This post is the next in a series of pieces Solitary Watch is publishing as part of a project calling for people held in solitary confinement to write on various proposed themes. Our first suggested theme, “A Day in the Life,” calls for writers to describe a day in his or her life in solitary confinement (read previous entries here).
The following piece, entitled “The ‘Hole’ Truth,” comes from Nathan Brewer, 29, who has spent six of the last eight years incarcerated in the Indiana prison system, during which time he was sentenced to solitary confinement multiple times for nonviolent offenses. In his piece, Brewer, who has been diagnosed with both anxiety and dysthymic disorders, describes the way in which he was treated while held in administrative segregation at Hamilton County Jail in Noblesville, Indiana.
He writes, “The conditions and treatment to which I was subjected were gravely oppressive and unethical on every front.” Released from Westville Correctional Facility in March of this year, Brewer continues to suffer from severe anxiety, which he states was only exacerbated by his time in isolation. He writes from his sober living home, Celebrate Freedom, in Indianapolis. He can be reached by writing: Nathan Brewer, P.O. Box 88033, Indianapolis, IN 46208. –Lisa Dawson
Involuntary Protective Custody in County Jail
I have spent six out of my last eight years incarcerated. Two of these years were served at Hamilton County Jail (HCJ). Throughout this period, I was sentenced to solitary confinement, a.k.a. “the hole,” a total of three times. Two of these sentences were for nonviolent, petty offenses, which included note passing and allegedly possessing tobacco. One of these stints, however, landed me in protective custody (PC) for 15 days (which coincided with both Christmas and New Year’s), the cause of which was another detainee using my telephone voice password to prank the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) hotline. Although I was sentenced to the hole for a prank which I had nothing to do with, jail staff refused my requests to listen to a recording of the alleged phone call that I made, ultimately preventing me from defending myself.
In this essay, I write to inform readers about what it is like to be in indefinite solitary confinement, which in this particular case was involuntary protective custody (PC, which in my instance could also stand for “Punitive Confinement,” considering I was punished for being the victim of a prank).
Each morning, I was rattled from my sleep by a jarring, intrusive squawk over the intercom box in my cell. This untimely disruption, which naturally came at a time when I was in my deepest stage of sleep, was the voice of a corrections officer (CO) announcing my hour out: “BREWER! DO YOU WANT YOUR HOUR OUT?!” This rude awakening required a prompt “yes” response, as no response qualifies as “no” by default, and this opportunity for a short time out of my solitary hovel would be missed until the next rude awakening 24 hours later.
Despite being roused from my sleep, I never once turned down my time out, regardless of how tired I was, withstanding the fact sleep is the only escape in jail and is invaluable. I recall being so psyched to get out of my cell that first day in PC, but soon discovered that I would not be getting a full hour out during my “hour out.” No, the staff at HCJ had devised a way to shortchange those held in solitary of this basic right. Each day, I was permitted 30 minutes out in the day room, during which I was expected to shower, clean my cell, order commissary, make one phone call and, when possible, interact with anyone else also on their hour out (oftentimes nobody).
After just 30 minutes, guards would order us to return to our cells: “LOCDKDOOOOWN! LOCKDOWN!” This was unless of course you opted to go to the “recreation room,” which was a small, freezing cold, trapezoidal-shaped room, with nothing in it but a chessboard with no pieces. The room reeked of the distinct smell of a grain bin (to this day, I haven’t figured this out) and the floor was grossly covered in toenail clippings.
With that said, it was no small wonder that most chose to decline this optional 30-minute time offered for “recreation.” On most every occasion, I chose to return to my cell, which only underscores how successful the guards were in their strategically designed plan to restrict people’s full hour out to just half that time, and we played right into their hands. This is precisely what the staff wanted, and the sham “rec time” offered is how they managed to give us just 30 minutes out of our cells, as opposed to the required 60 minutes – and they were justified in doing so, since they did indeed offer “rec time.”
“Non-Punitive” Protective Custody?
While held in PC, I was not permitted to attend any of the programs which I had been frequenting for nearly the past two years, including Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Overcomers, a group which provides Christ-centered substance abuse counseling. I have picked my brain for legitimate reasons why jail staff would not permit me to attend these programs, which serve no other purpose than to rehabilitate me. I was also denied access to the facility’s law library, an insurmountable hindrance to someone defending himself pro se, preventing me from effectively corresponding with the courts in accordance with their formal trial rules and procedures, indelibly having a negative impact on my case.
But what fired my indignation most of all was staff’s refusal to allow me to attend my weekly worship services, which they knew full well was my custom. And because my time in PC happened to coincide with Christmas and New Year’s, I missed the holiday worship service, which I had been anticipating all year. In fact, my absence at these worship services did not go unnoticed, as clergymen and volunteers who facilitated these programs visited me multiple times while in solitary. It was clearly not these people who had lobbied against my attending their programs. It was unquestionably jail officials who had denied me these basic privileges and rights.
With one blanket, a mat, no pillow and an incessant draft, I was always cold in my cell. Meal trays, served three times daily, provided no relief, as the upper tier was always served last, meaning my one hot meal was cold by the time it reached me in a Styrofoam tray, which had the capacity to hold only the scantest of portions. The other two meals were served cold to begin with. Also aggravating was the florescent security light, which was on 24/7. Even closing my eyes allowed no relief, as its electronic hum was a inescapable reminder of the artificial environment and oppressive conditions to which I was subjected during each of my stays in solitary confinement.
When I was unable to distract myself, however, I spent my time in my cell in a constant state of anxiety and depression, with overwhelming feelings of hopelessness and despair. Many times, I would lie prostrate on the frozen floor of my cell, praying fervently, pleading with God, imploring him, to free me from my agony. I demanded vindication! No one deserves the treacherous plight to which I had been assigned. Never had I witnessed such callousness and ignorance (feigned or real, I’ll never know) as that which I saw in the guards and jail staff as a whole. My frustration mounted to the point where all I could do is just sob and continue to pray. I was being tested to my limits.
As a diversion from my cold surroundings, I would write letters, draw (with an anti-shank, short flimsy pen, as pencils were contraband), read my Bible (the only book permitted), meditate, or, if I was lucky enough, go back to sleep. Somehow I was able preserve enough peace in my heart and soundness in my mind to endure the darkest and most daunting chapter of my incarceration.
Punitive Isolation vs. Rehabilitative Incarceration: Night and Day
My time in isolation was nothing more than a roadblock to my rehabilitation that served only to magnify my depression and anxiety disorders, which directly resulted in my Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which I was diagnosed with following my release. These lingering psychological effects are primarily attributable to my stints in the hole, including the time I spent in involuntary PC for something over which I had no control; this in turn discouraged my faith in the system, my faith in humanity, and ultimately my faith in God, which is imperative for me – someone genuinely trying to come out rehabilitated and able to live a pro-social life.
Following my incarceration at HCJ, I was sentenced to the Indiana Department of Corrections (IDOC) and transferred to Westville Correctional Facility, where I was placed in the facility’s Therapeutic Community (TC), a program which unfortunately accepts only a limited number of people. Here, in a social environment conducive to rehabilitation, as opposed to punitive isolation, I thrived. In TC, I reached the “Top of the House,” a position in which I served as Dorm Elder, or overseer of all program departments. I also held the position as Orientation Facilitator, the most respected and challenging position in all of TC, which involved instructing new peers entering TC on the fundamentals of the program.
Based on these two very different experiences (HCJ PC and Westville TC), it is clear that the oppressive and overused practice of solitary confinement in all of its forms is not only unethical, but also counterproductive and downright destructive to any person’s hope for a successful recovery from a criminal lifestyle, substance use disorder, or any efforts at positive, lasting behavioral change. And nowhere in the equation to rehabilitate offenders and to reduce recidivism do I see a place for the practice of solitary confinement.
The following roundup features noteworthy news, reports and opinions on solitary confinement from the past week that have not been covered in other Solitary Watch posts.
• A federal judge approved the state of California’s plan to reduce the solitary confinement of prisoners suffering from mental illness. According to a recent story in The New York Times, about 740 prisoners will be relocated to “less restrictive settings” under the policy revisions. The story notes that the new policies “also provide for improvements in mental health treatment and suicide prevention.”
• The National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT) issues a release responding to New York City’s new legislation increasing oversight of the use of solitary confinement at Rikers Island. The release quotes Rev. Laura Markle Downton, Director of U.S. prisons policy and program at NRCAT: “Though not an end in itself, we celebrate Mayor de Blasio’s signing of the legislation requiring quarterly data reporting on who is in solitary at Rikers Island and under what conditions, because we recognize it as an important step in the process of ushering in humane alternatives.”
• New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio enacted legislation that will create greater transparency around the use of solitary confinement at Rikers Island and other city jails. According to a recent piece by The New York Times, the law will require the Department of Correction to publish four annual reports detailing the number of individuals held in isolation, the length of time each person is held in isolation, and whether they sustained any injuries or were assaulted during their time in solitary. Despite these measures, the story also states that the law “does not include any provisions that would directly curtail guard brutality. . . or the use of isolation as a punishment.”
• The Treatment Advocacy Center posts a blog entry, “Long Waits for Psych Beds Keeps Many Languishing Behind Bars,” in which it shares the story of Kyle, 24, who was held in solitary confinement for close to six months at the San Diego Central Jail while awaiting treatment for severe mental illness.
• In a blog entry entitled “Criminalization of Mental Illness: It’s a Crime,” the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) briefly touches on the dangers of placing people with psychiatric symptoms in isolation, which the writer likens to “pouring gasoline on a fire.” In its post, NAMI links to its new fact sheet on solitary confinement, as well as to Solitary Watch’s recent story highlighting several videos showing inhumane treatment of prisoners with mental illness by guards.
• The Drug War Chronicle outlines the various ways in which the Record Expungement Designed to Enhance Employment (REDEEM) Act, introduced earlier this summer by Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Rand Paul (R-KY), aims to fix the criminal justice system. According to the story, one initiative of the REDEEM act is to restrict the use of solitary confinement on kids, “except in the most extreme circumstances in which it is necessary to protect a juvenile detainee or those around them.”
• The Juvenile Justice Information Exchange publishes an op-ed presenting various international perspectives on the solitary confinement of youth. The piece underscores the severe emotional and psychiatric harm inflicted on kids subjected to the practice, stating, “Social isolation worsens the trauma and mental health issues already prevalent [in] this vulnerable population. It also leads to further withdrawal with negative consequences for reintegration.”
On July 17, 2012, Brandon Palakovic, 23, committed suicide by hanging himself in his cell while housed in a solitary confinement unit at State Correctional Institution (SCI) Cresson, a Pennsylvania prison that has since closed its doors.
Nearly two years later, on July 8, 2014, Palakovic’s parents filed a lawsuit against the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (PADOC). Represented by Bret Grote in association with the Abolitionist Law Center, Mike Healey, and Jules Lobel, Renee and Darian Palakovic seek damages for the alleged role the PADOC had in exacerbating Brandon’s mental health problems and in his passing.
The PADOC and those involved with the management of SCI Cresson stand accused of intentionally withholding necessary health treatment from mentally ill prisoners such as Brandon Palakovic, and repeatedly isolating them in solitary confinement—a practice deemed unconstitutional by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). The defendants declined to comment on the allegations when contacted by Solitary Watch.
The suit alleges that during his thirteen months at Cresson, Palakovic was subjected to the wanton infliction of physical and psychological pain. The complaint argues that prison administration and staff neglected his requests for counseling, his history of self-harm, and his mental health needs, and continued to place him in Restricted Housing Units (RHUs) time and again.
While at Cresson, Brandon Palakovic was prescribed Celexa, an anti-depressant that has documented side effects including suicidal thoughts and impulses. Palakovic had a long, troubled history with medication since childhood, trying to manage his ADHD and Oppositional Defiant Disorder, and Celexa only made him more anxious. He reportedly told his mother that “it [Celexa] made him have crazy thoughts and he hated the way he felt when he was on it. But, they told him he was easier to deal with when he was on it, so he took it.”
Brandon Palakovic was not the first prisoner to commit suicide at SCI Cresson. In December 2011, the federal Justice Department began an 18-month investigation of SCI Cresson and found “Cresson’s use of long-term and extreme forms of solitary confinement on prisoners with serious mental illness… violates their rights under the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).” After the discovery of such conditions at SCI Cresson, the DOJ expanded its investigation to include all 28 prisons managed by the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections.
In an email interview with Solitary Watch, Renee Palakovic said they “were interested in filing some type of lawsuit almost immediately after Brandon took his life,” but had trouble finding an attorney to represent them. Three attorneys turned them away citing the difficulty, and perhaps futility, of taking on such a “huge, governmental system.” The Palakovics had all but given up when Bret Grote approached them about building a case. Grote had previously dealt with the family as an activist with the Human Rights Coalition, but was now a lawyer and founder of the Abolitionist Law Center.
In a statement made to Solitary Watch, Grote shared his thoughts on the case and how it fits into the modern, American philosophy of punishment:
Brandon Palakovic was a casualty of what Dr. Craig Haney has aptly called the war on prisoners. For more than thirty years prison practices in the United States have systematically sought to deprive prisoners of agency and power, creating warehouse prisons characterized by forced idleness, overcrowding, unemployment, the absence of educational and vocational programs, barriers to maintaining familial and community relationships, inadequate to non-existent medical and mental health care, and routine imposition of solitary confinement. These conditions are designed to inflict pain, and serve no constructive social purpose. … he [Brandon] was treated with ritual, institutionalized dehumanization until he could no longer tolerate it.
Grote and the Palakovics hope that, bolstered by the DOJ’s report, they may achieve some posthumous justice for Brandon Palakovic, and help protect others like him who have the misfortune to be young, psychologically disabled, and at the mercy of the prison system.
The author of the following piece, K. Kabasha Griffin-El, is currently part of the general population at Pennsylvania’s SCI Greene. In this reflection, Griffin-El describes visiting his brother, Jerome Griffin, whom he hadn’t seen for more than two decades. Griffin-El has been incarcerated for 19 years and experienced solitary confinement firsthand, but nothing prepared him to witness the effect solitary had on his younger brother. He describes the experience as “one of the most difficult emotional bombardments of my life.” Jerome Griffin, 41, has been held in solitary confinement for 22 years following an assault on a corrections officer. Over that time he has developed a number of mental health problems that have only recently been acknowledged by the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (PADOC).
Earlier this year, the Justice Department released the findings of its investigation into the PADOC’s use of solitary confinement on those exhibiting serious mental illness. Within this document, two case studies are used to exemplify the shortcomings of the PADOC when dealing with mentally ill prisoners, the second of which, involving “Prisoner BB,” is believed to summarize Jerome Griffin’s experience with solitary. Griffin has since been transferred to SCI Pittsburgh where he is confined to a Secure Residential Treatment Unit (SRTU). –Maclyn Willigan
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I imagine that it must be difficult for those that haven’t actually experienced it, to understand the ills of solitary confinement. I’ve endured it, so I know that it’s a cold, cruel, inhumane, and torturous methodology that must be abolished. It directly assaults the very being of men and women, often creating mental illness in those victimized by the callous—if not sadistic—practice. It had that horrible effect upon my younger brother, Jerome Griffin. The outrageous experience of witnessing what has become of my brother as a direct result of solitary confinement, compels me to use my words to expose the terrible consequences of that dehumanizing practice, as it’s used deep within the dark, hopeless hideaways of Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections.
It took several months of diplomacy—making my request to visit with my brother known to a psychologist, counselors, lieutenants, captains, a major, and deputy superintendent. I found myself super excited, anxious, and even a bit worried once authorization was granted. I didn’t know what to expect next. I wondered how my brother would respond to me, if he would be angry for my absence from his life. I just wanted things to go well, so I did my best to prepare for the big day. Soon it was painfully apparent that there was no way to prepare for our time together. No more so than a person could prepare to drown. Once I entered that room, I was in too deep. I choked, and gasped on every sight, on every scent, and nearly every word beyond his initial, “hi brother . . . hi brother.”
You see, on the morning of March 20, 2014, at approximately 9am, I experienced . . . endured . . . and survived one of the most difficult emotional bombardments of my life. Until that time, I hadn’t seen my younger brother Jerome, for approximately twenty-three years. At this point, I’m three months shy of the nineteenth year of my own imprisonment. So although “warned” by prison personnel that it might be a very difficult experience—seeing my brother in his present state of mind—I thoughts that there was nothing that would be too much for me to handle, but it was . . . too much for me to handle.
As I entered the room, smiling on the opposite side, a frail, hairy man stood wearing a bright orange jump suit with a thick, brown leather belt wrapping his waist. A large metal loop attached to the front was somehow connected to the handcuffs that securely clutched his writs, locking his hands in front of him, right at his lower stomach. A customized cage separated us, splitting the room horizontally, evenly cutting across a table of sorts that sat off to the left side of the room. A single dirty beige plastic chair sat on each side of the dimly lit . . . depressing hole in the wall. There was a small cutout in the cage (likely used by Attorneys to pass legal documents through during legal visits).
“Hi brother! Hi brother!” Those were his first words to me—the first time that I had heard his voice in at least twenty-three years. Immediately, I knew something was wrong . . . his words, although beautiful, sounded as if they were flowing from the lips of a young child. But this was a “grown man,” speaking through extremely dry, flaky, painful looking scaly lips. Politely, I returned his greeting, but I didn’t recognize him . . . standing there with his would be afro, that was nothing more than mounds of foul smelling, filthy matted hair. His face too was full of wiry patches of hair, unkept, and merely sprouting from his face like wild weeds. The huge smile upon his face revealed at least three missing upper teeth, dead-center of his mouth. His bottom teeth were obviously rotting away. The rotting ones slightly darker than the other orangish, yellowish-brown, darkly stained teeth that survived whatever happened through the years.
I recall the fleeting thought that perhaps I was in the wrong room . . . “this brotha couldn’t be my brother.” But he was. As our conversation continued, I quickly realized that my brother wasn’t all there, but he wasn’t all gone either. He remembered much from our childhood (the names of neighbors, family members and childhood friends). It was apparent that he had consumed and digested much from books, letters, and stories that others had shared with him through the years. Like a mental alchemist, he mixed each of those experiences with his imagination, creating his very own version of reality. He spoke of his expensive clothing, houses, and cars—clothing, houses, and cars he never had. He spoke of his days in the Marine Corps, and he (now at age forty-one) has been in some form of lock up since the age of thirteen. The terrible truth is that for the past twenty-two years, Jerome has been subjected to the agonizing cruelties of solitary confinement—kept locked in a prison cell for at least twenty-three hours each day.
Seeing my brother in his present state of mind . . . I wanted to run out of that room. I wanted to scream and yell, “WHAT HAVE Y’ALL DONE TO MY BROTHER?” I wanted to destroy something. I wanted to tear down that cage between us, grab my brother and urn out of that hellish place. Yet, I knew that wasn’t possible. I resisted the urge to correct his fantasies. I didn’t dare tell him that he was never married, that he had no children, and that he never owned a house or car. I fought back my tears; choked on my emotions, and nearly gagged on the stench of his body. Outwardly I remained calm, strenuously hiding my outrage . . . my pain, until he started muttering, trying to say something that simply made no sense. That happened frequently. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, he cried out, “oh my god, Jesus f—ing Christ.” It happened a few times as if he had Tourette syndrome. The storm of emotions that I fought so desperately to suppress, swell in my chest, rose up and before I could catch myself, escaped my lips as a whimper.
Rationally, I was fully aware of the appalling truth that I was experiencing (the joyous moments, pain, anguish, outrage), all of it was due to grace. No one had to allow my brother and I to visit with one another. My request could have been denied. Fortunately for us, on that day we were graciously granted two hours to express our loving concern for one another. I spoke with my brother, hopeful that he could fully understand as I opened my heart saying, “I love you brother. I’m so sorry that I wasn’t here to support you earlier.” “It’s all right. It’s all right. I’m fine. I’m fine. It’s about me and you. I’m happy. I’m just happy.” Those words rushed out of his mouth as if they were prepared in advance and waiting on the tip of his tongue. We were locked in each others eyes at that time, and nearly throughout the entire visit. He watched my every move, just as I watched his. Before we parted—just as I had done several time during the visit—I reached through that small cutout in the cage. “Let me touch you brother.” Once more he smiled at my request, leap to his feet, and did his best to shove his bound hands in my direction. Reaching further in, I grabbed his hands, and held them.
• Shane Bauer, who has written extensively about solitary confinement for the outlet Mother Jones, was forcibly escorted out of the American Correctional Association conference by armed guards.
• Snake River Correctional Institution in Oregon is experimenting with a “Blue Room”, where prisoners held in solitary confinement can view nature imagery for about 40 minutes each day, in lieu of the standard recreation time they would otherwise be offered. The Oregonian published an in-depth piece about the origin of the idea and why it might calm nerves and reduce disciplinary infractions.
• A correctional officer at Mercy County Correction Center in New Jersey allegedly threatened to file criminal charges against at least one female prisoner, extend her solitary confinement and deny her meals unless she performed oral sex on him, according to criminal charges filed last week. At the time, Officer John Ledbetter was a supervisor in the female solitary confinement unit; an attorney for one woman “there could be up to a dozen victims assaulted by Ledbetter.”
• New York’s City Council passed legislation that will create greater transparency around the use of solitary confinement on Rikers Island. The Department of Correction will now issue four annual reports detailing: the number of individuals held in isolation; why and for how long they are held in isolation; the number of recorded suicide attempts and any related follow-up care.
• Daniel McGowan, an environmental activist and former prisoner, was arrested from his halfway house and placed in solitary confinement in April 2013 after writing a HuffPost blog. Last week, he sued the Bureau of Prisons alleging that the arrest was unconstitutional, claiming he was retaliated against for expressing his views about the Communication Management Units, where he was held for several years.
• Florence Finkle, the deputy commissioner in charge of internal investigations at Rikers Island, has resigned from her post amidst allegations of a “deep-seated culture of violence” at the jail and the “excessive and inappropriate” solitary confinement of teenagers. According to a recently published federal report, Ms. Finkle’s office conducted “inadequate” investigations into the use of force at the facility.
• The family of a teenager who died while in solitary confinement at Rikers Island in April 2013 has filed a wrongful-death suit. According to the lawsuit, Andy Henriquez, 19, complained about chest pains and breathing but was ignored by guards; he eventually died of a ruptured aorta.
New York City Officials and Advocates Push for Change to the “Culture of Brutality” on Rikers Island
Update, 8/22/14: On Thursday, August 21, the New York City Council passed legislation introduced by Councilman Danny Dromm of Queens that would require corrections officials to release quarterly reports documenting information about inmates being held in solitary confinement at Rikers Island jail. Presenting this information to the New York City Board of Corrections would create increased transparency and oversight concerning the jail’s use of punitive segregation. The legislation is now awaiting the signature of Mayor de Blasio, who has said he supports the bill.
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New York City advocates and public officials gathered on the steps of City Hall on Monday to demand an end to the “culture of brutality” emerging from New York City’s Rikers Island, the second biggest jail in the country. The demand followed recent reports released by the United States Department of Justice and the New York City Board of Corrections, as well as months of investigative reporting by the New York Times, exposing brutality, violence, and excessive use of solitary confinement by officers specifically against mentally ill and teenage inmates. One previously incarcerated advocate that spoke at the event described Rikers as “worse than Dante’s Inferno.”
At the press conference, organized by the New York City Jails Action Coalition, speakers expressed support for legislation introduced by Councilman Daniel Dromm of Queens that would bring about much needed transparency and oversight to Rikers. The bill will be voted on this Thursday in the City Council. Speaking at the event, Dromm recounted his tour of Rikers saying, “I saw the horrible conditions inside of solitary people have to endure—a very small cell, the smell of urine, graffiti, a bed that was rusted, a mattress that had mildew on it, a blower of heat directly on top of the bed blowing down.” Strong criticism of Rikers Island has surfaced most recently after a series of exposes in the New York Times covering the staggering rise in violence at Rikers since 2009.
The Times managed to uncover an internal report conducted by the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene that documented, during an 11 month period, 129 cases of violence by corrections officers towards prisoners yielding injuries so serious they could not be treated at the jail’s clinic. Individuals incarcerated at Rikers suffered fractured jaws and eye sockets, wounds needing stitches, and severe back and head trauma. The report found that 77 percent of those seriously injured had a diagnosis of mental illness. Yet in not one of the 129 cases was a corrections officer prosecuted. Over half of the 80 prisoners interviewed by health department staff admitted to being intimidated by officers during their treatment, making it easier for staff to cover up the violent episodes.
According to the same article, about 4,000 out of 11,000 people held at Rikers have a mental illness. This number is about 40 percent of the jail population, a 20 percent increase from eight years ago. Few corrections officers have received any in-depth training on how to deal with individuals with mental illness.
Criticism of policies at Rikers Island continued to rise after August 4, when the United States Department of Justice unveiled a secret three-year investigation of Rikers conducted from 2011 to 2013. The investigation concluded that there is a “deep seated culture of violence” at the jail and that the New York City Department of Correction (DOC) has violated the civil rights of adolescent males ages 16 to 18, by subjecting them to and not protecting them from excessive force and violence. For example, the report said, “In FY [Fiscal Year] 2013, there were 565 reported staff use of force incidents involving adolescents… (resulting in 1,057 injuries).”Teenagers at Rikers suffered extreme violence by officers including “…broken jaws, broken orbital bones, broken noses, long bone fractures, and lacerations requiring sutures.”
The Department of Justice (DOJ) report released by the office of Preet Bharara, the United States Attorney in Manhattan, also condemned the use of solitary confinement against adolescents held at Rikers. The report reads: “Moreover, DOC relies far too heavily on punitive segregation as a disciplinary measure, placing adolescent inmates—many of whom are mentally ill—in what amounts to solitary confinement at an alarming rate and for excessive periods of time.”
While New York State prisons, under pressure from a lawsuit by the New York Civil Liberties Union, recently placed strict limits on the use of solitary confinement for juveniles under the age of 18, that reform does not apply to city jails. However, almost a year ago last September, the New York City Board of Corrections, the body that oversees the city’s jails, voted to draft new specific rules and criteria on who can be placed in solitary on Rikers Island. The Board is especially concerned with the use of solitary confinement on adolescents and people with mental illness.
In addition to a climate of brutality and violence at Rikers, the DOJ report also revealed that many cases of violence go unreported. When cases are reported, the officers are rarely punished. The report was also highly critical of the investigative division of the Department of Correction, saying it was understaffed and very slow, with out of date methods for processing investigations.
Mayor Bill de Blasio has promised to systematically bring Rikers under control and quell the rising violence. He began by appointing a new corrections commissioner, Joseph Ponte, who is known for reform, and by allocating funds to hire more correctional officers and to spend on mental health programming. However, amidst these promises, the city still has only 49 days to release a plan to implement major changes or risk federal intervention. This Thursday, the New York City Council has the chance to pass legislation which would bring about greater transparency and oversight to Rikers.
City Council Member Daniel Dromm (D-25) of Queens spoke at the press conference regarding the legislation he introduced in April, which would require the Department of Correction and the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to submit a quarterly report detailing the use of “punitive segregation”- solitary confinement used for punishment. The report would also require the DOC to document the number of inmates enduring additional restraints such as shackles, waist-chains, and hand mittens. The bill currently has 26 sponsors within the Council.
The bill has also received support from the Mayor. An article published Monday by Capital New York quoted Mayor de Blasio’s spokesperson Marti Adams saying “Mayor de Blasio is supportive of this bill, and the Speaker and Council’s efforts to encourage more transparency and use data to more effectively develop, manage and monitor programs that support better outcomes for the individuals incarcerated in our city’s jails.” The Mayor is given 30 days to either veto or sign the bill if passed by the City Council.
Council member Andy King of the Bronx, a supporter of the bill, commented at the press conference that this new legislation would allow the City Council to get proper information in order to hold the institution of Rikers accountable. “We need to make sure these young men get treated like human beings, not like animals, not like dogs. This is not a way to treat human beings…We’re supposed to do everything we can to rehabilitate these young men and help them reintegrate into society.”
In addition to advocating for the new legislation, Councilman Dromm as well as other speakers pointed to the responsibility of Norman Seabrook, president of the New York City Correction Officer’s Benevolent Association (COBA), to decrease violence at Rikers and bring about positive change. Dromm recounted an incident he experienced with Seabrook while touring Rikers in which Seabrook questioned what right Dromm had to be there. Dromm retorted that he had every right and went on to tell the audience “Seabrook needs to stand up and take accountability for what’s going on at Rikers. Norman Seabrook needs to stand up and be a part of the solution not the problem.”
The press conference was organized by the New York City’s Jails Action Coalition (JAC), a group of activists comprised of the formerly incarcerated, currently incarcerated, family members and other community members that work to “promote human rights, dignity and safety for people in New York City jails.” Speaking at the event were individuals representative of many groups including the Incarcerated Nation Campaign, the New York Civil Liberties Union, the Fortune Society, Education from the Inside Out, Just Leadership USA, the Bronx Defenders and the Brooklyn Defenders Services.
Johnanna Miller, the Advocacy Director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, summed up the sentiment of the day in saying “The city is failing to protect the basic human rights of New York citizens at Rikers… This is happening to New Yorkers that haven’t even had their day in court.” She went on to say “Transparency is only the first step. The culture of brutality must stop.”
Update, 8/20/14: Yesterday, the Sylvia Rivera Law Project released a new call to action to “Demand Safer Housing for Trans People in New York State Prisons.” After once again citing our investigation, SLRP tells the story of Synthia China Blast, a transwoman who has spent a decade in isolation in New York’s prisons, with an accompanying video featuring actor and activist Laverne Cox.
The call to action also includes an online petition for individuals to sign, to the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision.
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Earlier this month, Solitary Watch published an in-depth investigation by Aviva Stahl into the experiences of transgender women held in New York’s state prisons. It found that most transwomen in men’s prisons were subjected to long-term solitary confinement simply for being themselves. Many also faced sexual assault by staff as well as other prisoners.
Shortly after the investigation was released, four organizations – the National Center for Transgender Equality, Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York, the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, and the Trans Women of Color Collective – submitted a letter to the Acting Commission of New York’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) citing the article and demanding change.
“The women who shared their stories with Solitary Watch described a pattern of automatic, prolonged, and traumatic solitary confinement in men’s prisons,” the letter reads. “Their stories tragically demonstrated that solitary confinement does not prevent sexual abuse and other harms to vulnerable incarcerated persons, but instead inflicts further harm.”
The signatories call for DOCCS to “take swift and decisive action” to ensure full compliance with the Prison Rape Elimination Act’s (PREA) protections for transgender people. Specific demands outlined in the letter include: “housing transgender people consistent with their gender identity;” “establish[ing] entirely voluntary transgender housing units;” and “eliminating the prolonged use of isolation (including disciplinary, administrative segregation, and protective custody) for all individuals.”
The letter can be viewed in full here.
Interested parties can write to the Acting Commissioner of DOCCS at the following address: Mr. Anthony J. Annucci, Acting Commissioner, Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, 1220 Washington Avenue, Building 2, Albany, NY 12226-2050.
• A man who survived three years in solitary confinement in a New Jersey prison has had his lawsuit against the state’s Department of Corrections dismissed, on the grounds that he had not exhausted all available remedies to challenge the conditions. Lester Alford, who is still incarcerated, had alleged that he was denied legal assistance and endured deplorable conditions while held in solitary confinement.
• New York’s City Council will shortly vote on a bill that, if passed, would require the Department of Corrections to compile detailed data on the use of disciplinary segregation on Rikers Island.
• A Florida NPR station hosted a debate on how Florida should address the deaths of inmates in the prison system. Randall Justin-Aparo died in solitary confinement in September 2010. Investigators believe that staff may have gassed him, then covered up his death.
• The UK’s Morning Star published a front-page article about the experiences of Talha Ahsan, who was extradited to the US two years ago on terrorism charges and subsequently placed in solitary confinement in a Connecticut prison. Ahsan, who has been diagnosed with Asperger’s, was sentenced to time served in July and is awaiting deportation back to England.
• The American Civil Liberties published a briefing paper, “The Dangerous Overuse of Soltiary Confinement in the United States”, along with a blog post written by an individual whose brother has spent nearly ten years in isolation.
• A Pittsburgh man will receive a $30,000 settlement for allegedly being placed in solitary confinement a form of retaliation, after he spoke up on behalf of another inmate whose food was being tampered with by staff. The state has paid out $386,000 in lawsuits related to staff misconduct at the State Correctional Institution.
• Writing for the Huffington Post, Solitary Watch contributor Sarah Shourd describes seven audio recordings and videos recently released by Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC), in which immigration detainees experience arbitrary solitary confinement and other abuses.
• After she reported being sexually assaulted by her roommate at Arizona’s Eloy Detention Center, a transgender woman notified staff that she felt suicidal and was sent to solitary confinement for two days. Marichuy Leal Gamino and her supporters believe that she was being punished for reporting the assault.
• According to the latest report published by New York City’s Board of Corrections, more than 90% of those placed in disciplinary segregation at Riker’s Island do not receive their daily, legally-mandated hour of recreation. The report’s findings were covered by a variety of outlets, including the NY Daily News.
• The Department of Justice released a report which concludes that “there is a pattern of practice of conduct at Rikers that violates the constitutional rights of adolescent inmates,” and that the Department of Corrections “relies far too heavily on punitive segregation as a disciplinary measures.” The New York Times wrote an editorial supporting the extensive recommendations outlined in the report, including a reform of the “institutional culture of the jail system to ensure that violence is no longer tolerated.”
• The Bronx District Attorney has declined to prosecute any Rikers staff in an alleged 2012 assault on two prisoners, which was described in detail in the New York Times last month. Several individuals, including civilian staff members, had previously come forward to tell investigators what they had witnessed, but this week DA office announced that there were “inconsistencies and contradictions in testimony.”
• In the June/July 2014 issue of Correctional Law Reporter, Fred Cohen, LL.B., LL.M., convenes a panel of experts on prisons and the law in a “symposium” examining the use of and alternatives to solitary confinement in three hypothetical cases that illustrate the conditions, circumstances, and types of offenders consigned to “administrative segregation” in prisons around the U.S. Written for prison and jail administrators and their legal counsel, the bimonthly Correctional Law Reporter covers legal and constitutional issues in corrections.
• A federal judge has allowed a class-action lawsuit against the Arizona Department of Corrections to move forward, dismissing the state’s request for the summary judgment. The suit alleges that more than 33,000 prisoners in Arizona have endured poor prison health care and excessive solitary confinement. A trial is set to start in October.
• Solitary Watch’s Victoria Law published an article on Gothamist exploring “what it’s like to be 16 and in solitary on Rikers Island.”
• A trial against the New Jersey Department of Corrections continues this week. In the lawsuit, Lester Alford alleges that the DOC violated his rights against cruel and unusual punishment and that he was placed in disciplinary isolation without a proper hearing. In court he stated, “they locked me in a cell behind a cage like an an animal. I didn’t get to see my own face for three years.”
• A North Idaho teenager charged with murdering his father and brother has been removed from isolation in an adult facility and returned to a juvenile detention center. The ACLU of Idado had previously filed documents stating that Eldon Samuel III’s treatment in the Kootenai County Jail is “worse than the Guantanamo Bay detention camp.”
It was Gay Pride weekend in New York City, but the event’s celebratory spirit was absent from Michelle Scott’s tidy second-floor apartment on a leafy street near Brooklyn College. Her child, Carey Smith, is a transgender woman currently locked up in solitary confinement in Upstate Correctional Facility, a men’s supermax prison located in the Adirondacks.
“Sometimes I’m on my bed, I’m crying,” she told Solitary Watch. “I wake up at five o’clock in the morning thinking about it, and I say, ‘God my son is stuck in a cell for 23 hours a day,” said Scott, who seems to accept Smith’s transition but still uses male pronouns. “And I pray and ask God, ‘Please give him the grace to do it.’” Smith is in disciplinary segregation, known as the Special Housing Unit, or SHU.
In an era of unprecedented victories for LGBT rights, especially in liberal New York, people like Carey Smith are still paying a high price simply for being who they are.
Over the past several months, Solitary Watch has been in contact with seven transgender women currently or formerly incarcerated in New York’s men’s correctional facilities. They each described enduring long-term solitary confinement as a result of identifying or being perceived as female/feminine instead of male, the sex they were assigned at birth. And about half of the transwomen interviewed by Solitary Watch specifically disclosed being sexually assaulted by guards in isolation, and described the psychological distress of enduring such brutality while locked up alone.
Here are the stories of three of those women, and the continuing efforts of their families, lawyers, and activists to obtain justice for transwomen behind bars.
Solitary as “protection,” solitary as punishment
Carey Smith, 32, was born in Jamaica and followed her mom to Brooklyn at the age of twelve. After many years struggling with addiction, in 2010 she landed in prison on a seven-year sentence for two robbery charges. Although she had come out as transgender in high school, it was not until she arrived at Coxsackie Correctional Facility–a prison just south of Albany where Smith was incarcerated before Upstate–that she requested and received regular access to hormone therapy. As Smith’s body changed, she began experiencing numerous sexual threats and violence from both inmates and staff.
One night last winter, Smith became overwhelmed with the constant harassment and told the Correctional Officers (COs) she felt unsafe, according to a letter sent to Solitary Watch. But when a sergeant and lieutenant arrived they dismissed her concerns, informing her that she needed to pursue transfer requests through the available bureaucraticchannels. “I then told the Lt., ‘What if I flood my toilet,” and he said, ‘You would be doing a lot of SHU time.’” Then she explained, “Right then and there I took the bait I’ve been locked up since.”
On any given day, about 3,800 people in New York’s prisons are in the SHU. That means spending 23 of 24 hours in a cell the size of a parking space, with no telephone privileges, few personal possessions, and no access to activities, programs, or classes. Meals are served through a slot in cell door. Even the one-hour of recreation permitted each day is spent alone.
Solitary confinement can be a harrowing experience for anyone. But as Smith’s journey story underlines, for many transwomen there are multiple and contradictory meanings attached to isolation: Although it is sometimes perceived as a place of safety, it is also frequently experienced as a form of punishment.
Her story also illustrates the very limited options available to transwomen to push back against the cruelty and indifference exhibited by staff. Mik Kinkead is an attorney for Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York, which provides representation to indigent prisoners on issues associated with their conditions of confinement. “I’ve had several clients who have tried to stand up for themselves when DOCCS staff refer to them as “it” or “thing” or use the wrong pronoun even after my clients have explained what pronoun to use and why not doing so is hurtful and emotionally cruel,” he said in a recent phone interview. “However standing up for yourself in prison often results in a Misbehavior Report and being placed in solitary.”
“Trans and gender nonconforming people are disproportionately punished in prison and isolation is a common form of punishment,” explained Alisha Williams in an email to Solitary Watch. She is the Director of the Prisoner Justice Project at the Sylvia Rivera Law Project (SRLP), a NYC-based non-profit that provides advocacy for poor people and people of color who are gender non-conforming. As Williams pointed out, transwomen can even be punished for possessing panties if they have not been given the appropriate clearance by DOCCS staff. The SRLP extensively documented the experiences of transgender and intersex people in New York State’s men prisons in their 2007 report, It’s War in Here.
Sometimes, the “crime” that lands transwomen in isolation is simply appearing feminine, and therefore more vulnerable to physical or sexual violence in the general prison population. In New York and across the country, transgender people are often sent into involuntary protective custody (IPC) – another form of isolation–against their will, along with other prisoners perceived to be at risk. Other trans people elect to sign into voluntary protective custody (often referred to as ‘PC’) in order to escape a dangerous environment in general population.
According to New York’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (NY-DOCCS) Directive 4948, prisoners in PC and IPC are supposed to spend a minimum of three hours per day outside of their cells, participate daily in at least two group meals, and have regular access to library and counseling services, telephone calls, visits and their personal property–in other words, conditions are not supposed to mirror the SHU.
But according to women on the inside and advocates on the outside, few facilities make such distinctions. And because the vulnerable populations that end up in PC/IPC necessarily come under increased institutional surveillance, what begins as a protective measure may end as a punitive one.
Geri, 48, a German-born transwoman who asked that her last name be withheld, is twenty years into a twenty-five year sentence for second-degree manslaughter. In series of letters to Solitary Watch, she described how she spent the first 17 years of her sentence in the closet–until one day, when three gang members assaulted her. She wrote:
“[W]hile I fought, I was quickly beaten to shower floor. Cold, hard, wet–slippery. Kicked and incapacitated. So fast, with kaleidoscope of images and thought swirl in my overwhelmed mind.” She goes on to describe the rape in detail.
Geri explained that after her assailants left, she cleaned herself up and scrubbed the floor, all the while hoping she could get back to her cell without COs noting the incident. But as she crossed the recreation yard, a guard noticed she was bleeding; she taken to the facility hospital, where she was swabbed and her boxers confiscated. After being given minimal treatment, she was escorted to IPC wearing only a small towel tied around her waist.
But Geri’s difficulties did not end there. Instead of receiving additional medical care, she was issued two disciplinary tickets: one for not reporting an injury, and the second for a positive marijuana test. After a hearing on the charges before other prison staff, she was sentenced to six months in the SHU, which she served primarily at Upstate prison. Like many, once in “the box” Geri received additional tickets, and she ended up spending four years there.
Sexual assaults by prison staff
As Geri’s story suggests, the most significant factor that lands transwomen in protective custody is actual or perceived risk of sexual violence. However, isolation is oftentimes an equally or even more dangerous place. In fact, it was during Geri’s transfer to the SHU at Upstate that she experienced her most recent episode of prison sexual violence.
“At layover stop [to Upstate],” she wrote, “I am escorted by staff member, and cuffed behind my back. I was directed into small room and to sit on bench. Staff member closed door, made some reference to rape incident, exposed semi-erect penis and standing in front of me told me to: ‘polish his knob.’”
She continued: “I was absolutely shocked, but recovered enough to bluff. I told him he’d better just ‘pull the pin’ (personal alarm). He backed off, rezipping pants, tried to play off as he was just ‘joking’ with me. No sane, rational person would believe these actions as mere ‘joke’.”
Although no data exists tracking transgender experiences of assault New York prisons, accounts like Geri’s, as well as data from other studies, suggests that it is an commonplace ordeal for transwomen locked up. In a 2007 study of California prisons, for example, 59% of transwomen polled reported experiencing sexual assault while on the inside–a rate nearly 13 times higher than average amongst the state’s prison population.
According to recent Bureau of Justice Statistics data, nearly half of the alleged instances of sexual violence in prisons and jails across America are actually committed by facility staff. In short, placing transwomen in “protective” custody may actually increase their vulnerability to predatory staff members, while simultaneously closing down potential avenues to report assaults.
For Yvette Gonzales, 37, who spent three years of her seven-year sentence in solitary confinement, the notion of isolation as “protection” could not be farther from the truth. Gonzales was first arrested in 1998 and eventually pled guilty to criminal possession of a weapon. She narrated her experiences to Solitary Watch from the Midtown offices of Housing Works, the HIV/AIDS advocacy organization where she now works as a testing coordinator.
“Things were going good for a while,” at Franklin Correctional Facility, where Gonzales was first transferred after sentencing, “until my whole femininity thing just started becoming an issue for a lot of correctional officers.” Guards starting harassing her, and when fights started breaking out in the dorms, she said, they were blamed on her. “I went to the box, supposedly to keep me safe.”
At first Gonzales was placed at the front of the tier. Then, one night, a CO moved her to a cell at the very end of the corridor, out of sight from the bubble where other guards would stand watch. A few nights later, the same guard returned and informed her he would be searching her cell, ordering her to stand in front of her bed and strip. Then, the CO came towards her.
“I remember, he punched me so hard in my ribs, that I could barely breathe… he hit me so hard that I grabbed myself on the bed and that’s when he came behind me and he was grabbing me, choking me and hitting me, pinning me down… there was a point I couldn’t even move.”
“He made me give him oral sex and he turned me around and that’s when he attacked me sexually – he raped me and this went on for a few weeks.”
Gonzales also told Solitary Watch that she never received medical attention. “When I tried to complain to the captain he told me that I was lying. So I had to endure that for a long period of time when I was in the box.”
Both advocates and many of the transwomen in touch with Solitary Watch stressed that when prisoner’s account of a staff assault is disputed, unless videotape evidence is available, the CO’s word will almost always be accepted as truth.
In an e-mail, Assistant Public Information Officer Linda Foglia told Solitary Watch, “DOCCS has not identified a systemic problem of transgender women being sexually victimized by either other inmates or staff.” She added that DOCCS is in the process of launching a new sexual victimization-screening tool, which will include information about individuals’ sexual orientation and gender identity, and sensitivity training for reception and guidance staff.
The trauma and toll of isolation
There is a growing understanding both across the country and the world that prolonged solitary confinement causes severe emotional distress, and often amounts to torture. After communicating with over 100 individuals who had served significant time in the state’s SHUs, the New York Civil Liberties Union concluded that “extreme isolation causes emotional and psychological harm, including apathy, lethargy, anxiety, depression, despair, rage and uncontrollable impulses, even among the health and mentally stable.”
Chris Daley is the deputy executive director of Just Detention International (JDI), a human rights organization that is committed to ending sexual violence in detention. “[Solitary] is an incredibly harmful way to protect someone,” he told Solitary Watch in a recent phone interview from the organization’s Washington DC office.
“The emotional and psychological damages that comes from being placed in solitary… can oftentimes be just as bad as the physical violence, it just manifests differently, and it is not something you can as clearly point to in an individual case.”
Gonzales told Solitary Watch that being in IPC had undoubtedly affected her well-being. “There’s nothing for you to do [in the box]. You sleep, you lose track of time. You start talking to yourself, you start hearing, you start imagining, you start inventing, you start making up stuff.”
The Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), passed in 2003, recognizes the psychological toll of isolation by requiring facilities to assess all alternative remedies before placing a vulnerable person individual in IPC–like relocating perpetrators, increasing staffing, or housing those at risk in single-cells within general population. The legislation also states that involuntary segregation for those at risk should not last longer than 30 days.
NYDOCCS told Solitary Watch that its facilities are PREA-compliant in these specific areas. These assurances were disputed, however, by every advocate interviewed for this article.
Being placed in solitary confinement–whether for protection or punishment–is often particularly psychologically distressing for transwomen: not only because of the violence they face in isolation, but also because they are cut off from transgender-affirming avenues of support, like family or friends on the outside or LGBT peers in general population.
In a note to Solitary Watch, Smith described the level of distress she has encountered in the SHU. “Last year before this I was in another facility… I was being treated badly by the staff as a whole in Woodbourne [Correctional Facility] while in an extremely intense solitary confinement especially because the space was so small. I asked the officer for mental health and he told me he would not get mental health for me.”
Smith felt trapped. The day before, a prisoner who had twice assaulted her had been let out of the box; she believed she was kept in “because of all the attention [she] was getting.”
“I took them off [my reading glasses], broke them up and started to slice and cut up my wrist and arm. After all the blood and cuts mental health was called and I was out of solitary for 5 days. It’s sad I have to mutilate my own body just to get something done.”
Transwomen do not only pay a price psychologically – they also pay in time. “I have multiple clients who have been denied parole because they spent their entire time in protective custody,” Kinkead told Solitary Watch. Almost without exception, prisoners outside of general population are unable to access programs mandated by the courts – like anger management – that might otherwise enable them to be seen favorably at parole hearings.
Proposed solutions for staying safe(r)
As Chris Daley of Just Detention noted, it is the environment within men’s prisons that puts transwomen at such a high risk of sexual violence – in that their bodies become a means for both prisoners and staff to assert their masculinity. In letter to Solitary Watch, Geri explained, “Being in a men’s prison lets you know how (many) men really feel about women – and makes me feel more vulnerable to sexual violence/abuse than ever before.”
As a result, some advocates have suggested that the answer to keeping transwomen safe is creating policies for them to be more easily housed in women’s facilities, as has been done in a number of cities and states, including Denver, Washington, DC, and elsewhere. And certainly being transferred to a women’s facility is a priority for many transwomen locked up in New York and across the country. Under PREA, correctional facilities are supposed to determine housing for trans people on a case-by-case basis, taking into account where the individual feels they would be safest.
When asked, however, most of the transwomen in touch with Solitary Watch named a different solution–creating specific pods, floors or even entire facilities dedicated to housing LGBT prisoners.
According to Daley, LGBT-segregated units can sometimes heighten vulnerability to violence, for example, if staff predators gain access. He thinks the idea is more a reflection of the dire nature of current realities than a solution in itself. “[The request for LGBT-units is] shorthand for ‘I want to be someplace where they’re going to call me by the right name, use the right pronouns, and not threaten or intimidate me. That’s about conditions of confinement. And everyone should be in a facility where those things happen.”
Last February, the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) reached a tentative agreement with the state that will remove a number of vulnerable populations from isolation, including juveniles, pregnant women, and those with developmental disabilities—but makes no reference to transgender people.
The Humane Alternatives to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act, introduced into the New York state legislature this past winter, aims to establish strict limits on the amount of time any prisoner could spend in isolation.
“HALT also recognizes that certain people should never be placed in isolation for any length of time because either isolation itself can have more devastating effects on them or they are more vulnerable to abuse while in isolation,” explained Scott Paltrowitz, Associate Director of the Prison Visiting Project at the Correctional Association, a non-profit advocating for a more humane criminal justice system in New York. ”Transgender people and other members of the LGBTI community are given additional protections under HALT primarily for the latter reason.”
Within the broader movement against solitary confinement in New York and across the country, advocates face a difficult dilemma: namely, how to provide immediate and much-needed relief to the most vulnerable of populations without leaving everyone else to languish in the box.
Jason Lydon, 31, is the founder of Black & Pink, an organization that aims to build support between LGBTQ people across prison walls, primarily through a pen-pal scheme.
“When we fight for the reduction of solitary confinement for certain individuals,” he told Solitary Watch, “we are saying that solitary confinement is okay – that there is a certain amount of torture that is okay for certain kinds of people – for [non-trans] black men, for example.”
He added, “We’re not looking to create a pink door in a prison wall for LGBTQ people to walk out of. While centering [LGBTQ] experiences, our efforts are tied to this larger call for abolition for everybody.”
For its part, NYDOCCS has also stated that it is taking steps to better accommodate the needs of trans prisoners. In an email, Linda Foglia told Solitary Watch:
“In July 2012, DOCCS convened an internal multi-disciplinary ‘GID Task Force’ (now the GD Task Force) to study the needs of transgender individuals, and to review policies to ensure an appropriate balance between individual needs and the agency’s mission. The work of this Task Force continues and keeps DOCCS at the forefront as corrections agencies across the nation work to identify best practices for working with LGBTI inmates.”
An unconditional love
While popular mobilization and policy change may seek to improve conditions on the inside, when it comes down to it, most transgender women locked up in New York and across the county rely on friends and family to survive.
In a June letter to Solitary Watch, Smith wrote, “the biggest thing that bothers me [about conditions in the SHU] the most not hearing my mom’s voice to ease her worries and mine.”
From her home in Flatbush, Smith’s mother, Michelle Scott, explained why her emotional support is so central is to her child’s survival on the inside. “Carey sees [my] unconditional love when everyone else turns their back… He sees the unconditional love when he goes out there and I’m walking with him on Flatbush. I see guys looking at him and say, ‘Oh, you batty man’…. They cut him down and I hold his hand and we cried, and I said, ‘This is my child.’”
Michelle Scott hopes that love will help keep Carey strong even as he endures isolation and abuse in prison. “I never in my life fathomed he would go through this,” she said.
For a firsthand account of one transgender woman’s experience in solitary confinement in New York, see the accompanying piece Voices from Solitary: Cruel and Unusual Punishment for Transgender Women.
Solitary Watch is interested in hearing from other transgender individuals and their families about their experiences in New York’s prisons and jails. Please write to Aviva Stahl, c/o Solitary Watch, Box 165, 123 7th Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11215 or email aviva.stahl (at) gmail.com.
Dee Dee is a transgender woman serving a sentence of 60 years to life in New York State, where she has been held in men’s prisons. After being raped twice in general population, she was placed in solitary confinement “for her own protection,” in conditions virtually identical to those used for punishment. In this letter to Solitary Watch, Dee Dee describes in detail the conditions of extreme isolation and deprivation in which she lives, and the effect they have had on her. For more stories and information on transgender women in the New York State prison system, see the accompanying article, “Transgender Women in New York State Prisons Face Solitary Confinement and Sexual Assault.” –Aviva Stahl
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I’m currently in solitary confinement under the status of Involuntary Protective Custody (I.P.C.) since 2-14-2013. Overall, I’ve been in continuous solitary confinement for 4 straight years.
I’m allowed only 1 hour outside to use weights (if available), phone and T.V., or to play cards or basketball (if they’re provided but usually aren’t). The one hour goes by too quickly. We inmates spend so much of it talking and socializing. You can readily identify the detrimental effects of our solitary existence by the harried way we socialize. The personal contact is a great need; the interaction is non-stop about everything, anything and nothing as guys try to work-out or play games. Mostly, its guys complaining how bad things are for us and negative talk of possible “solutions” which go nowhere. Nothing really constructive is discussed.
Our cells have solid doors with a small window about the size of two paperback novels placed side-by-side. You can only see directly in front of your own cell. You can’t really hear anything outside the cell due to blower vents in our cell that circulate air in and out of our cells being so loud. The walls are basically sound-proof being of solid cement. Although the cells are designed for disciplinary solitary confinement it is nice because it’s supposed to house 2 inmates, but when used for protection use, inmates are housed by themselves; hence, plenty of room. But the main thing is the inability to hear anything outside your cell. And to compound this, when lists are taken for our 1 hour yard or 10 minute gallery phone use, CO’s rarely announce themselves or that a list is being taken. Inmates new to the unit have no idea what is going on because no rule book is available, nor does staff give a rundown of how things run in the unit. Many miss the lists. I suffer daily anxiety by waiting at my door a ½ hour before the lists are supposed to come just so I don’t miss it because C.O.’s come with the lists at anytime a ½ before or after the list is supposed to be taken.
There are no interactions from your cell with anyone for 23 hours a day aside from C.O.’s delivering your food trays 3 times a day. You can try to yell through the door but it’s a hassle because your voice barely gets through and you have to repeat yourself over and over. We have a recreation pen (rec. pen) at the back of our cells where you can go outside but it’s like being in a dog kennel. We’re told that the rec pen is our “additional out-of-cell” time; indicated in the New York Department Directives for protective custody units.
Our phone access is restricted even though we are not disciplinary restricted; as phone use is a privilege that can only be restricted by a disciplinary hearing sanction for rule violations. We wrote grievances but even when we win the staff in this block refuse to obey the decisions. They adhere to their own unwritten policy.
Our protection unit is housed in the Special Housing Unit block (SHU), which is a disciplinary solitary confinement unit for inmates who’ve violated facility or department rules and regulations. And because of that staff can quote “security reasons” as a basis for any unfair restrictions they arbitrarily apply to us to make their jobs easier. There’s no rule book and the block is run in part (to resemble legitimacy) by what Department of Corrections policy and directives dictate and what staff have made up in order to allow us the VERY MINIMUM (most time we have less than) what we’re entitled to.
We have a general library cart with about 40 books that is sent about every 3 months that’s brought cell-to-cell every Tuesday night. The books are all garbage and not worth reading. Grievances and complaints were made and the general librarians’ response was to fill the cart with really bad choices. Even the CO who rolls the cart around said it was a shame. This is just one example of the treatment we endure besides the having to endure 23 hours of solitary.
I personally went on hunger strike to bring attention to the conditions and treatment here. And although I obtained a one-on-one audience with the Executive Staff of the facility I was just “yes’d” to death and NOTHING was done to change anything. Their only response was to transfer everyone they could who wrote grievances or complained. However, myself and 4 others cannot be transferred due to the safety needs we require. Transfers are always staff’s response in any facility, to problems they face when inmates speak up.
In addition, staff harasses us for the grievances we write. One inmate had his cell’s contents destroyed during a “random” cell search. His 3rd in a few weeks. And he got a disciplinary ticket for misc. thing, as an attempt to put him in disciplinary solitary confinement. Retribution is and has always been a tactic staff employs to deter inmates from writing grievances and/or shedding light on the staff’s “policy and procedures” we have to endure.
I’m blessed to have support and fill my 23 hours of lockdown by doing legal work, studying, reading, and drawing some. However, I’ve been here over a year with no access to a pencil sharpener; because this block is a SHU block and one isn’t provided. The only allowable pencil sharpeners we’re allowed to order from outside vendors are no longer produced. I’ve written grievances and complained but nothing is being done.
I find solitary confinement here very detrimental to one’s mental health. Cell lights are kept on at night for SHU inmates for legitimate security reasons, but they’re put on for us as well. When I complained I was told that they stay on (even though they can specifically turn ours off) because we’re housed in a SHU block, so we get treated the same. Yet, SHU inmates have a mailbox wheeled to each of their cells to ensure their mail is actually being sent out. But we, on the other hand, are told we don’t get a mail cart because we’re not SHU inmates. So CO’s pick our mail up by hand and we hope they put it in the mailbox to go out. However, grievances and mail of complaints have been known to disappear and never get to the mailbox. Which can be detrimental to any legal or policy time constraints. The mental stress of this and other flip-flopping “policy” is very intense. You never know where you stand.
I had a friend, DeMario Parks, who was in this SHU back in 2001. He mentally broke and hung himself. A few years later the Office of Mental Health did a study on the effects of solitary confinement. This study resulted in being the backbone of a lawsuit against the NY State Dept of Corrections that produced sweeping changed for inmates who were mentally ill and placed in solitary confinement where their mental conditions deteriorated and they wound up getting more and more disciplinary tickets that would keep them in solitary for years. The study, I encourage you to read, is available from the Office of Mental Health or the “New York State Commission of Corrections,” which is a watchdog agency.
The restricted contact with others is the hardest part to deal with. As humans we need to socialize in order to stay relevant with societal norms, etc. Prison is already a very lonely place for many of us. This lack of interaction promotes anti-social behavior. I’ve stayed in my cell for months because I felt anti-social, frustrated, angry etc and wanted nothing to do with anyone here. I’m currently doing so now . The mental ups and downs are an ordeal. Mental health is no help. Their services are either to prescribe medications or instruct you in “coping skills” so you can endure more of this cruel & unusual punishment INSTEAD of alleviating the root of the problem causing the distress.
Most letters to staff go ignored. You’re basically screaming on deaf ears. Our one hour of yard is usually 45 minutes due to staff bringing us out late or bringing us in early. Our minimum is ONE HOUR, but we rarely get it. A grievance, from experience, gets you harassed and/or not let out for yard at all. Staff knows if you complain of a missed yard it can’t be rectified, so they get away with it.
There’s no programming or classes or any type of rehabilitation work you can do in here either. The mind stagnates. The only thing offered is “cell study” which is for inmates looking to get a GED which they’ll never take a test for until they get out of solitary. Cell study is totally self-study by text books with no instruction at all. I currently convinced the cell study staff to provide me with vocational text books, so that I can study on my own topics such a Masonry, Home Electrical Wiring and Business Practices. That’s all one can do.
The frustrations here are immense. Tempers flare all over. Mostly because a lot of what goes on makes no logical sense. And I know staff sees that but they don’t care.
Currently, I’m trying to get a transfer somewhere very beneficial to my long-term future in prison. I have 35 more years before I see parole board. So I have to stay out of trouble by staying below the radar with staff so as to not to jeopardize it. So I accept the oppression and mistreatment and meekly do what I need to do to get out of here (hopefully). It’s a sad existence but it is what it is. We are basically voiceless here.
Others are unfortunately left to endure this oppressive lonely place. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve talked myself out of self-destructive behavior or harmful behavior here out of the frustrating desperations I experience here.
Solitary confinement is punishment, sure but it’s a cruel and unusual punishment that benefits no one and nothing about it rehabilitates anymore thus confined. Their behavior stays the same (and/or gets worse) and they usually stay within the cycle of coming back to solitary or never getting out of it.
Lastly, I’d like to mention that in December of 2001 I was released from prison (on a previous incarceration). I was sent directly into society after 2 years of solitary confinement for protection. No transitional program or preparation was provided. No assistance or guidance or counseling either as to what to expect or what I needed to do on the outside after 10 years in prison. From 23 hours of solitary confinement to 24/7 wide-open society in the snap of your fingers. I arrived in New York City post 9-11 paranoid, nervous, bitter, and scared of everyone around me. It was too much to handle at once. Six days later, still feeling way, way out of place, I killed my boyfriend in a domestic dispute. I believe the solitary confinement in addition to no outside help or counseling by the office of parole contributed to this tragedy. I was just left to my own devices that were woefully inadequate for the task.
The HALT bill is a good start but applicability will be a challenge–especially due to funding. Money, sadly, dictates not what is best but what we can only afford. For one of the richest countries on earth we should be able to do better.
I encourage everyone to add to our voices to advocate for change so that your friends and your loved ones who are unfortunately are incarcerated return to society better mentally and emotionally then when they came to prison. Even if you’ve no friends or family in here, they still will be among you in society–so do what will benefit society as a whole. It all affects us. Rehabilitate don’t punish.
STOP SOLITARY CONFINEMENT.
“Loneliness is a destroyer of humanity.” –Jesse Wilson, held in solitary at ADX Florence federal supermax prison
Based on the evidence amassed by researchers in the last several decades, we have reached a point in time when we may unequivocally state that solitary confinement inflicts psychological damage and distress on those subjected to it. Even in individuals with no prior history of mental illness or instability, extended periods of isolated confinement have produced severe psychological symptoms, and left deep and often permanent psychological scars.
More recently, such findings have been bolstered by the field of neuroscience, which is progressively discovering evidence that long-term isolation has the potential to actually alter the chemistry and structure of the brain.
Among the early researchers investigating the link between solitary confinement and mental abnormalities is Stuart Grassian, who became interested in the subject after visiting Walpole State Penitentiary in 1982 and interviewing several men in solitary confinement. Grassian realized “these people were very sick.” Those he spoke with exhibited symptoms such as hallucinatory tendencies, paranoia, and delirium—a collection of conditions he designated “SHU Syndrome.” Several other studies have since supported the existence of such a syndrome. The American Friends Service Committee, among others, also cites hypersensitivity to noise and touch, insomnia, PTSD, and uncontrollable feelings of rage or fear.
The rise of supermaxes and solitary confinement units across the country in the 1990s and early 2000s has intensified the problems associated with prison isolation.
According to an American Journal of Public Health study, 53.3 percent of self-harm incidents took place among those in solitary, who make up only about 5 percent of the prison population. Likewise, about half of all prison suicides take place in solitary confinement. When their sentences are complete, individuals housed in solitary are often released directly to the streets—a practice that has been linked to increased recidivism rates.
Only recently, however, have researchers begun discussing the neurobiological effects of prolonged isolation. This research was showcased earlier this year at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), at a panel discussion during which neurologists and activists alike shared their experiences with solitary confinement’s destructive capabilities.
Panel member Craig Haney, a psychology professor from the University of California Santa Cruz, has spent the past thirty years both evaluating solitary confinement units across the country and documenting the effects of long-term isolation. One notable effect of such seclusion on prisoners, Haney states, is identity disorders that result from the lack of social interaction:
So much of who we are depends on our contact with other people, the social context in which we function, and when you remove people from that context, they begin to lose their very sense of self.
Huda Akil, a neuroscientist at the University of Michigan and also a member of the panel, concedes the fact that there are limitations when attempting to work with prisoners directly, but is confident in a connection between solitary and mental abnormalities because of existing evidence tying the absence of stimulus with changes in the brain:
The physical lack of activity, the lack of interaction with the natural world… the lack of interaction with other human beings, the lack of visual stimulation, the lack of touch—Each one of those has been studied not just only in humans, but in animal models… And each one is by itself sufficient to change the brain, and change it dramatically depending on whether it lasts briefly or extended. And by extended I mean days, not decades…
Given the opportunity to document changes in segregated prisoners’ brains, Akil is certain the findings would support the theory that solitary confinement can fundamentally alter the structure of the brain.
When one considers the wealth of knowledge that behavioral science has contributed to establishing a connection between isolation and brain degeneration, along with the relatively new, concrete evidence offered by neuroscientists, the existence of a causal relationship is convincing.
In an article published by AEON Magazine Shruti Ravindran presents a collection of first-hand accounts and recent scientific research supporting the panel’s central claim: “solitary confinement fundamentally alters the brain.” Among her resources are formerly incarcerated persons and renowned neuroloscientists, who have devoted themselves to documenting the negative effects that prolonged isolation can have on a person’s psyche.
Ravindran begins by introducing us to Robert King, a former prisoner and member of the AAAS panel, who spent 29 years in solitary at Louisiana’s Angola State Prison. King describes his experiences in and out of solitary confinement, and the lasting side effects. Even after his release thirteen years ago, he says, he often feels introverted, struggles with paranoia, and suffers from bouts of depression.
In an ongoing effort to prove the existence of a causal link between solitary confinement and its devastating mental consequences, neurologists like Elizabeth Gould, Mark Rosenzweig, and Marian Diamond have conducted experiments that demonstrate structural changes in the brain itself. Gould, a Princeton neuroscientist, and Alexis Stranahan, a postdoctoral researcher, together investigated the underlying reasons behind the isolated brain’s decline and found hormones to be somewhat responsible. They found that isolated rats could not effectively regulate stress hormones, leading to a dangerous buildup that was causing neurons to die. Normally, an animal would be able to maintain a hormone balance that preserves, and even grows neurons. But in a stress-inducing environment, such as the one isolation imposes, the ability to regulate hormones is lost and the body’s systems deteriorate.
Rosenzweig found that rats subjected to supermax-like conditions “had fewer connections between neurons and thinner cerebral cortexes” than those that were raised in stimulating, engaging environments. Diamond revealed the fragility of the cortex by demonstrating that environmental changes, positive or negative, had the potential to alter both the size and cellular makeup of the cortex at any point in a person’s life. “The cerebral cortex,” Ravindran contests, “… is the part of the brain that makes us most human.” If the cortex is in fact one of the most crucial areas of the brain, it is alarming to find that it is so susceptible to environmental changes, especially the drastic sensory deprivation associated with solitary confinement.
As evidence of solitary’s biological affects accumulates, a valid question arises: What does this all mean for the future of solitary confinement? At a minimum it will strengthen every argument against the practice on both ethical and practical grounds. Prisoners are suffering not only mental anguish but also permanent physiological harm that will hinder their efforts to reintegrate into society.
• California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) introduced new policies that limit the use of force against prisoners with mental illness, including establishing strict restrictions on cell extractions from solitary confinement. Mental health practitioners will now conduct evaluations and attempt to de-escalate the situation before force is used. The policy also mandates CDCR to transfer inmates with mental illness out of solitary confinement more quickly.
• The New York Times published an in-depth article about a Tennessee man who died after being forcibly extracted from his solitary confinement cell at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution. The article also includes images from the extraction.
• Several outlets published articles on Kenny “Zulu” Whitmore, who has spent the last 28 years in solitary confinement but may soon be released into general population. The warden at Louisiana’s Angola Prison, where Whitmore is housed, has said he’d “rather have [Whitmore] out” but has also expressed concern about Whitmore’s longstanding affiliation with the Black Panther Party. (See The Advocate, Time)
• Vice published an article about “the terrorist that wasn’t,” Talha Ahsan, who is due to return to his family in the UK after being given time served on material support charges. Ahsan spent about two years in solitary confinement at Northern Correctional Institute in Connecticut.
• The Hill published a blog about Florence ADX by Angela Wright, a researcher at Amnesty International who visited the prison in 2001.
• The Jails Action Coalition held another protest outside of the Bronx DA’s office, calling for the prosecution of correctional officers responsible for the death of an individual on Rikers Island last year. Bradley Ballard was found unresponsive in his cell after spending seven days in solitary confinement; he had been denied access to medical care and life-saving medication. His death has since been ruled a homicide.
• A number of local papers published stories and Op-eds in response to last week’s revelations, published in the State Journal, about the use of solitary confinement in Wisconsin prisons. (See State Journal, Post Crescent, Urban Milwaukee, Journal Sentinel).
• An undocumented individual held at the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma has allegedly been placed in solitary confinement after going on hunger strike. This is the second time this year that detainees have refused food, in protest of both the conditions at Northwest and the broader failure of the Obama administration to reform the immigration system.
• Brooklyn Defender Services published an article on the Huffington Post entitled, “Policymakers Must Include Incarcerated People in Jail Reform Process.”
• The trial has begun in the case of Lester Alford, who is suing the state of New Jersey after allegedly enduring conditions that amounted to cruel and unusual punishment and a violation of his constitutional rights. Alford spent several years in solitary confinement, where he claims he was not allowed to clean his cell and was forced to sleep on a wet mattress.
• Creative Time Reports published an article by Laurie Jo Reynolds and Stephen Eisenman, describing in detail the successful campaign to close Tamms supermax prison in Illinois.
Recently obtained videos which have been exposed to the public show corrections officers using extreme force on incarcerated people suffering from various forms of mental illness.Attack on a Suicidal Man at Denver City Jail
Footage of one such video (shown below), taken in September of last year and later obtained by The Colorado Independent through an open records request, shows a team of corrections officers using force on Isaiah Moreno, who had been suicide watch at the Denver City Jail.
The graphic video shows Moreno repeatedly slamming his head against a concrete wall and pacing in his isolation cell. A team of officers toting restraint equipment is seen assembling outside his cell door – seemingly to stop him from harming himself – where they remain for several minutes as the man continues to bang his head into his cell wall. According to The Colorado Independent:
At one point, after an officer had asked him to stop hitting his head and Moreno responded, “I don’t give a fuck. No. Fuck you.” Moreno sat on the concrete bench that serves as a bed. Eight officers then entered the cell – two with taser guns pointed at him, even though he posed no visible sign of threat. Two of the officers tasered him with electroshocks before he slumped onto the floor. Officers strapped him into a restraint chair and then left him alone in the cell.
The footage of Moreno’s self-harm and of officers’ attack on him was obtained through a public records request. The Colorado Independent edited the 40-minute video to splice out nudity when Moreno was forced to remove his clothing and change into an anti-suicide gown, also known as a “turtle suit.” The smocks are protocol for suicidal inmates so they don’t hang or strangle themselves with their clothing. The gown given to Moreno was far too small for him. Several times in the video, it becomes unfastened, he refastens it and it becomes unfastened again.
According to the story, the incident took place just days following former Denver Sheriff Gary Wilson, who was demoted by the city’s mayor, Michael Hancock, for “excessive force problems.”
As reported by The Colorado Independent:
An investigation by Denver’s Internal Affairs Bureau determined that Sergeant Ned St. Germain – who has worked in the department since 1983 — broke the city’s use of force policies when he directly ordered the two deputies, Luke Swarr and Frank Romero, to taser Moreno in the Sept. 26, 2013, attack.
“Sergeant St. Germain gave the order when the inmate was not physically resisting at the time or immediately before the order was given. Moreover, he was not posing a threat to himself or others,” reads St. Germain’s discipline report. “Simply stated, there was no need to use the taser to gain compliance.”
St. Germain and his deputies had plenty of time to observe Moreno and assess his threat level. Electroshocking a vulnerable, mentally ill man smacks of a certain savagery that shocks the conscience of several people who have viewed the footage.
The story goes on to detail the remarks of Sgt. St. Germain and officials on St. Germain’s conduct:
Hancock promised reform on Monday when he demoted Wilson and announced a national search for a new sheriff to “change the culture” in the department. Still, the mayor’s message was mixed. In announcing Wilson’s ouster, Hancock praised him as a great leader and said, “Unfortunately, the department let him down.”
In a meeting with then-Sheriff Wilson and other top department officials in April, Sgt. St. Germain described the Moreno attack as “a good situation” that was “cut and dry” because, he said, Moreno was cursing at officers, threatening to fight and not responding to orders. He cited Moreno’s “internal anger” as a danger to the staff. He described the incident as “a very successful placement in the chair.”
“I thought it went very well,” he told his superiors. “I would have done this exact same thing again.”
In his disciplinary report, officials wrote, “The Department has great concern regarding your ability to act responsibly and to conduct yourself appropriately while on duty.”
They added: “Your conduct has compromised the mission of the Department.”
Officials punished St. Germain for his misconduct with an unpaid 10-day suspension without pay. He is appealing the disciplinary action.
The Colorado Independent further notes that episodes like this one are not uncommon in Denver’s jails.A Beating at Rikers Island
A recent story by The New York Times details a report on brutality by corrections officers at Rikers Island, New York City’s main jail, from the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, stating:
The study, which the health department refused to release under the state’s Freedom of Information Law, found that over an 11-month period last year, 129 inmates suffered “serious injuries” — ones beyond the capacity of doctors at the jail’s clinics to treat — in altercations with correction department staff members.
The report cataloged in exacting detail the severity of injuries suffered by inmates: fractures, wounds requiring stitches, head injuries and the like. But it also explored who the victims were. Most significantly, 77 percent of the seriously injured inmates had received a mental illness diagnosis.
What emerges is a damning portrait of guards on Rikers Island, who are poorly equipped to deal with mental illness and instead repeatedly respond with overwhelming force to even minor provocations.
The report notes that health department staff members interviewed 80 of the 129 inmates after their altercations with correction officers. In 80 percent of the cases, inmates reported being beaten after they were handcuffed.
The study also contained hints of efforts to cover up the assaults. More than half of the inmates reported facing “interference or intimidation” from correction officers while seeking treatment after an altercation.
In five of the 129 cases, the beatings followed suicide attempts.
Among the 129 instances of guard brutality, a particularly disturbing case captured by video camera surveillance (shown below) involved prisoner Jose Bautista, who at the time suffered from mental illness. Bautista was beaten by guards after attempting suicide by hanging himself by his underwear.
The Times reports:
In many of the cases examined by The Times , the guards’ responses seemed to grossly outweigh the perceived offense. The altercation involving Mr. Bautista early last year is especially puzzling.
After the four guards cut him down from his makeshift noose, he lay prone on the floor of the cell for nearly a minute but then suddenly stood up. Later Mr. Bautista, then 37 and a married father of five who made a living as a house painter and dishwasher, told investigators he did not know why he stood, except that he was confused.
At 5-foot-5, he is significantly smaller than the guards. Whether the four standing over him were startled, scared or angry is hard to know since the surveillance camera that caught much of what happened was unable to pick up sound. But this was the moment when they began wrestling with him and dragging him around the cell.
The Times further reports on the opinions of officials after reviewing the footage:
Later, investigators from four city agencies — the Board of Correction, the Department of Correction, the health department and the office of the medical examiner — watched the video, and all reached the same conclusion. “It can be clearly seen that officers are punching this inmate,” wrote Kennith Armstead of the Correction Board, which monitors conditions at Rikers and investigates serious incidents.
The story also quotes comments made by Bautista following his abusive stay at Rikers:
The pain was unbearable, said Mr. Bautista, who was later told he had depression.
“I felt all the strength going out of my legs and couldn’t stand up anymore,” he said in an interview.
“My stomach felt really hot.”
Jail rules called for him to be transported to the clinic by gurney, but the officers half-walked, half-dragged him there. Feces from the perforated bowel were leaching into his abdomen.
“My stomach was swelling,” Mr. Bautista said. In a few hours, he said, he was put into a van and thought he was going to the hospital, but instead was driven around and returned to the clinic.A Fatal Cell Extraction at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution
Most recently, The New York Times reported on footage (shown below) of officers using excessive force on Charles Jason Toll, who was diabetic and suffered from mental illness, at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Tennessee.
From the Times:
The August night was hot, but Charles Jason Toll wrapped himself in a coat and covered his mouth to protect against the electrical shocks and gas he thought might come his way. Outside the door of his solitary confinement cell at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution here, five corrections officers in riot gear lined up, tensely awaiting the order to go in. When it came, they rushed into the small enclosure, pushing Mr. Toll to the floor and pinning him down with an electrified shield while they handcuffed him and shackled his legs.
Mr. Toll, 33, a heavyset man who suffered from diabetes and mental illness, said, “I can’t breathe” — a complaint he would repeat, with increasing urgency, at least 12 times that night.
“You’re not going to be able to breathe,” an officer, Capt. James Horton, can be heard telling him on a prison video. And then, “You wanted this.”
In California, disturbing footage of guards dousing with pepper spray and and using extreme force on prisoners with mental illness prompted the The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to change it’s treatment of mentally ill people:
The Associated Press reports:
California prison officials pledged Friday to take a gentler approach with mentally ill inmates in one of the largest prison systems in the U.S. after graphic images of prisoners being repeatedly doused with pepper spray in their cells were made public several months ago.
The Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said in a federal court filing that its move will create a system-wide culture change in how 33,000 mentally ill offenders are restrained and isolated.
The state is revising its policies after U.S. District Court Judge Lawrence Karlton ruled in April that California’s treatment of mentally ill inmates violates their constitutional safeguards against cruel and unusual punishment.
He acted after the graphic video tapes made by correctional officers were released, showing guards throwing chemical grenades and pumping large amounts of pepper spray into the cells of mentally ill inmates, some screaming and delirious.
Similarly, over 300 surveillance cameras have been installed at the Alabama Department of Corrections’ Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka.
From WFSA News:
The system was designed to eliminate blind spots, help with investigations of prisoner actions and improve upon accountability. The facility, which holds all of Alabama’s female death row inmates, has been blasted for scandals involving alleged widespread sexual abuse and harassment by male corrections officers.
“Completion of the camera installation at Tutwiler is a significant accomplishment for the Alabama Department of Corrections and continued proof of the department’s efforts to make the facility safer for inmates and staff,” Governor Robert Bentley said.
ADOC Commissioner Kim Thomas says he wants to use the camera system’s implementation at Tutwiler as a blueprint for other state corrections facilities. “We understand the ultimate success of the camera system is dependent on its management,” Thomas said.
In spite of these achievements, reports of abuses like those to which Moreno, Bautista, and Toll were subjected rarely reach the public. While video cameras are present in many prisons and jails, the footage is seldom seen by anyone but prison staff. In addition, corrections officers are known to take people to areas without surveillance cameras, or “blind spots,” where they beat prisoners, some of whom are handcuffed and shackled. Yet cases like these are undoubtedly more common U.S. prisons and jails than the public is aware.
As reported by Solitary Watch last fall, video footage made public in California showed guards at state prisons repeatedly dousing psychotic prisoners with pepper spray before forcibly extracting them from their cells. In Maine, surveillance cameras captured two separate episodes of brutality against two men with mental illness.
When asked by Solitary Watch recently for her opinion on whether cameras curb guard brutality against prisoners, Jennifer J. Parish, Director of Criminal Justice Advocacy for the Mental Health Project at the Urban Justice Center, stated:
I believe cameras in prisons and jails are essential and that they can prevent assaults on incarcerated people by staff. Unfortunately even in facilities that have cameras, there are usually areas where cameras are absent. Correction officers know where these areas are and that is where abuse often takes place. For instance, the assault of Andre Lane, which was recently reported in The New York Times, occurred in the mental health clinic where there are no cameras. The complaint in Nunez v. City of New York, the class action lawsuit about brutality in the jails, includes allegations about correction officer assaults occurring in areas without cameras.
Ty Evans is serving time in Pendleton Correctional Facility in Indiana for attempted murder. There, he became a self-taught legal advocate for other incarcerated men—a “jailhouse lawyer.” There is no right to counsel for those serving prison sentences who seek to challenge their convictions or their sentences–which is just one aspect of the utter failing of indigent defense in this country. For those who cannot afford an outside attorney, the only place to turn for help with negotiating the complicated path through the criminal justice system is to jailhouse lawyers, who help them represent themselves pro se. Evans calls them “the worst attorneys in America,” but some are in fact highly skilled and dedicated, despite being hamstrung at every turn. Nonetheless, their work is often done in vain, since courts tend not to take pro se cases very seriously, no matter how substantive they may be.
At Pendleton, Evans served as a legal advocate for men in solitary confinement, who lack even the ability to go to the prison’s law library for themselves. Recently, after writing a book to help prisoners defend themselves, he was summarily removed from his position. “Prisoners in solitary still ask for my help,” he writes, “but I am no longer able to provide it.” He can receive mail at: Ty Evans #158293, Pendleton Correctional Facility, 4490 Reformatory Road, Pendelton, IN 46064-9001. –James Ridgeway
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Imagine having been convicted of a serious crime, having the right to attack the validity of your conviction, and being appointed an “attorney” who has not passed the bar, who has little education, and who has no experience with the law.
This attorney will be confined to one room in his house, have no computer, no Internet, and no phone. He’ll consult a fixed number of legal books, and may review up to 15 published legal opinions per week. He’ll have no money to spend on your defense for things like DNA testing, ballistics, or expert witnesses. Work he submits to the court will be handwritten and, given his aptitude, virtually unintelligible. Your freedom will depend solely on this man’s efforts, and if you’ve been wrongfully convicted it will be up to this man to prove it.
Surely, you think, convicted prisoners do not receive this kind of legal representation in America. But you would be wrong–very, very wrong.
For thousands of prisoners, this is exactly the level of legal assistance they have. They are pro se litigants, forced to attack their convictions and sentences entirely on their own. They fight their cases from prison cells scattered across the United States, usually only with the assistance of other prisoners like themselves. They are, collectively, the worst attorneys in America.
Per a long line of Supreme Court rulings anchored on Pennsylvania v. Finley (1987), it has been held that the Sixth Amendment right to counsel does not extend to the post-conviction stage. Once a prisoner has been convicted by a jury and lost his direct appeal of that verdict, there is no more right to counsel.
One might presume that the direct appeal constituted a thorough examination of the case but, in fact, the appeal only reviews trial errors preserved by counsel. Things outside of the trial record, such as failure to call witnesses, failure to use exculpatory evidence, failure to ensure proper jury instructions, etcetera, are not contained in the trial record and are not reviewable on direct appeal.
However, after the direct appeal, a prisoner retains the right to challenge the conviction on a number of Constitutional grounds, most of which involve a claim of ineffective assistance of counsel. He may do this through state post-conviction proceedings or a state habeas corpus petition, and then through a federal petition for a writ of habeas corpus. In other words, a prisoner who has been convicted simply because his trial attorney did not protect the defendant’s right to fair trial can enumerate the defects in the attorney’s representation and argue that there stands a “reasonable probability” of a different outcome were the defendant represented by competent counsel. Prisoners know this as the Strickland rule, from the Supreme Court case, Stickland v. Washington (1984).
The most damaging trial defects are almost always a result of trial counsel’s errors and omissions. The prisoner’s problem is, knowing what counsel failed to do requires a complete knowledge of criminal law–trial rules, evidence rules, civil rules, state and federal statutes, and constitutional law. Few prisoners have a solid grasp of the labyrinthine legal system that has put them behind bars. So, those that have a vague idea of how to challenge their convictions struggle to articulate their claims, while thousands of others have no idea that post-conviction remedies are even available and do not attempt to overturn invalid convictions or excessive sentences.
Until recently, I worked as a lay advocate for prisoners housed in solitary confinement in one of the worst prisons in America. Pendleton Correctional Facility in Indiana houses 1,458 prisoners, and 22% are in the most restrictive form of segregation, either for disciplinary reasons, for an administrative investigation, or for protective custody. At last count, 50 had life sentence. For the 1,408 with release dates, the average amount of time left to serve is 20 years. Nearly all went to trial, nearly all have lengthy sentences, and nearly all will be involved in collateral attacks on their convictions at some point during their incarceration. Their need for qualified legal assistance is overwhelming, yet very few will have the means to employ professional counsel. (An exception is that Congress has enacted statutes requiring counsel for the duration of legal proceedings for those with death sentences.)
For the 78% in Pendleton’s general population, there is a physical access to a law library. The facility allows a prisoner to visit the law library 1 or 2 hours a week, and up to 7 hours a week if a prisoner can show a verifiable filing deadline in a pending case. The library has computers with a LEXIS database and MS Word software. There are several law clerks on duty, none of whom possess any certifiable legal credentials. Even with these conveniences, prisoners have great difficulty filing reasonable and presentable documents in court.
For the 22% in Pendleton’s solitary confinement, there is no physical access to the prison law library. Clerks make weekly trips to the solitary units, pick up request forms, and spend maybe 5 minutes per prisoner discussing what the prisoner may need. Most of the solitary prisoners are indigent, enduring conditions where the food is always room temperature, and the heat or cold intolerable. Roughly a third of these prisoners have documented mental illness. Many are managed through medication. On days when they elect to exercise, they are led to a recreation cage on a dog leash. Some are illiterate. Few have even the slightest grasp on how to file things in court, yet many try.
The legal work done by these pro se prisoners is, across the board, pretty bad. According to one Indiana attorney who formerly clerked in the Indiana Court of Appeals, briefs submitted with a pro se litigant’s name on the cover are treated practically with disgust from the outset–placed in a separate pile and given only a cursory glance by the Appellate Court judge. The judge tells the clerk, “Write a denial,” and the clerk opens the Attorney General’s electronically filed brief and modifies it to write the court’s opinion. Thus, even a good pro se brief will get lost in the shuffle.
For two years I readily shouldered the burden of doing legal work for these prisoners–researching, drafting briefs and motions, and writing detailed explanations for these men. Law clerks are only required to deliver requested materials, but these guys obviously needed more. My only credentials are years of experience, and a bachelor’s degree.
In 2012, after answering the same questions over and over, I wrote a book outlining how to fight your case in Indiana as a pro se prisoner. A publisher accepted my work and bound a 620-page manual titled, P.C. Guidebook: The Complete Guide to Post-Conviction Relief for the Pro Se Prisoner. I operated under the presumption that such a book would be welcomed as a way to improve prisoner’ pro se filings, and that maybe even the prison staff would take pride in the work of one of their prisoners. But the Indiana Department of Correction didn’t see it that way, and when the publisher sent in advertisements, the IDOC banned the book. Without reading it. Because my name was on the cover.
Naturally, I sued. The ACLU accepted the case, and the IDOC settled, allowing the book to be advertised and sold within Indiana prisons. On the morning of October 18, 2013, prisoners who had ordered the book received it from the prison mail room. That afternoon, I was removed from my position as a law library clerk, per Internal Affairs, citing that I was a “threat to the safety and security of the facility.” They have never identified the specific nature of the “threat.” I had not violated any rules. An appeal of my job loss to the superintendent was denied, no further reasoning given.
Prisoners in solitary still ask for my help, but I am no longer able to provide it.
The “worst attorneys in America” are still employed in force, piling up briefs that no judge will read, filing motions that no court will fairly consider. While few of these prisoners would be termed “actually innocent,” a sizable minority are serving sentences that are too severe, or have been convicted of offenses that have been over-charged by the prosecutor, although still guilty of lower level felonies. While not “innocent,” they fall under the broader definition of “wrongfully convicted.” Yet, where is the legal help for these men?
Per the state legislatures, Congress, and the courts, they are not entitled to legal assistance. Per a plain reading of the U.S. Constitution, they are. I have been told that the law won’t change to allow these men attorneys, because there wouldn’t be enough attorneys to fill the need. How odd that the wealthiest country in the world cannot afford justice.
The following roundup features noteworthy news, reports and opinions on solitary confinement from the past week that have not been covered in other Solitary Watch posts.
• Footage obtained by the Colorado Independent shows excessive force being used against a man who was placed in solitary after exhibiting suicidal behavior. The man was being monitored in his cell before a team of officers entered and proceeded to tase him. The Colorado Independent notes that this episode is representative of many examples of excessive force in Denver’s jails.
• A ruling on July 24th by U.S. District Judge Troy L. Nunley granted class-action status on behalf of 125,000 people held in California’s prisons in a lawsuit accusing prison officials of racial discrimination. As Reuters reports, during lockdowns men of similar ethnicities are often contained to their cells for days, months or years often without any affiliation to the incident requiring the lockdown. Lawyers representing the men claim these policies violate their Constitutional rights and amount to cruel and unusual punishment.
• In a commentary in Florida Today, Paula Dockery, who served in the Florida legislature for 16 years and was chair of the Senate’s Criminal Justice Committee, begs the question why Florida Governor Rick Scott is not acknowledging and investigating cases of corruption, torture, and murder within the Florida Department of Corrections. Dockery mentions the death of 27-year-old Randall Jordon-Aparo whose body was covered in yellow chemical gas and yelled for help for five days from his solitary cell before dying. Dockery also mentions attempts by prison officials to cover up such cases.
• As Wisconsin Watch reports, Ed Wall, the secretary of Wisconsin’s Department of Corrections is concerned about Wisconsin’s use of solitary confinement. Wall writes that solitary “may really just be helping to create a worse behavior problem and habitual threat.” The department is aiming to have a revised policy on its use of solitary by January.
• George Dvorsky writes for the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies on “Why Solitary Confinement is the Worst Kind of Psychological Torture.” He writes “Human beings are social creatures. Without the benefit of another person to “bounce off of,” the mind decays; without anything to do, the brain atrophies; and without the ability to see off in the distance, vision fades. Isolation and loss of control breeds anger, anxiety, and hopelessness.”
• On the July 20th episode of “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver,” a long comedic segment on mass incarceration showed the severity of solitary confinement and its consequences.
The following two poems come from Ricky Silva, who is currently serving a life sentence at Florida State Prison. Silva, 34, has been held in close management, or solitary confinement, for over four years. Regarding the first poem below, entitled “Killed by the Dark,” Silva expresses his sadness and anger at the suicide of another prisoner, also held in isolation. He writes:
The poem to go along with this post is dedicated to Johnny Reed who was murdered by the department of corrections.
. . . Johnny was not perfect, but I liked him and neither he nor anyone else deserves to go through what we are going through with this long term solitary confinement.
The poem pretty much says how I feel. I just found this out yesterday so I don’t even know what to write. But it is a reality check for me. We are all mortal and I have been real close to ending my own life many times. But Johnny will not be forgotten, at least not by me.
In his second poem, Silva makes a plea for people on the outside to write someone held in isolation. Of this poem, he writes:
Imagine being so alone you feel you are surrounded by darkness. Having so much to say and no one to say it to. So much love to give yet no one to receive that love.
You want for a normal conversation the way a thirsty man wants for water in the desert.
You want for human contact, any kind of human contact to remind you you’re alive.
A letter would be wonderful but it seems all the people in your life who cared have drifted away like a leaf in an autumn breeze. You recognize the wrong you have done and often blame yourself for how bad things are though you know deep down no one deserves this treatment. Not even you.
You contemplate suicide but somehow find the strength everyday for just one more day. You hang on by a thread of hope because tomorrow might be different.
I can tell you when I feel like this, a letter alone make all the difference. So if you’re reading this blog, take time to write a letter. How can it hurt? Even if you don’t write to me. Choose anyone who is living in a concrete cage like mine. Write to them if for no other reason than to give them someone to talk to.
Open your heart and through you, you could bring the hope that keeps a man alive from day to day with only a caring letter.
The following poems originally appeared on Silva’s blog, Concrete Cage, which is maintained by a friend on the outside. Silva can be reached by writing Ricky Silva, L24722, Florida State Prison, 7819 N.W. 228th Street, Raiford, FL 32026-1000. –Lisa Dawson
KILLED BY THE DARK
dedicated to Johnny Reed (died December 2012)
He sat in the darkness, for almost 10 years
Striding forward each day, swallowing his tears
He was not perfect at all, but he didn’t deserve this
To rot in a cell, with no one to love or to miss
He was quick to laugh, when he was feeling well
Or to tell a joke, to get us away from this hell
He was a man of his word, this I know to be true
If you gave him respect, he would in turn respect you
But with each passing day, his world became black
The darkness covering a world, he would never get back
Life became heavy, a great struggle each day
depression set in, and would not go away
Than one day the wing became loud, with everybody banging
The guards went to check it out, and they found Johnny hanging
They broke his fucking ribs, trying to pump air into his chest
And then let him die, saying that they did their best
Johnny for what it’s worth, I’m sorry you had to go
You were one of the few in here, I was happy to know
I can’t lie and say, it has not crossed my mind
I’ve come very close myself, from time to time
You were a warrior Johnny, make no mistake
But even a warrior, has only so much they can take
Just want you to know, you will be missed
Not just another soul, claimed by the darkness
Beautiful colors dance,
across a velvet sky.
As a waterfall of souls,
waves it’s good bye.
With a deep breathe of tomorrow,
we live on today.
I was told to pay attention,
but never did pay.
The darkness of the past,
is now taking it’s toll.
As my pen unloads it’s ink,
my life slowly begins to roll.
I flush memories away,
though some I badly miss.
Even in a picture perfect moment,
I couldn’t picture this.
Stripped of all human rights,
though human we are.
Eating through a metal hole,
or between the likes of steel bars.
Locked away frozen in time,
sometimes even for years.
Laughed at when we cry,
for worthless are our tears.
The holidays come,
and slowly they go.
As we suffer a loneliness,
that makes us feel so small.
We send out letters,
often written in our tears.
And may not ever get a response,
and this is what we fear.
But with that one letter,
in which someone choose to respond.
We have the strength building,
that will allow us to go on.
So if you’re reading this reach out,
to someone in solitary.
Write a letter, it can’t hurt,
even if it’s not to me.
On Monday, Human Rights Watch (HRW) in association with Columbia Law School released a 214-page reported entitled Illusion of Justice: Human Rights Abuses in US Terrorism Prosecutions. While the report and accompanying video document a wide range of human and civil rights abuses faced by alleged and convicted terrorists, nearly all of whom are Muslims, a significant portion of the text focuses on the restrictive and arguably torturous conditions of confinement they endure both before and after trial.
Extensively detailed in the report are the conditions endured by those placed in Florence ADX federal supermax prison and in the federal Bureau of Prisons’ two Communication Management Units (CMUs), located at Marion, Illinois and Terre Haute, Indiana. Describing life at ADX, one individual interviewed for the report commented, “There’s a lot of times the walls are caving in. It’s – you can’t talk to nobody… It’s like staying alone in a bathroom for three days.”
In the two CMUs – nicknamed “Little Guantanamos” — “inmates are constantly surveilled and their communication with the outside world is heavily restricted,” including with their families. The Center for Constitutional Rights has previously described the CMUs as an “experiment in social isolation.”
Also featured in the report is an analysis of the use and misuse of Special Administrative Measures (SAMs), restrictions placed on inmates, attorneys and even their families purportedly to protect national security or prevent the disclosure of classified material. As authors note, “SAMs often require the imposition of extreme physical and social isolation. In the order we obtained through a FOIA regarding 20 to 22 prisoners, SAMs banned at least 20 prisoners from ‘making statements audible to other prisoners or sending notes’ and required them to be housed in single cells ‘separated as much as possible in cellblock area form other inmates.’”
SAMs also enhance isolation by preventing prisoners from communicating with the outside world – for example, letters to family are limited to “‘3 pieces of paper, once per week, single recipient’” and visits “require 14 days’ notice and can include only one adults at a time.” Severe restrictions are also placed on material coming to the inside; one prisoner was even initially denied access to both of President Obama’s books.
The report also specifically addresses how the imposition of SAMs and the use of solitary confinement pre-trial may affect the fairness and constitutionality of the courts:
Prolonged pretrial solitary confinement not only raises concerns of cruel and inhumane treatment of punishment, but it also has an impact on defendants’ ability to assist in their own defense, and may compel them to wave their trial rights and accept plea deals.
According to the report, 30 out of the 52 individuals currently facing federal terrorism charges are being held in Special Housing Units (SHUs). The conditions at the Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC) 10-South unit – where many terrorism defendants have been held pre-trial – are described at length in the text. In a letter to his sister, an individual who spent 33 months in solitary confinement at MCC described “a bright light on for twenty-four hours” and cells “extremely cold throughout the year.”
MCC is the prison where the No Separate Justice Campaign has been holding its monthly vigils, in hopes of shining a light on the exact kind of injustices detailed in HRW’s report. It is also where Mahdi Hashi, the Briton stripped of his citizenship and rendered to the United States last year, is being held in 24-hour isolation. In an April 2014 article published on Vice, Mohammad Hashi explained how being held under SAMs and in solitary confinement was impacting his son: “It’s like they want to demoralize him… If you’re left locked in a room, 23 hours a day, knowing nothing about what’s going on, obviously you will give up, life will have no meaning to you.”
• Writing in The New York Times, Deborah Jiang-Stein describes journeying to the West Virginia prison where she was born, and discovering she spent the fist year of life in “the hole” with her mother.
• The New York Times published an extensive investigation into the physical assaults endured by prisoners with mental illness at the hands of Rikers guards. According to the journalists, many of the prisoners who experience such assaults are in solitary confinement.
• At least forty men at the solitary confinement unit in Wisconsin’s state prison have alleged they were abused by correctional officers, according to an investigation by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. One of the men, Marvin Smith, 26, claims that guards “purposely injured his wrists and arms, put him in a choke hold, smashed his face into a cell door and twisted his ankle.”
• The Idaho American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has filed a brief in support of a petition to return a 15-year-old boy – currently being held in solitary confinement in an adult county facility – to a juvenile detention center. The young man’s Public Defender commented, “I see him almost every single day and he is deteriorating mentally, emotionally and physically being held in isolation.”
• The Electronic Frontier Foundation reported on the case of a New Mexico prisoner who received 90 days in solitary confinement for having a Facebook page in his name that his family updated. Shortly after the EFF published the piece, the state’s Corrections Department threw out man’s SHU time and agreed to review the broader policy.
• The New Republic published an article about the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s (CDCR) proposed changes to prison obscenity regulations. Both prisoners and advocates have claimed that under the new regulations, people could end up in solitary confinement simply for exercising their First Amendment rights; for example, the CDCR has called to censor any material deemed “oppositional to authority and society.”
• The warden at Louisiana’s Angola Prison is considering transferring Black Panther member Kenny “Zulu” Whitmore from solitary confinement into general population – where he has spent the last 28 consecutive years. He continued to express concern about Whitmore’s political beliefs, explaining, “The Black Panther Party advocates violence and racism—I’m not going to let anybody walk around advocating violence and racism.”
• CBS San Francisco covered the growing efforts of Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR) to end the profession’s role in designing death chambers and supermax facilities. The ADPSR is currently lobbying the American Institute of Architects to such a ban in its professional code of ethics.
• The UK’s Telegraph visited a Maine solitary confinement cell and published an article that included video, photos, text and interviews with prisoners formerly locked up in isolation.
• Talha Ahsan, the British-born poet who was extradited to the US on terrorism charges a little less than two years ago, was sentenced to time served. As reported here by Solitary Watch’s Jean Casella and James Ridgeway, Ahsan and four others argued unsuccessfully in the European Court of Human Rights that they would endure torture if extradited to America’s supermax facilities. (The sentencing was also covered by The Guardian’s Sadhbh Walshe).
Many times, on this site and elsewhere, we have referred to supermax prisons and solitary confinement units as “America’s domestic black sites“–places where terrible suffering, even torture, take place on a daily basis, out of site of the public, the press, and in some cases the government’s own meager oversight. At the dark heart of these black sites is the federal Bureau of Prisons’ U.S. Penitentiary Administrative Maximum, or ADX, in the remote high desert town of Florence, Colorado. We’ve called it the worst prison in America. It’s worst not because it is dark and filthy–in fact, one former warden called it “a clean version of Hell“–but because of the sheer extremity of the isolation and sensory deprivation visited upon the men held there.
Today, Amnesty International released a report on ADX, entitled Entombed: Isolation in the Federal Prison System. “The US government’s callous and dehumanising practice of holding prisoners in prolonged solitary confinement in the country’s only federal super-maximum security prison amounts to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment and is in violation of international law,” said Amnesty in a press release.
The report describes what is called the “Alcatraz of the Rockies” as a place studiously designed to deprive men of all human contact, and nearly all sensory stimuli as well:
The ADX Florence federal facility has a capacity for 490 male inmates. Prisoners spend a minimum of 12 months in solitary confinement before they may become eligible for a reduction in the restrictions of their detention. In reality, many spend much longer in isolation. One study produced by lawyers found the average length of time an inmate would spend in isolation was 8.2 years.
Most inmates are held in cells with solid walls and a barred, air-lock style chamber in front of a solid metal door, to ensure they have no contact with other prisoners. One small slit of a window allows them a view of the sky or a brick wall.
Furniture in the cells is made of poured concrete and consists of a fixed bunk, desk and a stool, as well as a shower and a toilet. Meals and showers are taken inside the cells and medical consultations, including mental health checks, are often conducted remotely through teleconferencing.
The results of such treatment are not surprising: Put simply, it drives men mad. Individuals with mental illness are supposed to be banned from ADX, but many clearly have underlying psychiatric problems when they arrive, while others quickly acquire them. Drawing on information from the current lawsuit Cunningham v. BOP, the Amnesty report recounts the story of John Jay Powers (whose own writing has been featured on Solitary Watch):
JP, a prisoner with a history of mental illness, was transferred to ADX in 2001 and placed in the CU to serve a 60 month sentence imposed after he escaped from a medium security prison. The lawsuit describes how he was repeatedly transferred for brief periods to the federal medical facility at Springfield for psychiatric evaluation after a series of incidents of self-harm, only to be returned to the CU after being “stabilised” with medication. The self-harming incidents included lacerating his scrotum with a piece of plastic (2005); biting off his finger (2007); inserting staples into his forehead (2008); cutting his wrists and being found unconscious in his cell (2009). He finally completed his CU term in 2011, ten years and five months after his original term would have expired had he been able to comply with the behavioural requirements. According to the lawsuit, he continued to be deprived of mental health care after being placed in the ADX GP. In January 2012, he reportedly sliced off his earlobes and in March 2012 sawed through his Achilles tendon with a piece of metal; after he again mutilated his genitals in May 2012 he was placed on the anti-psychotic medication Haldol but had no access to other treatment such as mental health counselling. In August 2013, he left ADX on an emergency mental health transfer to Springfield, Missouri. In October 2013, he was sent to USP Tucson but was transferred back to Springfield in about March 2014 after he rammed his head into an exposed piece of metal in his cell, causing a skull fracture and brain injury, for which he refused most treatment. Since arriving at Springfield he has inserted metal into his brain cavity through the hole that remain in his skull, which BOP says cannot safely be removed.
Entombed is the most comprehensive report to date on ADX. But Amnesty International acknowledges the limitations on its own ability to observe and assess conditions at the supermax, due to the “restrictions on access to ADX” and more generally a “lack of transparency regarding BOP use of isolation.” Amnesty’s requests to visit the prison have been turned down, as have requests from the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Méndez, and numerous media outlets including Solitary Watch. Even the federal government’s ongoing “internal audit” of its use of solitary confinement will not look at the most extreme and secretive isolation unit at ADX, where prisoners have reportedly gone on hunger strike and been force-fed.
Amnesty makes a series of recommendations which, considering the content of the report, seem relatively modest, designed to alleviate some of the suffering at ADX without compromising safety. But perhaps the strongest question raised by this and all previous investigations of the nation’s only federal supermax is why we are building another one. Over $50 million in this year’s BOP budget will go to retrofitting, staffing, and opening USP/ADX Thomson in rural Illinois, which will substantially increase the federal government’s capacity to hold people in torturous isolation.