This past February 25th, a panel of experts on solitary confinement converged at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to discuss the horrendous practice in our U.S. prisons that many call “cruel and unusual punishment.” While the panel detailed the disastrous effects such isolation causes, the legal challenges through the years and the “judicial and institutional apathy” towards our 80,000 people in solitary confinement nationwide – as of 2012, 8100 of those in Texas alone– what was most intriguing to me was the response to the panel by the real experts—prisoners.
You can read their words at beweenthebars.org, which describes itself as “a weblog platform for people in prison, through which the 1% of Americans who are in prison can tell their stories.” Prisoners from across the country have created over 5,000 documents for Between The Bars (BTB) since the site began in 2008. Before the panel was held, Massachusetts Institute of Technology whiz kid Charlie deTar and team members Carl McLaren and Benjamin Sugar, all who maintain the site, put out a call to hundreds of prisoners telling them about the conference. While I’ve written about Between the Bars before (See Behind Bars and Blogging for Human Rights and Boston Daily) this time, I was intrigued that prisoners were asked to share their experience with solitary confinement through their blogs. Documents were posted online where anyone could post a response. The responses were then mailed to the prisoners who had a chance to reply The circle: prisoners’ thoughts get voice; they have access to the online world; they become part of the conversation.
Texas prisoner, Guy S. Alexander, described in his blog his recent stay at the Allen B. Polunsky Unit in Livingston before his sentence of death was overturned in May, 2012. Polunsky, he wrote, took away “more of your dignity than anything… mental and long-term isolation of human contact… We had no television, or group recs, no contact visits …a small narrow window at the top back of the cells… they made a day feel horrible… the so called paranoid rules.” Alexander, who was in solitary at Polunsky for twelve years, is now in the Harris County Jail, close to his home, Houston. But he is still “in a cell 24 hours a day and it’s bad, they don’t even have air here… no circulation vents… I do have a TV and it helps, but a person needs input, friends to write and see and talk to.” On his profile page, Alexander wrote “I’m locked up but my soul and heart aren’t. I’m lonely and alone… an open book, not a monster.”
Jeremy Pinson, who made substantial threats against the government, is housed in a Colorado federal prison in solitary confinement in spite of the fact that he was diagnosed as mentally ill—which he writes about in his over 77 blogs. Sadly, this is not uncommon. A 2003 report from Human Rights Watch found that one-third to one-half of prisoners held in solitary units suffered from mental illness — that’s tens of thousands of prisoners, says Solitary Watch, a terrific website that covers all things solitary confinement.
Obviously bright, obviously tormented, Pinson wrote: “For 943 days I have eaten meals alone. For 943 days I have watched men’s minds break down in a painfully slow process. First they become eccentric. Then they become antisocial and belligerent. Next comes anger and they lash out at their captors only to be pepper sprayed and beaten into submission. Next comes despair as they realize that they are utterly helpless. For many the next step involves a noose, a bottle of pills, or a razor blade. For a few their misery ends in death. For 943 days I have wanted to and even tried to die…How many shattered minds, bodies and souls will it take before this practice, this cruelty, this barbaric evil is ended?”
About solitary-confinement, Pinson wrote a series of questions for the panel which included: Dr. Stuart Grassian, a psychiatrist who has extensively researched the psychological effects of solitary confinement; Professor Jules Lobel, the President of the Center for Constitutional Rights; Mikail DeVeaux, himself a former prisoner who experienced solitary and now, Executive Director and Founder of Citizens Against Recidivism, an NYC advocacy group; and Bobby Dellelo, an activist working for the American Friends Service Committee who spent five years in solitary or what he calls the “monster factory” at Walpole Prison in Massachusetts.
Hopefully, Pinson will receive responses to questions such as “Why do civil rights groups allow mentally ill inmates to be kept in solitary confinement?” and “How can individual inmates in solitary effectively challenge their abuse and that which they witness?”
L.Samuel Capers, a prisoner on Death Row in California’s San Quentin Prison, wrote of the smell of the ocean so close to their walls as “torture…We look at dirty tan brick walls, razor wire and guns all day. We breathe in frustration, we eat anger, we walk in despair.” He asked in his blog why so few people know what solitary can do to prisoners “especially when they are returned back to society without the proper psychological treatment.”
This past September, a Texas blog, Grits for Breakfast reported on the perils of reentry following solitary. The Texas Senate Criminal Justice Committee was told that in 2011, 878 prisoners who’d been locked in Administrative Segregation (Ad Seg) “were released directly to the streets without parole supervision of any type after finishing out their full sentence.” Another “469 were paroled directly” from Ad Seg. This is also not uncommon. While parole has proven to be more successful than direct release to the streets, under the best of situations, it still is a recipe for disaster to send someone who has lived in solitary directly to the free world. Without time in lower security where he or she can do programs, prepare a home plan and try to get job leads, a person is almost bound to return to captivity.
At the panel, former prisoner, Bobby Delello said about his time in the infamous Department Disciplinary Unit: “There was no doubt I was crazy.” Today, he told the audience, he suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and he questioned how we prepare (or don’t prepare) prisoners to return to their communities.
A Wisconsin prisoner, La Ron McKinley-Bey, an artist on BTB who has his artwork posted online, theorized what many others have written about — that prison rehab is difficult when over 2.5 million people crowd our prisons. He wrote about people going to solitary as “those who couldn’t adapt or conform to the structured demands of the prison environment,” and pointed out why we’ve confined so many to solitary: “Prison officials, having given up on the concept of rehabilitation, without resources or experience on how to effectively treat the mentally ill or the drug addicted, consigned many to languish in solitary confinement with the rest of the undesirables, and to add more chaos to that environment.”
While excellent websites like Solitary Watch take apart the destructive practices in prisons that these prisoners have lived through, it is the voices of those behind bars that give us the truest picture of a practice that we must work to change, the cage within the cage.
(First published on Justice With Jean and used here by permission)