[Ppnews] The Gray Box: An investigative look at solitary confinement

Political Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Wed Jan 25 15:14:45 EST 2012



The Gray Box: An investigative look at solitary confinement

by Susan Greene
http://www.dartsocietyreports.org/cms/2012/01/the-gray-box-an-original-investigation/

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.

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.”

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 behavior – 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 – behavior 
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.

“Ninety percent of the time you hear nothing but 
the sound of air from the ventilation. The 
silence can drive you crazy. Makes you feel as if 
the world has ended but you somehow survived and 
are tripped,” Jeremy Pinson writes from ADX, the 
crown jewel of the federal system once described 
by its warden as a “clean version of hell.”

“The world outside is like another planet,” 
writes Jack Powers, also from ADX. “I feel like I am trapped within a disease.”

Prisoners pace their cells like caged felines at a zoo.

“I walked and walked and walked some more,” says 
Darrell Cannon, who did nine years in solitary in 
Illinois. “I’d walk in circles – always to the 
left, for some reason – for six, maybe seven hours a day.”

Almost everyone in isolation spends at least some 
time counting. They count the steps they take, 
the cinder blocks on the walls, the tiles on the 
ceiling, their sneezes and coughs, and how many 
times the furnace kicks in or the plumbing sloshes.

“If I remember correctly, there are 412 holes in 
(the cell door). I would count them daily,” Joe 
Sorrentino, now serving time in a general 
population prison, recalls of his cell at Tamms. 
“At the back of the cell, close to the ceiling 
there’s a window approx. 30 inches long and 10 
inches high with a square bar going through the 
middle 
 My window faced the tunnel, so my view 
for my first seven years there were of a blue 
wall. For years, I wondered what other guys could see out their windows.”

Some prisoners pass their time praying, 
meditating or talking to themselves. Some read 
voraciously, though often they’re limited to only 
a few books a month.  Some take whatever 
enrichment classes are broadcast over their TVs. 
The Bureau of Prisons has offered courses on 
Hitler, Sparta, Animals of the World, Legends of 
the Silver Screen and Robert E. Lee and his High Command.

Out of limited supplies, prisoners create art. 
They lodge bits of sponges into ballpoint 
cartridges to make paintbrushes. For paint, they 
mix water with Nescafe grinds or dye from candy 
they can buy from the commissary. M&Ms – plain, 
not peanut – work best. For deep reds, they fold 
red dye in with ground powder from vitamins. Navy 
blue takes a three-step process mixing royal blue 
candy coating with blue and black ink from pens. 
The color purple is best achieved from Skittles.

Prisoners strike up relationships with the 
critters that crawl in through their air vents. 
One man used his own hairs to try to repair a 
moth’s injured wing in hopes of facilitating its 
escape. Mohammed Saleh ­ convicted of having 
co-conspired in the 1993 World Trade Center 
bombing ­ lost his daily hour of outdoor 
recreation for three months at ADX because he 
saved bread crumbs to feed blackbirds in his exercise pen.

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.

“(Fasts) become addicting 
 You feel clean, but 
it’s also your body eating your body,” says 
Nelson. “My last hunger strike, I was on a gurney 
and there was no vital signs, and I went into shock.”

A hunger strike by 5,000 prisoners last fall shed 
light on solitary confinement conditions at 
California’s Pelican Bay State Prison. The strike 
ended when the state agreed to consider letting 
prisoners make phone calls and buy calendars. 
Months later, no substantive changes have been 
made on those modest demands. There have been 
reports that strike leaders have faced 
disciplinary action and that three strikers have committed suicide.

* * *

Many of us flirt with isolation. We tune out in 
all sorts of ways – cranking up our headphones or 
holing up in little rooms to write. From “Walden” 
to “Into the Wild,” generations have idealized 
solitude, wondering how long we could last on our 
own. Fox Reality Channel’s show “Solitary” kept 
contestants in voluntary round-the-clock 
confinement competing for $50,000 in prize money. 
The goal was to be the last player to quit by 
hitting the panic button. Boredom.com, a video 
game maker, has virtualized lockdown with “Escape 
3D: The Jail.” You can feign confinement in the 
comfort of your home or office, or, thanks to a 
handy smart phone app, idle in solitary on the subway or in line at the DMV.

Still, we know from all manner of solo 
expeditions, behavioral tests, biological 
experiments and psychological studies that we’re 
not wired to be alone. Early in the space age, 
cosmonauts training to fly Soviet rockets were 
put into isolation chambers without any way of 
knowing how much time was ticking by. Some gave 
up within hours. One, Andrian Nikolayev, earned 
hero status and the nickname “Iron Man” after 
setting a four-day record before pressing a buzzer to be released.

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 honor 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.

“Let’s just say it has been a challenge,” he says.

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.

* * *

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

“I became increasingly withdrawn at ADX to the 
point where the only people I interacted with 
were the television characters on ‘Seinfeld.’ I 
watched ‘Seinfeld’ four times a day. Jerry, 
Elaine, George and Kramer became my best friends. 
I felt like part of their family. They were the 
only friends I had,” Anthony McBayne wrote in a legal declaration.

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.

Concentration wanes, revenge fantasies fester and 
voices echo in people’s heads. Idiosyncrasies 
grow into obsessions about the tiniest details of 
physical space. Prisoner after prisoner writes of 
becoming enraged by slight noises or tweaks in their routines.

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.

“This is difficult to explain, but my memories 
were no longer mine,” Mark Jordan writes of his 
years at ADX. “I questioned whether or not I 
really had a past or history at all, whether the 
memories were real or false. 
 It was as though 
none of it was real. I was born into this life of 
isolation and the memories not memories at all. Confabulations.”

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.

“After 14 years, those people are strangers to 
me; as I must be to them,” Osiel Rodriguez wrote 
about the family members whose portraits he 
destroyed. “My parents will be dust if/when I 
ever get out of prison. My three sisters will be 
in their mid-70’s to late 60’s. So what was I 
doing holding on to photos of moments I was not a 
part of, or know nothing about?”

In his mind, Stephen Slevin spent two months in 
solitary confinement after being arrested on a 
drunk driving charge and booked into New Mexico’s 
Doña Ana County Detention Center. In real time, 
it was 20 months before the charge was dropped 
and, ungroomed and delusional, he was released. 
Those 18 months are still missing somewhere 
inside him, he now says. Yesterday, a jury 
awarded him $22 million in damages associated with his time in solitary.

* * *

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.”

Years ago, while assigned to cover Area 51 in 
Nevada, I had better access to a federal airbase that didn’t officially exist.

* * *

Letters from isolation are always handwritten 
(supermaxes don’t provide access to computers, 
which some long-timers have never even used). 
They arrive on government-issue loose-leaf paper 
in government-issue white envelopes, often 
quilted with 1-cent and 5-cent postage stamps bartered somehow between cells.

Some – especially those from prisons allowing 
showers only once a week ­ come smelling like confinement.

Certain prisoners struggle with their writing.

“Miz Greene. Weyre traped. Police help us,” reads 
one letter, start to finish, from a man named Paz at Pelican Bay.

Others write so well that it hurts.

“I miss being around people. I miss being able to 
run on the track or walk on grass or feel the sun 
on my face,” reads one of Jack Powers’ letters. 
“One time I kept a single green leaf alive for a 
few weeks. And one time I had grasshopper for a 
pet. And one time I made a dwarf tree out of yarn 
from a green winter hat, paper and dried tea 
bags. I made a guitar out of milk cartons, and it 
played quite well. I invented a perfect family – 
mom, dad and sister – so that we could interact 
and love one another. One time I wanted to take a 
bath, so I got into a garbage bag and put water 
in it and sat there. For a while I made vases out 
of toilet paper and soap and ink from a pen. I 
have done a thousand and one things to replicate 
ordinary life, but these too are now gone.”

 From solitary, I’ve received marriage proposals, 
tomes of legal documents and a Christmas card 
crafted out of a Wortz Cheese Crackers box. One 
man mailed three weeks’ worth of daily manifestos 
about Yahweh. People in confinement have 
criticized me for my grammar and syntax, cursed 
me for not writing more often and advised me to 
go lock myself in my bathroom to deepen my understanding of their plight.

Some letters are angry rants. Others are full of longing.

A prisoner in Virginia wrote 16 pages on behalf 
of the guy howling night and day in a cell down 
the hall, never once using the word “I.” Another 
in Illinois wrote a regretful 22-page essay about 
the man he had killed half a lifetime ago, 
imagining what might have happened to them each 
if he hadn’t pulled the trigger.

 From the cutters, I’ve been given step-by-step 
accounts of their attempts to feel something, 
anything, in the tedium. Anthony Gay seems to 
want me and all of America to understand exactly how he’s hurting himself.

“When my anxiety becomes overwhelming 
 I’ll pull 
out my cutting instrument, pull off my boxer 
shorts, sit on my toilet and cut a gash in my 
thigh,” Gay writes. “If I happen to become 
extremely anxious, I’ll slice my penis like a hot 
dog or my testicle like a tomato.”

A man who tried to hang himself in his cell asked 
for my help reimbursing the state of Illinois $56 
for a torn bed sheet. Attempted suicide in 
solitary often is treated as a disciplinary problem.

“When I’m put on a suicide watch, I’m all alone 
and stripped naked and may see a mental health 
staff for 3-4 minutes a day. So I wonder dam how 
is this pose to help me. It don’t,” Bobby Boyd writes from Tamms.

Some prisoners recognize their mental health 
problems. Others write around them.

More often than I’ll ever know, my letters 
haven’t reached the men I’ve mailed them to. Some 
have come back to me marked that they were 
rejected by prisoners I’m sure didn’t reject 
them. Even more often, their letters to me don’t make it past the mailroom.

Between the lines of the ones that do, most 
letters from solitary say the same thing: That 
we’re all higher than the lowest things we’ve 
ever done. For most of the so-called “worst of 
the worst” who bother writing, there seems to be 
at least some capacity for redemption.

* * *

It’s no small thing to ask someone who has spent 
years without social contact to sit and tell his 
story. I learned this waiting at a Kmart café in 
Denver, a donut shop in Chicago and Union Station 
in Washington, D.C., for men who had recently 
been released but didn’t show up for interviews 
as they agreed. Saying no ­ or that they were 
scared to leave home or just not up to talking ­ 
apparently didn’t seem like an option.

Some who did show up had trouble shaking my hand 
or looking me in the eye or crying in front of me.

“I’m gonna push through my nerves, see, because 
I’ve been waiting like 20-something years to say 
all this,” Vincente Rodriguez told me when we met 
in his living room in Chicago.

Rodriguez’s seven months in the free world 
haven’t been easy. Like lots of guys, he curls up 
in a corner of his apartment, blinds drawn, 
alone. He says he likes it that way, and it worries him.

Robert Felton retreats to his bedroom in 
Danville, Ill. His wife and young kids wonder why 
he won’t hang out or cuddle in front of the TV. 
He can’t bring himself to tell them that he now 
finds such closeness intolerable.

These are the guys next door, the men refereeing 
your kids’ basketball games, the hothead in line 
at the Conoco who freaks when someone brushes against him.

In the 18 months Brian Nelson has been out of 
solitary, he has found a job, a girlfriend and a 
car. He drives when he’s anxious, and is anxious 
often. Nelson curses himself when he loses his 
way on the streets of Chicago, the city he knew 
well until age 17 when a murder conviction landed him a 28-year sentence.

“I’m here, but I’m not here, if that makes any 
sense,” he says from behind the wheel of his Jeep 
Compass, disoriented on the South Side. “People 
ask me what hurts. I say the box, the gray box. I 
can feel those walls and I can taste them every 
day of my life. I’m still there, really. And I’m 
not sure when I’m ever gonna get out.”

Nelson ­ whose lawsuits from isolation improved 
conditions for prisoners in Illinois ­ works in a 
law office as an advocate for prisoners he left 
behind in confinement. Compared to other guys 
who’ve been released, he is doing well. Yet he’s 
flailing. He’s facing a DUI charge while on 
parole. He recently gave himself a black eye. The 
experience of being interviewed on camera sent 
him back into a box emotionally for weeks.

Anthony McBayne, the “Seinfeld” fan, realized 
after his release from prison that he’d never 
recover from his years in solitary. Once faced 
with social situations, he says he would speak so 
fast that he’d stutter. He came to avoid people and wouldn’t look at them.

“Later on, when I did look, it was only to read 
their lips, as it’s how I remember to ‘hear’ from 
when prisoners would talk through the thick glass 
at ADX when one prisoner was in a rec cage and I 
was in my cell,” reads his legal declaration. “I 
found myself doing this all the time after my 
release and it became so annoying that I had to 
lie and tell people that I was deaf and needed to read lips to hear.”

McBayne robbed a bank after his release. He’s now 
doing time at U.S. Penitentiary Big Sandy in Kentucky.

Joe Sorrentino, who is serving life on a murder 
conviction, remembers passing time in Tamms by 
drawing blueprints of a house he’ll never be able 
to build. All his designs included secret 
passages and hidden rooms where he could go to be 
alone. He has since been transferred out of 
solitary into a general population prison in Stateville.

“I have a huge sense of guilt for not being at 
Tamms,” he writes. “I feel completely empty and 
purposeless now. Plus, I hate being around 
people, period. I have a good cellmate, but I 
can’t stand being this close to another human 
being. I get frustrated very easily and the 
littlest things irk me. When I first arrived 
here, I attempted to make contact with mental 
health to try to get a one-man cell. She 
basically told me to ‘get over it,’ then asked if 
I wanted medication – which I don’t want. What I 
really want, deep inside, is to go back.”

* * *

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.”



<http://www.dartsocietyreports.org/cms/author/susan-greene/>Susan Greene

Susan Greene is a journalist in Denver who 
specializes in investigating social justice 
issues. She worked in newspapers for twenty 
years, most recently as a metro columnist for The Denver Post.




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