Margo Schlanger is Professor of Law at the University of Michigan Law School. The following post is based on an article that appeared in the Michigan Journal of Race & Law (see link below). The article was presented as introduction to a symposium held at the University of Michigan Law School in February 2013, Inhumane and Ineffective: Solitary Confinement in Michigan and Beyond.
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There is remarkably little systematic information available about who is held in segregated confinement in our nation’s prisons and jails. I recently pulled together what little quantitative data exist. What I found is preliminary, but it suggests that in many states the harsh conditions of solitary confinement are probably disproportionately affecting prisoners of color. Full details on sources, methodology, etc. are available in Margo Schlanger, Prison Segregation: Symposium Introduction and Preliminary Data on Racial Disparities, 118 Mich. J. Race & Law 241 (2013).
The best sources of demographic information about prisoners are the various surveys and censuses conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS). While no BJS publication directly addresses the issue, and no BJS dataset allows its full analysis, it is possible to glean something from the most recent BJS prison census, the 2005 Census of State and Federal Adult Correctional Facilities. I present in the Table that follows data derived from that census for seven state facilities. I also include, for comprehensiveness, information from a 2012 NYCLU report on New York supermax confinement. (Even so, the table covers only a very small portion of the nation’s tens of thousands of supermax prisoners.)
The table includes all the facilities in the 2005 BJS prison census that meet all the following criteria:
- Reported physical security as “supermax.”
- Reported 80 percent or higher share of facility prisoners as housed in maximum (or higher) custody.
- Provided demographic data for 95 percent or more of prisoners.
Given the limited available information, the table is merely suggestive—but it does support a working hypothesis of current racialized impact for isolated confinement. In four of the eight columns (Arkansas, Colorado, Connecticut, and New York), non-white prisoners are substantially overrepresented in the highlighted facilities; statistical testing confirms that the difference is statistically significant. (In three of the other four—Massachusetts, New Jersey, Rhode Island—the small overrepresentation is not statistically significant; likewise, the tiny proportion of underrepresentation in Maryland lacks statistical significance..)
Of course evidence of disproportion does not demonstrate racial discrimination; it is possible that whatever disproportion exists has other explanations. But whether or not the source is detectable bias, the demographic impact of supermax and similarly isolated custody seems to me worthy of analysis. In short, it seems high time for corrections researchers to more systematically examine race in this area. American jails and prisons are themselves vastly racially skewed in their populations, and what we are likely to find is an even more extreme skew for those who are on the receiving end of isolated confinement’s harsh effects.
The following comes from our friend and colleague Five Omar Mualimm-ak, who works for prison reform in New York with the American Friends Service Committee, Campaign to End the New Jim Crow, New York City Jails Action Coalition, and New York Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement, among other groups. He served twelve years in New York State prisons, where solitary is used as a punishment for minor rule violations. Five spent a total of more than five years in isolation. This commentary originally appeared in The Guardian. –Jean Casella
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As kids, many of us imagine having superpowers. An avid comic book reader, I often imagined being invisible. I never thought I would actually experience it, but I did.
It wasn’t in a parallel universe – although it often felt that way – but right here in the Empire State, my home. While serving time in New York‘s prisons, I spent 2,054 days in solitary and other forms of isolated confinement, out of sight and invisible to other human beings – and eventually, even to myself.
After only a short time in solitary, I felt all of my senses begin to diminish. There was nothing to see but gray walls. In New York’s so-called special housing units, or SHUs, most cells have solid steel doors, and many do not have windows. You cannot even tape up pictures or photographs; they must be kept in an envelope. To fight the blankness, I counted bricks and measured the walls. I stared obsessively at the bolts on the door to my cell.
There was nothing to hear except empty, echoing voices from other parts of the prison. I was so lonely that I hallucinated words coming out of the wind. They sounded like whispers. Sometimes, I smelled the paint on the wall, but more often, I just smelled myself, revolted by my own scent.
There was no touch. My food was pushed through a slot. Doors were activated by buzzers, even the one that led to a literal cage directly outside of my cell for one hour per day of “recreation”.
Even time had no meaning in the SHU. The lights were kept on for 24 hours. I often found myself wondering if an event I was recollecting had happened that morning or days before. I talked to myself. I began to get scared that the guards would come in and kill me and leave me hanging in the cell. Who would know if something happened to me? Just as I was invisible, so was the space I inhabited.
The very essence of life, I came to learn during those seemingly endless days, is human contact, and the affirmation of existence that comes with it. Losing that contact, you lose your sense of identity. You become nothing.
Everyone knows that prison is supposed to take away your freedom. But solitary doesn’t just confine your body; it kills your soul.
Yet neither a judge nor a jury of my peers handed down this sentence to me. Each of the tormented 23 hours per day that I spent in a bathroom-sized room, without any contact with the outside world, was determined by prison staff.
Anyone lacking familiarity with our state prison system would probably guess I must have been a pretty scary, out-of-control prisoner. But I never committed one act of violence during my entire sentence. Instead, a series of “tickets”, or disciplinary write-ups for prison rule violations, were punished with a total of more than five years in “the box”.
In New York, guards give out tickets like penny candy. During my nine years in prison, I received an endless stream of tickets, each one more absurd than the last. When I tried to use artwork to stay sane, I was ticketed for having too many pencils. Another time, I had too many postage stamps.
One day, I ate an entire apple – including the core – because I was starving for lack of nutrition. I received a ticket for eating the core, since apple seeds contain arsenic, as spelled out in the prison handbook. The next time I received an apple, fearful of another ticket, I simply left it on the tray. I received a ticket for “refusing to eat”.
For the five years I spent in the box, I received insulin shots for my diabetes by extending my arm through the food slot in the cell’s door. (“Therapy” for prisoners with mental illness is often conducted this way, as well.) One day, the person who gave me the shot yanked roughly on my arm through the small opening and I instinctively pulled back. This earned me another ticket for “refusing medical attention”, adding additional time to my solitary sentence.
My case is far from unusual. A 2012 study by the New York Civil Liberties Union found that five out of six of the 13,000 SHU sentences handed out each year are for nonviolent misbehavior, rather than violent acts. This brutal approach to discipline means that New York isolates its prisoners at rates well above the national average.
On any given day, some 4,300 men, women, and children are in isolated confinement in the state, many for months or years. Those with more serious prison offenses have been held in solitary for 20 years or more.
Using this form of punishment is particularly absurd for minor rule infractions. But in truth, no one should be subjected to the kind of extreme isolation that is practiced in New York’s prisons today. I have no doubt that what is going on in prisons all over our state is torture. Many national and international human rights groups – including UN special rapporteur on torture Juan E Méndez – concur. Yet it continues, unseen and largely ignored by the public.
The scars that isolated confinement leaves behind may be invisible, too, but they are no less painful or permanent than physical scars. Even now that I am out of prison, I suffer major psychological consequences from those years in isolation.
I know that I have irreparable memory damage. I can hardly sleep. I have a short temper. I do not like people to touch me. I cannot listen to music or watch television or sports. I am only beginning to recover my ability to talk on the phone. I no longer feel connected to people.
Even though I am a free man now, I often feel as though I remain invisible, going through the motions of life. Feeling tormented by a punishment that has ended is a strange and unnerving anguish. But there are thousands like me, and until New Yorkers choose to bear witness to the soul-destroying torture taking place in their own backyards, our suffering, too, will remain invisible.
The post Voices from Solitary: Solitary Confinement’s Invisible Scars appeared first on Solitary Watch.
• The Associated Press reports on a lawsuit alleging that a man with mental illness was repeatedly pepper sprayed by guards while held in solitary confinement at North Carolina’s Central Prison. Solitary Watch reports on a federal lawsuit filed earlier this year alleging that guards at Central used security camera blind spots to beat prisoners here.
• The UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Méndez, joins HuffPost Live to discuss California prisons, the prison hunger strike and solitary confinement.
• In an opinion piece published by The Washington Post, David Cole discusses the isolation of Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox, writing that “[t]heir 41-year confinement to cells not much larger than a grave, without human contact, was cruel and inhumane treatment.”
• The Colorado Independent reports that Colorado Senator Jessie Ulibarri is sponsoring a bill to find alternatives to the use of solitary confinement for prisoners who have been diagnosed with a mental illness.
• A blogger for Slate discusses the role of the 1983 murders of two guards at the United States Penitentiary near Marion, Illinois, in creating this country’s “terrible supermax-prison culture.” According to the post, “The murders sent Marion into lockdown for 23 years, ushered in the era of the modern Supermax prison, and normalized the chilling idea that the only rational way to deal with violent or notorious prisoners is to lock them up in small, isolated cells.”
• The United Nations reports on Special Rapporteur on torture Juan Méndez’ push for a review of the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. Méndez states, “‘It is very important to prohibit solitary confinement to some categories under no circumstances, like minors, people with mental disability, women – especially pregnant or feeding babies.’
• The ACLU reports on the process underway to revise the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (SMRs) to include increased protections against solitary confinement. “Updated SMRs are a vital step in the campaign to stop the use of long-term solitary confinement and create more robust protections and oversight against abuse.”
• Amnesty International USA reports that it has delivered more than 25,000 petition signatures to Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal demanding the immediate release of the last Angola 3 prisoner, Albert Woodfox.
• Campaign for Youth Justice reports on youth held in adult jails and prisons, noting that, oftentimes, “adult facilities use solitary confinement or ‘segregation’ to keep youth safe and away from adult offenders.”
• Fusion posts a video which provides an animated look inside solitary confinement in the state of California.
Certain recently posted material may not be available over the weekend of October 25-27, as Solitary Watch transfers its domain to a server capable of handling our growing site.
Everything should be back up to speed by Monday. Please visit us again then, and thank you for your patience!
The following report on the October 9 hearing held by the California legislature originally appeared on Truthout. The author, Victoria Law is a writer, photographer, and mother. She is the author of Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women (PM Press 2009), the editor of the zine Tenacious: Art and Writings from Women in Prison and a co-founder of Books Through Bars – NYC. She is currently working on transforming “Don’t Leave Your Friends Behind,” a zine series on how radical movements can support the families in their midst, into a book. Article copyright, Truthout.org. Reprinted with permission.
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“Tell us the truth, even if it’s not pleasant,” State Assembly member Tom Ammiano told California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) officials, advocates, formerly incarcerated people and family members.
On Wednesday, October 9, the California legislature’s Public Safety Committee held the first of several hearings about the use of solitary confinement in California’s prisons. These hearings were prompted by a 60-day hunger strike that rocked California’s prison system this past summer.
On July 8, 2013, over 30,000 people incarcerated throughout California refused meals.
Hunger strikers issued five core demands:
1. Eliminate group punishments for individual rules violations;
2. Abolish the debriefing policy, and modify active/inactive gang status criteria;
3. Comply with the recommendations of the US Commission on Safety and Abuse in Prisons (2006) regarding an end to long-term solitary confinement;
4. Provide adequate food;
5. Expand and provide constructive programs and privileges for indefinite SHU inmates.
Prisoners in Pelican Bay’s Security Housing Unit (SHU) issued 40 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.
In the SHU, people are locked in their 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 for an indeterminate term for being accused of gang membership. These accusations often rely on confidential informants and circumstantial evidence.
Hundreds have been confined within the SHU for more than 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. SHU prisoners launched two hunger strikes in 2011. This past July, they launched what would become a 60-day hunger strike.
The strike ended after California State Senator Loni Hancock, chair of the Senate Public Safety Committee, and Assembly member Tom Ammiano, chair of the Assembly Public Safety Committee, promised to hold hearings around the issues raised by the hunger strikers. As reported earlier in Truthout, the legislators’ support pushed both the CDCR and the hunger strikers toward a resolution.
“On September 3, we received a copy of the press statement from Senator Hancock and Assembly member Ammiano using strong language in support of our cause, urging us to end our hunger strike with assurances of hearings, etc.,” hunger striker Todd Ashker told Truthout in a recent letter. “We’re not ones to snub lawmakers, etc., who pledge support – in public – in spite of CDCR’s vilification campaign.” Buoyed by legislators’ support and the promise of upcoming hearings, hunger strikers met and voted to suspend the strike.
“Now this doesn’t end our collective actions to shed light on and end solitary confinement and indeterminate SHUs, but instead is a time of advancing forward on an even broader front,” wrote hunger striker Lorenzo Benton the day after the hunger strike ended. “With the gains made (national and international support and a viable movement to achieve our objectives), we are now in a position to see our goal to the end with no further loss of life and/or serious physical or mental harm. . . . We must not shy away from this golden opportunity to have our collective voices heard and end this mockery of the need for solitary confinement and indeterminate SHUs.”
A Legal Challenge to Indefinite Solitary: Ashker v. Brown
On Thursday, September 26, lawyers presented oral arguments for Ashker v. Brown, a federal lawsuit on behalf of 10 prisoners in Pelican Bay’s SHU. The lawsuit alleges that prolonged solitary confinement violates Eighth Amendment prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment and that the absence of meaningful review for SHU placement violates the prisoners’ right to due process.
Attorneys urged the judge to grant the suit class-action status. More than 500 people have been in Pelican Bay’s SHU for over 10 years; more than 200 have been there for over 15 years; and 78 for more than 20 years. Class certification would extend the remedies in the case to apply at least to all Pelican Bay SHU prisoners who have been held in solitary confinement for more than 10 years.
Claudia Wilken, the federal judge hearing the case, said that she is likely to allow the suit to be expanded from the cases of 10 prisoners to include the approximately 1,100 people held in indefinite isolation. She set the trial date for November 3, 2014.
Returning to Pelican Bay
As reported earlier in Truthout, on August 23, the CDCR moved at least 50 hunger strikers to New Folsom Prison, just outside Sacramento, to provide them with better medical attention during their strike. Because New Folsom’s SHU and Administrative Segregation (Ad-Seg) were full, hunger strikers were housed in a portion of the prison temporarily converted into an Ad-Seg unit. “The cells are constantly cold, given that the cell’s air-conditioning is always on full blast, blowing out cold air,” Benton reported. “We are not allowed any yard activity or physical access to the law library.” Reports on medical attention were mixed: Benton stated that medical staff often “just walk by one’s cell and look in on you, usually with no comment.” However, Mutope DuGuma stated that both medical and custodial staff at New Folsom were “one hundred times more human than Pelican Bay medical/staff. We were actually treated fair.”
For many, the month at New Folsom provided them an opportunity to see the sky. Benton noted that his cell had a window providing him with a view of mountains, trees and birds “to which I am taking in each day, as well as the joys and the warmth of the sun, to which I/we have been denied for so long.” DuGuma too was able to see the outside world. “I haven’t seen a moon or direct sunlight in thirteen years,” he wrote. “It was beautiful.”
Once the strike ended, CDCR began returning prisoners to Pelican Bay and the other prisons where they were originally housed. Mutope DuGuma was moved on September 24. DuGuma noted that, like the ride to New Folsom, no medical staff accompanied the bus. In addition, he stated that prison staff “didn’t lock the cages other than the gate that cut off to them, so the front and back could interact with each other. On the last five-and-a-half hours, they didn’t turn on the lights, leaving us free to move in waist chains and ankle chains.” Given the California prison system’s history of racially-based violence, DuGuma hypothesized, “I think the COs were trying to serve us a threatening message as well as test our end to all hostilities because we literally could have killed someone on this bus and got away with it.”
Effects of Hunger Strike Still Felt
Although the hunger strike has ended (or been suspended, as some participants are quick to point out), hunger strike participants still feel the ramifications of going weeks, if not months, without food. Lorenzo Benton stated that he continues to feel occasional lightheadedness, aches and pains, fatigue, and wakes 10 times each night. “Being 58 years old, one’s body is not as young as it used to be, so one is aware it’s going to take a little time to reboot and rebuild this machine of mine.”
Mutope DuGuma, too, is still feeling the effects of going 60 days without food one month after he resumed eating. “I still got stomach discomfort, and my leg muscles have not come back. They feel like I am walking on stilts,” he reported after his return to Pelican Bay.
The First Legislative Hearing
On Wednesday, October 9, some 100 formerly incarcerated people, family members and supporters drove to Sacramento to attend the first joint Public Safety Committee hearing on solitary confinement.
Marie Levin is the sister of Sitawa Nantambu Jamaa, one of the four main representatives of the Pelican Bay hunger strikers. “This is the start of something big,” she told Truthout just before a pre-hearing rally. She had visited her brother two weeks earlier and reported that, although he lost 62 pounds during the strike, both he and she were optimistic. “We’re looking forward to change happening in the SHU and in the California prison system.”
Inside the hearing, CDCR officials, academics, former prisoners and family members testified. Investigator General Robert Barton told lawmakers that of the 4,054 people currently held in SHUS across California, 1900 have life terms. Of these, 574 have been in SHU for more than five years, 197 for more than 10 years, 126 for more than 15, and 84 for more than 20 years. He also noted that 74 women are serving SHU terms at the California Institute for Women. (Because of overcrowding, however, 99 women were housed in the prison’s SHU as of July 2013.)
Steven Czifra, a student at UC Berkeley, was one of the last to testify. After four years as a model prisoner and days before his parole date, Czifra had a fistfight with another prisoner. Because Czifra is white and the other man was black, prison officials labeled the fight racially-motivated and sent Czifra to Ad Seg for a year. The following day, he spit on a guard who was taunting him. Those two incidents placed him in the SHU for four years.
The effects of those four years haunted him years after his release. “It took my partner five years before she could touch me without it hurting me,” he recalled. He urged legislators to take action, pointing to the research and findings presented by Margaret Winters, associate director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project, and Keramet Reiter, assistant professor at UC Irvine, earlier in the hearing. “We don’t need to research anything [more]. We already know without a doubt that long-term solitary confinement is torture,” said Czifra.
Dorsey Nunn, executive director of advocacy group Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, cocounsel on Ashker v. Brown, also testified, linking his own experience of solitary confinement with the recent hunger strike. He urged lawmakers to abolish long-term solitary confinement. “If you have to use solitary confinement, set a limit. Like 30 days.”
The hearing lasted four hours. Dolores Canales, whose son Johnny has spent 13 years in the SHU, was hopeful. She told Truthout that Johnny and others at Pelican Bay were hopeful. So was Nunn, who pointed out that the legislators’ support pushed prisoners to end the strike on its 60th day. Reminding legislators that an Irish hunger striker lasted 66 days on his hunger strike before dying, he said, “This hearing gives the opportunity for people to do something other than starve themselves to death.”
Writing from inside his SHU cell at Pelican Bay, however, Mutope DuGuma reminded Truthout, “Remember, we are in a protracted struggle. Therefore, a suspended hunger strike only means that it can be reignited at any given moment.” At the end of the hearing, family members and advocates seemed optimistic that such a course of action might not be necessary.
The post One Month After Historic Hunger Strike, California Lawmakers Hold Hearings on Solitary Confinement appeared first on Solitary Watch.
The following roundup features noteworthy news, reports and opinions on solitary confinement from the past week that have not been covered in other Solitary Watch posts.
• The Seattle Times reports on a new program for prisoners with mental illness who are held in isolation at Washington’s Monroe Correctional Complex. According to the story, “The new Reintegration and Progression Program at Monroe’s IMU [Intensive Management Unit] uses group behavioral modification classes to transition offenders out of solitary confinement and back into general population.”
• In a piece entitled “The US’s 64-Square-Foot ‘Torture Chambers,’” Inter Press Service reports on the abuse of solitary confinement in the US, touching on the case of Russell Maroon Shoatz, who has spent the last 22 years in solitary confinement.
• Vice reports that Mark “Migs” Neiweem, who is currently held at the Pontiac Correctional Center in Illinois, “has been in solitary confinement since July for possessing ‘copious amounts of Anarchist publications’ and ‘handwritten Anarchist related essays,’ according to prison documents.”
• The Los Angeles Times reports that Juan Méndez, the UN Special Rapporteur on torture, has requested access to California prisons to investigate the use of solitary confinement and ensure that the rights of prisoners’ are being protected. According to the story, “Méndez said he wants access to any part of any prison he chooses and the freedom to speak with inmates of his choosing.” Solitary Watch reports on Méndez’ past requests to visit US prisons here.
• A segment on Capital Public Radio questions the effectiveness of the California prison system’s use of Security Housing Units (SHUs) as a way to separate alleged gang members from the general population, noting that gangs continue to be a problem in prisons.
• The Los Angeles Times reports on the federal court case on the treatment of prisoners with mental illness in California prisons, stating that “[l]awyers for inmates want U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton to require psychiatric hospitalization for the most mentally ill prisoners on death row and to ban the use of pepper spray as a means of controlling the mentally infirm.” Solitary Watch reports on the trial here.
• Angola 3 News reports on Amnesty International’s new campaign demanding Albert Woodfox’s immediate release from prison, stating “Today, we firmly believe that the momentum created by Herman’s struggle, the recent UN statement for Albert, and now the Amnesty campaign, is the final push we need to make Albert’s freedom a reality.”
• In a piece published on Truthout, Victoria Law reports on the first of the Public Safety Committee hearings on the use of solitary confinement in California prisons. According to the story, testimonies were heard from “CDCR officials, academics, former prisoners and family members” during the four-hour hearing at the State Capitol in Sacramento. View video footage of the hearing here.
• Salon reports that some detainees held at Guantanamo Bay were reportedly coerced to stop hunger striking, writing that “Three prisoners, all of whom have been cleared for transfer from the prison but remain detained there, testified in letters that hunger strikers… were humiliated, held in isolation and denied their belongings in attempts by prison authorities to break their resolve.”
Under Fire, the Federal Bureau of Prisons Audits Its Use of Solitary Confinement——and Buys a New Supermax Prison
Amidst growing criticism of its abundant use solitary confinement, the federal Bureau of Prisons has quietly set in motion an “internal audit” to review its “restricted housing operations.” The audit, which has been contracted out to a Washington think tank and will be conducted largely by former corrections officials, seems unlikely to bring any dramatic change to the lives of the more than 12,000 people being held in isolation in the federal prison system. Meanwhile, the federal government has completed purchase of a prison meant to house still more isolation cells.
The audit fulfils a pledge made by BOP director Charles Samuels last year, following Congress’s first and so far only hearing into solitary confinement. At that hearing, convened by a Senate Judiciary subcommittee chaired by Illinois Senator Dick Durbin, Samuels acknowledged under questioning that he didn’t know how many people with mental illness were in isolation in federal prisons, and was short on details about the BOP’s use of solitary confinement.
Since that time, controversy surrounding the BOP’s use of solitary has only grown. Current lawsuits are challenging the treatment of individuals with mental illness at ADX Florence, the notorious federal supermax prison in Colorado. Increased media coverage of ADX has uncovered horror stories of psychotic prisoners who gouge holes in their own flesh or eat their own feces, along with at least one suicide.
In addition, a scathing report last spring from the Government Accountability Office found that the BOP did not know whether its use of “segregated housing” had any impact on prison safety, how it affected the individuals who endure it, or how much it all cost American taxpayers.
Yet when he testified before Congress again last month, Charles Samuels discussed solitary confinement under the heading “Recent Innovations and Achievements.” “[W]e are in the midst of making significant changes to our Special Housing Unit (SHU) policies and procedures,” Samuels told a House Judiciary subcommittee led by Republican chair George Sensenbrenner and ranking Democratic member Bobby Scott, during a hearing on oversight of federal prisons. “These changes will allow us to improve the efficiency of our SHU operations without compromising safety.”
In a statement that was permitted to stand without questioning from the committee members, Samuels asserted: “I have focused significant resources on the mental health of inmates who are placed in SHUs to ensure we are doing everything we can to work with these inmates.” (Samuels was only witness invited to testify, though the ACLU submitted written testimony.)
Samuels also said that in the past year the BOP had “decreased the number of inmates housed in SHU by 25 percent, primarily by focusing on alternative management strategies and alternative sanctions for inmates.” He cited no specific “alternative sanctions,” but did describe changes in the processing, tracking, and reporting systems for disciplinary segregation.”
When asked what had happened to the 25 percent of prisoners who had been removed from the SHUs, a Bureau of Prisons spokesperson had no concrete numbers, but said that they either were put into general population, sent to state prisons, or possibly dispatched to Special Management Units, or SMUs.
While individuals are sent to the SHU or the SMU for somewhat distinct reasons, the differences between the two types of units are negligible, with both confining inhabitants to their cells for 23 hours a day. A source with knowledge of the federal prison system told Solitary Watch that the use of SMUs has been growing since their genesis six years ago, and that shuffling prisoners from SHUs to SMUs might yield misleading statistics on the reduction of isolation in the BOP overall.
Samuels wrapped up his brief testimony on segregated housing by stating: “The National Institute of Corrections recently awarded a cooperative agreement for independent consultants to conduct a comprehensive review of our restricted housing operations and to provide recommendations for best practices. We look forward to the outcome of the evaluation as a source of even greater improvements to our operations.”
The National Institute of Corrections (NIC), which conducts research and develops programs, is in fact a part of the federal Bureau of Prisons, meaning that the agency is investigating itself. But the NIC has chosen, as it often does, to contract out the audit.
The BOP would not provide any details on the contract, suggesting that if we wanted them we would have to file a FOIA request. But Shaina Vanek, the administrative officer at NIC, readily provided the information. The Special Housing Unit Review and Assessment, she said, was awarded to CNA Analysis and Solutions.
The audit will take a year to complete, with a literature search on segregation and inquiries into the operations of several prisons which have not yet been chosen. Overall, it is meant to take a look across a “broad spectrum,” according to Vanek, and to end up with an analysis and recommendations for the future. The contract for the job is worth $498,211—small potatoes, as BOP contracts go, and not much to audit a practice that involves 7 percent of the federal prison population.
The work, which commenced in September, will be headed up by Ken McGinnis, director of corrections programs for the company, whose “responsibilities have ranged from the management and administration of all facets of the Illinois and Michigan correctional systems to serving as warden and directing the operations of maximum, medium, and minimum-security adult institutions. He served as the chief administrative officer of two of the nation’s largest and most complex correctional systems.” Most recently he was involved in a CNA study meant to bring greater efficiency to the Colorado prison system.
CNA, a nonprofit which works for all levels of government, is best known as a military think tank. (It got its start during World War II when a group of MIT scientists investigated ways to repel U-boat attacks.) Headquartered in Alexandria, Virginia, CNA has in recent years diversified into other fields, including air traffic management, energy, and prisons.
Commissioning a study by CNA is a far cry from bringing in a reform-minded outfit like the Vera Institute for Justice, which is what several state prison systems have recently done in an effort to reduce their use of isolation. The audit may recommend incremental change by “reclassifying” a small number of isolated prisoners, but it is unlikely to produce any serious challenge to the use of solitary confinement.
Even as the BOP moves forward with the audit, other developments suggest that the federal government is planning to increase its use of certain forms of prison isolation. On October 1, as the government shutdown began, the Obama Administration released $165 million in unobligated Justice Department funds to buy Thomson Prison from the state of Illinois. As Solitary Watch reported earlier this year, the government has plans to use the prison for segregated housing. Some portions of the prison will be designated as Administrative Maximum, or ADX, the most extreme type of isolation, and others will be SMUs.
The purchase was celebrated by two unlikely elected officials. Senator Dick Durbin, who held the Congressional hearing on solitary—and whose protégé Cheri Bustos represents the district that includes Thomson—told the local Rockford Register-Star: “I hope we’ll see before the end of the year the transfer of the prison to the federal government.” Illinois Governor Pat Quinn, who closed down Tamms state supermax earlier this year, said at a news conference: “I want to thank President Obama and Senator Durbin for their strong support throughout this process. We look forward to Thomson being a fully operational facility that will drive major economic growth in the region in the near future.”
To carry out the sale, the administration had to make an end run around Virginia’s Republican Congressman Frank Wolf, who heads the House Appropriations Committee and refused to sign off on the purchase of Thomson, where Republicans believe Obama will try to place detainees from Guantanamo.
Wolf, a longtime proponent of prison reform, has also joined with the Appropriations Committee’s ranking Democrat, Chaka Fattah, to float a bill that would launch a $1 million inquiry into BOP operations. The bill, which passed the full committee but has not yet gone to the floor, would establish and support the Charles Colson Task Force on Federal Corrections, named for the Watergate conspirator turned prison evangelist and reformer.
The nine-person task force would be charged with addressing “the challenges in the federal corrections system,” clearly with the aim of reducing the growth in both the population and cost of the BOP. But with a few exceptions (including, notably, current Prison Fellowship leader Pat Nolan), BOP critics on the right have shown little concern for the conditions in which federal prisoners actually live, including the use of solitary confinement.
Note: The following article orginally appeared in The Crime Report, and is reposted on Solitary Watch by permission.
With great power, the saying goes, comes great responsibility, and prison systems are places where governments wield unparalleled power over individuals, not only depriving them of their freedom, but controlling nearly every detail of their daily lives. Yet in the United States, prisons and jails operate with a near-complete absence of independent oversight.
The U.S. Department of Justice and the federal courts intervene only in the most extreme cases of cruel and unusual punishment. For example: the epidemic of rapes, stabbings, and brutality at Louisiana’s Orleans Parish Prison, or the barbaric overcrowding in California’s state prisons. Otherwise the treatment of our 2.2 million incarcerated men, women, and children is left largely in the hands of corrections officials—and increasingly, private contractors.
Some countries take their responsibility toward the people they imprison somewhat more seriously. With fewer than 85,000 people in prison, England and Wales have an incarceration rate of 153 per 100,000—just over a fifth of the our 743 per 100,000—due in large part to dramatically shorter sentences. The rate is, nonetheless, one of the highest in Western Europe. Her Majesty’s Prison Service (HMPS) which oversees the prisons in England and Wales (Scotland and Northern Island have their own systems) also has one of the world’s more robust prison oversight structures.
Monitoring of the British prison system rests with three different offices that, in turn, are part of the Ministry of Justice. The effectiveness of this multi-pronged oversight system is a matter of some controversy in Britain itself. But it operates with a level of intensity and independence nearly unimaginable in the United States.
Before a trip to London earlier this year, we applied to HMPS for permission to visit a series of British prisons with different security levels, and were told it would not be convenient. (No pesky First Amendment necessitated the more elaborate excuses we were used to receiving in the U.S.) We had better luck with those responsible for monitoring prison conditions.
Her Majesty’s Inspectorate
In the offices of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons, on a narrow street in Westminster, we spoke at length to the agency’s second-in-command, Martin Lomas, the deputy chief inspector of prisons.
The Inspectorate, which employs about 60 people, is charged with providing “independent scrutiny of the conditions for and treatment of prisoners and other detainees, promoting the concept of ‘healthy prisons.’” That concept is measured according to key tests that include safety, respect, and “purposeful activity” for all individuals in custody. It all sounds terribly civilized to visitors from a nation where it’s rare to find even lip service paid to the notion of rehabilitation.
Representatives of the Inspectorate, Lomas says, visit “all 130 prison establishments in England and Wales” as well as “immigration removal centers, juvenile facilities, and police cells.” They are committed to visit at least once every 4 to 5 years, but “in reality we typically visit most prisons on an unannounced basis every 3 years.” The Inspectorate’s public reports cite everything from poor quality food to brutality by corrections officers, and make recommendations for improvement.
In a December 2012 speech, Lomas’ boss, Chief Inspector Nick Hardwick, explained: “We use five main sources of evidence: We survey a random sample of prisoners or detainees that we select. We talk to prisoners individually and in groups. “We talk to staff and other visitors. We look at records and data. And we observe. And then we pull all that evidence together to reach our conclusions and recommendations about any improvements required.”
This form of outside inspection is nearly unheard of in the United States. One exception is the Correctional Association of New York (CANY), which has legislative authority, dating back to the 19th century, to enter any New York State prison, speak with whomever it chooses, and issue public reports and recommendations based on their findings. As a private nonprofit organization, the CANY sometimes sees its recommendations ignored; by the same token, its independence in above reproach.
Critics Question Independence
Nikki Jameson, an activist and journalist, is among the critics who question the independence and clout of the Inspectorate, which is funded by the government. She points out that while the Chief Inspector by law must come from outside HMPS, many of the Inspectorate’s staff do not. Martin Lomas, for example, is a former prison governor (warden). Jameson says inspectors often fail to cite the less tangible elements of mistreatment, such as racism against prisoners of color and anti-Muslim prejudice. And she points out that even when they get it right, they do not have the power to enforce their recommendations for improvement.
“We do not have regulatory powers,” Martin Lomas acknowledges. “Our commitment is to independence; a preparedness to listen to the voice of the detainees and a determination to report openly on the actual outcomes we see from a human rights perspective is the basis of our approach. This is backed up by a body of work dating back over thirty years…A moral authority it could be argued.”
He continued, “In excess of 80 percent of our recommendations are accepted by inspected bodies and we check if they have been achieved when we return and follow up inspections….We can point to significant evidence, including the closure of facilities and changes to institutions and policy where this has been achieved.”
The Inspectorate also does not operate alone. A second strand of oversight comes from the office of the Prison Ombudsman for England and Wales, which “investigates complaints from prisoners, those on probation and those held in immigration removal centres” and “investigates all deaths that occur among prisoners, immigration detainees and the residents of probation hostels.”
In the U.S., there are prison ombudspersons for the federal prison system and a handful for state systems, but they seldom play a significant role. The California Office of Prison Ombudsman, for example, appears to be playing no role in the current prison hunger strike in that state.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the British system involves the Independent Monitoring Boards. Unlike the American prisons, which are largely hidden from public view except for closely controlled family visits, the British prison regime is subject to frequent , unannounced visits by teams of volunteers picked by the Justice Ministry from local applicants.
Peter Judges, a member of the IMB’s National Council and regional head for Kent and Sussex, met us in London for an interview, along with National Council member Ian Wilkinson.
“The IMBs and their forerunners, Boards of Visitors and Visiting Magistrates, date back over 100 years,” Judges said. “Unlike the Inspectorate, which inspects periodically, IMBs are in the prison every week and in some case daily and therefore monitors what is happening on an on-going basis. ’ IMBs give prisoners an opportunity to raise their concerns with a body which is independent of the Prison Service.’’
The volunteers come from the local area of each prison and are recruited through means that include advertisements in local papers. They are unpaid, and many, Wilkinson said, are “like us, gray haired pensioners.”
Each volunteer is given keys to the prison. He or she is free to come and go, day or night, to look at living quarters, sit in on prison programming, visit the kitchens and taste the food. The volunteers go through the cell blocks, totally unannounced, and speak at will with the people being held there. If a prisoner has a request or a problem, the volunteer will bring it to the attention of the prison. Or, to preserve anonymity prisoners can drop an unsigned complaint into a complaint box.
“Issues occurring regularly will feature in the Board’s Annual Report, which goes to the Minister [of Justice] and is published as public document,” says Judges.
Checks on Abuse
IMB members try to be on hand in situations where there is a high risk of prisoner abuse, says Judges—for example “when a prisoner is forcibly restrained…to see that the force used is not excessive and to comment independently on any allegations made against staff.”
They may also visit daily when an individual is placed in temporary solitary confinement to deal with a disciplinary or security problem. But this harshest form of punishment also comes with other built-in safeguards against abuse. “Remember,” said Judges, “that prisoners in segregation are reviewed regularly—at least every 14 days—by a group chaired by a governor and consisting of an IMB member, a chaplain, a representative of Healthcare and the Segregation Unit Manager.” This is in sharp contrast to, for example, the California prison system, There, individuals can remain in solitary for decades, with nothing more than periodic pro-forma reviews by prison staff.
Even this form of citizen oversight has its shortcomings, however. Some of the most widely criticized facilities in the British prison system are the high-security units known as Close Supervision Centres, where up to 500 individuals are held in what purports to be an alternative to the kind of long-term solitary confinement. The CSCs have come under fire for warehousing prisoners with mental illness and for keeping their charges in round-the-clock lockdown. The IMBs have authority to operate here as well, but security concerns may limit their activities.
Still, the idea of citizens taking responsibility for their incarcerated countrymen, and entering the prisons where they are held, feels very different from our own system, where prisons are places apart from everyday civil society. “Citizens…bring with them the values of the outside world to the closed and deformed world of prisons,” writes Baroness Vivien Stern, a researcher at London’s the International Centre for Prison Studies and a strong force for prison reform in the UK. “They keep alive in the prison a certain view of how human beings should be treated.”
The post Oversight in British Prisons: A Model for the U.S.? appeared first on Solitary Watch.
• Following the death of Herman Wallace, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Méndez called on the United States to immediately end the indefinite solitary confinement of Albert Woodfox, who has been held in isolation in Louisiana prisons since 1972. Amnesty International also called on the state of Louisiana to “end its campaign of vengeance against Albert Woodfox.”
• Media representatives were given a rare tour of the Security Housing Unit at California’s Corcoran State Prison, yielding reports and photographs from Southern California Public Radio and the Los Angeles Times, among others.
• In a piece titled “How Does Solitary Confinement Alter Prisoners?”, Discovery.com looked at isolation’s “profound effect on the body and mind.”
• “Solitary Confinement Is Horrible and Inhumane. Why Is It Still Legal?” is the title of a new article on Slate’s crime blog.
• PBS’s “Religion & Ethics Newsweekly” covered the issue of solitary with a discussion among survivors, prison officials, and a representative of the Justice Fellowship, which “takes the position… that solitary confinement is an un-Christian practice.”
• According to The Guardian, “The US military secretly used a variety of tactics to break the resolve of the Guantánamo Bay hunger strikers, including placing them in solitary confinement if they continued to refuse food, newly declassified interviews with detainees reveal.”
• As promised during this summer’s prison hunger strike, California state legislators this week held a hearing on solitary confinement. California Healthline rounded up highlights from the joint hearing of the Assembly and state Senate public safety committees (which Solitary Watch will be reporting on in depth this coming week).
The following comes from Toby Chavez, currently in solitary confinement at the Penitentiary of New Mexico. He is serving a life sentence for first degree murder and armed robbery, a conviction he is appealing, and will be eligible for parole after 30 years. Chavez has been incarcerated since 1999, and has spent over a decade in solitary confinement in and out of the state. Like others across the country, he is housed in segregation for alleged gang affiliation. Allowed one non-contact visitation a month, he has been unable to hug or kiss a loved one since his 2009 marriage to his wife, Christy.
Christy has made the following observation of how Toby’s incarceration and protracted terms in solitary confinement have affected him: “Over the years I have seen his attitude change in the fact that he is seeing more clearly that the best chance he has to come home is to stay out of trouble and to get as much education as he possibly can. He obtained his GED in 2012. He has become more compassionate for others and understanding. However, I have also seen that being in solitary makes him extremely sensitive to anything that is out of routine such as a lock-down, not getting mail from me, a cell change, etc etc. He worries endlessly over the health of his mother, and if he will even see her on the outside again.” –Sal Rodriguez
Living life in solitary confinement has been the most horrendous experience I’ve had to endure in all my 43 years on this earth. I have been in prison for 15 years, 13 of them in solitary confinement. Solitary confinement is designed to dehumanize, cause a person to become dependent, and spiritually break an inmate to the core of his soul.
Each and everyday that comes and goes takes a piece of humanity away from me to the point I don’t really know who I am. The lack of human contact I have with other inmates is like being thrown into a black hole and completely forgotten! I haven’t been able to hug, kiss or hold a family member in over 14 years! I’m not able to receive visits from my wife or have any type of real quality time with my loved ones. I’m stuck, alone and have very few words I can speak with other human beings. I’m forced to eat every meal, exercise, and play games by myself. I laugh at myself sometimes because it’s the only voice I can hear. My own shadow has literally become my only friend. If and when I get the opportunity to speak with my wife, mom, or loved ones, I have to put on a mask with a smile, because I never want them to see the monster I’m becoming by the psychological damage created by solitary confinement. I live each day contemplating death, throwing in the towel and just calling it quits. A person can only take so much loneliness.
The staff of the DOC are trained to say only one word, “no.” If I were to ask for such basic necessities such as toilet paper, tooth brush, soap, blankets, or even writing paper, the answer is always “no!” Since I am stuck in my cell twenty three hours a day it is impossible to retrieve these items on my own. I am forced to be dependent on the staff to bring these basic human needs in order to keep a proper hygiene status and maintain a decent state of mind. Now mind you, if the staff does not approve of the color of your skin, race, charges of your incarceration, or just the way you look, they are not obligated to bring you anything. I am forced to live in a tomb like room made of cinder black and concrete. There are no mirrors to see my reflection and nothing to remind me of the outside world.
Everyday I am forced to bend at the waist and spread my butt cheeks during a strip search, not to mention running my fingers through my mouth and then picking up my testicles to show the staff that I am not trying to hide and drugs, weapons, or contraband, as I attend one hour of recreation in the yard, which I am again in solitary, inside a cage much like a dog run. Then I must repeat the same process as I return back to my cell, even after my cell was searched as well as my person. Laughter comes far and in-between the days, months, and even years of life in solitary confinement. In reality there is nothing to smile or laugh about.
Solitary Confinement isn’t fit for an animal at the zoo. Therefore even the animals that are caged have some type of companion to play with, share meals with, or even pro-create and spend their days with. Our conditions have made up a way of living life that we do not understand the definition of the word rehabilitation. We are not allowed to enjoy liberties of prison life, such as maintaining a job, learning a skill, having access to the library for education, working in a hobby shop, or helping to maintain the compound. Trying to learn a sense of responsibility and learning the concept of being independent and taking care of myself, and preparing to return back into society and become productive members of our communities, is almost impossible. Instead, we are thrown into the tomb like room, told to shut up, ask for nothing and do as we are told.
Being thrown into a black hole and being completely forgotten about, isn’t want was meant when the Judge gave each and every one of us our sentence. Our punishment was to be stripped of our freedom and taken away from our loved ones and to realize out wrong doings, not to become monsters and products of psychologically damaged victims of solitary confinement.
After years of this torture, and realizing I have been a victim of solitary confinement, scares me to my core. Will I survive on the outside? Will I be able to be held by my loved ones, after all these years of no human contact? Will I even be myself again? The person I was before solitary confinement shattered my spirit? Hopefully one day, solitary confinement will come to an end, and I wont have to wear that mask I do with my loved ones any longer. At least I can dream!
The post Voices from Solitary: “I Live Each Day Contemplating Death” appeared first on Solitary Watch.
• This weeks news has been dominated by the passing of Angola 3 member Herman Wallace, after more than 41 years in solitary and less than three days in the free world. The most comprehensive, ongoing coverage was provided by Democracy Now! Solitary Watch spoke about the case in a feature on the BBC News.
• The Los Angeles Review of Books features Andrew Gumbel’s essay “The Scorched Earth Solution: Solitary Confinement in America.” After this summer’s hunger strike in California, he writes, ”we can no longer say that we do not know what is happening under our noses. We are subjecting many thousands of prisoners to unbearable psychic torture day after day after day, at great expense and with no apparent benefit.”
• October 4 marked the one-year anniversary of the highly controversial extradition to the United States of British poet and translator Talha Ahsan. As a letter in The Guardian notes, Ahsan, who has Asberger’s syndrome and had never before set foot in America, has spent that year in extreme isolation in a Connecticut supermax prison, awaiting trial on vague “material support to terrorism” charges.
• According to the Boston Globe, Lawyers for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, accused of carrying out the Boston Marathon bombing, are arguing that their client is being unduly held in extreme isolation under “Special Administrative Measures” that prevent him communicating with his family or his legal team.
• The Atlantic reports on the case of a “floridly psychotic” man in Florida who spent years in “squalor” at ADX Florence federal supermax without any meaningful mental health care, despite behavior that extended to eating his own feces.
• California prison officials this week opened the Security Housing Unit at Corcoran State Prison to reporters, yielding some powerful photographs in the Los Angeles Times of men “exercising” in small cages.
• People with mental illness serving time in Virginia’s notorious supermax prisons are being left behind by the state’s “much-touted incentive-based step-down program” that allows prisoners in solitary to “earn their way out of isolation based on good behavior.” As a result, according to a commentary in the Roanoke Times, those with psychiatric and cognitive disabilities are being permanently “warehoused” in solitary.
• With an article by Jeanne Theoharis titled “Guantanamo in New York,” The Nation launches a new series on “the abusive treatment of terror suspect on US soil”–which includes extensive use of pre-trial as well as post-conviction solitary confinement.
• The ACLU has released a new video and petition urging Attorney General Eric Holder to end the solitary confinement of children under 18 in the federal prison system.
The following comes from widely known, multiple prison escapee Steven Jay Russell, 56, who is currently serving a 140-year sentence in administrative segregation at the all-solitary Allan B. Polunsky Unit on Texas death row. Robert Perkinson, author of Texas Tough, describes Polunsky as “the most lethal [death row] anywhere in the democratic world” and “the hardest place to do time in Texas.” Russell, who is the first person in US history to receive a life sentence for prison escapes, has spent the last 17 years in solitary confinement, where he will likely remain for the rest of his life. Russell painstakingly orchestrated each of his four escapes – all non-violent, executed without a hostage or gun – by forging documents which he planted in the system, manipulating prison officials and impersonating court system officials and doctors. And all four times, he simply walked out of the prison doors, embarrassing the Texas prison system in the process. Russell has stated that he did it all in order to be with his lover, Phillip Morris, whom he met in 1995 while both men were incarcerated at the Harris County Jail. His story is recounted in the movie I Love You Phillip Morris, in which he is played by Jim Carrey. He can be reached by writing: Steven Russell, 00760259, Allan B. Polunsky Unit, 3872 FM 350 South, Livingston, TX 77351. –Lisa Dawson
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For more than 17 years, I’ve lived in a concrete box no larger than my late father’s closet. Most likely, I will continue to live in this concrete box until I’m granted parole or die. Living among other offenders in general population will never occur based on the opinions of at least 10 Texas Department of Criminal Justice wardens who have supervised me since my convictions for theft by embezzlement and non-violent escapes. My total term of imprisonment is 144 years. No, I have never committed a violent act or ever possessed any type of weapons in either my criminal or institutional history. I’ve never damaged state property by digging a tunnel or knocking a hole in the wall of my cell. I always walked out the front or back door of the jail or prison without taking any hostages. So, I am writing this essay from my cell which is located in the death row building at the Polunsky Unit in Livingston, Texas. Death row building? Yes. I share a pod with Texas offenders who are sentenced to death.
Remember George W. Bush? He was the president who told the nation and world that the United States of America does not torture our prisoners. Did I miss something last week or did I actually hear FBI director-designate James Comey admit to Senator Al Franken that prisoners at Gitmo were shackled in a standing position for seven days at a stretch to deprive them of sleep. TDCJ does things a bit different. They have what’s called the “Intensive Cell Searches” wherein an inmate cell is searched every hour of the day and night subsequent to that offender assaulting a guard. This little program goes on for months at a time right here on the Polunsky Unit. For those of us who walk out the front door, TDCJ has “Intensive Cell Moves.” For my first five years of solitary confinement in the concrete box, I was required to exchange cells with another inmate at least once every 72 hours. With more than 17 years of Solitary Confinement or Administrative Segregation now done, I graduated to cell moves once every two weeks. Why is moving around a big deal? Try moving into a different cell behind a mentally ill inmate who leaves special little treasures of poop in the cell. I have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. That’s a great combination with the poop left behind.
Have I become a loony tune after so many years of isolation? There are times when I question my sanity. I’ve seen some people in Solitary who could not take the isolation and would hang themselves and check out of this world. Overdosing on psych medications is another preferred option as it is less dramatic. One man took the plastic face off his radio, sharpened the plastic on the floor of the cell, and cut the jugular vein out of his neck. Altogether, I can recall 13 suicides that have occurred during my time in Ad Seg. Others who can’t deal with the reality of their situation will take a razor blade and cut their arms or chest or even their face. Their reasons for doing so can be as simple as a guard taking their radio…because they did not possess property papers and made the mistake of taking the opportunity to recreate in one of our cages in the dayroom. Guards do not like inmates who come out of their solitary cells and recreate or shower whenever given the opportunity. That involves work, and guards do not like to work. Why don’t you shower in the cell today. You have a thing with hot water.
Isolation? How about not touching another individual for years or even decades? Think a hug is not important to a father and his daughter? What are prison officials creating for both the father and daughter? I got lucky! I got a big ole hug from my little girl right before the judge sentenced me to 99 years for walking out the front door of the Estelle Unit in Huntsville. I also got a handshake from a friend who stuck his hand out from the food slot of his cell while my handcuffs were in front of me. No, neither of these acts were allowed by the folks who run our state and prison. It was luck.
In California, it is my understanding that if you murder another inmate, you are given a five year sentence in Ad Seg. In Texas, Chris Peoples did six years in Seg for killing his cell mate. I’m working on 18 in Ad Seg for walking out that front door. We have indeterminate sentences in Ad Seg in Texas.
Ad Seg and death sentenced inmates incarcerated at the Polunsky Unit are not allowed to discuss their mental health or physical issues with either the medical or psychiatric staff without two guards who escort us to the visit listening in to everything that is discussed. That includes meetings with the prison psychiatrist which is conducted via video cameras. In other words, the psychiatrist is not physically in the room. Only the guards and inmate who is supposed to be discussing their mental health issues in a confidential manner. Can you imagine the chilling-effect this policy has on what’s not discussed vs. what’s discussed?
I believe that long-term (more than 2 years) solitary confinement is torture. I set the limit at two years because some inmates have killed their cellies. In my opinion, those type (sexual or physically assaultive) inmates should always be kept in a general population cell by themselves or housed with another equally assaultive inmate as their cellie. Keeping them in Ad Seg only makes the situation worse.
The post Voices from Solitary: 144 Years for Prison Escapes appeared first on Solitary Watch.
Videos of California prison guards pumping pepper spray into the cells of prisoners – some of whom were naked and screaming, all of whom suffer from mental illness – and then forcibly extracting them from their cells were shown at trial in a federal court room in Sacramento on Tuesday.
The trial, part of a federal case initially filed in 1991, marks the first day of a lawsuit brought by legal advocates contending that incarcerated people with mental illness are subject to brutal and inhumane treatment by the California prison system. The suit also alleges violations which include insufficient access to inpatient care for people held on California’s death row and inadequate treatment for people held in solitary confinement in California’s Security Housing Units (SHUs).
Reporting on the first day of hearings, the Los Angeles Times describes the graphic footage: “For nearly an hour Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton’s Sacramento courtroom was filled with panicked screams from videos showing prisoners in pain, begging for help and pleading for the spraying to stop, while guards shouted over and over, ‘Cuff up!’”
The Sacramento Bee describes a particularly disturbing incident during which a man is shown playing with his feces in his cell while refusing to take medication from a visiting psychologist. The video shows a team of guards in protective suits wearing gas masks and helmets waiting outside his cell door:
Almost immediately after the psychologist emerged, the team began pumping pepper spray through the food port of the metal cell door, repeatedly dousing the inmate between warnings that he better come out.
The team opened the door, dragging the inmate out and wrestling him to the floor as he alternately sobbed and screamed, “Don’t do this to me,” “help,” and “I don’t want to be executed.”
Expert witness Eldon Vail, former director of the Washington state prison system, recounts the brutal tactics used by guards during a cell extraction. As reported by the Associated Press:
One shows a Corcoran State Prison inmate being sprayed repeatedly in his cell in a mental health crisis unit last year because he refused to take his psychiatric medication, according to court documents.
He “was not lucid or coherent enough” to follow guards’ orders that he allow himself to be handcuffed as he screamed in pain from the pepper spray… The guards then sprayed him again at close range.
By the time guards finally entered the cell, it was so slick with pepper spray that they and the inmate wound up in a pile sliding across the floor, according to Vail, the former director of the Washington state prison system.
Lawyers for the state argued that the videos were taken out of context and, as a result, were misleading. According to the Associated Press:
Lawyers representing the state said in opening statements that the force shown in the videos followed sometimes hours of clinical interventions and other steps to assist inmates. They said the inmates’ attorneys did not properly review the agency’s statewide policy for using force.
“There’s simply no pattern of practice of excessive use of force against the mentally ill,” said California Deputy Attorney General Patrick McKinney, adding that any use of force is later reviewed at several levels.
The state initially objected to the videos being shown in public: “Gov. Jerry Brown’s administration unsuccessfully sought to keep the videos from being shown in open court. Last week, U.S. District Court Judge Lawrence Karlton denied that request and ruled that the videos can be shown publicly.”
During the hearing, experts hired by attorneys representing the prisoners described sweeping failures in the state’s prison system, including psychiatric units which were understaffed, excessive use of pepper spray blasts by guards at prisoners for petty infractions and excessive use of force by guards, described by one expert as “brutal” and “inhumane.”
In fact, the state’s own expert witness stated under oath that guards were far too reliant on pepper spray. The Associated Press reports:
The state’s own expert witness, Steven Martin, a corrections consultant with 40 years’ experience as a guard, prison administrator and court monitor, said in sworn testimony that guards use pepper spray far too often and much too heavily because they lack training and because prison policies encourage its use…
[Martin] said he saw more pepper spray in a single California guard tower “than most prisons have for their entire prison.”
“I was stunned at the arsenal they had,” …[he] said in a deposition. He was shocked to see that a typical guard is equipped with a collapsible metal baton, a can of pepper spray large enough to control riots and two chemical grenades.
Most prison systems don’t need that level of weaponry to control their inmates, he said. Moreover, he said guards routinely use canisters of pepper spray the size of a fire extinguisher on unarmed inmates when a much smaller quantity would have accomplished the same purpose.
Update, 10/4/15, 10 am: Herman Wallace died early this morning, a free man. He was 71 years old.
In a long article we wrote in 2006 on Herman Wallace and his case, we ended with a quote from a letter he wrote to Jackie Sumell: “I’m often asked what did I come to prison for; and now that I think about it Jackie, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter what I came here for, what matters now is what I leave with. And I can assure you, however I leave, I won’t leave nothing behind.”
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Update, 10 pm: Angola 3 News reports that Herman Wallace is free from solitary and from prison:
Even after Judge Jackson’s late evening ruling denying the State’s attempt at a stay and again ordering his immediate release, the State continued to stall. Once notified of the continued delay, Judge Jackson stoically refused to leave his quarters until Herman was released, and just minutes ago, Herman was driven away from the prison a free man, awake and able to revel in this miraculous turn of events. The State will likely still appeal to the 5th Circuit and attempt to have the order reversed, and may even re-indict him, but it seems that Herman, against all odds, has won.
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Following is the full text of a news release, “Dying Angola 3 Prisoner Wins Full Habeas Relief After 41 Years; Federal Judge Orders His Immediate Release,” issued by advocates for Herman Wallace. A post on Angola 3 News states: “We pray that Herman can still hear this all-important decision that he’s waited these four decades for…Albert Woodfox and Robert King are meeting at the prison this morning to say their farewells and and will instead have this amazing news to share with Herman and maybe even be able to take him home.”
Today, Judge Brian A. Jackson, Chief Judge of the United States District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana ruled in favor of Herman Wallace, granting full habeas relief and ordering him a new trial. Judge Jackson further ordered that the State “immediately release Mr. Wallace from custody.”
Mr. Wallace, one of the “Angola 3,” who is dying of liver cancer, served over forty years in solitary confinement conditions in Louisiana prisons.
Judge Jackson overturned Mr. Wallace’s conviction due to an improperly chosen grand jury that excluded women jurors in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. Judge Jackson’s ruling can be accessed here: http://bit.ly/1bqlz1K
Following is a statement from Herman Wallace’s legal team:
“With today’s ruling, at long last, Herman Wallace has been afforded some measure of justice after a lifetime of injustice. We ask that the Department of Corrections honor Judge Jackson’s order and immediately release Herman Wallace so that he can spend his final days as a free man.
“In addition, litigation challenging Mr. Wallace’s unconstitutional confinement in solitary confinement for four decades will continue in his name. It is Mr. Wallace’s hope that this litigation will help ensure that others, including his lifelong friend and fellow ‘Angola 3′ member, Albert Woodfox, do not continue to suffer such cruel and unusual confinement even after Mr. Wallace is gone.”
– Herman Wallace’s Legal Team, October 1, 2013
Background on Herman Wallace case
Herman Wallace, a member of the “Angola 3″ was held in solitary confinement conditions in Louisiana prisons for over forty years, despite his strong claims of innocence for the 1972 murder of a prison guard in Angola prison. Mr. Wallace has fought his unconstitutional conviction for decades, and is supported by four alibi witnesses who place him in another part of the prison when the tragic murder occurred.
Mr. Wallace’s federal habeas petition was filed almost four years ago, and briefing was complete two years ago in the case. Today’s ruling mandates a new trial in the case, but Mr. Wallace is bedridden and dying of advanced liver cancer. It’s time for Louisiana to immediately release this 72-year old man with terminal liver cancer on bail so that he can receive proper medical care as his attorneys prepare for his new trial.
An Unfair Trial: Inadequate Counsel and Evidence Unconstitutionally Suppressed for 25 Years
In 1972, Brent Miller, a well-loved, young, white guard at Angola prison, was killed. At a time when the prison was highly racially polarized, corrections officers quickly honed in on four suspects who were politically active Black Panthers. In addition to Albert Woodfox, Herman Wallace was one of these men. As with Woodfox, there was no forensic or physical evidence against Mr. Wallace; he was convicted solely on the testimony of four inmate witnesses. Each of these witnesses gave statements inconsistent with their testimony. And, as Mr. Wallace learned decades later, these inmates were provided incentives by the State for their testimony.
For 26 years, the state unconstitutionally suppressed the deals it made with its witnesses in this case, including promises of improved housing and a pardon. The state also suppressed inconsistent statements by these witnesses, which would have been powerful evidence for the defense. Without the credibility of these witnesses, the state does not have a case against Mr. Wallace.
There was a bloody fingerprint and other prints at the crime scene, but none of these matched any of the men prosecuted for the murder of Mr. Miller. Prison officials have declined to test the prints against the 1972 prison population to determine who left them at the crime.
Mr. Wallace’s 3-day trial was fundamentally unfair. His attorney represented Mr. Wallace and two co-defendants, one of whom turned state’s evidence and witness against Mr. Wallace mid-trial, forcing Mr. Wallace’s attorney to cross-examine his own client, with no advanced notice. The attorney later admitted he had no reason not to move for a mistrial but failed to do so out of “shock and confusion.” The attorney did such a poor job that he failed to even file an appeal when Mr. Wallace was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison for murder.
Justice Delayed: Mr. Wallace’s Habeas Petition Languishes With The Courts
Sixteen years after his original trial, Mr. Wallace obtained permission to file his own appeal pro se, which made its way through the Louisiana courts for 19 years. Though his appeals were summarily dismissed with a word or a sentence, there has never been a written opinion explaining why the facts and the law do not require a new trial in this case. However, dissenting judges (and the state court Commissioner) have written in detail to explain that the serious constitutional deficiencies in his trial require that Mr. Wallace’s conviction be overturned.
Four years after it was filed, Mr. Wallace’s habeas petition won full relief today from a federal court judge. Due to Mr. Wallace’s failing health, it is urgent that the court grant him bail immediately.
Extreme Punishment: Mr. Wallace’s Solitary Confinement and Health
In addition to his wrongful conviction and life sentence, Mr. Wallace was additionally punished by prison officials, who kept him in solitary confinement conditions for over forty years, despite decades of exemplary behavior. The extreme duration of solitary confinement in the case of three men, including Mr. Wallace, has drawn international condemnation of the treatment of the ‘Angola 3’.
As one judge wrote, the extreme length of Mr. Wallace’s solitary confinement was “so far beyond the pale that this Court has not found anything even remotely comparable in the annals of American jurisprudence.” Wilkerson v. Stalder, 00-Civ-304 (M.D.La)
Cruelly, prison officials also neglected to provide basic health care, including monitoring Mr. Wallace for liver cancer, which he was known to be at risk of developing. Liver cancer is treatable if caught in a timely way.
In summer 2013, after Mr. Wallace lost 40 – 50 pounds, he was given a medical assessment and found to have advanced and terminal liver cancer. Even after this diagnosis, it took over a month for Mr. Wallace to get chemotherapy treatment. That’s why an oncologist and a specialist in internal medicine and geriatric patients have submitted sworn affidavits recommending that Mr. Wallace should be immediately released for medical reasons, so that he can receive adequate medical and palliative care.
Justice for Mr. Wallace Means Release, and Swift Consideration of His Pending Meritorious Claims
Mr. Wallace’s 1974 trial was unfair and unconstitutional, with illegally suppressed evidence that would have cast doubt on the state’s only evidence against him – four witnesses with undisclosed motives to testify, at least one of whom has recanted his testimony entirely in a sworn affidavit. Mr. Wallace’s pending habeas petition offers the court the opportunity to address this egregious miscarriage of justice.
For decades Mr. Wallace has endured the torture of solitary confinement and has fought for the opportunity to present his case in court showing his innocence. At this time, Mr. Wallace is in poor health, with liver cancer. The state should release him on bail so he may receive adequate medical care.
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.
• Reporting on the 1972 trial of Herman Wallace, the outcome of which landed him in solitary confinement for over four decades, The Atlantic writes on the meaning of Wallace’s life and “[w]hat a sham trial in Louisiana says about the U.S. court system.”
• Reason.com reports on the solitary confinement of youth in long-term solitary confinement, which the piece notes is “standard practice for tens of thousands of juveniles in prisons and jails across America.”
• The Los Angeles Times reports that U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken has stated that she is likely to allow a lawsuit maintaining that solitary confinement at Pelican Bay qualifies as psychological torture to expand to include about 1,100 held in indefinite isolation.
• The Guardian reports on Herman Wallace’s fight to be released from prison in light of his terminal liver cancer diagnosis. The piece states, “A federal magistrate judge in Louisiana last week recommended that despite his medical condition, which doctors have concluded is beyond hope, he should remain incarcerated and effectively die in prison.”
• The Mercury News publishes a piece in which Kevin McCarthy, who has been held in isolation in the state of California since 2002, describes his life in solitary confinement. He writes, “I don’t remember what human touch feels like. The only color around me is a grayish white.”
• The Denver Post reports that half of 33 Colorado parolees who were charged with murder since 2002 were held in solitary confinement. According to the story, “Several went either directly from solitary to the streets or had only weeks to interact with people before their release to Colorado communities.”
Thomas Silverstein has been called “the most dangerous prisoner in America,” based on several prison murders that took place 30 years ago. He has also been called “America’s most isolated man,” based on the conditions in which he has lived during those 30 years–conditions which, Silverstein and his lawyers contend, clearly constitute cruel and unusual punishment.
Silverstein’s closely watched lawsuit, a groundbreaking Constitutional challenge to solitary confinement, had another day in court yesterday as attorney Laura Rovner argued his case before a federal appeals court. A detailed story on the appeal and its significance appeared in the Colorado Independent, written by longtime solitary watcher (and now Independent editor) Susan Greene.
By law, you get 15 minutes to argue in the U.S. Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals. The rules are the rules.
Yet that rule comes across as painfully ironic in the case of a man who has spent a million times that limit — 15,778,470 minutes and counting – in prison isolation. Tommy Silverstein, 61, has lived in solitary confinement nearly half his life, and longer than any other prisoner held by the federal government.
Silverstein won’t be allowed to visit Denver’s Byron White Courthouse on Tuesday to challenge the U.S. District Court ruling that said he has been unharmed by living for 30 years alone in a cell that’s smaller than a wheelchair-accessible parking spot or a Chevy Suburban. Silverstein says he gets less than a minute per day of human contact, mainly in the form of officers passing food trays in and out of the slot in his cell door or asking “Rec?” — guard-speak for “would you like to go outside?” They mean for an hour in an isolated exercise cage known among prisoners as a “dog run.”
Silverstein is no choir boy. He robbed a bank as a young man. He was later convicted of killing two men in prison. And he led the Aryan Brotherhood, a national prison gang, through the early 1980s.
In 1983, he fatally stabbed officer Merle Clutts at the U.S. Penitentiary in Marion, Illinois. That killing coincided with another murder of a guard by a prisoner that same day at Marion, which had replaced Alcatraz as the federal government’s highest security prison. Those murders punctuated a rash of prison violence that decade and led to a national movement to build supermax prisons made up exclusively of solitary confinement cells for prisoners who, like Silverstein, were deemed to be the “worst of the worst.” The U.S. Bureau of Prisons built its supermax, the United States Penitentiary, Administrative Maximum Facility – commonly referred to as ADX – in Florence, Colorado. Known as the crown jewel of the federal system, ADX is considered the most secure prison on the planet. No one has ever escaped.
Greene details the conditions in which Silverstein has lived for the last three decades in a series of supermax prisons. Those conditions were described by Silverstein himself in a lengthy brief, which we reported on here. Then Greene describes the issues at hand in the federal appeal.
Two top national prison experts said the conditions Silverstein has endured are the most severe they’ve ever encountered.
“Not only has he been subjected to the most extreme forms of isolation I have ever seen — placed in housing units that were literally designed to isolate him as completely as possible from other human beings — but he also has been confined in these places for an extraordinary length of time,” wrote Dr. Craig Haney, a psychology professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who has studied solitary confinement for 30 years.
Steve Martin, another noted prison expert, wrote: “The level of near total isolation from all human contact is unprecedented in my 38 years experience in corrections, which includes experience with numerous death rows and ultra-high security facilities across the U.S.”
Laura Rovner, director of the student law clinic at the University of Denver, is Silverstein’s longtime lawyer who has worked with several crews of law students representing him. On Tuesday, she’ll challenge a 2011 U.S. District Court decision that upheld the Bureau of Prison’s assertions that Silverstein’s decades in solitary haven’t deprived him of life’s basic necessities. Judge Philip Brimmer sided with the BOP’s lawyers from U.S. Attorney John Walsh’s office that the case shouldn’t go to trial.
Walsh’s office refused comment on the case.
The question before the three-judge appeals panel Tuesday morning will be whether there are factual issues in dispute that would warrant a trial. Among those are:
• The Bureau’s claim that 30 years in isolation haven’t harmed Silverstein. Experts who have evaluated him have found extensive evidence of depression, cognitive impairment, memory loss, hallucinations, severe anxiety disorder, panic attacks that make his him breathless and shaky in the company of others, and paranoia that leads him to hear voices whispering to him through vents.
• The Bureau’s assertion that Silverstein is too dangerous to lessen the extreme solitary confinement conditions in which he is housed. Silverstein’s lawyers challenge this argument based on the two best predictors of a prisoner’s future dangerousness. One is age. At 61, Silverstein has statistically aged out as posing a risk of violence. Another predictor is recent behavior. His prison record has been clean for more than two decades.
Rovner will argue that Silverstein should have his day in court to determine whether 30 years in extreme isolation amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. Silverstein is not requesting anyone to lift his three life sentences. Rather, having spent years studying Buddhism in prison, he wants to demonstrate at trial that he has changed. He also wants a shot at working his way out of solitary and some day dining and playing checkers with other prisoners and hugging his two children.
“I am quickly becoming an old man. I spend most of my days crocheting items for my family and my legal counsel and working on my artwork. It is hard to reconcile the [Bureau's] description of me as frightening and scary, when the people who see me here know I am a man peering through bifocals trying to count the number of stitches to make and afghan,” he wrote. “It’s hard, if not impossible, for me to prove what is actually in my mind and what is not. All I can do is ask that others look at my current behavior and explain that it reflects my intention never to act violently again, ever. I know the consequences – both to myself and others – that will follow. And, more importantly, I know that this is not who I wish to be.”
For Rovner and the dozens of D.U. law clinic students who over the years have revolved on and off of his case, Silverstein is an amiable and grateful client who crochets hats, mittens, scarves and blankets for them and their relatives. When he has art supplies, he uses pastels and paint to make them artwork.
That said, and despite his public apologies for his crimes, a three-time prison killer and former Aryan Brotherhood leader isn’t the most sympathetic figure in the growing national movement to end long-term solitary confinement. Silverstein’s case pivots not on redemption but on what, given all the research on the psychological harm of extreme isolation, is deemed to be cruel and unusual treatment of prisoners.
“The 8th Amendment is about what we as a society are willing to sanction as punishment. It has built into it this notion of evolving standards decency that mark the progress of a maturing society,” Rovner said. “The amendment doesn’t just protect people who are catatonic or floridly psychotic. It protects people from being harmed by the minimal civilized measure of life’s necessities, especially for what has been an unthinkable period of time.”
In 2011, Juan Mendez, the United Nations special rapporteur on torture, issued a statement calling for an “absolute prohibition” of solitary confinement beyond fifteen days. He has asked, but not been allowed to tour ADX. The prison is the subject of a federal class action lawsuit about how it treats its mentally ill prisoners, some of whom starve themselves, self-mutilate to the point of cutting off their testicles or, as was the case with prisoner Robert Knott earlier this month, hang themselves with bed sheets.
Mental health professionals, state legislatures and human rights organizations have condemned prolonged isolation, which is defined by the American Psychiatric Association as a period greater than three to four weeks.
“Given that four weeks of solitary confinement was described as potentially harmful, the 30-year duration in this case compels scrutiny. If shorter periods of solitary confinement have resulted in psychological distress and symptoms, it is not unreasonable to assume that substantially longer durations provide a greater risk of serious health consequences,” several national groups and experts wrote the court on Silverstein’s behalf.
A division of the U.S. Justice Department, under the federal Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act (CRIPA), has investigated and found violations of state prisons for the overuse of solitary confinement. Perhaps the greatest irony about Silverstein’s case is that solitary confinement as practiced by the Bureau of Prisons, also an arm of the Justice Department, is exempt from that civil rights division’s review.
The post Federal Appeals Court Considers Tommy Silverstein’s 30 Years in Extreme Solitary Confinement appeared first on Solitary Watch.
• Salon writes about the solitary confinement of Michael Douglas’s son, Cameron Douglas, after the actor made an Emmy-night statement denouncing the conditions in which his son is being held.
• According to the Denver Post, half of all Colorado parolees who went on to be charged with murder has been held in solitary confinement while in prison–and often released directly to the streets.
• In the Atlantic, Andrew Cohen reports on the suicide of a man with severe mental illness who was being held in extreme isolation at the federal government’s ADX supermax prison in Florence, Colorado.
• A Los Angeles Times editorial condemns the use of solitary confinement on people in immigrant detention. It praises ICE’s recent decision to curtail the use of isolation, and urges Congress to restrict the practice by law.
• The New Orleans Times-Picayune reports on Angola 3 member Albert Woodfox’s legal motion to put a stop to the strip searches he must undergo every time he leaves his solitary confinement cell–often several times a day. The 68-year-old Woodfox has been in solitary for 41 years.
• In the National Law Journal, Columbia Law professor Vivian Berger writes a measured opinion piece opposing prison isolation, titled “Solitary Confinement’s High Costs More Than Monetary.”
Solitary Watch has been on a brief hiatus this week as we worked on our latest collaboration, Photo Requests From Solitary. Please check out our new page on the project to view more photos. If you are in New York, come see the exhibit at Photoville in Brooklyn, and join us this afternoon for a panel discussion. Following is the press release on the New York debut of Photo Requests from Solitary.
Special thanks to our amazing project partners, to the great folks at Photoville, to the Open Society Foundations Documentary Photography Project for sponsoring the exhibit and panel, and to the Flom Family Foundation for supporting Solitary Watch’s work in New York.
“PHOTO REQUESTS FROM SOLITARY” EXHIBIT–UNIQUE COLLABORATION BETWEEN ARTISTS AND PEOPLE HELD IN SUPERMAX PRISONS–MAKES NEW YORK DEBUT AT PHOTOVILLE
What would a person in solitary confinement want to see? People held in supermax prisons and solitary confinement units were invited to request an image of anything at all, real or imagined–and promised that artists on the outside would fulfill their requests.
The resulting photographs provide an archive of the hopes, memories, and interests of Americans who live locked in cells for 23 hours a day in extreme isolation and sensory deprivation–conditions that have been widely denounced as torture.
A collection of these photographs will be on view in the Photo Requests from Solitary exhibit at Photoville on September 19-29. Photoville, a pop-up village of freight containers transformed into temporary exhibition spaces, is located at Pier Five in Brooklyn Bridge Park.
The exhibit will feature more than a dozen images by a variety of artists, made in response to requests from men in Tamms, the recently shuttered supermax prison in Illinois. Also on view will be a collection of photo requests from people held in solitary confinement in California and New York.
Visitors will be able to stand inside an outline of an average solitary confinement cell, which measures 7 x 10 feet. Advocates and survivors of solitary from the New York Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement will be on hand at the exhibit to talk about the campaign to end the practice in New York’s prisons and jails, where over 5,000 people are held in isolation on any given day.
On Sunday, September 22, Photo Requests from Solitary will hold a panel discussion with slide show, featuring the exhibit’s curators along with survivors of solitary confinement in New York State. The event will take place at 4:40 pm in the Photoville Talk Area at 360 Furman Street.
Panel participants and press are invited to a reception following the event, at 6:15 pm, at the Photo Requests from Solitary container.
Together, the exhibit and panel are intended to introduce audiences to the reality of torture taking place in their own backyards, while exploring the power of art to humanize a highly marginalized group of people and spur social change on one of our most pressing domestic human rights issues.
The Photo Requests from Solitary project was initiated in 2009 by Tamms Year Ten (TY10), a grassroots coalition of artists, advocates, family members and men formerly incarcerated in Tamms Correctional Center in southern Illinois.
Like some 80,000 other people in U.S. prisons, the men in Tamms were locked in small, concrete cells for 23 to 24 hours a day without human contact, in conditions the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture has defined as torture. Mental breakdowns, self-mutilation, and suicide attempts were common at Tamms, and are an expected consequence of long-term isolation.
Photo requests from the men in Tamms included the sacred mosque in Mecca, comic book heroes locked in epic battle, Egyptian artifacts, a lovesick clown, and a grey and white horse rearing in weather cold enough to see its breath.
In 2013, in collaboration with Parsons The New School for Design, Solitary Watch, and the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, the project expanded to California and New York. Photo Requests from Solitary is currently filling requests from these states, and using the project to support local campaigns to stop the use of solitary confinement.
The Photo Requests from Solitary exhibit and panel at Photoville are supported by the Open Society Documentary Photography Project, which explores how photography can engage and mobilize people around issues of justice and human rights.
The curators of the exhibit–Laurie Jo Reynold of Tamms Year Ten, Jeanine Oleson of Parsons The New School for Design, and Jean Casella of Solitary Watch–are available for interview, as are survivors of solitary confinement and other advocates working to end solitary in New York.
To learn more about the Photo Requests from Solitary project and view photographs, go to http://www.yearten.org/category/cultural-projects/photo-requests-from-solitary/ or http://www.solitarywatch.com/photo-requests-solitary.
• According to the tally kept by the Miami Herald, 19 of the 166 men held captive at Guantanamo are engaged in a hunger strike, with 18 being force-fed. The Associated Press reports that a judge has ruled that the government does not have to release photos of a Saudi Guantanamo detainee who authorities said had planned on being one of the September 11 hijackers.
• In a piece entitled “The Sorry Injustice of the Angola Three,” Slate calls for the humane release of Herman Wallace, one of the Angola Three who spent over four decades in solitary confinement. According to the story, “The murder case is embarrassingly weak and rife with evidence of investigative and prosecutorial misconduct, including the bribing of witnesses and the suppression of exculpatory evidence.”
• The Washington Post publishes an editorial speaking out against the abuse of solitary confinement in US prisons and jails. Referring to the 62 percent decrease in the number of people held in solitary in the state of Virginia since 2011, the story states “Those statistics are a testament to the viability of a solution to the many problems of solitary confinement…”
• NOLA.com reports that Herman Wallace, who was diagnosed with advanced liver cancer earlier this year, has only a few more months to live. According to the story, Wallace “has about two months left to live, according to an update from Wallace released on Sept. 10. He has received oral chemotherapy drugs since early August, but treatment has now ceased…” See Wallace’s full message here.
• The Associated Press reports that The New York City Board of Correction has voted to start making rules restricting the use of solitary confinement at Rikers Island as part of efforts to change the way the department uses isolation on youth and people with mental illness.
In June 2012, a federal lawsuit was filed by eleven prisoners at the United States Penitentiary, Administrative Maximum Facility (ADX Florence) against the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP). The facility houses approximately 450 men from across the country in solitary confinement units. The lawsuit alleges that inmates diagnosed with mental illnesses are denied constitutionally adequate mental health treatment. The severe sensory deprivation and restricted social contact at ADX is further alleged to exacerbate mental health problems. This concern was underscored in a June 2012 US Senate hearing on solitary confinement, when Director of the BOP, Charles Samuels, testified that there were only two psychiatrists on staff at ADX.
One man in ADX, Jesse Wilson, wrote Solitary Watch after he listened to the head of the BOP testify that there weren’t mentally ill prisoners in ADX. “I heard the head of the BOP in Congress (on radio) saying they do not have insane inmates housed here, ” Wilson wrote, “This is what should be thought of as a lie. I have not slept in weeks due to these non-existing inmates beating on the walls and hollering all night. And the most ‘non-insane’ smearing feces in their cells.”
The lawsuit is currently pending before the US District Court. Currently titled Cunningham v. Federal Bureau of Prisons, a website tracking the progress of the lawsuit provides profiles of the plaintiffs.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report in May that found federal officials hadn’t studied how long-term segregation affects those subject to it, how much it actually costs, or the extent to which it “achieves its stated purpose to protect inmates, staff and the general public.” A “snapshot estimate” provided by the BOP to the GAO suggests that taxpayers are spending $78,000 per year, per person at ADX Florence to incarcerate them in psychologically devastating conditions.
This is notable considering that the Obama Administration is seeking to open a second federal supermax in Illinois, to be named “Administrative Maximum U.S. Penitentiary.”
Solitary Watch has been in contact with several individuals in ADX Florence, including members of the lawsuit who wanted to tell more of their story and share their perspectives. We are presenting the stories of individuals in ADX Florence in order to shed some light on just who exactly gets sent to the “Alcatraz of the Rockies.” First in this series is Harold Cunningham.
Harold Cunningham, ADX Control Unit, 12 Years in Solitary
Harold Cunningham, 43, is the lead plaintiff of the federal lawsuit demanding constitutionally adequate mental health care in ADX. Cunningham is serving a life sentence and has been at the ADX Control Unit since 2001. Suffering from mental health issues since the age of ten, he has since been variously diagnosed with Paranoid Schizophrenia, Psychotic Disorder NOS and Personality Disorder NOS, and has been incarcerated on and off since he was 11, including a five year prison sentence at the age of 17 for cocaine possession. Sentenced to life imprisonment in 1996 for his involvement in a series of murders and robberies, he was incarcerated at United States Penitentiary, Marion until his transfer to ADX in 2001.
While at Marion, he was at times held in solitary confinement. He complained of visual and auditory hallucinations and was prescribed anti-depressants and anti-psychotics. According to the federal lawsuit, a psychologist at USP Marion found that “Cunningham’s current mental status, emotional expression, and behavior suggest significant mental health problems.” A year later he was transported to ADX, where psychiatric drugs are not provided to inmates.
The lawsuit details that, as a consequence of the denial of psychiatric medication, his “behavior predictably worsened,” and he was cited for rules violations such as possessing weapons, assaulting corrections officers, and refusing to leave his cell. For this, he would spend five years, from 2002-2007 in even more restrictive environments within the Control Unit.
His “treatment” has thus far consisted of workbooks and programs through his television.
Cunningham wrote to Solitary Watch to tell more of his story:
What I have been through at Marion and here in the ADX Control Unit has been a bloody nightmare. Mentally and physically.
There was a bloody war going on in Marion when I arrived there, a place I should have never been sent to, I was designated to be housed at the Springfield Medical Facility. I have been taking psychotropic medication and receiving psychological therapy since the age of ten and on and off throughout my life. The war was racial, blacks against whites. The Aryan Brotherhood was warring with D.C. inmates.
I’m from Washington, D.C. and I got caught in the middle but my problem was more with the racist correctional officers who were behind everything. It was a very dangerous environment, one wrong move and you could lose your life. I was lucky, it was like living in a concrete jungle and only the strong survive. But to survive you have to become an animal and I became a monster that one one dared to fuck with.
I was sent from Marion to ADX Control Unit in 2001. I was treated and lived like an animal for years. Stripped of all my clothes for weeks at a time…just a blanket chained to my bed, water turned off, no shower at times. No food and when they did feed me it was bad food, stale bread and cheese, rotten apple…I was beaten while handcuffed. All this on and off throughout five to six years. It was an up and down roller coaster ride in a bloody nightmare. I was at war physically and mentally. I survived but now I suffer from PTSD so it’s hard for me to talk about some of the things I’ve been through. I’ve tried to block a lot of it out by escaping through writing. Every day in here is like a landmine field, one wrong step and I may snap back to that nightmare, something I don’t want to do.
I have been seeking and reaching out for help, therapy and medication that I used to be on but that’s not allowed here in the control unit. This is what my lawsuit is all about. My attorney has been working real hard to help me get the treatment I need. I’ve been here 12 years, I have less than a year left. Hopefully they will send me somewhere I can get the help I need and get involved in programs like education and writing.