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.
Dear Solitary Watchers:
We reach out directly to our readers with an appeal for support once a year, and only for a very special part of our work.
Throughout the year, while we carry out research and reporting on the human rights crisis hiding in plain sight, Solitary Watch also reaches out directly to over a 1,400 people who live in extreme isolation in prisons and jails across the country.
We get dozens of letters each week, and do our utmost to respond to each and every one. Additionally, four times a year we send out a newsletter with selected stories from the website to more than 1,400 men and women in solitary confinement. And every December we send out a holiday card. This year’s card, pictured below, features art once again by Five Mualimm-ak, a survivor of five years of solitary in New York State prisons.
At the same time, our communications with people in solitary confinement serve another purpose, providing us with a rich source of first-hand information that shapes our reporting on solitary confinement, as well as material for the Voices from Solitary we feature on our site.
Earlier last month, while opening the morning’s mail, we came across the kind of letter that serves as a touchstone for us and, we believe, anyone sympathetic to the issue we’ve dedicated ourselves to.
A carefully hand-printed letter told of the writer’s life over several years in solitary confinement, the death of his mother, the depth of his loneliness, and an isolation for which no adjective seemed severe enough. Each word, each sentiment clearly carefully considered. And then this:
“Thank you guys for looking out for us.”
It is difficult to overstate what an impact these Lifelines can have on a person who lives surrounded by gray walls, deprived of all human contact. A colorful card, or a note with a few handwritten words of support, or a newsletter that tells of the growing movement against solitary confinement–all these are acknowledgments of the recipient’s humanity, a small sign that they have not been forgotten.
This year, we are expanding our network of people willing to reach out, across the concrete walls, and connect with someone desperately in need of a sign that, despite the conditions they find themselves in, they are not alone. We’ll be working with student groups and communities of faith to make sure each letter we receive – no matter how large our list grows – continues to get an honest, personal response. And of course, as that list grows, so, too, do our printing and mailing costs.
That’s why every dollar raised in this annual appeal will go directly to our Lifelines to Solitary project.
Please consider helping us achieve our goals with a donation at any level. To find out more about Lifelines to Solitary and to make a fully tax-deductible online donation, please visit our fundraising page: https://donatenow.networkforgood.org/lifelines2015/
Thank you for your support, your faith in our work, and your concern for the people who reside in our nation’s darkest corners.
With best wishes for the new year,
Jean and Jim
• The Marshall Project published an article outlining the significant shifts in the legal landscape of solitary confinement over the course of recent years. In 2014, “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 New York Law Journal published an opinion piece about solitary confinement entitled, “We Shouldn’t Allow Eight Amendment to Be Undermined,”
• Ruth Marcus of The Washington Post published a column about Reginald Latson, a 23-year-old diagnosed with autism; he is currently facing assault charges that resulted from a mental health crisis he experienced when he was held in isolation. The ACLU of Virginia submitted a letter to Governor McAuliffe asking him to grant clemency to Latson and facilitate his transfer to a secure treatment facility in Florida.
• Writing for CNN, Raphael Sperry – the president of Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility- condemned the American Institute of Architects for refusing to add language to its code of ethics that would prohibit participation in “the design of torture chambers in US prisons and around the world,” including “prisons intended for prolonged solitary confinement.”
• KGNU, a community radio station, interviewed Colorado Independent journalist Susan Greene about her recent story focusing on a transgender woman held in solitary confinement at ADX Florence.
• The Buffalo News reports that the first of two lawsuits related to prisoner deaths in a solitary confinement unit at Niagara County Jail have gone forward. Daniel Pantera, 46, had a mental health diagnosis and was arrested for shoplifting a cup of coffee in 2012; his cell was so cold that the main cause of his death was cited in a state report as hypothermia.