UPDATE (September 18, 2014): Solitary Watch received the following statement via email from North Carolina Department of Public Safety spokesperson Keith Acree:
The evolving lockdown situation at Scotland Correctional Institution has affected about 600 inmates in close custody regular population housing. The medium custody (~540) and minimum custody (~240) populations have not been affected nor have those on control status (~230). The entire prison population today is 1,663.
We implement lockdowns when needed to ensure the safety of inmates and staff and to prevent injuries. The December lockdown was prompted by a series of fights between large groups of inmates at Scotland that resulted in injuries to inmates and staff. Since the beginning of 2014, the institution has recorded 61 actual or attempted assaults on staff and 20 actual or attempted inmate on inmate assaults.
At this point, the lockdown for close custody regular population (RPOP) has stepped down to a point that we call “managed observation”. Close custody RPOP inmates are now allowed about 4 hours of out-of-cell time daily (compared to about 8 hours before the Dec. 28 fights that began the lockdown).
Visiting, outdoor recreation, telephone use and canteen privileges have resumed. Vocational and educational programs are in session and the prison’s two Correction Enterprises plants (a sewing plant and the Braille plant) are operating normally. Inmates continue to receive hot meals brought to their cells. All activities are occurring in small groups. Religious services have not yet resumed. A new chaplain began work this week.
Since the lockdown began Dec. 28, restrictions have been lifted in 11 progressive steps, based on inmate behavior and cooperation, to reach the point where we are today.
Katy Poole has been serving as acting administrator at Scotland CI since Aug. 1 when Sorrell Saunders retired.
Across the United States, even prisoners who have not been placed in solitary confinement or any form of “segregation” can be subjected to a “lockdown” in which they may be held in solitary-like conditions, confined to their cells nearly round-the-clock. Brief lockdowns are a common occurrence, and lockdowns lasting months or more are not unusual. Individuals subjected to lockdown are generally denied even the pro-forma review processes afforded to most others placed in solitary confinement.
In the “Close Custody” unit–a single celled, high-security unit–at North Carolina’s Scotland Correctional Institution, nearly 600 men have been on indefinite lockdown since December 28, 2013.
Individuals subjected to the lockdown have been confined to their cells for 22 to 23 hours a day for eight months and counting.
When asked by Solitary Watch about the status of Scotland, North Carolina Department of Public Safety (NC DPS) spokesperson Keith Acree stated that he was unaware that the prison was on lockdown.
In January of this year, the Laurinburg Exchange reported on the lockdown:
According to Keith Acree, spokesperson for the state department, the institution’s “closed custody” population, which numbers about 800, has been confined to cells since a “series of fights between inmates and minor assaults on staff members” occurred shortly after Christmas.
Acree said injuries to staff members were “nothing serious,” but that several were “hit or bumped. . .”
A lockdown means prisoners cannot have visitors, make calls, or leave their cells for meals. They cannot visit the canteen, Acree said, but orders from the canteen can be delivered to their cells.
Acree said he could not remember when the last time the institution was on lockdown, but he was not aware of the current lockdown until he received an inquiry from The Laurinburg Exchange. In 2011, the prison was one of six in the state placed on lockdown after a surge of gang violence.
About a dozen people from Scotland’s Close Custody population have written to Solitary Watch describing conditions at the prison. Some people wrote to describe the conditions at the prison in general, while others detailed particular incidents.
One man recalls the day the Scotland Correctional Institute was put on lockdown:
On December 28, 2013, two individual fights took place at about 5:35 PM. No one was stabbed or cut, and no staff was hurt. Prison officials labeled the incident a gang fight and shut down the whole facility. For almost a month we were not allowed out of our cells or allowed to take showers. When they did allow us to take showers, we had to do so in cuffs once a week.
Another man wrote to describe the general conditions at the prison since the lockdown has been put in effect:
We don’t get but two hours out of our cells a day. In that two hours, 24 people have to use the phone, take showers and get anything done that requires any assistance by the staff because once you’re in your cell, it’s like your forgotten. Then you spend 22 hours in this room. . . The things that go on here are uncalled for. This is supposed to be a place of rehabilitation but it does no one any good the way the staff at SCI mistreats people and writes you up for actions you didn’t commit. It just sends everyone’s minds or actions and feelings back to square one.
The following comes from a man describes the restrictions at the prison as counterproductive to the point where he’s “about to lose [his] mind”:
This prison has been on 22-hour-a-day lockdown for months. . . When I got here, I wanted a chance to earn my GED, but his prison is not helping me to better myself in any way. I have not been able to eat hot meals or go outside for fresh air ever in months. The treatment here is cruel and unusual and I’m about to lose my mind behind these doors.
Another member of the Close Custody population elaborates on the the varying levels of restrictions seen since the lockdown began:
While on lockdown, we’ve been through different stages. Stage one, we were on lockdown for 24 a day hours without being allowed to shower. It was like this for a month. Then the officers started taking us to the shower one day out of the week with handcuffs on so tight that it made it difficult for us to wash. Stage two, they let 12 of us out of our cells to rec in the dayroom for one hour. Next, they let 24 of us out for two hours. We haven’t had any outside rec since December 28, 2013, and our skin and health is showing that.
Another man writes to convey the intrusiveness of his confinement, portraying how little privacy he was given, even while showering:
The first month there was no recreation. Everyone was confined to their cells for 24 hours a day. There were no showers. When they started allowing showers, you had to go in full restraints with two officers standing at the shower watching with sticks out. . .
No visitors have been allowed for the past three months, nor are we provided with any religious services. . .
Since we have been on lockdown, we have been having trouble with the officers doing their jobs. If we ask them for writing paper, envelopes or request forms, they will not bring it, especially if we’re housed on the upper tier. One inmate asked an officer for some toilet paper. She said, “I’m not walking upstairs to give you any toilet paper. You better use a shirt,” and left the block.
He also describes an instance when another prisoner had fallen in his cell and his pleas for help were ignored by staff:
The major problem we have is that officers do not respond when we hit out call buttons. . . Nobody ever comes to see what we want until we start kicking on the cell doors. There were several incidents where an inmate was feeling dizzy and pushing his cell button every couple of minutes. Nobody came. He passed out and we had to kick on the doors for about 20 minutes before anyone came.
Another member from the Close Custody population describes a similar incident:
An inmate’s back gave out on him and he fell to the floor. He started banging on the door with his brush for 15 minutes but no one came to check on him. So we started kicking on the doors, and kicked for almost an hour before an officer came. She looked in his cell and started laughing at him. She left and came back with another officer. She looked in at him again and laughed. They both left and came back with a sergeant, who looked at the inmate and said, “Why don’t you just do us all a favor and die.” Then the sergeant called nurse and they came and took him to Medical – after he’d laid on the floor for about an hour and 10 minutes. . .
We’ve been asking why they are punishing 600 inmates for something four people were involved in. Those inmates were put in segregation, found guilty of their charges and punished for them. But so are we.
One man discusses a health condition with which he’s been diagnosed, yet is not being treated for:
Recently I was diagnosed with high blood pressure. For the last two and half weeks, my blood pressure hasn’t been checked and I haven’t received my medication to treat it.
Another man writes of problems he has had sending and receiving mail:
Due to the lockdown, I wrote a grievance to the North Carolina Department of Public Safety and mailed it to them on 2/20/14, so I thought. . . But it was opened, taken out of the stamped envelope and signed by the unit manager and the screening officer and returned to me almost a month later. Before my grievance was returned, my mail started coming in late after mail had already been passed out and sometimes not until the next morning. Then I would either not receive mail or it would come looking like it’d been deliberately cut up. . .
He closes his letter:
I have not seen my family since my trial ended and I would love to see them. . . No religious services, no visits, no type of outside activity, no books from the library, no school – all this, for no reason. . . I, along with other inmates, are being punished for no reason at all. I have not caused any trouble and do not deserve this cruel and unusual punishment, which is a violation of my Eighth Amendment rights.
Another prisoner describes the disturbing situation, emphasizing that the deprivations faced by these men are unwarranted:
To think violence or disrespect is right? That is exactly what they’re doing to us: Disrespecting us and violating us as human beings. We don’t get to stretch our muscles, we don’t get any sunlight. . . We are treated like M-con status inmates, and we haven’t done anything to deserve it. . . They tell our families that they are understaffed, but that isn’t our problem. We are imprisoned inside a prison. . . We have been on lockdown since December 28, 2013, and enough is enough.
Since these letters were written to Solitary Watch, Scotland Correctional Institution has modified the conditions of confinement in Close Custody. According to people held at the prison, the men are now allowed out of their cells twice a day for approximately for two hours and allowed outside for recreation for one hour twice a week. However, they have not resumed hot meals or any religious services for people held in the unit.
• The American Civil Liberties Union has submitted letters to the Michigan Department of Corrections alleging widespread human rights violations at the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility in Washtenaw; the organization claims that the prison is holding women with mental illness in solitary confinement, amongst other abuses. One professor who has interviewed those on the inside commented, “A lot of these women, they throw them in segregation for months on end are mentally ill … and then they deteriorate. It’s horrible to see them deteriorate.”
• A 17-year-old sentenced to life in prison in the killing of a Korean War veteran, has also been ordered to spend each anniversary of the murder in solitary confinement. Jordan Legg, who won’t be eligible for parole for at least 20 years, will now spend every 30 March in isolation.
• Albert Woodfox, the last remaining incarcerated member of the Angola 3, appeared in federal appeals court requesting legal permission to sue Louisiana prison officials for depriving him of “basic human needs” and violating his constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment. Woodfox has been held in solitary confinement nearly without break for the past forty years, the longest of any prisoner held in the United States.
• The Director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project condemned Nebraska’s Department of Corrections for its “extraordinarily high” use of solitary confinement. According to questionnaires recently sent out by a legislative investigative committee, about 18.6% of the state’s inmates had been in some level of restrictive housing during the queried six-week period.
• A 27-year-old Wisconsin man has been found not guilty by reason of insanity in the killing of three family members and committed to permanent hospitalization with no chance for appeal. According to Rashard Riddick’s defense attorney, the time he spent in prison as a young man contributed to his decline. “The consequences of nearly four years of solitary confinement was to transform Mr. Riddick from a troubled teenager into an extremely dangerous man…With no program for treating mentally ill inmates or aftercare for people held for long periods in isolation, Mr. Riddick was released into society (without rehabilitation) and with no support services. This cycle happens every day in our society, and the violent tragedies that ensue should surprise no one.”
“While waiting for an officer to handcuff and escort me back to the cell that awaited me after showering, I sat on the floor holding a razor used for shaving,” W writes to me. “Today was the day I decided to end my life.”
I do not know W. I have never met him. I have no idea whether he is black or white, tall or short, old or young. I don’t know what he’s done that’s landed him in prison, or why the prison system has seen fit to place him in solitary confinement.
Every week I receive 50 or so letters from people like W. He is one of 80,000 men, women, and children who live in states of extreme isolation in U.S. prisons and jails. They spend their days and nights in cells that measure, on average, 6 by 9 feet. They live sealed off from the world, sometimes without a window, usually behind a solid metal door with a slot where a guard can slip in a food tray. If they are lucky they are let out a couple of times a week to shower, or to exercise for an hour in a fenced or walled pen resembling a dog kennel.
There is no education in these solitary confinement cells. No work. The people who are held there may or may not be allowed reading materials, or a set of headphones to plug into a wall jack with a few radio stations. They are rarely permitted to make phone calls, or have visitors. Some are allowed to have family photographs, but usually only a limited number—so if a new one comes in, they have to decide which one to give up. Most are forbidden to hang the photographs on their walls.
If they are ever taken out of their cells, they are flanked by guards, wrists and ankles cuffed and shackled to a black box at their waists. They may have trouble walking, not only because of the shackles but because it’s been quite some time since they were able to take more than a few steps in any one direction. They will probably have trouble seeing, as well, since they’ve had no use for their long-distance vision.
They are escorted down the tier amidst a din of screaming prisoners—some with underlying mental illness, others driven mad by “the box”—who cut themselves, pelt their own cell walls and the corridor with piss and shit and blood. At night the screaming continues, sometimes turning into the sounds of a barking dog, dying down to where you can only hear the sobbing, the voices begging for their mothers, for the sight of a child last seen ten years ago—and frequently, begging to die.
This is what they tell me in their letters—the letters that at first trickled in every once in a while, when I first began writing about solitary confinement, and now come by the dozens. People in solitary sometimes manage to communicate by shouting, by tapping on pipes, and by “fishing”—passing things along lines constructed from sheet threads and skimmed across the corridor floor, from the crack under one cell door to another. Some, it appears, have shared my address, and the fact that I am interested in knowing what life in solitary confinement is like.
I am a journalist. I’ve been taught to report what I see and hear and know, and nothing else. These letters should be nothing more to me than documentary material—and perhaps not even that, since the conventional wisdom is that prisoners’ accounts can’t be trusted. No need, really, to write back, even though that’s what my correspondents are clearly hoping for.
“Mail is manna from heaven,” R writes me. “When I hear the squeak, squeal and rumble of the mail-cart being pushed down the gallery, I start saying to myself, “You’re not getting any mail, so don’t even expect it. Nobody knows you anymore. No one wrote, so stop it!” Then, as the cart squeaks and squeals and rumbles a bit louder as it gets closer, I’ll jump off the cot and start pacing. Then I’ll squat in front of one of my spiders (the SHU Prisoner’s Loyal Pet) and I’ll start talking to it (you talk to your pets, too, don’t you?!) I’ll say, “Come on! Hope with me that we get a piece of mail. Come on! If you hope with me then we’re guaranteed a letter,” and I’ll do a little fist pump…”
So I write back with a few bits of news, a few lines of encouragement. I write half a page to B, who has been in solitary for more than 25 years. He writes back 20 pages, telling me the story of a mouse he had begun feeding in his cell. The mouse’s back legs were injured, so he’d built it a little chariot out of Styrofoam and bits of cloth. The mouse had learned to get around with on his makeshift wheels when a corrections officer discovered it and stabbed it to death with a pen. “I had three dogs that I loved when I was growing up, and I loved Mouse every bit as much as I had loved them,” B writes. “For the months he had been with me he had been good company in a place that can be a lonely world, and I would miss him dearly.”
B wants nothing more than to share his thoughts, to know that there is another human being, somewhere in the world, who is interested enough to read them. Others want things. G wants me to look up a long-ago high school girlfriend. He hasn’t heard from her in 25 years and doesn’t know where she lives. He wants her address so he can write to her. I know I can’t send it to him, so I don’t even look.
D manages to write to me in spite of that fact that, like about a third of the people in solitary, he suffers from severe mental illness. After a while he asks for a sex magazine, even though receiving one could get him in deep trouble. When I refuse, he asks for—and I send—some Spiderman comic books. Next he asks for a Bible. He seems to sound less suicidal than usual, so I quickly send that as well. D writes me that it never arrived, so I track the package on Amazon, which says the Bible was delivered to the prison. Apparently someone stole it. Then D asks if I can put his name on my website so “I can have penpals…and maybe find that special someone.”
J writes on behalf of another person he met in prison: “During my stay at the mental health unit, I came to know a man named G. Mr. G was clearly not a quick thinker and had mental health issues. On one occasion an emotionally unstable corrections officer opened G’s cell and slapped him across the face because he had taken too long in giving the officer back a food tray after a meal. In another example, involving these two, I witnessed the corrections officer direct a nurse not to give G his mental health medication because G could not decide in a timely manner if he wanted to take the medicine or not…These two incidents happened in a mental health area reserved for suicidal prisoners.”
I know that thousands of people in solitary are like G—too ill, or not literate enough, to write at all. They are completely cut off, trapped in their own minds as well as in their cells. But I have a hard enough time dealing with the people who write to me, and try hard not to think about the people who are not writing.
Y reports: “I’ve witnessed officers…encourage a mentally ill prisoner who had smeared feces all over his control cell window, to lick it off, and they would give him some milk. And this prisoner licked most of the fecal matter off of the window, and was ‘rewarded’ by the officer who threw an old milk to the prisoner through a lower trap door to the cell.”
Along with the tirades about certain guards there are copies of painfully hand-printed legal documents, full of “whereas” and citations of this or that federal court case, written in the hope that some judge will read it and get the author out of solitary. But the judges, with few exceptions, have ruled that solitary confinement is not cruel and unusual punishment. Not even for the man who drilled a hole in his head to try and stop the pain.
There are so many letters now that I cannot possibly reply to most of them, even with a couple of volunteers to help. So I buy packages of cards, and gather up all the ones sent to me for free by wildlife groups as thank-you gifts for donations. I start sending people in solitary pictures of polar bears and endangered gray wolves, with just a few handwritten words: “Thanks for your letter. Stay strong.” They write back with a level of gratitude totally disproportionate to my lame missives.
A man writes me about the sound of rain in a drainpipe. It is his weather report. Another writes about the parade of cockroaches down the corridor at night, which he watches through the slot in his door, desperate for any sign of another living thing. Still another writes to thank me for the smell of perfume that he detected on an envelope containing a card. The smell lingers in his cell, he says, and fills him with dreams of the outside world.
Some people manage to pick up information about what is going on in that outside world. They write to ask for more news about the hearing on solitary confinement held in Congress, about whether things are changing. I can’t bear to tell them that it may be years or decades before anything changes for them—though some already know it. “I heard the head of the Bureau of Prisons in Congress (on radio) saying they do not have insane inmates housed here,” writes J, who has spent a decade in the federal supermax prison. “I have not slept in weeks due to these non-existing inmates beating on the walls and hollering all night. And the most ‘non-insane’ smearing feces in their cells.”
Some of these people have done very bad things in their lives. Others not so much. People get sent to solitary in the United States for a panoply of absurd reasons—having too many postage stamps, smoking a cigarette, refusing to cut their hair. But after reading these letters, I can’t accept that even the worst of them deserve to live this way.
J, who is in solitary for trying to escape, remains defiant. “I refuse to embrace the solitude. This is not normal. I’m not a monster and do not deserve to live in a concrete box. I am a man who has made mistakes, true. But I do not deserve to spend the rest of my life locked in a cage–what purpose does that serve? Why even waste the money to feed me? If I’m a monster who must live alone in a cage why not just kill me?”
I know that some people, in fact, do prefer to die rather than live this way. In barren cells, they become ingenious at finding ways to kill themselves. They jump head-first off of their bunks.
They bite through the veins in their arms. About five percent of all American prisoners are in solitary confinement, but half the prison suicides take place there.
The rest find ways to keep going. What keeps D alive is his mother. For B, it’s his writing. For J, it’s the small window in his cell. “Every now and then a pair of owls roosts on the security lights,” he writes. “This spring they had two babies. We watched them grow up and fly away. On any given day the sky here is breathtaking. The beauty out my window stays in my mind. I look around this cage at plain concrete walls and steel bars and a steel door, a steel toilet and I endure its harshness because I am able to keep beauty in my mind.”
Sometimes, now, I spend entire days reading letters from these people, these criminals, these models of human fortitude. I can’t do much of anything for them, except keep on reading.
A second letter comes from W. “I want to apologize to you for my previous letter,” he writes. It must have been very uncomfortable for you to read that letter. It was extremely wrong for me to express such a personal issue to people I don’t know. But my lack of interacting with people on the outside sometimes causes me to come out and express things that I probably shouldn’t. So I hope you can somehow empathize with my situation and forgive me for the context of my previous letter.”
W is alive.
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.”