On Memorial Day weekend, close to a hundred visitors traveled by plane, train, bus, and car to Pelican Bay State Prison. The long weekend, with the prospect of not having to rush back to work on Monday morning, meant that relatives could make the expensive, lengthy trip to the Northern-most tip of California, where a cluster of boxy-beige nondescript buildings warehouse the 1,500 men in the Security Housing Unit (SHU), in the most extreme conditions of solitary confinement in the state.
Crescent City is 736 miles from Los Angeles, where many of the men held at Pelican Bay Prison are originally from. That can easily amount to a fifteen-hour drive, the last four of which are on a dark, sinuous road flanked by ancient redwoods. For families with limited money and resources, making this trip can be akin to the obstacle-laden course navigated by Odysseus on his ten-year journey home from Troy.
“At least three family members made it up this weekend that have never come before and would never have been able to make it on their own,” said Dolores Canales, co-founder of the California Families to Abolish Solitary Confinement (CFASC), “people have health problems, the trip is too expensive—some are scared to come up.”
By pairing families together to share hotel rooms and carpooling through the night, CFASC has been able to winnow the cost of the trip down to one hundred and fifty dollars per person. For some of the families this literally opens up the opportunity to see their loved ones for the first time in ten years—the same eternity it took Odysseus to get home.
The Intake Room
A nervous carload of mothers, wives, and a lone brother are greeted at the gate by an overly cheerful Correctional Officer (CO). He chuckles as he sorts through their IDs, “SHU or Main?” he asks.
“SHU” several people say in unison, piercing the last ten minutes of silence. That means their loved ones live in cramped, windowless cells 23 hours a day; that their only opportunity to glimpse the world outside their cells is an hour a day in a slightly larger, open-air cell; and that visits with their friends and family will be through thick glass, with no physical contact allowed.
Inside the waiting room, about 25 women and 2 men wait impatiently for the CO to call their names and make sure their clothing complies with Pelican Bay’s regulations. No bras with underwire, no tight or revealing clothing, no skirts above the knee. A pregnant young woman gets sent back to her car to change her pants, deemed inappropriately tight. Others have to change their shirts if the fabric is too thin, take off earrings and leave behind letters and pictures they’ve brought—there is a limit of ten pictures and only stud-earrings are allowed.
On the wall in the waiting room is a mounted glass case filled with sweatshirts for sale. “Pelican Bay State Prison,” one reads, “Hard Luck Café.” “Security Housing Units,” reads another, “Like Two Peas in a Pod.”
“I probably would have laughed at that years ago,” says one woman,“assuming all these guys deserve what they get.” She says she’s made the trip to Pelican Bay four times a year since her son was sent here in 1997. “Now that it’s my son,” she adds, “I know better.”
This room of mostly women makes one think of the gaping holes left in communities during times of war, when traditionally it’s the women who step up to fulfill the roles and responsibilities of brothers and husbands in their absence.
“I’m goin’ crazy just sitting here waiting,” says one older woman, “I’ve been sick,” she continues, “I can’t fly. I can’t drive anymore. Here I am to see my son after thirteen years.”
As if on cue a frustrated young woman begins shaking the vending machine when her chips don’t drop down. One-by-one, family members are asked to creep sideways through a hypersensitive metal detector, the alarm constantly going off.
“When we first started coming up in 2011,” said Canales, “the visiting room would sometimes be empty—now we worry if we’re even gonna get in. This is a good thing.”
In 2011 the second major hunger strike began in California’s prisons, one of the core demands being the end of long-term solitary confinement. Canales and a few other mothers were at the center of outside support, “After that hunger strike ended we realized we needed to form a group and keep organizing. After all, our husbands and kids were still in solitary.”
Since then Dolores and CFASC have been at the center of it all. In 2013 another hunger strike erupted; this time 29,000 prisoners refused meals and a devoted core lasted over 60 days. CFASC was involved at every level: organizing demonstrations, sitting on the Mediation Team to negotiate the terms of ending the strike with prison officials and finding ways for families on the outside to constantly stay involved. “A lot if times it was the guys inside Pelican Bay that told their family members to call us,” said Canales, “they urged them to get involved in the political process.”
Groups of 15 are shuttled in a van to the SHU visiting room. Each person has received a number, and they make their way to the small booths where they will spend the next three hours talking to their loved ones through thick glass, their mouths pressed to a plastic phone receiver mounted to the wall beside them. Visitors are allowed access to a vending machine where they can buy soda and snacks, but they can’t share them. No contact is allowed, nothing but words can be passed between them.
Most these men are validated gang members or associates which means that “evidence” such as a letter, an address, drawing or possession of the wrong book is enough to place them in solitary confinement for year, decades or indefinitely. Many have never committed a violent act in prison, they are deemed guilty by association and the only chance they have to get back to the mainline is to debrief, which mean giving information, often false, on other prisoners.
Every once in a while, a young woman overcome with emotion will rush towards the public bathroom, her child in tow. Others press their hands to the glass to “touch” their husband, brother or son on the other side. The men are pale and smiling, wearing blaring white jumpsuits tied in the front like a backward hospital gown.
“Since the hunger strike,” Canales said, “The men inside have been allowed to order additional items from the canteen. They’ve been given shorts and bowls; a pull-up bar and access to a handball—you have to remember that for decades they’ve had nothing to work out with. More recently, the visits have been expanded to three hours instead if what used to be more like an hour and a half.”
Though these improvements have been largely well received by prisoners and their families, Canales points out that they do nothing to end the practice of long-term solitary confinement. “We definitely oppose the new legislation presented by Loni Hancock,” Canales continues, referring to the recently proposed California Senate Bill 892, “unless it’s amended. There are a few good aspects to it, but others are problematic. Ultimately, it still allows for the use of indefinite solitary confinement, no end in sight, that’s completely unacceptable.”
Leaving The Razor Wire Behind
Cars line up behind the security booth in the afternoon heat, eager to speed off and leave the razor wire and boxy-beige buildings behind, where they’re husbands, sons and fathers remain, many with no end in sight. Some will make their way to local restaurants to try and fill the nagging emptiness with warm food, while others will need to immediately start the long drive back to Los Angeles.
“Visits mean everything to these guys,” Canales says while sitting down to eat with a small group of CFASC members, “It can often put their routines back on a positive course. You hear stories of guys that have been doing nothing but watching TV months, they don’t even want to go out to yard. The guys call this ‘checking out’ and it can be dangerous, the worst cases ending in suicide. After a visit some of these guys turn their lives around and start being productive again.”
A small group of CFASC members stop for a walk in the redwoods. One mother in her 70s pierces the silence by telling scandalous jokes in Spanish and soon no one can stop laughing. “That’s why my visits keep my son going,” she exclaims, “I can always make him laugh.”
These women seem heartened by the simple joy of being together and the success of this weekend’s journey. “So many of the men don’t get visits,” comments one woman, thinking of the hundreds of men who went without, “I feel terrible for them.”
The post The Odyssey to Pelican Bay: Families Journey to California’s Notorious Supermax Prison appeared first on Solitary Watch.
• California Senator Loni Hanock’s prison reform bill has passed through the Senate and now goes to the State Assembly. Both prisoners and prisoners’ rights advocates have voiced their opposition to the legislation, since it writes into law the state’s policy of placing individuals in solitary merely for suspected gang membership.
• Lawyers for a man who recently pled guilty to killing a prison guard are now fighting to keep him out of the federal supermax facility in Florence, Colorado. Attorneys for James Ninete Leon Guerrero explained that he “is not challenging the fact of his confinement, but rather the conditions of confinement.” Guerrero has a documented intellectual disability and has also been diagnosed as bipolar.
• Solitary confinement survivor and Solitary Watch contributor Sarah Shourd published a piece in The Daily Beast entitled, “How solitary confinement destroys women.”
• A trial date has been set for a New Jersey Superior Court case brought by a prisoner who claims he was placed in solitary confinement without sufficient due process. Lester Alford also hopes to prove that his time in solitary confinement – eight years and counting – amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. In a letter last month to a local outlet, Alford described the conditions he has endured: “I eat every meal that is served in my cell. If I am allowed to use the unit phone, I have to use it in my cell. I am not allowed to go to the law library, gym, or anywhere else inmates congregate. The conditions on the MCU unit (Management Control Unit) is one that can only be described as bleak, hopeless, and explosive.”
• The Colorado Independent published an in-depth analysis of last week’s federal ruling in Thomas Silverstein v. Federal Bureau of Prisons. Silverstein, 62, has been held in complete isolation for 31 years – longer than any other federal prisoner. The journalist quotes from an article posted last week on Solitary Watch by the site’s editors, Jean Casella and James Ridgeway. Artwork made by Silverstein and his accounts of his conditions in solitary are also incorporated into the piece.
This post is the next in a series of pieces Solitary Watch is publishing as part of a project calling for people held in solitary confinement to write on various proposed themes. Our second suggested theme, “Analyzing Isolation,” calls for writers to provide their analyses of solitary, discussing ways in which the practice is harmful and counterproductive.
The following comes from Leon Benson, who spent 10 consecutive years in a 7 by 12-foot cell on 23-hour-a-day lockdown in the Secured Housing Unit (SHU) at Wabash Valley Correctional Facility. In this powerful piece, excerpted from an essay entitled”Moral Lobotomy: Abolish Prolonged Solitary Confinement and the Mental Disorders it Causes,” Benson, 38, calls for a ban on prolonged isolation, asserting that the practice causes mental breakdowns in those subjected to it. He can be reached by writing: Leon Benson #995256, Pendleton Correctional Facility, 4490 W. Reformatory Rd., Pendleton, IN, 46064. –Lisa Dawson
If I ever have known hell, it occurred during my years in solitary. I still can hear the unrelenting screams from other prisoners and the metal clanks of cell doors opening and closing. I still can smell the stench of fear. Existential purgatory is another way to describe it: You have no clue of when you will be released back to general population–it could be in 30 days or in 30 years.
Allow my words to be the catalyst for the much larger debate: Does prolonged segregation in Indiana cause mental breakdowns in prisoners? The answer is yes. The U.N. has long declared that prolonged solitary confinement is cruel and unusual punishment. (Articles 1 and 16 of the U.N. Convention Against Torture). This type of prolonged confinement is especially harmful to mentally ill prisoners. After class action litigation, Indiana federal courts, in December 2012, finally ruled to ban all mentally ill prisoners from being housed in any of Indiana’s segregation units; deeming the units toxic to prisoners with mental illness.
But what about segregation, especially if extremely prolonged, being harmful to any prisoner? [...] These individuals are practically buried alive. Mainly due to administrative and not disciplinary reasons: A vindictive warden can lock a prisoner in solitary for years on mere speculation of wrongdoing.
Some of these men break down mentally and become zombies full of psyche medication. But most will be left with functional psychological damage. More than 80% of these prisoners will be released back into society someday. Dr. Terence T. Gorski proposed that these prisoners will suffer from what he calls Post Incarceration Syndrome (PICS). There is mounting evidence that PICS is a major contributing factor to the high recidivism rate.
Dr. Gorski’s concept of PICS in emerged from his clinical consultation work and rehabilitation programs with incarcerated and newly released prisoners. And he established that PICS is a set of symptoms that are present in many prisoners that are caused by prolonged incarceration in general population settings. However, the symptoms are most severe and prisoners subjected to prolonged solitary confinement.
PICS is a mixed mental and personality disorder with five clusters of symptoms:
• Institutionalized personality traits resulting from the common deprivations of incarceration–a chronic state of “learned helplessness” in the face of prison authority and antisocial defense in dealing with a predatory prison environment.
• Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) caused by traumatic experiences before and during incarceration with symptoms such as flashbacks, intense distress, irritability, hyper-vigilance, and paranoia.
• Antisocial personality traits, the direct result of internalize coping behavior required to survive in a harsh environment that has two sets of survival rules–passive aggression with guards and active aggression with predatory prisoners.
• Social sensory deprivation syndrome caused by the effects of prolonged solitary confinement that imposes both isolation and sensory deprivation. Symptoms include chronic headaches, inability to concentrate, we pressed rage, and obsessive thinking.
• Reactive substance use disorder which often occurs with prisoners who use addiction and drugs to cope with PICS.
Releasing these prisoners back into society with such severe symptoms will only create devastation and chaos. They will be less likely to get and maintain jobs and more likely to commit crimes, disrupt families, and to need healthcare. All of which will bring a heavier toll on community stability and tax payer money better spent in other areas…
This epidemic of systematically destroying prisoners’ lives beyond repair can be prevented. All that needs to be done is to change the ineffective policies that promote high incarceration rates for nonviolent crimes, the use of extreme prolonged solitary confinement, and the restrictions on educational, vocational, and rehabilitation for people while in prison. To promote alternative laws and policies would reap huge benefits, not only for the many prisoners currently suffering the trauma of prolonged solitary confinement, but for the greater good of all society.
The post Voices from Solitary, Analyzing Isolation, Part III appeared first on Solitary Watch.
• A Texas woman has filed a lawsuit alleging that in 2012, she was forced to give birth in solitary confinement without medical assistance, leading to her baby’s death. Nicole Guerrero was being held at the Wichita County Jail on drug charges when she went into labor; according to her account, the nurse on staff ignored her screams and pleas for help as the contractions intensified. A correctional officer eventually helped her deliver the infant, but the umbilical cord was wrapped around her neck and no efforts were made to resuscitate her.
• An appeals court has denied a request by a man held in solitary confinement continuously for the past 30 years to be released into general population. Thomas Silverstein, 62, was alleged to be a leader of the Aryan Brotherhood prison gang. He is currently incarcerated at ADX Florence, the federal supermax in Colorado.
• The Associated Press has uncovered grisly details in the death of another person held in solitary confinement on Riker’s Island. In September 2013, Bradley Ballard was found naked and covered in feces in his cell at the jail, with his genitals mutilated and infected. He died several hours later in the hospital. Ballard was a diagnosed schizophrenic and had allegedly been denied his medication.
• Five corrections officers at a New York state prison have been placed on administrative leave following an internal investigation into claims that they forced individuals held in solitary confinement to fight each other. The guards at Greene Correctional Facility also allegedly went to great lengths to scare the prisoners out of filing complaints, according to one source even threatening prisoners by placing plastic bags over their heads.
• After spending 48 hours in solitary confinement in the late spring, New Mexico Department of Corrections Cabinet Secretary Gregg Marcantel has reportedly begun making changes to the way the practice operates in the state. According to news sources, 60-80 individuals have been moved from isolation into general population since Marcantel spent two days in the highest security cell at the State Penitentiary in Sante Fe.
• Martin Horn, the former Commissioner of the New York City Department of Correction, has written a blog for The Crime Report questioning whether the extreme conditions of confinement endured by alleged Boston bomber Dzhokar Tsarnaev are justifiable. Tsarnaev is being held in almost complete isolation from the outside world.
• ThinkProgress has reported that despite claims to the contrary, those incarcerated in Charlestown when 10,000 gallons of chemicals leaked into West Virginia’s water supply were not supplied with sufficient clean water. Prisoners reported that they were given as little as 16 oz of water a day, and also said that the medical segregation unit became so full that that sick inmates were sent to disciplinary segregation instead. In interviews, current and former inmates also reported that they were punished with lockdown or solitary confinement after staging protests to demand more clean water.
• A British, Egyptian-born imam was convicted in New York on 11 terrorism-related charges. Mustafa Kamel Mustafa, commonly known as Abu Hamza, was extradited to the US in 2014 with four other terrorism suspects after a long battle in UK and European courts, in which the defendants argued that the long-term solitary confinement they would likely face if convicted amounted to torture. A sixth individual, Haroon Aswat, is still awaiting a decision on whether he will be extradited. The Daily Mail (UK) published an article about the conditions at ADX Florence, where Abu Hamza may serve his sentence.
• The Durango Herald published a long-form article on why people with mental illness in Colorado often end up in solitary confinement in the state’s jails.
• According to a recent article in The New York Times, assaults on civilian staff at Riker’s Island have increased by 144% since July 1, 2013, the start of the fiscal year. Some have claimed that the rise in assaults is at least partially due to changes in the way Riker’s manages people with mental illness, including reducing the use of solitary confinement.
In a weekly video message earlier this month, Attorney General Eric Holder made the first public statement on solitary confinement to emerge from the Obama White House (or, as far as we know, any U.S. presidential administration).
A statement accompanying the 3-minute video on the Department of Justice’s website outlines the position taken by Holder–and, by implication, the DOJ and the Obama administration as a whole:
Attorney General Holder spoke out against excessive use of isolation and solitary confinement for young people with disabilities at juvenile detention centers, saying that juvenile incarceration must be used “to rehabilitate, and not merely to warehouse and forget.” Citing reports that described young people being held in confinement for up to 23 hours a day, the Attorney General called for an end to unnecessary or excessive seclusion of youth with disabilities, which can be counterproductive and in some cases extremely harmful.
Any statement on solitary by the nation’s top justice official is certainly significant. Yet it would be difficult to add more qualifiers to Holder’s denouncement of solitary confinement. His criticism is limited to the use of solitary on the most extremely vulnerable (and sympathetic) victims–children with mental illness and other disabilities–and even then, only to “unnecessary or excessive” isolation.
Holder’s video ends without any concrete commitment to take action, although the ACLU has for some time been calling on the Attorney General to ban the use of solitary for all youth held in federal custody. But a week later, on May 21, the Justice Department released some news that signaled its intent to back Holder’s statement, even if on a limited basis:
The United States and private plaintiffs announced today that it has reached an agreement with the state of Ohio, under which the State Department of Youth Services (DYS) will dramatically reduce, and eventually eliminate, its use of seclusion on young people in its custody. DYS will also ensure that young people in its juvenile facilities receive individualized mental health treatment to prevent and address the conditions and behaviors that led to seclusion. The order resolves allegations that the state subjects young people with mental health needs in its custody to harmful seclusion and withholds treatment and programming, in violation of their constitutional rights.
“Overreliance on solitary confinement for young people, particularly those with disabilities, is unsafe and counterproductive,” said Attorney General Eric Holder. “This agreement will help ensure that incarceration in Ohio’s state facilities is humane and that appropriate treatment is provided for young people with mental illness. The Justice Department will continue to evaluate the use of solitary confinement so that it does not become a new normal for incarcerated juveniles.”
This move, which comes after years of litigation, will end one particularly abominable use of solitary confinement, and will improve the lives of countless children in juvenile facilities in Ohio. And it may set a precedent for similar DOJ action in other states. In this sense, it is a laudable example of incremental change.
But the agreement does not extend to the tens of thousands of children held in adult prisons–a significant percentage of whom, evidence suggests, may experience solitary confinement. In fact, in his video address, Holder explicitly acknowledges that isolation a necessary tool for controlling captive populations, including youth.
Furthermore, by criticizing solitary only for one small a specific group, Holder’s statement more than implies that the use of isolation is all right for everyone else. This conviction is borne out by other actions taken by the U.S. DOJ and the Obama administration more broadly, including its treatment of detainees both at Guantanamo and on American soil. It was, after all, the White House and its friends in Congress who engineered the purchase of a prison in Illinois slated to house men in extreme isolation, on the order of the notorious ADX Florence in Colorado.
In fact, one day after it announcement the Ohio settlement, the DOJ, successfully beat back a Constitutional challenge from Thomas Silverstein, who is perhaps the most brutally isolated man in America. A federal appeals court ruled that Silverstein’s 30 years of solitary confinement under a “no human contact” order in ADX and a series of other federal prisons does not constitute cruel and unusual punishment. (Read Silverstein’s description of his time in solitary here, and judge for yourself.)
The post Holder Makes Obama Administration’s First Public Statement on Solitary Confinement appeared first on Solitary Watch.
The following comes from Glenn T. Turner, 40, who has been held in solitary confinement at the Wisconsin Secure Program Facility (WSPF), since 2010, when he was assigned to the facility’s General Segregation Program Process. In his piece, Turner, who has been in and out of solitary confinement since 1992, provides a firsthand account of the devastating effect isolation has on people. He can be reached by writing: Glenn T. Turner #244614 A, WSPF, P.O. Box 9900, Boscobel, WI 53805. –Lisa Dawson
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
I am a prisoner housed in the Wisconsin Department of Corrections at the state’s most secure institution, that being the Wisconsin Secure Program Facility (WSPF). I am presently on a status called Administrative Confinement (A.C.) which is allegedly a non-punitive indefinite solitary confinement status. Thus far I’ve been on this status since May 10th, 2010. That’s on this particular stay on A.C. and I say “this particular stay” because this is not my first time placed on this status by DOC officials…
I speak not as a passive observer, nor from hearsay or second, third, or fourth hand information. I do not imagine the things I speak of, for I personally live it daily.
I’ve been incarcerated since October 18, 1991, and I have completed to date a total of nineteen and a half (19 ½) years of my bit in solitary confinement of one sort or another with very brief moments in general population. I have never been on voluntary segregation confinement, involuntary protective custody, or voluntary protective custody. I have completed every form of program available to me while in solitary confinement and DOC officials have continued to maintain me on A.C….
What has now become a convenient cause to put prisoners on administrative confinement for indefinite segregation in solitary confinement for years on end is to label the prisoner a “gang leader…” In this prison system that has never had a history of serious gang activity, this practice is suspect.
The German philosopher Nietzsche [said], “That which does not kill us makes us stronger,” which may or may not be valid. From my own experiences and observations from being in solitary confinement over the years…I have witnessed men having mental and emotional breakdowns so intense that they need to be prescribed anti-psychotic medications and clinical therapy.
I’ve seen prisoners who were unable to endure such long terms of confinement in solitary attempt to commit suicide, smear their fecal matter over their bodies, cells, and even eat their body waste. I’ve witnessed them cut themselves, and some who – lacking any sharp object to cut themselves with, use their teeth to rip their flesh so as to expose their veins and rip those out to spray their blood all over their cell doors, windows, floors, etc.
I’ve seen yet others simply cry like unfed, hungry babies all day and all night, and some lash out yelling and screaming all day, all night, banging on walls and cell doors, trying to get some form of acknowledgement from their jailers that they are human beings, only to be sprayed with various forms of chemical agents, left incapacitated in their cells. Only then to be taken and have their cloths cut from their bodies and put nude into a yet more restrictive type of segregation status, called “control status.” There, they have nothing in their cell but a concrete slab to sleep on, a stainless steel sink and toilet combo, a surveillance camera and 24 hours a day of bright light cell illumination.
Removal from this status is determined by “a white shirt” [supervisor]. No standards or process is due or available. We only have a potentially mentally and emotionally disturbed prisoner at the mercy of a sadistic and possibly masochistic white shirt, who knows no limits and has no psychiatric training.
While the prisoners mentally and emotionally regress, [a prisoner with mental illness] is often cheered on and encouraged by bored corrections officers to regress even lower. I’ve witnessed officers…encourage a mentally ill prisoner who had smeared feces all over his control cell window, to lick it off, and they would give him some milk. And this prisoner licked most of the fecal matter off of the window, and was “awarded” by the officer who threw an old milk to the prisoner through a lower trap door to the cell.
This is the jailer who finds this misery excitement from the long boring and mundane hours spent doing nothing, who then goes home and recounts the details of these events at the bar while bragging on how he gets paid for sitting on his ass doing nothing – while his fellow men rot. And there are those prisoners who seek the ultimate out who kill themselves. I have seen this happen as well. I have been awoken from my sleep by a guard…to tell me another prisoner I did not know had committed suicide, an attempt to discombobulate me.
Lastly, there are these few prisoners who observe and bear witness to these injustices and this uncivilized behavior, who develop within themselves an intense disdain for abuse of power by those in a position of authority, a total hatred for injustice and bigotry of any sort. And who desire a change and to that end they dedicate their lives. When these prisoners speak up against these systematic abuses, they are labeled a “threat,” “gang leader,” or “combative,” and are punished with an even longer stay in solitary confinement.
It should be understood that the treatment of these men is at present and will even more in the future have a detrimental effect upon society. Crime becoming more serious, wholesale, random, gruesome, seemingly more animalistic, inhumane and senseless. Having absolutely no rational or reasonable point or purpose. Leaving society’s leaders, behavior analysts, psychologists and therapists scratching their heads in bewilderment, asking why human beings are doing these things?
I end this testimony with a fitting quote from a French philosopher named Albert Camus, from his book, The Rebel:
Twenty-seven years in prison do not, in fact, produce a very conciliatory form of intelligence. Such a long period of confinement produces either weaklings or killers and sometimes a combination of both. If the mind is strong enough to construct in a prison cell a moral philosophy that is not one of submission, it will generally be one of domination. Every ethic based on solitude implies the exercise of power.
I salute the conscious mind and impose upon it a responsibility to be accountable.The struggle continues.
The post Voices from Solitary: “That Which Does Not Kill Us…” appeared first on Solitary Watch.
• The New York Times published an op-ed by Harvey Fierstein about the 16-year-old girl currently being held in solitary confinement in a Connecticut prison, despite the fact that she has never been charged, tried, or convicted of a crime. The teenager, who is transgender, was initially held at a men’s prison but has since been transferred to a women’s facility.
The Louisville Courier-Journal has a timeline of events leading up to the January 2014 death of a man who starved himself to death in solitary confinement at the Kentucky State Penitentiary after being denied medications for his psychiatric complaints.
• A Mexican citizen is suing high-level officials and agents at the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency, after he was allegedly beaten by ICE officers, denied medical treatment, and placed in solitary confinement for five months. In the lawsuit, Fernando Figueroa-Barajas claims that ICE agents falsely told jail staff that he was suicidal, resulting in his placement in isolation. Figueroa was initially arrested in September 2013 for a traffic violation.
• The BBC published an in-depth article entitled, “How extreme isolation warps the mind”.
• In his weekly message, Attorney General Eric Holder condemned the practice of placing young people in solitary confinement, especially those with mental illness. “Across the country, far too many juvenile detention centers see isolation and solitary confinement as an appropriate way to handle challenging youth, in particular youth with disabilities… But solitary confinement can be dangerous, and a serious impediment to the ability of juveniles to succeed once released.”
• A state official testified that solitary confinement may have worsened the mental health of Nikko Jenkins, the Nebraska man who killed three individuals shortly after his release from prison. Jenkins was freed directly from isolation rather than “stepping down” through general population.
• A Portland lawyer has claimed that Maine residents with mental illness are being placed in solitary confinement after committing misdemeanor offenses. One individual spent ten days in isolation after calling 911 to ask for assistance in obtaining more medication for schizophrenia.
• The Coloradoan has published a long-form piece exploring the placement of people with mental illness in solitary confinement cells in jails across the state.
• A transgender Georgia woman, Ashley Diamond, has allegedly served most of her sentence in solitary confinement as a means to keep her “safe” from physical and sexual violence in the prison. Being placed in isolation has prevented Diamond from receiving life and employment counseling as well as recreation time. According to her lawyers, Diamond has also been denied female hormone treatment since her incarceration in 2012.
• The Bureau of Prisons has released a new policy outlining how to evaluate, treat, and monitor individuals with mental illness at ADX Florence, and transferred some especially ill individuals to a recently-opened 30-bed unit in the Federal Penitentiary in Atlanta. The changes may be in response to a federal lawsuit filed in 2012 which alleged that the prison violated the constitutional rights of individuals with mental illness.
• Rolling Stone released an interviewed with Michael Alig, the 90s “Club Kid” who spent 17 years in prison after murdering and dismembering a drug dealer. In the interview, Alig discusses his struggles with substance misuse on the inside and the years he spent in solitary confinement.
• The American Civil Liberties Union and Columbia Legal Services have dropped a lawsuit against the Immigration and Customers Enforcement (ICE) agency, in which they alleged that detainees were placed in solitary confinement in retaliation for going on hunger strike. Attorneys stated that their demands had been met.
Late last year, we made several requests to be permitted, as members of the press, to view solitary confinement units in New York’s state prisons. After receiving no reply, we were fortunate enough to enlist the help of a pro bono attorney, Daniel Mulkoff with the firm of Cuti Hecker and Wang, who approached the New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) on our behalf. This finally yielded a response, in the form of a blanket rejection of any request to view such facilities. Their letter appears below.
The response was neither surprising, nor unique to New York. Supermax prisons and solitary confinement units, as we’ve written before, are America’s domestic black sites, off-limits to the media as well as the public. However, in recent times several states have loosened up on their restrictions. Colorado has allowed National Geographic, among others, to film inside its state supermax. Maine allowed Frontline inside its solitary confinement unit. Even California has allowed some (controlled and limited) access to its notorious supermax, Pelican Bay.
New York appears unwilling to make any such concessions. It’s clear that New York intends to keep its isolation facilities out of view of the media–and, by extension, the public. The federal courts are largely on their side. If this is to change, that change must come through public pressure for policy change or via legislation. In the meantime, our correspondents inside prison, who often risk retaliation by writing to tell us about conditions in solitary, remain virtually our only window into this secret world.
The post New York Prisons Bar Media from Solitary Confinement Units appeared first on Solitary Watch.
“When women are moved to the Segregation Unit for mental health or disciplinary reasons, they are strip searched. With four or more officers present, the inmate must: take off all her clothes, lift her breasts and, if large, her stomach, turn around, bend over, spread her buttocks with her hands and cough, and stand up and face the wall. If the woman is menstruating, she must remove her tampon or pad and hand it to a guard. An officer with a video camera stands a few feet away and records the entire strip search. This officer is almost always male.”
This is a description of what has happened when women are taken to solitary confinement at the Western Massachusetts Regional Women’s Correctional Center (WCC) in Chicopee. The procedure has been followed not only for women being sent to isolation for violating jail rules but also women who are being placed on suicide watch or who have requested protective custody. Since September 15, 2008, on approximately 274 occasions, a male corrections officer recorded the strip search with a handheld video camera; 178 women were affected by this practice.
In 2009, Debra Baggett wrote a letter to the law office of Howard Friedman about this practice. The office, which has been involved in a number of cases involving prisoner rights and strip searches, investigated Baggett’s complaints. “We found that the jail had a written policy allowing male guards to videotape the strip searches,” stated David Milton, the attorney representing the women. When the jail refused to change its policy, Baggett and a group of other women held at the jail filed suit.
On April 22, 2014, a federal judge heard arguments in Baggett v. Ashe, the class-action lawsuit which now represents 178 women. At the center of the suit is the jail’s practice of allowing male guards to videotape the strip searches of women being moved to the jail’s segregation unit. The jail has argued that male officers do not watch the searches while filming.
Jails and prisons — and especially women’s facilities — are notorious as sites of sexual violence and abuse. Women make up just 7 percent of state and federal prisoners in the United States, but they are the victims in 33 percent of all sexual assaults by prison staff. In addition to these physical assaults, women in jails and prisons have reported incidents of sexual humiliation by male officers, from making frequent sexual comments to watching them as they shower.
Even against this backdrop of routine sexual abuse, the practice at Western Massachusetts Regional WCC appears extreme. Attorney David Milton stated that the practice is very rare. “No one knows of anywhere else that does this. It’s so intuitively wrong, it hasn’t come up,” he said. Advocates and formerly incarcerated women elsewhere have confirmed that they have not heard or experienced the practice in their states.
This doesn’t mean that videotaping strip searches has never happened. In the 1990s, New York State’s Albion Correctional Facility came under fire for allowing male guards to watch women being strip searched. Although female guards were the ones holding the cameras, male guards were allowed to watch the strip searches and the videotaping through a partially open door. Albion began the practice of videotaping strip searches in January 1994, claiming that the practice would prevent abuse. Women at Albion, however, said that the videotaping — and allowing male guards to watch the searches — were part of a system wide pattern of sexual abuse within the prison, including sexual assault and impregnation by staff.
After a fight, Leonides Cruz was brought to Albion’s Special Housing Unit (where individuals are held in solitary confinement, or segregation). Cruz described her experience to the New York Daily News:
When I got there, [officers] brought in a video camera and told me to strip completely.It was this really unsanitary room like a closet. There were two female officers taping, but the door was opened a crack and two male officers were looking in. They had me first touch my body and then my mouth. This is not the way it’s supposed to be you have to touch the mouth first, because you could get an infection if you touch certain parts of your body and then put your fingers in your mouth. I had to bend over . . . in front of the camera it was so embarrassing and humiliating. I wouldn’t fight it because I knew that things would get worse for me. When they finished video-taping and I came out they were all laughing.”
At Albion, videotaping and other forms of sexual humiliation occurred not just to women sent to solitary. Another woman described being strip searched, videotaped and humiliated upon her arrival at Albion:
The sergeant escorted me in there and I saw they had turned on the cameras. In the room there were two female officers standing in this dirty room, with a filthy floor . . . Two male officers were standing outside, and I could see them looking in. They started filming and asked me to strip one piece of clothing at a time, like a striptease. This is a medium-security facility, I couldn’t believe what was happening to me. I told them that they weren’t supposed to do this since I was stripped in the other facility and handed off. They’re only supposed to do this if there is probable cause. After my clothes came off, they asked me to lift my breasts. Then they told me to turn around . . . I was so humiliated that I started to cry, and the officer laughed and said, “Tears don’t cut it here you’re in a real jail now.”
In August 1994, Prisoners’ Legal Services threatened a lawsuit against New York State’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS). In response, DOCCS offered a settlement of $1000 per incident to each woman. Albion also stopped the practice of videotaping strip searches. Publicity about the videotaping and the prison’s systemic sexual abuse by staff members also prompted State Senator Catherine Abate to draft legislation making it a crime for staff to have sex with prisoners. The bill passed and was signed into law in July 1996.
However neither the settlement nor subsequent legislation stopped the pervasive sexual abuse and assault in New York State prisons. In January 2003, nearly a decade after the settlement, the Prisoners’ Right Project of the Legal Aid Society of New York and a private law firm filed Amador v. Andrews, a class action lawsuit on behalf of women imprisoned in New York State who had been sexually abused by staff. The suit charged that prison staff subjected women to numerous instances of sexual abuse, ranging from inappropriate touching to rape. (Four years later, in December 2007, the court dismissed the claims on the grounds that most of the women had failed to exhaust the prison grievance system. This despite the fact that they had complained to the prison system’s Inspector General, which is where grievances about sexual abuse are referred.)
Strip searches are one way that jail and prison staff can sexually humiliate and abuse the people that they guard. But because strip searches are everyday practice in many facilities, they are not covered by legislation designed to prevent sexual abuse, such as Albion’s bill or the Prison Rape Elimination Act. According to MassLive.com, “lawyers from both sides [of Baggett v. Ashe] noted the lack of case law on whether cross-gender videotaping of strip searches runs afoul of Constitutional rights”–meaning the case could be precedent-setting.
As they await the judge’s decision, David Milton, the attorney representing Baggett and the 177 other women, noted that the lawsuit has already had some effect: “As a result of this lawsuit, the WCC has virtually eliminated the practice of male guards videotaping strip searches. Now it happens less than one percent of the time. If we’re successful, we hope that the success of this lawsuit will send a message that women prisoners retain a core of human dignity and privacy that cannot be violated.”
The post On the Way to Solitary, Women in Massachusetts Jail Get Strip Searched and Videotaped appeared first on Solitary Watch.
• Representative Cedric Richmond (LA-02) introduced the first-ever federal legislation addressing the use of solitary confinement, called the Solitary Confinement Study and Reform Act of 2014. If passed, the bill would create funding for the development of best practices, which would subsequently be put in place in federal facilities. Richmond said, “Our approach to solitary confinement in this country needs immediate reform. The practices imposed on prisoners, including the seriously mentally ill and juveniles, at all levels of our penal system raise significant 8th amendment concerns and it is time we have this conversation about what kind of country we are.”
• Hundreds of people from across the state gathered in Albany to show support for a bill that would strictly limit the use of solitary confinement in New York’s prisons and jails. Capital News Tonight hosted a panel about the bill, called the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act.
• In the wake of a hunger strike at Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Representative Adam Smith (D-WA) has introduced a bill to improve conditions inside federal immigration lock-ups. The Accountability in Immigration Detention act would, among other things, prohibit placing detainees in solitary confinement in retaliation for whistleblowing.
• The AP published an in-depth account on the last hours of Jerome Murdough, who was found dead in his cell on Riker’s Island in February 2014. Murdough was being held in solitary confinement on the newly-opened mental health unit when his cell overheated; according to the AP report repair workers were not available to fix the problem due to the long holiday weekend. He had been arrested on a misdemeanor trespassing charge for sleeping in an enclosed stairwell of a public housing building, but had been unable to post the $2,500 bail.
• A local New Mexico outlet, KUNM, published the third part of an ongoing series about solitary confinement in the state.
• An interfaith alliance in Milwaukee held an event to highlight the number of individuals in the state being held in prison past their parole date, many of whom remain in solitary confinement. The session was attended by several representatives from the state legislature. A Buddhist chaplain involved in the campaign to halve the prison rolls also published an op-ed in a Madison paper.
• People in prison and advocacy groups in California who were involved in the 2011 and 2013 hunger strikes have offered their position on two bills currently moving through the California state legislature. They support Assembly Bill 1652, which would prohibit the state from placing individuals in solitary confinement simply on the suspicion that they belong to a gang (“gang validation”); they oppose Senate Bill 892, which was designed to achieve more comprehensive reforms, because it neither explicitly prohibits “gang validation” nor indeterminate terms in solitary confinement units. The San Francisco Bay View published a letter from four former hunger strikers about their perspectives on the legislation.
• Amnesty International USA has launched an investigation into the deaths of two New Jersey men who died in prison. One man, Robert Taylor, was allegedly placed in a restraining jacket in solitary confinement despite the fact that he was going through alcohol withdrawal.
Dr. Terry Kupers is one of the nation’s leading experts on the psychological effects of prison isolation. A psychiatrist with a background in psychoanalytic psychotherapy, forensics and social and community psychiatry, he is on the faculty of the Wright Institute in Berkeley. The following is a brief excerpt from a chapter entitled “Isolated Confinement: Effective Method for Behavior Change or Punishment for Punishment’s Sake?” which appears in The Routledge Handbook of International Crime and Justice Studies (Eds. Bruce Arrigo & Heather Bersot, Oxford: Routledge, 2013, pp. 213-232). It is reprinted here with the kind permission of the author. In this excerpt, Dr. Kupers discusses “some social implications of supermax security prisons” — including how they are used to permanently remove the poor and disenfranchised — and especially those with mental illness — from free society.
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In recent decades in the U.S.A., wealth has become more concentrated in fewer hands, the gap between rich and poor has grown, and there has been a turn away from social welfare programs that would ordinarily support disadvantaged people. Meanwhile, disadvantaged people, for example low-income individuals with serious mental illness, on average, receive less than adequate treatment and support in the community, and tragically, in all too many cases, find their way into the criminal justice system. In other words, poor and disenfranchised people are “disappeared” by the increasingly inequitable society that refuses to adequately fund services they need to stay afloat. While this trend is rarely discussed in these terms, I firmly believe disadvantaged people are being disappeared from public view into the jails and prisons because the public is too little interested in helping them, cannot bear to witness their suffering in the community, and all too conveniently, there is the politically popular ideology of “lock ‘em up and throw away the key.” Criminal defenses built on some version of “incompetence to stand trial” or “not guilty by reason of insanity” become more difficult to win. Sentences are made longer, more mandatory and harsher. And meanwhile, in the jails and prisons, there is crowding and inadequate mental health services, and diminishing opportunities to participate in meaningful educational and rehabilitative programming.
Individuals with serious mental illness spend ever longer periods behind bars, they are less prepared for success at “going straight” once they are released, and their parole violation rates and recidivism rates rise precipitously. While the population of prisoners with serious mental illness might appear a “special case,” in fact a comparable fate awaits prisoners who do not suffer from significant mental illness. While the prison population has multiplied many times over in recent decades, educational and rehabilitation services, like mental health treatment services, have not grown apace. Prisoners face longer sentences, a greater likelihood they will spend a significant amount of time in isolation including supermax confinement, and a rapidly rising recidivism rate after they are released.
David Garland provides a social historical analysis of these developments, differentiating between the age of reform or the welfare state era that lasted for approximately 100 years and came to an end in the early 1970s, and the “culture of control” that has succeeded the welfare state era and prevails today in criminal justice:
The criminologies of the welfare state era tended to assume the perfectability of man, to see crime as a sign of an under-achieving socialization process, and to look to the state to assist those who had been deprived of the economic, social and psychological provision necessary for proper social adjustment and law-abiding conduct. Control theories begin from a much darker vision of the human condition. They assume that individuals will be strongly attracted to self-serving, anti-social, and criminal conduct unless inhibited from doing so by robust and effective controls…. Where the older criminology demanded more in the way of welfare and assistance, the new one insists upon tightening controls and enforcing discipline (Garland 2001: 15.)
Of course, the supermaximum security prison is the epitome, and a natural culmination of control theories. Another name for the supermaximum security unit is “Control Unit.” And it is no accident that little in the way of education or rehabilitation is available to the denizens of supermaximum “control units.” Rehabilitation is not in the government’s plans for them. I have focused on prisoners with serious mental illness who land in long-term solitary confinement. Their condition, their disabilities, and their prognosis become much worse on account of the idleness and isolation. Of course, when prisoners are kept idle and isolated, there is little or no mental health treatment, nor rehabilitation. This explains why prisoners with serious mental illness are so severely and irreversibly damaged by their experience in isolation. But the conditions that cause psychiatric deterioration in prisoners with serious mental illness are obviously going to cause pain and emotional harm to prisoners who appear, upon casual inspection, to be emotionally stable. Thus, following a rigorous review of the extant research literature on supermax confinement, a group of widely recognized experts on solitary confinement concluded: “No study of the effects of solitary or supermax-like confinement that lasted longer than 60 days failed to find evidence of negative psychological effects” (Amicus Brief to the Supreme Court 2005).
I explained in the previous section why the prognosis for individuals suffering from serious mental illness becomes more dire after they spend time in a prison solitary confinement unit…[T]he neglected and traumatized individual with serious mental illness has a much more dire prognosis than the individual who enjoys a supportive environment and adequate treatment. It is in this sense that the harsh conditions of solitary confinement cause great and permanent damage. Prisoners suffering from serious mental illness are disproportionately consigned to solitary confinement for much of their term in prison, there they are unlikely to receive adequate treatment, they are not going to participate very much in rehabilitation programs, and after they have spent a number of years in prison their psychiatric disorder is likely to be more severe, more chronic, less amenable to treatment, and they are more likely to leave prison (if they have a determinate sentence, and over 90% of prisoners are eventually released) broken and incapable of adjusting to life in the community. Destroying a prisoner’s ability to cope in the free world is one of the worst things prison does. I have described this as “the decimation of life skills,” a form of torture (Kupers 2008b). Crowding, a lack of rehabilitation opportunities, excessive reliance on isolation as punishment, restriction of visits and contacts with the outside world, pervasive sexual abuse, disrespect at every turn, the failure of pre-release planning — all these things add up to throwing the prisoner who completes a prison term out into the world broken, with no skills, and a very high risk of recidivism. This is the plight of prisoners with serious mental illness, and it is also the plight of the other prisoners consigned to long-term supermax settings.
I do not believe the public would stand for this outrageous callousness — if the public were aware it is going on in our midst. But the public is almost entirely ignorant about all of this. After all, there is little media attention to the plight of prisoners with serious mental illness, nor to the plight of prisoners with or without mental illness who spend inordinate lengths of time in solitary confinement and are then returned to the community. In some states, including California, there are “gag orders,” i.e. laws against journalists talking to prisoners. And visiting is very restricted. To a great extent, we in the community learn what is happening in prisons largely from the families of prisoners, who visit them and hear about their terrible straits, and then return to the community, and to their legislators, to talk about that. But supermaximum security units tend to be located far from population centers (California’s Pelican Bay State Prison is a seven hour drive north of San Francisco, and Illinois’ Tamms is a comparable distance from Chicago). Then, visiting at supermax prisons is very restricted. The visitor has to sit on the far side of an indestructible fiberglass (lexsan) “window” with no contact, the prisoner is usually brought in wearing shackles, and quite a few prisoners tell me they actually dissuade their families from visiting because they do not want their loved ones to see them in shackles. The public hears little of what occurs in supermax prisons.
I have described a tragic phenomenon that is all too usual (Kupers 2008a). Prisoners in solitary confinement deteriorate and become more psychiatrically impaired and less capable of functioning back in the community. Then, as if to “hide the evidence” from the public that supermax facilities are destroying people rather than preparing them from a law-abiding post-release life in the community, new ways are invented to keep the prisoners locked up and out of sight even longer. Thus, most prisoners are serving determinate sentences, meaning that when the three or twelve years of their prison sentence elapse, they should be able to return home. But in recent years, there has been legislation in many states mandating new forms of post-release civil commitment, and increasingly new criminal charges are brought against prisoners for relatively minor misbehaviors that once would have been punished during their prison term with a short stint in segregation. So the prisoner who completes his prison term is faced with the possibility of being locked in a psychiatric hospital (if he suffers from serious mental illness) or the possibility of being found guilty of a new, in-prison crime because of his actions while locked in an isolation unit. It is as if there is a wish to hide the damage wreaked by years of solitary confinement.
The post “Disappearing” the Disadvantaged Into Prison, and Into Solitary Confinement appeared first on Solitary Watch.
• Colorado has passed a bill limiting the use of solitary confinement. Under the new legislation, individuals held in isolation will have their case reviewed every 90 days. The state will also create a step-down program to ease the transition for those previously placed in solitary.
• Three men with mental illness have sued a Massachusetts prison, Bridgewater State Hospital, for subjecting them to condition of confinement so extreme they would “shock the conscience of a reasonable person.” Lawyers allege that the number of hours patients at the prison spend in isolation or restraints is about “100 times greater” than at the five other facilities run by the state’s Department of Mental Health.
• National Geographic featured a profile on Laura Bates, who teaches Shakespeare to people in long-term solitary confinement in supermax prisons.
• The Maine Supreme Judicial Court has dismissed the government’s appeal in a case that may help establish stricter guidelines for placing someone in isolation. Franklin Higgins spent two years in solitary confinement after being indicted for the murder of another prisoner, but was eventually acquitted. His lawyers successfully argued that the state had unjustly relied on Higgins’ grand jury indictment when they initially transferred him into administrative segregation.
• Vice published an update in the case of the transgender teenage girl held in solitary confinement in a men’s prison in Connecticut.
• An Oregon prisoner has failed in his efforts to hold Department of Corrections and state officials responsible for his time spent in isolation. For more than two years, Joshua Robert Brown passed all but 40 minutes of his day in solitary confinement. Although the 9th Circuit Court concurred with a lower court that the Snake River Correctional Institution had violated Brown’s due process rights, the Court also concluded that state employees qualified for immunity.
• According to a state expert, those placed in solitary confinement at the Metropolitan Detention Center in New Mexico are not being given the hour per day outside of their cells previously mandated by the courts. Prisoners are allegedly being deneid recreation time for relatively minor infractions, including not making their bed properly.
• A New Jersey pastor has published an Op-ed calling for an end to solitary confinement in the state.
• AlterNet is the latest outlet to publish a piece on Communications Management Units, which have been nicknamed “little Guantanamos” for greatly restricting prisoners’ contact with the outside world.
• A group of psychologists have released a letter addressed to President Obama and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, in which they condemn the use of solitary confinement and other interrogation techniques as tantamount to torture. These techniques are included in the current Army Field Manual under Appendix M; that section applies to those who do not qualify as Prisoners of War under the Geneva Conventions, like those detained at Guantanamo.
The following piece, including the introduction, was originally published in the Colorado Independent, and is republished here by permission.
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Editor’s note: Yesterday, the Colorado General Assembly passed a bill to ban the use of long-term solitary confinement for prisoners with serious mental illness. The policy was initiated by former state Department of Corrections Director Tom Clements – who, just as he was working to curb the state’s overuse of isolation and ensure that inmates have programs to acclimate them to human contact before being freed from prison – was shot and killed by a mentally ill parolee who had spent years in long-term solitary confinement. Clements’ successor Rick Raemisch has been carrying on Clements’ work to limit long-term solitary for sick inmates. He has managed to move the vast majority into a treatment program. Prison officials say the multi-step program seems to be helping many prisoners. Civil rights advocates worry about those who are so mentally ill that they’re unable to “step up” and out of isolation. They worry about those like Jack Powers.
Powers is a federal – not state – prisoner who was convicted of bank robbery and then transferred to the ADX supermax in Florence after he walked out the door of a lower security prison’s visiting area. He spent 12 years in extreme isolation, also known as “the hole,” which is much like conditions endured by state prisoners at the nearby state supermax, Colorado State Penitentiary. In solitary confinement 23 hours a day, he tried to kill himself several times and amputated his fingers, earlobes, his testicle and scrotum. “I feel like I am trapped within a disease,” he once wrote.
Powers’ participation in a high profile civil rights lawsuit challenging the practice of isolating mentally ill prisoners for years without meaningful treatment or human contact resulted in a transfer last year from ADX to the federal prison system’s mental health facility in Springfield, Missouri, where he had been housed and released several times before. He then was transferred to the United States Penitentiary at Tucson, where he was allowed for a time to mix with the general population. Powers wrote about the sudden exposure to people and social interactions in an essay for The Colorado Independent in November entitled “Finally Among the Living.” “I want to be the best human being I can be. But it may just be that I’m forever outside and beyond those possibilities. The intent of injury to my heart and mind is unclear as of yet, and right now I’m somewhat confused,” he wrote.
Having spent so long in isolation, Powers questioned his ability to live outside it. “After wearing pants without pockets for a long, long time, even having pockets is weird. I was just now standing by the door with my hands in my pockets and a guard came by and told me to take my hands out of my pockets. I complied, but then involuntarily went back to doing it – as if each hand needs the tight darkness. It makes sense to me. So much sense that I wonder whether I’ll be sent back to solitary for nothing more than sauntering around with my hands in my pockets.”
Weeks later, an altercation with a guard landed Powers back in isolation, where he drilled a hole in his head. On March 29, he wrote the following essay about that experience, hoping it sheds light on what long-term prison isolation – both state and federal – “can do to guys like me.” Publishing it is part of The Colorado Independent’s mission to personalize public policy and give voice to people who otherwise aren’t heard.
There I was, lying on the concrete floor with a hole through my skull the size of a .50 caliber slug, trying to stop the profuse bleeding. Minutes before, I had successfully finished a procedure called “Opening the Door” by the Native American Hopis – otherwise known as “Trephination.” It involves drilling a hole through part of the human skull where the soft spot is on a baby. This part of the human skull, however, is very thick on an adult. Because I was in solitary confinement and had makeshift tools to work with, it took me two days of drilling before I reached my brain.
The final turns of a battery-turned-drill bit seemed to crunch through a gritty patch of bone. There was a slight snap and the bit came loose inside my head. When pulled it out I saw bone stuck up on the inside of the battery, and then blood came pouring over my forehead like a waterfall and splashed into the sink like emptying a plastic bag full of it. I dropped the battery into the toilet and grabbed a wad of toilet paper and stuffed it into the hole. The blood still came on so I grabbed more and more toilet paper and held it down with both hands. The neurosurgeons later said, “You came within one or two millimeters of certain death,” and I thought, that is just about as close as you can get…
At the time, there was an education department supervisor down the range passing out papers and talking to inmates. Because the inmates like to talk so much it took forever for him to pass my door. I was feeling somewhat dizzy but had no panic whatsoever: “I have a serious head injury that is going to require immediate medical attention. Can you let someone know?” He went to the gate and notified the unit lieutenant. Five minutes later a guard came to the door and asked what had happened. I repeated that I had a serious head injury and needed medical attention. “Take that stuff off your head and let me see,” he said. “You are going to need to take my word for it,” I replied, “because if I take this off my brains are gong to spill out on the floor.”
He said, “There’s nothing wrong with you,” and left the range.
I lay on the floor and grabbed a piece of scratch paper and pen and began to write a note to (Denver lawyer) Ed Aro: “Dear Ed, I may be going to die here due to head injury and profuse bleeding… “And then I stopped writing and curled up on the floor and thought about the feeling of being helpless, so helpless. I did not want to cry, however. I wanted to laugh. I wanted to laugh at the absurdity of my situation and the futility of trying to do anything about it. I thought about the blessing – and the curse – of being alive and being able to experience life as a human being. My mind sort of faded into a serene zone…my only help was from a lawyer from a law firm that somehow came to take an interest in me, and he was only one first-class stamp away.
A guard was back and trying to get me to stand up. Over an hour had passed in the shortest time. I wanted to finish the letter more than I wanted help for my head. It was important that I say things – things that expressed how I felt and what was going on with me at the moment and, more than anything, the appreciation for having someone to appreciate. I began to write again but it was impossible. The guard became like a watery blur; his words were hard to understand. I gained my feet, secured the bandage on the top of my head and submitted to the handcuffs. The other prisoners stood silently at their cell fronts, watching me pass with baleful eyes. The things around me were already beginning to take on a new hue. It was as if I were floating along – an observer and not at all a participant. The medical technicians got me into an examination room and pulled the plug out.
The first thing they did was to call 911 for an ambulance. It was supposed to arrive within five or ten minutes – and it did – but because of my status as an escape risk, it was two and a half hours before they were allowed to come into the institution to get me. A S.O.R.T. (Special Operations Response Team) had to be assembled from available staff, either on- or off-duty. They finally rolled in with all their pompous attitudes and bulbous implements of torture. A remote-operated stun belt was tested in front of me and then strapped to my right leg. I was told that I would be given 50,000-volt charges that would cause me debilitating pain if I made a wrong move. Then they began with the chains: manacles on the ankles ratcheted down into the bone, a belly-chain wrapped around my waist twice and secured with a heavy padlock, handcuffs ratcheted down into the bones of my wrists and double locked, a plastic box over the handcuffs and a metal hasp to hold everything tight, and then cinching them together. Then came the straps of the stretcher themselves and the disdain of the attendants, which was disappointing.
We roared out of the prison in a cavalcade of cars and vans, radios and bulletproof vests, flashing lights and piercing sirens. It was all a façade, a joke. We took head-jarring bumps at seventy or eighty miles per hour on the highway. Regular traffic pulled off to the right and to the left like a parting of the Red Sea for Moses. They had gone operational. They were transformed from ordinary prison guards into some kind of Super-Hero Special Forces Operatives on a Special Mission. Their excitement was in the air like an electric current; they were in their element.
The pain in my head, neck, shoulders, wrists and ankles was more than extreme; it was excruciating. They yanked me out of the ambulance and wheeled me inside the trauma center where a team of healthcare professionals was waiting. They went right to work twisting and turning me like a Rubic’s Cube. They cut the clothing off of my body because they could not remove the restraints. Now I was freezing cold, naked in front of a host of strangers, and wrapped in chains like a hotdog wrapped in bacon under bright lights. There were no less than eight S.O.R.T. members hovering around with great big guns like those the mutants carried in the movie “The Fight Element” with Bruce Willis. They were pissed because I had hurt myself and, thereby, made myself a persona non grata in the eyes of the administration. That was their official position but, privately, they were tickled pink (the same color of the boxers that had just been chopped off of me).
It was all just too much! I sat up and said, “Hold it! I am not consenting to any further treatment. Take me back to the fucking dungeon,” and I began to detach monitors, I.V. lines and identification tags. They were all somewhat shocked that I could even rise up like that, let alone talk. One of the guards said, “You don’t have a choice,” and that is when I cut loose: “Wanna bet your job on that?…Unless you have a court order you had best respect my rights to refuse treatment!” I was screaming on them and blood was coming out of the top of my head and a nurse was trying to get me to calm down and lie back but I would have none of it. What little leverage of psychological power I had, I had to use it – and it felt great to let some of the pain loose.
An E.R. trauma surgeon came over to the left of me and literally stood by my side. I later learned that her name was Cassandra, and in the midst of all that iron-screeching negativity she had come to my assistance like an angel. She talked urgently but calmly and wanted to know what was going on. She rubbed my shoulder and arm and tried to get my wrists to a less painful position. She was a real person who was seeing me as a real person, and she was extending real care and concern. She was unafraid to confront the leader of the S.O.R.T. about the pain and discomfort the chains were causing. It was clearly overkill and she made it clear to me that she would do something about it. So, when I came back from the CAT scan, the feebs loosened the chains all the way around and it made most us feel better. There were no real issues of “security” and it was absurd to begin with.
Later, after the operation, while we zipped down the highway on the way back to the prison, I thought about how brave she had been to stand up like that. I thought about how a few good people can make a difference for the better. I thought about how brutal and bizarre people can be when they have certain misconceptions. At the same time, the driver was making some kind of a snide comment to the lieutenant in the other seat about how Cassandra was a transsexual and other put-downs in the guise of jokes. I was still drugged but I spoke up and said, “You think you are on top of it all. You think that outward appearances are all that matters, don’t you? That doctor was one of the best human beings I’ve ever met and she deserves some kind of respect.” They just tuned out, sullenly, silently, looking out the windows like there was something new to see out there.
John Jay Powers, federal inmate 03220-028, had no signs of mental illness when he went to prison in 1990. He is 52 and an occasional contributor to The Colorado Independent. He is now housed at the United States Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield, Missouri.
This post is the next in a series of pieces Solitary Watch is publishing as part of a project calling for people held in solitary confinement to write on various proposed themes. Our second suggested theme, “Analyzing Isolation,” calls for writers to provide their analyses of solitary, discussing ways in which the practice is counterproductive.
The following comes from Dennis Hope, currently held at the all-solitary Allan B. Polunsky Unit on Texas death row. In his piece, Hope, who has been held in isolation for over 19 years, examines two major practices involving the use of administrative segregation by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ), including the so-called review process and classification system in place. He can be reached by writing: Dennis Hope, 579097, Polunsky Unit, 3872 FM 350 South, Livingston, TX 77351. –Lisa Dawson
In the past ten or so months I have read a lot of things regarding the use of Ad. Seg. and changes that are and have been made in other states. Cindy Eigler with the Interfaith group on Public Policy wrote a story wherein she gave some numbers on the reduction of inmates in Ad. Seg. here in Texas. I wrote her with some information regarding some of the things she had said. I believe she said Texas had reduced their Ad. Seg. population by 14% over the last two years while the number of mentally ill inmates in Ad. Seg. rose by 17%. While I don’t question there being lots of mentally ill inmates in Ad. Seg., I do question their reduction in Ad. Seg. population.
Inmates in Ad. Seg. go before a State Classifications Committee (SCC) every six months. If an inmate is a confirmed gang member then he only appears before them once a year. The problem with the SCC is that, while it is comprised of three officials, only one has a say in whether to release the inmate or not. That person is the classification member who comes from Huntsville to conduct the “review.” The warden or his designee and the other committee member has no vote in the matter. In other words, the officials that work the closest to the inmate and see changes he may not have made (for better or for worse) have no vote and whether to released and made or not. In fact, the other two members signed their names on that review form and handed over to the SCC official prior to any decision being made. Whatever they decide the other two have already signed off on.
The SCC member from Huntsville reviews the file and does so and a limited manner. In July 2013 I was seen by SCC member Buckner and was told to stay out of trouble and have a line class 1 and when I was reviewed in January I would be released. I did that and was told to remain in Ad. Seg.. Nobody will honor what someone else says and the SCC member from Huntsville changes each time we go down there.
Honestly I think all of their excuses are by design. For over six years I have had a S-4 (which is the highest time earning class one can have in Ad. Seg.) and they still found excuses not to release me. By policy they can keep an inmate and Ad. Seg. for up to 10 years for an escape. In November of this year I will have been an Ad. Seg. for 20 years. I have actually been told by some SCC members that they are waiting for me to lose my mind or lose my health. One even stated that even if I was in a wheelchair she still wouldn’t put her name on my paperwork. That being their mindset, how can they give me a fair and meaningful review when their minds have already been made up? The answer is they don’t and the Fifth Circuit of Appeals has said that inmates in Ad. Seg. don’t have a liberty interest or due process protections under federal law.
In accordance with TDCJ Classification Plan, when Inmate has gone 24 months without a major case and has a Line class 1 or better he should be released from Ad. Seg. There are adequate policies in place to manage Ad. Seg. inmates to include their release. The problem is they don’t follow them. In my opinion it’s clear they want to ensure the Ad. Seg. beds remain full since that’s their cash cow and what they used to go to the legislature to get more money and argue why they should be exempt from the 5% budget cut. It’s always the violent inmates they need bedspace for. The problem is the legislature is allowing TDCJ to decide who should be placed in Ad. Seg. rather than an independent committee.
In September 2013 the Texas Legislatures passed House Bill 1003. This bill would make TDCJ report to Congress who they segregated, what for, how long, were they under psychiatric care when admitted to Ad. Seg., did they seek psychiatric care after being in Ad. Seg., were they paroled from Ad. Seg., were they discharged from Ad. Seg. and several other stats they want to use to determine whether or not Texas’ use of Ad. Seg. is harming inmates and ultimately putting the public at risk.
The problem with that Bill is it wasn’t funded. By their estimates it would take $168,000 to gather the info. TDCJ already has those stats, but they sure aren’t going to voluntarily hand them over.
They still move me at least once a week. Sometimes if they move me on a Monday they come back and move me that Friday. Our friend Stephen Russell is still getting moved once every two weeks. The cells are not being cleaned prior to us being moved in the cell. We have complained and they lie and say the cells are cleaned by officers or SSIs (Support Service Inmates) prior to us being moved in the cell.
For about a month this unit had an outbreak of the flu or “Nonovirus.” We were quarantined on several different occasions back here in Ad. Seg. They still moved us two different cells and still never cleaned or disinfected them prior to us being moved in. Additionally, the cells leak water from the ceilings and back walls when it rains. Numerous cells have mold, mildew and green moss on the back walls and in the cracks where the ceiling meets the back wall. The cells most affected are the ones on two. The showers are filthy and have mildew and mold on the walls, vents and door. When complaining of the showers we’re told the night shift who “cleans” them only has so much time and they have to be off the building so they just half-ass clean them.
The public is beginning to see the “worst of the worst” aren’t the only ones they subject to that treatment. If I were to lose my sanity they wouldn’t take anything I said serious. The fact that I remain sane is their proof that isolation doesn’t drive people crazy. They have all their bases covered. : (
The post Voices from Solitary, Analyzing Isolation, Part II appeared first on Solitary Watch.
• A Colorado bill that would prohibit the state from placing people with mental illness in solitary confinement is one step closer to becoming law. On Friday, the bill easily passed through the Colorado House Appropriations Committee. It has already been approved by the state Senate.
• A prison doctor and two staffers have been let go from Kentucky State Penitentiary, after an ongoing investigation into an inmate’s death revealed extensive staff incompetence. James Kenneth Embry began refusing meals in December after he stopped taking his anti-anxiety medication. Embry, who was 6 feet tall, weighed just 138 pounds when he died.
• The Boston Globe published an op-ed about the treatment of those with mental illness at Bridgewater Correctional Complex, the Massachusetts facility for incarcerated individuals with mental illness. “When your son arrives at the prison, he is strip searched and almost immediately housed in a room behind solid steel doors and, as time goes on, left alone for long stretches with almost no human contact…His meals are delivered through a slot in the door. Every other day, he can talk to you on the phone (also handed to him through the slot), but the line goes dead automatically after 10 minutes.”
• Frontline aired the first episode of a two-part series on prisons in America. The documentary, entitled Solitary Nation, was reviewed by The New York Times and can be watched online here. PBS also published an accompanying article, “’Lock It Down’: How Solitary Started in the US.”
• A local Maine paper, The Bangor Daily News, interviewed Maine prison activists, prison guard union representatives and elected officials about their reactions to the documentary.
• The San Francisco Bay View published an update on the hunger strikers at Menard. According to Alice Lynd, who receives letters from men held in Administrative Detention at the prison, all of the windows in the unit have been blocked. The men on the unit allege that corrections officer have been frequently strip searching them and slamming their heads against shower walls.
Today, the ACLU released Worse than Second Class: Solitary Confinement of Women in the United States. Recognizing that women in solitary are often ignored, the report examines the gendered impact of solitary and issues a series of recommendations. These recommendations assume that vulnerable populations will continue to be incarcerated and focus on ameliorating the harmful effects of solitary.
Further Harming Those with Mental Illness
Nearly seventy-five percent of incarcerated women have been diagnosed with mental illness, a rate much higher than that of their male counterparts. The report notes that a disturbing number of women with mental illness are held in solitary, sometimes for behavior that is beyond their control. Mental health experts recognize that long-term isolation is harmful for anyone, but particularly for those with pre-existing mental illness.
Recommendation: People (of all genders) with mental illness should never be held in isolation. Furthermore, women should be evaluated by competent and qualified practitioners to assess their medical and mental health conditions before being placed in solitary.
Re-Traumatizing Survivors of Past Abuse and Increasing Likelihood of Future Abuse
The majority of incarcerated women have reported past physical or sexual abuse. The lack of contact, human interaction and mental stimulation contribute to psychological deterioration for people who have experienced abuse. In addition, across the country, women in solitary are regularly supervised by male guards even when showering, changing clothes and using the toilet.
Solitary confinement also places a woman at greater risk for physical and/or sexual abuse by prison staff. Isolated from the general population, these abuses are easier for staff to hide.
Recommendation: Women’s histories of mental illness, trauma, abuse and sexual assault should be taken into account before placing them in solitary.
Punishing Women Who Report Abuse or Neglect
Prison staff utilize solitary to punish women for reporting abuse or neglect. Women who have complained about sexual abuse by prison staff are frequently placed in solitary confinement while their complaints are investigated. The threat of solitary often discourages other women from reporting abuse or neglect.
Women who report neglect have also been placed in isolation. The report highlights the case of Carol Lester, a 73-year-old grandmother who was placed in solitary confinement in a CCA-run prison for almost five weeks after complaining about inadequate medical care. She filed suit against the prison, arguing that placing her in solitary was retaliation for her complaints. She was released on probation/parole shortly after her story hit the media.
Recommendation: Solitary should never be used as a retaliatory measure. Qualified auditors should be specifically tasked with ensuring that people who report abuse are not placed in solitary confinement.
Noting that the majority of incarcerated women are mothers, the report found that placing women in solitary negatively affects their children. Many women’s prisons are far from the areas in which mothers and children lived before incarceration. The distance, travel time and expense make visitation difficult and sometimes infrequent.
Placement in solitary makes these visits even more difficult. Visitation for people in solitary is often limited. Visits are often conducted through a glass partition or, as some states move towards video conferencing for visits, through a video monitor. Neither option allows a child the opportunity to hug her mother or hold hands. At other times, people in solitary are not allowed visits at all. Both undermine a mother’s efforts to remain connected to her children.
Recommendation: Contact visits with children should be allowed for all people. Family visitation should be encouraged.
Harming Pregnant Women
In addition to being inhumane, placing pregnant women in solitary confinement often jeopardizes their access to prenatal care.
Although the United Nations Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-Custodial Measures for Women Offenders (known as the Bangkok Rules) prohibit the placement of pregnant or nursing women in solitary confinement, jails and prisons across the U.S. continue to place pregnant and postpartum women in solitary.
Recommendation: Pregnant and nursing women should never be held in solitary confinement.
Isolating Trans Women
Solitary confinement is also utilized for trans women sent to male prisons. Justifying this placement as “protective custody” rather than punitive segregation, prisons place trans women in solitary units where they have little to no access to human contact, educational programs, exercise or recreation. Trans women in protective custody are subject to the same rules as people in punitive segregation—they are allowed out of their cell only one hour each day and allowed to shower only a few times a week. In addition, placing trans women in solitary increases their vulnerability to harassment and assault by prison staff.
Recommendation: Prison officials should not utilize isolation to protect vulnerable people. Those who may require extra protection should have access to the same programs, privileges and services as people in the general population.
The report also recommends:
- That solitary be used only as a last resort and for as short a duration as possible;
- That all jails and prisons have uniform written policies about solitary confinement practices and procedures. Policies should include written notification informing people about the reason for and duration of their placement; processes by which a person can earn privileges, such as access to commissary and visitation; and ways in which a person can earn release from solitary;
- That all jails and prisons be required to regularly and publicly report details on people held in solitary, including the number, gender, duration, available alternatives and the reason why these alternatives were not utilized. There are currently no uniform state or federal data available about solitary confinement.
Although the ACLU recognizes that a high percentage of women are incarcerated for non-violent offenses, none of the recommendations focus on reducing the potential impact of solitary confinement by reducing the number of people sent to jails and prisons. All of the above recommendations assume that people with mental illnesses, histories of trauma and abuse, pregnancies or primary caregiving responsibilities will continue to be incarcerated. Their recommendations are important steps for ensuring the safety of people currently behind bars. But more ambitious goals would call for building alternatives not just to solitary confinement but to the default policy of locking people up in the first place.
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New York City’s New Corrections Chief, Known for Solitary Confinement Reforms, Faces Steep Challenges on Rikers Island
In March, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio appointed reformer Joseph Ponte as the Commissioner of the Department of Correction. In his last post, overseeing Maine’s Department of Corrections, Ponte gained particular renown for reducing the use of solitary confinement by over 60 percent. In fact, the changes he helped bring about in Maine will be a central element of a new Frontline documentary, entitled Solitary Nation, due to air tonight on PBS.
Given the rapid increase in the use of solitary confinement on Rikers Island in recent years – and the vocal community opposition to the practice — DeBlasio’s decision seems a timely one. But his appointment has been met with controversy, sparking outrage amongst the City’s correctional officers’ union. And a more detailed look at Ponte’s tenure in Maine reveals that even the most open-minded of institutional insiders have their limits when it comes to real change.
Joseph Ponte first began working in prisons as a guard at the age of 22. In the 45 years since, Ponte has served in institutions across the country, including Walpole State Prison near Boston and the Shelby County Jail in Memphis. He was even previously employed by the Correctional Corporations of America (CCA), a company that has gained notoriety for turning a profit by locking people up.
Although Ponte has been credited with turning around several institutions, he is best known for the reforms he instituted in Maine. As was recently reported by The New York Times, “Within months of arriving [in Maine], Mr. Ponte cut the population in solitary confinement at Maine State Prison from about 100 to fewer than 50 and the average stay there from 90 days to two weeks.” He mandated that inmates not be placed in isolation for more than 72 hours without his personal approval and even abolished disciplinary segregation – requiring corrections staff to use “informal sanctions” like taking away recreation rather than throwing noncompliant individuals in “the hole.”
While at the helm of Maine’s Department of Corrections, Ponte also drastically reduced the state’s use of “cell extractions.” “Disobedient” men in isolation had previously been dragged out of their cell with pepper spray, beaten and tied down for hours, as captured on film in a 2005 expose.Ponte almost completely abolished the practice of placing adolescents in solitary. He also garnered praise for allowing prisoner advocates and the media into Maine’s prisons, and enabling them to speak to incarcerated individuals without corrections officers present.
Ponte’s reputation for sharply reducing the use of solitary confinement has provided hope to the prison activists and advocates who have been working to change conditions on Rikers Island. Megan Crowe-Rothstein is a member of the Jails Action Coalition (JAC), a group campaigning to promote human rights inside New York City’s jails. She told Solitary Watch, “The appointment of Commissioner Ponte is exciting because it shows that our city government understands the need to address the widespread use of this brutal practice [solitary confinement] in our jails.”
In an e-mail to Solitary Watch, Dr. Bobby Cohen said, “As a member of the Board of Correction (BOC) and as citizen of NYC I am very hopeful that Commissioner Ponte’s appointment signals a substantial change from the policies of the Bloomberg administration.” The BOC oversees the city’s correctional facilities to ensure compliance with minimum standards of care.
Not everyone is so happy with Ponte’s appointment, however, particularly not the man who heads up New York’s union for prison guards, the Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association (COBA). A few weeks after Ponte’s appointment, President Norman Seabrook held a press conference to criticize the incoming commissioner. He lambasted what he termed Ponte’s “claim to fame in Maine” – abolishing the use of solitary as punishment for disciplinary infractions. “Punitive segregation is an effective tool that works.” He added, “We don’t need a reformer… We need law and order. We don’t need someone to come in here and tell us, ‘Well, this is how we do it in Maine.’ Well, guess what, welcome to New York City. This is not Maine.
Ponte is no stranger to fighting the unions to implement his reforms; when he was in Maine the CO union staunchly opposed his efforts. As Solitary Watch documented in an article published last year, union opposition to reducing the use of solitary confinement is actually a common trend across the nation.
Several prison activists and formerly incarcerated individuals in Maine have critiqued Ponte from a different angle. Although all praised Ponte for the changes he instituted and for his willingness to meet with them and other Maine DOC critics, they also stated that Ponte’s tenure was far from perfect, and his reforms remain incomplete.
Judy Garvey is a board member of the Maine Prison Advocacy Coalition (MPAC), a group that campaigns for more humane conditions on the inside. “[Ponte] chose to leave the prison staffing-administration ‘good ol boy’ system basically intact, or was not able to dismantle it,” she told Solitary Watch. “The unions — not as strong here as in New York City — were against him, unfortunately, yet there was much more that could have been done to eliminate historically abusive staffers.”
Garvey and other prison advocates in Maine also point out that Ponte brought in US C-SOG, a private special-ops contractor, to corrections officer in methods of riot control. Now, according to one activist, “units of Maine guards parade in military-type garb carrying automatic weapons,” and also carry more “non-lethal” weapons, including stun guns, flash and bang instruments, rubber bullets, mace and pepper spray. Under Ponte’s tenure, the double-bunking has also greatly increased.
Joseph Jackson is MPAC’s assistant coordinator. He spent twenty years behind bars in Maine, and worked with Ponte to institute reforms both while he was inside and since his release. While the solitary reforms instituted by Ponte show no signs of increasing prison violence, the same may not be true of his other changes. The militarization of CO culture, plus the increase in double-bunking, has created a more “stressful environmenton the inside, he says, especially for men serving long sentences. Jackson pointed out that there have been four prisoner deaths in Maine in the last five years, whereas “prior to [Ponte] coming on was one in the last 19 years.”
COBA’s Norman Seabrook takes the opposite position, arguing that any increase in violence in Maine is proof that Ponte’s “soft” approach to prisoners doesn’t work. “A correction officer or an inmate will die at the hands of an inmate in the Department of Corrections really soon… And it’s going to be on the steps of City Hall that I deliver that body,” he said at the recent COBA press conference. Rikers has also been struggling to cope with a surge in violent behavior, which seems not to have been helped by the dramatic increase in solitary cells under Ponte’s predecessor, Dora Schriro.
Many former prison officials and mental health workers believe that solitary confinement actually increases the danger posed to staff and other inmates. Dr. Bobby Cohen, the BOC member who is also a former director of medical services at Rikers, recently spoke to the Center for Investigative Reporting about the increased violence in the jail system. “We know that, particularly for mentally ill people, the longer they are in solitary confinement – the fact of being in solitary confinement – increases the chance of serious violence. Serious, in particular, violence in the interaction with correction staff both during and after their release from solitary confinement while they’re still on Rikers Island.”
Ponte may have faced insurmountable barriers in solving the safety problem. According to Lance Tapley, who has long covered the abuses in Maine’s prison system for The Portland Phoenix, Ponte increased double-celling because of budgetary constraints. Between 2009 and 2012, expenditure for Maine’s state prison decreased by about $9.2 million.
Another underreported aspect of Ponte’s time in Maine is the role MPAC and other activists played in pushing the state to institute reforms. According to an article published in 2011 in The Crime Report: “Ponte and his committee guiding the reforms have as their playbook a bold report commissioned last year by the legislature at the behest of these activists. The report resulted from a study of solitary confinement that legislators ordered as a substitute for a bill they defeated that had been pushed by prisoner-rights, civil-liberties, religious, and mental-health groups. The bill would have greatly restricted the use of isolation.”
For activists, Ponte’s tenure may demonstrate the pitfalls of introducing partial or ad-hoc changes in place of wholesale reforms or the outright abolition of solitary. Ray Luc Levasseur was born and raised in Maine and has been involved in prison justice organizing for decades. (He is also a former political prisoner who spent more than 15 years in isolation). In an email to Solitary Watch, Levasseur explained: “[Ponte] delegated the ultimate authority to himself to decide who remains in solitary and for how long. MPAC initiated and supported legislation to curb use of solitary confinement but the bill was rejected in the state legislature. Had the bill passed, the reduction of solitary confinement would have had the force of law behind it. Ponte will be replaced by another person and it’s any guess what he or she will do.”
Levasseur’s insights are especially timely given the recent introduction of the Humane Alternative to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act into the state legislature. If passed, the bill would virtually ban the use of isolation beyond 15 days across New York State’s prisons and jails—including Rikers Island. At the city level, the Board of Correction is also working on new regulations that could also bring significant changes to the practice of solitary on Rikers.
With Ponte in office for just a few weeks, it is yet to be seen how his appointment will change the landscape for those on all sides of the solitary confinement debate. From Maine, Judy Garvey pressed those on all sides to give Ponte a chance: “MPAC wants Joe Ponte to succeed in New York, as the plight of those living on Rikers Island is a tragedy of unspeakable proportions that affects every New York citizen. MPAC doesn’t want to unintentionally provide fuel to the predictable knee-jerk reactions by the New York City union and undermine what Ponte might be able to do. They should take a deep breath and give Joe Ponte a chance since he can actually improve their working conditions.”
This post is the next in a series of pieces Solitary Watch is publishing as part of a project calling for people held in solitary confinement to write on various proposed themes. Our second suggested theme, “Analyzing Isolation,” calls for writers to provide their analyses of solitary, discussing ways in which the practice is counterproductive.
The following comes from Robert W. Howe, who was serving his fourth year at federal supermax ADX Florence in rural Colorado at the time this piece was written. According to his letter, he will have spent almost a decade at the federal supermax upon his release to a lower security prison (so long as he receives no write-ups for rule violations). In his piece, entitled “Thoughts from Inside the Control Unit: A Prisoner’s Perspective,” Howe describes the effects of “being physically confined in an extremely small cell for years on end.” –Lisa Dawson
Truth About Consequences
The control unit at U.S. penitentiary max in Florence, Colorado, is a 23-hour a day lockdown facility, where I am currently serving a 95-month administrative sentence. I was given this sentence for taking a correctional officer hostage for two and half hours at USP Atwater in October 2007. I was given an additional life sentence for the hostage incident. The administrative 95-month sentence is the FBOP’s way to seek some form of retribution for my actions. Now the BOP will say that I’m not being punished. By the end of this essay I would like for you, the reader, to determine where the truth lies. There’s three sides to every story: their side, my side and then there’s the truth…
Into my fourth year here at the federal supermax control unit, certain issues are becoming readily apparent. Psychological strains of anxiety and bouts of mild depression are beginning to surface in this stark encapsulated environment. I find myself constantly rearranging the small amount of property I’m allowed to keep. I do this in order to break up the samenesss of my cell and the “Groundhog Day” effect of repetitious occurrence.
The ever-present background noise of demented individuals who bang, broadcasting toothless – or tooth-full – threats, the sounds of the toilets, sinks, showers, sliding grill-gate bars, steel doors, fire alarms blaring, officers keys clanking, staff radio blare at full volume, and a myriad of other sounds that become nuisance noise constantly assault your senses.
The consequences of being physically confined in an extremely small cell for years on end have already begun to take a toll. Since my arrival here, I have suffered prolonged hypertension, necessitating blood pressure medication and chronic care visits. The optometrist gave me glasses and told me that individuals who are confined lose their vision at a higher rate due to the fact that we don’t get to use our long distance vision. I have joint pain from the never-ending hard surfaces, vitamin deficiency from lack of natural sunlight and probably others that would take a professional to diagnose.
Stark or Stark Raving
While it is true that one doesn’t need to worry about being in a physical altercation in the control unit (except with staff), the assault on your physical being and mental state is constant and unrelenting. When this facility opened, it was labeled as “one of the most psychologically debilitating places on earth” (Newsweek, July 13, 1998).
I have been amazed at the physical conditions. The parts that I have been subjected to are antiseptically stark. When I arrived here, I was placed on A-Range in the Special Housing Unit (SHU), which always smelled of mace, feces, urine and the musk of unwashed bodies. That is where dysfunctional inmates who have severe mental and/or disciplinary issues were kept. The control unit has its own version of A-Range, albeit scaled down to a few glass houses, which are cells with Plexiglas on the bars. Even here in the control unit, where rigid protocols are claimed to be enforced, inmates with psychological issues are supposed to be screened out. Yet I find it fascinating that I continue to observe individuals who have degenerated into babbling, banging, crying and erratic behaviors, including successful suicide.
The jaded attitudes of staff and inmates alike seem to incubate a culture of pervasiveness and apathy. My observations these past few years have detected unconcern, psychological degradation and outright alienation of the mentally ill. The psychology department’s attitude towards control unit inmates is dismissive at best and unscrupulous at worst…
Control’s Silent Tool
Most control unit inmates were at one point social creatures similar to regular individuals with the exception that they’ve been forced to inhabit an unnaturally sterile microcosm in an environment that restricts social means not just with other inmates, but also with family and friends. When the administration only allows someone one 15-minute phone call per month, and restricts the amount of mail they can send out by providing stamped, addressed envelopes under the guise of a “security issue,” instead of selling them on commissary, that is an administrative penal effort to staunch social interaction. When you go to team hearings, they request that you have good familial ties, and if you don’t, points can be added to you security score, which of course they control. The average inmate in the bureau supposedly gets 300 minutes each month of phone time and “unlimited” mailing privileges. It’s almost Kafkaesque, the treatment disparity we incur. Even Senator John McCain said of extended solitary confinement, “It’s an awful thing, solitary… It crushes your spirit and weakens your resistance more effectively than any other form of torture or mistreatment.”
…If I am able to remain incident free, I will not be eligible to leave ADX until I have almost a decade ensconced in this environment. What amount of resilience am I going to need to stay sane, much less remain socially acceptable to my peers? I feel like Sisyphus, forever sentenced to roll my boulder up the hill, only to find myself at the bottom with no end in sight.
Unspirited Letter of Law
Control unit confinement is a beast unto itself. Federal courts have given prison administrators carte-blanche to run their operations with little to no oversight. With the emphasis here on “control,” control implies being controlled by someone or something. The question begs then, with the body controlled, what price does the mind suffer? The influence of physical control on the body has serious significance on one’s mental state. There is no human being that can tell me this environment is conducive to even fair mental health; even those who work and study this environment lead compartmentalized lives.
Only total immersion can give one a clarified truth. Control units are allegedly subjected to human rights standards… The conditions of control unit confinement are both physically and mentally severe. They are disproportionate to legitimate security needs and inmate management objectives. They disregard the very real need for significant human contact, which shows a stunning disregard for us as human beings.
There are a couple of old sayings: “familiarity breeds contempt” and “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Together they form the spirit of supermaximum ideology. Unfortunately there is no measurement taken for misery and suffering… The absence of normal social interactions, exposure to non-natural environments, and any semblance or perceived normalcy all are detrimental to the physical, mental and spiritual self. I know beyond a doubt that prisoners who are exposed to years or decades of hostile control unit environments experience rage, depression, despair, anxiety and a plethora of other issues.
The provisions that are made for control unit inmates are almost non-existent. More often than not, the psychological staff representative at team hearings, which occur monthly, are silent, asking no questions. Yet they base their reports on those two to five-minute interludes… They do not make rounds in the unit. They come to your cell if you request any form of treatment, with your outer door open so that all four of them can get in your sally port. Now everyone on the tier can hear your innermost thoughts…
Inmates who have diagnosed yet untreated serious mental illnesses should not be housed alongside inmates who are trying to maintain their fragile grips on sanity in a control unit environment. It is not fair to the mentally ill inmate, and it creates an unnecessary burden on those inmates who are forced to deal with seriously mentally ill inmates who would not be in this environment if the administration would follow their own protocol… One could surmise that forced transference may be a precursor to perfectly normal inmates acquiring symptoms and issues of their own. This breakdown by the psychology department at ADX, as well as administrators, shows a dereliction of duty to the degree of deliberate indifference.
In closing, unless a true and meaningful effort is made to address this extremely serious problem, it will only continue to get worse, leaving a blemishing stain on the conscience of a society that claims even prisoners deserve to be free of physical and mental torture (as stated in the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution).
• April 17 marked Albert Woodfox’s 42nd year in solitary confinement. Woodfox, a member of the Angola 3, remains locked up even though his sentence has been overturned three times.
• Andrew Cohen of The Atlantic pens a review of Solitary Nation, the first of two highly anticipated Frontline documentaries about the US criminal justice system. Solitary Nation is due to air on PBS on Tuesday night.
• The Center for Investigative Reporting posted their newest story on Medium: an in-depth look at Santa Cruz Country Juvenile Hall, which is “considered a model facility when it still places youth in 23-hour isolation, sometimes for days on end”. CIR also posted a Q&A with a neuroscientist about how isolation affects still-developing brains.
• A Maine court has sent an individual with a diagnosed personality disorder back to prison after ruling that he now has “substantial capacity to appreciate [the] wrongfulness” of his behavior. Experts testified that Michael James had improved while in a psychiatric facility but was still engaging in self-harm and manipulating hospital staff. James has previously spent many years in solitary confinement.
• A transgender teenage girl has been placed in de facto solitary confinement in a Connecticut adult prison, despite the fact that she faces no criminal charges. A rarely-used statute in the state enables the Department of Children and Families (DCF) to place juveniles in adult prisons if they prove they cannot care for the youth anywhere else.
• Vice featured a piece about Mahdi Hashi, the 24-year old terror suspect currently held in pre-trial solitary confinement at Metropolitan Correctional Center in Manhattan. In 2012, Hashi was stripped of his British citizenship, held for months in a Djibouti prison, then rendered to the United States and indicted on federal charges.
• The Colorado Senate has passed a bill to reduce the use of solitary confinement for individuals with mental illness. The state’s House will now consider the bill’s passage.
• The New York Times covered the conditions of confinement endured by Boston bomber suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. He is currently held in pre-trial solitary confinement and is further bound by extremely restrictive Special Administrative Measures (SAMs).
• An individual incarcerated in an Alabama prison alleges that he has spent the last four months in solitary confinement in retaliation for organizing an inmate work strike. Speaking to reporters using a contraband phone, Melvin Ray described the conditions on the inside as “hell on Earth” and condemned a “systematic operation” that allows private manufacturing industries to utilize the prison’s low-wage labor.
• A federally funded watchdog group empowered to investigative complaints about the mistreatment of people with disabilities has launched an investigation into abuses at Bridgewater State Hospital. Individuals with mental illness at the medium-security prison have allegedly been put into physical restraints and isolation cells in violation of state law and a court order.
• Writing in Aeon, philosopher Lisa Guenther uses phenomenology to explore how the extensive use of solitary confinement across the United States affects those of us living on the outside. She writes, “Solitary confinement is most clearly and immediately a form of violence against the experienced world of the prisoner. But if our ‘here’ is intertwined with their ‘there’, it cannot help but affect our own capacities to see, hear, and make sense of our lives.”
• The Post and Courier has published an investigation into the placement of people with mental illness in South Carolina’s Special Management Units. Across the state, “nearly 1,700 prisoners were held in segregation units as of last week, including 473 classified as mentally ill.”
The following piece was jointly written by Five Mualimm-ak and Shaquille Mualimm-ak, who are father and son. Five Mualimm-ak is now a prison reform activist and director of the Incarcerated Nation Campaign. While incarcerated in New York State prisons, he spent five years in solitary confinement for nonviolent disciplinary infractions, and has written previously about its effects on him. Here, both father and son describe the effects that the years of separation and isolation had on their relationship. Shaquille grew up with little contact with his father, since individuals in disciplinary segregation in New York are most often denied visits and phone calls.
The title of the piece refers to the practice, common in New York and many other states, of locking down two people in a cell together for 23 hours a day–a form of extreme isolation that many describe as worse than solitary confinement. Here it suggests the idea that isolation affects not only prisoners, but also their families–that loved ones also “do time” in solitary. –Jean Casella
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[Five] During my time of incarceration, I always stood tall and strong. I was sure of my innocence and was determined to battle those charges to the end. I imagined myself one day being vindicated, and when that day came I knew I would fight back against a system that had wrongfully imprisoned me, and then tortured me with years in solitary confinement.
I would one day leave that tiny cell that had grown to be my only landscape. So familiar were those walls that even closing my eyes could not erase the sight burned into my retina. Trapped there 23 hours a day, week in, week out, month after month of endless hollow chatter that I could never get out of my head , the distant conversations of muffled voices. I cannot remember when I started talking to myself but soon even that began driving me insane. I would one day not feel trapped like a caged animal–though unlike me, caged animals have rights and people who protect them from abuse and intentional harm.
I would one day see my son. I could tell from his letters that he really needed me. He was having to face the world alone and without me there to be by his side. I lost the ability to focus on the exact details of his face, and then my thoughts would drift to: Who is there for him? Who walks him to school? Who is making sure he is eating right? I hope he knows diabetes run in our family. I would reread his letters to me a thousand times, but they brought no ease to the pain of missing my child.
Even though I used the word “I” to describe my experience inside, it wasn’t until I met the child, now a man whom I call my son, that I realized I was never sentenced alone. Throughout my time I was double celled. I was locked away and out of his life, but still we were both trapped in this perpetual cycle of distance. Beyond those walls topped with razor wire, beyond the guard tower with armed men waiting to shoot down any attempts to escape this world inside of a bigger world–there was my creation, my young son, whom I couldn’t reach, and in some ways still can’t. Yet I’ve learned that he, in fact, was isolated from me and at the same time sentenced to be mentally confined with me for over 1,825 days…
[Shaquille] 1,825 days I spent isolated from the man I call my father; the man I was a spitting image of; the man who had the answers to problems I faced as a growing teen. Problems such as puberty, sex, hormonal rage, and many other things teenage boys typically go through were uncomfortable to talk to my mother about. I didn’t know how to bring those conversations up to her, and she didn’t know how to respond or what to say the seldom times I attempted it.
I needed my father at that crucial time in my life to show me how to be and act like a man. All around me at school I had friends with absent fathers or fathers who were also incarcerated and they ended up picking up drugs or ditching class because they didn’t have anyone to guide them and explain to them the importance of an education. Luckily I had a good mother who would steer me back in the right direction when I fell off course. But emotionally and mentally, I felt damaged by the lack of understanding she had for my teenage issues. A parent can only teach you but so much. I had to make a conscious decision to follow and apply the principles she taught me at home in my day to day life. I had to teach myself how to overcome the problems I faced as a poor black teen, and make good decisions when not in her presence.
The confinement of my father felt like I too was incarcerated, doing the time right along with him. Communication with him was difficult because of the circumstances he was under. I felt angry. I was pissed off at the world, and I knew that a lot of my minority peers were too, because they were in the same boat as me. A lot of them ended up getting caught up in the vicious cycle of repeating their incarcerated parent’s crime or something similar to it.
Solitary confinement not only kept my father locked in a box, but it kept him locked out of my life. It’s not hard to see that this system of ‘justice’ is corrupted when we are aware of the psychological effects that locking a parent out of the life of a growing child can have on the mind of that child. Even though I was physically free, mentally I was trapped in a 6×9 cell, isolated from my parent, the only man in my life, and locked into a sentence of solitude. As much as I stated “I,” it was more like were both doing time.