• At his first news conference devoted exclusively to conditions on Rikers Island, Mayor Bill DeBlasio announced plans to create a $14.8 million “enhanced supervision housing” (EHS) to hold the jail’s 250 “most dangerous” individuals, who would be locked into their cells for as many as 17 hours a day. Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte has said that broader reforms on the use of solitary at the jail are dependent upon the creation of an EHS unit.
• Rikers Island will also open a unit exclusively for trans women, intended to “offer transgender women safe and respectful separation from the general population” without placing them in solitary confinement. LA Weekly published an article about a similar unit housed in Los Angeles’ Central Jail.
• The Center for Constitutional Rights’ Alexis Agathocleous published an Op-ed for MSNBC entitled, “Rampant use of solitary confinement in the US constitutes torture.”
• Five individuals on death row in Virginia have filed a lawsuit challenging their conditions of isolation. The plaintiffs are seeking the same privileges given to another state prisoner on death row, Alfredo Prieto, who successfully challenged his conditions of confinement on due process grounds.
• Fusion has published an investigation into the conditions endured by trans women locked up in US immigration detention– including being placed in solitary confinement. This week, LGBT activists also expressed disappointment with President Obama after he announced a series of administrative actions on immigration. According to an Op-ed published on The Advocate, “many transgender detainees, especially trans women, are asking federal immigration authorities to deport them back to their home countries, often at extreme personal risk, because conditions in the detention facilities are so bad.”
• Los Angeles County officials have agreed to several changes to bring the city’s jails into compliance with federal disability regulations. One individual alleges he was held in disciplinary segregation for four months “because he refused to give up his wheelchair when deputies tried to make him switch to a walker or crutches.”
• A Santa Fe-based attorney is set to file a federal lawsuit on behalf of an individual who has been held in solitary confinement since 2007. Lawyer Jason Flores-Williams said, “The time has come to abolish long-term solitary confinement in America. It is a racist abomination that shocks the conscience and offends any contemporary standards of decency.”
• The US Department of Justice asked a federal court to dismiss its lawsuit against the Terrebonne Parish Juvenile Detention Center in Louisiana, citing improved conditions in the facility. Among other changes, the settlement reached with the County prohibited the use of disciplinary isolation for longer than 72 hours except in extraordinary circumstances.
• A 35-year-old woman has committed suicide inside her solitary cell, according to the Illinois Department of Corrections. Victoria Woodrich was in disciplinary segregation at the time of her death.
• A one-time US amateur super heavyweight champion has been held in solitary confinement for several months while he awaits admission to a state mental hospital. He is one of 24 individuals in Tacoma who have faced extensive delays in court-ordered mental health treatment since the summer.
• A Nebraska performance audit has recommended that the state review how it uses solitary confinement to discipline those on the inside. The 134-page report found “that the department lacked clear statutory guidelines as to what constitutes ‘serious or flagrant’ behavior that warrants solitary confinement or a loss of good time.”
In a unanimous decision, a three-judge panel from the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the overturning of Albert Woodfox’s conviction. Yet he may remain in prison–and in solitary confinement–for months or even years before his four-decade ordeal is over.
Woodfox has been held in solitary confinement for more than 42 years for the 1972 murder of corrections officer Brent Miller at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. Many believe that he and the other two members of the so-called Angola 3 were targeted for the crime, and subsequently held in isolation, not because of the evidence but because of their involvement in the prison’s chapter of the Black Panther Party. Woodfox is the only member of the so-called Angola 3 to remain in prison. Robert King was freed in 2001, following 29 years in solitary, after his original conviction was overturned. Herman Wallace, whose conviction had also been overturned, died last year after more than 41 years in solitary and a few days of freedom.
The Fifth Circuit, considered one of the nation’s most conservative Federal Appeals Courts, voted to uphold a ruling by a Federal District Court, which vacated Woodfox’s conviction on the grounds that there had been racial bias in the selection of grand jury forepersons in Louisiana at the time of his indictment. The State of Louisiana could decide to accept the Appeals Court’s decision and free Woodfox, or release him on bail while it seeks to re-indict him for the 1972 murder.
Those scenarios are highly unlikely, however, considering the past statements and actions of Louisiana Attorney General James “Buddy” Caldwell. Caldwell has called Woodfox, now 67 years old, “the most dangerous man on the planet” due to his political convictions. More recently, when Woodfox’s conviction was overturned last year, Caldwell immediately vowed to appeal, saying: “We feel confident that we will again prevail at the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. However, if we do not, we are fully prepared and willing to retry this murderer again.”
Now that things have not gone his way, Caldwell may prepare for a retrial, while opposing bail for Woodfox. Or he may appeal the ruling to the full Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals rather than a three-judge panel–and from there to the Supreme Court, where the Circuit Justice is Antonin Scalia.
Caldwell asserts that the evidence against Woodfox is “overpowering”: “There are no flaws in our evidence and this case is very strong,” he said last year. These statements belie the fact that much of the evidence that led to Wallace and Woodfox’s conviction has since been called into question. In particular, the primary eyewitness was shown to have been bribed by prison officials into making statements against the two men. Solitary Watch’s James Ridgeway first wrote about the Woodfox case in 2009 in Mother Jones, providing a comprehensive history and analysis, as well as an account of the conditions in which Woodfox has lived for four decades.
Woodfox’s conditions of confinement have if anything deteriorated in the last five years: He was moved from Angola to David Wade Correctional Center in north central Louisiana, where, according to a separate lawsuit, he faces multiple daily strip searches and visual body cavity searches. Woodfox, along with Robert King and the estate of Herman Wallace, is also plaintiff in a major federal lawsuit challenging his decades in solitary on First, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendment grounds. That suit may finally come to trial next year.
Last Wednesday and Thursday, United States government officials met with representatives at the United Nations to discuss the country’s compliance with the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT). Every country that is a signatory to the CAT is required to submit a “Periodic Report” to the UN Committee on Torture outlining its adherence to the Convention, and countries are also obliged to respond to any questions, observations, and recommendations for change put forward by the Committee. The U.S.’s latest Periodic Report was submitted in October (as reported by Solitary Watch here), and last week, U.S. representatives traveled to Geneva to meet with the ten-member Committee.
The Committee on Torture raised a number of issues at the periodic review, including the abuses committed at Guantanamo Bay, violence committed by police forces, conditions in immigration facilities, and solitary confinement. Each day more than 80,000 people held in solitary confinement across the United States, confined to a space the size of a parking space for 22 to 24 hours a day. There are almost no laws that regulate how isolation is implemented on the inside, whether in local, state or federal correctional facilities.
Even before the session began, prisoners’ rights advocates and anti-solitary activists had little reason to hope that the review would be taken seriously by U.S. government officials or correctional authorities. In the report submitted to the Committee last month, U.S. officials stated that there is “no systematic use of solitary confinement in the United States.” In the weeks preceding the Committee hearing, a number of prominent human rights and civil liberties organizations submitted shadow reports disputing the US government’s assertions. (Read them in full here: American Civil Liberties Union; Center for Constitutional Rights, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children and California Prison Focus; American Friends Service Committee, NY CAIC, the Correctional Association of NY, NRCAT, T’ruah, Victorious Black Women, and the Midwest Coalition for Human Rights.)
At last week’s hearing, the Committee Vice-Chairperson, George Tugushi, queried American government officials about what measures were in place to limit the imposition of solitary confinement and whether alternatives were being utilized to avoid prolonged detention. Two other committee members also asked questions about the isolation endured by those locked up in America’s prisons and jails.
David Bitkowe, the Deputy Assistant Attorney General at the Department of Justice, told the Commission that significant progress had been made in addressing the issue of solitary confinement on U.S. soil. He stressed that several states have undertaken reforms in recent years to reduce the use of solitary confinement without compromising prison safety, and specified that U.S. federal courts “have interpreted the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution as prohibiting the use of solitary confinement under certain circumstances.” The delegation declined to specify the number of individuals who are currently held in isolation in the United States.
Bitkowe also stated that prisoners were most frequently placed in isolation for their own safety – not for institutional security – and emphasized that solitary confinement was never imposed in order to cause psychological harm. He added that the Justice Department “is continuing to work to prevent, detect and respond to abuse in U.S. prisons.”
In a reference to the Angola 3, an Italian member of the Committee on Torture, Alessio Bruni, said that some some prisoners in Louisiana had been held in isolation for more than three decades. He told the U.S. delegation that the practice of holding individuals in long-term isolation was “leading [prisoners] to insanity” and causing “anxiety, depression and hallucinations until their personality is complete destroyed.”
David Fathi, Director of American Civil Liberties Union National Prison Project, was one of several advocates present at the hearing in Geneva. Afterwards, he responded to the comments provided by Bitkowe and others. “The U.S. government is still in denial,” Fathi told Solitary Watch in an email. “The idea that it’s not solitary confinement if you can have a radio or receive a letter just doesn’t pass the laugh test.”
Concluding observations and recommendations will be issued by the UN Committee on Torture on November 28.
• Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus wrote about the case of 22-year-old Reginald Latson, a young Black man diagnosed with autism who was incarcerated after a confrontation with a police officer. In a letter to Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe , his lawyers wrote, “In effect [Reginald] spends 24 hours a day locked in a segregation cell with minimal human contact for the ‘crime’ of being autistic. Absent intervention, there is every reason to think he will remain there until the opportunity for effective treatment has been lost.”
• In a study published in Prison Journal, a Michigan State University criminologist concluded that “solitary confinement does not make supermax prison inmates more likely to reoffend.”
• New York’s legislative Assembly committees on correction and mental health held joint hearings on the mental health care incarcerated people receive on the inside. Alicia Barazza, whose 21-year-old son committed suicide in solitary confinement at Fishkill state prison two weeks ago, was among those who testified.
• In an editorial, the News & Observer called for the North Carolina General Assembly to investigate conditions in the state’s prisons, especially the placement of those with mental illness in solitary confinement.
• The US government went before the United Nations Committee Against Torture in Geneva as part of a periodic review to determine its compliance with international human rights standards. The committee has repeatedly cited concerns about the extensive use of prolonged solitary confinement in prisons and jails across the United States.
• The Lexington Clipper-Herald published an in-depth investigation into the Special Management Unit at the Nebraska state prison in Tecumseh. The paper was given access to tour the unit, which has 192 single-occupancy cells for individuals on “restricted housing.”
• An individual incarcerated at an Arkansas maximum-security prison has committed suicide. According to the state’s Department of Corrections, 38-year-old Danny Cromeans used a bedsheet to hang himself in his cell.
• The wife of a former Tamms Correctional Center officer has begun petitioning door-to-door for the prison’s re-opening. Tamms was shuttered about two years ago after an extensive campaign which highlighted the extreme conditions of solitary confinement endured by people on the inside.
• A lawsuit field against South Carolina’s Department of Corrections, on behalf of those incarcerated with mental illness, is now in mediation. A judge ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in January of this year, commenting, “Over 70,000 cases of every imaginable sort have come to this court over the years, this case, far above all others, is the most troubling. People were in solitary confinement not only for a day, around the clock, day or week but sometimes for years.”
This following piece was written by Scott Van Bergen, who is currently being held at Southport Correctional Facility, a supermax prison in Pine City, New York, where about 700 men are held in isolation in the “Special Housing Units,” or SHUs. It was written in response to an article in a recent Solitary Watch newsletter on efforts by advocates to bring about solitary confinement reform in New York. Van Bergen describes the emotional and psychological tolls exacted by solitary confinement, including the sense of disorientation caused by extended periods of isolation. Yet, like many others in his situation, he describes not wanting to share his suffering with others, even with the mental health worker (“MHU person”) who occasionally stops by his cell. He can be reached by writing: Scott A. Van Bergen 07A6361, Southport Correctional Facility, P.O. Box 2000, Pine City, New York 14871-2000. —Maclyn Willigan
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My name is Scott Andrew Van Bergen, I am serving a 15 year sentence in NY. I just read your article today on isolated confinement. Good Work!! Never Stop!
I truly thought nobody on the outside really understands or cares about the type of condition a person is exposed to. Like myself. I am currently doing 18 months at Southport Corr. Fac. confined to a cell no bigger then ones bathroom at home. 23-24 hours a day. Locked in the cage! Sometimes you don’t get your one hour recreation in a cage smaller then my cage I sleep in. Depends on the CO.
There are times how I think it’s not at all bad doing months on end in Southport, SHU. And then there are times I think, Is it normal for me to think that?? I have lost all communication skills. I mean I have the very little I’ve kept. I don’t even want to talk to any body at many times. I don’t even want to talk to a MHU person [mental health worker].
I feel like a caged in animal. Get treated like an animal. At times I can buy candy bars on Level 3 after being a good boy for several months. I feel like a dog who gets treats every once in a while. I receive my food through a feed-up slot, (like a caged in animal) in old dirty trays that have been around for years. No telling what kind of germs are on the trays. I’ve gotten so paranoid. I switched to kosher food. That way I felt a[t] piece with myself knowing my food now comes in packages. I’ve worried CO’s have done GOD knows what to my food.
I sleep next to an old sink toilet combination for crying out loud. What is normal in that? As I sit here and write this letter, it’s a sham because I am really saying to myself, “The SHU life ain’t all that bad!” And yet, what does that tell you? Not one person with a sain mind and level headed will agree with me. I’ve been in and out the SHU all my bid so far. And yet every so often a MHU person walks down the company and not stop at times. Times he or she stops at my cell, he or she asks, “AM I OK?” I say to myself, “OK!?! Ha!” Then I tell her, “Just fine.” That right there will show you my communication skills have gone for south.
I must stop my letter here because, still I’m questing myself on why would I say the SHU is all bad? This will show you also that my mind is so back and fourth, I think at times not normal things are normal for a person to survive in the SHU. Which is beyond me.
Are people in prison allowed to stand up for their rights? Or does all organized resistance to inhumane prison conditions amount to rioting? Five men—Andre Jacobs, Carrington Keys, Anthony Locke, Duane Peters and Derrick Stanley—will stand trial in a case that may determine how Pennsylvania’s justice system answer that question. The trial was scheduled to begin today, but the court issued a continuance until February 17.
All five had been held at the Restricted Housing Unit (RHU) at SCI-Dallas, a prison in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania. In the RHU, men are locked into their cell for nearly 24 hours a day. People can be sent to the RHU for violating prison rules, including various nonviolent infractions. Shandre Delaney recalls that her son, Carrington Keys, was originally placed in the RHU for 90 days in 2001 when he got into a fight with another prisoner. “He kept being written up for things like covering his light because the lights are on all night or for verbal assault for talking back to a guard,” she told Solitary Watch. These write-ups extended his stay in the RHU. Keys spent most of his twenties in the RHU. He was briefly released in 2009 but was sent back to the RHU later that year on charges of having contraband. He attributes his return to solitary confinement to the numerous grievances, lawsuits, and criminal complaints he filed against prison staff.
Like Keys, Derrick Stanley was originally sent to the RHU for a few months. “When I was in the chow hall in general population, the guard would give us three to five minutes to eat. When those three to five minutes was up, I told him, ‘I would like to finish my food.’ He let me finish my food, but then sent me to the hole,” he explained. There, Stanley accumulated write-up after write-up for other actions, such as attempting to cover his light or for talking back to the guards. He spent a year in the RHU.
“If you’ve ever been inside a dog pound, you see individual dogs in individual cages,” he described. “In this particular unit [the Restricted Housing Unit at Pennsylvania’s SCI-Dallas], it’s like being a dog locked in a cage. The dogs depend on humans for food, water, and to be let out. We depend on the COs. It’s like your life is in their hands.”
Stanley said that staff utilized their positions of power to commit extreme abuses. He is not the only person to charge staff at SCI Dallas with human rights violations In 2009, Human Rights Coalition-Fed Up! began an investigation into conditions at SCI Dallas. Through letters from people inside, interviews with family members, institutional paperwork, affidavits and civil litigation documents, the group compiled Institutional Cruelty, a 93-page report detailing “the cruelty, illegality, suffering, racism, violence, and despair that constitute the reality inhabited by inmates at SCI Dallas.”
According to the report, cells are filthy and the water from the sink is often brown. Other complaints included failure to provide physical and mental health care, deprivation of water, and routine physical violence. Stanley recalls more than one instance in which staff notified him of a visit from his mother and sister. Staff handcuffed and shackled him. Then, instead of taking him to the visiting room, he said he was “knocked out and thrown back in my cell.” When his mother and sister did actually visit, driving six hours for a one-hour visit, staff told them that Stanley had refused the visit. They did not notify Stanley, who found out later from his mother.
Prisoners also reported that staff spit or put other bodily fluids in their food. In addition, staff frequently refused to feed a person by passing his cell as they handed out food trays (a practice known as “burning them for their trays”). Many men charged that staff prevented them from accessing the grievance box to complain about practices. Those who did manage to file grievances found that their complaints fell on deaf ears. “I put so many grievances in,” Stanley told Solitary Watch. “They turned a blind eye to all of them.”
In at least one instance, according to Stanley, staff encouraged a man to commit suicide. “He was always yelling, ‘I’m a kill myself! I’m a kill myself!’ Stanley said of fellow prisoner Matthew Bullock. Instead of seeking mental health treatment for him, Stanley recalled hearing the guards egging the man on. “Kill yourself! Go ahead and kill yourself!” The guards moved Bullock from a cell with a camera to one without a camera, where he hanged himself. Seven other prisoners independently reported the guards’ actions, including the man’s transfer to a different cell, to the Human Rights Coalition, which included these testimonies in their report. Although his was the only death labeled a suicide, Bullock was one of thirteen people who died that year in SCI-Dallas.
On April 29, 2010, Isaac Sanchez, then age twenty, noticed that staff had not given the man in the adjoining cell, Anthony Kelly, a food tray. Like Sanchez, Kelly had participated in HRC’s investigation, detailing verbal abuse, lack of water and assaults by multiple staff on one person. “I said, ‘My neighbor’s not getting fed. That’s not policy,'” Sanchez told Solitary Watch. “The officer said, and excuse my language, ‘Fuck him and fuck you’ and started burning me for my tray.” Sanchez and the officer had a verbal argument, with Sanchez locked behind his cell door and the officer in the hallway. Then, Sanchez reported, the water to his cell was turned off, leaving him unable to use the sink or flush the toilet.
“From time to time, the sink water would explode [out of the faucet] and water would get all over my property, my bed, and everything.” Then, staff came to Sanchez’s cell door and told him to pack his property and be ready to move. Sanchez recalled seeing twelve other correctional officers in the hall and, fearing for his safety, refused to move.
“The lieutenant told me, ‘You gonna come out of the cell or we gonna take you out,'” he recalled. “I told him I wasn’t going to leave my neighbor.”
Sanchez reported that he was then sprayed with pepper spray, beaten and tasered. He said staff cut his clothes away with a boxcutter and took him to a section of the law library where they cuffed him into a chair by his wrists and ankles. Sanchez recalled looking at the window and noticing it was dark out. “Then the sun came out and I knew that the hours had passed,” he said. Staff checked on him every two to four hours and, although a nurse was supposed to slip her finger beneath his wrist restraint to check his pulse, he was restrained so tightly that her finger was unable to fit.
Sanchez estimates that he was restrained in the chair for twenty to thirty hours. Then he was taken out and placed in an empty cell with no mattress, clothing or water for about 72 hours.
Others in the RHU attempted to do something about Sanchez’s beating. In Pennsylvania’s RHU, when a person covers the window to his cell, a supervising officer is called to his cell to ensure that he is not self-harming. In the past, people in the RHU have used this tactic to call in higher-ups to complain about guard brutality. That day, six men—Derrick Stanley, Carrington Keys, Anthony Kelly, Duane Peters, Andre Jacobs and Anthony Locke—covered the windows of their cell doors after Sanchez was beaten and taken to the restraint chair. “That was our last resort. We didn’t think they [the captain or superior] was going to help, but what can you do? You’re locked in the cell,” explained Stanley.
No supervising officer appeared. Instead, the men say, they were pepper sprayed and beaten. “I lay on the ground, my face on the floor, put my hands behind my back [when the guards came into the cell],” Stanley recalled.” I lay on the ground in the submissive position and they kicked me in the face so much that I had to get stitches. I couldn’t even cry, I was in so much pain. They tasered me in the groin over and over.”
Stanley says that staff cut his clothes away with a boxcutter, then cuffed him. “They took me asshole-naked in handcuffs and shackles all around the range in front of two hundred to three hundred men,” Stanley recalled. “I was still leaking blood.” Then, he said, he was placed in a cage that he described as “littler than a dog cage.” That night, he could hear others being beaten. “All you heard was the beating. You could hear the impact and the force,” he described, rapping out a simulation of the sounds that night. “You kept hearing, ‘Stop resisting!’ and ‘I’m not resisting!'”
Delaney said that her son was similarly brutalized. Keys managed to send his mother a letter the next day. “By the time you receive this, make some calls to the prison,” he had written. “They [staff] are on a rampage.” When Delaney called, Keys had already been transferred to SCI Frackville. She called Frackville and spoke to the counselor, who assured her that her son was fine. After being transferred again, this time to SCI Camp Hill outside Harrisburg, Keys was placed in a stepdown program and, after spending a decade in solitary confinement, was allowed into general population. For his participation in the April 29th protest, he was issued a misconduct ticket for refusing to obey an order but was allowed to remain in general population.
Stanley too was transferred the day after the beating to SCI Mahanoy, where he was kept locked down for several months and, like Keys and the other men, issued a misconduct ticket for refusing to obey an order. On February 7, 2012, Stanley was released from prison after 22 years behind bars. He moved to New Jersey, moved into his own house, and enrolled in a community college to begin studying to be a paralegal. “I started studying law so I could fight them,” he recalled. But now he faces the prospect of being returned to prison for another seven years.
Months after their protest, the state filed charges against the six men, accusing them of riot and intent to prevent or coerce an official act. If convicted, each faces an additional seven years in prison. Carrington Keys has also been charged with aggravated assault.
In late 2010, Anthony Kelly finished his prison sentence but, instead of being released, he was sent to the Luzerne County jail where he was told he would be kept until the trial. In 2011, he pled guilty to the rioting charge. He was released on parole in August 2011.
Nearly four and a half years after their protest, the five other men will return to Luzerne County to stand trial starting on Monday, November 10th. The Luzerne County court system, based in the city of Wilkes-Barre, is no stranger to controversy. In 2013, two judges were found to have taken more than two million dollars in bribes from the owner of Pennsylvania Child Care and Western Pennsylvania Child Care, private youth prisons. In a scandal that became known as “Kids for Cash,” the judges had sentenced over 4000 youth to these facilities between 2003 and 2008.
But Delaney and Keys remain optimistic. “Because his case is so bogus, I think he’s very hopeful that he will be successful,” Delaney told Solitary Watch.
“It was no riot,” Stanley insisted. “All I did was cover up my door—a peaceful covering up my door. I was locked in an individual cell.”
“They’re being persecuted because they’re whistleblowers, not because they did anything wrong,” Delaney said at a press conference in Philadelphia two weeks before the trial. “They had the audacity to stand up for themselves—and for other prisoners. When they went to prison, they lost their right to live in a free society. They didn’t lose their human rights and they didn’t lose their civil rights.”
Delaney sees her son’s and the other men’s actions as part of the movement of prisoners standing up against unprovoked violence and other abuses, including the 2010 work strikes in over a dozen Georgia prisons and the wave of mass hunger strikes in prisons across California. “They’re standing up for their human rights,” she said.
Days before the trial, Stanley doesn’t regret his actions. “I feel good because I fought. Not just for me, but for other people Even that dead guy.” Thinking about the four-and-a-half years between the incident and now, he would tell others in similar situations, “There is hope. Never give up. There are people who care. Because of that, that’s what kept me strong.”
In response to a request for comment on the incidents described in this story, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections said in an email: “We do not comment on matters of litigation.”
• The Cap Times published a feature on solitary confinement in Dane County jails, entitled “Boxed in: Fighting for changes, Sheriff Dave Mahoney calls his own jail ‘inhumane.’”
• The LA Times editorial board took a strong stance against the use of solitary confinement on death row.
• A 21-year-old man with a history of illness committed suicide in Fishkill state prison in upstate New York. Benjamin Van Zandt had been placed in the SHU for fighting with another individual two days prior; he had originally been incarcerated on an arson conviction.
• The trial of the Dallas 6 is scheduled to begin this week. The six men, all currently held in solitary confinement in a Pennsylvania prison, allege they were falsely charged with riot –a felony – as punishment for endeavoring to publicize and fight guard abuse on the inside. (Covered by Truth-Out).
• At least 200 individuals held at the Tacoma Detention Center in Washington have gone on hunger strike, the third such strike in recent years. Previously, hunger strike participants have placed in solitary confinement and threatened with force-feeding.
• The family of a man who committed suicide in solitary confinement in a Pennsylvania jail has voluntarily withdrawn from a civil lawsuit brought against Armstrong County, which alleged wrongful death. An attorney for the family declined to say whether a financial settlement had been reached.
• Formerly incarcerated individuals, local activists, and others gathered in front of Rikers Island to call for reforms, including the end of the use of solitary confinement for all those held at the jail. One participant stressed, that “at least two inmate who were incarcerated here at Rikers Island died while they were in solitary confinement.”
The following comes Ryan Pettigrew, who spent most of his eight years at the supermax Colorado State Penitentiary (CSP) in solitary confiinement. Diagnosed with bipolar II disorder, Pettigrew, like an estimated 57 percent of prisoners confined in isolation in Colorado, suffers from mental illness. Recalling his response when asked by his parole officer if his time in isolation legitimately qualifies as ‘torture,’ he writes, “[P]rison staff had me strip celled for 24 hours in a cold cell that had someone else’s puke and piss all over the floor. I was stripped of clothing… Eventually I had to take a bowel movement but was denied toilet paper and soap, yet forced to eat with my bare hands.” The following entry, entitled “Effects of Solitary Confinement,” comes from Pettigrew’s blog, A Madman’s Path To Reason.
Pettigrew, now 35, was released in August of 2012 from CSP. While there, he befriended Evan Ebel, who was released directly from solitary in January 2013 after making threats to torture and kill correctional officers and others. Ebel went on to murder corrections chief Tom Clements two months after his release. In an interview following Clements’ death, Pettigrew shares a series of revealing text messages he exchanged with Ebel in the weeks approaching the murder. Apparently growing increasingly distressed as he adjusted to life outside his solitary confinement cell, Ebel stated in one message that he felt “peculiar,” adding that he knew of no other “remedy” for this other than violence. —Lisa Dawson
The California hunger strike and Evan Ebel’s rampage have shed light on the solitary confinement problem in American prisons. Citizens are now starting to realize that how we treat our prisoners directly affects them since most will be released, with a direct correlation between prisoners released who return to crime and their treatment while in prison. Common sense proves that the more ignorant and angry a released prisoner is, the more likely it will be that he/she returns to crime.
Solitary confinement has become the most grossly overused and ineffective program in American prisons, with the ACLU estimating over 80,000 American inmates in solitary confinement. Most of the inmates in prison will be released one day but figures show how those in solitary confinement return at a higher rate than those in general population (64% versus 41%), proving the effects of solitary confinement translate to re-offending.
Prison officials argue that solitary confinement is needed for the “worst of the worst” but when investigated, those claims are found false almost every time. It has become the modern day mental hospital even though it’s known to increase the symptoms of mental illness and a place to house those who break petty prison rules such as having too many stamps. Less than 25% of the inmates housed in solitary confinement in the Colorado Department of Corrections were accused of any institutional violence.
Humans need social interaction and sunlight but can be denied both for years in solitary confinement, resulting in serious issues that may become permanent. Add that to the psychological effects that manifest from having too much time to think in an environment where the guards have complete control of all basic necessities. Absolute power absolutely corrupts and it becomes a daily fight just to get food and toilet paper.
The data collected from experts speaks for itself but I prefer to give a personal account of how I suffered while in solitary confinement for eight years at the Colorado State Penitentiary (CSP). Prior to this, I was a very social person, preferring time spent around people but now have to consciously force myself to leave the house. A year removed from prison and that hasn’t changed.
Being treated as sub-human and forced to act out just to get basic necessities created a deep rooted hatred that hasn’t gone away; I just choose to use it to fuel progress since the best revenge for those who tried to break me is success. I was poked with a stick for years but refuse to bite; tortured and punished for studying, now working to overcome the demons.
After my interview with local news stations, my parole officer asked me if “torture” was too strong of a word. I responded with my story about when prison staff had me strip celled for 24 hours in a cold cell that had someone else’s puke and piss all over the floor. I was stripped of clothing but shackled for the first four hours even though I had no access to people and had to exercise for warmth while the shackles dug deep into my ankles. Eventually I had to take a bowel movement but was denied toilet paper and soap, yet forced to eat with my bare hands. It was too cold and bright to sleep, the sleep deprivation tactics increasing the emotional suffering. I ended my story with a question, “is ‘torture’ too strong of a word”?
During solitary confinement I had too much time to think which increased the anxiety I already had as a result of the Type 2 Bipolar Disorder CSP staff already diagnosed me with towards the beginning of my stay, yet they decided to keep me in there for eight more years despite solitary confinement being known to exacerbate the symptoms of mental illness. Anxiety turned to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and I became obsessed with whatever my brain became locked on, even petty things such as labels facing forward. Eventually, I became plagued with homicidal nightmares but the bad part was they didn’t bother me; I was slowing turning into a monster and didn’t know how to handle it. The last six months in there, I was constantly breaking out in cold sweats but even my psychologist didn’t have any answers. Then, the first day in the sun, it immediately stopped but memory of the misery they inflicted will always haunt me.
My first week out of prison was the toughest time of my life. After being used to a thin mattress, noise and constant light; a dark and quiet room with a Tempur-Pedic mattress was too much, making sleep impossible. Food wouldn’t digest correctly and I panicked around people. However, the worst part was the fact that I had learned to embrace misery so positive emotions were too much to handle. I was in a state of shock for a week then would burst out crying over the smallest positive situations. I didn’t know how to be happy and that was a scary thought.
I was plagued with panic attacks brought on by anything that reminded my subconscious of where I had been, except my flight or fight response was all backwards. Rather than wanting to flee, I’d want to attack, and those urges would last all day. It was hard enough to adjust but this made it nearly impossible. To top it all off, the years spent in isolation had destroyed my immune system so I was sick more than I was healthy the first nine months after my release. I can’t imagine how I could’ve survived without my family’s help.
The million dollar question is: Is this how we want prisoners released? I struggled to make it even with every resource made available to me by my loving family but most prisoners don’t have that and stand no chance of success if released from solitary confinement. When they panic, how do you think they’ll react? Should we continue as-is or increase safety for society? You can’t keep them locked up forever, so safety requires humane treatment. It’s your choice.
On July 30, 2014, Margarita Murugia was found hanging in her solitary confinement cell at the California Institution for Women (CIW). “She was there for her own protection, not because she did something,” wrote April Harris, a woman currently incarcerated at CIW. ” Apparently her mom was dying of cancer and they refused to let her see her mom. She tried to kill herself with every denied request. She finally did it.”
According to advocacy group California Coalition for Women Prisoners, CIW has had seven deaths since the start of 2014. In comparison, the prison had five deaths in 2013 and one in 2012.
Shadae Schmidt, better known as DaeDae to her friends, was another of these seven deaths. On March 24, 2014, Schmidt was found dead in her cell. In February 2014, while in the Security Housing Unit, or SHU, she suffered a stroke. She was taken to the hospital where she received medical attention. According to women inside, she was returned to isolation in her SHU cell less than three weeks later. The following month, she was found dead. Hers was the third death within three months at the prison.
Krys Shelley and DaeDae Schmidt had spent 10 years at Valley State Prison for Women before Shelley’s release in May 2012. The following year, Valley State was converted to a men’s prison; the women were moved to the Central California Women’s Facility across the street or to CIW in Corona.
Schmidt was transferred to CIW where she began complaining to friends and family that she was receiving the wrong medications. Then she was sent to the prison’s Security Housing Unit (SHU). Like the SHU in men’s prisons, women spend up to 23 ½ hours locked in their cells. No one is sure why Schmidt was sent to the SHU, but it doesn’t surprise Shelley. “DaeDae was sometimes too smart for her own good,” Shelley recalled. At Valley State, Schmidt would be sent to the SHU for talking back to an officer or for fighting to protect other women, she said. Schmidt was also sent to the SHU on allegations that she possessed tobacco, which was banned from California prisons in 2006. “If they hear you have tobacco, they’ll search you, they’ll search your room, then they’ll lock you up and investigate,” Shelley, who had also spent time in the SHU pending investigations, explained. “They don’t let you out until they’ve finished their investigation.” Schmidt was never actually found guilty of tobacco possession.
Shelley spoke with Schmidt several months before her death. She said that their conversation was full of laughter. “We always talked,” she said. “We were always laughing.” The next time she heard anything about her friend, it was news of her death.
Deaths in Lockdown
Dana Simas at the press office for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) insists that the SHU is not solitary confinement, pointing to the fact that, in July 2014, only four of the 96 women in the SHU were in cells by themselves. The other 92 were double-celled. (The number of people in single cells rose to six of the ninety-three women in SHU in August 2014.) Women are allowed out of the SHU for mental health appointments, medical appointments, and library visits. They are allowed to go to the yard, which has individual holding cells where they can exercise and talk, although the cells make it impossible for them to touch each other.
But Pam Fadem with California Coalition for Women Prisoners disagrees. “A year ago it was [solitary] until the prison was too crowded and everyone began getting a cellmate.” Having a cellmate while on lockdown has sometimes increased risks of violence. She described “Wendy,” who had been placed in the SHU for her own safety while at Valley State Prison. When she was moved to CIW, she was placed in general population where she was physically attacked three times within two months. She was then placed in a solo cell in SHU. As the prison became more crowded, CDCR placed another person in her cell. “She tried to refuse since it was an unknown person to her that felt like a threat,” Fadem explained. But the person was moved into her cell, “Wendy” was promptly attacked and only then was the second person moved out. Double-celling individuals while keeping them locked down in their cells for 22 to 23 hours a day is considered by advocates to be another form of isolated confinement, and not an acceptable alternative to solitary.
Deaths Outside of Solitary
Not all of the deaths have been in solitary. The first death, of 29-year-old Sheena Crigler, occurred on February 8th. On February 24th, Alicia Thompson, known as Gypsy to her friends, became the year’s second death. Prison officials told Thompson’s mother that she had committed suicide. Her mother, however, insists that her daughter did not commit suicide. She told Solitary Watch that her daughter’s body had no signs of hanging trauma, but did have bruising around her left temple. She and her grandchildren had spoken with her daughter three days earlier, on Friday, February 21st. “She called every week,” her mother said. “She seemed happy.”
DaeDae Schmidt’s death in the SHU was the third. Two weeks later, on March 26th, Stacey McCannon, whom friends called Grandpa Smiley, fell off a ladder, hit her head and died shortly after. According to women inside, that same day, eighty-year-old Delores Emmons died. In addition to these six deaths, women inside the prison report one other death.
Eight months after her daughter’s death, Alicia Thompson’s mother is still waiting for the coroner’s report. The coroner’s office told Solitary Watch that it has not yet determined the cause of death. “We have a year to file the report. Cases can take six months or more,” explained Pamela Sokolik. “We’re not keeping it from her, but the case is not yet closed.”
Thompson’s mother is raising Thompson’s three children, an eleven-year-old daughter and two sons, ages eight and four. She’s heard about the other deaths in the prison. “There’s too many deaths. I don’t understand why there hasn’t been an investigation yet,” she said.
During July and August, four women unsuccessfully attempted suicide. According to the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, at least two of the women had been housed in the SHU.
According to Dana Simas, this number of suicides, both attempted and actual, is not unusually high. But, she acknowledges, “we’re dealing with a population in all sorts of crisis. Some are dealing with the fact that they’ll never get out of prison. Some may have gotten bad news from their family, had a bad encounter with someone else or just be having a bad day. Unlike people on the outside, they can’t remove themselves from the situation.” She also acknowledges that the prison environment can exacerbate already-present mental health issues.
Simas told Solitary Watch that mental health clinicians are available at all times within the SHU. “All they would have to do is request to see a mental health clinician,” she explained. In the SHU, staff are required to conduct welfare checks every fifteen minutes. During each check, staff must be able to see each person, note their actions and look for evidence of self-harm. Staff members have the authority to move a person to a mental health crisis bed.
However, women have told the California Coalition for Women Prisoners that, while clinicians check on them daily, they do not do so every fifteen minutes. They see a doctor twice a week, but are locked into a cage for their counseling session. They are unsure whether the doctor is a psychiatrist, psychologist, medical doctor or other type of clinician. Women also report that the doctors rotate often, making it hard to establish rapport.
Simas told Solitary Watch that if a person has attempted suicide, she is transferred to a mental health crisis bed. She is placed in a suicide prevention room and kept under 24-hour watch by staff. Release from the crisis bed comes only after mental health professionals, which include a psychiatric technician, a psychologist and, if medication is required, nursing staff, have conducted an evaluation and determined that the person is no longer at risk of self-harming.
What’s Being Done?
Citing privacy laws, Simas was not able to comment on Murugia’s suicide or what steps had been taken after each of her unsuccessful attempts. “The way CDCR approaches suicide is very serious. We will continue to improve our policies, our trainings and our responses,” she stated.
Women inside say otherwise. Jane Dorotik notes that, while CDCR has policies around providing mental health care and addressing mental health crises, these policies are rarely put into practice. She recounted one instance in which mental health staff turned away a person who needed help:
One day, Shirley brought a troubled woman over to me. The woman was twitching her leg, having difficulty just sitting still and focusing to talk to me. She was able to tell me, between incoherent mumblings, that she was hearing voices. She couldn’t get the voices out of her head and she was afraid of what they might tell her to do. She was thinking of cutting into her head ot make the voices stop.
I walked her over to the health clinic and explained the urgency to the staff. They responded in condescending and dispassionate terms. ‘We won’t see her without a pass from her housing unit.’ I walked into her unit (going ‘out of bounds’ myself) and spoke to her housing staff to alert them to the urgency. They responded, ‘Go away, you are out-of-bounds and can be written up. We know how to handle this.’
The next day I saw the woman walking around the yard mumbling to herself and twitching her leg. Half of her head was shaved and she had lacerations all through her scalp. She had obviously tried to quiet the voices on her own, to no one’s great alarm.
The woman Dorotik described attempted suicide on August 1, 2014, the day after Murugia was found hanging in her cell. She was sent to the prison’s Special Confinement Unit (SCU), a mental health unit, where she was also prescribed medications. She also participated in programs, such as self-esteem, substance abuse, stress management and reading enhancement, as well as daily group talk sessions. She reported that the programs provided her with relief from the constant hopelessness of the SHU. But after thirty days, she was declared stable and returned to the SHU. There are no group talk sessions in the SHU.
Days after Murugia’s suicide, Dorotik said, “CIW continues to struggle with how to implement policies to increase safety, prevent suicides, intercept drug trafficking and reduce fights. They try and eliminate blind corners and other external control measures. They never address the root of the problem—overcrowding [and] depressed hopeless women with no clear vision of the future.”
• A federal appeals court heard arguments on whether the state of Virginia violated the Constitution by automatically placing those who have been given the death penalty in solitary confinement. Last January, a district court judge found that this automatic placement violated inmates’ due process rights.
• The Washington Post published another editorial condemning the use of solitary confinement, concluding that “prisons should isolate inmates only in rare cases when that is the singular way to prevent violence. The General Assembly should ensure that Maryland abides by this principle, rather than hiding behind euphemisms.”
• The family of a woman who passed away in a solitary confinement cell in Montana must be paid $565,500, a District Court ruled. Heather Holly Wasson was 31 when she died of an alcohol withdrawal seizure; the jail’s staff was aware she was at risk and was supposed to put her on 30-minute review watch, but failed to do so.
• Solitary Watch’s Vikki Law published a profile of several mothers responsible for spearheading California Families Against Solitary Confinement. The organization has played a primary role in advocating for those locked up in isolation in California, including publicizing voices from the inside during the 2011 hunger strike.
• The family of Jermone Murdough, who died in solitary confinement while on Rikers Island last winter, will receive a $2.25 million settlement from the City of New York. Murdough was a homeless veteran with a history of mental illness; he passed away after the temperature in his jail cell exceeded 100 degrees.
• The Salt Lake Tribune published a letter by the Legal Director of the Disability Law Center, in which he addresses the recent suicide of a client held at Utah State Prison. Between 2011 and 2013 Ryan Allison spent over 586 days in “punitive isolation,” despite having a diagnosed mental illness and extensively documented suicide attempts and self-harm incidents.
• A class action lawsuit has been in federal court to challenge the practice of applying “owed bing time” on Rikers Island. Currently, individuals held at the jail can be sent to solitary confinement for disciplinary infractions committed during previous detentions.
In 2002, Rob Will was convicted of the murder of a police officer and sentenced to death. The New York Times, among others, has pointed to a lack of physical evidence linking Will to the murder, and he continues to claim his innocence. Will remains on Texas death row, in the Allen B. Polunsky Unit, notorious for its use of extreme solitary confinement. Writing in Mother Jones, Solitary Watch editors Jean Casella and James Ridgeway noted that the men housed in the Polunsky Unit of Texas’ Death Row “are housed in single cells on 22-hour-a-day lockdown, and even during their daily “recreation” hour, they are confined in separate cages. With no access to phones, televisions, contact visits, they remain in essentially a concrete tomb until execution day—a stretch of at least three years for the mandatory appeals, and far longer if they opt to keep fighting. Some have been known to commit suicide or waive their appeals rather than continue living under such conditions.” In his essay The Heaviness of Blood, Will illustrates the ways in which the oppressive and unforgiving environment of solitary creates insanity. –Abby Taskier
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Must the Italians be so very wicked? They have done this all throughout history: created soul-stirring strings music. Music that pulls at ones heartstrings, enhances the emotions with a slight caress, grasps ones deepest feelings and thrusts them into the heavens with the force of Zeus hurling thunderbolts, or smash-smash-smashes emotions into the abysmal depths of hell with the promise of bringing them back up…up-up-up to the highest heights of deep visceral reflection. There is always beauty to the music but sometimes it’s a dark beauty , a call to raise ones consciousness to the realm of musical spheres regardless of what else is occurring in ones environment but at the same time it compels one to hyper focus on the emotions at hand. Paganini, Vivaldi, Arcangelo, Corelli, Boccherini, they are all guilty of this and they knew exactly what they were doing in creating such sense enlivening music.
They have been playing many Italian composers recently and right now some Alessandro Scarlatti is on. A light cello concerto is playing but all I can think about is the heaviness of blood. Within the last two weeks, two guys on the pods were gassed and one was taken off the pod, right past my cell, covered in blood. He was in a non-responsive, catatonic state, hacking on himself with a razor when a C.O. [corrections officer] walked by. He was gassed and dragged out of his cell, strapped to a gurney and wheeled off to… we couldn’t find out but surely either the Psych Unit or the disciplinary pod.
The guy has been here for over a decade and has never been gassed before and never exhibited any form of suicidal behavior and has never engaged in self-mutilation. What happened? What pushed him over the edge? He is usually a very talkative, sociable and gregarious person. No one knows.
The other guy was attacked with riot gas and assaulted with the 37 mm riot control assault rifle in the dayroom. It was early in the morning so most people were asleep and only woke up when gas was deployed, the incident was ending and he was taken away to the F-pod dungeon. What exactly happened? No one knows. Something about and argument with a particularly oppressive and antagonistic C.O. who then lied to the Lt. and Sgt. The SWAT team arrived and the guy just stood there, perplexed, as he was attacked. He has been here years and has never been gassed before. He has never been aggressive with staff members and he wasn’t that day. No one really knows what happened.
Incidents like this are all too common in this environment. They happen consistently and this takes a heavy toll on the minds of those involved both directly and indirectly. Picture this: I’m in my cell with my headphones halfway on, listening to some nice music and standing at my door talking to my neighbor about painting techniques. Someone yells out, “They just gassed T!”
Huh? What? What’s going on? Another person yells out, “Now they’re dragging him out of his cell and he’s all bloody.”
This dramatically jars the psyche and causes one to hyper focus at the incident at hand. Everyone tries to figure out what happened. No one can. It’s an enigma, a frightening enigma. A thousand possible explanations are thrown out and bounced around, everyone hoping for some form of answer. There is none. This absolutely terrorizes the human psyche.
Then the avoidance sets in. No one wants to talk or think about it. Everyone silently hopes that they won’t be the next victim of this twisted, unforgiving environment… and then another insane gassing incident happens a few days later… Again and again and again. At any given moment, on any given day, insanity can erupt. Tear gas and blood. SWAT teams and screams of the insane.
The Germans have tried but they’ve always lagged behind the Italians concerning strings music-with exception of J. S. Bach perhaps and Mozart is alright. His violin concerto No. 1 is on right now. Not moving enough to caress deep emotion from within me but this is good music to meditate to and try to get the image of yet another bloody body being dragged past my cell out of my mind…
The Arizona Department of Corrections (ADC) has agreed to a settlement in a class-action lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Prison Law Office and their co-counsel on behalf of more than 33,000 people held in state prisons.
Filed in 2012, the landmark case was scheduled to go to trial earlier this month in federal court. The lawsuit asserts that people held in ADC prisons are not provided access to sufficient mental health care, medical care and dental care, resulting in deaths. The suit also alleges excessive use of solitary confinement by the state.
The settlement in Parsons v. Ryan requires the ADC to put in place major measures to rectify extensive inadequacies to its health care program, which a recent press release by the ACLU describes as a “system plagued by long-term and systemic problems that caused numerous deaths and preventable injuries.”
To comply with the settlement, the ADC must meet over 100 health care performance initiatives, including issues like monitoring people “with diabetes, hypertension, and other chronic conditions; care for pregnant prisoners; and dental care.”
The settlement also requires the ADC to implement new restrictions on placing people suffering from mental illness in solitary confinement. The ADC must further grant those with mental illnesses who are held in isolation additional access to mental health treatment and more time outside of their cells.
The ACLU said, “Instead of spending all but six hours a week in their cells, such prisoners will now have at least 19 hours a week outside the cell, and this time must include mental health treatment and other programming.”
The settlement also restricts the use of pepper spray by guards on these people, requiring that it only be used “as a last resort when necessary to prevent serious injury or escape.”
According to The Arizona Republic, the settlement further states that chemical agents should be used only on those deemed “seriously mentally ill” (SMI) in the instance of an “imminent threat.”
The story also notes that the ADC denies the charges in the complaint, maintaining “the settlement is not an admission of wrongdoing or liability.”
The agreement is to stay in effect for a minimum of four years.
The ADC has consented to pay all attorneys’ fees, which amount to $4.9 million, to the ACLU of Arizona and the other parties that filed suit.
The settlement further includes terms allowing for continuous monitoring and oversight by attorneys of the prisoners to ensure the state is in compliance with the new regulations, thereby establishing a system of checks and balances to ensure ADC is compliance with all new regulations.
David Fathi, the Director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project, said, “We hope other states will now find ways to provide adequate medical, mental health, and dental care to their prisoners.”
• Dissident Voice published a profile of Mumia Abu-Jamal and Jeremy Hammond, two political prisoners who have faced time in solitary confinement.
• Undocumented immigrants currently and formerly held at a detention center in Colorado have filed a class-action lawsuit against the private company that runs the facility. The individuals allege that they were threatened with solitary confinement if they refused to assist in cleaning or operating the facility, work for which they were paid less than $1 a day.
• The widow of Colorado’s former prison chief, Tom Clements, urged a candidate in the state’s gubernatorial race to stop using her “family’s loss for [his] personal and political gain.” Her husband was murdered by Evan Ebel in 2013, after he was released directly from solitary confinement.
• Gay, bisexual and transgender individuals have filed a class-action lawsuit against San Bernardino County and its sheriff, claiming that they are kept in isolation on an LGBT-specific unit and denied access to programming that would enable them to secure earlier release dates. One plaintiff said, “I shouldn’t have to choose between my safety and my sexual orientation. That’s pretty much the choice you have to make.”
• Colorado’s Department of Corrections may be considering giving those on death row additional about four hours out of their cells daily, according to one source. In Colorado – and across the country – people on death are held in solitary confinement regardless of their behavior on the inside.
• As part of a settlement agreement reached with Prisoners’ Legal Services, New York’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision will provide much greater protections to children facing solitary confinement following a disciplinary hearing. The settlement also restricts the amount of hours young people can spend in isolation to 18 hours a day during the week and 22 hours a day over the weekend.
Pope Francis Denounces Solitary Confinement, Calls for Prison Conditions That “Respect Human Dignity”
In a wide-ranging speech on Thursday, Pope Francis revealed himself as a passionate criminal justice reformer. His words also suggest that he is familiar with the controversies surrounding solitary confinement and supermax prisons, and strongly opposes their use.
Speaking at the Vatican to representatives of the International Association of Penal Law, the Pope said: “All Christians and people of good will are called today to fight not only for the abolition of the death penalty, be it legal or illegal, in all of its forms, but also for the improvement of prison conditions in respect for the human dignity of those who have been deprived of liberty.”
Previous popes, including John Paul II, have been outspoken opponent of capital punishment. But Francis took his discourse a step further, denouncing sentences of life in prison, and saying that “a life sentence is a hidden death sentence.”
The Pope called for a ban on all criminal detention of children, for “special treatment” for elderly people in prison, and for an end to preventive detention, which he called a “hidden, illegal punishment.” More broadly, he denounced “the deplorable conditions of detention that take place in different parts of the world,” which he called an “arbitrary and merciless exercise of power over persons who have been deprived of freedom.”
Francis specifically turned his attention to supermax prisons. His term was carceri di massima sicurezza, which more literally translates to “maximum-security prisons”–but from his emphasis on extreme isolation and its consequences, it is clear that the Pope was referring to the use of solitary confinement. Pope Francis’s statement in full on the subject is as follows (with apologies for a rough translation):
One form of torture is sometimes applied by imprisonment in maximum security prisons. With the motive of providing greater security to the community or special treatment for certain categories of prisoners, its main feature is none other than the isolation. As demonstrated by studies carried out by different human rights bodies, the lack of sensory stimuli , the complete lack of communication and the lack of contact with other human beings, causes physical and emotional suffering such as paranoia, anxiety, depression, and weight loss, and significantly increases the chances of suicide.
This phenomenon is characteristic of high security prisons, but it also occurs in other kinds of prisons, along with other forms of physical and mental torture…These tortures are now administered by not only as a means to achieve a particular purpose, such as confession or denunciation, in the name of national security. They are a genuine surplus of pain that is added to the suffering of detention. In this way, torture takes place not only in clandestine detention centers or in modern concentration camps, but also in prisons, juvenile institutions, psychiatric hospitals, police stations, and other institutions of detention and punishment.
The Pope also warned against seeing prison as a cure for all of society’s ills. “In recent decades there has been a growing conviction that through public punishment it is possible to solve different and disparate social problems, as if for different diseases one could prescribe the same medicine,” he said. In conclusion, he advised that “caution in the application of punishment should be the governing principle of all criminal justice systems,” and that States should not, for any purpose, subvert “respect for the dignity of the human person.”
Pope Francis previously made headlines during his first Holy Week by washing the feet of twelve youth held at a juvenile detention center in Rome while celebrating the mass of the Last Supper, when Jesus washed the feet of his disciples.
In a papal mass just a few days before his speech on criminal justice, Francis told an assembly of Catholic bishops: “God is not afraid of new things. That is why he is continuously surprising us, opening our hearts and guiding us in unexpected ways.”
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.