The following poem is by Herman Wallace, who has been held in solitary confinement in Louisiana’s prison system for almost 41 years, mostly in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, known as Angola. Convicted of killing a guard at Angola, Wallace and fellow prisoner Albert Woodfox, both members of the Angola 3, were placed in solitary in 1972, where, with the exception of a few brief periods, they have remained ever since (read more about Wallace, Woodfox and the Angola 3). Wallace is now housed in a maximum security prison near Baton Rouge, subjected to conditions which some claim are worse than those at Angola.
In his poem, “A Defined Voice,” Wallace describes being moved to levels of varying security, each more restrictive and oppressive than the one before. (The “Supermax of Camp J” refers to the most punitive solitary confinement unit at Angola.) He asserts that, try as they might, his handlers are unsuccessful in their efforts to destroy his spirit–which on the contrary, grows ever-stronger. Click on the link that follows the text of the poem to hear Herman Wallace read “A Defined Voice.” —Lisa Dawson
. . . . . . . . . . . . .
A Defined Voice
They removed my whisper from general population
To maximum security I gained a voice
They removed my voice from maximum security
To administrative segregation
My voice gave hope
They removed my voice from administrative segregation
To solitary confinement
My voice became vibration for unity
They removed my voice from solitary confinement
To the Supermax of Camp J
And now they wish to destroy me
The louder my voice the deeper they bury me
I SAID, THE LOUDER MY VOICE THE DEEPER THEY BURY ME!
Free all political prisoners, prisoners of war, prisoner of consciousness.
Click here to listen to Herman Wallace read his poem.
Sarah Shourd is a writer, educator and prison rights advocate currently based in Oakland, California. She had been living in the Middle East for over a year, teaching Iraqi refugees and living in a Palestinian refugee camp in Syria, when she was captured by Iranian forces somewhere along an unmarked border between Iran and Iraq in July 2009, and held in solitary confinement for 410 days. She has written for the New York Times, CNN, and Newsweek’s Daily Beast and is currently writing a book with Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal about their experience as hostages in Iran.
The following essay was written as an introduction to a report released last week by Physicians for Human Rights, on the use of solitary confinement on people held in federal immigrant detention facilities. It is reprinted here by permission of Sarah Shourd and PHR.
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Sitting in a nearly empty cell — a metal sink, the blank stare of the white walls, fluorescent lights that never turn off — all you have are your own thoughts. Sometimes they race through your head like freight trains; other times a thought can get stuck in a loop, tormenting you for days or weeks at a time, grating the inside of your skull like metal on flesh. Your days are restless, your eyes constantly wandering around your cell, and you never, ever stop asking yourself — when am I going to get out?
The Iranian government held me in solitary confinement for 410 days. For that entire time I was imprisoned alongside my now-husband Shane Bauer and our friend Josh Fattal. We were captured on July 31, 2009, while hiking behind a waterfall in the proximity of an unmarked border between Iraq and Iran. I was on a break from my teaching job in Damascus, Syria — our friend Josh was visiting from the States — and we decided to travel to the semi-autonomous Iraqi region of Kurdistan, a part of the Middle East with a burgeoning tourist industry where the mountains are unusually green and no American has been killed or kidnapped in recent decades.
The soldiers drove us to Evin Prison in Tehran, where for 131⁄2 months I spent 23 hours a day in a private cell and one hour in a slightly larger open-ceiling cell, where a camera watched as I ran in circles under a blue sky crisscrossed with thick bars. They said the isolation was for my own safety — that there were no “appropriate” cellmates for me — but I was never safe from my own mind.
In prolonged isolation, the human psyche slowly self-destructs. On my worst days, I screamed and beat at the walls. I experienced hallucinations — bright flashing lights and phantom footsteps — nightmares, insomnia, heart palpitations, lethargy, clinical depression, and passive suicidal thoughts. I would pace my cell incessantly, or crouch like an animal by the food slot at the bottom of my cell door, listening for any sound to distract me. When I finally got books and television, I found it difficult to concentrate. I would sometimes spend an entire afternoon trying to read the same page, until I got fed up and threw my book against the wall.
The only thing I thought about for over a year in solitary was the day that I would no longer have to be alone, but, ironically, it wasn’t that simple. When I was finally released, I found it hard to make eye contact or be touched. My breathing remained labored and many of the symptoms I experienced in prison — insomnia, hypertension, and anxiety — persisted on the outside. Like many people with post-traumatic stress disorder, I sometimes drank too much to try and escape my symptoms. More than once I became belligerent, dangerously paranoid, or hopelessly depressed — sometimes walling myself up in my house for days at a time.
When I began to research the use of solitary confinement in the United States, I was shocked to learn that tens of thousands of people are subject to no-touch torture or prolonged isolation on any given day. I learned that immigrants and people deemed a “national security risk” are held in indefinite detention without legal representation or the right to due process, just like I had been. How could I fail to draw a connection between their treatment and my own?
When Josh, Shane, and I were picked up near the unmarked Iran-Iraq border, the instant the soldiers looked at our passports it was clear the odds were stacked against us. Due to decades of animosity between our governments, being an American under suspicion by the Iranian government puts you at a distinct disadvantage. Likewise, being profiled as “illegal” — an immigrant living without papers in the United States– puts you at a disadvantage in our legal system. You can be subject to “civil” confinement in conditions identical to prison — including solitary confinement, which is often applied arbitrarily as a disciplinary measure — for months or years in pretrial detention and ultimately deportation as the result of something as small as a traffic violation.
A host of factors — many of which I experienced myself as a foreigner imprisoned in Iran — can add to harmful psychological effects of isolation for immigrant and national security detainees. One is language — when I was arrested I didn’t speak a word of Farsi. Even after over a year in detention I could barely communicate my basic needs. Likewise, many detainees in our country aren’t fluent in or can’t speak English. Not being able to speak the language of the guards and other prison and legal authorities puts detainees at a distinct disadvantage. It increases isolation — effectively walling you off from what little opportunity you have for social interaction — and also makes it harder to secure a lawyer, advocate for your rights, challenge your conditions, and defend yourself effectively in court.
In addition, immigrant and national security detainees are often victims of prejudice and racism while in detention based on their “illegal” status, race, ethnicity, or country of origin. When I was in prison, a certain Iranian guard refused to touch or speak to me. Every day, she made me pick up my tray of food from the floor, rather than handing it to me as she did for the other prisoners. Once, I got angry and confronted her with the help of another guard who spoke some English. I asked her why she hated me. She said it was because I was “American… and I crossed the border.” The situation is not all that different for immigrant and national security detainees in the United States, especially considering that the dominant discourse in the country labels them as “terrorists” or “illegals” — a few examples among a trove of unsavory xenophobic and racist expletives — based on the widely held belief that they are our ideological enemies and/or the source of our country’s economic woes.
Even though — like many detainees in our country — I had no idea when I would get out of solitary confinement or prison itself, I never lost hope completely. I knew that our case was visible enough that we would never be forgotten, that countless people were fighting for us on the outside, and that eventually the Iranian government would be forced to let us go. For immigrant and national security detainees in this county, however, the opposite is true. They have no way of knowing how long it will take before they have their day in court or what the outcome will be. Their isolation alone is enough to cause lasting, irreparable psychological damage, yet they are also subject to prejudice, unable to communicate, and transported against their wills to detention facilities sometimes hundreds or even thousands of miles from home — essentially invisible. My situation was unique and in many ways unprecedented. Sadly, however, being stripped of one’s rights, deprived of liberty, and treated like a criminal solely on the basis of one’s country of origin is far from unusual, even in our own backyard.
California Governor Jerry Brown’s bid to end federal control over the state prison system’s mental health system was denied in federal court on Friday, April 5, in a sharply worded ruling by U.S. District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton. In the 68-page ruling, Judge Karlton determined that “systemic failures persist in the form of inadequate suicide prevention measures, excessive administrative segregation of the mentally ill, lack of timely access to adequate care, insufficient treatment space and access to beds, and unmet staffing needs.”
The ruling comes following months of campaigning and litigating by Governor Brown and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) to end federal oversight of the California prison system. Friday’s ruling is the latest enforcement of the 1995 case Coleman v. Wilson, a federal class action suit filed against then-California Governor Pete Wilson, which resulted in federal oversight over CDCR’s mental health and medical treatment that continues under the jurisdiction of Judge Karlton.
An additional federal class action lawsuit, Plata v. Schwarzenegger was merged with the Coleman lawsuit and in 2009, California was ordered to reduce it’s prison population to 137% capacity, as it was determined that Constitutionally acceptable medical and mental health delivery was hindered by the beyond-capacity prison population, which was deemed an 8th Amendment violation. California in turn appealed the order to reduce it’s prison population and in 2011, in Brown v. Plata, the US Supreme Court ordered California to reduce it’s prison population by 30,000 inmates. Governor Brown has an additional appeal of this order before U.S. District Judge Thelton E. Henderson.
Governor Jerry Brown has gone on the record to claim that California has “one of the finest prison systems in the United States,” and no longer requires federal oversight. In a January 2013 press release, Governor Brown stated: “After decades of judicial intervention in our correctional system and the expenditure of billions of taxpayer dollars, the time has come to restore California’s rightful control of its prison system.” In February, CDCR announced the completion of a new mental health treatment building at the California Medical Facility, and declared that the facility “reinforces CDCR’s ongoing commitment to provide a constitutional level of mental health treatment in California’s prisons.”
Judge Karlton’s ruling, however, strongly rebukes these claims by Brown and CDCR, saying “based on defendants’ conduct to date, the court cannot rely on their averments of good faith as a basis for granting termination. There is overwhelming evidence in the record that much of defendants’ progress to date is due to the pressure of this and other litigation.”
A major factor in Judge Karlton’s ruling was the significant rate of suicides in the California prison system, which has previously been reported to be well above the national prison average.
“In summary, for over a decade a disproportionately high number of inmates have committed suicide in California’s prison system describable inadequacies in suicide prevention in the CDCR,” Judge Karlton writes,”Defendants have a constitutional obligation to take and adequately implement all reasonable steps to remedy those inadequacies. The evidence shows they have not yet done so. In addition, while defendants represent that they have fully implemented their suicide prevention program, they have not. An ongoing constitutional violation therefore remains.”
Judge Karlton cited the overuse of solitary confinement, particularly among individuals with severe mental health problems, as a continuing problem in the California prison system. The ruling states that such individuals “face substantial risk of serious harm, including exacerbation of mental illness and potential increase in suicide risk.”
The State of California argued before the court that they have “developed and implemented procedures for placing and retaining inmates with mental health needs in any administrative segregation or security housing unit.” Further, the State of California argued that while individuals diagnosed as “mentally ill” are placed in segregation units, their needs are “being appropriately met.” Judge Karlton dismisses this claim, stating that “this contention is not supported by defendants’ own experts.” He goes on to write that the State of California’s experts “describe the ‘environment of administrative segregation’ as ‘generally non-therapeutic.’ They recommend that housing inmates with serious mental disorders be ‘as brief as possible and as rare as possible.’”
Judge Karlton notes that this does not appear to be the case, and notes that the California’s own experts have commented that these prisoners should be at the top of the list for receiving transfers to mental health facilities. “These issues, until remedied, mean that seriously mentally ill inmates placed in administrative segregation units continued to face a substantial risk of harm,” Judge Karlton writes.
The high rate of suicides in California’s segregation units, where most individuals are held in solitary confinement, has been heavily documented by Dr. Raymond Patterson, a court appointed consultant to CDCR.
In a 255-page report filed in March of this year, Dr. Patterson blasted CDCR for it’s repeated failures to instate any of the suicide prevention measures he has suggested over many years. Dr. Patterson announced in his 14th annual review of prison suicides that was quitting, as “it has become apparent that continued repetition of these recommendations would be a further waste of time and effort.”
The report reviewed 15 of 32 suicides in 2012.
In brief, the report found that:
- 9 of 15 (60%) committed suicide in single-cell status
- 9 of 34 (60%) had a history of suicidal behavior
- 11 of 15 (73.3 %) had a history of past mental health treatment
- 6 of 15 (40%) committed suicide in Administrative Segregation
- 1 of 15 (6.6%) committed suicide in the Security Housing Unit
- 3 of 15 (20%) suicides were discovered after the process of rigor mortis had begun, indicating 2-3 hours had passed before the individuals were discovered
- 13 of 15 (86.6%) cases showed significant indications of inadequate assessment, treatment, or intervention
The 2012 report notes that people in solitary confinement have a 33 times higher likelihood of committing suicide in the California prison system.
On page 16 of the 2012 report, Dr. Patterson writes:
- “In 2011, CDCR’s average daily combined population in its segregated housing units (administrative segregation units, SHUs, and PSUs) was 3,771. In 2011, there were 15 suicides in these units, for an incidence of one suicide per every 251.4 inmates in segregated housing units, and for a rate of 397.77 suicides per 100,000 inmates in segregated housing units.
- In 2011, CDCR’s average daily population in non-segregated housing was 158,047. In 2011, there were 19 suicides in non-segregated housing units, for an incidence of one suicide per every 8,318.26 inmates in non-segregated housing units, and for a rate of 12.02 suicides per 100,000 inmates in non-segregated housing units.”
The report of Dr. Patterson on the 34 suicides in the California prison system in 2011 provides a similarly bleak picture.
In brief, the report shows that:
- 24 of 34 (70.6%) committed suicide in single-cell status
- 20 of 34 (61.8%) had a history of suicidal behavior
- 30 of 34 (88.2 %) had a history of mental health treatment
- 9 of 34 (26.5%) committed suicide in Administrative Segregation
- 2 of 34 (5.9%) committed suicide in the Security Housing Unit
- 1 of 34 (2.9%) committed suicide on death row
- 5 of 34 (14.7%) suicides were discovered after the process of rigor mortis had begun, indicating 2-3 hours had passed before the individuals were discovered
- 25 of 34 (73.5%) cases showed significant indications of inadequate assessment, treatment, or intervention
In the report, Dr. Patterson reported that “the high rate of inadequacy in assessment, treatment, or intervention is generally consistent with previous years, and remains unacceptably high.”
The report also adds further, and disturbing, details to cases of suicides previously reported by Solitary Watch. Pages 211 to 217 document the case of Armando Cruz, who committed suicide on September 20th, 2011 in California State Prison, Sacramento’s Psychiatric Services Unit. Cruz, who was incarcerated at the age of 17 for an attack on a police officer, entered the prison system in 2003 with a highly documented history of schizophrenia. Cruz was repeatedly placed in isolation units for behaviors that were largely committed during hallucinations and bouts of psychosis over the course of eight years. Cruz repeatedly engaged in self-harm, including self-strangulation and self-castration, yet was determined to have a low chance of suicide.
Solitary Watch obtained Cruz’s CDCR documents in late 2012. Documentation of Cruz’s final months, however, were missing from the documents CDCR sent. In April and May, Cruz was noted in the documents to have invented an imaginary family living with him in his isolation cell; he was also noted to have been placed on suicide watch between April 29th, 2011 until May 10th, 2011. Documentation available to Solitary Watch runs out after July. Though the Patterson report fills in this gap and reports previously unknown information:
However, at the end of August 2011, he head-butted and pushed a correctional officer during escort. Subsequently, the inmate received an RVR, a mental health assessment, and was seen by a psychiatrist and by his primary clinician. The last mental health contact was by the primary clinician on 9/09/11. However, according to the suicide report, the inmate did not see a clinician as per guidelines the following week because his primary clinician was away from the institution and there was an emergency absence by the backup clinician. The inmate committed suicide on 9/20/11.
The Patterson report states that when Cruz was found hanging in his cell, he was not given CPR for ten minutes following his discovery, a violation of the prison’s own policy.
The report also sheds light on the final day of Alex Machado, who was incarcerated at Pelican Bay State Prison’s Administrative Segregation Unit. Pages 228 to 237 discuss his suicide. Dr. Patterson found that Machado’s death “appears to have been both foreseeable and preventable. The inmate quite clearly had a history of suicidal ideation and at least one suicide attempt. He was noted to have been decompensating, particularly during the month of October 2011 and especially in the 24 hours prior to his death.”
Dr. Patterson also describes the extent to which Machado had been agitated on his final day:
During the early afternoon at 12:05 p.m., the psych tech checked the inmate’s blood pressure at his request and the inmate said that he would take a PRN medication if it would help….The inmate was again reported as having chest pains at 11:40 p.m. and 11:50 p.m. The log book indicated that the RN was on the unit to see the inmate and the inmate “seems very confused.” The inmate was returned to his cell at 12:15 a.m. Welfare checks were completed between 12:05 a.m. and 12:15 a.m., and again at 12:45 a.m., when the inmate was discovered hanging in his cell.
Friday’s ruling might force CDCR to undertake more serious efforts to preventing more people in their custody from taking their own lives.
A graphic video (shown below) recently leaked to the public shows a team of corrections officers make liberal use of prison torture tactics on a man who was, at the time of the incident, incarcerated at Maine Correctional Center and had been held in solitary confinement for two months. A still of the explicit footage, originally obtained by the Portland Press Herald, captures Captain Shawn Welch spraying pepper spray directly into the face of the restrained man as the team of guards use brutal force to thwart any efforts at resistance.
The man, Paul Schlosser, who suffers from mental illness, was at the time taking several medications to treat his bipolar disorder and depression. Allegedly leading up to the incident, which took place in June 2012, was Schlosser’s refusal to go to the prison medical unit to be treated for a self-inflicted injury on his arm. Next, in what is referred to as a “cell extraction,” corrections officers wearing protective gear removed Schlosser from his cell, putting him into a restraint chair. At first, Schlosser was compliant, but, as reported by the Press Herald:
[W]hen one of the officers pins back Schlosser’s head, as his arms are being put into the chair’s restraints, Schlosser starts to struggle. When he spits at one of the officers, Welch sprays him with pepper spray, also called OC spray.
Schlosser becomes compliant and complains about not being able to breathe. One officer puts a spit-mask on him, trapping the pepper spray on Schlosser’s face.
Welch tells him he must cooperate to avoid similar treatment. Schlosser is in distress for 24 minutes before he is allowed to wash his face.
Welch, who sprayed the OC without warning, held the canister about 18 inches away from his target’s face, despite the fact that this particular canister type has the potential to stop multiple people dead in the tracks from over six feet away. After the story broke, Welch was terminated but, following an appeal that took into consideration his service to the Maine Department of Corrections, he was reinstated.
Upon viewing the footage, the investigator assigned to the case made an important observation:
In the 24 minutes between Schlosser being sprayed and when he can wash the spray off his face, Welch strolls in and out of the cell holding the OC spray canister, telling Schlosser that if he doesn’t cooperate, “this will happen all over again.”
“You’re not going to win. I will win every time,” he says.
Welch says repeatedly, “If you’re talking, you’re breathing,” suggesting that as long as Schlosser was complaining, he was not in serious medical distress. Welch does call for a member of the prison’s medical staff.
At one point, he whispers to Schlosser, “Useless as teats on a bull, huh … What do you think now?” an apparent reference to an insult Schlosser directed at him two days earlier, according to the investigator’s report.
The investigator concluded that Welch’s treatment of Schlosser was personal.
“Welch continues to brow beat Schlosser and it looks like he has made this a personal issue,” said Durst in the report. “There is not one incident of de-escalation and in fact Welch continues to escalate the situation even after the deployment of chemical agent.”
Welch later defended his use of the pepper spray to an investigator, stating his actions were not out of line since Schlosser, who has Hepatitis C, had spit at an officer.
In detailing what Schlosser may have experiences as a result of the spit-mask trapping the pepper spray, Pete Brook writes that “Pepperspray instantly dries out mucous membranes in the eyes, nose and mouth causing intense and overwhelming pain. Pepperspray leads to a sensation of not being able to breathe, although a National Institute of Justice study found it does not compromise a person’s ability to breathe.” Brook continues:
“It’s just like getting jalapeno pepper in your eye, only multiplied by a bunch,” said Robert Trimyer, a use of force instructor and OC trainer with the University of Texas Health Science Center Police Department in San Antonio.
Depending on the concentration, OC spray is roughly 300 times “hotter” than a jalapeno pepper.
“It’s painful, but it goes away. The people that have the problem breathing, it’s really more of the anxiety involved,” said Trimyer.
Yerger believes that putting the spit shield on top of the pepper spray would intensify the effect of the spray.
“I have never heard of any trainer I have ever worked with as a peer that would ever say, ‘Put a spit hood on someone after pepper spraying them,’” he said.
“They’re spinning out of control. Restraint, pepper spray, now cover their face — you’re just escalating the situation. In cases I’ve reviewed when people have died in a (restraint) chair, it’s not uncommon to see factors like that involved.”
Schlosser’s story is disturbingly reminiscent of an incident that took place in 2000, also involving a leaked video (shown below) of a brutal cell extraction in Maine. The footage, leaked to journalist Lance Tapley, shows the cell extraction of Mike James, who, like Schlosser, suffered from mental illness. The video shows officers forcibly removing James from his cell as he is maced by officers. The corrections officers then remove the incapacitated man’s clothing and place him in a restraint chair.
Ultimately, the horrific footage of prison torture and Tapley’s ensuing story added fuel to a growing movement against solitary confinement in Maine, which led to reforms in that state (described in a recent report from the ACLU of Maine).
In another story reporting on the incident, Tapley highlights the irony of the U.S. prison system’s treatment of mentally ill people who are incarcerated, stating:
Of the four years James had been in prison when I met him, he had spent all but five months in solitary confinement. The isolation is “mental torture, even for people who are able to control themselves,” he said. It included periods alone in a cell “with no blankets, no clothes, butt-naked, mace covering me.” Everything James told me was confirmed by other inmates and prison employees.
James’s story illustrates an irony in the negative reaction of many Americans to the mistreatment of “war on terrorism” prisoners at Guantanamo. To little public outcry, tens of thousands of American citizens are being held in equivalent or worse conditions in this country’s super-harsh, super-maximum security, solitary-confinement prisons, or in comparable units of traditional prisons…
In the supermaxes inmates suffer weeks, months, years, or even decades of mind-destroying isolation, usually without meaningful recourse to challenge the conditions of their captivity…
[I]solation is the overwhelming, defining punishment in this vast network of what critics have begun to call mass torture.
• First Run Features announces the New York premiere of Herman’s House this week. The film, which explores the “injustice of solitary confinement and the transformative power of art,” will be opening April 19,2013, at Cinema Village in New York City.
• WUSA9 reports that Christoper Harper, who suffers from mental illness, is being held in solitary confinement in a maximum security prison in Pennsylvania. Harper’s mother says that Harper, 40, has the mental capacity of an 11-year-old.
• Truthout reports on “The US Criminal (In)Justice System” and the mistreatment of incarcerated people, citing the “widespread, abusive and counterproductive” use solitary confinement as a prime example of this.
• Andrew Cohen calls into question the BOP’s policies in dealing with behavior frequently accompanied by mental illness, including suicide attempts and self-mutilation, pointing out that regulatory body’s “inmate policies” actually call for more severe punishment of behaviors typical of people with mental illness.
• Former prisoner Daniel McGowan writes that court documents prove he was put in Communication Management Units (CMU), a form of segregation, for his political speech.
• The New York Times publishes an editorial about the use of arbitrary and abusive solitary confinement on immigrant detainees in the US, emphasizing that the unbridled use of solitary by ICE ”is not a model of humane incarceration.”
• Ian Urbana discusses the excessive use of solitary confinement on immigrant detainees in the US on the Leonard Lopate show. For those who missed the show, listen to the audio at WNYC .
• The New Yorker reports that a shocking proportion of the detainees at Guantanamo are hunger striking, reaching a total 37, or almost one in four of the 166 people imprisoned there. A story in The Atlantic states that the hunger strike at Guantanamo Bay will likely be ineffective since the people doing the striking are a ” group of foreigners whose prison is synonymous with the War on Terror,” as opposed to “sympathetic, politically popular characters.”
The following was written by Chris Yingling, reflecting upon the three years he spent in California State Prison, Corcoran’s Security Housing unit from 1994 to 1996. He was subsequently transferred to Pelican Bay State Prison “when the Feds set up shop at Corcoran because of the gladiator fights.” The “gladiator fights” were the subject of federal investigation following widespread reports of prison guards setting up fights between rival prisoners, fights that Yingling reports he was a part of. He reports lingering psychological difficulties resulting from his time in the California prison system. “I suffer depression, and harbor some serious resentments toward our corrections system. I have rage. Every once in awhile ill come to tears over the way humans treat each other,” he says.
Yingling contacted Solitary Watch after reading an article about the 2011 suicide of Pelican Bay administrative segregation inmate Alex Machado. Yingling and Machado had met each other in the California Youth Authority in the late 1980s. He told Solitary Watch, “I read this article just prior to reading my kids a bedtime story and it brought it all back. I know more stuff about Alex that I saw that no human should have to endure much less a 15 year old kid. He did not have an easy life. May god rest his soul. I will remember Alex. I am no longer in chains.” –Sal Rodriguez
In white jumpsuits chained in groups of four
they pulled our bus onto the yard
made to face a concrete wall
two gunners and many a guard
10 toes, your chin and chest
keep upon that wall
unlock your knees it’s a 105 degrees
if one goes down you all fall
welcome to the SHU this is hell
you committed a crime in CDC
don’t fuck around we’ll put a bullet in you
In a very short time you will see.
What is your name? Why are you in the shu?
I caused Great bodily injury in a riot.
He slammed my face against the wall
The rest of the line still and quiet.
One man was pulled right off the chain
He was surrounded and beaten a long time
Great bodily injury caused by the cops
Apparently isn’t a crime
they removed the waist chain choking me with a stick
the cuffs bit into my hand
they pulled my jumpsuit around my knees
“now do you think you’re a man?”
What I experienced for the next 3 years
Made me wish I could die
Although physically I left in one piece
Parts of my mind did not survive.
Men were shot, men were stabbed
Some guys lost their minds
We had to fight while they shot at us
Hit with baton rounds eleven times.
I’m not trying to whine not trying to cry
Because my life is so much different today
I was 21 years old when I stood on that wall
It seems like a lifetime away
Not trying to act tough or exaggerate the facts
Just wanna get out what’s inside
I was only a kid trying to get through
They made me hate and hurt my pride
There’s a huge system right in societies face
That is just another criminal enterprise
I understand these people did bad things
My own part I now see and realize.
These are our brothers and these are our sons
prejudice and mistreatment is not an answer
our society doesn’t just doesn’t have a cold
we got mother fuckin cancer!
So I lean toward the left in my political views
Because I saw too damn much of “the right”
Biases interfere with things of this nature
If you think that I’m biased you’re right.
Solitary confinement is in the news on a daily basis nowadays, though just a few years ago it was a rarity to find any mention of it outside of Solitary Watch. What follows is a roundup of noteworthy stories that came out in the past month but didn’t make it into our posts. We will be running these roundups once a week from now on.
• PRI radio reports that at Guantanamo, the “Hunger Strike Grows As Despair Sets In“–and interviews one of the few reporters who have been inside Gitmo since the strike began.
• Al Jazeera presents a documentary and roundtable discussion on “The Ethics of Solitary Confinement.”
• From Citizen Radio’s Marc Kilstein, a powerful hour-long radio documentary on the history and practice of solitary confinement.
• Ted Koppel, on NBC’s Rock Center, reports on the “Criminal justice system’s ‘dark secret’: Teenagers in solitary confinement.”
• The Toronto Globe and Mail reports that solitary confinement is on the rise in Canadian prisons.
• The Atlantic‘s Andrew Cohen writes, “Enough Is Enough—Time for the Feds to Investigate Prison Abuse“–especially prisoners with mental illness held in solitary confinement in federal prisons.
• Individuals with mental illness are held in solitary confinement in strip cells at a Virginia jail.
• Chris Hedges writes about solitary confinement (and about the inspiring Bonnie Kerness and Ojore Lutalo) in “The Shame of America’s Gulags.”
• Despite opposition, Arizona plans to build 500 more supermax prison beds.
• New York Advocacy groups, survivors of solitary, and families of the incarcerated unite to form the Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement in New York’s prisons and jails.
• The sister of a man imprisoned at Pelican Bay writes of her brother’s 23 years in solitary confinement, calling it “beyond cruel and unusual.”
• The ACLU and other advocacy groups testify on solitary confinement before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
• Courthouse News Service reports that a “scathing study” on solitary confinement in Illinois was buried amid local politics.
• A Maryland family says that their son, who suffers from autism and mental illness, has been held in solitary confinement for four years, and denied visits and phone calls for two.
• More than 100 men imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay launch a hunger strike to protest conditions at the camp and the hopelessness of their situation.
• The ACLU releases a comprehensive–and inspiring–report on solitary confinement reform in the state of Maine.
• The New York Civil Liberties Union files a civil rights lawsuit on behalf of people in solitary in New York State prisons became a class action suit.
• “Solitary Confinement: Punishment Or Cruelty?“, a segment on NPR, traces the history and current controversies. (Can’t it be both?)
• Advocates from the New York City Jails Action Committee protest recent increases in solitary confinement and brutality on Rikers Island.
• Representatives of the men in Pelican Bay’s Security Housing Units send an Open Letter to the California State Legislature.
• “Death at Dawson: Why Is Texas’ Worst State Jail Still Open?“, from the Texas Observer, tells the story of a woman who gave birth prematurely in a holding cell, and was sent to solitary on a “suicide watch” when her infant died.
Solitary confinement may be at the heart of a tragic irony in the death of Tom Clements. The reform-minded Colorado prisons chief had expressed concern about the dangerous damage caused by prolonged prison isolation, and the risks of releasing prisoners directly from solitary onto the streets. Now, emerging evidence suggests that the main suspect in Clements’ murder, who was released from solitary confinement just two months earlier, may have suffered from precisely that kind of damage.
Evan Spencer Ebel was killed in a shootout with Texas police last Thursday, two days after Clements was shot to death on the doorstep of his Colorado Springs home. Prior to his release from prison on January 28, Ebel had served eight years for several armed robberies. Most of that time was spent in extreme isolation, locked down 23 hours a day in a small cell.
Ebel’s prison records, obtained by the Associated Press, show that he was placed in solitary because of ”28 different violations he racked up during his time behind bars.” According to the AP, “He was disciplined for smearing feces on his cell wall, punching a fellow inmate and punching a guard in 2006. Prison documents say Ebel also threatened to kill that guard and their family. That attack earned him another felony conviction.”
As early as a year ago, Evan Ebel’s father, Jack Ebel, testified before a committee of the Colorado State Legislature that after years in solitary, his son had trouble communicating during visits. ”Even though he’s well-read and he’s a good conversationalist and gentle — he started out that way, what I’ve seen over six years is he has become increasingly … he has a high level of paranoia and [is] extremely anxious. So when he gets out to visit me, and he gets out of his cell to talk to me, I mean he is so agitated that it will take an hour to an hour-and-half before we can actually talk,” Jack Ebel told legislators. He was speaking in favor of a bill that would have more closely monitored the mental health of individuals in solitary, and required that they spend some time in the general population before their release from prison. (The bill was voted down.)
The idea that Ebel’s alleged violent acts were triggered in part by his years of solitary confinement (and perhaps not, as earlier suspected, by his association with a white power prison gang) was bolstered earlier this week by evidence obtained by reporter Susan Greene. In an article in the Colorado Independent, Greene writes:
In the weeks before his death, Evan Ebel, suspected killer of Colorado Department of Corrections Director Tom Clements, had broken ties with white supremacist prison gang 211 Crew and was debilitated by the transition from prolonged isolation to social contact, according to a friend and former fellow inmate.
In a series of interviews conducted with The Colorado Independent, parolee Ryan Pettigrew dismissed widespread media speculation that Ebel shot Clements as part of an orchestrated 211 Crew “gang hit.” He said that, over the course of the last few weeks, Ebel was growing increasingly agitated in his adjustment to life outside of prison and beyond the tiny “administrative segregation” cells in which he spent years deprived of regular human contact. “Trust me, this was no gang hit. This was about what was haunting Evan Ebel,” Pettigrew says. “Clements’ name never came up.”
Pettigrew supported his statements by producing dozens of text messages he exchanged with Ebel over the last two months. The messages reveal Ebel as wrestling with anxiety about his freedom and grappling with the urge to ease that anxiety through violence. The texts span from February 1, four days after Ebel’s release from prison on January 28, to March 5, less than two weeks before Ebel is alleged to have killed pizza delivery man Nathan Leon and then murdered Clements before he led Texas authorities on the high-speed highway gun battle that left Ebel clinically dead last week.
Greene also writes Tom Clements’s deep concern over the lasting effects of long-term solitary confinement, and the dangers they might present to the public.
In an exclusive interview last spring, Clements said that, immediately after [Colorado Governor John] Hickenlooper recruited him from Missouri to run the Colorado corrections department, he found disturbing “one very alarming statistic” he said kept him up at night — that 47 percent of Colorado prisoners being released from isolation were walking directly out onto the streets without help reintegrating into social environments and interacting with people.
Clements wanted longer transition periods and step-down programs before setting isolated prisoners free. As Pettigrew tells it, Ebel said he had little help making that transition. He said altercations during his brief period in a step-down program landed him back in isolation.
“You have to ask yourself the question – How does holding inmates in administrative segregation and then putting them out on a bus into the public, [how does that] square up?” Clements said.
“We have to think about how what we do in prisons impacts the community when [prisoners] leave,” Clements continued. “It’s not just about running the prison safely and securely. There’s a lot of research around solitary and isolation in recent years, some tied to POWs and some to corrections. My experience tells me that long periods of isolation can be counter-productive to stable behavior and long-term rehabilitation goals.”
Soon after taking office, Clements launched a study of solitary confinement and decided to close Colorado State Penitentiary II, the state’s two-year-old supermax prison, which was designed and built entirely for isolation. By last spring’s interview, Clements said he had reduced the 47 percent isolation-to-streets release to 22 percent. His goal, he noted, was to drive to zero the number of isolated prisoners being released without step-down programs.
Hickenlooper also mentioned solitary at Clements’s memorial service on Monday. “It is an unbelievably bitter irony…the thing he most wanted to change was releasing people from six years of solitary confinement directly into the general population,” he said. “They’re considered unsafe to release into the prison population. How can we release them back into the general public?”
A cover story in yesterday’s New York Times exposes the widespread use of solitary confinement on immigrant detainees. Citing figures that it says are incomplete and ”probably low,” the Times states:
On any given day, about 300 immigrants are held in solitary confinement at the 50 largest detention facilities that make up the sprawling patchwork of holding centers nationwide overseen by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials, according to new federal data.
Nearly half are isolated for 15 days or more, the point at which psychiatric experts say they are at risk for severe mental harm, with about 35 detainees kept for more than 75 days.
According to the adviser who assisted the immigration agency in reviewing the numbers behind the reasons for placement in segregation, an estimated two-thirds of the cases were attributable to disciplinary infractions like breaking rules, talking back to guards or getting into fights.” The review further revealed that oftentimes immigrants were placed in segregation because they were perceived as a threat to other incarcerated individuals or prison authorities “or for protective purposes when the immigrant was gay or mentally ill.
The article goes on to tell the stories individual immigrant detainees, and the shocking reasons for their placement in solitary:
After federal immigration authorities caught up with him, Rashed BinRashed, an illegal arrival from Yemen, was sent to a detention center in Juneau, Wis. He was put in solitary confinement, he says, after declining to go to the jail’s eating area and refusing meals because he wanted to fast during Ramadan.
Federal officials confined Delfino Quiroz, a gay immigrant from Mexico, in solitary for four months in 2010, saying it was for his own protection, he recalls. He sank into a deep depression as he overheard three inmates attempt suicide. “Please, God,” he remembers praying, “don’t let me be the same.”
About 1 percent of detained immigrants are placed in solitary, but as the Times points out, “this practice is nonetheless startling because those detainees are being held on civil, not criminal, charges. As such, they are not supposed to be punished; they are simply confined to ensure that they appear for administrative hearings.” Dr. Terry Kupers, a psychiatrist and one of the nation’s leading experts on the human costs of solitary, told the Times: “I.C.E. is clearly using excessive force, since these are civil detentions…And that makes this a human rights abuse.”
The piece also describes the conditions that immigrants in solitary endure–conditions more or less identical to those of supermax prisons:
While the conditions of confinement vary, detainees in solitary are routinely kept alone for 22 to 23 hours per day, sometimes in windowless 6-foot-by-13-foot cells, according to interviews with current and former detainees and a review of case records involving more than three dozen immigrants since 2010.
Access to phones and lawyers is far more restricted in solitary; occasionally such communications were permitted only in the middle of the night when it was unlikely anyone would be available. Immigrants are typically given an hour or so of recreation each day, detainees said. In some facilities, that is limited to pacing in what detainees call “the cage,” a sparse indoor enclosure with concrete floors and fencing on all sides, similar to an indoor dog kennel…
Although the immigration agency’s new guidelines limit the use of solitary to 30 days for each disciplinary infraction, there are exceptions, and such confinement can be indefinite, according to data obtained by the National Immigrant Justice Center and the Investigative Reporting Workshop, a nonprofit journalism organization based at American University.
Solitary confinement is widely viewed as the most dangerous way to detain people, and roughly half of prison suicides occur when people are segregated in this way. Deprived of meaningful human contact, otherwise healthy prisoners often become deeply troubled. Paranoia, depression, memory loss and self-mutilation are not uncommon. No data is available on how many of the 18 suicides out of 133 deaths of detained immigrants since 2003 occurred in solitary units.
This must-read article appears in full here. For more on the solitary confinement of immigrant detainees, see the report released last September by the National Immigrant Justice Center and Physicians for Human Rights.
On March 11, we published an essay entitled “A Sentence Worse Than Death” by William Blake, who has been held in solitary confinement in New York State prisons for close to 26 years. Since we posted the essay, it has received more than 150,000 hits on Solitary Watch alone–and many more, no doubt, on the numerous sites around the world that reprinted or excerpted from it.
Considering the interest in Billy Blake and his writing, we are republishing here an account of a visit to Blake in the Special Housing Unit (SHU) visiting room at Elmira Correctional Facility in south central New York. (A somewhat shorter version of this account appeared in our July 2012 article in The Nation, “New York’s Black Sites.”)
First, some background: In 1987, while in county court on a drug charge, Blake, then 23, grabbed a gun from a sheriff’s deputy and, in a failed escape attempt, murdered one deputy and wounded another. He is now 49 years old, and is serving a sentence of 77 years to life. As a cop-killer and an escape risk, Blake is considered a permanent threat to prison safety. For this reason, he is one of the few New York prisoners in “administrative” rather than “disciplinary” segregation—meaning he’s in solitary more or less indefinitely, despite periodic pro forma reviews of his status.
We visited Blake in December 2011 at the Elmira Correctional Facility, a dreary building on a hill near the edge of town. After being signed in and searched, we stopped at the vending machines to buy what he had requested in a letter: Dr. Pepper and a pizza roll. (The machine was out, so we got a grayish-looking cheese steak instead.) We then waited in a special SHU visiting room, watched over by a guard.
Blake entered—wiry, sandy-haired and smiling—and talked virtually nonstop for three hours. It was the first time he’d had a visit in more than two years. We discussed his childhood (he says his mother’s partner was abusive), his poetry (some of which he recites by heart), his love of playing the stock market (he sometimes gives tips to the guards), and his fascination with military history (his dream is to someday walk the battlefields at Omaha Beach and Thermopylae). He described abuse in the SHU, some of it confirmed by a lawsuit he won in 2000. And he told us how bad he feels about having deprived two children of their father when “the one thing I never wanted to do was hurt kids.”
Blake’s subsequent letters, which run twenty-five pages or more, describe his “magic ingredient” for surviving the Box. “I’m a consummate dreamer,” he writes. “I’m a dreamer who refuses to accept that my dreams won’t all come true, some however eventually. I’m the kind of guy who you can give 3 life bids to, still in the box for a quarter century, beat me, make me in shit, literally freeze me, spit on me and take my clothes and leave me naked, even steal my money and leave me broke and after all that I’ll be thinking ‘OK, things are a bit tough presently, kid. But suck it up. Stay strong because better days will be here soon and you are gonna be shining and telling.’”
This illogical hope, Blake writes, is what keeps him from committing suicide: “I’m not sure I’d even know how to quit. I’ve had the thoughts at bad times—real bad times—that’s true. But… I’m too nosy. I want to see how this mad life of mine is going to turn.”
Blake reports that he sleeps all day and stays awake all night “to avoid the bulk of the madness that goes on” in the SHU. “It’s lonely time though and boring time like only SHU can be boring—which is boredom of a kind that nobody out there could ever comprehend unless they had lived in the box before…Sometimes I read till my eyes go blurry, till I’ve got nothing left in my cell to read and I don’t have any more letters to write because I’ve bothered the few people I write too much already, and then I am out of things to do,” he writes, so “I just sit and watch the cockroaches on the company go by…Sometimes I will go into a sort of stupid state, a fugue you’d call it, where I’m really not thinking anything at all, just watching the black spots move on the floor.” The lights will come on in the morning, “And I don’t even remember having one thought for the whole night.”
Dreaming is what helps him get through the long, colorless nights in the SHU. “Sometimes I watch the roaches and I envy them,” he writes.
In my mind I have fantasized that I was a cockroach and I maneuver all through the halls of the prison, walk under the locked gates and stay close to the walls to avoid being stepped on by a CO who’s walking through the prison. Then I get outside through some crack or under some door, walk through the grass that looks like tall trees to me, my being a roach and small, then I’m up and over the wall and out. Once I make it, I pop myself back to being human and I walk off into the night, free again and not even caring if I die that same night, just as long as I can see some trees and feel a breeze and know for an hour or two that I was free again, that I lived to see the outside of prison before my time in this world would be over.
James “Buddy” Caldwell, attorney general of the state of Louisiana, has released a statement saying unequivocally that Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox, the two still-imprisoned members of the Angola 3, “have never been held in solitary confinement while in the Louisiana penal system.”
In fact, Wallace, now 71, and Woodfox, 66, have been in solitary for nearly 41 years, quite possibly longer than any other human beings on the planet. They were placed in solitary following the 1972 killing of a young corrections officer at Angola, and except for a few brief periods, they have remained in isolation ever since.
The statement from Caldwell follows on the heels of a ruling by a federal District Court judge in New Orleans, overturning Albert Woodfox’s conviction for the third time–in this instance, on the grounds that there had been racial bias in the selection of grand jury forepersons in Louisiana at the time of his indictment. Subsequently, Amnesty International, along with other activists, mounted a campaign urging the state of Louisiana not to appeal the federal court’s ruling. In the absence of an appeal, Woodfox would have to be given a new trial or released.
Caldwell’s statement–which was rather mysteriously sent out to an email list that included numerous prisoners’ rights advocates who have supported the Angola 3–begins: “Thank you for your interest in the ambush, savage attack and brutal murder of Officer Brent Miller at Louisiana State Penitentiary (LSP) on April 17, 1972. Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace committed this murder, stabbing and slicing Miller over 35 times.”
Caldwell clearly states that he has every intention of appealing the District Court’s decision to the notoriously conservative Fifth Circuit: “We feel confident that we will again prevail at the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. However, if we do not, we are fully prepared and willing to retry this murderer again.” Caldwell asserts that the evidence against Woodfox is ”overpowering”: “There are no flaws in our evidence and this case is very strong.”
These statements belie the fact that much of the evidence that led to Wallace and Woodfox’s conviction has since been called into question. In particular, the primary eyewitness was shown to have been bribed by prison officials into making statements against the two men. (For more details on the case, see our earlier reporting in Mother Jones, here, here, here, and here.) The two men believe that they were targeted for the murder, and have been held in solitary for four decades, because of their status as Black Panthers and their efforts to organize against prison conditions. (The third member of the Angola 3, Robert King, convicted of a separate prison murder, was released after 29 years in solitary when his conviction was overturned in 2001).
But Caldwell’s most controversial assertion is that Wallace and Woodfox’s conditions of confinement over the past 40 years do not qualify as solitary confinement:
Contrary to popular lore, Woodfox and Wallace have never been held in solitary confinement while in the Louisiana penal system. They have been held in protective cell units known as CCR. These units were designed to protect inmates as well as correctional officers. They have always been able to communicate freely with other inmates and prison staff as frequently as they want. They have televisions on the tiers which they watch through their cell doors. In their cells they can have radios and headsets, reading and writing materials, stamps, newspapers, magazines and books. They also can shop at the canteen store a couple of times per week where they can purchase grocery and personal hygiene items which they keep in their cells.
These convicted murderers have an hour outside of their cells each day where they can exercise in the hall, talk on the phone, shower, and visit with the other 10 to 14 inmates on the tier. At least three times per week they can go outside on the yard and exercise and enjoy the sun if they want. This is all in addition to the couple of days set aside for visitations each week.
These inmates are frequently visited by spiritual advisors, medical personnel and social workers. They have had frequent and extensive contact with numerous individuals from all over the world, by telephone, mail, and face-to-face personal visits. They even now have email capability. Contrary to numerous reports, this is not solitary confinement.
Caldwell’s description does not, in fact, refute the fact that the two men are held for 23 hours a day in closed cells that measure approximately 6 x 9 feet–smaller than the average parking space. CCR, or Closed Cell Restricted, is the Louisiana prison system’s euphemism of choice for solitary confinement.
In addition to challenging their convictions, Wallace and Woodfox have filed a civil suit in federal court, arguing that their 40 years in solitary confinement violate the U.S. Constitution. Their lawyers argue that both have endured physical injury and “severe mental anguish and other psychological damage” from living most of their adult lives in lockdown. According to medical reports submitted to the court, the men suffer from arthritis, hypertension, and kidney failure, as well as memory impairment, insomnia, claustrophobia, anxiety, and depression. Even the psychologist brought in by the state confirmed these findings.
In his statement, Caldwell warns that if they win their civil suit, “these convicted murderers…could possibly receive money and a change in their housing assignments.” Any move out of solitary has been firmly opposed by the warden of Angola, Burl Cain. In a 2008 deposition, attorneys for Woodfox asked Cain, “Let’s just for the sake of argument assume, if you can, that he is not guilty of the murder of Brent Miller.” Cain responded, “Okay, I would still keep him in CCR…I still know that he is still trying to practice Black Pantherism, and I still would not want him walking around my prison because he would organize the young new inmates. I would have me all kind of problems, more than I could stand, and I would have the blacks chasing after them.”
Caldwell himself has even more vociferously opposed releasing the men from solitary. An ambitious Democrat-turned-Republican known for his Elvis impersonations, Caldwell took office in 2007 and was reelected in 2011. He has characterized the Angola 3 as political radicals and called Woodfox “the most dangerous person on the planet.”
In the fall of 2008, after Woodfox’s conviction was overturned for the second time, a federal court judge ordered him released on bail pending the state’s appeal. Caldwell opposed the release “with every fiber of my being.” Woodfox planned to stay with his niece, but his lawyers uncovered evidence that the state had emailed the neighborhood association of the gated community where she lived to say that a murderer would be moving in next door. Caldwell soon convinced the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals to revoke Woodfox’s bail. He also brought Woodfox’s habeas case to the full Fifth Circuit, which reversed the lower court ruling and reinstated his conviction.
Now that a federal judge has ruled, for the third time, that Woodfox did not receive a fair trial, Caldwell apparently feels the need to reiterate his position. “Let me be clear,” his statement concludes. ”Woodfox and Wallace are GUILTY and have NEVER been held in solitary confinement” (emphasis in the original).
The following comes from a man currently incarcerated at Washington State’s Monroe Correctional Complex. The Washington State corrections system has been said by local media to use solitary confinement less than other states, with only 2.7 percent of prisoners (or ~400) in long-term solitary confinement. However, Solitary Watch has noted that the figure is actually twice this, when Administrative Segregation (which may last over a month) is taken into consideration. This prisoner, A.P., has reported that “the State’s Dept. of Corrections is expanding solitary confinement models to general population’s long-term lockdowns.” Incarcerated for a decade, he reports spending most of his prison time in solitary confinement, which he says is partly retaliation for his frequent litigation against the Washing Department of Corrections. He has advocated for accurate descriptions of solitary confinement by noting the types of disturbing behaviors that go on in isolation units, “‘Smearing feces on ones self or eating it’… rather than merely saying ‘Conditions are bad.’” -Sal Rodriguez
Out of the past ten years I’ve been incarcerated on two arson charges for burning two cars. I got 24 years for [it] (no one was hurt) while racking up repeated appeals, most of that has been in solitary confinement. I have a college degree and worked professionally for years before this mess came down. I’m now 53-years old; my family won’t communicate with me and most of all, my two sons won’t communicate despite my still never forgetting their birthdays and holidays with cards and such. Prison mail censorship has frustrated communications so much, most people simply give up trying to keep up.
I’ve seen prisoners in solitary degrade quickly and slowly, depending on their psychological strength and grasp on more in life than rap music no meaningful life experiences. Suicide is preferable to long-term segregation (and long prison sentences). Those who don’t kill themselves learn to compress their hatred that grows like cancer while being forced to suppress their true emotions, in a form of Stockholm Syndrome tactics, to survive. This promotes recidivism and violence. A person, like a dog at a kennel, can only be compressed so much before they either explode or implode. Either way, none is good. Prisoners teach deception to survive and force prisoners to become manipulative of DOC policies and staff because the truth and honesty only leads to negative treatment by D.O.C. staff. For example, to get adequate food, one must feint a medical condition requiring more just to get enough.
One can never be open with staff or even prison psychologists (help that hurts) because it is not confidential; is often interpreted and repeated by untrained staff and it is best to simply internalize and put on a fake (happy) front and never reveal any true feelings, or the prisoner will end up longer in solitary; in a strip cell (where they take away all your clothes, bedding, etc, and put you on a dirty, hands only diet) or some other adverse treatment.
In Washington State, at the Washington State Penitentiary (WSP) I recently had to refuse to eat for weeks to get transferred out of because it is a hopeless place for anything. At WSP in general population (not considered segregation at all) they employ a ‘Level 1” and “Level 2” program policy where even general population prisoners are locked in their cells 7-days a week except for you or three yard times, showers, picking up and dropping off meal trays (meals must be eaten in cells the same size as segregation cells, but with two persons to a cell instead of one) or special program attendance. This has promoted fights, frustration and even stabbings.
I have complained to DOC-HQ about this yet they claim this violence fermentation doesn’t exist—yet continue to lockdown and take away more and more regularly. The food even has become so bad, food poisoning and e-coli; treatments are routinely ignored by staff in food service to convince them correction is needed. They tell us to “buy our own food” (with money we cant get or if we do, they confiscate most money that is sent us from family). It is no wonder animals become more mean when treated so badly.
On Thursday, March 14th, U.S. District Court Judge Claudia Wilken denied a motion by the state of California to dismiss a lawsuit filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights against long term solitary confinement in the California prison system. The lawsuit, filed on May 31st, 2012, argues that California’s segregation of “gang-validated” prisoners in Security Housing Units (SHUs)for longer than 10 years constitutes “cruel and unusual punishment.” The lawsuit also argues that the current process by which prison officials label prisoners gang members is a violation of prisoners due process rights. In California, as of late 2011, over 500 California prisoners had been in the SHU for at least ten years; 78 had been in the SHU for at least 20 years.
The SHUs, located at Pelican Bay State Prison, Tehachapi State Prison, Corcoran State Prison, and California State Prison, Sacramento, hold over 3,000 prisoners in segregated units. Prisoners are primarily held in solitary confinement in these units, which have been described by NPR as living in a “small, cement prison cell. Everything is gray concrete: the bed, the walls, the unmovable stool. Everything except the combination stainless-steel sink and toilet…You can’t move more than eight feet in one direction.”
Conditions in the SHU prompted two large scale hunger strikes in California prisons in July and September 2011. The hunger strikes drew national attention to the issue of solitary confinement, and prompted California legislative hearings in 2011 and 2013. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) has implemented reforms to the system, including an allegedly more stringent gang validation system; CDCR has been criticized for validating prisoners and keeping others in isolation for possession of black nationalist literature and “cultural calendars” on the grounds that they constitute evidence of gang activity. CDCR has also reportedly begun a review of all current SHU prisoners under the new standards to determine whether or not prisoners should remain in the SHU. According to the Los Angeles Times in February, 144 prisoners had been reviewed and 78 had been released to general population and 52 were placed in a new Step Down Program in which prisoners may transition out of the SHU over 4 years with increasing privileges.
People inside California’s prisons have been less enthusiastic about the reforms.
North Kern State Prison prisoner Terrance White is housed in the Administrative Segregation Unit (ASU) pending an opening in the (full) SHUs. White initially reported to the San Francisco Bay View that he was observing the prison sending prisoners in the ASU back to general population in December, but now says that “I see I’ve been duped by the lies of CDC. I got released back to the general population yard for 45 days and now they’ve brought me back to get validated. It’s sad to see law enforcement get away with monstrosities everyday, then come after us on the inside for becoming wise to their evils by educating ourselves.”
“They’re still validating people it seems every chance they get,” reports White, who has been validated as a Black Guerilla Family member. “I’m not alone as you are aware of, there’s a lot of us and poor Latinos, a few Natives, and poor whites have also been targeted these days. I don’t know how much longer I’ll be here at North Kern, I’m waiting for the Office of Correctional Safety to send my packet back and then I will be endorsed to the SHU to finish my term.”
Pelican Bay SHU prisoner Paul Sangu Jones is optimistic that the public, who he refers to as “minimum security,” are at least “getting a clearer idea of how their tax dollars are being wasted on all of these unnecessary prisons.” But, he says, “my current thoughts are that we remain in limbo. We are locked into a cycle of torture. We keep hearing about how our situation is going to change but every day we wake up to the same old thing–talk about déjà all over again.”
Jones, who has been in the SHU for over a decade, has been labeled by prison officials as a member of the BGF. He was initially placed in the SHU following an anonymous prisoners claim that he was a high ranking BGF member. He has been subsequently kept in solitary confinement for, among other reasons, possessing a “Black Panther newsletter” and because other prisoners designated BGF had written him letters which were intercepted by prison officials.
Jones has reported that someone in his facility had been recently take out of the SHU and placed in the Step Down Program. “It’s my understanding that the prisons are clearing their Ad Segs [Administrative Segregation Units] of prisoners they were planning on ‘validating’ as gang members. I’m told that these prisoners are being placed in the Step Down Program, and the prisons are saying that they are releasing folks from the SHU. It’s certainly what I’d expect from CDCR–no one in the Short Corridor, where prisoners who have been in SHU 10,20,30,40 years have been released to general population,” Jones writes.
“The Pelican Bay State Prison administration is not going to do anything to ease the SHU torture unless forced to do so by the courts. That is the reality our SHU lawsuit is facing.”
Jones also referred to the declaration by the leaders of the 2011 hunger strikes that the prisoners will launch a statewide hunger strike and work stoppage in July if conditions do not improve. “Surely you’ve heard the talk of another hunger strike? That should say it all…”
The Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania (DRNP) has filed a lawsuit against John Wetzel, the Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, charging that the confinement of prisoners in Restricted Housing Units (RHUs) amounts to “cruel and unusual punishment” of those diagnosed as “seriously mentally ill.” The suit seeks an end to long-term segregation of such individuals and seeks an order that DOC prisoners “receive constitutionally adequate mental health care.”
According to the lawsuit, people in the RHUs are “locked in extremely small cells for at least 23 hours a day on weekdays and 24 hours a day on weekends and holidays. Typically, the lights are on in the cell all the time. The prisoners are denied adequate mental health care and prohibited from working, participating in educational or rehabilitative programs, or attending religious services.”
Prisoners in the RHU are generally held alone, notes the lawsuit, though even in cases when they are assigned a cellmate, this may be “as deleterious to their mental health as solitary confinement” if the cellmate is “psychotic or violent.”
Placing people in such conditions, can create a “Dickensian nightmare,” in which prisoners “are trapped in an endless cycle of isolation and punishment, further deterioration of their mental illness, deprivation of adequate mental health treatment, and inability to qualify for parole.”
The lawsuit provides profiles of 11 men and one woman housed in the RHU, which serve to illustrate the widespread use of solitary confinement against prisoners who have been diagnosed as having “serious mental illnesses.” A man identified as “Prisoner #1″ is described in the lawsuit as having been diagnosed with a delusional disorder with paranoid features and a borderline intellectual diability. Initially placed in a Special Needs Unit, in which prisoners receive psychiatric treatment, he was frequently placed in the RHU following incidents precipitated by delusions. Despite expressing suicidal thoughts before and during his confinement in the RHU, he remained in the RHU until he committed suicide by hanging on May 6, 2011.
“Prisoner #8″ is a 28-year old man at State Correctional Institution-Green (SCI-Green) who has been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, a psychotic disorder, a paraphilia, and a personality disorder. According to the lawsuit, he claims to receive “messages from the television and from dead people.” The lawsuit states that he has expressed suicidal ideation and has been placed in the RHU after being deemed by the Department of Corrections a “danger to himself and others.”
The lawsuit charges that Wetzel “knows or is deliberately indifferent to the fact that the DOC’s treatment of individuals with mental illness, including the practice of segregating them for long periods of time in RHUs, can cause grave harm to their mental health.”
While it is unclear what DSM-Axis I mental disorders fall under the scope of “serious mental illness,” the lawsuit argues that the current disciplinary system within Pennsylvania prisons fails to “consider a prisoner’s serious mental illness and the impact of isolation in assessing whether to sanction the prisoners.”
Pennsylvania prisoner Ricardo Noble, who has spent over five years in the RHU, has written to Solitary Watch about the nature of life in the isolation units: “In the RHU life is intense. Especially in the beginning weeks or months. As time passes your mind begins to become clouded with mixed emotions, anger, guilt, hate, paranoia, hopelessness, loneliness, and other frustrations. Some who fail to productively channel their frustrations tend to take it out on those closest to them (mainly other prisoners) or even themselves because they can’t lash out on the ones (the Administration) who can affect change of the physical aspects of their harsh condition.”
Approximately 1/3 of those imprisoned in the RHUs, which as of February 28th housed 844 people in long-term Administrative Custody and an additional 1,417 in shorter term Disciplinary Custody, have been described by DRNP as “seriously mentally ill.” The DRNP cited the position of the American Psychiatric Association, which in December 2012 declared that “prolonged segregation of adult inmates with serious mental illness, with rare exceptions should be avoided due to the potential harm to such inmates.”
For more on solitary confinement in Pennsylvania, click here to read Solitary Watch’s reporting.
When Stephen Slevin was released after 22 months of solitary confinement in a New Mexico county jail, he looked like someone emerging from a medieval dungeon: filthy and emaciated, with long hair and beard, sunken features, and haunted eyes. Slevin had never been convicted of a crime, never even had a hearing. But in 2005, he was thrown in solitary and effectively forgotten.
Even in a nation where prisoner abuse is an everyday occurrence and prisoner lawsuits are routinely suppressed, Slevin’s ordeal was enough to earn him his day in court. And even in a nation where long-term solitary confinement in itself is not considered a violation of civil rights, Slevin successfully sued the county that had incarcerated him–and recently, settled for $15.5 million.
As MSN News reports:
Slevin was arrested in August 2005 on charges of DWI and receiving a stolen vehicle, though he maintained the car was given to him by a friend. At the time of his arrest, Slevin was battling depression and was attempting to leave Las Cruces, N.M.
In jail, officers believed he was suicidal, so they threw him in a padded cell for three days, [Slevin's attorney Matthew] Coyte told NBC News. Slevin received a medical examination during that period, but for the rest of his 22 months in jail — much of which he spent in solitary confinement, in a cell without natural light — he was not allowed to see a doctor, even after telling a prison nurse in letters that his depression was worsening and he needed treatment for other health issues.
According to Coyte, Slevin was forced to remove his own tooth because prison officials would not allow him to see a dentist. He also developed skin fungus and bed sores because he was deprived of showers, according to court documents. His toe nails grew so long that they curled around his foot.
Slevin spent two weeks in a mental health facility in 2007 for psychiatric review, court documents said. His health improved there, but he was sent back to solitary confinement until his release.
Charges were finally dropped against Slevin when he was deemed unfit to participate in his own defense. Coyte says his client was let go only because his sister had started calling county officials and legislators asking about his condition.
According to MSN News, from the time of his arrest, Slevin wrote more than a dozen letters to the jail nurse:
“I have not slept in days,” says one letter from Sept. 4, 2005, a couple weeks into solitary confinement. “I’m in a deep depression.” The letter also mentions his lack of appetite. . .
Two months later, KOB.com reported, Slevin wrote a letter again pleading for help, saying, “My dreams have been both weird and bizarre.” By the end of November 2005, he wrote, “I’m afraid to close my eyes.”
Coyte, his lawyer, told KOB that if Slevin got any response at all, it was just to up his sedatives. “He referred to a ‘Dr. Don’ [in the letters],” Coyte told KOB.com. “There was no doctor looking after him. There was a nurse, the nurse practitioner.” But the so-called nurse practitioner only had a bachelor’s degree in psychology and no actual medical qualifications, KOB reported.
After a few months, Slevin gave up, writing: “I don’t know how much longer I can go on.” “That was when he fell into a delirium,” Coyte told KOB.com.
Slevin sued San Dona County in federal court in 2008, and in January 2012, a jury awarded him $22 million in damages. But the county refused to pay and filed a motion for a new trial, claiming that the award was “excessive.” In December 2012, according to the Santa Fe Reporter:
US District Court Judge Martha Vazquez rejected arguments from county lawyers that the award was excessive.
“The Court finds that the jury’s compensatory damages award was justified by the evidence and cannot be said by reason of its amount to demonstrate bias or passion on the part of the jury in arriving at its verdict,” Vazquez writes in her final order . . . Vazquez referenced other higher court decisions giving jurors exclusive purview of the jury to evaluate credibility and fix damages.
The Tenth Circuit has made clear that, unless the jury has awarded damages ‘so excessive as to shock the judicial conscience and to raise an irresistible inference that passion, prejudice, corruption or other improper cause invaded the trial, the jury’s determination of the damages is considered inviolate.’
. . . [A]ttorneys for the defendants wanted Vazquez to lower the $15 million in compensatory damages to $2 million. . . As the First Circuit has explained, “dollars are at best a rough and awkward proxy for time spent in the throes of wrongful incarceration.
Judge Vazquez agreed with other court rulings that there “is more than a mere possibility that the punitive damage awards in this case were properly intended to punish what has occurred and to deter its repetition.”
In response to the December 2012 ruling, Slevin’s attorney said he hoped the court victory will send a message to the county that prisoners, “deserve more humane treatment,” but he was not optimistic. He said he expected the county to continue fighting the award. Furthermore, Coyte said that he did not believe that the county would likely make any meaningful changes at the jail. He told the Santa Fe Reporter:
“Instead of accusing the judge or the jury of being overcome by prejudice as they have done in their post trial motions, they should stop and take a look at their own behavior. In the 10 months since the $22 million verdict very little has changed in the approach of those in charge of the jail. There has been an inmate death, and what has been described as a riot in one of the pods. There have also been reports of rubber bullets being used to control the behavior of pre-trial detainees.”
On March 6, approximately three months after the courts upheld the judgment, Slevin and San Dona County settled for$15.5 million. According to the Santa Fe Reporter, attorney Matthew Coyte said: “[T]his settlement, although very large, does not give back to Mr. Slevin what was taken from him, but if it prevents others from enduring the pain and suffering he was subjected to, then the fight has been worthwhile.” According to the article, Slevin said that it was not money that motivated him to sue, but to make a statement about his conditions of confinement.
The Board of County Commissioners says it, “deeply regrets the harm Mr. Slevin suffered during this period.” And the county states that it has made since significant changes at the jail, designed to provide prisoners with better access to medical care and mental health services.
But according to NBC News, the Dona Ana County public information officer said no jail personnel have been fired over Slevin’s treatment–and for Coyte, “there’s still one more change that needs to be made: Dona Ana County Jail’s warden.
“If you were in the trial and heard what the person who ran the facility said, you would be appalled,” Coyte said. “I get lots of people [inmates] calling from that jail asking for help. Am I pleased that they’ve spent more money in the jail? Absolutely. I’m pleased that Mr. Slevin’s case has made a difference in the jail. But the same people are running it, and it’s an attitude of how you run something.”
The following entry was submitted by California Prison Focus on behalf of Cesar Francisco Villa, 51, a “gang-validated” prisoner incarcerated in Pelican Bay State Prison’s Security Housing Unit (SHU). For eleven years, he has been held in solitary confinement in the SHU, subject to an indefinite term in solitary because, he says, he isn’t a gang member. “To be considered an inactive gang member (eligible for release), you must turn over gang information. But if you are not a member, what do you have to turn in? Nothing,” he writes. The gang validation process, in which prison investigators determine whether or not prisoners are members of certain prison gangs and segregate them indefinitely in the SHU, has been criticized at California Assembly hearings in 2011 and 2013 as lacking proper oversight and providing effective due process. Currently, thousands of prisoners in California are serving SHU terms for gang validation, most in solitary confinement.
“Each morning wakes the potential for disaster. Each morning starts with anger before the anxiety,” Villa writes of the the frustrating monotony of life in the SHU, where he has since developed arthritis in the spine, hepatitis, a thyroid condition and high blood pressure. Below is an excerpt from a powerful description of life in the SHU, from a letter he wrote to California Prison Focus. For the full version, in PDF format, click here. –Sal Rodriguez
When we talk of the SHU and the affects the conditions have on the psyche, it’s not a simple construction one can wrap his or her mind around. Understanding the treatment of Pelican Bay inmates takes some getting used to. Understanding this sickness that runs rampant in the minds of prison officials leaves knots in the pit of bellies.
Nothing can really prepare you for entering the SHU. It’s a world unto itself where cold, quiet and emptiness come together seeping into your bones, then eventually the mind.
The first week I told myself: It isn’t that bad, I could do this. The second week, I stood outside in my underwear shivering as I was pelted with hail and rain. By the third week, I found myself squatting in a corner of the yard, filing fingernails down over coarse concrete walls. My sense of human decency dissipating with each day. At the end of the first year, my feet and hands began to split open from the cold. I bled over my clothes, my food, between my sheets. Band-aids were not allowed, even confiscated when found.
My sense of normalcy began to wane after just 3 years of confinement. Now I was asking myself, can I do this? Not sure about anything anymore.
Though I didn’t realize it at the time—looking back now—the unraveling must’ve begun then. My psyche had changed—I would never be the same. The ability to hold a single good thought left me, as easily as if it was a simple shift of wind sifting over tired, battered bones.
There’s a definite split in personality when good turns to evil. The darkness that looms above is thick, heavy and suffocating. A snap so sharp, the echo is deafening. A sound so loud you expect to find blood leaking from your ears at the bleakest moment.
The waking is the most traumatic. From the moment your bare feet graze the rugged stone floor, your face begins to sag, knuckles tighten—flashing pale in the pitch of early morning. The slightest slip in a quiet dawn can set a SHU personality into a tailspin: If the sink water is not warm enough, the toilet flushes too loud, the drop of a soap dish, a cup … In an instant your bare teeth, shake with rage. Your heart hammers against ribs, lodges in your throat. You are capable of killing anything at this moment. Flash attack; a beating, any violent outburst that will release rage.
This would be the time it’s best to hold rigid. Take a deep breath. Try to convince yourself there’s an ounce of good left in you. This is not a portrait you wish anyone to see. And then a gull screeches passing outside—another tailspin and you’re checking your ears for blood.
And this is a good day.
Eleven years has passed since I entered the SHU on gang validation. This year I’ll be 52-years-old. My cognitive skills over this past decade has taken an odd turn. The deterioration is discernible. When I first arrived I was attentive and if you’ll excuse the expression, bright-eyed. I thought I could beat “this thing” whatever “this thing” was. I confess—I was ignorant.
Today, I could be found at my cell front. My fingers stuffed through the perforated metal door—I hang limp—a mechanism forged of heavy gauge. My head angled in a daze. My mind lost in a dense fog of nothingness. I’m withering away—I know it—and I no longer care. Hopelessness is a virus I hide under my tongue like some magic pebble, as if the shiny stone could assist in organizing thoughts; decipher warbled language from convicts without stones without tongues in a cellblock of grunts and floods of ignorance. Concentration is an abstract invention for those with half a mind if half a mind is a terrible thing to waste. And someone screams behind me, “waste not want not.” But what’s to waste when all you are is a virus that no one’s allowed to touch.
Funny … when I think of validation, I remember Fridays after work—cashing my paycheck—handing over a parking ticket to the bankteller, asking to be validated and I thought, how cool is this: validation for free!
Yes, this is me—the ignorant one. Today, wasting what’s left of the other half.
If I were to imagine life outside of Pelican Bay, outside of the SHU—I’d have to imagine a hospital. And between me and you, I don’t like hospitals. I don’t like the stench of sanitized sheets, industrial strength ammonia. Gowns that open from the back. Polka dots and paper slippers. Looney tunes in looney beds, leather straps and leather masks. Shocks and shots and broken ribs.
The truth is we’re all broken in our own way. We’ve been undone, unwound. The inside of our plastic skulls—raked and routed. A composition of cracks and fissures where nothing will ever be the same again.
A court-appointed consultant, forensic psychiatrist Dr. Raymond Patterson, has reported that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) has failed to effectively combat the large and escalating problem of suicides in the California prison system. According to reporting by KPCC, Patterson despondently asserted that his making any additional recommendations would be “a further waste of time and effort,” as recommendations over many years have gone unheeded.
The report comes as U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton is preparing a decision on whether or not California’s mental, mental health, and dental care must continue to be monitored by federal courts. In August 2012, then-CDCR Secretary Matthew Cate issued a plan to end federal oversight of California prison health care. “My goal is to end federal court oversight of medical, mental health and dental care by next year,” Cate said. Though Cate resigned in October, his enthusiasm for lifting federal court oversight has been championed by California Governor Jerry Brown. Brown has argued that California has made significant leaps in improving prison health care and addressing overcrowding.
According to reporting by the Los Angeles Times, the March 13 report by Patterson and five other experts reviewed 15 of 32 suicides in 2012. The report notes that prisoners housed in segregation units, Administrative Segregation Units and Security Housing Units, have a 33 times higher chance of suicide. According to Amnesty International, between 2006 and 2010, there was an average of 34 suicides in the California prison system a year, with 42 percent occurring in segregation units.
According to the LA Times reporting, “13 of the 15 deaths showed some form of inadequate assessment, treatment or intervention.” Three of the 15 prisoners had already undergone rigor mortis, meaning hours had gone by from the time of their death to the time they were found. Further, the California prison suicide rate of nearly 24 per 100,000 exceeds the national state prison average of 16 per 100,000.
The report comes weeks after news that the state of California had “suppressed a report from its own consultant warning that California’s prison suicide-watch practices encouraged inmate deaths.” In 2011, suicide prevention expert Lindsay Hayes found that the conditions of California’s suicide watch units contributed to suicides. The units, described by the LA Times as “dim, dirty, airless cells with unsanitized mattresses on the floor,” were inadequately operated. In reviewing 25 suicides, Hayes found that seven prisoners killed themselves within hours of release from suicide watch. Calling the suicide watch practices “anti-therapeutic,” he found that in 17 of the suicides there were notable lapses in care, including infrequent checking in on prisoners and failure to conduct CPR.
Solitary Watch is aware of and has reported on five suicides in the California prison systems segregation units.
On September 16th, 2011, Johnny Owen Vick,30, committed suicide in the Pelican Bay State Prison Administrative Segregation Unit. Vick’s family has told Solitary Watch that he had long had mental health problems, and had been incarcerated for over twenty years.
Four days later, Armando Cruz, 28, committed suicide at California State Prison, Sacramento’s Psychiatric Services Unit. Cruz, incarcerated as a 17 year old, had entered the prison system with a diagnosis of schizophrenia following an attack on a police officer. Over the course of a decade, he would spend years in solitary confinement largely following disruptive incidents seemingly instigated by his heavily documented mental health problems.
On October 24th, 2011, Alex Machado committed suicide in Pelican Bay State Prison’s Administrative Segregation Unit. Validated as a gang associate in 2010, he was transferred to Pelican Bay. The man who was once known for his intelligence and helping other prisoners file legal documents gradually deteriorated in isolation. Hearing voices and perceiving visual hallucinations at times, he attempted suicide in June 2011. Nevertheless, he remained in isolation until the day of his death. Fellow prisoners on his cell told California Prison Focus that Machado had been screaming for help on the day of his death.
In November 2011, the San Francisco Bay View reported that Calipatria State Prison Administrative Segregation Unit prisoner Hozel Blanchard had been found dead in his cell. Blanchard, who had participated in the widespread hunger strikes protesting against long-term solitary confinement and demanding a litany of reforms, had reportedly feared for his life before his death.
In August 2012, Corcoran State Prison SHU prisoner Armando Morales was found hanging in his cell. A Watts, California native, Morales had been incarcerated since he was a teenager. He had spent at least six years in the SHU.
For more on the widespread problem of suicide in prison and solitary confinement units, click here.
The only thing left to do is go crazy—just sit and talk to the walls… I catch myself [talking to the walls] every now and again. It’s starting to become a habit because I have nothing else to do. I can’t read a book. I work out and try to make the best of it. But there is no best. Sometimes I go crazy and can’t even control my anger anymore… I can’t even get [out of solitary confinement] early if I do better, so it is frustrating and I just lose it. Screaming, throwing stuff around… I feel like I am alone, like no one cares about me sometimes I feel like, why am I even living?
The quote comes from the 2012 report Growing Up Locked Down, which covers the use of solitary confinement on children and teens under the age of 18 in U.S. jails and prisons. The comprehensive report, prepared by the ACLU and Humans Rights Watch, calls for an end to the isolation of young people, based on evidence of the profound psychological damage such isolation can cause.
Now, Florida legislators are considering a bill that would help prevent kids like Henry R. from being subjected to the abusive use of solitary confinement. Filed last month by State Senator Audrey Gibson, the bill, called the Youth in Solitary Confinement Reduction Act (SB 812), seeks to reduce the detrimental impact of solitary confinement on young persons by prohibiting the use of the practice except under specific circumstances.
The proposed legislation requires that the confinement be “the least restrictive to maintain the safety of the youth prisoner and the institution.” The bill further imposes time limits on the use of confinement by situation, restricting emergency confinement and disciplinary confinement to 24 and 72 hours, respectively, also requiring time out of solitary cells to lessen the effects of psychological damage.
Senator Gibson spoke out against youth solitary confinement, stating, “We are wasting taxpayer money on prison policies that permanently damage children’s state of mind and may ultimately do nothing to reduce crime.” She continued:
It seems foolish to imagine that locking a child away alone in a cell for hours on end can do anything to improve their character or their behavior, especially given all the evidence of the harm this practice does, but that is exactly what our state is doing. I filed this bill to end this kind of treatment of young people in Florida so they have a real opportunity for rehabilitative success.
In response to the proposed legislation, the ACLU issued a press release, stating:
“Cutting young people off from the normal human interaction that they need for their development and rehabilitation is cruel, harmful and doesn’t make us any safer,” stated ACLU of Florida Staff Attorney Julie Ebenstein, who works on criminal justice reform. “Children are not simply miniature adults. We cannot have a criminal justice system that ignores their different needs if we expect them to grow into healthy members of society.”
Florida imprisons more youth under the age of 18 in adult prisons than any other state in the country. There is currently no prohibition in state law or in Florida Department of Corrections policies or regulations against holding these young people in solitary confinement in Florida prisons.
In the release, the ACLU referenced Growing Up Locked Down.
The 2012 report by the ACLU and Human Rights Watch found that because young people are still developing, traumatic experiences like solitary confinement may have a profound effect on their chance to rehabilitate and grow. The long term isolation of solitary confinement causes anguish, provokes serious mental and physical health problems, and works against rehabilitation for teenagers.
Julie Ebenstein, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Florida, responded to the new legislature in a recent Sun Sentinel op-ed entitled “Solitary Confinement Isn’t Right Place for Children.”
More young people under age 18 are held in adult prisons in Florida than in any other state in the nation. When minors are locked away in adult jails and prisons, they are treated as adults. When it comes to solitary confinement, there is no state law or Department of Corrections’ regulation that requires correctional authorities to treat young people any differently than adults…
The state has a duty to ensure accountability for serious crimes, and to protect the public. But regardless of young people’s culpability, states also have special responsibilities not to treat them in ways that can permanently harm their development and rehabilitation. Every parent understands that, and so, we hope, will the Florida Legislature.
Since virtually every minor who is sent to jail or prison for any period of time will eventually be released, it would be smart to be concerned about what condition they will be in — psychologically, emotionally and physically — when they are released.
While a few states have banned the use of solitary confinement in juvenile facilities, none has yet passed legislation outlawing–or even limiting–the isolation of youth in adult prisons and jails. A bill of this kind was introduced twice in California, but failed to pass. If the legislation is passed in Florida, Ebenstein writes, it “would turn Florida from the worst offender on incarcerating children in prisons to a national leader in following recognized best practices for the treatment of children who are detained in jail or prison.”
Editor’s Note: As coordinator of the American Friends Service Committee’s Prison Watch Project, Bonnie Kerness is a leading voice for humanitarian reform of U.S. prisons, jails, and detention centers. Kerness is also a pioneer in raising awareness about the use of prolonged solitary confinement, and in uncompromisingly identifying the practice as a form of torture. Since the 1990s, she has coordinated AFSC’s STOPMAX Campaign, which ”works to eliminate the use of isolation and segregation in U.S. prisons” through “research, grassroots organizing, public education and policy advocacy.”
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Between the 1913 closing of Eastern State Penitentiary’s isolation cages and the 1983 lockdown of the federal facility in Marion, Illinois (recently recounted in Nancy Kurshan’s book Out of Control) is a history of struggle against the use of extended solitary confinement in New Jersey, which is little known.
In 1975, after the tumultuous years of the Civil Rights Movement, the Viet Nam War and the prisoners’ rights movement, Trenton State Prison (now New Jersey State Prison) established an administrative isolation unit for politically dissident prisoners. The warden and his staff decided to use this technique, which was modeled after a unit in Soledad Prison in California. The Management Control Unit housed those prisoners who had not broken institutional rules, but who were, as a result of their political convictions and expressions, seen to be a threat by prison administrators. Thus, the New Jersey MCU pre-dated the advent of the control unit in federal system.
Sundiata Acoli was one of the first people interred in this new unit. Sundiata writes, the warden “began rounding up prisoners, 250 all told, of which I was the first. They took me to a cell block, another guard brought my property, stopped in front of a prisoner’s cell, took him out, put me in his cell, and escorted him and his property to my old cell. They switched prisoners all night like this so the next morning they had rounded up, switched 250 prisoners to create an instant Management Control Unit. In less than a month, they had released 200 of the MCU prisoners back into population and kept the 50 prisoners in the MCU for which the roundup was actually intended.”
In his book Inside Out – Fifty Years Behind the Walls of New Jersey’s Trenton State Prison, former guard, Harry Camisa says, “The guys singled out for the MCU were viewed as potential troublemakers or political leaders who needed to be segregated to keep them from influencing the rest of the population. This was a new and controversial concept in New Jersey.” The unit isolated activists and leaders from the prisons general population, as it attempted to psychologically reshape their convictions by subjecting them to an extraordinary level of physical control and sensory deprivation.
New Jersey was a key state in terms of people being involved in political activities such as the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Army. It is also corridor state and often members of other political formations travelled through the state – many finding themselves imprisoned at Trenton State Prison. On January 19, 1976, the State of New Jersey alleged that Sundiata Acoli and John L. Clark played key roles in the attempted escape from the Management Control Unit which resulted in two guards being shot, John Clark killed, another prisoner being wounded. Subsequently, Sundiata was transferred out of the MCU to an isolation unit at the federal prison in Marion, Illinois.
Relevant to the continuing use of the MCU was Executive Order 88, signed in 1984 by former Governor Thomas Kean, which mandated that “any persons believed to be a member of a terrorist organization or other similar groups committed to violence, murder or mayhem as a means to achieve their purpose could be placed in the Management Control Unit pre-trial.” This is exactly what happened to political prisoners Tom Manning and Richard Williams, who were alleged to be members of the United Freedom Front, and Sekou Tyehimba, who the state alleged to be a member of the Black Liberation Army.
On February 4, 1986, Ojore Lutalo, a member of the Black Liberation Army, and nine other prisoners were placed in the Management Control Unit. Within 18 months, seven of the prisoners who were placed in the MCU with Ojore were released back into the general population. Ojore reached out to the American Friends Service Committee, asking us what a control unit was, why he was there and how long he would have to remain there. We began to monitor Ojore and 48 others, ultimately establishing the New Jersey-based Control Unit Monitoring Project, which conducted ongoing observation of the unit through visits, letters and telephone calls. Students from many colleges and universities assisted in this effort. Part of the collective efforts of MCU prisoner’s and outside advocates resulted in the struggle to contest the cages built in the MCU for “recreation.” This effort resulted in newspaper coverage from the New York Times, in an August 1991 article by Peter Page entitled “Modules or Cages? TSP Enclosures Stir Protest.”
In May of 1992, the AFSC Control Unit Monitoring Project held a Town Meeting and Silent Vigil outside the prison protesting the political use of isolation and conditions of confinement in the control unit. Prisoners in the MCU were/are denied all the collective activities of normal prison life, facing surveillance by guards and cameras which record daily activities, regularly search cells and their persons, and suffer the physical abuse of strip searches by guards in riot-gear which accompany all recreation and visits. Although confinement in the MCU is not defined as punitive, the severe limitations placed on visits and telephone contact with family members, recreation, the denial of work, education, law library access, collective religious practice and the fellowship of other prisoners can hardly be seen any other way. Correspondence and reading material are carefully scrutinized and many political publications, specifically those with Afro-centric content, are excluded. These conditions are indefinite, although they are reviewed every 90 days, and are imposed without judicial supervision or benefit of counsel.
The AFSC contacted multiple media outlets to draw attention to the political use and condition in the MCU. Initially, the reporters were hesitant to believe that people were being detained in the MCU for political purposes or entertaining political thoughts that the administration didn’t approve of. They responded to AFSC’s initial outreach by saying such things did not happen in the United States. The reporters contacted the Department of Corrections which confirmed that Ojore and others in the MCU broke no prison rules and that their placement wasn’t punitive. This resulted in two newspaper articles. On June 11, 1992, The Record published an article “NJ Political Prisoners Do Hard in Solitary”, and on June 18th the New Jersey Tribune published “Beliefs Made Them Prisoners in Prison – Political Radicals Locked in Solitary.”
In 1994, Channel 9 news filmed Ojore Lutalo, Daud Tulam and Clifford Roberts (three MCU prisoners) for a special piece on the 6 o’clock news. Their research led them to contacting the NJ Department of Corrections who informed them that these particular prisoners were not in the control unit for violating any prison rules. The news program, called “Prison Politics,” played widely at the time and is still being used to illustrate the political use of isolation.
The Department of Corrections itself confirms this political use as evidenced in two Notices of Management Control Unit Classification Decisions: the first dated in 1989, informs that, “The Committee notes that inmate Lutalo needs to improve his social profile, and insight into his oppositional stance prior to release consideration from the Control Unit.” In the late 1990s litigation concerning the Control Unit was filed resulting in a Special Master being appointed to review each person in the Control Unit. With the exception of four people, by 2002, Ojore and others were released back into general population based on the decision of this Special Master.
In 2005, the AFSC stopped hearing from Ojore for an unusual amount of time. Bonnie called the Department of Corrections and was told that Ojore had been placed back in the control unit at “the request of Homeland Security.” Ojore later reported that he had been “disappeared” from general population and placed in the prison’s mental health unit incommunicado for six days. Ojore’s second Classification notice dated 2008 notes that, “The MCURC notes your concern regarding your feelings of persecution and discrimination based on your political affiliation. The Committee continues to show concern with your admitted affiliation with the Black Liberation Army, and the Anarchist Black Cross foundation. Your radical views and ability to influence others pose a threat to the orderly operation of this institution.”
In 2008, New Jersey attorney Bruce Afran filed a brief challenging Ojore’s MCU detention not on the basis of any charged offenses but because of his political beliefs and affiliations. After 22 years of political isolation in the MCU, Ojore was released from prison by way of court order on August 26, 2009.
The definition of “no touch” torture is a set of practices used to inflict pain or suffering without resorting to direct physical violence: sleep deprivation, sensory disorientation, solitary confinement, humiliation, extreme cold or heat, extreme light or dark. Intentional placement situations. A systematic attack on all human stimuli. A November 2010 New Jersey Network program called “Due Process – Solitary: Who and Why” featured myself and Ojore, and other advocates and lawyers talking about the history of activism to close the MCU.
The history of the opposition to the New Jersey Management Control Unit includes advocates from the 1994-1998 National Campaign to Stop Control Unit Prisons, of which the Committee to End the Marion Lockdown was a founding member. It also includes the publication of a Survivor’s Manual – written by and for people living in isolation inspired by Ojore.
The political use of isolation in ensuing years has morphed into entire isolation prisons being built for the mentally ill. The political use of this form of torture continues with the development of Security Threat Group Management Units (for purported gang members), and Communications Management Units (for Muslims in the federal system). Imam Jamil Al-Amin has been held in such conditions for years. For those of us monitoring US prisons over decades, the targeting of radicalization feels eerily familiar. The Department of Corrections is more than an institution, it is a state of mind. That state of mind has led to the use of “no touch” and other devices of torture both here and overseas.
We owe thanks to all of those inside and out who have spoken out: Eddie Griffin, Jr, who had the courage to write “Breaking Men’s Minds” while he was held in the Marion Control Unit; the Marion Brothers who were part of the ongoing resistance to the control unit repression; and to the hundreds of prisoners who had the mettle to contribute their testimony and art to AFSC ‘s 2012 Torture in US Prisons, and to Jean Ross and the many lawyers who have been there for all of us, inside and out.
The following essay is by William Blake, who has been held in solitary confinement for nearly 26 years. Currently he is in administrative segregation at Elmira Correctional Facility, a maximum security facility located in south central New York State. In 1987, Blake, then 23 and in county court on a drug charge, murdered one deputy and wounded another in a failed escape attempt. He was sentenced to 77 years to life.
This powerful essay earned Blake an Honorable Mention in the Yale Law Journal’s Prison Law Writing Contest, chosen from more than 1,500 entries. He describes here in painstaking detail his excruciating experiences over the last quarter-century. “I’ve read of the studies done regarding the effects of long-term isolation in solitary confinement on inmates, seen how researchers say it can ruin a man’s mind, and I’ve watched with my own eyes the slow descent of sane men into madness—sometimes not so slow,” Blake writes. “What I’ve never seen the experts write about, though, is what year after year of abject isolation can do to that immaterial part in our middle where hopes survive or die and the spirit resides.” That is what Blake himself seeks to convey in his essay. —Lisa Dawson
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“You deserve an eternity in hell,” Onondaga County Supreme Court judge Kevin Mulroy told me from his bench as I stood before him for sentencing on July 10, 1987. Apparently he had the idea that God was not the only one qualified to make such judgment calls.
Judge Mulroy wanted to “pump six buck’s worth of electricity into [my] body,” he also said, though I suggest that it wouldn’t have taken six cent’s worth to get me good and dead. He must have wanted to reduce me and The Chair to a pile of ashes. My “friend” Governor Mario Cuomo wouldn’t allow him to do that, though, the judge went on, bemoaning New York State’s lack of a death statute due to the then-Governor’s repeated vetoes of death penalty bills that had been approved by the state legislature. Governor Cuomo’s publicly expressed dudgeon over being called a friend of mine by Judge Mulroy was understandable, given the crimes that I had just been convicted of committing. I didn’t care much for him either, truth be told. He built too many new prisons in my opinion, and cut academic and vocational programs in the prisons already standing.
I know that Judge Mulroy was not nearly alone in wanting to see me executed for the crime I committed when I shot two Onondaga County sheriff’s deputies inside the Town of Dewitt courtroom during a failed escape attempt, killing one and critically wounding the other. There were many people in the Syracuse area who shared his sentiments, to be sure. I read the hateful letters to the editor printed in the local newspapers; I could even feel the anger of the people when I’d go to court, so palpable was it. Even by the standards of my own belief system, such as it was back then, I deserved to die for what I had done. I took the life of a man without just cause, committing an act so monumentally wrong that I could not have argued that it was unfair had I been required to pay with my own life.
What nobody knew or suspected back then, not even I, on that very day I would begin suffering a punishment that I am convinced beyond all doubt is far worse than any death sentence could possibly have been. On July 10, 2012, I finished my 25th consecutive year in solitary confinement, where at the time of this writing I remain. Though it is true that I’ve never died and so don’t know exactly what the experience would entail, for the life of me I cannot fathom how dying any death could be harder or more terrible than living through all that I have been forced to endure for the last quarter-century.
Prisoners call it The Box. Prison authorities have euphemistically dubbed it the Special Housing Unit, or SHU (pronounced “shoe”) for short. In society it is known as solitary confinement. It is 23-hour a day lockdown in a cell smaller than some closets I’ve seen, with one hour allotted to “recreation” consisting of placement in a concrete enclosed yard by oneself or, in some prisons, a cage made of steel bars. There is nothing in a SHU yard but air: no TV, no balls to bounce, no games to play, no other inmates, nothing. There is very little allowed in a SHU cell, also. Three sets of plain white underwear, one pair of green pants, one green short-sleeved button-up shirt, one green sweatshirt, ten books or magazines total, twenty pictures of the people you love, writing supplies, a bar of soap, toothbrush and toothpaste, one deodorant stick but no shampoo, and that’s about it. No clothes of your own, only prison-made. No food from commissary or packages, only three unappetizing meals a day handed to you through a narrow slot in your cell door. No phone calls, no TV, no luxury items at all. You get a set of cheap headphones to use, and you can pick between the two or three (depending on which prison you’re in) jacks in the cell wall to plug into. You can listen to a TV station in one jack, and use your imagination while trying to figure out what is going on when the music indicates drama but the dialogue doesn’t suffice to tell you anything. Or you can listen to some music, but you’re out of luck if you’re a rock-n-roll fan and find only rap is playing.
Your options in what to do to occupy your time in SHU are scant, but there will be boredom aplenty. You probably think that you understand boredom, know its feel, but really you don’t. What you call boredom would seem a whirlwind of activity to me, choices so many that I’d likely be befuddled in trying to pick one over all the others. You could turn on a TV and watch a movie or some other show; I haven’t seen a TV since the 1980s. You could go for a walk in the neighborhood; I can’t walk more than a few feet in any direction before I run into a concrete wall or steel bars. You could pick up your phone and call a friend; I don’t know if I’d be able to remember how to make a collect call or even if the process is still the same, so many years it’s been since I’ve used a telephone. Play with your dog or cat and experience their love, or watch your fish in their aquarium; the only creatures I see daily are the mice and cockroaches that infest the unit, and they’re not very lovable and nothing much to look at. There is a pretty good list of options available to you, if you think about it, many things that you could do even when you believe you are so bored. You take them for granted because they are there all the time, but if it were all taken away you’d find yourself missing even the things that right now seem so small and insignificant. Even the smallest stuff can become as large as life when you have had nearly nothing for far too long.
I haven’t been outside in one of the SHU yards in this prison for about four years now. I haven’t seen a tree or blade of grass in all that time, and wouldn’t see these things were I to go to the yard. In Elmira Correctional Facility, where I am presently imprisoned, the SHU yards are about three or four times as big as my cell. There are twelve SHU yards total, each surrounded by concrete walls, one or two of the walls lined with windows. If you look in the windows you’ll see the same SHU company that you live on, and maybe you’ll get a look at a guy who was locked next to you for months that you’ve talked to every day but had never before gotten a look at. If you look up you’ll find bars and a screen covering the yard, and if you’re lucky maybe you can see a bit of blue sky through the mesh, otherwise it’ll be hard to believe that you’re even outside. If it’s a good day you can walk around the SHU yard in small circles staring ahead with your mind on nothingness, like the nothing you’ve got in that lacuna with you. If it’s a bad day, though, maybe your mind will be filled with remembrances of all you used to have that you haven’t seen now for many years, and you’ll be missing it, feeling the loss, feeling it bad.
Life in the box is about an austere sameness that makes it difficult to tell one day from a thousand others. Nothing much and nothing new ever happen to tell you if it’s a Monday or a Friday, March or September, 1987 or 2012. The world turns, technology advances, and things in the streets change and keep changing all the time. Not so in a solitary confinement unit, however. I’ve never seen a cell phone except in pictures in magazines. I’ve never touched a computer in my life, never been on the Internet and wouldn’t know how to get there if you sat me in front of a computer, turned it on for me, and gave me directions. SHU is a timeless place, and I can honestly say that there is not a single thing I’d see looking around right now that is different from what I saw in Shawangunk Correctional Facility’s box when I first arrived there from Syracuse’s county jail in 1987. Indeed, there is probably nothing different in SHU now than in SHU a hundred years ago, save the headphones. Then and now there were a few books, a few prison-made clothing articles, walls and bars and human beings locked in cages… and misery.
There is always the misery. If you manage to escape it yourself for a time, there will ever be plenty around in others for you to sense; and though you’ll be unable to look into their eyes and see it, you might hear it in the nighttime when tough guys cry not-so-tough tears that are forced out of them by the unrelenting stress and strain that life in SHU is an exercise in.
I’ve read of the studies done regarding the effects of long-term isolation in solitary confinement on inmates, seen how researchers say it can ruin a man’s mind, and I’ve watched with my own eyes the slow descent of sane men into madness—sometimes not so slow. What I’ve never seen the experts write about, though, is what year after year of abject isolation can do to that immaterial part in our middle where hopes survive or die and the spirit resides. So please allow me to speak to you of what I’ve seen and felt during some of the harder times of my twenty-five-year SHU odyssey.
I’ve experienced times so difficult and felt boredom and loneliness to such a degree that it seemed to be a physical thing inside so thick it felt like it was choking me, trying to squeeze the sanity from my mind, the spirit from my soul, and the life from my body. I’ve seen and felt hope becoming like a foggy ephemeral thing, hard to get ahold of, even harder to keep ahold of as the years and then decades disappeared while I stayed trapped in the emptiness of the SHU world. I’ve seen minds slipping down the slope of sanity, descending into insanity, and I’ve been terrified that I would end up like the guys around me that have cracked and become nuts. It’s a sad thing to watch a human being go insane before your eyes because he can’t handle the pressure that the box exerts on the mind, but it is sadder still to see the spirit shaken from a soul. And it is more disastrous. Sometimes the prison guards find them hanging and blue; sometimes their necks get broken when they jump from their bed, the sheet tied around the neck that’s also wrapped around the grate covering the light in the ceiling snapping taut with a pop. I’ve seen the spirit leaving men in SHU and have witnessed the results.
The box is a place like no other place on planet Earth. It’s a place where men full of rage can stand at their cell gates fulminating on their neighbor or neighbors, yelling and screaming and speaking some of the filthiest words that could ever come from a human mouth, do it for hours on end, and despite it all never suffer the loss of a single tooth, never get his head knocked clean off his shoulders. You will never hear words more despicable or see mouth wars more insane than what occurs all the time in SHU, not anywhere else in the world, because there would be serious violence before any person could speak so much foulness for so long. In the box the heavy steel bars allow mouths to run with impunity when they could not otherwise do so, while the ambient is one that is sorely conducive to an exceedingly hot sort of anger that seems to press the lips on to ridiculous extremes. Day and night I have been awakened to the sound of the rage being loosed loudly on SHU gates, and I’d be a liar if I said I haven’t at times been one of the madmen doing the yelling.
I have lived for months where the first thing I became aware of upon waking in the morning is the malodorous funk of human feces, tinged with the acrid stench of days-old urine, where I eat my breakfast, lunch, and dinner with that same stink assaulting my senses, and where the last thought I had before falling into unconscious sleep was: “Damn, it smells like shit in here.” I have felt like I was on an island surrounded by vicious sharks, flanked on both sides by mentally ill inmates who would splash their excrement all over their cells, all over the company outside their cells, and even all over themselves. I have went days into weeks that seemed like they’d never end without being able to sleep more than short snatches before I was shocked out of my dreams, and thrown back into a living nightmare, by the screams of sick men who have lost all ability to control themselves, or by the banging of cell bars and walls of these same madmen. I have been so tired when sleep inside was impossible that I went outside into a snowstorm to get some sleep.
The wind blew hard and snowflakes swirled around and around in the small SHU yard at Shawangunk, and I had but one cheap prison-produced coat on and a single set of state clothes beneath. To escape the biting cold I dug into the seven- or eight-foot high mountain of snow that was piled in the center of the yard, the accumulation from inmates shoveling a narrow path to walk along the perimeter. With bare hands gone numb, I dug out a small room in that pile of snow, making myself a sort of igloo. When it was done I crawled inside, rolled onto my back on the snow-covered concrete ground, and almost instantly fell asleep, my bare head pillowed in the snow. I didn’t even have a hat to wear.
An hour or so later I was awakened by the guards come to take me back to the stink and insanity inside: “Blake, rec’s over…” I had gotten an hour’s straight sleep, minus the few minutes it had taken me to dig my igloo. That was more than I had gotten in weeks without being shocked awake by the CA-RACK! of a sneaker being slapped into a plexiglass shield covering the cell of an inmate who had thrown things nasty; or the THUD-THUD-THUD! of an inmate pounding his cell wall, or bars being banged, gates being kicked and rattled, or men screaming like they’re dying and maybe wishing that they were; or to the tirade of an inmate letting loose his pent-up rage on a guard or fellow inmate, sounding every bit the lunatic that too long a time in the mind-breaking confines of the box had caused him to be.
I have been so exhausted physically, mental strength being tested to limits that can cause strong folks to snap, that I have begged God, tough guy I fancy myself, “Please, Lord, make them stop. Please let me get some peace.” As the prayers went ungranted and the insanity around me persisted, I felt my own rage rising above the exhaustion and misery, no longer in a begging mood: “Lord, kill those motherfuckers, why don’t you!” I yelled at the Almighty, my own sanity so close to being gone that it seemed as if I were walking along a precipice and could see down to where I’d be falling, seeing myself shot, sanity a dead thing killed by the fall. I’d be afraid later on, terrified, when I reflected back on how close I had seemed to come to losing my mind, but at that moment all I could do was feel anger of a fiery kind: anger at the maniacs creating the noise and the stink and the madness; anger at my keepers and the real creators of this hell; anger at society for turning a blind eye to the torment and torture going on here that its tax dollars are financing; and perhaps most of all, anger at myself for doing all that I did that never should have been done that put me into the clutches of this beastly prison system to begin with. I would be angry at the world; enraged, actually, so burning hot was what I would be feeling.
I had wet toilet paper stuffed hard into both ears, socks folded up and pressed into my ears, a pillow wrapped around the sides and back of my head covering my ears, and a blanket tied around all that to hold everything in place, lying in bed praying for sleep. But still the noise was incredible, a thunderous cacophony of insanity, sleep impossible. Inmates lost in the throes of lavalike rage firing philippics at one another for even reasons they didn’t know, threatening to kill one another’s mommas, daddies, even the children, too. Nothing is sacred in SHU. It is an environment that is so grossly abnormal, so antithetical to normal human interactions, that it twists the innerds of men all around who for too long dwell there. Their minds, their morals, and their mannerisms get bent badly, ending far off-center. Right becomes whatever and wrong no longer exists. Restraint becomes a burden and is unnecessary with concrete and steel separating everyone, so inmates let it go. Day after day, perhaps year after year, the anger grows, fueled by the pain caused by the conditions till rage is born and burning so hot that it too hurts.
Trying to put into words what is so unlike anything else I know or have ever experienced seems an impossible endeavor, because there is nothing even remotely like it any place else to compare it to, and nothing that will do to you on the inside what so many years in SHU has done to me. All that I am able to articulate about the world of Special Housing Unit and what it is and what it does may seem terrible to you indeed, but the reality of living in this place for a full quarter of a century is yet even more terrible, still. You would have to live it, experience it in all its aspects with the fullness of its days and struggles added up, to really appreciate and understand just how truly terrible this plight of mine has been, and how truly ugly life in the box can be at times, even for just a single day. I spent nine years in Shawangunk’s box, six years in Sullivan’s, six years in Great Meadow’s, and I’ve been here in Elmira’s SHU for four years now, and through all of this time I have never spent a single day in a Mental Health Unit cell because I attempted or threatened suicide, or for any other reason. I have thought about suicide in times past when the days had become exceedingly difficult to handle, but I’m still here. I’ve had some of my SHU neighbors succumb to the suicidal thoughts, though, choosing death over another day of life in the box. I have never bugged out myself, but I’ve known times that I had come too close. I’ve had neighbors who came to SHU normal men, and I’ve seen them leave broken and not anything resembling normal anymore. I’ve seen guys give up on their dreams and lose all hope in the box, but my own hopes and dreams are still alive and well inside me. The insidious workings of the SHU program have yet to get me stuck on that meandering path to internal destruction that I have seen so many of my neighbors end up on, and perhaps this is a miracle; I’d rather be dead than to lose control of my mind.
Had I known in 1987 that I would spend the next quarter-century in solitary confinement, I would have certainly killed myself. If I took a month to die and spent every minute of it in severe pain, it seems to me that on a balance that fate would still be far easier to endure than the last twenty-five years have been. If I try to imagine what kind of death, even a slow one, would be worse than twenty-five years in the box—and I have tried to imagine it—I can come up with nothing. Set me afire, pummel and bludgeon me, cut me to bits, stab me, shoot me, do what you will in the worst of ways, but none of it could come close to making me feel things as cumulatively horrifying as what I’ve experienced through my years in solitary. Dying couldn’t take but a short time if you or the State were to kill me; in SHU I have died a thousand internal deaths. The sum of my quarter-century’s worth of suffering has been that bad.
To some judges sitting on high who’ve never done a day in the box, maybe twenty-five years of this isn’t cruel and unusual. To folks who have an insatiable appetite for vengeance against prisoners who have committed terrible crimes, perhaps it doesn’t even matter how cruel or unusual my plight is or isn’t. For people who cannot let go of hate and know not how to forgive, no amount of remorse would matter, no level of contrition would be quite enough, only endless retribution would be right in their eyes. Like Judge Milroy, only an eternity in hell would satisfy them. Given even that in retribution, though, the unforgiving haters wouldn’t be satisfied that hell was hot enough; they’d want the heat turned up. Thankfully these folks are the few, that in the minds of the many, at a point, enough is enough.
No matter what the world would think about things that they cannot imagine in even their worst nightmares, I know that twenty-five years in solitary confinement is utterly and certainly cruel, moreso than death in or by an electric chair, gas chamber, lethal injection, bullet in the head, or even immolation could possibly be. The sum of the suffering caused by any of these quick deaths would be a small thing next to the sum of the suffering that this quarter-century in SHU has brought to bear on me. Solitary confinement for the length of time that I have endured it, even apart from the inhuman conditions that I have too often been made to endure it in, is torture of a terrible kind; and anyone who doesn’t think so surely knows not what to think.
I have served a sentence worse than death.