The following account is by Nicole Natschke, who is currently held in the segregation unit at Illinois’s Logan Correctional Facility, about three hours south of Chicago. Logan was repurposed from a men’s prison to imprison women from the shuttered Dwight and Lincoln Correctional Centers. The prison, which has a rated capacity of 1,106, currently holds 1,950 people. A December 2014 report by the John Howard Association described the dismal conditions at the “overcrowded [and] underresourced” prison.
Natschke was originally scheduled to be released in December 2014 after 14 months in prison, but her segregation sentence extended her time in prison. Shortly after her arrival in segregation, a woman in the adjoining cell committed suicide. Her account, titled “Solitary Confinement Is Torture,” shows that even a few weeks or months in solitary confinement can have dire consequences on people’s physical and mental well-being. Nicole Natschke turned twenty-one while behind bars, and will celebrate her twenty-second birthday in solitary this year. She can receive letters at the following address: Nicole Natschke, R88949, Logan Correctional Center, PO Box 1000, Lincoln, IL 62656. —Victoria Law
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My name is Nicole Natschke. I am currently housed in segregation at Logan Correctional Facility in Illinois. Here at this fine institution, we are locked down 24 hours a day. We shower every four days maybe. If we act up, they sometimes refuse to shower you, although that’s against regulations. I’ve gone 12 days without a shower. Now that we have a new warden, the rules have changed. Before she started working here, for example, you would not be segregated for an unauthorized movement. Now, you must do two months in this miserable place. You would think segregation is supposed to be for violent offenders? No, now everyone comes to segregation. My cellmate, Gina, was feeling homicidal and asked for a mental health evaluation. Instead, they threw her in segregation and said she refused housing. When you refuse housing, they give you three months segregation. Gina has been in segregation for nine days and still has no sheets or blankets because they lost some of her property. She sleeps on the cold, plastic mattress. I share one of my blankets. All these non-violent “offenses” and people are doing a very long time in segregation. Gina has also never, not once, gotten into trouble in the four years she’s been incarcerated! You want to know what violent offenses carry? They carry the least amount of time in segregation. If you get into a fight, you’ll do 15 days in seg. If you assault someone, you’ll do 30 days. Everything non-violent carries more than 30 days in seg!
You can’t even ask for mental help because they’ll throw you in segregation. I am in here because I had a seizure and was handcuffed and thrown into a wall by a lieutenant. I was not supposed to be handcuffed because I just had a seizure. I flipped out, panicked and spit on him. I’ve been in segregation six months. I should’ve went home December 3, 2014, but they are keeping me here until August 3, 2015. I have to be in segregation the whole time. The past six months have been hell. I’ve seen my friend commit suicide next door to me. While the police were waiting for her body to be transferred, they made jokes about how now there’s more bed space. My friend—RIP Shortybang—shouldn’t have even been in segregation. The police ignored her cries for help. They still ignore people when people say they are suicidal or homicidal. They don’t see us as someone’s daughter, mother, or sister…They see us as a number, as bed space, as criminals. I’ve talked to many women in this prison and I haven’t met one yet who hasn’t been abused, raped, etc., in their life. I’ve heard the worst stories. I don’t know about other women, but when I’m in segregation, alone, locked in this six foot by ten foot cell for 24 hours per day, I start thinking about my life. I have a very messed-up past. Mainly when I was younger, but that wasn’t that long ago.
I will turn twenty-two in seg on April 6th. Long periods of solitary confinement are not healthy, especially for women like me who have severe PTSD and depression. I’ve attempted suicide so many times I lost count! Now what makes anyone think it’s okay to put me alone in a cell for over a year? You might think I’m being treated by a psychiatrist? Yes, but she refuses to put me on the correct medications. I see the psychiatrist through a TV once every two months, maybe, and she refuses to look at my records and see that I need certain medications. So, if I’m having severe issues just trying to survive day by day, I know others are as well. That’s why so many people are yelling constantly that they’re suicidal. This is a very depressing place.
Another serious issue, medical…I have been begging to see the doctor for six months since I got in segregation. I wrote grievances about health care in segregation. I hope and pray that things will change back here. Even something as simple as how officers treat us would change a lot. I’ll do whatever I can from the inside and hope people listen to what I have to say. Just because I made one mistake in life doesn’t mean I deserve this suffering. I am somebody’s daughter. I have a great family. I should be home. I want to stop this from happening to others.
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• The New York Times magazine published an article entitled The Shame of Solitary Confinement, which focuses on what’s happening in one Southern state. “Solitary — in theory, a punishment for the worst of the worst, inmates who pose an immediate threat to others — has become a routine disciplinary tool, used in ways for which it was never intended. The good news is that this is beginning to change — even, it turns out, in South Carolina.”
• South Carolina Department of Corrections Director Bryan Stirling announced that he has ordered a cap on the use of “disciplinary detention.” There will now be a 60-day maximum placement in disciplinary segregation, except for those believed those a threat to others.
• The UK’s Daily Mail published an article about Anthony Graves, who spent twelve years in solitary confinement after being wrongfully convicted and sent to death row. He was released in 2010.
• The debate within the American Institute of Architectures (AIA) – about whether to “censure members who design solitary-confinement cells and death chambers – was covered by The New York Times. The AIA rejected a petition on the matter in December.
• David Shapiro, a law professor at Northwestern, published an op-ed in Crain’s Chicago Business about the post 9/11 human rights violations that have occurred on American soil – including the use of solitary confinement. “The ‘war on terror’ has driven a transformation of federal incarceration in less exotic locales like downstate Marion, Terre Haute, Ind., and New York.”
• The Montana state legislature introduced a bill that would ban the use of solitary confinement for some incarcerated individuals and restrict it for others. “We have to be realistic about how to interact with human beings to ensure they remain human beings,” said the Representative who introduced the bill. (Covered by the Great Falls Tribune).
• A federal judge approved a settlement in a lawsuit filed against the Arizona Department of Corrections by the American Civil Liberties Union and Prison Law Office. Under the settlement, the DOC must provide specific minimum out-of-cell hours for those in maximum security settings, and also institute significant changes to health care on the inside. A bill to reform the use of solitary in Arizona successfully passed out of the House of Representatives Military Affairs and Public Safety Committee.
• WABC Eyewitness News conducted an exclusive tour of the Enhanced Supervision Housing Unit, the new isolation unit set to open at Rikers next week. The unit has come under scrutiny from prison advocates for extending the use of solitary confinement at the jail complex.
Ashley Smith was just 19 when she died in her solitary confinement cell at the Grand Valley Institution for Women in Kitchener, Ontario, in October 2007. As she had many times before, Smith tied a ligature around her neck and tightened it. For twenty long minutes, a crowd of prison guards stood watch from outside her door, waiting and filming as her face turned a purplish-black. By the time they entered Smith’s cell, it was too late to save her. Smith had spent more than 1,000 days in isolation.
Six years later—in December, 2013—a Coroner’s Inquest determined that her death constituted a homicide. This past December, the Canadian government issued a formal response to the inquest, refusing to put in place many of the jury’s 104 recommendations. This move has sparked a national debate in Canada about the use of solitary confinement. Two lawsuits, both filed since the government released its response, allege that the Correctional Service’s use of isolation amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.
Preventable Death Ruled a Homicide
Ashley Smith’s encounters with the law and state services began when she was a young teenager. She cycled in and out of secure youth facilities after her first arrest at 15, for throwing crab apples at a postal worker. Once she aged out was sent into the adult system, Smith’s life took on a new degree of instability; she was transferred 17 times during the course of her 11 months in federal custody in order to accommodate “administrative issues such as cell availability and staff fatigue. Smith also received inconsistent mental health care despite demonstrating self-injurious behavior and voicing suicidal ideation.
After Smith’s death, the warden and four correctional officers directly involved in the incident were fired, and the officers were charged with negligent homicide. The charges were subsequently dropped, however, and all four COs were eventually reinstated to their positions. Union representatives insisted that the COs had been scapegoated by senior management, who had allegedly given direct orders for the guards to ignore Smith’s behavior, and not intervene as long as she was still breathing.
Although Smith died of self-strangulation, a coroner’s jury later ruled the incident a homicide, determining that she could not be held responsible for what happened. Coroner’s inquests are formal court proceedings in which a five-person jury hears from witnesses and determines the facts of a death, but without establishing guilt or fault. In Ontario, where Smith died, it is mandatory to hold a Coroner’s Inquest for all individuals who pass away in the custody of the Correctional Service.
The jury also put forward a series of recommendations for the Correctional Service of Canada, including stringent caps on the amount of time individuals can spend in isolation and a complete abolition of “indefinite solitary confinement.” Nearly a year later, in December 2014, the Canadian government published its formal response. They asserted “that the government is unable to fully support [the inquest’s recommendations] without causing undue risk to the safe management of the federal correctional system.”
The government also refuted the inquest’s characterization of segregation practices. “The term solitary confinement is not accurate or applicable within the Canadian federal correctional system. Canadian law and correctional policy allows for the use of administrative segregation for the shortest period of time necessary, in limited circumstances, and only when there are no reasonable, safe alternatives.”
In an interview with The Canadian Press, one of the lawyers who represented Smith’s family lambasted the government’s refusal to honor the inquest’s language. “They’re playing the Orwellian game…That bodes very poorly for them honestly dealing with this crisis in the system—that they can’t even call it what it is.”
These sentiments were echoed by Ashley Smith’s mother, Coralee. “I don’t see any real changes… segregation is basically going to stay the same.”
Two Lawsuits Filed
Reactions to the Canadian government’s position extend beyond Smith’s family and their legal team. Since December, two separate lawsuits have been filed by advocacy groups alleging that the use of solitary confinement in Canada amounts to cruel and unusual punishment, and is thus unconstitutional.
On January 19, the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) and the John Howard Society of Canada filed a lawsuit against the Attorney General of Canada, arguing “that the solitary confinement regime leads to prisoner suffering and deaths, deprives prisoners of fundamental procedural protections and is discriminatory against both mentally ill and Aboriginal prisoners.”
About one week later, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association and the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies filed a similar claim, set to be heard in the Ontario Supreme Court. “Canadian prisons subject inmates to solitary confinement without any limit on duration, without any guarantee of independent review, and without any consideration of the frailties of the inmate,” a Counsel in the petition states in the press release announcing the suit. “The ready, routine and prolonged use of solitary confinement in Canadian penitentiaries is unjustified, unethical, and ultimately, unconstitutional”.
The Surprising Truth About Solitary in Canada
Stories like Smith’s are story all too familiar in the American context. This past December, a Rikers Island corrections officer named Terrence Pendergrass was convicted on a civil rights charge, after a jury found he had ignored the pleas of an incarcerated man with mental illness who had swallowed a toxic soap ball. One officer testified that when he alerted Pendergrass that the prisoner was distressed, he was told, “don’t bother me unless someone is dead.” Jason Echevarria, 25, passed away shortly thereafter.
Most Americans—and Canadians—might be surprised to see any parallels between the conditions of confinement in the two countries. “Canadians tend to think of the U.S. as having a much more hardline approach to criminal justice, and to be harsher to people who are incarcerated,” said BCCLA Counsel Laura Track in an email to Solitary Watch.
“However, current ‘tough on crime’ policies being implemented in Canada, such as mandatory minimum sentences and changes to rules governing parole eligibility, for example, demonstrate a very regressive approach to criminal justice policy in this country,” Track added. About one in four people held in Canada’s federal prison system has spent some time in solitary confinement.
Track and other advocates have contended that the United States and Canada are actually diverging in their use of isolation—with American prisons and jails generally relying less on the practice, but their northern neighbor doing just the opposite. Over the last five years, the number of federal prisoners in solitary confinement in Canada has increased by 6 percent. Little information on changes to the number of individuals held in isolation in U.S. prisons is publically available, but some evidence suggests the use of isolation is in slow decline. While the ratio of Canadian prisoners in solitary may be high, however, the sheer number remains relatively, due to the much smaller size of the overall prison population. It is estimated at any given time, there are about 1,800 people in solitary confinement in Canadian prisons and upwards of 80,000 in the United States.
Smith’s death also underlined another similarity between the United States and Canada: the ease with which people with mental illness are funneled into prison and then solitary confinement. Fourteen out of 30 suicides in Canadian prisons over the last three years occurred in segregation units—including many by individuals who had a documented history of struggling with mental health issues. In 2010, a 24-year-old with a history of mental illness, Edward Snowshoe, hanged himself after spending 162 days in isolation.
Solitary Watch asked Kim Pate, Executive Director of the Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies, why so many individuals with histories of mental health issues have ended up in Canadian segregation units. “It is for similar reasons [as in the United States], including the reality that mental health services are even more likely to be inadequate and underfunded than other health issues,” she replied via email. This discrepancy persists despite Canada’s universal, single-payer health care system.
Additional Avenues for Change in Canadian Corrections
The fallout from Ashley Smith’s death has also revealed some significant differences between the American and Canadian correctional systems, and particularly the relative dearth of avenues available to American families and advocates seeking change.
It was the inquest into Ashley Smith’s deathand the government’s recalcitrant response—that sparked the recent national debate on the use of solitary confinement in Canadian corrections. No parallel system exists in the United States to bring public scrutiny to prison deaths.
Nor does the U.S. federal prison system have an Office of the Correctional Investigator—or Ombudsman—empowered to probe for problems in prison conditions or administration. In Canada, however, all individuals incarcerated within federal penitentiaries can contact the Ombudsman using a toll-free, unmonitored, and unrestricted number to report abuse or lodge complaints. Staff travel to all federal institutions at least once per year, where they meet privately with prisoners and proactively examine particular areas of focus, including segregation. The office has “golden key” access, meaning that staff members can access any record, any person or any place that is under the authority of the Correctional Service of Canada—with legal penalties for noncompliance.
The current Correctional Investigator, Howard Sapiers, has called for an absolute ban on the use of segregation for individuals who have a significant diagnosis of mental illness, a ban on segregation for individuals who have a history of prolific self harm, and independent adjudication of all continued segregation placements.
In an interview with Solitary Watch, Sapiers called the government’s response to the Ashley Smith inquest “tone deaf.”
“Much of the response really repeated the testimony that was given by correctional employees of Canada during the inquest,” he said on the phone from his office in Ottawa. “You would very much think that the status quo was okay.”
In addition, both lawsuits moving forward in the Canadian courts allege that isolation violates constitutional protections against cruel and unusual punishment. With a few exceptions, this argument has proven largely futile in U.S. courts.
Solitary Watch asked the BCCLA’s Laura Track why she believes her suit can succeed. “Last year, the Federal Court of Canada found that government cuts to health care benefits for refugees amounted to cruel and unusual treatment,” she said via email. “This was a huge victory for the claimants, and represented an important development in constitutional law, breathing new life into the under-used section 12 of our Charter of Rights and Freedoms.”
“We will have to wait to see what happens on appeal in that case, but it seems to me that depriving vulnerable refugees of necessary health care services should certainly meet the test set down by the Supreme Court of Canada in earlier cases as treatment that is so excessive as to outrage our standards of decency,” she added.
“Prolonged and indefinite solitary confinement meets the test, too.”
What does solitary confinement have to do with reproductive justice? Quite a lot, says a new report about reproductive health care in New York’s women’s prisons. The Correctional Association of New York, a criminal justice policy and advocacy organization, released Reproductive Injustice: The State of Reproductive Health Care for Women in New York State Prisons. The report is a culmination of the organization’s five-year study of the state’s women’s prisons, including in-person interviews with over 950 incarcerated women and 1,500 mailed-in surveys.
New York State incarcerates nearly 4,000 women each year. On any given day, the New York Department of Corrections and Community Service (DOCCS) imprisons 2,300 women, for which it is responsible for providing health care, including reproductive health care. But that care is “woefully substandard,” charges the report. The Correctional Association found that DOCCS systemically offered substandard medical treatment, inadequate access to gynecological care, poor conditions for pregnant women, and insufficient supplies of feminine hygiene products and toilet paper. In addition, pregnant women are routinely shackled during labor, delivery, and postpartum recovery, in violation of the state’s 2009 law.
Solitary confinement exacerbates these problems. Approximately 1,600 people are placed in solitary confinement in New York’s women’s prisons each year. On any given day, 100 women are held in solitary confinement. Until recently, no exceptions were made for pregnant women. But even women who are not pregnant have found that solitary confinement further obstructs their ability to access reproductive health care. “Solitary is especially dangerous for pregnant women because it impedes access to critical OB care and prevents women from getting the regular exercise and movement that are vital for a healthy pregnancy,” the report states. In addition, many pregnant women already experience stress and depression, feelings intensified by isolation. For pregnant women, the additional stress of being locked in a cell for 23 hours a day lowers their ability to fight infection and increases the risk of preterm labor, miscarriage, and low birth weight in babies.
Among the women surveyed by the Correctional Association, the three most common charges for isolation were, in order, disobeying a direct order, creating a disturbance, and being out of place. “It’s one of the clearest examples of how the prison system is a system of punishment and only uses punishment to address behaviors that need intervention and support,” Tamar Kraft-Stolar, director of the Correctional Association’s Women in Prison Project and the author of the report, told Solitary Watch.
DOCCS has two forms of solitary confinement—the Special Housing Unit (SHU), which is used to punish more serious rules violations, and keeplock, for less serious infractions. People placed in keeplock are usually confined to their own cells; if they live in a dorm setting, they are sent to a separate keeplock unit. SHU cells are in a separate area. In keeplock, individuals are allowed to keep their possessions while those in SHU are denied almost all of their property and receive only the minimal number of state-issued items. People generally spend no more than 60 days in keeplock, whereas people can spend months, years or even decades in the SHU.
Whether in SHU or keeplock, people are confined to their cells 23 hours each day. They cannot participate in programs, receive packages, or use the phone except to make legal or emergency calls. In addition, they are limited to one non-legal visit per week and three five to ten minute showers per week. They often have difficulty accessing doctors. When they are visited by medical staff, they are frequently forced to shout their concerns through a locked metal door, allowing people in neighboring cells and nearby staff to hear.
Until 2014, no written policy regulated pregnancy and solitary confinement. But as part of the settlement for the class-action lawsuit Peoples v Fischer, DOCCS issued a memo establishing a “presumption” against SHU placement for pregnant women unless a watch commander believes she poses “an immediate and substantial risk [to herself or others]…or an immediate and substantial threat to the safety and good order of the facility,” which remain left to the discretion of prison staff and officials. The memo does not restrict pregnant women from being placed in keeplock, instead suggesting it as an alternate placement for pregnant women who receive a SHU sentence.
The Correctional Association identified seven women held in solitary while pregnant between 2009 and 2012. All had problems accessing prenatal care from isolation. In one instance, a woman spent four weeks in keeplock where her complaints of bleeding were ignored. After the Correctional Association intervened, she was given medical attention and diagnosed with an ectopic pregnancy, in which the pregnancy occurs outside the womb and, if unaddressed, can be fatal.
“Elle Farah” was pregnant when she arrived at Albion Correctional Facility for a work release violation. The week before, she had visited the emergency room for what she had thought was a miscarriage. “They told me to wait and come back on Friday [two days later] for a sonogram and a D&C,” she told Solitary Watch. But work release rules dictated that she return to prison on Friday for the weekend and so she missed the appointment. When she was released on Sunday, she had a drink. “After that, I got sick. I was throwing up. I was throwing up on my way to parole [the next day],” she said. At the parole office, she failed her breathalyzer test and was sent to Albion. When her vomiting continued, she wondered whether she was miscarrying. When she told the sergeant that she was pregnant, she recalled that “he was really nasty about it. He said, ‘That’s not gonna get you out of SHU.'” The prison sent her to an outside hospital where she was told that she was having a miscarriage, that doctors could do nothing, and that she simply had to wait.
A prison nurse served as her hearing officer. At one point, Elle recalled, he stopped the recorder and told her that he had looked at her sonogram and, although she had been told that she was miscarrying, the baby looked fine. He then turned the recorder on and sentenced her to 90 days in SHU. She received no additional medical care or extra food. She was able to shower three times a week and exercise by herself in a small outdoor cage.
Because Albion has no facilities for pregnant women, Elle was transferred to Bedford Hills two weeks later. She was fully shackled, including waist chains, for the entire ten-hour bus ride. When she arrived at Bedford, she was placed in SHU. “Even though I was in solitary in both places, I was happy to go from one solitary to another because Bedford’s was a little bit better,” she said. But even with the extra snack that Bedford provides pregnant women (“usually a bologna sandwich,” she recalled, although pregnant women are advised to avoid deli meats which can be life-threatening to a fetus), she remembered that she was always hungry. “I had to wait a long time to eat and there wasn’t a lot of healthy food.”
Even women who are not pregnant face reproductive injustices while in isolation. Donna Hylton was in the SHU at Bedford Hills for three months when she sought care for a burning sensation in her urethra. First, she had to tell the officer that she wanted to sign up for sick call. “You have to yell your business down a corridor full of women,” she explained. Hours later, a male officer arrived and asked, “Who signed up for sick call? Why do you want to sign up for sick call?” The response, Hyton remembered, “felt like a gross violation of my privacy.”
Two days later, a nurse, accompanied by two officers, stopped in front of her cell and spoke to Hylton through the closed door. Two weeks after that, Hylton was placed in handcuffs, ankle cuffs and a waist chain before being escorted to the prison’s medical unit. There, a nurse asked if she had been having sex. “The door was open and a sergeant was right outside,” she remembered. “There was no privacy.” Another week passed before she was once again shackled and brought to the gynecologist, who asked the same question about sex. He did not examine her before prescribing Tylenol.
Finally, the woman in the adjoining cell, Judith Clark, helped Hylton figure out that she had a urinary tract infection triggered by antibiotics for a sinus infection. To access medical care, Hylton once again had to yell down the corridor to sign up for sick call and go through the whole process again. But this time, the gynecologist examined her. Although her waist chain and ankle cuffs were removed, she remained cuffed by one hand during the exam. “”You’re cuffed, you’re chained, you’re strapped. You have to take off some of your clothes while being restrained,” she explained. “Being a [rape] survivor, it was very violating. I was re-traumatized.”
Hylton was taken off the antibiotics for her sinus infection and placed on medication for a urinary tract infection. “But it was only because of Judy that I learned what was causing it,” she remembered. “No one had asked me anything about my medications.”
Hylton’s medical ordeal happened in 1987. Nearly 30 years later, the Correctional Association found that women face the same obstacles. Nearly half of the women surveyed attempted to access gynecological care while in isolation. More than one-third reported that the officers refused to place their names on the sick call list unless the woman described her concern. The practice has caused some women to refrain from seeking medical, particularly gynecological, care while in solitary. Given that the average SHU sentence is about three months and that the average keeplock sentence ranges between 14 and 27 days, not seeking health care can have deleterious, and sometimes long-lasting, effects.
In addition, some women have reported that nurses on sick call rounds dismissed their concerns and refused to allow them to see a doctor. Even when nurses are not dismissive, they must assess the woman through the closed cell door. Women also reported waiting for weeks before seeing a doctor. In the meantime, their symptoms often worsened. Like Hylton, women in the SHU are taken to gynecological appointments in shackles. DOCCS policy is to remove shackles for the appointment at the doctor’s request, but seven of the 25 women who had GYN exams while in isolation reported that they remained in restraints while being examined.
The Correctional Association also has a Prison Visiting Project, which visits and monitors conditions in both men’s and women’s prisons in New York State. Scott Paltrowitz, the project’s associate director, points out that many of these concerns, such as access and quality of medical care, are also experienced in men’s isolation units. “Solitary confinement is torture for all people because of the intense suffering and severe physical and psychological debilitation it causes,” he told Solitary Watch. “The particularly devastating gender-specific impacts on women in solitary highlighted in Reproductive Injustice epitomize the egregious nature of this practice and the extreme punitive approach utilized in New York State prisons. New York needs to end this practice for all people.”
Hylton agrees. “No one should be dehumanized in such a fashion.” So does Elle Farah. “Don’t put no pregnant person in SHU,” she recommended, adding, “I hope the whole solitary thing ends. The crime doesn’t justify the punishment.”
“These [stories] are examples of why we need to keep people out of solitary and keep people out of prison altogether,” said Tamar Kraft-Stolar. The report is the launching point for the Correctional Association’s Campaign to End Reproductive Injustice, which seeks to raise reproductive health care standards in prison, end shackling during all stages of pregnancy, and push New York to continue shifting away from incarceration by utilizing more alternatives to incarceration and ending the criminalization of social and economic issues.
• Last year, the Ohio Department of Youth Services decreased its use of segregation by two-thirds, according to a report released by the state’s Correctional Institution Inspection Committee. The changes were instituted following an agreement with the US Department of Justice.
• The American Civil Liberties Union of Montana released a report entitled “Locked in the Past: Montana’s Jails in Crisis,” which focuses in part on the widespread use of segregation. According to the authors, “one disturbing trend [in the state’s facilities] is the lack of any limits on the amount of time individuals can be isolated.” (Covered by The Bozeman Daily Chronicle).
• The last incarcerated member of the Angola 3, Albert Woodfox, has been again indicted by a grand jury for the 1972 death of a prison guard. Woodfox has been convicted for the same murder twice before, but both convictions have been thrown out on appeal.
• According to report recently released by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the South Carolina Department of Corrections has been issuing disciplinary violations to prisoners who access Facebook, even when done so indirectly, for example through a family member. Records accessed through FOIA requests revealed that one individual was sentenced to 37 years in solitary as a result of repeated Facebook usage. (Covered by Slate).
• New Jersey held a hearing on the use of solitary confinement in the state’s prisons and the need for change. A bill recently introduced into the New Jersey State Legislature aims to reduce the amount of time that incarcerated individuals can be held in isolation while requiring corrections officials to develop feasible alternatives.
• The mother of an individual who hung himself in a Rikers Island solitary confinement cell in 2013 has filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the city. Quannell Offley had threatened to kill himself repeatedly but received no mental health treatment in the days leading up to his death; one guard allegedly dared him to commit suicide.
• The World-Herald Bureau published an in-depth investigation into the placement of individuals with mental illness in solitary confinement in Nebraska prisons. The piece focuses on the experiences of Chris Seaton, who was diagnosed with mental illness as a young child, and now – at age 29 – spends 23 hours per day in isolation.
• According to whistleblower emails acquired by a Fox31 investigative reporter, Colorado DOC officials have been giving state and federal lawmakers misleading information about the DOC’s success in reducing the number of individual with mental illness being placed in administrative segregation. The article specifies that “the whistleblower call[ed] the reduction number ‘overstated.’”
Jacob Barrett is an Oregon state prisoner who was transferred to Florida and has been held for years in “Close Management,” or solitary confinement, most recently at Florida State Prison in Raiford. On February 1, Barrett began a hunger strike not only against the conditions he himself has endured, but also against the rampant abuses in Florida’s prisons. These abuses have gained notoriety in recent months due an increase in reporting, especially by the Miami Herald, on the high number of prison deaths in the state. These include such gruesome cases as a man with mental illness who was locked in a scalding shower until his skin melted off, and another who was gassed to death while locked in a cell.
What follows are excerpts from a letter sent by Barrett to the Real Cost of Prisons Project, which has long published his writings and artwork, and a handwritten press release about the hunger strike. Barrett writes that he believes he has no alternative, and that “I’m not killing me, they are killing me.” A practicing Druid, he cites both the Quran and the ancient Celtic tradition of the Troscad—a ritual fast held in protest of grievances.
After two weeks on hunger strike, Jacob Barrett, who is no longer permitted to write letters, has been transferred to a “crisis unit.” His supporters on the outside are urging people to write to him and to contact prison officials on his behalf, as outlined here: www.facebook.com/JacobBarrettHungerStrike. —Jean Casella
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
I don’t believe there are any reasonable timely alternatives. My court cases will be tied up for years, all the while abuses continue and I can’t even make a phone call to my family. We get punished for talking to other prisoners. It is going to force their hand. And sometimes it is the right thing to do.
I am not doing it solely for me, but other prisoners as well. I am also doing it to show solidarity for families of those who have recently been shot and murdered by police. I’m tired of hearing these guard call people “faggot” and beat on people and get away with it.
There is a verse from the Quran that says “The life of this world is but a comfort of illusion.” (3:185). I don’t know. All I know is I find no comfort in the Florida illusion. I know my action is extreme, however, I’m not killing me, they are killing me. It’s their conduction that is provoking it.
They have three choices:(1) correct their wrongs; (2) send me out of Florida—which would negate the need for a troscad; or (3) let me die and face media scrutiny, if the media even cares.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Texas and the Texas Civil Rights Project (TCRP) have released a report arguing that “solitary confinement is dangerous, expensive and makes Texas less safe.” In A Solitary Failure: The Waste, Cost and Harm of Solitary Confinement, through surveys, in-person interviews, and corroborative research conducted over an eight-month period, the ACLU and TCRP found that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDJC) is trapped in “the outdated and expensive mindset of using solitary confinement as a routine correctional practice,” leading to inhumane, inefficient, and archaic conditions that permanently damage people held in prison and threaten public safety—all at the taxpayers’ expense.
While some states are moving towards limiting the use of solitary confinement, Texas continues to make liberal use of the practice. It houses 4.4 percent of its prisoners in solitary confinement, for an average of three and a half years of isolation. And these figures actually reflect a 34 percent reduction in the state’s solitary population since 2006.
According to the report, TDCJ spends $46 million dollars a year to house individuals in solitary confinement. Additional costs are generated by the particular administrative burdens of segregation—which have been known to cause heightened levels of stress for prison administrators, as well as recidivism that occurs as a result of solitary confinement exacerbating an individual’s anti-social behaviors and mental illnesses. The report predicts that Texas stands to save at least $31 million dollars a year, if the state’s use of solitary confinement drops to Mississippi’s rate of 1.4 percent.
While the financial burden of solitary confinement is considerable, the cost of the measure, in real terms, transcends its monetary impact. For instance, people in solitary confinement are five times more likely to commit suicide than those in the general prison population. In 1999, a federal judge described Texas’s solitary-confinement cells as “virtual incubators of psychoses—seeding illness in otherwise healthy inmates,” with people entering solitary confinement in good health only to leave permanently damaged. Alex, an inmate confined to segregation, describes his experience:
“Everyday from dusk to dawn there’s noise, banging, clanking, yelling, screaming. Everyday someone is getting hurt or hurting themselves. Everyday there’s fire and floods and complete chaos & hate. Everyday there’s loneliness. I woke up last night to someone screaming ‘Let Me Out of Here’ (again) over and over with so much anguish there was no doubt he was screaming from his very soul. But he was just screaming what we are all thinking. Everyday is a challenge here. A challenge against insanity.”
Alex is one of 147 people in isolation who responded to a survey sent out by the ACLU and TCRP on the experience of solitary confinement. According to the report, ninety-five percent of survey respondents said they had developed some sort of psychiatric symptom as a result of segregation. Thirty percent reported having oral or physical outbursts. Fifty percent reported suffering from anxiety or panic attacks. Fifteen percent reported hallucinations.
Anna, a survey respondent, wrote, “Felt isolated, withdrew from people socially; clean, organize, obsessively, hand wash, felt despair, felt disoriented/confused, panic, couldn’t sleep until exhausted. Bad dreams, see something on walls moving but nothing there.” These responses substantiate well-established understandings of the psychological impact of solitary confinement on the average person..
For those who enter solitary confinement with previous mental illness, the “challenge against insanity” is far steeper. According to the report, TDCJ places at least 2,012 people with mental illnesses in solitary. These individuals are met with inadequate mental health services and monitoring, as the department provides only cursory checks that are unlikely to identify serious issues. Of those survey respondents who met with a mental health worker, 65 percent said their meetings were less than two minutes long. The report indicates that TDCJ does not provide adequate reviews of the mental-health needs of people in solitary confinement, even those with a history of serious mental illness and, as a result, remains unable to identify and address people’s mental-health needs.
In the report, Corrections Officer Steve Martin remarks that TDCJ’s failure to track people with serious mental illness is “an alarming flaw from a correctional management standpoint—on its face it calls into question TDCJ’s management.” To illustrate the current state of affairs, the report narrates that TDCJ diagnosed a man named Henry with bipolar I disorder, with psychotic features. Despite a prior suicide attempt in general population, Henry was placed in solitary confinement in 2005, where he remains to this day. Henry attempted suicide a second time while in solitary. Although TDCJ documented Henry’s symptoms, (mental illness, visual and auditory hallucinations, and suicide attempts) in his medical chart, it failed to take him out of solitary confinement.
When mental-health reviews are conducted, they are not confidential. Seventy-five percent of respondents said their mental-health review was merely conducted by speaking through their cell door. Many reported that officers overhear all of their confidential medical conversations and repeat confidential medical information to other officers or prisoners. The relationship between mental health and solitary confinement is at the core of the intangible and irrecoverable costs of the controversial punitive practice. The ACLU and TCRP report that in 2013, almost eighty percent of the 499 instances of prisoners exposing officers to bodily fluids occurred in Texas’s solitary-confinement units; none occurred in general-population units.
In addition, according to the report, after years in solitary confinement, people are unprepared to resume the roles society expects of them: as parents, spouses, employees, and neighbors. In addition to physical isolation, spiritual and emotional isolation are imposed upon individuals in solitary who remain cut off from their families and communities of worship. Many spend years without so much as a human touch. The report indicates that by isolating an individual from meaningful human contact, solitary confinement chips away at his or her support-network, increasing the possibility for recidivism.
People released directly from solitary confinement are rearrested at a 25 percent higher rate than prisoners released from the overall prison system. TDCJ has a few programs aimed at helping those released directly from solitary confinement. However, these programs serve only a small number of the total population in solitary and do not always adequately respond to the particular challenge that those in solitary confinement confront upon reentry to society after years of solitude. With their personal support network compromised, and with little assistance from prison administration, those who leave prison from segregation units face the usual challenges of re-entry, in addition to a varying bundle of extreme and unusual psychological challenges that can result from extreme forms of isolation. This leaves those in solitary at a considerable disadvantage upon release–a disadvantage that can cause many to return to prison, and perhaps even to further solitary confinement.
From this extended study, ACLU and TCRP make four recommendations:
- First, they call for a change in the institutional attitude towards solitary confinement by training correctional officers to work effectively with people with mental illness, enacting step-down programs that allow individuals to move to less restrictive housing based on good behavior, and instituting an independent oversight entity to monitor TDCJ’s use of solitary confinement.
- Second, the recommend that people with serious mental illness should be removed from solitary confinement by providing mental-health screening to everyone within twenty-four hours of placement in solitary confinement, enacting policies requiring mental-health professionals to participate in all initial decisions classifying prisoners to solitary confinement, as well as all follow-up placement reviews, establishing segregated housing with adequate mental-health treatment for the small number of mentally ill people who legitimately need to be housed in a high security setting.
- Third, they call for a system-wide review of solitary-confinement placement methodologies through a review of all individuals in solitary confinement with the goal of removing as many individuals as possible, ceasing automatic placement in solitary confinement, ending flat release of people from solitary confinement into Texas communities, and an end to housing individuals in solitary confinement for over one year, except in rare circumstances.
- Finally, the groups recommend improvements in conditions in solitary through ensuring appropriate programming for individuals held in solitary confinement, providing adequate stimulation to lower the effects of sensory deprivation, supporting family relationships, and providing adequate mental-health and medical services to those in solitary confinement.
• The American Civil Liberties Union and the Texas Civil Rights Project released a report on the use of the solitary confinement in the state’s prisons. According to the report, Texas holds about 6,000 people in solitary confinement, for an average duration of four years.
• The Washington Post released an editorial citing the report and condemning the use of solitary confinement in the state.
• New York’s Rikers Island will open up a unit for transgender women this week. Transgender women on Rikers – like in many prisons and jails across the country – are often placed in voluntary or involuntary protective custody (isolation) due to the violence or perceived threat they face in general population.
• According to the Sauk Valley News, the first prisoners could start arriving at AUSP Thomson as early as mid-March. “About 200 minimum-security inmates” will be selected to assist in Thomson’s activation, set to become the BOP’s second supermax facility.
• WNYC aired an episode focusing on New York’s mental health crisis and the use of solitary confinement in the state’s prisons. The story focuses on Sedlis Dowdly, “a diagnosed schizophrenic” who spent nine years in solitary confinement, but is due to be released in five.
• Delaware will consider legislation that would limit the amount of time an individual can be placed in solitary confinement from three months to four weeks. According to Delaware State News, the bill “would also prohibit solitary placement that aims to address disciplinary concerns to no more than 15 consecutive days and none for juveniles or those with mental illnesses.”
• Fusion released an in-depth investigation into the privatized immigration detention system. According to the article, “these prisons [detention facilities] hold nearly twice the number of inmates in solitary confinement as other federal facilities… Inmates are allegedly placed in solitary confinement for complaining about food, medical care or filing grievances.”
• Albert Woodfox, the last imprisoned member of the Angola 3, is one step closer to release. The US Appeals Court denied a request from Louisiana’s Attorney General for a full review of a decision made by a three-judge panel, which in November overturned Woodfox’s conviction for a 1972 murder. Woodfox has been held in isolation for more than 40 years.
• A federal judge in California has ordered the state to cease segregating prisoners with disabilities by placing them in solitary confinement. Judge Claudia Wilken said that the practice violated the Americans with Disabilities Act in addition to several court orders.
Lexy is a 36-year-old transgender woman who was recently released from New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) custody after about two and a half years inside. She spent three months in solitary confinement in “the Box” — first at Watertown, then at Midstate — after a can lid was found under her bed. She says that the “weapon” was placed there by corrections officers, in retaliation for filing a grievance alleging sexual misconduct. Below, she writes about her experiences in isolation, and how solitary confinement uniquely affects trans people locked up in New York state. — Aviva Stahl
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In writing this, I understand that there is a real sense of disconnection within NYS Dept of Corrections, almost as if people lose themselves to the process. This experience for me was unbearable. I believe that it’s not only the mentality of the offenders but the officers as well who really make it what it is in the present.
This journey began for me in August of 2012 as an openly transgendered individual in NYS Corrections. I was convicted of Grand Larceny, a non-violent offense for issuing a bad check. I first arrived to Watertown Correctional Facility. Things were OK until January of 2013 where I was forced to remove my shirt and sports bra in front of a third of the population.This led to an individual publicly harassing me, both physically and sexually. It was almost as if Corrections [Officers] just turned a blind eye to the abuse.
After filing a grievance and standing up to known intolerance of my kind on my person, I was rewarded with Solitary Confinement, Box time. Coming from a background of no violence, my faith was not only shattered, but more importantly broken. I lost myself, I lost myself to the process. I was charged, but not found guilty of a weapons charge. I was lost, I felt as if I’d lost my most important thing, my spirit. I was removed from all programming, I was off the grid, no one knew where I was, no contact with family.
I emotionally broke down. I was transferred to a mental health observation unit. What amazes me about this, is just how much you feel as if you don’t matter to the real world. After suffering the abuse I did physically at Watertown being alone was a gift. I was psychologically torn between the sexual abuse, and being boxed, its so difficult to find yourself in any of the process.
Through the experience of being boxed, one loses all sense of reality, time…even the date…you long for any contact, any way of communication, and being a Transsexual it just further compounds the intensity of the feeling, the moment. It’s a miracle, should you escape the torture of the box. It’s scheduled, a way of life, and the Correctional Officers can and will get away with murder. Virtually anything is open, who is going to believe a con anyway.
I still had my voice, I had what little spirit I had and I clung to it. I wrote. I had an amazing Attorney, she was and is relentless, Melissa Loomis of Prisoner Legal Services in Ithaca, New York. She advocated, she would not give up on finding me lost to the system, GOD how could I ever forget her…When she knew I was in trouble, she came, she found me…Subsequently it was her letter that got me released from Corrections. She gave me the strength I needed so desperately. I was eventually released from the Box at Midstate Correctional Facility.
It was within Midstate that I realized how disengaging this whole process was, nothing was supportive in any way. It was there that I was visited by a NYS [Parole Board] Commissioner Sally Thompson. It was then that she took my hand and said I know about everything that happened to you. This was unheard of in Corrections, I was so far away in the sense that this was so unexpected.
The one factor I came to understand about those similarly situated to me, was that they were all stuck on fantasy island, in the sense that they accepted the bid as it was, as a right of passage, as if this life was OK, prison life, was in fact a way of life. I was terrified…terrified of losing myself to that standard of living, receiving multiple tickets or tier three tickets as they are known, losing good time, losing merit time, not completing required programming to go home. Why…because you’ve lost yourself to fantasy island, where in your mind nothing matters, this is all great…This is OK…I could never lose myself to that process…I knew then that there was nothing corrective about being locked up, the corrective change had to start within.
I found the greatest part of my life through this, I’ve always believed that at times you have to crawl through the darkest places in this World to find something so undeniably breathtaking. I found just that, through the greatest of adversity, I found him, I found Jeremy. I know now that without this nightmare, finding him, it just would have never happened. Our love for one another is bionically strong, so much in the sense that his face haunts me…I owe so much to this World, I know what it’s like, GOD I want to scream to this World, I know what it’s like. My Tranz Brothers and Sisters are there, boxed. I know their voice, I know all of their voices, it’s killing me…I wont stop…I WILL NOT LET THEIR VOICE GO UNHEARD.
• The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism has filed as lawsuit against the Wisconsin Department of Corrections (DOC), after it failed to provide documents or status updates in relation to two records requests. One of the requests regarded a work group created by the DOC’s secretary to review its use of solitary confinement.
• A settlement reached between the Justice Department and the Muscogee County Jail will substantially reform the treatment of those with mental illness. According to a local outlet, the agreement “restricts the use of solitary confinement for prisoners with serious mental illness and limits the use of solitary confinement after 14 days.”
• The Bureau of Prisons finalized the rules that govern its Communication Management Units, the units which have been nicknamed “Guantanamo North” by civil liberties advocates and come under scrutiny for holding a majority-Muslim population in conditions of social isolation. According to The Marshall Project, “prisoner advocates claim the new rules impose even stricter limits on contact without providing a legitimate way for inmates to appeal being placed under such restrictions.”
• The San Francisco Bay Chronicle published an inside account of solitary confinement entitled, “What would compel a man to try to cut his own face off?”
• The American Institute of Architects has rejected a proposed amendment to its ethics code, which would have prohibited AIA members from designing spaces “intended for execution or for torture or other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, including prolonged solitary confinement.” Architecture News Daily reported that the main controversy around the amendment was not around content but enforceability.
• The Guardian published an excerpt of Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy, in which “the campaigning American lawyer [Stevenson] tells how he fought for Ian Manuel, a 13-year-old black youth locked up in solitary confinement for 18 years.”
It has been over three years since the first statewide hunger strike in protest of the California prison systems’ use of solitary confinement. The hunger strike, the first of many to follow, was launched by individuals housed in the state’s Security Housing Units (SHUs). The hunger strikes prompted state Legislative hearings, international scrutiny, and some reforms.
The SHU, first established in 1989 at Pelican Bay State Prison, was designed to house the “worst-of-the-worst” in close, secure, isolated confinement. Keeping individuals in small, windowless cells for 22 1/2 to 24 hours a day eventually proved to be a convenient solution to deal with individuals exhibiting behavioral or mental health problems and real or suspected gang affiliation as well.
The SHU, once limited to Pelican Bay, has been expanded to a total of four male facilities and one female facility. Despite this expansion, California doesn’t have enough room in the SHUs for all the individuals prison officials would like to place in them, necessitating their placement in Administrative Segregation Units (ASUs), which are dispersed throughout each prison.
By 2011, there were thousands of individuals in the SHU, including over 1,100 in the Pelican Bay SHU alone. Of them, approximately half had been in the SHU for over a decade and 78 had been in the SHU for at least 20 years.
In June 2011, individuals in the Pelican Bay SHU coordinated a hunger strike in protest of long-term isolation. The hunger strike lasted three weeks, notably bringing together people of all racial groups. There would be an additional hunger strike that year, followed by a third, 60-day-long hunger strike in July 2013.
Partly in response to the hunger strikes, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) proposed and implemented an array of reforms purportedly aimed at tightening the standards for SHU placement and potentially reducing the number of individuals held in highly restrictive custody.
Beginning in October 2012, the CDCR has changed the criteria used to place individuals in the SHU, created a “Step Down Program” for individuals to transition out of the SHU, and began a process of case-by-case reviews of all individuals held in the SHU and ASU to determined the appropriateness of their placement.
The reviews are ongoing, but the data collected so far is quite revealing.
According to data obtained from CDCR, 725 SHU case reviews have been conducted, with about 69% those cases leading to release to the final step in the Step Down Program and/or a General Population setting. A further 63% of ASU case reviews have led to a return to the general population.
In other words, in most cases, it appears that under slightly stricter standards, CDCR could not justify keeping individuals in highly restrictive, isolating conditions.
With these reviews being conducted for over two years now, and the overall decline of the prison population, one would expect that the number of people in restrictive housing would be on the decline.
Officially, CDCR does not believe it holds individuals in solitary confinement. Thus, a true count of the total number of individuals in such conditions is difficult to determine. The purpose of this research is to use CDCR data to provide a means of determining how many individuals might be in solitary confinement.
The CDCR releases pertinent data through COMPSTAT (COMPuter STATistics or COMParative STATistics). CDCR keeps track of the following data: the number of individuals in single-celled housing, the number of individuals in the SHU and ASU, and the number of individuals in the SHU and ASU in single-celled housing. This data is the closest one can get to determining the number of individuals in solitary confinement.
Total Single Cell Population
Presented first is a comparison of the reported single-cell population per institution in October 2012 and October 2014.
In October 2012, there was a prison population of 124,718. At that time, were 6,281 individuals who were single-celled, or 5.03% of the prison population. In October 2014, there was a prison population of 120,705. There were 5,546 individuals who were single-celled, or 4.59% of the prison population.
In 2012, 4,572 of those single-celled were designated with an S-Suffix, or 72% of the single-celled population. In 2014, 4,975 of those single-celled were designated with an S-Suffix, or 89% of the single-celled population. Individuals designated an S-Suffix are generally placed on single-celled status for longer periods of time.
The SHU is used to house people deemed security threats over the long-term. Given the outcomes of the case-by-case reviews, a reduction in the SHU population has occurred since 2012.
In October 2012, the total SHU population stood at 3,923. In October 2014, the total SHU population was 3,732.
As can be seen in the above chart, there were reductions in the SHU population in all four male institutions, with the exception of the Pelican Bay SHU. In October 2012, there were 1,121 held in the Pelican Bay SHU; two years later the figure was 1,171.
While there has been an increase in the number of individuals in the Pelican Bay SHU, there has also been a decline in the number of individuals in the Pelican Bay SHU on single-cell status. In 2012, 83% of those in the SHU were on single-cell status. In 2014, about 75% of those in the Pelican Bay SHU were on single-cell status.
At the California Institution for Women, there have been slight reductions in use of the SHU. In October 2012, there were 88 women in the SHU, with none on single-cell status. In October 2014, there were 78 women in the SHU, with four on single-cell status.
Among the SHU population system-wide, there have been reductions in the number and percentage of individuals on single-cell status. In 2012, there were 1,849 individuals in the SHU on single-cell status, approximately 47.1% of the SHU population. In 2014, there were 1,721 individuals in the SHU on single-cell status, or about 46.1% of the SHU population.
It is important to note that those removed from single-cell status might well still be locked down 22 to 24 hours a day–but in cells with one or more other people.
Aside from the SHU, the ASU also serves to isolate individuals in the California prison system, though generally for shorter periods of time than the SHU. There is no typical term in the ASU, which can range from hours to years. Unlike the SHU, the ASU is not designed to be long-term housing.
Overall, the total number of individuals in the ASU declined significantly between 2012 and 2014.
In October 2012, there were 7,007 individuals (5.61% of the prison population) in ASUs:
- Of them, there were 1,547 on single-cell status (22%)
- Salinas Valley State Prison had the largest ASU population (395) and the largest population of ASU prisoners on single-cell status (202)
- Valley State Prison reported only having two people in the ASU
- Some prisons reported having no single-celled ASU prisoners: Chuckawalla Valley State Prison, California Correctional Center, San Quentin State Prison, and Valley State Prison for Women
In October 2014, there were 5,777 individuals (4.78% of prison population) in ASUs:
- Of them, there were 1,289 on single-cell status (22.3%)
- Kern Valley State Prison had the largest ASU population (364)
- Salinas Valley State Prison had the largest single-cell ASU population (165)
- Central California Women’s Facility, California Correctional Center and Correctional Training Facility reported only having two people in the ASU on Single-Cell Status
- Some prisons reported having no single-celled ASU prisoners: Avenal State Prison, Chuckwalla Valley State Prison, Sierra Conservation Center, and California Institution for Women
The fluctuations in single-cell status across institutions are as of yet unexplained.
Unlike what is available for the SHU, CDCR makes available through COMPSTAT the average terms in the ASU per institution. ASUs are not designed for long-term housing and do not typically come with any significant form of programming. While in theory individuals shouldn’t spend very much time the ASU, COMPSTAT data consistently shows long-terms in the ASU.
As seen in the above chart, lengths of stay in the ASU vary across prisons and time.
In October 2012, the average term in the ASU was 107.5 days. Two years later, the average ASU term was 89.6 days, a significant decline.
In 2012, among male facilities, Sierra Conservation Center had the lowest average length of stay in the ASU, with an average of 42 days. Calipatria State Prison had the longest, with an average ASU stay of 266 days. In 2014, Chuckawalla Valley had the briefest length of stay of stay in the ASU, with terms of 36 days. Ironwood State Prison had the longest average stay in the ASU, at 132 days.
It appears that the total use of single-cell housing is on the decline. Further, total use of SHU and ASUs in both raw numbers and as a percentage of the prison population have declined. In the SHU, there has been a slight decline in the use of single-cell housing, though a slight increase in the SHU population at Pelican Bay State Prison. In the ASU, the percentage of individuals in the ASU on single-cell status has slightly increased, though there have been significant declines in terms of stay in the ASU.
There are a few potential explanations for the decline in single-cell placement and the use of segregation units. First, the case-by-case SHU and ASU reviews that have been occurring have undoubtedly contributed to the decline of segregation populations. As a result of those reviews, hundreds of individuals have been transferred out of the SHU and ASU and placed in general population. Second, there ought to have been reductions in the total single-cell population in part due to court-ordered reforms pertaining to the segregating of individuals receiving mental health treatment. Thirdly, it is possible that some individuals in segregation units have benefited in recent years from prison population reductions.
Thus far, for advocates of reducing the use of solitary confinement, there is cause for cautious optimism within the data. At the same time, there is much more that can be done.
• A judge has ruled in favor of releasing Marichuy Gamino, a transgender asylum seeker who was raped in immigration detention and subsequently held in solitary confinement “for her own protection.” Gamino – who has been held at Eloy Detention Center in Arizona for more than a year – will be freed once her bond is paid.
• Five Rikers guards and one captain have been fired for a physical assault they committed in 2012. Robert Hinton, then 27, was beaten by the guards after he refused to be escorted to a now-closed isolation unit for prisoners with mental illness.
• Scott Frakes, currently the deputy prisons director in Washington state, will next serve as Nebraska’s corrections commissioner. Over the course of Frakes’ tenure in Washington, the state decreased the use of solitary confinement by 35 percent.
• Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe signed a conditional pardon for Reginald “Neli” Latson, a man diagnosed with autism who had been in solitary confinement for more than a year. Latson will now be moved to a residential facility.
This story originally appeared on Waging Nonviolence.
A group of prisoners’ rights activists didn’t stop a new isolation unit from being approved on January 13, but they did manage to push through some changes to the proposal, as well as long-overdue limitations to solitary confinement at Rikers Island, New York City’s massive island jail complex. In doing so, they went up against the powerful Correctional Officers’ Benevolent Association.
The Jails Action Coalition is a grassroots group that has been pushing for an end to all forms of solitary confinement, as well as transparency and accountability in what goes on in New York City jails. Some are people who have spent time in jails and prisons. Others are people who work in these systems, such as lawyers, advocates and social workers. Still, others are family members of incarcerated people. For nearly three years, they’ve worked to shine light on jail practices that often remain out of the public eye, from publicizing and demanding accountability for preventable deaths on Rikers to helping push recent legislation requiring the Department of Correction, or DOC, to publicly report the number of people in solitary, the length of their stay and whether they were injured or assaulted.
In April 2013, the group petitioned the New York City Board of Correction, which establishes and monitors minimum standards around conditions in the city’s jails, to amend its minimum standards for the use of solitary confinement, which is also known as “punitive segregation.” The majority of people incarcerated on Rikers cannot afford bail and are awaiting trial. Some are serving sentences of one year or less. The board rejected the petition, but it did commission two reports on the use of solitary in New York City jails.
In September 2013, after both reports condemned solitary at Rikers, the Board of Correction voted to make new rules governing solitary confinement in the city’s jail system. But then they didn’t make them.
More than a year later, in November 2014, the DOC submitted a proposal to build a $14.8 million Enhanced Supervision Housing unit, or ESHU. According to the DOC, the ESHU would decrease jail violence by segregating up to 250 people who are identified as gang members, committed stabbings or slashings, are found with a scalpel, participate in protests, or engage in “serious and persistent violence.” Those placed in the ESHU would be locked into their cells for 17 hours each day. They would have limited access to the law library. Their mail could be read without notifying either them or the sender. They may not be allowed contact visits with family and loved ones. But, in order to move forward with the new unit, the DOC needed the authorization of the Board of Correction.
Activists, including many in the Jails Action Coalition, were horrified. With only one month before the sole public hearing about the unit and two months until the deciding vote, they worked to circulate news about the proposed unit. They urged people to submit written comments to the board opposing the new unit. They urged people to attend and speak at the upcoming hearing. Their outreach was successful. On December 19, 2014, not only had they lined up to attend and signed up to speak at the hearing, but so had many other people who had been incarcerated, worked at, or had loved ones in Rikers. At the same time, however, correctional officers were also mobilized, along with their union, including union president Norman Seabrook, who has gone from being called a “roadblock to reform” to an “enemy of reform” by the New York Times. Uniformed correctional officers took up nearly a quarter of the seating, which prevented people arriving after 9 a.m. from being allowed to enter the auditorium.
The hearing lasted for over six-and-a-half hours with 104 people from both sides signed up to testify, many of whom condemned the proposal. After the hearing, members of the Jails Action Coalition met with the three newest members of the board individually to talk with them about the proposed rule and the effects of solitary confinement.
Four days before its January 13 hearing, the board published an amended version of the rule it was considering. The rule would authorize the creation of the ESHU, while also placing limitations around punitive segregation, a form of solitary confinement used to punish people who broke jail rules.
Currently, only 16- and 17-year-olds are separated from other age groups. People ages 18 and over are housed in the adult units at Rikers. The new rule excludes people ages 18 to 21 from solitary. Those who have serious mental health or physical disabilities are also excluded. Clinicians from the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene decide what constitutes a serious mental health or physical disability warranting exclusion from the ESHU. The rule also states that, if a person is excluded because of their age or health, they cannot be placed in punitive segregation for the same rule violation once their age or health status has changed.
In addition, the rule now places a time limit on the amount of time that can be spent in punitive segregation. Under the old system, people could spend months, if not years, in punitive segregation. Now, the department can only place a person in punitive segregation for up to 30 consecutive days. If the segregation sentence exceeds 30 days, the person is given a seven-day break before being sent back to segregation. In addition, the rule sets a limit of 60 days in punitive segregation within a six-month time period unless a person is persistently violent. If a longer time in segregation is sought, the chief of department must approve the extension. The DOC is required to notify both the Board of Correction and the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and explain the security concerns. Daily mental health rounds must be provided for those in segregation for more than 60 days during a six-month period. Finally, it eliminates the practice of “owed time” in which a person who had been released from Rikers before finishing his time in segregation is immediately placed in solitary if he is ever re-arrested and re-incarcerated there.
The hearing on January 13 was not as crowded as the previous one. Less than 50 uniformed corrections officers sat in the back rows while advocates filled the front. The auditorium remained a quarter empty but everyone listened intently.
Before the board voted on the proposed rule, Bryanne Hamill, a former family court judge and a commissioner of the Board of Correction, added amendments limiting criteria for ESHU placement and setting a sentencing maximum of 30 days for any one charge. She also added an amendment excluding 18 to 21-year-olds from both the ESHU and punitive segregation beginning on January 1, 2016, so long as the DOC has the resources for alternative programs.
“The process [for this rulemaking] has not been very good,” stated Robert Cohen, another commissioner on the Board of Correction. Calling the rule “ill-conceived and flawed,” he said, “I do not believe the ESH Unit will decrease violence on Rikers Island. The only way we can decrease violence is to recognize that violence is caused by Rikers Island.”
“I do not support locking in ESH inmates for 17 hours a day,” Hamill stated, pointing out that, under the rule, those who participate in protests and other disturbances can be sent to the ESHU.
She also noted that reforming existing practices of solitary confinement seemed to be “held hostage” by the ESHU proposal. And so, the motion to adopt the rules, as amended by Judge Hamill, was unanimously approved.
Although he got the unit he was advocating for, Norman Seabrook seemed infuriated by the accompanying limitations, lambasting the board during the public comments section. He charged them with listening more to the Jails Action Coalition than to the men and women who work at Rikers Island. “Shame on you for allowing yourselves to be influenced by a small group of people — 90 percent of whom have never been incarcerated and never been a corrections officer.” He charged that the board, by limiting time in segregation, is jeopardizing the safety of both jail staff and those they guard, threatening to sue the board any time an officer is assaulted because of the new limitations. On that note, he walked out of the auditorium, taking with him a small cadre of non-uniformed people from the DOC.
Had he stayed, he would have heard the testimony of Evie Litwok, a member of the Jails Action Coalition who has been incarcerated and spent seven weeks in solitary confinement. Litwok also lambasted the board, but for a different reason: “You had an atrocious proposal,” she said. “You were able to tack on some amendments in one month. But you spent a year not passing minimum standards around punitive segregation.” Scott Paltrowitz, associate director of the Prison Visiting Project of the Correctional Association of New York, agreed. “This was an opportunity to create real alternatives to solitary confinement,” he said. “That opportunity wasn’t taken.”
But, advocates conceded after the meeting, there were some wins. Hearings for placement in punitive segregation and the ESHU now allow the accused to call witnesses, which had not been allowed previously. The initial proposal for the ESHU did not allow for exclusions of people with mental health concerns. The limit to 30 consecutive days and maximum of 60 days was, in the words of Johnny Perez who spent 60 days in segregation in Rikers as a teen, “the best news I’ve heard all day.”
Litwok, who had been part of the individual meetings with Board of Correction members, agrees. “I think Jails Action Coalition’s efforts made a dent. It allowed Hamill and Cohen, who were against the unit, to make the amendments [around solitary],” she said. The initial rule, she noted, excluded 16- and 17-year-olds from solitary and eliminated the practice of “owed time,” but did not contain any of the other limits included in the new rule.
“Obviously the exclusions for certain age groups is positive,” said Nick Malinowski, a social worker at Brooklyn Defender Services. “But we haven’t changed the paradigm that punishing people is going to change behavior.” The next step, he said, is ensuring that standards are enforced, a task where the board has sometimes faltered.
“Although [limitations on solitary] are a step in the right direction, we want to see more,” said Perez, who is now on the Strategic Adolescent Advisory Board to recommend further changes in dealing with teens at Rikers. “We want to see more out-of-cell time than seven hours a day. We want to see the elimination of solitary confinement for those under 25 and more humane treatment of those in solitary.” Noting that the rule includes a sunset provision — which means that after 18 months, the board will evaluate the new unit’s effectiveness and decide whether to authorize its continuation — he said, “We’ll be back then. And we’ll continue to fight for the rights of those inside.”
Last week, Solitary Watch published an investigation into the new federal prison in Thomson, Illinois, which is in the process of being renovated with an eye toward activation in the next year. Sources show that Thomson is intended to be in effect a supermax prison, with 400 “Administrative Maximum” cells for extreme solitary confinement, and 1500 more “Special Management Unit” cells, where people will be held in 23-hour-a-day lockdown. If activated as planned
On Friday, January 16, a group of advocates representing “a broad coalition of civil rights advocates, faith community leaders, human rights organizations, mental health practitioners, academics, lawyers, and former prisoners” sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, who oversees the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP). The letter expresses concern over “the Bureau’s imminent plans to increase its use of solitary and other forms of isolated confinement with the opening of the new Thomson Correctional Center in Illinois.”
The letter continues: “The creation of more solitary confinement beds at this time simply makes no sense as BOP is also claiming that it has reduced and will continue to reduce the use of isolation in the federal system. This stark contradiction raises serious questions about the Bureau’s efficient use of scarce taxpayer dollars and its disregard of the need for humane policies and practices that foster rehabilitation of prisoners and better public safety outcomes.”
The more than 30 signatories to the letter range from the ACLU and Amnesty International to the National Religious Campaign Against Torture and a host of other faith-based groups. They urge Holder and the Department of Justice to delay any plans regarding Thomson’s use until the completion of a year-long audit of the use of “segregation”–solitary confinement and other forms of extreme isolation–across the BOP. The purpose of the audit is widely believed to be some reduction in the use of solitary confinement in the federal system.
The letter points out: “The creation of more solitary confinement beds at this time simply makes no sense as BOP is also claiming that it has reduced and will continue to reduce the use of isolation in the federal system. This stark contradiction raises serious questions about the Bureau’s efficient use of scarce taxpayer dollars and its disregard of the need for humane policies and practices that foster rehabilitation of prisoners and better public safety outcomes.”
The groups do not express general opposition to Thomson Correctional Facility–which the federal government purchased from the state of Illinois in 2012–but rather to its opening as a supermax prison. In fact, Solitary Watch’s investigation suggests that the prison will need considerable retrofitting in order to convert it from a conventional maximum security prison, with congregate spaces such as mess halls and day rooms, into a supermax facility.
“We are deeply concerned that BOP’s decision to convert Thomson Correctional Center into another ‘supermax’ prison not only constitutes an example of extreme government waste of scarce taxpayer dollars, but that the Bureau is willfully implementing policies and practices which will cause harm to and potentially violate the rights of thousands of prisoners—with negative public safety outcomes for us all,” the letter concludes. “As Attorney General, we call on you to ensure that the BOP is operated in a humane, safe, efficient, and effective manner. Expanding the use of solitary and other forms of isolation in federal prisons accomplishes none of these goals.”
To read the full text of the letter, click below. To date, there has been no response from Attorney General Holder’s office.
• New York City’s Board of Corrections voted to implement strict restrictions on the placement of young people in solitary confinement at Rikers Island – but they also moved to create a new isolation unit, called Enhanced Supervision Housing unit (ESHU). Victoria Law provided detailed coverage of the vote on Waging Nonviolence (also covered by Slate, NPR and other outlets).
• Vanity Fair published an article entitled, “From Gitmo to an American Supermax, the Horrors of Solitary Confinement.”
• The Children’s Defense Fund-California published a report calling for significant changes to Los Angeles County’s juvenile justice system, including the use of solitary confinement. One of the young people who contributed to the report said, “Solitary confinement has long been one of our society’s more primitive methods of addressing misbehavior.”
• California State Senator Mark Leno introduced a bill that “would establish specific, limited circumstances in which state and county juvenile correctional facilities would be permitted to place someone in solitary confinement.” SB 124 will be read in the state’s policy committees this spring.
• Mother Jones published a longform investigation into the experiences of children held in solitary confinement. The article opens with the story of 17-year-old boy, Kenny, who spent 82 days in the hole over a period of six months.
• Solitary Watch’s Victoria Law published an in-depth article on Truth-Out about women’s experiences in isolation.” She writes, “…despite the increasing attention being paid to solitary in men’s prisons… far less attention has been paid to the practice in women’s prisons.”
Amid growing controversy around the use of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons and jails, and in advance of an audit of its own prison “segregation” practices, the federal government is quietly moving ahead with a plan that would significantly increase its capacity to house individuals in long-term isolation. The 2015 Omnibus Appropriations bill passed by Congress in December contained funding for the continued activation of Thomson prison, a currently disused facility in northwest Illinois.
It has been years since Thomson dominated the headlines with news of mainland-bound Guantanamo detainees. Yet its activation remains significant because of the prison’s potential to alter the landscape of solitary confinement on the federal level. Reliable sources indicate that the Bureau of Prisons plans to use the facility to add 1,500 Special Management Unit beds and 400 more Administrative Maximum-rated cells. The latter increase would double the number of people held in conditions of extreme isolation like those at ADX Florence, a place that has been denounced by UN officials and human rights groups, and described by one former warden as a “clean version of hell.”
The Backstory: How Thomson Came Into BOP Hands
In October 2012, the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) purchased Thomson Correctional Center (TCC) from the State of Illinois for $165 million. The facility was built in 2001 “as a state-of-the-art, maximum-security prison,” but due to budget cuts, it never became fully operational.
By all accounts, the Obama administration originally envisioned Thomson as a new home for the men held at Guantanamo Bay. In late 2010, however, Congress foiled Obama’s plan by voting to prohibit the use federal funds to transport detainees onto American soil. And while the President has been moving aggressively in recent months to transfer detainees out of Guantanamo, serious obstacles remain in terms of the political feasibility of closing the prison camp.
From the beginning, Justice Department officials insisted that regardless of Gitmo’s fate, they also intended to use Thomson to alleviate the overcrowding crisis within the BOP’s highest-security institutions. Overcrowding (e.g. incarcerated population above rated capacity) reached 55 percent in federal high-security facilities by 2011. For BOP officials in search of more high-security housing, the Thomson purchase was a steal, since the cost of building a high-security facility from scratch was estimated at $400 million.
Ironically, the two Illinois elected officials who championed the federal purchase of Thomson are both known for challenging solitary confinement. Then-Governor Pat Quinn closed down the state’s notorious supermax prison, Tamms, while Senator Dick Durbin is the first member of Congress to hold hearings critical of solitary.
The reasons for their support of the Thomson sale are not difficult to discern. According to a press release issued by Illinois Senator Dick Durbin at the time that Thomson was purchased, “annual operation of the facility is expected to generate more than $122 million in operating expenditures (including salaries), $19 million in labor income, and $61 million in local business sales.” Along with infusing cash into the state’s coffers and offloading the cost of maintaining the facility, the sale and eventual activation of the prison is expected to create more than 1,100 jobs.
Durbin is also a staunch supporter of Cheri Bustos, who represents the 17th Congressional District in which Thomson is located. During the 2011 campaign cycle, The Sauk Valley News interviewed a competing Democratic candidate in the district, who said that Durbin had met with him personally and asked him to withdraw from the race. When Bustos squared off with her Republican contender, both took vocal stances on the best strategy for securing the sale of Thomson–an issue made pressing by the economic fallout the district experienced when the facility failed to open.
“This area has been looking at an empty prison for twelve years now,” Thomson Village President Vicky Trager told Solitary Watch in a phone interview. “The state of Illinois constructed it and then couldn’t seem to find the funding to activate it. So there were a lot of local business, not just in Thomson but in the entire surrounding area, that had invested in properties or constructed buildings in anticipation of the uptake in population and visitors to our area. And when that didn’t happen, they were very badly affected.”
But it is not just local businesses that have suffered. Last week, the Quad-City Times reported that the village is struggling to pay off a $4 million bond–a debt taken on by Thomson to finance the water and sewer improvements that the prison required.
Once Thomson was purchased, the Bureau of Prisons still required a steady stream of funds to activate it, and Senator Durbin and Representative Bustos have advocated aggressively in Congress for the money. In FY2014, the facility received $43.7 million for equipment and staffing, and an additional $10 million for renovations. And the prison is set to receive an additional $58.7 million from the FY2015 Omnibus Appropriations bill passed in December.
“Both personally, and from the standpoint as Village President, I can’t say enough for the efforts and the support that we have received from both Congresswoman Bustos and Senator Durbin,” Trager told Solitary Watch. “Having met them both personally, I feel encouraged and confident that they do care about getting it activated and getting it open and we’re grateful for that.”
The Road to Activation
The Bureau of Prisons has projected that Thomson will be fully activated by 2016. For now, however, the process of activation appears to be proceeding slowly. In August, the BOP named a warden for the facility, Donald Hudson, who most recently headed up the Federal Correctional Institute in Schuylkill, Pennsylvania. About a month later, the prison held its first job fair.
Yet a host of questions remain about who will be held at the prison and in what conditions of confinement—questions for which the BOP has failed to provide clear answers.
In its FY 2014 budget request, the US Department of Justice referred to the facility as “ADX USP Thomson,” seemingly an indication that the prison would function at least in part as a second Administrative Maximum facility (along with ADX Florence). A little more than six months later, when Warden Hudson was appointed, the Bureau of Prisons instead called the facility “Administrative United States Penitentiary (AUSP) Thomson—an odd move, given that no existing federal prison facility holds the same designation. Thus far, federal prisoners given high-security designations have been housed in “United States Penitentiaries (USPs)”; prisoners perceived as requiring the highest level of security—like those with terrorism convictions—are placed in Florence ADX.
The BOP’s press officer did not respond to repeated requests from Solitary Watch for clarification of Thomson’s designation.
Of all prisons and jails across the United States, Florence ADX is generally considered to have the most extreme conditions of isolation, with most individuals receiving all meals and programming in their cells, and even taking their showers in-cell at timed intervals.
According to an August 2014 report on prison activation published by the Government Accountability Office, the “BOP plans to move some of the most dangerous SMU inmates housed elsewhere to Administrative USP Thomson.” It also details, “Administrative USP Thomson has a rated capacity of 2,100 beds—1,900 high-security SMU beds and 200 minimum-security beds at the onsite camp—and according to BOP officials, the potential to use some of its high-security rated capacity to house up to 400 ADX inmates.”
The BOP sends people to an SMU, or Special Management Unit, if they are alleged to have participated in gang activity or have a history of serious disciplinary infractions; the program is supposed to consist of a four-level, 18-to-24 month step-down program, but many remain for significantly longer.
Individuals held in SMUs also live in continuous isolation, with only five hours per week out of their cells for exercise, and two phone calls and four visiting hours each month. Some SMU cells meant for one are currently double-bunked. As of May 2013 the SMU population in the BOP rested at 1,960 prisoners and 1,270 cells, meaning the activation of Thomson will more than double the number of SMU cells.
Solitary Watch also requested information about how SMU prisoners will be selected for transfer to Thomson, and whether any individuals currently held at ADX Florence would be moved to the facility, but received no reply.
The BOP’s decision to also functionally double its number of nationally available ADX-cells—from 400 to 800—does not seem to answer any systemic need. Unlike the USPs, ADX Florence has consistently been operating below capacity. And Administrative Maximum-level housing requires much greater spending and staffing per prisoner than high-security housing.
Creating an ADX-level unit may also require some significant internal renovations to Thomson prison. David Maurer is the Director of Homeland Security and Justice Issues for the GAO, and the author of several reports that examine Bureau of Prisons activities. He told Solitary Watch that when the GAO toured Thomson in March 2014 prior to the release of a report on prison activation, they asked the BOP about the different physical requirements for the layout of ADX cells as opposed to high-security ones. “When you go to the control unit in ADX, the cells are configured in a certain way. The cells at Thomson are not currently configured in that way.” Maurer said the BOP “said they would take that into consideration.”
Malcolm Young toured Thomson in 2008 when he served as the Executive Director of the John Howard Association of Illinois, a prison reform organization. He told Solitary Watch that none of the cells at the prison have built-in showers, and nor are any double doored—both of which are known to be standard features in ADX cells. Young also specified the cells were built to hold one individual, with the beds poured with cement or cement-like material, but that a second bunk could be added if necessary.
To the touring members of the John Howard Association Thomson seemed like a “far superior facility” than other maximum-security prisons operating in the state, Young said, adding that his team’s assessment was predicated on the assumption that people would be single-celled. “That would change everything. It should not ever be double celled.” In addition, few of the positive features cited by Young—which included dayrooms, cafeterias, and classrooms—would be of any use at all in a supermax prison where there are no congregate activities.
The BOP declined to provide any information about what renovations will be conducted at Thomson or when they anticipate the construction will be completed. In response to queries from Solitary Watch about why the agency would be adding additional ADX-level beds when Florence is running under capacity, the press officer stated that the BOP declined to comment.
Prison “Overcrowding” and the Pushback Against Solitary
Advocates and policy makers are not merely awaiting news about Thomson’s future—they are also anticipating the publication of an audit of the Bureau of Policies on segregation, expected to come out early next year. The audit was performed by an outside team contracted through the National Institute of Corrections, following the 2012 Senate Judiciary Subcommittee hearing on solitary confinement, chaired by Dick Durbin.
Solitary Watch asked Durbin’s office how the Senator balanced his concerns about solitary confinement and his commitment to opening Thomson. “Thomson prison will be a federal maximum security prison and will help alleviate massive overcrowding within the Federal prison system,” his press officer wrote in response. “Overcrowding which has created grave safety concerns for both inmates and prison officials.”
“Senator Durbin’s efforts to secure the purchase of Thomson prison, reform solitary confinement practices, and encourage smarter sentencing practices are all consistently aimed at improving the safety, rights, and treatment of inmates, prison guards and the broader community. He will continue his work to ensure that all prisoners, whether in Thomson or elsewhere in the Federal system, are treated humanely and that no one is housed in segregation unnecessarily.”
Many prison advocates contest the BOP’s assertion that the “overcrowding” problem is a result of lack of capacity.
Alan Mills is the Legal Director of the Uptown People’s Law Center, a community-based legal organization in Chicago. He told Solitary Watch that the real problem in the federal system is not a lack of high-security cell space, but locking up people for too long and over classifying prisoners as “maximum security.” Mills also contested that notion that isolation makes prisons safer, commenting that “psychologists have known since the 1920’s that packing lots of people into small spaces and giving them nothing to do inevitably leads to violence.”
A 2013 GAO report on segregation in the federal prison system documents the dramatic rise in the use of isolation and takes issue with the BOP’s claim that solitary is both necessary and effective. The report summary states, “…without an assessment of the impact of segregation on institutional safety or study of the long-term impact of segregated housing on inmates, BOP cannot determine the extent to which segregated housing achieves its stated purpose to protect inmates, staff and the general public.”
But little came of the report, and with Thomson’s activation seemingly inching towards reality, advocates are left wondering when things will change. “If they build it, they will fill it,” said Reverend Laura Markle Downton, the Director of the US Prisons Policy & Program at the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, in an email to Solitary Watch.
Downton calls the activation of Thomson “an immoral, unjustifiable move on the part the BOP, antithetical to rehabilitation and in violation of international human rights. The overwhelming consensus amongst people of faith and conscience nationwide, from a broad array of political persuasions and religious traditions, is that the isolated confinement found in ADX-level and SMU-housing is torture.”
Amidst the debates on rural economies, prison overcrowding, and government audits, the voices of survivors of solitary confinement can sometimes be hard to hear. Ray Luc Levasseur is a former political prisoner who spent over fifteen years in solitary confinement.
“I was one of the first prisoners sent to ADX, the federal supermax, a prison designed from the ground up for sensory deprivation,” he told Solitary Watch. “The projected activation of another supermax in Thomson, Illinois makes me feel like a survivor of abuse that’s watching the abuser receive rewards and impunity. And I fear for those who’ll be confined their cages, and those in the communities to which they’ll someday return.”
• South Carolina has paid $1.2 million to the estate of an individual who contracted hypothermia after spending 11 days in solitary confinement without any clothing. Jerome Laudman, who had mental health issues and developmental disabilities, was found dead in his supermax cell in February 2008.
• Journalist Martha Bellisle explores an ongoing crisis in Washington state – the wait lists that leave individuals with mental illness languishing in jails. People who are deemed incompetent to face charges – and are ordered to undergo treatment – often spend week or months in solitary confinement while they await a free hospital bed.
• This week, New York City’s Board of Corrections is set to vote on new regulations regarding the use of solitary confinement on Rikers Island. Included in the proposal is the creation of “enhanced supervision housing” units (ESHU), which “would allow wardens to lock 250 inmates in their cells up to 17 hours a day” – a plan which has come under stinging criticism from prisoners’ rights advocates across the city.
• Pennsylvania has reached a settlement in a lawsuit between the state’s Department of Corrections and the Disability Rights Network. Prisoners with “serious mental illnesses” will no longer be placed in solitary confinement, and will instead be moved to treatment units that allow at least 20 hours of out-of-cell time per week.
• The UK’s Telegraph published an article entitled, “My 19 days in solitary confinement on Alcatraz.”
• Mustafa Kamel Mustafa – commonly referred to in the press as Abu Hamza – has been sentenced to life in prison after being convicted of several terrorism-related charges. The judge in his case rejected an appeal by Abu Hamza’s lawyers to have him placed in a special medical facility, as opposed to a federal supermax facility like ADX Florence, due to his physical disabilities.
• Illinois officials are investigating a death that occurred on January 3, in a solitary confinement cell at Stateville Correctional Center. Shawn Craig, 40, appears to have committed suicide by hanging himself from a torn sheet, but the official cause of death is still pending.
As the year ended, The Marshall Project provided a comprehensive roundup of reforms to solitary confinement practices across the country. Eli Hager and Gerald Rich write: “In 2014 one of the most controversial practices in criminal justice, solitary confinement, faced unprecedented challenges. As a result of legislation or lawsuits, ten states adopted 14 measures aimed at curtailing the use of solitary, abolishing solitary for juveniles or the mentally ill, improving conditions in segregated units, or gradually easing isolated inmates back into the general population.” The article goes on to describe each of the measures adopted in 2014, and in several previous years.
Reform is not synonymous with abolition, and the forms it takes are almost always incremental. These changes have, or will, improve the day-to-day lives of perhaps several thousand individuals who have been suffering in solitary. The reforms stand as a tribute to the thousands of activists and advocates–including many currently or formerly held in solitary confinement themselves–who have worked to bring this domestic human rights crisis to the attention of the nation after it had languished in the shadows for decades.
Still, it’s worth noting that this “Shifting Away from Solitary” has not been a seismic shift, and to date has affected only a small number of the more than 80,000 individuals who, according to the best available data, are in isolation in the nation’s prisons on any given day.
For example, in California–which is second only to the federal prison system in the use of solitary confinement–about 6,000 people are in solitary confinement, with thousands more locked down in double cells. Of these, 400 have qualified for a pilot program to transition them back to the general prison population, and 150 have actually made the transition.
In many other states, the focus has been on children under the age of 18 in adult prisons, or people with mental illness. These are both highly vulnerable groups, and the latter is in many states quite a large group as well, and their removal from solitary is significant. It also demands some scrutiny, since many are being moved to new special units with problems of their own.
All such reforms also risk dividing the incarcerated into two groups–those who “deserve” to be in solitary confinement, and those who do not. For advocates who believe that solitary is a form of torture, and therefore not acceptable for anyone, the road ahead remains a long one. So, too, for opponents who object to solitary as a “sentence within a sentence,” handed down by prison officials without due process of law–since these same prison officials are usually involved in initiating, negotiating, or formulating the reforms.
Despite such reservations, there is ample change to fortify enemies of solitary for the struggle ahead. For decades, the use of solitary confinement grew with a virtually complete absence of attention from the media, policy makers, and even major activist groups. It depended upon its own invisibility to sustain itself. To penetrate the walls of secrecy and ignorance surrounding solitary confinement is only a first step–but it is one that can never be undone.
To support those who remain isolated in long-term solitary confinement, please consider a gift to our Lifelines to Solitary project.
The following essay was written by Anthony Lamar Davis, who has spent approximately six of his past eleven years in prison in solitary confinement in New York’s “Special Housing Units,” or SHUs. In 2008, New York passed a law restricting the use of solitary on people with serious mental illness. The “SHU Exclusion Law” has removed several hundred people from isolation and placed them in alternative mental health units. It has also been criticized for being too narrowly focused and easy to circumvent. Here, Davis points out an additional shortcoming of this and all laws and regulations that focus only on people with an underlying mental health diagnosis. As he notes, solitary confinement itself causes such severe psychological damage that it often renders individuals incapable of functioning effectively in the general prison population. Thus begins a vicious cycle in which such individuals, who receive little or no support making the transition to general population, land back in solitary once again. Anthony Davis welcomes letters, and can be reached at: Anthony Davis, 04-A-3293, Green Haven Correctional Facility, P.O. Box 4000, Stormville, New York 12582-4000. –Jean Casella
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I have noticed how Politicians and prisoners’ rights advocates have been advocating for changes in how the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision handles prisoners in long-term solitary confinement. There has been an outcry from these groups regarding the lengthy amount of time being imposed on those sanctioned to solitary confinement, the treatment of prisoners, and the psychological effects of long-term solitary confinement. As a prisoner who has spent a substantial amount of time in long-term solitary confinement, I obviously am an advocate of anything that limits the amount of time that a prisoner has to be subjected to extreme isolation.
I am a witness of its torturing ways and have been greatly affected by them. I’ve screamed for help, only to be ignored, and, in some cases, laughed at by the very people who I have asked for help. Unfortunately, the prison culture doesn’t provide the necessary tolerance for people with mental illness, so, I have been alienated by both, the prisoners as well as the authorities and that gives me a sense of hopelessness and loneliness, which enhances my psychological reactions which derived from spending years in solitary confinement.
The extreme sensitivity that I have been experiencing as a result of being isolated for substantial amounts of time has increased my rage. I often find myself wanting to hurt people for minor things – and had I not been in solitary confinement, I am confident that I would have done just that. With me, there is no frustration; only raging anger. I was not like this prior to me being placed in solitary confinement, and that is scary because the types of thoughts I have when I am angry are not conducive to my desire to do well and remain positive.
What’s more is that the inability to control myself could have disastrous results. Solitary Confinement has made me impulsive to the point where I have begun to feel like I am fighting a war with myself. The understanding I have for what extreme isolation has done to me is not necessarily advantageous towards me fighting the psychological damage. What it does is creates two versions of myself: On one end, I try to fight the other version of me, which is the one who has succumbed to what the results of long-term solitary confinement has to offer. I try to use the power of knowledge and information to fight these demons, but it’s the other version of myself who wins out usually. It becomes difficult for me to apply the information that I have researched because my mind has already been manipulated by the effects of extreme isolation.
For every time that I have been subjected to extreme isolation, my mental health deteriorated upon my release back into general population, and the more I am subjected to that type of inhumane torture, the worse I become. For example, just this past April I was reintegrated back into general population after an eleven month stint in solitary confinement. While in solitary confinement, I realized that I had completely lost control of myself and had basically become a walking time bomb ready to explode at the slightest provocation. I even suggested to my therapist that I be given more time in solitary confinement because I knew that I was not ready to be reintegrated back into general population. Of course, there was no way that he could accommodate my request, but the point is that I understood the mental metamorphosis that was occurring in me and I feared that I would end up doing something that could possibly jeopardize my life and freedom – which goes back to me fighting a war with myself because a part of me wants to live and be free, but another part of me wants to die and be free.
Almost immediately upon my reentry into general population I felt out of place; like I didn’t belong. I exhibited anti-social behavior along with a very negative attitude and aggressive behavior towards both prisoners and correction officers. The proverbial time bomb had begun ticking and there was no chance of defusing the potential explosion. My pleas for help from mental health staff during my time in solitary confinement went unanswered and what I was experiencing was the results of those unanswered pleas. It was as if I was ready to unleash all of my frustration at any moment on anybody. Not to mention, the fact that there was a lot going on in my personal life between my children and I, and being that I was psychologically damaged from spending time in a long-term solitary confinement, my whole perspective had changed. So I could not even evaluate the situation with my children in a logical manner. I responded to everything with rage and fury
As of today, I have been placed back in solitary confinement resulting from a physical altercation between myself and the authorities. I was not the aggressor in this incident, but I do believe that my negative attitude had contributed to me being assaulted. Unfortunately I was unable to adjust to general population and I am now back in the place where the foundation of my psychological damage derived from after only about five months in general population. During my brief stay in general population, I expressed to my therapist countless times that I was having a difficult time adjusting and needed help. Though I had not known what it was exactly that I needed help with. I did know that something was going terribly wrong inside of my mind because, not only did my way of thinking change but so did my behavior.
But with all of these programs put in place for solitary confined prisoners who have been diagnosed as having a serious mental illness (i.e., Residential Mental Health Unit, Special Treatment Program, Behavior Housing Unit, and Correctional Alternative Rehabilitation), I have to wonder what happens to the prisoners such as myself who suffers from the psychological effects of being in long-term solitary confinement. It is apparent that there is no regard for prisoners like me, so when we are done with our time in solitary confinement, we are thrown back into general population and basically told not to get into any more trouble without regard for the psychological damage that has affected us associated with extreme isolation.
So it becomes a cycle; each turn more severe than the previous one, meanwhile, the time spent in long-term solitary confinement increases as my mental health deteriorates. No one seems to care about the difficulties of adjusting to general population despite the vast amount of people who claim to understand the psychological effects of long-term solitary confinement. I can only hope that my pleas are heard and some type of action is taken before it is too late.
To help us keep in touch with thousands of people in solitary confinement throughout the year, please consider a donation to our Lifelines to Solitary project.
• A Massachusetts judge has tentatively approved a settlement for a class-action lawsuit that alleged abuses at Bridgewater State Hospital, including the excessive use of solitary confinement. A lead attorney for the patients said, “Today’s agreement will prevent the confinement of severely mentally ill patients to months of solitary confinement for trivial and illegal reasons.”
• HuffPostLive held a discussion entitled, “It’s Time To End Solitary Confinement For Minors.”
• Lawyers for a man with severe disabilities argued in front of a New York court that he should not be sent to the federal supermax, ADX Florence, to serve his sentence. Abu Hamza, 56, was extradited to the US from the UK in 2012 and convicted on terrorism charges last spring.
• The Week posted a Pacific Standard article about Raphael Sperry, the president of Architects / Designers / Planners for Social Responsibility, which is pressing the American Institute of Architects to “prohibit architects from designing spaces designed for solitary confinement as well as execution chambers.”
• Massachusetts is set to institute strict regulations on how long prisoners with mental illness can spend in isolation. Under the recently passed legislation, H4545, individuals with mental health diagnoses would not be placed in segregated units for longer than 30 days.