On December 17, a federal jury found a former corrections officer on New York’s Rikers Island guilty of deliberately ignoring the medical needs of a man who died in 2012 while being held in solitary confinement. Terrence Pendergrass was a captain and the supervising corrections officer on duty when Jason Echevarria, a pre-trial detainee with a history of mental illness, ingested a highly caustic detergent. For hours before he died, Echevarria pleaded for help from multiple corrections officers and civilian staff.
The verdict comes at a time when Rikers Island has been under fire for staff negligence and brutality in both the press and a major investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice. Against this backdrop, the trial and conviction of Pendergrass happened quietly and quickly but becomes a part of a conversation about the accountability of uniformed officers and the brutalization of people in the criminal justice system.
Terrence Pendergrass was convicted in federal district court in Manhattan of “deprivation of rights under color of law,” a federal law that penalizes agents of the government acting in their official capacity for violating a person’s rights. The right in question was that of a person held in a jail or prison to be provided medical care when he was in serious need of it.
Pendergrass was the supervising officer on duty when Echevarria told officers that he had swallowed detergent used for cleaning cells, and needed to see a doctor. He was found guilty of “deliberate indifference” to Echevarria’s medical needs, resulting in Echevarria’s serious physical injury and eventual death. Under ordinary circumstances, ignoring the sick and the dying is not defined as a crime. But staff in prisons and jails – where incarcerated people are not free to move as they choose, not free to call a doctor, not free to go to an emergency room – have a responsibility to ensure that the people in custody receive medical attention when they need it.
As the New York Times reported, this was the first time in ten years that the U. S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York had prosecuted a corrections officer under this statute. Pendergrass faces up to ten years in federal prison.
Life and Death in Custody
The trial, which took place over a week and a half at the Thurgood Marshall courthouse in Lower Manhattan, offered a bleak image of what life is like on Rikers Island, especially for individuals with psychiatric disabilities.
On August 18th, 2012, the day he died, Jason Echevarria was one of the thousands of people held on Rikers Island in pre-trial detention. Like thousands of others held in the island’s jails, Jason Echevarria had documented mental health needs, including bipolar disorder. He reportedly had attempted suicide more than once while at Rikers. He was placed in solitary confinement for “infractions” he committed – violations of jail rules. Because of his mental health needs, his solitary confinement was in MHAUII, the Mental Health Assessment Unit for Infracted Inmates.
MHAUII was specifically designated for the punitive segregation of men with mental illness at Rikers Island. Late last year, after concerns about conditions, MHAUII was officially shut down, though the building is still in use and the two units that came to replace it are still for the punitive segregation of the mentally ill. (The corrections staff who testified in court last week were hard-pressed to answer the question of whether MHAUII was still open or closed, or explain what has replaced it.)
In MHAUII, Echevarria was in his cell round the clock except for the single hour a day he sometimes could leave for recreation or a shower. All food, medication, or anything else he might need was given to him through a slot in his door. On August 17th, he “held his slot,” jamming his mattress into the opening for two and a half hours so that a corrections officer had to go over and address the problem. In the government’s narrative, this incident created a motive for Terrence Pendergrass to ignore Jason Echevarria the next day. While an incident like this would normally have been punished with yet another “‘write-up”, Echevarria did not receive one. A corrections officer testified that on another occasion, when he had urged Pendegrass to punish someone with an infraction, Pendergrass had said, “There are ways to get back at inmates besides infractions.”
The following day, a toilet overflowed and the entire housing area was flooded with raw sewage. Echevarria asked for a “soap ball,” as packets of detergent used to clean the hallways and cells are commonly known. A corrections officer, in violation of protocol, gave him one or more packets. For cleaning purposes, each of these packets is supposed to be diluted in three gallons of water. It was unclear whether staff and the people incarcerated were in the habit of using the detergent without water, or if this was sheer carelessness on the part of the officer who gave the soap ball to Echevarria.
The medical examiner who conducted the autopsy and testified as an expert witness at trial described the detergent Echevarria ingested as more caustic than household bleach. He explained that when Echevarria swallowed the detergent it began to “liquefy” all the human tissue with which it came in contact, causing chemical burns to Echevarria’s mouth, tongue, throat, larynx, epiglottis, digestive tract, esophagus, airways, and stomach lining. The examiner provided extensive evidence of the body reacting to its various injuries, and the many hours that must have passed between Echevarria’s immediate injuries and his death.
Two corrections officers testified to Echevarria’s suffering, his pleas for help, and Captain Pendergrass’s indifference. These officers – Raymond Castro and Angel Lazarte – said all they could do for Jason Echevarria was follow “the chain of command” – tell their captain about Echevarria’s condition so that the captain could have Echevarria taken out of his cell, arrange for an escort to take him to the medical clinic, and clear the hallways. It is exactly this, they say, that Pendergrass refused to do. Castro testified that Pendergrass’s response to hearing that Echevarria had swallowed a soap ball containing bleach was, “Don’t come to me if you have living, breathing bodies. Come to me if you need a cell extraction or you have a dead body.” Castro later saw vomit, “plain to see,” in Echevarria’s cell but when he went back to tell Captain Pendergrass about this, Pendergrass said, “Tell him to hold it.”
Raymond Castro testified for hours on the second day of trial. Three different times he broke down on the stand, wiping tears from his eyes as he remembered Echevarria calling out for him, “Castro, Castro.” Video surveillance showed Castro stopping by Echevarria’s cell over and over again during his shift, looking in through the small window. He came by one last time at 11 o’clock, just as his shift was ending for the night and he was due to report to another housing area for a second shift. The surveillance footage shows him standing at Echevarria’s cell for a full minute, simply watching.
Earlier in the same shift, the pharmacy technician who dispensed medication, cell by cell, saw Echevarria crying out in pain. Sarah Johnson testified that she refused to move on until someone was notified. That someone was again Castro, who said he’d already spoken to Pendergrass twice. Nevertheless, Castro and the escort officer, Angel Lazarte, then went to Pendergrass to let him know, again, that Echevarria had swallowed a soap ball “containing bleach” and to add that the technician thought he could die if he didn’t get medical attention.
This time, according to testimony, Pendergrass ordered Officer Lazarte to write a report of the injury. Surveillance showed Pendergrass going to Jason Echevarria’s cell himself and looking in. Then he walked away to another housing area and could be seen talking to one of the nurses. That nurse, during her testimony on the stand, said she had not seen Echevarria that day, had no information about his condition and was not asked about his condition by Pendergrass. After that conversation, Pendergrass is alleged to have told Lazarte to stop filling out the report. Pendergrass then stopped Castro’s final effort to help Mr. Echevarria, ordering Castro to hang up the phone when the officer tried to call the medical clinic. Twice during the shift, Pendergrass made false entries in the housing area log book, claiming to have done ‘tours’ (rounds of the housing area). In these entries, he wrote: “Tour of area. No problem, report or noted.”
The next morning, nine and a half hours after Pendergrass’s shift ended, Jason Echevarria was discovered dead, with vomit in his toilet and blood and foam around his mouth. He was 25 years old.
In December 2012, the New York City Office of the Chief Medical Examiner ruled Jason Echevarria’s death a homicide. The Bronx District Attorney’s Office investigated the case but declined to prosecute. The office of the United States Attorney of the Southern District then made the decision to charge Mr. Pendergrass. This March, Terrence Pendergrass was indicted and arrested. He was released on $250,000 bond. After the jury’s guilty verdict he now awaits sentencing in April.
An Indictment of Rikers
During the trial, both sides urged the jury to confine themselves to the question of Terrence Pendergrass’s action or inaction. The prosecution asked the jury to disregard whether the other officers and staff should have done more to save Jason Echevarria. The defense attorney reminded the jurors that during jury selection they had sworn to not let recent events surrounding police killings in Ferguson and New York influence their decision in the case. From both sides, for different reasons, the message was the same – focus on this man, in this case.
Yet the trial was revealing about issues beyond Pendergrass’s culpability. Perhaps first among them is the treatment of people with mental illness in New York’s jails. Pendergrass’s defense attorney characterized the people housed in isolation in MHAUII as “the worst of the worst,” while the prosecutors described them as “troubled people.” What is clear is that the people housed in MHAUII had substantial mental health needs. What they received the afternoon and evening of August 18th, 2012, was inexperienced staff. Pendergrass was in his first month as captain. Both Officers Castro and Lazarte were probationary officers which meant they could be terminated, with no cause given, on a day’s notice. Castro believed disobeying a supervisor would have meant losing his job by day’s end. Even the pharmacy technician was new to her job.
The heightened vulnerability of people in solitary confinement gave the captain even greater responsibility. The officers explained how people who are held in ‘GP’ or ‘General Population’ are free to walk around during the day, to alert an officer if they are injured or ill and get a hall pass that allows them to go to the clinic. In solitary confinement, by contrast, people are locked in cells all day and night and depend on officers walking around the housing areas, hearing the requests and observing the condition of the people in cells, and acting on what they see and hear. The people in solitary confinement are invisible within the jail complex, unless someone makes a point of seeing them. Instead, Terrence Pendergrass made a point of not seeing Jason Echevarria’s suffering, and the structure of solitary confinement helped make that possible.
The fact that a single person’s inaction could prevent Jason Echevarria from being saved when at least four other people working the same shift saw him suffering points to serious problems with the culture of Rikers, staff training and “the chain of command.” On August 18, 2012, there was a staffed clinic a few yards away from where Jason Echevarria was dying, just outside his housing unit. There was also a larger clinic, open 24 hours a day, further away in the same building. At least two witnesses – the pharmacy technician who said she knew Echevarria was dying and yelled for CO Castro to tell someone, and CO Castro himself – cried on the stand as they described Echevarria’s condition. But they followed the chain of command, and Jason Echevarria died an avoidable death.
In announcing Pendergrass’s arrest back in March, Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said: “Jason Echevarria should not have died…The Constitution protects the civil rights of everyone, including prison inmates at Rikers. The kind of conduct alleged today cannot be tolerated in our criminal justice system.”
The conviction of one corrections captain, however, will not bring justice to Rikers Island. The day before closing arguments in the Pendergrass trial, another corrections officer was arrested for falsifying records and official misconduct in connection with the death of Jerome Murdough, a veteran with mental illness who died after hours in an overheated cell in the mental observation unit of Rikers. The officer, Carol Lackner, is alleged to have falsely recorded that she did rounds of the unit every half hour when surveillance footage shows that was not the case.
Last November, corrections officers prevented 44 busloads of people from being taken from Rikers to court so that one man would not testify against a corrections officer on trial for assaulting him. People held in solitary confinement at Rikers are routinely deprived of even their single hour of recreation outside a cell. In July of this year, the New York Times reported the story of a man held in solitary confinement who threw urine or water at guards when they did not give him dinner. The guards took him to a medical clinic, away from surveillance cameras, and beat him while medical staff pleaded with them to stop. Such stories suggest that the culture of impunity, indifference, and violence that led to Jason Echevarria’s death continues unabated at Rikers.
Under Fire for Negligence, North Carolina Prisons Chief Seeks New Funding for Mental Health Treatment
North Carolina corrections chief David Guice wants more than $20 million to improve the treatment of people with mental illness in the state’s prisons. His request comes on the heels of two recent reports showing neglect and abuse of prisoners with psychiatric disabilities in North Carolina, and the death in custody of one such individual, Michael Anthony Kerr. According to autopsy report findings released in September, Kerr died last March of dehydration after being held in solitary confinement for 35 days.
Guice heads up the state’s prison system as commissioner of the Department of Public Safety’s Division of Adult Correction and Juvenile Justice. His request was made last Thursday at a meeting of the state’s Joint Legislative Oversight Committee on Justice and Public Safety, held to discuss North Carolina’s treatment of prisoners suffering from mental illnesses.
At the meeting, Guice cited the difficulties in providing adequate care for 4,600 people – 12 percent of the total prison population – requiring mental health services. The prison system wants the state’s upcoming budget to include funding for more than 300 additional mental health care staff statewide, 64 more for Central Prison’s mental health unit, and 76 probation officers.
As NCCapitol reports on the meeting:
Deputy Commissioner of Prisons Kenneth Lassiter told lawmakers he’d like them to receive more frequent treatment, “but every time a segregated inmate comes out of a cell, it takes two staff members” to escort the inmate to an appointment.
“Are you keeping them in [their cells] for 23 hours?” committee co-chairwoman Rep. Pat Hurley, R-Randolph, asked Lassiter.
“Yes, ma’am,” he answered.
“Day after day after day?” she asked.
“Yes, ma’am,” Lassiter responded.
“Don’t they get worse?” Hurley asked.
“Some do,” he answered.
According to the story, Guice stated that system has already started implementing changes, including crisis intervention training for prison workers and a review of all policies dealing with prisoners with mental health problems. He warned, however, that “the needed fixes – more therapy, more medical oversight, specialized units – won’t be cheap, especially in a system that’s already underfunded. For example, he said, budget cuts have emptied one-third of the beds at Central Prison’s inpatient unit for severely mentally ill inmates.”
Recent reports on the treatment of people with mental illness held in North Carolina assert that the state’s Division of Prisons has made little progress to date in protecting these individuals from neglect and abuse, including inadequate health care and the extensive use of solitary confinement.
Report: North Carolina State Prisons’ Use of Solitary Qualifies as “Torture”
One recent report, Solitary Confinement as Torture, published by the Human Rights Policy Seminar at the University of North Carolina (UNC) School of Law, is based on research and interviews with prisoners and focuses on the treatment of incarcerated people suffering from mental disorders and the use of isolation.
The 216-page report denounces the use of solitary confinement as “torture,” and reach the “straightforward and simple” conclusion that “solitary confinement is ineffective at decreasing violence within prisons; it is ineffective at preserving public safety; it is ineffective at managing scarce monetary resources; and it violates the boundaries of human dignity and justice. Prison officials and the courts must find a way to end the practice without delay.”
The report also documents North Carolina’s failure to provide the rehabilitation opportunities essential to successful reentry into society—in large part due to the prison system’s inclination to place people in solitary for petty offenses and “almost a complete disregard of prisoners’ average mental health needs.” In fact, according to the study, as much as 10 percent of North Carolina’s prison population has been held in prolonged solitary confinement at any given time in recent years.
The UNC report recommends specific “systemic reforms,” including decreasing prison populations, increasing efforts at rehabilitation, changing the “institutional culture” in prisons and ultimately abolishing the use of solitary confinement.
In an email response to Solitary Watch, UNC law professor Deborah M. Weissman, a collaborating author of the report, wrote:
Mental health systems in NC are underfunded and fail to provide critical care and services to many individuals who, as a consequence of their mental health illnesses, wind up in prison. Either due to a lack of care, lack of training, or lack of other alternatives, individuals whose mental illness manifests as criminal behavior are sent to prison where their situation further deteriorates. Many of these individuals wind up in solitary confinement due to their inability to comply with prison system directives. The harm they suffer is egregious and likely permanent.
Weissman noted that “necessary reforms that have been clearly identified have not been fully implemented.”
Investigation: Mass Shortages Found in NC State Prisons’ Mental Healthcare Personnel
A recent investigative report by the publication INDY Week, “Prison System Short on Psychologists, Long on Mentally Ill Inmates,” finds that the North Carolina state prison system has a serious shortage of mental health personnel. According to the report, “Two years ago, the North Carolina prison system promised change after blaming staff shortfalls for the problem of mentally ill prisoners left isolated in cells splattered with human waste,” but “mental health advocates say they are still waiting for prison officials to deliver on that promise.”
The article includes the following table, highlighting the mental health staff vacancy rates in the North Carolina state prison system:
North Carolina Department of Public Safety (NCDPS) spokesperson Pam Walker told INDY Week that almost one-third of the 98 positions for prison psychologists were unoccupied as of November 3. Not only are 60 percent of senior psychologist positions vacant, but 22 percent of the prisons’ 1,314 nursing positions – which are critical to providing people with mental health disorders daily assessments – remain open.
Terri Catlett, deputy director of health services for state prisons, denied that prisoners suffering from mental illnesses were “in any additional danger because of the staff vacancies.”
The INDY Week investigation notes that, according to a 2010 report by the Wake County chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI), approximately 5,513 prisoners, or 14.6 percent of the state prison population, were diagnosed as “severely mentally ill” in 2006, and the number of incarcerated people with mental illnesses was increasing sharply—a trend that would suggest an increased need in personnel to provide adequate care and treatment.
Vicki Smith, executive director of the nonprofit Disability Rights NC, believes the prison system’s unremitting personnel shortages were a cause in Michael Anthony Kerr’s death. Quoting Smith, the INDY Week study states:
“In any facility where you find a high rate of vacancy, you have a lot of workers putting in overtime. If you have people working a lot of overtime, they’re not letting downtime. Poorly trained, overworked staff always contribute to abuse and neglect.”
Disability Rights N.C. opened an independent investigation into Kerr’s death and found “severe deficiencies” in the care for mentally ill prisoners. The group asked Gov. Pat McCrory to declare a hiring emergency in North Carolina prisons and to authorize an expedited hiring system to fill the vacancies.
Solitary Watch obtained a copy of the Disability Rights NC’s letter making the request to commission an accelerated employment system. Dated October 3, 2014, the letter urges the governor to immediately address the severe statewide mental health staffing shortages in the NC DPS.
In another story, INDY Week reports that the Disability Rights NC’s investigation into Kerr’s death, noting that, according to Smith, the probe found “severe deficiencies in the provision of services to inmates to mental illness—such significant problems that constitutional rights are implicated.”
Smith also said that prisoners suffering from mental illness will no longer be held in solitary confinement for more than several days if health care staff find that it would be detrimental. She further stated that prisoners will no longer be placed in isolation based on their symptoms.
In an email response to Solitary Watch, Smith wrote:
The inadequacies of treatment for people with mental illness start long before they end up in prison. Many prisoners like Michael Kerr are in prison because of the criminalization of the symptoms of their mental illness.
Failing to offer affordable, accessible mental health community based service has both an immediate and long term cost. But budget writers are motivated to look only at what those services cost in the short run and err on the side of short term savings.
As a result police are often the first responders to a mental health crisis. Jails are filled with repeat offenders jailed for having untreated symptoms. They are put on a path that ends in prison where they continue to be punished for having a mental illness.
What is happening in our state prisons is horrendous and requires reform. Segregation is used to manage behaviors related to mental illness and minimize the disruption to the general population. It is cruel and inhumane but if you look at the path of prisoners like Mr. Kerr, we failed him much earlier when his mental health needs where ignored. A travesty from beginning to end.
The Death of Michael Anthony Kerr
Michael Anthony Kerr spent 35 days in”restrictive housing” – solitary confinement – at the Alexander Correctional Institution in Taylorsville, NC. The man was transferred to Central Prison’s hospital in Raleigh via prison van but was dead by the time he arrived. According to his recently released autopsy report, Kerr died from dehydration in his solitary cell March 12 of this year. The report also shows that Kerr was not receiving treatment for his schizoaffective disorder.
During his 35 days in isolation, Kerr was cited for flooding his cell on two different occasions. Prison staff responded by shutting off the water supply to the man’s cell, which, according to the NC DPS, is permissible when a prisoner abuses plumbing facilities.
The NC DPS, which has released almost no information on Kerr’s death, responded to prison officials’ negligence by terminating a total of nine employees, including Captain Shawn Blackburn, the former captain who ordered that Kerr remain handcuffed for five days. Blackburn appealed his termination, but last week lost his case.
Th NC DPS said that 30 staff members have been disciplined or demoted as a result of Kerr’s death. But a state investigation revealed that the prison discipline system is not equipped to manage people with mental illnesses.
The United States Department of Justice (DOJ) opened a criminal investigation into Kerr’s death days after the autopsy report was released, with a federal grand jury in Raleigh, NC, issuing subpoenas to obtain related records from the NC DPS after the agency’s lack of cooperation became public.
Track Record of Prisoner Abuses in North Carolina Prisons
The North Carolina prison system has for many years faced criticism for its track record of the mistreatment of people with mental health disorders.
An incident similar to the Kerr tragedy took place at Central Prison in 1997, when an audit found that Vietnam veteran Glen Mabrey, who suffered from mental illness, died of thirst after being held in solitary confinement. Like Kerr, Mabrey’s water had been cut off, in this case for four days, after he had intentionally flooded his cell.
In 2011, an internal review of conditions inside North Carolina’s Central Prison found that prison staff neglected the needs of prisoners suffering from serious mental illnesses. According to the News Observer:
Years of budget cuts, hiring freezes and high turnover led to staffing shortages in critical jobs, especially nurses and doctors. Staff failed to maintain up-to-date records, track medications or respond to calls for medical help.
The report says that nurses acknowledged not knowing which inmates were which and that patients were given too much prescribed medication or none at all.
According to the story, the report also said there have been multiple deaths resulting from medical conditions, including the case of Levon Wilson, who suffered from bipolar disorder. An autopsy report shows Wilson, who was arrested on misdemeanor charges, was moved from Central Prison to WakeMed Hospital in Raleigh in September of 2010, with “moderately high levels” of the medication lithium in his bloodstream. The News Observer reports:
[Wilson’s] cause of death is listed as “complications of lithium therapy,” which led to kidney and bowel problems. Still, the state doctor performing the autopsy declared Wilson’s death as “natural.”
DOC officials refused to release a separate internal review of Wilson’s death, citing federal medical privacy laws.The story also reports that the same internal review also says that, due to staffing shortages, patients were left unsupervised:
Inmates cut themselves and swallowed nails, batteries and shards from plastic eating utensils. The review found numerous inconsistencies and contradictions in written records of observational rounds.
The report also found that inmates in “therapeutic seclusion” were often locked in cells for extended periods without being let out for meals, recreation time or to shower.
A 2012 INDY Week article describes what life is like in solitary confinement in North Carolina prisons. The story describes conditions in the intensive control unit, or ICON, at Central Prison, focusing on the story of Chris McBride, who was placed in ICON after he and a group of other prisoners held a work-stoppage to protest their long hours. According to a letter from McBride:
Solitary confinement is hell. I agree with the public—it is a form of torture. It is a tiny cell about 6 feet by 8 feet. . .
We are in this cell 23 hours a day. We are allowed to come out for recreation five times a week for one hour. The rec is a cage. They just stick us in a little cage and we can walk around. That’s it. We are only allowed to take three showers a week. . .
So if you add up five 1-hour recs, and three 10-minute showers, that’s 5½ hours. Let’s round that up to 6 hours. There’s your answer. Out of the 168 hours in a week, we are out of our cell 6 hours. . .
. . . Normal rules don’t apply to solitary. They are supposed to, but they don’t.
In yet another incident of prisoner abuse at Central Prison, where around 600 people are held in “Close Custody,” prisoners launched a hunger strike in 2012 protest of various prison conditions, the demands of which included “[a]n immediate end to the physical and mental abuse inflicted by officers” and “[t]he end of cell restrictions.
In May of last year, Solitary Watch reported on a federal lawsuit filed on behalf of eight people held in solitary confinement at Central Prison against officers and administrators at the prison. According to the suit, guards used “blind spots” – areas in the prison out of view of surveillance cameras – to beat handcuffed and shackled prisoners.
The beatings took place in Unit One, a cell block commonly known as “The Hole,” where people are held in isolation.
The abuse claims made by the eight prisoners were substantiated by medical records which documented “blunt force injuries,” including broken bones and concussions, sustained while they were isolated from other prisoners. One man was unable to walk for months after his hip was fractured.
The lawsuit named 21 guards accused of participating in the abuse at the maximum security prison in Raleigh as defendants.
Followings hearing on the suit, the judge ordered that additional cameras be installed that would provide surveillance of the blind spots and that digital videos of the surveillance be kept sufficiently long enough to be used by any prisoners who file complaints.
Advocates Call for Greater Oversight of State Prisons
Asked by Solitary Watch to comment on the state of the North Carolina prison system, North Carolina Cure (NC-CURE) Director Elizabeth Forbes responded:
There have been countless issues of abuses of mentally ill prisoners, including the most recent incident– the death of Michael Anthony Kerr. I think this was one reason for Dr. John Carbone’s demotion. It’s just one more lawsuit resulting from his negative and cavalier attitude toward the mentally ill.
Regarding Kerr, our inside sources told us that the guards specifically punished him and he was taken off his mental illness medication…
The problems in North Carolina state prisons originate from severe staff shortages and lack of oversight.
Solitary Watch also contacted North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services attorney Michele Luecking-Sunman, who stated in a telephone interview:
There have definitely been some horrific things that have happened in North Carolina’s prisons in the last several years, and we have and do have pending litigation to try to address the deficiencies that are causing these acts that are occurring.
There’s always a need for greater oversight of mental healthcare in prisons and there is some evidence that there has been some ongoing oversight in North Carolina, but I think that there needs to be more. When there are experts brought in or experts who look at the system to the extent that their recommendations can be followed, they should be followed.
A lot of times prisons are under pressure in terms of funding or what not, but the pressure needs to be there for experts in mental health fields to be the ones that are determining how people are housed when they have mental illness and they shouldn’t always default to custody level people. We need to see treatment instead of punishment when somebody is acting out in a manner that is because of their mental illness.
• According to a lawsuit filed in federal court last week, solitary confinement conditions inside one New Mexico county jail were so inhumane they drove one woman with a history of mental illness to suicide. According to court documents, Raynbow Gignilliat, 39, was kept in isolation without treatment even after “stripping naked, smearing feces and urine on herself and her solitary cell, hallucinating and screaming for hours during the day and night.”
• Wisconsin’s Department of Corrections is planning to make significant changes to its disciplinary code, according to a memo obtained by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. The memo also specifies, “Long-term segregation placements have been shown to be ineffective in terms of discipline and do not serve our corrective or rehabilitative goals.”
• The New York Daily News published an article entitled, “Prisoner advocates slam plan to create Enhanced Supervision Unit for Rikers’ most dangerous inmates.” The plan, which would allow people to be kept in isolation for 17 hours a day, has yet to be approved by the Board of Corrections.
• Researchers at the 2014 American Association for the Advancement of Science Annual meeting hosted Angola 3 member Robert King and discussed the psychological and physical impacts of solitary confinement.
• Susan Greene of The Colorado Independent published a profile of Unique Taylor, a trangender woman held in solitary confinement at the federal supermax facility, Florence ADX.
• CounterPunch ran an article by a member of California Families Against Solitary Confinement, entitled “An End to Solitary is Long Overdue.”
• This week a trial will begin for the former Rikers guard who allegedly ignored the medical needs of a prisoner who died in a solitary confinement cell after swallowing a ball of highly toxic soap. Terrence Pendergrass is facing one count of deprivation of rights under color of color.
• The Providence Journal published a long investigation into the treatment of people with illness inside the state’s prison system, especially focusing on the use of extended isolation.
• After a string of inmate deaths in the state, including several in solitary confinement, the US Department of Justice is gathering information and considering an investigation into Florida’s Department of Corrections.
• On Human Rights Day, LGBT and immigrant rights groups called for an end to the placement of transgender women in male detention facilities. Many trans women are placed in isolation while in immigration detention facilities, allegedly to keep them safe from sexual violence.
The Arizona Department of Corrections (ADC) has opened a new facility with 500 maximum-security prison beds in the Rast Unit at the Arizona State Prison Complex (ASPC Lewis) in Buckeye, Arizona. (Maximum-security prisons in the state of Arizona are what is usually thought of as supermax prisons.)
The opening of the new facility comes on the heels of the ADC’s agreement to a settlement in a class-action lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to improve prison health care and limit the use of solitary confinement in Arizona prisons.
The additional beds at ASPC Lewis are modeled after existing solitary confinement facilities AMU I and Browning Units, which, according to a new report by the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) of Arizona, are “exclusively designed for single cell long-term prisoner isolation.”
The Arizona Republic reports on the new prison, which is estimated to cost Arizona taxpayers $50 million:
The 500 beds will be in 416 cells, 84 of which are double bunked. A few are accessible to inmates with disabilities. It will be staffed round the clock by 115 correctional officers, [ADC Director Charles] Ryan said. . .
An elevated observation deck, with an electronic touch screen to open and close cell doors, overlooks rows of cells.
Each cell is about 12 by 8 feet, with a stainless steel toilet and sink. The bed is a concrete slab, which will have a mattress. At the head of each bed are electrical and cable outlets, which can be used for a television.
Critics Call the New Maximum-Security Prison Wasteful, Not Necessary
On December 1, to coincide with the opening of the new facility, AFSC of Arizona released an in-depth report, “Still Buried Alive: Arizona Prisoner Testimonies on Isolation in Maximum-Security,” which includes the testimonies of people held in maximum-security, or solitary confinement, facilities throughout the state.
Opponents have called the the new prison construction wasteful, urging the state take measures to amend Arizona’s current sentencing legislation standards as an alternative. Critics of the new maximum-security beds also assert that, based on corrections documentation, the ADC is not filling the existing beds it has for maximum-custody prisoners, making the newly constructed prison facility a waste of taxpayers’ dollars.
The AFSC of Arizona maintains that the maximum-security beds are not necessary, stating that the ADC should instead focus resources on rehabilitation programs. In its report, the advocacy group notes that the new maximum-security prison will be Arizona’s first new state prison in years, a decision which commits the state towards increasing incarceration as opposed to pursuing “cost-saving, evidence-based alternatives to incarceration as other states have recently begun exploring and implementing.”
Executive Director of the ACLU of Arizona Alessandra Soler disagrees with Director Ryan’s 2013 assertion that Arizona state prisons do not use solitary. The NPR affiliate KJZZ Radio reports that Soler said the state’s maximum-security prisoners spend too much time in isolation, which is the reason for which the segregation of these people should be considered solitary confinement. Soler elaborates:
“By policy, they’re supposed to be released for two hours a day but many times because of ‘staffing’ issues people will end up in their cells for 24 hours a day, without any access to any programmatic activities, without access to providers,” [Soler] said.
State Defends Construction of New Prison, Citing Projected Growth in Prisoner Population
KJZZ Radio report on the new prison:
“Part of the reason that we decided that this unit was going to be necessary to our operation was because we were looking at population statistics that indicated an increase and that hasn’t changed,” ADC representative Doug Nick told KJZZ Radio. “We are still looking at that there is growth in the system and we need to manage those beds.”
According to Nick, the ADC plans to transfer people already held in maximum-security prisons throughout the state into the new structure, with the ultimate goal of freeing up space in the state’s prison system for “some of the more predatory inmates that require special management.”
An estimated 325 of the 500 prisoners to be housed at the prison will reportedly come from the Eyman unit at Florence Prison located in Florence, Arizona. The remaining beds will be filled with people moved from other prisons or new arrivals.
On December 9, Solitary Watch contacted the ADC to comment on the opening of the new prison in light bed vacancies in existing facilities. When asked why the ADC requires additional beds in spite of the current surplus, ADC spokesperson Bill Lamoreaux referenced the “daily count sheets,” which specify the number of beds available for each custody level.
According to the corrections records dated December 8, 2014, of the 2,705 maximum-security beds designated for men, 190 were vacant – not counting the additional 500 beds. The state also has a 132-bed maximum-security prison facility for women with 39 vacancies.
When asked if the ADC was expecting growth in the number of maximum security prisons, Lamoreaux replied that a look at the count sheets reveals where the need for additional maximum security capacity is warranted.
He continued, stating, “[As for projected growth,] I don’t know. I’m not sure . . . You can compare the current sheet to one from a couple years ago.”
According to the December 9, 2014, count sheet, apparently the first to include the addition of the new 500 beds, there were a total of 661 vacancies among males and 38 among females.
Regarding projected growth, Lamoreaux also alluded to a December 2012 report by the ADC detailing its five-year strategic plan for FY 2014 to FY 2018. Despite having a relatively stable population overall, the report states that certain population segments are increasing, one of which the ADC claims is maximum security.
Finally, when asked if people held in the new maximum security prison will be given more out-of-cell-time than people currently held in maximum-security Arizona state prisons, Lamoraux stated that maximum security prisoners throughout the state will receive additional time out of their cells. He then referred to what the ADC refers to as Director’s Instructions (DI) #326, which outlines instructions implemented by Director Ryan. Ryan’s stated objective is:
“to facilitate a process that requires inmates in maximum custody to work through a program utilizing a step system providing the opportunity to participate in jobs, programs and other out of cell activities. Based on behavior and programming, inmates may progress from controlled based housing to open privilege base housing where movement outside a cell is without restraint equipment.”
According to DI #326, the director’s instructions are subject to review every 90 days.
Report: “Still Buried Alive”
The AFSC Arizona report presents the viewpoints of the true experts on solitary confinement in Arizona – the men and women who live it every day. With written testimonies from 41 people held in solitary confinement in Arizona state prisons, the new report highlights the conditions in maximum-security prison facilities, underscoring the detrimental impacts of isolation. Also included are prisoners’ statements directed to ADC Director Ryan, Governor Brewer and Arizona lawmakers.
In preparing the report, the AFSC asked men and women held in prisons operated by the ADC for their reactions to the planned opening of the 500 maximum-security prison beds. Respondents were also specifically asked about Director Ryan’s 2013 statement that solitary confinement is not used by Arizona prisons, and to compare this statement to their personal experiences of confinement.
According to the report, “On one point every respondent was in agreement – solitary confinement exists in Arizona prisons and it is extremely damaging to every person who endures it.”
In written testimony, an individual describes the conditions of confinement as “horrendous”:
The day to day conditions of confinement are horrendous. For starters, Charles Ryan claims that we’re only locked in our cells for 22 hours a day. Either this is another lie on his behalf or he just has no idea what’s going on in his own facilities. By policy, we’re given two hours of “recreation” in a small concrete box and a shower and every time we leave our cells we’re strip searched and hand cuffed. These days are routinely canceled due to a “staff shortage” to conduct them. The other days of the week are 24-hour lockdown…
Another person rejected the claim that double-celling prisoners does not qualify as solitary confinement:
It doesn’t matter if a convict is locked in a cell with another convict as long as such convict is confined to a cell 24 hours a day. That is considered solitary confinement – in my opinion it’s worse when there are two in a cell confined 24 hours a day because it’s more frustrating seeing a stranger every day and dealing with his habits and attitudes.
Others comment on the long-term effects of solitary confinement, both on the individual subjected to the practice and later, society as a whole:
I have been locked up for 9.5 years – 7 years have been spent in lockdown. I have forgotten how to be around and deal with people. I am getting out in a year and a half and am a wreck. I’ve been kept in a cage on meds with no human contact, no programs, and am expected to get out and be normal. . . [M]ost of us will be getting out. Why would you want to treat people like this, then set them free with no skills, not knowing how to deal with people, offering no programs, and wonder why so many return to prison for violent crimes. [If] you treat humans like animals, they become animals. . .
Solitary confinement does not change us for the better. It makes us hate everyone and creates monsters within us. . . I am speaking for the inmates that should not be in solitary when our classification points do not warrant our stay. We become aggressive and hostile towards people I don’t know.
The issues of self-harming and suicide in solitary were addressed by multiple respondents:
I almost committed suicide like other females are doing while locked down. I tried hanging myself and took a bunch of pills the second and third time.
It irritates your mind. That’s why my seizures have increased these past two years, especially this last year here in SMU I. That’s why inmates are most likely to commit suicide in solitary than medium or minimum custody, and statistics prove that.
The following are some final statements offered by four maximum-security prisoners about their time in solitary confinement:
On Wednesday June 12, 2013 ADC Director Charles Ryan claimed that solitary confinement does not exist in Arizona prisons. If a man is locked in a airtight naked cage alone for 23 hours each day, every day and they only take him out for a shower 3 times a week in a airtight cell or one hour recreation alone in a empty pin. It is solitary no matter their double speak. . .
I would implore anyone who has the power and authority to end the use of long-term, indefinite solitary confinement in any capacity to look beyond any myopic political motives in order to discern whether placing people under such torturous conditions serves the greater good of society or just some misguided agenda based on fear. I’d try to convince them to heed the findings of various scientific studies on the actual effects of solitary confinement.
I would emphasize that they personally need to ask themselves: So what certain life expectations or productivity can an individual who’s been placed decades in solitary confinement, segregation, etc…? What can they look forward towards accomplishing if, or when they are released back into society? And even more so if their mental illness has also gone untreated all those years without physical interaction with other people or with any structural rehabilitation.
I would ask why they’re continuing the practice of solitary confinement when it’s statistically done nothing to lessen the amount of overall violence in prison which was its intended objective. I would ask why they’re so intent on pursuing this failed objective. I would ask why they’re so intent on pursuing this failed policy when all they have to do is look at such states as Mississippi to see how they’ve closed down their isolation units and added programs – excessively lowering their violence levels. . . I would ask why they’re treating us like animals and in a lot of cases turning us into animals when most of us will be re-entering these communities and neighborhoods. A healthier alternative for everybody would seem to be to keep us socially connected…give us jobs, programs, and opportunities. . .
The report, which should be read in full, concludes with recommendations for the ADC. It urges the Corrections Department to “limit use of isolation for ALL maximum-security prisoners regardless of their mental health score”; “move towards full compliance with the Parsons v. Ryan Settlement Agreement as quickly as possible”; “improve access to out-of-cell medical and mental health care”; and “increase the number of and access to educational programming, jobs, and group activities throughout the ADC.”
ADC Continues to Dismiss Claims That It Uses Solitary
Following the release of the AFSC Arizona’s new report, ADC representative Nick dismissed claims that Arizona state prisons use solitary confinement. KJZZ Radio reports that Doug Nick of the ADC referred to the definition of solitary as archaic:
“The state has single cells, of course,” Nick said. “If you have a predatory inmate, a violent inmate, an inmate who is a threat to somebody else, clearly there’s a reason to have a single-cell environment for their safety, of the institution, and the safety of the other inmates.“
The AFSC Arizona responds to Nick’s statements in a recent blog post:
Further confirming that the Arizona Department of Corrections has no understanding of the critiques leveled against it by AFSC or any other prisoner rights advocates, Nick seems to suggest that being in a single cell is the problem, and not the fact that over 2,000 prisoners – and soon 500 more in ASPC Lewis – barely leave their cells for years at a time. Single, double, or tripled bunked, when prisoners aren’t allowed out of their cells and are confined to a space the size of a bathroom for years at time it causes mental, physical, and psychological damage that often cannot be undone. It drives people crazy, makes them suicidal, and results in physical deterioration.
The following comes from Steven Jay Russell, 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 nearly two decades, is the first person in U.S. history to receive a life sentence for prison escapes. He can be reached by writing: Steven Russell, 00760259, Allan B. Polunsky Unit, 3872 FM 350 South, Livingston, TX 77351. –Lisa Dawson
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My name is Steven Jay Russell, age 57, and incarcerated in the death row building at the Polunsky Unit (Texas Department of Criminal Justice- Correctional Institutions Division) in Livingston, Texas, for the non-violent, non-aggravated, offenses of theft by embezzlement and escape. Despite being a non-violent offender, I was sentenced to a 144 year (consecutive or stacked) term of imprisonment. On May 23, 2014, I began my 19th year of solitary confinement. I’ve never been charged with or convicted of any type of criminal offense or institutional disciplinary case for weapons possession, any type of assaultive behavior, destruction of property, or the taking of a hostage. It has been more than eight (8) years since I received any type of major institutional disciplinary case.
Solitary confinement, or administrative segregation, is the most restrictive form of incarceration in the Texas prison system. I am housed in the same building and same pod as inmates who have been sentenced to death for the offense of capital murder. With the exception of cell rotations that are implemented on a periodic basis, my level of security and conditions of confinement, are identical to those inmates that are sentenced to death. We both live in a single man, 6×10 square foot concrete box with a bunk, toilet, sink, table, and metal door with two narrow windows that are covered with wire mesh or plexiglass. My personal property must fit in a two (2) cubic foot container. Human contact, or touching another individual, is against the prison rules.
I do receive a small amount of natural light that comes into the cell via a narrow window about two inches from the ceiling of my cell that remains sealed shut. I do not have access to a television or telephone. Any contact with visitors must occur behind thick plexiglass and a handset type of intercom system.
Except during lockdown, (i.e. Comprehensive cell searches that must take place at least four (4) times per year [a total of six weeks]), I am entitled to what’s called, “recreation,” five days per week for two (2) hours per day in a cage in front of my cell, or a cage with four concrete walls and bars as the ceiling outside. I am also entitled to a daily shower. Guards working my pod pick the time of day or night for both of these privileges. Anytime I leave my cell, or before returning to my cell, I must submit to a full body strip search that is seen by God, man, women, and the cameras that are located throughout this prison unit. Shackles and hand restraints are required for the escort to or from the rec yard, visiting room, and shower. Two guards must escort me to and from wherever it is I am going. If nudity is an issue, this is not the prison for you!
Altogether, there are approximately 420 men assigned to the death row building at Polunsky. Seventeen (17) of these men, including myself, have been singled out for retributive cell rotations. A cell rotation occurs every three to fourteen days and involves exchanging cells with another inmate. An inmate is moved out of his cell, and another inmate is immediately moved in. Cleaning the cell of another inmate, especially one who has serious mental illness and never takes a shower, creates real chaos and unsanitary living conditions. The only cleaning materials that I am issued is a small container of Ajax type cleanser. Cleaning rags, scrub brushes, gloves, toilet bowl brushes, or disinfectant, are all considered contraband and not issued. We are also moved all over the building so that others can see the penalty for escape. Prison staff tell me that the reason for cell rotations is to prevent escapes. Well, if the cells are not secure enough to house a non-violent offender like myself, who has never broken out of prison, why is it secure enough to house the killers who are sentenced to death?
I’ve been doing the cell rotation blast since April of 1998. What changed? I can’t explain it, except for the retributive aspect. Prison officials hold grudges. The jury that gave me my 99 year sentence for my final escape was made-up with seven (7) individuals who were employed by the prison system in Huntsville (Walker County), Texas. At the time of my escape, George W. Bush was governor of Texas. I guess he was embarrassed because I walked out the front door dressed as a doctor on the Estelle Unit, a maximum security prison.
A book by Steve McVicker, three television documentaries on ID Discovery, and film entitled, I Love You Phillip Morris, (Jim Carrey portrays my role in the movie) cover my life. I am, and have been diagnosed with, and take medication for, Obsessive Personality Disorder. I escaped to be with my lover/partner, Phillip Morris. Trial officials, parole officials, prison officials, and my counsel, all realized that I was obsessed over my relationship with Phillip Morris. To save my life, I can’t understand why that fact was never considered to be a mitigating issue on punishment.
I walked out of the prison and jail. I did not steal a car or hurt anyone. Without medication, the OCD becomes out of control for me.
I am reviewed for parole release on an annual basis and have been denied twelves (12) times. Every six months, I am given sham reviews by prison staff to be released to general population. These reviews take about 1 1/2 minutes and are always denied. I’m told that I will never be released to general population by a number of wardens, who have retired.
People who lived in this building and other units I’ve been assigned to in Administrative Segregation or solitary, give up, and some have committed suicide.
At this time, I can name about 13-14 men who quit and gave up on life. I’ve watched men cut their bodies, chop off their testicles, try and hang themselves from the light fixture, smear feces and urine all over themselves and their cell, throw feces at staff, at other inmates, scream and screech throughout the day and night, talk to themselves, stand at their cell door or on the outside rec yard or inside rec cage and take all of their clothes off and expose themselves to others, or overdoes on medications. I feel as if I’m living in a zoo and the situation at best, is overwhelming.
How will this all affect me psychologically once I’m released onto parole? At present, I no longer enjoy being around or interacting with others. Touching another individual, even via a shake of the hand or hug has not happened in so long that I’m not even sure how I will react if this ever takes place. Of course, with my sentence, the parole board could keep me incarcerated for the rest of my life. No, it will not surprise me.
• The Philadelphia Inquirer profiled the case of Khasiem Carr, “one of more than 1,000 Pennsylvania inmates with mental illness kept in isolation for 90 days or more between May 2012 and May 2013.” The article also examines changes that the state has put in place in recent years to provide higher quality care.
• Rasmea Odeh, a Palestinian-American community leader who has been held on immigration fraud charges since November 10, is currently in solitary confinement.
• Solitary Watch’s James Ridgeway and Jean Casella published a commentary piece for The Marshall Project entitled, “What Death Penalty Opponents Don’t Get.” In it they quote from the letters of William Blake, who did not face the death penalty for his crimes but may spend the rest of his life in solitary confinement: “Dying couldn’t take but a short time if you or the State were to kill me; in SHU I have died a thousand internal deaths.”
• According to research presented at the American Public Health Association, juveniles held in North Carolina adult facilities “are more than two times as likely to be placed in solitary confinement.” Other studies have revealed similar patterns in New York City; North Carolina and New York are the only two states where 16 and 17 year olds are automatically tried in the adult criminal justice system.
• The American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) released a new report featuring first-hand testimony from those held in Arizona’s maximum-security prisons. The report, entitled “Still Buried Alive,” was published just as the state opened a 500-bed maximum-security facility.
• The editorial board of New Jersey’s Star-Ledger called for substantial reform of the state’s solitary confinement practices, endorsing legislation proposed by State Senator Ray Lesniak earlier in the week.
• A New Mexico man who’s spent the past seven years in “protective custody” isolation is suing the state in federal court, alleging he has suffered severe physical and emotional damage. The Sante Fe New Mexican published an op-ed in relation to the suit, which stated, “New Mexico is the second worst in the nation for the use of solitary confinement.”
On November 28, the United Nations Committee Against Torture released a 15 page report reviewing the United States’ compliance with the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT). The report cites the excessive use of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons and jails as a violation of CAT, and recommends a set of dramatic reforms.
The report is a follow up to the Committee’s meeting with United States government officials on November 12 and 13 in Geneva. As a state party to CAT, the United States is expected to submit a “Periodic Report” detailing its adherence to the Convention, as well as respond to questions, observations, and recommendations for change issued by the Committee. Over the two days, the United States delegation presented its latest periodic report for a ten-member Committee to review, after almost an 8 year gap since the last such review.
The U.S. government’s periodic report discusses some 55 separate issues of concern to the Committee Against Torture ranging from the treatment of immigrants in detention, the death penalty, police brutality, and sexual abuse of people in prison to the rendition and secret detention of terror suspects and their continued presence at Guantanamo Bay. In all cases, the United States insists that it is in compliance with CAT, even as several human rights and civil liberties organizations submitted shadow reports telling otherwise. (Access them here: American Civil Liberties Union; Center for Constitutional Rights, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children and California Prison Focus; American Friends Service Committee; NY CAIC; the Correctional Association of NY; NRCAT; T’ruah; Victorious Black Women, and the Midwest Coalition for Human Rights.)
The U.S. periodic report also attempts to dismiss the Committee on Torture’s concerns on solitary confinement–which the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture defines as “physical and social isolation of individuals who are confined to their cells for 22 to 24 hours a day,” and to which some 80,000 people are being subjected to every day in the United States. As per the U.S. report, there is “no systemic use of solitary confinement in the United States.”
However, in Geneva, members of the Committee Against Torture raised multiple questions and concerns about solitary confinement in U.S. prisons and jails. Committee Vice-Chairperson George Tugushi questioned the American delegation about measures taken to limit the use of solitary confinement, especially on children and other vulnerable individuals. Another Committee member, Alessio Bruni, asked about prolonged solitary confinement such as is being used in Louisiana, where individuals have been isolated for 30 years, and noted that such treatment caused “anxiety, depression and hallucinations until their personality is complete destroyed.”
Both in its periodic report and during the hearings, the United States government sought to assure the Committee on Torture that sufficient restrictions on the imposition of solitary confinement are already in place. At the hearings, David Bitkower, the Deputy Assistant Attorney General at the Department of Justice maintained that “U.S. courts have interpreted the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution as prohibiting the use of solitary confinement under certain circumstances.” The U.S. periodic report further claims that The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (Rehabilitation Act) limit the use of solitary confinement against persons with mental illnesses and other disabilities, while the PREA [Prison Rape Elimination Act] offers protection from the same for children.
But in its “Concluding observations” released last week, the UN Committee reaffirms that “it remains concerned about reports of extensive use of solitary confinement and other forms of isolation in US prisons, jails and other detention centres for purpose of punishment, discipline and protection, as well as for health-related reasons” even as the United States denies any “systemic use.” In the report, the Committee once again raises concerns on the use of solitary confinement for indefinite periods of time, its use against children and persons with mental disabilities, and the general lack of pertinent statistical data. The report also states that the isolation of prisoners for 22 – 23 hours a day as used in super-maximum security prisons is “unacceptable.”
The Committee lays forth several recommendations for the United States to ensure its policies on solitary confinement are in better compliance with CAT. It asks the U.S. government to restrict the use of solitary confinement “as a measure of last resort, for as short time as possible, under strict supervision and with the possibility of judicial review.” Further it reasserts the need to ban the imposition of solitary confinement on “juveniles, persons with intellectual or psychosocial disabilities, pregnant women, women with infants and breastfeeding mothers in prison.” It also stresses that “regimes of solitary confinement such as those in super-maximum security detention facilities” need to be banned. Finally, the Committee once again brings attention to the lack of detailed information on the use of solitary confinement. It asks the United States to “compile and regularly publish comprehensive disaggregated data on the use of solitary confinement, including related suicide attempts and self-harm.”
Asked how he believes the U.S. government might respond to these recommendations, David Fathi, Director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project said: “We shouldn’t hope for dramatic change. Even if the federal government were highly motivated, it has limited authority to affect conditions in state and local facilities, where ninety percent of prisoners are held.” However, he hopes that the Committee’s report “may give an added push to states and localities that are already considering solitary reform.”
The following article was published earlier this week by the Marshall Project, the new nonprofit news organization focused exclusively on criminal justice. It can be read in full on the Marshall Project’s site.
In 1987, when he was 23 years old and in court on a drug charge, William Blake shot two sheriff’s deputies in a failed escape attempt, killing one. At his trial, the judge presiding over his case expressed regret that New York did not have capital punishment, so he could not sentence Blake to death.
Instead, for the past 27 years, Blake has lived in extreme isolation in a 7 x 9 cell. He is fed through a slot in the solid steel door, and on some days he’s allowed out for an hour to “exercise” alone in a small, barren pen. Because his sentence is 77 years to life, he is virtually certain to die in prison. Because he is classified as both a cop killer and an escape risk, he may well spend the rest of his life in solitary confinement.
Recently Blake, now 50, described his years in the “Special Housing Units,” or SHUs, of New York’s state prisons. “If I try to imagine what kind of death, even a slow one, would be worse than twenty-five years in the box—and I have tried to imagine it—I can come up with nothing,” he wrote. “Dying couldn’t take but a short time if you or the State were to kill me; in SHU I have died a thousand internal deaths.”
Opponents of the death penalty have had many occasions to celebrate in the new millennium. Four states have abolished the practice in the past five years, while others have legally or effectively set moratoriums on executions. Support for capital punishment in the United States is at its lowest point in four decades, and seems likely to fall further as the number of exonerations and gruesomely botched executions continues to grow.
But at what cost have these concessions been won? The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund’s latest “Death Row U.S.A.” report found 3,049 individuals awaiting execution in the United States. According to theSentencing Project, at last count nearly 50,000 people were serving sentences of life without the possibility of parole—a number that has more than tripled since the early 1990s. Over 159,000 were serving life sentences—many of them, like William Blake, with minimums so long that they might as well be doing life without parole, too.
In many states, the expansion—and the very existence—of life without parole sentences can be directly linked to the struggle to end capital punishment. Death penalty opponents often accept—and even zealously promote–life without parole as a preferable option, in the process becoming champions of a punishment that is nearly unknown in the rest of the developing world.
In California, for example, where the latest attempt to end capital punishment by referendum was narrowly defeated in 2012, voters were urged not simply to abolish the death penalty, but to “replace” it with life without parole. In support of this cause, the ACLU of Northern Californiamade a virtue of the similarity between the two punishments: “The reality is that people sentenced to life without parole have been condemned to die in prison and that’s what happens: They die in prison of natural causes, just like the majority of people sentenced to death.” Referring repeatedly to life without parole as “death in prison,” the ACLU resorts to language far more draconian than one might expect from any liberal organization: life without parole sentences have the advantage of being “certain” and “swift,” because “[u]nlike death penalty cases [they] receive no special consideration on appeal” Such sentences are also “severe,” since spending a lifetime in “California’s overcrowded, dangerous prisons…growing sick and old, and dying there, is a horrible experience. This is especially true given the unconstitutional failure to provide adequate health care to California’s prisoners.”
Kenneth E. Hartman, who is serving life without parole in California, agrees with such an assessment—and for that reason, strongly opposed the referendum to replace capital punishment with life without parole. Hartman runs, from prison, a campaign called the Other Death Penalty Project, on the premise that a sentence of life without parole amounts to “a long, slow, dissipating death sentence without any of the legal or administrative safeguards rightly awarded to those condemned to the traditional forms of execution.”
“Though I will never be strapped down onto a gurney with life-stopping drugs pumped into my veins,” Hartmann has written, “be assured I have already begun the slow drip of my execution [which] won’t come to full effect for 50, maybe 60 years.” Like William Blake in New York, he states: “I have often wondered if that 15 or 20 minutes of terror found to be cruel and unusual wouldn’t be a better option.”
Complicating matters is the fact that life without parole rarely takes its place as simply a one-for-one alternative to the death penalty. In New York State, for example, life without parole did not exist before the state’s brief reinstitution of capital punishment from 1995 to 2004. During this period, there were never more than half a dozen men on New York’s death row, and no executions took place. Yet today, nearly 250 people are doing life without parole in New York, and more than 1 in 6 of the state’s prisoners is serving a life sentence.
Connecticut, in abolishing its death penalty in 2012, legislated a punishmenteven more harsh than simple life without parole. Thereafter, a new law decreed, those convicted of “murder with special circumstances” would be condemned to live out their life without parole sentences in solitary confinement. The measure was reportedly backed as a way to win enough support for the repeal bill.
Though the requirement that life/LWOP sentences be served in solitary confinement is codified into law only in Connecticut, it exists in practice throughout the nation. An unknown number of lifers have, like William Blake, been placed in permanent or indefinite solitary confinement by prison officials, without benefit of any kind of due process. So have most of the individuals on the nation’s death rows, including the supposedly fortunate ones who live in states that have instituted moratoriums, and are therefore unlikely to ever face execution.
• According to a recently released United Nations report, the United States is not in full compliance with the Convention Against Torture, to which it is a signatory. The United Nations Committee Against Torture expressed particular concern about the conditions of isolated confinement at federal and state facilities across the country, including at the Bureau of Prisons’ supermax institution, Florence ADX.
• Disability Rights Nebraska has released a report calling for the state to provide better care and discharge planning for those with mental illness held behind bars. Co-author Brad Meurrens said, “Releasing an inmate without adequate discharge planning is like saying, ‘Good luck — we will see you again.”
• Dakem Roberts of Resist Rikers was featured on WBAI, in advance of an upcoming rally to demand more substantive changes at the city jail, especially with regards to solitary confinement.
• Nebraska’s Legislative Department of Correctional Services Investigative Committee continued to hear evidence on the use of solitary confinement across the state. A psychologist who left Tecumseh state prison after working there for six months testified that not all placements in isolation were justified. “There were times that I witnessed and experienced individuals getting time in administrative segregation that was completely unwarranted,” she said.
• Nikko Jenkins, who killed four people within weeks of his release from solitary confinement, is now suing Nebraska’s Department of Corrections for $1.7 million. Jenkins maintains that his mental health deteriorated significantly during his 2.5 years in isolation; his written requests for psychological treatment, hospitalization, and even civil commitment – made before his release – were all denied by the DOC.
• Despite a recent ruling by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals upholding his release, Albert Woodfox of the Angola 3 still remains behind bars and in solitary confinement. Carine Williams, a lawyer for Woodfox, told Democracy Now, “There is no legitimate explanation for [his continued incarceration].”
• A New Jersey lawmaker will shortly introduce a bill to reduce the use of “isolated confinement” at the state’s correctional facilities. If passed, the legislation would bar placement in solitary for longer than 15 days, except in special circumstances.
• Florida’s Secretary of the Department of Corrections, Michael Crews, is stepping down from the post. Crews has come under significant scrutiny since his appointment in 2012, especially in relation to the death of Randall Jordan-Aparo, who passed away in his solitary confinement cell after being gassed twice by guards.
Editors’ Note: The following is an excerpt from Locked Down, Locked Out: Why Prison Doesn’t Work and How We Can Do Better, a new book by Maya Schenwar. Locked Down, Locked Out shows how “the institution that locks up 2.3 million Americans and decimates poor communities of color is shredding the ties that, if nurtured, could foster real collective safety,” and how “incarceration takes away the very things that might enable people to build better lives.” The author, Maya Schenwar, is editor-in-chief of Truthout, and has written about the prison-industrial complex for the New York Times, The Guardian, the New Jersey Star-Ledger, Ms. Magazine, Prison Legal News, and others. This excerpt is particularly timely, since the recent loss of the Illinois gubernatorial election to Republican Bruce Rauner brings reopening Tamms supermax well into the realm of possibility.
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“This could be your brother, your son, or your father. This is what’s in our future. We have to stop it.“
—Reginald Akkeem Berry, on the need to oppose supermax prisons
In 2006, a letter was slipped in through the door slat in Johnnie Walton’s cell. Johnnie was living—twenty-three hours a day—in a seventy-square-foot cell furnished with a concrete bed, a solid steel door, and a window through which little light traveled. Through the slat in the door, three times a day, Johnnie’s meals appeared. For one hour each day, Johnnie was permitted solitary “recreation” in a small pen just outside his cell.
The same routine went for the roughly 250 other prisoners in Tamms, the supermax prison that had opened in Southern Illinois in 1998. Practices at Tamms were similar to those in other supermax prisons and “Secure Housing Units” (such as the one Abraham Macías occupies at Pelican Bay) around the country: The prison, with no yard, no chapel, no dining hall, no library, and no phone calls (unless a close relative was dying), was designed to extinguish the outside world for the men trapped within.
By the time the letter came, Johnnie had already been living in isolation for more than two years. He tore open the envelope and stared. Tucked inside was a poem. An accompanying letter explained that the sender was a member of the “Tamms Poetry Committee,” a group that had come together to provide some contact for these men deprived of almost every type of human connection.
Johnnie was touched but bewildered, he tells me over the phone, almost eight years later. “I got that letter, and I thought, ‘A poetry committee? Men are mutilating themselves, slitting their wrists here…. What do we need with a poetry committee?’”
Johnnie wrote back with a thank-you note—but the note went further: He asked for help, for advocacy. So did several of the other men who received poems that year. Artist and activist Laurie Jo Reynolds, who was part of the group that initiated the poetry committee and later led the effort to fight for the rights of Tamms prisoners, told me, “Not to insult us, but at the beginning, it was sort of a social club. It was the men who wrote to us and told us, ‘It’s time to do more. You have to tell people what’s happening to us in here.’”
Doing more meant mounting a broad-based organizing effort to confront the conditions at—and, later, the existence of—Tamms. (They dubbed the campaign “Tamms Year Ten,” referencing the fact that, though there was supposed to be a one-year limit on prisoners’ stay at the supermax, many had remained there the entire ten years of its existence.) It meant meeting with legislators at every chance possible and graphically describing the conditions in the prison, guided by the words of the men inside. It meant vigils, press conferences, lobbying days at the capitol, and a community picnic complete with a parsley-eating contest. Tamms Year Ten partnered with dozens of other organizations and sympathetic legislators, mobilizing for a reform bill limiting terms at Tamms and requiring prisoners to be told why they were transferred to the supermax. At the forefront of the struggle were family members of men hidden away in the prison. As several Tamms prisoners were released (by way of parole, appeal victories, or the end of their sentences), they became leaders in the campaign.
In fact, the day that Johnnie got out, he swallowed his postrelease anxieties and spoke of his years in Tamms to a large crowd at a fundraiser in a Chicago nightclub. “It was scary,” he says. “There was lots of noise … but I had to start right away, speaking for the people who didn’t have a voice. I had to speak about the torture of Tamms.”
Reginald Akkeem Berry, another former Tamms prisoner, says that advocating for the men he’d left behind in the supermax was tough at first, partly because they were essentially invisible, knocked off the map at the bottom of Illinois without so much as a phone call home. “Most people didn’t know the town of Tamms, Illinois, even existed,” Akkeem says. So when he spoke about the prison, he invoked people on the outside instead. He spoke of family and the ways that solitary confinement harms poor black and brown communities—especially at a time when the Illinois prison population was still rising and supermaxes were multiplying across the country. “Every time I went to a community meeting, I said, these people in Tamms—this could be your brother, your son, or your father. This is what’s in our future. We have to stop it.”
Akkeem was the first released man to be interviewed about Tamms, he says, for a 2008 Chicago Reader feature titled “Hell in a Cell.” At that point, “solitary confinement” was a phrase most folks on the outside hadn’t often heard. Media attention intensified. In 2009, the work of Tamms Year Ten caught the attention of Amnesty International, which condemned the prison as “incompatible with the USA’s obligations to provide humane treatment for all prisoners.”1
The folks of Tamms Year Ten spoke before legislative budget hearings. In addition to denouncing the human destruction occurring behind Tamms’ walls, they pointed to the prison’s staggering price tag: holding one prisoner at Tamms cost $92,000 per year.2 Momentum against Tamms caught fire—and increasingly, caught the eye of Illinois Governor Pat Quinn. Meanwhile, the prison guards unions and the town of Tamms fought hard to keep the prison, and the struggle unfolded in the media and in the streets, with prisoners’ families lobbying at the state capital and leading marches in Chicago.
In 2012, despite the many legislators vying for Tamms to stay open, the governor performed a rare line-item veto and simply budgeted Tamms out of existence. Despite challenges by the legislature, the Illinois Supreme Court decided to permit this move, and in January 2013 the prison was shuttered. Tamms Year Ten had triumphed.
There’s more: When Quinn performed his act of line-item rebellion, he also ordered the closing of three other Illinois prisons, citing cost savings. Those included two youth prisons whose elimination had been advocated by Project NIA and other groups, through efforts like a hunger strike, legislative advocacy, and community organizing.3 Also included was Dwight, a maximum-security women’s prison. The Illinois prison system seemed to be shrinking.Decarcerate!
Shrinking: In a country where more than 7 million people are bound up in the “correctional” system, this is how many people working against incarceration frame their goal. You can’t pop this balloon with just one pin. Not everyone working to close Tamms was interested in abolishing all prisons, but many were. They were simply starting with one.
Historian and activist Dan Berger points to the importance of such concrete change-making—closing buildings, reducing prison populations, slashing budgets, dismantling policies that confine people even after release—to the overall goal of freeing ourselves from the prison nation. He defines this movement as decarceration: “reform in pursuit of abolition.”4
The word “incarcerate” stems from the same root as the word “cancel”: Both mean to cross something, or someone, out (whether with bars, or lines, or actions). Decarceration, then, is also a movement toward un-canceling people—not just by fighting for their release, but by recognizing and supporting their humanity.
The strategy that drove the Tamms Year Ten campaign was about making visible the lives of people who’d been “canceled” in the most extreme way. And Tamms was not the only place in which people in solitary confinement were finding ways to come together and speak out. In fall 2012, more than a year after they’d waged two three-week hunger strikes, prisoners in California’s Pelican Bay SHU announced a historic Agreement to End Hostilities, which was then signed and publicized by thousands of people inside and outside of prison, building a coalition across the state. It read, in part:
Beginning on October 10, 2012, all hostilities between our racial groups … in SHU, Ad-Seg, General Population, and County Jails, will officially cease. This means that from this date on, all racial group hostilities need to be at an end … and if personal issues arise between individuals, people need to do all they can to exhaust all diplomatic means to settle such disputes; do not allow personal, individual issues to escalate into racial group issues…. Collectively, we are an empowered, mighty force, that can positively change this entire corrupt system…, and thereby, the public as a whole.
Prisoners emphasized that their actions extended beyond a pursuit of reforms. They were challenging the prison nation’s assumption of—and instigation of—ongoing “racial warfare” behind bars, which is used to justify solitary confinement and other restrictive policies meant to isolate prisoners from each other.
In June 2013, when prisoners in the Pelican Bay SHU waged a nonviolent hunger strike to demand better conditions and more opportunities to connect with people on the outside, building networks that fostered both action and visibility were key. Tens of thousands of California prisoners fasted in solidarity. An outside movement led by family members of the strikers rose up across the state and across the country to support the prisoners with letters, phone calls to the Department of Corrections, and rallies. The strike garnered unprecedented media attention, appearing in many major newspapers and on radio and television stations.
Isaac Ontiveros of the prison abolitionist organization Critical Resistance tells me about the group’s participation in the strike: “They hollered at us before the strike and said, ‘We’re going to do this thing on the inside, and we need your support from the outside’…. They came up with solutions for how to resolve harm and conflict inside, without violence. They won some demands, but they also showed us—if it’s possible to do this in solitary, think of what’s possible for people in less restrictive conditions.”
What’s more, many of the same arguments raised against the scourge of solitary can also be used against imprisonment itself, though with different connotations: Isolation, dehumanization, deprivation of contact, and violence are characteristics of incarceration everywhere. And as Isaac mentioned, the strikers’ actions—the historic commitment made through the Agreement to End Hostilities, and the project of coordinating nonviolent resistance despite enormous communication barriers—also point to exciting possibilities for resolving harm and conflict without (in fact, in spite of) law enforcement and prison.
However, much media coverage reduced the strike’s significance to a protest against specific conditions alone, creating the illusion that prisons, and even solitary confinement, can be made “humane”—that they are fixable. Suddenly, mainstream voices were issuing calls to cease the “cruel and unusual punishment,” pointing to certain brutal practices as “out of the ordinary” modes of discipline. Of course, ameliorating conditions is always an important goal: It’s crucial, for example, to provide nutritious food and allow prisoners to call their families. But in framing these improvements as ends in themselves, the terms of “ordinary” punishment are solidified: Caging people is “usual,” so it’s fine!
Additionally, small concessions are sometimes used to divert attention from larger ongoing injustices. Several months after the 2013 hunger strike, Dolores Canales of California Families to End Solitary Confinement noted in a MintPress News interview that, despite a few reforms implemented by the Department of Corrections—such as changes in criteria for placing people in SHUs—the basic picture hadn’t changed. “They can still use solitary indefinitely,” Canales said. “They don’t see a problem with it, with leaving somebody for thirty or forty years in their cell. They won’t acknowledge it’s a problem.”5
And so, doing decarceration-focused work means bearing in mind long-term impacts. For instance, California Families to Abolish Solitary Confinement sets ending the practice of isolation as its ultimate goal. And as the LGBTQ prison abolitionist group Black and Pink’s mission statement puts it, “Any advocacy, services, organizing and direct action we take will be sure to remove bricks from the system, not put in others we will need to abolish later.”“There’s Too Many People in This Prison”
Closing prisons and reducing populations don’t blaze a straight path to freedom. It can be jagged. It can be messy. When Illinois Governor Pat Quinn announced in February 2012 that Dwight Correctional Center would be closing along with Tamms, decarceration activists both inside and outside were jubilant. The closing of a prison heralds the possibility of the entire system’s crumbling.
But when I received the news of Dwight’s closing through an elated press release email from an activist group, my own elation wasn’t based on the anti-prison victory alone. It also stemmed from the fact that my sister was living inside that prison.
Dwight served as both Illinois’ maximum-security women’s prison and also the “intake” center for prisoners newly received into the system. Kayla was holed up in Dwight, waiting to be bussed off to a minimum-security spot a little farther south. Even if they closed Dwight the instant I opened the email, Kayla wouldn’t be freed—she would be whisked away to another joint. Still, the image in my mind of the prison shuttering its windows looked something like hope.
A year and a half later, in fall 2013, I reflect on that sense of hope while pacing the waiting room at Logan Prison, impatient to be called in for a visit with my sister. Phones and reading material are prohibited, so people are milling around the vending machine. A hazy tension hovers in the air; we have no idea how long we’ll be waiting, and the guards on duty won’t drop a clue. One simply says, “There’s too many visitors, because there’s too many people in this prison.”
A short, graying man in a denim shirt who’s leaning against the wall near me comments, “I bet you we wait here another hour, two hours. We might not even get in before visiting hours are over, no kidding.” Like my family, this man drives four hours to get to Logan, he tells me, sometimes to wait about the same amount of time. When he finally gets in to see his daughter, she says she can’t get an appointment with the prison dentist to get a severely aching tooth pulled; the waiting list is too long. I describe the way Kayla has been neglected since giving birth; she’s suffering a kidney infection, writhing in pain, with little medical attention.
The man shook his head. “It’s been like this ever since they closed down Dwight.”
It’s not an unheard-of opinion; Dwight’s closing wasn’t handled well. Before the shutdown, the prison watchdog group John Howard Association warned against rapidly closing Dwight: “Absent a clear plan to reduce population, the shuttering of Dwight is likely to exacerbate crowded conditions [at other prisons], which may further undermine the health, welfare and safety of staff and inmates,” the association argued, adding that Logan’s location—further from Chicago than Dwight—would make visiting more difficult for most families.6
Laurie Jo Reynolds, who helped lead the campaign to close Tamms and also advocated closing Dwight, notes that shutting down a prison isn’t always a perfect tactic, nor should it be undertaken unilaterally without consideration for prisoners’ well-being. “Some people talk about it as a strategy where you close prisons and then there’s overcrowding, and that results in more pressure to reduce prison populations,” she says. “But then do you do that on the backs of the people there?”
Closing a prison like Tamms was an unequivocal victory for both the prisoners released from solitary and the overall shrinking of the prison system: The supermax was only half-full, and there were empty cells lying in wait at other men’s prisons in the state. By some standards, Dwight was a slightly trickier business. In addition to ensuring care for people involved, Laurie Jo urges that advocacy for prison closings be combined with pushes to reduce populations and change sentencing laws. In other words: Get people out.
Back in the waiting room at Logan, the man in the denim shirt shakes his head. “Six more months for my daughter. Really, I just hope she’ll just never come back here. That would solve this whole problem, wouldn’t it?”
• At his first news conference devoted exclusively to conditions on Rikers Island, Mayor Bill DeBlasio announced plans to create a $14.8 million “enhanced supervision housing” (EHS) to hold the jail’s 250 “most dangerous” individuals, who would be locked into their cells for as many as 17 hours a day. Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte has said that broader reforms on the use of solitary at the jail are dependent upon the creation of an EHS unit.
• Rikers Island will also open a unit exclusively for trans women, intended to “offer transgender women safe and respectful separation from the general population” without placing them in solitary confinement. LA Weekly published an article about a similar unit housed in Los Angeles’ Central Jail.
• The Center for Constitutional Rights’ Alexis Agathocleous published an Op-ed for MSNBC entitled, “Rampant use of solitary confinement in the US constitutes torture.”
• Five individuals on death row in Virginia have filed a lawsuit challenging their conditions of isolation. The plaintiffs are seeking the same privileges given to another state prisoner on death row, Alfredo Prieto, who successfully challenged his conditions of confinement on due process grounds.
• Fusion has published an investigation into the conditions endured by trans women locked up in US immigration detention– including being placed in solitary confinement. This week, LGBT activists also expressed disappointment with President Obama after he announced a series of administrative actions on immigration. According to an Op-ed published on The Advocate, “many transgender detainees, especially trans women, are asking federal immigration authorities to deport them back to their home countries, often at extreme personal risk, because conditions in the detention facilities are so bad.”
• Los Angeles County officials have agreed to several changes to bring the city’s jails into compliance with federal disability regulations. One individual alleges he was held in disciplinary segregation for four months “because he refused to give up his wheelchair when deputies tried to make him switch to a walker or crutches.”
• A Santa Fe-based attorney is set to file a federal lawsuit on behalf of an individual who has been held in solitary confinement since 2007. Lawyer Jason Flores-Williams said, “The time has come to abolish long-term solitary confinement in America. It is a racist abomination that shocks the conscience and offends any contemporary standards of decency.”
• The US Department of Justice asked a federal court to dismiss its lawsuit against the Terrebonne Parish Juvenile Detention Center in Louisiana, citing improved conditions in the facility. Among other changes, the settlement reached with the County prohibited the use of disciplinary isolation for longer than 72 hours except in extraordinary circumstances.
• A 35-year-old woman has committed suicide inside her solitary cell, according to the Illinois Department of Corrections. Victoria Woodrich was in disciplinary segregation at the time of her death.
• A one-time US amateur super heavyweight champion has been held in solitary confinement for several months while he awaits admission to a state mental hospital. He is one of 24 individuals in Tacoma who have faced extensive delays in court-ordered mental health treatment since the summer.
• A Nebraska performance audit has recommended that the state review how it uses solitary confinement to discipline those on the inside. The 134-page report found “that the department lacked clear statutory guidelines as to what constitutes ‘serious or flagrant’ behavior that warrants solitary confinement or a loss of good time.”
In a unanimous decision, a three-judge panel from the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the overturning of Albert Woodfox’s conviction. Yet he may remain in prison–and in solitary confinement–for months or even years before his four-decade ordeal is over.
Woodfox has been held in solitary confinement for more than 42 years for the 1972 murder of corrections officer Brent Miller at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. Many believe that he and the other two members of the so-called Angola 3 were targeted for the crime, and subsequently held in isolation, not because of the evidence but because of their involvement in the prison’s chapter of the Black Panther Party. Woodfox is the only member of the so-called Angola 3 to remain in prison. Robert King was freed in 2001, following 29 years in solitary, after his original conviction was overturned. Herman Wallace, whose conviction had also been overturned, died last year after more than 41 years in solitary and a few days of freedom.
The Fifth Circuit, considered one of the nation’s most conservative Federal Appeals Courts, voted to uphold a ruling by a Federal District Court, which vacated Woodfox’s conviction on the grounds that there had been racial bias in the selection of grand jury forepersons in Louisiana at the time of his indictment. The State of Louisiana could decide to accept the Appeals Court’s decision and free Woodfox, or release him on bail while it seeks to re-indict him for the 1972 murder.
Those scenarios are highly unlikely, however, considering the past statements and actions of Louisiana Attorney General James “Buddy” Caldwell. Caldwell has called Woodfox, now 67 years old, “the most dangerous man on the planet” due to his political convictions. More recently, when Woodfox’s conviction was overturned last year, Caldwell immediately vowed to appeal, saying: “We feel confident that we will again prevail at the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. However, if we do not, we are fully prepared and willing to retry this murderer again.”
Now that things have not gone his way, Caldwell may prepare for a retrial, while opposing bail for Woodfox. Or he may appeal the ruling to the full Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals rather than a three-judge panel–and from there to the Supreme Court, where the Circuit Justice is Antonin Scalia.
Caldwell asserts that the evidence against Woodfox is “overpowering”: “There are no flaws in our evidence and this case is very strong,” he said last year. These statements belie the fact that much of the evidence that led to Wallace and Woodfox’s conviction has since been called into question. In particular, the primary eyewitness was shown to have been bribed by prison officials into making statements against the two men. Solitary Watch’s James Ridgeway first wrote about the Woodfox case in 2009 in Mother Jones, providing a comprehensive history and analysis, as well as an account of the conditions in which Woodfox has lived for four decades.
Woodfox’s conditions of confinement have if anything deteriorated in the last five years: He was moved from Angola to David Wade Correctional Center in north central Louisiana, where, according to a separate lawsuit, he faces multiple daily strip searches and visual body cavity searches. Woodfox, along with Robert King and the estate of Herman Wallace, is also plaintiff in a major federal lawsuit challenging his decades in solitary on First, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendment grounds. That suit may finally come to trial next year.
Last Wednesday and Thursday, United States government officials met with representatives at the United Nations to discuss the country’s compliance with the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT). Every country that is a signatory to the CAT is required to submit a “Periodic Report” to the UN Committee on Torture outlining its adherence to the Convention, and countries are also obliged to respond to any questions, observations, and recommendations for change put forward by the Committee. The U.S.’s latest Periodic Report was submitted in October (as reported by Solitary Watch here), and last week, U.S. representatives traveled to Geneva to meet with the ten-member Committee.
The Committee on Torture raised a number of issues at the periodic review, including the abuses committed at Guantanamo Bay, violence committed by police forces, conditions in immigration facilities, and solitary confinement. Each day more than 80,000 people held in solitary confinement across the United States, confined to a space the size of a parking space for 22 to 24 hours a day. There are almost no laws that regulate how isolation is implemented on the inside, whether in local, state or federal correctional facilities.
Even before the session began, prisoners’ rights advocates and anti-solitary activists had little reason to hope that the review would be taken seriously by U.S. government officials or correctional authorities. In the report submitted to the Committee last month, U.S. officials stated that there is “no systematic use of solitary confinement in the United States.” In the weeks preceding the Committee hearing, a number of prominent human rights and civil liberties organizations submitted shadow reports disputing the US government’s assertions. (Read them in full here: American Civil Liberties Union; Center for Constitutional Rights, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children and California Prison Focus; American Friends Service Committee, NY CAIC, the Correctional Association of NY, NRCAT, T’ruah, Victorious Black Women, and the Midwest Coalition for Human Rights.)
At last week’s hearing, the Committee Vice-Chairperson, George Tugushi, queried American government officials about what measures were in place to limit the imposition of solitary confinement and whether alternatives were being utilized to avoid prolonged detention. Two other committee members also asked questions about the isolation endured by those locked up in America’s prisons and jails.
David Bitkowe, the Deputy Assistant Attorney General at the Department of Justice, told the Commission that significant progress had been made in addressing the issue of solitary confinement on U.S. soil. He stressed that several states have undertaken reforms in recent years to reduce the use of solitary confinement without compromising prison safety, and specified that U.S. federal courts “have interpreted the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution as prohibiting the use of solitary confinement under certain circumstances.” The delegation declined to specify the number of individuals who are currently held in isolation in the United States.
Bitkowe also stated that prisoners were most frequently placed in isolation for their own safety – not for institutional security – and emphasized that solitary confinement was never imposed in order to cause psychological harm. He added that the Justice Department “is continuing to work to prevent, detect and respond to abuse in U.S. prisons.”
In a reference to the Angola 3, an Italian member of the Committee on Torture, Alessio Bruni, said that some some prisoners in Louisiana had been held in isolation for more than three decades. He told the U.S. delegation that the practice of holding individuals in long-term isolation was “leading [prisoners] to insanity” and causing “anxiety, depression and hallucinations until their personality is complete destroyed.”
David Fathi, Director of American Civil Liberties Union National Prison Project, was one of several advocates present at the hearing in Geneva. Afterwards, he responded to the comments provided by Bitkowe and others. “The U.S. government is still in denial,” Fathi told Solitary Watch in an email. “The idea that it’s not solitary confinement if you can have a radio or receive a letter just doesn’t pass the laugh test.”
Concluding observations and recommendations will be issued by the UN Committee on Torture on November 28.
• Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus wrote about the case of 22-year-old Reginald Latson, a young Black man diagnosed with autism who was incarcerated after a confrontation with a police officer. In a letter to Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe , his lawyers wrote, “In effect [Reginald] spends 24 hours a day locked in a segregation cell with minimal human contact for the ‘crime’ of being autistic. Absent intervention, there is every reason to think he will remain there until the opportunity for effective treatment has been lost.”
• In a study published in Prison Journal, a Michigan State University criminologist concluded that “solitary confinement does not make supermax prison inmates more likely to reoffend.”
• New York’s legislative Assembly committees on correction and mental health held joint hearings on the mental health care incarcerated people receive on the inside. Alicia Barazza, whose 21-year-old son committed suicide in solitary confinement at Fishkill state prison two weeks ago, was among those who testified.
• In an editorial, the News & Observer called for the North Carolina General Assembly to investigate conditions in the state’s prisons, especially the placement of those with mental illness in solitary confinement.
• The US government went before the United Nations Committee Against Torture in Geneva as part of a periodic review to determine its compliance with international human rights standards. The committee has repeatedly cited concerns about the extensive use of prolonged solitary confinement in prisons and jails across the United States.
• The Lexington Clipper-Herald published an in-depth investigation into the Special Management Unit at the Nebraska state prison in Tecumseh. The paper was given access to tour the unit, which has 192 single-occupancy cells for individuals on “restricted housing.”
• An individual incarcerated at an Arkansas maximum-security prison has committed suicide. According to the state’s Department of Corrections, 38-year-old Danny Cromeans used a bedsheet to hang himself in his cell.
• The wife of a former Tamms Correctional Center officer has begun petitioning door-to-door for the prison’s re-opening. Tamms was shuttered about two years ago after an extensive campaign which highlighted the extreme conditions of solitary confinement endured by people on the inside.
• A lawsuit field against South Carolina’s Department of Corrections, on behalf of those incarcerated with mental illness, is now in mediation. A judge ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in January of this year, commenting, “Over 70,000 cases of every imaginable sort have come to this court over the years, this case, far above all others, is the most troubling. People were in solitary confinement not only for a day, around the clock, day or week but sometimes for years.”
This following piece was written by Scott Van Bergen, who is currently being held at Southport Correctional Facility, a supermax prison in Pine City, New York, where about 700 men are held in isolation in the “Special Housing Units,” or SHUs. It was written in response to an article in a recent Solitary Watch newsletter on efforts by advocates to bring about solitary confinement reform in New York. Van Bergen describes the emotional and psychological tolls exacted by solitary confinement, including the sense of disorientation caused by extended periods of isolation. Yet, like many others in his situation, he describes not wanting to share his suffering with others, even with the mental health worker (“MHU person”) who occasionally stops by his cell. He can be reached by writing: Scott A. Van Bergen 07A6361, Southport Correctional Facility, P.O. Box 2000, Pine City, New York 14871-2000. —Maclyn Willigan
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
My name is Scott Andrew Van Bergen, I am serving a 15 year sentence in NY. I just read your article today on isolated confinement. Good Work!! Never Stop!
I truly thought nobody on the outside really understands or cares about the type of condition a person is exposed to. Like myself. I am currently doing 18 months at Southport Corr. Fac. confined to a cell no bigger then ones bathroom at home. 23-24 hours a day. Locked in the cage! Sometimes you don’t get your one hour recreation in a cage smaller then my cage I sleep in. Depends on the CO.
There are times how I think it’s not at all bad doing months on end in Southport, SHU. And then there are times I think, Is it normal for me to think that?? I have lost all communication skills. I mean I have the very little I’ve kept. I don’t even want to talk to any body at many times. I don’t even want to talk to a MHU person [mental health worker].
I feel like a caged in animal. Get treated like an animal. At times I can buy candy bars on Level 3 after being a good boy for several months. I feel like a dog who gets treats every once in a while. I receive my food through a feed-up slot, (like a caged in animal) in old dirty trays that have been around for years. No telling what kind of germs are on the trays. I’ve gotten so paranoid. I switched to kosher food. That way I felt a[t] piece with myself knowing my food now comes in packages. I’ve worried CO’s have done GOD knows what to my food.
I sleep next to an old sink toilet combination for crying out loud. What is normal in that? As I sit here and write this letter, it’s a sham because I am really saying to myself, “The SHU life ain’t all that bad!” And yet, what does that tell you? Not one person with a sain mind and level headed will agree with me. I’ve been in and out the SHU all my bid so far. And yet every so often a MHU person walks down the company and not stop at times. Times he or she stops at my cell, he or she asks, “AM I OK?” I say to myself, “OK!?! Ha!” Then I tell her, “Just fine.” That right there will show you my communication skills have gone for south.
I must stop my letter here because, still I’m questing myself on why would I say the SHU is all bad? This will show you also that my mind is so back and fourth, I think at times not normal things are normal for a person to survive in the SHU. Which is beyond me.
Are people in prison allowed to stand up for their rights? Or does all organized resistance to inhumane prison conditions amount to rioting? Five men—Andre Jacobs, Carrington Keys, Anthony Locke, Duane Peters and Derrick Stanley—will stand trial in a case that may determine how Pennsylvania’s justice system answer that question. The trial was scheduled to begin today, but the court issued a continuance until February 17.
All five had been held at the Restricted Housing Unit (RHU) at SCI-Dallas, a prison in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania. In the RHU, men are locked into their cell for nearly 24 hours a day. People can be sent to the RHU for violating prison rules, including various nonviolent infractions. Shandre Delaney recalls that her son, Carrington Keys, was originally placed in the RHU for 90 days in 2001 when he got into a fight with another prisoner. “He kept being written up for things like covering his light because the lights are on all night or for verbal assault for talking back to a guard,” she told Solitary Watch. These write-ups extended his stay in the RHU. Keys spent most of his twenties in the RHU. He was briefly released in 2009 but was sent back to the RHU later that year on charges of having contraband. He attributes his return to solitary confinement to the numerous grievances, lawsuits, and criminal complaints he filed against prison staff.
Like Keys, Derrick Stanley was originally sent to the RHU for a few months. “When I was in the chow hall in general population, the guard would give us three to five minutes to eat. When those three to five minutes was up, I told him, ‘I would like to finish my food.’ He let me finish my food, but then sent me to the hole,” he explained. There, Stanley accumulated write-up after write-up for other actions, such as attempting to cover his light or for talking back to the guards. He spent a year in the RHU.
“If you’ve ever been inside a dog pound, you see individual dogs in individual cages,” he described. “In this particular unit [the Restricted Housing Unit at Pennsylvania’s SCI-Dallas], it’s like being a dog locked in a cage. The dogs depend on humans for food, water, and to be let out. We depend on the COs. It’s like your life is in their hands.”
Stanley said that staff utilized their positions of power to commit extreme abuses. He is not the only person to charge staff at SCI Dallas with human rights violations In 2009, Human Rights Coalition-Fed Up! began an investigation into conditions at SCI Dallas. Through letters from people inside, interviews with family members, institutional paperwork, affidavits and civil litigation documents, the group compiled Institutional Cruelty, a 93-page report detailing “the cruelty, illegality, suffering, racism, violence, and despair that constitute the reality inhabited by inmates at SCI Dallas.”
According to the report, cells are filthy and the water from the sink is often brown. Other complaints included failure to provide physical and mental health care, deprivation of water, and routine physical violence. Stanley recalls more than one instance in which staff notified him of a visit from his mother and sister. Staff handcuffed and shackled him. Then, instead of taking him to the visiting room, he said he was “knocked out and thrown back in my cell.” When his mother and sister did actually visit, driving six hours for a one-hour visit, staff told them that Stanley had refused the visit. They did not notify Stanley, who found out later from his mother.
Prisoners also reported that staff spit or put other bodily fluids in their food. In addition, staff frequently refused to feed a person by passing his cell as they handed out food trays (a practice known as “burning them for their trays”). Many men charged that staff prevented them from accessing the grievance box to complain about practices. Those who did manage to file grievances found that their complaints fell on deaf ears. “I put so many grievances in,” Stanley told Solitary Watch. “They turned a blind eye to all of them.”
In at least one instance, according to Stanley, staff encouraged a man to commit suicide. “He was always yelling, ‘I’m a kill myself! I’m a kill myself!’ Stanley said of fellow prisoner Matthew Bullock. Instead of seeking mental health treatment for him, Stanley recalled hearing the guards egging the man on. “Kill yourself! Go ahead and kill yourself!” The guards moved Bullock from a cell with a camera to one without a camera, where he hanged himself. Seven other prisoners independently reported the guards’ actions, including the man’s transfer to a different cell, to the Human Rights Coalition, which included these testimonies in their report. Although his was the only death labeled a suicide, Bullock was one of thirteen people who died that year in SCI-Dallas.
On April 29, 2010, Isaac Sanchez, then age twenty, noticed that staff had not given the man in the adjoining cell, Anthony Kelly, a food tray. Like Sanchez, Kelly had participated in HRC’s investigation, detailing verbal abuse, lack of water and assaults by multiple staff on one person. “I said, ‘My neighbor’s not getting fed. That’s not policy,'” Sanchez told Solitary Watch. “The officer said, and excuse my language, ‘Fuck him and fuck you’ and started burning me for my tray.” Sanchez and the officer had a verbal argument, with Sanchez locked behind his cell door and the officer in the hallway. Then, Sanchez reported, the water to his cell was turned off, leaving him unable to use the sink or flush the toilet.
“From time to time, the sink water would explode [out of the faucet] and water would get all over my property, my bed, and everything.” Then, staff came to Sanchez’s cell door and told him to pack his property and be ready to move. Sanchez recalled seeing twelve other correctional officers in the hall and, fearing for his safety, refused to move.
“The lieutenant told me, ‘You gonna come out of the cell or we gonna take you out,'” he recalled. “I told him I wasn’t going to leave my neighbor.”
Sanchez reported that he was then sprayed with pepper spray, beaten and tasered. He said staff cut his clothes away with a boxcutter and took him to a section of the law library where they cuffed him into a chair by his wrists and ankles. Sanchez recalled looking at the window and noticing it was dark out. “Then the sun came out and I knew that the hours had passed,” he said. Staff checked on him every two to four hours and, although a nurse was supposed to slip her finger beneath his wrist restraint to check his pulse, he was restrained so tightly that her finger was unable to fit.
Sanchez estimates that he was restrained in the chair for twenty to thirty hours. Then he was taken out and placed in an empty cell with no mattress, clothing or water for about 72 hours.
Others in the RHU attempted to do something about Sanchez’s beating. In Pennsylvania’s RHU, when a person covers the window to his cell, a supervising officer is called to his cell to ensure that he is not self-harming. In the past, people in the RHU have used this tactic to call in higher-ups to complain about guard brutality. That day, six men—Derrick Stanley, Carrington Keys, Anthony Kelly, Duane Peters, Andre Jacobs and Anthony Locke—covered the windows of their cell doors after Sanchez was beaten and taken to the restraint chair. “That was our last resort. We didn’t think they [the captain or superior] was going to help, but what can you do? You’re locked in the cell,” explained Stanley.
No supervising officer appeared. Instead, the men say, they were pepper sprayed and beaten. “I lay on the ground, my face on the floor, put my hands behind my back [when the guards came into the cell],” Stanley recalled.” I lay on the ground in the submissive position and they kicked me in the face so much that I had to get stitches. I couldn’t even cry, I was in so much pain. They tasered me in the groin over and over.”
Stanley says that staff cut his clothes away with a boxcutter, then cuffed him. “They took me asshole-naked in handcuffs and shackles all around the range in front of two hundred to three hundred men,” Stanley recalled. “I was still leaking blood.” Then, he said, he was placed in a cage that he described as “littler than a dog cage.” That night, he could hear others being beaten. “All you heard was the beating. You could hear the impact and the force,” he described, rapping out a simulation of the sounds that night. “You kept hearing, ‘Stop resisting!’ and ‘I’m not resisting!'”
Delaney said that her son was similarly brutalized. Keys managed to send his mother a letter the next day. “By the time you receive this, make some calls to the prison,” he had written. “They [staff] are on a rampage.” When Delaney called, Keys had already been transferred to SCI Frackville. She called Frackville and spoke to the counselor, who assured her that her son was fine. After being transferred again, this time to SCI Camp Hill outside Harrisburg, Keys was placed in a stepdown program and, after spending a decade in solitary confinement, was allowed into general population. For his participation in the April 29th protest, he was issued a misconduct ticket for refusing to obey an order but was allowed to remain in general population.
Stanley too was transferred the day after the beating to SCI Mahanoy, where he was kept locked down for several months and, like Keys and the other men, issued a misconduct ticket for refusing to obey an order. On February 7, 2012, Stanley was released from prison after 22 years behind bars. He moved to New Jersey, moved into his own house, and enrolled in a community college to begin studying to be a paralegal. “I started studying law so I could fight them,” he recalled. But now he faces the prospect of being returned to prison for another seven years.
Months after their protest, the state filed charges against the six men, accusing them of riot and intent to prevent or coerce an official act. If convicted, each faces an additional seven years in prison. Carrington Keys has also been charged with aggravated assault.
In late 2010, Anthony Kelly finished his prison sentence but, instead of being released, he was sent to the Luzerne County jail where he was told he would be kept until the trial. In 2011, he pled guilty to the rioting charge. He was released on parole in August 2011.
Nearly four and a half years after their protest, the five other men will return to Luzerne County to stand trial starting on Monday, November 10th. The Luzerne County court system, based in the city of Wilkes-Barre, is no stranger to controversy. In 2013, two judges were found to have taken more than two million dollars in bribes from the owner of Pennsylvania Child Care and Western Pennsylvania Child Care, private youth prisons. In a scandal that became known as “Kids for Cash,” the judges had sentenced over 4000 youth to these facilities between 2003 and 2008.
But Delaney and Keys remain optimistic. “Because his case is so bogus, I think he’s very hopeful that he will be successful,” Delaney told Solitary Watch.
“It was no riot,” Stanley insisted. “All I did was cover up my door—a peaceful covering up my door. I was locked in an individual cell.”
“They’re being persecuted because they’re whistleblowers, not because they did anything wrong,” Delaney said at a press conference in Philadelphia two weeks before the trial. “They had the audacity to stand up for themselves—and for other prisoners. When they went to prison, they lost their right to live in a free society. They didn’t lose their human rights and they didn’t lose their civil rights.”
Delaney sees her son’s and the other men’s actions as part of the movement of prisoners standing up against unprovoked violence and other abuses, including the 2010 work strikes in over a dozen Georgia prisons and the wave of mass hunger strikes in prisons across California. “They’re standing up for their human rights,” she said.
Days before the trial, Stanley doesn’t regret his actions. “I feel good because I fought. Not just for me, but for other people Even that dead guy.” Thinking about the four-and-a-half years between the incident and now, he would tell others in similar situations, “There is hope. Never give up. There are people who care. Because of that, that’s what kept me strong.”
In response to a request for comment on the incidents described in this story, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections said in an email: “We do not comment on matters of litigation.”
• The Cap Times published a feature on solitary confinement in Dane County jails, entitled “Boxed in: Fighting for changes, Sheriff Dave Mahoney calls his own jail ‘inhumane.’”
• The LA Times editorial board took a strong stance against the use of solitary confinement on death row.
• A 21-year-old man with a history of illness committed suicide in Fishkill state prison in upstate New York. Benjamin Van Zandt had been placed in the SHU for fighting with another individual two days prior; he had originally been incarcerated on an arson conviction.
• The trial of the Dallas 6 is scheduled to begin this week. The six men, all currently held in solitary confinement in a Pennsylvania prison, allege they were falsely charged with riot –a felony – as punishment for endeavoring to publicize and fight guard abuse on the inside. (Covered by Truth-Out).
• At least 200 individuals held at the Tacoma Detention Center in Washington have gone on hunger strike, the third such strike in recent years. Previously, hunger strike participants have placed in solitary confinement and threatened with force-feeding.
• The family of a man who committed suicide in solitary confinement in a Pennsylvania jail has voluntarily withdrawn from a civil lawsuit brought against Armstrong County, which alleged wrongful death. An attorney for the family declined to say whether a financial settlement had been reached.
• Formerly incarcerated individuals, local activists, and others gathered in front of Rikers Island to call for reforms, including the end of the use of solitary confinement for all those held at the jail. One participant stressed, that “at least two inmate who were incarcerated here at Rikers Island died while they were in solitary confinement.”
The following comes Ryan Pettigrew, who spent most of his eight years at the supermax Colorado State Penitentiary (CSP) in solitary confiinement. Diagnosed with bipolar II disorder, Pettigrew, like an estimated 57 percent of prisoners confined in isolation in Colorado, suffers from mental illness. Recalling his response when asked by his parole officer if his time in isolation legitimately qualifies as ‘torture,’ he writes, “[P]rison staff had me strip celled for 24 hours in a cold cell that had someone else’s puke and piss all over the floor. I was stripped of clothing… Eventually I had to take a bowel movement but was denied toilet paper and soap, yet forced to eat with my bare hands.” The following entry, entitled “Effects of Solitary Confinement,” comes from Pettigrew’s blog, A Madman’s Path To Reason.
Pettigrew, now 35, was released in August of 2012 from CSP. While there, he befriended Evan Ebel, who was released directly from solitary in January 2013 after making threats to torture and kill correctional officers and others. Ebel went on to murder corrections chief Tom Clements two months after his release. In an interview following Clements’ death, Pettigrew shares a series of revealing text messages he exchanged with Ebel in the weeks approaching the murder. Apparently growing increasingly distressed as he adjusted to life outside his solitary confinement cell, Ebel stated in one message that he felt “peculiar,” adding that he knew of no other “remedy” for this other than violence. —Lisa Dawson
The California hunger strike and Evan Ebel’s rampage have shed light on the solitary confinement problem in American prisons. Citizens are now starting to realize that how we treat our prisoners directly affects them since most will be released, with a direct correlation between prisoners released who return to crime and their treatment while in prison. Common sense proves that the more ignorant and angry a released prisoner is, the more likely it will be that he/she returns to crime.
Solitary confinement has become the most grossly overused and ineffective program in American prisons, with the ACLU estimating over 80,000 American inmates in solitary confinement. Most of the inmates in prison will be released one day but figures show how those in solitary confinement return at a higher rate than those in general population (64% versus 41%), proving the effects of solitary confinement translate to re-offending.
Prison officials argue that solitary confinement is needed for the “worst of the worst” but when investigated, those claims are found false almost every time. It has become the modern day mental hospital even though it’s known to increase the symptoms of mental illness and a place to house those who break petty prison rules such as having too many stamps. Less than 25% of the inmates housed in solitary confinement in the Colorado Department of Corrections were accused of any institutional violence.
Humans need social interaction and sunlight but can be denied both for years in solitary confinement, resulting in serious issues that may become permanent. Add that to the psychological effects that manifest from having too much time to think in an environment where the guards have complete control of all basic necessities. Absolute power absolutely corrupts and it becomes a daily fight just to get food and toilet paper.
The data collected from experts speaks for itself but I prefer to give a personal account of how I suffered while in solitary confinement for eight years at the Colorado State Penitentiary (CSP). Prior to this, I was a very social person, preferring time spent around people but now have to consciously force myself to leave the house. A year removed from prison and that hasn’t changed.
Being treated as sub-human and forced to act out just to get basic necessities created a deep rooted hatred that hasn’t gone away; I just choose to use it to fuel progress since the best revenge for those who tried to break me is success. I was poked with a stick for years but refuse to bite; tortured and punished for studying, now working to overcome the demons.
After my interview with local news stations, my parole officer asked me if “torture” was too strong of a word. I responded with my story about when prison staff had me strip celled for 24 hours in a cold cell that had someone else’s puke and piss all over the floor. I was stripped of clothing but shackled for the first four hours even though I had no access to people and had to exercise for warmth while the shackles dug deep into my ankles. Eventually I had to take a bowel movement but was denied toilet paper and soap, yet forced to eat with my bare hands. It was too cold and bright to sleep, the sleep deprivation tactics increasing the emotional suffering. I ended my story with a question, “is ‘torture’ too strong of a word”?
During solitary confinement I had too much time to think which increased the anxiety I already had as a result of the Type 2 Bipolar Disorder CSP staff already diagnosed me with towards the beginning of my stay, yet they decided to keep me in there for eight more years despite solitary confinement being known to exacerbate the symptoms of mental illness. Anxiety turned to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and I became obsessed with whatever my brain became locked on, even petty things such as labels facing forward. Eventually, I became plagued with homicidal nightmares but the bad part was they didn’t bother me; I was slowing turning into a monster and didn’t know how to handle it. The last six months in there, I was constantly breaking out in cold sweats but even my psychologist didn’t have any answers. Then, the first day in the sun, it immediately stopped but memory of the misery they inflicted will always haunt me.
My first week out of prison was the toughest time of my life. After being used to a thin mattress, noise and constant light; a dark and quiet room with a Tempur-Pedic mattress was too much, making sleep impossible. Food wouldn’t digest correctly and I panicked around people. However, the worst part was the fact that I had learned to embrace misery so positive emotions were too much to handle. I was in a state of shock for a week then would burst out crying over the smallest positive situations. I didn’t know how to be happy and that was a scary thought.
I was plagued with panic attacks brought on by anything that reminded my subconscious of where I had been, except my flight or fight response was all backwards. Rather than wanting to flee, I’d want to attack, and those urges would last all day. It was hard enough to adjust but this made it nearly impossible. To top it all off, the years spent in isolation had destroyed my immune system so I was sick more than I was healthy the first nine months after my release. I can’t imagine how I could’ve survived without my family’s help.
The million dollar question is: Is this how we want prisoners released? I struggled to make it even with every resource made available to me by my loving family but most prisoners don’t have that and stand no chance of success if released from solitary confinement. When they panic, how do you think they’ll react? Should we continue as-is or increase safety for society? You can’t keep them locked up forever, so safety requires humane treatment. It’s your choice.
On July 30, 2014, Margarita Murugia was found hanging in her solitary confinement cell at the California Institution for Women (CIW). “She was there for her own protection, not because she did something,” wrote April Harris, a woman currently incarcerated at CIW. ” Apparently her mom was dying of cancer and they refused to let her see her mom. She tried to kill herself with every denied request. She finally did it.”
According to advocacy group California Coalition for Women Prisoners, CIW has had seven deaths since the start of 2014. In comparison, the prison had five deaths in 2013 and one in 2012.
Shadae Schmidt, better known as DaeDae to her friends, was another of these seven deaths. On March 24, 2014, Schmidt was found dead in her cell. In February 2014, while in the Security Housing Unit, or SHU, she suffered a stroke. She was taken to the hospital where she received medical attention. According to women inside, she was returned to isolation in her SHU cell less than three weeks later. The following month, she was found dead. Hers was the third death within three months at the prison.
Krys Shelley and DaeDae Schmidt had spent 10 years at Valley State Prison for Women before Shelley’s release in May 2012. The following year, Valley State was converted to a men’s prison; the women were moved to the Central California Women’s Facility across the street or to CIW in Corona.
Schmidt was transferred to CIW where she began complaining to friends and family that she was receiving the wrong medications. Then she was sent to the prison’s Security Housing Unit (SHU). Like the SHU in men’s prisons, women spend up to 23 ½ hours locked in their cells. No one is sure why Schmidt was sent to the SHU, but it doesn’t surprise Shelley. “DaeDae was sometimes too smart for her own good,” Shelley recalled. At Valley State, Schmidt would be sent to the SHU for talking back to an officer or for fighting to protect other women, she said. Schmidt was also sent to the SHU on allegations that she possessed tobacco, which was banned from California prisons in 2006. “If they hear you have tobacco, they’ll search you, they’ll search your room, then they’ll lock you up and investigate,” Shelley, who had also spent time in the SHU pending investigations, explained. “They don’t let you out until they’ve finished their investigation.” Schmidt was never actually found guilty of tobacco possession.
Shelley spoke with Schmidt several months before her death. She said that their conversation was full of laughter. “We always talked,” she said. “We were always laughing.” The next time she heard anything about her friend, it was news of her death.
Deaths in Lockdown
Dana Simas at the press office for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) insists that the SHU is not solitary confinement, pointing to the fact that, in July 2014, only four of the 96 women in the SHU were in cells by themselves. The other 92 were double-celled. (The number of people in single cells rose to six of the ninety-three women in SHU in August 2014.) Women are allowed out of the SHU for mental health appointments, medical appointments, and library visits. They are allowed to go to the yard, which has individual holding cells where they can exercise and talk, although the cells make it impossible for them to touch each other.
But Pam Fadem with California Coalition for Women Prisoners disagrees. “A year ago it was [solitary] until the prison was too crowded and everyone began getting a cellmate.” Having a cellmate while on lockdown has sometimes increased risks of violence. She described “Wendy,” who had been placed in the SHU for her own safety while at Valley State Prison. When she was moved to CIW, she was placed in general population where she was physically attacked three times within two months. She was then placed in a solo cell in SHU. As the prison became more crowded, CDCR placed another person in her cell. “She tried to refuse since it was an unknown person to her that felt like a threat,” Fadem explained. But the person was moved into her cell, “Wendy” was promptly attacked and only then was the second person moved out. Double-celling individuals while keeping them locked down in their cells for 22 to 23 hours a day is considered by advocates to be another form of isolated confinement, and not an acceptable alternative to solitary.
Deaths Outside of Solitary
Not all of the deaths have been in solitary. The first death, of 29-year-old Sheena Crigler, occurred on February 8th. On February 24th, Alicia Thompson, known as Gypsy to her friends, became the year’s second death. Prison officials told Thompson’s mother that she had committed suicide. Her mother, however, insists that her daughter did not commit suicide. She told Solitary Watch that her daughter’s body had no signs of hanging trauma, but did have bruising around her left temple. She and her grandchildren had spoken with her daughter three days earlier, on Friday, February 21st. “She called every week,” her mother said. “She seemed happy.”
DaeDae Schmidt’s death in the SHU was the third. Two weeks later, on March 26th, Stacey McCannon, whom friends called Grandpa Smiley, fell off a ladder, hit her head and died shortly after. According to women inside, that same day, eighty-year-old Delores Emmons died. In addition to these six deaths, women inside the prison report one other death.
Eight months after her daughter’s death, Alicia Thompson’s mother is still waiting for the coroner’s report. The coroner’s office told Solitary Watch that it has not yet determined the cause of death. “We have a year to file the report. Cases can take six months or more,” explained Pamela Sokolik. “We’re not keeping it from her, but the case is not yet closed.”
Thompson’s mother is raising Thompson’s three children, an eleven-year-old daughter and two sons, ages eight and four. She’s heard about the other deaths in the prison. “There’s too many deaths. I don’t understand why there hasn’t been an investigation yet,” she said.
During July and August, four women unsuccessfully attempted suicide. According to the California Coalition for Women Prisoners, at least two of the women had been housed in the SHU.
According to Dana Simas, this number of suicides, both attempted and actual, is not unusually high. But, she acknowledges, “we’re dealing with a population in all sorts of crisis. Some are dealing with the fact that they’ll never get out of prison. Some may have gotten bad news from their family, had a bad encounter with someone else or just be having a bad day. Unlike people on the outside, they can’t remove themselves from the situation.” She also acknowledges that the prison environment can exacerbate already-present mental health issues.
Simas told Solitary Watch that mental health clinicians are available at all times within the SHU. “All they would have to do is request to see a mental health clinician,” she explained. In the SHU, staff are required to conduct welfare checks every fifteen minutes. During each check, staff must be able to see each person, note their actions and look for evidence of self-harm. Staff members have the authority to move a person to a mental health crisis bed.
However, women have told the California Coalition for Women Prisoners that, while clinicians check on them daily, they do not do so every fifteen minutes. They see a doctor twice a week, but are locked into a cage for their counseling session. They are unsure whether the doctor is a psychiatrist, psychologist, medical doctor or other type of clinician. Women also report that the doctors rotate often, making it hard to establish rapport.
Simas told Solitary Watch that if a person has attempted suicide, she is transferred to a mental health crisis bed. She is placed in a suicide prevention room and kept under 24-hour watch by staff. Release from the crisis bed comes only after mental health professionals, which include a psychiatric technician, a psychologist and, if medication is required, nursing staff, have conducted an evaluation and determined that the person is no longer at risk of self-harming.
What’s Being Done?
Citing privacy laws, Simas was not able to comment on Murugia’s suicide or what steps had been taken after each of her unsuccessful attempts. “The way CDCR approaches suicide is very serious. We will continue to improve our policies, our trainings and our responses,” she stated.
Women inside say otherwise. Jane Dorotik notes that, while CDCR has policies around providing mental health care and addressing mental health crises, these policies are rarely put into practice. She recounted one instance in which mental health staff turned away a person who needed help:
One day, Shirley brought a troubled woman over to me. The woman was twitching her leg, having difficulty just sitting still and focusing to talk to me. She was able to tell me, between incoherent mumblings, that she was hearing voices. She couldn’t get the voices out of her head and she was afraid of what they might tell her to do. She was thinking of cutting into her head ot make the voices stop.
I walked her over to the health clinic and explained the urgency to the staff. They responded in condescending and dispassionate terms. ‘We won’t see her without a pass from her housing unit.’ I walked into her unit (going ‘out of bounds’ myself) and spoke to her housing staff to alert them to the urgency. They responded, ‘Go away, you are out-of-bounds and can be written up. We know how to handle this.’
The next day I saw the woman walking around the yard mumbling to herself and twitching her leg. Half of her head was shaved and she had lacerations all through her scalp. She had obviously tried to quiet the voices on her own, to no one’s great alarm.
The woman Dorotik described attempted suicide on August 1, 2014, the day after Murugia was found hanging in her cell. She was sent to the prison’s Special Confinement Unit (SCU), a mental health unit, where she was also prescribed medications. She also participated in programs, such as self-esteem, substance abuse, stress management and reading enhancement, as well as daily group talk sessions. She reported that the programs provided her with relief from the constant hopelessness of the SHU. But after thirty days, she was declared stable and returned to the SHU. There are no group talk sessions in the SHU.
Days after Murugia’s suicide, Dorotik said, “CIW continues to struggle with how to implement policies to increase safety, prevent suicides, intercept drug trafficking and reduce fights. They try and eliminate blind corners and other external control measures. They never address the root of the problem—overcrowding [and] depressed hopeless women with no clear vision of the future.”
• A federal appeals court heard arguments on whether the state of Virginia violated the Constitution by automatically placing those who have been given the death penalty in solitary confinement. Last January, a district court judge found that this automatic placement violated inmates’ due process rights.
• The Washington Post published another editorial condemning the use of solitary confinement, concluding that “prisons should isolate inmates only in rare cases when that is the singular way to prevent violence. The General Assembly should ensure that Maryland abides by this principle, rather than hiding behind euphemisms.”
• The family of a woman who passed away in a solitary confinement cell in Montana must be paid $565,500, a District Court ruled. Heather Holly Wasson was 31 when she died of an alcohol withdrawal seizure; the jail’s staff was aware she was at risk and was supposed to put her on 30-minute review watch, but failed to do so.
• Solitary Watch’s Vikki Law published a profile of several mothers responsible for spearheading California Families Against Solitary Confinement. The organization has played a primary role in advocating for those locked up in isolation in California, including publicizing voices from the inside during the 2011 hunger strike.
• The family of Jermone Murdough, who died in solitary confinement while on Rikers Island last winter, will receive a $2.25 million settlement from the City of New York. Murdough was a homeless veteran with a history of mental illness; he passed away after the temperature in his jail cell exceeded 100 degrees.
• The Salt Lake Tribune published a letter by the Legal Director of the Disability Law Center, in which he addresses the recent suicide of a client held at Utah State Prison. Between 2011 and 2013 Ryan Allison spent over 586 days in “punitive isolation,” despite having a diagnosed mental illness and extensively documented suicide attempts and self-harm incidents.
• A class action lawsuit has been in federal court to challenge the practice of applying “owed bing time” on Rikers Island. Currently, individuals held at the jail can be sent to solitary confinement for disciplinary infractions committed during previous detentions.