who observe and bear witness to these injustices and this uncivilized behavior, who develop within themselves an intense disdain for abuse of power by those in a position of authority, a total hatred for injustice and bigotry of any sort. And who desire a change and to that end they dedicate their lives. When these prisoners speak up against these systematic abuses, they are labeled a “threat,” “gang leader,” or “combative,” and are punished with an even longer stay in solitary confinement.

It should be understood that the treatment of these men is at present and will even more in the future have a detrimental effect upon society. Crime becoming more serious, wholesale, random, gruesome, seemingly more animalistic, inhumane and senseless. Having absolutely no rational or reasonable point or purpose. Leaving society’s leaders, behavior analysts, psychologists and therapists scratching their heads in bewilderment, asking why human beings are doing these things?

I end this testimony with a fitting quote from a French philosopher named Albert Camus, from his book, The Rebel:

Twenty-seven years in prison do not, in fact, produce a very conciliatory form of intelligence. Such a long period of confinement produces either weaklings or killers and sometimes a combination of both. If the mind is strong enough to construct in a prison cell a moral philosophy that is not one of submission, it will generally be one of domination. Every ethic based on solitude implies the exercise of power.

I salute the conscious mind and impose upon it a responsibility to be accountable.

The struggle continues.

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Seven Days in Solitary [5/18/2014]

Sun, 05/18/2014 - 09:35

The following roundup features noteworthy news, reports and opinions on solitary confinement from the past week that have not been covered in other Solitary Watch posts.

• The New York Times published an op-ed by Harvey Fierstein about the 16-year-old girl currently being held in solitary confinement in a Connecticut prison, despite the fact that she has never been charged, tried, or convicted of a crime. The teenager, who is transgender, was initially held at a men’s prison but has since been transferred to a women’s facility.

The Louisville Courier-Journal has a timeline of events leading up to the January 2014 death of a man who starved himself to death in solitary confinement at the Kentucky State Penitentiary after being denied medications for his psychiatric complaints.

• A Mexican citizen is suing high-level officials and agents at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency, after he was allegedly beaten by ICE officers, denied medical treatment, and placed in solitary confinement for five months. In the lawsuit, Fernando Figueroa-Barajas claims that ICE agents falsely told jail staff that he was suicidal, resulting in his placement in isolation. Figueroa was initially arrested in September 2013 for a traffic violation.

• The BBC published an in-depth article entitled, “How extreme isolation warps the mind”.

• In his weekly message, Attorney General Eric Holder condemned the practice of placing young people in solitary confinement, especially those with mental illness. “Across the country, far too many juvenile detention centers see isolation and solitary confinement as an appropriate way to handle challenging youth, in particular youth with disabilities… But solitary confinement can be dangerous, and a serious impediment to the ability of juveniles to succeed once released.”

• A state official testified that solitary confinement may have worsened the mental health of Nikko Jenkins, the Nebraska man who killed three individuals shortly after his release from prison. Jenkins was freed directly from isolation rather than “stepping down” through general population.

• A Portland lawyer has claimed that Maine residents with mental illness are being placed in solitary confinement after committing misdemeanor offenses. One individual spent ten days in isolation after calling 911 to ask for assistance in obtaining more medication for schizophrenia.

• The Coloradoan has published a long-form piece exploring the placement of people with mental illness in solitary confinement cells in jails across the state.

• A transgender Georgia woman, Ashley Diamond, has allegedly served most of her sentence in solitary confinement as a means to keep her “safe” from physical and sexual violence in the prison. Being placed in isolation has prevented Diamond from receiving life and employment counseling as well as recreation time. According to her lawyers, Diamond has also been denied female hormone treatment since her incarceration in 2012.

• The Bureau of Prisons has released a new policy outlining how to evaluate, treat, and monitor individuals with mental illness at ADX Florence, and transferred some especially ill individuals to a recently-opened 30-bed unit in the Federal Penitentiary in Atlanta.  The changes may be in response to a federal lawsuit filed in 2012 which alleged that the prison violated the constitutional rights of individuals with mental illness.

• Rolling Stone released an interviewed with Michael Alig, the 90s “Club Kid” who spent 17 years in prison after murdering and dismembering a drug dealer. In the interview, Alig discusses his struggles with substance misuse on the inside and the years he spent in solitary confinement.

• The American Civil Liberties Union and Columbia Legal Services have dropped a lawsuit against the Immigration and Customers Enforcement (ICE) agency, in which they alleged that detainees were placed in solitary confinement in retaliation for going on hunger strike.  Attorneys stated that their demands had been met.

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New York Prisons Bar Media from Solitary Confinement Units

Sat, 05/17/2014 - 15:39

Late last year, we made several requests to be permitted, as members of the press, to view solitary confinement units in New York’s state prisons. After receiving no reply, we were fortunate enough to enlist the help of a pro bono attorney, Daniel Mulkoff with the firm of Cuti Hecker and Wang, who approached the New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) on our behalf. This finally yielded a response, in the form of a blanket rejection of any request to view such facilities. Their letter appears below.

The response was neither surprising, nor unique to New York. Supermax prisons and solitary confinement units, as we’ve written before, are America’s domestic black sites, off-limits to the media as well as the public. However, in recent times several states have loosened up on their restrictions. Colorado has allowed National Geographic, among others, to film inside its state supermax. Maine allowed Frontline inside its solitary confinement unit. Even California has allowed some (controlled and limited) access to its notorious supermax, Pelican Bay.

New York appears unwilling to make any such concessions. It’s clear that New York intends to keep its isolation facilities out of view of the media–and, by extension, the public. The federal courts are largely on their side. If this is to change, that change must come through public pressure for policy change or via legislation. In the meantime, our correspondents inside prison, who often risk retaliation by writing to tell us about conditions in solitary, remain virtually our only window into this secret world.

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On the Way to Solitary, Women in Massachusetts Jail Get Strip Searched and Videotaped

Thu, 05/15/2014 - 06:30

“When women are moved to the Segregation Unit for mental health or disciplinary reasons, they are strip searched. With four or more officers present, the inmate must: take off all her clothes, lift her breasts and, if large, her stomach, turn around, bend over, spread her buttocks with her hands and cough, and stand up and face the wall. If the woman is menstruating, she must remove her tampon or pad and hand it to a guard. An officer with a video camera stands a few feet away and records the entire strip search. This officer is almost always male.”

This is a description of what has happened when women are taken to solitary confinement at the Western Massachusetts Regional Women’s Correctional Center (WCC) in Chicopee. The procedure has been followed not only for women being sent to isolation for violating jail rules but also women who are being placed on suicide watch or who have requested protective custody. Since September 15, 2008, on approximately 274 occasions, a male corrections officer recorded the strip search with a handheld video camera; 178 women were affected by this practice.

In 2009, Debra Baggett wrote a letter to the law office of Howard Friedman about this practice. The office, which has been involved in a number of cases involving prisoner rights and strip searches, investigated Baggett’s complaints. “We found that the jail had a written policy allowing male guards to videotape the strip searches,” stated David Milton, the attorney representing the women. When the jail refused to change its policy, Baggett and a group of other women held at the jail filed suit.

On April 22, 2014, a federal judge heard arguments in Baggett v. Ashe, the class-action lawsuit which now represents 178 women. At the center of the suit is the jail’s practice of allowing male guards to videotape the strip searches of women being moved to the jail’s segregation unit. The jail has argued that male officers do not watch the searches while filming.

Jails and prisons — and especially women’s facilities — are notorious as sites of sexual violence and abuse. Women make up just 7 percent of state and federal prisoners in the United States, but they are the victims in 33 percent of all sexual assaults by prison staff. In addition to these physical assaults, women in jails and prisons have reported incidents of sexual humiliation by male officers, from making frequent sexual comments to watching them as they shower.

Even against this backdrop of routine sexual abuse, the practice at Western Massachusetts Regional WCC appears extreme. Attorney David Milton stated that the practice is very rare. “No one knows of anywhere else that does this. It’s so intuitively wrong, it hasn’t come up,” he said. Advocates and formerly incarcerated women elsewhere have confirmed that they have not heard or experienced the practice in their states.

This doesn’t mean that videotaping strip searches has never happened. In the 1990s, New York State’s Albion Correctional Facility came under fire for allowing male guards to watch women being strip searched. Although female guards were the ones holding the cameras, male guards were allowed to watch the strip searches and the videotaping through a partially open door. Albion began the practice of videotaping strip searches in January 1994, claiming that the practice would prevent abuse. Women at Albion, however, said that the videotaping — and allowing male guards to watch the searches — were part of a system wide pattern of sexual abuse within the prison, including sexual assault and impregnation by staff.

After a fight, Leonides Cruz was brought to Albion’s Special Housing Unit (where individuals are held in solitary confinement, or segregation). Cruz described her experience to the New York Daily News:

When I got there, [officers] brought in a video camera and told me to strip completely.It was this really unsanitary room like a closet. There were two female officers taping, but the door was opened a crack and two male officers were looking in. They had me first touch my body and then my mouth. This is not the way it’s supposed to be you have to touch the mouth first, because you could get an infection if you touch certain parts of your body and then put your fingers in your mouth. I had to bend over . . . in front of the camera it was so embarrassing and humiliating. I wouldn’t fight it because I knew that things would get worse for me. When they finished video-taping and I came out they were all laughing.”

At Albion, videotaping and other forms of sexual humiliation occurred not just to women sent to solitary. Another woman described being strip searched, videotaped and humiliated upon her arrival at Albion:

The sergeant escorted me in there and I saw they had turned on the cameras. In the room there were two female officers standing in this dirty room, with a filthy floor . . . Two male officers were standing outside, and I could see them looking in. They started filming and asked me to strip one piece of clothing at a time, like a striptease. This is a medium-security facility, I couldn’t believe what was happening to me. I told them that they weren’t supposed to do this since I was stripped in the other facility and handed off. They’re only supposed to do this if there is probable cause. After my clothes came off, they asked me to lift my breasts. Then they told me to turn around . . . I was so humiliated that I started to cry, and the officer laughed and said, “Tears don’t cut it here you’re in a real jail now.”

In August 1994, Prisoners’ Legal Services threatened a lawsuit against New York State’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS). In response, DOCCS offered a settlement of $1000 per incident to each woman. Albion also stopped the practice of videotaping strip searches. Publicity about the videotaping and the prison’s systemic sexual abuse by staff members also prompted State Senator Catherine Abate to draft legislation making it a crime for staff to have sex with prisoners. The bill passed and was signed into law in July 1996.

However neither the settlement nor subsequent legislation stopped the pervasive sexual abuse and assault in New York State prisons. In January 2003, nearly a decade after the settlement, the Prisoners’ Right Project of the Legal Aid Society of New York and a private law firm filed Amador v. Andrews, a class action lawsuit on behalf of women imprisoned in New York State who had been sexually abused by staff. The suit charged that prison staff subjected women to numerous instances of sexual abuse, ranging from inappropriate touching to rape. (Four years later, in December 2007, the court dismissed the claims on the grounds that most of the women had failed to exhaust the prison grievance system. This despite the fact that they had complained to the prison system’s Inspector General, which is where grievances about sexual abuse are referred.)

Strip searches are one way that jail and prison staff can sexually humiliate and abuse the people that they guard. But because strip searches are everyday practice in many facilities, they are not covered by legislation designed to prevent sexual abuse, such as Albion’s bill or the Prison Rape Elimination Act. According to MassLive.com, “lawyers from both sides [of Baggett v. Ashe] noted the lack of case law on whether cross-gender videotaping of strip searches runs afoul of Constitutional rights”–meaning the case could be precedent-setting.

As they await the judge’s decision, David Milton, the attorney representing Baggett and the 177 other women, noted that the lawsuit has already had some effect: “As a result of this lawsuit, the WCC has virtually eliminated the practice of male guards videotaping strip searches. Now it happens less than one percent of the time. If we’re successful, we hope that the success of this lawsuit will send a message that women prisoners retain a core of human dignity and privacy that cannot be violated.”

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Seven Days in Solitary [5/11/2014]

Sun, 05/11/2014 - 18:51

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.

• Representative Cedric Richmond (LA-02) introduced the first-ever federal legislation addressing the use of solitary confinement, called the Solitary Confinement Study and Reform Act of 2014.  If passed, the bill would create funding for the development of best practices, which would subsequently be put in place in federal facilities. Richmond said, “Our approach to solitary confinement in this country needs immediate reform. The practices imposed on prisoners, including the seriously mentally ill and juveniles, at all levels of our penal system raise significant 8th amendment concerns and it is time we have this conversation about what kind of country we are.”

• Hundreds of people from across the state gathered in Albany to show support for a bill that would strictly limit the use of solitary confinement in New York’s prisons and jails. Capital News Tonight hosted a panel about the bill, called the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act.

• In the wake of a hunger strike at Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Representative Adam Smith (D-WA) has introduced a bill to improve conditions inside federal immigration lock-ups.  The Accountability in Immigration Detention act would, among other things, prohibit placing detainees in solitary confinement in retaliation for whistleblowing.

• The AP published an in-depth account on the last hours of Jerome Murdough, who was found dead in his cell on Riker’s Island in February 2014. Murdough was being held in solitary confinement on the newly-opened mental health unit when his cell overheated; according to the AP report repair workers were not available to fix the problem due to the long holiday weekend. He had been arrested on a misdemeanor trespassing charge for sleeping in an enclosed stairwell of a public housing building, but had been unable to post the $2,500 bail.

• A local New Mexico outlet, KUNM, published the third part of an ongoing series about solitary confinement in the state.

• An interfaith alliance in Milwaukee held an event to highlight the number of individuals in the state being held in prison past their parole date, many of whom remain in solitary confinement.  The session was attended by several representatives from the state legislature. A Buddhist chaplain involved in the campaign to halve the prison rolls also published an op-ed in a Madison paper.

• Democracy Now!  host Amy Goodman penned an op-ed voicing her opposition to solitary confinement, which was published in several outlets across the country (including here, here and here).

• People in prison and advocacy groups in California who were involved in the 2011 and 2013 hunger strikes have offered their position on two bills currently moving through the California state legislature. They support Assembly Bill 1652, which would prohibit the state from placing individuals in solitary confinement simply on the suspicion that they belong to a gang (“gang validation”); they oppose Senate Bill 892, which was designed to achieve more comprehensive reforms, because it neither explicitly prohibits “gang validation” nor indeterminate terms in solitary confinement units. The San Francisco Bay View published a letter from four former hunger strikers about their perspectives on the legislation.

• Amnesty International USA has launched an investigation into the deaths of two New Jersey men who died in prison. One man, Robert Taylor, was allegedly placed in a restraining jacket in solitary confinement despite the fact that he was going through alcohol withdrawal.

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