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Vol. 11, No. 4, 2012
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is it humane?

Susan Greene


Susan Greene is a journalist in Denver who specializes in investigating social justice issues. The longer version of this report can be found at Dart Society Reports.

A few 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.

“I 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?”

Such is the logic of the gray box, of sitting year after year in solitude.

Whether 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.

Among 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 or sunlight.

“One 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.”

Solitary 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?

In 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.

“Looking 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.”

This is what our prisons are doing to people in the name of safety. This is how deeply we’re burying them.

* * * * * * * * * *

I 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.

Intrigued, 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.

Solitary 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.

* * * * * * * * * *

Plenty 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.

“When the door is locked against the prisoner, we do not think about what is behind it,” Supreme Court Associate Justice Anthony Kennedy once said.

Solitary 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.

After 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.”

Some 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.”

Most 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.

“This 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.”

“To be,” writes sociologist Joan Martel, “one has to be somewhere.”

Solitary 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.

“Whole 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 Corrections.

Administered 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.

Prisoners 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.

“These 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 career.”

Meantime, 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.

For 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.

“These 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.

Anthony 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.

Gay passes his time at the Tamms Correctional Center writing anyone who will receive his letters.

“I’ve 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 confinement.”

* * * * * * * * * *

In 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.

Defiance 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.

* * * * * * * * * *

The 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 solitary.

Convicts 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.

“Anyone 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.”

In 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.

The 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.

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.

In 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.

* * * * * * * * * *

For every hunger striker, jailhouse lawyer and cellblock arsonist, there are many more people in solitary who’ve folded up quietly into themselves.

Some prisoners say they forget what day, month or year it is, partly because keeping track can be too painful.

“Time 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.

Some 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.

We 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.

* * * * * * * * * *

Covering solitary is an exercise in inaccessibility.

Reporters’ visits and phone calls are out of the question.

State 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.

Family members can pass along information – if a prisoner chooses not to shield them from what isolation is really like.

“My 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.”

Prison 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 prisons.

“The 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 the facility.”

* * * * * * * * * *

Some words are uncomfortable to write.

“Trauma” 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.

Nothing 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.

It 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.

Jack 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.

“I 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.

“I hope not. But maybe it is.”


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