This following account was written by Anthony Lamar Davis, 34, who has been incarcerated for 11 years of a 22-year sentence. He has spent more than six of those years in solitary confinement. In New York State prisons, about 13,000 sentences to solitary confinement in the Special Housing Units, or SHUs, are handed out each year, most of them for nonviolent disciplinary violations, and close to 4,000 people are in isolated confinement at any given time. Here, Davis writes about a suicide attempt that took place last year, and his ongoing battles with the effects of extreme isolation. He can be reached by writing: Anthony Lamar Davis, #04-A-3293, Green Haven Correctional Facility, 594 Rt. 216, Stormville, New York 12582-0010. –Lauren Denitzio
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On August 4, 2013, while waiting for an officer to handcuff and escort me back to the cell that awaited me after showering, I sat on the floor holding a razor used for shaving. Today was the day I decided to end my life. My decision came from a mixture of things. Things like the living nightmare that I called my childhood, my loneliness, the fact that I have been incarcerated for 11 years and had not seen one single family member – including my own children – in that time. Hundreds of things ran through my mind. Including being in extreme isolation.
In my 11 years of incarceration, I’ve been in and out of solitary confinement for about 6 1/2 years and a 3 year sanction had just been imposed on me (it has since been modified) for an accusation for which I was falsely accused, causing me to be removed from a facility located about 20 minutes outside of New York City (Sing Sing Correctional Facility) – where I am from – to a zoo-like facility build to house prisoners in solitary confinement, which is located hours away from my city where my children are.
On August 4, 2013, I’ve had enough. And, truth-be-told, I was not at all afraid, excited, anxious, or nervous as I broken the guard on the razor and cut my wrist / forearm to the point where I had to be taken to an outside hospital for stitches. I felt no pain. Nothing. I knew that suicide was an effective way to get rid of all the difficulties that surrounded my life. What the hell is the purpose of living if one does not experience happiness?
Again, I have done over 11 years in prison off of a 22 year sentence (New York state prisoners do 85% of their determinate sentences if they “behave”) so I do have a release date. But in the way that I have been affected by extreme isolation, I fear that I will not be productive in society. I have no family. If I was to be released from prison today, I would be completely lost; like being born as a full grown adult. Furthermore, I am not the same person I once was. The charming, funny, handsome, charismatic individual whom I used to be is gone. His soul snatched away by the psychological effects of solitary confinement. I have now become this soul-less, bitter, fraction of myself who is emotionally unstable and full of rage. This is not how I want to live; who I want to be.
I am aware of the effects that extreme isolation has had on me. These effects are not just limited to being in solitary confinement. I will be released from solitary confinement in May of this year (2014), but I will still be a product of solitary confinement. My pain will not end because I have been relocated to general population. There, it will be much difficult for me. I still will have no family. I still will be lonely (I literally feel hollow inside), I still will be bitter and full of rage. Now, there are no people around me, so when my rage surfaces, I bruise my knuckles by punching the concrete walls or screaming (my anger has reached dangerous highs). When I get back to general population – assuming that I have the strength to get through the remainder of my time in solitary confinement – my rage will still be with me and now there will be people to punch and not concrete walls. I am fearful of my future in general population.
I am at war with my own self and it has become a constant struggle to wake up and face the day. I have become a monster created by life and taught by the effects of solitary. I’ve come to realize that this is who I am now and I don’t like what I see when I stare at the monster in the mirror. The fight. The war. I take solace in the possibility that I could wake up one morning, defeated. Not wanting to fight anymore.
And what happened on August 4, 2013, will happen again. But this time the results would be final.
• Michael Anthony Kerr, a North Carolina man who had been held in solitary confinement, died of thirst, according to a recently released autopsy. The pathologist wrote that the Department of Corrections released too little information for her to determine whether Mr. Kerr’s death constituted a homicide; however, she did note that at the time he was not receiving any treatment for his schizoaffective disorder.
• At a Colorado gubernatorial debate, the two candidates addressed a variety of issues, including solitary confinement. Governor John Hickenlooper mentioned his friend, Boulder attorney Jack Ebel, whose son Evan allegedly killed then-prisons chief Tom Clements in 2013 after being released from solitary confinement. He commented, “my friend would painstakingly describe how he saw his son withering away in front of his eyes.”
• The Village Voice published a profile of Masai Stewart, a 23-year-old with a long history of mental illness currently incarcerated in the New York State Correctional System. Stewart was sentenced to many months of punitive segregation in the Special Housing Unit (SHU), despite a SHU exclusion law designed to keep those with mental illness out of isolation.
• Associate Professor Tamar R. Birckhead published an op-ed about a young man who spent more than 300 days in solitary confinement at Rikers. She writes, “Ismael Nazario’s experience is representative of the many thousands of young people who are held in isolation on any given day across the globe. I’ve conducted new research that reveals that approximately 30 percent of the world’s countries either employ the practice or legally condone its use.”
• Federal prosecutors rebutted arguments that a death row inmate, Gary Lee Sampson, faces cruel and unusual punishment because of the many years he will likely wait before execution. Sampson’s lawyers have also argued that “the conditions of death row confinement are equivalent to solitary confinement, but for years on end. This exacts a toll on those so incarcerated that cannot be understated.”
• The ACLU filed a motion seeking class action status for an ongoing federal lawsuit against Mississippi’s Department of Corrections, with the aim of “protecting all prisoners at the for-profit East Mississippi Correctional Facility (EMCF)” from allegedly inhumane conditions. In a report, solitary confinement expert Dr. Terry A Kupers wrote, “taken as a whole, the conditions in solitary confinement at EMCF are the worst I have witnessed in my 40 years as a forensic psychiatrist investigating jail and prison conditions.”
• Writing for Pacific Standard, Jessica Pishko describes a growing movement “to keep architects and designers from working on spaces designed for solitary confinement and execution.”
This post is the next in a series of pieces Solitary Watch is publishing as part of a project calling for people held in solitary confinement to write on various proposed themes. Our first suggested theme, “A Day in the Life,” calls for writers to describe a day in his or her life in solitary confinement (read previous entries here).
The following piece, entitled “Exiled in Purgatory: Creating Mental Illness in Florida Supermax Facilities” comes from Jacob Barrett, who is held in Close Management (CM) at Florida State Prison. He writes, “I receive anonymous letters and cards from time to time… Those communications are rare, but they do happen. I know I get these because my name and address are on websites like realcostofprisons.org and solitarywatch.com. Without my name out there… I would be like most prisoners, isolated and alone.” In his piece, Barrett describes his life in solitary confinement at FSP.
View more of Barrett’s writing and artwork on the website of the Real Cost of Prisons here and here. He can be reached by writing: Jacob Barrett C07320, Florida State Prison, 7819 NW 228th Street, Raiford, FL 32026. –Lisa Dawson
In the Florida State Prisons (FSP) Close Management (CM) — Florida’s version of supermax — prisoners are prohibited from talking to each other. Not about religion, politics, family, nothing. They are not allowed to speak a single word.
Of course, we find ways to have brief exchanges. At our cell doors we can see the prisoners in the cells across from us. We’ve developed a prison-style sign language. At the back of our cells we have a window which opens and closes. We can whisper to prisoners in the cells next to us. But we have to be very careful. If prison guards catch you using sign language or talking it means trouble.
Trouble can mean a variety of punishments. During the summer–when the heat index is 110 degrees–the guards will turn off the air vents to prevent air flow. Because the cells have two large 4 foot fluorescent lights the temp in the cell can go as high as 115 degrees when the outside temp is 90 degrees. Staff will say: “If you want to talk bitches, talk in the heat.” In the winter the staff will turn off the heat. “A cold prisoner is a quiet prisoner” as their saying goes.
Unlucky prisoners may be sprayed with pepper spray without warning. Others are taken to the disciplinary unit where they face physical abuses. Others may be subject to sleep deprivation where prison staff will pound on their windows every 15 minutes to keep them awake for days.
Prison guards walk the unit yelling “shut the fuck up and lay down,” “shut the fuck up bitches!” That’s every day.
Attached to this essay is a copy of an Inmate Request I wrote requesting the policy be changed. It was denied.
The policy creates mental illness. Prisoners become detached from reality. They become aggressive. They lose communication skills. What communication skills they do retain become blunted. Many become so detached they become suicidal. Prisoners attempting suicide at FSP is a regular occurrence.
I notice the effects myself. I catch myself talking to myself. I invent conversations to pas the time, until I realize I’ve gone from an imaginary friend into retreating into the created world. I look out across the hall to the other prisoners pacing in their cells and I see them having animated conversations with themselves, too. It feels like a mental ward.
Florida took away TVs from prisoners in CM. The one thing that fave them some mental stimulation. Prisoners are not permitted arts–such as art paper, markers, pens (for drawing), etc. Prisoners are expected to “shut the fuck up and lay down.”
I bought a chess board. I play myself a few times a day. I want to play chess with someone else–but there is no talking. I wish I had someone to play with through the mail. But I don’t. So I play with my imaginary friend. And he’s not very good at that.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), along with California-based Prison Law Office and their co-counsel in federal class action lawsuit Parsons v. Ryan, has released a series of 26 reports alleging extensive problems with the Arizona Department of Corrections’ (ADC) healthcare program and its use of solitary confinement.
Prison Law Office director Don Specter stated the groups requested the reports from national experts in prison healthcare as part of a lawsuit against the ADC. The reports, which were released ahead of next month’s federal class action trial against the ADC, assert that medical, dental and mental healthcare in Arizona State prisons has declined to unsafe levels and that solitary confinement is excessive, with prisons placing people in isolation because prison beds elsewhere are full.
In 2012, the ACLU, the ACLU of Arizona and the Prison Law Office filed a lawsuit seeking competent medical, dental and mental healthcare for prisoners and challenging the use of solitary confinement in Arizona State prisons. The suit includes 33,000 people held in 10 Arizona State prisons. The federal class-action lawsuit is set to go to trial October 21, 2014.
A September 9, 2014, press release issued by the ACLU states:
To show the dangerous inadequacies of health care and other conditions in Arizona’s state prisons, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Prison Law Office, and their co-counsel in Parsons v. Ryan filed reports yesterday with the U.S. District Court from seven experts in medicine, psychiatry, dentistry, and related fields. These experts toured the prisons on multiple occasions. They found incidents of illnesses and injuries so neglected by prison staff that they caused extreme suffering, permanent damage, and even death. The reports also detail significant harm caused by the Arizona Department of Corrections’ use of solitary confinement.
According to a recent press release by the Prison Law Office:
“[T]he chronic shortage of mental health staff, delays in providing or outright failure to provide mental health treatment, the gross inadequacies in the provision of psychiatric medications, and the other deficiencies identified in this report are statewide systemic problems, and prisoners who need mental health care have already experienced, and will experience, a serious risk of injury to their health if these problems are not addressed,” wrote Dr. Pablo Stewart, another expert hired by plaintiffs’ counsel to tour ADC’s prisons and review prisoners’ medical records… (11/8/13 report, page 10).
Dr. [Pablo] Stewart, a psychiatry professor with expertise in prison mental health care, uncovered numerous preventable suicides by prisoners, lengthy and serious delays in care, insufficient and unlicensed staff and inadequate medication protocols. One prisoner hanged himself after ADC neglected to give him his prescribed mood stabilizing drugs for more than three weeks, Dr. Stewart found (11/8/13 report, pages 21-23).
The release also touches on “significant, dangerous problems with the ADC’s use of solitary confinement,” stating that people are placed in solitary “simply because other beds are full” and that people with mental illness are often placed in isolation because the ADC does not have “treatment alternatives.”
According to the Arizona Public Media:
The reports, “Come to the unanimous conclusion that the Arizona healthcare system is…an abysmal failure,” [Specter] said.
Arizona’s correctional system puts prisoners at serious risk of sickness and death because of a lack of access to adequate healthcare, he added.
Specter said the use of solitary confinement is also a large problem in state prisons.
The reports pointed out that mentally ill prisoners are often put into isolation units, where limited human contact can cause their mental condition to significantly worsen.
Of the ACLU’s 26 expert reports, eight focus on the ADC’s use of solitary confinement.
One expert commissioned by the ACLU, Mr. Eldon Vail, is a “former corrections administrator with nearly thirty-five years experience working in and administering adult institutions” whose experience “included responsibility for… the mentally ill population and their custody, housing, and treatment.” Vail spent five days inspecting three Arizona State prisons, during which time he interviewed over 100 people held in solitary confinement. According to his expert opinion:
In the name of safety and security, the ADC engages in multiple practices that are counterproductive to its states aims and harmful to the prisoners in its custody. Overreliance on isolation as a primary means of control results in a harmful environment for all inmates, and especially those with mental illness. Moreover, the actual operations of those units—extreme levels of isolation and idleness, frequent use of pepper spray, and unstable, infrequent, and incoherent “programming”—results in a correctional environment that exacerbates the already grave risks presented by ADC’s over-use of isolation. A predictable and stable custody environment that would help mentally ill prisoners feel safe is essential to prepare inmates to be ready to engage in treatment. That environment does not currently exist within ADC.
Another expert called on by the ACLU to provide his opinion of the ADC’s use of solitary confinement was Dr. Craig Haney, Ph.D, J.D., Professor of Psychology at the University of California at Santa Cruz. The following are excerpts from Haney’s report:
My inspections of the ADC isolation units, my substantial cell front and on-on-one confidential interviews, and the extensive documents that I have reviewed pertaining to the policies, procedures, and conditions that are in operation in ADC’s isolation units confirm that they do indeed impose “solitary confinement” on Arizona prisoners. These are precisely the kinds of isolated and isolating conditions that have been identified and described in the scientific literature as producing adverse effects. Indeed, in my experience, they represent an extremely harsh version of the kind of isolation that has been studied by researchers and condemned my human rights and professional organizations. . .
Based on my experience studying these kinds of environments and their psychological effects for nearly four decades. . . I can offer the strongly held opinion that the range of egregious conditions, practices, and policies and practices that I have described . . . can be remedied through system-wide relief that is ordered by the courts.
The ACLU commissioned yet another expert, Dr. Brie Williams, a licensed and practicing physician in the state of California who is board certified in Internal Medicine, Hospice and Palliative Medicine, and Geriatrics, to prepare an expert report on conditions of confinement in isolation units at three ADC prisons. Williams interviewed prisoners, inspected housing units and other areas to which prisoners have access and reviewed medical files. The following have been excerpted from Williams’ report:
Prisoners of older age, with chronic medical conditions, and/or with physical disabilities are at high risk of immediate and future harm from isolated confinement as practiced in ADC. In addition, some of these prisoners are receiving dangerously inadequate medical care. . .
Loneliness, both actual and perceived social isolation, is an important risk factor for the development and/or worsening of many serious medical conditions. . . [S]tudies show that social isolation has a significant adverse effect on physical and mental health, immune responses, functional ability, and important health behaviors capable of hastening the onset and course of medical illness. . .
Williams goes on to cite other health problems that can be brought on by or exacerbated by isolated confinement as practiced by the ADC, including memory impairment, osteoarthritis, hypertension, and hearing impairment, insomnia and type 2 diabetes mellitus. After detailing her visits at the prisons, Williams concludes:
For all of the reasons set forth in this report, it is my opinion that isolated confinement as practiced in ADC poses a substantial risk of serious harm, including increased morbidity and mortality, to prisoners of older age, with chronic medical conditions and/or physical disabilities.
Corrections officials have disputed the reports, which were made public earlier this month after the ACLU won a federal court hearing to have them unsealed. The Arizona Daily Star reports:
State prison officials declined to comment in detail on the case and the recent release of the ACLU reports because the matter remains in the courts. But a spokesman did provide a brief statement disputing the ACLU’s claims.
“While the plaintiffs have sought to try their case in the media, the ADC will present its evidence and arguments in Court, where it will offer its own expert opinions that paint an accurate and realistic picture of inmate health care and conditions of confinement,” ADC spokesman Doug Nick said.
• AP reporter Adam Geller published an investigation into why so many individuals with mental illness are held in solitary confinement in local jails across the country. He notes, “There has been little attention to the use of isolation in the country’s 3,300 local jails, increasingly the biggest mental health treatment centers in many communities.”
• The National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms held an event that explored the human rights abuses endured by terrorism suspects since 9/11, including the use of solitary confinement. Affected family members told their stories. A local community radio station covered the event.
• The Journal Star (Lincoln, NE) published an editorial criticizing the state’s “overuse” of solitary confinement and calling for reform.
• The BBC published an hour-long documentary about the efforts of the Maine State Prison to reduce the use of solitary confinement. (Video not available in the United States.)
• Florida’s Department of Corrections has fired 32 individuals accused of misconduct or illegal activity, including the officers recently sued for the death of incarcerated 27-year-old Randall Jordan-Aparo. He was serving an 18-month sentence when he was found dead in solitary confinement, allegedly as a result of being gassed multiple times with “noxious chemicals.”
• Mother Jones writer and solitary confinement survivor Shane Bauer published a critique of a recently released Atlantic article entitled “How Gangs Took Over Prisons.” Bauer is especially critical of the language used in the article to describe Pelican Bay’s Secure Housing Unit, which holds men in extended solitary confinement, sometimes for decades.
• George Lavender of In These Times published an interview with George Kendall Director of the Public Defender Initiative, who is representing Robert King and Albert Woodfox of the Angola 3 in their lawsuit against Louisiana prison officials. Woodfox has been in solitary confinement for over four decades; King spent 29 years in isolation before being released from prison in 2001.
• Matthew Hale, a 43-year-old self-proclaimed white supremacist incarcerated at the federal supermax in Florence, Colorado, has offered to drop his $19 million lawsuit against prison officials if he is permitted to play his violin in his cell. He was quoted as saying, “It’s really the kind of hubris, stupidity, and downright sadism that one should expect from the federal government… I suspect the defendants could not bear the thought of my actually enjoying myself by my being able to play my beloved violin in my prison cell.”
• Two Ohio law firms have filed suits alleging inhumane conditions at the Multi-County Juvenile Detention Center, on behalf of three individuals formerly incarcerated there. According to the lawsuit, young people at the jail were placed in solitary confinement for to up forty days, in cells with temperatures in the mid-50s.
In October 2012, five individuals were extradited from the United Kingdom to the United States to face terrorism charges. The transfer came after the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ruled that prison conditions at ADX Florence–where the suspects would likely be held if convicted–were not incompatible with Article 3 of the European Convention of Human Rights, which prohibits “inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment.” They did so based on assurances from the U.S. government, despite considerable evidence to the contrary.
All five men have ended up serving long pre-trial terms in solitary confinement in the United States. A series of additional extradition requests made by the US, perhaps most notably that of Gary McKinnon, prompted a national debate within the UK and triggered more recent parliamentary efforts to evaluate the existing US/UK extradition agreement. Last week, the House of Lords Select Committee on the Extradition Law received written evidence for the purposes of evaluating “whether [the Act] provides an effective and just extradition procedure.”
A group of experts who have studied the systemic due process injustices faced by terrorism suspects in the United States, including lawyers at the Center for Constitution Rights and members of the No Separate Justice campaign, prepared a submission, available here. Their evidence focuses extensively on the conditions of confinement endured by those charged with terrorism offenses, both before and after trial.
Their central findings with regards to conditions of confinement include the following:
• Link between detention in US supermax facilities and the military prison at Guantanamo Bay: “There is a continuum between US military prisons abroad and territorial US civilian prisons. Indeed, the ADX ‘supermax’ prison in Florence, Colorado, where extradited men convicted of terrorism-related crimes are often held, provided the blueprint for imprisonment at Guantanamo.”
• Conditions of confinement pre-trial: Prior to trial extradited terrorism suspects are often held on the Metropolitan Correctional Center’s (MCC) “highly restrictive” 10-South wing. Individuals on 10-South are held in almost complete isolation and are often subject to additional restrictions known as Special Administrative Measures (SAMs). “Given the harm that solitary confinement inflicts on mental health, defendants have a strong incentive to preserve their sanity by accepting a plea deal that will relax the conditions of their confinement, irrespective of the merits of the case.”
• Conditions of post-conviction imprisonment: Upon conviction, these individuals are often transferred to the federal supermax prison, Florence ADX. Human Rights Watch has noted that prisoners at ADX can be subjected to “years of confinement in conditions of extreme social isolation, reduced sensory stimulation, and rigorous security control.” Convicted terrorists at ADX are often held on “H-Unit” under additional restrictions, including SAMs.
• Concerns regarding the ECHR Decision in Babar Ahmad & Others v. the UK: The process by which the ECHR reached its decision in this case was flawed, namely, “the US Department of Justice provided misleading data on the length of time terrorism convicts are held in solitary confinement at ADX.” The US also submitted other misleading evidence, e.g. that there is significant communication between staff and prisoners at ADX, and that ADX prisoners are able to communicate with one another.
The deadline for submissions to the House of Lords Select Committee on the Extradition Law comes as a sixth British man, Haroon Aswat, awaits the final word on whether he will be sent to the United States to face terrorism charges. In April 2013, the European Court of Human Rights stayed his extradition under Article 3 of the Convention, finding “there is a real risk that the applicant’s extradition to a different county and to a different and potentially more hostile, prison environment would result in a significant deterioration in his mental and physical health.” Aswat has been diagnosed with schizophrenia.
The US Department of Justice subsequently provided assurances that Aswat would have access to mental health services if held at MCC, prompting the British High Court to rule earlier this month that his extradition may go forward. He will be transferred into US custody unless the British Supreme Court intervenes.
The authors of the submitted evidence note: “Haroon Aswat’s case points to the underlying weakness of assurances as a remedy for concerns about the treatment of terrorism suspects in US prisons. No mechanism is available for verifying the claims made in the assurances. Even accepting the validity of the assurances at face value, they offer inadequate remedies for the inhumane conditions within ADX and MCC. Unfortunately, the British and European courts have not fully recognised the severity of those conditions, the secrecy that surrounds them or the threats to mental health they present.”
• The American Civil Liberties Union released 26 reports alleging extensive abuses in Arizona’s prisons, including claims that individuals are being placed in solitary confinement because prison beds elsewhere are full. A federal class-action lawsuit against the state’s Department of Corrections is set to go to trial next month.
• The Bronx Defenders, a criminal defense nonprofit in New York City, released a report documenting the conditions their clients experienced in solitary confinement on Rikers Island. Nearly 60 individuals were interviewed for the report, entitled “Voices from the Box”, including one 18-year-old placed in isolation for over 1,000 days. (Reported on by The Village Voice, WNYC, others)
• Mayor Bill DeBlasio signed into law a bill that mandates New York City correctional authorities to publish quarterly data on the use of solitary confinement at Rikers Island. The bill also requires the city to release other information, including attempted suicides in isolation and the use of enhanced restraints. Meanwhile, Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte announced new reforms at Rikers, including in the use of solitary confinement.
• The mother of Bradley Ballard, who died in isolation on Rikers Island in September 2013, has filed a lawsuit against the city and correctional officials, as well as a contractor that provides medical services at the jail and several medical personnel. The one-year anniversary of Ballard’s death was marked by a Jails Action Coalition vigil in front of the Bronx District Attorney’s office.
• The recent death of another individual held in isolation on Rikers Island has been ruled accidental. Jerome Murdough, who struggled with mental illness, died this past February when temperatures in his cell rose to over 100 degrees.
• The family of a man who died while in solitary confinement in a San Diego County jail in March 2013 has filed a wrongful-death lawsuit in federal court. Bernard Victorianne, 28, swallowed a bag of drugs while he was being arrested for a DUI. Jail staff allegedly placed him in isolation, rather than the jail’s medication-observation unit, despite knowing he had consumed the drugs and “obvious signs of overdose.”
• Sarah Shourd, a contributing editor at Solitary Watch, published an article on Guernica entitled “Torture Chambers of the Mind.” She writes that the “majority of people subjected to prolonged isolation are not there for violent acts, but petty prison infractions like talking back to a guard, walking too slow or possessing contraband.”
• Jose Padilla, a US citizen once held as an “enemy combatant” at a South Carolina military prison, has been resentenced to 21 years on a 2007 terrorism conviction. A federal appeals court had previously ruled his original 17-year sentence too lenient, but prosecutors agreed not to seek more than 30 years if Padilla’s lawyers agreed not to utilize records documenting what he endured while in military custody. Padilla has claimed he was tortured for the three and a half years he was held in South Carolina, including through the use of sensory deprivation, “truth serums” and extreme isolation; in 2012 the Supreme Court declined to reinstate a lawsuit filed against US officials.
The following comes from Timothy Trujillo, 35, who has been incarcerated at California Correctional Institution (CCI) in Tehachapi close to 15 years, approximately four of which he has been held in the SHU (Security Housing Unit), or solitary confinement, on 23-hour-a-day-lockdown. According to his stepfather, Trujillo has spent his time in prison seeking “to expand his knowledge and his quest for spiritual enlightenment.” In his piece, a rap entitled “Dare to Think,” Trujillo writes that his mind “remains free.” He can be reached by writing: Timothy Trujillo, P32319, California Correctional Institution, 4B SHU-3A-201, P.O. Box 1906, Tehachapi, CA 93581. –Lisa Dawson
From the Mother Country’s womb
livin’ in bondage deep within this tomb
I refuse to be consumed so my body is doomed
but my mind remains free
that is one thing they’ll never take from me
because I see with clear eyes
I can recognize the landlords’ lies
see through their disguise
Why do so many accept poverty and neglect?
They infect our posterity, blinding their clarity
filling them with false hopes and dreams
turning our young into dope fiends and things
no longer human beings
The police siren screams
This system is falling apart at the seams
In the ghetto, another youth is slain in vain
People with heroin-filled veins
Methamphetamines fill the nostrils
Everyone is livin’ hostile
Mothers cry, children die, nobody’s askin’ why
Lookin’ to the sky for unanswered prayers
you begin to wonder-who really cares?
Millions of sisters and brothers, fathers and mothers
sittin’ in cages for ages
My mind constantly rages, saddened by history’s pages
So many people up in prisons it’s like a human aviary
pointin’ their finger, tryin’ to tell me,
sell me to a private prison
Are you listenin’, envisionin’ what I’m sayin’?
There is plenty but millions go hungry
Doesn’t it make you angry?
People homeless and unhealthy
allowing a few to grow wealthy
How far will this sideshow go?
The capital flows in the opposite direction,
too many starving and needlessly dyin’ in my section
And say goodbye to education in this nation
hello false indoctrination
Do we really know what we’re facin’
I’m in my cage pacin’
Ponderin’ the unending war spending
When will we begin the mending and befriending?
Let’s stop pretending like everything is okay
and if we turn a blind eye it will all just go away
There’s got to be another way
They play with our lives usin’ us as cannon fodder
Today someone lost a son or daughter
Global warming, it’s only getting hotter
They’re polluting all our air and water
Where are we headed?
Maybe a nuclear war or disaster
caused by the power-hungry master
What comes after? Does it really matter?
By now it’s surprising we all don’t have cancer
If something isn’t done now-what will be the cost?
It appears humanity is lost
Will it all end in a global holocaust?
I have so many questions
but my pen is out of ink
Why am I in prison you ask?
Because I dared to think. . .
UPDATE (September 18, 2014): Solitary Watch received the following statement via email from North Carolina Department of Public Safety spokesperson Keith Acree:
The evolving lockdown situation at Scotland Correctional Institution has affected about 600 inmates in close custody regular population housing. The medium custody (~540) and minimum custody (~240) populations have not been affected nor have those on control status (~230). The entire prison population today is 1,663.
We implement lockdowns when needed to ensure the safety of inmates and staff and to prevent injuries. The December lockdown was prompted by a series of fights between large groups of inmates at Scotland that resulted in injuries to inmates and staff. Since the beginning of 2014, the institution has recorded 61 actual or attempted assaults on staff and 20 actual or attempted inmate on inmate assaults.
At this point, the lockdown for close custody regular population (RPOP) has stepped down to a point that we call “managed observation”. Close custody RPOP inmates are now allowed about 4 hours of out-of-cell time daily (compared to about 8 hours before the Dec. 28 fights that began the lockdown).
Visiting, outdoor recreation, telephone use and canteen privileges have resumed. Vocational and educational programs are in session and the prison’s two Correction Enterprises plants (a sewing plant and the Braille plant) are operating normally. Inmates continue to receive hot meals brought to their cells. All activities are occurring in small groups. Religious services have not yet resumed. A new chaplain began work this week.
Since the lockdown began Dec. 28, restrictions have been lifted in 11 progressive steps, based on inmate behavior and cooperation, to reach the point where we are today.
Katy Poole has been serving as acting administrator at Scotland CI since Aug. 1 when Sorrell Saunders retired.
Across the United States, even prisoners who have not been placed in solitary confinement or any form of “segregation” can be subjected to a “lockdown” in which they may be held in solitary-like conditions, confined to their cells nearly round-the-clock. Brief lockdowns are a common occurrence, and lockdowns lasting months or more are not unusual. Individuals subjected to lockdown are generally denied even the pro-forma review processes afforded to most others placed in solitary confinement.
In the “Close Custody” unit–a single celled, high-security unit–at North Carolina’s Scotland Correctional Institution, nearly 600 men have been on indefinite lockdown since December 28, 2013.
Individuals subjected to the lockdown have been confined to their cells for 22 to 23 hours a day for eight months and counting.
When asked by Solitary Watch about the status of Scotland, North Carolina Department of Public Safety (NC DPS) spokesperson Keith Acree stated that he was unaware that the prison was on lockdown.
In January of this year, the Laurinburg Exchange reported on the lockdown:
According to Keith Acree, spokesperson for the state department, the institution’s “closed custody” population, which numbers about 800, has been confined to cells since a “series of fights between inmates and minor assaults on staff members” occurred shortly after Christmas.
Acree said injuries to staff members were “nothing serious,” but that several were “hit or bumped. . .”
A lockdown means prisoners cannot have visitors, make calls, or leave their cells for meals. They cannot visit the canteen, Acree said, but orders from the canteen can be delivered to their cells.
Acree said he could not remember when the last time the institution was on lockdown, but he was not aware of the current lockdown until he received an inquiry from The Laurinburg Exchange. In 2011, the prison was one of six in the state placed on lockdown after a surge of gang violence.
About a dozen people from Scotland’s Close Custody population have written to Solitary Watch describing conditions at the prison. Some people wrote to describe the conditions at the prison in general, while others detailed particular incidents.
One man recalls the day the Scotland Correctional Institute was put on lockdown:
On December 28, 2013, two individual fights took place at about 5:35 PM. No one was stabbed or cut, and no staff was hurt. Prison officials labeled the incident a gang fight and shut down the whole facility. For almost a month we were not allowed out of our cells or allowed to take showers. When they did allow us to take showers, we had to do so in cuffs once a week.
Another man wrote to describe the general conditions at the prison since the lockdown has been put in effect:
We don’t get but two hours out of our cells a day. In that two hours, 24 people have to use the phone, take showers and get anything done that requires any assistance by the staff because once you’re in your cell, it’s like your forgotten. Then you spend 22 hours in this room. . . The things that go on here are uncalled for. This is supposed to be a place of rehabilitation but it does no one any good the way the staff at SCI mistreats people and writes you up for actions you didn’t commit. It just sends everyone’s minds or actions and feelings back to square one.
The following comes from a man describes the restrictions at the prison as counterproductive to the point where he’s “about to lose [his] mind”:
This prison has been on 22-hour-a-day lockdown for months. . . When I got here, I wanted a chance to earn my GED, but his prison is not helping me to better myself in any way. I have not been able to eat hot meals or go outside for fresh air ever in months. The treatment here is cruel and unusual and I’m about to lose my mind behind these doors.
Another member of the Close Custody population elaborates on the the varying levels of restrictions seen since the lockdown began:
While on lockdown, we’ve been through different stages. Stage one, we were on lockdown for 24 a day hours without being allowed to shower. It was like this for a month. Then the officers started taking us to the shower one day out of the week with handcuffs on so tight that it made it difficult for us to wash. Stage two, they let 12 of us out of our cells to rec in the dayroom for one hour. Next, they let 24 of us out for two hours. We haven’t had any outside rec since December 28, 2013, and our skin and health is showing that.
Another man writes to convey the intrusiveness of his confinement, portraying how little privacy he was given, even while showering:
The first month there was no recreation. Everyone was confined to their cells for 24 hours a day. There were no showers. When they started allowing showers, you had to go in full restraints with two officers standing at the shower watching with sticks out. . .
No visitors have been allowed for the past three months, nor are we provided with any religious services. . .
Since we have been on lockdown, we have been having trouble with the officers doing their jobs. If we ask them for writing paper, envelopes or request forms, they will not bring it, especially if we’re housed on the upper tier. One inmate asked an officer for some toilet paper. She said, “I’m not walking upstairs to give you any toilet paper. You better use a shirt,” and left the block.
He also describes an instance when another prisoner had fallen in his cell and his pleas for help were ignored by staff:
The major problem we have is that officers do not respond when we hit out call buttons. . . Nobody ever comes to see what we want until we start kicking on the cell doors. There were several incidents where an inmate was feeling dizzy and pushing his cell button every couple of minutes. Nobody came. He passed out and we had to kick on the doors for about 20 minutes before anyone came.
Another member from the Close Custody population describes a similar incident:
An inmate’s back gave out on him and he fell to the floor. He started banging on the door with his brush for 15 minutes but no one came to check on him. So we started kicking on the doors, and kicked for almost an hour before an officer came. She looked in his cell and started laughing at him. She left and came back with another officer. She looked in at him again and laughed. They both left and came back with a sergeant, who looked at the inmate and said, “Why don’t you just do us all a favor and die.” Then the sergeant called nurse and they came and took him to Medical – after he’d laid on the floor for about an hour and 10 minutes. . .
We’ve been asking why they are punishing 600 inmates for something four people were involved in. Those inmates were put in segregation, found guilty of their charges and punished for them. But so are we.
One man discusses a health condition with which he’s been diagnosed, yet is not being treated for:
Recently I was diagnosed with high blood pressure. For the last two and half weeks, my blood pressure hasn’t been checked and I haven’t received my medication to treat it.
Another man writes of problems he has had sending and receiving mail:
Due to the lockdown, I wrote a grievance to the North Carolina Department of Public Safety and mailed it to them on 2/20/14, so I thought. . . But it was opened, taken out of the stamped envelope and signed by the unit manager and the screening officer and returned to me almost a month later. Before my grievance was returned, my mail started coming in late after mail had already been passed out and sometimes not until the next morning. Then I would either not receive mail or it would come looking like it’d been deliberately cut up. . .
He closes his letter:
I have not seen my family since my trial ended and I would love to see them. . . No religious services, no visits, no type of outside activity, no books from the library, no school – all this, for no reason. . . I, along with other inmates, are being punished for no reason at all. I have not caused any trouble and do not deserve this cruel and unusual punishment, which is a violation of my Eighth Amendment rights.
Another prisoner describes the disturbing situation, emphasizing that the deprivations faced by these men are unwarranted:
To think violence or disrespect is right? That is exactly what they’re doing to us: Disrespecting us and violating us as human beings. We don’t get to stretch our muscles, we don’t get any sunlight. . . We are treated like M-con status inmates, and we haven’t done anything to deserve it. . . They tell our families that they are understaffed, but that isn’t our problem. We are imprisoned inside a prison. . . We have been on lockdown since December 28, 2013, and enough is enough.
Since these letters were written to Solitary Watch, Scotland Correctional Institution has modified the conditions of confinement in Close Custody. According to people held at the prison, the men are now allowed out of their cells twice a day for approximately for two hours and allowed outside for recreation for one hour twice a week. However, they have not resumed hot meals or any religious services for people held in the unit.
• The American Civil Liberties Union has submitted letters to the Michigan Department of Corrections alleging widespread human rights violations at the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility in Washtenaw; the organization claims that the prison is holding women with mental illness in solitary confinement, amongst other abuses. One professor who has interviewed those on the inside commented, “A lot of these women, they throw them in segregation for months on end are mentally ill … and then they deteriorate. It’s horrible to see them deteriorate.”
• A 17-year-old sentenced to life in prison in the killing of a Korean War veteran, has also been ordered to spend each anniversary of the murder in solitary confinement. Jordan Legg, who won’t be eligible for parole for at least 20 years, will now spend every 30 March in isolation.
• Albert Woodfox, the last remaining incarcerated member of the Angola 3, appeared in federal appeals court requesting legal permission to sue Louisiana prison officials for depriving him of “basic human needs” and violating his constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment. Woodfox has been held in solitary confinement nearly without break for the past forty years, the longest of any prisoner held in the United States.
• The Director of the ACLU’s National Prison Project condemned Nebraska’s Department of Corrections for its “extraordinarily high” use of solitary confinement. According to questionnaires recently sent out by a legislative investigative committee, about 18.6% of the state’s inmates had been in some level of restrictive housing during the queried six-week period.
• A 27-year-old Wisconsin man has been found not guilty by reason of insanity in the killing of three family members and committed to permanent hospitalization with no chance for appeal. According to Rashard Riddick’s defense attorney, the time he spent in prison as a young man contributed to his decline. “The consequences of nearly four years of solitary confinement was to transform Mr. Riddick from a troubled teenager into an extremely dangerous man…With no program for treating mentally ill inmates or aftercare for people held for long periods in isolation, Mr. Riddick was released into society (without rehabilitation) and with no support services. This cycle happens every day in our society, and the violent tragedies that ensue should surprise no one.”
“While waiting for an officer to handcuff and escort me back to the cell that awaited me after showering, I sat on the floor holding a razor used for shaving,” W writes to me. “Today was the day I decided to end my life.”
I do not know W. I have never met him. I have no idea whether he is black or white, tall or short, old or young. I don’t know what he’s done that’s landed him in prison, or why the prison system has seen fit to place him in solitary confinement.
Every week I receive 50 or so letters from people like W. He is one of 80,000 men, women, and children who live in states of extreme isolation in U.S. prisons and jails. They spend their days and nights in cells that measure, on average, 6 by 9 feet. They live sealed off from the world, sometimes without a window, usually behind a solid metal door with a slot where a guard can slip in a food tray. If they are lucky they are let out a couple of times a week to shower, or to exercise for an hour in a fenced or walled pen resembling a dog kennel.
There is no education in these solitary confinement cells. No work. The people who are held there may or may not be allowed reading materials, or a set of headphones to plug into a wall jack with a few radio stations. They are rarely permitted to make phone calls, or have visitors. Some are allowed to have family photographs, but usually only a limited number—so if a new one comes in, they have to decide which one to give up. Most are forbidden to hang the photographs on their walls.
If they are ever taken out of their cells, they are flanked by guards, wrists and ankles cuffed and shackled to a black box at their waists. They may have trouble walking, not only because of the shackles but because it’s been quite some time since they were able to take more than a few steps in any one direction. They will probably have trouble seeing, as well, since they’ve had no use for their long-distance vision.
They are escorted down the tier amidst a din of screaming prisoners—some with underlying mental illness, others driven mad by “the box”—who cut themselves, pelt their own cell walls and the corridor with piss and shit and blood. At night the screaming continues, sometimes turning into the sounds of a barking dog, dying down to where you can only hear the sobbing, the voices begging for their mothers, for the sight of a child last seen ten years ago—and frequently, begging to die.
This is what they tell me in their letters—the letters that at first trickled in every once in a while, when I first began writing about solitary confinement, and now come by the dozens. People in solitary sometimes manage to communicate by shouting, by tapping on pipes, and by “fishing”—passing things along lines constructed from sheet threads and skimmed across the corridor floor, from the crack under one cell door to another. Some, it appears, have shared my address, and the fact that I am interested in knowing what life in solitary confinement is like.
I am a journalist. I’ve been taught to report what I see and hear and know, and nothing else. These letters should be nothing more to me than documentary material—and perhaps not even that, since the conventional wisdom is that prisoners’ accounts can’t be trusted. No need, really, to write back, even though that’s what my correspondents are clearly hoping for.
“Mail is manna from heaven,” R writes me. “When I hear the squeak, squeal and rumble of the mail-cart being pushed down the gallery, I start saying to myself, “You’re not getting any mail, so don’t even expect it. Nobody knows you anymore. No one wrote, so stop it!” Then, as the cart squeaks and squeals and rumbles a bit louder as it gets closer, I’ll jump off the cot and start pacing. Then I’ll squat in front of one of my spiders (the SHU Prisoner’s Loyal Pet) and I’ll start talking to it (you talk to your pets, too, don’t you?!) I’ll say, “Come on! Hope with me that we get a piece of mail. Come on! If you hope with me then we’re guaranteed a letter,” and I’ll do a little fist pump…”
So I write back with a few bits of news, a few lines of encouragement. I write half a page to B, who has been in solitary for more than 25 years. He writes back 20 pages, telling me the story of a mouse he had begun feeding in his cell. The mouse’s back legs were injured, so he’d built it a little chariot out of Styrofoam and bits of cloth. The mouse had learned to get around with on his makeshift wheels when a corrections officer discovered it and stabbed it to death with a pen. “I had three dogs that I loved when I was growing up, and I loved Mouse every bit as much as I had loved them,” B writes. “For the months he had been with me he had been good company in a place that can be a lonely world, and I would miss him dearly.”
B wants nothing more than to share his thoughts, to know that there is another human being, somewhere in the world, who is interested enough to read them. Others want things. G wants me to look up a long-ago high school girlfriend. He hasn’t heard from her in 25 years and doesn’t know where she lives. He wants her address so he can write to her. I know I can’t send it to him, so I don’t even look.
D manages to write to me in spite of that fact that, like about a third of the people in solitary, he suffers from severe mental illness. After a while he asks for a sex magazine, even though receiving one could get him in deep trouble. When I refuse, he asks for—and I send—some Spiderman comic books. Next he asks for a Bible. He seems to sound less suicidal than usual, so I quickly send that as well. D writes me that it never arrived, so I track the package on Amazon, which says the Bible was delivered to the prison. Apparently someone stole it. Then D asks if I can put his name on my website so “I can have penpals…and maybe find that special someone.”
J writes on behalf of another person he met in prison: “During my stay at the mental health unit, I came to know a man named G. Mr. G was clearly not a quick thinker and had mental health issues. On one occasion an emotionally unstable corrections officer opened G’s cell and slapped him across the face because he had taken too long in giving the officer back a food tray after a meal. In another example, involving these two, I witnessed the corrections officer direct a nurse not to give G his mental health medication because G could not decide in a timely manner if he wanted to take the medicine or not…These two incidents happened in a mental health area reserved for suicidal prisoners.”
I know that thousands of people in solitary are like G—too ill, or not literate enough, to write at all. They are completely cut off, trapped in their own minds as well as in their cells. But I have a hard enough time dealing with the people who write to me, and try hard not to think about the people who are not writing.
Y reports: “I’ve witnessed officers…encourage a mentally ill prisoner who had smeared feces all over his control cell window, to lick it off, and they would give him some milk. And this prisoner licked most of the fecal matter off of the window, and was ‘rewarded’ by the officer who threw an old milk to the prisoner through a lower trap door to the cell.”
Along with the tirades about certain guards there are copies of painfully hand-printed legal documents, full of “whereas” and citations of this or that federal court case, written in the hope that some judge will read it and get the author out of solitary. But the judges, with few exceptions, have ruled that solitary confinement is not cruel and unusual punishment. Not even for the man who drilled a hole in his head to try and stop the pain.
There are so many letters now that I cannot possibly reply to most of them, even with a couple of volunteers to help. So I buy packages of cards, and gather up all the ones sent to me for free by wildlife groups as thank-you gifts for donations. I start sending people in solitary pictures of polar bears and endangered gray wolves, with just a few handwritten words: “Thanks for your letter. Stay strong.” They write back with a level of gratitude totally disproportionate to my lame missives.
A man writes me about the sound of rain in a drainpipe. It is his weather report. Another writes about the parade of cockroaches down the corridor at night, which he watches through the slot in his door, desperate for any sign of another living thing. Still another writes to thank me for the smell of perfume that he detected on an envelope containing a card. The smell lingers in his cell, he says, and fills him with dreams of the outside world.
Some people manage to pick up information about what is going on in that outside world. They write to ask for more news about the hearing on solitary confinement held in Congress, about whether things are changing. I can’t bear to tell them that it may be years or decades before anything changes for them—though some already know it. “I heard the head of the Bureau of Prisons in Congress (on radio) saying they do not have insane inmates housed here,” writes J, who has spent a decade in the federal supermax prison. “I have not slept in weeks due to these non-existing inmates beating on the walls and hollering all night. And the most ‘non-insane’ smearing feces in their cells.”
Some of these people have done very bad things in their lives. Others not so much. People get sent to solitary in the United States for a panoply of absurd reasons—having too many postage stamps, smoking a cigarette, refusing to cut their hair. But after reading these letters, I can’t accept that even the worst of them deserve to live this way.
J, who is in solitary for trying to escape, remains defiant. “I refuse to embrace the solitude. This is not normal. I’m not a monster and do not deserve to live in a concrete box. I am a man who has made mistakes, true. But I do not deserve to spend the rest of my life locked in a cage–what purpose does that serve? Why even waste the money to feed me? If I’m a monster who must live alone in a cage why not just kill me?”
I know that some people, in fact, do prefer to die rather than live this way. In barren cells, they become ingenious at finding ways to kill themselves. They jump head-first off of their bunks.
They bite through the veins in their arms. About five percent of all American prisoners are in solitary confinement, but half the prison suicides take place there.
The rest find ways to keep going. What keeps D alive is his mother. For B, it’s his writing. For J, it’s the small window in his cell. “Every now and then a pair of owls roosts on the security lights,” he writes. “This spring they had two babies. We watched them grow up and fly away. On any given day the sky here is breathtaking. The beauty out my window stays in my mind. I look around this cage at plain concrete walls and steel bars and a steel door, a steel toilet and I endure its harshness because I am able to keep beauty in my mind.”
Sometimes, now, I spend entire days reading letters from these people, these criminals, these models of human fortitude. I can’t do much of anything for them, except keep on reading.
A second letter comes from W. “I want to apologize to you for my previous letter,” he writes. It must have been very uncomfortable for you to read that letter. It was extremely wrong for me to express such a personal issue to people I don’t know. But my lack of interacting with people on the outside sometimes causes me to come out and express things that I probably shouldn’t. So I hope you can somehow empathize with my situation and forgive me for the context of my previous letter.”
W is alive.
This post is the next in a series of pieces Solitary Watch is publishing as part of a project calling for people held in solitary confinement to write on various proposed themes. Our first suggested theme, “A Day in the Life,” calls for writers to describe a day in his or her life in solitary confinement (read previous entries here).
The following piece, entitled “The ‘Hole’ Truth,” comes from Nathan Brewer, 29, who has spent six of the last eight years incarcerated in the Indiana prison system, during which time he was sentenced to solitary confinement multiple times for nonviolent offenses. In his piece, Brewer, who has been diagnosed with both anxiety and dysthymic disorders, describes the way in which he was treated while held in administrative segregation at Hamilton County Jail in Noblesville, Indiana.
He writes, “The conditions and treatment to which I was subjected were gravely oppressive and unethical on every front.” Released from Westville Correctional Facility in March of this year, Brewer continues to suffer from severe anxiety, which he states was only exacerbated by his time in isolation. He writes from his sober living home, Celebrate Freedom, in Indianapolis. He can be reached by writing: Nathan Brewer, P.O. Box 88033, Indianapolis, IN 46208. –Lisa Dawson
Involuntary Protective Custody in County Jail
I have spent six out of my last eight years incarcerated. Two of these years were served at Hamilton County Jail (HCJ). Throughout this period, I was sentenced to solitary confinement, a.k.a. “the hole,” a total of three times. Two of these sentences were for nonviolent, petty offenses, which included note passing and allegedly possessing tobacco. One of these stints, however, landed me in protective custody (PC) for 15 days (which coincided with both Christmas and New Year’s), the cause of which was another detainee using my telephone voice password to prank the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) hotline. Although I was sentenced to the hole for a prank which I had nothing to do with, jail staff refused my requests to listen to a recording of the alleged phone call that I made, ultimately preventing me from defending myself.
In this essay, I write to inform readers about what it is like to be in indefinite solitary confinement, which in this particular case was involuntary protective custody (PC, which in my instance could also stand for “Punitive Confinement,” considering I was punished for being the victim of a prank).
Each morning, I was rattled from my sleep by a jarring, intrusive squawk over the intercom box in my cell. This untimely disruption, which naturally came at a time when I was in my deepest stage of sleep, was the voice of a corrections officer (CO) announcing my hour out: “BREWER! DO YOU WANT YOUR HOUR OUT?!” This rude awakening required a prompt “yes” response, as no response qualifies as “no” by default, and this opportunity for a short time out of my solitary hovel would be missed until the next rude awakening 24 hours later.
Despite being roused from my sleep, I never once turned down my time out, regardless of how tired I was, withstanding the fact sleep is the only escape in jail and is invaluable. I recall being so psyched to get out of my cell that first day in PC, but soon discovered that I would not be getting a full hour out during my “hour out.” No, the staff at HCJ had devised a way to shortchange those held in solitary of this basic right. Each day, I was permitted 30 minutes out in the day room, during which I was expected to shower, clean my cell, order commissary, make one phone call and, when possible, interact with anyone else also on their hour out (oftentimes nobody).
After just 30 minutes, guards would order us to return to our cells: “LOCDKDOOOOWN! LOCKDOWN!” This was unless of course you opted to go to the “recreation room,” which was a small, freezing cold, trapezoidal-shaped room, with nothing in it but a chessboard with no pieces. The room reeked of the distinct smell of a grain bin (to this day, I haven’t figured this out) and the floor was grossly covered in toenail clippings.
With that said, it was no small wonder that most chose to decline this optional 30-minute time offered for “recreation.” On most every occasion, I chose to return to my cell, which only underscores how successful the guards were in their strategically designed plan to restrict people’s full hour out to just half that time, and we played right into their hands. This is precisely what the staff wanted, and the sham “rec time” offered is how they managed to give us just 30 minutes out of our cells, as opposed to the required 60 minutes – and they were justified in doing so, since they did indeed offer “rec time.”
“Non-Punitive” Protective Custody?
While held in PC, I was not permitted to attend any of the programs which I had been frequenting for nearly the past two years, including Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Overcomers, a group which provides Christ-centered substance abuse counseling. I have picked my brain for legitimate reasons why jail staff would not permit me to attend these programs, which serve no other purpose than to rehabilitate me. I was also denied access to the facility’s law library, an insurmountable hindrance to someone defending himself pro se, preventing me from effectively corresponding with the courts in accordance with their formal trial rules and procedures, indelibly having a negative impact on my case.
But what fired my indignation most of all was staff’s refusal to allow me to attend my weekly worship services, which they knew full well was my custom. And because my time in PC happened to coincide with Christmas and New Year’s, I missed the holiday worship service, which I had been anticipating all year. In fact, my absence at these worship services did not go unnoticed, as clergymen and volunteers who facilitated these programs visited me multiple times while in solitary. It was clearly not these people who had lobbied against my attending their programs. It was unquestionably jail officials who had denied me these basic privileges and rights.
With one blanket, a mat, no pillow and an incessant draft, I was always cold in my cell. Meal trays, served three times daily, provided no relief, as the upper tier was always served last, meaning my one hot meal was cold by the time it reached me in a Styrofoam tray, which had the capacity to hold only the scantest of portions. The other two meals were served cold to begin with. Also aggravating was the florescent security light, which was on 24/7. Even closing my eyes allowed no relief, as its electronic hum was a inescapable reminder of the artificial environment and oppressive conditions to which I was subjected during each of my stays in solitary confinement.
When I was unable to distract myself, however, I spent my time in my cell in a constant state of anxiety and depression, with overwhelming feelings of hopelessness and despair. Many times, I would lie prostrate on the frozen floor of my cell, praying fervently, pleading with God, imploring him, to free me from my agony. I demanded vindication! No one deserves the treacherous plight to which I had been assigned. Never had I witnessed such callousness and ignorance (feigned or real, I’ll never know) as that which I saw in the guards and jail staff as a whole. My frustration mounted to the point where all I could do is just sob and continue to pray. I was being tested to my limits.
As a diversion from my cold surroundings, I would write letters, draw (with an anti-shank, short flimsy pen, as pencils were contraband), read my Bible (the only book permitted), meditate, or, if I was lucky enough, go back to sleep. Somehow I was able preserve enough peace in my heart and soundness in my mind to endure the darkest and most daunting chapter of my incarceration.
Punitive Isolation vs. Rehabilitative Incarceration: Night and Day
My time in isolation was nothing more than a roadblock to my rehabilitation that served only to magnify my depression and anxiety disorders, which directly resulted in my Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which I was diagnosed with following my release. These lingering psychological effects are primarily attributable to my stints in the hole, including the time I spent in involuntary PC for something over which I had no control; this in turn discouraged my faith in the system, my faith in humanity, and ultimately my faith in God, which is imperative for me – someone genuinely trying to come out rehabilitated and able to live a pro-social life.
Following my incarceration at HCJ, I was sentenced to the Indiana Department of Corrections (IDOC) and transferred to Westville Correctional Facility, where I was placed in the facility’s Therapeutic Community (TC), a program which unfortunately accepts only a limited number of people. Here, in a social environment conducive to rehabilitation, as opposed to punitive isolation, I thrived. In TC, I reached the “Top of the House,” a position in which I served as Dorm Elder, or overseer of all program departments. I also held the position as Orientation Facilitator, the most respected and challenging position in all of TC, which involved instructing new peers entering TC on the fundamentals of the program.
Based on these two very different experiences (HCJ PC and Westville TC), it is clear that the oppressive and overused practice of solitary confinement in all of its forms is not only unethical, but also counterproductive and downright destructive to any person’s hope for a successful recovery from a criminal lifestyle, substance use disorder, or any efforts at positive, lasting behavioral change. And nowhere in the equation to rehabilitate offenders and to reduce recidivism do I see a place for the practice of solitary confinement.
The following roundup features noteworthy news, reports and opinions on solitary confinement from the past week that have not been covered in other Solitary Watch posts.
• A federal judge approved the state of California’s plan to reduce the solitary confinement of prisoners suffering from mental illness. According to a recent story in The New York Times, about 740 prisoners will be relocated to “less restrictive settings” under the policy revisions. The story notes that the new policies “also provide for improvements in mental health treatment and suicide prevention.”
• The National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT) issues a release responding to New York City’s new legislation increasing oversight of the use of solitary confinement at Rikers Island. The release quotes Rev. Laura Markle Downton, Director of U.S. prisons policy and program at NRCAT: “Though not an end in itself, we celebrate Mayor de Blasio’s signing of the legislation requiring quarterly data reporting on who is in solitary at Rikers Island and under what conditions, because we recognize it as an important step in the process of ushering in humane alternatives.”
• New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio enacted legislation that will create greater transparency around the use of solitary confinement at Rikers Island and other city jails. According to a recent piece by The New York Times, the law will require the Department of Correction to publish four annual reports detailing the number of individuals held in isolation, the length of time each person is held in isolation, and whether they sustained any injuries or were assaulted during their time in solitary. Despite these measures, the story also states that the law “does not include any provisions that would directly curtail guard brutality. . . or the use of isolation as a punishment.”
• The Treatment Advocacy Center posts a blog entry, “Long Waits for Psych Beds Keeps Many Languishing Behind Bars,” in which it shares the story of Kyle, 24, who was held in solitary confinement for close to six months at the San Diego Central Jail while awaiting treatment for severe mental illness.
• In a blog entry entitled “Criminalization of Mental Illness: It’s a Crime,” the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) briefly touches on the dangers of placing people with psychiatric symptoms in isolation, which the writer likens to “pouring gasoline on a fire.” In its post, NAMI links to its new fact sheet on solitary confinement, as well as to Solitary Watch’s recent story highlighting several videos showing inhumane treatment of prisoners with mental illness by guards.
• The Drug War Chronicle outlines the various ways in which the Record Expungement Designed to Enhance Employment (REDEEM) Act, introduced earlier this summer by Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Rand Paul (R-KY), aims to fix the criminal justice system. According to the story, one initiative of the REDEEM act is to restrict the use of solitary confinement on kids, “except in the most extreme circumstances in which it is necessary to protect a juvenile detainee or those around them.”
• The Juvenile Justice Information Exchange publishes an op-ed presenting various international perspectives on the solitary confinement of youth. The piece underscores the severe emotional and psychiatric harm inflicted on kids subjected to the practice, stating, “Social isolation worsens the trauma and mental health issues already prevalent [in] this vulnerable population. It also leads to further withdrawal with negative consequences for reintegration.”
On July 17, 2012, Brandon Palakovic, 23, committed suicide by hanging himself in his cell while housed in a solitary confinement unit at State Correctional Institution (SCI) Cresson, a Pennsylvania prison that has since closed its doors.
Nearly two years later, on July 8, 2014, Palakovic’s parents filed a lawsuit against the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (PADOC). Represented by Bret Grote in association with the Abolitionist Law Center, Mike Healey, and Jules Lobel, Renee and Darian Palakovic seek damages for the alleged role the PADOC had in exacerbating Brandon’s mental health problems and in his passing.
The PADOC and those involved with the management of SCI Cresson stand accused of intentionally withholding necessary health treatment from mentally ill prisoners such as Brandon Palakovic, and repeatedly isolating them in solitary confinement—a practice deemed unconstitutional by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). The defendants declined to comment on the allegations when contacted by Solitary Watch.
The suit alleges that during his thirteen months at Cresson, Palakovic was subjected to the wanton infliction of physical and psychological pain. The complaint argues that prison administration and staff neglected his requests for counseling, his history of self-harm, and his mental health needs, and continued to place him in Restricted Housing Units (RHUs) time and again.
While at Cresson, Brandon Palakovic was prescribed Celexa, an anti-depressant that has documented side effects including suicidal thoughts and impulses. Palakovic had a long, troubled history with medication since childhood, trying to manage his ADHD and Oppositional Defiant Disorder, and Celexa only made him more anxious. He reportedly told his mother that “it [Celexa] made him have crazy thoughts and he hated the way he felt when he was on it. But, they told him he was easier to deal with when he was on it, so he took it.”
Brandon Palakovic was not the first prisoner to commit suicide at SCI Cresson. In December 2011, the federal Justice Department began an 18-month investigation of SCI Cresson and found “Cresson’s use of long-term and extreme forms of solitary confinement on prisoners with serious mental illness… violates their rights under the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).” After the discovery of such conditions at SCI Cresson, the DOJ expanded its investigation to include all 28 prisons managed by the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections.
In an email interview with Solitary Watch, Renee Palakovic said they “were interested in filing some type of lawsuit almost immediately after Brandon took his life,” but had trouble finding an attorney to represent them. Three attorneys turned them away citing the difficulty, and perhaps futility, of taking on such a “huge, governmental system.” The Palakovics had all but given up when Bret Grote approached them about building a case. Grote had previously dealt with the family as an activist with the Human Rights Coalition, but was now a lawyer and founder of the Abolitionist Law Center.
In a statement made to Solitary Watch, Grote shared his thoughts on the case and how it fits into the modern, American philosophy of punishment:
Brandon Palakovic was a casualty of what Dr. Craig Haney has aptly called the war on prisoners. For more than thirty years prison practices in the United States have systematically sought to deprive prisoners of agency and power, creating warehouse prisons characterized by forced idleness, overcrowding, unemployment, the absence of educational and vocational programs, barriers to maintaining familial and community relationships, inadequate to non-existent medical and mental health care, and routine imposition of solitary confinement. These conditions are designed to inflict pain, and serve no constructive social purpose. … he [Brandon] was treated with ritual, institutionalized dehumanization until he could no longer tolerate it.
Grote and the Palakovics hope that, bolstered by the DOJ’s report, they may achieve some posthumous justice for Brandon Palakovic, and help protect others like him who have the misfortune to be young, psychologically disabled, and at the mercy of the prison system.
The author of the following piece, K. Kabasha Griffin-El, is currently part of the general population at Pennsylvania’s SCI Greene. In this reflection, Griffin-El describes visiting his brother, Jerome Griffin, whom he hadn’t seen for more than two decades. Griffin-El has been incarcerated for 19 years and experienced solitary confinement firsthand, but nothing prepared him to witness the effect solitary had on his younger brother. He describes the experience as “one of the most difficult emotional bombardments of my life.” Jerome Griffin, 41, has been held in solitary confinement for 22 years following an assault on a corrections officer. Over that time he has developed a number of mental health problems that have only recently been acknowledged by the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (PADOC).
Earlier this year, the Justice Department released the findings of its investigation into the PADOC’s use of solitary confinement on those exhibiting serious mental illness. Within this document, two case studies are used to exemplify the shortcomings of the PADOC when dealing with mentally ill prisoners, the second of which, involving “Prisoner BB,” is believed to summarize Jerome Griffin’s experience with solitary. Griffin has since been transferred to SCI Pittsburgh where he is confined to a Secure Residential Treatment Unit (SRTU). –Maclyn Willigan
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I imagine that it must be difficult for those that haven’t actually experienced it, to understand the ills of solitary confinement. I’ve endured it, so I know that it’s a cold, cruel, inhumane, and torturous methodology that must be abolished. It directly assaults the very being of men and women, often creating mental illness in those victimized by the callous—if not sadistic—practice. It had that horrible effect upon my younger brother, Jerome Griffin. The outrageous experience of witnessing what has become of my brother as a direct result of solitary confinement, compels me to use my words to expose the terrible consequences of that dehumanizing practice, as it’s used deep within the dark, hopeless hideaways of Pennsylvania’s Department of Corrections.
It took several months of diplomacy—making my request to visit with my brother known to a psychologist, counselors, lieutenants, captains, a major, and deputy superintendent. I found myself super excited, anxious, and even a bit worried once authorization was granted. I didn’t know what to expect next. I wondered how my brother would respond to me, if he would be angry for my absence from his life. I just wanted things to go well, so I did my best to prepare for the big day. Soon it was painfully apparent that there was no way to prepare for our time together. No more so than a person could prepare to drown. Once I entered that room, I was in too deep. I choked, and gasped on every sight, on every scent, and nearly every word beyond his initial, “hi brother . . . hi brother.”
You see, on the morning of March 20, 2014, at approximately 9am, I experienced . . . endured . . . and survived one of the most difficult emotional bombardments of my life. Until that time, I hadn’t seen my younger brother Jerome, for approximately twenty-three years. At this point, I’m three months shy of the nineteenth year of my own imprisonment. So although “warned” by prison personnel that it might be a very difficult experience—seeing my brother in his present state of mind—I thoughts that there was nothing that would be too much for me to handle, but it was . . . too much for me to handle.
As I entered the room, smiling on the opposite side, a frail, hairy man stood wearing a bright orange jump suit with a thick, brown leather belt wrapping his waist. A large metal loop attached to the front was somehow connected to the handcuffs that securely clutched his writs, locking his hands in front of him, right at his lower stomach. A customized cage separated us, splitting the room horizontally, evenly cutting across a table of sorts that sat off to the left side of the room. A single dirty beige plastic chair sat on each side of the dimly lit . . . depressing hole in the wall. There was a small cutout in the cage (likely used by Attorneys to pass legal documents through during legal visits).
“Hi brother! Hi brother!” Those were his first words to me—the first time that I had heard his voice in at least twenty-three years. Immediately, I knew something was wrong . . . his words, although beautiful, sounded as if they were flowing from the lips of a young child. But this was a “grown man,” speaking through extremely dry, flaky, painful looking scaly lips. Politely, I returned his greeting, but I didn’t recognize him . . . standing there with his would be afro, that was nothing more than mounds of foul smelling, filthy matted hair. His face too was full of wiry patches of hair, unkept, and merely sprouting from his face like wild weeds. The huge smile upon his face revealed at least three missing upper teeth, dead-center of his mouth. His bottom teeth were obviously rotting away. The rotting ones slightly darker than the other orangish, yellowish-brown, darkly stained teeth that survived whatever happened through the years.
I recall the fleeting thought that perhaps I was in the wrong room . . . “this brotha couldn’t be my brother.” But he was. As our conversation continued, I quickly realized that my brother wasn’t all there, but he wasn’t all gone either. He remembered much from our childhood (the names of neighbors, family members and childhood friends). It was apparent that he had consumed and digested much from books, letters, and stories that others had shared with him through the years. Like a mental alchemist, he mixed each of those experiences with his imagination, creating his very own version of reality. He spoke of his expensive clothing, houses, and cars—clothing, houses, and cars he never had. He spoke of his days in the Marine Corps, and he (now at age forty-one) has been in some form of lock up since the age of thirteen. The terrible truth is that for the past twenty-two years, Jerome has been subjected to the agonizing cruelties of solitary confinement—kept locked in a prison cell for at least twenty-three hours each day.
Seeing my brother in his present state of mind . . . I wanted to run out of that room. I wanted to scream and yell, “WHAT HAVE Y’ALL DONE TO MY BROTHER?” I wanted to destroy something. I wanted to tear down that cage between us, grab my brother and urn out of that hellish place. Yet, I knew that wasn’t possible. I resisted the urge to correct his fantasies. I didn’t dare tell him that he was never married, that he had no children, and that he never owned a house or car. I fought back my tears; choked on my emotions, and nearly gagged on the stench of his body. Outwardly I remained calm, strenuously hiding my outrage . . . my pain, until he started muttering, trying to say something that simply made no sense. That happened frequently. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, he cried out, “oh my god, Jesus f—ing Christ.” It happened a few times as if he had Tourette syndrome. The storm of emotions that I fought so desperately to suppress, swell in my chest, rose up and before I could catch myself, escaped my lips as a whimper.
Rationally, I was fully aware of the appalling truth that I was experiencing (the joyous moments, pain, anguish, outrage), all of it was due to grace. No one had to allow my brother and I to visit with one another. My request could have been denied. Fortunately for us, on that day we were graciously granted two hours to express our loving concern for one another. I spoke with my brother, hopeful that he could fully understand as I opened my heart saying, “I love you brother. I’m so sorry that I wasn’t here to support you earlier.” “It’s all right. It’s all right. I’m fine. I’m fine. It’s about me and you. I’m happy. I’m just happy.” Those words rushed out of his mouth as if they were prepared in advance and waiting on the tip of his tongue. We were locked in each others eyes at that time, and nearly throughout the entire visit. He watched my every move, just as I watched his. Before we parted—just as I had done several time during the visit—I reached through that small cutout in the cage. “Let me touch you brother.” Once more he smiled at my request, leap to his feet, and did his best to shove his bound hands in my direction. Reaching further in, I grabbed his hands, and held them.
• Shane Bauer, who has written extensively about solitary confinement for the outlet Mother Jones, was forcibly escorted out of the American Correctional Association conference by armed guards.
• Snake River Correctional Institution in Oregon is experimenting with a “Blue Room”, where prisoners held in solitary confinement can view nature imagery for about 40 minutes each day, in lieu of the standard recreation time they would otherwise be offered. The Oregonian published an in-depth piece about the origin of the idea and why it might calm nerves and reduce disciplinary infractions.
• A correctional officer at Mercy County Correction Center in New Jersey allegedly threatened to file criminal charges against at least one female prisoner, extend her solitary confinement and deny her meals unless she performed oral sex on him, according to criminal charges filed last week. At the time, Officer John Ledbetter was a supervisor in the female solitary confinement unit; an attorney for one woman “there could be up to a dozen victims assaulted by Ledbetter.”
• New York’s City Council passed legislation that will create greater transparency around the use of solitary confinement on Rikers Island. The Department of Correction will now issue four annual reports detailing: the number of individuals held in isolation; why and for how long they are held in isolation; the number of recorded suicide attempts and any related follow-up care.
• Daniel McGowan, an environmental activist and former prisoner, was arrested from his halfway house and placed in solitary confinement in April 2013 after writing a HuffPost blog. Last week, he sued the Bureau of Prisons alleging that the arrest was unconstitutional, claiming he was retaliated against for expressing his views about the Communication Management Units, where he was held for several years.
• Florence Finkle, the deputy commissioner in charge of internal investigations at Rikers Island, has resigned from her post amidst allegations of a “deep-seated culture of violence” at the jail and the “excessive and inappropriate” solitary confinement of teenagers. According to a recently published federal report, Ms. Finkle’s office conducted “inadequate” investigations into the use of force at the facility.
• The family of a teenager who died while in solitary confinement at Rikers Island in April 2013 has filed a wrongful-death suit. According to the lawsuit, Andy Henriquez, 19, complained about chest pains and breathing but was ignored by guards; he eventually died of a ruptured aorta.
New York City Officials and Advocates Push for Change to the “Culture of Brutality” on Rikers Island
Update, 8/22/14: On Thursday, August 21, the New York City Council passed legislation introduced by Councilman Danny Dromm of Queens that would require corrections officials to release quarterly reports documenting information about inmates being held in solitary confinement at Rikers Island jail. Presenting this information to the New York City Board of Corrections would create increased transparency and oversight concerning the jail’s use of punitive segregation. The legislation is now awaiting the signature of Mayor de Blasio, who has said he supports the bill.
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New York City advocates and public officials gathered on the steps of City Hall on Monday to demand an end to the “culture of brutality” emerging from New York City’s Rikers Island, the second biggest jail in the country. The demand followed recent reports released by the United States Department of Justice and the New York City Board of Corrections, as well as months of investigative reporting by the New York Times, exposing brutality, violence, and excessive use of solitary confinement by officers specifically against mentally ill and teenage inmates. One previously incarcerated advocate that spoke at the event described Rikers as “worse than Dante’s Inferno.”
At the press conference, organized by the New York City Jails Action Coalition, speakers expressed support for legislation introduced by Councilman Daniel Dromm of Queens that would bring about much needed transparency and oversight to Rikers. The bill will be voted on this Thursday in the City Council. Speaking at the event, Dromm recounted his tour of Rikers saying, “I saw the horrible conditions inside of solitary people have to endure—a very small cell, the smell of urine, graffiti, a bed that was rusted, a mattress that had mildew on it, a blower of heat directly on top of the bed blowing down.” Strong criticism of Rikers Island has surfaced most recently after a series of exposes in the New York Times covering the staggering rise in violence at Rikers since 2009.
The Times managed to uncover an internal report conducted by the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene that documented, during an 11 month period, 129 cases of violence by corrections officers towards prisoners yielding injuries so serious they could not be treated at the jail’s clinic. Individuals incarcerated at Rikers suffered fractured jaws and eye sockets, wounds needing stitches, and severe back and head trauma. The report found that 77 percent of those seriously injured had a diagnosis of mental illness. Yet in not one of the 129 cases was a corrections officer prosecuted. Over half of the 80 prisoners interviewed by health department staff admitted to being intimidated by officers during their treatment, making it easier for staff to cover up the violent episodes.
According to the same article, about 4,000 out of 11,000 people held at Rikers have a mental illness. This number is about 40 percent of the jail population, a 20 percent increase from eight years ago. Few corrections officers have received any in-depth training on how to deal with individuals with mental illness.
Criticism of policies at Rikers Island continued to rise after August 4, when the United States Department of Justice unveiled a secret three-year investigation of Rikers conducted from 2011 to 2013. The investigation concluded that there is a “deep seated culture of violence” at the jail and that the New York City Department of Correction (DOC) has violated the civil rights of adolescent males ages 16 to 18, by subjecting them to and not protecting them from excessive force and violence. For example, the report said, “In FY [Fiscal Year] 2013, there were 565 reported staff use of force incidents involving adolescents… (resulting in 1,057 injuries).”Teenagers at Rikers suffered extreme violence by officers including “…broken jaws, broken orbital bones, broken noses, long bone fractures, and lacerations requiring sutures.”
The Department of Justice (DOJ) report released by the office of Preet Bharara, the United States Attorney in Manhattan, also condemned the use of solitary confinement against adolescents held at Rikers. The report reads: “Moreover, DOC relies far too heavily on punitive segregation as a disciplinary measure, placing adolescent inmates—many of whom are mentally ill—in what amounts to solitary confinement at an alarming rate and for excessive periods of time.”
While New York State prisons, under pressure from a lawsuit by the New York Civil Liberties Union, recently placed strict limits on the use of solitary confinement for juveniles under the age of 18, that reform does not apply to city jails. However, almost a year ago last September, the New York City Board of Corrections, the body that oversees the city’s jails, voted to draft new specific rules and criteria on who can be placed in solitary on Rikers Island. The Board is especially concerned with the use of solitary confinement on adolescents and people with mental illness.
In addition to a climate of brutality and violence at Rikers, the DOJ report also revealed that many cases of violence go unreported. When cases are reported, the officers are rarely punished. The report was also highly critical of the investigative division of the Department of Correction, saying it was understaffed and very slow, with out of date methods for processing investigations.
Mayor Bill de Blasio has promised to systematically bring Rikers under control and quell the rising violence. He began by appointing a new corrections commissioner, Joseph Ponte, who is known for reform, and by allocating funds to hire more correctional officers and to spend on mental health programming. However, amidst these promises, the city still has only 49 days to release a plan to implement major changes or risk federal intervention. This Thursday, the New York City Council has the chance to pass legislation which would bring about greater transparency and oversight to Rikers.
City Council Member Daniel Dromm (D-25) of Queens spoke at the press conference regarding the legislation he introduced in April, which would require the Department of Correction and the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to submit a quarterly report detailing the use of “punitive segregation”- solitary confinement used for punishment. The report would also require the DOC to document the number of inmates enduring additional restraints such as shackles, waist-chains, and hand mittens. The bill currently has 26 sponsors within the Council.
The bill has also received support from the Mayor. An article published Monday by Capital New York quoted Mayor de Blasio’s spokesperson Marti Adams saying “Mayor de Blasio is supportive of this bill, and the Speaker and Council’s efforts to encourage more transparency and use data to more effectively develop, manage and monitor programs that support better outcomes for the individuals incarcerated in our city’s jails.” The Mayor is given 30 days to either veto or sign the bill if passed by the City Council.
Council member Andy King of the Bronx, a supporter of the bill, commented at the press conference that this new legislation would allow the City Council to get proper information in order to hold the institution of Rikers accountable. “We need to make sure these young men get treated like human beings, not like animals, not like dogs. This is not a way to treat human beings…We’re supposed to do everything we can to rehabilitate these young men and help them reintegrate into society.”
In addition to advocating for the new legislation, Councilman Dromm as well as other speakers pointed to the responsibility of Norman Seabrook, president of the New York City Correction Officer’s Benevolent Association (COBA), to decrease violence at Rikers and bring about positive change. Dromm recounted an incident he experienced with Seabrook while touring Rikers in which Seabrook questioned what right Dromm had to be there. Dromm retorted that he had every right and went on to tell the audience “Seabrook needs to stand up and take accountability for what’s going on at Rikers. Norman Seabrook needs to stand up and be a part of the solution not the problem.”
The press conference was organized by the New York City’s Jails Action Coalition (JAC), a group of activists comprised of the formerly incarcerated, currently incarcerated, family members and other community members that work to “promote human rights, dignity and safety for people in New York City jails.” Speaking at the event were individuals representative of many groups including the Incarcerated Nation Campaign, the New York Civil Liberties Union, the Fortune Society, Education from the Inside Out, Just Leadership USA, the Bronx Defenders and the Brooklyn Defenders Services.
Johnanna Miller, the Advocacy Director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, summed up the sentiment of the day in saying “The city is failing to protect the basic human rights of New York citizens at Rikers… This is happening to New Yorkers that haven’t even had their day in court.” She went on to say “Transparency is only the first step. The culture of brutality must stop.”
Update, 8/20/14: Yesterday, the Sylvia Rivera Law Project released a new call to action to “Demand Safer Housing for Trans People in New York State Prisons.” After once again citing our investigation, SLRP tells the story of Synthia China Blast, a transwoman who has spent a decade in isolation in New York’s prisons, with an accompanying video featuring actor and activist Laverne Cox.
The call to action also includes an online petition for individuals to sign, to the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision.
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Earlier this month, Solitary Watch published an in-depth investigation by Aviva Stahl into the experiences of transgender women held in New York’s state prisons. It found that most transwomen in men’s prisons were subjected to long-term solitary confinement simply for being themselves. Many also faced sexual assault by staff as well as other prisoners.
Shortly after the investigation was released, four organizations – the National Center for Transgender Equality, Prisoners’ Legal Services of New York, the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, and the Trans Women of Color Collective – submitted a letter to the Acting Commission of New York’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) citing the article and demanding change.
“The women who shared their stories with Solitary Watch described a pattern of automatic, prolonged, and traumatic solitary confinement in men’s prisons,” the letter reads. “Their stories tragically demonstrated that solitary confinement does not prevent sexual abuse and other harms to vulnerable incarcerated persons, but instead inflicts further harm.”
The signatories call for DOCCS to “take swift and decisive action” to ensure full compliance with the Prison Rape Elimination Act’s (PREA) protections for transgender people. Specific demands outlined in the letter include: “housing transgender people consistent with their gender identity;” “establish[ing] entirely voluntary transgender housing units;” and “eliminating the prolonged use of isolation (including disciplinary, administrative segregation, and protective custody) for all individuals.”
The letter can be viewed in full here.
Interested parties can write to the Acting Commissioner of DOCCS at the following address: Mr. Anthony J. Annucci, Acting Commissioner, Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, 1220 Washington Avenue, Building 2, Albany, NY 12226-2050.
• A man who survived three years in solitary confinement in a New Jersey prison has had his lawsuit against the state’s Department of Corrections dismissed, on the grounds that he had not exhausted all available remedies to challenge the conditions. Lester Alford, who is still incarcerated, had alleged that he was denied legal assistance and endured deplorable conditions while held in solitary confinement.
• New York’s City Council will shortly vote on a bill that, if passed, would require the Department of Corrections to compile detailed data on the use of disciplinary segregation on Rikers Island.
• A Florida NPR station hosted a debate on how Florida should address the deaths of inmates in the prison system. Randall Justin-Aparo died in solitary confinement in September 2010. Investigators believe that staff may have gassed him, then covered up his death.
• The UK’s Morning Star published a front-page article about the experiences of Talha Ahsan, who was extradited to the US two years ago on terrorism charges and subsequently placed in solitary confinement in a Connecticut prison. Ahsan, who has been diagnosed with Asperger’s, was sentenced to time served in July and is awaiting deportation back to England.
• The American Civil Liberties published a briefing paper, “The Dangerous Overuse of Soltiary Confinement in the United States”, along with a blog post written by an individual whose brother has spent nearly ten years in isolation.
• A Pittsburgh man will receive a $30,000 settlement for allegedly being placed in solitary confinement a form of retaliation, after he spoke up on behalf of another inmate whose food was being tampered with by staff. The state has paid out $386,000 in lawsuits related to staff misconduct at the State Correctional Institution.
• Writing for the Huffington Post, Solitary Watch contributor Sarah Shourd describes seven audio recordings and videos recently released by Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC), in which immigration detainees experience arbitrary solitary confinement and other abuses.
• After she reported being sexually assaulted by her roommate at Arizona’s Eloy Detention Center, a transgender woman notified staff that she felt suicidal and was sent to solitary confinement for two days. Marichuy Leal Gamino and her supporters believe that she was being punished for reporting the assault.
• According to the latest report published by New York City’s Board of Corrections, more than 90% of those placed in disciplinary segregation at Riker’s Island do not receive their daily, legally-mandated hour of recreation. The report’s findings were covered by a variety of outlets, including the NY Daily News.
• The Department of Justice released a report which concludes that “there is a pattern of practice of conduct at Rikers that violates the constitutional rights of adolescent inmates,” and that the Department of Corrections “relies far too heavily on punitive segregation as a disciplinary measures.” The New York Times wrote an editorial supporting the extensive recommendations outlined in the report, including a reform of the “institutional culture of the jail system to ensure that violence is no longer tolerated.”
• The Bronx District Attorney has declined to prosecute any Rikers staff in an alleged 2012 assault on two prisoners, which was described in detail in the New York Times last month. Several individuals, including civilian staff members, had previously come forward to tell investigators what they had witnessed, but this week DA office announced that there were “inconsistencies and contradictions in testimony.”
• In the June/July 2014 issue of Correctional Law Reporter, Fred Cohen, LL.B., LL.M., convenes a panel of experts on prisons and the law in a “symposium” examining the use of and alternatives to solitary confinement in three hypothetical cases that illustrate the conditions, circumstances, and types of offenders consigned to “administrative segregation” in prisons around the U.S. Written for prison and jail administrators and their legal counsel, the bimonthly Correctional Law Reporter covers legal and constitutional issues in corrections.
• A federal judge has allowed a class-action lawsuit against the Arizona Department of Corrections to move forward, dismissing the state’s request for the summary judgment. The suit alleges that more than 33,000 prisoners in Arizona have endured poor prison health care and excessive solitary confinement. A trial is set to start in October.
• Solitary Watch’s Victoria Law published an article on Gothamist exploring “what it’s like to be 16 and in solitary on Rikers Island.”
• A trial against the New Jersey Department of Corrections continues this week. In the lawsuit, Lester Alford alleges that the DOC violated his rights against cruel and unusual punishment and that he was placed in disciplinary isolation without a proper hearing. In court he stated, “they locked me in a cell behind a cage like an an animal. I didn’t get to see my own face for three years.”
• A North Idaho teenager charged with murdering his father and brother has been removed from isolation in an adult facility and returned to a juvenile detention center. The ACLU of Idado had previously filed documents stating that Eldon Samuel III’s treatment in the Kootenai County Jail is “worse than the Guantanamo Bay detention camp.”