• Gawker published a letter from Ray Jasper, who is scheduled to be put to death by the state of Texas on March 19. With regards to solitary confinement he writes, “If a prisoner refuses to work and be a slave, they will do their time in isolation as a punishment. You have thousands of people with a lot of prison time that have no choice but to make money for the government or live in isolation. The affects of prison isolation literally drive people crazy. Who can be isolated from human contact and not lose their mind?”
• Amnesty International released a videotaped statement from Leontine (“Teenie”) Rogers, whose husband Brent Miller was killed at Angola prison in April 1972. Two members of the “Angola 3” – Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox – were later convicted of the murder, and subsequently endured decades in solitary confinement. Woodfox remains locked up in isolation today, and in the video Rogers pleads for his release. “I am speaking out now because I don’t want another innocent man to die in prison.”
• The ACLU of Montana, on behalf of Disability Rights Montana, issued a letter to the Department of Corrections and Department of Public Heath and Human Services outlining how the state has failed people will mental illnesses . A year-long investigation into the conditions at Montana State Prison revealed that “prisoners with mental illness are routinely subjected to months or years of solitary confinement and ‘behavior modification plans’ that deprive them of clothing, working toilets, bedding and proper food.”
• According to The Denver Post, at least nine federal prison guards on staff in Florence, Colorado have committed suicide since 1994.
• New York Times columnist David Brooks published an Op-ed naming solitary confinement as a form of torture – a permitted “social pain” as harmful as the “physical pain” abuses prohibited by law. He writes, “when you put people in prison, you are imposing pain on them. But that doesn’t mean you have to gouge out the nourishment that humans need for health, which is social, emotional and relational.”
• In an interview on Democracy Now, Angela Davis argued that the fight to abolish solitary confinement must be part of a broader struggle to abolish prisons: “One can look at solitary confinement as a microcosm of the whole system, solitary confinement within a prison. The prison is solitary confinement within the society. And how can one expect to create any kind of rehabilitation, which unfortunately prisons still claim that they rehabilitate, in the context of the kind of isolation that happens in these institutions?”
• Former Solitary Watch reporter Katie Rose Quandt appeared on KTNF radio to discuss her work on solitary confinement for Mother Jones.
• Medium, in conjunction with the Center for Investigative Reporting, published a series of pieces about teens in solitary confinement on Riker’s Island: an article that explores why young people are locked up alone in the NYC’s jails; an animated video that tells the story of young person who spent almost a year in isolation; and a former guard’s photos of life in “the box”.
• The Juvenile Justice Information Exchange inaugurated a series on juvenile solitary confinement with an article outlining how states across the nation place young people in isolation, which was followed by a piece on teens in solitary confinement in New Jersey.
• NPR hosted a 40-minute segment on solitary confinement. Guests included Benjamin Wallace-Wells, author of a recent New York Magazine article about the origins of the California hunger strike, as well as Professor Craig Haney, who has been studying the psychological impact of solitary confinement for over 30 years.
It didn’t take much reading between the lines to decipher the central message of last week’s Senate Judiciary Subcommittee hearing on solitary confinement. Lawmakers and witnesses alike appeared to agree: There are people in solitary confinement in American prisons who just don’t belong there. And then, there are other people who do.
In taking this approach, the hearing reflected a growing consensus on how to deal with the more than 80,000 people held in isolation in U.S. prisons. An increasing number of elected officials, corrections departments, and even some prison reform advocates are condemning not solitary confinement itself, but the “overuse” of solitary. They call for a “reduction” in the numbers of individuals held in isolation, beginning with vulnerable groups like children and people with mental illness, and moving on to those who commit minor infractions.
From a pragmatic point of view, it’s difficult to fault this strategy, which promises a prompt reprieve to those who are likely to be suffering the most, and are also likely to win the most sympathy from politicians and the public. Yet the approach is troubling to some advocates, who believe that solitary confinement as it is practiced in the United States today is by nature torture, and therefore unacceptable treatment for anyone. By sending the message that incarcerated individuals fall into two groups — those who deserve relief from the torturous effects of solitary confinement and those who do not — it may also have the effect of driving some people even deeper into the hole.
The message was clear enough in Chairman Dick Durbin’s opening remarks before a packed hearing room on Capitol Hill last Tuesday, as the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights met for the second time in two years to consider “The Human Rights, Fiscal, and Public Safety Consequences” of solitary confinement.
Durbin’s statement began with broad strokes. The fact that “the United States holds more prisoners in solitary confinement than any other Democratic nation” is a “human rights issue that we cannot ignore,” the Illinois Democrat said. He quoted Anthony Graves, a Texas death row exoneree who testified at the first Senate hearing on solitary 2012: “‘No one can begin to imagine the psychological effects isolation has on another human being. Solitary confinement does one thing: It breaks a man’s will to live.’” In his seven years as chair of the subcommittee, Durbin declared, “I cannot remember more compelling testimony.”
But Durbin quickly narrowed his focus. Noting that the hearing was taking place on the one-year anniversary of the murder of a federal correctional officer, Durbin said emphatically: “Make no mistake….Some dangerous inmates must be held in segregated confinement.” By way of example, Durbin described a visit to Tamms, the now-shuttered Illinois state supermax, where he asked officials to “take me to the worst of the worst,” and met a man who had murdered his cellmate. Some people would always be threats to the safety of staff and other prisoners, Durbin said, and “We’ve got to balance that against our concerns about humane treatment of those in solitary confinement.”
As if to head off potential critics, Durbin then addressed an apparent contradiction in his own political record on the issue of solitary confinement by bringing up Thomson Correctional Center. For years, Durbin has championed the federal government’s acquisition of Thomson, an unopened state prison in northern Illinois. Referring to Thomson at the hearing, Durbin promised that he would work with federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) to ensure “that all prisoners held there are treated appropriately and humanely.”
That’s a promise that Durbin will find hard to keep. As the BOP confirmed to Solitary Watch last year, a significant portion of Thomson will be used for solitary confinement, including “Administrative Maximum” cells like those at ADX Florence, the notorious federal supermax in Colorado. A state-of-the-art isolation facility, ADX Florence epitomizes the worst that solitary confinement can do to the human mind and body. Several current lawsuits, as well as increased media coverage, have uncovered horror stories of psychotic prisoners at ADX Florence who gouge holes in their own flesh or eat their own feces, and frequently attempt suicide (sometimes successfully). On the day of the Senate hearing, Solitary Watch reported on the existence of a hunger strike and force-feedings in ADX Florence’s most secure unit.
In any event, Durbin wasted no time elaborating on how to provide a more humane environment for the “worst of the worst,” or even for the bulk of people currently held in solitary. Instead he turned his attention to a limited number of vulnerable groups. ”Today I am calling for all federal and state facilities to end the use of solitary confinement for juveniles, pregnant women, and people with serious and persistent mental illness, except in the rarest of circumstances,” Durbin stated.
The opening remarks effectively set the agenda for the entire hearing, which featured witnesses hand-picked by Durbin’s staff — in consultation, he said, with Ranking Member Ted Cruz. In the 2012 hearing, Durbin had grilled BOP Director Charles Samuels on a wide range of issues related to solitary. This time he commended Samuels for cooperating with an “independent” audit of the BOP’s use of “restricted housing.”
Durbin asked Samuels about children (there are only 62 in the federal system, and 1 in restricted housing); mental health treatment (ADX now has 5 mental health staff treating 413 isolated prisoners, instead of 2, and they also have access to a “telepsychiatrist”); and pregnant women (women in restricted housing are rare, presently numbering only 197). Durbin did not question Samuels’ contention that individuals in long-term isolation receive “intensive treatment” and “adequate time out of their cells for recreational time.”
In friendly conversation with Texas Republican Ted Cruz, Samuels pointed to a decrease in the Bureau of Prisons’ use of isolation. “Since the hearing in 2012,” he said, “we have reduced the restricted housing population by over 25 percent. Within the last year, we have gone from 13.5 percent to 6.5 percent.” (The numbers do not come close to computing, and the BOP did not immediately respond to Solitary Watch’s request for clarification.) Samuels also contended that “94 percent of the inmates within our system have no mental illness,” and only 555 federal prisoners had serious mental illness requiring “intensive treatment.” Samuels did not say how many of the 555 were in restricted housing, and no one asked.
In federal facilities, then, the total number of individuals in solitary who fall into the categories Durbin identified — children, pregnant women, and people with “serious and persistent mental illness” — is no more than a few hundred. This in a prison system where, according to its own director, close to 14,000 people are in some form of isolation.
On the other hand, Samuels told Cruz, there remain a lot of dangerous prisoners in the system who justify the use of solitary. “We have over 20,000 gang members in our system. They are watching this hearing, they are watching our testimony very, very closely, for the reason being if they see that we will lower our standards… it puts our staff at risk, it puts other inmates at risk.”
The BOP director’s only challenging exchange took place with Minnesota Democrat Al Franken, when the Minnesota Democrat asked him the size of “an average cell in solitary confinement.” After stuttering and prevaricating, Samuels shrugged and guessed “6 by 4″ — an area smaller than a full-sized bed. (The actual dimensions are 7′ x 10′, closer to the size of an elevator.) It was a YouTube moment, embarrassing for the BOP. But in general, Samuels had acquitted himself well under softball questioning by subcommittee members.
The panel of expert witnesses, too, seemed designed to support the agenda of the day, and lacked the intensity of the panel at the 2012 hearing. Rick Raemisch, the Colorado prisons director who recently distinguished himself by spending a night in solitary and writing about it in the New York Times, looked highly enlightened compared with most prison officials. He declared solitary confinement to be “overused, misused, and abused,” and said he had cut Colorado’s use of administrative segregation in half.
Orange Is the New Black author Piper Kerman briefed the subcommittee on the use of solitary “to intimidate women who are being sexually abused by staff.” It is “a powerful disincentive to ask for help or justice,” she said. Prison Fellowship president Craig DeRoche focused on another vulnerable population: “Our jails have become our country’s mental health units” he said, and prisons should take steps to “reduce the use of segregation,” especially on people with mental illness. Marc Levin, director at the Texas Public Policy Foundation and a progenitor of Right on Crime, spoke of the need to “shine a light upon the most restrictive areas of government control,” and suggested several sensible but tepid reforms to reduce the use of solitary for “those who commit minor violations behind bars.”
Only Damon Thibodeaux, who spent 15 years on death row in Louisiana’s Angola prison before being exonerated, took an uncompromising position on the use of solitary confinement. The soft-spoken Thibodeaux talked about the mental and physical suffering of life in solitary, the hopelessness that had led him to consider suicide. “I can see no reason to subject anyone to this type of existence, no matter how certain we are that they are guilty of a horrible crime, and are among the worst of the worst.” Thibodeaux alone suggested that there could be alternatives to extreme isolation even for people who might need to be separated from the general population. He referenced his religious faith, and was the only witness to use the word torture:
I do not condone what those who have killed and committed other serious offenses have done, but I also don’t condone what we do to them when we put them in solitary for years on end and treat them as subhuman. We are better than that. As a civilized society, we should be better than that. I would like to believe that the vast majority of the people in the United States would be appalled if they knew what we are doing to inmates in solitary confinement and understood that we are torturing them, for reasons that have little, if anything, to do with protecting other inmates or prison guards from them.
Questioning the witnesses, Ted Cruz cut to the core of what he called “an issue that raises complicated issues.” Many people, Cruz said “would think that solitary confinement, particularly for an extended period of time, is not an appropriate punishment for relatively minor infractions, but could well be a necessary tool for the most violent inmates.” He asked the same question of all five witnesses: “Is there an appropriate role for solitary confinement, is there a need for it, and in what circumstances if at all?” All answered with qualified affirmatives, though Thibodeaux again distinguished himself by arguing for more humane treatment — including more human contact — for the few who might need to live in segregation.
Cruz, and all of the senators, made a point of offering special thanks to Thibodeaux for the courage it took for him to survive his ordeal and talk about it publicly. Yet during his decade and a half in extreme isolation, Thibodeaux, who at the time was presumed to be a murderer and one of the “worst of the worst,” would not have qualified for a single one of the “reforms” discussed at the hearing. That fact alone should lend weight to his plea for all people in prison to be free from the torture of solitary confinement.
The post Way Down in the Hole: Senate Hearing Challenges Solitary Confinement for Some, But Not All appeared first on Solitary Watch.
This post is the third in a series of pieces Solitary Watch is publishing as part of a new project calling for people held in solitary confinement to write on various proposed themes (read the first and second entries here and here). Our first suggested theme, “A Day in the Life,” calls for writers to describe a day in his or her life in solitary confinement.
Not long ago, Joseph Dole, occasional contributor to Solitary Watch, kept a daily log in which he chronicles three weeks of his life in solitary confinement in the now-closed Tamms state supermax as part of the Anne Frank Prison Diary Project. The following is an excerpt of what he wrote. The full text can be found on the Real Cost of Prisons Project, which maintains an excellent collection of writing by people behind bars. –Lisa Dawson
I’m really getting started late today. I just got out of bed about fifteen minutes ago and only got about five hours of sleep. Five interrupted hours of sleep though as Yip and Yap were sporadically going at it all night. These guys drive me nuts but I get along with both of them and try to understand that not only are they clearly mentally ill, but also that a lot of what they do are clear symptoms of what is commonly referred to as “SHU Syndrome” (Secure Housing Unit Syndrome) and what we call Tamms Syndrome.
What cracks me up is that they are completely oblivious as to how much they disturb the rest of the wing. They were screaming at each other in the middle of the night and in the wee hours of the morning and thirty seconds after they stop one of them calmly calls me as if nothing has been going on, and asks me to spell a word for him – at five in the morning, when I know at least two other guys are trying to sleep.
Most days I feel like “information”, you know, when you call “411”? Or nowadays I guess it’s more like “Ask Jeeves”. Instead I’m like “Cell Seven how may I help you?”. All day every day guys are calling up here asking me to help them with stuff, or to ask me questions, or to look something up, etc. Some days I just have to tell everyone to stay off my door. Otherwise I’ll never be able to finish what I need to finish.
One guy – Yip, one of the screamers – I have to intentionally be rude to for him to leave me alone. If I don’t he will try and start a thousand conversations just so he can have something to do. He can’t read past like a first grade level. The only genre that holds his attention long enough to even make him try to read are books about street life or erotic novels. He has so little knowledge about nearly every subject imaginable that the majority of his questions are completely illogical and even when they are coherent enough for you to understand them you need to explain a hundred other things first. The whole time though he’s not really interested in the conversation. He just wants to hear someone talk. Whenever the conversation starts winding down he’ll ask another question which usually has no connection to what you were talking about, or just as often evidences that he didn’t listen to anything you just said.
Why does he do it? Because he’s in his cell with no TV, no radio, uneducated, and can’t read or write to pass the time. So his choice is usually to try and get someone to talk to him or scream at Yap his nemesis. He is so desperate to talk to anyone that he drives the guards crazy hitting the emergency intercom button, stops the guards every time they come on the wing every half hour to make rounds (to make sure no one escaped or that no one else has killed themselves) and every time he sees anyone come on the pod he screams at the top of his lungs, all to try to get them to come talk to him. Why they put him in cell #1 (the only cell that can see everything that happens out in the main area of the pod) is beyond me. They hate him screaming for people yet put him in the only cell that gives him a view to even know that someone has entered the pod. He knows every employee in the institution and nearly every mundane detail of their personal lives. The car they drive, which of their family members work for the IDOC, who they’re dating, married to, etc.
I went off on a tangent again. Back to feeling like “Ask Jeeves”. For the next few hours I’m going to log every time someone calls up here and asks me for help or information. There are only eight guys on this wing altogether. One, Yap, is completely antisocial. The only time he has talked to anyone in the past month was when screaming or cussing out another guy. (Yip). Anyway I’ll start by recording what has already happened:
Cell #1 – Asks me if I know what the temperature will be today.
Cell #1 – Asks me how to spell the word “gave”.
Cell #1 – Tries to start a conversation. I tell him it’s too early for that.
Cell #6 – Asks me what time it is.
Cell #1 – Asks me what’s going on in Liberia (He pronounces it Libreria, but actually means Libya).
8:30 AM – 9:45 AM (while taking a shower):
Cell #6 – Asks me how to calculate compound interest.
Cell #1 – Asks me, if “technically” is spelled t,e,m,e,r,i,t,y. He’s looking at “temerity” in the dictionary. It takes me five minutes to try and figure out what he’s actually looking at though because what he actually asks is “Is ‘technically’ spelled e,t,t,e,r,t,e,m,r,t,y?”
I say “no”. He’s obviously dyslexic. Instead of trying to teach him to read to even minimally prepare him for release next year, the administration would rather deny him any education and send him out as an illiterate 41-year-old parolee.
Cell #2 – Asks me if I know of any legal cases that show that if your defense attorney argues to the jury that you should be found guilty – that that constitutes ineffective assistance of counsel.
Cell # 8 – Asks me about a new case that says Miranda rights can be curtailed for terrorism suspects.
Cell #1 – Asks me about electronic filing in federal court.
Cell #1 – Asks me about jurisdiction.
Cell #3 – Asks me about constitutional issues for a Post-Conviction Petition.
Cell #2 – Asks me to look up cases for him.
Cell #2 – asks me to look up a statute for him and explain part of it. etc. etc, etc. Some days this is normal, some days it is much worse. Once in a while an anomaly occurs and no one calls me all day. I love those days!
• Federal investigators have determined that the state of Pennsylvania violated both the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment and the American with Disabilities Act, by placing people with mental illness and intellectual disabilities in isolation in state prisons. U.S. Attorney David J. Hickton said, “Pennsylvania’s unconstitutional use of solitary confinement on prisoners with serious mental health illness victimizes one of the most vulnerable groups in our society. We remain vigilant in protecting the constitutional rights of all of our citizens, particularly those with intellectual disabilities and serious mental illness.”
• Nine Illinois legislators toured Pontiac Correctional Center, a maximum-security facility that houses about 2,000 individuals.
• The Center for Investigative Reporting published a new multimedia piece on teens in solitary confinement, focusing on New York’s Rikers Island.
• In New York Magazine, Benjamin Wallace-Wells narrated the story behind last year’s 30,000-strong hunger strike at Pelican Bay Prison, describing the four men who initiated the strike and how they organized it.
• Aeon published a long-form piece examining the existing scientific evidence that solitary confinement damages the brain.
• Andrew Cohen of The Atlantic called on readers to be more critical of Colorado Department of Corrections Director Rick Raemisch, who last week published an op-ed in the New York Times about the torturous night he spent in solitary confinement. Cohen uses two cases studies to explore how Colorado’s recent reforms fall short of what is necessary.
• The ACLU launched a petition asking Secretary of State John Kerry to grant a request made by UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Méndez to visit U.S. prisons, and in particular solitary confinement units.
• Last week’s Senate Committee hearing, “Reassessing Solitary Confinement II”, was covered by a wide variety of outlets, including Democracy Now, MSNBC, the Huffington Post, Esquire, the Washington Post and NPR. PBS interviewed members of the faith-based coalition that hosted the morning’s press conference. You can watch the entire hearing here.
• Mother Jones and In These Times covered the recent NYCLU settlement with the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, with both outlets musing whether the move signaled the beginning of a broader shift in policy.
The following post is a chapter from an unpublished book by Mary Buser, who worked in various capacities in the mental health system on Rikers Island. In Buser’s own words: “I worked in the Rikers Mental Health Department as a psychiatric social worker for five and a half years, leaving Rikers in 2000. I started off as a student intern in the island’s sole women’s jail…[and] returned to Rikers to work in a maximum security men’s jail…[then] was promoted to assistant chief of Mental Health in another jail, where I supervised treatment to the island’s most severely mentally ill inmates. From there, I was transferred to my fourth and final jail, which was connected to the “Central Punitive Segregation Unit,” aka, the Bing. Here, I supervised a mental health team in treating inmates held in solitary confinement–determining whether or not someone warranted a temporary reprieve based on the likelihood of a completed suicide. Although I had become disillusioned with the criminal justice system, the Bing was my Rikers undoing. The final section of my manuscript is focused on my daily trips to the Bing, the inmates who occupied these cells, and my struggle to justify doing this work.” Names have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals involved in the episodes Buser describes.
As jails have come to replace psychiatric hospitals as repositories for people with mental illness, Rikers become one of the nation’s largest inpatient mental health centers (second only to the L.A. County Jail). A disproportionate number of these psychiatrically disabled individuals end up in solitary confinement, doing “Bing time” for rule infractions precipitated by their illness. Buser’s account of her time overseeing treatment in “the Bing” is of particular interest now, when years of activism by the Jails Action Coalition and two scathing reports commissioned by the New York City Board of Correction have finally spurred efforts to reduce the use of solitary and improve mental health treatment on Rikers. These efforts have thusfar yielded at best mixed results. –James Ridgeway
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
At the end of a long cinderblock corridor, a guard in an elevated booth passes the time with a paperback book. Across from the booth, a barred gate cordons off a dim passageway. Along the passageway wall are the words: CENTRAL PUNITIVE SEGREGATION UNIT.
The guard looks up as I approach, and nods. As acting chief of “Mental Health,” I’m a regular over here at the “Bing” – an unlikely nickname for this five-story tower of nothing but solitary cells — 100 of them on each floor. Designed for Rikers Island’s most recalcitrant inmates, the occupants of these cells have been pulled out of general population for fighting, weapons possession, disobeying orders, assault on staff. The guards refer to them as “the baddest of the bad” – “the worst of the worst.” I’m not so sure about that.
The guard throws a switch and the barred gate shudders and starts opening. Around a bend, I step into an elevator car. Since the problem inmate is on the third floor, I hold up three fingers to a corner camera, waiting to be spotted on a TV monitor. This is no ordinary elevator — no buttons to push here, likely engineered for some security purpose. The sweaty little box starts lifting, and as the muffled wails of the punished echo through, my stomach tightens — the way it does every time I’m called over here, which is often. Solitary confinement is punishment taken to the extreme, inducing the bleakest of depression, plunging despair, and terrifying hallucinations. The Mental Health Department looms large in a solitary unit – doling out anti-depressants, anti-psychotics, and mountains of sleeping pills. If these inmates had no mental health issues before they entered solitary, they do now. But even the most potent medications reach only so far, and when they can no longer hold a person’s psyche together – when human behavior deteriorates into frantic scenes of self-mutilation and makeshift nooses – we’re called to a cell door.
The elevator rattles open on the third floor. Ahead, a foreboding window separates two plain doors, each one leading onto a 50-cell wing. Behind the window, correctional staff hover over paperwork. A logbook is thrust out, I sign it, and point to the door on the left, ‘3 South.’ When the knob buzzes, I pull the door open and step into what feels like a furnace. A long cement floor is lined with gray steel doors that face each other – twenty-five on one side, twenty-five on the other. Each door has a small window at the top, and on the bottom, a flap for food trays.
At the far end, Dr. Diaz and Pete Majors are waiting for me. I hesitate for a moment, dreading the walk through the gauntlet of misery. The smell of vomit and feces hangs in the hot, thick air. Bracing myself, I start past the doors, trying to stay focused on my colleagues. Still, I can see their faces – dark-skinned, young – pressed up against the cell windows, eyes wild with panic. “Miss! Help! Please, Miss!!” They bang and slap the doors, sweaty palms sliding down the windows. “We’re dying in here, Miss – we’re dying!” Resisting my natural instinct to rush to their aid, I keep going, reminding myself that there’s a reason they’re in here – that they’ve done something to warrant this punishment. The guards, themselves sweat-soaked and agitated, amble from cell to cell, pounding the doors with their fists, spinning around and kicking them with boot heels — “SHUT—THE FUCK– UPPP!!”
I keep going. Dr. Diaz, a silver-haired psychiatrist, greets me with a weak smile. Pointing to a door that’s slightly ajar, he says, “We got a head basher.” He hands me the inmate’s chart. The label on the manila folder reads ‘Troy Jackson.’ “He’s been going downhill for a while now,” Diaz explains. “I’ve upped his meds, changed them– we’ve talked to him — but at this point, we’re out of options.”
“He’s been in for two months now,” says Pete Majors, the lanky therapist who works with Diaz. “With three more to go.”
I wince at the length of punishment. Two entire months spent inside an eight by nine foot cell – just enough room to pace back and forth — about the only activity the cramped quarters allow. No phone, no TV, with one hour of “rec” – which amounts to a shackled walk to an outdoor cage to stand alone and glimpse the sky. Although the maximum punishment for any single infraction is ninety days, there’s nothing to stop the infraction tickets from piling up, which is apparently what’s happened in this case.
“All right, let me talk to him,” I say, with some vague hope of dispensing calming words that might enable Troy Jackson to hang on a little while longer.
The guard pulls open the creaking door and steps back. Inside, a black youth stands trembling, beads of sweat dripping from his chin. He’s barely out of his teens. Behind him, a little mesh-covered window transforms the day’s brilliance into grayness. A dingy sheet is strewn across a cot; across from it is a tiny metal sink and toilet. “Please miss, please,” he whispers. “Help me…”
For a moment, Troy Jackson and I stare at one another. In his jeans and tee-shirt, he looks no different from every other kid on the street. With his wiry youthful frame, I can easily picture him shooting basketballs on a city playground, or bounding up subway steps headed for school. Instead, he’s trapped inside a cement box on Rikers Island. As his eyes plead with mine, blood seeps through his scalp, running down behind his ears. How could his young life have derailed this badly? I feel a clutch in my throat and my mind starts swirling back to my more familiar days on Rikers, when I would have worked with him, listened to his story, helped him to find a better path for himself. But my days as an upbeat therapist are already feeling like something from a distant past. As a newly appointed administrator, I remind myself that I’m not here to get to know Troy Jackson, or even to find out why he’s in solitary. I’m here to make sure of exactly one thing — that he remains alive. “Mr. Jackson, I’d like..”
“I can’t..” he interrupts. “I’m telling you– I can’t. Please, Miss…please. I’m begging you.. I’m begging…”
The blood is trickling down into his eyes, and I realize that we’re well beyond any therapeutic dialogue. “Okay – just give me a minute here, okay?”
Pete, Dr. Diaz and I huddle to the side of the cell, once again finding ourselves at a familiar miserable impasse. Although we have the authority to provide temporary relief in these situations, doing so is hardly a cut-and-dried matter. In the outside world, someone banging his head would be treated with a sense of urgency and alarm. But in here it’s different. Behind bars — and especially in the Bing — these drastic acts are common, and the Mental Health Department is under fierce pressure to not give in to the inmates’ goal of a reprieve from solitary. When I arrived here a few weeks ago, one piece of advice summed it up – “If you authorize the release of every inmate who cuts himself, bangs his head, or fashions a noose — you’ll wind up with 500 empty cells.”
Of course, it’s also up to us to make sure that nobody actually dies. I’m still comprehending the reality of my new job, but it’s already clear that it entails walking the thinnest of a tightrope.
The question we now have to ask ourselves is if the breaking point has truly been reached. If we agree that death or severe injury is likely, then Troy Jackson will be bussed to a smaller more specialized unit in another jail down the road. The bus-ride alone seems to offer the isolation-weary inmate enormous relief. We call it “bus therapy.” Once he’s a little better, though, he’ll be shipped right back here to complete his sentence. Like the weary swimmer treading water but starting to go under, he’ll be pulled out to catch his breath, and then thrown back in. I can’t help but feel that this has the earmarks of torture. But I brush the word from my mind. After all, I live in a civilized country that prohibits such things. Besides, I’m still new to this post and there must be something about this punishment that I’m missing. Although frankly, I’m hard pressed to figure out what it could be.
Dr. Diaz mops his forehead with a bandana. “Medical can stitch him up,” he says, “but if we put him back in, he’ll just tear out the stitches — smash his skull right open – I’m sure of it.”
“If we let him out,” says Pete, “we’re going to get copycats, but if we don’t, this is only going to get worse.”
As acting chief, they look to me for a final answer. I want to give this kid a break, and am just relieved that these two veterans of punitive segregation seem to want the same. “I don’t think we can let this go any further,” I say. “If somebody else tries the same thing, we’ll just have to deal with it.”
“Agreed,” says Dr. Diaz.
“Listen,” Pete says. “We better do something quick.”
A loud moan comes from Jackson’s cell, and we rush back in just as the young man’s head thuds against the concrete. Blood is freely spilling now, the gash in his scalp revealing a patch of glinting whiteness.
“Please, Mr. Jackson,” I say. “We’re trying to help you. We’re going to get you out. Just give us a chance here! Troy, please!”
But Troy Jackson, beyond words, crumples to the floor.
“You’re coming out,” says Dr. Diaz, leaning over him. “It’s over –it’s over now!”
“Cap–tain!” the guard shouts. “We got one comin’ out.”
Dr. Diaz and Pete will resume their rounds, while I start back down to the clinic to begin the mountain of paperwork that this transfer requires. On my way out, I move quickly past the cells, past the clamoring fists and pleading palms. In a day or two, we’ll be standing at any one of these other doors, faced with another scene of human desperation. Most won’t be as lucky as Jackson. For most, we simply offer words of encouragement and walk away, deeming them not yet decompensated enough to warrant the bus trip out. I try not to think about it. One day at a time.
On the ground floor, the big barred gate is inching open to allow a new shift of guards to enter. I hustle through, eager to get out. Wending through cooler corridors, I walk alongside GP inmates who are headed to work details and the Law Library. Passing by the jail’s main entryway booth, guards glance up and wave. In some ways it’s almost pleasant. I manage a weak smile and with a quivering hand, I wave back, all the while struggling to blot out the image of Troy Jackson’s skull.
The post Doing “Bing Time”: Memories of a Mental Health Worker in Rikers Island’s Solitary Confinement Unit appeared first on Solitary Watch.
According to reports this morning from inside the U.S. Penitentiary, Administrative Maximum Facility (ADX) in Florence, CO, eight to nine people held in the super-secret H-Unit are on hunger strike and are being force-fed. While run by the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), the unit has strong FBI involvement in its management.
In November of last year, Solitary Watch published a court document compiled for Ayyah v. Holder, a civil action filed in a federal district court in Colorado. The document was a declaration by Mahmud Abouhalima, who received a 240-year sentence upon being convicted of taking part in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. After serving some time in general population prisons within the federal system, Abouhalima landed in H-Unit at ADX, the federal government’s only supermax prison.
In his declaration, Abouhalima challenges his confinement on the grounds that it violates his constitutional right to due process. He also claims the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is heavily involved in managing H-Unit, with its authority overriding that of BOP administrative staff. By law, the FBI is not authorized to run prisons in the U.S.
The BOP’s internal audit of its own solitary operations – now underway – specifically exempts H-Unit from firsthand visits by its investigative team.
Below are excerpts from Abouhalima’s court declaration:
Since September 11, 2001, through today, I have been in administrative detention and faced brutal and systematic mental, spiritual, and psychological cruelty. I never believed that such an unusual punishment would be extended up until today, where I have lived in a prison cell for the last ten years that is the size of a closet. I am fed like a zoo animal through a slot in the door, and manacled and chained at the hands, waist, and legs when I leave the cell. A black box with heavy lock is placed on top of my wrist chains in addition to this when I am escorted out of the unit, like to the hospital or to a visit…
Sitting in a small box in a walking distance of eight feet, this little hole becomes my world, my dining room, reading and writing area, sleeping, walking, urinating, and defecating. I am virtually living in a bathroom, and this concept has never left my mind in ten years. The toilet only works if you flush it once every five minutes, so if I press the flush button twice by mistake, I have to wait for up to an hour, with the smell of urine and defecation still there, everywhere I go, sit, stand, or sleep.
Read the entire declaration here.
The post ADX H-Unit on Hunger Strike, Prisoners Being Force-Fed appeared first on Solitary Watch.
This post is the second in a series of pieces Solitary Watch is publishing as part of a new project calling for people held in solitary confinement to write on various proposed themes. As mentioned in our introduction to this series, our first suggested theme, “A Day in the Life,” calls for writers to describe a day in his or her life in solitary confinement.
The following comes from Steven Jay Russell, 56, who is currently serving a 144-year sentence at the all-solitary Allan B. Polunsky Unit in Texas. Notorious for masterminding four successful, non-violent escapes from Texas correctional facilities, his story is recounted in the movie I Love You Phillip Morris. Russell, who has been held in administrative segregation for the last 17 years, is the first person in U.S. history to receive a life sentence for prison escapes. –Lisa Dawson
Greetings from the Polunsky Zoo! A day in my life within this concrete box known as solitary will probably bore you. However, I kept track of my activity on December 27th and it will be listed below.
Friday, December 27, 2013
4:45 a.m. My alarm clock starts beeping. I get up from the bunk, brush my teeth, wash my face, then fill up my hot pot (electric hot water pot) with water and four bags of tea. This will yield two 12 oz. glasses of tea when complete.
5:00 a.m. – 7:00 a.m. I listen to Morning Edition on KUHA radio (Houston Public Radio). By 6 a.m., I refill the hot pot with water and teabags and do a repeat which yields my third and fourth glass of tea. I sweeten the tea with Splenda and one atomic fireball piece of candy in each glass. The glass is plastic. ; )
5:30 a.m. First shift begins. The lead guard working on the floor will come to all of the cells on my pod and ask whether or not we want to shower or recreate in one of the cages. As usual, I decline the opportunity to appear in the cage in exchange for an early shower.
7:10 a.m. – 7:40 a.m. I’m escorted to the shower. The shower stall is large enough for one man to fit comfortably. A metal door with a small (4″x4″) plexiglass window and slot (so that I can be cuffed from behind with hand restraints) is closed and locked for the duration of my shower. There are 12 1/8″ holes drilled into the plexiglass so that air can get into the stall. I never stop showering until the guards come back to get me out of the shower. Otherwise, I be sweating due to the heat.
8:00 a.m. I prepare my own breakfast using food purchased from the prison store I’ll either prepare oatmeal and powdered milk or frosted mini-wheats with powdered milk. The TDCJ breakfast is served at 1:40-2:30 a.m. every day. I’m trying to sleep at that hour in the morning.
At 6:30 a.m. and 10:50 p.m., we must present our TDCJ photo identification cards to the guards for a roster count. I’m required to appear at my cell door. It’s a bit difficult to be awake at 10:50 p.m. and from 1:40-2:30 a.m. for breakfast. The breakfast is served at an inconvenient time to discourage participation. That way, the state can save money due to a lack of involvement.
8:30 a.m. – 9:00 a.m. I clean my cell and handwash my boxers, shorts, socks, and towel. Anything coming from the laundry is always filthy. If you want something clean, you do it yourself. I hang everything on the clothesline in my cell to dry. I also wash my own sheets.
9:00 a.m. – 10:00 a.m. I listen to the first hour of the Diane Rehm Show on National Public Radio.
9:30 a.m. Lunch arrives. Since the food is always cold, I placed the ground beef, green beans, macaroni noodles<<separated from the beef and thrown in the toilet, carrots, and chop potato in the insert of my hot pot. In two hours, everything will be nice and hot. I’ll improvise later and add some stuff from the prison store to make everything taste better. Stay tuned for the recipe.
10:00 a.m. – 11:00 a.m. Daily devotions and prayer. I also spend part of this time working on my Bible Correspondence Course from the Crossroad Bible Institute.
11:00 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. I read Section A of the New York Times National Edition newspaper. It’s worth the $71.45 per month paid due to the thoroughness of their articles. I live for details. Brief articles drive me crazy whenever the topics are important.
12:30 p.m. – 1:15 p.m. I prepare my lunch. In a large white bowl, I pour the contents from the insert (hot pot). I add a Nissin Top Ramen chili noodle soup, some dehydrated onion flakes, a speck of garlic powder, slices of jalapeno pepper, and some crunched up saltine crackers to my plain TDCJ food items that have been getting hot with about 1 1/2 cups of the hot water. Now, I have a real meal! For dessert, I fix a piece of Pecan Pie that was sold to me by the prison store on December 20th. All of the ingredients are sold on the prison commissary. Enclosed is a price list with all of the items available.
1:15 p.m. – 2:30 p.m. I finish reading the newspaper and work the crossword puzzle.
2:30 p.m. – 5:00 p.m. I read The Nation magazine and The New Republic. I also read three letters that were received on Thursday night. Outbound mail is picked up by the guards Monday-Friday at 5 a.m. Inbound mail is passed out by the guards from 7 p.m. to midnight or whenever they get the inspiration to do their job.
5:00 p.m. Supper is served. I do a repeat and place only the vegetables in the hot pot. I also dump a pouch of chunky white chicken meat with broth into the insert. When everything gets hot, I’ll make chicken tacos.
5:30 p.m. 2nd shift begins. The guards work 4 days on (12 hours each day) with 4 days off. Due to staff shortages, most of the guards are now working six, 12-hour days with two days off.
5:00 p.m. – 6:30 p.m. I read a few chapters from the book, How the Mind Works by Steven Pinker.
6:30 p.m. – 7:00 p.m. I listen to Marketplace on National Public Radio. The program gives a recap of daily business news and market results.
7:00 p.m. – 7:30 p.m. I listen to Turning Point with Dr. David Jeremiah on American Family Radio Network.
7:30 p.m. – 8:00 p.m. I listen to Dr. Ed Young, Pastor, Second Baptist Church of Houston. While listening to Dr. Young, I prepare my chicken tacos and eat supper.
8:00 p.m. – 9:30 p.m. I listen to classical music on KUHA radio. At some point during that time, I fell asleep. Had to get a start because the guards will wake me to pass out the mail later and do their identification roster check.
• A high-profile hearing on solitary confinement will be held on Tuesday, February 25, by the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights, chaired by Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin. Moved to a larger room due to expected high turnout, the hearing will take place at 2:30 in Room 216 of the Hart Senate Office Building. Those testifying include survivors of solitary, advocates, and corrections officials. Check back later in the week for a report on the hearing and an archive of written testimony.
• After more than 22 consecutive years in solitary confinement, Russell Maroon Shoatz, widely considered a political prisoner, was released into general population at State Correctional Institution (SCI) Graterford in Pennsylvania.
• In The New York Times, Rick Raemisch, the executive director of the Colorado Department of Corrections, describes what it was like to spend a night in solitary confinement: “I felt as if I’d been there for days. I sat with my mind. How long would it take before Ad Seg chipped that away? I don’t know, but I’m confident that it would be a battle I would lose.”
• The U.S. Department of Justice and Department of Education have filed statements in support of an on-going class action lawsuit filed against country authorities in Contra Costa, California. Last August, Berkley-based Disability Rights Advocates sued the county’s Probation Department and Office of Education in an effort to hold them responsible for placing young people with disabilities and mental illness in solitary confinement at Martinez Juvenile Hall.
• In the Chicago Tribune, columnist and editorial board member Steve Chapman writes about “the high toll of solitary confinement.” The libertarian Chapman writes: “Politicians may be disinclined to worry about the use of extreme isolation, much less to take action to improve the treatment of criminals. But there are at least two good reasons for the law-abiding citizenry to care…The first is cost…The second reason is that most of these inmates won’t be incarcerated forever. The vast majority will be released back into society. Extreme isolation is about the worst possible training for living and working peaceably among others.”
• Last Saturday the state of Maine marked the opening of the Intensive Mental Health Unit at Maine State Prison. A psychologist at the unit explained that individuals incarcerated in Maine would now be given better treatment. “This a recovery place. The expectation is you will get better.” The unit was constructed in the part of the prison that had been formerly used as a special management unit.
• The New York Times released an editorial in support of the recently announced reforms to solitary confinement in New York State spurred by an NYCLU lawsuit. The changes received widespread coverage, including in WYNC and elsewhere.
• A Center for Investigate Reporting story was featured on PBS on the “Newshour,” covering the placement youth in solitary. The story focused on the large number of adolescents in solitary confinement on New York’s Rikers Island.
• CNN covered last week’s annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, where solitary confinement survivor Robert King and several experts testified about the psychological and physical effects of long-term isolation.
Under pressure from a lawsuit brought by the New York Civil Liberties Union on behalf of three people held in long-term solitary confinement, New York has agreed to a set of changes to its use of solitary and other forms of extreme isolation in state prisons. The agreement, announced on Wednesday, would bar certain vulnerable populations from isolated confinement, while for the first time setting firm guidelines and maximum durations for isolating others.
New York currently holds some 3,800 men, women, and children in 23-hour-a-day isolation in small, sometime windowless cells, either alone or with one other person. “The conditions inside New York’s isolation cells are deplorable and result in severe physical and psychological harm,” stated the original complaint in Peoples v. Fischer, filed in Federal District Court in Manhattan in December 2012. The complaint, which charges the state with violating the plaintiffs’ Constitutional rights under the 8th and 14th Amendments, continues:
Individuals are confined idle and isolated for months and years on end in tiny cells. They are allowed only one hour of exercise a day in barren cages smaller than their cell. As additional punishment, prison staff may issue orders depriving individuals of what little remains—access to nourishing and edible food, exercise, bedding, and showers may all be denied. At some prisons, two men are forced to share a single isolation cell for weeks and months on end, often leading to violence. Requests for mental health care must be discussed through the food slot in the cell door.
People are placed in isolation on the word of corrections staff, who issue tens of thousands of disciplinary “tickets” each year that result in time in the state’s numerous Special Housing Units (SHUs) or its two supermax prisons. Five out of six tickets are for nonviolent misbehavior, according to a 2012 report by the NYCLU, and disciplinary hearings are at best pro forma. The average SHU sentence is five months, but many extend for years and a few have stretched to decades. UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Méndez has stated that solitary confinement beyond two weeks is cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment, and often qualifies as torture.
The most dramatic reform brought about by the agreement between the state and the NYCLU is a ban on using solitary to discipline youth under the age of 18, which makes New York the largest state in the nation to prohibit the practice for juveniles in state prisons. In New York, 16 and 17 year olds accused of a felony are automatically tried and incarcerated as adults, and large numbers have ended up in the SHUs, sometimes for “their own protection.” Under the new deal, juveniles with serious disciplinary violations would be would be placed in special units with more out-of-cell time and special programming.
The agreement also bans placing pregnant women in solitary, and sets a 30-day limit on isolating people with developmental disabilities. A 2007 court settlement and a law enacted in 2011 already prohibit the use of isolated confinement for people with serious mental illness. Since the passage of the SHU Exclusion Act, several hundred people have been moved from solitary into special Residential Mental Health Units (though evidence suggests that hundreds of others remain isolated in spite of mental illness, largely due to issues around diagnosis).
“It made sense to immediately remove these vulnerable populations from extreme isolation,” Taylor Pendergrass, the NYCLU’s lead attorney in the suit, told Solitary Watch. “But in the longer term, we believe this process will bring about more comprehensive reforms that will affect many more people.” Those reforms will come, in large part, in the form of “sentencing guidelines” that designate punishments for different disciplinary infractions, and for the first time set maximum sentences in the SHU. The negotiated guidelines are covered by a confidentiality agreement until staff can be trained and the new rules put in place–a process that should take no more than nine months, Pendergrass said.
The deal also calls for New York State and the NYCLU to each choose an expert who will assess the use of isolated confinement throughout the prison system over the next two years and make further recommendations for change. The state has selected James Austin, a widely known expert on “prisoner classification” whose report to the Colorado Department of Corrections led to a reduction in the numbers of individuals held in long-term solitary in that state.
The NYCLU has chosen as its expert Eldon Vail, former head of the Washington State Department of Corrections. Vail has said publicly that solitary confinement produces “disastrous results.” He is known for conducting studies and programs in Washington’s state prisons aimed at not only reducing the use of solitary, but also tempering its effects by providing programming, therapy, and group activities for those separated from the general prison population. “He knows that treatment works better than torture,” Pendergrass said of Vail. “He is a pioneer in evidence-based approaches to prison safety and security, which do not include extreme isolation and sensory deprivation.”
The choices suggest that while the state is on board for some modest reductions in the numbers of people it holds in solitary and the length of time they spend there, the NYCLU envisions more sweeping change, which would eliminate the total isolation of solitary confinement in favor of a more rehabilitative model. In this, it is aligned with other reform efforts in the New York, including a bill introduced last month in the state legislature that aims to “fundamental transform” how prisons respond to people’s “needs and behaviors” by replacing SHUs with “Residential Rehabilitation Units.”
These more comprehensive reforms could help one group that is not affected by the current rounds of changes–those held in “administrative segregation” rather than “disciplinary segregation.” These include individuals who are classified as safety risks and sometimes spend decades in solitary confinement. Among these is William Blake, who has spent more than 26 years in isolation and whose essay on life in the SHU, ”A Sentence Worse Than Death,” was published by Solitary Watch last year.
In the meantime, Pendergrass expects there will be some who feel the current deal goes too far, just as others believe it does not go far enough. He did not specify where the “pushback” is likely to come from. But in the past, correctional officers unions have generally been strong opponent of any restrictions on the use of solitary confinement.
In a statement to the New York Times, the New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association said of the new agreement: “Today’s disciplinary confinement policies have evolved over decades of experience, and it is simply wrong to unilaterally take the tools away from law enforcement officers who face dangerous situations on a daily basis. Any policy changes must prioritize the safety and security of everyone who works or lives in these institutions.”
The NYCLU’s lawsuit is on hold while Austin and Vail complete their work. If the group–and its incarcerated clients–are not satisfied with the results, the litigation may resume. Meanwhile, the three named plaintiffs in the suit–Leroy Peoples, Dwayne Richardson, and Tonja Fenton–have all been released to the general population from the SHUs. “Life in the box stripped me of my dignity, and made me feel like a chained dog,” Peoples said in 2012. The lawsuit that bears his name promises to spare many others the same suffering.
The post Lawsuit Secures New Limits on Solitary Confinement in New York’s Prisons appeared first on Solitary Watch.
This post is the first in a series of pieces Solitary Watch will be publishing for a new project calling for people held in solitary confinement to write on various proposed themes. For these pieces, Solitary Watch periodically suggests a specific theme for regular project participants to reflect on in their writings. For each individual topic, we will post several entries, each featuring the work of man or woman held in isolation. Our first theme suggestion calls for participants to describe a day in his or her life in solitary confinement.
The following response comes from Sarah Jo Pender, 34, who is currently 13 years into a 110-year sentence at the Indiana Women’s Prison on the far west side of Indianapolis for escaping from prison in 2008, at which time she was placed in solitary confinement. Last week, Solitary Watch received word that, after spending over five years in isolation, Pender was recently moved out of solitary to a transition dorm, where she will remain 90 days before being moved back with the general population. –Lisa Dawson
My name is Sarah Jo Pender. I have been held under the wide thumb of prison administrators for five years in solitary confinement at the Indiana Women’s Prison. My official punishment for escaping ended four years ago, but I am still here and there is nothing I can do to get myself out.
Generally, women in segregation are held between two weeks and six months, though multiple offenses can extend sentences to years of punishment. The isolation unit is comprised of twenty-five single cells along one hall separated from general population. My cell is 7′ x 10′ of painted concrete, white and chipping, with a barred, sealed window at the rear and a steel door with a small observation window at the front. A slab of concrete and thin mattress makes my bed. A stainless steel sink and toilet encrusted with years of use sits three feet from my head when I sleep.
Food is never hot and is served on plastic trays through a hatch in the door. Sometimes, it is tolerable only if I don’t chew it first. Unpalatable globs of flour that was once upon a time pasta is drenched in a tomato base and served sixteen different ways mixed with mechanically separated chicken bits and soy pellets marked for animal feed. However, the bread is always edible and I can buy a jar of peanut butter if I want. What a luxury.
Here, it is cold. Artificial ventilation blows directly onto my bed so that no amount of repositioning brings relief from the chill. My bed must be made by 7 a.m. each day, so that I cannot access my full bed linens during the day when it is the coldest. The captain threatens to strip our cells of belongings, including all bedding if we are caught covering ourselves with the sheets during the day. I am wearing three pairs of socks right now, and my toes are purple and stinging cold.
I am confined to my cell 22 hours each day, and the other 2 hours am handcuffed and escorted 25 feet down the hallway to another locked room for “recreation and exercise,” though the space is only twice the size of my cell. In the largest room, I can take nine steps before I must turn around again and again. But there is a television that I can watch public broadcasting and lots of books. Books keep us sane. Since books are a main source of time management and entertainment, the prison uses them as a method of punishment. Women on disciplinary status are only allowed one non-religious book and one religious book at a time. I am allowed to possess up to five books. If we are caught with too many books during a room search, we are subject to further discipline.
Six days a week, my hands are restrained through the door hatch and an officer escorts me into a shower room. Four stalls line one wall; each stall is enclosed by three concrete walls and a steel mesh door that shuts us in and gets locked. I have fifteen minutes to shower with an army of black bugs on the walls. Black mold peppers the baseboards and thick scales of scum cling to ripped shower curtains. Then I am recuffed and escorted back to my perpetually cold cell.
As a kid, I slept with my bedroom door cracked for a sliver of the hall light to visually orient me when my bladder woke me up at night. Now, my room is constantly lit even at 2 a.m. I can push a button to dim the fluorescent bulbs, but I can never, ever sleep in darkness. However, the nights are usually quiet, except for the occasional slamming metal door, ringing phone, and piercing scream from one of the actively psychotic or suicidal women housed on the unit.
Despite knowing that isolation can drive people insane, the mental health care here is woefully inadequate. Once a month, a mental health staff comes to ask us if we are hallucinating, hearing voices, or are suicidal. More frequent meetings can be requested, but they offer no coping skills, no therapy, no advocacy. The luckiest among us are prescribed anti-depressants to numb us from the hardest parts of being alone. I am fortunate to have incredible support from my family and friends. To pass the time, I read, write, learn and plan for the future when I can be with them again. What sanity I eek out of these letters, books, phone calls and visits is enough to sustain me just a little longer. I am mentally stable now, but my mind broke down under the weight of isolation 3 1/2 years ago, and it was a long, slow, painful process of putting myself back together.
Acutely psychotic women who refuse medication are frequently locked in a cell where they bang and talk and argue with voices, scream about God and demons, and/or refuse to shower or eat for fear of being poisoned. This can go one for weeks until some invisible threshold is crossed and E-Squad officers dressed in full riot gear come in, hold her down, and a nurse injects her with an anti-psychotic medicine. This scene gets repeated every two weeks until she cooperates.
Other women who enter sane will become so depressed that they shut down or hurt themselves. I watched a woman claw chunks of flesh from her cheeks and nose and write on the window with her blood. My neighbor bashed her head against the concrete until officers dragged her to a padded cell. When she returned, the scab on her forehead was huge and shaped like the country of Brazil. Right across from my cell, a woman slit her own throat with a razor and was wheeled out on a gurney. Two others tried to asphyxiate themselves with bras and shoestrings. Now no one has shoestrings and we shuffle around in floppy tennis shoes with loose tongues. Once, I found some embroidery floss and tied up the middle lace holes to keep myself from tripping. A guard demanded that I give her the five inch strings and then formally punished me for this violation. Another woman cut her wrists using the metal band around a pencil eraser. Now, all our pencils are stripped naked. It is always the poor prisoner porter who is forced to clean up the blood puddles and shit smears left behind when someone’s mind spirals down the rabbit hole.
How is this an acceptable management tool for human beings? Short-term isolation is understandably useful for investigations, medical quarantines, emergencies, etc., but using long-term isolation to manage behavior is inhumane and hateful, especially when prison administrators do not offer a clear alternative. There is no behavioral therapy, no guidance, no education. There are no identified, achievable goals for the prisoner to earn her way out of isolation. The decisions seem arbitrary and capricious at best. There is no due process to protect our miniscule civil rights.
In the thirteen years I have been held prisoner, I have never committed an act of violence. I escaped from another prison over five years ago with the help of a prison guard. I essentially walked out of the back door. Today, that guard is at home a free man while I am still kept in this earthly purgatory. Why and for how long I do not know, because the prison administrators refuse to tell me. How’s that for human rights in America?
• At the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), Robert King of the Angola 3, University of California Santa Cruz Professor Craig Haney and other experts testified about the psychological and physical impacts of solitary confinement. (Science also hosted a live chat with King and Haney).
• Further evidence has surfaced that Evan Ebel, who spent over five years in solitary confinement in Colorado, killed Corrections chief Tom Clements and a second individual in retribution for the time he spent on the inside.
• In The Atlantic, Andrew Cohen describes the development of a “High Security Mental Health Step-Down Unit” at USP Atlanta. He writes that the unit “is believed to be the first federal prison program ever designed and implemented to provide substantial long-term care and treatment for high-security mentally ill inmates,” many of whom were transferred from ADX-Florence.
• The Kansas Department of Corrections (DOC) has objected to legislation that would require the state to automatically place certain individuals in isolation, citing the high cost of the measure. The bill, which mandates that anyone sentenced to death or life without the possibility of parole be automatically sent to solitary confinement, could cost the DOC upwards of $80 million.
• State Assemblymember Tom Ammiano has introduced a bill that would limit the use of administrative segregation (ad-seg) and enable individuals in ad-seg to earn shortened time on the inside through good behavior.
• In These Times journalist George Lavender provided a latest update on the on-going hunger strike at Menard. According to prison officials, one person still continues to refuse food. Last week, Common Dreams reported that several men at Menard had begun a liquids strike.
• According to a new peer-reviewed study, published by the American Journal of Public Health, there is a strong correlation between being placed in solitary confinement and engaging in self-harm or suicidal behavior. By analyzing medical records from New York City’s jails, scientists found that “although only 7.3 percent of admissions included any solitary confinement, 53.3 percent of acts of self -harm and 45 percent of potentially fatal self-harm occurred within this group.”
• A new report released by the Youth Justice Clinic at Cardozo Law reveals that over a quarter of young people incarcerated at Rikers Island have spent time in isolation. Clinic Director Ellen Yaroshefsky said, “By incarcerating youth, often times putting them through long bouts of solitary confinement, we are not only setting them on a course for failure instead of addressing the underlying problems, but also are spending a lot of money in the process of doing harm.”
“We’re here to question the existence and effects of the SHU,” stated California Assembly Member Tom Ammiano on Tuesday, “and we don’t think this new proposed policy goes nearly far enough.” Ammiano, who chairs the Assembly’s Public Safety Committee, was speaking at the second joint California Assembly-Senate hearing on the use of solitary confinement, including SHUs (Security Housing Units), in the state’s prisons.
Representatives from California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) and various experts sat in front of a packed courthouse to discuss the content of a newly proposed step-down policy, which CDCR promises will address both the public and legislature’s concerns and pave a way out of the SHU for over 3,000 people who have endured isolation in the state’s prison for years or decades.
California’s prison administration has never felt this much heat. Last year tens of thousands of prisoners went on hunger strike across the state to bring attention to the excessive use of isolation and policy of gang-validation in California’s prisons. After starving themselves for 60 days, leaders of the Pelican Bay Short Corridor Collective agreed to temporarily halt the historic protest in order to give legislators and prison officials a chance to hash things out. Five months later, CRCD’s representatives George Giurbino and Suzan Hubbard came back to Sacramento to boast sweeping reforms.
Over the past several months, Giurbino and Hubbard explained at the hearing, CDCR has conducted an internal audit of their gang-validated SHU population. Out of 632 reviews conducted, prison officials claim that 408 individuals, 80 percent of those reviewed, have been cleared for release into the general prison population. The remaining several thousand individuals in the SHU have been granted new privileges, including access to lotion, laundry soap, extra pouched food items from the canteen and up to 40 pictures of their loved ones instead of the previously allowed 15.
In a private interview after testifying at the hearing, prisoners rights attorney Charles Carbone said, “What CDCR didn’t tell us today is that under their new proposed step-down policy there’s no way out of the SHU other than debriefing or participating in CDCR’s behavior modification program. There used to be an active review process, every 4 or 6 years, that’s gone now. Not to mention,” Carbone continued, “the high percentage of individuals being promised release from the SHU shows clearly that CDCR’s gang validation policy was not working. Those 632 people never should have been in there in the first place.”
One of the principle concerns raised at the hearing was CDCR’s system of gang validation, which has been criticized for using items as insubstantial as possession of a book, photograph or drawing as “evidence” of gang-affiliation—and therefore justification for indefinite placement in solitary confinement. “According to CDCR’s policy,” said Assembly Member Ammiano, “many of us sitting on this committee would be gang associates, I don’t know how it’s possible to avoid association under this system.”
According to Carbone, CDCR’s new policy promises to be even worse. “This is a cleanup job,” said Carbone. “The department’s strategy is to give an enormous amount of lip service and offer a maze of regulations even their own employees at a lower level don’t understand. They want to tap dance around the real issues in an effort to disguise their real goal—to dramatically expand the number and nature of prisoners in SHU confinement.”
Carbone is referring to the 1,500 new Security Threat Groups (STGs) that CDCR’s new step-down policy plans to add to this previously short list. Evidence of membership or allegiance to any of these groups is enough to validate a prisoner as a gang member and land them solitary confinement for a very long time. In addition, the new policy stipulates a period of ten years to expunge gang validation from a prisoner’s record, a mandatory minimum of three of those years to be spent undergoing “behavior modification” in the SHU.
“With this new policy CDCR is expanding their use of isolation,” Carbone continued. “They’re telling their employees ‘Everything’s cool, no one’s gonna loose their jobs, we just need to reshuffle the deck.’” According to Carbone, as the CDCR’s proposed step-down policy releases hundreds of people from isolation, the new policy wide reach through the large-scale expansion of STGs will have those cells reoccupied in no time.
“For many years CDCR operated under the false notion that prison gangs, like Black Guerilla Family and La Familia, were inherently more dangerous than members of street gangs like the Crips and the Bloods,” said Carbone. “They now know their assessment was entirely wrong. In addition, the intelligence they can squeeze out of street gang members by locking them in isolation and forcing them to debrief is more valuable to the law enforcement community. CDCR is trying to raise its status.”
Perhaps the most controversial aspect of CDCR’s new policy is the program of “cognitive behavior restructuring” that requires prisoners in the SHU to participate in a strict regiment of “self-directed journaling.” These journals will be read by CDCR officials and used as a basis to determine a prisoner’s eligibility to “step-down” to a lower level of isolation and eventually to leave the SHU. In these journals, a prisoner is expected to confess to (and repent for) everything prison administrators have accused them of, including gang affiliation.
This method, based on theories developed by behavioral psychologist Dr. Stanton-Samenow, has already been implemented in prisons across the United States. It’s widely been criticized, as a compulsory form of brainwashing and a way to break down prisoners psychologically through techniques that many agree are tantamount to torture. Once broken down, the theory goes, prisoners can be helped to “overcome errors in thinking” and “reform.”
Peter Cubra was cooperating attorney on Ayers vs. State of New Mexico, a case that the ACLU successfully litigated in 2003. Cubra describes Stanton’s conative behavior restructuring, particularly as it played out in New Mexico, as a “clockwork orange-type torture.”
In 1980 the New Mexico Penitentiary was the site of one of the most violent prison riots in US history. Thirty-three prisoners were killed during the riot and 200 injured. Of the 12 corrections officers taken hostage, all were treated for injuries caused by beating and rape. Though the old prison was eventually shut down, the riot forever changed the trajectory of New Mexico’s approach to imprisonment. Twenty years later, they bought Stanton’s cognitive behavior material and used it to create a step-down program very similar to what’s being proposed and implemented in California today.
“They tried to break people through what they called ‘integrated cognitive restructuring,’” continued Cubra. “They punished those who refused to confess their moral short-comings by starving them on the ‘food loaf’…prisoners had to participate or the torture would be enhanced.”
The ACLU lawsuit eventually forced New Mexico to moderate program, taking away the punitive measures to enforce it and exempting prisoners with psychological problems, but prisoners in New Mexico are still being subjected to a watered-down version of cognitive restructuring in New Mexico today.
“Every time you punish a person who’s incarcerated you make them more anti-social,” Cubra added. “I subscribe to rehabilitation as a concept, but any program has to be voluntary with no consequences. Stanton’s method could be offered as one item on a menu of choices—but to punishing people for not participating, sometimes even corporally, is unconstitutional.”
“The classic definition of torture,” said attorney Charles Carbone on the topic, “is the use of mental or physical harm to extract information. It’s not just to hurt somebody, you want to preserve him or her long enough in order to get them to tell you something important. The DOC’s incentive is to extract information about crimes being committed both in prison and the free community. But this information is inherently unreliable, untested and being obtained though coercive means.”
“Only the CDCR can get away with calling an expansion of their power and authority a reform,” Carbone continued. “I think the Department is getting what it wants here. The real pity is that it’s not what the public or legislatures want. In 10 years from now were going to have the exact same number or more people in security housing in California. Still,” he added, “I think CDCR realizes they’re going to have to go back and rework this proposal. For years now they’ve been able to the manipulate the legislature—but that gig is now up.”
Clearly, not only the legislatures, but also the hundreds of California voters that attended the Public Hearing in Sacramento on Tuesday were far from convinced. After the legislators and experts spoke, dozens of survivors of solitary confinement, concerned citizens and family members lined up to express their dissatisfaction with CDCR’s new proposal. In his testimony, Professor Craig Haney pointed out that the United States, and California in particular, is “unsettlingly out of sync with the international community on the issue of solitary confinement. “Modestly implemented reform,” he added, “is not going to make a difference.”
The post At Hearing on Solitary Confinement in California Prisons, Advocates Challenge “Reforms” appeared first on Solitary Watch.
Seven Months After Historic Prison Hunger Strike, Opponents of Solitary Confinement in California Prepare for a Hearing and Gauge the Pace of Change
Tomorrow, California lawmakers will hold a hearing about the use of solitary confinement inside its state prison system. February marks seven months since people incarcerated throughout California embarked on the mass hunger strike that has drawn legislative attention to prison conditions. Just under two weeks ago, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) released new proposed regulations around its gang policies, and it points to changes already made. Accounts from former hunger strikers and their allies on the outside, however, suggest that change is slow in coming.
The hunger strike that began on Monday, July 8, 2013, was originally called for by men in the Security Housing Unit (SHU) in California’s Pelican Bay State Prison. Inside Pelican Bay’s SHU, people are locked into windowless cells for at least 22 hours a day. Prison administrators place them in the SHU either for a fixed term for violating a prison rule or an indeterminate term for gang membership. Accusations of gang membership often relied on confidential informants and circumstantial evidence. Accusations of gang association were also based on circumstantial evidence, such as possessing certain artwork or books (including Aztec or Black history), exercising with others or even signing a group petition. Hundreds of people have been confined within the SHU for over a decade. Until recently, the only way to be released from the SHU was to debrief, or provide information incriminating other prisoners, who are then placed in the SHU for an indeterminate sentence.
The call to strike was taken up across California and in out-of-state prisons where California prisoners are held. Thirty thousand people responded, refusing meals that first day. Hunger strikers issued five core demands, including the elimination of ”group punishments for individual rules violations”; changes in the criteria for being “validated” as gang members, and for “debriefing” from gang status; compliance with the recommendations of the U.S. Commission on Safety and Abuse in Prisons regarding an end to long-term solitary confinement; provision of “adequate food”; and expansion of “constructive programs and privileges for indefinite SHU prisoners.” The men of Pelican Bay issued forty additional demands, such as expunging all violations issued for participation in the 2011 hunger strikes, and prohibiting retaliation for those participating in the most recent strike.
The strike ended on September 5, 2013, or Day 60. California legislators Loni Hancock, chair of the Senate Public Safety Committee, and Tom Ammiano, chair of the Assembly Public Safety Committee, issued a statement of support for the hunger strikers and promised to hold hearings around SHU placement and long-term solitary confinement. Their support pushed both the CDCR and the hunger strikers towards a resolution.
The following month, on October 9, 2013, lawmakers held the first joint Public Safety Committee hearing on solitary confinement. The hearing lasted four hours and included testimony from CDCR officials, academics, former prisoners and family members.
But what changes have hunger strikers and other California prisoners seen since then?
The Stepdown Program Resumes
On Friday, January 31, 2014, CDCR unveiled new regulations around its gang policies. Under these draft regulations, validated gang associates and members can have the designation removed from their records if they avoid gang activities for approximately ten years (for associates) or fourteen years (for members). The regulations are an extension of CDCR’s Stepdown program, which was unveiled in Fall 2012, one year after the first round of prisoner hunger strikes.
In Fall 2012, CDCR unveiled its Stepdown program. The program evaluates prisoners with indefinite SHU terms for release into general population. Both prisoners and their advocates have criticized the program, noting that even those who have spent years in the SHU may still be required to spend two to three additional years in solitary confinement under this program. The debriefing program remains in place. In addition, criteria that was formerly used to prove gang association—such as possessing certain art or literature, exercising with others or even saying hello to another prisoner—can now be used to prove gang membership.
CDCR temporarily halted its review process during the first weeks of the hunger strike, but resumed evaluations before the strike ended. In December 2013, Pelican Bay prisoners reported that the review process had started for those who had been classified as gang members. According to one prisoner, several were approved for Step Five—or release directly into general population from the SHU. One of those approved had been in the SHU for over 40 years. Since the start of the program, CDCR has reviewed 632 SHU prisoners for gang membership. Of those, 408 have been cleared for release directly to general population; 185 remain in the SHU but with more privileges.
While the possibility of being released to a less restrictive housing unit is enticing, those waiting to be evaluated are wary of the program. “The Stepdown program is still an institutional means of getting around the indeterminate SHU program and incorporating a vehicle by which one can still get stuck in the SHU indeterminately,” wrote one person, who was scheduled to be reviewed that week. “At any time, they can deny you or set you back a step or two if they feel you are not meeting certain requirements.”
In addition, SHU prisoners in both Pelican Bay and Corcoran State Prison decry the requirement that prisoners relegated to Step Two or Step Three complete a journal focusing on subjects such as “the reasons I’ve led a life of crime.” Those who refuse to complete the journal are considered as having failed to complete program requirements, are unable to move into the next step and thus remain in the SHU.
In Corcoran State Prison, Heshima Denham was recently reviewed for the Stepdown program. As part of the review process, he was allowed to examine the journal. He later called it “a blatant character invalidation and brainwashing tool.”
“It does not embody or address the needs of the majority of us in SHU, of what and who we are,” agreed a SHU prisoner in Pelican Bay, “nor is it indicative of what’s in our best interest.” He described several questions in the journal entitled The Con Game:
• Do you have a problem when people correct you, even if they do it in a supportive way? Yes/No.
• Give an example of how you might think and/or act in this way.
• Do you ever play the “con game”? Yes/no.
“One can’t help but believe if one does not respond in the affirmative to the questions, that the reviewers/evaluators would deem one a program failure, not suited for advancement within said program because the overseers of this Stepdown program view us all as flawed in character with no social or moral compass,” he noted.
In addition, both he and Denham have stated that the journal dismisses socio-economic factors as a “myth” of the con game. In separate letters, both point to the same example:
Myth: Criminals are the victims of society. They are products of dysfunctional families, abusive childhoods, bad neighborhoods, poor schools, and an unfair economic system. ‘My criminal behavior isn’t my fault. I just learned to survive the best way I knew how.’ Truth: Each person is responsible for his or her own thinking and behavior. Many people grow up in difficult circumstances and lead responsible, crime-free lives. Task: Explain how you have practiced this myth in the past.
However, SHU prisoner Todd Ashker recalled that, during his September 2013 meetings with hunger strike representatives, Michael Stainer, director of CDCR’s Division of Adult Institutions, told them, “There are no right or wrong answers to the journal questions. You maintain possession of them. All that’s required is that you show it to the committee. They look at it on the spot, see it’s done and give it back to you and you can tear it up and trash it.” Given Stainer’s assurances, Ashker urges, “If this isn’t how it works, people should challenge and document any/all problems.”
In the meantime, prisoners, family members and the general public have 60 days to comment in writing about CDCR’s new draft regulations. A public hearing will be held on April 3, 2014, in Sacramento.
Small Changes Come to the SHU, Along with Reports of Retaliation
People in Pelican Bay’s SHU have reported some changes since the hunger strike. Lorenzo Benton reported that several items, such as sweats, thermals, t-shirts, shorts and several foods, have recently been approved for their use. Mutope DuGuma reported that SHU prisoners have now been offered the opportunity to take free correspondence courses from Feather River College Tsunami Adult School’s Voluntary Education Program. DuGuma has signed up and is waiting to learn what courses he is eligible to take.
However, SHU prisoners have also reported that staff have taken retaliatory actions towards hunger strike participants. “Since the hunger strike, I been dealing with retaliation in the form of two separate serious CDC-115 write-ups,” wrote Paul Redd. He was found not guilty on the charges of inciting a mass disturbance and work stoppage, but was found guilty of what he called a “noncharge—refusing to eat.” In addition, Institutional Gang Investigators searched his property and issued him a write-up for a ten-year-old greeting card. The card depicted a Black man holding a child. On his arm were the words “Weusi Agosti” or “Black August” in Swahili. Redd was found guilty of promoting gang activity, thus drastically decreasing his chances of release from the SHU when he is reviewed for the Stepdown program.
Mutope DuGuma has also reported retaliation. He states that staff have tampered with food. He describes the Thanksgiving meal as “three small diced sweet potatoes, 1×1 size cheesecake, two very small hot dogs, green beans (about ten), and a salad that was all bad.”
“If they wanted to provoke prisoners, they almost got exactly what they wanted because people were furious,” he recounted. When DuGuma complained to the warden’s office, he was told, “The problem with the Thanksgiving meal was identified by correctional staff and is being dealt with.’” A letter from another hunger strike participant, dated January 15, 2014, confirms that the food portions remain small.
In addition, DuGuma, who was sent to the medical facility at Folsom during the hunger strike, returned to find several of his certificates—including one for his GED—missing. For DuGuma, the missing certificate may prevent him from enrolling in the newly-offered college courses.
Isaac Ontiveros, a member of the Prison Hunger Strike Solidarity coalition, stated that the coalition has received letters from numerous people inside California’s SHUs detailing similar acts of retaliation. Every hunger striker received CDC-115 write-ups for their participation. He also noted that Black people appear to be bearing the brunt of additional retribution. (Both Redd and DuGuma are Black.)
Preparing for Another Hearing
Legislators have scheduled a hearing focusing on CDCR’s new Gang Management Policy for February 11, 2014. According to Ontiveros, at that hearing, legislators will press CDCR to provide a more detailed explanation of the Stepdown program. Family members and supporters are organizing caravans to attend the hearing in Sacramento. However, those most impacted by the new policy—people in the SHU—have not been invited to speak.
Ontiveros notes that, in addition to testifying about conditions and the effects of long-term isolation, SHU prisoners can also speak about steps that can be taken to reduce CDCR’s overreliance on solitary confinement. “The prisoners have been doing research,” he pointed out. “They’ve been looking at what’s happening in Mississippi and how prison management can be changed. They’ve also been reading about the Norwegian prison system. The CDCR has cited security concerns [against having a SHU prisoner testify before the legislature in Sacramento], but what about having them use Skype to speak at the hearing?”
Opponents of solitary confinement plan to pack the hearing room, and gather afterwards for a rally and lobbying visits to legislators. With more than 10,000 souls in isolation on any given day (3,881 people in SHU cells and 6,734 in Administrative Segregation Units as of September 30, 2013), California is the nation’s leading practitioner of solitary confinement. With strong movements on both the inside and outside, and a few apparently sympathetic ears in the legislature, reformers have sown the seed for change–but only time will tell when they come to fruition in the kind of sweeping reforms the state’s prison system demands.
• The ACLU released an online toolkit outlining how LGBTI advocates and directly affected individuals can leverage the Prison Rape Elimination ACT (PREA) to protect one of the most vulnerable populations in prison. Chase Strangio, Staff Attorney at the ACLU said, “Somewhere along the line, corrections officials determined that isolating [lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex] prisoners would keep them safer. Here’s the truth: people in solitary confinement are especially vulnerable to sexual abuse from prison staff.”
• A New Mexico woman who was kept in isolation months at a time – in cells so filthy “that a sock [allegedly] rotted into an open wound in her foot” – has reached a $1.6 million settlement in a lawsuit filed against the county where she was held.
• A report released last week by John Marshall Law School includes accounts of the extreme isolation experienced by some individuals in immigration detention, and also explores why a September 2013 Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) directive falls short in protecting vulnerable detainees, especially those with mental or medical illnesses.
In South Carolina, a freshmen senator queried the state’s acting corrections director Bryan Stirling about conditions on the inside – including the placement of individuals with mental illness in solitary confinement – despite explicitly being asked not to pursue that line of questioning by the Senate Corrections and Penology Committee chairman. Senator Marlon Kimpson of Charleston, who has only been in office about six months, explained, “It is well documented that the department had knowledge of the cruel and unusual punishment that has been going on.”
• A judge has ordered the reopening of the Toledo Juvenile Home, after ruling that Governor Branstad had overreached his constitutional powers ordering the facility’s closure. The girls living in the facility were rehoused this past January after an investigation found that its residents were subject to over 47,000 hours of isolation. Branstad has appealed the decision to the Iowa Supreme Court.
• The debate on the use of solitary confinement on Texas’ death row continues. In The Dallas News, a former executive assistant to the director and general counsel for the Texas Department of Corrections (now called the Department of Criminal Justice) wrote, “The current conditions of confinement on Texas death row constitute overly harsh and needlessly punitive measures — relentlessly applied 24 hours, a day 365 days a year — that only heighten management problems.”
• Two former members of the Russian feminist punk band Pussy Riot are touring the United States after being released from a Russian prison. Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alekhina plan to visit US prisons and meet with nonprofit organizations to learn about the use of solitary confinement across the country.
Tomorrow at 6 pm, activists with the No Separate Justice campaign will gather at Lower Manhattan’s Metropolitan Correctional Center to protest what they believe are torture and other travesties taking place in the heart of the federal justice system.
MCC, a federal jail, is located a stone’s throw from the U.S. Courthouse for the Southern District of New York, a center of many post-9/11 terrorism cases. On MCC’s tenth floor, suspects in these cases have been held in extreme solitary confinement, often completely cut off from their families. When they have gone on hunger strike in protest, they have been force-fed. All of this has happened, in the middle of New York City, without any of the public outcry that has met similar treatment of detainees at Guantánamo.
In The Nation last week, Pardiss Kebriaei of the Center for Constitutional Rights, who has clients at Guantánamo, writes about the Constitutional and human rights violations happening closer to home. She highlights the case of another client, Fahad Hashmi, whose predicament, she writes, “was an introduction to a slice of unjust punishment and torture on American soil—another outrage born of the ‘War on Terror,’ where government zealotry produces grotesque outcomes, the façade of legal process can legitimize profound unfairness, and barbarity is masked by utter normality.”
Hashmi was convicted in 2010 of providing “material support” to Al Qaeda, by allegedly ”allow[ing] an acquaintance to keep a suitcase with socks and ponchos meant for Al Qaeda in Pakistan in his apartment for two weeks…and allow[ing] the acquaintance to use his cell phone to call co-conspirators.” Kebriaei writes: “After three years in pre-trial solitary confinement at the Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC) in Manhattan, layered with Special Administrative Measures (SAMs)—a euphemism for gagging Fahad and a small circle of people permitted access to him only after agreeing to be gagged as well—Fahad pleaded guilty on the eve of his trial to spare himself an effective life sentence. In exchange for fifteen years of his life, the government got a conviction”–as it virtually always has in terrorism-related cases. Kebriaei continues:
Unlike during the early period at Guantánamo, the injustice of Fahad’s punishment did not result from being rendered to an offshore prison and held in blatant violation of the law; it emerged out of the warp of the legal process itself. Fahad’s prosecution was based on a broad theory of guilt by association, not individual culpable conduct. It achieved in peacetime, on American soil, the breadth of detention usually only permitted in wartime, and meant to be temporary, reserved for the exigency of battlefields, and not punitive. Fahad’s conviction came from the compromised calculation of a young man of 30 facing the prospect of imprisonment until age 100 and deciding not to take that risk, not the government proving its case against the panoply of Fahad’s rights as a criminal defendant.
Fahad’s torture has also not been flagrant; it has been silently mind-crushing. For over 2,100 days, he has been alone in a space he can touch both sides of simultaneously. He has not touched another human being since 2007. While he has been at ADX for nearly three years, he has no sense of his surroundings, because all he can see of the natural world is a patch of sky through steel mesh from an outdoor “recreation” cage two to three times a week, if that. He has not set foot on anything other than concrete in over six years. The image of Fahad’s torture is not that of a person being led around an interrogation room on a dog leash, or held in a stress position with heavy-metal music blasting. It is a person sitting still in a small cell, slowly deteriorating in a modern prison on the outskirts of a small Colorado town.
To the extent that Fahad’s story is unknown to the broader public, that is additionally because he and his experience have been walled off by deliberate government barriers, including the prohibitions of Special Administrative Measures as well as tightly controlled access to prisons like ADX and the MCC. When Fahad was under Special Administrative Measures during his pre-trial detention at the MCC and for a year after his conviction at ADX, no member of the public except for his attorneys and three family members—not a reporter, researcher, or United Nation expert—was able to communicate with him in any form, even by sending a letter. The few people allowed to communicate with him were also forbidden, under threat of criminal sanction, from speaking about him to the public…
Even now that Fahad’s Special Administrative Measures have been lifted, he remains mostly cut off and inaccessible, because direct access to prisoners at ADX, as at the MCC, is extremely restricted under the most basic circumstances. Independent human rights monitors like the UN expert on Torture have made repeated requests to visit both prisons but to no avail. No journalist has yet been allowed direct access to inmates at these prisons. These denials mirror the experience of the press and human rights monitors vis-à-vis Guantánamo.
Fahad is one of more than 400 people who have been convicted on terrorism charges by the Department of Justice since 9/11. As with his case, many of these cases raise sobering questions that need to be examined. We recognize, to a certain extent at least, that the criminal justice system produces unjust results in other contexts—that there is often a wide gap between personal culpability and the punishment deemed deserved; that the process is often not meaningfully adversarial, but stacked against defendants; that conditions of confinement are sub-human for thousands of prisoners. Yet, paradoxically, the dominant narrative in the context of these terrorism cases has been largely limited to praising the strength and competence of the civilian system. That narrative developed in opposition to the ad-hoc, illegal military system at Guantánamo. But a fair critique of one cannot continue to wait for the dismantling of the other.
Read the full article here.
The post Far from Guantánamo, Torture Takes Root in American Soil appeared first on Solitary Watch.
A little over a year ago, the notorious Tamms Correctional Center was closed, after a long battle by activists and with the support of Governor Pat Quinn. Individuals were rehoused in prisons across Illinois, including Menard Correctional Center, the largest maximum-security institution in the state. While few would argue that it is anything but an improvement over Tamms, according to some prison advocates and individuals on the inside, Menard has also long been beset by problems. This past June, Solitary Watch featured a letter from an individual housed in segregation at Menard. He describes what it is like to be double-celled in a space less than five feet wide.
On January 15, a group of individuals housed at the Administrative Detention unit at Menard went on hunger strike. The following is a letter from someone housed at the prison sent before the strike began, explaining the conditions that prompted the decision as well as the strikers’ demands. Since we did not have explicit permission from the author to use his name, we are publishing it anonymously. Over the past few days Solitary Watch spoke to prison advocates in touch with individuals on the inside, and also viewed several letters received since the hunger strike began. According to these accounts, as of Monday, February 3, about 10 to 15 people are still refusing to eat.
The physical conditions on the inside have seemingly improved – guards have been cleaning the units and mental health staff are making rounds. However, the prison has so far still refused to provide written explanations for placement in solitary or publish a set of rules for “stepping-down” to general population. Several hunger strikers said they received bogus disciplinary tickets and one person was reportedly beaten. Guards have also allegedly threatened hunger strikers with physical violence if or when they require medical attention, which is of particular concern since there are no cameras in the infirmary at Menard.
Solitary Watch contacted the Illinois Department of Corrections to ask for a comment on the ongoing hunger strike. Director of Communications Tom Shaer said that there was reason to suspect that the hunger strikers were getting commissary food from others in the unit, based on what he said were “normal or close to normal” ketone levels and less weight loss than what “is normally seen in actual hunger strikers.” He contested the allegation that individuals placed in Administrative Detention do not know why, telling Solitary Watch, “before being assigned to AD, every inmate has long since been interviewed about issues causing his placement and, thus, has a very good idea of the reasons.” He said that the placement decisions and 90-day reviews contain confidential information, so issuing copies to prisoners could pose a security threat, and that AD “reviews/decisions are not made by one person and that the initial AD decision goes all the way up to the Director of the IDOC.”
Finally, Tom Shaer told Solitary Watch, “we don’t have Solitary Confinement in Illinois prisons.” As evidence he presented policy documents state that individuals in Administrative Detention have at least five hours of recreation outsides of their cells per week and two showers per week, in addition to two non-contact visits and one 15-minute phone call per month; those in Segregation are supposed to receive the same, minus phone privileges. These conditions–23-hour cell lockdown–do, however, conform to the definitions of solitary confinement provided by the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and most human rights and civil liberties groups.
Update: After reading this post, Tom Shaer of the IDOC contested virtually all of the statements made in the following letter, saying that those in segregation have cleaning supplies; that their cells are not filthy, moldy, or cold; that they do have mental health assessments; they receive mail in a timely manner; they have access to legal boxes; and they and receive educational programming, though they sometimes must “wait in line” for it. The letter’s author and other hunger strikers stand by their allegations. –AS
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
I am in a part of segregation in Illinois DOC, in Menard CC, that has been designated “High Security Unit” – Administrative Detention. As I’m sure you know, Tamms supermax was shut down by Governor Pat Quinn. As all systems of oppression have the nature of a chameleon, the prisoncrats forced adjustment since the closure of Tamms has been to find new ways to do the same thing – repression. The High Security Unit (HSU) is being called by officers “mini-Tamms.” Tamms isolation camp is being replaced via the establishing of multiple “mini-Tamms” as here at Menard & in several seg units in medium security prisons…
The conditions here are inhumane & repressive. So much that we are forced to make a stand as men in righteous indignation. We in HSU have planned a hunger strike on the 15th of January. We have put together a list of demands in individual grievances with the hope that it would shield us from administrative revenge. Our complaints are all pursuant to our constitutional rights & human dignity. Such as “implement uniform written policies that provide for constitutionally adequate ‘notice’ of why an inmate is being placed in Administrative Detention at the HSU, & reasonable, periodic review in the form of annual informal hearings that allow me to refute the alleged reasons why my placement in AD is being continued.”… No one here has been given ‘notice’ to why we’re here.
Other issues concern the conditions we’re forced to live in.
- It is absolutely filthy here, we are provided no cleaning supplies to clean our own cells, no disinfectants, no toilet brushes, as of now all we’re provided with is a small 2”x3” sponge once a month, there are no written policies for the HSU that requires the daily sweeping & mopping of the wings, the showers are filthy & infested with mold, as of now the wing is never swept or mopped.
- There is no mental health screening & evaluation of inmates prior to being placed in the HSU, there’s no specially trained mental health staff assigned to identity the deterioration of an inmate’s mental health due to long term isolation.
- The mail, including legal mail, is not processed in a timely manner, as of right now, mail takes sometimes 3 weeks from the post mark to be delivered
- There’s no reasonable access to our legal boxes, as of now, access is limited ot approximately once a month, this is unacceptable
- There’s no educational programming
- The cells are cold more often than not, & we’re not allowed to purchase cotton blankets off commissary (the state issued blanket is thin & inadequate)
- The food is not only awful & an unauthorized deviation from the statewide menu, but low calorie intake have us losing weight
- We’re not issued our own individual coats, we have to share coats with numerous men that leaves a stink behind, some of us here are not even given coats at all.
These are some of the conditions we are forced to live under & have resolved to take a stand against thru peaceful protest. However, IDOC officials will interpret our righteous indignation as an act of aggression & challenge to their authority. And Menard CC, which is in southern Illinois, is notorious for their spiteful retribution. Public awareness is our only shield from unjust abuse of authority, which is why we ask for your support of our peaceful protest against our conditions of confinement. The HSU is a “new” program & we know not the economic incentive or who stands to benefit the most, so we know they will bring the heat. We only ask that on January 15, 2014, that you & your friends call the Governor’s office, the Director of IDOC S.A. Godinez, & the Warden of Menard CC, and inquire about our peaceful protest & our reasons & conditions of confinement.
Our conditions are inextricably linked to the social mobilization across the nation against the injustice of mass incarceration. We hope that we have your support & we thank you.
Very truly yours in struggle.
The post Voices from Solitary: Hunger Strike in Menard Prison appeared first on Solitary Watch.
“I’m here in a steel coffin,” Jessica Casanova’s nephew wrote to her from an isolation cell. ”I’m breathing, but I’m dead.” Her nephew, she said, ”has never been the same” after spending time in solitary confinement, and his experience compelled her to speak out for the thousands held in extreme isolation in New York’s prison and jails.
Casanova was one of half a dozen speakers at a press conference held on Friday to announce the introduction of a bill in the New York State legislature that would virtually end the use of solitary and other forms of isolated confinement beyond 15 days. The bill, called the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act, aims to bring sweeping reform to a state where nearly 4,000 people are held in 22-to 24-hour isolation on any given day in more than 50 prisons, with at least a thousand more in solitary in local jails.
Activists from the New York Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement (CAIC), which hosted the press conference and worked with the sponsors to draft the bill, encouraged those arriving for the mid-morning event at Greenwich Village’s Judson Memorial Church to try samples of “the Loaf.” The dense, bread-like substance, made from flour, milk, yeast, grated potatoes and carrots, is served with a side of raw cabbage as an additional form of punishment for those held in solitary confinement in New York’s prisons.
Introducing the speakers, Claire Deroche of CAIC and the National Religious Campaign Against Torture called the bill “the most comprehensive and progressive legislative response to date to the nationwide problem of solitary confinement in our prisons and jails.” In addition to placing a 15-day limit on solitary, the bill would create new alternatives for those deemed a longer-term safety risk to others, replacing the punishment and deprivation of New York’s “Special Housing Units” (SHUs) with a more rehabilitation-minded approach.
The bill is being sponsored in the Assembly by Jeffrion Aubry (D, Queens), called solitary confinement “an issue whose time has come.” Aubry, who also sponsored the 2008 SHU Exclusion Law, which limited the use of solitary on individuals with serious mental illness, said it was time to set standards for treatment of all people in prison, regardless of their offenses. “I don’t believe that having committed a crime suspends your human rights” said Aubry. “That’s not the America I want to live in. That’s not the New York State I want to live in.”
The legislation’s Senate sponsor, Bill Perkins (D, Harlem) pointed out that solitary is increasingly being seen as a “moral issue” and a “crime against humanity.” The 15-day limit set by the bill conforms to recommendations made by UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Méndez, but far surpasses restrictions currently placed on solitary in any American prison system. Perkins expressed his hope that the bill would find supporters in both bodies of the legislature, and that “the governor will work with us.”
New York City Council Member Daniel Dromm, who has supported measures to limit solitary confinement in city jails, described seeing a friend deteriorate after being placed in isolation on Rikers Island. The friend, whom Dromm described as “the gentlest person in the world,” was also “bipolar and drug addicted,” and was placed in solitary for five months for “cigarettes and talking back.” The HALT Solitary Confinement Act would ban the use of isolation altogether on vulnerable populations, including youth, the elderly, and people with mental or physical disabilities.
Five Mualimm-ak began his statement by telling listeners: “I lived five years of my life in a space the size of your bathroom.” Mualimm-ak, who said he never committed a violent act in prison, was given stints in solitary for offenses as minor as “wasting food” by “refusing to eat an apple.” The Department of Corrections “uses the rules for the purposes of abuse,” he said. ”New York State should be a leader” when it comes to prison conditions, said Mualimm-ak, who has been out of prison for two years and is working against what he calls “solitary torture.” Instead, New York state prisons and city jails practice isolated confinement at levels well above the national average.
Wrapping up the event, Scott Paltrowitz of the Correctional Association of New York and CAIC outlined the major provisions of the HALT Solitary Confinement Act. In addition to banning special populations from solitary and setting a 15-day limit for all others, Paltrowitz said, the bill would eliminate the use of isolation to punish minor offenses, such as “having too many postage stamps or talking back to a guard.”
The bill would also create secure “residential rehabilitation units (RRUs) for those who need to be separated because they pose a genuine danger to the general population. RRUs would be “aimed at providing additional programs, therapy, and support to address underlying needs and causes of behavior, with 6 hours per day of out-of-cell programming plus one hour of out-of-cell recreation.” The legislation, said Paltrowitz, “recognizes that we need a fundamental transformation of how our public institutions address people’s needs and behaviors, both in our prisons and in our communities.”
CAIC describes itself as joining together “advocates, formerly incarcerated persons, family members of currently incarcerated people, concerned community members, lawyers, and individuals in the human rights, health, and faith communities throughout New York State.” According to its website, the group considers solitary and all forms of prison isolation to be “ineffective, counterproductive, unsafe, and inhumane,” and cites evidence showing that solitary confinement increases recidivism while failing to reduce prison violence.
The legislation, drafted over the past year, is more ambitious and far-reaching than bills on solitary that have been introduced in other states. As a result, it is unlikely to pass in anything resembling its current form–but supporters are determined to push forward. “The HALT Solitary Confinement Act implements rational humane alternatives to the costly, ineffective, and abusive use of long-term solitary confinement in New York prisons and jails,” said Sarah Kerr of the Legal Aid Society’s Prisoners’ Rights Project, who helped draft the legislation. “The need for reform is well-documented and the time for change is now.”
The New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) did not respond to a request for comment on the legislation.
The post New York Lawmakers Introduce Bill to End Long-Term Solitary Confinement appeared first on Solitary Watch.
• In its latest set of proposed rule changes, California prison officials announced that “gang validated” individuals will now have a process to wipe that classification off their record. It will take “gang associates” about ten years to qualify, and “gang leaders” at least 14 years. Many advocates and people on the inside consider the procedures for validation arbitrary and inadequate despite its substantial consequences, like being put in solitary confinement for years and years.
• In a letter to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, the state’s largest prison guard union requested a partial end to the use of solitary confinement on death row, stating that both guards and individuals on the inside would benefit from the change.
• The San Francisco Bay View has printed a letter from someone inside Corocan’s SHU claiming that “coercive” journaling has been required for some people to “step-down” from solitary into general population. According to the author, the self-directed journaling amounts to “a systematic and progressive brainwashing initiative” with the ultimate aim of character invalidation.
• In The Nation, civil rights attorney Pardiss Kebriaei outlines why solitary confinement is as much a human rights issue as the more ‘visible’ kinds of torture that occurred at Guantanamo Bay: “The image of [Fahad Hashmi’s] torture is not that of a person being led around an interrogation room on a dog leash, or held in a stress position with heavy-metal music blasting. It is a person sitting still in a small cell, slowly deteriorating in a modern prison on the outskirts of a small Colorado town.”
• Also in The Nation, Jeanne Theoharis and Sally Eberhardt contrast President Obama’s pledge to end waterboarding and shutter CIA blacksites, with the other manifestations of torture he has condoned – notably the extreme conditions of isolation endured by individuals prosecuted for terrorism on US soil.
• Bonnie Kerness and Jamie Bissonette Lewey, both of the American Friends Service Committee, published “Race and the Politics of Isolation in U.S. Prisons” in the Atlantic Journal of Communication.
• The Sacramento Bee published an editorial condemning the death of Joseph Duran in Mule Creek State Prison this past September. Duran, who had been placed in isolation in a mental illness crisis cell, died after guards used the food slot to dose his cell with pepper spray. After the spraying, a prison doctor requested that Duran be extracted from his cell and his breathing tube cleaned, but guards refused and Duran was found dead several hours later.
• People with mental illness are increasingly populating the state’s administrative segregation units, according to the Texas Civil Rights Project. The organization learned through a public information request that “while the overall population in administrative segregation has decreased by 14% since 2011, the number of individuals with mental illness in administrative segregation has increased by 17%… people with mental illness now make up 32% of the administrative segregation population.”
• Bret Grote and Dustin McDaniel from the Abolitionist Law Center talk about mass incarceration and the case of long-term solitary resident Russell Maroon Shoatz on the most recent Jurist podcast.
The following account comes from Live from Lockdown, a website focused on “using technology to provide voice and access to gang leaders and other influential inmates who are known personally by the community. Rather than glamorize street gangs, the mission of LIVE is to utilize gang leadership as credible messengers to provide an unvarnished view of prison and the harsh reality facing gang members who are behind bars. A message delivered by those best equipped to deliver it to our youth in a way that will ensure the message is received, believed and heeded.”
Many of Live from Lockdown’s authors are doing time in the Special Management Unit, or SMU, at the U.S. Penitentiary in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania, which holds dozens of gang members convicted under federal racketeering charges. Lewisburg’s SMU holds men in 23- to 24-hour lockdown. Most are double-celled, and a few are triple-celled, in cells originally designed for one person–a practice increasingly common in the federal Bureau of Prisons, as it claims reductions in its use of “solitary” confinement. This piece was written last year by Quaheem Edwards, who is 6 years into a 20-year sentence.
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The white paint on the walls that surround me is chipped and stained from years of blood, sweat and tears. The doorways are so small you have to enter sideways and even a person standing at 5 feet 9 inches has to kneel. You may hear the saying “Prison is prison.” This is far from being true.
This place where I lay my head every night may be the size of a walk in closet and that is without the normal furnishings. But even with the usual stainless steel sink and toilet, bunkbeds and table, these cells are only enough room for one person. If you have a roommate (and most likely you will) the two of you can’t even be on the floor at the same time. In this place there are holes in the walls where spiders and other insects hide until they think we’re asleep.
It’s hot as hell outside. I know America can relate to this summer’s heat wave. Now picture being trapped in a room where the window barely opens; not to mention the 12-foot pipe that sits in the corner of the cells. All year long this pipe is beaming! I’m talking about a pipe that is so hot, we can boil water in at least twenty minutes! In the hallways on the tiers there are two fans. What good are they on the other side of the door? Our only hope for not passing out is covering these pipes with our sheets and blankets then sleeping by the door. But remember, it’s two of us in a cell……
Welcome to USP Lewisburg a.k.a. “The Big House”, recently labeled the (S.M.U.) Special Management Unit in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania. This is a super-max prison where you are locked down 23-hours a day with the chance of one our rec, but even that is not guaranteed. This is an 18-24 month program originally designed for inmates who were/are unable to conduct themselves respectfully in population. The SMU Program is ran from three institutions. The others are in Louisana and Alabama, but Lewisburg is by far the worst of the worst.
This is a place where speaking your mind can get you handcuffed and shackled with a belly chain. You can be in this position for anywhere from 72-hours to weeks, maybe even months. You are stripped down to your boxers and in a cell barefoot. A cell that may not have been cleaned in months! Imagine having to use the toilet shackled down…..It is impossible to wipe yourself properly. Depending on what side of the prison you’re housed in, you may not even get a shower.
Now you’re probably wondering what are we doing to get this treatment. Don’t get me wrong, there are some of us who raise hell but also, as I mentioned earlier, as little as speaking your mind will get you tied down. And the cuffs and shackles are tight to the point where your skin peels and bleeds. Where I live is far beyond inhumane. the treatment is brutal and has pushed many over the edge to commit suicide.
Imagine being locked in a cage with another inmate holding a shank (knife). God forbid if you’re getting stabbed, the person has at least a 30-second head start before the C.O.s show up. Even then they don’t go into the cages until both inmates are cuffed. You could be struggling to find your last breath and may be asked to “Cuff Up”.
Welcome to the Big House!
This isn’t a place for any human being. If you have been walking with me through this story, please take heed. This is as real as it gets. Brothers are dying behind these walls and the days continue like nothing ever happened.
To the children of today’s society, don’t become a victim to these surroundings because everything is a cover up. What you see on the Discovery Channel and MSNBC is only what they’re allowed to broadcast. Those programs are edited to scare kids and protect the prisons. This here on LIVEFROMLOCKDOWN.COM is as real as it gets.
To our youth, please take heed to situations and circumstances such as mine and stay positive. They have a cell open for the tough guys too.
The post Voices from Solitary: Walk With Me —— Life on the Inside of the SMU at USP Lewisburg appeared first on Solitary Watch.
Prison Health Care: Is the American Health Profession Ignoring a Human Rights Issue Hiding in Plain Sight?
The following essay appeared as a guest post on the “Speaking of Medicine” blog published by PLOS (Public Library of Science.)
There are 2.3 million people in US prisons in conditions that are often inhumane and at worst life threatening. An estimated 80,000 of US prisoners are locked up in solitary confinement, which means in a 6 ft x 9 ft cell containing little more than a bunk bed, toilet, sink, shelf, and unmovable stool. Prisoners in solitary confinement are let out in leg irons, handcuffs and belly chains for ‘exercise’ two or three times a week in dog kennel-type runs. Bathing is sporadic and the food often miserable and insufficient. One third of prisoners in solitary confinement are thought to be mentally ill and half are placed in solitary for nonviolent crimes.
Recently, the press has begun suggesting the situation in US prisons might be improving slightly. In part, this may be due to reforms pushed by the American Civil Liberties Union in Mississippi that forced reduction in numbers of men held in solitary and because of the hunger strikes in California which have brought small reforms there. Under steady pressure from citizen groups, Maine has reduced the numbers of men in solitary. Furthermore, reforms proposed by US Attorney General Eric Holder aim to reduce overall crowding in prisons by releasing the old and sick, and by loosening the hitherto mandatory drug laws. These laws have sent untold thousands into prisons on lengthy sentences for minor drug offenses.
As states cut costs, there is some pressure to shut down certain prisons, but the real story is business as usual. Cost cutting may shutdown prisons but also means that corrections officials double cell the inmates, that is, put two people in already cramped cells. Individuals serving sentences in solitary confinement live under these cramped conditions, not for weeks or months, but for years and decades. Two men have been in solitary at Louisiana’s Angola prison for 41 years. I write to a man in New York State who has been in solitary for 26 years. In Colorado a man in solitary confinement has not seen the sun in 10 years.
The most striking aspect of this scene is the lack of decent medical care for prisoners in the US whether in solitary confinement or in the general prison population. Over the last two years I have corresponded with prisoners who have been waiting for years to have dental work, and end up pulling their own teeth. Women line up at 4 am in Alabama to receive aspirin. People with hearing impairments are thrown into solitary confinement because, unable to hear, they cannot respond to the orders of officers. According to one doctor in the south, a man with an ear ache was given drops for months but finally became so ill he was examined at a local hospital outside of prison and was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer.
I reported on a case of a woman in prison for a $11 non violent robbery who had received two consecutive life sentences. She was suffering from end stage renal disease. The subcontractor which provided health care to Mississippi prisons brought in a dialysis machine which broke down during treatment. Her condition eventually deteriorated and she was sent to a city hospital where the doctor warned the prison she would die if taken back. The prison put her back in the cell anyway. Eventually after pressure from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), this woman and her sister, who was also in prison, were released by the governor on grounds that the healthy sister gives a kidney to her sister.
Herman Wallace, 71, was shut up in solitary in Louisiana for 41 years. Five years ago he was diagnosed with hepatitis C. Last year he complained of stomach cramps and weakness. He was seen by a prison doctor who said he had a stomach fungus and administered an antibiotic. A short time later, Wallace, having lost 50 pounds, still living in his tiny cell where the temperature was 96 degrees (35.6oC), became so sick he was taken to a hospital outside the prison where he was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer. His friends and lawyers requested that the state grant him compassionate release and allow the man to spend his final days with family and friends. And, indeed, shortly before Wallace’s death, a federal judge in Louisiana, disregarding the state’s opposition, set him free. Wallace spent two days as a free man before he succumbed to the cancer.
These are not isolated cases. Every day I receive letters from people in US prisons many of them are locked in solitary confinement; fifty letters in a week. Today a man being charged money for medications goes without because he has no money to buy them. Another man with kidney and bladder ailments fears to go to lunch in case he infuriates other inmates by ‘leaking’ on a chair. A man says he hasn’t slept for days because of the constantly burning neon lights. Another says that he only catches a few minutes sleep when people around him have stopped screaming. Others stifle at the smell of excrement smeared on the walls. A young man writes he is cutting into his arm, but please don’t stress his mom by telling her. He hopes to kill himself by tomorrow night.
I have raised the question with several doctors as to why the US medical profession – doctors, nurses mental health professionals, etc – show little interest in this enormous human rights issue on their doorstep, one directly affecting public health, and one which is even recognized and studied as an epidemic. To be sure there are medical practitioners who have plunged into this morass, but they are few and far between. And there are medical bodies, including Physicians for Human Rights and the American Psychological Association, which decry solitary. Physicians for Human Rights calls for independent evaluations and reform of health care policies. Much of this work is couched in the language of scholarly discourse, and often points to promising actions in the prison business. Sitting here, reading these letters, these academic statements seem utterly disconnected with what is going on.
Help is needed now, not only in the academic arena. As a layperson it seems to me unconscionable for the medical profession to turn its back on what has become a serious, large scale human rights issue; one that can be alleviated, at least to some extent, by medical professionals employing up to date technology, not, as reported above, broken down dialysis machines.
At the same time I meet doctors who long ago worked in Africa in the Peace Corps, still returning to places like Ethiopia each year to help provide medical care. American doctors fly into Haiti to spend exhausting weeks tending to desperately poor people. But these foul prisons in their own backyards are ignored. Doctors tell me it is too complicated dealing with prisons and that even if they should show interest the wardens will turn them away at the gates.