prisons, jails, mass incarceration
The American Friends Service Committee has a long history of advocating for the rights of the incarcerated, and against injustice and abuse in U.S. prisons, jails, and detention centers. Recently, AFSC released a report called Survivors Speak: Prisoner Testimonies of Torture in United States Prisons and Jails. The document was prepared as a Shadow Report to the official U.S. Periodic Report on its adherence to the UN Convention Against Torture (CAT), which is further explained in this earlier post.
In the executive summary to the report, AFSC writes:
The list of abuses committed against U.S. prisoners is long and deeply distressing: sexual violence, humiliation, unsanitary conditions, extreme temperatures, insufficiently nutritious food, inadequate medical care, isolation, psychological torture, racism, chemical abuse and disproportionate uses of force. These are just a sample of experiences you will read about in these first-hand accounts from individuals living in jails and prisons throughout the United States.
Other civil society shadow reports addressing corrections conditions feature legal analysis, data illustrating the prevalence of ill treatment committed against prisoners and insights from experts. This shadow report supplements those crucial examinations by bringing the human experience to bear. Statistics are helpful in understanding the ways in which the U.S. prison system is fundamentally broken. Yet even the best charts are unable to fully convey the reality of what it is like to live through breaches of CAT obligations. These are their testimonials − verbatim − of inhuman conditions under which they are held, abuses that irrevocably change their lives.
What follows is a selection of testimonies from the section of the report that deals with prison isolation. Thanks to Bonnie Kerness of AFSC’s Prison Watch program for forwarding this material to Solitary Watch. –Jean Casella
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“None of the locks on cell doors work which resulted in the death of 5 prisoners in one month… We are supposed to get an hour a day outside our cell but that’s not true in Georgia. We gone [sic] months without seeing the sunlight with nothing to read but a bible. Prisoner suicide has tripled and it’s a medical fact that everyone has lost weight in this program.” —J.H., Hayes State Prison, Trion, GA, 2014
“They called it a 23 hour lockdown, but during the hour out, you had no other human contact- not even staff… As you are aware we are made to eat and sleep in a concrete and steel bathroom…In my particular case they never turned off the light. My window was covered on the outside with some type of white plastic so that we could not attempt any type of visual communication with whatever may have been out there.” —D.L., Plymouth County Correctional Facility, Plymouth, MA, 2014
“I have been in solitary since 1998. From 1998-2005 I was held on “High Risk Potential”… which in part includes zero staff and/or inmate contact, no group activities, no program participation, stripped of privileges (e.g. phone, canteen, contact visits, hobby craft, inter alia), and escorted with arm and leg restraints that have a dog leash attached to them during any movement. In 2005 I was removed from the “HRP” status and Disciplinary Segregation, but placed on Administrative Segregation. I’m still stripped of privileges, staff and/or inmate contact, no group activities, no program participation and in-cell confinement for 23 hours a day. I also only get to shower every 3 days.” —G.P., Ely State Prison, Ely, NV, 2014
“First and I feel most importantly is the solitary confinement at the last prison I was at. It is a dungeon like setting. Dark, no windows, you go weeks and months sometimes not seeing light. These are dangerous and unsupervised for the most part. Men are put in these cells with other men which fight and get injured without anyone knowing for hours on end… I have seen several times inmate getting beat while in cuffs or ganged up by a number of officers…” —C.M., Staton Correctional Center, Elmore, AL, 2014
“The conditions were very inhumane…hot, no working vents at all… stuffy and humid…my first cell bugs were biting me all over my body, when I said something about it they (the medical staff) played like I was crazy then finally after constant complaining they gave me Benadryl then moved me and still didn’t clean the cell. They had a light on all day that felt like a rotisserie lamp. It was hard to sleep because of the hot humid cells and constant bugs biting me all day and night…we had no cups to drink the brown colored water that came out of the sinks and toilets. There was constant screaming yelling kicking and banging (with objects on doors to multiply the sound on the doors).” —A.S.A., SCI Dallas Restricted Housing Unit (confinement), Jackson Township, PA 2014
“I have basically been in seg64 housing unit and while being here the guards have tormented and encouraged me to cut myself and even specified jugular, carotid arteries, and have taunted me every time I have cut my wrist arteries, saying that I did not do it to their satisfaction and have threatened to beat me to a pulp.” —G.C., Wapun Correctional Institution, Wapun, WI, 2014
“It’s hard to explain the multitude of little factors that induce stress, anxiety, frustration, and depression…My best attempt to describe prolonged isolation in a supermax prison is that it’s like Chinese water torture. A single drop may not harm you but the millions of little drops of stress, anxiety, uncertainty, depression, and sorrow build up until you can begin to feel your mind breaking. I wish I could explain it better. Maybe then people could understand and wouldn’t allow this hell to continue.” —J.D., Tamms Correctional Center, Tamms IL, 2009
“I’ve been in the (hole) for three years and now so paranoid that I can’t be around people. I can’t even sleep in a cell with someone else even if I knew him all my life. I’ve tried every treatment, medication possible, no help…I am now so paranoid I can’t even be on the yards. Even in a lock [sic] cell, a lock [sic] shower, a lock [sic] rec cage, I’m still paranoid so how is it going to be on the streets when I am around others? I’ve really tried to work on it but nothing at all works even the medications. So all I ask is, is this place really need[ed].” —J.H., Federal Correctional Complex, Oakdale SMU, Oakdale, LA, 2010
“A suicide attempt. That’s what happened to me during my time in solitary. A serious, legitimate suicide attempt. I suffer of [sic] schizophrenia and while I was in segregation all I had to talk to was the voices in my head… While in solitary I was electrocuted due to faulty wiring. After that everything just went downhill for me. Every day I talked to delusions more and more. It got to the point that I did whatever the voices told me. Eventually I decided that was no way to live and chose to try to kill myself. I was found in my room passed out and cover [sic] in blood. The next morning I went right back into trying to kill myself as soon as [sic] woke up. I tried to kill myself by diving into a metal stool… I suffer of brain damage… If I would [sic] had daily conversations with other people, I would have not interacted with delusions. Delusions that led me to try to kill myself.” —D.A., Central New Mexico Correctional Facility, Los Lunas, NM, 2014
“This term [in solitary confinement] I have been in a little over 4 years straight, but overall most of the past 15 years… After doing a substantial amount of time inside alone, then being released is shocking. It is a blast for a few days then the people, colors, sounds, touching, movement, kids, cars, and social interactions become way too much, kind of like over-stimulation of the senses, it gets really uncomfortable around everyone and everything, so much that it usually takes alcohol or drugs to ‘feel’ comfortable.” —R.T., Corcoran State Prison, Corcoran, CA, 2014
“Even now, six months out of the hole I still remain affected. I withdraw from social interaction/setting. I feel frustrated for no apparent reason. Possibly the most damaging aspect of segregation is the sense of powerlessness. You can yell, scream, report misconduct and abuse to prison officials to no avail.” —B.S., Jefferson City Correctional Center, Jefferson City, MO, 2010
• Arizona’s Department of Corrections (ADOC) has agreed to a settlement in a class-action lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and other organizations on behalf of more than 33,000 prisoners. Among other things, the settlement will require the ADOC to put in place new rules for people with mental illness placed in solitary confinement. According to the ACLU, “instead of spending all but six hours a week in their cells, such prisoners will now have a minimum of 19 hours a week outside the cell, and this time must include mental health treatment and other programming.”
• The Washington Post editorial’s team published an Op-ed in response to the Arizona settlement, entitled “Rethinking solitary confinement.”
• NPR ran a segment on the conditions experienced by children held on Rikers Island, which includes a brief examination of the recent announcement by jail officials that they would end the use of solitary for young people.
• A special legislative committee in Nebraska is continuing to examine the case of Nikko Jenkins, who killed four people in Omaha last summer after being released directly directly from solitary confinement.
• College campuses around the Northeast participated in 7×9, a performance arts vigil designed to create awareness of and generate opposition to the use of solitary confinement in the United States.
• Tessa Murphy of Amnesty International published A Comment is Free Guardian piece entitled, “Solitary confinement is cruel and all too unusual. Why is it only getting worse?”
• Writing for AlterNet, Lynn Stuart Parramore details the story of Michael Anthony Kerr, who died of thirst after spending 35 days in a North Carolina solitary confinement cell.
• A Seattle radio station ran a segment on a special unit in a Washington state prison designed to serve the needs of individuals with developmental disabilities – an alternative to the solitary confinement cells that vulnerable people often face.
The following story comes from Mustafa Zulu, who has been in solitary confinement for most of the past 22 years. He was born and raised in Washington, DC, where he watched both parents struggle with drug addiction. At the age of 16, he was tried as an adult and convicted of murder. He is currently serving a 50+ year sentence at the federal supermax prison in Florence, Colorado. The following comes from a longer autobiographical piece called “Raised by Wolves.” He can be reached by writing Mustafa S.F. Zulu, #06454-041, US Penitentiary Ad Max, PO Box 8500, Florence, CO 81226. –Lauren Denitzio
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My life of solitary confinement begins the first day I enter the jail in 1993. Because it’s a jail for adults, all juveniles were segregated and locked down most of the time while awaiting trial. At 18, I was sent to a prison in Lorton, VA where I was locked down 23 hours a day. Soon I was transferred to the BOP where they sent me to Terre Haute penitentiary in Indiana. I stayed there for six months, where for the first and last time I was in general population.
In 1996, at the age of 19 years old, I was sent to the federal supermax prison here in Florence, Colorado, known as ADX or the new Alcatraz of the Rockies. I wads sent here nearly 20 years ago for an assault on an inmate. Back then the BOP did not have in place proper evaluations to determine if an inmate was suitable to be housed in solitary confinement, such as psychological evaluations etc. which they have now put in place as the result of major law suits. By all measures a 19 year old teenager was and should never be sent to America’s most secure federal supermax prison, where they boost of housing the so-called “worst of the worst”.
But I can tell you first hand, that it’s not only ‘the worst of the worst’ here. There’s also some of the best here, the smartest, strongest, courageous and undefeated men from every class and race. I know, I was raised by some of these so-called wolves.
The hot-tempered teenager I arrived here as nearly two decades ago, who was more schooled in crime than in scholarship and barely literate, is a man now. You could immediately make the logical assumption that throwing me to the wolves or placing me in a University of Crime (ADX), that it would only serve to produce a more calculating criminal. Well, you’d be both right and wrong. I am a better criminal, and in most cases this is all this place does is upgrade your criminal I.Q. and install a deep seated hatred for authority and different races.
But if like myself, one sets out on a path to better themselves that is certainly possible too – no thanks to the BOP and their overemphasis on punishment instead of rehabilitation programs.
Today I’m a better person because of my faith, friendships, and self-determination. There was a few of these so-called ‘worst of the worst’ who was the first to take notice of how young I was and my desire to better myself despite my circumstances. Some of these men have become my mentors, fathers, I never had. They opened my mind to a fascinating world of books where I could welcome into my cell some of the greatest minds in history. I still love most of all to sit in my cell and converse with the ideas of the great minds. The knowledge, virtues and disciplines I’ve learned are my most treasured possessions. History, religion, languages, mathematics, and politics are some of the subjects I’ve excelled at.
I can now only dream of the difference it would’ve made in my life to be given the type of guidance I’ve learned in prison as a child. What I could’ve accomplished and contributed to society? What if America valued its youth in urban communities enough to build more schools and factories instead of building more prisons or offshoring jobs to take advantage of cheap labor overseas.
In the ghettoes where alot of youth spend most of their time surviving, we are hardly ever exposed to any gratification of the spirit, art, poetry, philosophy and other civilizing influences. Our development are arrested long before we enter the gates of prison.
Lastly, one should never assume that because I’ve used my time wisely to embetter myself, that solitary confinement are anything but places where the human soul is tortured. There is no question that after 20 years solitary confinement has negatively and adversely impacted my mental and emotional well-being and has led to a deterioration of mind and spirit.
Solitary confinement has a cruel way of slowly destroying the logical process of the mind. I’ve witnessed too many friends of mine who was perfectly sane one day, go completely insane the next day! I could never feel secure that this will not happen to me because I work to embetter myself. No, it don’t work that way. This place either destroys you entirely or makes you stronger, but nobody, and I mean nobody, who does an extended stay at the Alcatraz of the Rockies leave here unscathed.
Freedom shares my cell,
Because my mind roams over these walls…
U.S. Government Tells UN Committee on Torture: “There Is No Systematic Use of Solitary Confinement in the United States”
Today, dozens of advocates will travel from around the country to Washington, DC, to take part in what are called “Civil Society Consultations” with representatives of the U.S. government on the subject of the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT).
As a signatory of CAT, the United States Government is required prepare a “Periodic Report” to the UN’s Committee Against Torture about its adherence to the Convention. In this report, the United States must respond to questions, observations, and recommendations for change issued by the Committee.
The U.S.’s latest Periodic Report, prepared by the State Department and due to be presented in Geneva in November, runs to more than 100 pages. The government addresses 55 separate items raised by the Committee Against Torture, on its conduct in the “war on terror” and also on its civil justice system.
CAT forbids “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person” for the purposes of intimidation, coercion, forced confession, or punishment, “when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.”
Unsurprisingly, the United States asserts that it is in all cases in alignment with CAT. It’s safe to say that most of the advocates permitted to testify at the State Department today will differ, to some degree, with that assertion. Some have even created “shadow reports” to the U.S. Periodic Report.
In what is pretty clearly a pro forma review process, each of the 21 representatives of “civil society” will have three minutes to address their concerns to members of the U.S. State, Justice, and Homeland Security Departments, who will then have the opportunity to respond. The entire session will take just two hours.
For advocates working on solitary confinement, the key item comes on page 73 of the U.S. Periodic Report. Amid questions regarding the treatment of immigrants, the death penalty, police brutality, and prison rape, item 37 asks the U.S. government to do the following:
Please describe steps taken to improve the extremely harsh regime imposed on detainees in “super-maximum security prisons”, in particular the practice of prolonged isolation.
The assurances provided by the United States should be read in full, but we are publishing a few choice sections here. For example, the U.S. report insists that the U.S. Constitution, as interpreted by the courts, offers sufficient protection against the ravages of solitary confinement to all people in prison, and especially to children and people with mental illness.
The U.S. Constitution, along with federal and state laws, establishes standards of care to which all inmates are entitled…U.S. courts have interpreted the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution as prohibiting the use of solitary confinement under certain circumstances, especially with regard to inmates with serious mental illness or for juvenile detainees. (Specifically, under the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against “cruel and unusual punishments,” correctional facility administrators may not subject inmates to solitary confinement with deliberate indifference to the resulting serious harms, including suicides, suicide attempts, and serious self-injury. See Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 843 (1970); see also, e.g., Madrid v. Gomez, 889 F. Supp. 1146, 1265 (N.D. Cal. 1995) (using prolonged solitary confinement on prisoners with serious mental illness can be “the mental equivalent of putting an asthmatic in a place with little air to breathe”)…
People with mental, physical, and psychological disabilities are not punished with solitary confinement, the U.S. reports asserts:
The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Rehabilitation Act) restrict and regulate the use of solitary confinement for persons with disabilities. Title II of the ADA, 42 U.S.C. 12132, applies to state actors, while the Rehabilitation Act applies to federal correctional facilities and correctional facilities receiving funds from the federal government. Both statutes prohibit the use of solitary confinement in a manner that discriminates on the basis of disability instead of making reasonable modifications to provide persons with disabilities access to services, programs, and activities, including mental health services. See Pa. Dep’t of Corr. v. Yeskey, 524 U.S. 206, 210 (1998).
Likewise, according to the report, children cannot be placed in solitary confinement (or at least, “only as a last resort”:
PREA [Prison Rape Elimination Act] restricts the use of solitary confinement for juvenile inmates and inmates who are the victims of sexual violence. Under implementing regulations, juveniles “may be isolated from others only as a last resort when less restrictive measures are inadequate to keep them and other residents safe, and then only until an alternative means of keeping all residents safe can be arranged.” 28 C.F.R. 115.342. The regulations also set time limits and other limitations on the use of solitary confinement on juvenile inmates. With regard to adult inmates at high risk for sexual victimization, the regulations establish conditions on placement in segregated housing and provide that if such inmates are placed in segregated housing, they are to have access to programs, education, work opportunities, and other services to the extent possible. 28 C.F.R. 115.43(a)-(b).
In fact, there is “no systematic use of solitary confinement in the United States” at all! Not even at the notorious federal supermax, ADX.
As stated in a letter of November 30, 2011, responding to a request from the Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, “[t]here is no systematic use of solitary confinement in the United States.” Noting that the Special Rapporteur had cited the U.S. Penitentiary, Administrative Maximum (ADX) facility as an example of a facility that places inmates in solitary confinement, the letter provided information including the following:
Security requirements at the ADX mandate restrictive procedures for movement of inmates and physical interaction with staff. For security reasons, inmates in General Population spend most of their day in individual cells. They are not deprived, however, of human interaction. Inmates can speak with (but not touch) one another in the recreation yards, and can communicate with the inmates housed on either side of their cells. The Warden, Associate Wardens, Captain, and Department Heads perform weekly rounds so they can visit with each inmate. Correctional Officers perform regular rounds throughout all three shifts on a daily basis. A member of an inmate’s Unit Team visits him every day, Monday through Friday, except on holidays. Inmates receive regular visits from medical staff, education staff, religious services staff, and mental health staff, and upon request if needed. In addition, General Population inmates are permitted five non-contact social visits per month and two fifteen-minute phone calls. Inmates in less restrictive housing units are permitted even more social visits and phone calls. Inmates can also send and receive personal correspondence.
Virtually everything we have published in the last five years on Solitary Watch refutes these assurances. So do the lives of the thousands of men, women, and children who have been driven to despair, to madness, to self-harm, or to suicide–all by a practice which, according to their government, is neither cruel, inhumane, degrading, or torturous.
• At a Nebraska legislative committee, two ombudsmen testified that they feared Nikko Jenkins would become violent if released, and attempted for years to get him treatment and assistance transitioning. Their pleas were ignored. Jenkins, who had spent three and a half years in solitary confinement, killed four people within ten days of getting released.
• A 36-year-old Florida serving 22 months for tax fraud was found dead in her solitary confinement cell on October 1, just days after she wrote letters home specifying that a guard had threatened to kill her. Lawyers for the family have requested an investigation be conducted by the Department of Justice.
• Writing for PS Mag, Lauren Kirchner explores “Why Solitary Confinement Hurts Juveniles More Than Adults.”
• At a New York City Council hearing, Council member Daniel Dromm made reference to last week’s New Yorker story about Kalief Browder, who spent nearly 800 days in solitary confinement after being wrongly accused of stealing a backpack. “Officials on Rikers subjected this child to torture. There’s no other way to put it,” he said. Meanwhile, the New York Times editorial board called for federal oversight of Rikers Island.
• In past years at least three individuals have died at Bridgewater State Hospital, Massachusetts’ prison for those with mental illness, as a result of being strapped to bed and placed in almost complete isolation, according to the Boston Globe. Bradley Burns, who was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, spent about 16 months completely immobilized before he died of a heart arrhythmia likely brought on by his medications and the restraints.
• A federal lawsuit filed against Vermont prison officials details the case of “Patient A,” who was meant to serve a 21-day sentence on a parole violation but ended up spending seven months in solitary confinement. According to the lawsuit, the man “suffered significant physical and psychological harm … including psychotic breaks, malnutrition and weight loss, bruises and trauma from uses of force,”
• The Epoch Times published an article about the No Separate Justice campaign and the conditions of confinement endured by terrorism suspects.
• October 10 was the 12th World Day Against the Death Penalty. In this video, Dr. Terry Kupers explains “how the decision to move death row to solitary confinement units in many prisons has compounded mental health issues among prisoners – a clear violation of human rights standards.”
William Blake is in solitary confinement at Elmira Correctional Facility in upstate New York. 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 50 years old, and is serving a sentence of 77 years to life. Blake is one of the few people in New York to be held in “administrative” rather than “disciplinary” segregation—meaning he’s considered a risk to prison safety and is in isolation more or less indefinitely, despite periodic pro forma reviews of his status. He is now in his 27th year of solitary confinement.
Billy Blake is a prolific reader and a gifted writer who has written for Solitary Watch before, notably a piece that went viral worldwide called “A Sentence Worse Than Death.” Here, he describes what happens when he bonds with another creature in his solitary cell. He welcomes mail at the following address: William Blake 87-A-5771, Elmira C.F., P.O. Box 500, Elmira, NY 14902-0500. –Savannah Crowley
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“Pop! Pop-pop-pop! Pop-pop!” I heard the loud noise echoing through the solitary confinement unit at Shawangunk Correctional Facility in the spring of 1988. It sounded like somebody was slapping a sneaker onto the concrete floor of their cell.
I put down the book I was reading and went to my cell gate to call my neighbor, as it sounded like the noise might be coming from his cell. “Willie, is that you making all the racket?”
“Yeah. There’s a mouse in my cell, and he picked the wrong cell to try to steal some food from. I’m gonna kill his ass now,” the man locking next to me said. Willie had been my neighbor since I had arrived at Shawangunk’s Special Housing Unit (SHU) in July of the year before.
“Don’t kill him, bro, just chase him out of your house. He’s just trying to live like everyone else is,” I pleaded for the little rodent’s life.
“Fuck that! I’m gonna kill this sucker so he can’t come in here again. They ain’t feeding us good enough to be giving anything up to a damn mouse,” Willie said.
I heard a few more pops as Willie chased the tiny creature around his cell, swatting at it with his sneaker. All the sudden, as I stood at the bars looking toward Willie’s cell, I saw the mouse fly onto the company and stop a few from the wall opposite the cell fronts.
“Yeah! I got that motherfucker,” Willie loudly said, sounding happy about ridding the unit of one mouse. It would not make his food any safer, though, the little he would save from his trays during the day to eat come nighttime. Shawagunk’s box was loaded with mice, roaches too. I have never seen a prison that isn’t, and I’ve been in many. Killing one would make no difference.
The mouse didn’t move for several minutes as I watched it, so I at first thought it was dead. But then it moved and began to head down the company, right toward my cell. It was moving very slowly, though, nothing like a mouse usually does, furry little rockets on four feet that they normally are, shooting across open areas to move about along the walls. As it got closer and I could see it better in the dim light shining on the company, I saw that the mouse was dragging itself by its front legs only. Its back legs were stretched out behind it, looking useless and not moving at all.
The angle the mouse was taking would have put it just past my cell gate, so it probably was trying to make it to the door of the pipechase between my cell and my neighbor’s to the left–Willie’s cell was to my right. Mice run under the solid-steel doors of the pipechases all the time, and once in there are safe from any traffic there might be when guards are taking inmates out of their cells to shower, for recreation in the empty SHU yards, or to visits or call-outs to the prison hospital or elsewhere. That is probably where they make their homes, as those pipe chases are dark and are rarely opened. They could hide safely during the daytime and come out at night to search for food, as mice like to do, nocturnal things that they are. It looked to me like the injured mouse was heading to the safest place it knew, heading home to the pipechase.
Willie may have been happy because he thought the mouse dead and still lying out near the wall, but to me it was a terribly sad sight to see that tiny mammal struggle down the company dragging its useless back legs behind it. I have always loved animals, totally innocent and completely without malice as they are. It is with people that I have had my problems. People often operate with malicious motivations and ill intent, while animals never do.
My heart went out to that injured mouse as I watched him bravely make his way down the company, and I wanted to help him.
A “missile” is mandatory cell equipment for inmates doing time in SHU. It is a short pole made of rolled-up newspaper or other paper. After pulling thread from a bed sheet, or from anything else with thread in it, we make a long string (called a “dragline” in prison parlance) and attach it to the missile. By firing the missile through the cell bars and down the company, inmates cross draglines, and the inmate whose line is on top of the other’s pulls the line in. Magazines and newspapers go through many hands before they are discarded, and guys make deals to swap food all the time. A man might need a stamp to mail a letter or any number of other things, and because nobody can get their hand through the cell bars, there is only one way to pass something. The cell bars are in a plain-weave pattern of about two-inch squares, and feed-up hatches in gates and back doors stay locked, so no hand or arm is getting out of the cell to pass anything. If an inmate wants to send or get something from another prisoner, he must go “fishing.” To do that he has to have a dragline and missile
Fishing is against the rules, possessing a dragline or missile is not allowed, and the prison authorities have tried many things to stop inmates from passing items from cell to cell in SHU. But none of this has stopped the show. Almost every inmate in the box (SHU) keeps a dragline, and when the guards take it and its missile the inmate will simply rip another sheet for thread and roll up some more paper, usually before the day is done. Nearly every inmate will at one time want to pass something to or get something from a neighbor, so he will need the equipment to do it. Fishing goes on every single day in SHU. All the threats to write tickets that officers make, or actually writing them, and their many attempts to stop it in different ways, has never done a thing to keep inmates from fishing daily. And it never will short of sealing the cells up tight.
When my cell bars had been sealed off by a plexiglass shield that had been placed on them, I have fished under the gate with only a half-inch space to work with, tooth-paste squirted into folded paper and put into an envelope being my “car” or “whip” to attach a dragline to, to get it down the company. I have pulled crushed bread rolled up in a sheet of writing paper through a hole in my cell wall no bigger around than a number two pencil. I loosened the bolts beneath the steel bedframe, which ran through the wall to my neighbor’s bed, by jumping up and down on my bed like a kid on a trampoline till sweat poured out of me. Once I had gotten a bolt loose enough to turn, I unscrewed it and pulled it out. A small hole ran through the wall, and when I looked through it I saw my friend’s brown eye looking back at me. I smiled and knew he was too, though all I could see was his eye. Then I heard him say, “It’s chow time now, Billy!” The guards hadn’t fed me in more than two days, and they had put garbage cans and pillows on the narrow company to block it off and make it impossible to fish under my plexiglass-covered gate. I could eat at last, though, pulling bread that my buddy rolled up in paper through that tiny hole in the wall.
Leave just a crack or small hole anywhere in a cell and the men and women locked in solitary will find a way to reach through it to the world outside their steel and concrete cage.
I used a missile to reach under my gate to gently guide that injured mouse into my cell. He needed help, and I wanted to see if I could give him some.
I am no veterinarian or doctor of any kind, but after watching how the mouse’s hind legs were dragging uselessly behind it, it did not take a medical degree to figure that its back may be broken. I was worried about causing the little animal more pain than it was already likely in, or doing more damage, so I slid a sheet of writing paper under it to pick it up rather than use my hand, which would squeeze it no matter how gentle I tried to be. When I got the mouse onto the paper, I took it to my bed and set it down there. I wanted to check it out thoroughly.
The mouse was clearly a baby. I didn’t have a clue at the time as to how fast mice grow or how long they live, but since the mouse’s body, sans the tail, was no longer than the tip of my pinky to the first joint, I knew it had to be very young, just a baby. I could see a bump on the lower part of its spine that didn’t look like it belonged there, and it grew bigger before long. This made me feel certain that its back was broken.
What could I do? I thought to myself. I expected that it would probably die before the night was done, so I decided to just try to make the tiny creature comfortable till it did. If I let it go it was not likely to find any food or do very well in the condition it was in, so I set it in my dry sink to keep it from wandering off while I made a box for it.
In the early part of 1988 I was allowed the same property in my cell as population inmates, though I was housed in SHU. I was in the box then, as I still remain twenty-six years later, because the prison authorities had deemed me a security threat too risky to be allowed in general population. I was in the county jail charged with armed robbery and possession of cocaine when I shot two police officers during a failed escape attempt in 1987, killing one. It was for this crime that corrections officials deemed me a security threat and placed me in SHU upon my arrival to the state prison system. Later in 1988 New York State would enact more draconian laws for its administrative segregation status inmates, which I was, so they would be allowed no more privileges or property than inmates serving SHU disciplinary sentences for serious violations of prison rules.
I had all the privileges and property that a general population inmate would have when I tried to help the paralyzed mouse, I was just segregated and kept locked in a SHU cell all day apart from population. I had no disciplinary sanctions and had violated no rules or regulations but would soon be living under the exact same barren conditions as the SHU disciplinary status inmates around me, when the Department of Corrections changed its regulations regarding how it treats its inmates who have violated no prison rules but whom they have labeled a threat to prison security for one reason or another–or for no good or real reason at all, as is my situation today. My crime is nearly three decades old, and I am a world away from the young fool I was when I committed it. But in ad seg I have remained for all these years.
So I had tape when the paralyzed mouse happened along, though I would soon be banned from possessing it and most of the other property in my cell. I used it to tape the cardboard backs of five writing tablets together to make a box for the mouse. When I finished putting it together I put the mouse in it, keeping the sheet of paper underneath him lest he be jostled about while I was trying to slide it out.
When I was a kid growing up on the south side of Syracuse, New York, the city’s worst neighborhood, we had plenty of mice in every house we lived in, all of which were multi-family homes. My father, with whom I lived with a younger brother, fought a never-ending battle against the rodents and roaches that he never gave up on despite the futility. I remembered him mentioning that mice love peanut butter and jelly on bread better than any cheese; and since he was always catching plenty in the traps he would set around the house, I figured he must know what he’s talking about. I didn’t have any cheese on hand anyway, so I could not have tested the theory had I wanted to.
I did have plenty of peanut butter and jelly, though, so I dabbed a bit on a small piece of bread and put it in the box with the mouse, right in front of him so he wouldn’t have to crawl at all to get to it. To wash it down the tiny fellow would need some water, so I put a little in the lid of a Styrofoam cup and put it within easy reach for him.
Back in 1978, ten years before the handicapped mouse and what today seems to me like forever ago, I was a 14-year-old doing time in a juvenile facility called South Lansing Center, not far from Ithaca, New York. I took a first aid class there that, as it would happen, helped me save the life of a friend who had cut his wrist wide open with a butcher knife and severed veins. Among other things, I learned how to treat shock in that class. I thought that with a broken back the mouse might be in shock, since I recalled that severe physical trauma could cause it. I could not elevate the mouse’s feet above the level of its head as I was taught to do in the case of a person in shock, but I had the thought that the mouse’s physiology didn’t require it to help the flow of blood to the brain. His head was down and resting on the paper he lay on, I saw and looked to be as low to the ground as any part of him. It was early spring, though, and pretty chilly on the unit. So I knew what he needed.
I got my small blunt-tipped scissors out and cut a little square from my blanket. I then laid it over the mouse’s back, taking care not to cover his head so as not to interfere with his breathing. That was about everything I could do after doing that, little though it seemed to me to be.
A prayer isn’t something that I have ever been convinced guarantees anything, or even has a chance to work well for anything but the peace of mind of the one making it, but I was at the time–as I still am–talking to God daily on the off chance that He may be listening. So I said a prayer for that baby mouse, asking God to ease the pain that I knew it must be in. I did not ask God to save the tiny creature. What could a paralyzed rodent living in a solitary confinement unit do to stay alive? I had thought. Likely nothing. But I was not going to pray for the poor animal’s death either.
So I prayed that its pain would be relieved, and I hoped in my heart that it would be. Whether the mouse lived or died was in God’s hands, or fate’s, or whoever it is that has dominion over such matters–and I am not going to pretend to know.
I never told Willie, or anyone else, that I had the injured mouse in my cell that night. So no one on the unit knew.
The next morning, soon as I got out of bed, before I even went to the commode to take my morning leak, I checked on the mouse. He was still alive, and he had moved. He had also eaten all the bread with peanut butter and jelly on it. I put my finger in front of his nose to see if he had made some kind of miraculous recovery and would try to run, but he didn’t move at all, just stood there frozen, eyes wide open so I knew he was not sleeping. I could see rapid movements on his body signaling fast breathing and the speedy heartbeat of a small animal, so he wasn’t dead with his eyes stuck in the open position. I could also see the bump on his spine far down his back; it looked bigger than ever.
When I touched him with my finger he moved then. He was still dragging his hind legs.
I didn’t know if the mouse was a he or a she, and I knew not a thing about their anatomy that would allow me to have a look and see what it was. When I was talking to him as I did what I could to make him comfortable that first night, though, I had referred to him as a male. So he was always a he to me, even if he was in actuality a she.
Since he had lived through the night I became hopeful that he would make it for the long haul, and I really wanted him to. As I watched him still dragging his back legs uselessly behind, I was convinced that the bump on his spine was indeed a break that meant he would never run like a normal mouse again. But I was loving that tiny animal before he had twenty-four hours in my cell, and I wanted him to live. He could not be set free in the condition he was in because he would either starve or be easily caught dragging himself slowly about by an inmate like Willie, and I knew this. But I would take care of him and hope the guards would leave him alone when they were in my cell searching it, as they did several times a month when I was at rec.
Days passed and the mouse lived and got more and more active along the way. I stopped keeping him in the box except when I was out of my cell. When I was in the cell I would block the front gate and back door off so he couldn’t slip under them and get away. This allowed him to roam freely around the cell, and I thought it good for his rehabilitation. He needed the exercise.
After the first few days, when I was convinced that he would live, I officially gave my new pet a name. I called him Mouse. I did not want to give him a female name and have him turn out to be male–and you know he would never forgive me for that. Likewise, if I gave her a male name when she was in fact female, that would not be cool. So I gave it the genderless appellation Mouse, figuring that there could be no name more aptly suited to a mouse. That was what I had been calling him since the first day anyway.
One day, as I was watching him drag himself across the floor, I had a flashback to something I had seen on TV awhile before. I couldn’t recall what show I had been watching at the time, but while watching television one day years before I had seen paralyzed dogs in these contraptions with two wheels that looked a bit like the buggies that jockeys ride in as they race harness horses, the trotters and pacers that I had watched run countless times at the track my father would bring me to when I was a kid. The dogs had broken backs just like Mouse did, and the two-wheeled buggies allowed the animals to run around by using only their front legs, bodies resting on and held aloft by the buggy, its wheels acting as substitutes for the animals’ useless hind legs. Could I make a buggy like that for Mouse? Would he even move around in it if I did? I was going to find out.
I used Styrofoam feed-up trays that I was served my meals in to make most of the buggy, with a paper clip as an axle for the two tiny wheels I had fashioned to spin on it. I cut a harness out of one of my green prison shirts and sewed it right to the platform of the buggy that Mouse’s body would rest upon. In a couple of hours, after a little trial and error, I had the buggy done. Now to see if Mouse would like it.
A couple months had passed since Mouse’s back had been broken and he had grown bigger quickly, had even gotten a bit fat. I spoiled him with Carnation Instant Milk, which he loved, and any food he cared to have that I would get in my meal trays or in packages and commissary (both of which were privileges I would lose when the ad seg regulation changed). Though he remained paralyzed he seemed to otherwise heal well, and I could pick him up with no apparent distress. I even discovered that he was far smarter than I ever thought a mouse could be.
I was wondering if Mouse was in any manner trainable, so I decided to put him to the test. Before I fed him I would tap a plastic pen loudly on the cell’s concrete floor and do it in a distinctive pattern that I would never alter, sort of like spelling the same message out each time in Morse code. Then I would go get him–usually from under the bed where he liked to hang out–and feed him. So he only ate after hearing the same distinctive tapping sound being made on the floor. For a few weeks I’d tap and wait before I went to get him, and eventually he did exactly what I had been wondering if he would ever do: he came out from under the bed on his own, to where I was tapping and had his much-loved PB and J on Keebler Townhouse Crackers with Carnation Instant Milk, looking to eat. He was tentative at first but before too long would come quickly whenever I would tap. Mouse was trainable after all, a veritable genius among mice, I was certain.
I maneuvered Mouse into his harness, wrapped the little strap around his back that secured him snugly, locked the strap in place with its clasp made of a staple, and put him on the floor in his new buggy. He took off immediately just a short distance at first, like he was surprised that he could move so easily and quickly, but then he was gone, zooming all over the cell like a joy-filled man who had just been healed at a Christian revival after spending half his life in a wheelchair. Just like the paralyzed dogs I had seen on TV. Mouse could now run fast and well, with wheels for hind legs.
I learned a lot about mice from Mouse during those first couple of months that I had him, and one of those things was that mice will play just like a young kitten and puppy will do. At least young mice like Mouse was will. When I would put my finger on the floor and slide it back and forth very quickly in front of him, he would watch it intently just like a kitten does, head snapping from side to side to follow and looking like he is ready to pounce. When I’d shoot the finger toward him real quick Mouse would jump as much as having only two good legs would allow, take off running in his buggy, make a quick circuit of the cell and come right back to play some more. Sometimes he wouldn’t come right back, though. But a tap of the pen on the floor would bring him to me fast.
Mouse was not so little anymore–once even requiring me to rebuild his buggy and make a new harness–when I went to the yard one fateful day, as I did almost every day back then. I always put him in his box when I would leave my cell and I did likewise this day, like I had done for all of the seven or eight months I had him. When I returned to my cell, after putting the newspaper barrier back in front of the gate to block it off, I went right to the box to set Mouse free. I kept him in his buggy most of the time so he could move around the cell easily as he pleased, taking him out for his thrice weekly baths, that I suspected he never cared for, and not much otherwise. He was still in his buggy when I looked into his box, but the buggy was crushed. Mouse had a black Papermate pen stuck through his back, the same kind of pen that I used to call him to me, only this was one that a C.O. had owned, as many did since the prison gave them out free to officers and inmates alike. There was blood all over the cardboard box.
A C.O. had come into my cell when I was at rec and murdered Mouse. My best friend in that prison was dead and I was on fire inside.
I had three dogs that I loved when I as growing up, and I loved Mouse every bit as much as I had loved them. For the months he was with me he had been good company in a place that can be a lonely world, and I would miss him dearly.
No inmate could tell me who had gone into my cell and killed Mouse because none had seen. The inmates in the area of my cell were at rec in the SHU yards just as I was, or in the dayroom if they were protective custody inmates. Any C.O. could have come out of the SHU control “bubble” (console) and gone into my cell unobserved by any prisoner. But I knew who had done the dirty deed.
All the guards knew I had the paralyzed mouse and none had bothered him for the months that Mouse was with me, though they regularly came into my cell to search it when I was at rec or on visits. There is no such thing as privacy in prison and nothing that you might think is yours is truly your own. The police will come into your cell whenever they please, take what they please, break and destroy what they please, and few have any regard for the law or prison rules or regulations themselves, not the regulations regarding cell searches or property confiscation or any other regulations. To them, the law and rules and regulations are for the inmates alone. We have no rights but what the whim and fancy of our keepers deign to grant us at a given moment. These are facts that no corrections official would ever publicly admit, but that every prisoner knows only too well.
I had written a complaint against a SHU officer (for all the no good it would do) days before Mouse was killed, and in the days that followed he would let me know that it was he who had done the deed. I had known it immediately anyway, before he began taunting me about my friend’s bloody death.
On top of the sadness I felt over the loss of my buddy, I was angry in a monumental way, the Irish in me working its curse through a fiery temperament. I thought about making a counterattack on the man in blue who had murdered Mouse to punish me for writing what was a totally truthful complaint, but in the end I chose to handle the blow without riposte rather than get myself in serious trouble by serving the cop the comeuppance that he rightly deserved. Back then, in my younger and more foolish days, I did not always make this sort of smart choice: I did not always let an injustice or misdeed be served up to me without seeking to make the one who had served it wish to God that he had not, no matter what the consequences of the payback might be.
But we live and learn, and if we are smart we gain some wisdom along the way. I like to think that I have.
• Eighth Amendment attorney Martin Garbus published an Op-ed with the LA Times about cruel and unusual punishment in prisons and jails.
• About thirteen individuals incarcerated by the state of Vermont are being held in solitary confinement in an Arizona prison, after they refused to enter their cells and destroyed prison property. Vermont “outsources” prisoners to the Corrections Corporation of America due to a lack of beds in-state; individuals sent out of state are separated from the local prison population and face very restrictive conditions of movement.
• The mental health manager at the Spokane County Jail filed a court declaration in connection with an ongoing class action lawsuit, in which she was sharply critical of conditions on the inside. She explains, “We have no other place for [prisoners with mental illness]… unfortunately, solitary confinement is not therapeutic and exacerbates their symptoms.”
• The Department of Justice (DOJ) has opened an investigation into the death of Michael Anthony Kerr, a 54-year-old with a history of mental illness who passed away from dehydration after being held in solitary confinement in a North Carolina prison for 35 days.
• The DOJ also opened an investigation into another case, in Harris County, in which a 24-year-old was allegedly held in solitary confinement for as long as two months “amid piles of excrement, rotting trash and swarms of insects.”
• Andrew Cohen published a response to Graeme Wood’s recent, controversial article on how the problem of gangs in California’s Pelican State Prison. Cohen focuses extensively on how Wood covered the issue of solitary confinement in his piece.
• Writing in The New Yorker, Jennifer Gonnerman explores the case of Kalief Browder, who spent about three years at Rikers after being falsely accused of stealing a backpack; of that time, about seventeen months were spent in solitary confinement.
• An administrative judge has recommended the firing of six New York City correctional officers for a 2012 beating on Rikers Island. Robert Hinton, 27, was left with a broken nose, fractured back and other injuries after he was assaulted by guards on a now-closed solitary confinement unit for individuals with mental illness.
• A federal judge has found that Maricopa County’s jails continue to provide inadequate medical and mental health care to those incarcerated, and ordered that the jail remain under federal oversight. According the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), individuals with mental illness held in the jail have been placed in solitary confinement and routinely denied treatment.
The following piece originally appeared in September 2013 in Tablet, and is republished here by permission of the author. Margo Schlanger is a professor of law at the University of Michigan and the former Department of Homeland Security Officer for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. She helped to draft the American Bar Association’s Criminal Justice Standards on the Treatment of Prisoners.
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Preparing this year for Yom Kippur, I began to study the Book of Jonah, traditionally read on the afternoon of the holiday, for insight into our country’s current use of solitary confinement. After all, Jonah is perhaps the most famous solitary prisoner of all time. And at first blush it might seem that his (short) stay in solitary—inside a whale—was pretty good for him. It turns out, though, that even Jonah didn’t find redemption in solitary confinement.
The story of Jonah is ancient, but it addresses a topic with real contemporary urgency. At last count, 80,000 American prisoners were locked in solitary confinement. In California this summer, long-term solitary provoked a hunger strike of tens of thousands of prisoners; it ended a week ago, with dozens of prisoners having refused to eat for two entire months, after the California legislature promised hearings. Strikers sought more humane and less isolating conditions—better food, access to sunlight, more individualized decision-making about their continued stay in Special Housing Units. Does Jonah have anything to say about the best response to those demands?
Jonah’s first chapter tells us about God’s call to the prophet Jonah to go to Nineveh—an enormous, distant, and non-Jewish city—and inform the Ninevites of the errors of their ways. But Jonah does not do what prophets do. He does not answer God in words; he does not inveigh or argue. He simply disobeys, running away as fast and far as he can. He hires a ship to Tarshish, at the other end of the Mediterranean. On the ship, too, Jonah declines the prophetic role of speaking to God. As all the sailors cry out to their gods to save them from the deadly storm that threatens, he sleeps. Even when the lots are cast and it is apparent that he is the source of the storm, he explains to his shipmates what is going on but does not deign to pray, or even talk, to God. He has them throw him into the water, and when he is in the water, drowning, again he fails to seek salvation, intercession, explanation.
But then things change, the text tells us: “God appointed a great fish to swallow Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. Then Jonah prayed to the Lord, his God, from the belly of the fish.” So we learn from the Book of Jonah the possibility, the aspiration, that stress and discomfort, hopelessness and fear can lead to some kind of redemption. Jonah uses his three days alone with his conscience to good effect. He ends them with obedience in two ways: First, he re-embraces his relationship with God, by calling out in prayer to him. And second, he goes to Nineveh, as commanded.
This episode and text shed light on the modern prison practice of solitary confinement—isolating prisoners alone in a cell the size of a parking space for 23 hours a day, with an hour, still alone, in an “exercise yard” (a shed-sized, ceiling-less room of concrete, open to the sky and elements but often with no ability to see out, except above). Prisoners and their keepers call this kind of confinement “seg” (for segregation) or “the box” or the SHU (Special Housing Unit). The original impetus for seg housing, used by the Quakers in the nation’s first prison, in Philadelphia, was to provide time and occasion for thought and repentance—the very way that the whale’s belly worked for Jonah. Modern prison segregation, however, has a different theory. It’s premised more on ideas about contagion and control; fear that the “worst of the worst” prisoners will harm others if not isolated, and that the just punishment for noncompliance within prison is to make conditions harsher, sentencing offending inmates to a prison within a prison.
So, how does this work, in practice? We learn from countless witnesses, voices from inside solitary confinement, that Jonah’s hope, and his deliverance to a life of purpose, are atypical responses to isolation. How do most people react to isolation, to the modern belly of the whale? Here’s one account, from Cesar Francisco Villa, a California prisoner who has been in solitary confinement for 11 years. What he writes is worth quoting at some length:
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. … 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 you 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.
Some extremely resilient prisoners can survive even long-term solitary confinement with their minds and souls whole, almost unscathed. But for many, perhaps most, isolation—and the featureless, purposeless life that accompanies it—is deeply damaging. Yet today, we impose this state, this harm, on tens of thousands of prisoners. The Michigan prison system has over a thousand prisoners in long-term segregation. In our national experiment of mass incarceration, we are not only imprisoning more people than any nation ever has before—over 20 percent of the world’s current prisoners—we are housing more of them in segregation, for longer periods of time than has ever been attempted. We should be unsurprised if few or none experience Jonah’s positive response.
Let’s move back to Jonah for a deeper look: Jonah learned something in the whale’s belly, but even Jonah’s new-found clarity was far from perfect. He learned obedience but not understanding. Later in the story we find that Jonah is deeply aggrieved, even angry with God. Why? Because when the Ninevites so speedily repented, God relented and went back on the prior promise to ruin the city. Jonah heads outside the city to sit alone—again, solitary if not confined—and stew over this felt grievance. He complains that God is “compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness, repenting of evil,” throwing those words at God as an accusation, not, as we pray today, as words of hope or entreaty or praise. Jonah is deeply skeptical of mercy and believes only in harsh justice. At the same time, he is psychologically in a very similar place as the prisoner quoted above, enraged and desperate over the withering of the gourd on which he was relying for shade.
God could simply reject Jonah’s views about the world and subject him to punishment for them. Perhaps that punishment would be a harsher or longer term of isolation, as it is so often in prison. But that’s not what happens. Instead, what God rejects is Jonah’s chosen isolation. God ends Jonah’s segregation in the sukkah, the booth he has built, interrupting it with conversation that extolls the quality of mercy—deserved or not, applicable even to the thousands who don’t know their right from left, to the beasts as well as the people. We don’t see or hear Jonah’s reaction, but the tradition subscribed to by most Jewish commenters on Jonah holds that he is abashed and persuaded, that this book is about Jonah’s salvation more than the redemption of Nineveh.
Following that tradition, Jonah’s teshuvah does occur, but not in isolation in the whale’s belly, and not as a matter of justice. Jonah’s teshuvah occurs when God engages Jonah’s humanity to explain to him the ineffable value of mercy and when Jonah understands that just like a child who doesn’t know right from left, good from evil—just like all of us, including our prisoners—he, too, depends on mercy.
The New York City Department of Correction (DOC) has plans to minimize the solitary confinement of 16 and 17 year olds on Rikers Island. This according to an internal memo obtained by the New York Times, as reported in an article published earlier this week.
The revelation comes on the heels of a three-year investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), the findings of which were released in an August report by the U.S. Attorney’s office in Manhattan. The report sharply criticized the DOC for its use of solitary confinement on the children in its custody. Among other abuses, the DOJ found that “there is a pattern and practice of conduct at Rikers that violates the constitutional rights of adolescent inmates.”
The report concludes that “DOC relies far too heavily on punitive segregation as a disciplinary measure, placing adolescent inmates—many of whom are mentally ill—in what amounts to solitary confinement at an alarming rate and for excessive periods of time.” The report also lays out numerous remedial measures, recommending that DOC “develop and implement an adequate continuum of alternative disciplinary sanctions for rule violations that do not involve lengthy isolation” of adolescents, and “prohibit placing adolescents with mental health disorders in solitary confinement for punitive purposes.”
On Sunday, the Times reported that DOC Commissioner Joseph Ponte had responded openly to DOJ’s scathing critique. Ponte reportedly told members of the New York City Board of Corrections, the oversight body for Rikers and other city jails, that “jail operations needed to be changed to better deal with adolescents.” The Times shared the contents of Ponte’s memo to Mayor Bill de Blasio, in which Ponte alludes to policy changes that could bring an end to the longstanding practice of confining 16 and 17 year olds in cells for up to 23 hours a day. The DOC puts the number of 16 and 17 year-olds currently being held in isolation at 51.
Although the September 25 memo is “short on specifics,” the Times reported, it “says that solitary confinement will be replaced by ‘alternative options, intermediate consequences for misbehavior and steps designed to pre-empt incidents from occurring’ ” when it comes to children on Rikers. According to the Times, the internal memo referred to “the first round of changes” Ponte will make to “meet our shared commitment to a safe, just and age-appropriate correctional setting.”
New York is one of only two states in which 16 and 17 year olds accused of a felony are automatically tried as adults and placed in adult jails while awaiting trial or serving their sentences. Earlier this year, under pressure from a lawsuit brought by the New York Civil Liberties Union, the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) which, reached an agreement that it would limit the use of solitary confinement for juveniles under the age of 18 in state prisons. Research has shown that without such restrictions, juveniles placed in adult prisons and jails are disproportionately likely to end up in solitary confinement.
Johnny Perez, who spent sixty days in solitary confinement on Rikers at the age of 16, sees the development as positive, but emphasizes that further change in needed. Perez works as a Safe Reentry Advocate at the Urban Justice Center and is active in the NYC Jails Action Coalition, the grassroots group that has spearheaded the fight for change to solitary confinement practices on Rikers. In an email to Solitary Watch about the Times article, Perez wrote, “Although Ponte’s decision is a step in the right direction, there is still much work to do. As we know the brain is not fully developed until the age of 25, so ideally we would like to see all people 25 and under excluded from Solitary confinement.”
This is a familiar caution, often echoed by advocates and raised during a hearing last July on the solitary confinement of juveniles before by the New York State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Dr. Bandy Lee, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the Yale School of Medicine and author of a report issued to the DOC condemning solitary confinement, testified that exclusions from solitary confinement should extend to those older than 18, as the brain is not yet fully formed until the age of 25.
Further progress could be made through the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act, introduced in the New York State Legislature earlier this year. HALT would ban all use of isolation on 21 and younger, in both state prisons and local jails. The bill, however, faces a steep uphill battle in both houses of the legislature.
This following account was written by Anthony Lamar Davis, 34, who has been incarcerated for 11 years of a 22-year sentence. He has spent more than six of those years in solitary confinement. In New York State prisons, about 13,000 sentences to solitary confinement in the Special Housing Units, or SHUs, are handed out each year, most of them for nonviolent disciplinary violations, and close to 4,000 people are in isolated confinement at any given time. Here, Davis writes about a suicide attempt that took place last year, and his ongoing battles with the effects of extreme isolation. He can be reached by writing: Anthony Lamar Davis, #04-A-3293, Green Haven Correctional Facility, 594 Rt. 216, Stormville, New York 12582-0010. –Lauren Denitzio
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On August 4, 2013, while waiting for an officer to handcuff and escort me back to the cell that awaited me after showering, I sat on the floor holding a razor used for shaving. Today was the day I decided to end my life. My decision came from a mixture of things. Things like the living nightmare that I called my childhood, my loneliness, the fact that I have been incarcerated for 11 years and had not seen one single family member – including my own children – in that time. Hundreds of things ran through my mind. Including being in extreme isolation.
In my 11 years of incarceration, I’ve been in and out of solitary confinement for about 6 1/2 years and a 3 year sanction had just been imposed on me (it has since been modified) for an accusation for which I was falsely accused, causing me to be removed from a facility located about 20 minutes outside of New York City (Sing Sing Correctional Facility) – where I am from – to a zoo-like facility build to house prisoners in solitary confinement, which is located hours away from my city where my children are.
On August 4, 2013, I’ve had enough. And, truth-be-told, I was not at all afraid, excited, anxious, or nervous as I broken the guard on the razor and cut my wrist / forearm to the point where I had to be taken to an outside hospital for stitches. I felt no pain. Nothing. I knew that suicide was an effective way to get rid of all the difficulties that surrounded my life. What the hell is the purpose of living if one does not experience happiness?
Again, I have done over 11 years in prison off of a 22 year sentence (New York state prisoners do 85% of their determinate sentences if they “behave”) so I do have a release date. But in the way that I have been affected by extreme isolation, I fear that I will not be productive in society. I have no family. If I was to be released from prison today, I would be completely lost; like being born as a full grown adult. Furthermore, I am not the same person I once was. The charming, funny, handsome, charismatic individual whom I used to be is gone. His soul snatched away by the psychological effects of solitary confinement. I have now become this soul-less, bitter, fraction of myself who is emotionally unstable and full of rage. This is not how I want to live; who I want to be.
I am aware of the effects that extreme isolation has had on me. These effects are not just limited to being in solitary confinement. I will be released from solitary confinement in May of this year (2014), but I will still be a product of solitary confinement. My pain will not end because I have been relocated to general population. There, it will be much difficult for me. I still will have no family. I still will be lonely (I literally feel hollow inside), I still will be bitter and full of rage. Now, there are no people around me, so when my rage surfaces, I bruise my knuckles by punching the concrete walls or screaming (my anger has reached dangerous highs). When I get back to general population – assuming that I have the strength to get through the remainder of my time in solitary confinement – my rage will still be with me and now there will be people to punch and not concrete walls. I am fearful of my future in general population.
I am at war with my own self and it has become a constant struggle to wake up and face the day. I have become a monster created by life and taught by the effects of solitary. I’ve come to realize that this is who I am now and I don’t like what I see when I stare at the monster in the mirror. The fight. The war. I take solace in the possibility that I could wake up one morning, defeated. Not wanting to fight anymore.
And what happened on August 4, 2013, will happen again. But this time the results would be final.
• Michael Anthony Kerr, a North Carolina man who had been held in solitary confinement, died of thirst, according to a recently released autopsy. The pathologist wrote that the Department of Corrections released too little information for her to determine whether Mr. Kerr’s death constituted a homicide; however, she did note that at the time he was not receiving any treatment for his schizoaffective disorder.
• At a Colorado gubernatorial debate, the two candidates addressed a variety of issues, including solitary confinement. Governor John Hickenlooper mentioned his friend, Boulder attorney Jack Ebel, whose son Evan allegedly killed then-prisons chief Tom Clements in 2013 after being released from solitary confinement. He commented, “my friend would painstakingly describe how he saw his son withering away in front of his eyes.”
• The Village Voice published a profile of Masai Stewart, a 23-year-old with a long history of mental illness currently incarcerated in the New York State Correctional System. Stewart was sentenced to many months of punitive segregation in the Special Housing Unit (SHU), despite a SHU exclusion law designed to keep those with mental illness out of isolation.
• Associate Professor Tamar R. Birckhead published an op-ed about a young man who spent more than 300 days in solitary confinement at Rikers. She writes, “Ismael Nazario’s experience is representative of the many thousands of young people who are held in isolation on any given day across the globe. I’ve conducted new research that reveals that approximately 30 percent of the world’s countries either employ the practice or legally condone its use.”
• Federal prosecutors rebutted arguments that a death row inmate, Gary Lee Sampson, faces cruel and unusual punishment because of the many years he will likely wait before execution. Sampson’s lawyers have also argued that “the conditions of death row confinement are equivalent to solitary confinement, but for years on end. This exacts a toll on those so incarcerated that cannot be understated.”
• The ACLU filed a motion seeking class action status for an ongoing federal lawsuit against Mississippi’s Department of Corrections, with the aim of “protecting all prisoners at the for-profit East Mississippi Correctional Facility (EMCF)” from allegedly inhumane conditions. In a report, solitary confinement expert Dr. Terry A Kupers wrote, “taken as a whole, the conditions in solitary confinement at EMCF are the worst I have witnessed in my 40 years as a forensic psychiatrist investigating jail and prison conditions.”
• Writing for Pacific Standard, Jessica Pishko describes a growing movement “to keep architects and designers from working on spaces designed for solitary confinement and execution.”
This post is the next in a series of pieces Solitary Watch is publishing as part of a project calling for people held in solitary confinement to write on various proposed themes. Our first suggested theme, “A Day in the Life,” calls for writers to describe a day in his or her life in solitary confinement (read previous entries here).
The following piece, entitled “Exiled in Purgatory: Creating Mental Illness in Florida Supermax Facilities” comes from Jacob Barrett, who is held in Close Management (CM) at Florida State Prison. He writes, “I receive anonymous letters and cards from time to time… Those communications are rare, but they do happen. I know I get these because my name and address are on websites like realcostofprisons.org and solitarywatch.com. Without my name out there… I would be like most prisoners, isolated and alone.” In his piece, Barrett describes his life in solitary confinement at FSP.
View more of Barrett’s writing and artwork on the website of the Real Cost of Prisons here and here. He can be reached by writing: Jacob Barrett C07320, Florida State Prison, 7819 NW 228th Street, Raiford, FL 32026. –Lisa Dawson
In the Florida State Prisons (FSP) Close Management (CM) — Florida’s version of supermax — prisoners are prohibited from talking to each other. Not about religion, politics, family, nothing. They are not allowed to speak a single word.
Of course, we find ways to have brief exchanges. At our cell doors we can see the prisoners in the cells across from us. We’ve developed a prison-style sign language. At the back of our cells we have a window which opens and closes. We can whisper to prisoners in the cells next to us. But we have to be very careful. If prison guards catch you using sign language or talking it means trouble.
Trouble can mean a variety of punishments. During the summer–when the heat index is 110 degrees–the guards will turn off the air vents to prevent air flow. Because the cells have two large 4 foot fluorescent lights the temp in the cell can go as high as 115 degrees when the outside temp is 90 degrees. Staff will say: “If you want to talk bitches, talk in the heat.” In the winter the staff will turn off the heat. “A cold prisoner is a quiet prisoner” as their saying goes.
Unlucky prisoners may be sprayed with pepper spray without warning. Others are taken to the disciplinary unit where they face physical abuses. Others may be subject to sleep deprivation where prison staff will pound on their windows every 15 minutes to keep them awake for days.
Prison guards walk the unit yelling “shut the fuck up and lay down,” “shut the fuck up bitches!” That’s every day.
Attached to this essay is a copy of an Inmate Request I wrote requesting the policy be changed. It was denied.
The policy creates mental illness. Prisoners become detached from reality. They become aggressive. They lose communication skills. What communication skills they do retain become blunted. Many become so detached they become suicidal. Prisoners attempting suicide at FSP is a regular occurrence.
I notice the effects myself. I catch myself talking to myself. I invent conversations to pas the time, until I realize I’ve gone from an imaginary friend into retreating into the created world. I look out across the hall to the other prisoners pacing in their cells and I see them having animated conversations with themselves, too. It feels like a mental ward.
Florida took away TVs from prisoners in CM. The one thing that fave them some mental stimulation. Prisoners are not permitted arts–such as art paper, markers, pens (for drawing), etc. Prisoners are expected to “shut the fuck up and lay down.”
I bought a chess board. I play myself a few times a day. I want to play chess with someone else–but there is no talking. I wish I had someone to play with through the mail. But I don’t. So I play with my imaginary friend. And he’s not very good at that.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), along with California-based Prison Law Office and their co-counsel in federal class action lawsuit Parsons v. Ryan, has released a series of 26 reports alleging extensive problems with the Arizona Department of Corrections’ (ADC) healthcare program and its use of solitary confinement.
Prison Law Office director Don Specter stated the groups requested the reports from national experts in prison healthcare as part of a lawsuit against the ADC. The reports, which were released ahead of next month’s federal class action trial against the ADC, assert that medical, dental and mental healthcare in Arizona State prisons has declined to unsafe levels and that solitary confinement is excessive, with prisons placing people in isolation because prison beds elsewhere are full.
In 2012, the ACLU, the ACLU of Arizona and the Prison Law Office filed a lawsuit seeking competent medical, dental and mental healthcare for prisoners and challenging the use of solitary confinement in Arizona State prisons. The suit includes 33,000 people held in 10 Arizona State prisons. The federal class-action lawsuit is set to go to trial October 21, 2014.
A September 9, 2014, press release issued by the ACLU states:
To show the dangerous inadequacies of health care and other conditions in Arizona’s state prisons, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Prison Law Office, and their co-counsel in Parsons v. Ryan filed reports yesterday with the U.S. District Court from seven experts in medicine, psychiatry, dentistry, and related fields. These experts toured the prisons on multiple occasions. They found incidents of illnesses and injuries so neglected by prison staff that they caused extreme suffering, permanent damage, and even death. The reports also detail significant harm caused by the Arizona Department of Corrections’ use of solitary confinement.
According to a recent press release by the Prison Law Office:
“[T]he chronic shortage of mental health staff, delays in providing or outright failure to provide mental health treatment, the gross inadequacies in the provision of psychiatric medications, and the other deficiencies identified in this report are statewide systemic problems, and prisoners who need mental health care have already experienced, and will experience, a serious risk of injury to their health if these problems are not addressed,” wrote Dr. Pablo Stewart, another expert hired by plaintiffs’ counsel to tour ADC’s prisons and review prisoners’ medical records… (11/8/13 report, page 10).
Dr. [Pablo] Stewart, a psychiatry professor with expertise in prison mental health care, uncovered numerous preventable suicides by prisoners, lengthy and serious delays in care, insufficient and unlicensed staff and inadequate medication protocols. One prisoner hanged himself after ADC neglected to give him his prescribed mood stabilizing drugs for more than three weeks, Dr. Stewart found (11/8/13 report, pages 21-23).
The release also touches on “significant, dangerous problems with the ADC’s use of solitary confinement,” stating that people are placed in solitary “simply because other beds are full” and that people with mental illness are often placed in isolation because the ADC does not have “treatment alternatives.”
According to the Arizona Public Media:
The reports, “Come to the unanimous conclusion that the Arizona healthcare system is…an abysmal failure,” [Specter] said.
Arizona’s correctional system puts prisoners at serious risk of sickness and death because of a lack of access to adequate healthcare, he added.
Specter said the use of solitary confinement is also a large problem in state prisons.
The reports pointed out that mentally ill prisoners are often put into isolation units, where limited human contact can cause their mental condition to significantly worsen.
Of the ACLU’s 26 expert reports, eight focus on the ADC’s use of solitary confinement.
One expert commissioned by the ACLU, Mr. Eldon Vail, is a “former corrections administrator with nearly thirty-five years experience working in and administering adult institutions” whose experience “included responsibility for… the mentally ill population and their custody, housing, and treatment.” Vail spent five days inspecting three Arizona State prisons, during which time he interviewed over 100 people held in solitary confinement. According to his expert opinion:
In the name of safety and security, the ADC engages in multiple practices that are counterproductive to its states aims and harmful to the prisoners in its custody. Overreliance on isolation as a primary means of control results in a harmful environment for all inmates, and especially those with mental illness. Moreover, the actual operations of those units—extreme levels of isolation and idleness, frequent use of pepper spray, and unstable, infrequent, and incoherent “programming”—results in a correctional environment that exacerbates the already grave risks presented by ADC’s over-use of isolation. A predictable and stable custody environment that would help mentally ill prisoners feel safe is essential to prepare inmates to be ready to engage in treatment. That environment does not currently exist within ADC.
Another expert called on by the ACLU to provide his opinion of the ADC’s use of solitary confinement was Dr. Craig Haney, Ph.D, J.D., Professor of Psychology at the University of California at Santa Cruz. The following are excerpts from Haney’s report:
My inspections of the ADC isolation units, my substantial cell front and on-on-one confidential interviews, and the extensive documents that I have reviewed pertaining to the policies, procedures, and conditions that are in operation in ADC’s isolation units confirm that they do indeed impose “solitary confinement” on Arizona prisoners. These are precisely the kinds of isolated and isolating conditions that have been identified and described in the scientific literature as producing adverse effects. Indeed, in my experience, they represent an extremely harsh version of the kind of isolation that has been studied by researchers and condemned my human rights and professional organizations. . .
Based on my experience studying these kinds of environments and their psychological effects for nearly four decades. . . I can offer the strongly held opinion that the range of egregious conditions, practices, and policies and practices that I have described . . . can be remedied through system-wide relief that is ordered by the courts.
The ACLU commissioned yet another expert, Dr. Brie Williams, a licensed and practicing physician in the state of California who is board certified in Internal Medicine, Hospice and Palliative Medicine, and Geriatrics, to prepare an expert report on conditions of confinement in isolation units at three ADC prisons. Williams interviewed prisoners, inspected housing units and other areas to which prisoners have access and reviewed medical files. The following have been excerpted from Williams’ report:
Prisoners of older age, with chronic medical conditions, and/or with physical disabilities are at high risk of immediate and future harm from isolated confinement as practiced in ADC. In addition, some of these prisoners are receiving dangerously inadequate medical care. . .
Loneliness, both actual and perceived social isolation, is an important risk factor for the development and/or worsening of many serious medical conditions. . . [S]tudies show that social isolation has a significant adverse effect on physical and mental health, immune responses, functional ability, and important health behaviors capable of hastening the onset and course of medical illness. . .
Williams goes on to cite other health problems that can be brought on by or exacerbated by isolated confinement as practiced by the ADC, including memory impairment, osteoarthritis, hypertension, and hearing impairment, insomnia and type 2 diabetes mellitus. After detailing her visits at the prisons, Williams concludes:
For all of the reasons set forth in this report, it is my opinion that isolated confinement as practiced in ADC poses a substantial risk of serious harm, including increased morbidity and mortality, to prisoners of older age, with chronic medical conditions and/or physical disabilities.
Corrections officials have disputed the reports, which were made public earlier this month after the ACLU won a federal court hearing to have them unsealed. The Arizona Daily Star reports:
State prison officials declined to comment in detail on the case and the recent release of the ACLU reports because the matter remains in the courts. But a spokesman did provide a brief statement disputing the ACLU’s claims.
“While the plaintiffs have sought to try their case in the media, the ADC will present its evidence and arguments in Court, where it will offer its own expert opinions that paint an accurate and realistic picture of inmate health care and conditions of confinement,” ADC spokesman Doug Nick said.
• AP reporter Adam Geller published an investigation into why so many individuals with mental illness are held in solitary confinement in local jails across the country. He notes, “There has been little attention to the use of isolation in the country’s 3,300 local jails, increasingly the biggest mental health treatment centers in many communities.”
• The National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms held an event that explored the human rights abuses endured by terrorism suspects since 9/11, including the use of solitary confinement. Affected family members told their stories. A local community radio station covered the event.
• The Journal Star (Lincoln, NE) published an editorial criticizing the state’s “overuse” of solitary confinement and calling for reform.
• The BBC published an hour-long documentary about the efforts of the Maine State Prison to reduce the use of solitary confinement. (Video not available in the United States.)
• Florida’s Department of Corrections has fired 32 individuals accused of misconduct or illegal activity, including the officers recently sued for the death of incarcerated 27-year-old Randall Jordan-Aparo. He was serving an 18-month sentence when he was found dead in solitary confinement, allegedly as a result of being gassed multiple times with “noxious chemicals.”
• Mother Jones writer and solitary confinement survivor Shane Bauer published a critique of a recently released Atlantic article entitled “How Gangs Took Over Prisons.” Bauer is especially critical of the language used in the article to describe Pelican Bay’s Secure Housing Unit, which holds men in extended solitary confinement, sometimes for decades.
• George Lavender of In These Times published an interview with George Kendall Director of the Public Defender Initiative, who is representing Robert King and Albert Woodfox of the Angola 3 in their lawsuit against Louisiana prison officials. Woodfox has been in solitary confinement for over four decades; King spent 29 years in isolation before being released from prison in 2001.
• Matthew Hale, a 43-year-old self-proclaimed white supremacist incarcerated at the federal supermax in Florence, Colorado, has offered to drop his $19 million lawsuit against prison officials if he is permitted to play his violin in his cell. He was quoted as saying, “It’s really the kind of hubris, stupidity, and downright sadism that one should expect from the federal government… I suspect the defendants could not bear the thought of my actually enjoying myself by my being able to play my beloved violin in my prison cell.”
• Two Ohio law firms have filed suits alleging inhumane conditions at the Multi-County Juvenile Detention Center, on behalf of three individuals formerly incarcerated there. According to the lawsuit, young people at the jail were placed in solitary confinement for to up forty days, in cells with temperatures in the mid-50s.
In October 2012, five individuals were extradited from the United Kingdom to the United States to face terrorism charges. The transfer came after the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled that prison conditions at ADX Florence–where the suspects would likely be held if convicted–were not incompatible with Article 3 of the European Convention of Human Rights, which prohibits “inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” They did so based on assurances from the U.S. government, despite considerable evidence to the contrary.
All five men have ended up serving long pre-trial terms in solitary confinement in the United States. A series of additional extradition requests made by the US, perhaps most notably that of Gary McKinnon, prompted a national debate within the UK and triggered more recent parliamentary efforts to evaluate the existing US/UK extradition agreement. Last week, the House of Lords Select Committee on the Extradition Law received written evidence for the purposes of evaluating “whether [the Act] provides an effective and just extradition procedure.”
A group of experts who have studied the systemic due process injustices faced by terrorism suspects in the United States, including lawyers at the Center for Constitution Rights and members of the No Separate Justice campaign, prepared a submission, available here. Their evidence focuses extensively on the conditions of confinement endured by those charged with terrorism offenses, both before and after trial.
Their central findings with regards to conditions of confinement include the following:
• Link between detention in US supermax facilities and the military prison at Guantanamo Bay: “There is a continuum between US military prisons abroad and territorial US civilian prisons. Indeed, the ADX ‘supermax’ prison in Florence, Colorado, where extradited men convicted of terrorism-related crimes are often held, provided the blueprint for imprisonment at Guantanamo.”
• Conditions of confinement pre-trial: Prior to trial extradited terrorism suspects are often held on the Metropolitan Correctional Center’s (MCC) “highly restrictive” 10-South wing. Individuals on 10-South are held in almost complete isolation and are often subject to additional restrictions known as Special Administrative Measures (SAMs). “Given the harm that solitary confinement inflicts on mental health, defendants have a strong incentive to preserve their sanity by accepting a plea deal that will relax the conditions of their confinement, irrespective of the merits of the case.”
• Conditions of post-conviction imprisonment: Upon conviction, these individuals are often transferred to the federal supermax prison, Florence ADX. Human Rights Watch has noted that prisoners at ADX can be subjected to “years of confinement in conditions of extreme social isolation, reduced sensory stimulation, and rigorous security control.” Convicted terrorists at ADX are often held on “H-Unit” under additional restrictions, including SAMs.
• Concerns regarding the ECHR Decision in Babar Ahmad & Others v. the UK: The process by which the ECHR reached its decision in this case was flawed, namely, “the US Department of Justice provided misleading data on the length of time terrorism convicts are held in solitary confinement at ADX.” The US also submitted other misleading evidence, e.g. that there is significant communication between staff and prisoners at ADX, and that ADX prisoners are able to communicate with one another.
The deadline for submissions to the House of Lords Select Committee on the Extradition Law comes as a sixth British man, Haroon Aswat, awaits the final word on whether he will be sent to the United States to face terrorism charges. In April 2013, the European Court of Human Rights stayed his extradition under Article 3 of the Convention, finding “there is a real risk that the applicant’s extradition to a different county and to a different and potentially more hostile, prison environment would result in a significant deterioration in his mental and physical health.” Aswat has been diagnosed with schizophrenia.
The US Department of Justice subsequently provided assurances that Aswat would have access to mental health services if held at MCC, prompting the British High Court to rule earlier this month that his extradition may go forward. He will be transferred into US custody unless the British Supreme Court intervenes.
The authors of the submitted evidence note: “Haroon Aswat’s case points to the underlying weakness of assurances as a remedy for concerns about the treatment of terrorism suspects in US prisons. No mechanism is available for verifying the claims made in the assurances. Even accepting the validity of the assurances at face value, they offer inadequate remedies for the inhumane conditions within ADX and MCC. Unfortunately, the British and European courts have not fully recognised the severity of those conditions, the secrecy that surrounds them or the threats to mental health they present.”
• The American Civil Liberties Union released 26 reports alleging extensive abuses in Arizona’s prisons, including claims that individuals are being placed in solitary confinement because prison beds elsewhere are full. A federal class-action lawsuit against the state’s Department of Corrections is set to go to trial next month.
• The Bronx Defenders, a criminal defense nonprofit in New York City, released a report documenting the conditions their clients experienced in solitary confinement on Rikers Island. Nearly 60 individuals were interviewed for the report, entitled “Voices from the Box”, including one 18-year-old placed in isolation for over 1,000 days. (Reported on by The Village Voice, WNYC, others)
• Mayor Bill DeBlasio signed into law a bill that mandates New York City correctional authorities to publish quarterly data on the use of solitary confinement at Rikers Island. The bill also requires the city to release other information, including attempted suicides in isolation and the use of enhanced restraints. Meanwhile, Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte announced new reforms at Rikers, including in the use of solitary confinement.
• The mother of Bradley Ballard, who died in isolation on Rikers Island in September 2013, has filed a lawsuit against the city and correctional officials, as well as a contractor that provides medical services at the jail and several medical personnel. The one-year anniversary of Ballard’s death was marked by a Jails Action Coalition vigil in front of the Bronx District Attorney’s office.
• The recent death of another individual held in isolation on Rikers Island has been ruled accidental. Jerome Murdough, who struggled with mental illness, died this past February when temperatures in his cell rose to over 100 degrees.
• The family of a man who died while in solitary confinement in a San Diego County jail in March 2013 has filed a wrongful-death lawsuit in federal court. Bernard Victorianne, 28, swallowed a bag of drugs while he was being arrested for a DUI. Jail staff allegedly placed him in isolation, rather than the jail’s medication-observation unit, despite knowing he had consumed the drugs and “obvious signs of overdose.”
• Sarah Shourd, a contributing editor at Solitary Watch, published an article on Guernica entitled “Torture Chambers of the Mind.” She writes that the “majority of people subjected to prolonged isolation are not there for violent acts, but petty prison infractions like talking back to a guard, walking too slow or possessing contraband.”
• Jose Padilla, a US citizen once held as an “enemy combatant” at a South Carolina military prison, has been resentenced to 21 years on a 2007 terrorism conviction. A federal appeals court had previously ruled his original 17-year sentence too lenient, but prosecutors agreed not to seek more than 30 years if Padilla’s lawyers agreed not to utilize records documenting what he endured while in military custody. Padilla has claimed he was tortured for the three and a half years he was held in South Carolina, including through the use of sensory deprivation, “truth serums” and extreme isolation; in 2012 the Supreme Court declined to reinstate a lawsuit filed against US officials.
The following comes from Timothy Trujillo, 35, who has been incarcerated at California Correctional Institution (CCI) in Tehachapi close to 15 years, approximately four of which he has been held in the SHU (Security Housing Unit), or solitary confinement, on 23-hour-a-day-lockdown. According to his stepfather, Trujillo has spent his time in prison seeking “to expand his knowledge and his quest for spiritual enlightenment.” In his piece, a rap entitled “Dare to Think,” Trujillo writes that his mind “remains free.” He can be reached by writing: Timothy Trujillo, P32319, California Correctional Institution, 4B SHU-3A-201, P.O. Box 1906, Tehachapi, CA 93581. –Lisa Dawson
From the Mother Country’s womb
livin’ in bondage deep within this tomb
I refuse to be consumed so my body is doomed
but my mind remains free
that is one thing they’ll never take from me
because I see with clear eyes
I can recognize the landlords’ lies
see through their disguise
Why do so many accept poverty and neglect?
They infect our posterity, blinding their clarity
filling them with false hopes and dreams
turning our young into dope fiends and things
no longer human beings
The police siren screams
This system is falling apart at the seams
In the ghetto, another youth is slain in vain
People with heroin-filled veins
Methamphetamines fill the nostrils
Everyone is livin’ hostile
Mothers cry, children die, nobody’s askin’ why
Lookin’ to the sky for unanswered prayers
you begin to wonder-who really cares?
Millions of sisters and brothers, fathers and mothers
sittin’ in cages for ages
My mind constantly rages, saddened by history’s pages
So many people up in prisons it’s like a human aviary
pointin’ their finger, tryin’ to tell me,
sell me to a private prison
Are you listenin’, envisionin’ what I’m sayin’?
There is plenty but millions go hungry
Doesn’t it make you angry?
People homeless and unhealthy
allowing a few to grow wealthy
How far will this sideshow go?
The capital flows in the opposite direction,
too many starving and needlessly dyin’ in my section
And say goodbye to education in this nation
hello false indoctrination
Do we really know what we’re facin’
I’m in my cage pacin’
Ponderin’ the unending war spending
When will we begin the mending and befriending?
Let’s stop pretending like everything is okay
and if we turn a blind eye it will all just go away
There’s got to be another way
They play with our lives usin’ us as cannon fodder
Today someone lost a son or daughter
Global warming, it’s only getting hotter
They’re polluting all our air and water
Where are we headed?
Maybe a nuclear war or disaster
caused by the power-hungry master
What comes after? Does it really matter?
By now it’s surprising we all don’t have cancer
If something isn’t done now-what will be the cost?
It appears humanity is lost
Will it all end in a global holocaust?
I have so many questions
but my pen is out of ink
Why am I in prison you ask?
Because I dared to think. . .
UPDATE (September 18, 2014): Solitary Watch received the following statement via email from North Carolina Department of Public Safety spokesperson Keith Acree:
The evolving lockdown situation at Scotland Correctional Institution has affected about 600 inmates in close custody regular population housing. The medium custody (~540) and minimum custody (~240) populations have not been affected nor have those on control status (~230). The entire prison population today is 1,663.
We implement lockdowns when needed to ensure the safety of inmates and staff and to prevent injuries. The December lockdown was prompted by a series of fights between large groups of inmates at Scotland that resulted in injuries to inmates and staff. Since the beginning of 2014, the institution has recorded 61 actual or attempted assaults on staff and 20 actual or attempted inmate on inmate assaults.
At this point, the lockdown for close custody regular population (RPOP) has stepped down to a point that we call “managed observation”. Close custody RPOP inmates are now allowed about 4 hours of out-of-cell time daily (compared to about 8 hours before the Dec. 28 fights that began the lockdown).
Visiting, outdoor recreation, telephone use and canteen privileges have resumed. Vocational and educational programs are in session and the prison’s two Correction Enterprises plants (a sewing plant and the Braille plant) are operating normally. Inmates continue to receive hot meals brought to their cells. All activities are occurring in small groups. Religious services have not yet resumed. A new chaplain began work this week.
Since the lockdown began Dec. 28, restrictions have been lifted in 11 progressive steps, based on inmate behavior and cooperation, to reach the point where we are today.
Katy Poole has been serving as acting administrator at Scotland CI since Aug. 1 when Sorrell Saunders retired.
Across the United States, even prisoners who have not been placed in solitary confinement or any form of “segregation” can be subjected to a “lockdown” in which they may be held in solitary-like conditions, confined to their cells nearly round-the-clock. Brief lockdowns are a common occurrence, and lockdowns lasting months or more are not unusual. Individuals subjected to lockdown are generally denied even the pro-forma review processes afforded to most others placed in solitary confinement.
In the “Close Custody” unit–a single celled, high-security unit–at North Carolina’s Scotland Correctional Institution, nearly 600 men have been on indefinite lockdown since December 28, 2013.
Individuals subjected to the lockdown have been confined to their cells for 22 to 23 hours a day for eight months and counting.
When asked by Solitary Watch about the status of Scotland, North Carolina Department of Public Safety (NC DPS) spokesperson Keith Acree stated that he was unaware that the prison was on lockdown.
In January of this year, the Laurinburg Exchange reported on the lockdown:
According to Keith Acree, spokesperson for the state department, the institution’s “closed custody” population, which numbers about 800, has been confined to cells since a “series of fights between inmates and minor assaults on staff members” occurred shortly after Christmas.
Acree said injuries to staff members were “nothing serious,” but that several were “hit or bumped. . .”
A lockdown means prisoners cannot have visitors, make calls, or leave their cells for meals. They cannot visit the canteen, Acree said, but orders from the canteen can be delivered to their cells.
Acree said he could not remember when the last time the institution was on lockdown, but he was not aware of the current lockdown until he received an inquiry from The Laurinburg Exchange. In 2011, the prison was one of six in the state placed on lockdown after a surge of gang violence.
About a dozen people from Scotland’s Close Custody population have written to Solitary Watch describing conditions at the prison. Some people wrote to describe the conditions at the prison in general, while others detailed particular incidents.
One man recalls the day the Scotland Correctional Institute was put on lockdown:
On December 28, 2013, two individual fights took place at about 5:35 PM. No one was stabbed or cut, and no staff was hurt. Prison officials labeled the incident a gang fight and shut down the whole facility. For almost a month we were not allowed out of our cells or allowed to take showers. When they did allow us to take showers, we had to do so in cuffs once a week.
Another man wrote to describe the general conditions at the prison since the lockdown has been put in effect:
We don’t get but two hours out of our cells a day. In that two hours, 24 people have to use the phone, take showers and get anything done that requires any assistance by the staff because once you’re in your cell, it’s like your forgotten. Then you spend 22 hours in this room. . . The things that go on here are uncalled for. This is supposed to be a place of rehabilitation but it does no one any good the way the staff at SCI mistreats people and writes you up for actions you didn’t commit. It just sends everyone’s minds or actions and feelings back to square one.
The following comes from a man describes the restrictions at the prison as counterproductive to the point where he’s “about to lose [his] mind”:
This prison has been on 22-hour-a-day lockdown for months. . . When I got here, I wanted a chance to earn my GED, but his prison is not helping me to better myself in any way. I have not been able to eat hot meals or go outside for fresh air ever in months. The treatment here is cruel and unusual and I’m about to lose my mind behind these doors.
Another member of the Close Custody population elaborates on the the varying levels of restrictions seen since the lockdown began:
While on lockdown, we’ve been through different stages. Stage one, we were on lockdown for 24 a day hours without being allowed to shower. It was like this for a month. Then the officers started taking us to the shower one day out of the week with handcuffs on so tight that it made it difficult for us to wash. Stage two, they let 12 of us out of our cells to rec in the dayroom for one hour. Next, they let 24 of us out for two hours. We haven’t had any outside rec since December 28, 2013, and our skin and health is showing that.
Another man writes to convey the intrusiveness of his confinement, portraying how little privacy he was given, even while showering:
The first month there was no recreation. Everyone was confined to their cells for 24 hours a day. There were no showers. When they started allowing showers, you had to go in full restraints with two officers standing at the shower watching with sticks out. . .
No visitors have been allowed for the past three months, nor are we provided with any religious services. . .
Since we have been on lockdown, we have been having trouble with the officers doing their jobs. If we ask them for writing paper, envelopes or request forms, they will not bring it, especially if we’re housed on the upper tier. One inmate asked an officer for some toilet paper. She said, “I’m not walking upstairs to give you any toilet paper. You better use a shirt,” and left the block.
He also describes an instance when another prisoner had fallen in his cell and his pleas for help were ignored by staff:
The major problem we have is that officers do not respond when we hit out call buttons. . . Nobody ever comes to see what we want until we start kicking on the cell doors. There were several incidents where an inmate was feeling dizzy and pushing his cell button every couple of minutes. Nobody came. He passed out and we had to kick on the doors for about 20 minutes before anyone came.
Another member from the Close Custody population describes a similar incident:
An inmate’s back gave out on him and he fell to the floor. He started banging on the door with his brush for 15 minutes but no one came to check on him. So we started kicking on the doors, and kicked for almost an hour before an officer came. She looked in his cell and started laughing at him. She left and came back with another officer. She looked in at him again and laughed. They both left and came back with a sergeant, who looked at the inmate and said, “Why don’t you just do us all a favor and die.” Then the sergeant called nurse and they came and took him to Medical – after he’d laid on the floor for about an hour and 10 minutes. . .
We’ve been asking why they are punishing 600 inmates for something four people were involved in. Those inmates were put in segregation, found guilty of their charges and punished for them. But so are we.
One man discusses a health condition with which he’s been diagnosed, yet is not being treated for:
Recently I was diagnosed with high blood pressure. For the last two and half weeks, my blood pressure hasn’t been checked and I haven’t received my medication to treat it.
Another man writes of problems he has had sending and receiving mail:
Due to the lockdown, I wrote a grievance to the North Carolina Department of Public Safety and mailed it to them on 2/20/14, so I thought. . . But it was opened, taken out of the stamped envelope and signed by the unit manager and the screening officer and returned to me almost a month later. Before my grievance was returned, my mail started coming in late after mail had already been passed out and sometimes not until the next morning. Then I would either not receive mail or it would come looking like it’d been deliberately cut up. . .
He closes his letter:
I have not seen my family since my trial ended and I would love to see them. . . No religious services, no visits, no type of outside activity, no books from the library, no school – all this, for no reason. . . I, along with other inmates, are being punished for no reason at all. I have not caused any trouble and do not deserve this cruel and unusual punishment, which is a violation of my Eighth Amendment rights.
Another prisoner describes the disturbing situation, emphasizing that the deprivations faced by these men are unwarranted:
To think violence or disrespect is right? That is exactly what they’re doing to us: Disrespecting us and violating us as human beings. We don’t get to stretch our muscles, we don’t get any sunlight. . . We are treated like M-con status inmates, and we haven’t done anything to deserve it. . . They tell our families that they are understaffed, but that isn’t our problem. We are imprisoned inside a prison. . . We have been on lockdown since December 28, 2013, and enough is enough.
Since these letters were written to Solitary Watch, Scotland Correctional Institution has modified the conditions of confinement in Close Custody. According to people held at the prison, the men are now allowed out of their cells twice a day for approximately for two hours and allowed outside for recreation for one hour twice a week. However, they have not resumed hot meals or any religious services for people held in the unit.
• The American Civil Liberties Union has submitted letters to the Michigan Department of Corrections alleging widespread human rights violations at the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility in Washtenaw; the organization claims that the prison is holding women with mental illness in solitary confinement, amongst other abuses. One professor who has interviewed those on the inside commented, “A lot of these women, they throw them in segregation for months on end are mentally ill … and then they deteriorate. It’s horrible to see them deteriorate.”
• A 17-year-old sentenced to life in prison in the killing of a Korean War veteran, has also been ordered to spend each anniversary of the murder in solitary confinement. Jordan Legg, who won’t be eligible for parole for at least 20 years, will now spend every 30 March in isolation.
• Albert Woodfox, the last remaining incarcerated member of the Angola 3, appeared in federal appeals court requesting legal permission to sue Louisiana prison officials for depriving him of “basic human needs” and violating his constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment. Woodfox has been held in solitary confinement nearly without break for the past forty years, the longest of any prisoner held in the United States.
• The Director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project condemned Nebraska’s Department of Corrections for its “extraordinarily high” use of solitary confinement. According to questionnaires recently sent out by a legislative investigative committee, about 18.6% of the state’s inmates had been in some level of restrictive housing during the queried six-week period.
• A 27-year-old Wisconsin man has been found not guilty by reason of insanity in the killing of three family members and committed to permanent hospitalization with no chance for appeal. According to Rashard Riddick’s defense attorney, the time he spent in prison as a young man contributed to his decline. “The consequences of nearly four years of solitary confinement was to transform Mr. Riddick from a troubled teenager into an extremely dangerous man…With no program for treating mentally ill inmates or aftercare for people held for long periods in isolation, Mr. Riddick was released into society (without rehabilitation) and with no support services. This cycle happens every day in our society, and the violent tragedies that ensue should surprise no one.”
“While waiting for an officer to handcuff and escort me back to the cell that awaited me after showering, I sat on the floor holding a razor used for shaving,” W writes to me. “Today was the day I decided to end my life.”
I do not know W. I have never met him. I have no idea whether he is black or white, tall or short, old or young. I don’t know what he’s done that’s landed him in prison, or why the prison system has seen fit to place him in solitary confinement.
Every week I receive 50 or so letters from people like W. He is one of 80,000 men, women, and children who live in states of extreme isolation in U.S. prisons and jails. They spend their days and nights in cells that measure, on average, 6 by 9 feet. They live sealed off from the world, sometimes without a window, usually behind a solid metal door with a slot where a guard can slip in a food tray. If they are lucky they are let out a couple of times a week to shower, or to exercise for an hour in a fenced or walled pen resembling a dog kennel.
There is no education in these solitary confinement cells. No work. The people who are held there may or may not be allowed reading materials, or a set of headphones to plug into a wall jack with a few radio stations. They are rarely permitted to make phone calls, or have visitors. Some are allowed to have family photographs, but usually only a limited number—so if a new one comes in, they have to decide which one to give up. Most are forbidden to hang the photographs on their walls.
If they are ever taken out of their cells, they are flanked by guards, wrists and ankles cuffed and shackled to a black box at their waists. They may have trouble walking, not only because of the shackles but because it’s been quite some time since they were able to take more than a few steps in any one direction. They will probably have trouble seeing, as well, since they’ve had no use for their long-distance vision.
They are escorted down the tier amidst a din of screaming prisoners—some with underlying mental illness, others driven mad by “the box”—who cut themselves, pelt their own cell walls and the corridor with piss and shit and blood. At night the screaming continues, sometimes turning into the sounds of a barking dog, dying down to where you can only hear the sobbing, the voices begging for their mothers, for the sight of a child last seen ten years ago—and frequently, begging to die.
This is what they tell me in their letters—the letters that at first trickled in every once in a while, when I first began writing about solitary confinement, and now come by the dozens. People in solitary sometimes manage to communicate by shouting, by tapping on pipes, and by “fishing”—passing things along lines constructed from sheet threads and skimmed across the corridor floor, from the crack under one cell door to another. Some, it appears, have shared my address, and the fact that I am interested in knowing what life in solitary confinement is like.
I am a journalist. I’ve been taught to report what I see and hear and know, and nothing else. These letters should be nothing more to me than documentary material—and perhaps not even that, since the conventional wisdom is that prisoners’ accounts can’t be trusted. No need, really, to write back, even though that’s what my correspondents are clearly hoping for.
“Mail is manna from heaven,” R writes me. “When I hear the squeak, squeal and rumble of the mail-cart being pushed down the gallery, I start saying to myself, “You’re not getting any mail, so don’t even expect it. Nobody knows you anymore. No one wrote, so stop it!” Then, as the cart squeaks and squeals and rumbles a bit louder as it gets closer, I’ll jump off the cot and start pacing. Then I’ll squat in front of one of my spiders (the SHU Prisoner’s Loyal Pet) and I’ll start talking to it (you talk to your pets, too, don’t you?!) I’ll say, “Come on! Hope with me that we get a piece of mail. Come on! If you hope with me then we’re guaranteed a letter,” and I’ll do a little fist pump…”
So I write back with a few bits of news, a few lines of encouragement. I write half a page to B, who has been in solitary for more than 25 years. He writes back 20 pages, telling me the story of a mouse he had begun feeding in his cell. The mouse’s back legs were injured, so he’d built it a little chariot out of Styrofoam and bits of cloth. The mouse had learned to get around with on his makeshift wheels when a corrections officer discovered it and stabbed it to death with a pen. “I had three dogs that I loved when I was growing up, and I loved Mouse every bit as much as I had loved them,” B writes. “For the months he had been with me he had been good company in a place that can be a lonely world, and I would miss him dearly.”
B wants nothing more than to share his thoughts, to know that there is another human being, somewhere in the world, who is interested enough to read them. Others want things. G wants me to look up a long-ago high school girlfriend. He hasn’t heard from her in 25 years and doesn’t know where she lives. He wants her address so he can write to her. I know I can’t send it to him, so I don’t even look.
D manages to write to me in spite of that fact that, like about a third of the people in solitary, he suffers from severe mental illness. After a while he asks for a sex magazine, even though receiving one could get him in deep trouble. When I refuse, he asks for—and I send—some Spiderman comic books. Next he asks for a Bible. He seems to sound less suicidal than usual, so I quickly send that as well. D writes me that it never arrived, so I track the package on Amazon, which says the Bible was delivered to the prison. Apparently someone stole it. Then D asks if I can put his name on my website so “I can have penpals…and maybe find that special someone.”
J writes on behalf of another person he met in prison: “During my stay at the mental health unit, I came to know a man named G. Mr. G was clearly not a quick thinker and had mental health issues. On one occasion an emotionally unstable corrections officer opened G’s cell and slapped him across the face because he had taken too long in giving the officer back a food tray after a meal. In another example, involving these two, I witnessed the corrections officer direct a nurse not to give G his mental health medication because G could not decide in a timely manner if he wanted to take the medicine or not…These two incidents happened in a mental health area reserved for suicidal prisoners.”
I know that thousands of people in solitary are like G—too ill, or not literate enough, to write at all. They are completely cut off, trapped in their own minds as well as in their cells. But I have a hard enough time dealing with the people who write to me, and try hard not to think about the people who are not writing.
Y reports: “I’ve witnessed officers…encourage a mentally ill prisoner who had smeared feces all over his control cell window, to lick it off, and they would give him some milk. And this prisoner licked most of the fecal matter off of the window, and was ‘rewarded’ by the officer who threw an old milk to the prisoner through a lower trap door to the cell.”
Along with the tirades about certain guards there are copies of painfully hand-printed legal documents, full of “whereas” and citations of this or that federal court case, written in the hope that some judge will read it and get the author out of solitary. But the judges, with few exceptions, have ruled that solitary confinement is not cruel and unusual punishment. Not even for the man who drilled a hole in his head to try and stop the pain.
There are so many letters now that I cannot possibly reply to most of them, even with a couple of volunteers to help. So I buy packages of cards, and gather up all the ones sent to me for free by wildlife groups as thank-you gifts for donations. I start sending people in solitary pictures of polar bears and endangered gray wolves, with just a few handwritten words: “Thanks for your letter. Stay strong.” They write back with a level of gratitude totally disproportionate to my lame missives.
A man writes me about the sound of rain in a drainpipe. It is his weather report. Another writes about the parade of cockroaches down the corridor at night, which he watches through the slot in his door, desperate for any sign of another living thing. Still another writes to thank me for the smell of perfume that he detected on an envelope containing a card. The smell lingers in his cell, he says, and fills him with dreams of the outside world.
Some people manage to pick up information about what is going on in that outside world. They write to ask for more news about the hearing on solitary confinement held in Congress, about whether things are changing. I can’t bear to tell them that it may be years or decades before anything changes for them—though some already know it. “I heard the head of the Bureau of Prisons in Congress (on radio) saying they do not have insane inmates housed here,” writes J, who has spent a decade in the federal supermax prison. “I have not slept in weeks due to these non-existing inmates beating on the walls and hollering all night. And the most ‘non-insane’ smearing feces in their cells.”
Some of these people have done very bad things in their lives. Others not so much. People get sent to solitary in the United States for a panoply of absurd reasons—having too many postage stamps, smoking a cigarette, refusing to cut their hair. But after reading these letters, I can’t accept that even the worst of them deserve to live this way.
J, who is in solitary for trying to escape, remains defiant. “I refuse to embrace the solitude. This is not normal. I’m not a monster and do not deserve to live in a concrete box. I am a man who has made mistakes, true. But I do not deserve to spend the rest of my life locked in a cage–what purpose does that serve? Why even waste the money to feed me? If I’m a monster who must live alone in a cage why not just kill me?”
I know that some people, in fact, do prefer to die rather than live this way. In barren cells, they become ingenious at finding ways to kill themselves. They jump head-first off of their bunks.
They bite through the veins in their arms. About five percent of all American prisoners are in solitary confinement, but half the prison suicides take place there.
The rest find ways to keep going. What keeps D alive is his mother. For B, it’s his writing. For J, it’s the small window in his cell. “Every now and then a pair of owls roosts on the security lights,” he writes. “This spring they had two babies. We watched them grow up and fly away. On any given day the sky here is breathtaking. The beauty out my window stays in my mind. I look around this cage at plain concrete walls and steel bars and a steel door, a steel toilet and I endure its harshness because I am able to keep beauty in my mind.”
Sometimes, now, I spend entire days reading letters from these people, these criminals, these models of human fortitude. I can’t do much of anything for them, except keep on reading.
A second letter comes from W. “I want to apologize to you for my previous letter,” he writes. It must have been very uncomfortable for you to read that letter. It was extremely wrong for me to express such a personal issue to people I don’t know. But my lack of interacting with people on the outside sometimes causes me to come out and express things that I probably shouldn’t. So I hope you can somehow empathize with my situation and forgive me for the context of my previous letter.”
W is alive.