Voices from the Hell of Solitary Confinement

September 21, 2015 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us


Close your eyes and imagine you’re in a cell that’s 8 x 10 feet—with no windows, no air, just concrete walls all around you. This tomb includes a slab of cement to sleep on, a toilet and sink. That’s it. You’re deprived of human contact. Your food is shoved through a slot in the door. Maybe once a day you are let out of this cell for one hour, into a space a little bigger, with a little bit more air. And if the guards decide you’re not cooperating—for something as minor as not returning a food tray or banging on the door—a team of them, in full riot gear, with batons, handcuffs, will “extract” you from your cell, hogtie you and beat you with no mercy. Maybe you have been in this cell, subjected to this torture, for five years, or 10 years, or maybe 30 years, deprived of human contact, never feeling the sun, never seeing the sky or a blade of grass, never hearing a note of music.

This is life—or more accurately, a slow death—for nearly 80,000 prisoners who have been put in solitary confinement all over the USA. This kind of solitary confinement stands in violation of international human rights standards, including the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment. This kind of sensory deprivation and lack of human contact is known to create severe psychological disorders. There is evidence that long-term isolation can alter brain chemistry and produce psychopathologies, including panic attacks, depression, inability to concentrate, memory loss, aggression, self-mutilation, and various forms of psychosis.

On September 1, 2015, a settlement was reached in a class action suit filed against California’s Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) on behalf of all of the men now imprisoned in the nightmare of long-term solitary confinement and sensory deprivation in the SHU—the Security Housing Unit—at Pelican Bay State Prison. The suit, Ashker v. Brown, was based on the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment and the denial of due process. The CDCR has now been forced to end some of the most egregious ways it subjects prisoners to the torture of solitary confinement. See article at revcom.us. But it cannot be forgotten that many thousands of men and women have been TORTURED, their bodies and minds have been wrecked in horrific ways, AND tens of thousands of prisoners throughout this country are still being tortured in solitary confinement!

Read and listen to the voices of some of those from around the country who have gone through this living hell:

Robert King was one of the “Angola 3,” along with Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox—prisoners who were targeted for punishment and placed in solitary confinement at the Angola Prison in Louisiana because they were members of the Black Panther Party. King was released from Angola in February 2001. From an interview with the ACLU:

The worst thing, the punishment that I underwent was separating from people. Just being on a tier [a prison hallway] with someone, maybe hearing a voice every now and then, while it’s not total sensory deprivation, it is almost worse. That has a tendency to dehumanize people.

Most times people hear me talking, and they’ll ask me a lot of the time, why aren’t you insane? I would like to think that I’m very sane.

But I’m also prone to tell people that it’s impossible to get dipped in waste and not come up stinking. Or not come up smelling. The impact, even though there might not be a physical stench, the psychological stench is something that I can’t even fathom.

Only thing I know is this, when you are in solitary confinement, the best way I could describe it is, the soul cries and I think the brain shrinks. Especially if you are in a 6x9x12 foot cell, your brain is automatically shrinking, and I think everything else shrinks with it. And I think that’s lasting.

Joe Giarratano, a prisoner at Virginia’s Wallens Ridge State Prison, spent a total of eight years in Secure Housing and supermax units. From handwritten letter [to ACLU]:

The cell was a bit larger: 8’ x 12’. Solid slider door with small window in it. They kept the window covered with a magnetic flap (picture a large, flexible, refrigerator magnet). The cell had a concrete form bunk with very thin mattress. Stainless steel toilet/sink combo. There was a cell window, approximately 3” X 5”, which let some natural light in for a few hours in the morning/afternoon. I was allowed a small amount of legal material, and religious materials, and writing material. I was allowed 2 hours of “outside” rec and 2 10-minute showers per week. The outside rec was in a small, high walled cube area with no roof. Maybe a little larger than a cell. Yelling to other prisoners was not permitted. If you did it you would lose your rec period and shower. Only human contact was with guards or counselor. If the counselor wanted to see you, the guard would shackle you, cuff you behind your back, place you on a short leash and sometimes put a hood over your head. You would be escorted to a room and chained to a wall where the counselor would speak. Then you would wait to be escorted back—could take a few minutes, could be 2 hours chained to the wall. I went on a hunger strike that lasted about 80 days.

My 8 years in SHU made me less sociable. I get extremely uncomfortable being around or in groups of people. I have experienced panic attacks in these situations.... I generally do not initiate conversations. I do respond if someone speaks to me. I have become much more of an introvert. Depression remains a problem... Human beings are social creatures. We need psychological, intellectual, spiritual, environmental stimulation to function properly, to grow and develop. Without that stimulation we deteriorate. I do not care how strong one is mentally solitary confinement will adversely affect you. I have literally watched grown men deteriorate before my eyes, and go mad. There were times during my 8 year stint that I lost it and began to hallucinate and lose my grip on reality. What the public needs to realize is that eventually all of those who experience that will be released back into society, far more broken than when they went in.

Five Omar Mualimm-ak, now a prison reform activist, served almost 12 years in prison for illegal weapons possession. From a 2013 interview with the Guardian:

Kalief Browder was sent to New York City’s hellish Rikers Island prison in 2010 when he was 16 years old, accused of stealing a backpack. He spent three years being tortured there without trial.He never recovered from the torture he was subjected to, and on June 6 he took his own life.

While serving time in New York’s prisons, I spent 2,054 days in solitary and other forms of isolated confinement, out of sight and invisible to other human beings—and eventually, even to myself.... There was nothing to hear except empty, echoing voices from other parts of the prison. I was so lonely that I hallucinated words coming out of the wind. They sounded like whispers. Sometimes, I smelled the paint on the wall, but more often, I just smelled myself, revolted by my own scent.

There was no touch. My food was pushed through a slot. Doors were activated by buzzers, even the one that led to a literal cage directly outside of my cell for one hour per day of “recreation.”

Even time had no meaning in the SHU. The lights were kept on for 24 hours. I often found myself wondering if an event I was recollecting had happened that morning or days before. I talked to myself. I began to get scared that the guards would come in and kill me and leave me hanging in the cell. Who would know if something happened to me? Just as I was invisible, so was the space I inhabited.

The very essence of life, I came to learn during those seemingly endless days, is human contact, and the affirmation of existence that comes with it. Losing that contact, you lose your sense of identity. You become nothing.

Everyone knows that prison is supposed to take away your freedom. But solitary doesn’t just confine your body; it kills your soul.... The scars that isolated confinement leaves behind may be invisible, too, but they are no less painful or permanent than physical scars. Even now that I am out of prison, I suffer major psychological consequences from those years in isolation. I know that I have irreparable memory damage. I can hardly sleep. I have a short temper. I do not like people to touch me. I cannot listen to music or watch television or sports. I am only beginning to recover my ability to talk on the phone. I no longer feel connected to people.



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