is it humane?
Greene is a journalist in Denver who specializes in investigating
social justice issues. The longer version of this report can
be found at Dart
weeks ago, on the fifteenth anniversary of his first day in
prison, Osiel Rodriguez set about cleaning the 87 square feet
he inhabits at ADX, a federal mass isolation facility in Colorado.
got it in my head to destroy all my photographs,” he writes
in a letter to me. “I spent some five hours ripping each
one to pieces. No one was safe. I did not save one of my mother,
father, sisters. Who are those people anyway?”
is the logic of the gray box, of sitting year after year in
Rodriguez had psychological problems when he robbed a bank,
burglarized a pawn shop and stole some guns at age 22, or whether
mental illness set in during the eight years he has spent in
seclusion since trying to walk out of a federal penitentiary
in Florida – it’s academic. What’s true now
is that he’s sick, literally, of being alone, as are scores
of other prisoners in extreme isolation.
the misperceptions about solitary confinement is that it’s
used only on the most violent inmates, and only for a few weeks
or months. In fact, an estimated 80,000 Americans — many
with no record of violence either inside or outside prison —
are living in seclusion. They stay there for years, even decades.
What this means, generally, is 23 hours a day in a cell the
size of two queen-sized mattresses, with a single hour in an
exercise cage, also alone. Some prisoners aren’t allowed
visits or phone calls. Some have no TV or radio. Some never
lay eyes on each other. And some go years without fresh air
time I kept a single green leaf alive for a few weeks. I had
grasshopper for a pet. I made a guitar out of milk cartons,
and it played quite well. I have done a thousand and one things
to replicate ordinary life, but these too are now gone.”
is a place where the slightest details can mean the world. Things
like whether you can see a patch of grass or only sky outside
your window – if you’re lucky enough to have a window.
Or whether the guy who occupies cells before you in rotation
has a habit of smearing feces on the wall. Are the lights on
24/7? Is there a clock or calendar to mark time? If you scream,
could anyone hear you?
the warp of time and space where Rodriguez lives, the system
not only has stripped him of any real human contact, but also
made it unbearable to be reminded of a reality that has become
all too unreal. It’s ripping him apart.
at photos of the free world caused me so much pain that I just
couldn’t do it any more,” writes Rodriguez, 36.
“Time and these conditions are breaking me down.”
is what our prisons are doing to people in the name of safety.
This is how deeply we’re burying them.
* * * * * * * * *
got my first letter from solitary in 2008 while working as a
newspaper columnist in Colorado. Mark Jordan — then at
ADX on convictions for bank robbery and a prison murder –
wrote asking me to cover a trial in which he’d be arguing
for access to reading materials that seemed a reasonable way
to cope inside a concrete box. The Federal Bureau of Prisons
had banned, for instance, D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and
Lovers and Anaïs Nin’s books, which Jordan had
already ordered. Officers in the mailroom wouldn’t pass
along his issues of The New Yorker, either, because
some of the cartoons depict nude figures.
I went to hear Jordan represent himself in federal court by
a live video feed from prison. Though he was shackled as he
made his case, his arguments were as skilled as those of the
most seasoned trial attorneys I had seen. He lost.
confinement slipped from my mind after I covered Jordan’s
case and moved on to my next deadline. But the subject became
a preoccupation months later while I was hospitalized for septic
pneumonia, with an ISOLATION sign outside my door. Partly it
was the stale air in my hospital room and the view of a brick
wall out my window. Partly it was the anxiety of losing my autonomy
and voice. I’d lie there pressing a buzzer to get a glass
of water or to have my tubes unhooked so I could get out of
bed, and nobody would answer. I’d buzz and buzz again,
complaining bitterly once nurses finally showed up. I’d
see them roll their eyes and hear them dissing me in the hallway.
Being sick wasn’t as bad as being stuck. I remember thinking
about Jordan and wondering how people who were imprisoned in
solitary were able to survive it. It occurred to me then that
isolation – the non-medical, punitive, indefinite kind
– could crack you in about a week. Powerlessness is its
own centrifugal force.
* * * * * * * * *
of corrections officers might tell you that offenders doing
time in solitary don’t deserve the roofs over their heads
or the meals shoved through
their food slots. To be sure, many of these prisoners have done
heinous, unforgivable things for which we lock them up tightly.
Just how tightly is no small question. Yet, as a matter of public
policy, the question hardly comes up. Compared to how much we
as a nation have debated capital punishment, a sentence served
by a small fraction of the incarcerated, we barely discuss how
severely we’re willing to punish nearly everyone else.
the door is locked against the prisoner, we do not think about
what is behind it,” Supreme Court Associate Justice Anthony
Kennedy once said.
confinement started in the U.S. as a morally progressive social
experiment in the 1820s by Quakers, who wanted lawmakers to
replace mutilations, amputations and the death penalty with
rehabilitation. The hope was that long periods of introspection
would help criminals repent.
touring a Pennsylvania prison in the 1840s, Charles Dickens
described prolonged isolation as a “slow and daily tampering
with the mysteries of the brain immeasurably worse than any
torture of the body.” He also wrote, “There is a
depth of terrible endurance in it which none but the sufferers
themselves can fathom.”
of his contemporaries shared that view. “It devours the
victims incessantly and unmercifully,” Alexis de Tocqueville
reported from a prison in New York in the 1820s. “It does
not reform, it kills.”
prisons suspended the practice in the mid-to-late-1800s once
it became clear the theory didn’t work. The U.S. Supreme
Court punctuated that point in 1890 when it freed a Colorado
man who had been sentenced to death for killing his wife, recognizing
the psychological harm isolation had caused him.
matter of solitary confinement is not . . . a mere unimportant
regulation as to the safe-keeping of the prisoner,” the
court ruled in the case of James Medley. “A considerable
number of the prisoners fell, after even a short confinement,
into a semi-fatuous condition, from which it was next to impossible
to arouse them, while those who stood the ordeal better were
not generally reformed, and in most cases did not recover sufficient
mental activity to be of any subsequent service to the community.”
be,” writes sociologist Joan Martel, “one has to
confinement was largely unused for about a century until October
1983 when, in separate incidents, inmates killed two guards
in one day at the U.S. Penitentiary in Marion, Ill., which had
replaced Alcatraz as home to the most dangerous federal convicts.
The prison went into lockdown for the next 23 years, setting
the model for dozens of state and federal supermaxes –
prisons designed specifically for mass isolation — that
since have been built in the name of officer safety. “Never
again,” promised Reagan-era shock doctrinarians who set
out at great cost to crack down on prison violence.
prisons have been built, people have gotten funding for supermax
facilities based on the act of a single (inmate),” says
Michael Randle, former director of the Illinois Department of
by corrections officials, not judges, solitary confinement is
a punishment beyond incarceration, removing prisoners not only
from the rest of society, but also from each other and staff.
It’s now practiced routinely in federal penitentiaries,
state prisons and local jails under a number of bureaucratic
labels: “lockdown,” “protective custody,”
“strip cells,” “control units,” “security
housing units,” “special management units”
and “administrative segregation.” Federal justice
officials say the different classifications prevent them from
keeping track of how many people are being isolated. What is
acknowledged even in official records is that the vast majority
are men and that rates of pre-existing mental illness exceed
the higher-than-average levels in general prison populations.
who have assaulted staff often get sent straight to solitary.
Those who have killed other inmates or escaped from prison —
or attempted to — also take priority. Corrections officials
eager to please officers’ unions and weary of public criticism
tend to place difficult prisoners in solitary as an easy default.
become career decisions that administrators have to struggle
with, knowing if a person does kill again, that you basically
will get massacred in the media, massacred by the opposition,
massacred by your governor’s party,” Randle says.
“These are determinations that can make or break your
an analysis of prison budgets by the Urban Institute shows that
taxpayers are shelling out about $75,000 a year to house a single
prisoner in solitary confinement – more than twice as
much as spent housing prisoners in general population. Staffing
is more expensive because two or more officers usually are required
to escort prisoners any time they leave their cells, and because
the cooking and cleaning work, which in other prisons would
be performed by inmates, must be done by paid staff. As a rule,
prisoners in isolation aren’t allowed to work.
reasons of prison safety, short periods of confinement may make
sense for the most violent inmates. Yet the so-called “worst
of the worst” are, by definition, the exception rather
than the rule. States vastly overestimated the need for supermax
space to contain high-risk offenders, and have filled it with
relatively low-risk prisoners, many of whom pose no apparent
risk or have no record of violence. Anyone even loosely labeled
to have ties with terrorists gets put into isolation as a matter
of course. Juveniles are secluded for what is officially deemed
to be their own protection. Mentally ill prisoners who are prone
to rage or agitation are isolated for convenience. And, all
too often, having a gang affiliation, writing grievances or
cussing out a guard can land you in solitary for the long haul.
Bad behaviour – or merely a corrections officer’s
allegation of it – can add years to your time in isolation.
Some prisoners have spent a decade or two asking why they’re
still there, without getting an official answer.
are extraordinary, I believe often needless and indefensible,
risks to take with the human psyche and spirit,” writes
Craig Haney, a psychology professor at the University of California
at Santa Cruz.
Gay had a low-level assault charge in Illinois for punching
another kid, stealing a dollar from him and swiping his hat.
A parole violation on his seven-year suspended sentence ultimately
landed him in a state supermax where he has cut himself hundreds
of times with shards of glass and metal, and eats his own flesh.
He has racked up a 97-year sentence for throwing urine and feces
out his food slot – behaviour that’s fairly typical
for severely mentally ill prisoners in solitary.
passes his time at the Tamms Correctional Center writing anyone
who will receive his letters.
been trapped for approximately nine years. The trap, like a
fly on sticky paper, aggravates and agitates me,” he writes.
“America, can you hear me? I love you America, but if
you love me, please speak out and stand up against solitary
* * * * * * * * *
months of trading letters with prisoners, and in a few dozen
interviews with men who’ve gotten out, I hear the same
descriptions of solitary: that it’s starkly sterile, unremittingly
monotonous and numbingly idle.
can kill time in solitary. Some prisoners kick the walls or
bang their cups against their doors. Some flood their cells
by clogging their toilets with toilet paper, or break light
bulbs and set their mattresses on fire. Some write up their
grievances; some sue over them; and some sue some more on behalf
of guys on their units. Those feeling especially resistant stop
eating or drinking. Brian Nelson starved himself regularly at
Tamms, where he spent 12 years in seclusion. He once refused
food and water for 40 days, he says, to try to prod the prison
to treat a guy on his unit for cancer.
* * * * * * * * * *
human brain needs social contact like our lungs need air. Social
needs are so basic that they drive family structures, religions,
urban design, governments, economies and legal systems worldwide.
We honour these needs even with pets and zoo animals, generally
acknowledging the inhumanity of caging them for long periods
of time alone or in tight spaces. New federal guidelines on
the use of laboratory animals require relatively more space,
sensory stimulation and environmental enrichment than we afford
people in confinement. The revised rules put forth by the National
Academy of Sciences call for significantly more square footage
to house a head of cattle, for example, than prisons provide
in the U.S. are not afforded such concern. We push some of them
into seclusion with little to no programmatic support, basically
giving up on them.
who spends more than three years in a place like this is ruined
for life,” Powers writes. “Two or three hundred
years from now people will look back on this lockdown mania
like we look back on the burning of witches.”
2006, a bipartisan national task force convened by the Vera
Institute for Justice called for ending solitary confinement
beyond periods of about ten days. The report by the Commission
on Safety and Abuse in American Prisons found practically no
benefits from supermax conditions either for prisoners or the
public. It cited studies showing that solitary confinement impairs
brain function and can cause psychosis and serious depression.
It also cited a number of reports showing that long-term isolation
doesn’t curb prison violence and makes it highly likely
that prisoners will commit more crimes when released.
United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Mendez, is
calling to end the use of isolation on juveniles and the mentally
ill. For everyone else, he is pushing a worldwide limit of 15
days. Mendez personally endured three days in solitary under
the rule of a junta in Argentina – an experience he describes
as “the darkest days of my life.” So far, he has
been unable to gain access to investigate state and federal
prisons in the U.S.
courts have rejected most 8th Amendment claims against isolation,
ruling that some psychological harm to certain prisoners doesn’t
make the entire practice cruel or unusual. In many cases, corrections
officials have persuaded judges that isolation is a misnomer
because prisoners glean brief interactions with guards –
exchanges that are at best perfunctory and at worst hostile,
degrading and cruel. They’ll also argue that prisoners
shouting to each other between cellblocks, across exercise cages
or down drainpipes constitute meaningful forms of social interaction.
solitary, concentration wanes, revenge fantasies fester and
voices echo in people’s heads. Idiosyncrasies grow into
obsessions. Prisoner after prisoner writes of becoming enraged
by slight noises or tweaks in their routines.
* * * * * * * * *
every hunger striker, jailhouse lawyer and cellblock arsonist,
there are many more people in solitary who’ve folded up
quietly into themselves.
prisoners say they forget what day, month or year it is, partly
because keeping track can be too painful.
is the enemy, a constant reminder that your life is being wasted
and there is no redemptive solution. Paying close attention
to time will in short order drive you to misery and despair
at what you’ve lost,” Jeremy Pinson writes.
describe losing their senses of self, physically and emotionally.
Mirrors, if available, are stainless steel plates that reflect
only blurs. You can go years without an accurate picture of
your own aging. Basic biographical facts – your age, your
birthday – can get lost in a fog.
in the free world know who we are by interacting with each other.
We make sense of ourselves largely through our relationships.
Legal sociologist Joan Martel described the loss of identity
in isolation. “To be,” she writes, “one has
to be somewhere.” Without normal grounding in space or
time, isolated prisoners lose their understanding of themselves
and their own histories.
* * * * * * * *
solitary is an exercise in inaccessibility.
visits and phone calls are out of the question.
and county prisoners usually can be glimpsed only by their mug
shots. The federal system makes no photos available of the people
it locks up or the spaces they inhabit.
members can pass along information – if a prisoner chooses
not to shield them from what isolation is really like.
philosophy is, I don’t care if you have a knife stuck
in your back, you tell your mom that you’re okay,”
Sorrentino writes. “Seeing how they looked at me on visits,
handcuffed, shackled, chained to the floor and behind glass,
killed me inside.”
officials don’t help much with transparency or public
accountability. They cite pending lawsuits and security risks
for refusing to be interviewed. They have scoffed when I’ve
asked if they’d consider passing a disposable camera or
hand-held recorder to a man who hasn’t been seen or heard
from in years. (“What do you think we are — bellhops
at the Hyatt Regency?”) Officers are dispatched to berate
journalists, even off grounds, for aiming lenses toward their
inmates housed at the ADX pose the greatest threat within the
Federal Bureau of Prisons to staff, other inmates, visitors,
and the public, and may be extreme escape risks,” Warden
Blake R. Davis wrote to me. “Accordingly, permitting a
film crew to take video footage of the exterior of the institution
would negatively affect the security and orderly operation of
* * * * * * * * * *
words are uncomfortable to write.
is one of them, especially when used about people who have traumatized
others. “Torture” is another. In the moral balance
of crime and punishment, the word risks discounting the suffering
convicts have brought their own victims.
is black and white in a gray box. Lines can blur between the
good guys and the bad ones. It’s far easier to label the
secret police in some foreign dictatorship as torturers than
to lob the word at prison guards in the next county.
isn’t news that solitary confinement hurts people. Dickens,
de Tocqueville and the Supreme Court — they all knew it
generations ago. But our memory is disturbingly short. What’s
considered cruel and unusual under the 8th Amendment pivots
on the “evolving standards of decency that mark the progress
of a maturing society.” Our continuing reliance on solitary
confinement as a default for difficult prisoners raises the
question of how much, if at all, we as a society have progressed.
Powers, now in his 11th year at ADX, mentions in almost all
his letters that every day is a struggle not to lose what’s
left of his free will.
could lie back, watch TV, eat chips and jack off all day and
say to hell with it. But I cannot because there is some force
of principle in my mind that will not allow me to do so,”
he writes. “I am a voice crying out in a place where no
one can hear me. I am saying, ‘Wait! We have it all wrong!
We can do better than this!’ But maybe we cannot. Maybe
we are just stuck with what it is. Maybe I am afraid of the
world and of being human and of lacking love. Maybe we all are.
Maybe this is all we are capable of.
hope not. But maybe it is.”