• According to the latest report published by New York City’s Board of Corrections, more than 90% of those placed in disciplinary segregation at Riker’s Island do not receive their daily, legally-mandated hour of recreation. The report’s findings were covered by a variety of outlets, including the NY Daily News.
• The Department of Justice released a report which concludes that “there is a pattern of practice of conduct at Rikers that violates the constitutional rights of adolescent inmates,” and that the Department of Corrections “relies far too heavily on punitive segregation as a disciplinary measures.” The New York Times wrote an editorial supporting the extensive recommendations outlined in the report, including a reform of the “institutional culture of the jail system to ensure that violence is no longer tolerated.”
• The Bronx District Attorney has declined to prosecute any Rikers staff in an alleged 2012 assault on two prisoners, which was described in detail in the New York Times last month. Several individuals, including civilian staff members, had previously come forward to tell investigators what they had witnessed, but this week DA office announced that there were “inconsistencies and contradictions in testimony.”
• In the June/July 2014 issue of Correctional Law Reporter, Fred Cohen, LL.B., LL.M., convenes a panel of experts on prisons and the law in a “symposium” examining the use of and alternatives to solitary confinement in three hypothetical cases that illustrate the conditions, circumstances, and types of offenders consigned to “administrative segregation” in prisons around the U.S. Written for prison and jail administrators and their legal counsel, the bimonthly Correctional Law Reporter covers legal and constitutional issues in corrections.
• A federal judge has allowed a class-action lawsuit against the Arizona Department of Corrections to move forward, dismissing the state’s request for the summary judgment. The suit alleges that more than 33,000 prisoners in Arizona have endured poor prison health care and excessive solitary confinement. A trial is set to start in October.
• Solitary Watch’s Victoria Law published an article on Gothamist exploring “what it’s like to be 16 and in solitary on Rikers Island.”
• A trial against the New Jersey Department of Corrections continues this week. In the lawsuit, Lester Alford alleges that the DOC violated his rights against cruel and unusual punishment and that he was placed in disciplinary isolation without a proper hearing. In court he stated, “they locked me in a cell behind a cage like an an animal. I didn’t get to see my own face for three years.”
• A North Idaho teenager charged with murdering his father and brother has been removed from isolation in an adult facility and returned to a juvenile detention center. The ACLU of Idado had previously filed documents stating that Eldon Samuel III’s treatment in the Kootenai County Jail is “worse than the Guantanamo Bay detention camp.”
It was Gay Pride weekend in New York City, but the event’s celebratory spirit was absent from Michelle Scott’s tidy second-floor apartment on a leafy street near Brooklyn College. Her child, Carey Smith, is a transgender woman currently locked up in solitary confinement in Upstate Correctional Facility, a men’s supermax prison located in the Adirondacks.
“Sometimes I’m on my bed, I’m crying,” she told Solitary Watch. “I wake up at five o’clock in the morning thinking about it, and I say, ‘God my son is stuck in a cell for 23 hours a day,” said Scott, who seems to accept Smith’s transition but still uses male pronouns. “And I pray and ask God, ‘Please give him the grace to do it.’” Smith is in disciplinary segregation, known as the Special Housing Unit, or SHU.
In an era of unprecedented victories for LGBT rights, especially in liberal New York, people like Carey Smith are still paying a high price simply for being who they are.
Over the past several months, Solitary Watch has been in contact with seven transgender women currently or formerly incarcerated in New York’s men’s correctional facilities. They each described enduring long-term solitary confinement as a result of identifying or being perceived as female/feminine instead of male, the sex they were assigned at birth. And about half of the transwomen interviewed by Solitary Watch specifically disclosed being sexually assaulted by guards in isolation, and described the psychological distress of enduring such brutality while locked up alone.
Here are the stories of three of those women, and the continuing efforts of their families, lawyers, and activists to obtain justice for transwomen behind bars.
Solitary as “protection,” solitary as punishment
Carey Smith, 32, was born in Jamaica and followed her mom to Brooklyn at the age of twelve. After many years struggling with addiction, in 2010 she landed in prison on a seven-year sentence for two robbery charges. Although she had come out as transgender in high school, it was not until she arrived at Coxsackie Correctional Facility–a prison just south of Albany where Smith was incarcerated before Upstate–that she requested and received regular access to hormone therapy. As Smith’s body changed, she began experiencing numerous sexual threats and violence from both inmates and staff.
One night last winter, Smith became overwhelmed with the constant harassment and told the Correctional Officers (COs) she felt unsafe, according to a letter sent to Solitary Watch. But when a sergeant and lieutenant arrived they dismissed her concerns, informing her that she needed to pursue transfer requests through the available bureaucraticchannels. “I then told the Lt., ‘What if I flood my toilet,” and he said, ‘You would be doing a lot of SHU time.’” Then she explained, “Right then and there I took the bait I’ve been locked up since.”
On any given day, about 3,800 people in New York’s prisons are in the SHU. That means spending 23 of 24 hours in a cell the size of a parking space, with no telephone privileges, few personal possessions, and no access to activities, programs, or classes. Meals are served through a slot in cell door. Even the one-hour of recreation permitted each day is spent alone.
Solitary confinement can be a harrowing experience for anyone. But as Smith’s journey story underlines, for many transwomen there are multiple and contradictory meanings attached to isolation: Although it is sometimes perceived as a place of safety, it is also frequently experienced as a form of punishment.
Her story also illustrates the very limited options available to transwomen to push back against the cruelty and indifference exhibited by staff. Mik Kinkead is an attorney for Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York, which provides representation to indigent prisoners on issues associated with their conditions of confinement. “I’ve had several clients who have tried to stand up for themselves when DOCCS staff refer to them as “it” or “thing” or use the wrong pronoun even after my clients have explained what pronoun to use and why not doing so is hurtful and emotionally cruel,” he said in a recent phone interview. “However standing up for yourself in prison often results in a Misbehavior Report and being placed in solitary.”
“Trans and gender nonconforming people are disproportionately punished in prison and isolation is a common form of punishment,” explained Alisha Williams in an email to Solitary Watch. She is the Director of the Prisoner Justice Project at the Sylvia Rivera Law Project (SRLP), a NYC-based non-profit that provides advocacy for poor people and people of color who are gender non-conforming. As Williams pointed out, transwomen can even be punished for possessing panties if they have not been given the appropriate clearance by DOCCS staff. The SRLP extensively documented the experiences of transgender and intersex people in New York State’s men prisons in their 2007 report, It’s War in Here.
Sometimes, the “crime” that lands transwomen in isolation is simply appearing feminine, and therefore more vulnerable to physical or sexual violence in the general prison population. In New York and across the country, transgender people are often sent into involuntary protective custody (IPC) – another form of isolation–against their will, along with other prisoners perceived to be at risk. Other trans people elect to sign into voluntary protective custody (often referred to as ‘PC’) in order to escape a dangerous environment in general population.
According to New York’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (NY-DOCCS) Directive 4948, prisoners in PC and IPC are supposed to spend a minimum of three hours per day outside of their cells, participate daily in at least two group meals, and have regular access to library and counseling services, telephone calls, visits and their personal property–in other words, conditions are not supposed to mirror the SHU.
But according to women on the inside and advocates on the outside, few facilities make such distinctions. And because the vulnerable populations that end up in PC/IPC necessarily come under increased institutional surveillance, what begins as a protective measure may end as a punitive one.
Geri, 48, a German-born transwoman who asked that her last name be withheld, is twenty years into a twenty-five year sentence for second-degree manslaughter. In series of letters to Solitary Watch, she described how she spent the first 17 years of her sentence in the closet–until one day, when three gang members assaulted her. She wrote:
“[W]hile I fought, I was quickly beaten to shower floor. Cold, hard, wet–slippery. Kicked and incapacitated. So fast, with kaleidoscope of images and thought swirl in my overwhelmed mind.” She goes on to describe the rape in detail.
Geri explained that after her assailants left, she cleaned herself up and scrubbed the floor, all the while hoping she could get back to her cell without COs noting the incident. But as she crossed the recreation yard, a guard noticed she was bleeding; she taken to the facility hospital, where she was swabbed and her boxers confiscated. After being given minimal treatment, she was escorted to IPC wearing only a small towel tied around her waist.
But Geri’s difficulties did not end there. Instead of receiving additional medical care, she was issued two disciplinary tickets: one for not reporting an injury, and the second for a positive marijuana test. After a hearing on the charges before other prison staff, she was sentenced to six months in the SHU, which she served primarily at Upstate prison. Like many, once in “the box” Geri received additional tickets, and she ended up spending four years there.
Sexual assaults by prison staff
As Geri’s story suggests, the most significant factor that lands transwomen in protective custody is actual or perceived risk of sexual violence. However, isolation is oftentimes an equally or even more dangerous place. In fact, it was during Geri’s transfer to the SHU at Upstate that she experienced her most recent episode of prison sexual violence.
“At layover stop [to Upstate],” she wrote, “I am escorted by staff member, and cuffed behind my back. I was directed into small room and to sit on bench. Staff member closed door, made some reference to rape incident, exposed semi-erect penis and standing in front of me told me to: ‘polish his knob.’”
She continued: “I was absolutely shocked, but recovered enough to bluff. I told him he’d better just ‘pull the pin’ (personal alarm). He backed off, rezipping pants, tried to play off as he was just ‘joking’ with me. No sane, rational person would believe these actions as mere ‘joke’.”
Although no data exists tracking transgender experiences of assault New York prisons, accounts like Geri’s, as well as data from other studies, suggests that it is an commonplace ordeal for transwomen locked up. In a 2007 study of California prisons, for example, 59% of transwomen polled reported experiencing sexual assault while on the inside–a rate nearly 13 times higher than average amongst the state’s prison population.
According to recent Bureau of Justice Statistics data, nearly half of the alleged instances of sexual violence in prisons and jails across America are actually committed by facility staff. In short, placing transwomen in “protective” custody may actually increase their vulnerability to predatory staff members, while simultaneously closing down potential avenues to report assaults.
For Yvette Gonzales, 37, who spent three years of her seven-year sentence in solitary confinement, the notion of isolation as “protection” could not be farther from the truth. Gonzales was first arrested in 1998 and eventually pled guilty to criminal possession of a weapon. She narrated her experiences to Solitary Watch from the Midtown offices of Housing Works, the HIV/AIDS advocacy organization where she now works as a testing coordinator.
“Things were going good for a while,” at Franklin Correctional Facility, where Gonzales was first transferred after sentencing, “until my whole femininity thing just started becoming an issue for a lot of correctional officers.” Guards starting harassing her, and when fights started breaking out in the dorms, she said, they were blamed on her. “I went to the box, supposedly to keep me safe.”
At first Gonzales was placed at the front of the tier. Then, one night, a CO moved her to a cell at the very end of the corridor, out of sight from the bubble where other guards would stand watch. A few nights later, the same guard returned and informed her he would be searching her cell, ordering her to stand in front of her bed and strip. Then, the CO came towards her.
“I remember, he punched me so hard in my ribs, that I could barely breathe… he hit me so hard that I grabbed myself on the bed and that’s when he came behind me and he was grabbing me, choking me and hitting me, pinning me down… there was a point I couldn’t even move.”
“He made me give him oral sex and he turned me around and that’s when he attacked me sexually – he raped me and this went on for a few weeks.”
Gonzales also told Solitary Watch that she never received medical attention. “When I tried to complain to the captain he told me that I was lying. So I had to endure that for a long period of time when I was in the box.”
Both advocates and many of the transwomen in touch with Solitary Watch stressed that when prisoner’s account of a staff assault is disputed, unless videotape evidence is available, the CO’s word will almost always be accepted as truth.
In an e-mail, Assistant Public Information Officer Linda Foglia told Solitary Watch, “DOCCS has not identified a systemic problem of transgender women being sexually victimized by either other inmates or staff.” She added that DOCCS is in the process of launching a new sexual victimization-screening tool, which will include information about individuals’ sexual orientation and gender identity, and sensitivity training for reception and guidance staff.
The trauma and toll of isolation
There is a growing understanding both across the country and the world that prolonged solitary confinement causes severe emotional distress, and often amounts to torture. After communicating with over 100 individuals who had served significant time in the state’s SHUs, the New York Civil Liberties Union concluded that “extreme isolation causes emotional and psychological harm, including apathy, lethargy, anxiety, depression, despair, rage and uncontrollable impulses, even among the health and mentally stable.”
Chris Daley is the deputy executive director of Just Detention International (JDI), a human rights organization that is committed to ending sexual violence in detention. “[Solitary] is an incredibly harmful way to protect someone,” he told Solitary Watch in a recent phone interview from the organization’s Washington DC office.
“The emotional and psychological damages that comes from being placed in solitary… can oftentimes be just as bad as the physical violence, it just manifests differently, and it is not something you can as clearly point to in an individual case.”
Gonzales told Solitary Watch that being in IPC had undoubtedly affected her well-being. “There’s nothing for you to do [in the box]. You sleep, you lose track of time. You start talking to yourself, you start hearing, you start imagining, you start inventing, you start making up stuff.”
The Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), passed in 2003, recognizes the psychological toll of isolation by requiring facilities to assess all alternative remedies before placing a vulnerable person individual in IPC–like relocating perpetrators, increasing staffing, or housing those at risk in single-cells within general population. The legislation also states that involuntary segregation for those at risk should not last longer than 30 days.
NYDOCCS told Solitary Watch that its facilities are PREA-compliant in these specific areas. These assurances were disputed, however, by every advocate interviewed for this article.
Being placed in solitary confinement–whether for protection or punishment–is often particularly psychologically distressing for transwomen: not only because of the violence they face in isolation, but also because they are cut off from transgender-affirming avenues of support, like family or friends on the outside or LGBT peers in general population.
In a note to Solitary Watch, Smith described the level of distress she has encountered in the SHU. “Last year before this I was in another facility… I was being treated badly by the staff as a whole in Woodbourne [Correctional Facility] while in an extremely intense solitary confinement especially because the space was so small. I asked the officer for mental health and he told me he would not get mental health for me.”
Smith felt trapped. The day before, a prisoner who had twice assaulted her had been let out of the box; she believed she was kept in “because of all the attention [she] was getting.”
“I took them off [my reading glasses], broke them up and started to slice and cut up my wrist and arm. After all the blood and cuts mental health was called and I was out of solitary for 5 days. It’s sad I have to mutilate my own body just to get something done.”
Transwomen do not only pay a price psychologically – they also pay in time. “I have multiple clients who have been denied parole because they spent their entire time in protective custody,” Kinkead told Solitary Watch. Almost without exception, prisoners outside of general population are unable to access programs mandated by the courts – like anger management – that might otherwise enable them to be seen favorably at parole hearings.
Proposed solutions for staying safe(r)
As Chris Daley of Just Detention noted, it is the environment within men’s prisons that puts transwomen at such a high risk of sexual violence – in that their bodies become a means for both prisoners and staff to assert their masculinity. In letter to Solitary Watch, Geri explained, “Being in a men’s prison lets you know how (many) men really feel about women – and makes me feel more vulnerable to sexual violence/abuse than ever before.”
As a result, some advocates have suggested that the answer to keeping transwomen safe is creating policies for them to be more easily housed in women’s facilities, as has been done in a number of cities and states, including Denver, Washington, DC, and elsewhere. And certainly being transferred to a women’s facility is a priority for many transwomen locked up in New York and across the country. Under PREA, correctional facilities are supposed to determine housing for trans people on a case-by-case basis, taking into account where the individual feels they would be safest.
When asked, however, most of the transwomen in touch with Solitary Watch named a different solution–creating specific pods, floors or even entire facilities dedicated to housing LGBT prisoners.
According to Daley, LGBT-segregated units can sometimes heighten vulnerability to violence, for example, if staff predators gain access. He thinks the idea is more a reflection of the dire nature of current realities than a solution in itself. “[The request for LGBT-units is] shorthand for ‘I want to be someplace where they’re going to call me by the right name, use the right pronouns, and not threaten or intimidate me. That’s about conditions of confinement. And everyone should be in a facility where those things happen.”
Last February, the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) reached a tentative agreement with the state that will remove a number of vulnerable populations from isolation, including juveniles, pregnant women, and those with developmental disabilities—but makes no reference to transgender people.
The Humane Alternatives to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act, introduced into the New York state legislature this past winter, aims to establish strict limits on the amount of time any prisoner could spend in isolation.
“HALT also recognizes that certain people should never be placed in isolation for any length of time because either isolation itself can have more devastating effects on them or they are more vulnerable to abuse while in isolation,” explained Scott Paltrowitz, Associate Director of the Prison Visiting Project at the Correctional Association, a non-profit advocating for a more humane criminal justice system in New York. ”Transgender people and other members of the LGBTI community are given additional protections under HALT primarily for the latter reason.”
Within the broader movement against solitary confinement in New York and across the country, advocates face a difficult dilemma: namely, how to provide immediate and much-needed relief to the most vulnerable of populations without leaving everyone else to languish in the box.
Jason Lydon, 31, is the founder of Black & Pink, an organization that aims to build support between LGBTQ people across prison walls, primarily through a pen-pal scheme.
“When we fight for the reduction of solitary confinement for certain individuals,” he told Solitary Watch, “we are saying that solitary confinement is okay – that there is a certain amount of torture that is okay for certain kinds of people – for [non-trans] black men, for example.”
He added, “We’re not looking to create a pink door in a prison wall for LGBTQ people to walk out of. While centering [LGBTQ] experiences, our efforts are tied to this larger call for abolition for everybody.”
For its part, NYDOCCS has also stated that it is taking steps to better accommodate the needs of trans prisoners. In an email, Linda Foglia told Solitary Watch:
“In July 2012, DOCCS convened an internal multi-disciplinary ‘GID Task Force’ (now the GD Task Force) to study the needs of transgender individuals, and to review policies to ensure an appropriate balance between individual needs and the agency’s mission. The work of this Task Force continues and keeps DOCCS at the forefront as corrections agencies across the nation work to identify best practices for working with LGBTI inmates.”
An unconditional love
While popular mobilization and policy change may seek to improve conditions on the inside, when it comes down to it, most transgender women locked up in New York and across the county rely on friends and family to survive.
In a June letter to Solitary Watch, Smith wrote, “the biggest thing that bothers me [about conditions in the SHU] the most not hearing my mom’s voice to ease her worries and mine.”
From her home in Flatbush, Smith’s mother, Michelle Scott, explained why her emotional support is so central is to her child’s survival on the inside. “Carey sees [my] unconditional love when everyone else turns their back… He sees the unconditional love when he goes out there and I’m walking with him on Flatbush. I see guys looking at him and say, ‘Oh, you batty man’…. They cut him down and I hold his hand and we cried, and I said, ‘This is my child.’”
Michelle Scott hopes that love will help keep Carey strong even as he endures isolation and abuse in prison. “I never in my life fathomed he would go through this,” she said.
For a firsthand account of one transgender woman’s experience in solitary confinement in New York, see the accompanying piece Voices from Solitary: Cruel and Unusual Punishment for Transgender Women.
Solitary Watch is interested in hearing from other transgender individuals and their families about their experiences in New York’s prisons and jails. Please write to Aviva Stahl, c/o Solitary Watch, Box 165, 123 7th Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11215 or email aviva.stahl (at) gmail.com.
Dee Dee is a transgender woman serving a sentence of 60 years to life in New York State, where she has been held in men’s prisons. After being raped twice in general population, she was placed in solitary confinement “for her own protection,” in conditions virtually identical to those used for punishment. In this letter to Solitary Watch, Dee Dee describes in detail the conditions of extreme isolation and deprivation in which she lives, and the effect they have had on her. For more stories and information on transgender women in the New York State prison system, see the accompanying article, “Transgender Women in New York State Prisons Face Solitary Confinement and Sexual Assault.” –Aviva Stahl
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
I’m currently in solitary confinement under the status of Involuntary Protective Custody (I.P.C.) since 2-14-2013. Overall, I’ve been in continuous solitary confinement for 4 straight years.
I’m allowed only 1 hour outside to use weights (if available), phone and T.V., or to play cards or basketball (if they’re provided but usually aren’t). The one hour goes by too quickly. We inmates spend so much of it talking and socializing. You can readily identify the detrimental effects of our solitary existence by the harried way we socialize. The personal contact is a great need; the interaction is non-stop about everything, anything and nothing as guys try to work-out or play games. Mostly, its guys complaining how bad things are for us and negative talk of possible “solutions” which go nowhere. Nothing really constructive is discussed.
Our cells have solid doors with a small window about the size of two paperback novels placed side-by-side. You can only see directly in front of your own cell. You can’t really hear anything outside the cell due to blower vents in our cell that circulate air in and out of our cells being so loud. The walls are basically sound-proof being of solid cement. Although the cells are designed for disciplinary solitary confinement it is nice because it’s supposed to house 2 inmates, but when used for protection use, inmates are housed by themselves; hence, plenty of room. But the main thing is the inability to hear anything outside your cell. And to compound this, when lists are taken for our 1 hour yard or 10 minute gallery phone use, CO’s rarely announce themselves or that a list is being taken. Inmates new to the unit have no idea what is going on because no rule book is available, nor does staff give a rundown of how things run in the unit. Many miss the lists. I suffer daily anxiety by waiting at my door a ½ hour before the lists are supposed to come just so I don’t miss it because C.O.’s come with the lists at anytime a ½ before or after the list is supposed to be taken.
There are no interactions from your cell with anyone for 23 hours a day aside from C.O.’s delivering your food trays 3 times a day. You can try to yell through the door but it’s a hassle because your voice barely gets through and you have to repeat yourself over and over. We have a recreation pen (rec. pen) at the back of our cells where you can go outside but it’s like being in a dog kennel. We’re told that the rec pen is our “additional out-of-cell” time; indicated in the New York Department Directives for protective custody units.
Our phone access is restricted even though we are not disciplinary restricted; as phone use is a privilege that can only be restricted by a disciplinary hearing sanction for rule violations. We wrote grievances but even when we win the staff in this block refuse to obey the decisions. They adhere to their own unwritten policy.
Our protection unit is housed in the Special Housing Unit block (SHU), which is a disciplinary solitary confinement unit for inmates who’ve violated facility or department rules and regulations. And because of that staff can quote “security reasons” as a basis for any unfair restrictions they arbitrarily apply to us to make their jobs easier. There’s no rule book and the block is run in part (to resemble legitimacy) by what Department of Corrections policy and directives dictate and what staff have made up in order to allow us the VERY MINIMUM (most time we have less than) what we’re entitled to.
We have a general library cart with about 40 books that is sent about every 3 months that’s brought cell-to-cell every Tuesday night. The books are all garbage and not worth reading. Grievances and complaints were made and the general librarians’ response was to fill the cart with really bad choices. Even the CO who rolls the cart around said it was a shame. This is just one example of the treatment we endure besides the having to endure 23 hours of solitary.
I personally went on hunger strike to bring attention to the conditions and treatment here. And although I obtained a one-on-one audience with the Executive Staff of the facility I was just “yes’d” to death and NOTHING was done to change anything. Their only response was to transfer everyone they could who wrote grievances or complained. However, myself and 4 others cannot be transferred due to the safety needs we require. Transfers are always staff’s response in any facility, to problems they face when inmates speak up.
In addition, staff harasses us for the grievances we write. One inmate had his cell’s contents destroyed during a “random” cell search. His 3rd in a few weeks. And he got a disciplinary ticket for misc. thing, as an attempt to put him in disciplinary solitary confinement. Retribution is and has always been a tactic staff employs to deter inmates from writing grievances and/or shedding light on the staff’s “policy and procedures” we have to endure.
I’m blessed to have support and fill my 23 hours of lockdown by doing legal work, studying, reading, and drawing some. However, I’ve been here over a year with no access to a pencil sharpener; because this block is a SHU block and one isn’t provided. The only allowable pencil sharpeners we’re allowed to order from outside vendors are no longer produced. I’ve written grievances and complained but nothing is being done.
I find solitary confinement here very detrimental to one’s mental health. Cell lights are kept on at night for SHU inmates for legitimate security reasons, but they’re put on for us as well. When I complained I was told that they stay on (even though they can specifically turn ours off) because we’re housed in a SHU block, so we get treated the same. Yet, SHU inmates have a mailbox wheeled to each of their cells to ensure their mail is actually being sent out. But we, on the other hand, are told we don’t get a mail cart because we’re not SHU inmates. So CO’s pick our mail up by hand and we hope they put it in the mailbox to go out. However, grievances and mail of complaints have been known to disappear and never get to the mailbox. Which can be detrimental to any legal or policy time constraints. The mental stress of this and other flip-flopping “policy” is very intense. You never know where you stand.
I had a friend, DeMario Parks, who was in this SHU back in 2001. He mentally broke and hung himself. A few years later the Office of Mental Health did a study on the effects of solitary confinement. This study resulted in being the backbone of a lawsuit against the NY State Dept of Corrections that produced sweeping changed for inmates who were mentally ill and placed in solitary confinement where their mental conditions deteriorated and they wound up getting more and more disciplinary tickets that would keep them in solitary for years. The study, I encourage you to read, is available from the Office of Mental Health or the “New York State Commission of Corrections,” which is a watchdog agency.
The restricted contact with others is the hardest part to deal with. As humans we need to socialize in order to stay relevant with societal norms, etc. Prison is already a very lonely place for many of us. This lack of interaction promotes anti-social behavior. I’ve stayed in my cell for months because I felt anti-social, frustrated, angry etc and wanted nothing to do with anyone here. I’m currently doing so now . The mental ups and downs are an ordeal. Mental health is no help. Their services are either to prescribe medications or instruct you in “coping skills” so you can endure more of this cruel & unusual punishment INSTEAD of alleviating the root of the problem causing the distress.
Most letters to staff go ignored. You’re basically screaming on deaf ears. Our one hour of yard is usually 45 minutes due to staff bringing us out late or bringing us in early. Our minimum is ONE HOUR, but we rarely get it. A grievance, from experience, gets you harassed and/or not let out for yard at all. Staff knows if you complain of a missed yard it can’t be rectified, so they get away with it.
There’s no programming or classes or any type of rehabilitation work you can do in here either. The mind stagnates. The only thing offered is “cell study” which is for inmates looking to get a GED which they’ll never take a test for until they get out of solitary. Cell study is totally self-study by text books with no instruction at all. I currently convinced the cell study staff to provide me with vocational text books, so that I can study on my own topics such a Masonry, Home Electrical Wiring and Business Practices. That’s all one can do.
The frustrations here are immense. Tempers flare all over. Mostly because a lot of what goes on makes no logical sense. And I know staff sees that but they don’t care.
Currently, I’m trying to get a transfer somewhere very beneficial to my long-term future in prison. I have 35 more years before I see parole board. So I have to stay out of trouble by staying below the radar with staff so as to not to jeopardize it. So I accept the oppression and mistreatment and meekly do what I need to do to get out of here (hopefully). It’s a sad existence but it is what it is. We are basically voiceless here.
Others are unfortunately left to endure this oppressive lonely place. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve talked myself out of self-destructive behavior or harmful behavior here out of the frustrating desperations I experience here.
Solitary confinement is punishment, sure but it’s a cruel and unusual punishment that benefits no one and nothing about it rehabilitates anymore thus confined. Their behavior stays the same (and/or gets worse) and they usually stay within the cycle of coming back to solitary or never getting out of it.
Lastly, I’d like to mention that in December of 2001 I was released from prison (on a previous incarceration). I was sent directly into society after 2 years of solitary confinement for protection. No transitional program or preparation was provided. No assistance or guidance or counseling either as to what to expect or what I needed to do on the outside after 10 years in prison. From 23 hours of solitary confinement to 24/7 wide-open society in the snap of your fingers. I arrived in New York City post 9-11 paranoid, nervous, bitter, and scared of everyone around me. It was too much to handle at once. Six days later, still feeling way, way out of place, I killed my boyfriend in a domestic dispute. I believe the solitary confinement in addition to no outside help or counseling by the office of parole contributed to this tragedy. I was just left to my own devices that were woefully inadequate for the task.
The HALT bill is a good start but applicability will be a challenge–especially due to funding. Money, sadly, dictates not what is best but what we can only afford. For one of the richest countries on earth we should be able to do better.
I encourage everyone to add to our voices to advocate for change so that your friends and your loved ones who are unfortunately are incarcerated return to society better mentally and emotionally then when they came to prison. Even if you’ve no friends or family in here, they still will be among you in society–so do what will benefit society as a whole. It all affects us. Rehabilitate don’t punish.
STOP SOLITARY CONFINEMENT.
“Loneliness is a destroyer of humanity.” –Jesse Wilson, held in solitary at ADX Florence federal supermax prison
Based on the evidence amassed by researchers in the last several decades, we have reached a point in time when we may unequivocally state that solitary confinement inflicts psychological damage and distress on those subjected to it. Even in individuals with no prior history of mental illness or instability, extended periods of isolated confinement have produced severe psychological symptoms, and left deep and often permanent psychological scars.
More recently, such findings have been bolstered by the field of neuroscience, which is progressively discovering evidence that long-term isolation has the potential to actually alter the chemistry and structure of the brain.
Among the early researchers investigating the link between solitary confinement and mental abnormalities is Stuart Grassian, who became interested in the subject after visiting Walpole State Penitentiary in 1982 and interviewing several men in solitary confinement. Grassian realized “these people were very sick.” Those he spoke with exhibited symptoms such as hallucinatory tendencies, paranoia, and delirium—a collection of conditions he designated “SHU Syndrome.” Several other studies have since supported the existence of such a syndrome. The American Friends Service Committee, among others, also cites hypersensitivity to noise and touch, insomnia, PTSD, and uncontrollable feelings of rage or fear.
The rise of supermaxes and solitary confinement units across the country in the 1990s and early 2000s has intensified the problems associated with prison isolation.
According to an American Journal of Public Health study, 53.3 percent of self-harm incidents took place among those in solitary, who make up only about 5 percent of the prison population. Likewise, about half of all prison suicides take place in solitary confinement. When their sentences are complete, individuals housed in solitary are often released directly to the streets—a practice that has been linked to increased recidivism rates.
Only recently, however, have researchers begun discussing the neurobiological effects of prolonged isolation. This research was showcased earlier this year at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), at a panel discussion during which neurologists and activists alike shared their experiences with solitary confinement’s destructive capabilities.
Panel member Craig Haney, a psychology professor from the University of California Santa Cruz, has spent the past thirty years both evaluating solitary confinement units across the country and documenting the effects of long-term isolation. One notable effect of such seclusion on prisoners, Haney states, is identity disorders that result from the lack of social interaction:
So much of who we are depends on our contact with other people, the social context in which we function, and when you remove people from that context, they begin to lose their very sense of self.
Huda Akil, a neuroscientist at the University of Michigan and also a member of the panel, concedes the fact that there are limitations when attempting to work with prisoners directly, but is confident in a connection between solitary and mental abnormalities because of existing evidence tying the absence of stimulus with changes in the brain:
The physical lack of activity, the lack of interaction with the natural world… the lack of interaction with other human beings, the lack of visual stimulation, the lack of touch—Each one of those has been studied not just only in humans, but in animal models… And each one is by itself sufficient to change the brain, and change it dramatically depending on whether it lasts briefly or extended. And by extended I mean days, not decades…
Given the opportunity to document changes in segregated prisoners’ brains, Akil is certain the findings would support the theory that solitary confinement can fundamentally alter the structure of the brain.
When one considers the wealth of knowledge that behavioral science has contributed to establishing a connection between isolation and brain degeneration, along with the relatively new, concrete evidence offered by neuroscientists, the existence of a causal relationship is convincing.
In an article published by AEON Magazine Shruti Ravindran presents a collection of first-hand accounts and recent scientific research supporting the panel’s central claim: “solitary confinement fundamentally alters the brain.” Among her resources are formerly incarcerated persons and renowned neuroloscientists, who have devoted themselves to documenting the negative effects that prolonged isolation can have on a person’s psyche.
Ravindran begins by introducing us to Robert King, a former prisoner and member of the AAAS panel, who spent 29 years in solitary at Louisiana’s Angola State Prison. King describes his experiences in and out of solitary confinement, and the lasting side effects. Even after his release thirteen years ago, he says, he often feels introverted, struggles with paranoia, and suffers from bouts of depression.
In an ongoing effort to prove the existence of a causal link between solitary confinement and its devastating mental consequences, neurologists like Elizabeth Gould, Mark Rosenzweig, and Marian Diamond have conducted experiments that demonstrate structural changes in the brain itself. Gould, a Princeton neuroscientist, and Alexis Stranahan, a postdoctoral researcher, together investigated the underlying reasons behind the isolated brain’s decline and found hormones to be somewhat responsible. They found that isolated rats could not effectively regulate stress hormones, leading to a dangerous buildup that was causing neurons to die. Normally, an animal would be able to maintain a hormone balance that preserves, and even grows neurons. But in a stress-inducing environment, such as the one isolation imposes, the ability to regulate hormones is lost and the body’s systems deteriorate.
Rosenzweig found that rats subjected to supermax-like conditions “had fewer connections between neurons and thinner cerebral cortexes” than those that were raised in stimulating, engaging environments. Diamond revealed the fragility of the cortex by demonstrating that environmental changes, positive or negative, had the potential to alter both the size and cellular makeup of the cortex at any point in a person’s life. “The cerebral cortex,” Ravindran contests, “… is the part of the brain that makes us most human.” If the cortex is in fact one of the most crucial areas of the brain, it is alarming to find that it is so susceptible to environmental changes, especially the drastic sensory deprivation associated with solitary confinement.
As evidence of solitary’s biological affects accumulates, a valid question arises: What does this all mean for the future of solitary confinement? At a minimum it will strengthen every argument against the practice on both ethical and practical grounds. Prisoners are suffering not only mental anguish but also permanent physiological harm that will hinder their efforts to reintegrate into society.
• California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) introduced new policies that limit the use of force against prisoners with mental illness, including establishing strict restrictions on cell extractions from solitary confinement. Mental health practitioners will now conduct evaluations and attempt to de-escalate the situation before force is used. The policy also mandates CDCR to transfer inmates with mental illness out of solitary confinement more quickly.
• The New York Times published an in-depth article about a Tennessee man who died after being forcibly extracted from his solitary confinement cell at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution. The article also includes images from the extraction.
• Several outlets published articles on Kenny “Zulu” Whitmore, who has spent the last 28 years in solitary confinement but may soon be released into general population. The warden at Louisiana’s Angola Prison, where Whitmore is housed, has said he’d “rather have [Whitmore] out” but has also expressed concern about Whitmore’s longstanding affiliation with the Black Panther Party. (See The Advocate, Time)
• Vice published an article about “the terrorist that wasn’t,” Talha Ahsan, who is due to return to his family in the UK after being given time served on material support charges. Ahsan spent about two years in solitary confinement at Northern Correctional Institute in Connecticut.
• The Hill published a blog about Florence ADX by Angela Wright, a researcher at Amnesty International who visited the prison in 2001.
• The Jails Action Coalition held another protest outside of the Bronx DA’s office, calling for the prosecution of correctional officers responsible for the death of an individual on Rikers Island last year. Bradley Ballard was found unresponsive in his cell after spending seven days in solitary confinement; he had been denied access to medical care and life-saving medication. His death has since been ruled a homicide.
• A number of local papers published stories and Op-eds in response to last week’s revelations, published in the State Journal, about the use of solitary confinement in Wisconsin prisons. (See State Journal, Post Crescent, Urban Milwaukee, Journal Sentinel).
• An undocumented individual held at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma has allegedly been placed in solitary confinement after going on hunger strike. This is the second time this year that detainees have refused food, in protest of both the conditions at Northwest and the broader failure of the Obama administration to reform the immigration system.
• Brooklyn Defender Services published an article on the Huffington Post entitled, “Policymakers Must Include Incarcerated People in Jail Reform Process.”
• The trial has begun in the case of Lester Alford, who is suing the state of New Jersey after allegedly enduring conditions that amounted to cruel and unusual punishment and a violation of his constitutional rights. Alford spent several years in solitary confinement, where he claims he was not allowed to clean his cell and was forced to sleep on a wet mattress.
• Creative Time Reports published an article by Laurie Jo Reynolds and Stephen Eisenman, describing in detail the successful campaign to close Tamms supermax prison in Illinois.
Recently obtained videos which have been exposed to the public show corrections officers using extreme force on incarcerated people suffering from various forms of mental illness.Attack on a Suicidal Man at Denver City Jail
Footage of one such video (shown below), taken in September of last year and later obtained by The Colorado Independent through an open records request, shows a team of corrections officers using force on Isaiah Moreno, who had been suicide watch at the Denver City Jail.
The graphic video shows Moreno repeatedly slamming his head against a concrete wall and pacing in his isolation cell. A team of officers toting restraint equipment is seen assembling outside his cell door – seemingly to stop him from harming himself – where they remain for several minutes as the man continues to bang his head into his cell wall. According to The Colorado Independent:
At one point, after an officer had asked him to stop hitting his head and Moreno responded, “I don’t give a fuck. No. Fuck you.” Moreno sat on the concrete bench that serves as a bed. Eight officers then entered the cell – two with taser guns pointed at him, even though he posed no visible sign of threat. Two of the officers tasered him with electroshocks before he slumped onto the floor. Officers strapped him into a restraint chair and then left him alone in the cell.
The footage of Moreno’s self-harm and of officers’ attack on him was obtained through a public records request. The Colorado Independent edited the 40-minute video to splice out nudity when Moreno was forced to remove his clothing and change into an anti-suicide gown, also known as a “turtle suit.” The smocks are protocol for suicidal inmates so they don’t hang or strangle themselves with their clothing. The gown given to Moreno was far too small for him. Several times in the video, it becomes unfastened, he refastens it and it becomes unfastened again.
According to the story, the incident took place just days following former Denver Sheriff Gary Wilson, who was demoted by the city’s mayor, Michael Hancock, for “excessive force problems.”
As reported by The Colorado Independent:
An investigation by Denver’s Internal Affairs Bureau determined that Sergeant Ned St. Germain – who has worked in the department since 1983 — broke the city’s use of force policies when he directly ordered the two deputies, Luke Swarr and Frank Romero, to taser Moreno in the Sept. 26, 2013, attack.
“Sergeant St. Germain gave the order when the inmate was not physically resisting at the time or immediately before the order was given. Moreover, he was not posing a threat to himself or others,” reads St. Germain’s discipline report. “Simply stated, there was no need to use the taser to gain compliance.”
St. Germain and his deputies had plenty of time to observe Moreno and assess his threat level. Electroshocking a vulnerable, mentally ill man smacks of a certain savagery that shocks the conscience of several people who have viewed the footage.
The story goes on to detail the remarks of Sgt. St. Germain and officials on St. Germain’s conduct:
Hancock promised reform on Monday when he demoted Wilson and announced a national search for a new sheriff to “change the culture” in the department. Still, the mayor’s message was mixed. In announcing Wilson’s ouster, Hancock praised him as a great leader and said, “Unfortunately, the department let him down.”
In a meeting with then-Sheriff Wilson and other top department officials in April, Sgt. St. Germain described the Moreno attack as “a good situation” that was “cut and dry” because, he said, Moreno was cursing at officers, threatening to fight and not responding to orders. He cited Moreno’s “internal anger” as a danger to the staff. He described the incident as “a very successful placement in the chair.”
“I thought it went very well,” he told his superiors. “I would have done this exact same thing again.”
In his disciplinary report, officials wrote, “The Department has great concern regarding your ability to act responsibly and to conduct yourself appropriately while on duty.”
They added: “Your conduct has compromised the mission of the Department.”
Officials punished St. Germain for his misconduct with an unpaid 10-day suspension without pay. He is appealing the disciplinary action.
The Colorado Independent further notes that episodes like this one are not uncommon in Denver’s jails.A Beating at Rikers Island
A recent story by The New York Times details a report on brutality by corrections officers at Rikers Island, New York City’s main jail, from the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, stating:
The study, which the health department refused to release under the state’s Freedom of Information Law, found that over an 11-month period last year, 129 inmates suffered “serious injuries” — ones beyond the capacity of doctors at the jail’s clinics to treat — in altercations with correction department staff members.
The report cataloged in exacting detail the severity of injuries suffered by inmates: fractures, wounds requiring stitches, head injuries and the like. But it also explored who the victims were. Most significantly, 77 percent of the seriously injured inmates had received a mental illness diagnosis.
What emerges is a damning portrait of guards on Rikers Island, who are poorly equipped to deal with mental illness and instead repeatedly respond with overwhelming force to even minor provocations.
The report notes that health department staff members interviewed 80 of the 129 inmates after their altercations with correction officers. In 80 percent of the cases, inmates reported being beaten after they were handcuffed.
The study also contained hints of efforts to cover up the assaults. More than half of the inmates reported facing “interference or intimidation” from correction officers while seeking treatment after an altercation.
In five of the 129 cases, the beatings followed suicide attempts.
Among the 129 instances of guard brutality, a particularly disturbing case captured by video camera surveillance (shown below) involved prisoner Jose Bautista, who at the time suffered from mental illness. Bautista was beaten by guards after attempting suicide by hanging himself by his underwear.
The Times reports:
In many of the cases examined by The Times , the guards’ responses seemed to grossly outweigh the perceived offense. The altercation involving Mr. Bautista early last year is especially puzzling.
After the four guards cut him down from his makeshift noose, he lay prone on the floor of the cell for nearly a minute but then suddenly stood up. Later Mr. Bautista, then 37 and a married father of five who made a living as a house painter and dishwasher, told investigators he did not know why he stood, except that he was confused.
At 5-foot-5, he is significantly smaller than the guards. Whether the four standing over him were startled, scared or angry is hard to know since the surveillance camera that caught much of what happened was unable to pick up sound. But this was the moment when they began wrestling with him and dragging him around the cell.
The Times further reports on the opinions of officials after reviewing the footage:
Later, investigators from four city agencies — the Board of Correction, the Department of Correction, the health department and the office of the medical examiner — watched the video, and all reached the same conclusion. “It can be clearly seen that officers are punching this inmate,” wrote Kennith Armstead of the Correction Board, which monitors conditions at Rikers and investigates serious incidents.
The story also quotes comments made by Bautista following his abusive stay at Rikers:
The pain was unbearable, said Mr. Bautista, who was later told he had depression.
“I felt all the strength going out of my legs and couldn’t stand up anymore,” he said in an interview.
“My stomach felt really hot.”
Jail rules called for him to be transported to the clinic by gurney, but the officers half-walked, half-dragged him there. Feces from the perforated bowel were leaching into his abdomen.
“My stomach was swelling,” Mr. Bautista said. In a few hours, he said, he was put into a van and thought he was going to the hospital, but instead was driven around and returned to the clinic.A Fatal Cell Extraction at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution
Most recently, The New York Times reported on footage (shown below) of officers using excessive force on Charles Jason Toll, who was diabetic and suffered from mental illness, at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Tennessee.
From the Times:
The August night was hot, but Charles Jason Toll wrapped himself in a coat and covered his mouth to protect against the electrical shocks and gas he thought might come his way. Outside the door of his solitary confinement cell at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution here, five corrections officers in riot gear lined up, tensely awaiting the order to go in. When it came, they rushed into the small enclosure, pushing Mr. Toll to the floor and pinning him down with an electrified shield while they handcuffed him and shackled his legs.
Mr. Toll, 33, a heavyset man who suffered from diabetes and mental illness, said, “I can’t breathe” — a complaint he would repeat, with increasing urgency, at least 12 times that night.
“You’re not going to be able to breathe,” an officer, Capt. James Horton, can be heard telling him on a prison video. And then, “You wanted this.”
In California, disturbing footage of guards dousing with pepper spray and and using extreme force on prisoners with mental illness prompted the The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to change it’s treatment of mentally ill people:
The Associated Press reports:
California prison officials pledged Friday to take a gentler approach with mentally ill inmates in one of the largest prison systems in the U.S. after graphic images of prisoners being repeatedly doused with pepper spray in their cells were made public several months ago.
The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said in a federal court filing that its move will create a system-wide culture change in how 33,000 mentally ill offenders are restrained and isolated.
The state is revising its policies after U.S. District Court Judge Lawrence Karlton ruled in April that California’s treatment of mentally ill inmates violates their constitutional safeguards against cruel and unusual punishment.
He acted after the graphic video tapes made by correctional officers were released, showing guards throwing chemical grenades and pumping large amounts of pepper spray into the cells of mentally ill inmates, some screaming and delirious.
Similarly, over 300 surveillance cameras have been installed at the Alabama Department of Corrections’ Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka.
From WFSA News:
The system was designed to eliminate blind spots, help with investigations of prisoner actions and improve upon accountability. The facility, which holds all of Alabama’s female death row inmates, has been blasted for scandals involving alleged widespread sexual abuse and harassment by male corrections officers.
“Completion of the camera installation at Tutwiler is a significant accomplishment for the Alabama Department of Corrections and continued proof of the department’s efforts to make the facility safer for inmates and staff,” Governor Robert Bentley said.
ADOC Commissioner Kim Thomas says he wants to use the camera system’s implementation at Tutwiler as a blueprint for other state corrections facilities. “We understand the ultimate success of the camera system is dependent on its management,” Thomas said.
In spite of these achievements, reports of abuses like those to which Moreno, Bautista, and Toll were subjected rarely reach the public. While video cameras are present in many prisons and jails, the footage is seldom seen by anyone but prison staff. In addition, corrections officers are known to take people to areas without surveillance cameras, or “blind spots,” where they beat prisoners, some of whom are handcuffed and shackled. Yet cases like these are undoubtedly more common U.S. prisons and jails than the public is aware.
As reported by Solitary Watch last fall, video footage made public in California showed guards at state prisons repeatedly dousing psychotic prisoners with pepper spray before forcibly extracting them from their cells. In Maine, surveillance cameras captured two separate episodes of brutality against two men with mental illness.
When asked by Solitary Watch recently for her opinion on whether cameras curb guard brutality against prisoners, Jennifer J. Parish, Director of Criminal Justice Advocacy for the Mental Health Project at the Urban Justice Center, stated:
I believe cameras in prisons and jails are essential and that they can prevent assaults on incarcerated people by staff. Unfortunately even in facilities that have cameras, there are usually areas where cameras are absent. Correction officers know where these areas are and that is where abuse often takes place. For instance, the assault of Andre Lane, which was recently reported in The New York Times, occurred in the mental health clinic where there are no cameras. The complaint in Nunez v. City of New York, the class action lawsuit about brutality in the jails, includes allegations about correction officer assaults occurring in areas without cameras.
Ty Evans is serving time in Pendleton Correctional Facility in Indiana for attempted murder. There, he became a self-taught legal advocate for other incarcerated men—a “jailhouse lawyer.” There is no right to counsel for those serving prison sentences who seek to challenge their convictions or their sentences–which is just one aspect of the utter failing of indigent defense in this country. For those who cannot afford an outside attorney, the only place to turn for help with negotiating the complicated path through the criminal justice system is to jailhouse lawyers, who help them represent themselves pro se. Evans calls them “the worst attorneys in America,” but some are in fact highly skilled and dedicated, despite being hamstrung at every turn. Nonetheless, their work is often done in vain, since courts tend not to take pro se cases very seriously, no matter how substantive they may be.
At Pendleton, Evans served as a legal advocate for men in solitary confinement, who lack even the ability to go to the prison’s law library for themselves. Recently, after writing a book to help prisoners defend themselves, he was summarily removed from his position. “Prisoners in solitary still ask for my help,” he writes, “but I am no longer able to provide it.” He can receive mail at: Ty Evans #158293, Pendleton Correctional Facility, 4490 Reformatory Road, Pendelton, IN 46064-9001. –James Ridgeway
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Imagine having been convicted of a serious crime, having the right to attack the validity of your conviction, and being appointed an “attorney” who has not passed the bar, who has little education, and who has no experience with the law.
This attorney will be confined to one room in his house, have no computer, no Internet, and no phone. He’ll consult a fixed number of legal books, and may review up to 15 published legal opinions per week. He’ll have no money to spend on your defense for things like DNA testing, ballistics, or expert witnesses. Work he submits to the court will be handwritten and, given his aptitude, virtually unintelligible. Your freedom will depend solely on this man’s efforts, and if you’ve been wrongfully convicted it will be up to this man to prove it.
Surely, you think, convicted prisoners do not receive this kind of legal representation in America. But you would be wrong–very, very wrong.
For thousands of prisoners, this is exactly the level of legal assistance they have. They are pro se litigants, forced to attack their convictions and sentences entirely on their own. They fight their cases from prison cells scattered across the United States, usually only with the assistance of other prisoners like themselves. They are, collectively, the worst attorneys in America.
Per a long line of Supreme Court rulings anchored on Pennsylvania v. Finley (1987), it has been held that the Sixth Amendment right to counsel does not extend to the post-conviction stage. Once a prisoner has been convicted by a jury and lost his direct appeal of that verdict, there is no more right to counsel.
One might presume that the direct appeal constituted a thorough examination of the case but, in fact, the appeal only reviews trial errors preserved by counsel. Things outside of the trial record, such as failure to call witnesses, failure to use exculpatory evidence, failure to ensure proper jury instructions, etcetera, are not contained in the trial record and are not reviewable on direct appeal.
However, after the direct appeal, a prisoner retains the right to challenge the conviction on a number of Constitutional grounds, most of which involve a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel. He may do this through state post-conviction proceedings or a state habeas corpus petition, and then through a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus. In other words, a prisoner who has been convicted simply because his trial attorney did not protect the defendant’s right to fair trial can enumerate the defects in the attorney’s representation and argue that there stands a “reasonable probability” of a different outcome were the defendant represented by competent counsel. Prisoners know this as the Strickland rule, from the Supreme Court case, Stickland v. Washington (1984).
The most damaging trial defects are almost always a result of trial counsel’s errors and omissions. The prisoner’s problem is, knowing what counsel failed to do requires a complete knowledge of criminal law–trial rules, evidence rules, civil rules, state and federal statutes, and constitutional law. Few prisoners have a solid grasp of the labyrinthine legal system that has put them behind bars. So, those that have a vague idea of how to challenge their convictions struggle to articulate their claims, while thousands of others have no idea that post-conviction remedies are even available and do not attempt to overturn invalid convictions or excessive sentences.
Until recently, I worked as a lay advocate for prisoners housed in solitary confinement in one of the worst prisons in America. Pendleton Correctional Facility in Indiana houses 1,458 prisoners, and 22% are in the most restrictive form of segregation, either for disciplinary reasons, for an administrative investigation, or for protective custody. At last count, 50 had life sentence. For the 1,408 with release dates, the average amount of time left to serve is 20 years. Nearly all went to trial, nearly all have lengthy sentences, and nearly all will be involved in collateral attacks on their convictions at some point during their incarceration. Their need for qualified legal assistance is overwhelming, yet very few will have the means to employ professional counsel. (An exception is that Congress has enacted statutes requiring counsel for the duration of legal proceedings for those with death sentences.)
For the 78% in Pendleton’s general population, there is a physical access to a law library. The facility allows a prisoner to visit the law library 1 or 2 hours a week, and up to 7 hours a week if a prisoner can show a verifiable filing deadline in a pending case. The library has computers with a LEXIS database and MS Word software. There are several law clerks on duty, none of whom possess any certifiable legal credentials. Even with these conveniences, prisoners have great difficulty filing reasonable and presentable documents in court.
For the 22% in Pendleton’s solitary confinement, there is no physical access to the prison law library. Clerks make weekly trips to the solitary units, pick up request forms, and spend maybe 5 minutes per prisoner discussing what the prisoner may need. Most of the solitary prisoners are indigent, enduring conditions where the food is always room temperature, and the heat or cold intolerable. Roughly a third of these prisoners have documented mental illness. Many are managed through medication. On days when they elect to exercise, they are led to a recreation cage on a dog leash. Some are illiterate. Few have even the slightest grasp on how to file things in court, yet many try.
The legal work done by these pro se prisoners is, across the board, pretty bad. According to one Indiana attorney who formerly clerked in the Indiana Court of Appeals, briefs submitted with a pro se litigant’s name on the cover are treated practically with disgust from the outset–placed in a separate pile and given only a cursory glance by the Appellate Court judge. The judge tells the clerk, “Write a denial,” and the clerk opens the Attorney General’s electronically filed brief and modifies it to write the court’s opinion. Thus, even a good pro se brief will get lost in the shuffle.
For two years I readily shouldered the burden of doing legal work for these prisoners–researching, drafting briefs and motions, and writing detailed explanations for these men. Law clerks are only required to deliver requested materials, but these guys obviously needed more. My only credentials are years of experience, and a bachelor’s degree.
In 2012, after answering the same questions over and over, I wrote a book outlining how to fight your case in Indiana as a pro se prisoner. A publisher accepted my work and bound a 620-page manual titled, P.C. Guidebook: The Complete Guide to Post-Conviction Relief for the Pro Se Prisoner. I operated under the presumption that such a book would be welcomed as a way to improve prisoner’ pro se filings, and that maybe even the prison staff would take pride in the work of one of their prisoners. But the Indiana Department of Correction didn’t see it that way, and when the publisher sent in advertisements, the IDOC banned the book. Without reading it. Because my name was on the cover.
Naturally, I sued. The ACLU accepted the case, and the IDOC settled, allowing the book to be advertised and sold within Indiana prisons. On the morning of October 18, 2013, prisoners who had ordered the book received it from the prison mail room. That afternoon, I was removed from my position as a law library clerk, per Internal Affairs, citing that I was a “threat to the safety and security of the facility.” They have never identified the specific nature of the “threat.” I had not violated any rules. An appeal of my job loss to the superintendent was denied, no further reasoning given.
Prisoners in solitary still ask for my help, but I am no longer able to provide it.
The “worst attorneys in America” are still employed in force, piling up briefs that no judge will read, filing motions that no court will fairly consider. While few of these prisoners would be termed “actually innocent,” a sizable minority are serving sentences that are too severe, or have been convicted of offenses that have been over-charged by the prosecutor, although still guilty of lower level felonies. While not “innocent,” they fall under the broader definition of “wrongfully convicted.” Yet, where is the legal help for these men?
Per the state legislatures, Congress, and the courts, they are not entitled to legal assistance. Per a plain reading of the U.S. Constitution, they are. I have been told that the law won’t change to allow these men attorneys, because there wouldn’t be enough attorneys to fill the need. How odd that the wealthiest country in the world cannot afford justice.
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.
• Footage obtained by the Colorado Independent shows excessive force being used against a man who was placed in solitary after exhibiting suicidal behavior. The man was being monitored in his cell before a team of officers entered and proceeded to tase him. The Colorado Independent notes that this episode is representative of many examples of excessive force in Denver’s jails.
• A ruling on July 24th by U.S. District Judge Troy L. Nunley granted class-action status on behalf of 125,000 people held in California’s prisons in a lawsuit accusing prison officials of racial discrimination. As Reuters reports, during lockdowns men of similar ethnicities are often contained to their cells for days, months or years often without any affiliation to the incident requiring the lockdown. Lawyers representing the men claim these policies violate their Constitutional rights and amount to cruel and unusual punishment.
• In a commentary in Florida Today, Paula Dockery, who served in the Florida legislature for 16 years and was chair of the Senate’s Criminal Justice Committee, begs the question why Florida Governor Rick Scott is not acknowledging and investigating cases of corruption, torture, and murder within the Florida Department of Corrections. Dockery mentions the death of 27-year-old Randall Jordon-Aparo whose body was covered in yellow chemical gas and yelled for help for five days from his solitary cell before dying. Dockery also mentions attempts by prison officials to cover up such cases.
• As Wisconsin Watch reports, Ed Wall, the secretary of Wisconsin’s Department of Corrections is concerned about Wisconsin’s use of solitary confinement. Wall writes that solitary “may really just be helping to create a worse behavior problem and habitual threat.” The department is aiming to have a revised policy on its use of solitary by January.
• George Dvorsky writes for the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies on “Why Solitary Confinement is the Worst Kind of Psychological Torture.” He writes “Human beings are social creatures. Without the benefit of another person to “bounce off of,” the mind decays; without anything to do, the brain atrophies; and without the ability to see off in the distance, vision fades. Isolation and loss of control breeds anger, anxiety, and hopelessness.”
• On the July 20th episode of “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver,” a long comedic segment on mass incarceration showed the severity of solitary confinement and its consequences.
The following two poems come from Ricky Silva, who is currently serving a life sentence at Florida State Prison. Silva, 34, has been held in close management, or solitary confinement, for over four years. Regarding the first poem below, entitled “Killed by the Dark,” Silva expresses his sadness and anger at the suicide of another prisoner, also held in isolation. He writes:
The poem to go along with this post is dedicated to Johnny Reed who was murdered by the department of corrections.
. . . Johnny was not perfect, but I liked him and neither he nor anyone else deserves to go through what we are going through with this long term solitary confinement.
The poem pretty much says how I feel. I just found this out yesterday so I don’t even know what to write. But it is a reality check for me. We are all mortal and I have been real close to ending my own life many times. But Johnny will not be forgotten, at least not by me.
In his second poem, Silva makes a plea for people on the outside to write someone held in isolation. Of this poem, he writes:
Imagine being so alone you feel you are surrounded by darkness. Having so much to say and no one to say it to. So much love to give yet no one to receive that love.
You want for a normal conversation the way a thirsty man wants for water in the desert.
You want for human contact, any kind of human contact to remind you you’re alive.
A letter would be wonderful but it seems all the people in your life who cared have drifted away like a leaf in an autumn breeze. You recognize the wrong you have done and often blame yourself for how bad things are though you know deep down no one deserves this treatment. Not even you.
You contemplate suicide but somehow find the strength everyday for just one more day. You hang on by a thread of hope because tomorrow might be different.
I can tell you when I feel like this, a letter alone make all the difference. So if you’re reading this blog, take time to write a letter. How can it hurt? Even if you don’t write to me. Choose anyone who is living in a concrete cage like mine. Write to them if for no other reason than to give them someone to talk to.
Open your heart and through you, you could bring the hope that keeps a man alive from day to day with only a caring letter.
The following poems originally appeared on Silva’s blog, Concrete Cage, which is maintained by a friend on the outside. Silva can be reached by writing Ricky Silva, L24722, Florida State Prison, 7819 N.W. 228th Street, Raiford, FL 32026-1000. –Lisa Dawson
KILLED BY THE DARK
dedicated to Johnny Reed (died December 2012)
He sat in the darkness, for almost 10 years
Striding forward each day, swallowing his tears
He was not perfect at all, but he didn’t deserve this
To rot in a cell, with no one to love or to miss
He was quick to laugh, when he was feeling well
Or to tell a joke, to get us away from this hell
He was a man of his word, this I know to be true
If you gave him respect, he would in turn respect you
But with each passing day, his world became black
The darkness covering a world, he would never get back
Life became heavy, a great struggle each day
depression set in, and would not go away
Than one day the wing became loud, with everybody banging
The guards went to check it out, and they found Johnny hanging
They broke his fucking ribs, trying to pump air into his chest
And then let him die, saying that they did their best
Johnny for what it’s worth, I’m sorry you had to go
You were one of the few in here, I was happy to know
I can’t lie and say, it has not crossed my mind
I’ve come very close myself, from time to time
You were a warrior Johnny, make no mistake
But even a warrior, has only so much they can take
Just want you to know, you will be missed
Not just another soul, claimed by the darkness
Beautiful colors dance,
across a velvet sky.
As a waterfall of souls,
waves it’s good bye.
With a deep breathe of tomorrow,
we live on today.
I was told to pay attention,
but never did pay.
The darkness of the past,
is now taking it’s toll.
As my pen unloads it’s ink,
my life slowly begins to roll.
I flush memories away,
though some I badly miss.
Even in a picture perfect moment,
I couldn’t picture this.
Stripped of all human rights,
though human we are.
Eating through a metal hole,
or between the likes of steel bars.
Locked away frozen in time,
sometimes even for years.
Laughed at when we cry,
for worthless are our tears.
The holidays come,
and slowly they go.
As we suffer a loneliness,
that makes us feel so small.
We send out letters,
often written in our tears.
And may not ever get a response,
and this is what we fear.
But with that one letter,
in which someone choose to respond.
We have the strength building,
that will allow us to go on.
So if you’re reading this reach out,
to someone in solitary.
Write a letter, it can’t hurt,
even if it’s not to me.
On Monday, Human Rights Watch (HRW) in association with Columbia Law School released a 214-page reported entitled Illusion of Justice: Human Rights Abuses in US Terrorism Prosecutions. While the report and accompanying video document a wide range of human and civil rights abuses faced by alleged and convicted terrorists, nearly all of whom are Muslims, a significant portion of the text focuses on the restrictive and arguably torturous conditions of confinement they endure both before and after trial.
Extensively detailed in the report are the conditions endured by those placed in Florence ADX federal supermax prison and in the federal Bureau of Prisons’ two Communication Management Units (CMUs), located at Marion, Illinois and Terre Haute, Indiana. Describing life at ADX, one individual interviewed for the report commented, “There’s a lot of times the walls are caving in. It’s – you can’t talk to nobody… It’s like staying alone in a bathroom for three days.”
In the two CMUs – nicknamed “Little Guantanamos” — “inmates are constantly surveilled and their communication with the outside world is heavily restricted,” including with their families. The Center for Constitutional Rights has previously described the CMUs as an “experiment in social isolation.”
Also featured in the report is an analysis of the use and misuse of Special Administrative Measures (SAMs), restrictions placed on inmates, attorneys and even their families purportedly to protect national security or prevent the disclosure of classified material. As authors note, “SAMs often require the imposition of extreme physical and social isolation. In the order we obtained through a FOIA regarding 20 to 22 prisoners, SAMs banned at least 20 prisoners from ‘making statements audible to other prisoners or sending notes’ and required them to be housed in single cells ‘separated as much as possible in cellblock area form other inmates.’”
SAMs also enhance isolation by preventing prisoners from communicating with the outside world – for example, letters to family are limited to “‘3 pieces of paper, once per week, single recipient’” and visits “require 14 days’ notice and can include only one adults at a time.” Severe restrictions are also placed on material coming to the inside; one prisoner was even initially denied access to both of President Obama’s books.
The report also specifically addresses how the imposition of SAMs and the use of solitary confinement pre-trial may affect the fairness and constitutionality of the courts:
Prolonged pretrial solitary confinement not only raises concerns of cruel and inhumane treatment of punishment, but it also has an impact on defendants’ ability to assist in their own defense, and may compel them to wave their trial rights and accept plea deals.
According to the report, 30 out of the 52 individuals currently facing federal terrorism charges are being held in Special Housing Units (SHUs). The conditions at the Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC) 10-South unit – where many terrorism defendants have been held pre-trial – are described at length in the text. In a letter to his sister, an individual who spent 33 months in solitary confinement at MCC described “a bright light on for twenty-four hours” and cells “extremely cold throughout the year.”
MCC is the prison where the No Separate Justice Campaign has been holding its monthly vigils, in hopes of shining a light on the exact kind of injustices detailed in HRW’s report. It is also where Mahdi Hashi, the Briton stripped of his citizenship and rendered to the United States last year, is being held in 24-hour isolation. In an April 2014 article published on Vice, Mohammad Hashi explained how being held under SAMs and in solitary confinement was impacting his son: “It’s like they want to demoralize him… If you’re left locked in a room, 23 hours a day, knowing nothing about what’s going on, obviously you will give up, life will have no meaning to you.”
• Writing in The New York Times, Deborah Jiang-Stein describes journeying to the West Virginia prison where she was born, and discovering she spent the fist year of life in “the hole” with her mother.
• The New York Times published an extensive investigation into the physical assaults endured by prisoners with mental illness at the hands of Rikers guards. According to the journalists, many of the prisoners who experience such assaults are in solitary confinement.
• At least forty men at the solitary confinement unit in Wisconsin’s state prison have alleged they were abused by correctional officers, according to an investigation by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. One of the men, Marvin Smith, 26, claims that guards “purposely injured his wrists and arms, put him in a choke hold, smashed his face into a cell door and twisted his ankle.”
• The Idaho American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has filed a brief in support of a petition to return a 15-year-old boy – currently being held in solitary confinement in an adult county facility – to a juvenile detention center. The young man’s Public Defender commented, “I see him almost every single day and he is deteriorating mentally, emotionally and physically being held in isolation.”
• The Electronic Frontier Foundation reported on the case of a New Mexico prisoner who received 90 days in solitary confinement for having a Facebook page in his name that his family updated. Shortly after the EFF published the piece, the state’s Corrections Department threw out man’s SHU time and agreed to review the broader policy.
• The New Republic published an article about the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s (CDCR) proposed changes to prison obscenity regulations. Both prisoners and advocates have claimed that under the new regulations, people could end up in solitary confinement simply for exercising their First Amendment rights; for example, the CDCR has called to censor any material deemed “oppositional to authority and society.”
• The warden at Louisiana’s Angola Prison is considering transferring Black Panther member Kenny “Zulu” Whitmore from solitary confinement into general population – where he has spent the last 28 consecutive years. He continued to express concern about Whitmore’s political beliefs, explaining, “The Black Panther Party advocates violence and racism—I’m not going to let anybody walk around advocating violence and racism.”
• CBS San Francisco covered the growing efforts of Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR) to end the profession’s role in designing death chambers and supermax facilities. The ADPSR is currently lobbying the American Institute of Architects to such a ban in its professional code of ethics.
• The UK’s Telegraph visited a Maine solitary confinement cell and published an article that included video, photos, text and interviews with prisoners formerly locked up in isolation.
• Talha Ahsan, the British-born poet who was extradited to the US on terrorism charges a little less than two years ago, was sentenced to time served. As reported here by Solitary Watch’s Jean Casella and James Ridgeway, Ahsan and four others argued unsuccessfully in the European Court of Human Rights that they would endure torture if extradited to America’s supermax facilities. (The sentencing was also covered by The Guardian’s Sadhbh Walshe).
Many times, on this site and elsewhere, we have referred to supermax prisons and solitary confinement units as “America’s domestic black sites“–places where terrible suffering, even torture, take place on a daily basis, out of site of the public, the press, and in some cases the government’s own meager oversight. At the dark heart of these black sites is the federal Bureau of Prisons’ U.S. Penitentiary Administrative Maximum, or ADX, in the remote high desert town of Florence, Colorado. We’ve called it the worst prison in America. It’s worst not because it is dark and filthy–in fact, one former warden called it “a clean version of Hell“–but because of the sheer extremity of the isolation and sensory deprivation visited upon the men held there.
Today, Amnesty International released a report on ADX, entitled Entombed: Isolation in the Federal Prison System. “The US government’s callous and dehumanising practice of holding prisoners in prolonged solitary confinement in the country’s only federal super-maximum security prison amounts to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and is in violation of international law,” said Amnesty in a press release.
The report describes what is called the “Alcatraz of the Rockies” as a place studiously designed to deprive men of all human contact, and nearly all sensory stimuli as well:
The ADX Florence federal facility has a capacity for 490 male inmates. Prisoners spend a minimum of 12 months in solitary confinement before they may become eligible for a reduction in the restrictions of their detention. In reality, many spend much longer in isolation. One study produced by lawyers found the average length of time an inmate would spend in isolation was 8.2 years.
Most inmates are held in cells with solid walls and a barred, air-lock style chamber in front of a solid metal door, to ensure they have no contact with other prisoners. One small slit of a window allows them a view of the sky or a brick wall.
Furniture in the cells is made of poured concrete and consists of a fixed bunk, desk and a stool, as well as a shower and a toilet. Meals and showers are taken inside the cells and medical consultations, including mental health checks, are often conducted remotely through teleconferencing.
The results of such treatment are not surprising: Put simply, it drives men mad. Individuals with mental illness are supposed to be banned from ADX, but many clearly have underlying psychiatric problems when they arrive, while others quickly acquire them. Drawing on information from the current lawsuit Cunningham v. BOP, the Amnesty report recounts the story of John Jay Powers (whose own writing has been featured on Solitary Watch):
JP, a prisoner with a history of mental illness, was transferred to ADX in 2001 and placed in the CU to serve a 60 month sentence imposed after he escaped from a medium security prison. The lawsuit describes how he was repeatedly transferred for brief periods to the federal medical facility at Springfield for psychiatric evaluation after a series of incidents of self-harm, only to be returned to the CU after being “stabilised” with medication. The self-harming incidents included lacerating his scrotum with a piece of plastic (2005); biting off his finger (2007); inserting staples into his forehead (2008); cutting his wrists and being found unconscious in his cell (2009). He finally completed his CU term in 2011, ten years and five months after his original term would have expired had he been able to comply with the behavioural requirements. According to the lawsuit, he continued to be deprived of mental health care after being placed in the ADX GP. In January 2012, he reportedly sliced off his earlobes and in March 2012 sawed through his Achilles tendon with a piece of metal; after he again mutilated his genitals in May 2012 he was placed on the anti-psychotic medication Haldol but had no access to other treatment such as mental health counselling. In August 2013, he left ADX on an emergency mental health transfer to Springfield, Missouri. In October 2013, he was sent to USP Tucson but was transferred back to Springfield in about March 2014 after he rammed his head into an exposed piece of metal in his cell, causing a skull fracture and brain injury, for which he refused most treatment. Since arriving at Springfield he has inserted metal into his brain cavity through the hole that remain in his skull, which BOP says cannot safely be removed.
Entombed is the most comprehensive report to date on ADX. But Amnesty International acknowledges the limitations on its own ability to observe and assess conditions at the supermax, due to the “restrictions on access to ADX” and more generally a “lack of transparency regarding BOP use of isolation.” Amnesty’s requests to visit the prison have been turned down, as have requests from the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Méndez, and numerous media outlets including Solitary Watch. Even the federal government’s ongoing “internal audit” of its use of solitary confinement will not look at the most extreme and secretive isolation unit at ADX, where prisoners have reportedly gone on hunger strike and been force-fed.
Amnesty makes a series of recommendations which, considering the content of the report, seem relatively modest, designed to alleviate some of the suffering at ADX without compromising safety. But perhaps the strongest question raised by this and all previous investigations of the nation’s only federal supermax is why we are building another one. Over $50 million in this year’s BOP budget will go to retrofitting, staffing, and opening USP/ADX Thomson in rural Illinois, which will substantially increase the federal government’s capacity to hold people in torturous isolation.
Teens in Isolation: State Advisers to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission Hold Briefing on Juvenile Solitary Confinement in New York
Johnny Perez was sixteen when he was arrested for weapons possession. New York State automatically charges people ages 16 and over as adults, so the teenager was charged as an adult. Unable to afford the $100,000 bail, he was sent to Rikers Island to await trial. There, he was placed in C-74, the unit for 16 to 18 year olds. “A lot of the adolescents can be real territorial,” he recalled. At C-74, they tried to control the phones, the bathrooms and all other aspects of life in the jail. Perez got into a fight over using the phone. “It was a gang-only phone, but I didn’t care,” he said. For that fight, the 16-year-old was sent to solitary confinement (known on Rikers as “the Bing”) for sixty days.
When Perez entered solitary, jail staff took his clothes and issued him a jumpsuit. He was placed in a cell which he described as a “concrete slab with a mattress. There was a toilet-sink combo, but nowhere to sit.” He sometimes spent days without eating or being able to use the phone. “The phone is supposed to be passed cell to cell by another inmate [a suicide prevention aide],” he recalled. But on his first day in the Bing, the suicide prevention aide was a member of the gang with whom Perez had fought. Whenever he worked, I didn’t get access to the phone or to food,” Perez said. He recalled that the first three weeks were the most difficult. “I felt isolated, sad, helpless,” he recalled. “I remember crying a lot.”
On Thursday, July 10th, the now-adult Perez testified before the New York State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. The advisory committee investigates civil rights concerns in the state and reports to the Commission, which can then choose to issue recommendations to the U.S. Department of Justice for further action. Each advisory committee is appointed for two years and chooses which issues to focus on during that two-year tenure. Appointed in July 2013, committee members in New York chose to focus on juvenile justice within the state, looking specifically at education, solitary confinement, and the Prison Rape Elimination Act.
The Advisory Committee’s all-day briefing at NYU Law School on July 10 concerned juvenile solitary confinement in New York State. Panelists included New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) Commissioner Anthony J. Annucci, New York City Councilmember Daniel Dromm, former judges, mental health professionals, advocates, attorneys, and two men who experienced solitary confinement personally—Perez and Five Mualimm-ak, who spent five years in isolation in New York State prisons.
Ian Kysel, author of a 2012 report on youth in solitary confinement, was one of several witnesses to make note of the lack of national data about the solitary confinement of children in the United States. The lack of data extends to information about race and mental health diagnoses among youth placed in solitary—a particular concern of the Advisory Committee, which investigates discriminatory treatment.
Bryanne Hamill, a retired family court judge and current member of the New York City Board of Correction, which monitors conditions in city’s jails, noted that adolescents in general are overrepresented in solitary confinement in Rikers Island. Approximately 60 percent have mental health diagnoses, in contrast to 40 percent of the adults in solitary. Last September, the Board of Correction unanimously approved recommendations to commence rulemaking around solitary confinement. However, warned Hamill, the process will be slow.
Queens Councilmember Daniel Dromm, who has introduced two bills regulating the use of solitary in New York City jails, talked about his visit to Rikers Island. “What I saw was cruel and inhumane,” he testified. Although people in solitary are allowed one hour out of their cells for recreation time, that one hour falls between four and six in the morning and then consists only of being brought to another cell. Dromm recounts that guards boasted that they woke people at four, rather than at five, to offer them rec. “Very few people are willing to get up at 4 am for rec,” Dromm recounted. During his visit, Dromm asked how many rules could land a person in solitary confinement if broken. Jail staff told him that there are over 100 such rules that. Those arriving at Rikers Island are not given copies of these rules. Dromm reported that he also saw youth awaiting therapy sessions chained to pipes.
In February 2014, the New York State DOCCS entered a settlement agreement with the New York Civil Liberties Union in Peoples v. Fisher, with DOCCS agreeing to prohibit the use of Special Housing Units for minors, pregnant women, and people with developmental disabilities. Instead, it will utilize in-cell confinement for youth that does not exceed 19 hours per day on weekdays. Four hours will be spent on out-of-cell programming and one hour on recreation. DOCCS has 18 months in which to implement changes. In the meantime, Commissioner Annucci acknowledged that DOCCS is not yet keeping statistics on the number of 16 and 17 year olds placed in disciplinary segregation, and that he did not know if there were disparities in the use of solitary based on race or mental health.
At any given time, Annucci testified, DOCCS has approximately 120 15 and 17 year olds in its prison system. Under the Prison Rape Elimination Act, those under age 18 must be separated from adults by both sight and sound. DOCCS currently houses teenage boys in one of three prisons—Coxsackie Correctional Facility, Woodbourne Correctional Facility, and Greene Correctional Facility. While Coxsackie and Woodbourne will employ in-cell confinement for 19 hours each day to replace SHU treatment for youth, Greene includes a special eight-bed unit for youth sent to disciplinary segregation. “We are crafting a prison within a prison and programs that meet their needs,” Annuci stated before the Committee. Only one to three teenage girls are in adult prisons at any given time. “It’s been a challenge to keep them separate,” he told Solitary Watch. “If you’re [a] 17-year-old [girl], you’re going to be kept by yourself.”
Although details of the Peoples v Fisher settlement agreement remain undisclosed because of a confidentiality clause, Karen Murtagh of Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York points out that the new conditions will not only have to wait eighteen months for implementation, but are also contingent upon DOCCS’ ability to secure funding. She also noted that the 19-hour limit on in-cell confinement is only limited to weekdays. On weekends, youth can still spend up to 23 hours per day in their cells. “Let’s not use isolation as the norm and pat ourselves on the back that we’re now only confining them for 19 rather than 23 hours,” she argued. Moreover, the agreement will apply only to New York State prisons, not local jails such as Rikers Island.
Several advocates point to other racial demographics around policing, imprisonment, and even school discipline to extrapolate similar patterns. Alexander A. Reinhart, professor at the Cardozo School of Law, noted that the use of discipline in schools disproportionately impacts students of color two to five times more than it does white students. “We can expect to see similar outcomes in jails and prisons,” he stated. Scott Paltrowitz, of the Correctional Association of New York, pointed to the racial disparities in policing, prosecution, and imprisonment in New York State and across the country. “Even if we don’t have numbers about race in the SHU,” he said in his testimony, “look at the proportion [of people of color] behind bars.” He noted that, while eighteen percent of the state’s population is Black, Black people make up two-thirds of the New York State prison population. Of those 21 and under in New York’s SHUs, he added, Black children make up 66 percent.
Advocates also noted the necessity of not limiting the investigation only to the effects of solitary confinement on minors. Murtagh strongly recommended that the Committee extend its focus to people who were sentenced to solitary confinement between the ages of 16 and 18 but who are now age 23, 34, and 25. She points to one client, Raymond, who is currently facing more than three years in solitary because he received 23 rules violations tickets in 29 days. If Raymond wanted to appeal, he would have to file 23 separate appeals, one for each ticket. In the meantime, his solitary sentences will be run consecutively. Raymond turned eighteen on May 27th and currently falls out of the Committee’s scope of examination.
Paltrowitz echoed that recommendation. “Someone who is 17 will turn 18, 20, 21, etc., so don’t draw the line at 17,” he urged. He recalled a recent visit to Greene Correctional Facility. There, he met a man who was sent to the SHU at age 17. While in the SHU, the young man received more and more tickets for rules violations. He is now 34 years old. Paltrowitz emphasized that this man’s experience is not an anomaly. “We repeatedly hear that people get ticket after ticket while in the SHU, which extends their SHU sentence,” he stated.
Those who testified, including Commissioner Annucci, repeatedly pointed to studies showing that the teenage brain is still developing and that impulse control has not yet fully formed. Dr. Bandy Lee, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine who co-wrote a report condemning solitary confinement practices at Rikers Island, agreed, testifying that the brain is not fully developed until age twenty-five.
Alexandra Korry, the attorney who chairs the New York Advisory Committee, can’t say whether the federal government will intervene in the issue. But after hearing nearly seven hours of testimony, she said, “We’ve heard an overwhelming amount of evidence that something needs to change. I’m sure we’ll have a lot of recommendations.” Those recommendations will go to the national Commission on Civil Rights, which can in turn urge the Justice Department to act. In May, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder issued a circumscribed statement on juvenile solitary confinement, saying that “unnecessary or excessive seclusion of youth with disabilities” should be ended.
Johnny Perez, who has been home for nine months and now works as a Safe Reentry Advocate at the Urban Justice Center, is hoping for complete systemic change. “Prison itself, not just solitary confinement, is an attack on your soul,” he told Solitary Watch on the day after the hearing. Both his time in solitary and behind bars affected his self-esteem and his emotions. “When I was 16, I couldn’t identify these emotions a lot of times. My default emotion was anger, which led to aggressive behavior like lashing out, overcompensating, and violence.” He also stresses that laws and rules have been constructed by people who have no direct experience with the prison system. “The voice of those people is critical to any type of reform or change. Those most directly affected by these rules and laws need to be heard—and involved—in making these changes.”
• California Families Against Solitary Confinement (CFASC) has filed a lawsuit against the state’s corrections officials, demanding disclosure of information regarding solitary confinement policies under the California Public Records Act. In San Bernardino and elsewhere across the state, protesters came out to honor the one-year anniversary of the California prison hunger strikes and call for change.
• Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) have introduced a bill into Congress that would prohibit juvenile facilities from using solitary confinement unless the youngster posed a “serious and immediate risk of physical harm” to themselves or others. The REDEEM Act, or Record Expungement Designed to Enhance Employment Act, would also require courts to expunge or seal criminal records for a broad scope of juvenile offenses and provide financial incentives to states that set 18 as the age of adult jurisdiction.
• A Tennessee man has filed a lawsuit against Sierra County in New Mexico after he was denied psychiatric medication and left to decompensate in a filthy solitary confinement cell for 18 days. Michael Faziana, who had been arrested on misdemeanor charges, is seeking punitive and compensatory damages.
• New York City’s Board of Corrections asserted that the newly appointed Commissioner violated the law by placing as many as 47 inmates with mental illness into solitary confinement without first getting clearance from qualified clinicians. The board, which provides independent oversight of the city’s jails, disputes Commissioner Ponte’s assertion that the transfer was necessary to control rising violence on the inside.
• A Wisconsin coalition of churches has launched a campaign to reform practices within the state’s Department of Corrections, including ending solitary confinement.
• The family of an Army veteran who died in solitary confinement in a Florida jail in July 2012 is suing the Broward County Sheriff’s Office as well as the jail’s private health care provider. Raleigh Priester, 52, who had long struggled with schizophrenia, was found unresponsive in his cell in May 2012 after spending several months in isolation. Priester was released back to jail staff with “specific instructions” for his ongoing care, and died just a few weeks later – weighing just 120 pounds despite being over six feet tall.
• A lawsuit filed this week against the Florida Department of Corrections (DOC) alleges that guards at Franklin Correctional Institution gassed to death an individual in solitary confinement, then covered up the incident with the help of high-level staff and medical providers. The whistle-blower complaint alleges that 27-year-old Randall Jordan-Aparo was begging jail staff for medical attention when he was transferred into isolation. The Miami Herald published an editorial calling for a full investigation into the DOC’s practices.
• Two years after Brandon Palakovic hung himself in solitary confinement in a Pennsylvania prison, his parents have filed a lawsuit against state’s Corrections Secretary and several facility staff. Palakovic, who was 23 when he died at Cresson, had an extensive history of mental illness. In May 2013, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Roy L. Austin wrote that the facility “often permitted its prisoners with serious mental illness… to simply languish… in solitary confinement for months or years on end under harsh conditions in violation of the Constitution.”
Elliott “Bud” Yorke, who is incarcerated at Florida’s Columbia Correctional Institution Annex at Lake City, was sent to solitary confinement on June 24. According to prison officials, he was placed in isolation for his own protection after corrections officers observed injuries suggesting that he had been assaulted. Aside from being two months shy of his 90th birthday, Yorke is deaf and non-verbal, communicating primarily through writing. He uses a wheeled walker to move around.
“Apparently this confinement system is not concerned with impaired and elderly,” Yorke wrote in a July 1 letter to a friend. He continued:
There are no grab and hold bars on wall to help me up and down on toilet. They won’t let my walker stay in my cell to help, tho I am solo occupant in this cell while I’m in this present hell place…
At 13’10 hrs. on June 25, 2014 the confinement guard has taken my walker wheels. He rode it out like a “scooter” with one knee on the seat. It was parked outside my cell. It has my jar of topical allergy skin salve under seat and I can’t walk without a walker!! I need these. I wrote a note of need to guard and he wrote on back of note” “Make your bed- that is what you need!” At 16’35 hrs I got jar and nasty note “F— you!…
My stationery, envelopes, stamps, pens, address records, and crotch supporters for sanitary male napkins have been put in storage and I have no access!!! Diapers, [to] which I am historically allergic, have been issued under door ground gap.
Yorke, who has served close to 30 years in Florida for a sex offense, has requested to be sent to a prison that teaches American Sign Language. He is able to hear some things with the help of a tinnitus masker, but has been denied that as well.
According to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, prisons receiving federal funding must supply an effective communications system for the deaf, while the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) specifically requires state and local agencies to make sure a disabled person is not limited in terms of communication. In the past, courts have found prisons that do not provide disabled inmates physical accommodations like handrails and shower chairs to be in violation of the ADA, according to A Jailhouse Lawyer’s Manual.
On Monday, Columbia Annex Warden Munroe Barnes told Solitary Watch that he had made sure to correct the majority of Yorke’s complaints, although a walker was still not permitted in keeping with standard procedure in solitary “in case it can be made into weapon.” The tinnitus masking instrument is also not allowed in solitary cells, Barnes said, because inmates are supplied with mp3 devices that have the same capabilities.
Yorke has been approved for transfer to a facility “commensurate with his age and disability status,” according to Barnes, but the process takes time due to limited availability throughout the state prison system. In the meantime, Yorke remains in solitary indefinitely.
“We Are Not the Worst of the Worst”: One Year Later, What’s Changed for Pelican Bay’s Hunger Strikers?
On July 8, 2013, 30,000 prisoners refused their meals, launching the largest mass prison hunger strike in U.S. history. One year later, Todd Ashker is marking off his twenty-fourth year in Pelican Bay’s Security Housing Unit (SHU). “I’m still alive, kicking and strong in heart and spirit,” he wrote in a June 2014 letter. Ashker is one of the four main representatives for the hunger strikers and the lead plaintiff in the class-action suit Ashker v. Brown. Nonetheless, he remains confined in the SHU since his placement there in 1990. He is not alone; as of April 2014, 1,199 people were held in Pelican Bay’s SHU. Some have been there for over a decade.
Inside the SHU, people are locked into windowless cells for at least 22 hours a day. Prison administrators place them in the SHU either for a fixed term for violating a prison rule or an indeterminate term for gang membership. Accusations of gang affiliation often relied on confidential informants and circumstantial evidence. Hundreds have been confined within the SHU for over a decade. Until recently, the only way to be released from the SHU was to debrief, or provide information incriminating other prisoners, who are then placed in the SHU for an indeterminate sentence. In 2011, SHU prisoners called for a hunger strike to protest SHU policies. In 2013, frustrated with the lack of changes, they called for another hunger strike.
The call was taken up across California and in out-of-state prisons where California prisoners are held. Thirty thousand people responded, refusing meals that first day. Hunger strikers issued five core demands, including the elimination of “group punishments for individual rules violations”; changes in the criteria for being “validated” as gang members, and for “debriefing” from gang status; compliance with the recommendations of the U.S. Commission on Safety and Abuse in Prisons regarding an end to long-term solitary confinement; provision of “adequate food”; and expansion of “constructive programs and privileges for indefinite SHU prisoners.” The men of Pelican Bay issued forty additional demands, such as expunging all violations issued for participation in the 2011 hunger strikes, and prohibiting retaliation for those participating in the most recent strike.
The strike ended on September 5, 2013, or Day 60, after California legislators Loni Hancock, chair of the Senate Public Safety Committee, and Tom Ammiano, chair of the Assembly Public Safety Committee, issued a statement of support for the hunger strikers and promised to hold hearings around SHU placement and long-term solitary confinement.
Changes in Conditions Inside the SHU
One of the five core demands during the 2011 and 2013 hunger strikes was adequate food. After the 2011 hunger strike, Mutope DuGuma charged that prison staff served inedible food to those in the SHU. More recently, he reports that the food servings are small, noting that those without family members able to send them money cannot rely on the (expanded) canteen items to supplement their meals.
While prisoners, family members and advocates state that none of the five core demands have been adequately met, some of the forty supplemental demands have. Visiting times, for instance, have doubled from ninety minutes to three hours. For family members driving fourteen hours from southern California, the increase in visiting time means a lot. But, notes Mutope DuGuma, who has been in the SHU since 2001, “if you’re so far away from home, it don’t matter because your people can’t afford the trip anyway which is anywhere from five hundred dollars for up and back, if not more.” (The increase in visiting times only applies to Pelican Bay. In Tehachapi, which also has a Security Housing Unit, visiting continues to be limited to one hour.)
Hunger strikers also won the right to order an increased number of items from the canteen. “Imagine being able to order a jalapeno or cheese after being there [without them] for decades,” stated Dolores Canales, whose son has been in the SHU for thirteen years. She also stated that they also won the right to order their own underwear rather than wearing prison-issued underwear that has been worn by countless others. They can also buy a cup and bowl as well as a handball from the canteen. “Of course, the families are paying for these items,” she added.
“Is this what they’ve been fighting for and starving themselves for?” Canales reflected. “No. But does it make a difference in their lives? Yes.” Both family members and SHU prisoners agree that the five core demands have yet to be met.
Medical care inside Pelican Bay remains problematic. “There are NO doctor visits in segregation, the SHU or solitary confinement,” reports DuGuma. “It’s a constant struggle to be treated for what you are suffering. All health care rounds are based on the prisoner filing paperwork to see the doctor and you have to pay five dollars for every visit.” According to DuGuma, Pelican Bay has a licensed vocational nurse, a registered nurse and a doctor present daily, but they do not make rounds of the SHU other than to pass out medications. Ashker corroborates this, stating that he has not seen medical staff making rounds of the SHU cells. He also notes that the only mental health assessment he’s received was during the 2013 hunger strike. Prior to placing hunger strikers in Administration Segregation, a nurse asked each person if he wanted to hurt himself. If he wants medical attention, he has to file a request for a medical visit.
But medical care is not free. Alfred Sandoval, who has been in the SHU since 1987, described the process: “I am charged five dollars for each medical visit, for which I am strip searched, placed in waist chains, then escorted to a small, cold holding cell and put into leg irons before the RN [registered nurse] will take my vitals. Then I am put back into the cold, small, usually dirty, holding cell and left to wait. There is no talking allowed and any violation of this illegal underground regulation is cause for termination of the medical visit. A prisoner can be held in that small cell for hours only to be told by the doctor to ‘drink more water and try to meditate for the pain’ and returned to his cell. I have been sent back to my cell after complaining of abdominal pain and fainted the next day after a Crohn’s flare-up which caused intestinal bleeding and loss of blood pressure.” He charges that he and others have repeatedly been told by medical staff that they would receive better medical care if they debriefed.
While SHU prisoners and their families are glad to see some positive changes, they all reiterate that these are not enough. They continue to demand an end to the policies that placed them in solitary confinement for so many years and for an end to their isolation: “Although people are being released to some very small degree, the majority of us will remain back here unless it’s some real change,” wrote DuGuma, who is scheduled to be reviewed for the Step Down program in December. “We all can be released today with no problem, but that’s not the intent by our keepers. We all fit the same profile for the last thirty-something years, so why now do only a few fall under this case-by-case review? We all meet the same criteria [of] administrative SHU placement, meaning that we’re only here for being validated. NO other reason. I’ve been back here twelve years for nothing. I was never part of a prison gang—never and they know it! So it’s righting a wrong with me, but I cannot get those years back.”
Ashker v Brown Is Certified As a Class-Action, but the Class Is Shrinking
In March 2012, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) changed its practices around SHU placement. Prisoners identified as part of Security Threat Groups (STGs) can be placed in the SHU. Advocates and prisoners charge that the STG designation would enable CDCR to place greater numbers of people in the SHU. CDCR, however, asserts that those validated as STG associates are not placed in the SHU unless they are also involved in gang and/or criminal behavior. Later that year, CDCR also began its Step Down program. The program evaluates prisoners with indefinite SHU terms for release into general population. Both prisoners and their advocates have criticized the program, noting that even those who have spent years in the SHU may still be required to spend two to three additional years in solitary confinement under this program. The program originally included a requirement that each person sign a contract renouncing gang affiliation. Many refused, believing that signing the document was an admission of gang activity. CDCR has since eliminated that requirement. The debriefing program remains in place.
In May 2012, Pelican Bay prisoners filed Ashker v. Brown, a federal lawsuit on behalf of prisoners who have spent ten or more years in Pelican Bay’s SHU. On June 2, 2014, a federal judge ruled in favor of class certification, allowing prisoners who have spent the past decade(s) in the SHU to join the suit. The class is still limited to those held in Pelican Bay’s SHU. However, the Step Down Process, the ensuing approvals for less-restrictive steps and transfers out of Pelican Bay, are shrinking the class of prisoners eligible to participate.
As of June 9, 2014, CDCR has conducted 828 case-by-case reviews of prisoners housed in the SHUs and Administrative Segregation Units (ASUs) on Security Threat Group (STG) charges. Of those reviewed, 557 have been released to Step Five, which is general population housing. Two hundred thirty-one people have been placed in Steps One through Four, six are going through the debriefing process and the rest remain in the ASU.
Several plaintiffs on Ashker v Brown have been moved from Pelican Bay’s SHU. Danny Troxell and Jeffrey Franklin have been moved to Tehachapi, Gabriel Reyes to the California State Prison in Sacramento, and Paul Redd to the Substance Abuse Treatment Facility in Corcoran State Prison, where he writes that his arrival has “been positive and surprisingly welcome.” Ronnie Dewberry, who goes by the name Sitawa Nantambu Jamaa was reviewed in May 2014 and assigned to Step Three; he is currently awaiting transfer to the SHU in Tehachapi.
Dewberry’s sister Marie Levin believes that his role as one of the four main representatives of the Pelican Bay hunger strikers is why he was not assigned to Step Five. “He’s not a gang member,” she said. “So many African-Americans whom CDCR claimed were gang members have been released to Step Five, so it’s puzzling as to why my brother wasn’t released,” she continued. Paul Redd, who is also African-American, notes that, of the seven African-Americans transferred from Pelican Bay SHU with him, all but one had been placed on Step Five.
According to attorney Anne Weills, while the named plaintiffs continue to be part of the suit, others who have spent ten or more years in Pelican Bay but have recently been transferred elsewhere are no longer part of the class. Thus, Lorenzo Benton, who was recently approved for Step Five and transferred to Ironwood State Prison after more than 25 years in the SHU, is no longer eligible to be part of the class-action suit.
Those remaining in Pelican Bay have varying reports about the Step Down Review process. Some feel that they are being retaliated against for their participation in the hunger strike. J. Baridi Williamson, for instance, stated that, two months before the 2013 hunger strike, the warden and Institutional Classification Committee (which determines SHU placement) had informed him that his case would soon be reviewed. “But then the hunger protest resumed, I got retaliated against and it looks like they likely crossed my name off their CBC review list for forwarding my case to DRB [Departmental Review Board]…None of the eight fellas here in our assigned Unit D4′s B-pod has been notified or placed on any DRB [Departmental Review Board] list. We’re not even sure if the CDCR case-by-case specialist here has even considered reviewing any of our cases.”
In the D3 unit, Kijana Tashiri Askari, who has been in the SHU since 1994, reported that, as of March 24, 2014, ten people from his unit had been reviewed. Half had been placed in Step 5 and released from SHU. “All of the people being released from SHU to the main line via the DRB have at least ten years in solitary confinement, which has led us to believe that the DRB is doing this to sabotage the lawsuit,” Askari noted. “It will be next to impossible to make a case for ‘class certification’ for a lawsuit that is based upon people being held in solitary confinement for ten years when these people are being released to the main line.”
“I Remain Committed for Freedom for All and All Five Core Demands”
Those who have been released to Step Five report that their placement and subsequent treatment should disprove CDCR’s assertion that those in Pelican Bay SHU are “the worst of the worst.” “What was most interesting was our exiting the bus without any secure tactic intimidation,” Paul Redd wrote about his arrival at Corcoran’s Substance Abuse Treatment Facility. “[We received] a friendly and respectable welcoming by the group of IGIs [Institutional Gang Investigators] who informed us that they aren’t going to be at our cells bothering us but allow us to program. Prison officials also gave a friendly welcome and stated they’re making sure all DRBs have first priority for job openings.” Those who had been released in previous months informed him that IGI officials have not bothered them.
Having endured over 25 years in solitary confinement, Benton asked, “What was our crime to be placed in the SHU on indeterminate status and being continuously held all these years???” At Ironwood, Benton has been assigned to both a work program and a vocational training program. Although he can now see the sun and the night sky and interact with other people face to face, Benton has not forgotten those still locked in Pelican Bay’s SHU. “I remain committed for freedom for all and all five core demands,” he wrote. “So until justice for all, may our existence reflect what’s good and right in life.”
The post “We Are Not the Worst of the Worst”: One Year Later, What’s Changed for Pelican Bay’s Hunger Strikers? appeared first on Solitary Watch.
• The Colorado Department of Corrections (CDOC) has established a new Administrative Regulation (AR) that eliminates “administrative segregation” in favor of “restrictive housing.” Maximum security housing status will be limited to six to twelve months, and offenders will know their release date. The AR also states, “CDOC will make every attempt to ensure offenders will not release directly to the community from Restrictive Housing Maximum Security Status.”
• The mother of a prisoner killed by his cellmate – an eight-year survivor of solitary confinement who had previously attacked others on the inside – is suing the state of Colorado, claiming that her son’s death should have been foreseen by prison officials. The suit comes as the Colorado legislature and Corrections Department take steps towards reducing the use of solitary confinement across the state.
• A Nebraska judge has ordered the state to release all documents relating to Nikko Jenkins, the man who killed four people just days after being released directly from solitary confinement. Jenkins had spent more than half of his nearly 10 year sentence in isolation.
• The ACLU of NJ has filed a lawsuit against Middlesex County, claiming that it is unconstitutional to subject a pretrial client with mental illness to solitary confinement. Alexander Shalom, ACLU-NJ Senior Staff Attorney said, “Mental health professionals agree that subjecting someone like [our client] to well more than one hundred days in isolation can do serious, long-term damage to his mental health. To do that to anyone is cruel; to do it to a mentally ill and cognitively impaired person who is presumed innocent is inhuman.”
• Folio has published a longform article on Daniel Linsinbinger, a 19-year old with mental illness who died in a restraint chair in a Florida county jail after spending 10 days in solitary confinement.
• Writing for The Atlantic, Laura Dimon explores “How solitary confinement hurts the teenage brain.” “If solitary confinement is enough to fracture a grown man, though,” she pens, “it can shatter a juvenile.”
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 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.
• 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.
• 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.
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
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.
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.