Ty Evans is serving time in Pendleton Correctional Facility in Indiana for attempted murder. There, he became a self-taught legal advocate for other incarcerated men—a “jailhouse lawyer.” There is no right to counsel for those serving prison sentences who seek to challenge their convictions or their sentences–which is just one aspect of the utter failing of indigent defense in this country. For those who cannot afford an outside attorney, the only place to turn for help with negotiating the complicated path through the criminal justice system is to jailhouse lawyers, who help them represent themselves pro se. Evans calls them “the worst attorneys in America,” but some are in fact highly skilled and dedicated, despite being hamstrung at every turn. Nonetheless, their work is often done in vain, since courts tend not to take pro se cases very seriously, no matter how substantive they may be.
At Pendleton, Evans served as a legal advocate for men in solitary confinement, who lack even the ability to go to the prison’s law library for themselves. Recently, after writing a book to help prisoners defend themselves, he was summarily removed from his position. “Prisoners in solitary still ask for my help,” he writes, “but I am no longer able to provide it.” He can receive mail at: Ty Evans #158293, Pendleton Correctional Facility, 4490 Reformatory Road, Pendelton, IN 46064-9001. –James Ridgeway
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Imagine having been convicted of a serious crime, having the right to attack the validity of your conviction, and being appointed an “attorney” who has not passed the bar, who has little education, and who has no experience with the law.
This attorney will be confined to one room in his house, have no computer, no Internet, and no phone. He’ll consult a fixed number of legal books, and may review up to 15 published legal opinions per week. He’ll have no money to spend on your defense for things like DNA testing, ballistics, or expert witnesses. Work he submits to the court will be handwritten and, given his aptitude, virtually unintelligible. Your freedom will depend solely on this man’s efforts, and if you’ve been wrongfully convicted it will be up to this man to prove it.
Surely, you think, convicted prisoners do not receive this kind of legal representation in America. But you would be wrong–very, very wrong.
For thousands of prisoners, this is exactly the level of legal assistance they have. They are pro se litigants, forced to attack their convictions and sentences entirely on their own. They fight their cases from prison cells scattered across the United States, usually only with the assistance of other prisoners like themselves. They are, collectively, the worst attorneys in America.
Per a long line of Supreme Court rulings anchored on Pennsylvania v. Finley (1987), it has been held that the Sixth Amendment right to counsel does not extend to the post-conviction stage. Once a prisoner has been convicted by a jury and lost his direct appeal of that verdict, there is no more right to counsel.
One might presume that the direct appeal constituted a thorough examination of the case but, in fact, the appeal only reviews trial errors preserved by counsel. Things outside of the trial record, such as failure to call witnesses, failure to use exculpatory evidence, failure to ensure proper jury instructions, etcetera, are not contained in the trial record and are not reviewable on direct appeal.
However, after the direct appeal, a prisoner retains the right to challenge the conviction on a number of Constitutional grounds, most of which involve a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel. He may do this through state post-conviction proceedings or a state habeas corpus petition, and then through a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus. In other words, a prisoner who has been convicted simply because his trial attorney did not protect the defendant’s right to fair trial can enumerate the defects in the attorney’s representation and argue that there stands a “reasonable probability” of a different outcome were the defendant represented by competent counsel. Prisoners know this as the Strickland rule, from the Supreme Court case, Stickland v. Washington (1984).
The most damaging trial defects are almost always a result of trial counsel’s errors and omissions. The prisoner’s problem is, knowing what counsel failed to do requires a complete knowledge of criminal law–trial rules, evidence rules, civil rules, state and federal statutes, and constitutional law. Few prisoners have a solid grasp of the labyrinthine legal system that has put them behind bars. So, those that have a vague idea of how to challenge their convictions struggle to articulate their claims, while thousands of others have no idea that post-conviction remedies are even available and do not attempt to overturn invalid convictions or excessive sentences.
Until recently, I worked as a lay advocate for prisoners housed in solitary confinement in one of the worst prisons in America. Pendleton Correctional Facility in Indiana houses 1,458 prisoners, and 22% are in the most restrictive form of segregation, either for disciplinary reasons, for an administrative investigation, or for protective custody. At last count, 50 had life sentence. For the 1,408 with release dates, the average amount of time left to serve is 20 years. Nearly all went to trial, nearly all have lengthy sentences, and nearly all will be involved in collateral attacks on their convictions at some point during their incarceration. Their need for qualified legal assistance is overwhelming, yet very few will have the means to employ professional counsel. (An exception is that Congress has enacted statutes requiring counsel for the duration of legal proceedings for those with death sentences.)
For the 78% in Pendleton’s general population, there is a physical access to a law library. The facility allows a prisoner to visit the law library 1 or 2 hours a week, and up to 7 hours a week if a prisoner can show a verifiable filing deadline in a pending case. The library has computers with a LEXIS database and MS Word software. There are several law clerks on duty, none of whom possess any certifiable legal credentials. Even with these conveniences, prisoners have great difficulty filing reasonable and presentable documents in court.
For the 22% in Pendleton’s solitary confinement, there is no physical access to the prison law library. Clerks make weekly trips to the solitary units, pick up request forms, and spend maybe 5 minutes per prisoner discussing what the prisoner may need. Most of the solitary prisoners are indigent, enduring conditions where the food is always room temperature, and the heat or cold intolerable. Roughly a third of these prisoners have documented mental illness. Many are managed through medication. On days when they elect to exercise, they are led to a recreation cage on a dog leash. Some are illiterate. Few have even the slightest grasp on how to file things in court, yet many try.
The legal work done by these pro se prisoners is, across the board, pretty bad. According to one Indiana attorney who formerly clerked in the Indiana Court of Appeals, briefs submitted with a pro se litigant’s name on the cover are treated practically with disgust from the outset–placed in a separate pile and given only a cursory glance by the Appellate Court judge. The judge tells the clerk, “Write a denial,” and the clerk opens the Attorney General’s electronically filed brief and modifies it to write the court’s opinion. Thus, even a good pro se brief will get lost in the shuffle.
For two years I readily shouldered the burden of doing legal work for these prisoners–researching, drafting briefs and motions, and writing detailed explanations for these men. Law clerks are only required to deliver requested materials, but these guys obviously needed more. My only credentials are years of experience, and a bachelor’s degree.
In 2012, after answering the same questions over and over, I wrote a book outlining how to fight your case in Indiana as a pro se prisoner. A publisher accepted my work and bound a 620-page manual titled, P.C. Guidebook: The Complete Guide to Post-Conviction Relief for the Pro Se Prisoner. I operated under the presumption that such a book would be welcomed as a way to improve prisoner’ pro se filings, and that maybe even the prison staff would take pride in the work of one of their prisoners. But the Indiana Department of Correction didn’t see it that way, and when the publisher sent in advertisements, the IDOC banned the book. Without reading it. Because my name was on the cover.
Naturally, I sued. The ACLU accepted the case, and the IDOC settled, allowing the book to be advertised and sold within Indiana prisons. On the morning of October 18, 2013, prisoners who had ordered the book received it from the prison mail room. That afternoon, I was removed from my position as a law library clerk, per Internal Affairs, citing that I was a “threat to the safety and security of the facility.” They have never identified the specific nature of the “threat.” I had not violated any rules. An appeal of my job loss to the superintendent was denied, no further reasoning given.
Prisoners in solitary still ask for my help, but I am no longer able to provide it.
The “worst attorneys in America” are still employed in force, piling up briefs that no judge will read, filing motions that no court will fairly consider. While few of these prisoners would be termed “actually innocent,” a sizable minority are serving sentences that are too severe, or have been convicted of offenses that have been over-charged by the prosecutor, although still guilty of lower level felonies. While not “innocent,” they fall under the broader definition of “wrongfully convicted.” Yet, where is the legal help for these men?
Per the state legislatures, Congress, and the courts, they are not entitled to legal assistance. Per a plain reading of the U.S. Constitution, they are. I have been told that the law won’t change to allow these men attorneys, because there wouldn’t be enough attorneys to fill the need. How odd that the wealthiest country in the world cannot afford justice.
The following roundup features noteworthy news, reports and opinions on solitary confinement from the past week that have not been covered in other Solitary Watch posts.
• Footage obtained by the Colorado Independent shows excessive force being used against a man who was placed in solitary after exhibiting suicidal behavior. The man was being monitored in his cell before a team of officers entered and proceeded to tase him. The Colorado Independent notes that this episode is representative of many examples of excessive force in Denver’s jails.
• A ruling on July 24th by U.S. District Judge Troy L. Nunley granted class-action status on behalf of 125,000 people held in California’s prisons in a lawsuit accusing prison officials of racial discrimination. As Reuters reports, during lockdowns men of similar ethnicities are often contained to their cells for days, months or years often without any affiliation to the incident requiring the lockdown. Lawyers representing the men claim these policies violate their Constitutional rights and amount to cruel and unusual punishment.
• In a commentary in Florida Today, Paula Dockery, who served in the Florida legislature for 16 years and was chair of the Senate’s Criminal Justice Committee, begs the question why Florida Governor Rick Scott is not acknowledging and investigating cases of corruption, torture, and murder within the Florida Department of Corrections. Dockery mentions the death of 27-year-old Randall Jordon-Aparo whose body was covered in yellow chemical gas and yelled for help for five days from his solitary cell before dying. Dockery also mentions attempts by prison officials to cover up such cases.
• As Wisconsin Watch reports, Ed Wall, the secretary of Wisconsin’s Department of Corrections is concerned about Wisconsin’s use of solitary confinement. Wall writes that solitary “may really just be helping to create a worse behavior problem and habitual threat.” The department is aiming to have a revised policy on its use of solitary by January.
• George Dvorsky writes for the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies on “Why Solitary Confinement is the Worst Kind of Psychological Torture.” He writes “Human beings are social creatures. Without the benefit of another person to “bounce off of,” the mind decays; without anything to do, the brain atrophies; and without the ability to see off in the distance, vision fades. Isolation and loss of control breeds anger, anxiety, and hopelessness.”
• On the July 20th episode of “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver,” a long comedic segment on mass incarceration showed the severity of solitary confinement and its consequences.
The following two poems come from Ricky Silva, who is currently serving a life sentence at Florida State Prison. Silva, 34, has been held in close management, or solitary confinement, for over four years. Regarding the first poem below, entitled “Killed by the Dark,” Silva expresses his sadness and anger at the suicide of another prisoner, also held in isolation. He writes:
The poem to go along with this post is dedicated to Johnny Reed who was murdered by the department of corrections.
. . . Johnny was not perfect, but I liked him and neither he nor anyone else deserves to go through what we are going through with this long term solitary confinement.
The poem pretty much says how I feel. I just found this out yesterday so I don’t even know what to write. But it is a reality check for me. We are all mortal and I have been real close to ending my own life many times. But Johnny will not be forgotten, at least not by me.
In his second poem, Silva makes a plea for people on the outside to write someone held in isolation. Of this poem, he writes:
Imagine being so alone you feel you are surrounded by darkness. Having so much to say and no one to say it to. So much love to give yet no one to receive that love.
You want for a normal conversation the way a thirsty man wants for water in the desert.
You want for human contact, any kind of human contact to remind you you’re alive.
A letter would be wonderful but it seems all the people in your life who cared have drifted away like a leaf in an autumn breeze. You recognize the wrong you have done and often blame yourself for how bad things are though you know deep down no one deserves this treatment. Not even you.
You contemplate suicide but somehow find the strength everyday for just one more day. You hang on by a thread of hope because tomorrow might be different.
I can tell you when I feel like this, a letter alone make all the difference. So if you’re reading this blog, take time to write a letter. How can it hurt? Even if you don’t write to me. Choose anyone who is living in a concrete cage like mine. Write to them if for no other reason than to give them someone to talk to.
Open your heart and through you, you could bring the hope that keeps a man alive from day to day with only a caring letter.
The following poems originally appeared on Silva’s blog, Concrete Cage, which is maintained by a friend on the outside. Silva can be reached by writing Ricky Silva, L24722, Florida State Prison, 7819 N.W. 228th Street, Raiford, FL 32026-1000. –Lisa Dawson
KILLED BY THE DARK
dedicated to Johnny Reed (died December 2012)
He sat in the darkness, for almost 10 years
Striding forward each day, swallowing his tears
He was not perfect at all, but he didn’t deserve this
To rot in a cell, with no one to love or to miss
He was quick to laugh, when he was feeling well
Or to tell a joke, to get us away from this hell
He was a man of his word, this I know to be true
If you gave him respect, he would in turn respect you
But with each passing day, his world became black
The darkness covering a world, he would never get back
Life became heavy, a great struggle each day
depression set in, and would not go away
Than one day the wing became loud, with everybody banging
The guards went to check it out, and they found Johnny hanging
They broke his fucking ribs, trying to pump air into his chest
And then let him die, saying that they did their best
Johnny for what it’s worth, I’m sorry you had to go
You were one of the few in here, I was happy to know
I can’t lie and say, it has not crossed my mind
I’ve come very close myself, from time to time
You were a warrior Johnny, make no mistake
But even a warrior, has only so much they can take
Just want you to know, you will be missed
Not just another soul, claimed by the darkness
Beautiful colors dance,
across a velvet sky.
As a waterfall of souls,
waves it’s good bye.
With a deep breathe of tomorrow,
we live on today.
I was told to pay attention,
but never did pay.
The darkness of the past,
is now taking it’s toll.
As my pen unloads it’s ink,
my life slowly begins to roll.
I flush memories away,
though some I badly miss.
Even in a picture perfect moment,
I couldn’t picture this.
Stripped of all human rights,
though human we are.
Eating through a metal hole,
or between the likes of steel bars.
Locked away frozen in time,
sometimes even for years.
Laughed at when we cry,
for worthless are our tears.
The holidays come,
and slowly they go.
As we suffer a loneliness,
that makes us feel so small.
We send out letters,
often written in our tears.
And may not ever get a response,
and this is what we fear.
But with that one letter,
in which someone choose to respond.
We have the strength building,
that will allow us to go on.
So if you’re reading this reach out,
to someone in solitary.
Write a letter, it can’t hurt,
even if it’s not to me.
On Monday, Human Rights Watch (HRW) in association with Columbia Law School released a 214-page reported entitled Illusion of Justice: Human Rights Abuses in US Terrorism Prosecutions. While the report and accompanying video document a wide range of human and civil rights abuses faced by alleged and convicted terrorists, nearly all of whom are Muslims, a significant portion of the text focuses on the restrictive and arguably torturous conditions of confinement they endure both before and after trial.
Extensively detailed in the report are the conditions endured by those placed in Florence ADX federal supermax prison and in the federal Bureau of Prisons’ two Communication Management Units (CMUs), located at Marion, Illinois and Terre Haute, Indiana. Describing life at ADX, one individual interviewed for the report commented, “There’s a lot of times the walls are caving in. It’s – you can’t talk to nobody… It’s like staying alone in a bathroom for three days.”
In the two CMUs – nicknamed “Little Guantanamos” — “inmates are constantly surveilled and their communication with the outside world is heavily restricted,” including with their families. The Center for Constitutional Rights has previously described the CMUs as an “experiment in social isolation.”
Also featured in the report is an analysis of the use and misuse of Special Administrative Measures (SAMs), restrictions placed on inmates, attorneys and even their families purportedly to protect national security or prevent the disclosure of classified material. As authors note, “SAMs often require the imposition of extreme physical and social isolation. In the order we obtained through a FOIA regarding 20 to 22 prisoners, SAMs banned at least 20 prisoners from ‘making statements audible to other prisoners or sending notes’ and required them to be housed in single cells ‘separated as much as possible in cellblock area form other inmates.’”
SAMs also enhance isolation by preventing prisoners from communicating with the outside world – for example, letters to family are limited to “‘3 pieces of paper, once per week, single recipient’” and visits “require 14 days’ notice and can include only one adults at a time.” Severe restrictions are also placed on material coming to the inside; one prisoner was even initially denied access to both of President Obama’s books.
The report also specifically addresses how the imposition of SAMs and the use of solitary confinement pre-trial may affect the fairness and constitutionality of the courts:
Prolonged pretrial solitary confinement not only raises concerns of cruel and inhumane treatment of punishment, but it also has an impact on defendants’ ability to assist in their own defense, and may compel them to wave their trial rights and accept plea deals.
According to the report, 30 out of the 52 individuals currently facing federal terrorism charges are being held in Special Housing Units (SHUs). The conditions at the Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC) 10-South unit – where many terrorism defendants have been held pre-trial – are described at length in the text. In a letter to his sister, an individual who spent 33 months in solitary confinement at MCC described “a bright light on for twenty-four hours” and cells “extremely cold throughout the year.”
MCC is the prison where the No Separate Justice Campaign has been holding its monthly vigils, in hopes of shining a light on the exact kind of injustices detailed in HRW’s report. It is also where Mahdi Hashi, the Briton stripped of his citizenship and rendered to the United States last year, is being held in 24-hour isolation. In an April 2014 article published on Vice, Mohammad Hashi explained how being held under SAMs and in solitary confinement was impacting his son: “It’s like they want to demoralize him… If you’re left locked in a room, 23 hours a day, knowing nothing about what’s going on, obviously you will give up, life will have no meaning to you.”
• Writing in The New York Times, Deborah Jiang-Stein describes journeying to the West Virginia prison where she was born, and discovering she spent the fist year of life in “the hole” with her mother.
• The New York Times published an extensive investigation into the physical assaults endured by prisoners with mental illness at the hands of Rikers guards. According to the journalists, many of the prisoners who experience such assaults are in solitary confinement.
• At least forty men at the solitary confinement unit in Wisconsin’s state prison have alleged they were abused by correctional officers, according to an investigation by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. One of the men, Marvin Smith, 26, claims that guards “purposely injured his wrists and arms, put him in a choke hold, smashed his face into a cell door and twisted his ankle.”
• The Idaho American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has filed a brief in support of a petition to return a 15-year-old boy – currently being held in solitary confinement in an adult county facility – to a juvenile detention center. The young man’s Public Defender commented, “I see him almost every single day and he is deteriorating mentally, emotionally and physically being held in isolation.”
• The Electronic Frontier Foundation reported on the case of a New Mexico prisoner who received 90 days in solitary confinement for having a Facebook page in his name that his family updated. Shortly after the EFF published the piece, the state’s Corrections Department threw out man’s SHU time and agreed to review the broader policy.
• The New Republic published an article about the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s (CDCR) proposed changes to prison obscenity regulations. Both prisoners and advocates have claimed that under the new regulations, people could end up in solitary confinement simply for exercising their First Amendment rights; for example, the CDCR has called to censor any material deemed “oppositional to authority and society.”
• The warden at Louisiana’s Angola Prison is considering transferring Black Panther member Kenny “Zulu” Whitmore from solitary confinement into general population – where he has spent the last 28 consecutive years. He continued to express concern about Whitmore’s political beliefs, explaining, “The Black Panther Party advocates violence and racism—I’m not going to let anybody walk around advocating violence and racism.”
• CBS San Francisco covered the growing efforts of Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR) to end the profession’s role in designing death chambers and supermax facilities. The ADPSR is currently lobbying the American Institute of Architects to such a ban in its professional code of ethics.
• The UK’s Telegraph visited a Maine solitary confinement cell and published an article that included video, photos, text and interviews with prisoners formerly locked up in isolation.
• Talha Ahsan, the British-born poet who was extradited to the US on terrorism charges a little less than two years ago, was sentenced to time served. As reported here by Solitary Watch’s Jean Casella and James Ridgeway, Ahsan and four others argued unsuccessfully in the European Court of Human Rights that they would endure torture if extradited to America’s supermax facilities. (The sentencing was also covered by The Guardian’s Sadhbh Walshe).
Many times, on this site and elsewhere, we have referred to supermax prisons and solitary confinement units as “America’s domestic black sites“–places where terrible suffering, even torture, take place on a daily basis, out of site of the public, the press, and in some cases the government’s own meager oversight. At the dark heart of these black sites is the federal Bureau of Prisons’ U.S. Penitentiary Administrative Maximum, or ADX, in the remote high desert town of Florence, Colorado. We’ve called it the worst prison in America. It’s worst not because it is dark and filthy–in fact, one former warden called it “a clean version of Hell“–but because of the sheer extremity of the isolation and sensory deprivation visited upon the men held there.
Today, Amnesty International released a report on ADX, entitled Entombed: Isolation in the Federal Prison System. “The US government’s callous and dehumanising practice of holding prisoners in prolonged solitary confinement in the country’s only federal super-maximum security prison amounts to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and is in violation of international law,” said Amnesty in a press release.
The report describes what is called the “Alcatraz of the Rockies” as a place studiously designed to deprive men of all human contact, and nearly all sensory stimuli as well:
The ADX Florence federal facility has a capacity for 490 male inmates. Prisoners spend a minimum of 12 months in solitary confinement before they may become eligible for a reduction in the restrictions of their detention. In reality, many spend much longer in isolation. One study produced by lawyers found the average length of time an inmate would spend in isolation was 8.2 years.
Most inmates are held in cells with solid walls and a barred, air-lock style chamber in front of a solid metal door, to ensure they have no contact with other prisoners. One small slit of a window allows them a view of the sky or a brick wall.
Furniture in the cells is made of poured concrete and consists of a fixed bunk, desk and a stool, as well as a shower and a toilet. Meals and showers are taken inside the cells and medical consultations, including mental health checks, are often conducted remotely through teleconferencing.
The results of such treatment are not surprising: Put simply, it drives men mad. Individuals with mental illness are supposed to be banned from ADX, but many clearly have underlying psychiatric problems when they arrive, while others quickly acquire them. Drawing on information from the current lawsuit Cunningham v. BOP, the Amnesty report recounts the story of John Jay Powers (whose own writing has been featured on Solitary Watch):
JP, a prisoner with a history of mental illness, was transferred to ADX in 2001 and placed in the CU to serve a 60 month sentence imposed after he escaped from a medium security prison. The lawsuit describes how he was repeatedly transferred for brief periods to the federal medical facility at Springfield for psychiatric evaluation after a series of incidents of self-harm, only to be returned to the CU after being “stabilised” with medication. The self-harming incidents included lacerating his scrotum with a piece of plastic (2005); biting off his finger (2007); inserting staples into his forehead (2008); cutting his wrists and being found unconscious in his cell (2009). He finally completed his CU term in 2011, ten years and five months after his original term would have expired had he been able to comply with the behavioural requirements. According to the lawsuit, he continued to be deprived of mental health care after being placed in the ADX GP. In January 2012, he reportedly sliced off his earlobes and in March 2012 sawed through his Achilles tendon with a piece of metal; after he again mutilated his genitals in May 2012 he was placed on the anti-psychotic medication Haldol but had no access to other treatment such as mental health counselling. In August 2013, he left ADX on an emergency mental health transfer to Springfield, Missouri. In October 2013, he was sent to USP Tucson but was transferred back to Springfield in about March 2014 after he rammed his head into an exposed piece of metal in his cell, causing a skull fracture and brain injury, for which he refused most treatment. Since arriving at Springfield he has inserted metal into his brain cavity through the hole that remain in his skull, which BOP says cannot safely be removed.
Entombed is the most comprehensive report to date on ADX. But Amnesty International acknowledges the limitations on its own ability to observe and assess conditions at the supermax, due to the “restrictions on access to ADX” and more generally a “lack of transparency regarding BOP use of isolation.” Amnesty’s requests to visit the prison have been turned down, as have requests from the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Méndez, and numerous media outlets including Solitary Watch. Even the federal government’s ongoing “internal audit” of its use of solitary confinement will not look at the most extreme and secretive isolation unit at ADX, where prisoners have reportedly gone on hunger strike and been force-fed.
Amnesty makes a series of recommendations which, considering the content of the report, seem relatively modest, designed to alleviate some of the suffering at ADX without compromising safety. But perhaps the strongest question raised by this and all previous investigations of the nation’s only federal supermax is why we are building another one. Over $50 million in this year’s BOP budget will go to retrofitting, staffing, and opening USP/ADX Thomson in rural Illinois, which will substantially increase the federal government’s capacity to hold people in torturous isolation.
Teens in Isolation: State Advisers to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission Hold Briefing on Juvenile Solitary Confinement in New York
Johnny Perez was sixteen when he was arrested for weapons possession. New York State automatically charges people ages 16 and over as adults, so the teenager was charged as an adult. Unable to afford the $100,000 bail, he was sent to Rikers Island to await trial. There, he was placed in C-74, the unit for 16 to 18 year olds. “A lot of the adolescents can be real territorial,” he recalled. At C-74, they tried to control the phones, the bathrooms and all other aspects of life in the jail. Perez got into a fight over using the phone. “It was a gang-only phone, but I didn’t care,” he said. For that fight, the 16-year-old was sent to solitary confinement (known on Rikers as “the Bing”) for sixty days.
When Perez entered solitary, jail staff took his clothes and issued him a jumpsuit. He was placed in a cell which he described as a “concrete slab with a mattress. There was a toilet-sink combo, but nowhere to sit.” He sometimes spent days without eating or being able to use the phone. “The phone is supposed to be passed cell to cell by another inmate [a suicide prevention aide],” he recalled. But on his first day in the Bing, the suicide prevention aide was a member of the gang with whom Perez had fought. Whenever he worked, I didn’t get access to the phone or to food,” Perez said. He recalled that the first three weeks were the most difficult. “I felt isolated, sad, helpless,” he recalled. “I remember crying a lot.”
On Thursday, July 10th, the now-adult Perez testified before the New York State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. The advisory committee investigates civil rights concerns in the state and reports to the Commission, which can then choose to issue recommendations to the U.S. Department of Justice for further action. Each advisory committee is appointed for two years and chooses which issues to focus on during that two-year tenure. Appointed in July 2013, committee members in New York chose to focus on juvenile justice within the state, looking specifically at education, solitary confinement, and the Prison Rape Elimination Act.
The Advisory Committee’s all-day briefing at NYU Law School on July 10 concerned juvenile solitary confinement in New York State. Panelists included New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) Commissioner Anthony J. Annucci, New York City Councilmember Daniel Dromm, former judges, mental health professionals, advocates, attorneys, and two men who experienced solitary confinement personally—Perez and Five Mualimm-ak, who spent five years in isolation in New York State prisons.
Ian Kysel, author of a 2012 report on youth in solitary confinement, was one of several witnesses to make note of the lack of national data about the solitary confinement of children in the United States. The lack of data extends to information about race and mental health diagnoses among youth placed in solitary—a particular concern of the Advisory Committee, which investigates discriminatory treatment.
Bryanne Hamill, a retired family court judge and current member of the New York City Board of Correction, which monitors conditions in city’s jails, noted that adolescents in general are overrepresented in solitary confinement in Rikers Island. Approximately 60 percent have mental health diagnoses, in contrast to 40 percent of the adults in solitary. Last September, the Board of Correction unanimously approved recommendations to commence rulemaking around solitary confinement. However, warned Hamill, the process will be slow.
Queens Councilmember Daniel Dromm, who has introduced two bills regulating the use of solitary in New York City jails, talked about his visit to Rikers Island. “What I saw was cruel and inhumane,” he testified. Although people in solitary are allowed one hour out of their cells for recreation time, that one hour falls between four and six in the morning and then consists only of being brought to another cell. Dromm recounts that guards boasted that they woke people at four, rather than at five, to offer them rec. “Very few people are willing to get up at 4 am for rec,” Dromm recounted. During his visit, Dromm asked how many rules could land a person in solitary confinement if broken. Jail staff told him that there are over 100 such rules that. Those arriving at Rikers Island are not given copies of these rules. Dromm reported that he also saw youth awaiting therapy sessions chained to pipes.
In February 2014, the New York State DOCCS entered a settlement agreement with the New York Civil Liberties Union in Peoples v. Fisher, with DOCCS agreeing to prohibit the use of Special Housing Units for minors, pregnant women, and people with developmental disabilities. Instead, it will utilize in-cell confinement for youth that does not exceed 19 hours per day on weekdays. Four hours will be spent on out-of-cell programming and one hour on recreation. DOCCS has 18 months in which to implement changes. In the meantime, Commissioner Annucci acknowledged that DOCCS is not yet keeping statistics on the number of 16 and 17 year olds placed in disciplinary segregation, and that he did not know if there were disparities in the use of solitary based on race or mental health.
At any given time, Annucci testified, DOCCS has approximately 120 15 and 17 year olds in its prison system. Under the Prison Rape Elimination Act, those under age 18 must be separated from adults by both sight and sound. DOCCS currently houses teenage boys in one of three prisons—Coxsackie Correctional Facility, Woodbourne Correctional Facility, and Greene Correctional Facility. While Coxsackie and Woodbourne will employ in-cell confinement for 19 hours each day to replace SHU treatment for youth, Greene includes a special eight-bed unit for youth sent to disciplinary segregation. “We are crafting a prison within a prison and programs that meet their needs,” Annuci stated before the Committee. Only one to three teenage girls are in adult prisons at any given time. “It’s been a challenge to keep them separate,” he told Solitary Watch. “If you’re [a] 17-year-old [girl], you’re going to be kept by yourself.”
Although details of the Peoples v Fisher settlement agreement remain undisclosed because of a confidentiality clause, Karen Murtagh of Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York points out that the new conditions will not only have to wait eighteen months for implementation, but are also contingent upon DOCCS’ ability to secure funding. She also noted that the 19-hour limit on in-cell confinement is only limited to weekdays. On weekends, youth can still spend up to 23 hours per day in their cells. “Let’s not use isolation as the norm and pat ourselves on the back that we’re now only confining them for 19 rather than 23 hours,” she argued. Moreover, the agreement will apply only to New York State prisons, not local jails such as Rikers Island.
Several advocates point to other racial demographics around policing, imprisonment, and even school discipline to extrapolate similar patterns. Alexander A. Reinhart, professor at the Cardozo School of Law, noted that the use of discipline in schools disproportionately impacts students of color two to five times more than it does white students. “We can expect to see similar outcomes in jails and prisons,” he stated. Scott Paltrowitz, of the Correctional Association of New York, pointed to the racial disparities in policing, prosecution, and imprisonment in New York State and across the country. “Even if we don’t have numbers about race in the SHU,” he said in his testimony, “look at the proportion [of people of color] behind bars.” He noted that, while eighteen percent of the state’s population is Black, Black people make up two-thirds of the New York State prison population. Of those 21 and under in New York’s SHUs, he added, Black children make up 66 percent.
Advocates also noted the necessity of not limiting the investigation only to the effects of solitary confinement on minors. Murtagh strongly recommended that the Committee extend its focus to people who were sentenced to solitary confinement between the ages of 16 and 18 but who are now age 23, 34, and 25. She points to one client, Raymond, who is currently facing more than three years in solitary because he received 23 rules violations tickets in 29 days. If Raymond wanted to appeal, he would have to file 23 separate appeals, one for each ticket. In the meantime, his solitary sentences will be run consecutively. Raymond turned eighteen on May 27th and currently falls out of the Committee’s scope of examination.
Paltrowitz echoed that recommendation. “Someone who is 17 will turn 18, 20, 21, etc., so don’t draw the line at 17,” he urged. He recalled a recent visit to Greene Correctional Facility. There, he met a man who was sent to the SHU at age 17. While in the SHU, the young man received more and more tickets for rules violations. He is now 34 years old. Paltrowitz emphasized that this man’s experience is not an anomaly. “We repeatedly hear that people get ticket after ticket while in the SHU, which extends their SHU sentence,” he stated.
Those who testified, including Commissioner Annucci, repeatedly pointed to studies showing that the teenage brain is still developing and that impulse control has not yet fully formed. Dr. Bandy Lee, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine who co-wrote a report condemning solitary confinement practices at Rikers Island, agreed, testifying that the brain is not fully developed until age twenty-five.
Alexandra Korry, the attorney who chairs the New York Advisory Committee, can’t say whether the federal government will intervene in the issue. But after hearing nearly seven hours of testimony, she said, “We’ve heard an overwhelming amount of evidence that something needs to change. I’m sure we’ll have a lot of recommendations.” Those recommendations will go to the national Commission on Civil Rights, which can in turn urge the Justice Department to act. In May, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder issued a circumscribed statement on juvenile solitary confinement, saying that “unnecessary or excessive seclusion of youth with disabilities” should be ended.
Johnny Perez, who has been home for nine months and now works as a Safe Reentry Advocate at the Urban Justice Center, is hoping for complete systemic change. “Prison itself, not just solitary confinement, is an attack on your soul,” he told Solitary Watch on the day after the hearing. Both his time in solitary and behind bars affected his self-esteem and his emotions. “When I was 16, I couldn’t identify these emotions a lot of times. My default emotion was anger, which led to aggressive behavior like lashing out, overcompensating, and violence.” He also stresses that laws and rules have been constructed by people who have no direct experience with the prison system. “The voice of those people is critical to any type of reform or change. Those most directly affected by these rules and laws need to be heard—and involved—in making these changes.”
• California Families Against Solitary Confinement (CFASC) has filed a lawsuit against the state’s corrections officials, demanding disclosure of information regarding solitary confinement policies under the California Public Records Act. In San Bernardino and elsewhere across the state, protesters came out to honor the one-year anniversary of the California prison hunger strikes and call for change.
• Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) have introduced a bill into Congress that would prohibit juvenile facilities from using solitary confinement unless the youngster posed a “serious and immediate risk of physical harm” to themselves or others. The REDEEM Act, or Record Expungement Designed to Enhance Employment Act, would also require courts to expunge or seal criminal records for a broad scope of juvenile offenses and provide financial incentives to states that set 18 as the age of adult jurisdiction.
• A Tennessee man has filed a lawsuit against Sierra County in New Mexico after he was denied psychiatric medication and left to decompensate in a filthy solitary confinement cell for 18 days. Michael Faziana, who had been arrested on misdemeanor charges, is seeking punitive and compensatory damages.
• New York City’s Board of Corrections asserted that the newly appointed Commissioner violated the law by placing as many as 47 inmates with mental illness into solitary confinement without first getting clearance from qualified clinicians. The board, which provides independent oversight of the city’s jails, disputes Commissioner Ponte’s assertion that the transfer was necessary to control rising violence on the inside.
• A Wisconsin coalition of churches has launched a campaign to reform practices within the state’s Department of Corrections, including ending solitary confinement.
• The family of an Army veteran who died in solitary confinement in a Florida jail in July 2012 is suing the Broward County Sheriff’s Office as well as the jail’s private health care provider. Raleigh Priester, 52, who had long struggled with schizophrenia, was found unresponsive in his cell in May 2012 after spending several months in isolation. Priester was released back to jail staff with “specific instructions” for his ongoing care, and died just a few weeks later – weighing just 120 pounds despite being over six feet tall.
• A lawsuit filed this week against the Florida Department of Corrections (DOC) alleges that guards at Franklin Correctional Institution gassed to death an individual in solitary confinement, then covered up the incident with the help of high-level staff and medical providers. The whistle-blower complaint alleges that 27-year-old Randall Jordan-Aparo was begging jail staff for medical attention when he was transferred into isolation. The Miami Herald published an editorial calling for a full investigation into the DOC’s practices.
• Two years after Brandon Palakovic hung himself in solitary confinement in a Pennsylvania prison, his parents have filed a lawsuit against state’s Corrections Secretary and several facility staff. Palakovic, who was 23 when he died at Cresson, had an extensive history of mental illness. In May 2013, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Roy L. Austin wrote that the facility “often permitted its prisoners with serious mental illness… to simply languish… in solitary confinement for months or years on end under harsh conditions in violation of the Constitution.”
Elliott “Bud” Yorke, who is incarcerated at Florida’s Columbia Correctional Institution Annex at Lake City, was sent to solitary confinement on June 24. According to prison officials, he was placed in isolation for his own protection after corrections officers observed injuries suggesting that he had been assaulted. Aside from being two months shy of his 90th birthday, Yorke is deaf and non-verbal, communicating primarily through writing. He uses a wheeled walker to move around.
“Apparently this confinement system is not concerned with impaired and elderly,” Yorke wrote in a July 1 letter to a friend. He continued:
There are no grab and hold bars on wall to help me up and down on toilet. They won’t let my walker stay in my cell to help, tho I am solo occupant in this cell while I’m in this present hell place…
At 13’10 hrs. on June 25, 2014 the confinement guard has taken my walker wheels. He rode it out like a “scooter” with one knee on the seat. It was parked outside my cell. It has my jar of topical allergy skin salve under seat and I can’t walk without a walker!! I need these. I wrote a note of need to guard and he wrote on back of note” “Make your bed- that is what you need!” At 16’35 hrs I got jar and nasty note “F— you!…
My stationery, envelopes, stamps, pens, address records, and crotch supporters for sanitary male napkins have been put in storage and I have no access!!! Diapers, [to] which I am historically allergic, have been issued under door ground gap.
Yorke, who has served close to 30 years in Florida for a sex offense, has requested to be sent to a prison that teaches American Sign Language. He is able to hear some things with the help of a tinnitus masker, but has been denied that as well.
According to the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, prisons receiving federal funding must supply an effective communications system for the deaf, while the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) specifically requires state and local agencies to make sure a disabled person is not limited in terms of communication. In the past, courts have found prisons that do not provide disabled inmates physical accommodations like handrails and shower chairs to be in violation of the ADA, according to A Jailhouse Lawyer’s Manual.
On Monday, Columbia Annex Warden Munroe Barnes told Solitary Watch that he had made sure to correct the majority of Yorke’s complaints, although a walker was still not permitted in keeping with standard procedure in solitary “in case it can be made into weapon.” The tinnitus masking instrument is also not allowed in solitary cells, Barnes said, because inmates are supplied with mp3 devices that have the same capabilities.
Yorke has been approved for transfer to a facility “commensurate with his age and disability status,” according to Barnes, but the process takes time due to limited availability throughout the state prison system. In the meantime, Yorke remains in solitary indefinitely.
“We Are Not the Worst of the Worst”: One Year Later, What’s Changed for Pelican Bay’s Hunger Strikers?
On July 8, 2013, 30,000 prisoners refused their meals, launching the largest mass prison hunger strike in U.S. history. One year later, Todd Ashker is marking off his twenty-fourth year in Pelican Bay’s Security Housing Unit (SHU). “I’m still alive, kicking and strong in heart and spirit,” he wrote in a June 2014 letter. Ashker is one of the four main representatives for the hunger strikers and the lead plaintiff in the class-action suit Ashker v. Brown. Nonetheless, he remains confined in the SHU since his placement there in 1990. He is not alone; as of April 2014, 1,199 people were held in Pelican Bay’s SHU. Some have been there for over a decade.
Inside the SHU, people are locked into windowless cells for at least 22 hours a day. Prison administrators place them in the SHU either for a fixed term for violating a prison rule or an indeterminate term for gang membership. Accusations of gang affiliation often relied on confidential informants and circumstantial evidence. Hundreds have been confined within the SHU for over a decade. Until recently, the only way to be released from the SHU was to debrief, or provide information incriminating other prisoners, who are then placed in the SHU for an indeterminate sentence. In 2011, SHU prisoners called for a hunger strike to protest SHU policies. In 2013, frustrated with the lack of changes, they called for another hunger strike.
The call was taken up across California and in out-of-state prisons where California prisoners are held. Thirty thousand people responded, refusing meals that first day. Hunger strikers issued five core demands, including the elimination of “group punishments for individual rules violations”; changes in the criteria for being “validated” as gang members, and for “debriefing” from gang status; compliance with the recommendations of the U.S. Commission on Safety and Abuse in Prisons regarding an end to long-term solitary confinement; provision of “adequate food”; and expansion of “constructive programs and privileges for indefinite SHU prisoners.” The men of Pelican Bay issued forty additional demands, such as expunging all violations issued for participation in the 2011 hunger strikes, and prohibiting retaliation for those participating in the most recent strike.
The strike ended on September 5, 2013, or Day 60, after California legislators Loni Hancock, chair of the Senate Public Safety Committee, and Tom Ammiano, chair of the Assembly Public Safety Committee, issued a statement of support for the hunger strikers and promised to hold hearings around SHU placement and long-term solitary confinement.
Changes in Conditions Inside the SHU
One of the five core demands during the 2011 and 2013 hunger strikes was adequate food. After the 2011 hunger strike, Mutope DuGuma charged that prison staff served inedible food to those in the SHU. More recently, he reports that the food servings are small, noting that those without family members able to send them money cannot rely on the (expanded) canteen items to supplement their meals.
While prisoners, family members and advocates state that none of the five core demands have been adequately met, some of the forty supplemental demands have. Visiting times, for instance, have doubled from ninety minutes to three hours. For family members driving fourteen hours from southern California, the increase in visiting time means a lot. But, notes Mutope DuGuma, who has been in the SHU since 2001, “if you’re so far away from home, it don’t matter because your people can’t afford the trip anyway which is anywhere from five hundred dollars for up and back, if not more.” (The increase in visiting times only applies to Pelican Bay. In Tehachapi, which also has a Security Housing Unit, visiting continues to be limited to one hour.)
Hunger strikers also won the right to order an increased number of items from the canteen. “Imagine being able to order a jalapeno or cheese after being there [without them] for decades,” stated Dolores Canales, whose son has been in the SHU for thirteen years. She also stated that they also won the right to order their own underwear rather than wearing prison-issued underwear that has been worn by countless others. They can also buy a cup and bowl as well as a handball from the canteen. “Of course, the families are paying for these items,” she added.
“Is this what they’ve been fighting for and starving themselves for?” Canales reflected. “No. But does it make a difference in their lives? Yes.” Both family members and SHU prisoners agree that the five core demands have yet to be met.
Medical care inside Pelican Bay remains problematic. “There are NO doctor visits in segregation, the SHU or solitary confinement,” reports DuGuma. “It’s a constant struggle to be treated for what you are suffering. All health care rounds are based on the prisoner filing paperwork to see the doctor and you have to pay five dollars for every visit.” According to DuGuma, Pelican Bay has a licensed vocational nurse, a registered nurse and a doctor present daily, but they do not make rounds of the SHU other than to pass out medications. Ashker corroborates this, stating that he has not seen medical staff making rounds of the SHU cells. He also notes that the only mental health assessment he’s received was during the 2013 hunger strike. Prior to placing hunger strikers in Administration Segregation, a nurse asked each person if he wanted to hurt himself. If he wants medical attention, he has to file a request for a medical visit.
But medical care is not free. Alfred Sandoval, who has been in the SHU since 1987, described the process: “I am charged five dollars for each medical visit, for which I am strip searched, placed in waist chains, then escorted to a small, cold holding cell and put into leg irons before the RN [registered nurse] will take my vitals. Then I am put back into the cold, small, usually dirty, holding cell and left to wait. There is no talking allowed and any violation of this illegal underground regulation is cause for termination of the medical visit. A prisoner can be held in that small cell for hours only to be told by the doctor to ‘drink more water and try to meditate for the pain’ and returned to his cell. I have been sent back to my cell after complaining of abdominal pain and fainted the next day after a Crohn’s flare-up which caused intestinal bleeding and loss of blood pressure.” He charges that he and others have repeatedly been told by medical staff that they would receive better medical care if they debriefed.
While SHU prisoners and their families are glad to see some positive changes, they all reiterate that these are not enough. They continue to demand an end to the policies that placed them in solitary confinement for so many years and for an end to their isolation: “Although people are being released to some very small degree, the majority of us will remain back here unless it’s some real change,” wrote DuGuma, who is scheduled to be reviewed for the Step Down program in December. “We all can be released today with no problem, but that’s not the intent by our keepers. We all fit the same profile for the last thirty-something years, so why now do only a few fall under this case-by-case review? We all meet the same criteria [of] administrative SHU placement, meaning that we’re only here for being validated. NO other reason. I’ve been back here twelve years for nothing. I was never part of a prison gang—never and they know it! So it’s righting a wrong with me, but I cannot get those years back.”
Ashker v Brown Is Certified As a Class-Action, but the Class Is Shrinking
In March 2012, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) changed its practices around SHU placement. Prisoners identified as part of Security Threat Groups (STGs) can be placed in the SHU. Advocates and prisoners charge that the STG designation would enable CDCR to place greater numbers of people in the SHU. CDCR, however, asserts that those validated as STG associates are not placed in the SHU unless they are also involved in gang and/or criminal behavior. Later that year, CDCR also began its Step Down program. The program evaluates prisoners with indefinite SHU terms for release into general population. Both prisoners and their advocates have criticized the program, noting that even those who have spent years in the SHU may still be required to spend two to three additional years in solitary confinement under this program. The program originally included a requirement that each person sign a contract renouncing gang affiliation. Many refused, believing that signing the document was an admission of gang activity. CDCR has since eliminated that requirement. The debriefing program remains in place.
In May 2012, Pelican Bay prisoners filed Ashker v. Brown, a federal lawsuit on behalf of prisoners who have spent ten or more years in Pelican Bay’s SHU. On June 2, 2014, a federal judge ruled in favor of class certification, allowing prisoners who have spent the past decade(s) in the SHU to join the suit. The class is still limited to those held in Pelican Bay’s SHU. However, the Step Down Process, the ensuing approvals for less-restrictive steps and transfers out of Pelican Bay, are shrinking the class of prisoners eligible to participate.
As of June 9, 2014, CDCR has conducted 828 case-by-case reviews of prisoners housed in the SHUs and Administrative Segregation Units (ASUs) on Security Threat Group (STG) charges. Of those reviewed, 557 have been released to Step Five, which is general population housing. Two hundred thirty-one people have been placed in Steps One through Four, six are going through the debriefing process and the rest remain in the ASU.
Several plaintiffs on Ashker v Brown have been moved from Pelican Bay’s SHU. Danny Troxell and Jeffrey Franklin have been moved to Tehachapi, Gabriel Reyes to the California State Prison in Sacramento, and Paul Redd to the Substance Abuse Treatment Facility in Corcoran State Prison, where he writes that his arrival has “been positive and surprisingly welcome.” Ronnie Dewberry, who goes by the name Sitawa Nantambu Jamaa was reviewed in May 2014 and assigned to Step Three; he is currently awaiting transfer to the SHU in Tehachapi.
Dewberry’s sister Marie Levin believes that his role as one of the four main representatives of the Pelican Bay hunger strikers is why he was not assigned to Step Five. “He’s not a gang member,” she said. “So many African-Americans whom CDCR claimed were gang members have been released to Step Five, so it’s puzzling as to why my brother wasn’t released,” she continued. Paul Redd, who is also African-American, notes that, of the seven African-Americans transferred from Pelican Bay SHU with him, all but one had been placed on Step Five.
According to attorney Anne Weills, while the named plaintiffs continue to be part of the suit, others who have spent ten or more years in Pelican Bay but have recently been transferred elsewhere are no longer part of the class. Thus, Lorenzo Benton, who was recently approved for Step Five and transferred to Ironwood State Prison after more than 25 years in the SHU, is no longer eligible to be part of the class-action suit.
Those remaining in Pelican Bay have varying reports about the Step Down Review process. Some feel that they are being retaliated against for their participation in the hunger strike. J. Baridi Williamson, for instance, stated that, two months before the 2013 hunger strike, the warden and Institutional Classification Committee (which determines SHU placement) had informed him that his case would soon be reviewed. “But then the hunger protest resumed, I got retaliated against and it looks like they likely crossed my name off their CBC review list for forwarding my case to DRB [Departmental Review Board]…None of the eight fellas here in our assigned Unit D4′s B-pod has been notified or placed on any DRB [Departmental Review Board] list. We’re not even sure if the CDCR case-by-case specialist here has even considered reviewing any of our cases.”
In the D3 unit, Kijana Tashiri Askari, who has been in the SHU since 1994, reported that, as of March 24, 2014, ten people from his unit had been reviewed. Half had been placed in Step 5 and released from SHU. “All of the people being released from SHU to the main line via the DRB have at least ten years in solitary confinement, which has led us to believe that the DRB is doing this to sabotage the lawsuit,” Askari noted. “It will be next to impossible to make a case for ‘class certification’ for a lawsuit that is based upon people being held in solitary confinement for ten years when these people are being released to the main line.”
“I Remain Committed for Freedom for All and All Five Core Demands”
Those who have been released to Step Five report that their placement and subsequent treatment should disprove CDCR’s assertion that those in Pelican Bay SHU are “the worst of the worst.” “What was most interesting was our exiting the bus without any secure tactic intimidation,” Paul Redd wrote about his arrival at Corcoran’s Substance Abuse Treatment Facility. “[We received] a friendly and respectable welcoming by the group of IGIs [Institutional Gang Investigators] who informed us that they aren’t going to be at our cells bothering us but allow us to program. Prison officials also gave a friendly welcome and stated they’re making sure all DRBs have first priority for job openings.” Those who had been released in previous months informed him that IGI officials have not bothered them.
Having endured over 25 years in solitary confinement, Benton asked, “What was our crime to be placed in the SHU on indeterminate status and being continuously held all these years???” At Ironwood, Benton has been assigned to both a work program and a vocational training program. Although he can now see the sun and the night sky and interact with other people face to face, Benton has not forgotten those still locked in Pelican Bay’s SHU. “I remain committed for freedom for all and all five core demands,” he wrote. “So until justice for all, may our existence reflect what’s good and right in life.”
The post “We Are Not the Worst of the Worst”: One Year Later, What’s Changed for Pelican Bay’s Hunger Strikers? appeared first on Solitary Watch.
• The Colorado Department of Corrections (CDOC) has established a new Administrative Regulation (AR) that eliminates “administrative segregation” in favor of “restrictive housing.” Maximum security housing status will be limited to six to twelve months, and offenders will know their release date. The AR also states, “CDOC will make every attempt to ensure offenders will not release directly to the community from Restrictive Housing Maximum Security Status.”
• The mother of a prisoner killed by his cellmate – an eight-year survivor of solitary confinement who had previously attacked others on the inside – is suing the state of Colorado, claiming that her son’s death should have been foreseen by prison officials. The suit comes as the Colorado legislature and Corrections Department take steps towards reducing the use of solitary confinement across the state.
• A Nebraska judge has ordered the state to release all documents relating to Nikko Jenkins, the man who killed four people just days after being released directly from solitary confinement. Jenkins had spent more than half of his nearly 10 year sentence in isolation.
• The ACLU of NJ has filed a lawsuit against Middlesex County, claiming that it is unconstitutional to subject a pretrial client with mental illness to solitary confinement. Alexander Shalom, ACLU-NJ Senior Staff Attorney said, “Mental health professionals agree that subjecting someone like [our client] to well more than one hundred days in isolation can do serious, long-term damage to his mental health. To do that to anyone is cruel; to do it to a mentally ill and cognitively impaired person who is presumed innocent is inhuman.”
• Folio has published a longform article on Daniel Linsinbinger, a 19-year old with mental illness who died in a restraint chair in a Florida county jail after spending 10 days in solitary confinement.
• Writing for The Atlantic, Laura Dimon explores “How solitary confinement hurts the teenage brain.” “If solitary confinement is enough to fracture a grown man, though,” she pens, “it can shatter a juvenile.”
The latest and largest of three hunger strikes in California prisons began nearly a year ago, on July 8, 2013. The strike brought international attention to California’s liberal use of indefinite solitary confinement and resulted in legislative hearings and the introduction of bills to curb solitary in both houses of the California state legislature. (Only one of these bills State Senator Loni Hancock’s SB892, remained in play at the end of the legislative session in June, passed by the Senate and waiting to be taken up by the Assembly in the next session.)
For decades, California prison officials have placed individuals with real or suspected prison gang affiliation in SHUs for indeterminate terms with few means available of being released from the SHU. As a consequence, thousands of people in the California prison system have spent years, some even decades, in small, isolated prison cells for up to 24 hours a day, with few rehabilitative or educational resources made available to them. There are currently SHU facilities in five California prisons: Pelican Bay State Prison, California State Prison, Corcoran, California State Prison, Sacramento, California Correctional Institution, and at the California Institution for Women.
In light of the various pressures of international, federal and state legislative scrutiny, it appears that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) has made some modifications to its use of the solitary–at times, in favor of expanding double-celled lockdown in the place of solitary. In 2012, the CDCR announced its intent to reform the status quo gang management strategy. The CDCR sought to revise the standards by which it defined gang affiliation and the creation of a Step Down Program (SDP) by which individuals housed in SHUs for gang affiliation would be able to gradually receive privileges, accesses to constructive programming, and ultimately release to the general population so long as they refrained from gang activity.
As the CDCR seeks to codify these reforms in the California Code of Regulations, there have been criticisms of the reforms by, among others, the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity coalition, a grassroots organization created in 2011 to support the goals of the hunger strikers to reform gang management policy. Critics are concerned that in reality, the CDCR policy will continue to authorize the prolonged solitary confinement of individuals who have been validated as prison gang affiliates. While there is a system by which individuals in the SHU may leave the SHU, individuals could be held indefinitely in the SHU should they be deemed active prison gang affiliates. Significantly, the opportunities for educational programming are non-existent for 2-3 years for those who are deemed active gang affiliates.
Chief among the concerns, also articulated by individuals such as attorney Charles Carbone during a hearing on gang management policy in February, is that the proposed CDCR reforms would actually expand the number of individuals classified as gang affiliates who may end up in segregation units.
This concern was echoed by Claude Marks from the Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity coalition, who in a statement to Solitary Watch, wrote that “we think that the ‘changes’ to the Step Down Program and issues of validation are a smokescreen to broadening the bases of gang validating (now called Security Threat Groups…Under the guise of improvement of conditions, and re-evaluating the basis for long-term solitary, the CDCr is actually attacking the basic human rights struggle by denying responsibility for damaging human lives with decades of solitary and by expanding the ways in which leadership can be validated and further punished,” says Marks.
To evaluate the concern that the revised policies are broadening the numbers of gang affiliates and individuals in solitary confinement in the SHU, Solitary Watch has reviewed population figures of the number of individuals currently identified as prison gang affiliates, and the number of individuals held in solitary confinement in the SHUs over the past year.
Earlier this year, the OIG released its third report on the progress the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation has made in implementing its Future of California Corrections Blueprint. The blueprint was released in 2012 with the overarching goals of ending federal court oversight of the state prison system, improving the state prison system, and saving taxpayer money. Pursuant to these goals, the blueprint placed a focus on revamping the inmate classification system, gang management strategies, and enhancing access to rehabilitative programs, among other reforms.
In total, as of February 24, 2014, there were 2,832 individuals identified as prison gang affiliates in the California prison system. Of them, 2,281 are held in a SHU facility. The remaining 551 validated gang affiliates are housed in some other segregation unit, including Administrative Segregation Units and, increasingly, general population facilities. The graphic below comes from the latest OIG report showing institutional breakdowns on the numbers of prison gang affiliates.
In comparison, the following figures come from the first OIG report in 2013, showing similar breakdowns in gang affiliate numbers using data from January 2013:
These figures indicate a few interesting trends. First is the decline in the number of validated gang associates. This may be due to more stringent standards for what constitutes a “gang associate,” as gang associates are considered individuals who perform acts in conjunction with or on behalf of prison gangs but are not themselves members of the prison gangs. Second, the decline in the number of gang associates has driven a slight decline in the total number of identified gang affiliates. In the past year, there has been a net growth in the number of identified full fledged prisons gang members by seven. Lastly, there has been an increase in the number of validated gang associates and members housed in Pelican Bay.
Ultimately, it appears that, since the implementation of reformed standards, there have been small decreases, rather than an expansion, in the number of individuals identified as prison gang affiliates. This may be a result of the case-by-case reviews CDCR has been conducting since October 2012. Every gang affiliate held in the SHU or some alternative segregation unit, such as Administrative Segregation Units pending openings in a SHU, will be re-evaluated under the revised standards for a determination of where in the 5-step Step Down Program they will be housed. Step 1 is essentially no change from the current situation and Step 5 is placement in the general population.
According to CDCR spokesperson Terry Thornton:
- As of March 25th, CDCR has conducted 498 case-by-case reviews of validated inmates in Security Housing Units and 238 reviews of validated inmates in Administrative Segregation Units.
- Of the case-by-case reviews in the SHU, 338 were released to general population, and six are participating in the debriefing process
- Of the case-by case-reviews in ASU, 150 were released to general population, 34 retained in ASU for disciplinary, safety or are debriefing
Those not released to general population or retained for safety or debriefing issues are placed in Steps 1-4 of the Step Down Program.
The following chart created by the OIG shows the distribution of placement in the Step Down Program as of March 4th:
The OIG has conducted a review of 150 individuals who have already been reviewed and has produced the following chart of their outcomes:
The OIG estimates that the case-by-case review process may take up to four years to encompass all validated gang affiliates.
Solitary Watch has previously conducted a survey of CDCR COMPSTAT data to determine the number of California prisoners held in solitary confinement. According to our review, in September 2013, there were 5,938 individuals held in “single-cell” housing, or about 4.78% of the California prison population. This figure includes 1,772 individuals held in the SHU, or about 45.6% of the total number of SHU inmates at the time.
Single-cell housing as a category is the best measure available of the number of people in solitary confinement. Aside from the metric of single-cell housing, trends in the increase of double-celling individuals in the SHU brings with it its own set of problems. Having a cellmate “under this circumstance forces you to modify your daily life to account for the mood swings, biological activities, and other idiosyncrasies of someone who is always – no matter how far in this tiny cell you go – only 2 steps away from you,” writes a group of individuals in the SHU at Corcoran.
The most recent figures reported by CDCR are available here. Consistent with Solitary Watch’s previous review, the data shows that, between December 2012 and December 2013, the number of people held in the SHUs remained fairly stable. In December 2012, there were 3,897 housed in a SHU, and in December 2013, there were 3,906 housed in a SHU. Taken together with the OIG numbers, it appears that while there have been declines in the number of inmates held in the SHU for gang affiliation, there have been increases in the number of inmates held in the SHU for rules violations. In other words, despite the transfer of hundreds of individuals out of the SHU for gang affiliation, there were fairly constant population levels in the SHU, suggesting that CDCR still heavily relies on SHU housing for disciplinary purposes.
Recent data from COMPSTAT indicates that there have been notable, though slight, decreases in the number of individuals single-celled in the SHU. Between December 2012 and December 2013, the number of single-celled individuals in the SHU declined from 1,891 to 1,654. As a result of this decrease, the percentage of individuals in the SHU held on single-cell status fell from 48.5% to 42.3%, including a 4% decrease between September 2013 and December 2013, likely reflective of greater numbers of once single-celled gang affiliates being released to the general population due to the case-by-case reviews.
For opponents of solitary confinement in California, it does appear that the number of individuals held in solitary are on the decline. It further appears, for now at least, that the CDCR reforms are reducing the number of people being held in the SHU and are giving some of those held in the SHU some greater opportunities to access constructive programming opportunities in and out of the SHU. Further scrutiny is warranted to ensure that this not just a temporary trend, and Solitary Watch will provide updates in the future on this matter.
The post New Solitary Confinement Policies in California Bring Small Changes and Raise Big Questions appeared first on Solitary Watch.
• On the Pacifica Evening News, religious leaders, families of people in prison, and state prison officials went on air to discuss the issue of solitary confinement.
• Writing for Pacific Standard Magazine, Jessica Pishko asks, “Are we approaching the end of solitary confinement?”
• Solitary Watch contributor Aviva Stahl covered a recent demonstration by the New-York based Jails Action Coalition, calling for justice for a man who died after spending seven days in isolation at Rikers without access to life-saving medication. Bradley Ballard’s death was ruled a homicide by the medical examiner, but thus far correction officers have been fired or indicted.
• About a dozen members of a Unitarian Universalist Congregation held a protest against solitary confinement outside of the Nassau County Correctional Facility. Since 2010, five prisoners have committed suicide at the jail.
• According to the NY Daily News, of the “11 suicides in New York City jails over the past five years show that in at least nine cases, safeguards designed to prevent inmates from harming themselves weren’t followed.” One of the inmates hung himself in solitary confinement after telling correctional officers he was suicidal. The documents were uncovered by the AP.
• The NY Daily News reports that people with mental illness at Rikers Island often face long-delays in accessing psychiatric treatment, which may lead to increased violence at the jail. In May, one inmate was attacked by rival gang members, both of whom owed time in “the box” but were deemed mentally ill and awaiting treatment.
• The Center for Investigative Reporting published a new documentary, “Alone,” about teens held in solitary confinement.
• Jane Doe, the 16-year-old transgender girl who was held in solitary confinement in both men and women’s adult facilities despite not facing any criminal charges, has been moved to a psychiatric center for children.
• A friend of the Boston Marathon bombing suspects is being held in solitary confinement in a Plymouth County jail. Khairullozhon Matanov is being charged with interfering into the ongoing investigation into the attack.
Editor’s Note: The following prayers, along with more than a hundred others, were delivered to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation on Thursday. The same small selection of prayers was printed in Solitary Watch’s latest quarterly print edition, which goes out to some 800 individuals currently in solitary confinement. The complete collection of prayers can be found here.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
In advance of Torture Awareness Month this June, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, California Families Against Solitary Confinement, the American Friends Service Committee, and T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, issued a national call for people of faith and conscience to compose and share prayers for all who remain in conditions of isolated confinement, and in remembrance of the significance of the upcoming one year anniversary of the historic peaceful prisoner hunger strike throughout California prisons which began July 8, 2013, with more than 30,000 participating.
The national response to the call for prayer was moving and overwhelming, with more than one hundred prayers submitted in a matter of days. The prayers share an urgent call for restorative justice and an end to the cruel and inhumane treatment of long-term isolation, and for an end to systems and practices that sow division and distrust.
On June 26, the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, an interfaith clergy delegation will meet with the California Department of Corrections to deliver a collection of the prayers printed on prayer cards, with a request that the cards be delivered to those who remain in SHU in California.
The spirit of this interfaith and nationwide effort extends to all who remain in solitary confinement. We share a small selection of the prayers with the hope that they will serve as a reminder to you, reader, that you are not alone, that you are not forgotten, and that the prayers of our global family continue for you. We believe in freedom and will not rest until it comes.
—Rev. Laura Markle Downton, National Religious Campaign Against Torture
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
May you know in your being that there are people who care about your suffering and who think of you and your pain. May you know that there are those who are fighting for the injustice being done to you. May you find relief from the pain of isolation and confinement. May you know that you are not alone. May you feel held in the web of life. In love and care —K.R.P.
Lord be with all your children in Seg or SHU right now, wrap your arms of love and grace around them and fill them all up with your love, peace, joy, rest, stillness and an inner strength, I pray, and also that they be removed from SHU or Seg right now. So many have been in for nothing and they need to be released and rehabilitated too to mainline. Encamp your angels all around them also I pray. Amen. — D.C.
I humbly seek your guidance Heavenly Father for all the men and women without voices that are screaming to the Heavens using their bodies! Heavenly Father, watch over these men and women held without human contact, without hope, except in you Heavenly Father. Father you aided me when I was one of these men and helped me carry my burden, for I would not have been able to do this without your loving arms to support me. These men are sacrificing the health and possible life in their endeavors to be treated humanely. All things are possible through the Heavenly Father, His Only Son and the Holy Spirit. —B.N., Your Brother in Struggle
For world peace and personal happiness, please chant
It is a wish-granting jewel of a prayer.
Nam, mee-yo-ho, rin-gay, kee-yo.
Say it three times, with conviction in your heart, that
ultimately, you are a Buddha.
It is true. You. Are. A. Buddha.
Nam, myoho, renge, kyo. —L.B.
In the name of Allah, the most Gracious, the most Merciful
Praise be to Allah, lord of the worlds
The most Beneficent, the most Merciful
The Only ruling Judge on the Day of Judgment
You alone do we worship, from you alone do we seek help,
Guide us along the straight path
With those of whom have your favor
Not those who have earned your anger,
Not those who go astray. Amen. —M.M.
Jesus, Incarnate God, our blindness to your gift of Life led to your judgment, imprisonment, and sentence to death. You are present now in all who are imprisoned, whether justly or unjustly. Be with each one in compassion and light. Awaken each one to the gift of your holy truth and infinite, personal love. May each one experience the freedom that comes of accepting you in faith. Amen. —Sister H.R.
Dear God, I ask you to comfort those who are in solitary confinement. Please don’t let them give up hope or lose their dignity. Let them know that they are not forgotten. I thank you for the many people who are moved to act to end the huge overuse of incarceration and solitary confinement. Please help us to create a society where everyone is treated with love. —A.
Dear one, May the God of Justice –the Holy One who cries with us when we weep, listens to our pleas and delivers us from evil–hear our cries this day. May your bravery inspire the people of this state to rise up and ban solitary confinement once and for all. May the God who never leaves us or forsakes us bring you strength, courage and encouragement, even in your darkest days. You are not alone. —M.
In hunger you made a stand to end a punishment most unusual and cruel of being kept apart from your fellow man so here is a prayer that this unfair treatment may end and you rightfully restored to the human race again. Blessings to you. Love with Peace. —D.S.
A mí y a mucha gente nos indigna la injusticia que Uds. están viviendo.
Sepan que no descansaremos hasta que este horror de saparezca del mundo.
A Uds. van dirigidos nuestros más tiernos sentimientos y más altos pensamientos.
Que Dios borre del mundo toda esta miseria humana.
Please know that God is ever present everywhere. That means holding you and surrounding you even in Man’s prisons. You are a Child of God and loved deeply by your Source of Life and Love and Light. I pray you experience this Truth. We are all connected as One in the Universe.
The Ubuntu saying is “I AM, BECAUSE WE ARE ”
And You Are. Amen. Best Wishes & Blessings. —S.M.
You are loved. You are not forgotten. You are not invisible. We will not stop fighting for you, and for us all. We stand outside in solidarity, inside our one heart, our collective soul, our spirits calling out for change, our hands working for it. We will not give up. —J.S.
Great Spirit, You who are That which connects each of us to each other ~ each of us drops of water, leaves, animals and people ~ keep us always aware that we are in you One, through prison walls of concrete and steel, that all the oppression of our sisters and brothers in prisons and prisoners’ families, oppresses us, that their victories are ours. —C.F.L.
Immanent God, God who is near to the broken-hearted, God who is found even in the darkest places, you alone can penetrate any wall, break through any barrier, enter every heart. So I pray that you accompany each and every person in solitary confinement today and every day. Be with them. Fortify their spirits. Comfort their hearts. Strengthen their minds. Keep alive in them hope. God who sees and knows all,
May those in isolation believe, indeed know in the hidden recesses of their hearts, that there are many of us who are working to bring their hidden stories into view. May this bring them encouragement. May they feel in their souls, that there are indeed thousands of us who feel in our souls a deep and sharp pain for all they endure. May they feel and may they know that there are thousands of us who care for them, who are fighting for them, who have not forgotten and who will not forget them.
Dearest God – source of life of every one of us – every parent and every child, console the hearts, encourage the spirits and strengthen the resolve of the friends and families of those in isolation. May they, and their loved ones in isolation know that in their struggle – they are not alone.
The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons. –Fyodor Dostoyevsky
In recent years, resistance to the widespread use of solitary confinement has gained significant traction in the United States. Opponents of the practice have drawn upon everything from psychology and neuroscience to criminology and economics to show the many harms caused by solitary.
Lisa Guenther, associate professor at Vanderbilt University and author of the new book Solitary Confinement: Social Death and Its Afterlives, draws upon her knowledge of philosophy to make a thought-provoking argument against the practice of isolating human beings for extended periods of time.
Guenther refers to the tenets of phenomenology, which deals primarily with the development of the consciousness through first-person experiences—the formative relationships we share with one another and the objects that surround us. Solitary confinement, she argues, eliminates the opportunity for incarcerated persons to form these meaningful connections. Although the necessities of survival may be provided, those held in solitary deteriorate nevertheless. She describes it as an unhinging of the person’s psyche.
In an AEON Magazine article, Guenther contests, “We do not exist as isolated individuals,” but rather as constantly changing and adapting reflections of our living environment. Phenomenology suggests that while we may believe ourselves to have intrinsic characteristics unique to us, at heart we are products of the environments we interact with on a day-to-day basis.
Solitary confinement effectively removes all meaningful stimulus from prisoners’ environments, rendering them unable to ground themselves in a reality created by sensory connections. Guenther, in an article published in the New York Times, explains these sensory phenomena in simple terms:
Think about it: Every time I hear a sound and see another person look toward the origin of that sound, I receive an implicit confirmation that what I heard was something real, that it was not just my imagination playing tricks on me. Every time someone walks around the table rather than through it, I receive an unspoken, usually unremarkable, confirmation that the table exists, and that my own way of relating to tables is shared by others.
While these may seem like insignificant interactions with one’s environment to an average person, a phenomenologist would say that these are reassuring occurrences that should not be taken for granted. Being deprived of these interactions, as people in solitary confinement are, leads them to question their reality and develop symptoms associated with extreme isolation such as paranoia, hallucinations, and introversion.
Five Mualimm-ak, who spent a total of five years in solitary confinement later reflected on the experience: “The very essence of life, I came to learn during those seemingly endless days, is human contact, and the affirmation of existence that comes with it.” Without these subtle yet countless affirmations we experience daily, we too would have trouble discerning what is grounded in reality and what is solely in our heads.
While we don’t have to undergo this questioning of reality that individuals subjected to solitary confinement must, we on the outside are not unaffected by its practice. From a phenomenological standpoint, the complete seclusion of these prisoners from our shared environments restricts our capacity to understand the world in which we live. Solitary confinement is purposefully concealed from the public eye—out of sight, out of mind—and because of this we are denied the first-person experience so important in forming our thoughts, feelings, and judgments.
More transparency in our prisons would allow the public to better understand the treatment that isolated inmates undergo, and give them a greater ability to critique and formulate alternatives to their practices. The absence of isolated prisoners from our common consciousness perpetuates their suffering and our ignorance, a dangerous combination.
Accepting that humans are relational beings, Guenther suggests that the sensory deprivation that people in solitary undergo is sufficient to unhinge their minds. They are forced to question everything with which they interact. And as they begin to reflect their morbid environment, they lose their sense of what it means to be human.
This phenomenological argument makes a strong case for the inclusion of human contact in the list of fundamental human needs—and for the use of solitary confinement to be seen as a violation of fundamental human rights.
The post What It Means to Be Human: A Philosopher’s Argument Against Solitary Confinement appeared first on Solitary Watch.
• In The Daily Beast, Solitary Watch contributor Sarah Shourd explores the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s recently proposed “obscenity regulations” – the rules that govern what mail can go into and of the state’s prisons and jails. As one interviewee comments, ““These prisoners are essentially being punished for trying to alert the media to conditions of extreme solitary confinement inside California’s prison.”
• Bonnie Kerness, director of the Prison Watch program of the American Friends Service Committee, writes about solitary confinement and Torture Awareness Month for Truth-Out.
• ABC News “Nightline” followed Gregg Marcantel – the Secretary of Corrections for New Mexico – as he went undercover to spend 48 hours in solitary confinement. The outlet also published “prison diaries” from other individuals in isolation.
• In light of the recently released second season of Orange is the New Black, the ACLU published a blog post on the “scariest villain” in the prison – solitary confinement.
• A family in DeKalb County, Missouri has filed a lawsuit in the death of Timothy Harris, a 36-year-old who was being held at the Deaviess-Dekalb County Regional Jail pending trial when he passed away. Lawyers for Harris’ family allege that he was kept in solitary confinement for twelve days without a toilet, sink or running water.
• Motherboard featured an interview with Raphael Sperry, president of the Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR). The organization recently launched a crowd-sourcing campaign to get the American Institute of Architects to “prohibit the design of spaces that inherently violate human rights in their code of ethics,” particularly solitary confinement cells and supermax prisons.
• A South Carolina paper, The Post and Courier, published a feature piece on Randy Poindexter, who spent 16 years in solitary confinement in a state facility. “His story illustrates the challenges in providing therapeutic care in an underfunded, understaffed correctional system built more for punishment than redemption. It also shows the resiliency of the human spirit and its ability to bounce back from a time when painting the cell walls red with his own blood was the only thing that brought Poindexter peace.”
• An individual serving a life sentence in connection to the 1998 bombing of the US embassy in Tanzania has won a federal appeal, after the FBI limited his contact to 32 people. He is incarcerated in the supermax facility in Florence, Colorado and also subject to Special Administrative Measures, which further constrain his communication with the outside world.
• A news outlet has obtained video that follows the last few hours of Christopher Lee Lopez’s life, while he is strapped into restraints at the San Carlos Correctional Facility in Pueblo, Colorado. Lopez had recently been removed from solitary confinement after spending nine and a half months in “the box”; the video shows him having a grand mal seizure in the restraint chair, and prison guards only coming to his assistance over thirty minutes later. A lawsuit has been filed in federal court.
“Trays up!” the CO yells. It’s about 5 am, and breakfast trays are here. I’ve been up since midnight, studying the workbooks that a friend sent to me. When everyone is asleep, and the TV is off, it’s the quietest time, and I can really focus.
As I get my tray every morning, I ask myself, “How much longer?” It’s been about 7-1/2 months on 23/1, and I continually thank God for my strength through this. While I am finishing my tray and putting it back on the port, I sit there and imagine a sunrise.
Where I’m located in the jail, there are no windows, no sunlight, and no fresh air. It’s like my cell is a box inside of a bigger box. Since I’ve been here, I’ve only seen sunlight seven times, and those were my court dates.
I try not to dwell on what I don’t have, because that will make the day extremely long.
–“Luke,” age 17, held at Harford County Detention Center in Maryland since August 2013
Last month, Attorney General Eric Holder recorded a video message condemning the “excessive” use of solitary confinement in juvenile facilities. He made no mention, however, of the children held in isolation in adult jails and state prisons.
These young people, thought to number in the thousands across the country, are trapped in a kind of purgatory–facing charges in adult court and held in adult facilities, but kept in involuntary lockdown for “their own protection” from the adult prisoners who surround them.
This has been the experience of five teenagers held in a county jail in Bel Air, Maryland, a suburban community northeast of Baltimore that is perhaps best known as the birthplace of John Wilkes Booth. Over the last few weeks, Solitary Watch has interviewed these young men, the townspeople who have been trying to help them, and the sheriff who disputes their accounts.
Eileen Siple, 51, used to be a special education teacher but now stays at home to care for her disabled son. She told Solitary Watch that she has always lived a comfortable life. “If you had said to me three years ago that I’d be talking to all these kids in prison, I’d say you were crazy.”
Then one day, about two and a half years ago, her daughter came home from school upset. A classmate at C. Milton Wright – the local high school in Bel Air – had been arrested in connection with his father’s death, and she wanted to help support him.
Siple quickly grew close to the teenager, Robert Richardson. Siple understood that the boy had been charged with a serious crime, but she was shocked at the conditions in which he was being held at the Harford County Detention Center (HCDC).
In a recent letter to Solitary Watch, Richardson describes what he experienced for his first ten months at HCDC, when he was 16 years old. He is now in state prison at the Maryland Correctional Training Center in Hagerstown, serving an eighteen-year sentence, the result of a plea bargain on manslaughter and firearm offenses.
“From day to day, it’s always the same,” he wrote. “Isolation, 24 hours a day. The light stays on, the door stays closed, no human interaction. I felt like an animal. I was always in the same cage, naked save for a paper hospital gown.”
During this period, Richardson says he was locked up alongside adults. “I could hear the others in the isolation ward, but I couldn’t see them. The others were all mentally ill. They would scream all night long. I couldn’t sleep, with the screams and the banging… And the smells…smells of urine and feces from the others. They wouldn’t bathe. They would lie in bed and defecate on themselves or sling their waste
Eventually, Richardson was transferred from the isolation tier to a unit called T-Block. The unit is used primarily to hold recent adult arrestees while they are processed into general population, and through the small window on his door Richardson saw the many adults circulating on and off the block. But soon he realized that in addition to himself there were other teenage boys being held on the tier for weeks and months at a time, and he started to talk to them through his door and the pipes that ran through his small cell.
Before long, Eileen Siple was supporting these other boys, too. She provided Solitary Watch with the names of fifteen different young men allegedly held on T-Block, as well as written statements from five of them.
Boys Spend Months in Solitary Confinement
During the 1990s, amidst a national rise in the juvenile crime rate and an emerging paranoia about child “superpredators,” states across the county made it easier to kids to be charged as adults. In Maryland, children 14 years or older automatically enter the adult system if they commit the most serious crimes, including first-degree murder or rape, as do sixteen and seventeen-year-olds charged with one of 33 crimes ranging from firearm offenses, to robbery, to manslaughter.
The Maryland law means that many teenagers, even those who are eventually found innocent or waived down into juvenile court, spend weeks or months in adult facilities awaiting transfer hearings or trials. In nine of Maryland’s 23 counties, including Harford County – where HDRC is located – established guidelines call for kids facing charges in the adult system to be held in pre-trial solitary confinement.
Solitary is supposed to protect young people, and general population is admittedly known to be a patently unsafe place for minors. But the emotional and detailed accounts written by Richardson and the four other young men previously held on T-Block raise serious questions about whether juveniles are facing abuse in the name of their own safety.
The young men were charged with various offenses. Solitary Watch has changed several of their names for their protection. “Luke” was arrested a month after his 17th birthday on sex abuse charges related to a minor; he is still under 18 and currently in segregation. “Ryan,” who is facing rape, incest, and sex abuse charges, was also arrested at 17, but has since turned 18 and is now being held in general population at HCDC pending trial. “Adam” was arrested at 16 on armed robbery and theft charges; he has since pled guilty and was sentenced to just over four years in prison. Will Downs was arrested at 17 on assault charges and eventually pled guilty, although he and his family maintain his innocence. He was released in April on time served, and was interviewed over the phone from his home.
In their accounts, the boys describe being held in 23-hour lockdown in small cells, for periods ranging from a few weeks to many months. In an account dated in late April 2014, Downs wrote: “T-Block was the worst month and a half of my life! On T-Block you are locked down 23 hours a day. You are in a 7 by 11 cell and I can almost touch the wall with my wingspan and if you are by yourself is even worse. I had no body to talk to relieve stress.”
Some of the boys were forced to wear a smock, which they referred to as the “turtle,” when they first arrived. One young man said he felt so cold during this time that he wrapped toilet paper around his feet. Ryan, then age 17, writes: “I was escorted to T Block, and they put me in a cell that was maybe 12’ x 7’, had a light that stayed on all of the time, a desk, a stool, a double bunk, a toilet, and a sink. They told me to strip down to my blue shorts (like boxers) and gave me a smock. The smock was like a sleeveless robe that fastened with Velcro and very heavy fabric.”
As is standard policy for kids held in adult facilities, the boys were not able to mix freely with the adult population, so could not access any programming in the jail – including counseling, education or church. Even the boys’ one-hour of recreation time was conducted indoors, so they would only see sunlight when they were taken to and from court hearings.
In a recent phone interview, Downs described what it was like to be on lockdown. “All the worst things go through your head when you’re in there, because you feel like nothing’s happening. Every day moves so slow, every day was like a week.” He said that although some of the boys were bunked in pairs for periods of time, he was primarily held alone.
Ryan felt jealous of the many men passing through T-Block for processing. “We watched people come in and leave, all the time. It hurt so bad to watch these people leave, knowing that I couldn’t even see the sun or feel a breeze or have anything to do with the outside.”
The boys’ accounts also describe being at the complete mercy of corrections officers. Downs recalls having “to beg [guards] for ice so you can have fresh water to drink”, adding “if they have a bad day you are going have an even worse day.”
According to Eileen Siple, the time in isolation took a significant psychological and physical toll on all of the boys. Of the four she communicates with regularly, one started hearing voices during his time in solitary, and was placed on a series of psychiatric medications; the other three were also prescribed either anti-anxiety medications or anti-depressants.
According to a 2012 report by Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union, young people are particularly vulnerable to the stressors of “the box,” in part because they haven’t acquired the same coping mechanisms as adults. Moreover, the author notes, “because they are still developing, traumatic experiences like solitary confinement may have a profound effect on [kids'] chance to rehabilitate and grow.” In 2007, the Campaign for Youth Justice, a Washington-based nonprofit that advocates for children to be kept in the juvenile justice system, found that kids held in adult prisons and jails are 36 times more likely to commit suicide than young people held in juvenile facilities.
The young men’s accounts also detail the poor medical care they received while on T-Block. One of them describes not receiving needed heart medication for about two and half months, despite asking for it.
Local Sheriff Denies Accounts
Sheriff Jesse Bane has run the Harford County Detention Center since his election in 2006. In a series of phone calls, the Sheriff provided Solitary Watch with a different account of what happens to juveniles when held at the facility on adult charges. He said that young people are sent to the Behavioral Health Unit, which was originally built for prisoners with mental illness but now houses both populations.
“There is a recreation yard, a general dining area, a television, and they are free to roam the area where they’re incarcerated.” In a later conversation, he clarified that that adults and minors held at the BHU are strictly separated, and rotate the time they spend out of cell.
When specifically asked why there would be accounts from as recently as 2013 and 2014 of juveniles being held in long-term isolation at HCDC, Sheriff Bane reiterated that “you can’t hold people in those conditions,” adding that in an election year, you “get things like this that come up.” (His post is up for re-election this fall.)
Sheriff Bane also said that kids are given psychological evaluations upon their arrival, and can be placed in isolation on the unit for days or weeks if medical personnel believe they pose a threat to themselves. Queried about the “turtle,” Bane stated that young people who express suicidal ideation are asked to wear the garment since it cannot be torn, tied, or made into a noose.
When asked about accounts that young people held been held on a processing tier for adults, he told Solitary Watch, “I’m not sure that I know what you’re talking about,” stressing several times that the law requires “sight and sound” separation between children and adults.
In fact, although the decades-old federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) requires “sight and sound” separation between children and adults, these protections do not currently apply to young people charged as adults.
The 2003 Regulations on the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) mandates separation, but there are no accountability mechanisms to enforce the standards in county facilities. In 2012, the Harford County Sheriff’s Office was awarded $163,648 to better enable compliance with PREA, although it is unknown if the grant had any relation to how minors are held in the facility. (Bane’s office declined to provide copies of the application; Solitary Watch has since filed a FOIA request to obtain additional information.)
When asked about T-Block, the Sheriff commented although some individuals are held on T-Block for no more than 24 hours pending classification, “that does not include juveniles.” He also said, “You cannot keep a person indefinitely in a lockdown status in isolation because it adversely impacts their mental health and we are not going to do that.”
Diane Tobin, the Deputy State’s Attorney, declined to comment on any specifics but stated that young people at HCDC are held in accordance with federal law. Solitary Watch contacted the lawyers for all five boys who submitted statements; none returned calls or emails for comment.
In a phone interview, Solitary Watch asked Downs to respond to Sheriff Bane’s assurances that there was “sight and sound separation” between juveniles and adults. “We could talk to the adults on T block, we would tell them to come to the door, and they would talk to us,” he said.
Asked to reply to Sheriff Bane’s assertion that juveniles are not held on T-Block, Downs said, “What? I was on T-Block the whole fucking time.”
According to Eileen Siple, the move from T-Block to the BSU happened about six weeks ago. She told Solitary Watch that last month she was invited by the Sheriff to tour HCDC; at the BSU she saw two minors being held alone on the top tier, with adults with mental illness held below. Siple, who is in touch with one of the two boys, said that they only spend a few hours out of their cells each day.
Kara Aanenson is the Campaign Strategist for Just Kids, a Maryland advocacy organization that works with kids automatically charged as adults. When interviewed by Solitary Watch, Kara Aanenson also disputed the Sheriff’s account that the kids have long been held at the BSU. She said that when she toured HCDC about a year ago, she personally saw young people being held on T-Block.
Use of Isolation Widespread
According to Aanenson, what happened to Richardson and the other boys at HCDC – however horrific – is far from an isolated instance of abuse. “It was shocking to me, but it’s also a process that doesn’t just happen in Harford County,” she told Solitary Watch. “It happens to lots of kids in the state of Maryland.”
An infographic recently published by Just Kids identifies the nine counties across Maryland, including Harford, which holds kids facing charges as adults in pre-trial solitary confinement. Eleven counties house these young people with the rest of the adult jail population, and the remaining three counties have dedicated juvenile units within adult facilities. Just Kids’ research is based on established guidelines for handling minors as outlined in jail handbooks.
Nor are the numbers of youth admitted to adult facilities small. In 2011, 771 Maryland youth were admitted to adult facilities, according to a report produced by the state’s Department of Juvenile Services. Sixty-eight of these children entered jails in one of the nine counties that hold young people charged as adults in solitary confinement.
Advocacy groups have endeavored to change the law. During the now-closed 2014 legislative session in Maryland, a coalition of groups pushed for the passage of Senate Bill 757 / House Bill 1294, which would have required youth facing adult charges to be held in juvenile detention centers pre-trial. The bill failed to even pass onto the state House or Senate floor, although there is hope it may make progress next term.
Colorado passed similar legislation in 2012. Across the county, over ten states have laws on the books either requiring or permitting that young people facing charges in the adult system be held in juvenile facilities.
For Will, Luke, and the other teenage boys held at HCDC, there were only two sure ways to escape solitary confinement. The first was turning 18.
“After 7 months in T Block, I finally turned 18,” Ryan wrote. “They moved me to general population. It was like Heaven! Yes, it’s still jail, but it’s so much better than being locked down all day. I can walk around. I can talk to my family on the phone. I can see the sun through a window. It might sound like very little to some people, but to us, it’s HUGE!”
Aside from aging out, the only other way the boys could get off the tier was pleading guilty to their offenses, since convicted minors can be held in general population. Eileen Siple told Solitary Watch that at least two of the teenagers entered a plea to escape the conditions on T-Block, although this could not be independently verified.
The combination of existing state law – which mandates charging certain kids as adults – plus county-specific policies and national legislation about how to house these youth, mean that many minors across Maryland endure conditions that are significantly worse than those faced by adults. “Just because of your age and your offense, you’re getting punished for something you’re just accused of doing, for lengthy periods of time,” Aanenson said.
For many advocates, where kids are held pending trial is just one small part of the problem. The recently proposed legislation is a “first step in the right direction,” Aanenson added. “But what we ultimately need to be doing is stopping youth from being tried as adults.”
Aanenson’s sentiment was echoed by Amy Fettig, the Senior Staff Counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union National Prison Project. “We think the best thing to do is send these kids back to the juvenile justice system. Sometimes that requires changing the state law.” In 2013, the Maryland General Assembly created a task force to examine the issue of automatic transfer.
In the meantime, however, General Eric Holder’s recent comments may simply be too little too late for the many young people across the county held in solitary confinement in adult facilities – trapped by a patchwork of local, state and federal laws that recognize their vulnerability as children while simultaneously prosecuting them as adults.
“They take your personality when they put you in segregation,” Ryan said. “They have everything, mentally, physically, and emotionally. They say it helps us, but it makes everything even worse. I wish that upon nobody. This is what really happens behind closed doors.”
The post In a Maryland Jail, Teens Charged As Adults Face Isolation and Neglect appeared first on Solitary Watch.
• A federal Court of Appeals has ruled that the Indiana Department of Corrections erred in sending a man to solitary confinement for using a computer after prison officials asked him to pull documents from the internet. The court wrote, “It is more than a little surprising to encounter an argument by a prison system that an inmate may be penalized for obeying an order by the prison’s staff.”
• The New York Times published an editorial in support of a recent settlement which will eventually end the use of solitary confinement in Ohio’s juvenile facilities. The editorial staff also called for implementation of the policy nationwide.
• According to the NY Daily News, nearly 20 incarcerated individuals were attacked on Rikers Island in May – making it the bloodiest month at the jail in more than a decade. Union leaders blame the rise in violence on the reduced use of solitary confinement at the jail.
• In light of recent legislation passed in the state, The Durago Herald profiled a young man whose mental illness was exacerbated by his time in maximum security protective custody.
• The ACLU published a report on privately run immigrant detention centers in Texas. Researchers found that SHU quotas at these facilities are sometimes set as high as “10% of the total contracted prison beds,” which is “nearly double the percentage of prisoners kept in isolated confinement in BOP-managed facilities.” Kevin Gosztola wrote about the report and its findings with regards to solitary confinement here.
• Corrections officers in Bernalillo County, New Mexico are concerned about recent proposals to eliminate disciplinary segregation at the local jail, the Metro Detention Center. CO Union President Stephen Perkins said, “You would sentence our officers to injury by eliminating segregation because basically you become a referee in daily fights.” County Commissioner Art De la Cruz responded, “What’s disappointing to me is that the vast majority are mentally ill. So instead of getting treatment they’re put into segregation where it only exacerbates the problem.”
• A new report by the Michigan Council on Crime and Delinquency documents the impact of prosecuting certain kids in the state as adults, often automatically. The report also addresses the impact of holding young people in solitary confinement in adult jails and prisons.
• Against the Grain aired an episode about Bobby Sands and other prison hunger strikes, including more recent ones in California and Ohio.
• A federal judge has canceled a hearing about whether to issue an injunction against Connecticut officials, who have been detaining a teenage transgender girl in solitary confinement for about the past two months. The young woman was transferred into prison custody after child welfare officials said she was too violent; a private treatment center in Massachusetts has offered to admit her for treatment, but it is unclear when or if she has been transferred.
The author of the following piece of memoir, Shaka Senghor, served nearly two decades in Michigan state prisons for a murder committed when he was 19-years old. On his website, he states: “Writing about my wrongs was the first of many steps that I took to atone for taking a man’s life. Through the transformative power of writing, I accepted responsibility for my decisions and have used my experience to help others avoid the path that I took in my youth.” Now back in the free world, he is a “speaker, mentor, and author” who has published several books and given TED Talks at several venues.
The following narrative, which describes the author’s first day in solitary confinement, is excerpted from a longer piece that appears in a new volume writing, Fourth City: Essays from the Prison in America. The collection is edited by Doran Larson, a professor of English at Hamilton College and founder of the American Prison Writing Archive. Currently a work in progress, it will be the first archive dedicated to prison writing, and “will be a place where incarcerated people can bear witness to the conditions in which they live, to what is working and what is not inside American prisons, and where they can contribute to public debate about the American prison crisis.” –Jean Casella
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
In my first year in prison, I found myself serving a one-year stint in solitary confinement for “assault on an inmate,” “assault on staff” and “dangerous contraband.” I split that year in the hole between the Michigan Reformatory and Standish Maximum Security Prison. It was my first foray into the abysmal subculture that was the subject of whispered conversations on prison yards and behind the closed doors of the administration’s office. It was a place where a twisted game of tug of war played itself out between the humane and inhumane. It was in this cold, dark, heartless place that I came face to face with a gruesome reality: the isolation and inhumane conditions of solitary confinement were responsible for distorting the psyche of countless men and women.
My first stint in the hole was the first time I had witnessed the tearing asunder of the human soul. At nineteen years old, I was thrown head first into a subculture of despair, loneliness and deep-seeded anger. I remember when the officer placed the burning cold handcuffs on my wrists and told me I was being taken to the hole. I literally thought they were going to throw me in a dirt-covered hole in the ground until they were convinced I had changed my behavior. I twisted and jerked around in the handcuffs as everything inside me told me to fight to get free; it was a deeply entrenched defense mechanism encoded in my DNA. I was a descendant of a slave people, and I was sure that my ancestors had rebelled against their captors. It felt natural for me to resist as much as I could, even though I knew deep inside that I couldn’t burst out of the handcuffs. But resist I did.
After being subdued by several officers, I was carted off to the hole and thrown into the shower where I was strip-searched. The officer conducting the strip search nearly broke my arm as he pulled it out of the slot in the cage to remove the cuffs. I had assaulted one of his co-workers and he was letting me know that he didn’t appreciate it. Once the cuffs were off, I was forced to strip out of my clothes. As I stood in the middle of the shower room naked, I felt like a slave on an auction block. When the officer returned, he threw an oversized brown jumpsuit through the slot. I dressed hastily and was then escorted to a segregation cell. When I realized the “hole” was nothing more than another cell block, I calmed down a little. At the time, I was at a new regional facility called Carson City so the cell was modern and clean. A smirk crossed my face as I looked around. I thought to myself, if this was all they had to control me, they would be in for a surprise when I was released. It wasn’t until a couple days later that I realized I was the one in for a shock.
One evening after chow, I was told to pack up all of my property; I was getting transferred in the morning back to the Michigan Reformatory in Ionia where I would be placed on long-term segregation status. In prison vernacular, we called it “lay down.” When I first came to the hole, I asked one of the inmates who had been in prison for a while why they had given it that name. He responded with a laugh before saying, “Because down here, all you can do is lay your ass down and read, lay your ass down and write, or lay your ass down and talk shit all day. So it’s up to you young blood how you do it, but all I can tell you is, don’t take this shit laying down.” The administration, on the other hand, chose to use the much more lofty euphemism “administrative segregation.” It sounded politically correct, and oh so professional, but when they weren’t on record, they called it the “hole” like the rest of us.
During the forty-minute ride back to Ionia, thoughts of what the “hole” would be like tumbled through my head like a gymnast. Horror stories of how inmates in the hole had been found hung in their cells, or mysteriously suffocated with their own socks, or how the officers would come into your cell with the goon squad and beat you two breaths short of death, all ran tirelessly through my mind. What about all of the resistance I had put up? What if the officers at the other prison had called their buddies to give me a nice work over? After being processed, I was escorted to the hole in a cellblock known as the “Graves.” It had earned the moniker from the captives there because once you were thrown in the “Graves,” it was like being entombed in a place where you lost sight of time. It was as though you were dead to everyone in general population, and the cells were so small that you felt like you had been squeezed into a coffin.
Being sentenced to “lay down” was to be sentenced to an indeterminate amount of time in hell. The first thing I noticed when I entered the cellblock was the gloomy ambiance. The windows were painted a gray and the only natural light present was the few streams that snuck through when the officers were nice enough to leave one of the windows cracked, which was very rare. Being stripped of all personal belongings, with the exception of the bare necessities, made it impossible to tell if it was morning or night unless you asked the officers or the windows were open. Other than that, I had to guess the time based on when my meals were passed out.
As I was escorted down to my cell, I had to navigate my way around spoiled food, empty milk cartons, fecal-stained towels, and piles of shredded and soiled paper. I kept my head straight forward as I walked toward my cell, but out of the corner of my eye, I could see several captives standing at their bars looking out curiously. I had learned from day one inside of the Reformatory not to look into another captive’s cell. It was an old code of respect. Since we were already being deprived of so much by the system, we didn’t want to deny each other the last semblance of privacy, so we didn’t look into each other’s cell. Not everyone stayed true to this code, and it was often the cause of conflict, leading the Peeping Tom to be stabbed on the yard, or flashed with genitalia. I had no desire to see another man shaking his private parts in anger, nor did I have a desire to stab anyone or get stabbed for looking in someone’s cell, so I always kept my head forward.
When I reached my cell, the bars squeaked open and the officer ordered me to step inside. Once the bars closed shut, he removed the handcuffs and left. I looked around at the dingy cell in disgust. The bed was six inches off the floor and the toilet was stuffed behind a small footlocker. In order to sit down and take a dump, I had to remove my whole jumpsuit so that I could fold my legs behind the locker. After my initial observations, I stood at my cell bars for the next hour waiting on the officer to make his round so that I could get some cleaning supplies to sanitize my cell. To my surprise, it was relatively quiet, but as I would soon learn, this was the calm before the storm. Most of the captives in the hole slept the bulk of their days away only waking up to get their food trays. Once the final meal of the day was passed out, the cellblock would come alive with activity.
When the officer returned, I asked him for some cleaning supplies and was informed that the porters would pass them out after lunch, so I continued to stand at the bars until lunch. There was no way I was going to sit or lay down on a mattress that someone else had sweated and farted on without it being sanitized. When the porters arrived with our food trays, I took mine and stood at the bars eating the hastily thrown together meal. The portions were nearly a half-size smaller than what I was used to receiving in general population. I devoured the small meal in all of five minutes like a ravenous wolf and placed my tray on the bars. I didn’t really like drinking milk all that much, so I left the carton sitting on the locker. When they came around to pick up trays, one of the porters whispered that I had better hide the milk in my locker unless I wanted to be placed on food loaf. I placed the milk back on the tray as I looked at him curiously. I had never heard of food loaf, but from the way he conveyed the message, I could tell it was something very bad. I also realized his “Man, you crazy” look was letting me know that it in the hole, no food was to be wasted. That milk I threw back on the tray could have bought me a bag of cereal, a juice, or an extra piece of toast. In the hole, everything pertaining to eating and smoking was to be bartered and nothing was to be wasted. Once they banned smoking, a cigarette smuggled in could net you three dollars in store items. It was in the hole that I learned to start eating Brussels’ sprouts and dressing and a few other things I would have never eaten if I were in general population. Every time I ate green beans or Brussels’ sprouts, I thought about all of the times my parents had tried to get me to eat them when I was a child, and I felt some shame.
After the trays were picked up, a porter came back and handed me some cleaning supplies. I swept beneath the small bunk and was surprised at how much dirt and dust came from under the bed. I washed the mattress, toilet and sink down before making my bed. After I cleaned up and laid back on the bunk, I drifted off into a fitful sleep. My mind was full of thoughts that I had stuffed deep down inside where they were safe. All of the things I had hidden from while in general population by watching television or playing basketball to exhaustion now came rushing back to the forefront of my mind. I dreamt of how soft my son’s mother’s lips used to feel against mine. I dreamt of how good it used to feel to guzzle down an ice cold forty ounce on a hot summer day. I dreamt of the late night laughter that echoed through the ‘hood as we sat on the porch at two in the morning playing the dozens. My dreams were a kaleidoscope of all that my life had been, and all that it could have been.
I was awakened by the sound of the chow cart squeaking down the tier. I retrieved my tray and sucked down the bland slop that they called dinner, and this time I drank the milk. Despite my aversion to plain milk, it sure beat the brownish water that drizzled out of the old porcelain sink in my cell. I set the tray on the bars, laid back on my bunk and forced myself back to sleep in an attempt to retrieve those lost and stolen dreams, but to no avail. After the officers picked up the food trays, they passed out mail and the cellblock was pretty quiet for the next few hours. The hum of a few conversations could be heard as inmates discussed religion, politics, and stories of their lives on the streets. Stories shared between inmates were our way of staying connected to the neighborhoods we came from. It was one of the few means we had of touching, tasting and smelling our former lives, if only for a few minutes. It didn’t matter if you were part of the conversation or not, you could relate, because when it was all said and done, most Black communities were pretty much the same. So when I sat back on my bunk listening to a guy from Flint, Saginaw or Lansing talking about their neighborhoods and what they had been through, it was like reliving my own memories of life before prison.
One of the things about prison is that you have some very amusing storytellers with expansive imaginations, capable of creating the kind of vivid imagery that would put Hollywood screenwriters to shame. I have always marveled at how a person could remember the exact color of their socks, how much money they had in their pocket to the nearest dime, and all the ingredients that were used to make the meal on the day they got shot, had sex for the first time, or made their first thousand. When retelling a story, everyone has a tendency to embellish things a little, but in the hole, there were a few captives who were infamous for their ability to tell a lie-filled story that was so entertaining that each night everyone would grow quiet as they recounted their neighborhood exploits.
As the voices hummed about from cell to cell, I found myself thinking about how I had arrived at this point in my life. Growing up, I never imagined that I would be living my life out caged in a cell like a wild animal. I was too smart for this shit, I thought angrily as I stared up at the paint-chipped ceiling. But no matter how many times I closed and opened my eyes, my nightmarish existence was still there. After speaking with several captives at length, I realized that most of us go through this extreme feeling of disbelief. At some point, we all think this is a nightmare, and that at any moment we will awaken and be back home in the warm comfort of our own bed. But we all learn after years of incarceration that prison is all too real. And for me, things were about to get more real than I could have ever imagined.
After getting bored listening to the conversations going on around me, I decided to get up and write a few letters. The first, I wrote to my son’s mother, and then to my ex-girlfriend in Ohio. Before I knew it, I was writing to everyone I knew. The hours spun past quickly as I scratched out letter after letter with a dull two-inch pencil. When the third shift came on at ten o’clock, I was still immersed in writing letters. It was through writing letters home that I realized writing was my escape. With a pen and piece of paper, I could get away whenever I wanted to. I could go stand on the corner in my neighborhood and no one could stop me. I could drive down the freeway and go see my ex-girlfriend in Ohio if that was what I wanted to do, and the bars and wired fences couldn’t hold me back. Writing was freedom! So I wrote until midnight when they cut the power off and my fingers became sore to the bone.
When the lights went out, the cellblock had an eerie feel to it. I was on the bottom tier toward the end, and there were no lights in the hall near my cell so I couldn’t stand at the bars and read or write like guys who had lights in front of their cells. I climbed into my bunk and prayed that I could drift off into a deep sleep before the dreams of my life before prison came back to haunt me. I had to get away from them; otherwise I knew I would go insane. There was nothing I could do to change my reality, and I didn’t need to be constantly reminded by the dreams. As I lay there trying to capture sleep, the world around me exploded into chaos.
“Get y’all bitch ass up. Ain’t no sleep around here,” a loud voice called, followed by a sound as loud and startling as a shotgun blast in a small church. Boom! Boom! Boom! The sound came relentlessly as the voice banged the lid down on his footlocker over and over, which set into motion a chain of events that was unlike anything I had ever imagined. For the next four hours, the hole became an anarchist stronghold as inmates banged lockers and hurled racial epithets and disparaging homosexual remarks through the air like hand grenades. Some stuffed their toilets with sheets and flushed until water cascaded over the tier like Victoria Falls. I stared out of my cell in disbelief as the floor quickly became a small wading pool. Trash and sheets that had been set on fire flew out of countless cells. After their initial attempts to restore order by turning off the water supply to all of the cells, the officers gave up. As dawn slowly crept upon us, everyone settled down and the cellblock grew quiet again.
The only thing that seemed to be stirring was a giant rat the size of a possum, who the captives had named “Food Loaf,” after the loaf of bread-sized brick of mashed up food that was fed to recalcitrant captives. I watched as “Food Loaf” sludged through the murky water to retrieve the soggy bread and rotted apple cores that had been thrown out onto the cellblock floors. He moved with a quiet confidence about him that came as a result of being around hundreds of people every day. The rest of the vermin that darted in and out of the cells were more cautious. I often wondered why no one had killed “Food Loaf,” but then it dawned on me. In a lot of ways, he was a lot like us. He was an outcast, and for the most part, he was despised by everyone and we could all identify with that. Though the term “rat” had been used over the years to describe someone who told on others to protect their own asses, “Food Loaf” had won over our respect and was therefore allowed to coexist with us.
• On Monday, June 2, the New York City medical examiners office ruled the death of a man who died in a Rikers Island jail cell last fall to be a homicide. Bradley Ballard died of complications of diabetes along with the results of genital self-mutilation. According to the Associated Press: “Ballard, who family members said had been diagnosed as schizophrenic, was discovered lying in his own feces in a cell with a rubber band tied around his scrotum. He had been confined to his cell in a mental observation unit at Rikers for seven days for making a lewd gesture at a female guard…Documents obtained by the AP show Ballard was not given his medication for much of the time he spent locked in his cell in a mental observation unit…Ballard’s death and the death of another inmate who died in an overheated cell have prompted a city lawmaker to schedule an oversight hearing. On Monday, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a new task force that would overhaul how the corrections system treats the mentally ill.”
• Reporting on the Federal District Court decision granting class-action status in a California lawsuit, Erica Goode wrote in the New York Times: “Legal experts say that the ruling, which allows inmates at Pelican Bay who have been held in solitary confinement for more than a decade to sue as a class, paves the way for a court case that could shape national policy on the use of long-term solitary confinement.” The Times quotes Jules Lobel, president of the Center for Constitutional Right, which brought the suit: “’This would really be the first case about whether the confinement itself is cruel and unusual punishment,’ Mr. Lobel said, ‘and about who can be legitimately confined in this way, given the draconian nature of the confinement.’”
• The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI) released newly revised juvenile detention facility standards at its annual conference this week. As the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange reported, the revised standards call for an end to the solitary confinement of children “except as a short-term response to behavior that threatens a youth or others.”
• The Augusta Free Press reported on June 4: “Attorneys for the ACLU and the ACLU of Virginia filed a friend-of-the-court brief today in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit on behalf of nine correctional experts, arguing that automatic solitary confinement for death row inmates is unconstitutional. All Virginia offenders who are sentenced to death are assigned to solitary confinement for the remainder of their lives or until their sentence is overturned. Typically, inmates serve at least six years in solitary while they pursue their appeals.”
• On June 5, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on upheld the class-action status of a lawsuit filed by the ACLU and the Prison Law Office, alleging that Arizona’s prison system overuses solitary confinement and provides inadequate health care. As Bob Ortega reported in the Arizona Republic: “The ruling essentially clears the way for the suit to go to trial in October. It also means that the more than 34,000 inmates in Arizona’s 10 state-run prisons will be part of the suit, first filed in 2012, seeking wide-ranging changes in how the state’s Department of Corrections confines inmates and treats — or fails to treat — their health- and mental-health-care problems.”
• On June 6, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper signed into law a bill that bans the placement of people with serious mental illness in solitary confinement in the state’s prisons. Some have warned, however, that the prison system’s narrow definitions of both “major mental illness” and “solitary confinement” allow many to slip through the cracks of these reforms. In addition, the new law does not apply to local jails.
• A front-page New York Times story published on June 7 described the “squalor and unconcern” in which people with mental illness live in the solitary confinement units at Mississippi’s main facility for prisoners with psychiatric disabilities:” Open fires sometimes burn unheeded in the solitary-confinement units of the East Mississippi Correctional Facility, a privately run state prison in Meridian…Inmates spend months in near-total darkness. Illnesses go untreated. Dirt, feces and, occasionally, blood are caked on the walls of cells.” The story stands in sharp contrast to another front-page story by the same reporter, published in 2012, which featured Mississippi as a success story and praised its Corrections chief, Christopher Epps, for reducing the state’s use of solitary. Epps is among the defendants named in the lawsuit against East Mississippi Correctional Facility, which was filed by the ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center.