Amid growing controversy around the use of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons and jails, and in advance of an audit of its own prison “segregation” practices, the federal government is quietly moving ahead with a plan that would significantly increase its capacity to house individuals in long-term isolation. The 2015 Omnibus Appropriations bill passed by Congress in December contained funding for the continued activation of Thomson prison, a currently disused facility in northwest Illinois.
It has been years since Thomson dominated the headlines with news of mainland-bound Guantanamo detainees. Yet its activation remains significant because of the prison’s potential to alter the landscape of solitary confinement on the federal level. Reliable sources indicate that the Bureau of Prisons plans to use the facility to add 1,500 Special Management Unit beds and 400 more Administrative Maximum-rated cells. The latter increase would double the number of people held in conditions of extreme isolation like those at ADX Florence, a place that has been denounced by UN officials and human rights groups, and described by one former warden as a “clean version of hell.”
The Backstory: How Thomson Came Into BOP Hands
In October 2012, the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) purchased Thomson Correctional Center (TCC) from the State of Illinois for $165 million. The facility was built in 2001 “as a state-of-the-art, maximum-security prison,” but due to budget cuts, it never became fully operational.
By all accounts, the Obama administration originally envisioned Thomson as a new home for the men held at Guantanamo Bay. In late 2010, however, Congress foiled Obama’s plan by voting to prohibit the use federal funds to transport detainees onto American soil. And while the President has been moving aggressively in recent months to transfer detainees out of Guantanamo, serious obstacles remain in terms of the political feasibility of closing the prison camp.
From the beginning, Justice Department officials insisted that regardless of Gitmo’s fate, they also intended to use Thomson to alleviate the overcrowding crisis within the BOP’s highest-security institutions. Overcrowding (e.g. incarcerated population above rated capacity) reached 55 percent in federal high-security facilities by 2011. For BOP officials in search of more high-security housing, the Thomson purchase was a steal, since the cost of building a high-security facility from scratch was estimated at $400 million.
Ironically, the two Illinois elected officials who championed the federal purchase of Thomson are both known for challenging solitary confinement. Then-Governor Pat Quinn closed down the state’s notorious supermax prison, Tamms, while Senator Dick Durbin is the first member of Congress to hold hearings critical of solitary.
The reasons for their support of the Thomson sale are not difficult to discern. According to a press release issued by Illinois Senator Dick Durbin at the time that Thomson was purchased, “annual operation of the facility is expected to generate more than $122 million in operating expenditures (including salaries), $19 million in labor income, and $61 million in local business sales.” Along with infusing cash into the state’s coffers and offloading the cost of maintaining the facility, the sale and eventual activation of the prison is expected to create more than 1,100 jobs.
Durbin is also a staunch supporter of Cheri Bustos, who represents the 17th Congressional District in which Thomson is located. During the 2011 campaign cycle, The Sauk Valley News interviewed a competing Democratic candidate in the district, who said that Durbin had met with him personally and asked him to withdraw from the race. When Bustos squared off with her Republican contender, both took vocal stances on the best strategy for securing the sale of Thomson–an issue made pressing by the economic fallout the district experienced when the facility failed to open.
“This area has been looking at an empty prison for twelve years now,” Thomson Village President Vicky Trager told Solitary Watch in a phone interview. “The state of Illinois constructed it and then couldn’t seem to find the funding to activate it. So there were a lot of local business, not just in Thomson but in the entire surrounding area, that had invested in properties or constructed buildings in anticipation of the uptake in population and visitors to our area. And when that didn’t happen, they were very badly affected.”
But it is not just local businesses that have suffered. Last week, the Quad-City Times reported that the village is struggling to pay off a $4 million bond–a debt taken on by Thomson to finance the water and sewer improvements that the prison required.
Once Thomson was purchased, the Bureau of Prisons still required a steady stream of funds to activate it, and Senator Durbin and Representative Bustos have advocated aggressively in Congress for the money. In FY2014, the facility received $43.7 million for equipment and staffing, and an additional $10 million for renovations. And the prison is set to receive an additional $58.7 million from the FY2015 Omnibus Appropriations bill passed in December.
“Both personally, and from the standpoint as Village President, I can’t say enough for the efforts and the support that we have received from both Congresswoman Bustos and Senator Durbin,” Trager told Solitary Watch. “Having met them both personally, I feel encouraged and confident that they do care about getting it activated and getting it open and we’re grateful for that.”
The Road to Activation
The Bureau of Prisons has projected that Thomson will be fully activated by 2016. For now, however, the process of activation appears to be proceeding slowly. In August, the BOP named a warden for the facility, Donald Hudson, who most recently headed up the Federal Correctional Institute in Schuylkill, Pennsylvania. About a month later, the prison held its first job fair.
Yet a host of questions remain about who will be held at the prison and in what conditions of confinement—questions for which the BOP has failed to provide clear answers.
In its FY 2014 budget request, the US Department of Justice referred to the facility as “ADX USP Thomson,” seemingly an indication that the prison would function at least in part as a second Administrative Maximum facility (along with ADX Florence). A little more than six months later, when Warden Hudson was appointed, the Bureau of Prisons instead called the facility “Administrative United States Penitentiary (AUSP) Thomson—an odd move, given that no existing federal prison facility holds the same designation. Thus far, federal prisoners given high-security designations have been housed in “United States Penitentiaries (USPs)”; prisoners perceived as requiring the highest level of security—like those with terrorism convictions—are placed in Florence ADX.
The BOP’s press officer did not respond to repeated requests from Solitary Watch for clarification of Thomson’s designation.
Of all prisons and jails across the United States, Florence ADX is generally considered to have the most extreme conditions of isolation, with most individuals receiving all meals and programming in their cells, and even taking their showers in-cell at timed intervals.
According to an August 2014 report on prison activation published by the Government Accountability Office, the “BOP plans to move some of the most dangerous SMU inmates housed elsewhere to Administrative USP Thomson.” It also details, “Administrative USP Thomson has a rated capacity of 2,100 beds—1,900 high-security SMU beds and 200 minimum-security beds at the onsite camp—and according to BOP officials, the potential to use some of its high-security rated capacity to house up to 400 ADX inmates.”
The BOP sends people to an SMU, or Special Management Unit, if they are alleged to have participated in gang activity or have a history of serious disciplinary infractions; the program is supposed to consist of a four-level, 18-to-24 month step-down program, but many remain for significantly longer.
Individuals held in SMUs also live in continuous isolation, with only five hours per week out of their cells for exercise, and two phone calls and four visiting hours each month. Some SMU cells meant for one are currently double-bunked. As of May 2013 the SMU population in the BOP rested at 1,960 prisoners and 1,270 cells, meaning the activation of Thomson will more than double the number of SMU cells.
Solitary Watch also requested information about how SMU prisoners will be selected for transfer to Thomson, and whether any individuals currently held at ADX Florence would be moved to the facility, but received no reply.
The BOP’s decision to also functionally double its number of nationally available ADX-cells—from 400 to 800—does not seem to answer any systemic need. Unlike the USPs, ADX Florence has consistently been operating below capacity. And Administrative Maximum-level housing requires much greater spending and staffing per prisoner than high-security housing.
Creating an ADX-level unit may also require some significant internal renovations to Thomson prison. David Maurer is the Director of Homeland Security and Justice Issues for the GAO, and the author of several reports that examine Bureau of Prisons activities. He told Solitary Watch that when the GAO toured Thomson in March 2014 prior to the release of a report on prison activation, they asked the BOP about the different physical requirements for the layout of ADX cells as opposed to high-security ones. “When you go to the control unit in ADX, the cells are configured in a certain way. The cells at Thomson are not currently configured in that way.” Maurer said the BOP “said they would take that into consideration.”
Malcolm Young toured Thomson in 2008 when he served as the Executive Director of the John Howard Association of Illinois, a prison reform organization. He told Solitary Watch that none of the cells at the prison have built-in showers, and nor are any double doored—both of which are known to be standard features in ADX cells. Young also specified the cells were built to hold one individual, with the beds poured with cement or cement-like material, but that a second bunk could be added if necessary.
To the touring members of the John Howard Association Thomson seemed like a “far superior facility” than other maximum-security prisons operating in the state, Young said, adding that his team’s assessment was predicated on the assumption that people would be single-celled. “That would change everything. It should not ever be double celled.” In addition, few of the positive features cited by Young—which included dayrooms, cafeterias, and classrooms—would be of any use at all in a supermax prison where there are no congregate activities.
The BOP declined to provide any information about what renovations will be conducted at Thomson or when they anticipate the construction will be completed. In response to queries from Solitary Watch about why the agency would be adding additional ADX-level beds when Florence is running under capacity, the press officer stated that the BOP declined to comment.
Prison “Overcrowding” and the Pushback Against Solitary
Advocates and policy makers are not merely awaiting news about Thomson’s future—they are also anticipating the publication of an audit of the Bureau of Policies on segregation, expected to come out early next year. The audit was performed by an outside team contracted through the National Institute of Corrections, following the 2012 Senate Judiciary Subcommittee hearing on solitary confinement, chaired by Dick Durbin.
Solitary Watch asked Durbin’s office how the Senator balanced his concerns about solitary confinement and his commitment to opening Thomson. “Thomson prison will be a federal maximum security prison and will help alleviate massive overcrowding within the Federal prison system,” his press officer wrote in response. “Overcrowding which has created grave safety concerns for both inmates and prison officials.”
“Senator Durbin’s efforts to secure the purchase of Thomson prison, reform solitary confinement practices, and encourage smarter sentencing practices are all consistently aimed at improving the safety, rights, and treatment of inmates, prison guards and the broader community. He will continue his work to ensure that all prisoners, whether in Thomson or elsewhere in the Federal system, are treated humanely and that no one is housed in segregation unnecessarily.”
Many prison advocates contest the BOP’s assertion that the “overcrowding” problem is a result of lack of capacity.
Alan Mills is the Legal Director of the Uptown People’s Law Center, a community-based legal organization in Chicago. He told Solitary Watch that the real problem in the federal system is not a lack of high-security cell space, but locking up people for too long and over classifying prisoners as “maximum security.” Mills also contested that notion that isolation makes prisons safer, commenting that “psychologists have known since the 1920’s that packing lots of people into small spaces and giving them nothing to do inevitably leads to violence.”
A 2013 GAO report on segregation in the federal prison system documents the dramatic rise in the use of isolation and takes issue with the BOP’s claim that solitary is both necessary and effective. The report summary states, “…without an assessment of the impact of segregation on institutional safety or study of the long-term impact of segregated housing on inmates, BOP cannot determine the extent to which segregated housing achieves its stated purpose to protect inmates, staff and the general public.”
But little came of the report, and with Thomson’s activation seemingly inching towards reality, advocates are left wondering when things will change. “If they build it, they will fill it,” said Reverend Laura Markle Downton, the Director of the US Prisons Policy & Program at the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, in an email to Solitary Watch.
Downton calls the activation of Thomson “an immoral, unjustifiable move on the part the BOP, antithetical to rehabilitation and in violation of international human rights. The overwhelming consensus amongst people of faith and conscience nationwide, from a broad array of political persuasions and religious traditions, is that the isolated confinement found in ADX-level and SMU-housing is torture.”
Amidst the debates on rural economies, prison overcrowding, and government audits, the voices of survivors of solitary confinement can sometimes be hard to hear. Ray Luc Levasseur is a former political prisoner who spent over fifteen years in solitary confinement.
“I was one of the first prisoners sent to ADX, the federal supermax, a prison designed from the ground up for sensory deprivation,” he told Solitary Watch. “The projected activation of another supermax in Thomson, Illinois makes me feel like a survivor of abuse that’s watching the abuser receive rewards and impunity. And I fear for those who’ll be confined their cages, and those in the communities to which they’ll someday return.”
• South Carolina has paid $1.2 million to the estate of an individual who contracted hypothermia after spending 11 days in solitary confinement without any clothing. Jerome Laudman, who had mental health issues and developmental disabilities, was found dead in his supermax cell in February 2008.
• Journalist Martha Bellisle explores an ongoing crisis in Washington state – the wait lists that leave individuals with mental illness languishing in jails. People who are deemed incompetent to face charges – and are ordered to undergo treatment – often spend week or months in solitary confinement while they await a free hospital bed.
• This week, New York City’s Board of Corrections is set to vote on new regulations regarding the use of solitary confinement on Rikers Island. Included in the proposal is the creation of “enhanced supervision housing” units (ESHU), which “would allow wardens to lock 250 inmates in their cells up to 17 hours a day” – a plan which has come under stinging criticism from prisoners’ rights advocates across the city.
• Pennsylvania has reached a settlement in a lawsuit between the state’s Department of Corrections and the Disability Rights Network. Prisoners with “serious mental illnesses” will no longer be placed in solitary confinement, and will instead be moved to treatment units that allow at least 20 hours of out-of-cell time per week.
• The UK’s Telegraph published an article entitled, “My 19 days in solitary confinement on Alcatraz.”
• Mustafa Kamel Mustafa – commonly referred to in the press as Abu Hamza – has been sentenced to life in prison after being convicted of several terrorism-related charges. The judge in his case rejected an appeal by Abu Hamza’s lawyers to have him placed in a special medical facility, as opposed to a federal supermax facility like ADX Florence, due to his physical disabilities.
• Illinois officials are investigating a death that occurred on January 3, in a solitary confinement cell at Stateville Correctional Center. Shawn Craig, 40, appears to have committed suicide by hanging himself from a torn sheet, but the official cause of death is still pending.
As the year ended, The Marshall Project provided a comprehensive roundup of reforms to solitary confinement practices across the country. Eli Hager and Gerald Rich write: “In 2014 one of the most controversial practices in criminal justice, solitary confinement, faced unprecedented challenges. As a result of legislation or lawsuits, ten states adopted 14 measures aimed at curtailing the use of solitary, abolishing solitary for juveniles or the mentally ill, improving conditions in segregated units, or gradually easing isolated inmates back into the general population.” The article goes on to describe each of the measures adopted in 2014, and in several previous years.
Reform is not synonymous with abolition, and the forms it takes are almost always incremental. These changes have, or will, improve the day-to-day lives of perhaps several thousand individuals who have been suffering in solitary. The reforms stand as a tribute to the thousands of activists and advocates–including many currently or formerly held in solitary confinement themselves–who have worked to bring this domestic human rights crisis to the attention of the nation after it had languished in the shadows for decades.
Still, it’s worth noting that this “Shifting Away from Solitary” has not been a seismic shift, and to date has affected only a small number of the more than 80,000 individuals who, according to the best available data, are in isolation in the nation’s prisons on any given day.
For example, in California–which is second only to the federal prison system in the use of solitary confinement–about 6,000 people are in solitary confinement, with thousands more locked down in double cells. Of these, 400 have qualified for a pilot program to transition them back to the general prison population, and 150 have actually made the transition.
In many other states, the focus has been on children under the age of 18 in adult prisons, or people with mental illness. These are both highly vulnerable groups, and the latter is in many states quite a large group as well, and their removal from solitary is significant. It also demands some scrutiny, since many are being moved to new special units with problems of their own.
All such reforms also risk dividing the incarcerated into two groups–those who “deserve” to be in solitary confinement, and those who do not. For advocates who believe that solitary is a form of torture, and therefore not acceptable for anyone, the road ahead remains a long one. So, too, for opponents who object to solitary as a “sentence within a sentence,” handed down by prison officials without due process of law–since these same prison officials are usually involved in initiating, negotiating, or formulating the reforms.
Despite such reservations, there is ample change to fortify enemies of solitary for the struggle ahead. For decades, the use of solitary confinement grew with a virtually complete absence of attention from the media, policy makers, and even major activist groups. It depended upon its own invisibility to sustain itself. To penetrate the walls of secrecy and ignorance surrounding solitary confinement is only a first step–but it is one that can never be undone.
To support those who remain isolated in long-term solitary confinement, please consider a gift to our Lifelines to Solitary project.
The following essay was written by Anthony Lamar Davis, who has spent approximately six of his past eleven years in prison in solitary confinement in New York’s “Special Housing Units,” or SHUs. In 2008, New York passed a law restricting the use of solitary on people with serious mental illness. The “SHU Exclusion Law” has removed several hundred people from isolation and placed them in alternative mental health units. It has also been criticized for being too narrowly focused and easy to circumvent. Here, Davis points out an additional shortcoming of this and all laws and regulations that focus only on people with an underlying mental health diagnosis. As he notes, solitary confinement itself causes such severe psychological damage that it often renders individuals incapable of functioning effectively in the general prison population. Thus begins a vicious cycle in which such individuals, who receive little or no support making the transition to general population, land back in solitary once again. Anthony Davis welcomes letters, and can be reached at: Anthony Davis, 04-A-3293, Green Haven Correctional Facility, P.O. Box 4000, Stormville, New York 12582-4000. –Jean Casella
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I have noticed how Politicians and prisoners’ rights advocates have been advocating for changes in how the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision handles prisoners in long-term solitary confinement. There has been an outcry from these groups regarding the lengthy amount of time being imposed on those sanctioned to solitary confinement, the treatment of prisoners, and the psychological effects of long-term solitary confinement. As a prisoner who has spent a substantial amount of time in long-term solitary confinement, I obviously am an advocate of anything that limits the amount of time that a prisoner has to be subjected to extreme isolation.
I am a witness of its torturing ways and have been greatly affected by them. I’ve screamed for help, only to be ignored, and, in some cases, laughed at by the very people who I have asked for help. Unfortunately, the prison culture doesn’t provide the necessary tolerance for people with mental illness, so, I have been alienated by both, the prisoners as well as the authorities and that gives me a sense of hopelessness and loneliness, which enhances my psychological reactions which derived from spending years in solitary confinement.
The extreme sensitivity that I have been experiencing as a result of being isolated for substantial amounts of time has increased my rage. I often find myself wanting to hurt people for minor things – and had I not been in solitary confinement, I am confident that I would have done just that. With me, there is no frustration; only raging anger. I was not like this prior to me being placed in solitary confinement, and that is scary because the types of thoughts I have when I am angry are not conducive to my desire to do well and remain positive.
What’s more is that the inability to control myself could have disastrous results. Solitary Confinement has made me impulsive to the point where I have begun to feel like I am fighting a war with myself. The understanding I have for what extreme isolation has done to me is not necessarily advantageous towards me fighting the psychological damage. What it does is creates two versions of myself: On one end, I try to fight the other version of me, which is the one who has succumbed to what the results of long-term solitary confinement has to offer. I try to use the power of knowledge and information to fight these demons, but it’s the other version of myself who wins out usually. It becomes difficult for me to apply the information that I have researched because my mind has already been manipulated by the effects of extreme isolation.
For every time that I have been subjected to extreme isolation, my mental health deteriorated upon my release back into general population, and the more I am subjected to that type of inhumane torture, the worse I become. For example, just this past April I was reintegrated back into general population after an eleven month stint in solitary confinement. While in solitary confinement, I realized that I had completely lost control of myself and had basically become a walking time bomb ready to explode at the slightest provocation. I even suggested to my therapist that I be given more time in solitary confinement because I knew that I was not ready to be reintegrated back into general population. Of course, there was no way that he could accommodate my request, but the point is that I understood the mental metamorphosis that was occurring in me and I feared that I would end up doing something that could possibly jeopardize my life and freedom – which goes back to me fighting a war with myself because a part of me wants to live and be free, but another part of me wants to die and be free.
Almost immediately upon my reentry into general population I felt out of place; like I didn’t belong. I exhibited anti-social behavior along with a very negative attitude and aggressive behavior towards both prisoners and correction officers. The proverbial time bomb had begun ticking and there was no chance of defusing the potential explosion. My pleas for help from mental health staff during my time in solitary confinement went unanswered and what I was experiencing was the results of those unanswered pleas. It was as if I was ready to unleash all of my frustration at any moment on anybody. Not to mention, the fact that there was a lot going on in my personal life between my children and I, and being that I was psychologically damaged from spending time in a long-term solitary confinement, my whole perspective had changed. So I could not even evaluate the situation with my children in a logical manner. I responded to everything with rage and fury
As of today, I have been placed back in solitary confinement resulting from a physical altercation between myself and the authorities. I was not the aggressor in this incident, but I do believe that my negative attitude had contributed to me being assaulted. Unfortunately I was unable to adjust to general population and I am now back in the place where the foundation of my psychological damage derived from after only about five months in general population. During my brief stay in general population, I expressed to my therapist countless times that I was having a difficult time adjusting and needed help. Though I had not known what it was exactly that I needed help with. I did know that something was going terribly wrong inside of my mind because, not only did my way of thinking change but so did my behavior.
But with all of these programs put in place for solitary confined prisoners who have been diagnosed as having a serious mental illness (i.e., Residential Mental Health Unit, Special Treatment Program, Behavior Housing Unit, and Correctional Alternative Rehabilitation), I have to wonder what happens to the prisoners such as myself who suffers from the psychological effects of being in long-term solitary confinement. It is apparent that there is no regard for prisoners like me, so when we are done with our time in solitary confinement, we are thrown back into general population and basically told not to get into any more trouble without regard for the psychological damage that has affected us associated with extreme isolation.
So it becomes a cycle; each turn more severe than the previous one, meanwhile, the time spent in long-term solitary confinement increases as my mental health deteriorates. No one seems to care about the difficulties of adjusting to general population despite the vast amount of people who claim to understand the psychological effects of long-term solitary confinement. I can only hope that my pleas are heard and some type of action is taken before it is too late.
To help us keep in touch with thousands of people in solitary confinement throughout the year, please consider a donation to our Lifelines to Solitary project.
• A Massachusetts judge has tentatively approved a settlement for a class-action lawsuit that alleged abuses at Bridgewater State Hospital, including the excessive use of solitary confinement. A lead attorney for the patients said, “Today’s agreement will prevent the confinement of severely mentally ill patients to months of solitary confinement for trivial and illegal reasons.”
• HuffPostLive held a discussion entitled, “It’s Time To End Solitary Confinement For Minors.”
• Lawyers for a man with severe disabilities argued in front of a New York court that he should not be sent to the federal supermax, ADX Florence, to serve his sentence. Abu Hamza, 56, was extradited to the US from the UK in 2012 and convicted on terrorism charges last spring.
• The Week posted a Pacific Standard article about Raphael Sperry, the president of Architects / Designers / Planners for Social Responsibility, which is pressing the American Institute of Architects to “prohibit architects from designing spaces designed for solitary confinement as well as execution chambers.”
• Massachusetts is set to institute strict regulations on how long prisoners with mental illness can spend in isolation. Under the recently passed legislation, H4545, individuals with mental health diagnoses would not be placed in segregated units for longer than 30 days.
Dear Solitary Watchers:
We reach out directly to our readers with an appeal for support once a year, and only for a very special part of our work.
Throughout the year, while we carry out research and reporting on the human rights crisis hiding in plain sight, Solitary Watch also reaches out directly to over a 1,400 people who live in extreme isolation in prisons and jails across the country.
We get dozens of letters each week, and do our utmost to respond to each and every one. Additionally, four times a year we send out a newsletter with selected stories from the website to more than 1,400 men and women in solitary confinement. And every December we send out a holiday card. This year’s card, pictured below, features art once again by Five Mualimm-ak, a survivor of five years of solitary in New York State prisons.
At the same time, our communications with people in solitary confinement serve another purpose, providing us with a rich source of first-hand information that shapes our reporting on solitary confinement, as well as material for the Voices from Solitary we feature on our site.
Earlier last month, while opening the morning’s mail, we came across the kind of letter that serves as a touchstone for us and, we believe, anyone sympathetic to the issue we’ve dedicated ourselves to.
A carefully hand-printed letter told of the writer’s life over several years in solitary confinement, the death of his mother, the depth of his loneliness, and an isolation for which no adjective seemed severe enough. Each word, each sentiment clearly carefully considered. And then this:
“Thank you guys for looking out for us.”
It is difficult to overstate what an impact these Lifelines can have on a person who lives surrounded by gray walls, deprived of all human contact. A colorful card, or a note with a few handwritten words of support, or a newsletter that tells of the growing movement against solitary confinement–all these are acknowledgments of the recipient’s humanity, a small sign that they have not been forgotten.
This year, we are expanding our network of people willing to reach out, across the concrete walls, and connect with someone desperately in need of a sign that, despite the conditions they find themselves in, they are not alone. We’ll be working with student groups and communities of faith to make sure each letter we receive – no matter how large our list grows – continues to get an honest, personal response. And of course, as that list grows, so, too, do our printing and mailing costs.
That’s why every dollar raised in this annual appeal will go directly to our Lifelines to Solitary project.
Please consider helping us achieve our goals with a donation at any level. To find out more about Lifelines to Solitary and to make a fully tax-deductible online donation, please visit our fundraising page: https://donatenow.networkforgood.org/lifelines2015/
Thank you for your support, your faith in our work, and your concern for the people who reside in our nation’s darkest corners.
With best wishes for the new year,
Jean and Jim
• The Marshall Project published an article outlining the significant shifts in the legal landscape of solitary confinement over the course of recent years. In 2014, “as a result of legislation or lawsuits, ten states adopted 14 measures aimed at curtailing the use of solitary, abolishing solitary for juveniles or the mentally ill, improving conditions in segregated units, or gradually easing isolated inmates back into the general population.”
• The New York Law Journal published an opinion piece about solitary confinement entitled, “We Shouldn’t Allow Eight Amendment to Be Undermined,”
• Ruth Marcus of The Washington Post published a column about Reginald Latson, a 23-year-old diagnosed with autism; he is currently facing assault charges that resulted from a mental health crisis he experienced when he was held in isolation. The ACLU of Virginia submitted a letter to Governor McAuliffe asking him to grant clemency to Latson and facilitate his transfer to a secure treatment facility in Florida.
• Writing for CNN, Raphael Sperry – the president of Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility- condemned the American Institute of Architects for refusing to add language to its code of ethics that would prohibit participation in “the design of torture chambers in US prisons and around the world,” including “prisons intended for prolonged solitary confinement.”
• KGNU, a community radio station, interviewed Colorado Independent journalist Susan Greene about her recent story focusing on a transgender woman held in solitary confinement at ADX Florence.
• The Buffalo News reports that the first of two lawsuits related to prisoner deaths in a solitary confinement unit at Niagara County Jail have gone forward. Daniel Pantera, 46, had a mental health diagnosis and was arrested for shoplifting a cup of coffee in 2012; his cell was so cold that the main cause of his death was cited in a state report as hypothermia.
William Blake has been in solitary confinement for 27 years. When he was 23 years old and in county court on a drug charge, Blake murdered one deputy and wounded another in a failed escape attempt. He was sentenced to 77 years to life.
This essay earned Blake an Honorable Mention in the Yale Law Journal’s Prison Law Writing Contest, chosen from more than 1,500 entries. When we originally published it, in March of 2013, it went viral worldwide–garnering over 200,000 hits on Solitary Watch alone, and being picked up by numerous other sites and translated into at least five languages. The author began receiving numerous letters from all over the world, sometimes dozens a week.
Last week, we learned that Blake, now 50, had been moved from Elmira, where he has been held for many years, to another prison within the New York State system. He remains in solitary confinement (“Administrative Segregation”) in another “Special Housing Unit.” It is unlikely that his correspondence will follow him.
Reading and writing are what sustain Billy Blake after nearly three decades in the box. He may be reached at William Blake #87-A-5771, Great Meadow Correctional Facility, 11739 State Route 22, PO Box 51, Comstock, New York 12821-0051.
To help us provide the gift of correspondence to thousands of other people in solitary confinement, please consider making a year-end donation to our Lifelines to Solitary project: https://donatenow.networkforgood.org/lifelines2015
–Jean Casella and James Ridgeway
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“You deserve an eternity in hell,” Onondaga County Supreme Court judge Kevin Mulroy told me from his bench as I stood before him for sentencing on July 10, 1987. Apparently he had the idea that God was not the only one qualified to make such judgment calls.
Judge Mulroy wanted to “pump six buck’s worth of electricity into [my] body,” he also said, though I suggest that it wouldn’t have taken six cent’s worth to get me good and dead. He must have wanted to reduce me and The Chair to a pile of ashes. My “friend” Governor Mario Cuomo wouldn’t allow him to do that, though, the judge went on, bemoaning New York State’s lack of a death statute due to the then-Governor’s repeated vetoes of death penalty bills that had been approved by the state legislature. Governor Cuomo’s publicly expressed dudgeon over being called a friend of mine by Judge Mulroy was understandable, given the crimes that I had just been convicted of committing. I didn’t care much for him either, truth be told. He built too many new prisons in my opinion, and cut academic and vocational programs in the prisons already standing.
I know that Judge Mulroy was not nearly alone in wanting to see me executed for the crime I committed when I shot two Onondaga County sheriff’s deputies inside the Town of Dewitt courtroom during a failed escape attempt, killing one and critically wounding the other. There were many people in the Syracuse area who shared his sentiments, to be sure. I read the hateful letters to the editor printed in the local newspapers; I could even feel the anger of the people when I’d go to court, so palpable was it. Even by the standards of my own belief system, such as it was back then, I deserved to die for what I had done. I took the life of a man without just cause, committing an act so monumentally wrong that I could not have argued that it was unfair had I been required to pay with my own life.
What nobody knew or suspected back then, not even I, on that very day I would begin suffering a punishment that I am convinced beyond all doubt is far worse than any death sentence could possibly have been. On July 10, 2012, I finished my 25th consecutive year in solitary confinement, where at the time of this writing I remain. Though it is true that I’ve never died and so don’t know exactly what the experience would entail, for the life of me I cannot fathom how dying any death could be harder or more terrible than living through all that I have been forced to endure for the last quarter-century.
Prisoners call it The Box. Prison authorities have euphemistically dubbed it the Special Housing Unit, or SHU (pronounced “shoe”) for short. In society it is known as solitary confinement. It is 23-hour a day lockdown in a cell smaller than some closets I’ve seen, with one hour allotted to “recreation” consisting of placement in a concrete enclosed yard by oneself or, in some prisons, a cage made of steel bars. There is nothing in a SHU yard but air: no TV, no balls to bounce, no games to play, no other inmates, nothing. There is very little allowed in a SHU cell, also. Three sets of plain white underwear, one pair of green pants, one green short-sleeved button-up shirt, one green sweatshirt, ten books or magazines total, twenty pictures of the people you love, writing supplies, a bar of soap, toothbrush and toothpaste, one deodorant stick but no shampoo, and that’s about it. No clothes of your own, only prison-made. No food from commissary or packages, only three unappetizing meals a day handed to you through a narrow slot in your cell door. No phone calls, no TV, no luxury items at all. You get a set of cheap headphones to use, and you can pick between the two or three (depending on which prison you’re in) jacks in the cell wall to plug into. You can listen to a TV station in one jack, and use your imagination while trying to figure out what is going on when the music indicates drama but the dialogue doesn’t suffice to tell you anything. Or you can listen to some music, but you’re out of luck if you’re a rock-n-roll fan and find only rap is playing.
Your options in what to do to occupy your time in SHU are scant, but there will be boredom aplenty. You probably think that you understand boredom, know its feel, but really you don’t. What you call boredom would seem a whirlwind of activity to me, choices so many that I’d likely be befuddled in trying to pick one over all the others. You could turn on a TV and watch a movie or some other show; I haven’t seen a TV since the 1980s. You could go for a walk in the neighborhood; I can’t walk more than a few feet in any direction before I run into a concrete wall or steel bars. You could pick up your phone and call a friend; I don’t know if I’d be able to remember how to make a collect call or even if the process is still the same, so many years it’s been since I’ve used a telephone. Play with your dog or cat and experience their love, or watch your fish in their aquarium; the only creatures I see daily are the mice and cockroaches that infest the unit, and they’re not very lovable and nothing much to look at. There is a pretty good list of options available to you, if you think about it, many things that you could do even when you believe you are so bored. You take them for granted because they are there all the time, but if it were all taken away you’d find yourself missing even the things that right now seem so small and insignificant. Even the smallest stuff can become as large as life when you have had nearly nothing for far too long.
I haven’t been outside in one of the SHU yards in this prison for about four years now. I haven’t seen a tree or blade of grass in all that time, and wouldn’t see these things were I to go to the yard. In Elmira Correctional Facility, where I am presently imprisoned, the SHU yards are about three or four times as big as my cell. There are twelve SHU yards total, each surrounded by concrete walls, one or two of the walls lined with windows. If you look in the windows you’ll see the same SHU company that you live on, and maybe you’ll get a look at a guy who was locked next to you for months that you’ve talked to every day but had never before gotten a look at. If you look up you’ll find bars and a screen covering the yard, and if you’re lucky maybe you can see a bit of blue sky through the mesh, otherwise it’ll be hard to believe that you’re even outside. If it’s a good day you can walk around the SHU yard in small circles staring ahead with your mind on nothingness, like the nothing you’ve got in that lacuna with you. If it’s a bad day, though, maybe your mind will be filled with remembrances of all you used to have that you haven’t seen now for many years, and you’ll be missing it, feeling the loss, feeling it bad.
Life in the box is about an austere sameness that makes it difficult to tell one day from a thousand others. Nothing much and nothing new ever happen to tell you if it’s a Monday or a Friday, March or September, 1987 or 2012. The world turns, technology advances, and things in the streets change and keep changing all the time. Not so in a solitary confinement unit, however. I’ve never seen a cell phone except in pictures in magazines. I’ve never touched a computer in my life, never been on the Internet and wouldn’t know how to get there if you sat me in front of a computer, turned it on for me, and gave me directions. SHU is a timeless place, and I can honestly say that there is not a single thing I’d see looking around right now that is different from what I saw in Shawangunk Correctional Facility’s box when I first arrived there from Syracuse’s county jail in 1987. Indeed, there is probably nothing different in SHU now than in SHU a hundred years ago, save the headphones. Then and now there were a few books, a few prison-made clothing articles, walls and bars and human beings locked in cages… and misery.
There is always the misery. If you manage to escape it yourself for a time, there will ever be plenty around in others for you to sense; and though you’ll be unable to look into their eyes and see it, you might hear it in the nighttime when tough guys cry not-so-tough tears that are forced out of them by the unrelenting stress and strain that life in SHU is an exercise in.
I’ve read of the studies done regarding the effects of long-term isolation in solitary confinement on inmates, seen how researchers say it can ruin a man’s mind, and I’ve watched with my own eyes the slow descent of sane men into madness—sometimes not so slow. What I’ve never seen the experts write about, though, is what year after year of abject isolation can do to that immaterial part in our middle where hopes survive or die and the spirit resides. So please allow me to speak to you of what I’ve seen and felt during some of the harder times of my twenty-five-year SHU odyssey.
I’ve experienced times so difficult and felt boredom and loneliness to such a degree that it seemed to be a physical thing inside so thick it felt like it was choking me, trying to squeeze the sanity from my mind, the spirit from my soul, and the life from my body. I’ve seen and felt hope becoming like a foggy ephemeral thing, hard to get ahold of, even harder to keep ahold of as the years and then decades disappeared while I stayed trapped in the emptiness of the SHU world. I’ve seen minds slipping down the slope of sanity, descending into insanity, and I’ve been terrified that I would end up like the guys around me that have cracked and become nuts. It’s a sad thing to watch a human being go insane before your eyes because he can’t handle the pressure that the box exerts on the mind, but it is sadder still to see the spirit shaken from a soul. And it is more disastrous. Sometimes the prison guards find them hanging and blue; sometimes their necks get broken when they jump from their bed, the sheet tied around the neck that’s also wrapped around the grate covering the light in the ceiling snapping taut with a pop. I’ve seen the spirit leaving men in SHU and have witnessed the results.
The box is a place like no other place on planet Earth. It’s a place where men full of rage can stand at their cell gates fulminating on their neighbor or neighbors, yelling and screaming and speaking some of the filthiest words that could ever come from a human mouth, do it for hours on end, and despite it all never suffer the loss of a single tooth, never get his head knocked clean off his shoulders. You will never hear words more despicable or see mouth wars more insane than what occurs all the time in SHU, not anywhere else in the world, because there would be serious violence before any person could speak so much foulness for so long. In the box the heavy steel bars allow mouths to run with impunity when they could not otherwise do so, while the ambient is one that is sorely conducive to an exceedingly hot sort of anger that seems to press the lips on to ridiculous extremes. Day and night I have been awakened to the sound of the rage being loosed loudly on SHU gates, and I’d be a liar if I said I haven’t at times been one of the madmen doing the yelling.
I have lived for months where the first thing I became aware of upon waking in the morning is the malodorous funk of human feces, tinged with the acrid stench of days-old urine, where I eat my breakfast, lunch, and dinner with that same stink assaulting my senses, and where the last thought I had before falling into unconscious sleep was: “Damn, it smells like shit in here.” I have felt like I was on an island surrounded by vicious sharks, flanked on both sides by mentally ill inmates who would splash their excrement all over their cells, all over the company outside their cells, and even all over themselves. I have went days into weeks that seemed like they’d never end without being able to sleep more than short snatches before I was shocked out of my dreams, and thrown back into a living nightmare, by the screams of sick men who have lost all ability to control themselves, or by the banging of cell bars and walls of these same madmen. I have been so tired when sleep inside was impossible that I went outside into a snowstorm to get some sleep.
The wind blew hard and snowflakes swirled around and around in the small SHU yard at Shawangunk, and I had but one cheap prison-produced coat on and a single set of state clothes beneath. To escape the biting cold I dug into the seven- or eight-foot high mountain of snow that was piled in the center of the yard, the accumulation from inmates shoveling a narrow path to walk along the perimeter. With bare hands gone numb, I dug out a small room in that pile of snow, making myself a sort of igloo. When it was done I crawled inside, rolled onto my back on the snow-covered concrete ground, and almost instantly fell asleep, my bare head pillowed in the snow. I didn’t even have a hat to wear.
An hour or so later I was awakened by the guards come to take me back to the stink and insanity inside: “Blake, rec’s over…” I had gotten an hour’s straight sleep, minus the few minutes it had taken me to dig my igloo. That was more than I had gotten in weeks without being shocked awake by the CA-RACK! of a sneaker being slapped into a plexiglass shield covering the cell of an inmate who had thrown things nasty; or the THUD-THUD-THUD! of an inmate pounding his cell wall, or bars being banged, gates being kicked and rattled, or men screaming like they’re dying and maybe wishing that they were; or to the tirade of an inmate letting loose his pent-up rage on a guard or fellow inmate, sounding every bit the lunatic that too long a time in the mind-breaking confines of the box had caused him to be.
I have been so exhausted physically, mental strength being tested to limits that can cause strong folks to snap, that I have begged God, tough guy I fancy myself, “Please, Lord, make them stop. Please let me get some peace.” As the prayers went ungranted and the insanity around me persisted, I felt my own rage rising above the exhaustion and misery, no longer in a begging mood: “Lord, kill those motherfuckers, why don’t you!” I yelled at the Almighty, my own sanity so close to being gone that it seemed as if I were walking along a precipice and could see down to where I’d be falling, seeing myself shot, sanity a dead thing killed by the fall. I’d be afraid later on, terrified, when I reflected back on how close I had seemed to come to losing my mind, but at that moment all I could do was feel anger of a fiery kind: anger at the maniacs creating the noise and the stink and the madness; anger at my keepers and the real creators of this hell; anger at society for turning a blind eye to the torment and torture going on here that its tax dollars are financing; and perhaps most of all, anger at myself for doing all that I did that never should have been done that put me into the clutches of this beastly prison system to begin with. I would be angry at the world; enraged, actually, so burning hot was what I would be feeling.
I had wet toilet paper stuffed hard into both ears, socks folded up and pressed into my ears, a pillow wrapped around the sides and back of my head covering my ears, and a blanket tied around all that to hold everything in place, lying in bed praying for sleep. But still the noise was incredible, a thunderous cacophony of insanity, sleep impossible. Inmates lost in the throes of lavalike rage firing philippics at one another for even reasons they didn’t know, threatening to kill one another’s mommas, daddies, even the children, too. Nothing is sacred in SHU. It is an environment that is so grossly abnormal, so antithetical to normal human interactions, that it twists the innerds of men all around who for too long dwell there. Their minds, their morals, and their mannerisms get bent badly, ending far off-center. Right becomes whatever and wrong no longer exists. Restraint becomes a burden and is unnecessary with concrete and steel separating everyone, so inmates let it go. Day after day, perhaps year after year, the anger grows, fueled by the pain caused by the conditions till rage is born and burning so hot that it too hurts.
Trying to put into words what is so unlike anything else I know or have ever experienced seems an impossible endeavor, because there is nothing even remotely like it any place else to compare it to, and nothing that will do to you on the inside what so many years in SHU has done to me. All that I am able to articulate about the world of Special Housing Unit and what it is and what it does may seem terrible to you indeed, but the reality of living in this place for a full quarter of a century is yet even more terrible, still. You would have to live it, experience it in all its aspects with the fullness of its days and struggles added up, to really appreciate and understand just how truly terrible this plight of mine has been, and how truly ugly life in the box can be at times, even for just a single day. I spent nine years in Shawangunk’s box, six years in Sullivan’s, six years in Great Meadow’s, and I’ve been here in Elmira’s SHU for four years now, and through all of this time I have never spent a single day in a Mental Health Unit cell because I attempted or threatened suicide, or for any other reason. I have thought about suicide in times past when the days had become exceedingly difficult to handle, but I’m still here. I’ve had some of my SHU neighbors succumb to the suicidal thoughts, though, choosing death over another day of life in the box. I have never bugged out myself, but I’ve known times that I had come too close. I’ve had neighbors who came to SHU normal men, and I’ve seen them leave broken and not anything resembling normal anymore. I’ve seen guys give up on their dreams and lose all hope in the box, but my own hopes and dreams are still alive and well inside me. The insidious workings of the SHU program have yet to get me stuck on that meandering path to internal destruction that I have seen so many of my neighbors end up on, and perhaps this is a miracle; I’d rather be dead than to lose control of my mind.
Had I known in 1987 that I would spend the next quarter-century in solitary confinement, I would have certainly killed myself. If I took a month to die and spent every minute of it in severe pain, it seems to me that on a balance that fate would still be far easier to endure than the last twenty-five years have been. If I try to imagine what kind of death, even a slow one, would be worse than twenty-five years in the box—and I have tried to imagine it—I can come up with nothing. Set me afire, pummel and bludgeon me, cut me to bits, stab me, shoot me, do what you will in the worst of ways, but none of it could come close to making me feel things as cumulatively horrifying as what I’ve experienced through my years in solitary. Dying couldn’t take but a short time if you or the State were to kill me; in SHU I have died a thousand internal deaths. The sum of my quarter-century’s worth of suffering has been that bad.
To some judges sitting on high who’ve never done a day in the box, maybe twenty-five years of this isn’t cruel and unusual. To folks who have an insatiable appetite for vengeance against prisoners who have committed terrible crimes, perhaps it doesn’t even matter how cruel or unusual my plight is or isn’t. For people who cannot let go of hate and know not how to forgive, no amount of remorse would matter, no level of contrition would be quite enough, only endless retribution would be right in their eyes. Like Judge Milroy, only an eternity in hell would satisfy them. Given even that in retribution, though, the unforgiving haters wouldn’t be satisfied that hell was hot enough; they’d want the heat turned up. Thankfully these folks are the few, that in the minds of the many, at a point, enough is enough.
No matter what the world would think about things that they cannot imagine in even their worst nightmares, I know that twenty-five years in solitary confinement is utterly and certainly cruel, moreso than death in or by an electric chair, gas chamber, lethal injection, bullet in the head, or even immolation could possibly be. The sum of the suffering caused by any of these quick deaths would be a small thing next to the sum of the suffering that this quarter-century in SHU has brought to bear on me. Solitary confinement for the length of time that I have endured it, even apart from the inhuman conditions that I have too often been made to endure it in, is torture of a terrible kind; and anyone who doesn’t think so surely knows not what to think.
I have served a sentence worse than death.
This post has become a Christmas tradition at Solitary Watch. To all our readers, warm wishes for the holidays. Special thanks to those who have helped (or plan to help) us bring a small ray of light into the darkness of solitary confinement by supporting our Lifelines to Solitary project. –Jim & Jean
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As more than 3,000 Americans sit on death row, we revere the birth of a man who was arrested, “tried,” sentenced, and put to death by the state. The Passion is the story of an execution, and the Stations of the Cross trace the path of a Dead Man Walking.
Less well known is the fact that Saint Nicholas, the early Christian saint who inspired Santa Claus, was once a prisoner, like nearly one in every 100 American adults today. Though he was beloved for his kindness and generosity, Nicholas acquired sainthood not only by giving alms, but by performing a miracle that more or less amounted to a prison break.
Nicholas was the 4th-century Greek Bishop of Myra (in present-day Turkey). Under the Roman emperor Diocletian, who persecuted Christians, Nicholas spent some five years in prison–and according to some accounts, in solitary confinement.
Under Constantine, the first Christian emperor, Nicholas fared better until the Council of Nicaea, in 325 A.D. There, after having a serious theological argument with another powerful bishop, Nicholas became so enraged that he walked across the room and slapped the man.
It was illegal for one bishop to strike another. According to an account provided by the St. Nicholas Center: “The bishops stripped Nicholas of his bishop’s garments, chained him, and threw him into jail. That would keep Nicholas away from the meeting. When the Council ended a final decision would be made about his future.”
Nicholas spent the night praying for guidance, and was visited by Jesus and Mary. “When the jailer came in the morning, he found the chains loose on the floor and Nicholas dressed in bishop’s robes, quietly reading the Scriptures.” It was determined that no one could have visited or helped him during the night. Constantine ordered Nicholas freed and reinstated as the Bishop of Myra, and his feat would later be declared one of many miracles performed by the saint.
Saint Nicholas lived on to serve the poor during the devastating famine that hit his part of Turkey in 342 AD. He is reported to have anonymously visited starving families at night and distributed gold coins to help them buy scarce food.
Here in the United States nearly two thousand years later, Christians go to church to worship an executed savior and shop to commemorate an incarcerated saint. And most Americans give little thought to their 2 million countrymen who are spending this Christmas behind bars.
IMAGINE A WORLD SO DARK, A SINGLE LETTER IS YOUR ONLY CONNECTION TO HUMANITY
Within an already bleak prison system, you’ve been further condemned to a six-by-nine concrete box. It’s a box built to break you down–to strip away your humanity, rewire your mind, and disabuse you of the notion that you once belonged in another world.
This box separates you from all human contact, from any sense of purpose—eventually, perhaps, from your own fragile memories and dreams. Its gray walls stand as nothing gets in or out.
Nothing, that is, but a simple stamped envelope.
Over the past five years, Solitary Watch has focused on uncovering the well-guarded practice of locking down incarcerated men, women, and children in extreme isolation and sensory deprivation.
We know of this condition as solitary confinement. Those who endure it know it as torture.
By exposing a human rights crisis hiding in plain sight, Solitary Watch has helped to propel the issue of solitary confinement into the national arena. And through our Lifelines to Solitary project, we’ve reached into the gray boxes with newsletters, cards, and personal letters.
For thousands of individuals, Lifelines is often the only source of new, unworn thoughts, much needed distractions, and news from the battles being fought on their behalf.
Lifelines to Solitary may be their only reminder that the world outside their cell has not forgotten them.
Whether we once measured our success by the handwritten ‘thank-you’ letters in every morning’s mail, or by the new reader requests growing faster every day, our new test – the one we must pass on behalf of all those inside waiting for their next piece of mail – will be whether we, too, can grow.
Earlier this fall, we collaborated with Princeton University’s Students for Prison Education and Reform, helping to enlist 80 young women and men to correspond regularly with our readers in solitary confinement. We hope this is only the beginning.
With your help, we will expand Lifelines to Solitary into the first nation-wide, solitary-focused letter-writing program. We will enable local student groups, communities of faith and other organizations to operate as Lifelines chapters.
We will connect people suffering in silence with those willing to break that silence with a stamp.
Nothing we do is more important than Lifelines to Solitary—and nothing is more difficult to fund. Only with your continued support can we afford to keep up with our own growth, and keep throwing out lifelines to thousands of people in solitary confinement.
Your generosity will be felt in ways you can only begin to imagine.
On Friday, December 19th, hundreds packed into the audience at a meeting of the New York City Board of Correction (BOC), the body that oversees New York City’s jail system. At issue was the use of solitary confinement on Rikers Island—specifically, whether to move forward with a new, highly-restrictive Enhanced Supervision Housing unit (ESHU). The proposed ESHU, at an estimated cost of $14.8 million, will not replace punitive segregation units on the island jail; instead, it will serve as an additional form of segregation.
According to the New York City Department of Correction (DOC), the ESHU will curb the dramatic increase in serious violence at Rikers by separating 250 who are considered violent or security threats – including gang leaders and those who have instigated or participated in a riot while in custody – from the general population. Those in the ESHU would spend 17 hours a day locked into their cells.
But for advocates, who have been working for years to reform what they see as the torturous practice of solitary confinement on Rikers, the new units represent a significant step backwards. Many expressed disappointment with Mayor Bill de Blasio and his new Correction Commissioner, Joseph Ponte, who came to New York City from Maine with a reputation as a reformer.
The New York City Jails Action Coalition (JAC), which works to promote human rights in the city’s jails, organized a press conference on December 10th to publicize the proposed amendments and air their concerns. Referring to the weakened criteria for placement in punitive segregation, Skylar Albertson of the Bronx Defenders said, “The ineffectual hearing process and overbroad criteria for ESHU will allow corrections officers to sentence an incarcerated person to isolation at any time, for any reason and without oversight.”
Susan Goodwillie of the Urban Justice Center said that the ESHU would “perpetuate the same pattern of punitive segregation that has fostered the very violence that they are seeking to change.”
Solitary Confinement in New York’s Jails
In April 2013, JAC petitioned the NYC Board of Correction to amend the Board’s Minimum Standards regarding the NYC Department of Correction’s (DOC) use of solitary confinement in New York’s jails. Solitary confinement (“punitive segregation”) is the practice of locking people in isolated, windowless cells without human contact for 22-24 hours a day. According to the DOC, New York City has 1,215 units in punitive segregation, 990 of which are on Rikers Island. The island holds people awaiting trial who cannot afford bail as well as those serving sentences of one year or less.
People in punitive segregation are denied most of the privileges allowed in the jail, including phone calls and family visits, rehabilitative or educational programming, and access to personal property. Members of JAC advocate for stricter minimum standards governing the use of punitive segregation, pushing for limits to the number of days one can spend in solitary confinement, improvements to due process for people at risk of or sentenced to punitive segregation, and a ban on the use of solitary confinement for youth under the age of 25 and people with mental illness.
Last year, following the appearance of two scathing reports, the Board of Correction voted to make new rules governing solitary confinement in the city’s jail system. These rules have yet to appear.
Those on both sides of the solitary confinement debate agree that violence has plagued Rikers in recent years, but sharply diverge on both the causes of this violence and the appropriate responses to it.
In 2011, the Legal Aid Society and two private law firms filed Nunez v. the City of New York, a class-action lawsuit, to end the “unnecessary and excessive force inflicted upon inmates” by staff in all of the city’s jails. In August 2014, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a report condemning the “deep-seated culture of violence” by staff against adolescents housed at Rikers Island. On Thursday, December 18, the day before the Board of Correction hearing, the Justice Department announced that it planned to join the Nunez suit.
The Department of Corrections contends that the ESHU will address violence by removing those deemed most violent from general population and confining them to one housing unit. On the other hand, JAC and other advocates argue that much of the violence takes place at the hands of staff, and that the ESHU is unduly harsh and punitive rather than therapeutic.
Testimony Defends and Attacks New Segregation Units
The BOC meeting was held at an auditorium at the headquarters of New York City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. But Dr. Robert Cohen, a commissioner on the Board of Correction, noted that the City of New York had not allowed representatives of the Department of Health to attend or speak at the hearing. Instead, a bus full of corrections staff arrived shortly after eight am to fill the auditorium. Uniformed corrections officers filled more than a quarter of the available seats, forcing many to stand. DOC officials, including Norman Seabrook, the head of the Corrections Officers’ Benevolent Association, were also in attendance. Over 100 people signed up to testify.
The first to speak was DOC Commissioner Joseph Ponte. “I have heard so many misconceptions about this unit,” he began. “I want to help correct these misconceptions.” During his testimony, he pointed out that, as of December 4th, DOC had eliminated punitive segregation for 16- and 17-year-olds. Instead, it has a transitional housing unit for adolescents. However, the unit lacks policy directives to govern its operations and, as Board of Corrections member Bryanne Hamill pointed out, youth are only allowed out (or “locked out” of their cells) for two hours in the morning and two in the afternoon. “That would still constitute a form of punitive segregation,” she noted.
Again and again, Ponte stated that the proposed ESHU is not a form of solitary confinement. His assertion was echoed by the other DOC officials who testified after him, including James Dzurenda, DOC’s first deputy commissioner, and Sidney Schwartzbaum, the president of the deputy wardens’ union. They also conjured worst-case scenarios to justify policies, such as the lack of contact visits, including visitors smuggling scalpels wrapped in electrical tape. Scott Temple, interim commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Corrections, also testified, asserting that Connecticut’s experience “proves the effectiveness of this type of housing.”
But in a public comment to the Board of Correction, Linda Wilson, Executive Director of the Staten Island affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, stated, “The proposed ESHU restrictions are extreme, cumulative, and inflexible: reduction in out of cell time from 14 hours per day to 7 hours per day, inability to use the jail law library (replacing it with the in cell law library service that has proven inadequate in the jails’ punitive segregation housing areas), inability to attend congregate religious services outside the ESHU, deprivation of all contact visits regardless of risk, packages limited to approved vendors and a ‘permissible items list,’ strip searches and mechanical restraints every time the person leaves the housing unit, and opening and reading all incoming and outgoing non-privileged mail. Vulnerable populations such as individuals with mental illness, physical disability, physical injury, or young people (other than 16 and 17 year olds) are not excluded.”
Commissioner Ponte, in his testimony, placed the ratio of people on Rikers Island with mental illness at 33 percent. Alexandra Korry, chair of the New York Advisory Committee on the U.S. Commission of Civil Rights, disagrees. During the Committee’s six-month investigation, which included visits to Rikers, they found that 48 percent of people on the island have mental health diagnoses.
Isolation further harms people with mental health issues, advocates argue. Wendy Brennan, the executive director of New York City chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, stated her organization’s “unequivocal opposition to solitary confinement and the rule change to allow the ESHU.” She testified about how isolation exacerbates existing mental health issues and causes behavioral and mental health issues in those without preexisting conditions. “We believe that people with mental illness will be overrepresented in ESHU just like they are in punitive segregation.”
Dr. Frances Geteles has provided psychiatric evaluations for torture survivors. She noted that torture survivors and others who have experienced trauma need contact with family, religious groups and the larger community in order to heal, but that the ESHU deprives people of all three. In addition, she said, isolation supports an increase in depression, anger, loss of impulse control and aggression.
Those who had spent time behind bars—whether as incarcerated people or as staff—also spoke out against the proposed unit. Johnny Perez, now an advocate for the Safe Reentry program at the Urban Justice Center and a member of the Jails Action Coalition, spent 90 days in solitary at Rikers as a teenager. Nearly twenty years later, he still remembers the cold and the intense isolation of those 90 days. He said that, although policy states that a person can appeal their segregation sentence, appeal forms are often unavailable and, in segregation, people are not given blank paper or pens. Meals are widely spaced—dinner is served at 4 pm and breakfast not until 7 am. If the person is not awake, he is not given food. During those 90 days, Perez went from 180 to 155 pounds.
Until six months, ago, Dr. Daniel Selling was the director of mental health for the city’s jail system. He listed several programs that the DOC and the Department of Health created to address mental illness and other behavioral issues on the island. “Unfortunately, many of the programs we devised and implemented became perverted by the Department of Corrections,” he stated. The Intensive Treatment Unit, for instance, was originally created to have enhanced mental health treatment for those in punitive segregation. “Within a few years, it met its demise because of pressure from the union to stop coddling dangerous inmates,” he testified. Similarly, the Mental Health Assessment Unit for Infracted Inmates went from 50 to 250 beds and quickly became violent. “This is the same thing that will happen to the ESH,” he warned, noting that the unit would increase the overall footprint of solitary confinement at Rikers by 250 beds.
Selling was not the only former Rikers staff whose experiences condemn the proposal. Mary Buser, the assistant chief of mental health at the punitive segregation unit from 1998 to 2000, also condemned the unit, noting that people with mental illness were often placed in segregation, where they reacted with head banging and other forms of self-harm.
Sister Marianne Defies, who worked as a chaplain for women at Rikers from 1984 to 2007, also denounced the horrors of solitary on the island. Segregation at Rose M. Singer, the women’s unit, consists of 50 cells where women are locked in 23 hours each day. They are allowed one hour outside their cell to exercise in an enclosed yard. She described the unit as either overwhelmingly loud as women yelled to each other through their cell doors or screamed from the isolation or as deathly quiet during count time. Countering the DOC’s assertion that segregation prevents violence, she noted that women are frequently sent to segregation for rules violations such as talking in the hallways or having unauthorized food or clothing in their cells. “I now realize I was a witness to torture,” she testified.
But these testimonies failed to move Norman Seabrook, the president of the Correctional Officers Benevolent Association and, according to the New York Times, a roadblock to reform. “No one talked about the inmate who slashes another inmate and gives him 90 stitches or who rapes another inmate,” Seabrook told the BOC, after sitting in the audience for five hours. “It is unacceptable for people to sit here and advocate for inmates who have raped and robbed others.”
Seabrook lambasted the Board, accusing them of not giving corrections officers the same consideration they do for the Jails Action Coalition, and invited them to hold a hearing with the correctional officers to hear their side. He agreed with the assessment that Rikers had a deep-seated culture of violence—but only on the side of those locked inside. After speaking, Seabrook shook hands with each and every one of the dozen corrections officers who remained in the auditorium. Then he exited, taking all of them with him and missing the hearing’s last testimonies, some of which directly refuted his assertion that the island’s culture of violence rests solely with those incarcerated.
Only four commissioners with the Board of Corrections remained as the afternoon wrapped up. In their closing statements, Dr. Robert Cohen and the Honorable Bryanne Hamill expressed disappointment with the Board’s actions (or lack thereof) regarding solitary. But it seems that these testimonies, and calls from advocates to give more serious—and lengthy—consideration to such a proposal, has not swayed the Board’s schedule. The Board will vote on the proposed rule to create the ESHU on January 13, 2015.
• The Marshall Project published an article about prisoners dying of hypothermia. Those in solitary confinement are often uniquely at risk because they are “provided with limited clothing and blankets as a precaution against suicide.”
• In July 2013, Nikko Jenkins killed four Omaha residents within 10 days of his release from prison – directly from solitary confinement. According to a recently released report. Jenkins wrote to psychologists, psychiatrists, the director of prisons, and even Governor Dave Heinemann before his release, pleading to be committed to the state psychiatric hospital or Lincoln Correctional Center. The Department of Correctional Services Special Investigation Committee was established after the murders; the 62-page report also calls for reforms and the firing of several correctional officials.
• New Jersey’s Star Ledger published an opinion piece entitled, “Research shows no good comes of prolonged solitary confinement.”
• Federal prosecutors announced plans to join an ongoing lawsuit against New York City over the abusive treatment of adolescents on Rikers Island, including the overuse of solitary confinement. Preet Bharara, the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York said, “While the United States had hoped to reach a speedy resolution with the city on these critical issues,”
• Mayor Bill DeBlasio announced that Rikers Island will no longer hold juveniles in solitary confinement.
• Just days before DeBlasio’s announcement, The New York Times published an Op-ed calling for an end to solitary confinement for juveniles. And the New York Advisory Committee on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights published a report entitled, “The Solitary Confinement of Youth in New York: A Civil Rights Violation.”
On December 17, a federal jury found a former corrections officer on New York’s Rikers Island guilty of deliberately ignoring the medical needs of a man who died in 2012 while being held in solitary confinement. Terrence Pendergrass was a captain and the supervising corrections officer on duty when Jason Echevarria, a pre-trial detainee with a history of mental illness, ingested a highly caustic detergent. For hours before he died, Echevarria pleaded for help from multiple corrections officers and civilian staff.
The verdict comes at a time when Rikers Island has been under fire for staff negligence and brutality in both the press and a major investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice. Against this backdrop, the trial and conviction of Pendergrass happened quietly and quickly but becomes a part of a conversation about the accountability of uniformed officers and the brutalization of people in the criminal justice system.
Terrence Pendergrass was convicted in federal district court in Manhattan of “deprivation of rights under color of law,” a federal law that penalizes agents of the government acting in their official capacity for violating a person’s rights. The right in question was that of a person held in a jail or prison to be provided medical care when he was in serious need of it.
Pendergrass was the supervising officer on duty when Echevarria told officers that he had swallowed detergent used for cleaning cells, and needed to see a doctor. He was found guilty of “deliberate indifference” to Echevarria’s medical needs, resulting in Echevarria’s serious physical injury and eventual death. Under ordinary circumstances, ignoring the sick and the dying is not defined as a crime. But staff in prisons and jails – where incarcerated people are not free to move as they choose, not free to call a doctor, not free to go to an emergency room – have a responsibility to ensure that the people in custody receive medical attention when they need it.
As the New York Times reported, this was the first time in ten years that the U. S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York had prosecuted a corrections officer under this statute. Pendergrass faces up to ten years in federal prison.
Life and Death in Custody
The trial, which took place over a week and a half at the Thurgood Marshall courthouse in Lower Manhattan, offered a bleak image of what life is like on Rikers Island, especially for individuals with psychiatric disabilities.
On August 18th, 2012, the day he died, Jason Echevarria was one of the thousands of people held on Rikers Island in pre-trial detention. Like thousands of others held in the island’s jails, Jason Echevarria had documented mental health needs, including bipolar disorder. He reportedly had attempted suicide more than once while at Rikers. He was placed in solitary confinement for “infractions” he committed – violations of jail rules. Because of his mental health needs, his solitary confinement was in MHAUII, the Mental Health Assessment Unit for Infracted Inmates.
MHAUII was specifically designated for the punitive segregation of men with mental illness at Rikers Island. Late last year, after concerns about conditions, MHAUII was officially shut down, though the building is still in use and the two units that came to replace it are still for the punitive segregation of the mentally ill. (The corrections staff who testified in court last week were hard-pressed to answer the question of whether MHAUII was still open or closed, or explain what has replaced it.)
In MHAUII, Echevarria was in his cell round the clock except for the single hour a day he sometimes could leave for recreation or a shower. All food, medication, or anything else he might need was given to him through a slot in his door. On August 17th, he “held his slot,” jamming his mattress into the opening for two and a half hours so that a corrections officer had to go over and address the problem. In the government’s narrative, this incident created a motive for Terrence Pendergrass to ignore Jason Echevarria the next day. While an incident like this would normally have been punished with yet another “‘write-up”, Echevarria did not receive one. A corrections officer testified that on another occasion, when he had urged Pendegrass to punish someone with an infraction, Pendergrass had said, “There are ways to get back at inmates besides infractions.”
The following day, a toilet overflowed and the entire housing area was flooded with raw sewage. Echevarria asked for a “soap ball,” as packets of detergent used to clean the hallways and cells are commonly known. A corrections officer, in violation of protocol, gave him one or more packets. For cleaning purposes, each of these packets is supposed to be diluted in three gallons of water. It was unclear whether staff and the people incarcerated were in the habit of using the detergent without water, or if this was sheer carelessness on the part of the officer who gave the soap ball to Echevarria.
The medical examiner who conducted the autopsy and testified as an expert witness at trial described the detergent Echevarria ingested as more caustic than household bleach. He explained that when Echevarria swallowed the detergent it began to “liquefy” all the human tissue with which it came in contact, causing chemical burns to Echevarria’s mouth, tongue, throat, larynx, epiglottis, digestive tract, esophagus, airways, and stomach lining. The examiner provided extensive evidence of the body reacting to its various injuries, and the many hours that must have passed between Echevarria’s immediate injuries and his death.
Two corrections officers testified to Echevarria’s suffering, his pleas for help, and Captain Pendergrass’s indifference. These officers – Raymond Castro and Angel Lazarte – said all they could do for Jason Echevarria was follow “the chain of command” – tell their captain about Echevarria’s condition so that the captain could have Echevarria taken out of his cell, arrange for an escort to take him to the medical clinic, and clear the hallways. It is exactly this, they say, that Pendergrass refused to do. Castro testified that Pendergrass’s response to hearing that Echevarria had swallowed a soap ball containing bleach was, “Don’t come to me if you have living, breathing bodies. Come to me if you need a cell extraction or you have a dead body.” Castro later saw vomit, “plain to see,” in Echevarria’s cell but when he went back to tell Captain Pendergrass about this, Pendergrass said, “Tell him to hold it.”
Raymond Castro testified for hours on the second day of trial. Three different times he broke down on the stand, wiping tears from his eyes as he remembered Echevarria calling out for him, “Castro, Castro.” Video surveillance showed Castro stopping by Echevarria’s cell over and over again during his shift, looking in through the small window. He came by one last time at 11 o’clock, just as his shift was ending for the night and he was due to report to another housing area for a second shift. The surveillance footage shows him standing at Echevarria’s cell for a full minute, simply watching.
Earlier in the same shift, the pharmacy technician who dispensed medication, cell by cell, saw Echevarria crying out in pain. Sarah Johnson testified that she refused to move on until someone was notified. That someone was again Castro, who said he’d already spoken to Pendergrass twice. Nevertheless, Castro and the escort officer, Angel Lazarte, then went to Pendergrass to let him know, again, that Echevarria had swallowed a soap ball “containing bleach” and to add that the technician thought he could die if he didn’t get medical attention.
This time, according to testimony, Pendergrass ordered Officer Lazarte to write a report of the injury. Surveillance showed Pendergrass going to Jason Echevarria’s cell himself and looking in. Then he walked away to another housing area and could be seen talking to one of the nurses. That nurse, during her testimony on the stand, said she had not seen Echevarria that day, had no information about his condition and was not asked about his condition by Pendergrass. After that conversation, Pendergrass is alleged to have told Lazarte to stop filling out the report. Pendergrass then stopped Castro’s final effort to help Mr. Echevarria, ordering Castro to hang up the phone when the officer tried to call the medical clinic. Twice during the shift, Pendergrass made false entries in the housing area log book, claiming to have done ‘tours’ (rounds of the housing area). In these entries, he wrote: “Tour of area. No problem, report or noted.”
The next morning, nine and a half hours after Pendergrass’s shift ended, Jason Echevarria was discovered dead, with vomit in his toilet and blood and foam around his mouth. He was 25 years old.
In December 2012, the New York City Office of the Chief Medical Examiner ruled Jason Echevarria’s death a homicide. The Bronx District Attorney’s Office investigated the case but declined to prosecute. The office of the United States Attorney of the Southern District then made the decision to charge Mr. Pendergrass. This March, Terrence Pendergrass was indicted and arrested. He was released on $250,000 bond. After the jury’s guilty verdict he now awaits sentencing in April.
An Indictment of Rikers
During the trial, both sides urged the jury to confine themselves to the question of Terrence Pendergrass’s action or inaction. The prosecution asked the jury to disregard whether the other officers and staff should have done more to save Jason Echevarria. The defense attorney reminded the jurors that during jury selection they had sworn to not let recent events surrounding police killings in Ferguson and New York influence their decision in the case. From both sides, for different reasons, the message was the same – focus on this man, in this case.
Yet the trial was revealing about issues beyond Pendergrass’s culpability. Perhaps first among them is the treatment of people with mental illness in New York’s jails. Pendergrass’s defense attorney characterized the people housed in isolation in MHAUII as “the worst of the worst,” while the prosecutors described them as “troubled people.” What is clear is that the people housed in MHAUII had substantial mental health needs. What they received the afternoon and evening of August 18th, 2012, was inexperienced staff. Pendergrass was in his first month as captain. Both Officers Castro and Lazarte were probationary officers which meant they could be terminated, with no cause given, on a day’s notice. Castro believed disobeying a supervisor would have meant losing his job by day’s end. Even the pharmacy technician was new to her job.
The heightened vulnerability of people in solitary confinement gave the captain even greater responsibility. The officers explained how people who are held in ‘GP’ or ‘General Population’ are free to walk around during the day, to alert an officer if they are injured or ill and get a hall pass that allows them to go to the clinic. In solitary confinement, by contrast, people are locked in cells all day and night and depend on officers walking around the housing areas, hearing the requests and observing the condition of the people in cells, and acting on what they see and hear. The people in solitary confinement are invisible within the jail complex, unless someone makes a point of seeing them. Instead, Terrence Pendergrass made a point of not seeing Jason Echevarria’s suffering, and the structure of solitary confinement helped make that possible.
The fact that a single person’s inaction could prevent Jason Echevarria from being saved when at least four other people working the same shift saw him suffering points to serious problems with the culture of Rikers, staff training and “the chain of command.” On August 18, 2012, there was a staffed clinic a few yards away from where Jason Echevarria was dying, just outside his housing unit. There was also a larger clinic, open 24 hours a day, further away in the same building. At least two witnesses – the pharmacy technician who said she knew Echevarria was dying and yelled for CO Castro to tell someone, and CO Castro himself – cried on the stand as they described Echevarria’s condition. But they followed the chain of command, and Jason Echevarria died an avoidable death.
In announcing Pendergrass’s arrest back in March, Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said: “Jason Echevarria should not have died…The Constitution protects the civil rights of everyone, including prison inmates at Rikers. The kind of conduct alleged today cannot be tolerated in our criminal justice system.”
The conviction of one corrections captain, however, will not bring justice to Rikers Island. The day before closing arguments in the Pendergrass trial, another corrections officer was arrested for falsifying records and official misconduct in connection with the death of Jerome Murdough, a veteran with mental illness who died after hours in an overheated cell in the mental observation unit of Rikers. The officer, Carol Lackner, is alleged to have falsely recorded that she did rounds of the unit every half hour when surveillance footage shows that was not the case.
Last November, corrections officers prevented 44 busloads of people from being taken from Rikers to court so that one man would not testify against a corrections officer on trial for assaulting him. People held in solitary confinement at Rikers are routinely deprived of even their single hour of recreation outside a cell. In July of this year, the New York Times reported the story of a man held in solitary confinement who threw urine or water at guards when they did not give him dinner. The guards took him to a medical clinic, away from surveillance cameras, and beat him while medical staff pleaded with them to stop. Such stories suggest that the culture of impunity, indifference, and violence that led to Jason Echevarria’s death continues unabated at Rikers.
Under Fire for Negligence, North Carolina Prisons Chief Seeks New Funding for Mental Health Treatment
North Carolina corrections chief David Guice wants more than $20 million to improve the treatment of people with mental illness in the state’s prisons. His request comes on the heels of two recent reports showing neglect and abuse of prisoners with psychiatric disabilities in North Carolina, and the death in custody of one such individual, Michael Anthony Kerr. According to autopsy report findings released in September, Kerr died last March of dehydration after being held in solitary confinement for 35 days.
Guice heads up the state’s prison system as commissioner of the Department of Public Safety’s Division of Adult Correction and Juvenile Justice. His request was made last Thursday at a meeting of the state’s Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Justice and Public Safety, held to discuss North Carolina’s treatment of prisoners suffering from mental illnesses.
At the meeting, Guice cited the difficulties in providing adequate care for 4,600 people – 12 percent of the total prison population – requiring mental health services. The prison system wants the state’s upcoming budget to include funding for more than 300 additional mental health care staff statewide, 64 more for Central Prison’s mental health unit, and 76 probation officers.
As NCCapitol reports on the meeting:
Deputy Commissioner of Prisons Kenneth Lassiter told lawmakers he’d like them to receive more frequent treatment, “but every time a segregated inmate comes out of a cell, it takes two staff members” to escort the inmate to an appointment.
“Are you keeping them in [their cells] for 23 hours?” committee co-chairwoman Rep. Pat Hurley, R-Randolph, asked Lassiter.
“Yes, ma’am,” he answered.
“Day after day after day?” she asked.
“Yes, ma’am,” Lassiter responded.
“Don’t they get worse?” Hurley asked.
“Some do,” he answered.
According to the story, Guice stated that system has already started implementing changes, including crisis intervention training for prison workers and a review of all policies dealing with prisoners with mental health problems. He warned, however, that “the needed fixes – more therapy, more medical oversight, specialized units – won’t be cheap, especially in a system that’s already underfunded. For example, he said, budget cuts have emptied one-third of the beds at Central Prison’s inpatient unit for severely mentally ill inmates.”
Recent reports on the treatment of people with mental illness held in North Carolina assert that the state’s Division of Prisons has made little progress to date in protecting these individuals from neglect and abuse, including inadequate health care and the extensive use of solitary confinement.
Report: North Carolina State Prisons’ Use of Solitary Qualifies as “Torture”
One recent report, Solitary Confinement as Torture, published by the Human Rights Policy Seminar at the University of North Carolina (UNC) School of Law, is based on research and interviews with prisoners and focuses on the treatment of incarcerated people suffering from mental disorders and the use of isolation.
The 216-page report denounces the use of solitary confinement as “torture,” and reach the “straightforward and simple” conclusion that “solitary confinement is ineffective at decreasing violence within prisons; it is ineffective at preserving public safety; it is ineffective at managing scarce monetary resources; and it violates the boundaries of human dignity and justice. Prison officials and the courts must find a way to end the practice without delay.”
The report also documents North Carolina’s failure to provide the rehabilitation opportunities essential to successful reentry into society—in large part due to the prison system’s inclination to place people in solitary for petty offenses and “almost a complete disregard of prisoners’ average mental health needs.” In fact, according to the study, as much as 10 percent of North Carolina’s prison population has been held in prolonged solitary confinement at any given time in recent years.
The UNC report recommends specific “systemic reforms,” including decreasing prison populations, increasing efforts at rehabilitation, changing the “institutional culture” in prisons and ultimately abolishing the use of solitary confinement.
In an email response to Solitary Watch, UNC law professor Deborah M. Weissman, a collaborating author of the report, wrote:
Mental health systems in NC are underfunded and fail to provide critical care and services to many individuals who, as a consequence of their mental health illnesses, wind up in prison. Either due to a lack of care, lack of training, or lack of other alternatives, individuals whose mental illness manifests as criminal behavior are sent to prison where their situation further deteriorates. Many of these individuals wind up in solitary confinement due to their inability to comply with prison system directives. The harm they suffer is egregious and likely permanent.
Weissman noted that “necessary reforms that have been clearly identified have not been fully implemented.”
Investigation: Mass Shortages Found in NC State Prisons’ Mental Healthcare Personnel
A recent investigative report by the publication INDY Week, “Prison System Short on Psychologists, Long on Mentally Ill Inmates,” finds that the North Carolina state prison system has a serious shortage of mental health personnel. According to the report, “Two years ago, the North Carolina prison system promised change after blaming staff shortfalls for the problem of mentally ill prisoners left isolated in cells splattered with human waste,” but “mental health advocates say they are still waiting for prison officials to deliver on that promise.”
The article includes the following table, highlighting the mental health staff vacancy rates in the North Carolina state prison system:
North Carolina Department of Public Safety (NCDPS) spokesperson Pam Walker told INDY Week that almost one-third of the 98 positions for prison psychologists were unoccupied as of November 3. Not only are 60 percent of senior psychologist positions vacant, but 22 percent of the prisons’ 1,314 nursing positions – which are critical to providing people with mental health disorders daily assessments – remain open.
Terri Catlett, deputy director of health services for state prisons, denied that prisoners suffering from mental illnesses were “in any additional danger because of the staff vacancies.”
The INDY Week investigation notes that, according to a 2010 report by the Wake County chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI), approximately 5,513 prisoners, or 14.6 percent of the state prison population, were diagnosed as “severely mentally ill” in 2006, and the number of incarcerated people with mental illnesses was increasing sharply—a trend that would suggest an increased need in personnel to provide adequate care and treatment.
Vicki Smith, executive director of the nonprofit Disability Rights NC, believes the prison system’s unremitting personnel shortages were a cause in Michael Anthony Kerr’s death. Quoting Smith, the INDY Week study states:
“In any facility where you find a high rate of vacancy, you have a lot of workers putting in overtime. If you have people working a lot of overtime, they’re not letting downtime. Poorly trained, overworked staff always contribute to abuse and neglect.”
Disability Rights N.C. opened an independent investigation into Kerr’s death and found “severe deficiencies” in the care for mentally ill prisoners. The group asked Gov. Pat McCrory to declare a hiring emergency in North Carolina prisons and to authorize an expedited hiring system to fill the vacancies.
Solitary Watch obtained a copy of the Disability Rights NC’s letter making the request to commission an accelerated employment system. Dated October 3, 2014, the letter urges the governor to immediately address the severe statewide mental health staffing shortages in the NC DPS.
In another story, INDY Week reports that the Disability Rights NC’s investigation into Kerr’s death, noting that, according to Smith, the probe found “severe deficiencies in the provision of services to inmates to mental illness—such significant problems that constitutional rights are implicated.”
Smith also said that prisoners suffering from mental illness will no longer be held in solitary confinement for more than several days if health care staff find that it would be detrimental. She further stated that prisoners will no longer be placed in isolation based on their symptoms.
In an email response to Solitary Watch, Smith wrote:
The inadequacies of treatment for people with mental illness start long before they end up in prison. Many prisoners like Michael Kerr are in prison because of the criminalization of the symptoms of their mental illness.
Failing to offer affordable, accessible mental health community based service has both an immediate and long term cost. But budget writers are motivated to look only at what those services cost in the short run and err on the side of short term savings.
As a result police are often the first responders to a mental health crisis. Jails are filled with repeat offenders jailed for having untreated symptoms. They are put on a path that ends in prison where they continue to be punished for having a mental illness.
What is happening in our state prisons is horrendous and requires reform. Segregation is used to manage behaviors related to mental illness and minimize the disruption to the general population. It is cruel and inhumane but if you look at the path of prisoners like Mr. Kerr, we failed him much earlier when his mental health needs where ignored. A travesty from beginning to end.
The Death of Michael Anthony Kerr
Michael Anthony Kerr spent 35 days in”restrictive housing” – solitary confinement – at the Alexander Correctional Institution in Taylorsville, NC. The man was transferred to Central Prison’s hospital in Raleigh via prison van but was dead by the time he arrived. According to his recently released autopsy report, Kerr died from dehydration in his solitary cell March 12 of this year. The report also shows that Kerr was not receiving treatment for his schizoaffective disorder.
During his 35 days in isolation, Kerr was cited for flooding his cell on two different occasions. Prison staff responded by shutting off the water supply to the man’s cell, which, according to the NC DPS, is permissible when a prisoner abuses plumbing facilities.
The NC DPS, which has released almost no information on Kerr’s death, responded to prison officials’ negligence by terminating a total of nine employees, including Captain Shawn Blackburn, the former captain who ordered that Kerr remain handcuffed for five days. Blackburn appealed his termination, but last week lost his case.
Th NC DPS said that 30 staff members have been disciplined or demoted as a result of Kerr’s death. But a state investigation revealed that the prison discipline system is not equipped to manage people with mental illnesses.
The United States Department of Justice (DOJ) opened a criminal investigation into Kerr’s death days after the autopsy report was released, with a federal grand jury in Raleigh, NC, issuing subpoenas to obtain related records from the NC DPS after the agency’s lack of cooperation became public.
Track Record of Prisoner Abuses in North Carolina Prisons
The North Carolina prison system has for many years faced criticism for its track record of the mistreatment of people with mental health disorders.
An incident similar to the Kerr tragedy took place at Central Prison in 1997, when an audit found that Vietnam veteran Glen Mabrey, who suffered from mental illness, died of thirst after being held in solitary confinement. Like Kerr, Mabrey’s water had been cut off, in this case for four days, after he had intentionally flooded his cell.
In 2011, an internal review of conditions inside North Carolina’s Central Prison found that prison staff neglected the needs of prisoners suffering from serious mental illnesses. According to the News Observer:
Years of budget cuts, hiring freezes and high turnover led to staffing shortages in critical jobs, especially nurses and doctors. Staff failed to maintain up-to-date records, track medications or respond to calls for medical help.
The report says that nurses acknowledged not knowing which inmates were which and that patients were given too much prescribed medication or none at all.
According to the story, the report also said there have been multiple deaths resulting from medical conditions, including the case of Levon Wilson, who suffered from bipolar disorder. An autopsy report shows Wilson, who was arrested on misdemeanor charges, was moved from Central Prison to WakeMed Hospital in Raleigh in September of 2010, with “moderately high levels” of the medication lithium in his bloodstream. The News Observer reports:
[Wilson’s] cause of death is listed as “complications of lithium therapy,” which led to kidney and bowel problems. Still, the state doctor performing the autopsy declared Wilson’s death as “natural.”
DOC officials refused to release a separate internal review of Wilson’s death, citing federal medical privacy laws.The story also reports that the same internal review also says that, due to staffing shortages, patients were left unsupervised:
Inmates cut themselves and swallowed nails, batteries and shards from plastic eating utensils. The review found numerous inconsistencies and contradictions in written records of observational rounds.
The report also found that inmates in “therapeutic seclusion” were often locked in cells for extended periods without being let out for meals, recreation time or to shower.
A 2012 INDY Week article describes what life is like in solitary confinement in North Carolina prisons. The story describes conditions in the intensive control unit, or ICON, at Central Prison, focusing on the story of Chris McBride, who was placed in ICON after he and a group of other prisoners held a work-stoppage to protest their long hours. According to a letter from McBride:
Solitary confinement is hell. I agree with the public—it is a form of torture. It is a tiny cell about 6 feet by 8 feet. . .
We are in this cell 23 hours a day. We are allowed to come out for recreation five times a week for one hour. The rec is a cage. They just stick us in a little cage and we can walk around. That’s it. We are only allowed to take three showers a week. . .
So if you add up five 1-hour recs, and three 10-minute showers, that’s 5½ hours. Let’s round that up to 6 hours. There’s your answer. Out of the 168 hours in a week, we are out of our cell 6 hours. . .
. . . Normal rules don’t apply to solitary. They are supposed to, but they don’t.
In yet another incident of prisoner abuse at Central Prison, where around 600 people are held in “Close Custody,” prisoners launched a hunger strike in 2012 protest of various prison conditions, the demands of which included “[a]n immediate end to the physical and mental abuse inflicted by officers” and “[t]he end of cell restrictions.
In May of last year, Solitary Watch reported on a federal lawsuit filed on behalf of eight people held in solitary confinement at Central Prison against officers and administrators at the prison. According to the suit, guards used “blind spots” – areas in the prison out of view of surveillance cameras – to beat handcuffed and shackled prisoners.
The beatings took place in Unit One, a cell block commonly known as “The Hole,” where people are held in isolation.
The abuse claims made by the eight prisoners were substantiated by medical records which documented “blunt force injuries,” including broken bones and concussions, sustained while they were isolated from other prisoners. One man was unable to walk for months after his hip was fractured.
The lawsuit named 21 guards accused of participating in the abuse at the maximum security prison in Raleigh as defendants.
Followings hearing on the suit, the judge ordered that additional cameras be installed that would provide surveillance of the blind spots and that digital videos of the surveillance be kept sufficiently long enough to be used by any prisoners who file complaints.
Advocates Call for Greater Oversight of State Prisons
Asked by Solitary Watch to comment on the state of the North Carolina prison system, North Carolina Cure (NC-CURE) Director Elizabeth Forbes responded:
There have been countless issues of abuses of mentally ill prisoners, including the most recent incident– the death of Michael Anthony Kerr. I think this was one reason for Dr. John Carbone’s demotion. It’s just one more lawsuit resulting from his negative and cavalier attitude toward the mentally ill.
Regarding Kerr, our inside sources told us that the guards specifically punished him and he was taken off his mental illness medication…
The problems in North Carolina state prisons originate from severe staff shortages and lack of oversight.
Solitary Watch also contacted North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services attorney Michele Luecking-Sunman, who stated in a telephone interview:
There have definitely been some horrific things that have happened in North Carolina’s prisons in the last several years, and we have and do have pending litigation to try to address the deficiencies that are causing these acts that are occurring.
There’s always a need for greater oversight of mental healthcare in prisons and there is some evidence that there has been some ongoing oversight in North Carolina, but I think that there needs to be more. When there are experts brought in or experts who look at the system to the extent that their recommendations can be followed, they should be followed.
A lot of times prisons are under pressure in terms of funding or what not, but the pressure needs to be there for experts in mental health fields to be the ones that are determining how people are housed when they have mental illness and they shouldn’t always default to custody level people. We need to see treatment instead of punishment when somebody is acting out in a manner that is because of their mental illness.
• According to a lawsuit filed in federal court last week, solitary confinement conditions inside one New Mexico county jail were so inhumane they drove one woman with a history of mental illness to suicide. According to court documents, Raynbow Gignilliat, 39, was kept in isolation without treatment even after “stripping naked, smearing feces and urine on herself and her solitary cell, hallucinating and screaming for hours during the day and night.”
• Wisconsin’s Department of Corrections is planning to make significant changes to its disciplinary code, according to a memo obtained by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. The memo also specifies, “Long-term segregation placements have been shown to be ineffective in terms of discipline and do not serve our corrective or rehabilitative goals.”
• The New York Daily News published an article entitled, “Prisoner advocates slam plan to create Enhanced Supervision Unit for Rikers’ most dangerous inmates.” The plan, which would allow people to be kept in isolation for 17 hours a day, has yet to be approved by the Board of Corrections.
• Researchers at the 2014 American Association for the Advancement of Science Annual meeting hosted Angola 3 member Robert King and discussed the psychological and physical impacts of solitary confinement.
• Susan Greene of The Colorado Independent published a profile of Unique Taylor, a trangender woman held in solitary confinement at the federal supermax facility, Florence ADX.
• CounterPunch ran an article by a member of California Families Against Solitary Confinement, entitled “An End to Solitary is Long Overdue.”
• This week a trial will begin for the former Rikers guard who allegedly ignored the medical needs of a prisoner who died in a solitary confinement cell after swallowing a ball of highly toxic soap. Terrence Pendergrass is facing one count of deprivation of rights under color of color.
• The Providence Journal published a long investigation into the treatment of people with illness inside the state’s prison system, especially focusing on the use of extended isolation.
• After a string of inmate deaths in the state, including several in solitary confinement, the US Department of Justice is gathering information and considering an investigation into Florida’s Department of Corrections.
• On Human Rights Day, LGBT and immigrant rights groups called for an end to the placement of transgender women in male detention facilities. Many trans women are placed in isolation while in immigration detention facilities, allegedly to keep them safe from sexual violence.
The Arizona Department of Corrections (ADC) has opened a new facility with 500 maximum-security prison beds in the Rast Unit at the Arizona State Prison Complex (ASPC Lewis) in Buckeye, Arizona. (Maximum-security prisons in the state of Arizona are what is usually thought of as supermax prisons.)
The opening of the new facility comes on the heels of the ADC’s agreement to a settlement in a class-action lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to improve prison health care and limit the use of solitary confinement in Arizona prisons.
The additional beds at ASPC Lewis are modeled after existing solitary confinement facilities AMU I and Browning Units, which, according to a new report by the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) of Arizona, are “exclusively designed for single cell long-term prisoner isolation.”
The Arizona Republic reports on the new prison, which is estimated to cost Arizona taxpayers $50 million:
The 500 beds will be in 416 cells, 84 of which are double bunked. A few are accessible to inmates with disabilities. It will be staffed round the clock by 115 correctional officers, [ADC Director Charles] Ryan said. . .
An elevated observation deck, with an electronic touch screen to open and close cell doors, overlooks rows of cells.
Each cell is about 12 by 8 feet, with a stainless steel toilet and sink. The bed is a concrete slab, which will have a mattress. At the head of each bed are electrical and cable outlets, which can be used for a television.
Critics Call the New Maximum-Security Prison Wasteful, Not Necessary
On December 1, to coincide with the opening of the new facility, AFSC of Arizona released an in-depth report, “Still Buried Alive: Arizona Prisoner Testimonies on Isolation in Maximum-Security,” which includes the testimonies of people held in maximum-security, or solitary confinement, facilities throughout the state.
Opponents have called the the new prison construction wasteful, urging the state take measures to amend Arizona’s current sentencing legislation standards as an alternative. Critics of the new maximum-security beds also assert that, based on corrections documentation, the ADC is not filling the existing beds it has for maximum-custody prisoners, making the newly constructed prison facility a waste of taxpayers’ dollars.
The AFSC of Arizona maintains that the maximum-security beds are not necessary, stating that the ADC should instead focus resources on rehabilitation programs. In its report, the advocacy group notes that the new maximum-security prison will be Arizona’s first new state prison in years, a decision which commits the state towards increasing incarceration as opposed to pursuing “cost-saving, evidence-based alternatives to incarceration as other states have recently begun exploring and implementing.”
Executive Director of the ACLU of Arizona Alessandra Soler disagrees with Director Ryan’s 2013 assertion that Arizona state prisons do not use solitary. The NPR affiliate KJZZ Radio reports that Soler said the state’s maximum-security prisoners spend too much time in isolation, which is the reason for which the segregation of these people should be considered solitary confinement. Soler elaborates:
“By policy, they’re supposed to be released for two hours a day but many times because of ‘staffing’ issues people will end up in their cells for 24 hours a day, without any access to any programmatic activities, without access to providers,” [Soler] said.
State Defends Construction of New Prison, Citing Projected Growth in Prisoner Population
KJZZ Radio report on the new prison:
“Part of the reason that we decided that this unit was going to be necessary to our operation was because we were looking at population statistics that indicated an increase and that hasn’t changed,” ADC representative Doug Nick told KJZZ Radio. “We are still looking at that there is growth in the system and we need to manage those beds.”
According to Nick, the ADC plans to transfer people already held in maximum-security prisons throughout the state into the new structure, with the ultimate goal of freeing up space in the state’s prison system for “some of the more predatory inmates that require special management.”
An estimated 325 of the 500 prisoners to be housed at the prison will reportedly come from the Eyman unit at Florence Prison located in Florence, Arizona. The remaining beds will be filled with people moved from other prisons or new arrivals.
On December 9, Solitary Watch contacted the ADC to comment on the opening of the new prison in light bed vacancies in existing facilities. When asked why the ADC requires additional beds in spite of the current surplus, ADC spokesperson Bill Lamoreaux referenced the “daily count sheets,” which specify the number of beds available for each custody level.
According to the corrections records dated December 8, 2014, of the 2,705 maximum-security beds designated for men, 190 were vacant – not counting the additional 500 beds. The state also has a 132-bed maximum-security prison facility for women with 39 vacancies.
When asked if the ADC was expecting growth in the number of maximum security prisons, Lamoreaux replied that a look at the count sheets reveals where the need for additional maximum security capacity is warranted.
He continued, stating, “[As for projected growth,] I don’t know. I’m not sure . . . You can compare the current sheet to one from a couple years ago.”
According to the December 9, 2014, count sheet, apparently the first to include the addition of the new 500 beds, there were a total of 661 vacancies among males and 38 among females.
Regarding projected growth, Lamoreaux also alluded to a December 2012 report by the ADC detailing its five-year strategic plan for FY 2014 to FY 2018. Despite having a relatively stable population overall, the report states that certain population segments are increasing, one of which the ADC claims is maximum security.
Finally, when asked if people held in the new maximum security prison will be given more out-of-cell-time than people currently held in maximum-security Arizona state prisons, Lamoraux stated that maximum security prisoners throughout the state will receive additional time out of their cells. He then referred to what the ADC refers to as Director’s Instructions (DI) #326, which outlines instructions implemented by Director Ryan. Ryan’s stated objective is:
“to facilitate a process that requires inmates in maximum custody to work through a program utilizing a step system providing the opportunity to participate in jobs, programs and other out of cell activities. Based on behavior and programming, inmates may progress from controlled based housing to open privilege base housing where movement outside a cell is without restraint equipment.”
According to DI #326, the director’s instructions are subject to review every 90 days.
Report: “Still Buried Alive”
The AFSC Arizona report presents the viewpoints of the true experts on solitary confinement in Arizona – the men and women who live it every day. With written testimonies from 41 people held in solitary confinement in Arizona state prisons, the new report highlights the conditions in maximum-security prison facilities, underscoring the detrimental impacts of isolation. Also included are prisoners’ statements directed to ADC Director Ryan, Governor Brewer and Arizona lawmakers.
In preparing the report, the AFSC asked men and women held in prisons operated by the ADC for their reactions to the planned opening of the 500 maximum-security prison beds. Respondents were also specifically asked about Director Ryan’s 2013 statement that solitary confinement is not used by Arizona prisons, and to compare this statement to their personal experiences of confinement.
According to the report, “On one point every respondent was in agreement – solitary confinement exists in Arizona prisons and it is extremely damaging to every person who endures it.”
In written testimony, an individual describes the conditions of confinement as “horrendous”:
The day to day conditions of confinement are horrendous. For starters, Charles Ryan claims that we’re only locked in our cells for 22 hours a day. Either this is another lie on his behalf or he just has no idea what’s going on in his own facilities. By policy, we’re given two hours of “recreation” in a small concrete box and a shower and every time we leave our cells we’re strip searched and hand cuffed. These days are routinely canceled due to a “staff shortage” to conduct them. The other days of the week are 24-hour lockdown…
Another person rejected the claim that double-celling prisoners does not qualify as solitary confinement:
It doesn’t matter if a convict is locked in a cell with another convict as long as such convict is confined to a cell 24 hours a day. That is considered solitary confinement – in my opinion it’s worse when there are two in a cell confined 24 hours a day because it’s more frustrating seeing a stranger every day and dealing with his habits and attitudes.
Others comment on the long-term effects of solitary confinement, both on the individual subjected to the practice and later, society as a whole:
I have been locked up for 9.5 years – 7 years have been spent in lockdown. I have forgotten how to be around and deal with people. I am getting out in a year and a half and am a wreck. I’ve been kept in a cage on meds with no human contact, no programs, and am expected to get out and be normal. . . [M]ost of us will be getting out. Why would you want to treat people like this, then set them free with no skills, not knowing how to deal with people, offering no programs, and wonder why so many return to prison for violent crimes. [If] you treat humans like animals, they become animals. . .
Solitary confinement does not change us for the better. It makes us hate everyone and creates monsters within us. . . I am speaking for the inmates that should not be in solitary when our classification points do not warrant our stay. We become aggressive and hostile towards people I don’t know.
The issues of self-harming and suicide in solitary were addressed by multiple respondents:
I almost committed suicide like other females are doing while locked down. I tried hanging myself and took a bunch of pills the second and third time.
It irritates your mind. That’s why my seizures have increased these past two years, especially this last year here in SMU I. That’s why inmates are most likely to commit suicide in solitary than medium or minimum custody, and statistics prove that.
The following are some final statements offered by four maximum-security prisoners about their time in solitary confinement:
On Wednesday June 12, 2013 ADC Director Charles Ryan claimed that solitary confinement does not exist in Arizona prisons. If a man is locked in a airtight naked cage alone for 23 hours each day, every day and they only take him out for a shower 3 times a week in a airtight cell or one hour recreation alone in a empty pin. It is solitary no matter their double speak. . .
I would implore anyone who has the power and authority to end the use of long-term, indefinite solitary confinement in any capacity to look beyond any myopic political motives in order to discern whether placing people under such torturous conditions serves the greater good of society or just some misguided agenda based on fear. I’d try to convince them to heed the findings of various scientific studies on the actual effects of solitary confinement.
I would emphasize that they personally need to ask themselves: So what certain life expectations or productivity can an individual who’s been placed decades in solitary confinement, segregation, etc…? What can they look forward towards accomplishing if, or when they are released back into society? And even more so if their mental illness has also gone untreated all those years without physical interaction with other people or with any structural rehabilitation.
I would ask why they’re continuing the practice of solitary confinement when it’s statistically done nothing to lessen the amount of overall violence in prison which was its intended objective. I would ask why they’re so intent on pursuing this failed objective. I would ask why they’re so intent on pursuing this failed policy when all they have to do is look at such states as Mississippi to see how they’ve closed down their isolation units and added programs – excessively lowering their violence levels. . . I would ask why they’re treating us like animals and in a lot of cases turning us into animals when most of us will be re-entering these communities and neighborhoods. A healthier alternative for everybody would seem to be to keep us socially connected…give us jobs, programs, and opportunities. . .
The report, which should be read in full, concludes with recommendations for the ADC. It urges the Corrections Department to “limit use of isolation for ALL maximum-security prisoners regardless of their mental health score”; “move towards full compliance with the Parsons v. Ryan Settlement Agreement as quickly as possible”; “improve access to out-of-cell medical and mental health care”; and “increase the number of and access to educational programming, jobs, and group activities throughout the ADC.”
ADC Continues to Dismiss Claims That It Uses Solitary
Following the release of the AFSC Arizona’s new report, ADC representative Nick dismissed claims that Arizona state prisons use solitary confinement. KJZZ Radio reports that Doug Nick of the ADC referred to the definition of solitary as archaic:
“The state has single cells, of course,” Nick said. “If you have a predatory inmate, a violent inmate, an inmate who is a threat to somebody else, clearly there’s a reason to have a single-cell environment for their safety, of the institution, and the safety of the other inmates.“
The AFSC Arizona responds to Nick’s statements in a recent blog post:
Further confirming that the Arizona Department of Corrections has no understanding of the critiques leveled against it by AFSC or any other prisoner rights advocates, Nick seems to suggest that being in a single cell is the problem, and not the fact that over 2,000 prisoners – and soon 500 more in ASPC Lewis – barely leave their cells for years at a time. Single, double, or tripled bunked, when prisoners aren’t allowed out of their cells and are confined to a space the size of a bathroom for years at time it causes mental, physical, and psychological damage that often cannot be undone. It drives people crazy, makes them suicidal, and results in physical deterioration.
The following comes from Steven Jay Russell, who is currently serving a 144-year sentence at the all-solitary Allan B. Polunsky Unit in Texas. Notorious for masterminding four successful, non-violent escapes from Texas correctional facilities, his story is recounted in the movie I Love You Phillip Morris. Russell, who has been held in administrative segregation for nearly two decades, is the first person in U.S. history to receive a life sentence for prison escapes. He can be reached by writing: Steven Russell, 00760259, Allan B. Polunsky Unit, 3872 FM 350 South, Livingston, TX 77351. –Lisa Dawson
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
My name is Steven Jay Russell, age 57, and incarcerated in the death row building at the Polunsky Unit (Texas Department of Criminal Justice- Correctional Institutions Division) in Livingston, Texas, for the non-violent, non-aggravated, offenses of theft by embezzlement and escape. Despite being a non-violent offender, I was sentenced to a 144 year (consecutive or stacked) term of imprisonment. On May 23, 2014, I began my 19th year of solitary confinement. I’ve never been charged with or convicted of any type of criminal offense or institutional disciplinary case for weapons possession, any type of assaultive behavior, destruction of property, or the taking of a hostage. It has been more than eight (8) years since I received any type of major institutional disciplinary case.
Solitary confinement, or administrative segregation, is the most restrictive form of incarceration in the Texas prison system. I am housed in the same building and same pod as inmates who have been sentenced to death for the offense of capital murder. With the exception of cell rotations that are implemented on a periodic basis, my level of security and conditions of confinement, are identical to those inmates that are sentenced to death. We both live in a single man, 6×10 square foot concrete box with a bunk, toilet, sink, table, and metal door with two narrow windows that are covered with wire mesh or plexiglass. My personal property must fit in a two (2) cubic foot container. Human contact, or touching another individual, is against the prison rules.
I do receive a small amount of natural light that comes into the cell via a narrow window about two inches from the ceiling of my cell that remains sealed shut. I do not have access to a television or telephone. Any contact with visitors must occur behind thick plexiglass and a handset type of intercom system.
Except during lockdown, (i.e. Comprehensive cell searches that must take place at least four (4) times per year [a total of six weeks]), I am entitled to what’s called, “recreation,” five days per week for two (2) hours per day in a cage in front of my cell, or a cage with four concrete walls and bars as the ceiling outside. I am also entitled to a daily shower. Guards working my pod pick the time of day or night for both of these privileges. Anytime I leave my cell, or before returning to my cell, I must submit to a full body strip search that is seen by God, man, women, and the cameras that are located throughout this prison unit. Shackles and hand restraints are required for the escort to or from the rec yard, visiting room, and shower. Two guards must escort me to and from wherever it is I am going. If nudity is an issue, this is not the prison for you!
Altogether, there are approximately 420 men assigned to the death row building at Polunsky. Seventeen (17) of these men, including myself, have been singled out for retributive cell rotations. A cell rotation occurs every three to fourteen days and involves exchanging cells with another inmate. An inmate is moved out of his cell, and another inmate is immediately moved in. Cleaning the cell of another inmate, especially one who has serious mental illness and never takes a shower, creates real chaos and unsanitary living conditions. The only cleaning materials that I am issued is a small container of Ajax type cleanser. Cleaning rags, scrub brushes, gloves, toilet bowl brushes, or disinfectant, are all considered contraband and not issued. We are also moved all over the building so that others can see the penalty for escape. Prison staff tell me that the reason for cell rotations is to prevent escapes. Well, if the cells are not secure enough to house a non-violent offender like myself, who has never broken out of prison, why is it secure enough to house the killers who are sentenced to death?
I’ve been doing the cell rotation blast since April of 1998. What changed? I can’t explain it, except for the retributive aspect. Prison officials hold grudges. The jury that gave me my 99 year sentence for my final escape was made-up with seven (7) individuals who were employed by the prison system in Huntsville (Walker County), Texas. At the time of my escape, George W. Bush was governor of Texas. I guess he was embarrassed because I walked out the front door dressed as a doctor on the Estelle Unit, a maximum security prison.
A book by Steve McVicker, three television documentaries on ID Discovery, and film entitled, I Love You Phillip Morris, (Jim Carrey portrays my role in the movie) cover my life. I am, and have been diagnosed with, and take medication for, Obsessive Personality Disorder. I escaped to be with my lover/partner, Phillip Morris. Trial officials, parole officials, prison officials, and my counsel, all realized that I was obsessed over my relationship with Phillip Morris. To save my life, I can’t understand why that fact was never considered to be a mitigating issue on punishment.
I walked out of the prison and jail. I did not steal a car or hurt anyone. Without medication, the OCD becomes out of control for me.
I am reviewed for parole release on an annual basis and have been denied twelves (12) times. Every six months, I am given sham reviews by prison staff to be released to general population. These reviews take about 1 1/2 minutes and are always denied. I’m told that I will never be released to general population by a number of wardens, who have retired.
People who lived in this building and other units I’ve been assigned to in Administrative Segregation or solitary, give up, and some have committed suicide.
At this time, I can name about 13-14 men who quit and gave up on life. I’ve watched men cut their bodies, chop off their testicles, try and hang themselves from the light fixture, smear feces and urine all over themselves and their cell, throw feces at staff, at other inmates, scream and screech throughout the day and night, talk to themselves, stand at their cell door or on the outside rec yard or inside rec cage and take all of their clothes off and expose themselves to others, or overdoes on medications. I feel as if I’m living in a zoo and the situation at best, is overwhelming.
How will this all affect me psychologically once I’m released onto parole? At present, I no longer enjoy being around or interacting with others. Touching another individual, even via a shake of the hand or hug has not happened in so long that I’m not even sure how I will react if this ever takes place. Of course, with my sentence, the parole board could keep me incarcerated for the rest of my life. No, it will not surprise me.
• The Philadelphia Inquirer profiled the case of Khasiem Carr, “one of more than 1,000 Pennsylvania inmates with mental illness kept in isolation for 90 days or more between May 2012 and May 2013.” The article also examines changes that the state has put in place in recent years to provide higher quality care.
• Rasmea Odeh, a Palestinian-American community leader who has been held on immigration fraud charges since November 10, is currently in solitary confinement.
• Solitary Watch’s James Ridgeway and Jean Casella published a commentary piece for The Marshall Project entitled, “What Death Penalty Opponents Don’t Get.” In it they quote from the letters of William Blake, who did not face the death penalty for his crimes but may spend the rest of his life in solitary confinement: “Dying couldn’t take but a short time if you or the State were to kill me; in SHU I have died a thousand internal deaths.”
• According to research presented at the American Public Health Association, juveniles held in North Carolina adult facilities “are more than two times as likely to be placed in solitary confinement.” Other studies have revealed similar patterns in New York City; North Carolina and New York are the only two states where 16 and 17 year olds are automatically tried in the adult criminal justice system.
• The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) released a new report featuring first-hand testimony from those held in Arizona’s maximum-security prisons. The report, entitled “Still Buried Alive,” was published just as the state opened a 500-bed maximum-security facility.
• The editorial board of New Jersey’s Star-Ledger called for substantial reform of the state’s solitary confinement practices, endorsing legislation proposed by State Senator Ray Lesniak earlier in the week.
• A New Mexico man who’s spent the past seven years in “protective custody” isolation is suing the state in federal court, alleging he has suffered severe physical and emotional damage. The Sante Fe New Mexican published an op-ed in relation to the suit, which stated, “New Mexico is the second worst in the nation for the use of solitary confinement.”
On November 28, the United Nations Committee Against Torture released a 15 page report reviewing the United States’ compliance with the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT). The report cites the excessive use of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons and jails as a violation of CAT, and recommends a set of dramatic reforms.
The report is a follow up to the Committee’s meeting with United States government officials on November 12 and 13 in Geneva. As a state party to CAT, the United States is expected to submit a “Periodic Report” detailing its adherence to the Convention, as well as respond to questions, observations, and recommendations for change issued by the Committee. Over the two days, the United States delegation presented its latest periodic report for a ten-member Committee to review, after almost an 8 year gap since the last such review.
The U.S. government’s periodic report discusses some 55 separate issues of concern to the Committee Against Torture ranging from the treatment of immigrants in detention, the death penalty, police brutality, and sexual abuse of people in prison to the rendition and secret detention of terror suspects and their continued presence at Guantanamo Bay. In all cases, the United States insists that it is in compliance with CAT, even as several human rights and civil liberties organizations submitted shadow reports telling otherwise. (Access them here: American Civil Liberties Union; Center for Constitutional Rights, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children and California Prison Focus; American Friends Service Committee; NY CAIC; the Correctional Association of NY; NRCAT; T’ruah; Victorious Black Women, and the Midwest Coalition for Human Rights.)
The U.S. periodic report also attempts to dismiss the Committee on Torture’s concerns on solitary confinement–which the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture defines as “physical and social isolation of individuals who are confined to their cells for 22 to 24 hours a day,” and to which some 80,000 people are being subjected to every day in the United States. As per the U.S. report, there is “no systemic use of solitary confinement in the United States.”
However, in Geneva, members of the Committee Against Torture raised multiple questions and concerns about solitary confinement in U.S. prisons and jails. Committee Vice-Chairperson George Tugushi questioned the American delegation about measures taken to limit the use of solitary confinement, especially on children and other vulnerable individuals. Another Committee member, Alessio Bruni, asked about prolonged solitary confinement such as is being used in Louisiana, where individuals have been isolated for 30 years, and noted that such treatment caused “anxiety, depression and hallucinations until their personality is complete destroyed.”
Both in its periodic report and during the hearings, the United States government sought to assure the Committee on Torture that sufficient restrictions on the imposition of solitary confinement are already in place. At the hearings, David Bitkower, the Deputy Assistant Attorney General at the Department of Justice maintained that “U.S. courts have interpreted the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution as prohibiting the use of solitary confinement under certain circumstances.” The U.S. periodic report further claims that The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Rehabilitation Act) limit the use of solitary confinement against persons with mental illnesses and other disabilities, while the PREA [Prison Rape Elimination Act] offers protection from the same for children.
But in its “Concluding observations” released last week, the UN Committee reaffirms that “it remains concerned about reports of extensive use of solitary confinement and other forms of isolation in US prisons, jails and other detention centres for purpose of punishment, discipline and protection, as well as for health-related reasons” even as the United States denies any “systemic use.” In the report, the Committee once again raises concerns on the use of solitary confinement for indefinite periods of time, its use against children and persons with mental disabilities, and the general lack of pertinent statistical data. The report also states that the isolation of prisoners for 22 – 23 hours a day as used in super-maximum security prisons is “unacceptable.”
The Committee lays forth several recommendations for the United States to ensure its policies on solitary confinement are in better compliance with CAT. It asks the U.S. government to restrict the use of solitary confinement “as a measure of last resort, for as short time as possible, under strict supervision and with the possibility of judicial review.” Further it reasserts the need to ban the imposition of solitary confinement on “juveniles, persons with intellectual or psychosocial disabilities, pregnant women, women with infants and breastfeeding mothers in prison.” It also stresses that “regimes of solitary confinement such as those in super-maximum security detention facilities” need to be banned. Finally, the Committee once again brings attention to the lack of detailed information on the use of solitary confinement. It asks the United States to “compile and regularly publish comprehensive disaggregated data on the use of solitary confinement, including related suicide attempts and self-harm.”
Asked how he believes the U.S. government might respond to these recommendations, David Fathi, Director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project said: “We shouldn’t hope for dramatic change. Even if the federal government were highly motivated, it has limited authority to affect conditions in state and local facilities, where ninety percent of prisoners are held.” However, he hopes that the Committee’s report “may give an added push to states and localities that are already considering solitary reform.”
The following article was published earlier this week by the Marshall Project, the new nonprofit news organization focused exclusively on criminal justice. It can be read in full on the Marshall Project’s site.
In 1987, when he was 23 years old and in court on a drug charge, William Blake shot two sheriff’s deputies in a failed escape attempt, killing one. At his trial, the judge presiding over his case expressed regret that New York did not have capital punishment, so he could not sentence Blake to death.
Instead, for the past 27 years, Blake has lived in extreme isolation in a 7 x 9 cell. He is fed through a slot in the solid steel door, and on some days he’s allowed out for an hour to “exercise” alone in a small, barren pen. Because his sentence is 77 years to life, he is virtually certain to die in prison. Because he is classified as both a cop killer and an escape risk, he may well spend the rest of his life in solitary confinement.
Recently Blake, now 50, described his years in the “Special Housing Units,” or SHUs, of New York’s state prisons. “If I try to imagine what kind of death, even a slow one, would be worse than twenty-five years in the box—and I have tried to imagine it—I can come up with nothing,” he wrote. “Dying couldn’t take but a short time if you or the State were to kill me; in SHU I have died a thousand internal deaths.”
Opponents of the death penalty have had many occasions to celebrate in the new millennium. Four states have abolished the practice in the past five years, while others have legally or effectively set moratoriums on executions. Support for capital punishment in the United States is at its lowest point in four decades, and seems likely to fall further as the number of exonerations and gruesomely botched executions continues to grow.
But at what cost have these concessions been won? The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund’s latest “Death Row U.S.A.” report found 3,049 individuals awaiting execution in the United States. According to theSentencing Project, at last count nearly 50,000 people were serving sentences of life without the possibility of parole—a number that has more than tripled since the early 1990s. Over 159,000 were serving life sentences—many of them, like William Blake, with minimums so long that they might as well be doing life without parole, too.
In many states, the expansion—and the very existence—of life without parole sentences can be directly linked to the struggle to end capital punishment. Death penalty opponents often accept—and even zealously promote–life without parole as a preferable option, in the process becoming champions of a punishment that is nearly unknown in the rest of the developing world.
In California, for example, where the latest attempt to end capital punishment by referendum was narrowly defeated in 2012, voters were urged not simply to abolish the death penalty, but to “replace” it with life without parole. In support of this cause, the ACLU of Northern Californiamade a virtue of the similarity between the two punishments: “The reality is that people sentenced to life without parole have been condemned to die in prison and that’s what happens: They die in prison of natural causes, just like the majority of people sentenced to death.” Referring repeatedly to life without parole as “death in prison,” the ACLU resorts to language far more draconian than one might expect from any liberal organization: life without parole sentences have the advantage of being “certain” and “swift,” because “[u]nlike death penalty cases [they] receive no special consideration on appeal” Such sentences are also “severe,” since spending a lifetime in “California’s overcrowded, dangerous prisons…growing sick and old, and dying there, is a horrible experience. This is especially true given the unconstitutional failure to provide adequate health care to California’s prisoners.”
Kenneth E. Hartman, who is serving life without parole in California, agrees with such an assessment—and for that reason, strongly opposed the referendum to replace capital punishment with life without parole. Hartman runs, from prison, a campaign called the Other Death Penalty Project, on the premise that a sentence of life without parole amounts to “a long, slow, dissipating death sentence without any of the legal or administrative safeguards rightly awarded to those condemned to the traditional forms of execution.”
“Though I will never be strapped down onto a gurney with life-stopping drugs pumped into my veins,” Hartmann has written, “be assured I have already begun the slow drip of my execution [which] won’t come to full effect for 50, maybe 60 years.” Like William Blake in New York, he states: “I have often wondered if that 15 or 20 minutes of terror found to be cruel and unusual wouldn’t be a better option.”
Complicating matters is the fact that life without parole rarely takes its place as simply a one-for-one alternative to the death penalty. In New York State, for example, life without parole did not exist before the state’s brief reinstitution of capital punishment from 1995 to 2004. During this period, there were never more than half a dozen men on New York’s death row, and no executions took place. Yet today, nearly 250 people are doing life without parole in New York, and more than 1 in 6 of the state’s prisoners is serving a life sentence.
Connecticut, in abolishing its death penalty in 2012, legislated a punishmenteven more harsh than simple life without parole. Thereafter, a new law decreed, those convicted of “murder with special circumstances” would be condemned to live out their life without parole sentences in solitary confinement. The measure was reportedly backed as a way to win enough support for the repeal bill.
Though the requirement that life/LWOP sentences be served in solitary confinement is codified into law only in Connecticut, it exists in practice throughout the nation. An unknown number of lifers have, like William Blake, been placed in permanent or indefinite solitary confinement by prison officials, without benefit of any kind of due process. So have most of the individuals on the nation’s death rows, including the supposedly fortunate ones who live in states that have instituted moratoriums, and are therefore unlikely to ever face execution.