This past September, in response to continued criticism around its use of solitary confinement, the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) began an internal audit of its “restricted housing operations.” As noted earlier by Solitary Watch, no women’s prisons are listed in the Scope of Work provided by the team hired to conduct the Special Housing Unit Review and Assessment. The BOP’s Public Information Office was unable to comment on this apparent omission. (See update at the end of this article.)
Although they are absent from the audit, each women’s prison has its own Special Housing Unit (SHU) where people are locked into their cell 23 ½ to 24 hours each day. In some cases, women are confined because of behavioral problems or rules violations. But the BOP also has a recent history of isolating people based solely on their political beliefs.
In 1986, the BOP opened a segregated unit specifically for women political prisoners. It was built in the basement of the federal prison at Lexington, Kentucky. “I looked around and was overcome by the sheer whiteness of the space,” recalled former political prisoner Susan Rosenberg in her memoir An American Radical. ”It was a bright, gleaming artificial white, the kind of white that with any lengthy exposure could almost sear your eyeballs. It was the kind of white that can make you go mad.” Rosenberg and Alejandrina Torres, a member of the Puerto Rican independence movement who had been sentenced to 35 years for plotting the bombings of U.S. military bases, were the first two women transferred to the unit. They were later joined by political prisoner Silvia Baraldini and two women not convicted of political actions, Debra Brown and Sylvia Brown. They had no contact with the rest of the prison population.
Prison officials labeled this a High Security Unit. Rosenberg described conditions in the High Security Unit:
Every day was filled with confrontations between us and the COs [correctional officers] over every human need: getting hot water for a cup of instant coffee, taking a shower, going outside, getting medical attention, getting a book. We were allowed to come out of our cells and talk with each other but stayed locked on the tier, not allowed beyond the gates. There was a camera at each end of the tier and three gates between the end of the tier and a hall that led to the rest of the unit. Our cells had windows we could see out of only by standing on tiptoe on the bed; the view was of shrubs at ground level in the main inner courtyard of the prison.
Human rights advocates, attorneys, family members and outside supporters launched a campaign to shut the unit down while the women filed suit. In 1988, following Rosenberg’s testimony in court, a judge ordered the unit closed immediately. The women were transferred to other federal prisons.
While the High Security Unit was shut down, the practice of solitary confinement continues inside every women’s prison. The Federal Medical Center at Carswell, Texas, opened in July 1994 with an Administrative Maximum Unit for women who are labeled “special management concerns” because of escape attempts, violence or other behavioral problems. But, as in the High Security Unit, women imprisoned for their political actions, such as war resister Helen Woodson, eco-activist Chelsea Gerlach and Pakistani national Dr. Aafiyah Sidiqui, have also been confined there. Not much is known about the unit other than that the women are entirely separated from the larger prison population and are often subject to lockdowns.
Other federal women’s prisons have Special Housing Units where people cycle in and out. However, as the BOP’s Special Housing Unit Review and Assessment indicates, these units have garnered much less attention and outrage than SHUs in men’s prisons.
Lashonia Etheridge-Bey has had repeated experiences with the SHU at the federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut (the prison made famous by the Netflix series Orange is the New Black). Etheridge-Bey recalls that the SHU was always overcrowded, forcing prison staff to place two people in each cell. “At some points, they were so overcrowded that we’d be triple bunked with one woman sleeping on the floor,” she recalled. The women stayed in their cells nearly twenty-four hours a day. Women did their best to get along under such cramped conditions. “You couldn’t just move to a different cell unless there was a physical fight,” Etheridge remembered. “You were just stuck.”
Staff shortages prevented the women from being taken outside to the yard during the scant hours they were allotted for out-of-cell recreation. Instead, they were taken from their cell to another cell. “It was just an empty cell. There was nothing in it,” she stated. Women were not allowed to bring any of their personal property with them. Women passed the time by talking to each other or by reading the books from the cart brought around by staff members on a weekly basis.
The overcrowding too led to longer stays in the SHU. Etheridge-Bey recalled being written up and sent to the SHU for smoking a cigarette. (The federal Bureau of Prisons banned smoking in 2004.) Although her sentence was twenty days, she spent another 22 days in the SHU waiting for a bed to open up in general population.
In Florida, Yraida Guanipa experienced being locked in two separate SHUs. In 1996, shortly after her trial, she was sent to the SHU at the federal prison in Miami. Guanipa recalls that, even before her arrest, she had experienced years of problems with her menstrual periods. During her trial, her bleeding was so heavy that her trial had to be put on hold. Nevertheless, while incarcerated in Miami, she was told that the Bureau of Prisons would not provide medical services unless there was an emergency. “I told people I was bleeding too much, but no one listened,” she recalled.
At the time, Guanipa worked in the prison kitchen. “I spent ten to fourteen hours a day standing on my feet and doing dishes,” she said. One Sunday, she informed her supervisor that she had been heavily bleeding for a week and requested medical attention. He refused. Guanipa then told him that, if she could not receive medical care, she wanted to go to mass. “My supervisor told me that I could not go to mass and that I could not go to medical, so I refused to do the dishes,” she stated. Guanipa was sent to the SHU for “disobeying a direct order.”
The SHU in Miami took up one floor inside the prison building, Guanipa remembers. “There was a small window in the wall at the top so at least you could see the light. And you can hear noise.” Oftentimes, that noise was the sound of other people screaming. “Many had mental health issues. There would be someone screaming all day or pounding her head against the wall.” When the women screamed, the officer on duty would simply tell them to shut up. Only when medication was dispensed would the screaming stop—but only temporarily.
After being transferred to the Federal Correctional Camp in Coleman, Florida, Guanipa submitted requests for more programs for moms to be able to spend time with their children. She received no response. “The Bureau of Prisons rules state that when a prisoner goes on hunger strike, she is supposed to be placed in a medical institution, not solitary confinement,” she recalled. “So, being the trusting person that I am, I believed them.” Fed up with the lack of programs and lack of response, Guanipa went on hunger strike in 1999. In response, BOP officials transferred her to the federal prison in Tallahassee where she was placed in the SHU. “It was solitary confinement inside solitary confinement,” she remembered. “Those cells are just for one person. Other SHU cells [such as the ones in Miami] are for two people, so at least you can talk to someone. It was the worst inside the worst.”
Inside the one person cell was a sink and a toilet. Guanipa remembered that prison staff did not provide her with water. “The only water you could get is the water from the sink, which is next to the toilet. It smelled awful.”
After 16 days on hunger strike inside Tallahassee’s SHU, Guanipa passed out. She was taken to the hospital inside the prison where a nurse told her that her kidneys were failing and administered an IV. Less than a week later, Guanipa was returned to the SHU where she remained for another two weeks.
“The SHU was separated from the rest of the prison in its own building. Within that building, there’s the ‘solitary confinement inside the solitary confinement,’” she described. Unlike the SHU in Miami there were no windows. “You don’t hear anything, you don’t see anything. I was afraid I was going to lose my mind.”
Twice a day, the prison psychologist walked past the SHU cells. “But in the SHU, if you tell a doctor you’re feeling suicidal, they put you in a worse situation—in the hole without your clothes on, so you don’t say anything,” she said.
When she was finally released from the SHU, the experience had shaken her to the core. “I was so scared after that that I vowed never to do another hunger strike again,” she said.
As in state prisons, women who report sexual assault by staff are punished with solitary confinement. Guanipa recalled a woman whom she met at FCI Tallahassee who had been sexually abused by an officer. After the officer ejaculated on her, she took the evidence to the investigative unit. The prison responded by placing her in the SHU, then transferring her to a different prison. Guanipa never saw her again, although she did see the officer regularly. Nothing happened to him.
When asked about the practice of solitary confinement, Guanipa, who has been out of prison since 2007, declared, “It doesn’t serve any purpose. It’s derogatory. It scars you for the rest of your life. You lose the capacity to communicate. I would not recommend this type of treatment for any human beings or for animals. It’s torture.”
UPDATE, January 27, 8 pm: Prior to the publication of this article, the Bureau of Prisons and National Institute of Corrections did not respond to repeated requests for comment about the inclusion of women’s prisons and the selection criteria for the assessment. In an email dated January 27, Edmond Ross of the BOP’s Office of Public Affairs wrote:
“In response to your questions, some of the assessment locations were prescribed as part of the Statement of Work, and others were left to the discretion of the contractor in consultation with the National Institute of Corrections (NIC). There will be a total of nine BOP locations assessed. I can tell you the plan includes assessing a female facility. However, we are not making the locations of these assessments public at present.”
The post Women in Solitary Confinement: Buried Inside the Federal Prison System appeared first on Solitary Watch.
• An NPR report by Laura Sullivan discusses the treatment of people with mental illness in Chicago’s Cook County Jail–and in jails around the country–including the extensive use of solitary confinement. Sullivan’s piece includes disturbing accounts of visits to the psych wards at the jail, where one-third of those held are mentally ill.
• The annual report (in French) of L’Acat (Christian Action for the Abolition of Torture) includes an account of long-term solitary confinement (l’isolement prolongé) in the United States, calling it “la forme la plus répandue de torture psychologique.”
• As Courthouse News Service reports, “Public criticism may have led prison officials to suspend the visitation privileges of a woman married to a Georgia inmate, a federal judge ruled.” The woman was banned from visiting her husband after she spoke to the media about the 2012 hunger strike he and others had launched to protest conditions in solitary confinement.
• On Alternet, Alex Kane reports on the No Separate Justice campaign, which opposes “an abusive system that has wreaked havoc on the lives of hundreds of Muslims” accused of terrorism-related offenses. Solitary confinement–including coercive pretrial solitary–figures heavily in the treatment of these individuals.
• Matt Stroud reports for In These Times on the long-running Dallas 6 case, back in court in Pennsylvania this week. “In this case, six prisoners are charged with inciting a riot after covering their solitary confinement cell windows. The prisoners claim that they were mounting an act of protest in the wake of an advocacy group’s report about harsh conditions and treatment at the prison.”
• A new report (in Spanish) from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) on pretrial detention highlights the excessive use of pretrial solitary confinement (aislamiento solitario) in the United States, including its use on children awaiting trial in the adult criminal justice system.
• According to Courthouse News Service, the federal 9th Circuit ruled that “prison officials in Washington must face claims that their refusal to turn off the lights in segregation cells amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.” The plaintiff in the case, which the state sought to have dismissed, “claimed that he developed insomnia, migraine headaches and confusion while being held for nearly two weeks in the Special Management Unit (SMU), in which at least one light stays on all day and night.”
• A bill to limit the use of solitary confinement was introduced in the New Hampshire state legislature.
• On Alternet, Solitary Watch contributor Aviva Stahl profiles Ojore Lutalo, who spent decades in solitary in New Jersey because, according to official documents, his “radical views and ability to influence others poses a threat to the orderly operation of this Institution.”
In early January the Wall Street Journal reported that the New York City Department of Correction (DOC) had ceased using solitary confinement as a form of punishment for people with mental illness. The last of the Mental Health Assessment Unit for Infracted Inmates (MHAUII) units was shuttered on December 31, replaced by a two-tiered system said to improve treatment. The step was hailed a significant achievement for outgoing DOC City Commissioner Dora Schriro, whose department came under fire this past fall after two reports lambasted the DOC for violating its own standards in its treatment of the mentally ill.
However, a meeting on Tuesday morning of the Board of Correction (BOC), an independent body that monitors the City’s jail system, presented a far different picture of conditions for individuals with mental illness on Rikers Island – as well as a different version of how changes in the DOC’s solitary confinement policies have come about.
Just after 8 am on Tuesday, in the chilly morning rain, activists from the advocacy group Jails Action Coalition (JAC) stood on the sidewalk outside the municipal office building on Worth Street where the BOC was scheduled to meet. They were holding a vigil for the four individuals who have died in City jails in the past three months, carrying tombstone-shaped posters reading “RIKERS=DEATH” beside a makeshift alter with four candles, and singing and chanting to the people passing by.
Leah, a longtime JAC activist, explained that she had braved the weather for the sake of her godson, who has a psychiatric disability and is currently incarcerated on Rikers Island. She was waiting to see whether the recent changes made by the DOC would actually have an impact on the people inside. As she explained, sometimes the DOC enacts new policies to appease the citizenry “but really, it’s the same old thing.”
At just past nine o’clock the vigil participants passed through security and joined the BOC meeting on the third floor. The bulk of time was dedicated to discussing the quality of care at the recently developed Restrictive Housing Units (RHU) and Clinical Alternative to Punitive Segregation (CAPS) program, the facilities meant to replace MHAUII. According to DOC protocol, individuals who violate prison rules will now be sent to one of the two units: the RHU for those who are deemed less severely ill, who will still spend time in solitary but have access to therapeutic services; and the CAPS unit, modeled after a psychiatric hospital, for those with more serious illnesses.
According to the WSJ article, prison advocates were somewhat critical of the proposed changes after they were announced, calling the RHU model “far too punitive” and expressing concerns that individuals with mental illness might be placed in CAPS regardless of whether they broke the rules. The Board’s initial discussion seemed to support many of their concerns.
BOC members shared the details of their first site visit, on December 5, to the newly opened RHU at Rose M Singer Center (RMSC), the main women’s jail on Rikers. According to the Honorable Bryanne Hamill, a former New York Family Court judge, Board staff asked for assistance from a nearby corrections officer when one woman – who had smeared feces on the window of her cell – failed to respond to their knocks. The CO opened the food slot in the cell’s solid steel door and shined light inside, but was still unable to ascertain if the occupant was conscious.
At the prodding of BOC members, the CO summoned four captains – but it was not until the Board notified Commissioner Schriro that the door was eventually unlocked. The woman was found unresponsive on the floor under the bed with a ligature wrapped around her neck. By the time the woman was taken out of her cell by medical staff, nearly an hour had passed since the visitors had first arrived at her door. Judge Hamill added that she spoke to another prisoner who told her that the unresponsive woman had been threatening suicide; Hamill reassured her that the woman had been found alive.
BOC member Dr Robert L. Cohen, a key player in efforts to reform solitary on Rikers, also participated in site visits. Cohen stressed that neither the COs nor the leadership in NYC’s prisons seemed prepared for the task at hand. Although the RHU program at Otis Bantum Correctional Center (OBCC) technically opened on December 19th, Cohen reported that the jail’s warden was “not aware that there was an RHU at OBCC” when Cohen spoke to her on January 3. Cohen also emphasized his concern that the DOC has no plan to identify and train officers and captain staff who are willing to work in the units on a regular basis.
Both Dr. Cohen and Judge Hamill expressed disappointment that access to therapeutic programming in the RHU had so far been almost non-existent. They did, however, have some praise for the new mental health programs established at the DOC, noting that they were greatly impressed with the ongoing quality of care in the CAPS units.
At the end of the meeting, Jennifer Parish, the director of criminal justice advocacy at the Urban Justice Center’s Mental Health Project and a member of JAC, spoke about her own visit to the RHU at RMSC, which occurred just days after the BOC’s. One woman held in the unit relayed to Parish what had happened after she told the BOC member (presumably Judge Hamill) that the woman found unconscious had been threatening suicide. After the Board members left the prison, she said, a CO approached her cell to tell her, “there won’t be any food for you.” Parish expressed frustration that this kind of retaliation of could go on even when BOC was involved.
Commissioner Schriro’s voice cracked with emotion as the meeting came to a close. Schriro, who is leaving the DOC to take a job in Connecticut, has been broadly praised for the recent changes in DOC policy, and commented to the press that her department was “proud to have met this significant milestone.” In truth, however, solitary confinement increased significantly under Schriro’s tenure. In 2011 alone the number of punitive segregation cells at Rikers grew by 45 percent, and by the time the BOC-commissioned reports were released this past fall, New York City had one of the highest rates of solitary confinement in the country.
The Correction Officers’ Benevolent Association (COBA) pressed particularly hard for the increase in punitive bed space, attributing a spike in attacks on COs to the backlog of prisoners waiting to serve time in “the Bing,” as solitary confinement on Rikers is called. At a November 2011 City Council meeting, Schriro was grilled by City Council member Elizabeth Crowley about the problem. Schriro reassured her that capacity was being expanded as quickly as possible: ” Every bed that can be converted is being converted.”
Community groups maintain that the DOC only considered adopting new policies as a result of the press fall-out from the BOC-commissioned reports – and that the reports were, in turn, ordered as a result of the campaigning of JAC and other advocates. Those same factors, along with pressure from a few BOC members, led the Board in September to vote to commence “rule-making” to eventually set new policies limiting the use of solitary in City jails.
Tuesday’s meeting was the last for Commissioner Schriro, but her legacy is not the only thing in flux. Mayor Bill DeBlasio has yet announce to his appointment to the post of DOC commissioner, and there are mixed signals as to whether he will live up to the progressive image he cultivated during his campaign.
Last Friday at Brooklyn College, DeBlasio emceed the graduation for the DOC’s newest recruits, telling them: “You’re protecting all of us….You’re protecting each other. You have each other’s backs. And you’re also protecting some people who have made mistakes.” He continued, “We’re not happy with some of the choices those individuals made, but they’re still our fellow citizens, and we’re hopefully in the process of helping them back to a better path.”
Yet there are some red flags to suggest substantial prison reform isn’t on DeBlasio’s agenda. Bill Bratton, the mayor’s appointment for police commissioner, has pursued racially discriminatory policing policies in the past. Moreover, during his campaign DeBlasio was endorsed by COBA – a worrying sign for advocates, given that the role the union played in increasing the use of solitary and their resistance to adopting alternative solutions.
For Sarah Kerr, a staff attorney in the Prisoners’ Rights Project of The Legal Aid Society, the BOC’s experiences on the tour reveal the deeply protracted nature of the problems within the DOC. She wondered aloud what it means that it took an hour for the woman’s cell door to be opened, even when BOC members were present. She added that challenging this institutional culture will be an “incredibly hard” task for the DOC, but that doing so is absolutely necessary if things are to change.
For Daisy Rodriguez, another member of JAC, these changes cannot come quickly enough. Her 21-year-old son has been in solitary confinement in New York’s jails for the past 18 months. She told the audience at the meeting, “We want our families to obtain the services they need rather than be treated like animals.”
The post As New York City Jails Amend Their Solitary Confinement Practices, Abuses on Rikers Island Continue appeared first on Solitary Watch.
This past weekend, activists across the country and around the world marked the 12th anniversary of the arrival of the first prisoners to the U.S. military detention center at Guantanamo Bay. Detainees there have endured numerous forms of torture, including waterboarding, “stress positions,” prolonged solitary confinement, and force-feeding, as well as indefinite detention without trial, and many advocates have pressed for their immediate transfer to the United States and to the federal civilian justice system.
But not everyone believes that the torture and injustice will end if Guantanamo shuts its doors. Last Tuesday, members of a new campaign called No Separate Justice held a launch event in New York City. The campaign focuses exclusively on exposing the civil and human rights abuses in “War on Terror” cases prosecuted on American soil–abuses that are almost always directed against Muslims.
The campaign will center around four core areas: conditions of confinement (including extreme solitary confinement and deprivation); fair trial and due process concerns (like the classification of evidence held against detainees, even those being charged); First Amendment and material support charges (notably the use of “preemptive prosecution” based on individuals’ perceived political activities or beliefs); and surveillance and entrapment (through “sting” operations that actually persuade individuals to conspire to illegal acts).
On the night of the launch the auditorium at Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village was packed despite the bitter cold. Brooklyn College Professor Jeanne Theoharis opened and moderated the evening, stepping in for journalist Liliana Segura, who had lost her voice. Theoharis urged audience members to break the silence about what Muslims face when they are charged in U.S. courts. “We know that most of the greatest injustices in American history have been legal.”
Theoharis’s close involvement in the campaign was sparked by personal experience. In 2002 she taught a student named Fahad Hashmi; five years later he was arrested in London and extradited to the United States. Hashmi was charged with conspiring to provide material support to terrorists, because an acquaintance who stayed in his apartment for two weeks had sent sock and rain ponchos to al Qaeda.
Held for nearly three years in pre-trial solitary confinement, Hashmi eventually entered a plea and was sentenced to 15-years, which he is serving at the notorious ADX supermax prison in Florence, Colorado. For about four years after his extradition, Theoharis explained, Hashmi also lived under Special Administrative Measures (SAMs), which severely restricted his communication with the outside world. (For example, he was under 24-hour electronic monitoring, even when he was showering or relieving himself.)
Fahad Hashmi’s brother, Faisal, spoke next and reflected on the day his brother was extradited back home to the United States. “This is the day our understanding of America changed.” Given the brutal circumstances of his pre-trial confinement, the plan to use an “anonymous” jury, and the fact that over 99 percent of Muslims charged with terrorism offenses are convicted, Fahad Hashmi had little choice but to ultimately plead guilty.
Pardiss Kebriaei, a Senior Staff Attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), described how strange it was to visit Fahad Hashmi at ADX Florence after the years she’d spent seeing clients at Guantanamo Bay. Even within the mainstream, Guantanamo has been marked as extraordinary, extreme, the zone of exception. Conversely the federal supermax has usually been ascribed a kind of normalcy, despite the fact that prisoners there spend 23 hours a day in small concrete cells and the remaining hour alone in a concrete exercise pen. Once inside ADX, Kebriaei saw the chaos hidden from public view: “If you could see through the walls you’d see 400 people in rooms the size of bathrooms beating their heads against the walls”.
Next, Tamer Mehanna moved the audience with a plea for empathy for the affected families. “Think of someone you love… Now imagine you will never kiss or hug them again. That’s what we all live with”. His brother, Tarek Mehanna, is serving 17 ½ years for translating and posting what authorities said was al Qaeda propaganda. The ACLU, CCR, and others continue to maintain that Tarek’s alleged offenses were protected by free speech, but this past November, Mehanna’s conviction was upheld by a federal appeals court.
Sonali Sadequee’s brother, Shifa Sadequee, is also locked up. While he was in Bangladesh in 2005, just twelve days after his wedding, he was surrounded by men who whisked him away. “After he was arrested, that was it. We didn’t even know who took them away or why.” They learned on CNN that Sadequee was facing extradition to the United States to face conspiracy charges. He was in pre-trial solitary confinement for over 1,300 days and is now serving 17 years in the special Communication Management Unit, made up almost entirely of Muslims, in the federal prison in Terre Haute.
Sarah Khasawinah spoke on behalf of Ahmed Abu-Ali, who is currently serving a life sentence at ADX based on a confession coerced through torture by officials in Saudi Arabia, where he was studying at the time. Abu-Ali also endures 23-hour solitary confinement and still lives under the weight of SAMs, which even prevent his family from repeating anything he says – like how he’s been doing. He is contained in a cage of steel and concrete where even his echoes – the words he tells his family through the glass partition – are proscribed and disappeared by the courts. As Sarah said, “It’s up to us to be his voice.”
Finally, Tarek Ismail, a Counterterrorism and Human Rights Fellow at Columbia University, provided an overview of the way terrorism cases are pursued in the domestic criminal justice system – including pre-arrest due processes issue like surveillance, entrapment, and the recruitment of informants. It is as though the tactics developed by the FBI and police forces during COINTELPRO have been perfected under the War on Terror: communities ripped apart by mistrust; political activists slandered and framed; and potential allies driven away by racist propaganda.
This launch is merely the first of many events for No Separate Justice. The campaign will be holding monthly vigils on the first Monday of every month in front of the Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC) in Manhattan. This is where Fahad Hashmi was held for nearly three years in pre-trial solitary confinement and others continue to endure extreme isolation. NSJ campaigners hope that such a “physical presence [at MCC] will help make visible what’s been made invisible and normal” to New Yorkers and Americans at large – and thus help expose the horrors of our “domestic black sites.” The first vigil is scheduled for February 3 at 6 pm at 150 Park Row.
The campaign has also launched a website, Twitter feed (@NSJCampaign), and Facebook page, and Educators for Civil Liberties is curating a related series of articles in an ongoing collaboration with The Nation magazine.
The post New Campaign Highlights Post-9/11 Civil and Human Rights Abuses on American Soil appeared first on Solitary Watch.
• The National Catholic Reporter publishes a piece on the Photo Requests from Solitary project, noting that “[i]n 2009, every man in Tamms received an intriguing letter: ‘Tamms Year Ten Committee will make a photograph for you. Would you like to request one?’”
• Politico Magazine publishes a photo essay entitled “This Is What Solitary Confinement Does to Your Face,” a collaboration between the The Center for Investigative Reporting and KQED Public Radio with before and after photos of people who have been subjected to prolonged solitary.
• The Washington Post reports on the ruling by a federal judge that Virginia’s practice of automatically holding prisoners on death row in solitary confinement violates their constitutional right to due process. According to the story, U.S. District Judge Leonie Brinkema “said that the problem is exacerbated by the extended amount of time prisoners spend on death row. A prisoner could easily spend more than a decade on death row while the appeals process plays out, and never have an opportunity to join the general population.”
• The Chicago Monitor reports on the detrimental effects of prolonged solitary on incarcerated youth, noting the findings of a study conducted by the ACLU and Human Rights Watch. The story states, “From a psychological standpoint, many young interviewees spoke of coping with serious mental health problems during solitary confinement such as suicidal thoughts, hallucinations, depression, anxiety, disturbed sleep patterns and uncontrollable anger or rage.”
• The Texas Tribune reports that, due to inadequate funding, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) has yet to follow through on a bill passed four months ago calling for an independent party to examine the use of solitary confinement in state prisons. According to the story, “advocacy organizations are working to find dollars to pay for the study they say is critical to understanding how often solitary confinement is used, how it affects inmates and how much it costs the state.”
• ABQ Journal reports on the use of solitary confinement in the state of New Mexico, where “officials have the goal of cutting their segregation statistics from near 10 percent of inmates to 5 percent.” The story notes that if corrections authorities and prison reform advocates “can work together to make one of the worst punishments prisons can mete out a rare exception rather than a rule, it could only be a good thing for New Mexico.”
• Amnesty International (AI) calls on authorities in Louisiana to immediately release former Black Panther Albert Woodfox, who has spent over four decades in solitary confinement, from prison. A press release issued by Amnesty states, “On the eve of a federal court of appeals hearing on the case of Albert Woodfox, Amnesty International USA is calling on authorities in Louisiana to immediately release Woodfox… ‘A remedy to the injustice inflicted on Albert Woodfox by the state is long overdue,’ said [AI campaigner Tessa] Murphy.”
• The Wall Street Journal reports that the New York City Department of Correction has curbed its use of solitary confinement of people with mental illness who break rules. According to the story, “The last of the prisoners being held in the Mental Health Assessment Unit for Infracted Inmates at Rikers Island jail were reassigned Dec. 31, and what is known as the punitive segregation program has been permanently closed, said Correction Commissioner Dora Schriro…”
• BBC News Magazine publishes a piece describing how playing chess kept Russian human rights activist Natan Sharansky sane during his close to five years of being held in solitary confinement at a Siberian prison. “In his dark, empty, freezing punishment cell, with no-one to talk to, where he was forbidden to read or write, he played games in his head, obviously having to move for both sides, white and black: ‘Thousands of games – I won them all.’”
A court ruling out of South Carolina this week deserves the attention of anyone concerned with the use of solitary confinement and other brutal conditions and practices on the hundreds of thousands of people with mental illness who are held in our nation’s prisons. The best reporting on the ruling comes from The Atlantic’s Andrew Cohen, in a lengthy piece titled “When Good People Do Nothing: The Appalling Story of South Carolina’s Prisons.”
On Wednesday, in one of the most wrenching opinions you will ever read, a state judge in Columbia ruled that South Carolina prison officials were culpable of pervasive, systemic, unremitting violations of the state’s constitution by abusing and neglecting mentally ill inmates. The judge, Michael Baxley, a decorated former legislator, called it the “most troubling” case he ever had seen and I cannot disagree. Read the ruling. It’s heartbreaking.
The evidence is now sadly familiar to anyone who follows these cases: South Carolina today mistreats these ill people without any evident traces of remorse. Even though there are few disputed material issues of law or fact in the case, even though the judge implored the state to take responsibility for its conduct, South Carolina declared before the sun had set Wednesday that it would appeal the ruling—and thus likely doom the inmates to years more abuse and neglect. That’s not just “deliberate indifference,” the applicable legal standard in these prison abuse cases. That is immoral.
But what makes this ruling different from all the rest—and why it deserves to become a topic of national conversation—is the emphasis Judge Baxley placed upon the failure of the good people of South Carolina to remedy what they have known was terribly wrong since at least 2000. Where was the state’s medical community while the reports piled up chronicling the mistreatment of these prisoners? Where was the state’s legal community as government lawyers walked into court year after year with frivolous defenses for prison policies? Where were the religious leaders, the ones who preach peace and goodwill?
No one in power came forward. Even as the evidence became more clear and compelling that something horrible was happening inside those prisons.
Cohen delves into the history of the problem, from the early 1990s, when “South Carolina did reasonably good job of caring for its mentally ill prisoners,” through decades of growing prison populations and decreasing budgets for prison health care. He traces more than a decade of scathing reports, lawsuits, and whistleblower efforts that clearly documented what was going on in South Carolina’s prisons.
Judge Baxley wrote in his opinion: “The evidence in this case has proved that inmates have died in the South Carolina Department of Corrections for lack of basic mental health care, and hundreds more remain substantially at risk for serious physical injury, mental decompensation, and profound, permanent mental illness.” Cohen provides more detail as to “what these words mean”:
They mean that one mentally ill inmate, James Wilson, was kept in solitary confinement for at least 2,491 consecutive days. It means that an intellectually disabled (and schizophrenic) man named Jerome Laudman was abused and neglected, and then left to rot in his own feces and vomit, until he died of a heart attack. It means that force was used 81 times on a severely mentally ill inmate named James Howard. It means that some mentally ill inmates were restrained at length in what they called a “crucifix position.”<
It means some mentally ill prisoners were “routinely placed” naked “in shower stalls, ‘rec cages’, interview booths, and holding cells for hours and even days at a time.” It means that suicidal prisoners who were supposed to be receiving anti-psychotic medication were not receiving them. No surprise, the judge wrote, since SCDC’s “computer system cannot retrieve the names or numbers of all inmates referred” for mental health treatment, “the number of inmates who have made serious suicide attempts; or the number of inmates whose psychotropic medications have expired without being timely renewed.”
It means that mentally ill inmates are routinely caged for days in their own feces and urine, having to eat literally where they shit. It means, Judge Baxley wrote, that “the deposition testimony of some psychiatrists reveals an alarming lack of knowledge about the policies and procedures at SCDC.” One such psychiatrist did not know “what mental health counselors do, and had ‘no idea’ who drafted treatment plans” for inmates. And even if the mental health professionals knew what they were doing, they wouldn’t have been able to do much. The ratio of inmates needing treatment to professionals able to provide it was astronomically high.
The article, which combines solid facts with appropriate outrage, can be read in full here. Cohen concludes: “This epic ruling forces South Carolina, and the rest of us, to make a choice about what we want our prisons to say about who we are as a people and what we represent as a civilized society.”
The post Mentally Ill in South Carolina’s Prisons Suffer Decades of Abuse and Neglect appeared first on Solitary Watch.
• The Indo American News reports on the story of Akaash Dalal, an Indian American teen who was arrested for bombing four New Jersey synagogues. Dalal pleaded guilty, and Dalal’s father claims that Akaash had nothing to do with the bombing. While he awaits his trial, he’s been living in solitary, “holed up in a tiny, windowless cell.”
• According to NBC, after launching a nationwide investigation of detainees’ deaths in restraint chairs, the NBC Charlotte I-Team found that more than “more than three dozen men and women” have died in restraint chairs around the country. Even with these findings, there is no widespread ban on the use of chairs, aside from several human rights groups.
• In These Times reports on the solitary confinement of Russell “Maroon” Shoatz, a former member of the New African liberation movement convicted of killing a Philadelphia police officer in 1970. In 2005, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, and although he merely pleads for human contact, he still experiences confinement.
• In Trenton, New Jersey, the Juvenile Justice Commission and Rutgers University “have agreed to pay $400,000 to settle a federal lawsuit over the solitary confinement” of two boys who suffered from mental illness and were put into isolation for long stretches of time. Advocates hope that the settlement will decrease and change the future use of solitary confinement in the Juvenile Justice Commission.
• The Washington Post reports that in Louisville, Kentucky, a pair of hearing-impaired prisoners sued the state of Kentucky for not providing proper interpreter services. According to the men’s representation, Deborah Golden, being deaf or hearing-impaired in prison is “like being in solitary confinement even though you’re in the middle of people.”
• Amnesty International reports on the fate of Albert Woodfox, a member of the Angola 3, whose been held in solitary confinement for 40 years. On January 7th, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals will hold a hearing determining whether or not Albert will be removed from solitary, and perhaps whether or not he will be set free from prison entirely
Sean Swain is has served 22 years of a 20-to-life sentence for a murder he maintains was committed in self-defense. He has done many long stints in solitary confinement, and is currently being held at the supermax Ohio State Penitentiary in Youngstown. A self-proclaimed anarchist, he has twice run for governor of Ohio from his prison cell. His writing appears at www.seanswain.org. The following comes from a letter to Solitary Watch written in December. He welcomes mail at: Sean Swain 243205, OSP, 878 Coitsville-Hubbard Road, Youngstown, OH 44505. –Jean Casella
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I arrived here at Ohio’s super-duper-uber-meza-ultra-max on 29 August. I call it that because super-max sounds so ridiculous. If maximum is maximum, the most, what can be “super” or “beyond” the maximum? If it’s more secure than the already-existing maximum, then it supercedes it as being the new maximum, but it doesn’t become super-maximum. This is my deliberate, hyperbolic use of multiple prefixes to heckle the state’s grammatical euphemists.
They even have to abuse language.
Since August I note there are days I experience heightened anger. I call them rage days. They happen seemingly at random and I am self-aware enough to know that my emotional response is exagerrated. Sometimes pencil cups tip over. It’s not a cause for murderous rage. So I breathe deeply and recall that the situation I’m in creates those symptoms, and I self-talk through recognizing the relative insignificance of a spilled pencil cup compared to all the very serious disasters happening in the world. Re-centering. Re-grounding….
I fear losing my mind. I rear that on a long enough trajectory I’m doomed. I’m like a flood victim stacking sandbags, contemplating that I can hold out for six months, or a year, and if I am ambitious and scramble, I can hold off the inevitable for 18 months, but sooner or later the water will begin to trickle over the top of the barricades and then…
Smash. Pencil cup hits the wall.
Solitary confinement is waking every day already stacking the sandbags in your head to stave off the flood of irrationality that seeks to consume you…while operating within slow-motion mundanity of sensory deprivation. It’s almost comic, really, how those two realities, the internal and the external, are so oddly divergent. The internal feels like everything is emergent–bells and buzzers and sirens–and the external, that which triggers the internal madness, is less eventful the cows grazing or paint drying. But that’s just it. It’s the vacuum, the absence the gets the monkey of the mind scrambling for some kind of sensory toy to grab.
I smirk to myself when the shrink comes around once a week. He asks me if I’m OK. My response is always, “I think so.” It’s the best I can do when I know there are prisoners smeared in their own fecal matter and muttering to unseen demons and they tell the shrink, “Yes, I’m doing fantastic.”
I’m not smeared in fecal matter.
I don’t hear disembodied voices screaming at me to check my tire pressure.
Am I OK? I think so.
I don’t tell him that I’m afraid. I’m afraid of the day when a shit suit sounds like a grat idea, when Shabriri, the Demon of Blindness, screeches at me about unsafe driving conditions…
I also consider the irony that this massive mind-fuck machine works feverishly, day-in and day-out, prying out my psychological fingernails with a pair of rusty pliers, and then sends around this poor, well-intentioned, professor-ish clipboard dragger to inquire about my well being, prairie-dogging through the plexiglass bulletproof windown of the steel door on my tomb, seeking signs of my inevitable mental disorganization.
I think so. I think so. I think so. Yes…
A pencil-pusher was making rounds recently. Thru the bulletproof glass he asked me, “Do you know why you’re here?”
I responded, “Because there was an open cell available and the director doesn’t like my criticism of his policy?”
He looked side to side and saw the coast was clear. He shrugged. “Well, yeah,” was his reply.
Am I OK? I’m still stacking the sandbags. I haven’t given up.
The post Voices from Solitary: “This Massive Mind-Fuck Machine” appeared first on Solitary Watch.
The following roundup features noteworthy news, reports and opinions on solitary confinement from the past week that have not been covered in other Solitary Watch posts.
• The Denver Post publishes an editorial in support of providing people who are held in administrative segregation at the Colorado State Penitentiary with outdoor exercise. Noting that a lawsuit has been filed maintaining “that prisoners spend 23 hours in cells about 80 square feet and that the exercise room is a cell only slightly larger,” the story states that Colorado Department of Corrections Executive Director Rick Raemisch “is now considering three options to alleviate the exercise problem at the CSP, according to a Denver Post article last week. We’re glad to see it.”
• The Denver Channel reports on Colorado Department of Corrections Executive Director Rick Raemisch’s stated plans for change to the state’s prison system, which include increased transparency and limiting the use of solitary confinement. Quoting Raemisch, the story says “A year ago we had… 140 major mentally ill individuals in administrative segregation. Today we have 8 and we’re working on those 8. We are down from about slightly over 7 percent of the population being in administrative segregation to down to 3.9 percent.”
• Between the Lines reports on a recent speech delivered by Hope Metcalf, Director of the Arthur Liman Public Interest Program at Yale Law School, on the cruelty of solitary confinement as practiced in U.S. prisons. Underscoring the need for change in the use of the practice, Metcalf states, “There may be people who are violent and who are also mentally ill, and they need to be dealt with, but dealt with in a way that actually works.”
• Democracy Now! hosts a round-table discussion on the increasing number of aging political prisoners in the U.S., many of whom suffer from deteriorating health and are held in isolation, seeking “release, clemency or a pardon. In some cases, they are simply asking to be released into general population after decades of solitary confinement. Many have poorly treated diseases such as diabetes, while at least one has terminal cancer.”
• BBC News airs a Newsnight segment on the California prison hunger strike and the lives of people held inside Security Housing Units (SHUs) in prisons throughout the state.
This post has become a Christmas tradition at Solitary Watch. To all our readers, warm wishes for the holidays. Special thanks to those who have helped us bring a small ray of light into the darkness of solitary confinement by supporting our Lifelines to Solitary project.
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As Christmas is celebrated in Incarceration Nation, it’s worth remembering certain things about the two figures who dominate this holiday.
As more than 3,000 Americans sit on death row, we revere the birth of a man who was arrested, “tried,” sentenced, and put to death by the state. The Passion is the story of an execution, and the Stations of the Cross trace the path of a Dead Man Walking.
Less well known is the fact that Saint Nicholas, the early Christian saint who inspired Santa Claus, was once a prisoner, like one in every 100 Americans today. Though he was beloved for his kindness and generosity, Nicholas acquired sainthood not only by giving alms, but by performing a miracle that more or less amounted to a prison break.
Nicholas was the 4th-century Greek Bishop of Myra (in present-day Turkey). Under the Roman emperor Diocletian, who persecuted Christians, Nicholas spent some five years in prison–and according to some accounts, in solitary confinement.
Under Constantine, the first Christian emperor, Nicholas fared better until the Council of Nicaea, in 325 A.D. There, after having a serious theological argument with another powerful bishop, Nicholas became so enraged that he walked across the room and slapped the man.
It was illegal for one bishop to strike another. According to an account provided by the St. Nicholas Center: “The bishops stripped Nicholas of his bishop’s garments, chained him, and threw him into jail. That would keep Nicholas away from the meeting. When the Council ended a final decision would be made about his future.”
Nicholas spent the night praying for guidance, and was visited by Jesus and Mary. “When the jailer came in the morning, he found the chains loose on the floor and Nicholas dressed in bishop’s robes, quietly reading the Scriptures.” It was determined that no one could have visited or helped him during the night. Constantine ordered Nicholas freed and reinstated as the Bishop of Myra, and his feat would later be declared one of many miracles performed by the saint.
Saint Nicholas lived on to serve the poor during the devastating famine that hit his part of Turkey in 342 AD. He is reported to have anonymously visited starving families at night and distributed gold coins to help them buy scarce food.
Here in the United States nearly two thousand years later, Christians go to church to worship an executed savior and shop to commemorate an incarcerated saint. And most Americans give little thought to their 2 million countrymen who are spending this Christmas behind bars.
The post Santa Was in Prison and Jesus Got the Death Penalty appeared first on Solitary Watch.
• Capital Public Radio reports on court hearings in Sacramento, CA, where U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton of Sacramento decided that people with mental illness on death row and in the general population receive substandard mental health treatment from Department of State Hospitals.
• The Nation‘s David Mizner reports on the universal trend of hunger striking as an act of resistance in the modern era, the majority of strikes completed by prisoners as a form of protest against abuse and inhumane conditions.
• CBCnews reports that a jury ruled that the death of Ashley Smith in 2007 was a homicide. As Smith choked herself to death while in solitary confinement, prison guards outside of the cell were ordered by their superiors to not enter the cell as long as she was breathing. The jury recommended that staff should not have to seek authorization to intervene in a crisis situation, along with many other recommendations attempting to better the mental health standards in Canadian prisons.
• A federal judge in Baton Rouge ruled that individuals held in isolation on death row in Louisiana’s Angola Prison are “being subjected to cruel and unusual punishment,” after enduring excessive heat from lack of ventilation, along with the inability to access cool water, according to the Times-Picayune. Further, the Judge, Brian A. Jackson, ordered that the temperature of the facility be monitored and reported every two hours.
• According to the Denver Post, three men held in solitary at Colorado State Penitentiary sued Colorado DOC for depriving them of the ability to exercise. “The lawsuit says inmates must spend 23 hours a day in cells that measure approximately 80 square feet and are allowed to exercise in a cell that is only 90 square feet.”
• The Atlantic reports that the Colorado Department of Corrections issued a memo telling all state wardens that “inmates with ‘major mental illnesses’ can no longer be sent to solitary confinement.” However, the Colorado DOC’s definition of ‘major mental illness’ might be too narrow to make a big enough impact on the population of prisoners in solitary.
• Organizers announced the launch of a new campaign that “aims to shed light on and end a pattern of human rights and civil liberties abuses in ‘War on Terror’ cases in the criminal justice system” including the extensive use of pre-trial and post-conviction solitary confinement. The campaign, called No Separate Justice, will be marked by an event on January 7 in New York City.
The following comes from Joseph Stanwick, who has spent nearly two decades in solitary confinement in Texas. In this letter to Solitary Watch, he describes his last holiday season, which was spent under lockdown status. In supermax prisons and solitary confinement units, where people rarely leave their cells to begin with, lockdown often entails further deprivations of things like regular meals, showers, and exercise periods. During this time, Stanwick developed a relationship of sorts with the man in the cell across the corridor, and received from him a gift that was physically welcome but psychologically and morally unsettling. The author welcomes mail at: Joseph Stanwick #636416, 777 FM 3497, Lewis Unit, Woodville, TX 75990. –Jean Casella
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We are on lockdown status again as every inch of the prison compound is searched for contraband and living on thin sandwiches again, jam sandwiches we call them, made of two pieces of stale bread and a spot of peanut butter jammed together. This time around they are the worst ever and I am hungry day and night or was until another con began giving me his food…
Across the wide expanse of cellblock directly in front of my cell on the opposite side lives an elderly Mexican American who is confined to a wheelchair. The day after Christmas he began refusing his meals. I didn’t think it unusual at the time because some people fast around the holidays, you know? But then I recalled that up to Christmas Eve he had been getting law books delivered to him every other day or so for months from the prison’s legal library, an activity that suggested he was diligently working on the appeal of his conviction or perhaps a law suit, but then abruptly after Christmas no more law books came and he quit eating.
The guards took no notice of this because they work a different cellblock every day and too there is always a con or two skipping a meal. No one seemed aware that the old man had stopped eating, but me. When we went on lockdown status on January eleven he had not eaten in sixteen days. I do not know his name of even if he speaks English. I stand at my cell door window panels and smile and nod across to him on the other side of the corridor and he does the same. That is the extent of our communications to each other, nods and smiles. I began informing the guards that the old man had quit eating.
I once read an article long ago in some magazine about the I.R.A. (Irish Republican Army) prisoners inside English prisons that went on hunger strikes to force England to recognize them as prisoners of war instead of common criminals. Many Irishmen starved themselves to death and the horrid publicity of it all compelled the English to agree to the strikers demands. I remember well reading about the I.R.A. prisoner who celebrated the victory from a hospital bed where in spite of his jubilance and desire to live he was doomed to die because after seventy five days or so of eating no food he had caused fatal and irreversible damage to his vital organs. He had passed the point of no return. I wonder what kind of damage the old man is doing to his organs and how much nearer his point of no return must be because of his age.
Not long after we began getting bag meals he started asking the guards feeding to give his bag to me. At every meal. It is no inconvenience to do so since we live right across from each other and so I began eating his jam sandwiches and my jam sandwiches too. He sits at his door at meal times and as soon as he sees that his bag has been given to me he shoots me a thumb up sign then disappears into the depths of his cell. I have asked a Srgt. of the guards and a Lt. and a Captain to stop at his cell and talk to him when they each came walking through the cellblock on their inspection rounds and they each did, but still he refuses to eat. I eat his food instead and am grateful for if too because eight pieces of bread at each meal instead of four keeps the pang of hunger away.
Today is the twenty third of January and it has been twenty nine days since the old man last ate. I woke up in the middle of last night to discover his cell door opened and he gone and I was startled by the sight of it. But then a few minute later guards brought him back to his cell. I think they must be taking him to the medical department to weigh him ever so often and monitor his weight loss. That seems logical and I can think of no other reason for taking him out of his cell at night. There are horror stories floating around inside this super segregated high security prison about force feeding conis who try to escape their sentence by starving themselves to ruin. Strapped down to a gurney, a rubber tube is pushed up their nose and down their throat to drip life preserving nutrients into their emaciated bodies. Ghastly tales.
I was able to get a guard to slide a National Geographic magazine and a religious magazine under his cell door. A minute later he appeared and shot me a thumb up. He is looking gaunt. I live in solitary confinement same as he and cannot leave my cell and so I have done all that I can possibly do to help him. I do not want him to give up on life. I care and yet at the same time hunger compels me to eat his food, a paradox I struggle with daily, reasoning with myself that if I refuse to accept his food the guard will just give it to someone else, but even so that rationalization provide thin comfort and I think that I am agonizing as much for eating his food as he must be for not eating it. Prison is hell I tell you.
On January twenty five the old man began eating again and on February one we were taken off lock down status and jam sandwiches.
Just east of Capitol Hill, on 19th Street between D and E streets, lies a complex of reddish brown concrete buildings. These are the District of Columbia’s jail facilities – the Central Detention Facility (CDF) and The Central Treatment Facility (CTF). Along with some 2,000 adults, these buildings house children under the age of 18 who have been charged as adults.
For Michael Kemp and Alisha Carrington, both of whom were sent to the DC jails at the age of 16, doing time here meant being locked down 23 hours a day, alone, in small, barren cells. Like many other youth in adult jails, Michael and Alisha were isolated as a form of “protection” against other prisoners. This was administered in the form of solitary confinement, which Alisha and Michael endured for months.
Prison isolation lasting more than a few weeks has been shown to cause serious, and sometimes permanent, psychological damage in adults. For youth, the effects are believed to be even more severe. In his 2012 report Growing up Locked Down, published by the ACLU and Human Rights Watch, Ian Kysel writes: “Experts assert that young people are psychologically unable to handle solitary confinement with the resilience of an adult. And, because they are still developing, traumatic experiences like solitary confinement may have a profound effect on their chance to rehabilitate and grow.”
In Washington, DC, as in many other jail systems, the law demands that kids charged as adults be housed away from the general population to ensure the children’s safety. According to DC Department of Corrections spokesperson Sylvia Lane, “juveniles being adjudicated as adults, remanded to the custody of the DC Department of Corrections (DCDOC) are housed in a dedicated unit within the Correctional Treatment Facility.” Since 1997, CTF has been privately run under a 20-year contract with the giant Corrections Corporation of America (CCA). “They are kept out of the ‘sight and sound’ of the adult population.”
In practice, this “safety” measure often amounts to near-complete isolation. The Campaign for Youth Justice’s (CYJ) 2007 report on youth in DC’s adult criminal justice system states that “in a recent visit to the DC Jail, facility staff indicated that 14 of the 42 youth currently held in the jail are on administrative segregation, which means that they can spend as much as 23.5 hours a day, for 30 days at a time, in a segregated cell.”
“Just Living in Steel and Concrete”
The CYJ report also states: “One young woman [was] held in DC Jail since August 2006, and since there is no separate wing for juvenile female offenders, she was spending 23 hours a day locked in her cell.” The young woman from the report is Alisha Carrington. Alisha first entered into the juvenile justice system when she was 13 years old. She was arrested again in 2006, and her case drew attention because it “marked the first time in recent memory in the District that a girl was charged as an adult with murder,” according to the Washington Post.
When I meet her for an interview, Alisha sits behind a table in a small classroom situated inside of the DC Church of the Pilgrims on P Street. Recalling the reason for her arrest in 2006, Alisha says, “I was coming home real late after sneaking out to a party.” She pauses. “A neighbor had grabbed me into his home, and I stabbed him.” Due to the violent nature of her crime, Alisha was arrested and charged with second-degree murder, and sent to the DC jail system to await trial.
Alisha’s attorneys argued that she should be moved to a secure psychiatric facility, citing her mental health problems. A DC Superior Court judge said that the city was probably violating federal law by housing her in solitary. “Quite frankly, I think it’s barbaric…I think it’s barbaric to keep someone in that kind of condition, given her age,” Judge Wendell P. Gardner Jr. stated. But he also said that he lacked the authority to remove her.
Housed in isolation for several months at CTF, Alisha says that her cell “was the size of your bathroom, maybe, if that. [There was] a bunk bed, a steel toilet, and a desk.” Being the only juvenile female in CTF at the time, Alisha had no medium for human contact or programming. In order to get her access to even one book, Alisha’s lawyer had to plead with the court.
Michael Kemp, first incarcerated at the age of 12, was charged as an adult in 2007, also at the age of 16. Charged with robbery, Michael was housed at the Central Detention Facility, the government-owned DC Jail facility, which up until recently also housed juvenile males charged as adults. Now they are held in the juvenile unit at CTF. He says that his cell was “4 by 9, or 6 by 9…Basically you live in a bathroom, not a mansion bathroom, but a regular house sized bathroom. And a steel bed and a steel desk. Just living in steel and concrete.”
Michael was put into solitary, without access to programming or any general facilities for 6 months because he “was on special handling.” The CYJ report states: “Youth on protective custody are also segregated from the rest of the juvenile population and may face the same constraints as those on administrative segregation.”
According to the DC Department of Corrections, there is no such thing as solitary confinement in the juvenile wing. DOC spokesperson Sylvia Lane says, “There are no ‘isolation’ cells on the juvenile block. Juveniles may be placed on ‘administrative lockdown’ within the unit for a maximum of 5 days if circumstances so warrant; however, at that point in time a multidisciplinary hearing panel must be convened to review the case in totality.”
Liz Ryan, President and CEO of The Campaign for Youth Justice, says that when CYJ spoke to the new director of DCDOC, Thomas Faust, about the issues of juvenile solitary confinement, he said he was “putting in place a policy that would require a five-day maximum cell confinement.” However, Ryan’s response to him was “that five days was too excessive and that in the juvenile justice field 48 hours was the maximum number.” Ryan says they answered to that by “assur[ing] me that they have some policy in place. I have yet to see it, and I also don’t think that they follow it because on many occasions we’ve heard from families of inmates that are on lockdown.”
DC Kids in the Federal Prison System
For Alisha and Michael, solitary confinement in the DC jail system was only the beginning of their experience of prison isolation. DC code 24-902 (c) states, “The Federal Bureau of Prisons is authorized to provide for the custody, care, subsistence, education, treatment and training of youth offenders convicted of felony offenses and sentenced to commitment.” In essence, once convicted, youth fall under the custody of the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP.) After being sentenced, they are placed in various facilities around the country, making visits from family members nearly impossible.
Sentenced to 7 years of incarceration, Alisha was sent to North Dakota, about an “eight hour” plane ride away from DC and the first of many prisons to which she would be transferred. Alisha’s transit, as she describes it, consisted of being “shackle handcuffed, a surgeon’s face mask over my mouth, a belt tied around my waist of chains, my feet shackled.” She arrived in North Dakota only to be put in solitary again. Although she was no longer the only person under 18 in the facility, Alisha says “I was confined because the extent of my charge, even though there were other juveniles there being charged as adults, they still didn’t want me mixing with them for whatever reasons.”
After two months in North Dakota, Alisha was sent to FCI Danbury, an all-female federal prison in southwestern Connecticut. Alisha’s final destination to serve her sentence was the Federal Detention Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Rather than being sent directly to the new facility, roughly a three-hour drive away, Alisha says, “I went on a bus, and then I went on a plane that took me to Oklahoma Transfer Center, and then [they] brought me back to Philadelphia… They do the bus and the train when the institutions are close like that because they don’t want to risk escape.” Alisha also recalls that during her transit she stayed at a county jail in Grady County, Oklahoma, where she lived with thirty other women in a room “about as big as a living room. They kinda mixed the county and federals together and we were dressed in white and black striped jumpers.”
While incarcerated in Philadelphia, no longer a juvenile, Alisha again was put into solitary. She says, “that was maybe the hardest out of them all outside of 23-1 lockdown in DC jail because when I went to Pennsylvania it was a coed facility but they had pre-trials there so it was locked down.” Alisha, now 23 years old, is no longer in solitary confinement or in prison, after having spent an enormous portion of her sentence in isolation for disclosed and undisclosed reasons.
Michael was also transferred to the federal system once convicted of his crime at the age of 17. Describing his trip to a privately owned CCA juvenile facility in Memphis, Tennessee – Shelby Training Center – Michael says, “it was the worst experience you could do for anybody. For the first time for me to actually leave DC, to leave and travel on an airplane in shackles and chains and a belly chain, I felt like real livestock being transferred around… And if anything were to happen I would die.”
A day or two into his time at Shelby, Michael admits that since his 18th birthday and Christmas were coming up, he “had a little outburst…and [was taken] to the hole. So I spent my birthday and Christmas in solitary confinement for like a week or two.”
Michael, no longer legally a juvenile, was moved from Shelby to a facility in Arkansas only a month later. He recalls thinking, “Will I have to be faced with killing someone or someone trying to kill me? Like I should be in college or something.” After Michael finished his sentence in Arkansas, he returned home, only to be re-arrested thirty days later. According to a study quoted in the U.S. Department of Justice’s Juvenile Justice Bulletin, “A higher percentage of youth who were tried for robbery in criminal court were rearrested (91 percent) than those tried for robbery in juvenile court (73 percent).”
Michael, now a part of the 91 percent, was sent back to DC, to re-encounter the place where his relationship with solitary began. Michael remained at CDF from October 2008 to April 2009, until he was sentenced in the end of April and taken to the Northeast Ohio Correctional Center, a CCA-owned holdover facility.
During his time in the federal system, Michael was housed in two CCA-owned facilities around the country – Shelby Training Center, which was closed in 2008, and Northeast Ohio Correctional Center. These are merely two of the many privately owned facilities that contract with the DC government to house the people convicted in the District. In a 2001 article in the Washington Post, Peter Slevin reported: “Wackenhut and CCA recently scored coups when the U.S. Bureau of Prisons awarded contracts for a rapidly increasing federal prison population, which includes District inmates and deportable aliens.” According to an article published in The Nation in 2013, “CCA now manages facilities with over 90,000 prisoners in over 20 states.”
Michael ended his second sentence at a facility in Pennsylvania, where he again was put into solitary. According to Michael, in the hole, “You gotta wake up in the morning for recreation… and you gotta be standing up when they walk past your cell if you wanna go outside… As soon as you go outside for rec you ain’t going nowhere, but the four walls that surround you, you surrounded by concrete and when you look up it’s a cage over you.”
Locking Down Youth, in DC and Beyond
The experiences that both Michael and Alisha had in the DC jail system, and subsequently in the federal system are not unique to them. According to CYJ, the number of juveniles who enter the adult criminal justice system may be as high as 200,000 a year. According to Growing Up Locked Down, a fair number of these children will at some point spend time in solitary confinement.
In the District of Columbia, the overall jail population has dropped somewhat in recent years, and so has the number of children in the jail system. As previously noted, the CYJ found that in 2007 there were 42 kids being housed in the DC jail system. Currently, according to DCDOC, there are 19. The methods of “protecting” children against the general population of adults nonetheless remain ambiguous and harmful.
Any official efforts toward “reforming” juvenile justice in the District do not look promising. According to the testimony of CYJ’s Carmen Daughtery at an oversight hearing addressing DC City Council in April 2013, “In the 2012 budget, language was included requiring the DOC to contract with an independent expert to conduct a study of the conditions, services and treatment of youth at the Juvenile Unit at CTF. The RFP was released in January and a vendor, The Ridley Group, was finally chosen just in March.”
The study remains to be seen. Further, none other than former Director of DCDOC – Walter Ridley – runs the independent expert group conducting the study. When asked about the completion of the assessment and its whereabouts, spokesperson Lane exclusively states that, “DCDOC did procure the services of the Ridley Group to conduct a comprehensive assessment of juvenile programming.” And that, “The audit has been completed.” Ryan believes that, “the DOC is now attempting to address all of the major problems that were identified in the study so that when it’s released they can say that they fixed a whole bunch of things.”
While this might mean that the DCDOC is working to improve conditions for juveniles, few changes have been visibly made. Further, the transfer of youths into the various federal and sometimes even state facilities around the country is an ongoing BOP practice that has absolutely no foreseeable end. Repeated inquiries to the BOP regarding its involvement with convicted and sentenced juveniles from the District went unanswered.
As DCDOC seemingly attempts to limit youth in the DC jail from receiving human contact by “protecting” in the form of isolation, and by implementing a new alternative method of visitation through video streaming, prisons all around the nation are isolating their children in the form of solitary confinement.
Ian Kysel, author of Growing Up Locked Down, says, “It was a challenge all over the country to determine how children were treated in adult facilities. In DC, it wasn’t even clear at first who to contact – the CCA folks were pointing one way, the DOC another.” Ryan says that the juvenile unit, which is housed in CTF, the CCA owned facility “is run by the same DOC staff as at the jail. They all report to DOC.” Though CCA and DCDOC act independently in regards to the media, the intermingling of CCA and DCDOC exhibits the shifty line of conduct employed by staff members at the juvenile unit.
Kysel’s report reminds readers that subjecting children to solitary confinement for one day or more “violates the obligation to treat young people deprived of their liberty with humanity and respect for their inherent human dignity and status as children under the International Covenant on Civil and Political rights and the Conventions on the Rights of the Child.”
Ryan, who has been fighting with CYJ for children’s rights in the DC jail system, says in desperation, “in the five years or more that we’ve been weighing in on this, I just haven’t seen very many changes.”
The post DC’s Youth Face Solitary Confinement in District Jails and Federal Prisons appeared first on Solitary Watch.
Dear Solitary Watchers:
We approach our readers with an appeal for support only once a year. And even then, we don’t ask you to help us with general operating expenses, but rather with a very special part of our work.
All year long, while we are carrying on our research and reporting on the human rights crisis in our midst, Solitary Watch also reaches out directly to hundreds of people who live in extreme isolation in prisons and jails across the country.
We get dozens of letters each week, and try our best to respond to them all. Four times a year we send out a newsletter with selected stories from the website to more than 600 men and women in solitary confinement. And every December we send out a holiday card. This year’s card, pictured below, features art by Five Omar Mualimm-ak, a survivor of five years of solitary in New York State prisons.
It is difficult to overstate what an impact these simple missives can have on a person who lives surrounded by gray walls, deprived of all human contact. A colorful card, or a note with a few handwritten words of support, or a newsletter that tells of the growing movement against solitary confinement–all these are acknowledgments of the recipient’s humanity, a small sign that they have not been forgotten.
“I can’t tell you how touched I am for you giving me any attention,” one man in a Texas prison wrote to us after receiving our holiday card last year. “I am so grateful to you and cried tears reading your card because the torture, abuse and neglect I’m facing makes this cell and my world a lonely place, and many days I think of how to take my own life and end the misery and pain but you inspire me and I continue to fight on.’’
At the same time, our communications with people in solitary confinement serve another purpose, providing us with a rich source of first-hand information that shapes our reporting on solitary confinement, as well as material for the Voices from Solitary we feature on our site.
That’s why every dollar raised in this annual appeal will go directly to our Lifelines to Solitary project. This year, we want to double the reach of our mailings, to at least 1,200 of the tens of thousands of people who live in long-term solitary. That means we need to perform outreach to supermax prisons and solitary confinement units to acquire additional contacts. And once we succeed in doubling our list, our printing and mailing costs will double as well.
Please consider helping us achieve our goals with a donation at any level. To find out more about Lifelines to Solitary and to make a fully tax-deductible online donation, please visit our fundraising page: http://www.razoo.com/story/Lifelines-To-Solitary-2014
Thank you for your support, your faith in our work, and your concern for the people who reside in our nation’s darkest corners.
With best wishes for the new year,
Jean and Jim
• Alan Prendergast reports in Westword that the Colorado Department of Corrections has directed its wardens to stop sending people with mental illness to solitary confinement. (Look for more on this subject later this week on Solitary Watch.)
• Babar Ahmad and Syed Talha Ahsan, two British nationals, pleaded guilty this week to terrorism-related charges. The two men, who were subject to a highly controversial extradition to the United States last year, had been held in extreme isolation in a supermax prison in Connecticut, and will likely face more solitary confinement in the future.
• As the Los Angeles Times reports, “Federal judges considering California’s request for more time to reduce prison crowding have asked the state in turn to limit how long some mentally ill prisoners spend in solitary confinement.
• NBC News online reported in detail on the case of the so-called Dallas 6, a group of Pennsylvania’s who were charged with rioting after staging what they say was a peaceful protest in their solitary confinement unit to draw attention to conditions there. After hearing several motions, a federal court set a trial date in January.
• A BBC News piece asks: Are California’s prison isolation units torture?
• “Federal prison officials have begun transferring mentally ill inmates from the Supermax prison in Florence to a prison in Atlanta following a lawsuit that accuses guards of ignoring severe symptoms,” reports the Denver Post. The Bureau of Prisons says it may eventually transfer about 30 men.
Editors’ Note: Back in October, Solitary Watch received a request from cut-rate retail giant Costco, for a 450-word essay arguing that solitary should be eliminated. The piece was to be printed in the ”Informed Debate” feature in the company’s giveaway magazine, Costco Connection, which has a readership numbering 20 million people.
Pleased that such a large corporate entity had chosen to air the pros and cons of this controversial subject, Solitary Watch co-director James Ridgeway handed in his piece in November, and was told that the pro-solitary side would be written by an official from the NYSCOBA, the New York State corrections officers union. A month of silence followed.
Two days ago, Solitary Watch received a message saying the entire debate section was being pulled from the January issue at the last minute, due to a decision by “one of the key executives who took exception to the subject.”
(An interesting fact: The behemoth retailer has earned a reputation for taking care of its workers, who earn average salaries more than double those at Walmart. But it also has been known to employ subcontractors who use prisoner labor to package their goods, and its Code of Conduct bans only “illegal prison labor.”)
Requests for comment to Costco’s corporate communications department yielded no response.
The offending commentary appears below.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Imagine a room so small that you can stretch your arms out and touch the gray concrete walls. The only objects in the room are a bunk and a toilet, perhaps a few books and a photograph or two.
The room’s narrow window admits only a sliver of natural light, and the solid steel door contains a slot through which a meal tray can pass. You may catch a glimpse of a hand, or hear a voice shouting from nearby. Otherwise you have no contact with another human being.
Imagine spending a month in this room, 23 hours a day, with one hour to exercise alone in a small pen. Now imagine the month stretching to a year–or ten, or twenty.
On any given day, some 80,000 men, women, and children live in conditions like these–not in some far-off totalitarian nation or secret black site, but right here in America’s prisons and jails.
Senator John McCain, who spent two years in solitary confinement as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, later wrote: “It’s an awful thing, solitary. It crushes your spirit and weakens your resistance more effectively than any other form of mistreatment.”
Human rights organizations, religious groups, and the UN have all condemned solitary confinement in excess of 15 days as a form of psychological torture. Other democratic nations have largely eliminated the practice. They separate only a handful of truly dangerous prisoners, and provide even them with opportunities for communication and rehabilitation.
In the United States, in contrast, solitary confinement is a control strategy of first resort. In New York’s state prisons, for example, 5 out of 6 terms in solitary are for nonviolent misbehavior as minor as mouthing off to a corrections officer or having too many pencils or postage stamps.
The effects of solitary, however, are anything but minor. Studies have found that solitary confinement beyond two weeks alters brain function, and produces psychological symptoms ranging from anxiety and depression to full-on psychosis. For the many prisoners with underlying mental illness who end up in solitary, the suffering is even worse.
People in solitary often take to screaming, banging on cell walls, counting cockroaches, cutting themselves, and worse: Although less that 5 percent of all U.S. prisoners are in solitary confinement, 50 percent of prison suicides take place there.
In addition to its human costs, solitary confinement sucks up our tax dollars. Keeping an individual in a “supermax” prison triples the average annual cost of incarceration–from $25,000 to $75,000. Research also shows that people released directly from solitary to the streets are significantly more likely to land back in prison.
Finally, solitary confinement serves no legitimate purpose whatsoever, since it fails to increase the safety of either prisoners or corrections officers. In fact, states that have reduced their use of solitary by up to 75 percent have seen notable drops in prison violence.
We must end this cruel, costly, and counterproductive practice before any more damage is done.
The post Solitary Confinement: Too Controversial for Costco appeared first on Solitary Watch.
It seems absurd that a person who has been sexually assaulted would be punished for speaking up, especially since prison policy prohibits sexual contact between staff and the people whom they guard. Yet, in many women’s prisons, those who report rape and other forms of sexual assault by prison personnel are often sent to solitary confinement.
After enduring over a year of repeated sexual assaults by a guard, Stacy Barker became one of 31 women incarcerated in Michigan who filed Nunn v MDOC, a 1996 lawsuit against the Department of Corrections for the widespread sexual abuse by prison guards. The following year, Barker was repeatedly sexually assaulted by an officer, who was also a defendant in Nunn. After a month of silence, she reported the assaults to a prison psychiatrist. Barker was immediately placed in segregation and then transferred to Huron Valley Center, which was then a psychiatric hospital for prisoners. There, she reported that hospital attendants verbally harassed her.
In October 1997, Barker attempted suicide. Barker did not receive counseling or psychiatric evaluation. Instead, three male guards stripped her naked, placed her in five-point restraints (a procedure in which a prisoner is placed on her back in a spread-eagle position with her hands, feet and chest secured by straps) on a bed with no blanket for nine hours. She was then placed on suicide watch. She reported that one of the staff who monitored her repeatedly told her he would “bring her down a few rungs.”
Placing women in solitary confinement for reporting staff sexual harassment or abuse is far from rare. In 1996, Human Rights Watch found that, in Michigan, incarcerated women who report staff sexual misconduct are placed in segregation pending the institution’s investigation of their cases. The placement is allegedly for the woman’s own protection. The five other states investigated also had similar practices of placing women in segregation after they reported abuse.
Not much has changed in the thirteen years since Human Rights Watch chronicled the pervasive and persistent sexual abuse and use of retaliatory segregation in eleven women’s prisons. Former staff at Ohio’s Reformatory for Women have stated that women who reported sexual abuse are subjected to lengthy periods of time in solitary confinement where cells often had feces and blood smeared on the wall. In Kentucky, a woman who saved evidence from her sexual assault was placed in segregation for fifty days. In Illinois, a prison administrator threatened to add a year onto the sentence of a woman who attempted to report repeated sexual assaults. She was then placed in solitary confinement.
In 2003, the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) became law, ostensibly to address the widespread sexual abuse in the nation’s jails and prisons. Among its recommendations was “the timely and comprehensive investigation of staff sexual misconduct involving rape or other sexual assault on inmates.” However, this has not stopped the widespread practice of utilizing solitary to punish those who speak out. An investigation into sexual abuse at Alabama’s Tutwiler Prison for Women found that women who report sexual abuse “are routinely placed in segregation by the warden.” Some prison systems have also created new rules to continue discouraging reports of staff sexual assault. At Denver Women’s Correctional Facility, a woman reported that prison officials responded to PREA by creating a rule called “False Reporting to Authorities.”
“A lot of us do not report any kind of staff misconduct because history has proven that any kind of reports true or false are found [by the administration] to be false,” she stated. “When it was found to be false, the people were immediately found guilty and sent to administrative segregation.” In some cases, a woman may not even file an official complaint, but may only be speaking within earshot of another staff member.
I didn’t want to believe it but then I experienced it first hand with a close acquaintance of mine. She had conversations with a guard and he asked sexually explicit questions about what she would be able to do in bed because of her disability and it went on for a while. She came to me and said she didn’t want to be around him and she told an office worker about him and he ended up writing a report on her, before she could do it to him and she was eventually questioned. I was questioned and I told the investigator that I believed her and that the officer was a pervert and flirted openly with any girl who was desperate for a man’s attention. I told him I felt like he was a predator and shouldn’t be working at a women’s prison. I later found out she went to the hole and was going to be ad. seg’d just like the others but she left on her mandatory parole to go back to court and was re-sentenced and brought back. Luckily they didn’t ad. seg her when she came back. I’m not sure why they dropped it but maybe it was because she was gone for a while.
Under PREA, those accused of sexual assault are sent to solitary confinement even before the charges are proven. In California, Amy Preasmyer was placed in solitary confinement after being accused of sexual assault by another woman. “I was abruptly removed from my bed late in the evening to face an extended wait and then a transfer to Ad-Seg,” she reported. “Upon entering my newly assigned chambers at 3 a.m., I found the toilet was backed up and a DD3 (EOP) [person with a disability] had urinated everywhere prior to me, leaving extremely unsanitary conditions and aromas.” She was not allowed to access supplies that would allow her to clean or disinfect her cell. Although she was eventually cleared of all charges, being in Ad Seg forced her to miss her final examinations for college. During that time, she also lost the privilege to shop, walk outside or even call home.
Preasmyer reflected on the double standard between prison staff and prisoners accused under PREA: “Had this woman falsely accused an officer, would that officer have been arrested and forced to relinquish rights pending results of the investigation into the accusation? Would the employee suffer a wage loss? Would disciplinary action and consequences be rendered to the accuser once charges turned out to be baseless?”
After reading Preasmyer’s article in her segregation cell in Indiana, Sarah Jo Pender, who has spent five years in solitary confinement after an officer helped her escape, agreed. She noted that, although the officer who helped her escape had had sex with her and seven other women in the prison, he evaded a sexual misconduct charge as part of a plea bargain. He was sentenced to seven years in prison and released after two years. As far as Pender knows, he spent no time in solitary confinement. On the other hand, the superintendent at the Indiana Women’s Prison has told her that she will remain in segregation so long as she is incarcerated so that he knows where she is at any given time.
We might know more about the prevalence of isolating those who report sexual abuse if that threat didn’t hang over their heads. But it does, bullying who-knows-how-many into silence. As one woman in Texas reported, “When officers and inmates are found to be involved, the common court of action here is to move her to another facility. If she consented in any way, she will be placed in Ad Seg. Being moved with the jacket of a prior officer relationship can make time very difficult. And, if they found any reason to write the inmate a major case, it also costs her at least a one-year parole set-off. Being moved, time in isolation, a label and a set-off? Those are powerful motivations to keep a girl quiet.”
This is the second article in a two-part series on women in solitary confinment. Read the first article here.
The post Women in Solitary Confinement: Sent to Solitary for Reporting Sexual Assault appeared first on Solitary Watch.
A mass prisoner hunger strike rocked California’s prison system this past summer, drawing international attention to the extensive use of solitary confinement in the United States. Increasingly, solitary is finding its way into the mainstream media and onto activist agendas. Nearly all of the attention, however, has focused on solitary confinement in men’s prisons; much less is known about the conditions and experiences inside women’s prisons.
During October’s legislative hearing on solitary confinement in California, lawmakers asked prison officials about women in solitary confinement. Officials from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) stated that 74 women were held in the Security Housing Unit at the California Institution for Women (CIW) and a handful of women were awaiting transfer from the Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF). CDCR does not separate people in the SHU with mental illness from those without mental illness. CDCR officials did not address the number of people in the Administrative Segregation (or Ad Seg) Unit.
According to CDCR statistics, as of September 2013, 107 women were held in Ad Seg at CCWF, which has a budgeted capacity of 38. The average stay was 131 days. Twenty women had been there longer than 200 days, two had exceeded 400 days, and another two women had exceeded 800 days. At CIW, 34 women were in Ad Seg with an average stay of 73 days. Two women have exceeded 200 days.
Lawmakers’ inquiry prompted advocacy group California Coalition for Women Prisoners to send an open letter to Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner requesting that she investigate conditions of solitary confinement in women’s prisons. The group noted that, with the conversion of Valley State Prison for Women to a men’s prison and the transfer of several hundred women to California’s other two women’s prisons, the use of solitary confinement has dramatically increased.
To justify the increase, CDCR has cited “enemy concerns” or a documented disagreement between people that may have led to threats or violence. Those designated as having “enemy concerns” are locked in their cells 22 to 24 hours a day and lose all privileges. CDCR reports do not separate the number of people in Ad Seg or the SHU for rules violations versus those confined because of “enemy concerns.” The California Coalition for Women Prisoners has noted that many of these “enemy concerns” are based on incidents that happened years ago and may not be valid today.
Dolores Canales has a son who has spent thirteen years in Pelican Bay’s SHU. Canales has also had firsthand experience with solitary confinement. While imprisoned at CIW, she spent nine months in Ad Seg, where she was confined to her cell twenty-two hours a day. “There, I had a window. The guards would take me out to the yard every day. I’d get to go out to the yard with other people,” she recalled. But the isolation still took its toll: “There’s an anxiety that overcomes you in the middle of the night because you’re so locked in,” she described. Even after being released from segregation, Canales was unable to shake that anxiety. She broke into a sweat and panicked each time she saw a group of officers even though she had broken no rules. “I just can’t forget,” she stated years after her release from prison.
Although the spotlight on solitary has focused largely on California, every women’s prison has a solitary confinement unit. Florida’s Lowell Correctional Institution for Women has a Closed Management Special Housing Unit (CM SHU) where women are confined to their cells 23 to 24 hours a day. “There is no free movement or social interaction,” reported one woman. “We just sit locked in a concrete and steel room the size of a small residential bathroom.”
In Indiana, Sarah Jo Pender has spent nearly five years in solitary. “My cell is approximately 68 square feet of concrete with a heavy steel door at the front and a heavily barred window at the back that does not open,” she described. “Walls are covered in white; the paint chipped off by bored prisoners reveals another layer of primer white. No family photos or art or reminder notes are allowed to be taped to the walls; they must remain bare. Our windowsills would be a great place to display greeting cards and pictures, but those are off-limits, too… There is a concrete platform and thin plastic mat, a fourteen-by-twenty inch shelf and round stool mounted to the floor, and a steel toilet/sink combo unit. We get no boxes to contain our few personal items. Everything must fit on the shelf, bed or end up on the floor.”
Her cell is searched daily by guards although, like everyone else in the prison, she is strip searched any time she leaves the unit for a doctor’s appointment or a no-contact visit. When she is taken to the showers, she is handcuffed, then locked into a 3 foot by 3 foot shower stall with a steel cage door for a 15-minute shower. As is the case across the country, visits are conducted behind glass.
Pender was placed in solitary confinement after successfully escaping from prison in 2008. With the assistance of a guard, who had been having sex with her and several other women in the prison, she escaped. After 136 days, she was found, re-arrested and returned to prison, where she began her unending stint in solitary confinement. Because Pender is considered a high escape risk, the administration has taken steps to isolate her even within the segregation unit. “Other women could talk to each other through their doors, but they were instructed to never talk to me or else they’d be punished,” she recounted. “The male guards were never to speak to me unless there was a second guard present, and only to give me orders. Female guards only spoke when absolutely necessary, per orders, except they chatted freely with any other prisoner.”
As in many jails and prisons, those with mental health concerns are often placed in segregation. “One of them is going to be released to society this month,” Pender wrote. “She has been in solitary for six or eight months because she has repeatedly cut herself with razors, including her throat, several times. Their solution: lock her in a room and don’t give her a razor.” Another woman spent 2 ½ years in segregation, originally for disruptive behavior. Her stay was extended each time she hurt herself. “She cut her wrists in the shower, they found her, took her to the hospital, stitched her up, put her back in lock and wrote her up for self-mutilation. She ripped the stitches out and got another battery write-up. Threw a mop bucket at the sergeant for another assault write-up and was completely maxed out on her sentence, so they let her go home from solitary. She returned that same year with new charges. She never got therapy while here—or any mental health care that she obviously needed.”
While Pender did not enter with preexisting mental health concerns, years of little to no human contact has taken its toll. At times she feels lethargic and depressed. In 2010, she had a psychotic break, which lasted nine months. Since then, she has been on and off half a dozen kinds of psychotropic medications. “I didn’t need the meds for the two years I spent in godawful Marion County Jail, and didn’t need them for five years at Rockville prison,” she recalled. “But when you lock people in rooms for long periods of time, the isolation degenerates us into madness, or at least depression.”
Others with no preexisting mental health conditions have also been affected. “I watched a woman claw chunks out of her cheeks and nose and write on the window with her blood,” Pender said. “My neighbor bashed her head against the concrete until officers dragged her out to a padded cell. Two other women tried to asphyxiate themselves with shoestrings and bras.” In Florida, faced with the prospect of ten months in CM SHU, a woman attempted suicide. “I had hung myself and was quite dead when the guards cut me down. My heart must’ve stopped because of the loss of involuntary functions, but still they wrapped me in a sheet and rushed me to medical and succeeded in reviving me,” she recalled.
Despite being locked in a cell the size of a bathroom for the foreseeable future, Pender hopes the increased outrage about solitary confinement leads to concrete changes. What would she ask people to do?
They can help by contacting their legislators and judges about their views on long-term solitary confinement. They can help by supporting small groups of activists and organizations who are passionate about this topic. Many people don’t have the desire to donate two hours of their week or month to a group, but what about two hours of their monthly wages? Or the book of stamps and box of envelopes that has been collecting dust since email was invented? There are lots of ways to help change the system. Whatever you choose to do, just DO something. Just having conversations with others about the subject is doing something. Someone else might volunteer to type up and format a newsletter. Help design a website. Circulate the info. Make phone calls to organize events. Anything is better than turning the page to the next article and forgetting about us, leaving us alone in our cells.
TOMORROW: Many women’s prisons utilize solitary to punish those reporting staff sexual assaults or harassment.
The post Women in Solitary Confinement: “The Isolation Degenerates Us Into Madness” appeared first on Solitary Watch.
In preparation for Human Rights Day tomorrow, groups opposing solitary confinement have sent letters to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, urging them to grant the request of the UN’s main torture expert for more information on and access to New York’s prisons.
Juan Méndez, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, has repeatedly asked the United States State Department to visit American prisons, specifically in California, Colorado, and Pennsylvania as well as New York, stating that his “main concern is the use of solitary confinement.”
Méndez has long condemned the use of prolonged solitary confinement in prisons and jails as torture. In a report to the General Assembly of the UN in August 2011, Méndez called this practice inhumane punishment, and concluded that 15 continuous days in solitary must be the limit before harmful physical and psychological effects take place. The United States has kept incarcerated people in isolation for far longer; some have been in continuous solitary confinement for years or even decades.
Méndez said specifically that he needs to be able speak to those currently held in solitary confinement during the visits in order to understand “who is put into isolation and why,” as well as the conditions of punitive segregation. Méndez has emphasized that while no one should be held in isolated for a prolonged period of time, certain vulnerable categories of incarcerated people should never be put into solitary, including pregnant women, people with mental illness, and children.
In his report to the UN General Assembly in August 2013, Méndez specifically condemned the “degrading conditions of detention” in New York state prisons. He further stated that under New York’s State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS), incarcerated people could be in extreme isolation for an indefinite amount of time, because New York State does not place maximum limits on sentences of isolated confinement.
Prior to this report, Méndez had written to the United States government, urging it to investigate and prevent mistreatment of those incarcerated in solitary confinement, highlighting three specific cases of prolonged isolation. Méndez appealed to the State Department on the behalf of these three men – William Blake, Stephen Poole, and Kenneth Wright – citing their difficulty in obtaining adequate medical attention as well as the severe mental and physical health risks involved in keeping people in solitary confinement indefinitely.
Méndez alleged both in his letter and the report to the General Assembly that these practices in New York prisons constituted torture, citing evidence that many people are held in isolation for years without an end date, and that many end up with solitary confinement sentences for committing nonviolent offenses.
In its letter John Kerry last week, the Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement (CAIC) urged the secretary of State to provide the information requested by Méndez immediately. A letter to Andrew Cuomo urged the governor to facilitate the release of information, and of Méndez’s ability to enter New York’s solitary confinement units to conduct fact-finding.
“With Human Rights Day approaching,” both letters conclude, “we join in calling on you to take these steps to honor the humanity and dignity of New Yorkers suffering the torture of solitary confinement.”
CAIC, which brings together human rights, civil liberties, and religious organizations with formerly incarcerated people and family members of those in solitary confinement, will join the New York City Jails Action Coalition and American Friends Service Committee to host a vigil in Lower Manhattan’s Foley Square tomorrow at 4 PM “to protest the routine use of extreme and prolonged isolation in New York’s state prisons and city jails.”
The post Activists Urge U.S. Government to Grant UN Torture Expert Access to New York’s Prisons appeared first on Solitary Watch.