Since the “War on Drugs” was launched in the mid-1980s, accompanied by mandatory-minimum sentences for drug offenders, the U.S. prison population has exploded from under 900,000 to 2.3 million prisoners. With correction budgets consumed by building new prisons and staffing them, rehabilitation programs were slashed. Prisons all over the nation turned – with disastrous results – to the use of solitary confinement as its primary means of control. More than 80,000 inmates are being subjected to long-term solitary confinement in the United States. Not one of them will leave prison undamaged by the experience.
I was 18 years old, sitting in a solitary confinement cell. My confinement was not a result of assaultive behavior, but instead a form of retaliation for refusing to jog. I was in one of the “Boot Camp” prisons so popular in the 1990s. This was a shock-jock program modeled after the Marines’ real boot camps, like the one at Camp Lejeune. Ostensibly, it was designed by corrections officials to make the initial incarceration of youthful offenders so brutal that it would change their ways and divert them from future crime and the institutional lifestyle.
Unfortunately, for political reasons, it was also calculated to advance only the least offensive youths for early release. The others, like me with an armed-burglary charge, were pawns to make the program appear as if it were functioning as it was intended. The most sadistic guards from the State of Florida were brought in, and they pushed the young men who they did not want to complete the program to the brink of death. When I finally refused to jog anymore, actually collapsing of heat stroke, I was taken to medical where they registered a fever of 102.5. I was given ice for my forehead and sent to the dreaded confinement for refusing orders.
I remained inside the cell for a few weeks, my only respite a five-minute shower every other day. At night, in the darkness, I could hardly see the black roaches crawling on the concrete wall, but they were there. There were no windows to see the sun. I had no watch, no pillow, no books, no radio, nothing. I knew it was late, only because it had been numerous hours since the tasteless dinner chow had been shoved into my cell. Within an hour or two it would be January 5th, my birthday. I began to cry. I couldn’t stand the idea of turning 19 in such a heartless place. I didn’t cry often. In prison, even teenagers had to be tough. But the loneliness, the boredom, just knowing that nobody cared or even knew where I was on my birthday sent me into a deep depression.
I tried to cut my wrists, but the piece of metal from an old battery wasn’t sharp enough. Then I got angry. I thought to myself, “This is inhumane. This confinement is what they call rehabilitation! This doesn’t make me want to become a part of society, a society of which my abusive father was so proud to be a part. No, they act just like my dad, and this makes me hate them even more,” and that was my final thought before I drifted off to sleep on a urine-stained mattress.
As an ex-convict who spent over seven years of my 22-years in prison in the “hole,” or what free people call solitary confinement, I can testify that it has terribly debilitating effects that defeat the intended purpose. According to the Vera Institute of Justice, more than 81,000 inmates languish inside these solitary cells every day in the United States.
Another widely accepted study, conducted by the National Criminal Justice Reference Service, noted that over 25,000 of these prisoners are housed inside supermax prisons around the nation.
Considering the enormity of these numbers, the time is overdue for a reevaluation of solitary confinement in the United States. It is not humane; it is not compliant with world organizations on human rights; and there are alternatives that make more sense to the cause of rehabilitation.
Confinement units in the United States have a long, sordid history reaching back to the late 17th century. Back then the use of solitary was inspired by the austere Quakers who believed that prisoners could be healed and brought to the light of God by long-term seclusion from other inmates. The first known prison dedicated solely to solitary confinement was the Eastern State Penitentiary, designed by John Haviland. It opened in Philadelphia on October 25, 1829. It is considered to be the world's first true penitentiary. To prevent communication between prisoners, guards placed hoods over the heads of inmates and believed that this isolation would cleanse the prisoners of evil influences. Of course, instead it led to psychosis in the people subjected to it, as supermax facilities do today.
Solitary Confinement – “Slow-Motion Torture”
Considering how much research was done on the debilitating effects of long-term seclusion in early America, it is shocking how easily the public was convinced that such practices should be implemented again in the 1970s. Indeed, like many misleading initiatives inside the prison industrial complex, authorities initially foisted supermax facilities and other long-term confinement units on the public as necessary for institutional security. Officials like Greg Lewis, warden of Pelican Bay Supermax in Northern California, have been quick to say that these units are necessary to separate violent gang members within the prisons. In an article entitled, “Slow-Motion Torture,” by Jeff Tietz in the December 6, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone, Warden Lewis was quoted saying that his prison almost exclusively housed gang members for this reason. Within the same article, Jeanne Woodford, former director of the California Department of Corrections, stated that there were “just so many of them,” referring to the number of gangs in the prisons. This was the case in the 1970s, when overcrowding and limited budgets allowed gangs to get a strong foothold. And in the 1970s, when riots and overall violence was endemic throughout the federal and state systems, authorities resorted to these units. In some ways, they had a credible need for a limited use of them.
However, since then, these supermax-type facilities have sprung up in the thousands, completely disproportionate to the number of gang members inside U.S. prisons. In the 1990s, just in Florida alone, the Department of Corrections built over 50 supermax confinements called Controlled Management Units, capable of holding a total of thousands of prisoners. As reported by the Houston Chronicle, based on figures provided by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice in 2011, there were more than 9,000 prisoners serving terms in solitary confinement. At the end of 2011, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, there were 2,406 inmates in the state’s restricted housing units. In Virginia, according to a 2012 article in the Washington Post, the number of inmates housed in long-term solitary confinement exceeded 1,800, including 500 who were confined for more than six months inside their supermax cells at Red Onion State Prison.
For those who have never experienced prison or jail, a brief explanation of the different varieties of solitary confinement is in order. There are a number of them. There is regular administrative confinement, disciplinary confinement, and controlled management units or supermax cells, SHU’s, and Intensive Management Units (IMU’s), among others.
Administrative confinement (AC) is the least debilitating form of solitary confinement. Inmates usually get to retain their reading materials, headphones, a few commissary items, religious stuff, and stationary with postage for writing letters. In most cases, AC is used to separate rival gang members, to provide protection for inmates who fear for their lives, and to seclude someone who is suspected of wrongdoing, but has yet to be charged with any infraction.
For those inmates placed in AC suspected of a rule or law violation, officials have more investigating to do before they can charge the inmate with a disciplinary violation. If almost no information is found to validate suspicions against the inmate under investigation, the person is usually released to the general population of inmates within 30 to 90 days. If the inmate is indeed charged with an infraction, after the investigation is conducted, the person is issued a disciplinary report (DR) and taken to DR court to be found guilty. Approximately 97 percent of inmates are found guilty by DR hearing teams. This doesn’t mean they are all guilty of rule infractions. It simply means they were either guilty, or they made someone in power angry. That is just one of the injustices of solitary confinement. It is frequently used to retaliate, to lock up an inmate for challenging abusive prison conditions. In cases of retaliation by staff, however, a disciplinary report usually follows the stay in administrative confinement. This covers any retaliatory use of solitary under the guise of simple discipline, a guise most people in the public presume to be true.
Once the person is charged with an infraction, the inmate’s personal property items are taken and stored and the prisoner is locked behind a steel door for a minimum of 23 hours daily. The hour outside of solitary is usually spent showering, three times per week. The other four days of the week typically mean 24-hour days in confinement.
After 30 to 60 days of good behavior, inmates are allowed one hour of recreation per week. In Florida, Arizona, and Texas, recreation means standing in a small, chain-link cage, commonly under extreme inclement conditions. For instance, on May 19, 2009, an Arizona prisoner named Marcia Powell visited a prison psychologist. She was serving a 27-month sentence for prostitution and had previously been diagnosed with mental retardation and schizophrenia. During her visit to the psychologist she was deemed suicidal and given antipsychotic medications, which might have made her more sensitive to high temperatures. She was then placed in one of these “recreation” cages to await transfer to another cell for better observation.
Prisoners are not supposed to remain in these cages for more than an hour or two, especially not on 106-degree afternoons. As Prison Legal News reported, Powell, at 48 years of age, sat in the cage, under the scorching May sun for four hours. The officers who were appointed to watch her from approximately 15 yards away supposedly mocked her mental illness and her requests for help. Other prisoners reported that the guards just ignored her as she made numerous pleas for water and toilet facilities. As hard as it might be to believe, they ignored this helpless woman until she eventually baked to death. This type of abuse is not an anomaly inside America’s prisons. It is rampant, particularly inside solitary confinement units. (See Facing the U.S. Prison Problem 2.3 Million Strong, by Shawn R. Griffith, at www.speakoutpublishing.com)
Unlike administrative confinement, in disciplinary confinement (DC), inmates are not allowed to have books, radios or headphones to listen to in their cells. There is nothing provided or allowed in most states’ disciplinary cells…except misery and boredom. The amount of time spent in DC depends on the number of DR’s someone has received, or the degree of threat a prison administrator feels the inmate poses to the regime through illegal violence or legal activism.
Ordinarily, stays in DC average about 60 days, not including the time spent inside AC. Nonetheless, I know of some prisoners who have gone into DC and have never come out. This occurs because they receive so many DR’s for disorderly conduct while in confinement (valid or retaliatory charges) that they are not released until they are paroled or released. Sometimes the inmate’s behavior is so violent that for his or someone else’s safety, the inmate is required to remain inside a cell for years or even decades with no physical interaction with other people. However, as mentioned above, prisoners are also commonly locked up for these long durations for political activism, petty contraband charges, or other minor offenses. Indeed, whole units of confinement buildings have been built around the country’s state and federal prison systems to enable administrators to confine people for years at a time. In 2012, every major prison in the nation had some form of solitary confinement units, and there were 44 states with supermax facilities.
These supermax cells, also known as Controlled Management Units (CM), Secure Housing Units (SHU), Administrative Maximum Units (ADX), and simply supermax, are usually no different than regular AC cells. Solitary confinement cells usually measure from 6 x 9 to 8 x 10 feet. Some have bars; some have solid metal doors. Meals generally come through “bean flaps” or small doors built within the solid or barred doors, as do any communications with prison staff. Within these cells, inmates experience lives of enforced idleness and are denied the opportunity to work or attend prison programming. The only difference from regular AC or DC cells is that prisoners will remain inside these cells for a minimum period of six months to five years, and in some instances for as long as they live in prison. That includes life, which means they will die inside their confinement cells.
In fact, there are some statistics related to how long prisoners have been staying in these units. According to the American Friends Service Committee, the average time served in these units in the Arizona prison system is five years. In Texas, the average inmate in administrative segregation spends over four years in solitary, with the longest being isolated for 24 years. In Virginia, at the Red Onion State Prison, a recent memo states that inmates are on average isolated for 2.7 years, with the range of stays being two weeks to seven years. In Florida State Prison, I personally knew of one inmate, named Joseph Spaziano, who spent 20 years in the same death row cell, until the courts overturned his death sentence. Most of these men have already gone insane. The ones who haven’t are aware that they will live like animals in a cage for years and are aware of this reality each and every day that they stare at the concrete walls. Indeed, many people who were not already mentally ill upon intake into solitary will eventually become mentally unstable.
Solitary Unleashes a Pandora’s Box of Evils
For example, an independent investigation from 2006 found that as many as 64 percent of prisoners in SHU’s were mentally ill. This was a much higher percentage than originally believed and much higher than the general population of inmates in those same institutions.
As reported by Solitary Watch (www.solitarywatch.com), following extensive interviews with Pelican Bay SHU inmates in 1993, Dr. Stuart Grassian found that solitary confinement induces a psychiatric disorder characterized by hypersensitivity to external stimuli, hallucinations, panic attacks, cognitive deficits, obsessive thinking, paranoia, and a litany of other physical and psychological problems. Psychological assessments of Pelican Bay’s solitary confined prisoners indicated high rates of anxiety, nervousness, obsessive ruminations, anger, violent fantasies, nightmares, trouble sleeping, as well as dizziness, perspiring hands, and heart palpitations.
Solitary Watch also reported that rates of suicide in the California lockup units are by far the highest in any prison housing units anywhere in the country. Many SHU inmates become deeply anxious around and afraid of people. Some begin to lose their grasp on their sanity and badly decompensate. In New York, California, and Texas, it was found (and certainly when I was incarcerated in Florida, I witnessed) that suicide rates are significantly higher among inmates in solitary confinement than in general population.
One of the causes of the psychological toll, at least from my personal experiences in Florida’s prisons, was the overall inhumane conditions of solitary confinement—without respite. Contrary to popular belief, most prisons do not have air conditioning. In Southern prisons, for instance, the temperatures commonly go above 100 degrees during the late spring and summer months. Although officials who operate confinement units are supposed to ensure a minimum amount of ventilation for prisoners to breathe, in addition to a window for seeing outside the cell, rarely are these standards maintained. If a window exists at all, the authorities frequently paint over it or frost it with a coating to increase the sensory deprivation of inmates in solitary confinement. They do this knowing all too well how this affects people psychologically.
In the Rolling Stone article by Tietz, the author writes that no one escapes solitary confinement unscathed. He quotes psychiatrist Terry Kupers saying, “Everybody who is in a supermax has some kind of psychological damage as a result.” Kupers has interviewed almost 1,000 inmates in supermax segregation and said he’s never found anyone who was not damaged by the experience. Tietz also reported that a group of researchers who recently reviewed a large amount of medical literature on the effects of isolation cells found that no study on long-term solitary – three months or more – had ever failed to reveal “serious psychiatric symptoms” in inmates.
This brings to mind a cell that I was confined in at Gulf Correctional Institution in 2004. I was placed in this cell in direct retaliation for helping illiterate inmates file grievances about inhumane work conditions. After filing complaints about the circumstances and helping others do the same, my hands were cuffed behind me, and I was placed into the sweat box from hell. This confinement, like many in state prisons, was designed to confine two occupants. As I entered, I nodded to the complete stranger who would become my cellmate for at least two weeks and possibly as long as six months. I learned that my cellmate’s name was Silver, a Jewish guy who was also suffering retaliation. In his case it was for being Jewish and wanting the kosher dietary allowance that was required by his religious beliefs, and supposedly “protected” by the courts at that time. Prisons are the one place where the good-ole-boy tolerance for racism and religious discrimination, as long as it’s against convicts, is still alive and well.
Solitary confinement is one of the primary weapons used by racist guards against minorities and political activists. The courts know of this, but repeatedly overlook it in the name of penal security, even when they get direct evidence of its occurrence under brutal conditions.
This confinement was particularly brutal. The cell had no ventilation. To increase the inmate’s suffering, the prison had the doors to the cells constructed so that there was less than a half inch of space between the solid steel door and the concrete floor. The ventilation fan in the back wall of the cell was only used during inspections. This would fool anyone from outside of the institution into believing that mandatory requirements were being met. This pillbox had no windows. The temperature inside the cell was at least 90 degrees, without any air circulation. Silver and I were sweating so much that the indent of our bodies in the plastic-covered mattress was a pool of water. We didn’t even bother to dump the sweat. It was cooler that way. Eventually, both of us got a skin fungus.
I don’t know what ever happened to Silver. By luck of the draw, I was scheduled to have a tooth pulled at a medical prison, and I got transferred out of there before the guards got a chance to do what they had promised to do to me for challenging their prison conditions.
Northern prisoners also have similar challenges of abusive uses and conditions of confinement to face; only when it comes to temperature, they have the exact opposite concerns. Oftentimes, the old Northern prisons do have a window that is either broken or not properly sealed. In one case of which I am personally aware, a friend of mine named James Quigley was in Vermont in one of these cells that had a broken window. He had been transferred out of Florida’s prison system because he had been very effective through the courts in challenging abuses by the Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC). The FDOC allowed him to transfer to the Vermont Department of Corrections (VDOC), basically to get rid of him.
Shortly after James arrived at the Vermont prison, he discovered that the superintendent of the prison was using the collect-call system to scam prisoners’ families. After he filed complaints, he was placed inside the cell with the broken window. He had complained to his friends and family that he was being tortured with sub-freezing temperatures in his cell, with inadequate clothing, and no way to get warm. James was a fighter, not easily cowed, and certainly not unfamiliar with correctional abuses. He was not the type to give up easily. Sadly, he must have reached his tolerance level, because after weeks of being tortured with the perennial cold, he was found inside the same cell hanging from the ceiling—dead.
Suicides in Solitary
Although only 8 percent (over 184,000) of prisoners are housed in long-term solitary confinement in the United States, 50 percent of all suicides occur in there.
The main reason is that these types of conditions amount to torture, psychological and physical. And ex-cons like me are not the only ones to agree with this premise. For example, The Committee Against Torture, which is the governing body of the U.N. Convention Against Torture, has recommended that the practice of long-term solitary confinement be eradicated. Bolstering this recommendation, in August 2011, Juan Mendez, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture, concluded that even 15 days in solitary confinement constitutes cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. His findings also showed that 15 days is the limit after which irreversible harmful psychological effects can occur.
This finding was not in direct relation to the types of confinements I have described, in which men literally lie in their own pools of sweat for months at a time. Instead, this finding showed that even the solitary confinement units that are used as they are designed to be used are abhorrent. What is so hard to understand is how the mainstream media ignores such treatment of U.S. citizens, yet cries foul when foreign detainees are abused half as badly. Moreover, even if everyone thought that U.S. prisoners should be treated like that, it would certainly make less sense if the public knew that 95 percent of all prisoners nationally will end up back in society.
Research has repeatedly shown that a stronger focus on rehabilitation and positive behavioral incentives reduces recidivism and tendencies toward violence. In fact, experts on the effects of solitary confinement have documented these to include PTSD, increased risk of suicide, insomnia, paranoia, uncontrollable feelings of rage, and visual and auditory hallucinations. Literally thousands of prisoners are released directly into U.S. society from these confinement cells every day. Instead of being exposed to rehabilitative programs while in prison, they’ve been subjected to the cruelty of solitary confinement and turned into walking time bombs.
Alternatives to Solitary Confinement
Maybe the practice of using solitary confinement would be more tolerable if there were no alternatives. To the contrary, there are a number of positive, rehabilitative incentives that could be used to replace most of our dependency on solitary to control behavior. For instance, music programs, drug rehab, hobby-craft, and incentivized jobs could all be used to reduce violence and misbehavior. From 1990 to 2010, these programs were slashed, as the push for longer, mandatory-minimum sentences became commonplace. With longer sentences came the need to build more and more prisons. This in turn created incentive to shift money away from rehabilitative programs, which then created the demand for solitary confinement units. Without ordinary rehabilitative incentives at their disposal, prison administrators had little else to use to control prisoners’ behavior other than the threat of solitary confinement. The policy became one of suppression and debilitation at any cost…and the cost has been incalculable.
Indeed, the initial economic pressures that started this trend have largely been forgotten, and now the dependency on solitary is actually defeating the original cost savings that policy leaders thought they would achieve. Not only is solitary confinement terribly counterproductive, it is also far more expensive than the cost of housing inmates in general population. According to an article published by the Seattle Times, “Solitary confinement costs about three times as much as keeping a prisoner in general custody.” Solitary Watch also reported that solitary confinement units cost more to build than ordinary prisons housing general population prisoners. Nationally, it has been estimated that confining inmates in solitary units costs $75,000 per year, much higher than the cost for general population – those costs run anywhere from $18,000 to $35,000 per year. In Ohio, for instance, housing a general population inmate costs $101 per day. An inmate in a level 5 supermax facility at Ohio State Penitentiary costs $149. Therefore, the public should be aware of this when policy makers bemoan the costs of rehabilitative programs.
What has happened over the past two decades is that political leaders have used prisoners as pawns during their political campaigns. They know that prisoners are helpless to speak out about their needs and conditions, and that most people could care less about these issues. The problem with this lack of concern is that law-abiding citizens are the ones who suffer in the long run, not politicians. For each prisoner who was made worse by solitary confinement conditions and a failure to get true rehabilitation when incarcerated, there is one citizen who will likely be victimized by that recidivist ex-convict.
We can’t lock up everyone. We already have 2.3 million inmates filling our prisons. It is time to understand that not all, but a large percentage of the prison population can be helped, and one of the first policies that should be changed is our correctional system’s dependency on solitary confinement units. It’s time to have a serious discussion about this in the United States. After all, if we want to remain the leader in the battle against civil rights abuses, it’s probably time for us to realize that Europe and every other industrialized nation has already left us far behind when it comes to the issue of solitary confinement in our prisons and jails.