[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
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 its academic.
Whats true now is that hes sick, literally, of
being alone, as are scores of other prisoners in extreme isolation.
Among the misperceptions about solitary
confinement is that its 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 arent 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 youre 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. Its ripping him apart.
Looking at photos of the free world caused me so
much pain that I just couldnt 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 were 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 hed 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.
Lawrences Sons and Lovers and Anaïs Nins books,
which Jordan had already ordered. Officers in the
mailroom wouldnt 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 Jordans 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. Id 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.
Id buzz and buzz again, complaining bitterly
once nurses finally showed up. Id see them roll
their eyes and hear them dissing me in the
hallway. Being sick wasnt 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 dont
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
were 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
didnt 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
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. Its 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 governors 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 arent 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 officers
allegation of it can add years to your time in
isolation. Some prisoners have spent a decade or
two asking why theyre 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
thats 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.
Ive 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 whove gotten
out, I hear the same descriptions of solitary:
that its 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. Id 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
theres a window approx. 30 inches long and 10
inches high with a square bar going through the
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 theyre 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
moths 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
its 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
Californias 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 Channels 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 were
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 doesnt
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.
Lets 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 doesnt
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. Theyll 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 whove 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 youve lost, Jeremy Pinson writes.
Concentration wanes, revenge fantasies fester and
voices echo in peoples 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-70s to late 60s. 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 Mexicos
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 dont care if you have a
knife stuck in your back, you tell your mom that
youre 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 dont help much with
transparency or public accountability. They cite
pending lawsuits and security risks for refusing
to be interviewed. They have scoffed when Ive
asked if theyd consider passing a disposable
camera or hand-held recorder to a man who hasnt
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 didnt officially exist.
* * *
Letters from isolation are always handwritten
(supermaxes dont 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, Ive 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 hadnt pulled the trigger.
From the cutters, Ive 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 hes hurting himself.
When my anxiety becomes overwhelming
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, Ill 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 Im put on a suicide watch, Im 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 dont, Bobby Boyd writes from Tamms.
Some prisoners recognize their mental health
problems. Others write around them.
More often than Ill ever know, my letters
havent reached the men Ive mailed them to. Some
have come back to me marked that they were
rejected by prisoners Im sure didnt reject
them. Even more often, their letters to me dont make it past the mailroom.
Between the lines of the ones that do, most
letters from solitary say the same thing: That
were all higher than the lowest things weve
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.
* * *
Its 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 didnt show up for interviews
as they agreed. Saying no or that they were
scared to leave home or just not up to talking
apparently didnt 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.
Im gonna push through my nerves, see, because
Ive been waiting like 20-something years to say
all this, Vincente Rodriguez told me when we met
in his living room in Chicago.
Rodriguezs seven months in the free world
havent 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 wont hang out or cuddle in front of the TV.
He cant 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 hes 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.
Im here, but Im 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. Im still there, really. And Im
not sure when Im 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
whove been released, he is doing well. Yet hes
flailing. Hes 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 hed never
recover from his years in solitary. Once faced
with social situations, he says he would speak so
fast that hed stutter. He came to avoid people and wouldnt look at them.
Later on, when I did look, it was only to read
their lips, as its 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. Hes 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 hell 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
cant 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 dont 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.
Its 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 isnt 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. Whats 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 whats 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.
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.
522 Valencia Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
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