Solitary confinement is in the news on a daily basis nowadays, though just a few years ago it was a rarity to find any mention of it outside of Solitary Watch. What follows is a roundup of noteworthy stories that came out in the past month but didn’t make it into our posts. We will be running these roundups once a week from now on.
• PRI radio reports that at Guantanamo, the “Hunger Strike Grows As Despair Sets In“–and interviews one of the few reporters who have been inside Gitmo since the strike began.
• Al Jazeera presents a documentary and roundtable discussion on “The Ethics of Solitary Confinement.”
• From Citizen Radio’s Marc Kilstein, a powerful hour-long radio documentary on the history and practice of solitary confinement.
• Ted Koppel, on NBC’s Rock Center, reports on the “Criminal justice system’s ‘dark secret’: Teenagers in solitary confinement.”
• The Toronto Globe and Mail reports that solitary confinement is on the rise in Canadian prisons.
• The Atlantic‘s Andrew Cohen writes, “Enough Is Enough—Time for the Feds to Investigate Prison Abuse“–especially prisoners with mental illness held in solitary confinement in federal prisons.
• Individuals with mental illness are held in solitary confinement in strip cells at a Virginia jail.
• Chris Hedges writes about solitary confinement (and about the inspiring Bonnie Kerness and Ojore Lutalo) in “The Shame of America’s Gulags.”
• Despite opposition, Arizona plans to build 500 more supermax prison beds.
• New York Advocacy groups, survivors of solitary, and families of the incarcerated unite to form the Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement in New York’s prisons and jails.
• The sister of a man imprisoned at Pelican Bay writes of her brother’s 23 years in solitary confinement, calling it “beyond cruel and unusual.”
• The ACLU and other advocacy groups testify on solitary confinement before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
• Courthouse News Service reports that a “scathing study” on solitary confinement in Illinois was buried amid local politics.
• A Maryland family says that their son, who suffers from autism and mental illness, has been held in solitary confinement for four years, and denied visits and phone calls for two.
• More than 100 men imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay launch a hunger strike to protest conditions at the camp and the hopelessness of their situation.
• The ACLU releases a comprehensive–and inspiring–report on solitary confinement reform in the state of Maine.
• The New York Civil Liberties Union files a civil rights lawsuit on behalf of people in solitary in New York State prisons became a class action suit.
• “Solitary Confinement: Punishment Or Cruelty?“, a segment on NPR, traces the history and current controversies. (Can’t it be both?)
• Advocates from the New York City Jails Action Committee protest recent increases in solitary confinement and brutality on Rikers Island.
• Representatives of the men in Pelican Bay’s Security Housing Units send an Open Letter to the California State Legislature.
• “Death at Dawson: Why Is Texas’ Worst State Jail Still Open?“, from the Texas Observer, tells the story of a woman who gave birth prematurely in a holding cell, and was sent to solitary on a “suicide watch” when her infant died.
Solitary confinement may be at the heart of a tragic irony in the death of Tom Clements. The reform-minded Colorado prisons chief had expressed concern about the dangerous damage caused by prolonged prison isolation, and the risks of releasing prisoners directly from solitary onto the streets. Now, emerging evidence suggests that the main suspect in Clements’ murder, who was released from solitary confinement just two months earlier, may have suffered from precisely that kind of damage.
Evan Spencer Ebel was killed in a shootout with Texas police last Thursday, two days after Clements was shot to death on the doorstep of his Colorado Springs home. Prior to his release from prison on January 28, Ebel had served eight years for several armed robberies. Most of that time was spent in extreme isolation, locked down 23 hours a day in a small cell.
Ebel’s prison records, obtained by the Associated Press, show that he was placed in solitary because of ”28 different violations he racked up during his time behind bars.” According to the AP, “He was disciplined for smearing feces on his cell wall, punching a fellow inmate and punching a guard in 2006. Prison documents say Ebel also threatened to kill that guard and their family. That attack earned him another felony conviction.”
As early as a year ago, Evan Ebel’s father, Jack Ebel, testified before a committee of the Colorado State Legislature that after years in solitary, his son had trouble communicating during visits. ”Even though he’s well-read and he’s a good conversationalist and gentle — he started out that way, what I’ve seen over six years is he has become increasingly … he has a high level of paranoia and [is] extremely anxious. So when he gets out to visit me, and he gets out of his cell to talk to me, I mean he is so agitated that it will take an hour to an hour-and-half before we can actually talk,” Jack Ebel told legislators. He was speaking in favor of a bill that would have more closely monitored the mental health of individuals in solitary, and required that they spend some time in the general population before their release from prison. (The bill was voted down.)
The idea that Ebel’s alleged violent acts were triggered in part by his years of solitary confinement (and perhaps not, as earlier suspected, by his association with a white power prison gang) was bolstered earlier this week by evidence obtained by reporter Susan Greene. In an article in the Colorado Independent, Greene writes:
In the weeks before his death, Evan Ebel, suspected killer of Colorado Department of Corrections Director Tom Clements, had broken ties with white supremacist prison gang 211 Crew and was debilitated by the transition from prolonged isolation to social contact, according to a friend and former fellow inmate.
In a series of interviews conducted with The Colorado Independent, parolee Ryan Pettigrew dismissed widespread media speculation that Ebel shot Clements as part of an orchestrated 211 Crew “gang hit.” He said that, over the course of the last few weeks, Ebel was growing increasingly agitated in his adjustment to life outside of prison and beyond the tiny “administrative segregation” cells in which he spent years deprived of regular human contact. “Trust me, this was no gang hit. This was about what was haunting Evan Ebel,” Pettigrew says. “Clements’ name never came up.”
Pettigrew supported his statements by producing dozens of text messages he exchanged with Ebel over the last two months. The messages reveal Ebel as wrestling with anxiety about his freedom and grappling with the urge to ease that anxiety through violence. The texts span from February 1, four days after Ebel’s release from prison on January 28, to March 5, less than two weeks before Ebel is alleged to have killed pizza delivery man Nathan Leon and then murdered Clements before he led Texas authorities on the high-speed highway gun battle that left Ebel clinically dead last week.
Greene also writes Tom Clements’s deep concern over the lasting effects of long-term solitary confinement, and the dangers they might present to the public.
In an exclusive interview last spring, Clements said that, immediately after [Colorado Governor John] Hickenlooper recruited him from Missouri to run the Colorado corrections department, he found disturbing “one very alarming statistic” he said kept him up at night — that 47 percent of Colorado prisoners being released from isolation were walking directly out onto the streets without help reintegrating into social environments and interacting with people.
Clements wanted longer transition periods and step-down programs before setting isolated prisoners free. As Pettigrew tells it, Ebel said he had little help making that transition. He said altercations during his brief period in a step-down program landed him back in isolation.
“You have to ask yourself the question – How does holding inmates in administrative segregation and then putting them out on a bus into the public, [how does that] square up?” Clements said.
“We have to think about how what we do in prisons impacts the community when [prisoners] leave,” Clements continued. “It’s not just about running the prison safely and securely. There’s a lot of research around solitary and isolation in recent years, some tied to POWs and some to corrections. My experience tells me that long periods of isolation can be counter-productive to stable behavior and long-term rehabilitation goals.”
Soon after taking office, Clements launched a study of solitary confinement and decided to close Colorado State Penitentiary II, the state’s two-year-old supermax prison, which was designed and built entirely for isolation. By last spring’s interview, Clements said he had reduced the 47 percent isolation-to-streets release to 22 percent. His goal, he noted, was to drive to zero the number of isolated prisoners being released without step-down programs.
Hickenlooper also mentioned solitary at Clements’s memorial service on Monday. “It is an unbelievably bitter irony…the thing he most wanted to change was releasing people from six years of solitary confinement directly into the general population,” he said. “They’re considered unsafe to release into the prison population. How can we release them back into the general public?”
A cover story in yesterday’s New York Times exposes the widespread use of solitary confinement on immigrant detainees. Citing figures that it says are incomplete and ”probably low,” the Times states:
On any given day, about 300 immigrants are held in solitary confinement at the 50 largest detention facilities that make up the sprawling patchwork of holding centers nationwide overseen by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials, according to new federal data.
Nearly half are isolated for 15 days or more, the point at which psychiatric experts say they are at risk for severe mental harm, with about 35 detainees kept for more than 75 days.
According to the adviser who assisted the immigration agency in reviewing the numbers behind the reasons for placement in segregation, an estimated two-thirds of the cases were attributable to disciplinary infractions like breaking rules, talking back to guards or getting into fights.” The review further revealed that oftentimes immigrants were placed in segregation because they were perceived as a threat to other incarcerated individuals or prison authorities “or for protective purposes when the immigrant was gay or mentally ill.
The article goes on to tell the stories individual immigrant detainees, and the shocking reasons for their placement in solitary:
After federal immigration authorities caught up with him, Rashed BinRashed, an illegal arrival from Yemen, was sent to a detention center in Juneau, Wis. He was put in solitary confinement, he says, after declining to go to the jail’s eating area and refusing meals because he wanted to fast during Ramadan.
Federal officials confined Delfino Quiroz, a gay immigrant from Mexico, in solitary for four months in 2010, saying it was for his own protection, he recalls. He sank into a deep depression as he overheard three inmates attempt suicide. “Please, God,” he remembers praying, “don’t let me be the same.”
About 1 percent of detained immigrants are placed in solitary, but as the Times points out, “this practice is nonetheless startling because those detainees are being held on civil, not criminal, charges. As such, they are not supposed to be punished; they are simply confined to ensure that they appear for administrative hearings.” Dr. Terry Kupers, a psychiatrist and one of the nation’s leading experts on the human costs of solitary, told the Times: “I.C.E. is clearly using excessive force, since these are civil detentions…And that makes this a human rights abuse.”
The piece also describes the conditions that immigrants in solitary endure–conditions more or less identical to those of supermax prisons:
While the conditions of confinement vary, detainees in solitary are routinely kept alone for 22 to 23 hours per day, sometimes in windowless 6-foot-by-13-foot cells, according to interviews with current and former detainees and a review of case records involving more than three dozen immigrants since 2010.
Access to phones and lawyers is far more restricted in solitary; occasionally such communications were permitted only in the middle of the night when it was unlikely anyone would be available. Immigrants are typically given an hour or so of recreation each day, detainees said. In some facilities, that is limited to pacing in what detainees call “the cage,” a sparse indoor enclosure with concrete floors and fencing on all sides, similar to an indoor dog kennel…
Although the immigration agency’s new guidelines limit the use of solitary to 30 days for each disciplinary infraction, there are exceptions, and such confinement can be indefinite, according to data obtained by the National Immigrant Justice Center and the Investigative Reporting Workshop, a nonprofit journalism organization based at American University.
Solitary confinement is widely viewed as the most dangerous way to detain people, and roughly half of prison suicides occur when people are segregated in this way. Deprived of meaningful human contact, otherwise healthy prisoners often become deeply troubled. Paranoia, depression, memory loss and self-mutilation are not uncommon. No data is available on how many of the 18 suicides out of 133 deaths of detained immigrants since 2003 occurred in solitary units.
This must-read article appears in full here. For more on the solitary confinement of immigrant detainees, see the report released last September by the National Immigrant Justice Center and Physicians for Human Rights.
On March 11, we published an essay entitled “A Sentence Worse Than Death” by William Blake, who has been held in solitary confinement in New York State prisons for close to 26 years. Since we posted the essay, it has received more than 150,000 hits on Solitary Watch alone–and many more, no doubt, on the numerous sites around the world that reprinted or excerpted from it.
Considering the interest in Billy Blake and his writing, we are republishing here an account of a visit to Blake in the Special Housing Unit (SHU) visiting room at Elmira Correctional Facility in south central New York. (A somewhat shorter version of this account appeared in our July 2012 article in The Nation, “New York’s Black Sites.”)
First, some background: In 1987, while in county court on a drug charge, Blake, then 23, grabbed a gun from a sheriff’s deputy and, in a failed escape attempt, murdered one deputy and wounded another. He is now 49 years old, and is serving a sentence of 77 years to life. As a cop-killer and an escape risk, Blake is considered a permanent threat to prison safety. For this reason, he is one of the few New York prisoners in “administrative” rather than “disciplinary” segregation—meaning he’s in solitary more or less indefinitely, despite periodic pro forma reviews of his status.
We visited Blake in December 2011 at the Elmira Correctional Facility, a dreary building on a hill near the edge of town. After being signed in and searched, we stopped at the vending machines to buy what he had requested in a letter: Dr. Pepper and a pizza roll. (The machine was out, so we got a grayish-looking cheese steak instead.) We then waited in a special SHU visiting room, watched over by a guard.
Blake entered—wiry, sandy-haired and smiling—and talked virtually nonstop for three hours. It was the first time he’d had a visit in more than two years. We discussed his childhood (he says his mother’s partner was abusive), his poetry (some of which he recites by heart), his love of playing the stock market (he sometimes gives tips to the guards), and his fascination with military history (his dream is to someday walk the battlefields at Omaha Beach and Thermopylae). He described abuse in the SHU, some of it confirmed by a lawsuit he won in 2000. And he told us how bad he feels about having deprived two children of their father when “the one thing I never wanted to do was hurt kids.”
Blake’s subsequent letters, which run twenty-five pages or more, describe his “magic ingredient” for surviving the Box. “I’m a consummate dreamer,” he writes. “I’m a dreamer who refuses to accept that my dreams won’t all come true, some however eventually. I’m the kind of guy who you can give 3 life bids to, still in the box for a quarter century, beat me, make me in shit, literally freeze me, spit on me and take my clothes and leave me naked, even steal my money and leave me broke and after all that I’ll be thinking ‘OK, things are a bit tough presently, kid. But suck it up. Stay strong because better days will be here soon and you are gonna be shining and telling.’”
This illogical hope, Blake writes, is what keeps him from committing suicide: “I’m not sure I’d even know how to quit. I’ve had the thoughts at bad times—real bad times—that’s true. But… I’m too nosy. I want to see how this mad life of mine is going to turn.”
Blake reports that he sleeps all day and stays awake all night “to avoid the bulk of the madness that goes on” in the SHU. “It’s lonely time though and boring time like only SHU can be boring—which is boredom of a kind that nobody out there could ever comprehend unless they had lived in the box before…Sometimes I read till my eyes go blurry, till I’ve got nothing left in my cell to read and I don’t have any more letters to write because I’ve bothered the few people I write too much already, and then I am out of things to do,” he writes, so “I just sit and watch the cockroaches on the company go by…Sometimes I will go into a sort of stupid state, a fugue you’d call it, where I’m really not thinking anything at all, just watching the black spots move on the floor.” The lights will come on in the morning, “And I don’t even remember having one thought for the whole night.”
Dreaming is what helps him get through the long, colorless nights in the SHU. “Sometimes I watch the roaches and I envy them,” he writes.
In my mind I have fantasized that I was a cockroach and I maneuver all through the halls of the prison, walk under the locked gates and stay close to the walls to avoid being stepped on by a CO who’s walking through the prison. Then I get outside through some crack or under some door, walk through the grass that looks like tall trees to me, my being a roach and small, then I’m up and over the wall and out. Once I make it, I pop myself back to being human and I walk off into the night, free again and not even caring if I die that same night, just as long as I can see some trees and feel a breeze and know for an hour or two that I was free again, that I lived to see the outside of prison before my time in this world would be over.
James “Buddy” Caldwell, attorney general of the state of Louisiana, has released a statement saying unequivocally that Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox, the two still-imprisoned members of the Angola 3, “have never been held in solitary confinement while in the Louisiana penal system.”
In fact, Wallace, now 71, and Woodfox, 66, have been in solitary for nearly 41 years, quite possibly longer than any other human beings on the planet. They were placed in solitary following the 1972 killing of a young corrections officer at Angola, and except for a few brief periods, they have remained in isolation ever since.
The statement from Caldwell follows on the heels of a ruling by a federal District Court judge in New Orleans, overturning Albert Woodfox’s conviction for the third time–in this instance, on the grounds that there had been racial bias in the selection of grand jury forepersons in Louisiana at the time of his indictment. Subsequently, Amnesty International, along with other activists, mounted a campaign urging the state of Louisiana not to appeal the federal court’s ruling. In the absence of an appeal, Woodfox would have to be given a new trial or released.
Caldwell’s statement–which was rather mysteriously sent out to an email list that included numerous prisoners’ rights advocates who have supported the Angola 3–begins: “Thank you for your interest in the ambush, savage attack and brutal murder of Officer Brent Miller at Louisiana State Penitentiary (LSP) on April 17, 1972. Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace committed this murder, stabbing and slicing Miller over 35 times.”
Caldwell clearly states that he has every intention of appealing the District Court’s decision to the notoriously conservative Fifth Circuit: “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.” Caldwell asserts that the evidence against Woodfox is ”overpowering”: “There are no flaws in our evidence and this case is very strong.”
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. (For more details on the case, see our earlier reporting in Mother Jones, here, here, here, and here.) The two men believe that they were targeted for the murder, and have been held in solitary for four decades, because of their status as Black Panthers and their efforts to organize against prison conditions. (The third member of the Angola 3, Robert King, convicted of a separate prison murder, was released after 29 years in solitary when his conviction was overturned in 2001).
But Caldwell’s most controversial assertion is that Wallace and Woodfox’s conditions of confinement over the past 40 years do not qualify as solitary confinement:
Contrary to popular lore, Woodfox and Wallace have never been held in solitary confinement while in the Louisiana penal system. They have been held in protective cell units known as CCR. These units were designed to protect inmates as well as correctional officers. They have always been able to communicate freely with other inmates and prison staff as frequently as they want. They have televisions on the tiers which they watch through their cell doors. In their cells they can have radios and headsets, reading and writing materials, stamps, newspapers, magazines and books. They also can shop at the canteen store a couple of times per week where they can purchase grocery and personal hygiene items which they keep in their cells.
These convicted murderers have an hour outside of their cells each day where they can exercise in the hall, talk on the phone, shower, and visit with the other 10 to 14 inmates on the tier. At least three times per week they can go outside on the yard and exercise and enjoy the sun if they want. This is all in addition to the couple of days set aside for visitations each week.
These inmates are frequently visited by spiritual advisors, medical personnel and social workers. They have had frequent and extensive contact with numerous individuals from all over the world, by telephone, mail, and face-to-face personal visits. They even now have email capability. Contrary to numerous reports, this is not solitary confinement.
Caldwell’s description does not, in fact, refute the fact that the two men are held for 23 hours a day in closed cells that measure approximately 6 x 9 feet–smaller than the average parking space. CCR, or Closed Cell Restricted, is the Louisiana prison system’s euphemism of choice for solitary confinement.
In addition to challenging their convictions, Wallace and Woodfox have filed a civil suit in federal court, arguing that their 40 years in solitary confinement violate the U.S. Constitution. Their lawyers argue that both have endured physical injury and “severe mental anguish and other psychological damage” from living most of their adult lives in lockdown. According to medical reports submitted to the court, the men suffer from arthritis, hypertension, and kidney failure, as well as memory impairment, insomnia, claustrophobia, anxiety, and depression. Even the psychologist brought in by the state confirmed these findings.
In his statement, Caldwell warns that if they win their civil suit, “these convicted murderers…could possibly receive money and a change in their housing assignments.” Any move out of solitary has been firmly opposed by the warden of Angola, Burl Cain. In a 2008 deposition, attorneys for Woodfox asked Cain, “Let’s just for the sake of argument assume, if you can, that he is not guilty of the murder of Brent Miller.” Cain responded, “Okay, I would still keep him in CCR…I still know that he is still trying to practice Black Pantherism, and I still would not want him walking around my prison because he would organize the young new inmates. I would have me all kind of problems, more than I could stand, and I would have the blacks chasing after them.”
Caldwell himself has even more vociferously opposed releasing the men from solitary. An ambitious Democrat-turned-Republican known for his Elvis impersonations, Caldwell took office in 2007 and was reelected in 2011. He has characterized the Angola 3 as political radicals and called Woodfox “the most dangerous person on the planet.”
In the fall of 2008, after Woodfox’s conviction was overturned for the second time, a federal court judge ordered him released on bail pending the state’s appeal. Caldwell opposed the release “with every fiber of my being.” Woodfox planned to stay with his niece, but his lawyers uncovered evidence that the state had emailed the neighborhood association of the gated community where she lived to say that a murderer would be moving in next door. Caldwell soon convinced the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals to revoke Woodfox’s bail. He also brought Woodfox’s habeas case to the full Fifth Circuit, which reversed the lower court ruling and reinstated his conviction.
Now that a federal judge has ruled, for the third time, that Woodfox did not receive a fair trial, Caldwell apparently feels the need to reiterate his position. “Let me be clear,” his statement concludes. ”Woodfox and Wallace are GUILTY and have NEVER been held in solitary confinement” (emphasis in the original).
The following comes from a man currently incarcerated at Washington State’s Monroe Correctional Complex. The Washington State corrections system has been said by local media to use solitary confinement less than other states, with only 2.7 percent of prisoners (or ~400) in long-term solitary confinement. However, Solitary Watch has noted that the figure is actually twice this, when Administrative Segregation (which may last over a month) is taken into consideration. This prisoner, A.P., has reported that “the State’s Dept. of Corrections is expanding solitary confinement models to general population’s long-term lockdowns.” Incarcerated for a decade, he reports spending most of his prison time in solitary confinement, which he says is partly retaliation for his frequent litigation against the Washing Department of Corrections. He has advocated for accurate descriptions of solitary confinement by noting the types of disturbing behaviors that go on in isolation units, “‘Smearing feces on ones self or eating it’… rather than merely saying ‘Conditions are bad.’” -Sal Rodriguez
Out of the past ten years I’ve been incarcerated on two arson charges for burning two cars. I got 24 years for [it] (no one was hurt) while racking up repeated appeals, most of that has been in solitary confinement. I have a college degree and worked professionally for years before this mess came down. I’m now 53-years old; my family won’t communicate with me and most of all, my two sons won’t communicate despite my still never forgetting their birthdays and holidays with cards and such. Prison mail censorship has frustrated communications so much, most people simply give up trying to keep up.
I’ve seen prisoners in solitary degrade quickly and slowly, depending on their psychological strength and grasp on more in life than rap music no meaningful life experiences. Suicide is preferable to long-term segregation (and long prison sentences). Those who don’t kill themselves learn to compress their hatred that grows like cancer while being forced to suppress their true emotions, in a form of Stockholm Syndrome tactics, to survive. This promotes recidivism and violence. A person, like a dog at a kennel, can only be compressed so much before they either explode or implode. Either way, none is good. Prisoners teach deception to survive and force prisoners to become manipulative of DOC policies and staff because the truth and honesty only leads to negative treatment by D.O.C. staff. For example, to get adequate food, one must feint a medical condition requiring more just to get enough.
One can never be open with staff or even prison psychologists (help that hurts) because it is not confidential; is often interpreted and repeated by untrained staff and it is best to simply internalize and put on a fake (happy) front and never reveal any true feelings, or the prisoner will end up longer in solitary; in a strip cell (where they take away all your clothes, bedding, etc, and put you on a dirty, hands only diet) or some other adverse treatment.
In Washington State, at the Washington State Penitentiary (WSP) I recently had to refuse to eat for weeks to get transferred out of because it is a hopeless place for anything. At WSP in general population (not considered segregation at all) they employ a ‘Level 1” and “Level 2” program policy where even general population prisoners are locked in their cells 7-days a week except for you or three yard times, showers, picking up and dropping off meal trays (meals must be eaten in cells the same size as segregation cells, but with two persons to a cell instead of one) or special program attendance. This has promoted fights, frustration and even stabbings.
I have complained to DOC-HQ about this yet they claim this violence fermentation doesn’t exist—yet continue to lockdown and take away more and more regularly. The food even has become so bad, food poisoning and e-coli; treatments are routinely ignored by staff in food service to convince them correction is needed. They tell us to “buy our own food” (with money we cant get or if we do, they confiscate most money that is sent us from family). It is no wonder animals become more mean when treated so badly.
On Thursday, March 14th, U.S. District Court Judge Claudia Wilken denied a motion by the state of California to dismiss a lawsuit filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights against long term solitary confinement in the California prison system. The lawsuit, filed on May 31st, 2012, argues that California’s segregation of “gang-validated” prisoners in Security Housing Units (SHUs)for longer than 10 years constitutes “cruel and unusual punishment.” The lawsuit also argues that the current process by which prison officials label prisoners gang members is a violation of prisoners due process rights. In California, as of late 2011, over 500 California prisoners had been in the SHU for at least ten years; 78 had been in the SHU for at least 20 years.
The SHUs, located at Pelican Bay State Prison, Tehachapi State Prison, Corcoran State Prison, and California State Prison, Sacramento, hold over 3,000 prisoners in segregated units. Prisoners are primarily held in solitary confinement in these units, which have been described by NPR as living in a “small, cement prison cell. Everything is gray concrete: the bed, the walls, the unmovable stool. Everything except the combination stainless-steel sink and toilet…You can’t move more than eight feet in one direction.”
Conditions in the SHU prompted two large scale hunger strikes in California prisons in July and September 2011. The hunger strikes drew national attention to the issue of solitary confinement, and prompted California legislative hearings in 2011 and 2013. The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) has implemented reforms to the system, including an allegedly more stringent gang validation system; CDCR has been criticized for validating prisoners and keeping others in isolation for possession of black nationalist literature and “cultural calendars” on the grounds that they constitute evidence of gang activity. CDCR has also reportedly begun a review of all current SHU prisoners under the new standards to determine whether or not prisoners should remain in the SHU. According to the Los Angeles Times in February, 144 prisoners had been reviewed and 78 had been released to general population and 52 were placed in a new Step Down Program in which prisoners may transition out of the SHU over 4 years with increasing privileges.
People inside California’s prisons have been less enthusiastic about the reforms.
North Kern State Prison prisoner Terrance White is housed in the Administrative Segregation Unit (ASU) pending an opening in the (full) SHUs. White initially reported to the San Francisco Bay View that he was observing the prison sending prisoners in the ASU back to general population in December, but now says that “I see I’ve been duped by the lies of CDC. I got released back to the general population yard for 45 days and now they’ve brought me back to get validated. It’s sad to see law enforcement get away with monstrosities everyday, then come after us on the inside for becoming wise to their evils by educating ourselves.”
“They’re still validating people it seems every chance they get,” reports White, who has been validated as a Black Guerilla Family member. “I’m not alone as you are aware of, there’s a lot of us and poor Latinos, a few Natives, and poor whites have also been targeted these days. I don’t know how much longer I’ll be here at North Kern, I’m waiting for the Office of Correctional Safety to send my packet back and then I will be endorsed to the SHU to finish my term.”
Pelican Bay SHU prisoner Paul Sangu Jones is optimistic that the public, who he refers to as “minimum security,” are at least “getting a clearer idea of how their tax dollars are being wasted on all of these unnecessary prisons.” But, he says, “my current thoughts are that we remain in limbo. We are locked into a cycle of torture. We keep hearing about how our situation is going to change but every day we wake up to the same old thing–talk about déjà all over again.”
Jones, who has been in the SHU for over a decade, has been labeled by prison officials as a member of the BGF. He was initially placed in the SHU following an anonymous prisoners claim that he was a high ranking BGF member. He has been subsequently kept in solitary confinement for, among other reasons, possessing a “Black Panther newsletter” and because other prisoners designated BGF had written him letters which were intercepted by prison officials.
Jones has reported that someone in his facility had been recently take out of the SHU and placed in the Step Down Program. “It’s my understanding that the prisons are clearing their Ad Segs [Administrative Segregation Units] of prisoners they were planning on ‘validating’ as gang members. I’m told that these prisoners are being placed in the Step Down Program, and the prisons are saying that they are releasing folks from the SHU. It’s certainly what I’d expect from CDCR–no one in the Short Corridor, where prisoners who have been in SHU 10,20,30,40 years have been released to general population,” Jones writes.
“The Pelican Bay State Prison administration is not going to do anything to ease the SHU torture unless forced to do so by the courts. That is the reality our SHU lawsuit is facing.”
Jones also referred to the declaration by the leaders of the 2011 hunger strikes that the prisoners will launch a statewide hunger strike and work stoppage in July if conditions do not improve. “Surely you’ve heard the talk of another hunger strike? That should say it all…”
The Disability Rights Network of Pennsylvania (DRNP) has filed a lawsuit against John Wetzel, the Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, charging that the confinement of prisoners in Restricted Housing Units (RHUs) amounts to “cruel and unusual punishment” of those diagnosed as “seriously mentally ill.” The suit seeks an end to long-term segregation of such individuals and seeks an order that DOC prisoners “receive constitutionally adequate mental health care.”
According to the lawsuit, people in the RHUs are “locked in extremely small cells for at least 23 hours a day on weekdays and 24 hours a day on weekends and holidays. Typically, the lights are on in the cell all the time. The prisoners are denied adequate mental health care and prohibited from working, participating in educational or rehabilitative programs, or attending religious services.”
Prisoners in the RHU are generally held alone, notes the lawsuit, though even in cases when they are assigned a cellmate, this may be “as deleterious to their mental health as solitary confinement” if the cellmate is “psychotic or violent.”
Placing people in such conditions, can create a “Dickensian nightmare,” in which prisoners “are trapped in an endless cycle of isolation and punishment, further deterioration of their mental illness, deprivation of adequate mental health treatment, and inability to qualify for parole.”
The lawsuit provides profiles of 11 men and one woman housed in the RHU, which serve to illustrate the widespread use of solitary confinement against prisoners who have been diagnosed as having “serious mental illnesses.” A man identified as “Prisoner #1″ is described in the lawsuit as having been diagnosed with a delusional disorder with paranoid features and a borderline intellectual diability. Initially placed in a Special Needs Unit, in which prisoners receive psychiatric treatment, he was frequently placed in the RHU following incidents precipitated by delusions. Despite expressing suicidal thoughts before and during his confinement in the RHU, he remained in the RHU until he committed suicide by hanging on May 6, 2011.
“Prisoner #8″ is a 28-year old man at State Correctional Institution-Green (SCI-Green) who has been diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, a psychotic disorder, a paraphilia, and a personality disorder. According to the lawsuit, he claims to receive “messages from the television and from dead people.” The lawsuit states that he has expressed suicidal ideation and has been placed in the RHU after being deemed by the Department of Corrections a “danger to himself and others.”
The lawsuit charges that Wetzel “knows or is deliberately indifferent to the fact that the DOC’s treatment of individuals with mental illness, including the practice of segregating them for long periods of time in RHUs, can cause grave harm to their mental health.”
While it is unclear what DSM-Axis I mental disorders fall under the scope of “serious mental illness,” the lawsuit argues that the current disciplinary system within Pennsylvania prisons fails to “consider a prisoner’s serious mental illness and the impact of isolation in assessing whether to sanction the prisoners.”
Pennsylvania prisoner Ricardo Noble, who has spent over five years in the RHU, has written to Solitary Watch about the nature of life in the isolation units: “In the RHU life is intense. Especially in the beginning weeks or months. As time passes your mind begins to become clouded with mixed emotions, anger, guilt, hate, paranoia, hopelessness, loneliness, and other frustrations. Some who fail to productively channel their frustrations tend to take it out on those closest to them (mainly other prisoners) or even themselves because they can’t lash out on the ones (the Administration) who can affect change of the physical aspects of their harsh condition.”
Approximately 1/3 of those imprisoned in the RHUs, which as of February 28th housed 844 people in long-term Administrative Custody and an additional 1,417 in shorter term Disciplinary Custody, have been described by DRNP as “seriously mentally ill.” The DRNP cited the position of the American Psychiatric Association, which in December 2012 declared that “prolonged segregation of adult inmates with serious mental illness, with rare exceptions should be avoided due to the potential harm to such inmates.”
For more on solitary confinement in Pennsylvania, click here to read Solitary Watch’s reporting.
When Stephen Slevin was released after 22 months of solitary confinement in a New Mexico county jail, he looked like someone emerging from a medieval dungeon: filthy and emaciated, with long hair and beard, sunken features, and haunted eyes. Slevin had never been convicted of a crime, never even had a hearing. But in 2005, he was thrown in solitary and effectively forgotten.
Even in a nation where prisoner abuse is an everyday occurrence and prisoner lawsuits are routinely suppressed, Slevin’s ordeal was enough to earn him his day in court. And even in a nation where long-term solitary confinement in itself is not considered a violation of civil rights, Slevin successfully sued the county that had incarcerated him–and recently, settled for $15.5 million.
As MSN News reports:
Slevin was arrested in August 2005 on charges of DWI and receiving a stolen vehicle, though he maintained the car was given to him by a friend. At the time of his arrest, Slevin was battling depression and was attempting to leave Las Cruces, N.M.
In jail, officers believed he was suicidal, so they threw him in a padded cell for three days, [Slevin's attorney Matthew] Coyte told NBC News. Slevin received a medical examination during that period, but for the rest of his 22 months in jail — much of which he spent in solitary confinement, in a cell without natural light — he was not allowed to see a doctor, even after telling a prison nurse in letters that his depression was worsening and he needed treatment for other health issues.
According to Coyte, Slevin was forced to remove his own tooth because prison officials would not allow him to see a dentist. He also developed skin fungus and bed sores because he was deprived of showers, according to court documents. His toe nails grew so long that they curled around his foot.
Slevin spent two weeks in a mental health facility in 2007 for psychiatric review, court documents said. His health improved there, but he was sent back to solitary confinement until his release.
Charges were finally dropped against Slevin when he was deemed unfit to participate in his own defense. Coyte says his client was let go only because his sister had started calling county officials and legislators asking about his condition.
According to MSN News, from the time of his arrest, Slevin wrote more than a dozen letters to the jail nurse:
“I have not slept in days,” says one letter from Sept. 4, 2005, a couple weeks into solitary confinement. “I’m in a deep depression.” The letter also mentions his lack of appetite. . .
Two months later, KOB.com reported, Slevin wrote a letter again pleading for help, saying, “My dreams have been both weird and bizarre.” By the end of November 2005, he wrote, “I’m afraid to close my eyes.”
Coyte, his lawyer, told KOB that if Slevin got any response at all, it was just to up his sedatives. “He referred to a ‘Dr. Don’ [in the letters],” Coyte told KOB.com. “There was no doctor looking after him. There was a nurse, the nurse practitioner.” But the so-called nurse practitioner only had a bachelor’s degree in psychology and no actual medical qualifications, KOB reported.
After a few months, Slevin gave up, writing: “I don’t know how much longer I can go on.” “That was when he fell into a delirium,” Coyte told KOB.com.
Slevin sued San Dona County in federal court in 2008, and in January 2012, a jury awarded him $22 million in damages. But the county refused to pay and filed a motion for a new trial, claiming that the award was “excessive.” In December 2012, according to the Santa Fe Reporter:
US District Court Judge Martha Vazquez rejected arguments from county lawyers that the award was excessive.
“The Court finds that the jury’s compensatory damages award was justified by the evidence and cannot be said by reason of its amount to demonstrate bias or passion on the part of the jury in arriving at its verdict,” Vazquez writes in her final order . . . Vazquez referenced other higher court decisions giving jurors exclusive purview of the jury to evaluate credibility and fix damages.
The Tenth Circuit has made clear that, unless the jury has awarded damages ‘so excessive as to shock the judicial conscience and to raise an irresistible inference that passion, prejudice, corruption or other improper cause invaded the trial, the jury’s determination of the damages is considered inviolate.’
. . . [A]ttorneys for the defendants wanted Vazquez to lower the $15 million in compensatory damages to $2 million. . . As the First Circuit has explained, “dollars are at best a rough and awkward proxy for time spent in the throes of wrongful incarceration.
Judge Vazquez agreed with other court rulings that there “is more than a mere possibility that the punitive damage awards in this case were properly intended to punish what has occurred and to deter its repetition.”
In response to the December 2012 ruling, Slevin’s attorney said he hoped the court victory will send a message to the county that prisoners, “deserve more humane treatment,” but he was not optimistic. He said he expected the county to continue fighting the award. Furthermore, Coyte said that he did not believe that the county would likely make any meaningful changes at the jail. He told the Santa Fe Reporter:
“Instead of accusing the judge or the jury of being overcome by prejudice as they have done in their post trial motions, they should stop and take a look at their own behavior. In the 10 months since the $22 million verdict very little has changed in the approach of those in charge of the jail. There has been an inmate death, and what has been described as a riot in one of the pods. There have also been reports of rubber bullets being used to control the behavior of pre-trial detainees.”
On March 6, approximately three months after the courts upheld the judgment, Slevin and San Dona County settled for$15.5 million. According to the Santa Fe Reporter, attorney Matthew Coyte said: “[T]his settlement, although very large, does not give back to Mr. Slevin what was taken from him, but if it prevents others from enduring the pain and suffering he was subjected to, then the fight has been worthwhile.” According to the article, Slevin said that it was not money that motivated him to sue, but to make a statement about his conditions of confinement.
The Board of County Commissioners says it, “deeply regrets the harm Mr. Slevin suffered during this period.” And the county states that it has made since significant changes at the jail, designed to provide prisoners with better access to medical care and mental health services.
But according to NBC News, the Dona Ana County public information officer said no jail personnel have been fired over Slevin’s treatment–and for Coyte, “there’s still one more change that needs to be made: Dona Ana County Jail’s warden.
“If you were in the trial and heard what the person who ran the facility said, you would be appalled,” Coyte said. “I get lots of people [inmates] calling from that jail asking for help. Am I pleased that they’ve spent more money in the jail? Absolutely. I’m pleased that Mr. Slevin’s case has made a difference in the jail. But the same people are running it, and it’s an attitude of how you run something.”
The following entry was submitted by California Prison Focus on behalf of Cesar Francisco Villa, 51, a “gang-validated” prisoner incarcerated in Pelican Bay State Prison’s Security Housing Unit (SHU). For eleven years, he has been held in solitary confinement in the SHU, subject to an indefinite term in solitary because, he says, he isn’t a gang member. “To be considered an inactive gang member (eligible for release), you must turn over gang information. But if you are not a member, what do you have to turn in? Nothing,” he writes. The gang validation process, in which prison investigators determine whether or not prisoners are members of certain prison gangs and segregate them indefinitely in the SHU, has been criticized at California Assembly hearings in 2011 and 2013 as lacking proper oversight and providing effective due process. Currently, thousands of prisoners in California are serving SHU terms for gang validation, most in solitary confinement.
“Each morning wakes the potential for disaster. Each morning starts with anger before the anxiety,” Villa writes of the the frustrating monotony of life in the SHU, where he has since developed arthritis in the spine, hepatitis, a thyroid condition and high blood pressure. Below is an excerpt from a powerful description of life in the SHU, from a letter he wrote to California Prison Focus. For the full version, in PDF format, click here. –Sal Rodriguez
When we talk of the SHU and the affects the conditions have on the psyche, it’s not a simple construction one can wrap his or her mind around. Understanding the treatment of Pelican Bay inmates takes some getting used to. Understanding this sickness that runs rampant in the minds of prison officials leaves knots in the pit of bellies.
Nothing can really prepare you for entering the SHU. It’s a world unto itself where cold, quiet and emptiness come together seeping into your bones, then eventually the mind.
The first week I told myself: It isn’t that bad, I could do this. The second week, I stood outside in my underwear shivering as I was pelted with hail and rain. By the third week, I found myself squatting in a corner of the yard, filing fingernails down over coarse concrete walls. My sense of human decency dissipating with each day. At the end of the first year, my feet and hands began to split open from the cold. I bled over my clothes, my food, between my sheets. Band-aids were not allowed, even confiscated when found.
My sense of normalcy began to wane after just 3 years of confinement. Now I was asking myself, can I do this? Not sure about anything anymore.
Though I didn’t realize it at the time—looking back now—the unraveling must’ve begun then. My psyche had changed—I would never be the same. The ability to hold a single good thought left me, as easily as if it was a simple shift of wind sifting over tired, battered bones.
There’s a definite split in personality when good turns to evil. The darkness that looms above is thick, heavy and suffocating. A snap so sharp, the echo is deafening. A sound so loud you expect to find blood leaking from your ears at the bleakest moment.
The waking is the most traumatic. From the moment your bare feet graze the rugged stone floor, your face begins to sag, knuckles tighten—flashing pale in the pitch of early morning. The slightest slip in a quiet dawn can set a SHU personality into a tailspin: If the sink water is not warm enough, the toilet flushes too loud, the drop of a soap dish, a cup … In an instant your bare teeth, shake with rage. Your heart hammers against ribs, lodges in your throat. You are capable of killing anything at this moment. Flash attack; a beating, any violent outburst that will release rage.
This would be the time it’s best to hold rigid. Take a deep breath. Try to convince yourself there’s an ounce of good left in you. This is not a portrait you wish anyone to see. And then a gull screeches passing outside—another tailspin and you’re checking your ears for blood.
And this is a good day.
Eleven years has passed since I entered the SHU on gang validation. This year I’ll be 52-years-old. My cognitive skills over this past decade has taken an odd turn. The deterioration is discernible. When I first arrived I was attentive and if you’ll excuse the expression, bright-eyed. I thought I could beat “this thing” whatever “this thing” was. I confess—I was ignorant.
Today, I could be found at my cell front. My fingers stuffed through the perforated metal door—I hang limp—a mechanism forged of heavy gauge. My head angled in a daze. My mind lost in a dense fog of nothingness. I’m withering away—I know it—and I no longer care. Hopelessness is a virus I hide under my tongue like some magic pebble, as if the shiny stone could assist in organizing thoughts; decipher warbled language from convicts without stones without tongues in a cellblock of grunts and floods of ignorance. Concentration is an abstract invention for those with half a mind if half a mind is a terrible thing to waste. And someone screams behind me, “waste not want not.” But what’s to waste when all you are is a virus that no one’s allowed to touch.
Funny … when I think of validation, I remember Fridays after work—cashing my paycheck—handing over a parking ticket to the bankteller, asking to be validated and I thought, how cool is this: validation for free!
Yes, this is me—the ignorant one. Today, wasting what’s left of the other half.
If I were to imagine life outside of Pelican Bay, outside of the SHU—I’d have to imagine a hospital. And between me and you, I don’t like hospitals. I don’t like the stench of sanitized sheets, industrial strength ammonia. Gowns that open from the back. Polka dots and paper slippers. Looney tunes in looney beds, leather straps and leather masks. Shocks and shots and broken ribs.
The truth is we’re all broken in our own way. We’ve been undone, unwound. The inside of our plastic skulls—raked and routed. A composition of cracks and fissures where nothing will ever be the same again.
A court-appointed consultant, forensic psychiatrist Dr. Raymond Patterson, has reported that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) has failed to effectively combat the large and escalating problem of suicides in the California prison system. According to reporting by KPCC, Patterson despondently asserted that his making any additional recommendations would be “a further waste of time and effort,” as recommendations over many years have gone unheeded.
The report comes as U.S. District Judge Lawrence Karlton is preparing a decision on whether or not California’s mental, mental health, and dental care must continue to be monitored by federal courts. In August 2012, then-CDCR Secretary Matthew Cate issued a plan to end federal oversight of California prison health care. “My goal is to end federal court oversight of medical, mental health and dental care by next year,” Cate said. Though Cate resigned in October, his enthusiasm for lifting federal court oversight has been championed by California Governor Jerry Brown. Brown has argued that California has made significant leaps in improving prison health care and addressing overcrowding.
According to reporting by the Los Angeles Times, the March 13 report by Patterson and five other experts reviewed 15 of 32 suicides in 2012. The report notes that prisoners housed in segregation units, Administrative Segregation Units and Security Housing Units, have a 33 times higher chance of suicide. According to Amnesty International, between 2006 and 2010, there was an average of 34 suicides in the California prison system a year, with 42 percent occurring in segregation units.
According to the LA Times reporting, “13 of the 15 deaths showed some form of inadequate assessment, treatment or intervention.” Three of the 15 prisoners had already undergone rigor mortis, meaning hours had gone by from the time of their death to the time they were found. Further, the California prison suicide rate of nearly 24 per 100,000 exceeds the national state prison average of 16 per 100,000.
The report comes weeks after news that the state of California had “suppressed a report from its own consultant warning that California’s prison suicide-watch practices encouraged inmate deaths.” In 2011, suicide prevention expert Lindsay Hayes found that the conditions of California’s suicide watch units contributed to suicides. The units, described by the LA Times as “dim, dirty, airless cells with unsanitized mattresses on the floor,” were inadequately operated. In reviewing 25 suicides, Hayes found that seven prisoners killed themselves within hours of release from suicide watch. Calling the suicide watch practices “anti-therapeutic,” he found that in 17 of the suicides there were notable lapses in care, including infrequent checking in on prisoners and failure to conduct CPR.
Solitary Watch is aware of and has reported on five suicides in the California prison systems segregation units.
On September 16th, 2011, Johnny Owen Vick,30, committed suicide in the Pelican Bay State Prison Administrative Segregation Unit. Vick’s family has told Solitary Watch that he had long had mental health problems, and had been incarcerated for over twenty years.
Four days later, Armando Cruz, 28, committed suicide at California State Prison, Sacramento’s Psychiatric Services Unit. Cruz, incarcerated as a 17 year old, had entered the prison system with a diagnosis of schizophrenia following an attack on a police officer. Over the course of a decade, he would spend years in solitary confinement largely following disruptive incidents seemingly instigated by his heavily documented mental health problems.
On October 24th, 2011, Alex Machado committed suicide in Pelican Bay State Prison’s Administrative Segregation Unit. Validated as a gang associate in 2010, he was transferred to Pelican Bay. The man who was once known for his intelligence and helping other prisoners file legal documents gradually deteriorated in isolation. Hearing voices and perceiving visual hallucinations at times, he attempted suicide in June 2011. Nevertheless, he remained in isolation until the day of his death. Fellow prisoners on his cell told California Prison Focus that Machado had been screaming for help on the day of his death.
In November 2011, the San Francisco Bay View reported that Calipatria State Prison Administrative Segregation Unit prisoner Hozel Blanchard had been found dead in his cell. Blanchard, who had participated in the widespread hunger strikes protesting against long-term solitary confinement and demanding a litany of reforms, had reportedly feared for his life before his death.
In August 2012, Corcoran State Prison SHU prisoner Armando Morales was found hanging in his cell. A Watts, California native, Morales had been incarcerated since he was a teenager. He had spent at least six years in the SHU.
For more on the widespread problem of suicide in prison and solitary confinement units, click here.
The only thing left to do is go crazy—just sit and talk to the walls… I catch myself [talking to the walls] every now and again. It’s starting to become a habit because I have nothing else to do. I can’t read a book. I work out and try to make the best of it. But there is no best. Sometimes I go crazy and can’t even control my anger anymore… I can’t even get [out of solitary confinement] early if I do better, so it is frustrating and I just lose it. Screaming, throwing stuff around… I feel like I am alone, like no one cares about me sometimes I feel like, why am I even living?
The quote comes from the 2012 report Growing Up Locked Down, which covers the use of solitary confinement on children and teens under the age of 18 in U.S. jails and prisons. The comprehensive report, prepared by the ACLU and Humans Rights Watch, calls for an end to the isolation of young people, based on evidence of the profound psychological damage such isolation can cause.
Now, Florida legislators are considering a bill that would help prevent kids like Henry R. from being subjected to the abusive use of solitary confinement. Filed last month by State Senator Audrey Gibson, the bill, called the Youth in Solitary Confinement Reduction Act (SB 812), seeks to reduce the detrimental impact of solitary confinement on young persons by prohibiting the use of the practice except under specific circumstances.
The proposed legislation requires that the confinement be “the least restrictive to maintain the safety of the youth prisoner and the institution.” The bill further imposes time limits on the use of confinement by situation, restricting emergency confinement and disciplinary confinement to 24 and 72 hours, respectively, also requiring time out of solitary cells to lessen the effects of psychological damage.
Senator Gibson spoke out against youth solitary confinement, stating, “We are wasting taxpayer money on prison policies that permanently damage children’s state of mind and may ultimately do nothing to reduce crime.” She continued:
It seems foolish to imagine that locking a child away alone in a cell for hours on end can do anything to improve their character or their behavior, especially given all the evidence of the harm this practice does, but that is exactly what our state is doing. I filed this bill to end this kind of treatment of young people in Florida so they have a real opportunity for rehabilitative success.
In response to the proposed legislation, the ACLU issued a press release, stating:
“Cutting young people off from the normal human interaction that they need for their development and rehabilitation is cruel, harmful and doesn’t make us any safer,” stated ACLU of Florida Staff Attorney Julie Ebenstein, who works on criminal justice reform. “Children are not simply miniature adults. We cannot have a criminal justice system that ignores their different needs if we expect them to grow into healthy members of society.”
Florida imprisons more youth under the age of 18 in adult prisons than any other state in the country. There is currently no prohibition in state law or in Florida Department of Corrections policies or regulations against holding these young people in solitary confinement in Florida prisons.
In the release, the ACLU referenced Growing Up Locked Down.
The 2012 report by the ACLU and Human Rights Watch found that because young people are still developing, traumatic experiences like solitary confinement may have a profound effect on their chance to rehabilitate and grow. The long term isolation of solitary confinement causes anguish, provokes serious mental and physical health problems, and works against rehabilitation for teenagers.
Julie Ebenstein, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Florida, responded to the new legislature in a recent Sun Sentinel op-ed entitled “Solitary Confinement Isn’t Right Place for Children.”
More young people under age 18 are held in adult prisons in Florida than in any other state in the nation. When minors are locked away in adult jails and prisons, they are treated as adults. When it comes to solitary confinement, there is no state law or Department of Corrections’ regulation that requires correctional authorities to treat young people any differently than adults…
The state has a duty to ensure accountability for serious crimes, and to protect the public. But regardless of young people’s culpability, states also have special responsibilities not to treat them in ways that can permanently harm their development and rehabilitation. Every parent understands that, and so, we hope, will the Florida Legislature.
Since virtually every minor who is sent to jail or prison for any period of time will eventually be released, it would be smart to be concerned about what condition they will be in — psychologically, emotionally and physically — when they are released.
While a few states have banned the use of solitary confinement in juvenile facilities, none has yet passed legislation outlawing–or even limiting–the isolation of youth in adult prisons and jails. A bill of this kind was introduced twice in California, but failed to pass. If the legislation is passed in Florida, Ebenstein writes, it “would turn Florida from the worst offender on incarcerating children in prisons to a national leader in following recognized best practices for the treatment of children who are detained in jail or prison.”
Editor’s Note: As coordinator of the American Friends Service Committee’s Prison Watch Project, Bonnie Kerness is a leading voice for humanitarian reform of U.S. prisons, jails, and detention centers. Kerness is also a pioneer in raising awareness about the use of prolonged solitary confinement, and in uncompromisingly identifying the practice as a form of torture. Since the 1990s, she has coordinated AFSC’s STOPMAX Campaign, which ”works to eliminate the use of isolation and segregation in U.S. prisons” through “research, grassroots organizing, public education and policy advocacy.”
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Between the 1913 closing of Eastern State Penitentiary’s isolation cages and the 1983 lockdown of the federal facility in Marion, Illinois (recently recounted in Nancy Kurshan’s book Out of Control) is a history of struggle against the use of extended solitary confinement in New Jersey, which is little known.
In 1975, after the tumultuous years of the Civil Rights Movement, the Viet Nam War and the prisoners’ rights movement, Trenton State Prison (now New Jersey State Prison) established an administrative isolation unit for politically dissident prisoners. The warden and his staff decided to use this technique, which was modeled after a unit in Soledad Prison in California. The Management Control Unit housed those prisoners who had not broken institutional rules, but who were, as a result of their political convictions and expressions, seen to be a threat by prison administrators. Thus, the New Jersey MCU pre-dated the advent of the control unit in federal system.
Sundiata Acoli was one of the first people interred in this new unit. Sundiata writes, the warden “began rounding up prisoners, 250 all told, of which I was the first. They took me to a cell block, another guard brought my property, stopped in front of a prisoner’s cell, took him out, put me in his cell, and escorted him and his property to my old cell. They switched prisoners all night like this so the next morning they had rounded up, switched 250 prisoners to create an instant Management Control Unit. In less than a month, they had released 200 of the MCU prisoners back into population and kept the 50 prisoners in the MCU for which the roundup was actually intended.”
In his book Inside Out – Fifty Years Behind the Walls of New Jersey’s Trenton State Prison, former guard, Harry Camisa says, “The guys singled out for the MCU were viewed as potential troublemakers or political leaders who needed to be segregated to keep them from influencing the rest of the population. This was a new and controversial concept in New Jersey.” The unit isolated activists and leaders from the prisons general population, as it attempted to psychologically reshape their convictions by subjecting them to an extraordinary level of physical control and sensory deprivation.
New Jersey was a key state in terms of people being involved in political activities such as the Black Panther Party and the Black Liberation Army. It is also corridor state and often members of other political formations travelled through the state – many finding themselves imprisoned at Trenton State Prison. On January 19, 1976, the State of New Jersey alleged that Sundiata Acoli and John L. Clark played key roles in the attempted escape from the Management Control Unit which resulted in two guards being shot, John Clark killed, another prisoner being wounded. Subsequently, Sundiata was transferred out of the MCU to an isolation unit at the federal prison in Marion, Illinois.
Relevant to the continuing use of the MCU was Executive Order 88, signed in 1984 by former Governor Thomas Kean, which mandated that “any persons believed to be a member of a terrorist organization or other similar groups committed to violence, murder or mayhem as a means to achieve their purpose could be placed in the Management Control Unit pre-trial.” This is exactly what happened to political prisoners Tom Manning and Richard Williams, who were alleged to be members of the United Freedom Front, and Sekou Tyehimba, who the state alleged to be a member of the Black Liberation Army.
On February 4, 1986, Ojore Lutalo, a member of the Black Liberation Army, and nine other prisoners were placed in the Management Control Unit. Within 18 months, seven of the prisoners who were placed in the MCU with Ojore were released back into the general population. Ojore reached out to the American Friends Service Committee, asking us what a control unit was, why he was there and how long he would have to remain there. We began to monitor Ojore and 48 others, ultimately establishing the New Jersey-based Control Unit Monitoring Project, which conducted ongoing observation of the unit through visits, letters and telephone calls. Students from many colleges and universities assisted in this effort. Part of the collective efforts of MCU prisoner’s and outside advocates resulted in the struggle to contest the cages built in the MCU for “recreation.” This effort resulted in newspaper coverage from the New York Times, in an August 1991 article by Peter Page entitled “Modules or Cages? TSP Enclosures Stir Protest.”
In May of 1992, the AFSC Control Unit Monitoring Project held a Town Meeting and Silent Vigil outside the prison protesting the political use of isolation and conditions of confinement in the control unit. Prisoners in the MCU were/are denied all the collective activities of normal prison life, facing surveillance by guards and cameras which record daily activities, regularly search cells and their persons, and suffer the physical abuse of strip searches by guards in riot-gear which accompany all recreation and visits. Although confinement in the MCU is not defined as punitive, the severe limitations placed on visits and telephone contact with family members, recreation, the denial of work, education, law library access, collective religious practice and the fellowship of other prisoners can hardly be seen any other way. Correspondence and reading material are carefully scrutinized and many political publications, specifically those with Afro-centric content, are excluded. These conditions are indefinite, although they are reviewed every 90 days, and are imposed without judicial supervision or benefit of counsel.
The AFSC contacted multiple media outlets to draw attention to the political use and condition in the MCU. Initially, the reporters were hesitant to believe that people were being detained in the MCU for political purposes or entertaining political thoughts that the administration didn’t approve of. They responded to AFSC’s initial outreach by saying such things did not happen in the United States. The reporters contacted the Department of Corrections which confirmed that Ojore and others in the MCU broke no prison rules and that their placement wasn’t punitive. This resulted in two newspaper articles. On June 11, 1992, The Record published an article “NJ Political Prisoners Do Hard in Solitary”, and on June 18th the New Jersey Tribune published “Beliefs Made Them Prisoners in Prison – Political Radicals Locked in Solitary.”
In 1994, Channel 9 news filmed Ojore Lutalo, Daud Tulam and Clifford Roberts (three MCU prisoners) for a special piece on the 6 o’clock news. Their research led them to contacting the NJ Department of Corrections who informed them that these particular prisoners were not in the control unit for violating any prison rules. The news program, called “Prison Politics,” played widely at the time and is still being used to illustrate the political use of isolation.
The Department of Corrections itself confirms this political use as evidenced in two Notices of Management Control Unit Classification Decisions: the first dated in 1989, informs that, “The Committee notes that inmate Lutalo needs to improve his social profile, and insight into his oppositional stance prior to release consideration from the Control Unit.” In the late 1990s litigation concerning the Control Unit was filed resulting in a Special Master being appointed to review each person in the Control Unit. With the exception of four people, by 2002, Ojore and others were released back into general population based on the decision of this Special Master.
In 2005, the AFSC stopped hearing from Ojore for an unusual amount of time. Bonnie called the Department of Corrections and was told that Ojore had been placed back in the control unit at “the request of Homeland Security.” Ojore later reported that he had been “disappeared” from general population and placed in the prison’s mental health unit incommunicado for six days. Ojore’s second Classification notice dated 2008 notes that, “The MCURC notes your concern regarding your feelings of persecution and discrimination based on your political affiliation. The Committee continues to show concern with your admitted affiliation with the Black Liberation Army, and the Anarchist Black Cross foundation. Your radical views and ability to influence others pose a threat to the orderly operation of this institution.”
In 2008, New Jersey attorney Bruce Afran filed a brief challenging Ojore’s MCU detention not on the basis of any charged offenses but because of his political beliefs and affiliations. After 22 years of political isolation in the MCU, Ojore was released from prison by way of court order on August 26, 2009.
The definition of “no touch” torture is a set of practices used to inflict pain or suffering without resorting to direct physical violence: sleep deprivation, sensory disorientation, solitary confinement, humiliation, extreme cold or heat, extreme light or dark. Intentional placement situations. A systematic attack on all human stimuli. A November 2010 New Jersey Network program called “Due Process – Solitary: Who and Why” featured myself and Ojore, and other advocates and lawyers talking about the history of activism to close the MCU.
The history of the opposition to the New Jersey Management Control Unit includes advocates from the 1994-1998 National Campaign to Stop Control Unit Prisons, of which the Committee to End the Marion Lockdown was a founding member. It also includes the publication of a Survivor’s Manual – written by and for people living in isolation inspired by Ojore.
The political use of isolation in ensuing years has morphed into entire isolation prisons being built for the mentally ill. The political use of this form of torture continues with the development of Security Threat Group Management Units (for purported gang members), and Communications Management Units (for Muslims in the federal system). Imam Jamil Al-Amin has been held in such conditions for years. For those of us monitoring US prisons over decades, the targeting of radicalization feels eerily familiar. The Department of Corrections is more than an institution, it is a state of mind. That state of mind has led to the use of “no touch” and other devices of torture both here and overseas.
We owe thanks to all of those inside and out who have spoken out: Eddie Griffin, Jr, who had the courage to write “Breaking Men’s Minds” while he was held in the Marion Control Unit; the Marion Brothers who were part of the ongoing resistance to the control unit repression; and to the hundreds of prisoners who had the mettle to contribute their testimony and art to AFSC ‘s 2012 Torture in US Prisons, and to Jean Ross and the many lawyers who have been there for all of us, inside and out.
The following essay is by William Blake, who has been held in solitary confinement for nearly 26 years. Currently he is in administrative segregation at Elmira Correctional Facility, a maximum security facility located in south central New York State. In 1987, Blake, then 23 and in county court on a drug charge, murdered one deputy and wounded another in a failed escape attempt. He was sentenced to 77 years to life.
This powerful essay earned Blake an Honorable Mention in the Yale Law Journal’s Prison Law Writing Contest, chosen from more than 1,500 entries. He describes here in painstaking detail his excruciating experiences over the last quarter-century. “I’ve read of the studies done regarding the effects of long-term isolation in solitary confinement on inmates, seen how researchers say it can ruin a man’s mind, and I’ve watched with my own eyes the slow descent of sane men into madness—sometimes not so slow,” Blake writes. “What I’ve never seen the experts write about, though, is what year after year of abject isolation can do to that immaterial part in our middle where hopes survive or die and the spirit resides.” That is what Blake himself seeks to convey in his essay. —Lisa Dawson
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“You deserve an eternity in hell,” Onondaga County Supreme Court judge Kevin Mulroy told me from his bench as I stood before him for sentencing on July 10, 1987. Apparently he had the idea that God was not the only one qualified to make such judgment calls.
Judge Mulroy wanted to “pump six buck’s worth of electricity into [my] body,” he also said, though I suggest that it wouldn’t have taken six cent’s worth to get me good and dead. He must have wanted to reduce me and The Chair to a pile of ashes. My “friend” Governor Mario Cuomo wouldn’t allow him to do that, though, the judge went on, bemoaning New York State’s lack of a death statute due to the then-Governor’s repeated vetoes of death penalty bills that had been approved by the state legislature. Governor Cuomo’s publicly expressed dudgeon over being called a friend of mine by Judge Mulroy was understandable, given the crimes that I had just been convicted of committing. I didn’t care much for him either, truth be told. He built too many new prisons in my opinion, and cut academic and vocational programs in the prisons already standing.
I know that Judge Mulroy was not nearly alone in wanting to see me executed for the crime I committed when I shot two Onondaga County sheriff’s deputies inside the Town of Dewitt courtroom during a failed escape attempt, killing one and critically wounding the other. There were many people in the Syracuse area who shared his sentiments, to be sure. I read the hateful letters to the editor printed in the local newspapers; I could even feel the anger of the people when I’d go to court, so palpable was it. Even by the standards of my own belief system, such as it was back then, I deserved to die for what I had done. I took the life of a man without just cause, committing an act so monumentally wrong that I could not have argued that it was unfair had I been required to pay with my own life.
What nobody knew or suspected back then, not even I, on that very day I would begin suffering a punishment that I am convinced beyond all doubt is far worse than any death sentence could possibly have been. On July 10, 2012, I finished my 25th consecutive year in solitary confinement, where at the time of this writing I remain. Though it is true that I’ve never died and so don’t know exactly what the experience would entail, for the life of me I cannot fathom how dying any death could be harder or more terrible than living through all that I have been forced to endure for the last quarter-century.
Prisoners call it The Box. Prison authorities have euphemistically dubbed it the Special Housing Unit, or SHU (pronounced “shoe”) for short. In society it is known as solitary confinement. It is 23-hour a day lockdown in a cell smaller than some closets I’ve seen, with one hour allotted to “recreation” consisting of placement in a concrete enclosed yard by oneself or, in some prisons, a cage made of steel bars. There is nothing in a SHU yard but air: no TV, no balls to bounce, no games to play, no other inmates, nothing. There is very little allowed in a SHU cell, also. Three sets of plain white underwear, one pair of green pants, one green short-sleeved button-up shirt, one green sweatshirt, ten books or magazines total, twenty pictures of the people you love, writing supplies, a bar of soap, toothbrush and toothpaste, one deodorant stick but no shampoo, and that’s about it. No clothes of your own, only prison-made. No food from commissary or packages, only three unappetizing meals a day handed to you through a narrow slot in your cell door. No phone calls, no TV, no luxury items at all. You get a set of cheap headphones to use, and you can pick between the two or three (depending on which prison you’re in) jacks in the cell wall to plug into. You can listen to a TV station in one jack, and use your imagination while trying to figure out what is going on when the music indicates drama but the dialogue doesn’t suffice to tell you anything. Or you can listen to some music, but you’re out of luck if you’re a rock-n-roll fan and find only rap is playing.
Your options in what to do to occupy your time in SHU are scant, but there will be boredom aplenty. You probably think that you understand boredom, know its feel, but really you don’t. What you call boredom would seem a whirlwind of activity to me, choices so many that I’d likely be befuddled in trying to pick one over all the others. You could turn on a TV and watch a movie or some other show; I haven’t seen a TV since the 1980s. You could go for a walk in the neighborhood; I can’t walk more than a few feet in any direction before I run into a concrete wall or steel bars. You could pick up your phone and call a friend; I don’t know if I’d be able to remember how to make a collect call or even if the process is still the same, so many years it’s been since I’ve used a telephone. Play with your dog or cat and experience their love, or watch your fish in their aquarium; the only creatures I see daily are the mice and cockroaches that infest the unit, and they’re not very lovable and nothing much to look at. There is a pretty good list of options available to you, if you think about it, many things that you could do even when you believe you are so bored. You take them for granted because they are there all the time, but if it were all taken away you’d find yourself missing even the things that right now seem so small and insignificant. Even the smallest stuff can become as large as life when you have had nearly nothing for far too long.
I haven’t been outside in one of the SHU yards in this prison for about four years now. I haven’t seen a tree or blade of grass in all that time, and wouldn’t see these things were I to go to the yard. In Elmira Correctional Facility, where I am presently imprisoned, the SHU yards are about three or four times as big as my cell. There are twelve SHU yards total, each surrounded by concrete walls, one or two of the walls lined with windows. If you look in the windows you’ll see the same SHU company that you live on, and maybe you’ll get a look at a guy who was locked next to you for months that you’ve talked to every day but had never before gotten a look at. If you look up you’ll find bars and a screen covering the yard, and if you’re lucky maybe you can see a bit of blue sky through the mesh, otherwise it’ll be hard to believe that you’re even outside. If it’s a good day you can walk around the SHU yard in small circles staring ahead with your mind on nothingness, like the nothing you’ve got in that lacuna with you. If it’s a bad day, though, maybe your mind will be filled with remembrances of all you used to have that you haven’t seen now for many years, and you’ll be missing it, feeling the loss, feeling it bad.
Life in the box is about an austere sameness that makes it difficult to tell one day from a thousand others. Nothing much and nothing new ever happen to tell you if it’s a Monday or a Friday, March or September, 1987 or 2012. The world turns, technology advances, and things in the streets change and keep changing all the time. Not so in a solitary confinement unit, however. I’ve never seen a cell phone except in pictures in magazines. I’ve never touched a computer in my life, never been on the Internet and wouldn’t know how to get there if you sat me in front of a computer, turned it on for me, and gave me directions. SHU is a timeless place, and I can honestly say that there is not a single thing I’d see looking around right now that is different from what I saw in Shawangunk Correctional Facility’s box when I first arrived there from Syracuse’s county jail in 1987. Indeed, there is probably nothing different in SHU now than in SHU a hundred years ago, save the headphones. Then and now there were a few books, a few prison-made clothing articles, walls and bars and human beings locked in cages… and misery.
There is always the misery. If you manage to escape it yourself for a time, there will ever be plenty around in others for you to sense; and though you’ll be unable to look into their eyes and see it, you might hear it in the nighttime when tough guys cry not-so-tough tears that are forced out of them by the unrelenting stress and strain that life in SHU is an exercise in.
I’ve read of the studies done regarding the effects of long-term isolation in solitary confinement on inmates, seen how researchers say it can ruin a man’s mind, and I’ve watched with my own eyes the slow descent of sane men into madness—sometimes not so slow. What I’ve never seen the experts write about, though, is what year after year of abject isolation can do to that immaterial part in our middle where hopes survive or die and the spirit resides. So please allow me to speak to you of what I’ve seen and felt during some of the harder times of my twenty-five-year SHU odyssey.
I’ve experienced times so difficult and felt boredom and loneliness to such a degree that it seemed to be a physical thing inside so thick it felt like it was choking me, trying to squeeze the sanity from my mind, the spirit from my soul, and the life from my body. I’ve seen and felt hope becoming like a foggy ephemeral thing, hard to get ahold of, even harder to keep ahold of as the years and then decades disappeared while I stayed trapped in the emptiness of the SHU world. I’ve seen minds slipping down the slope of sanity, descending into insanity, and I’ve been terrified that I would end up like the guys around me that have cracked and become nuts. It’s a sad thing to watch a human being go insane before your eyes because he can’t handle the pressure that the box exerts on the mind, but it is sadder still to see the spirit shaken from a soul. And it is more disastrous. Sometimes the prison guards find them hanging and blue; sometimes their necks get broken when they jump from their bed, the sheet tied around the neck that’s also wrapped around the grate covering the light in the ceiling snapping taut with a pop. I’ve seen the spirit leaving men in SHU and have witnessed the results.
The box is a place like no other place on planet Earth. It’s a place where men full of rage can stand at their cell gates fulminating on their neighbor or neighbors, yelling and screaming and speaking some of the filthiest words that could ever come from a human mouth, do it for hours on end, and despite it all never suffer the loss of a single tooth, never get his head knocked clean off his shoulders. You will never hear words more despicable or see mouth wars more insane than what occurs all the time in SHU, not anywhere else in the world, because there would be serious violence before any person could speak so much foulness for so long. In the box the heavy steel bars allow mouths to run with impunity when they could not otherwise do so, while the ambient is one that is sorely conducive to an exceedingly hot sort of anger that seems to press the lips on to ridiculous extremes. Day and night I have been awakened to the sound of the rage being loosed loudly on SHU gates, and I’d be a liar if I said I haven’t at times been one of the madmen doing the yelling.
I have lived for months where the first thing I became aware of upon waking in the morning is the malodorous funk of human feces, tinged with the acrid stench of days-old urine, where I eat my breakfast, lunch, and dinner with that same stink assaulting my senses, and where the last thought I had before falling into unconscious sleep was: “Damn, it smells like shit in here.” I have felt like I was on an island surrounded by vicious sharks, flanked on both sides by mentally ill inmates who would splash their excrement all over their cells, all over the company outside their cells, and even all over themselves. I have went days into weeks that seemed like they’d never end without being able to sleep more than short snatches before I was shocked out of my dreams, and thrown back into a living nightmare, by the screams of sick men who have lost all ability to control themselves, or by the banging of cell bars and walls of these same madmen. I have been so tired when sleep inside was impossible that I went outside into a snowstorm to get some sleep.
The wind blew hard and snowflakes swirled around and around in the small SHU yard at Shawangunk, and I had but one cheap prison-produced coat on and a single set of state clothes beneath. To escape the biting cold I dug into the seven- or eight-foot high mountain of snow that was piled in the center of the yard, the accumulation from inmates shoveling a narrow path to walk along the perimeter. With bare hands gone numb, I dug out a small room in that pile of snow, making myself a sort of igloo. When it was done I crawled inside, rolled onto my back on the snow-covered concrete ground, and almost instantly fell asleep, my bare head pillowed in the snow. I didn’t even have a hat to wear.
An hour or so later I was awakened by the guards come to take me back to the stink and insanity inside: “Blake, rec’s over…” I had gotten an hour’s straight sleep, minus the few minutes it had taken me to dig my igloo. That was more than I had gotten in weeks without being shocked awake by the CA-RACK! of a sneaker being slapped into a plexiglass shield covering the cell of an inmate who had thrown things nasty; or the THUD-THUD-THUD! of an inmate pounding his cell wall, or bars being banged, gates being kicked and rattled, or men screaming like they’re dying and maybe wishing that they were; or to the tirade of an inmate letting loose his pent-up rage on a guard or fellow inmate, sounding every bit the lunatic that too long a time in the mind-breaking confines of the box had caused him to be.
I have been so exhausted physically, mental strength being tested to limits that can cause strong folks to snap, that I have begged God, tough guy I fancy myself, “Please, Lord, make them stop. Please let me get some peace.” As the prayers went ungranted and the insanity around me persisted, I felt my own rage rising above the exhaustion and misery, no longer in a begging mood: “Lord, kill those motherfuckers, why don’t you!” I yelled at the Almighty, my own sanity so close to being gone that it seemed as if I were walking along a precipice and could see down to where I’d be falling, seeing myself shot, sanity a dead thing killed by the fall. I’d be afraid later on, terrified, when I reflected back on how close I had seemed to come to losing my mind, but at that moment all I could do was feel anger of a fiery kind: anger at the maniacs creating the noise and the stink and the madness; anger at my keepers and the real creators of this hell; anger at society for turning a blind eye to the torment and torture going on here that its tax dollars are financing; and perhaps most of all, anger at myself for doing all that I did that never should have been done that put me into the clutches of this beastly prison system to begin with. I would be angry at the world; enraged, actually, so burning hot was what I would be feeling.
I had wet toilet paper stuffed hard into both ears, socks folded up and pressed into my ears, a pillow wrapped around the sides and back of my head covering my ears, and a blanket tied around all that to hold everything in place, lying in bed praying for sleep. But still the noise was incredible, a thunderous cacophony of insanity, sleep impossible. Inmates lost in the throes of lavalike rage firing philippics at one another for even reasons they didn’t know, threatening to kill one another’s mommas, daddies, even the children, too. Nothing is sacred in SHU. It is an environment that is so grossly abnormal, so antithetical to normal human interactions, that it twists the innerds of men all around who for too long dwell there. Their minds, their morals, and their mannerisms get bent badly, ending far off-center. Right becomes whatever and wrong no longer exists. Restraint becomes a burden and is unnecessary with concrete and steel separating everyone, so inmates let it go. Day after day, perhaps year after year, the anger grows, fueled by the pain caused by the conditions till rage is born and burning so hot that it too hurts.
Trying to put into words what is so unlike anything else I know or have ever experienced seems an impossible endeavor, because there is nothing even remotely like it any place else to compare it to, and nothing that will do to you on the inside what so many years in SHU has done to me. All that I am able to articulate about the world of Special Housing Unit and what it is and what it does may seem terrible to you indeed, but the reality of living in this place for a full quarter of a century is yet even more terrible, still. You would have to live it, experience it in all its aspects with the fullness of its days and struggles added up, to really appreciate and understand just how truly terrible this plight of mine has been, and how truly ugly life in the box can be at times, even for just a single day. I spent nine years in Shawangunk’s box, six years in Sullivan’s, six years in Great Meadow’s, and I’ve been here in Elmira’s SHU for four years now, and through all of this time I have never spent a single day in a Mental Health Unit cell because I attempted or threatened suicide, or for any other reason. I have thought about suicide in times past when the days had become exceedingly difficult to handle, but I’m still here. I’ve had some of my SHU neighbors succumb to the suicidal thoughts, though, choosing death over another day of life in the box. I have never bugged out myself, but I’ve known times that I had come too close. I’ve had neighbors who came to SHU normal men, and I’ve seen them leave broken and not anything resembling normal anymore. I’ve seen guys give up on their dreams and lose all hope in the box, but my own hopes and dreams are still alive and well inside me. The insidious workings of the SHU program have yet to get me stuck on that meandering path to internal destruction that I have seen so many of my neighbors end up on, and perhaps this is a miracle; I’d rather be dead than to lose control of my mind.
Had I known in 1987 that I would spend the next quarter-century in solitary confinement, I would have certainly killed myself. If I took a month to die and spent every minute of it in severe pain, it seems to me that on a balance that fate would still be far easier to endure than the last twenty-five years have been. If I try to imagine what kind of death, even a slow one, would be worse than twenty-five years in the box—and I have tried to imagine it—I can come up with nothing. Set me afire, pummel and bludgeon me, cut me to bits, stab me, shoot me, do what you will in the worst of ways, but none of it could come close to making me feel things as cumulatively horrifying as what I’ve experienced through my years in solitary. Dying couldn’t take but a short time if you or the State were to kill me; in SHU I have died a thousand internal deaths. The sum of my quarter-century’s worth of suffering has been that bad.
To some judges sitting on high who’ve never done a day in the box, maybe twenty-five years of this isn’t cruel and unusual. To folks who have an insatiable appetite for vengeance against prisoners who have committed terrible crimes, perhaps it doesn’t even matter how cruel or unusual my plight is or isn’t. For people who cannot let go of hate and know not how to forgive, no amount of remorse would matter, no level of contrition would be quite enough, only endless retribution would be right in their eyes. Like Judge Milroy, only an eternity in hell would satisfy them. Given even that in retribution, though, the unforgiving haters wouldn’t be satisfied that hell was hot enough; they’d want the heat turned up. Thankfully these folks are the few, that in the minds of the many, at a point, enough is enough.
No matter what the world would think about things that they cannot imagine in even their worst nightmares, I know that twenty-five years in solitary confinement is utterly and certainly cruel, moreso than death in or by an electric chair, gas chamber, lethal injection, bullet in the head, or even immolation could possibly be. The sum of the suffering caused by any of these quick deaths would be a small thing next to the sum of the suffering that this quarter-century in SHU has brought to bear on me. Solitary confinement for the length of time that I have endured it, even apart from the inhuman conditions that I have too often been made to endure it in, is torture of a terrible kind; and anyone who doesn’t think so surely knows not what to think.
I have served a sentence worse than death.
Carl ToersBijns worked in corrections for over 25 years, holding the positions of a correctional officer, chief of security at a mental health treatment center, program director, associate warden, and deputy warden of administration and operations in both the New Mexico and Arizona Departments of Corrections. He specializes in consulting and developing strategic plans for sound correctional practices, mental health treatment, security threat groups, training and staff development. He has published three books in the Wasted Honor Trilogy, as well as the book Gorilla Justice: Caged War Veterans, the Mentally Ill and Solitary Confinement, and has written blog posts on Corrections.com and as a guest writer for Yahoo. In the Anthony Lester case, he has been interviewed several times by local media on the subject of correctional practices and issues surrounding Lester’s death
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The nightmare started in 2009, when a young Native American man named Anthony Lester was convicted of his first felony offense–one count of aggravated assault for a stabbing that took place during a foiled suicide attempt–and sentenced to twelve years in an Arizona prison. Tony Lester had been diagnosed with schizophrenia while still in high school; he heard voices and had a history of mutilating and otherwise harming himself. He clearly needed help, so his family asked the Arizona Department of Corrections (ADC) to honor the court order that was issued by the judge hearing the case. That judge had stated that Lester should be housed in a mental health treatment unit rather than in the general population, where there is no immediate provision to treat those with severe mental illnesses, who have difficulty coping and functioning while incarcerated.
The ADC ignored the court order and housed Lester to Tucson State Prison, infested with Native American gangs demanding Lester pay protection for his presence on the yard. Tony Lester shared his concerns for his own safety with prison officials, and was segregated in a detention unit until his protective custody process was completed. The family informed officials of Lester’s mental illness, and their response was that this particular inmate was manipulative and trying to avoid living on the yard where he faced gang extortion.
Several times the family tried to get their point across–that Lester suffered from a debilitating mental illness, and that he was court ordered to remain on all psychotropic medications. The family was shocked when they found out that inmates have the right to refuse their medications and that Lester was still being housed in a tiny detention cell awaiting final disposition on his protective custody. While isolated in detention, Lester decompensated and was put on a suicide watch.
Then, on July 11, 2010, the family received a call at 11:45 pm, telling them that Tony Lester had been taken to the hospital with non-life-threatening injuries. A call notifying them of his death came three hours later, 2:45 am. An investigation was conducted and the death was ruled a suicide by razor blade. The razor blade that Lester had used to mortally wound himself had been given to him by mistake by an officer who forgot to remove the razor from the prisoner’s personal hygiene kit, less than two days after he had come off a suicide watch.
When the first responders arrived, they did not enter the cell immediately, as they alleged they could not see Lester’s hands and feared he had a weapon hidden. They waited for more staff to arrive and safely removed the cellmate who reported the fact that Anthony Lester was hurt and bleeding badly. (Since Anthony Lester was asking for protection from Native American gang members, he should never have been double-bunked with another Native American who knew of Lester’s suicidal ideations and self-harming behaviors.)
At the time the emergency incident was called in, one sergeant and four correctional officers and one video recorder operated by a correctional officer entered the cell and offered no first aid or assistance to the inmate. Instead, Tony Lester lay in the upper bunk, bleeding, waiting for help to arrive. Barely breathing on his own and moaning the words “help,” he was told by the officers that help was on its way. No one tried to stop the bleeding by applying pressure to Lester’s wounds, until EMS staff arrived to take him to the hospital. By then it was too late. Anthony Lester bled to death with half a dozen people standing by, doing nothing.
The family and an investigative reporter from KPNX New 12, a local television station, fought for two years to have the video released and made public. The graphic video (which appears below) was finally aired at the end of last month. It drew the attention of an Arizona lawmaker, Minority Leader Chad Campbell, who promised a full legislative oversight hearing on Anthony Lester’s death.
Lester is only one of many prisoners who have died in Arizona during the administration ADC Director Charles L. Ryan, a former contractual employee of the Department of Justice who oversaw portions of the Iraqi prison system (including Abu Ghraib before the scandal broke out). Another was Marcia Powell, a women with mental illness who baked to death in the sun in an outdoor holding cell. Several others have killed themselves, often in isolation units, in a state prison system with a suicide rate that is well above the national average.
An interview with Dr. James Gilligan revealed alleged violations of the Eight Amendment and other human rights violations, as the video reveals this expert’s opinion that the Department of Corrections did not fulfill its custodial and constitutional responsibilities toward Tony Lester, and ignored his basic civil rights.
Journalists face serious obstacles to reporting on prisons–and even more to uncovering the truth about solitary confinement. (See James Ridgeway’s essay “Fortresses of Solitude.”)
Public oversight of governmental institutions, which can help to prevent corruption and abuse by those in power, is seen as a hallmark of an engaged, democratic citizenry. However, when it comes to obtaining information about individuals kept in solitary confinement, the press, and by extension the public, are often kept in the dark.
The Supreme Court ruled, in Pell v. Procunier, that the First Amendment does not guarantee the press special access to prisons beyond what is generally afforded the public. The Court reasoned that since other methods of communication feasibly exist, like letter writing, freedom of the press is not compromised by even severe limitations on access to prisons and prisoners. Suffice to say, these barriers to entry and examination, involving layers of bureaucracy as well as outright bans, help to minimize investigative inquiry and avoid close scrutiny of prison practices.
The Society for Professional Journalists recently published a study by Jessica Pupovac of press access policies to prisons in general, which vary greatly from state to state. Policies related to solitary confinement tend to be even more restrictive, and even more variable.
In an investigation of the prison systems with the largest numbers of prisoners in solitary confinement, Solitary Watch has compiled a brief summary of some notable differences and takeaways between the states’ policies. We examined the Federal Bureau of Prisons, California, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas.
Differences in policy are evidenced by–among other things–supervision of interviews, access to certain types of prisoners, access to certain areas of prisons, and the ability to use recording devices. Many states leave themselves the right to deny interviews if they feel it will cause “a disturbance” but none of the policies state what that would qualify or how that would be measured, and thus the bottom line is that in most cases, prison officials usually have considerable latitude in deciding whether a reporter may interview a particular prisoner.
Our hope is that this initial look will spark a wider conversation about public awareness with regards to U.S. citizens who are locked away for weeks, months, or years in solitary confinement. While there are alternative means for obtaining information, these are often insufficient in eliciting the types of things that can be learned through a journalist’s first-hand observations, and through face-to-face conversation.
To be sure, what is written in the policy does not necessarily correlate to actions in reality, but it is a crucial first step in bringing prison conduct to light.
FEDERAL BUREAU OF PRISONS
Prisoners in “segregation, restricted, holdover, control unit, or hospital status” are limited to one one-hour interview per month. They have the right not to be photographed or have their voice recorded by the media, however if the press representative obtains written permission they may.
Although interviews are not subject to auditory supervision, there are two conditions for both the press and prisoners regarding interviews. For the press, “A representative of the news media is requested to provide the Bureau of Prisons an opportunity to respond to any allegation, which might be published or broadcast prior to distribution.” And for the prisoners, “As a prerequisite to granting the interview, an inmate must authorize the institutional staff to respond to comments made in the interview and to release information to the news media relative to the inmate’s comments.”
Lastly, the Federal Bureau of Prisons has the right to deny interviews if they feel it “would probably cause serious unrest or disturb the good order of the institution.”
In reality, no reporter has been granted access to the U.S. Penitentiary Administrative Maximum (ADX), the most secure federal supermax, since September 11, 2001.
(Full Press Policy here)
Media representatives shall not enter security housing units, condemned units, (death row), the execution chamber, Administrative Segregation Units or any other area unless they obtain approval from a correctional official. Interviews with people in prison are at the discretion of the institution head, “including restricting the time, place and duration of interviews.” Phone calls are limited to fifteen minutes and may be recorded.
In reality, a few reporters have been allowed to tour Pelican Bay’s Security Housing Unit, but can only interview designated prisoners.
(Full Press Policy here)
The state has strict press policies: Interviews are simply prohibited if the prisoner is “in disciplinary confinement, classified as close management, has serious psychological problems, is in a hospital or is an infirmary patient.” (It should be noted that according to the American Psychiatric Association, 20 percent of all people in prison are “seriously mentally ill.”) Prisoners may also be denied an interview, “If the warden or senior facility officer believes the interview will impair the security or normal operation of the facility.”
In Florida members of the press cannot enter security housing units, condemned units (death row), the execution chamber, Administrative Segregation or any area currently affected by an emergency without approval of the communications director or designee. In lieu of these restrictions, Florida offers the option of “stock video footage” and still photographs of chamber, Death Row, Administrative Segregation and Security Housing Units available in the Public Affairs section of their prison website.
(Full Press Policy here)
Interviews with individuals in solitary confinement are not explicitly prohibited. The Director will determine whether an interview can be held based upon, “among other matters, the effect that an interview may have on the individual or other committed persons, and the effect upon safety, security, institutional order, or other penological concerns.”
In reality, journalists report that they were not permitted into Tamms supermax before its closure.
(Full Press Policy here)
The policy states, “All legitimate news media organizations shall be allowed reasonable access to the state’s correctional facilities unless security considerations dictate otherwise.” Another other notable condition is that offenders are not permitted to discuss the crimes they’ve been convicted of in interviews.
In reality, press access to Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox, the two members of the Angola 3 who have been in solitary for more than 40 years, is severely restricted.
(Full Press Policy here)
Individuals in solitary confinement are permitted one “non-legal” visit per week, and at the discretion of the Commissioner, they can substitute this for a media interview. However, prisoners in pre-hearing confinement status or serving a disciplinary confinement sanction, which includes Special Housing Units and Keeplock, are not permitted to have media interviews.
The interviews between news media and prisoners that are approved shall be supervised “by way of direct observation” by an assigned security employee. This is meant to maintain “appropriate security observance.” However the policy explicitly states that whoever is supervising cannot do so “in a manner that could reasonably be interpreted as having a chilling effect.”
Certain areas of the correctional facility will not be accessed during a press visit either for security reasons or for “the privacy of inmates.” They include but are not limited to disciplinary housing areas, arsenals, perimeter security systems, medical and mental health units, protective custody units plus any other areas deemed of a sensitive security nature by the superintendent and Public Information Officer.
In reality, since nearly all isolated prisons are ”in pre-hearing confinement status or serving a disciplinary confinement sanction,” they are off limits to the press, as are virtually all solitary confinement units.
(Full Press Policy here)
In Ohio, the Managing Officer or his designee has full control over the number of reporters who may come into correctional institutions and the duration of their visits. They also may place “reasonable restrictions on the frequency, length, and starting time of personal interviews” as well as “visually monitor” them. The Ohio policies state that the media must get permission for photographic, recording or broadcast equipment for interviews in advance, and must get secure clearance for pictures or recorded interviews. This is at least implies that the media can theoretically use those devices.
(Full Press Policy here)
Pennsylvania’s press policy clearly states that under no circumstances may a prisoner’s face be photographed, videotaped, or filmed. In the case of audio recording, “the inmate shall only be referred to by his/her FIRST name.” Pennsylvania says they will select individuals for interviews based on several considerations including whether or not the prison feels confident or concerned about what the prisoner may say publicly, and whether there is a “level of notoriety attached to the inmate’s conviction or subsequent incarceration.” Their press document asks, “Will this inmate bring unwanted media attention to the Department? Does the inmate present a positive image of himself/herself, other inmates, and the Department at large?”
Pennsylvania’s policy was also the only one that threatened disciplinary action to prisoners based on receiving compensation for interviews.
(Full Press Policy here)
It is made quite difficult to obtain interviews with individuals in Texas solitary confinement. According to their stated policy, “An interview may be prohibited when the offender is in Solitary Confinement or Administrative Segregation.” Additionally, a Warden may set limitations for media access to the unit when, in the Warden’s judgment, such media access “would disrupt the safety and security of the unit or cause serious operational problems.” On top of that, interviews with offenders who are diagnosed with psychiatric disorders are prohibited.
When it comes to photographs or videos of offenders, there must be written consent when the offender’s face can clearly be identified. It should be noted later how this contrasts with Pennsylvania’s policies which states under no circumstances may an offender’s face be identifiable.
(Full Press Policy here.)
The following essay by Solitary Watch’s James Ridgeway appears in the current issue of the Columbia Journalism Review, which also includes an excellent story on the difficulties involved in reporting on prisons in general. For more on prison media policies, see our accompanying article by Rachel M. Cohen.
Supermax prisons and solitary confinement units are our domestic black sites—hidden places where human beings endure unspeakable punishments, without benefit of due process in any court of law. On the say-so of corrections officials, American prisoners can be placed in conditions of extreme isolation and sensory deprivation for months, years, or even decades.
At least 80,000 men, women, and children live in such conditions on any given day in the United States. And they are not merely separated from others for safety reasons. They are effectively buried alive. Most live in concrete cells the size of an average parking space, often windowless, cut off from all communication by solid steel doors. If they are lucky, they will be allowed out for an hour a day to shower or to exercise alone in cages resembling dog runs.
Most have never committed a violent act in prison. They are locked down because they’ve been classified as “high risk,” or because of nonviolent misbehavior—anything from mouthing off or testing positive for marijuana to exhibiting the symptoms of untreated mental illness.
A recent lawsuit filed on behalf of prisoners in adx, the federal supermax in Florence, CO, described how humans respond to such isolation over the long-term. Some “interminably wail, scream, and bang on the walls of their cells” or carry on “delusional conversations with voices they hear in their heads.” Some “mutilate their bodies with razors, shards of glass, sharpened chicken bones, and writing utensils” or “swallow razor blades, nail clippers, parts of radios and televisions, broken glass, and other dangerous objects.” Still others “spread feces and other human waste and body fluids throughout their cells [and] throw it at the correctional staff.” While less than 5 percent of US prisoners nationwide are held in solitary, close to 50 percent of all prison suicides take place there.
After three years of reporting on solitary confinement for Solitary Watch, a website I co-founded, I’m convinced that much of what happens in these places constitutes torture. How is it possible that a human-rights crisis of this magnitude can carry on year after year, with impunity?
I believe part of the answer has to do with how effectively the nature of these sites have been hidden from the press and, by extension, the public. With few exceptions, solitary confinement cells have been kept firmly off-limits to journalists—with the approval of the federal courts, who defer to corrections officials’ purported need to maintain “safety and security.” If the First Amendment ever manages to make it past the prison gates at all, it is stopped short at the door to the isolation unit.
As a reporter, I ran into solitary confinement three years ago in writing an article about Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox, members of the so-called Angola 3, who have lived in solitary confinement in Louisiana since they were convicted of killing a prison guard in 1972. After writing an initial article about the case, based on public records, I sought permission to visit Angola and interview the two men. I was told by a deputy warden that the prison wanted nothing to do with me, because officials didn’t like what I had written. The ACLU of Louisiana took up my case, gathering evidence to show that while the prison denied me entrance, it had welcomed many others, including press, politicians, religious figures, schoolchildren, tourist buses, Hollywood filmmakers, canoeists paddling past on the Mississippi, and such notables as Miss Louisiana. Since Angola had such an open-door policy, its discrimination against me was actionable. Warden Burl Cain backed off and granted me what turned out to be the standard guided tour of the plantation prison. It included numerous dormitories, chapels, and even the death chamber—but not the solitary confinement units. Even the ACLU couldn’t help me penetrate those fortresses of solitude.
It would be the first of many times I was turned away from such units. While reporting on solitary confinement in New York State, I was readily shown around Auburn Correctional Facility by the affable warden there. I saw all kinds of cells, yards, and workshops—everything but the so-called Special Housing Unit (SHU) where prisoners are held in solitary. These units, I was told, are never shown to the media. At another New York prison, I managed to visit (under the watchful eye of a guard) with a man who has been in solitary for nearly 25 years. Since the Department of Corrections media policy forbids media visits to prisoners in “segregation,” I had to withhold the fact that I was a reporter, and sign in as his “friend.”
Once I launched Solitary Watch, I learned of a handful of other reporters who were encountering the same restrictions—and working around them and in spite of them. “I was never able to get inside” a SHU in New York, Mary Beth Pfeiffer, a reporter for the Poughkeepsie Journal, wrote in an email. “In 2001, after I began writing about links between solitary confinement, mental illness, and suicide, they refused even to let me into any of their prisons except through the visiting room. Even there, I once had my notes seized by prison officials who claimed note-taking was not permitted.” Pfeiffer says she relied on “official reports of conditions and suicides there, and the accounts of former prisoners.”
George Pawlaczyk and Beth Hundsdorfer of the Belleville News-Democrat authored a series of articles called “Trapped in Tamms,” about the supermax prison in southern Illinois. The 2009 series, which won a George Polk award, revealed horrendous treatment of mentally ill prisoners and the cruel attitudes of the prison officials, including doctors. Unable to secure a visit, Pawlaczyk says their reporting was based largely on court documents, mostly depositions, and the surprise finding that one Illinois county’s mental health reports were filed and open to the public.
Susan Greene, the former Denver Post reporter who in 2012 wrote “The Gray Box,” a blistering report focusing on ADX, for the Dart Society, says she couldn’t even get close to the prison, which has been completely off-limits to the press since 9/11. “I have had absolutely no access to the place at all,” she told me. When she pulled up in front of the driveway to the remote prison complex, she was chased away by armed guards. But in addition to public records, Greene based her reporting on correspondence with prisoners in extreme isolation, carried on over more than a year. Ironically, once her article was published, she could not send it to her correspondents in ADX, due to a policy against allowing prisoners’ names in an article. “So I redacted all the prisoners’ names,” she said, “and then it came back saying something like, ‘You can still see it if you hold it up to the light.’ Out of frustration and wanting to be a pain in the ass, I Exacto-knifed out all the names and sent it, and it still didn’t get through.”
Shane Bauer, who wrote a 2012 expose about solitary confinement in California for Mother Jones, also relied heavily on correspondence with dozens of prisoners in Pelican Bay and other state SHUs who had staged several highly publicized hunger strikes after years or decades in isolation. Bauer spent more than two years in an Iranian prison after being captured on the Iran-Iraq border, including four months in isolation, and thus has the rare perspective of someone who has himself experienced solitary. He also succeeded in gaining access to Pelican Bay, though it was severely limited and carefully orchestrated. Bauer says he was taken to a unit full of men who had cooperated with prison officials by passing on information about prison gangs, “and was allowed to interview one inmate while the gang investigator stood by.” Visits to the solitary cells were refused, as were interviews by the warden and top corrections officials.
Lance Tapley began writing about solitary confinement for the Portland Phoenix seven years ago, when a supermax prisoner named Deane Brown got in touch with him. Brown “wanted to expose to the outside world the torture he was experiencing and seeing in the Maine State Prison’s Special Management Unit,” Tapley wrote to me. Initially denied access to SMU prisoners, Tapley was able to convince the governor’s office to intervene. Then he was allowed to interview several men “in hand and foot shackles on the other side of a Plexiglas window.” Those six interviews and a leaked official videotape of a cell extraction, plus interviews with the corrections commissioner, defense attorneys, and others, formed the basis of his first supermax stories. Once those stories were published, Tapley was banned from the prison. And like many prisoners who talk to the press, Deane Brown faced retaliation: He was shipped to a prison out of state.
Where journalists have succeeded, one way or another, in penetrating the black sites, their reporting has undeniably had an impact. In Maine, it helped spark a grassroots movement and a legislative initiative, which eventually spurred the prison system to reduce its use of solitary confinement. In New York, it became ammunition in a battle to keep mentally ill prisoners out of solitary. And in Illinois, it provided fuel for an effort that has convinced the governor to shut down Tamms supermax prison.
The stories have been effective. But their scarcity also suggests that the lack of press access to these sites around the nation has stifled public debate on a significant issue of policy and human rights. “Solitary confinement is a brutal form of prison punishment that has claimed many lives and caused untold suffering,” says Mary Beth Pfieffer. “That is the story that officials do not want told.” Until we are allowed to tell it properly—until we can visit solitary units ourselves, and speak unhindered with prisoners and corrections officers—we cannot fulfill our duty to shine a light into society’s darkest corners.
The use of long-term solitary confinement was born in the United States in the late 18th Century, at Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Jail and later its Eastern State Penitentiary. It was largely abandoned after it was found to cause madness and death, and was used only sparingly for a century and a half. The widespread use of long-term solitary was reborn in 1983, in what came to be known as the Marion Lockdown. Following the murders of two prison guards at the federal penitentiary in Marion, Illinois, the entire prison was put on lockdown status–and never taken off. Prisoners were held in round-the-clock solitary confinement, and Marion became the model for “control unit prisons”–the supermaxes and Special Housing Units that were built in large numbers in the two decades following the lockdown.
A new book by Nancy Kurshan, published by the Freedom Archives in San Francisco, details the history of the movement that rose up in response in the form of the Committee to End the Marion Lockdown (CEML), which Kurshan co-founded in 1985 and which eventually turned into a broader campaign against isolated confinement. Out of Control: The Fifteen Year Battle Against Control Unit Prisons, is available online in an abridged version, and the book can be purchased from the Freedom Archives.
Earlier this month, Angola 3 News published a long interview with Nancy Kurshan. The first few questions and answers are reprinted below; the full interview can be read on the A3 News site.
Angola 3 News: Your new book chronicles fifteen years of organizing against control unit prisons, from 1985-2000. Can you begin the interview by explaining exactly what a control unit prison is?
Nancy Kurshan: There are at least 2 ways to answer that question. One is to describe the daily workings. The other is to elucidate the underlying dynamics.
There are variations from prison to prison, but generally speaking, a control unit prison is one in which every prisoner is locked away in their own individual box about 23 hours a day under conditions of severe sensory deprivation. The prisoner eats, sleeps and defecates in the windowless cell. Meals come through a slot in the door. In some cases the prisoner may be out of the cell a couple of times a week for exercise, but in other circumstances the exercise area is even more limited and is attached to the cell itself. Most control unit prisons have little access to education or any recreational outlets.
Usually, control units severely restrict the prisoner’s connection not just with other prisoners, but with family and friends in the outside world. At Marion, only family members could visit, upon approval, and only for a small number of visits per month. The amount of time allowed per visit was severely restricted, and there was no privacy whatsoever and no contact permitted between prisoner and visitor. Visiting took place over a plexiglass wall and through telephones. Guards were always within earshot. The prisoner had to be searched before and after, sometimes cavity searched. The visitor had to undergo a body search as well. The prisoners were brought to the visit in shackles.
Regarding the underlying dynamics, the intent is to make the prisoner feel that his or her life is completely out of control. That is not an unintended consequence. The purpose of the control unit is to make the person feel helpless, powerless and completely dependent upon the prison authorities. The intent is to strip the individual of any agency, any ability to direct his or her own life. A control unit institutionalizes solitary confinement as a way of exerting full control over as much of the prisoner’s life as possible.
There is no pretense that this is a temporary affair. Instead it is long-term, severe behavior modification, and it is the most vile, mind and spirit-deforming use of solitary confinement. Control units represent the darkest side of behavior modification. Inside a control unit, the prisoner usually has no idea how long he or she will be there. It is an indeterminate sentence, and usually the rules or guidelines for exiting are unclear at best and impossible to comprehend at worst. It is a hell without any apparent end.
Being sent to a control unit prison is tantamount to torture, as acknowledged by many human rights organizations including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Prisoners are held under conditions that today are not considered ‘humane’ even for animals. They are an extreme abuse of state power.
The existence of the control unit also functions to control other prisoners who are in the general population. This is as important to the system as the impact on those actually in the control unit. The fear of imprisonment in this worst of all prisons is meant to scare all prisoners into tolerating intolerable conditions. The word ‘Marion’ was meant to strike cold fear into the hearts of prisoners throughout the federal prison system.
A3N: You write that “not only did federal control unit prisons proliferate, but now virtually every state system in the country is capped off by a control unit. Whether they are called Control Units, Supermax, SHU (Secure Housing Unit), ADX (Administrative Maximum Facility), a skunk by any other name still stinks.” Can you tell us more about how control unit prisons and solitary confinement in US prisons evolved since the mid-1980s when you began your work?
NK: When we began our work, Marion was the only control unit prison in the federal system, and there were none in the state systems. At the outset, the prison bureaucrats proclaimed that the control unit would allow the rest of the system to run more freely since it would remove the ‘bad apples’ from the system and concentrate them in the control unit. We countered that argument by predicting that the control unit would serve as an anchor, dragging the whole system in a more repressive direction.
Activists were able to accomplish a significant victory early on. The strength of the women political prisoners incarcerated in the Lexington Control Unit, along with a mass national and international campaign in concert with legal action, forced the Feds to close the Lexington Control Unit for Women in 1988 just two years after it opened.
But over the years, many state ‘prisoncrats’ came to Marion to see the control unit. As the years went on, most states built control units or modified existing institutions to accommodate control units. And, of course, the feds, in response to our criticisms of Marion, claimed that the problem with Marion was that it was not built to be a control unit. So they built a bigger and ‘better’ control unit in Florence, Colorado. This demonstrates that unless the ideology changes, they will respond to criticism by morphing one way or another, but never really moving in a progressive direction.
Long term solitary confinement has become a pillar of their ‘correctional’ policy. However, it seems that two serious challenges have developed. First, this form of imprisonment is expensive and our society is running out of money, thanks in part to our bloated military agenda.
Secondly, in some places like California, prisoners have stood up in the thousands and said: “We won’t take it no more.” There have been hunger strikes of 6,000 or more prisoners and support on the outside that has helped give voice to their grievances. In response to hunger strikers at Pelican Bay, the New York Times in an editorial on August 1, 2011 entitled “Cruel Isolation,” lamented that “For many decades, the civilized world has recognized prolonged isolation of prisoners in cruel conditions to be inhumane, even torture. The Geneva Convention forbids it. Even at Abu Ghraib in Iraq, where prisoners were sexually humiliated and physically abused systematically and with official sanction, the jailers had to get permission of their commanding general to keep someone in isolation for more than 30 days.”
Prisoners around the country are attempting to cast light on the situation, but they can only do so much from inside. And let’s face it, despite Albert Hunt’s article in the NY Times on Nov. 20, 2011 entitled “A Country of Inmates, that “With just a little more than 4 percent of the world’s population, the U.S. accounts for a quarter of the planet’s prisoners and has more inmates than the leading 35 European countries combined,” this situation is not even on the national agenda. I listened to Obama’s State of the Union speech last night, and nowhere did I hear a mention of the fact that we are a country of inmates, disproportionately Black and Hispanic.
Unfortunately, economic concerns always trump the moral. The Governor of Illinois recently announced the closing of Tamms Prison, the state’s control unit prison that we fought so hard against in the 1990s. On the heels of that decision, they have also announced that an Illinois prison that has been vacant, will now be sold to the feds, and part of it will be a new control unit prison. The same Senator Dick Durbin who recently held hearings to look into solitary confinement on June 19, 2012 has heralded this deal, as it will bring more jobs to the community of Thomson where unemployment is high. The employment of some seems always to trump the concern about human rights for others…