• According to a recently released United Nations report, the United States is not in full compliance with the Convention Against Torture, to which it is a signatory. The United Nations Committee Against Torture expressed particular concern about the conditions of isolated confinement at federal and state facilities across the country, including at the Bureau of Prisons’ supermax institution, Florence ADX.
• Disability Rights Nebraska has released a report calling for the state to provide better care and discharge planning for those with mental illness held behind bars. Co-author Brad Meurrens said, “Releasing an inmate without adequate discharge planning is like saying, ‘Good luck — we will see you again.”
• Dakem Roberts of Resist Rikers was featured on WBAI, in advance of an upcoming rally to demand more substantive changes at the city jail, especially with regards to solitary confinement.
• Nebraska’s Legislative Department of Correctional Services Investigative Committee continued to hear evidence on the use of solitary confinement across the state. A psychologist who left Tecumseh state prison after working there for six months testified that not all placements in isolation were justified. “There were times that I witnessed and experienced individuals getting time in administrative segregation that was completely unwarranted,” she said.
• Nikko Jenkins, who killed four people within weeks of his release from solitary confinement, is now suing Nebraska’s Department of Corrections for $1.7 million. Jenkins maintains that his mental health deteriorated significantly during his 2.5 years in isolation; his written requests for psychological treatment, hospitalization, and even civil commitment – made before his release – were all denied by the DOC.
• Despite a recent ruling by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals upholding his release, Albert Woodfox of the Angola 3 still remains behind bars and in solitary confinement. Carine Williams, a lawyer for Woodfox, told Democracy Now, “There is no legitimate explanation for [his continued incarceration].”
• A New Jersey lawmaker will shortly introduce a bill to reduce the use of “isolated confinement” at the state’s correctional facilities. If passed, the legislation would bar placement in solitary for longer than 15 days, except in special circumstances.
• Florida’s Secretary of the Department of Corrections, Michael Crews, is stepping down from the post. Crews has come under significant scrutiny since his appointment in 2012, especially in relation to the death of Randall Jordan-Aparo, who passed away in his solitary confinement cell after being gassed twice by guards.
Editors’ Note: The following is an excerpt from Locked Down, Locked Out: Why Prison Doesn’t Work and How We Can Do Better, a new book by Maya Schenwar. Locked Down, Locked Out shows how “the institution that locks up 2.3 million Americans and decimates poor communities of color is shredding the ties that, if nurtured, could foster real collective safety,” and how “incarceration takes away the very things that might enable people to build better lives.” The author, Maya Schenwar, is editor-in-chief of Truthout, and has written about the prison-industrial complex for the New York Times, The Guardian, the New Jersey Star-Ledger, Ms. Magazine, Prison Legal News, and others. This excerpt is particularly timely, since the recent loss of the Illinois gubernatorial election to Republican Bruce Rauner brings reopening Tamms supermax well into the realm of possibility.
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“This could be your brother, your son, or your father. This is what’s in our future. We have to stop it.“
—Reginald Akkeem Berry, on the need to oppose supermax prisons
In 2006, a letter was slipped in through the door slat in Johnnie Walton’s cell. Johnnie was living—twenty-three hours a day—in a seventy-square-foot cell furnished with a concrete bed, a solid steel door, and a window through which little light traveled. Through the slat in the door, three times a day, Johnnie’s meals appeared. For one hour each day, Johnnie was permitted solitary “recreation” in a small pen just outside his cell.
The same routine went for the roughly 250 other prisoners in Tamms, the supermax prison that had opened in Southern Illinois in 1998. Practices at Tamms were similar to those in other supermax prisons and “Secure Housing Units” (such as the one Abraham Macías occupies at Pelican Bay) around the country: The prison, with no yard, no chapel, no dining hall, no library, and no phone calls (unless a close relative was dying), was designed to extinguish the outside world for the men trapped within.
By the time the letter came, Johnnie had already been living in isolation for more than two years. He tore open the envelope and stared. Tucked inside was a poem. An accompanying letter explained that the sender was a member of the “Tamms Poetry Committee,” a group that had come together to provide some contact for these men deprived of almost every type of human connection.
Johnnie was touched but bewildered, he tells me over the phone, almost eight years later. “I got that letter, and I thought, ‘A poetry committee? Men are mutilating themselves, slitting their wrists here…. What do we need with a poetry committee?’”
Johnnie wrote back with a thank-you note—but the note went further: He asked for help, for advocacy. So did several of the other men who received poems that year. Artist and activist Laurie Jo Reynolds, who was part of the group that initiated the poetry committee and later led the effort to fight for the rights of Tamms prisoners, told me, “Not to insult us, but at the beginning, it was sort of a social club. It was the men who wrote to us and told us, ‘It’s time to do more. You have to tell people what’s happening to us in here.’”
Doing more meant mounting a broad-based organizing effort to confront the conditions at—and, later, the existence of—Tamms. (They dubbed the campaign “Tamms Year Ten,” referencing the fact that, though there was supposed to be a one-year limit on prisoners’ stay at the supermax, many had remained there the entire ten years of its existence.) It meant meeting with legislators at every chance possible and graphically describing the conditions in the prison, guided by the words of the men inside. It meant vigils, press conferences, lobbying days at the capitol, and a community picnic complete with a parsley-eating contest. Tamms Year Ten partnered with dozens of other organizations and sympathetic legislators, mobilizing for a reform bill limiting terms at Tamms and requiring prisoners to be told why they were transferred to the supermax. At the forefront of the struggle were family members of men hidden away in the prison. As several Tamms prisoners were released (by way of parole, appeal victories, or the end of their sentences), they became leaders in the campaign.
In fact, the day that Johnnie got out, he swallowed his postrelease anxieties and spoke of his years in Tamms to a large crowd at a fundraiser in a Chicago nightclub. “It was scary,” he says. “There was lots of noise … but I had to start right away, speaking for the people who didn’t have a voice. I had to speak about the torture of Tamms.”
Reginald Akkeem Berry, another former Tamms prisoner, says that advocating for the men he’d left behind in the supermax was tough at first, partly because they were essentially invisible, knocked off the map at the bottom of Illinois without so much as a phone call home. “Most people didn’t know the town of Tamms, Illinois, even existed,” Akkeem says. So when he spoke about the prison, he invoked people on the outside instead. He spoke of family and the ways that solitary confinement harms poor black and brown communities—especially at a time when the Illinois prison population was still rising and supermaxes were multiplying across the country. “Every time I went to a community meeting, I said, these people in Tamms—this could be your brother, your son, or your father. This is what’s in our future. We have to stop it.”
Akkeem was the first released man to be interviewed about Tamms, he says, for a 2008 Chicago Reader feature titled “Hell in a Cell.” At that point, “solitary confinement” was a phrase most folks on the outside hadn’t often heard. Media attention intensified. In 2009, the work of Tamms Year Ten caught the attention of Amnesty International, which condemned the prison as “incompatible with the USA’s obligations to provide humane treatment for all prisoners.”1
The folks of Tamms Year Ten spoke before legislative budget hearings. In addition to denouncing the human destruction occurring behind Tamms’ walls, they pointed to the prison’s staggering price tag: holding one prisoner at Tamms cost $92,000 per year.2 Momentum against Tamms caught fire—and increasingly, caught the eye of Illinois Governor Pat Quinn. Meanwhile, the prison guards unions and the town of Tamms fought hard to keep the prison, and the struggle unfolded in the media and in the streets, with prisoners’ families lobbying at the state capital and leading marches in Chicago.
In 2012, despite the many legislators vying for Tamms to stay open, the governor performed a rare line-item veto and simply budgeted Tamms out of existence. Despite challenges by the legislature, the Illinois Supreme Court decided to permit this move, and in January 2013 the prison was shuttered. Tamms Year Ten had triumphed.
There’s more: When Quinn performed his act of line-item rebellion, he also ordered the closing of three other Illinois prisons, citing cost savings. Those included two youth prisons whose elimination had been advocated by Project NIA and other groups, through efforts like a hunger strike, legislative advocacy, and community organizing.3 Also included was Dwight, a maximum-security women’s prison. The Illinois prison system seemed to be shrinking.Decarcerate!
Shrinking: In a country where more than 7 million people are bound up in the “correctional” system, this is how many people working against incarceration frame their goal. You can’t pop this balloon with just one pin. Not everyone working to close Tamms was interested in abolishing all prisons, but many were. They were simply starting with one.
Historian and activist Dan Berger points to the importance of such concrete change-making—closing buildings, reducing prison populations, slashing budgets, dismantling policies that confine people even after release—to the overall goal of freeing ourselves from the prison nation. He defines this movement as decarceration: “reform in pursuit of abolition.”4
The word “incarcerate” stems from the same root as the word “cancel”: Both mean to cross something, or someone, out (whether with bars, or lines, or actions). Decarceration, then, is also a movement toward un-canceling people—not just by fighting for their release, but by recognizing and supporting their humanity.
The strategy that drove the Tamms Year Ten campaign was about making visible the lives of people who’d been “canceled” in the most extreme way. And Tamms was not the only place in which people in solitary confinement were finding ways to come together and speak out. In fall 2012, more than a year after they’d waged two three-week hunger strikes, prisoners in California’s Pelican Bay SHU announced a historic Agreement to End Hostilities, which was then signed and publicized by thousands of people inside and outside of prison, building a coalition across the state. It read, in part:
Beginning on October 10, 2012, all hostilities between our racial groups … in SHU, Ad-Seg, General Population, and County Jails, will officially cease. This means that from this date on, all racial group hostilities need to be at an end … and if personal issues arise between individuals, people need to do all they can to exhaust all diplomatic means to settle such disputes; do not allow personal, individual issues to escalate into racial group issues…. Collectively, we are an empowered, mighty force, that can positively change this entire corrupt system…, and thereby, the public as a whole.
Prisoners emphasized that their actions extended beyond a pursuit of reforms. They were challenging the prison nation’s assumption of—and instigation of—ongoing “racial warfare” behind bars, which is used to justify solitary confinement and other restrictive policies meant to isolate prisoners from each other.
In June 2013, when prisoners in the Pelican Bay SHU waged a nonviolent hunger strike to demand better conditions and more opportunities to connect with people on the outside, building networks that fostered both action and visibility were key. Tens of thousands of California prisoners fasted in solidarity. An outside movement led by family members of the strikers rose up across the state and across the country to support the prisoners with letters, phone calls to the Department of Corrections, and rallies. The strike garnered unprecedented media attention, appearing in many major newspapers and on radio and television stations.
Isaac Ontiveros of the prison abolitionist organization Critical Resistance tells me about the group’s participation in the strike: “They hollered at us before the strike and said, ‘We’re going to do this thing on the inside, and we need your support from the outside’…. They came up with solutions for how to resolve harm and conflict inside, without violence. They won some demands, but they also showed us—if it’s possible to do this in solitary, think of what’s possible for people in less restrictive conditions.”
What’s more, many of the same arguments raised against the scourge of solitary can also be used against imprisonment itself, though with different connotations: Isolation, dehumanization, deprivation of contact, and violence are characteristics of incarceration everywhere. And as Isaac mentioned, the strikers’ actions—the historic commitment made through the Agreement to End Hostilities, and the project of coordinating nonviolent resistance despite enormous communication barriers—also point to exciting possibilities for resolving harm and conflict without (in fact, in spite of) law enforcement and prison.
However, much media coverage reduced the strike’s significance to a protest against specific conditions alone, creating the illusion that prisons, and even solitary confinement, can be made “humane”—that they are fixable. Suddenly, mainstream voices were issuing calls to cease the “cruel and unusual punishment,” pointing to certain brutal practices as “out of the ordinary” modes of discipline. Of course, ameliorating conditions is always an important goal: It’s crucial, for example, to provide nutritious food and allow prisoners to call their families. But in framing these improvements as ends in themselves, the terms of “ordinary” punishment are solidified: Caging people is “usual,” so it’s fine!
Additionally, small concessions are sometimes used to divert attention from larger ongoing injustices. Several months after the 2013 hunger strike, Dolores Canales of California Families to End Solitary Confinement noted in a MintPress News interview that, despite a few reforms implemented by the Department of Corrections—such as changes in criteria for placing people in SHUs—the basic picture hadn’t changed. “They can still use solitary indefinitely,” Canales said. “They don’t see a problem with it, with leaving somebody for thirty or forty years in their cell. They won’t acknowledge it’s a problem.”5
And so, doing decarceration-focused work means bearing in mind long-term impacts. For instance, California Families to Abolish Solitary Confinement sets ending the practice of isolation as its ultimate goal. And as the LGBTQ prison abolitionist group Black and Pink’s mission statement puts it, “Any advocacy, services, organizing and direct action we take will be sure to remove bricks from the system, not put in others we will need to abolish later.”“There’s Too Many People in This Prison”
Closing prisons and reducing populations don’t blaze a straight path to freedom. It can be jagged. It can be messy. When Illinois Governor Pat Quinn announced in February 2012 that Dwight Correctional Center would be closing along with Tamms, decarceration activists both inside and outside were jubilant. The closing of a prison heralds the possibility of the entire system’s crumbling.
But when I received the news of Dwight’s closing through an elated press release email from an activist group, my own elation wasn’t based on the anti-prison victory alone. It also stemmed from the fact that my sister was living inside that prison.
Dwight served as both Illinois’ maximum-security women’s prison and also the “intake” center for prisoners newly received into the system. Kayla was holed up in Dwight, waiting to be bussed off to a minimum-security spot a little farther south. Even if they closed Dwight the instant I opened the email, Kayla wouldn’t be freed—she would be whisked away to another joint. Still, the image in my mind of the prison shuttering its windows looked something like hope.
A year and a half later, in fall 2013, I reflect on that sense of hope while pacing the waiting room at Logan Prison, impatient to be called in for a visit with my sister. Phones and reading material are prohibited, so people are milling around the vending machine. A hazy tension hovers in the air; we have no idea how long we’ll be waiting, and the guards on duty won’t drop a clue. One simply says, “There’s too many visitors, because there’s too many people in this prison.”
A short, graying man in a denim shirt who’s leaning against the wall near me comments, “I bet you we wait here another hour, two hours. We might not even get in before visiting hours are over, no kidding.” Like my family, this man drives four hours to get to Logan, he tells me, sometimes to wait about the same amount of time. When he finally gets in to see his daughter, she says she can’t get an appointment with the prison dentist to get a severely aching tooth pulled; the waiting list is too long. I describe the way Kayla has been neglected since giving birth; she’s suffering a kidney infection, writhing in pain, with little medical attention.
The man shook his head. “It’s been like this ever since they closed down Dwight.”
It’s not an unheard-of opinion; Dwight’s closing wasn’t handled well. Before the shutdown, the prison watchdog group John Howard Association warned against rapidly closing Dwight: “Absent a clear plan to reduce population, the shuttering of Dwight is likely to exacerbate crowded conditions [at other prisons], which may further undermine the health, welfare and safety of staff and inmates,” the association argued, adding that Logan’s location—further from Chicago than Dwight—would make visiting more difficult for most families.6
Laurie Jo Reynolds, who helped lead the campaign to close Tamms and also advocated closing Dwight, notes that shutting down a prison isn’t always a perfect tactic, nor should it be undertaken unilaterally without consideration for prisoners’ well-being. “Some people talk about it as a strategy where you close prisons and then there’s overcrowding, and that results in more pressure to reduce prison populations,” she says. “But then do you do that on the backs of the people there?”
Closing a prison like Tamms was an unequivocal victory for both the prisoners released from solitary and the overall shrinking of the prison system: The supermax was only half-full, and there were empty cells lying in wait at other men’s prisons in the state. By some standards, Dwight was a slightly trickier business. In addition to ensuring care for people involved, Laurie Jo urges that advocacy for prison closings be combined with pushes to reduce populations and change sentencing laws. In other words: Get people out.
Back in the waiting room at Logan, the man in the denim shirt shakes his head. “Six more months for my daughter. Really, I just hope she’ll just never come back here. That would solve this whole problem, wouldn’t it?”
• At his first news conference devoted exclusively to conditions on Rikers Island, Mayor Bill DeBlasio announced plans to create a $14.8 million “enhanced supervision housing” (EHS) to hold the jail’s 250 “most dangerous” individuals, who would be locked into their cells for as many as 17 hours a day. Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte has said that broader reforms on the use of solitary at the jail are dependent upon the creation of an EHS unit.
• Rikers Island will also open a unit exclusively for trans women, intended to “offer transgender women safe and respectful separation from the general population” without placing them in solitary confinement. LA Weekly published an article about a similar unit housed in Los Angeles’ Central Jail.
• The Center for Constitutional Rights’ Alexis Agathocleous published an Op-ed for MSNBC entitled, “Rampant use of solitary confinement in the US constitutes torture.”
• Five individuals on death row in Virginia have filed a lawsuit challenging their conditions of isolation. The plaintiffs are seeking the same privileges given to another state prisoner on death row, Alfredo Prieto, who successfully challenged his conditions of confinement on due process grounds.
• Fusion has published an investigation into the conditions endured by trans women locked up in US immigration detention– including being placed in solitary confinement. This week, LGBT activists also expressed disappointment with President Obama after he announced a series of administrative actions on immigration. According to an Op-ed published on The Advocate, “many transgender detainees, especially trans women, are asking federal immigration authorities to deport them back to their home countries, often at extreme personal risk, because conditions in the detention facilities are so bad.”
• Los Angeles County officials have agreed to several changes to bring the city’s jails into compliance with federal disability regulations. One individual alleges he was held in disciplinary segregation for four months “because he refused to give up his wheelchair when deputies tried to make him switch to a walker or crutches.”
• A Santa Fe-based attorney is set to file a federal lawsuit on behalf of an individual who has been held in solitary confinement since 2007. Lawyer Jason Flores-Williams said, “The time has come to abolish long-term solitary confinement in America. It is a racist abomination that shocks the conscience and offends any contemporary standards of decency.”
• The US Department of Justice asked a federal court to dismiss its lawsuit against the Terrebonne Parish Juvenile Detention Center in Louisiana, citing improved conditions in the facility. Among other changes, the settlement reached with the County prohibited the use of disciplinary isolation for longer than 72 hours except in extraordinary circumstances.
• A 35-year-old woman has committed suicide inside her solitary cell, according to the Illinois Department of Corrections. Victoria Woodrich was in disciplinary segregation at the time of her death.
• A one-time US amateur super heavyweight champion has been held in solitary confinement for several months while he awaits admission to a state mental hospital. He is one of 24 individuals in Tacoma who have faced extensive delays in court-ordered mental health treatment since the summer.
• A Nebraska performance audit has recommended that the state review how it uses solitary confinement to discipline those on the inside. The 134-page report found “that the department lacked clear statutory guidelines as to what constitutes ‘serious or flagrant’ behavior that warrants solitary confinement or a loss of good time.”
In a unanimous decision, a three-judge panel from the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the overturning of Albert Woodfox’s conviction. Yet he may remain in prison–and in solitary confinement–for months or even years before his four-decade ordeal is over.
Woodfox has been held in solitary confinement for more than 42 years for the 1972 murder of corrections officer Brent Miller at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. Many believe that he and the other two members of the so-called Angola 3 were targeted for the crime, and subsequently held in isolation, not because of the evidence but because of their involvement in the prison’s chapter of the Black Panther Party. Woodfox is the only member of the so-called Angola 3 to remain in prison. Robert King was freed in 2001, following 29 years in solitary, after his original conviction was overturned. Herman Wallace, whose conviction had also been overturned, died last year after more than 41 years in solitary and a few days of freedom.
The Fifth Circuit, considered one of the nation’s most conservative Federal Appeals Courts, voted to uphold a ruling by a Federal District Court, which vacated Woodfox’s conviction on the grounds that there had been racial bias in the selection of grand jury forepersons in Louisiana at the time of his indictment. The State of Louisiana could decide to accept the Appeals Court’s decision and free Woodfox, or release him on bail while it seeks to re-indict him for the 1972 murder.
Those scenarios are highly unlikely, however, considering the past statements and actions of Louisiana Attorney General James “Buddy” Caldwell. Caldwell has called Woodfox, now 67 years old, “the most dangerous man on the planet” due to his political convictions. More recently, when Woodfox’s conviction was overturned last year, Caldwell immediately vowed to appeal, saying: “We feel confident that we will again prevail at the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. However, if we do not, we are fully prepared and willing to retry this murderer again.”
Now that things have not gone his way, Caldwell may prepare for a retrial, while opposing bail for Woodfox. Or he may appeal the ruling to the full Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals rather than a three-judge panel–and from there to the Supreme Court, where the Circuit Justice is Antonin Scalia.
Caldwell asserts that the evidence against Woodfox is “overpowering”: “There are no flaws in our evidence and this case is very strong,” he said last year. These statements belie the fact that much of the evidence that led to Wallace and Woodfox’s conviction has since been called into question. In particular, the primary eyewitness was shown to have been bribed by prison officials into making statements against the two men. Solitary Watch’s James Ridgeway first wrote about the Woodfox case in 2009 in Mother Jones, providing a comprehensive history and analysis, as well as an account of the conditions in which Woodfox has lived for four decades.
Woodfox’s conditions of confinement have if anything deteriorated in the last five years: He was moved from Angola to David Wade Correctional Center in north central Louisiana, where, according to a separate lawsuit, he faces multiple daily strip searches and visual body cavity searches. Woodfox, along with Robert King and the estate of Herman Wallace, is also plaintiff in a major federal lawsuit challenging his decades in solitary on First, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendment grounds. That suit may finally come to trial next year.
Last Wednesday and Thursday, United States government officials met with representatives at the United Nations to discuss the country’s compliance with the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT). Every country that is a signatory to the CAT is required to submit a “Periodic Report” to the UN Committee on Torture outlining its adherence to the Convention, and countries are also obliged to respond to any questions, observations, and recommendations for change put forward by the Committee. The U.S.’s latest Periodic Report was submitted in October (as reported by Solitary Watch here), and last week, U.S. representatives traveled to Geneva to meet with the ten-member Committee.
The Committee on Torture raised a number of issues at the periodic review, including the abuses committed at Guantanamo Bay, violence committed by police forces, conditions in immigration facilities, and solitary confinement. Each day more than 80,000 people held in solitary confinement across the United States, confined to a space the size of a parking space for 22 to 24 hours a day. There are almost no laws that regulate how isolation is implemented on the inside, whether in local, state or federal correctional facilities.
Even before the session began, prisoners’ rights advocates and anti-solitary activists had little reason to hope that the review would be taken seriously by U.S. government officials or correctional authorities. In the report submitted to the Committee last month, U.S. officials stated that there is “no systematic use of solitary confinement in the United States.” In the weeks preceding the Committee hearing, a number of prominent human rights and civil liberties organizations submitted shadow reports disputing the US government’s assertions. (Read them in full here: American Civil Liberties Union; Center for Constitutional Rights, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children and California Prison Focus; American Friends Service Committee, NY CAIC, the Correctional Association of NY, NRCAT, T’ruah, Victorious Black Women, and the Midwest Coalition for Human Rights.)
At last week’s hearing, the Committee Vice-Chairperson, George Tugushi, queried American government officials about what measures were in place to limit the imposition of solitary confinement and whether alternatives were being utilized to avoid prolonged detention. Two other committee members also asked questions about the isolation endured by those locked up in America’s prisons and jails.
David Bitkowe, the Deputy Assistant Attorney General at the Department of Justice, told the Commission that significant progress had been made in addressing the issue of solitary confinement on U.S. soil. He stressed that several states have undertaken reforms in recent years to reduce the use of solitary confinement without compromising prison safety, and specified that U.S. federal courts “have interpreted the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution as prohibiting the use of solitary confinement under certain circumstances.” The delegation declined to specify the number of individuals who are currently held in isolation in the United States.
Bitkowe also stated that prisoners were most frequently placed in isolation for their own safety – not for institutional security – and emphasized that solitary confinement was never imposed in order to cause psychological harm. He added that the Justice Department “is continuing to work to prevent, detect and respond to abuse in U.S. prisons.”
In a reference to the Angola 3, an Italian member of the Committee on Torture, Alessio Bruni, said that some some prisoners in Louisiana had been held in isolation for more than three decades. He told the U.S. delegation that the practice of holding individuals in long-term isolation was “leading [prisoners] to insanity” and causing “anxiety, depression and hallucinations until their personality is complete destroyed.”
David Fathi, Director of American Civil Liberties Union National Prison Project, was one of several advocates present at the hearing in Geneva. Afterwards, he responded to the comments provided by Bitkowe and others. “The U.S. government is still in denial,” Fathi told Solitary Watch in an email. “The idea that it’s not solitary confinement if you can have a radio or receive a letter just doesn’t pass the laugh test.”
Concluding observations and recommendations will be issued by the UN Committee on Torture on November 28.
• Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus wrote about the case of 22-year-old Reginald Latson, a young Black man diagnosed with autism who was incarcerated after a confrontation with a police officer. In a letter to Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe , his lawyers wrote, “In effect [Reginald] spends 24 hours a day locked in a segregation cell with minimal human contact for the ‘crime’ of being autistic. Absent intervention, there is every reason to think he will remain there until the opportunity for effective treatment has been lost.”
• In a study published in Prison Journal, a Michigan State University criminologist concluded that “solitary confinement does not make supermax prison inmates more likely to reoffend.”
• New York’s legislative Assembly committees on correction and mental health held joint hearings on the mental health care incarcerated people receive on the inside. Alicia Barazza, whose 21-year-old son committed suicide in solitary confinement at Fishkill state prison two weeks ago, was among those who testified.
• In an editorial, the News & Observer called for the North Carolina General Assembly to investigate conditions in the state’s prisons, especially the placement of those with mental illness in solitary confinement.
• The US government went before the United Nations Committee Against Torture in Geneva as part of a periodic review to determine its compliance with international human rights standards. The committee has repeatedly cited concerns about the extensive use of prolonged solitary confinement in prisons and jails across the United States.
• The Lexington Clipper-Herald published an in-depth investigation into the Special Management Unit at the Nebraska state prison in Tecumseh. The paper was given access to tour the unit, which has 192 single-occupancy cells for individuals on “restricted housing.”
• An individual incarcerated at an Arkansas maximum-security prison has committed suicide. According to the state’s Department of Corrections, 38-year-old Danny Cromeans used a bedsheet to hang himself in his cell.
• The wife of a former Tamms Correctional Center officer has begun petitioning door-to-door for the prison’s re-opening. Tamms was shuttered about two years ago after an extensive campaign which highlighted the extreme conditions of solitary confinement endured by people on the inside.
• A lawsuit field against South Carolina’s Department of Corrections, on behalf of those incarcerated with mental illness, is now in mediation. A judge ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in January of this year, commenting, “Over 70,000 cases of every imaginable sort have come to this court over the years, this case, far above all others, is the most troubling. People were in solitary confinement not only for a day, around the clock, day or week but sometimes for years.”
This following piece was written by Scott Van Bergen, who is currently being held at Southport Correctional Facility, a supermax prison in Pine City, New York, where about 700 men are held in isolation in the “Special Housing Units,” or SHUs. It was written in response to an article in a recent Solitary Watch newsletter on efforts by advocates to bring about solitary confinement reform in New York. Van Bergen describes the emotional and psychological tolls exacted by solitary confinement, including the sense of disorientation caused by extended periods of isolation. Yet, like many others in his situation, he describes not wanting to share his suffering with others, even with the mental health worker (“MHU person”) who occasionally stops by his cell. He can be reached by writing: Scott A. Van Bergen 07A6361, Southport Correctional Facility, P.O. Box 2000, Pine City, New York 14871-2000. —Maclyn Willigan
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My name is Scott Andrew Van Bergen, I am serving a 15 year sentence in NY. I just read your article today on isolated confinement. Good Work!! Never Stop!
I truly thought nobody on the outside really understands or cares about the type of condition a person is exposed to. Like myself. I am currently doing 18 months at Southport Corr. Fac. confined to a cell no bigger then ones bathroom at home. 23-24 hours a day. Locked in the cage! Sometimes you don’t get your one hour recreation in a cage smaller then my cage I sleep in. Depends on the CO.
There are times how I think it’s not at all bad doing months on end in Southport, SHU. And then there are times I think, Is it normal for me to think that?? I have lost all communication skills. I mean I have the very little I’ve kept. I don’t even want to talk to any body at many times. I don’t even want to talk to a MHU person [mental health worker].
I feel like a caged in animal. Get treated like an animal. At times I can buy candy bars on Level 3 after being a good boy for several months. I feel like a dog who gets treats every once in a while. I receive my food through a feed-up slot, (like a caged in animal) in old dirty trays that have been around for years. No telling what kind of germs are on the trays. I’ve gotten so paranoid. I switched to kosher food. That way I felt a[t] piece with myself knowing my food now comes in packages. I’ve worried CO’s have done GOD knows what to my food.
I sleep next to an old sink toilet combination for crying out loud. What is normal in that? As I sit here and write this letter, it’s a sham because I am really saying to myself, “The SHU life ain’t all that bad!” And yet, what does that tell you? Not one person with a sain mind and level headed will agree with me. I’ve been in and out the SHU all my bid so far. And yet every so often a MHU person walks down the company and not stop at times. Times he or she stops at my cell, he or she asks, “AM I OK?” I say to myself, “OK!?! Ha!” Then I tell her, “Just fine.” That right there will show you my communication skills have gone for south.
I must stop my letter here because, still I’m questing myself on why would I say the SHU is all bad? This will show you also that my mind is so back and fourth, I think at times not normal things are normal for a person to survive in the SHU. Which is beyond me.
Are people in prison allowed to stand up for their rights? Or does all organized resistance to inhumane prison conditions amount to rioting? Five men—Andre Jacobs, Carrington Keys, Anthony Locke, Duane Peters and Derrick Stanley—will stand trial in a case that may determine how Pennsylvania’s justice system answer that question. The trial was scheduled to begin today, but the court issued a continuance until February 17.
All five had been held at the Restricted Housing Unit (RHU) at SCI-Dallas, a prison in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania. In the RHU, men are locked into their cell for nearly 24 hours a day. People can be sent to the RHU for violating prison rules, including various nonviolent infractions. Shandre Delaney recalls that her son, Carrington Keys, was originally placed in the RHU for 90 days in 2001 when he got into a fight with another prisoner. “He kept being written up for things like covering his light because the lights are on all night or for verbal assault for talking back to a guard,” she told Solitary Watch. These write-ups extended his stay in the RHU. Keys spent most of his twenties in the RHU. He was briefly released in 2009 but was sent back to the RHU later that year on charges of having contraband. He attributes his return to solitary confinement to the numerous grievances, lawsuits, and criminal complaints he filed against prison staff.
Like Keys, Derrick Stanley was originally sent to the RHU for a few months. “When I was in the chow hall in general population, the guard would give us three to five minutes to eat. When those three to five minutes was up, I told him, ‘I would like to finish my food.’ He let me finish my food, but then sent me to the hole,” he explained. There, Stanley accumulated write-up after write-up for other actions, such as attempting to cover his light or for talking back to the guards. He spent a year in the RHU.
“If you’ve ever been inside a dog pound, you see individual dogs in individual cages,” he described. “In this particular unit [the Restricted Housing Unit at Pennsylvania’s SCI-Dallas], it’s like being a dog locked in a cage. The dogs depend on humans for food, water, and to be let out. We depend on the COs. It’s like your life is in their hands.”
Stanley said that staff utilized their positions of power to commit extreme abuses. He is not the only person to charge staff at SCI Dallas with human rights violations In 2009, Human Rights Coalition-Fed Up! began an investigation into conditions at SCI Dallas. Through letters from people inside, interviews with family members, institutional paperwork, affidavits and civil litigation documents, the group compiled Institutional Cruelty, a 93-page report detailing “the cruelty, illegality, suffering, racism, violence, and despair that constitute the reality inhabited by inmates at SCI Dallas.”
According to the report, cells are filthy and the water from the sink is often brown. Other complaints included failure to provide physical and mental health care, deprivation of water, and routine physical violence. Stanley recalls more than one instance in which staff notified him of a visit from his mother and sister. Staff handcuffed and shackled him. Then, instead of taking him to the visiting room, he said he was “knocked out and thrown back in my cell.” When his mother and sister did actually visit, driving six hours for a one-hour visit, staff told them that Stanley had refused the visit. They did not notify Stanley, who found out later from his mother.
Prisoners also reported that staff spit or put other bodily fluids in their food. In addition, staff frequently refused to feed a person by passing his cell as they handed out food trays (a practice known as “burning them for their trays”). Many men charged that staff prevented them from accessing the grievance box to complain about practices. Those who did manage to file grievances found that their complaints fell on deaf ears. “I put so many grievances in,” Stanley told Solitary Watch. “They turned a blind eye to all of them.”
In at least one instance, according to Stanley, staff encouraged a man to commit suicide. “He was always yelling, ‘I’m a kill myself! I’m a kill myself!’ Stanley said of fellow prisoner Matthew Bullock. Instead of seeking mental health treatment for him, Stanley recalled hearing the guards egging the man on. “Kill yourself! Go ahead and kill yourself!” The guards moved Bullock from a cell with a camera to one without a camera, where he hanged himself. Seven other prisoners independently reported the guards’ actions, including the man’s transfer to a different cell, to the Human Rights Coalition, which included these testimonies in their report. Although his was the only death labeled a suicide, Bullock was one of thirteen people who died that year in SCI-Dallas.
On April 29, 2010, Isaac Sanchez, then age twenty, noticed that staff had not given the man in the adjoining cell, Anthony Kelly, a food tray. Like Sanchez, Kelly had participated in HRC’s investigation, detailing verbal abuse, lack of water and assaults by multiple staff on one person. “I said, ‘My neighbor’s not getting fed. That’s not policy,'” Sanchez told Solitary Watch. “The officer said, and excuse my language, ‘Fuck him and fuck you’ and started burning me for my tray.” Sanchez and the officer had a verbal argument, with Sanchez locked behind his cell door and the officer in the hallway. Then, Sanchez reported, the water to his cell was turned off, leaving him unable to use the sink or flush the toilet.
“From time to time, the sink water would explode [out of the faucet] and water would get all over my property, my bed, and everything.” Then, staff came to Sanchez’s cell door and told him to pack his property and be ready to move. Sanchez recalled seeing twelve other correctional officers in the hall and, fearing for his safety, refused to move.
“The lieutenant told me, ‘You gonna come out of the cell or we gonna take you out,'” he recalled. “I told him I wasn’t going to leave my neighbor.”
Sanchez reported that he was then sprayed with pepper spray, beaten and tasered. He said staff cut his clothes away with a boxcutter and took him to a section of the law library where they cuffed him into a chair by his wrists and ankles. Sanchez recalled looking at the window and noticing it was dark out. “Then the sun came out and I knew that the hours had passed,” he said. Staff checked on him every two to four hours and, although a nurse was supposed to slip her finger beneath his wrist restraint to check his pulse, he was restrained so tightly that her finger was unable to fit.
Sanchez estimates that he was restrained in the chair for twenty to thirty hours. Then he was taken out and placed in an empty cell with no mattress, clothing or water for about 72 hours.
Others in the RHU attempted to do something about Sanchez’s beating. In Pennsylvania’s RHU, when a person covers the window to his cell, a supervising officer is called to his cell to ensure that he is not self-harming. In the past, people in the RHU have used this tactic to call in higher-ups to complain about guard brutality. That day, six men—Derrick Stanley, Carrington Keys, Anthony Kelly, Duane Peters, Andre Jacobs and Anthony Locke—covered the windows of their cell doors after Sanchez was beaten and taken to the restraint chair. “That was our last resort. We didn’t think they [the captain or superior] was going to help, but what can you do? You’re locked in the cell,” explained Stanley.
No supervising officer appeared. Instead, the men say, they were pepper sprayed and beaten. “I lay on the ground, my face on the floor, put my hands behind my back [when the guards came into the cell],” Stanley recalled.” I lay on the ground in the submissive position and they kicked me in the face so much that I had to get stitches. I couldn’t even cry, I was in so much pain. They tasered me in the groin over and over.”
Stanley says that staff cut his clothes away with a boxcutter, then cuffed him. “They took me asshole-naked in handcuffs and shackles all around the range in front of two hundred to three hundred men,” Stanley recalled. “I was still leaking blood.” Then, he said, he was placed in a cage that he described as “littler than a dog cage.” That night, he could hear others being beaten. “All you heard was the beating. You could hear the impact and the force,” he described, rapping out a simulation of the sounds that night. “You kept hearing, ‘Stop resisting!’ and ‘I’m not resisting!'”
Delaney said that her son was similarly brutalized. Keys managed to send his mother a letter the next day. “By the time you receive this, make some calls to the prison,” he had written. “They [staff] are on a rampage.” When Delaney called, Keys had already been transferred to SCI Frackville. She called Frackville and spoke to the counselor, who assured her that her son was fine. After being transferred again, this time to SCI Camp Hill outside Harrisburg, Keys was placed in a stepdown program and, after spending a decade in solitary confinement, was allowed into general population. For his participation in the April 29th protest, he was issued a misconduct ticket for refusing to obey an order but was allowed to remain in general population.
Stanley too was transferred the day after the beating to SCI Mahanoy, where he was kept locked down for several months and, like Keys and the other men, issued a misconduct ticket for refusing to obey an order. On February 7, 2012, Stanley was released from prison after 22 years behind bars. He moved to New Jersey, moved into his own house, and enrolled in a community college to begin studying to be a paralegal. “I started studying law so I could fight them,” he recalled. But now he faces the prospect of being returned to prison for another seven years.
Months after their protest, the state filed charges against the six men, accusing them of riot and intent to prevent or coerce an official act. If convicted, each faces an additional seven years in prison. Carrington Keys has also been charged with aggravated assault.
In late 2010, Anthony Kelly finished his prison sentence but, instead of being released, he was sent to the Luzerne County jail where he was told he would be kept until the trial. In 2011, he pled guilty to the rioting charge. He was released on parole in August 2011.
Nearly four and a half years after their protest, the five other men will return to Luzerne County to stand trial starting on Monday, November 10th. The Luzerne County court system, based in the city of Wilkes-Barre, is no stranger to controversy. In 2013, two judges were found to have taken more than two million dollars in bribes from the owner of Pennsylvania Child Care and Western Pennsylvania Child Care, private youth prisons. In a scandal that became known as “Kids for Cash,” the judges had sentenced over 4000 youth to these facilities between 2003 and 2008.
But Delaney and Keys remain optimistic. “Because his case is so bogus, I think he’s very hopeful that he will be successful,” Delaney told Solitary Watch.
“It was no riot,” Stanley insisted. “All I did was cover up my door—a peaceful covering up my door. I was locked in an individual cell.”
“They’re being persecuted because they’re whistleblowers, not because they did anything wrong,” Delaney said at a press conference in Philadelphia two weeks before the trial. “They had the audacity to stand up for themselves—and for other prisoners. When they went to prison, they lost their right to live in a free society. They didn’t lose their human rights and they didn’t lose their civil rights.”
Delaney sees her son’s and the other men’s actions as part of the movement of prisoners standing up against unprovoked violence and other abuses, including the 2010 work strikes in over a dozen Georgia prisons and the wave of mass hunger strikes in prisons across California. “They’re standing up for their human rights,” she said.
Days before the trial, Stanley doesn’t regret his actions. “I feel good because I fought. Not just for me, but for other people Even that dead guy.” Thinking about the four-and-a-half years between the incident and now, he would tell others in similar situations, “There is hope. Never give up. There are people who care. Because of that, that’s what kept me strong.”
In response to a request for comment on the incidents described in this story, the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections said in an email: “We do not comment on matters of litigation.”
• The Cap Times published a feature on solitary confinement in Dane County jails, entitled “Boxed in: Fighting for changes, Sheriff Dave Mahoney calls his own jail ‘inhumane.’”
• The LA Times editorial board took a strong stance against the use of solitary confinement on death row.
• A 21-year-old man with a history of illness committed suicide in Fishkill state prison in upstate New York. Benjamin Van Zandt had been placed in the SHU for fighting with another individual two days prior; he had originally been incarcerated on an arson conviction.
• The trial of the Dallas 6 is scheduled to begin this week. The six men, all currently held in solitary confinement in a Pennsylvania prison, allege they were falsely charged with riot –a felony – as punishment for endeavoring to publicize and fight guard abuse on the inside. (Covered by Truth-Out).
• At least 200 individuals held at the Tacoma Detention Center in Washington have gone on hunger strike, the third such strike in recent years. Previously, hunger strike participants have placed in solitary confinement and threatened with force-feeding.
• The family of a man who committed suicide in solitary confinement in a Pennsylvania jail has voluntarily withdrawn from a civil lawsuit brought against Armstrong County, which alleged wrongful death. An attorney for the family declined to say whether a financial settlement had been reached.
• Formerly incarcerated individuals, local activists, and others gathered in front of Rikers Island to call for reforms, including the end of the use of solitary confinement for all those held at the jail. One participant stressed, that “at least two inmate who were incarcerated here at Rikers Island died while they were in solitary confinement.”