[Ppnews] Voices from Solitary: A Sentence Worse Than Death

Political Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Mon Mar 11 11:03:09 EDT 2013

  Voices from Solitary: A Sentence Worse Than Death

March 11, 2013 By Voices from Solitary 

/ The following essay is by William Blake, who has been held in solitary 
confinement for over 25 years. Currently he is in administrative 
segregation at Elmira Correctional Facility, a maximum security facility 
located in south central New York State. In 1987, Blake, then 23 and in 
county court on a drug charge, murdered one deputy and wounded another 
in a failed escape attempt. Sentenced to 77 years to life, Blake has no 
chance of ever leaving prison alive, and almost no chance of ever 
leaving solitary----a fate he considers  "a sentence worse than death."/

/This powerful essay earned Blake an Honorable Mention in the /Yale Law 
Journal/'s// Prison Law Writing Contest. Chosen from more than 1,500 
entries, it will be published in the /Journal/ this spring. He describes 
here in painstaking detail his excruciating experiences over the last 
quarter-century. "I've read of the studies done regarding the effects of 
long-term isolation in solitary confinement on inmates, seen how 
researchers say it can ruin a man's mind, and I've watched with my own 
eyes the slow descent of sane men into madness---sometimes not so slow," 
Blake writes. "What I've never seen the experts write about, though, is 
what year after year of abject isolation can do to that immaterial part 
in our middle where hopes survive or die and the spirit resides." That 
is what Blake himself seeks to convey in his essay. ---Lisa Dawson/

  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .

"You deserve an eternity in hell," Onondaga County Supreme Court judge 
Kevin Mulroy told me from his bench as I stood before him for sentencing 
on July 10, 1987. Apparently he had the idea that God was not the only 
one justified to make such judgment calls.

Judge Mulroy wanted to "pump six buck's worth of electricity into [my] 
body," he also said, though I suggest that it wouldn't have taken six 
cent's worth to get me good and dead. He must have wanted to reduce me 
and The Chair to a pile of ashes. My "friend" Governor Mario Cuomo 
wouldn't allow him to do that, though, the judge went on, bemoaning New 
York State's lack of a death statute due to the then-Governor's repeated 
vetoes of death penalty bills that had been approved by the state 
legislature. Governor Cuomo's publicly expressed dudgeon over being 
called a friend of mine by Judge Mulroy was understandable, given the 
crimes that I had just been convicted of committing. I didn't care much 
for him either, truth be told. He built too many new prisons in my 
opinion, and cut academic and vocational programs in the prisons already 

I know that Judge Mulroy was not nearly alone in wanting to see me 
executed for the crime I committed when I shot two Onondaga County 
sheriff's deputies inside the Town of Dewitt courtroom during a failed 
escape attempt, killing one and critically wounding the other. There 
were many people in the Syracuse area who shared his sentiments, to be 
sure. I read the hateful letters to the editor printed in the local 
newspapers; I could even feel the anger of the people when I'd go to 
court, so palpable was it. Even by the standards of my own belief 
system, such as it was back then, I deserved to die for what I had done. 
I took the life of a man without just cause, committing an act so 
monumentally wrong that I could not have argued that it was unfair had I 
been required to pay with my own life.

What nobody knew or suspected back then, not even I, on that very day I 
would begin suffering a punishment that I am convinced beyond all doubt 
is far worse than any death sentence could possibly have been. On July 
10, 2012, I finished my 25th consecutive year in solitary confinement, 
where at the time of this writing I remain. Though it is true that I've 
never died and so don't know exactly what the experience would entail, 
for the life of me I cannot fathom how dying any death could be harder 
or more terrible than living through all that I have been forced to 
endure for the last quarter-century.

Prisoners call it The Box. Prison authorities have euphemistically 
dubbed it the Special Housing Unit, or SHU (pronounced "shoe") for 
short. In society it is known as solitary confinement. It is 23-hour a 
day lockdown in a cell smaller than some closets I've seen, with one 
hour allotted to "recreation" consisting of placement in a concrete 
enclosed yard by oneself or, in some prisons, a cage made of steel bars. 
There is nothing in a SHU yard but air: no TV, no balls to bounce, no 
games to play, no other inmates, nothing. There is very little allowed 
in a SHU cell, also. Three sets of plain white underwear, one pair of 
green pants, one green short-sleeved button-up shirt, one green 
sweatshirt, ten books or magazines total, twenty pictures of the people 
you love, writing supplies, a bar of soap, toothbrush and toothpaste, 
one deodorant stick but no shampoo, and that's about it. No clothes of 
your own, only prison-made. No food from commissary or packages, only 
three unappetizing meals a day handed to you through a narrow slot in 
your cell door. No phone calls, no TV, no luxury items at all. You get a 
set of cheap headphones to use, and you can pick between the two or 
three (depending on which prison you're in) jacks in the cell wall to 
plug into. You can listen to a TV station in one jack, and use your 
imagination while trying to figure out what is going on when the music 
indicates drama but the dialogue doesn't suffice to tell you anything. 
Or you can listen to some music, but you're out of luck if you're a 
rock-n-roll fan and find only rap is playing.

Your options in what to do to occupy your time in SHU are scant, but 
there will be boredom aplenty. You probably think that you understand 
boredom, know its feel, but really you don't. What you call boredom 
would seem a whirlwind of activity to me, choices so many that I'd 
likely be befuddled in trying to pick one over all the others. You could 
turn on a TV and watch a movie or some other show; I haven't seen a TV 
since the 1980s. You could go for a walk in the neighborhood; I can't 
walk more than a few feet in any direction before I run into a concrete 
wall or steel bars. You could pick up your phone and call a friend; I 
don't know if I'd be able to remember how to make a collect call or even 
if the process is still the same, so many years it's been since I've 
used a telephone. Play with your dog or cat and experience their love, 
or watch your fish in their aquarium; the only creatures I see daily are 
the mice and cockroaches that infect the unit, and they're not very 
lovable and nothing much to look at. There is a pretty good list of 
options available to you, if you think about it, many things that you 
could do even when you believe you are so bored. You take them for 
granted because they are there all the time, but if it were all taken 
away you'd find yourself missing even the things that right now seem so 
small and insignificant. Even the smallest stuff can become as large as 
life when you have had nearly nothing for far too long.

I haven't been outside in one of the SHU yards in this prison for about 
four years now. I haven't seen a tree or blade of grass in all that 
time, and wouldn't see these things were I to go back to the yard. In 
Elmira Correctional Facility, where I am presently imprisoned, the SHU 
yards are about three or four times as big as my cell. There are twelve 
SHU yards total, each surrounded by concrete walls, one or two of the 
walls lined with windows. If you look in the windows you'll see the same 
SHU company that you live on, and maybe you'll get a look at a guy who 
was locked next to you for months that you've talked to every day but 
had never before gotten a look at. If you look up you'll find bars and a 
screen covering the yard, and if you're lucky maybe you can see a bit of 
blue sky through the mesh, otherwise it'll be hard to believe that 
you're even outside. If it's a good day you can walk around the SHU yard 
in small circles staring ahead with your mind on nothingness, like the 
nothing you've got in that lacuna with you. If it's a bad day, though, 
maybe your mind will be filled with remembrances of all you used to have 
that you haven't seen now for many years, and you'll be missing it, 
feeling the loss, feeling it bad.

Life in the box is about an austere sameness that makes it difficult to 
tell one day from a thousand others. Nothing much and nothing new ever 
happen to tell you if it' a Monday or a Friday, March or September, 1987 
or 2012. The world turns, technology advances, and things in the streets 
change and keep changing all the time. Not so in a solitary confinement 
unit, however. I've never seen a cell phone except in pictures in 
magazines. I've never touched a computer in my life, never been on the 
Internet and wouldn't know how to get there if you sat me in front of a 
computer, turned it on for me, and gave me directions. SHU is a timeless 
place, and I can honestly say that there is not a single thing I'd see 
looking around right now that is different from what I saw in Shawangunk 
Correctional Facility's box when I first arrived there from Syracuse's 
county jail in 1987. Indeed, there is probably nothing different in SHU 
now than in SHU a hundred years ago, save the headphones. Then and now 
there were a few books, a few prison-made clothing articles, walls and 
bars and human beings locked in cages... and misery.

There is always the misery. If you manage to escape it yourself for a 
time, there will ever be plenty around in others for you to sense; and 
though you'll be unable to look into their eyes and see it, you might 
hear it in the nighttime when tough guys cry not-so-tough tears that are 
forced out of them by the unrelenting stress and strain that life in SHU 
is an exercise in.

I've read of the studies done regarding the effects of long-term 
isolation in solitary confinement on inmates, seen how researchers say 
it can ruin a man's mind, and I've watched with my own eyes the slow 
descent of sane men into madness---sometimes not so slow. What I've 
never seen the experts write about, though, is what year after year of 
abject isolation can do to that immaterial part in our middle where 
hopes survive or die and the spirit resides. So please allow me to speak 
to you of what I've seen and felt during some of the harder times of my 
twenty-five-year SHU odyssey.

I've experienced times so difficult and felt broken and loneliness to 
such a degree that it seemed to be a physical thing inside so thick it 
felt like it was choking me, trying to squeeze the sanity from my mind, 
the spirit from my soul, and the life from my body. I've seen and felt 
hope becoming like a foggy ephemeral thing, hard to get ahold of, even 
harder to keep ahold of as the years as the years and then decades 
disappeared while I stayed trapped in the emptiness of the SHU world. 
I've seen minds slipping down the slope of sanity, descending into 
insanity, and I've been terrified that I would end up like the guys 
around me that have cracked and become nuts. It's a sad thing to watch a 
human being go insane before your eyes because he can't handle the 
pressure that the box exerts on the mind, but it is sadder still to see 
the spirit shaken from a soul. And it is more disastrous. Sometimes the 
prison guards find them hanging and blue; sometimes their necks get 
broken when they jump from their bed, the sheet tied around the neck 
that's also wrapped around the grate covering the light in the ceiling 
snapping taut with a pop. I've seen the spirit leaving men in SHU and 
have witnessed the results.

The box is a place like no other place on planet Earth. It's a place 
where men full of rage can stand at their cell gates fulminating on 
their neighbor or neighbors, yelling and screaming and speaking some of 
the filthiest words that could ever come from a human mouth, do it for 
hours on end, and despite it all never suffer the loss of a single 
tooth, never get his head knocked clean off his shoulders. You will 
never hear words more despicable or see mouth wars more insane than what 
occurs all the time in SHU, not anywhere else in the world, because 
there would be serious violence before any person could peak so much 
foulness for so long. In the box the heavy steel bars allow mouths to 
run with impunity when they could not otherwise do so, while the ambient 
is one that is sorely conducive to an exceedingly hot sort of anger that 
seems to press the lips on to ridiculous extremes. Day and night I have 
been awakened to the sound of the rage being loosed loudly on SHU gates, 
and I'd be a liar if I said I haven't at times been one of the madmen 
doing the yelling.

I have lived for months where the first thing I became aware of upon 
waking in the morning is the malodorous funk of human feces, tinged with 
the acrid stench of days-old urine, where I eat my breakfast, lunch, and 
dinner with that same stink assaulting my senses, and where the last 
thought I had before falling into unconscious sleep was: "Damn, it 
smells like shit in here." I have felt like I was on an island 
surrounded by vicious sharks, flanked on both sides by mentally ill 
inmates who would splash their excrement all over their cells, all over 
the company outside their cells, and even all over themselves. I have 
went days into weeks that seemed like they'd never end without being 
able to sleep more than short snatches before I was shocked out of my 
dreams, and thrown back into a living nightmare, by the screams of sick 
men who have lost all ability to control themselves, or by the banging 
of cell bars and walls of these same madmen. I have been so tired when 
sleep inside was impossible that I went outside into a snowstorm to get 
some sleep.

The wind blew hard and snowflakes swirled around and around in the small 
SHU yard at Shawangunk, and I had but one cheap prison-produced coat on 
and a single set of state clothes beneath. To escape the biting cold I 
dug into the seven- or eight-foot high mountain of snow that was piled 
in the center of the yard, the accumulation from inmates shoveling a 
narrow path to walk along the perimeter. With bare hands gone numb, I 
dug out a small room in that pile of snow, making myself a sort of 
igloo. When it was done I crawled inside, rolled onto my back on the 
snow-covered concrete ground, and almost instantly fell asleep, my bare 
head pillowed in the snow. I didn't even have a hat to wear.

An hour or so later I was awakened by the guards come to take me back to 
the stink and insanity inside: "Blake, rec's over..." I had gotten an 
hour's straight sleep, minus the few minutes it had taken me to dig my 
igloo. That was more than I had gotten in weeks without being shocked 
awake by the CA-RACK! of a sneaker being slapped into a plexiglass 
shield covering the cell of an inmate who had thrown things nasty; or 
the THUD-THUD-THUD! of an inmate pounding his cell wall, or bars being 
banged, gates being kicked and rattled, or men screaming like they're 
dying and maybe wishing that they were; or to the tirade of an inmate 
letting loose his pent-up rage on a guard or fellow inmate, sounding 
every bit the lunatic that too long a time in the mind-breaking confines 
of the box had caused him to be.

I have been so exhausted physically, mental strength being tested to 
limits that can cause strong folks to snap, that I have begged God, 
tough guy I fancy myself, "Please, Lord, make them stop. Please let me 
get some peace." As the prayers went ungranted and the insanity around 
me persisted, I felt my own rage rising above the exhaustion and misery, 
no longer in a begging mood: "Lord, kill those motherfuckers, why don't 
you!" I yelled at the Almighty, my own sanity so close to being gone 
that it seemed as if I were walking along a precipice and could see down 
to where I'd be falling, seeing myself shot, sanity a dead thing killed 
by the fall. I'd be afraid later on, terrified, when I reflected back on 
how close I had seemed to come to losing my mind, but at that moment all 
I could do was feel anger of a fiery kind: anger at the maniacs creating 
the noise and the stink and the madness; anger at my keepers and the 
real creators of this hell; anger at society for turning a blind eye to 
the torment and torture going on here that its tax dollars are 
financing; and perhaps most of all, anger at myself for doing all that I 
did that never should have been done that put me into the clutches of 
this beastly prison system to begin with. I would be angry at the world; 
enraged, actually, so burning hot was what I would be feeling.

I had wet toilet paper stuffed hard into both ears, sock folded up and 
pressed into my ears, a pillow wrapped around the sides and back of my 
head covering my ears, and a blanket tied around all that to hold 
everything in place, lying in bed praying for sleep. But still the noise 
was incredible, a thunderous cacophony of insanity, sleep impossible. 
Inmates lost in the throes of lavalike rage firing philippics at one 
another for even reasons they didn't know, threatening to kill one 
another's mommas, daddies, even the children, too. Nothing is sacred in 
SHU. It is an environment that is so grossly abnormal, so antithetical 
to normal human interactions, that it twists the innerds of men all 
around who for too long dwell there. Their minds, their morals, and 
their mannerisms get bent badly, ending far off-center. Right becomes 
whatever and wrong no longer exists. Restraint becomes a burden and is 
unnecessary with concrete and steel separating everyone, so inmates let 
it go. Day after day, perhaps year after year, the anger grows, fueled 
by the pain caused by the conditions till rage is born and burning so 
hot that it too hurts.

Trying to put into words what is so unlike anything else I know or have 
ever experienced seems an impossible endeavor, because there is nothing 
even remotely like it any place else to compare it to, and nothing that 
will do to you on the inside what so many years in SHU has done to me. 
All that I am able to articulate about the world of Special Housing Unit 
and what it is and what it does may seem terrible to you indeed, but the 
reality of living in this place for a full quarter of a century is yet 
even more terrible, still. You would have to live it, experience it in 
all its aspects and the fullness of its days and struggles added up, to 
really appreciate and understand just how truly terrible this plight of 
mine has been, and how truly ugly life in the box can be at times, even 
for just a single day. I spent nine years in Shawangunk's box, six years 
in Great Meadow's, and I've been here in Elmira's SHU for four years 
now, and through all of this time I have never spent a single day in a 
Mental Health Unit cell because I attempted or threatened suicide, or 
for any other reason. I have thought about suicide in times past when 
the days had become exceedingly difficult to handle, but I'm still here. 
I've had some of my SHU neighbors succumb to the suicidal thoughts, 
though, choosing death over another day of life in the box. I have never 
bugged out myself, but I've known times that I had come too close. I've 
had neighbors who came to SHU normal men, and I've seen them leave 
broken and not anything resembling normal anymore. I've seen guys give 
up on their dreams and lose all hope in the box, but my own hopes and 
dreams are still alive and well inside me. The insidious workings of the 
SHU program have yet to get me stuck on that meandering path to internal 
destruction that I have seen so many of my neighbors end up on, and 
perhaps this is a miracle; I'd rather be dead than to lose control of my 

Had I known in 1987 that I would spend the next quarter-century in 
solitary confinement, I would have certainly killed myself. If I took a 
month to die and spent every minute of it in severe pain, it seems to me 
that on a balance that fate would still be far easier to endure than the 
last twenty-five years have been. If I try to imagine what kind of 
death, even a slow one, would be worse than twenty-five years in the 
box---and I have tried to imagine it---I can come up with nothing. Set 
me afire, pummel and bludgeon me, cut me to bits, stab me, shoot me, do 
what you will in the worst of ways, but none of it could come close to 
making me feel thing as cumulatively horrifying as what I've experienced 
through my years in solitary. Dying couldn't take but a short time if 
you or the State were to kill me; in SHU I have died a thousand internal 
deaths. The sum of my quarter-century's worth of suffering has been that 

To some judges sitting on high who've never done a day in the box, maybe 
twenty-five years of this isn't cruel and unusual. To folks who have an 
insatiable appetite for vengeance against prisoners who have committed 
terrible crimes, perhaps it doesn't even matter how cruel or unusual my 
plight is or isn't. For people who cannot let go of hate and know not 
how to forgive, no amount of remorse would matter, no level of 
contrition would be quite enough, only endless retribution would be 
right in their eyes. Like Judge Milroy, only an eternity in hell would 
satisfy them. Given even that in retribution, though, the unforgiving 
haters wouldn't be satisfied that hell was hot enough; they'd want the 
heat turned up. Thankfully these folks are the few, that in the minds of 
the many, at a point, enough is enough.

No matter what the world would think about things that they cannot 
imagine in even their worst nightmares, I know that twenty-five years in 
solitary confinement is utterly and certainly cruel, moreso than death 
in or by an electric chair, gas chamber, lethal injection, bullet in the 
head, or even immolation could possibly be. The sum of the suffering 
caused by any of these quick deaths would be a small thing next to the 
sum of the suffering that this quarter-century in SHU has brought to 
bear on me. Solitary confinement for the length of time that I have 
endured it, even apart from the inhuman conditions that I have too often 
been made to endure it in, is torture of a terrible kind; and anyone who 
doesn't think so surely knows not what to think.

I have served a sentence worse than death.

Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415 
863.9977 www.freedomarchives.org
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