[Pnews] Women in Solitary Confinement
ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Tue Jan 20 10:28:21 EST 2015
Women in Solitary Confinement
Sunday, 18 January 2015 00:00 By Victoria Law
Victoria Woodrich had had enough. On November 11, 2014, six weeks before
her 36th birthday, she tied a sock around her neck
she tied the other end to the top of her bed structure. By the time
staff found her at 3:30 that afternoon, she was dead.
Woodrich, known as Shortybang to her friends, had been in prison for
more than a decade and at Illinois' Logan Correctional Center since its
2013 conversion to a women's prison
Earlier that month, she was placed in the prison's segregation unit,
where women are locked in their cells nearly 24 hours a day.
"She kept telling me she wanted to die," recalled Nicole Natschke, who
was in segregation during that time. "She told me that everyone would be
better off without her." Three days later, the woman awoke to screaming.
That was when she learned that Woodrich had hung herself.
Most prison officials eschew the term "solitary confinement" these days.
They use other names for the units in which people are isolated to their
cells nearly all day. In California, it's usually the "administrative
segregation unit" or "security housing unit"; in New York state and in
the federal system, it's the Special Housing Unit (or SHU). In Logan
prison, the unit is known as the "segregation wing."
Regardless of the name, women in these units spend 22 to 24 hours in
their cells. They are allowed out of their cells for showers up to three
times each week and for one hour of exercise and recreation per day
inside a different cage outdoors. This isolation exacerbates any
existing mental health problems and, even for those without preexisting
conditions, can cause severe psychological and emotional trauma.
Dr. Craig Haney, widely considered an expert on the effects of isolation
on mental health, rattled off a list of the effects of solitary
confinement in his 2012 testimony
the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee, including significantly increased
negative attitudes and affect, irritability, anger, aggression and even
rage; chronic insomnia, free floating anxiety, fear of impending
emotional breakdowns, a loss of control, and panic attacks; severe and
even paralyzing discomfort around other people, social withdrawal, and
extreme paranoia; hypersensitivity to external stimuli (such as noise,
light, smells), various kinds of cognitive dysfunction, such as an
inability to concentrate or remember, and ruminations in which they
fixate on trivial things intensely and over long periods of time; a
sense of hopelessness and deep depression; and signs and symptoms of
psychosis, including visual and auditory hallucinations.
Haney is not alone in his findings. Not only do others in the mental
agree, but directors of various
prison systems have also come to recognize solitary's harmful effects
But, despite the increasing attention being paid to solitary in men's
prisons - from the 2013 mass prison hunger strike in California
to prison commissioners experiencing the isolation firsthand
and condemning the practice
- far less attention has been paid to the practice in women's prisons.
*"You Have Lost Your Freedom in a Way That You Never Have Thought of"*
"Solitary confinement traumatized me far more than being in prison did.
And prison traumatized me," Evie Litwok told Truthout. Litwok, who was
released from prison on August 19, 2014, is still affected by her stay
in solitary. "You have lost your freedom in a way you never have thought
of," she said. "Your nerves are shot. You feel more edgy."
Evie Litwok spent seven weeks in the SHU, which she describes as a
prison-within-a-prison at the Federal Correctional Institution in
Tallahassee, Florida. There, she was confined to her cell nearly 24
hours each day. For one hour each morning, she was also allowed to leave
her cell to exercise in another cage. To do so, she was chained,
handcuffed and walked to the recreation cage outside, which she
described as "probably never having been cleaned." After one hour, she
was handcuffed, chained and escorted back to her cell.
She was allowed to shower three times each week; each shower lasted less
than 10 minutes. Other days, she had to improvise in her cell. "I would
strip naked and pour water over myself," she recalled. Like many of the
other women in the SHU, Litwok was double-celled and so had to do so in
front of her bunkmate. She was also exposed to the eyes of any guard or
staff member who walked by her cell door, since prison policy prohibits
covering the small window on the door at any time.
What landed Litwok in solitary? Publicizing the death of a woman named
Miriam Hernandez. According to Litwok, Hernandez had been complaining of
excruciating stomach pain. Medical staff dismissed her complaints,
telling her, "You're fat. You need to walk on the track. You need to
drink water." Hernandez died two weeks later when her gallbladder burst.
People incarcerated in the federal prison system have access to
CorrLinks, a limited version of email. Litwok emailed the details of
Hernandez's death to a friend, who posted it on her website, Ex-Offender
Nation <http://exoffendernation.com/>. Within an hour of the story's
posting, Litwok was handcuffed, strip searched and sent to the SHU.
There's little quiet in the SHU, Litwok explained. All day, women
screamed, "Get me out of here! Get me the fuck out of here!" The
screaming was always worse at night.
Women who were on medication sometimes received a fraction of their
prescription after being placed in the SHU. Litwok recalls that her
cellmate was one of those women. "She was freaking out," she said. "It
was clear that she couldn't take it. She kept asking, 'Why am I here?
I'm not charged with anything.' "
Litwok was able to flag down the psychologist, who gave the woman the
proper dosage for that one night. But the following day the medications
were gone, and the woman's freak-out resumed. Two months later, Litwok's
cellmate, who had been placed in SHU "under investigation," was released
without charge. She was not the only one in the SHU whose charges were
"I was with 60 women in the SHU," Litwok recalled. Most were awaiting
the outcome of an investigation and hearing. "Everyone who was charged
had their charges dropped or reduced," she stated. She remembered women
accused of bringing in contraband. After spending four months in
isolation, their charges were dropped. Another woman spent eight months
after she cursed about a correctional officer within his hearing, and
was charged with threatening the officer. The charges were ultimately
In solitary, women must depend on prison staff to bring them
necessities. Litwok remembers the humiliation of having to beg for
toilet paper. In Illinois, Natschke reported that officers frequently
refused to hand out sanitary pads until women staged a disturbance. "I
went two days with no pads," she said. "There were several other women
who also needed pads. The officers ignored us or would tell us that
there aren't any." The women had to stage individual protests: "One
woman ended up flooding her cell. I held my chuckhole open so I could
see a lieutenant. Other women were banging on their doors."
They received their necessary pads, but each was also issued a
misconduct ticket, which prevents them from having their segregation
time reduced. "If we didn't do that, we would've still been sitting on
the toilet," noted Natschke, whose solitary sentence will not end until
August 3, 2015.
*Cellmates in Segregation: Enabling Human Interaction or a Result of
Prison administrators have pointed out that some people in segregation
are allowed cellmates and thus are not "solitary." In Logan, for
instance, prison watchdog group the John Howard Association found that
92 of the 99 women in segregation shared cells with one other person (a
term known as double-celling). In California's women's prisons
only two of the 158 women in Administrative Segregation and four of the
78 women in the Security Housing Unit were in cells alone; the others
are double-celled. But advocates, including people who have spent time
in these units, say that this double-celling is more about prison
than ensuring human interaction.
As of October 2014
for instance, the California Institution for Women, originally designed
to hold 1,100 people, housed 1,799; the Central California Women's
Facility, originally designed for 1,895, housed 3,676. In Illinois,
Logan, with a rated capacity of 1,106
currently holds 1,950 people
Having a cellmate, however, does little to ameliorate the effects of
prolonged confinement. "When the lights close, you're in this small
space," Litwok explained. "You can't turn on the TV; you can't listen to
the radio; you can't read a book." Four months later, she still has
difficulty falling asleep. When she does, she has nightmares. "I have a
darkness that I never had, a cloud that sits over my head. And you can't
fix that," she said. "I wonder if I'll ever be relaxed."
*Protective or Punitive?*
When 20-year-old Donna Hylton was first arrested and sent to Rikers
Island, New York City's island jail, she was placed in protective
custody (solitary confinement). "It was horrible!" she told Truthout. "I
was isolated. For a long time, I didn't see anyone. I got taken to court
by myself or, if I was on the bus with anyone else, they'd put me in the
caged part by myself." The isolation was ostensibly to protect her
because of her high-profile case in the kidnapping and murder of a real
But the lack of human contact soon resulted in nightmares, which
resulted in medical staff prescribing psychotropic medications. "I
didn't know what it was," Hylton explained. "They told me I had to take
it or I'd get in trouble. I didn't want to get in trouble, so I took it."
After six months, she was taken off protective custody and allowed into
general population. A few months later, after returning from court, she
was told that staff had found a straight razor among her possessions.
She was sentenced to 45 days in solitary and sent back to the same unit,
this time as punishment. "I was in the same unit, same corridor. It was
no different." The only difference was the label explaining her placement.
*Report Sexual Abuse? Go to Solitary*
Although the 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act prohibits sexual contact
between staff and the people they guard, prison administrators
frequently use the threat of solitary to dissuade women from reporting
staff abuse. Donna Hylton knows this firsthand. She recalled one
particular sergeant who tried to coerce her into having sex. She tried
to report his behavior to the administration.
"They told me, 'If you keep making these allegations, we're going to
send you to SHU,'" she remembered. The lieutenant told her that, without
evidence, they would not believe her accusations.
In response, Hylton snapped, "The next time he pulls out his dick, I'm
going to bite it off and bring you the evidence."
Recalling the conversation, Hylton said, "I sat on the floor of the
administration building and screamed it out," she recalled. The sergeant
stopped his behavior, but found a way to punish Hylton for speaking out.
A few months later, Hylton was involved in an altercation with another
sergeant. She had recently learned that her daughter had been assaulted,
and Hylton had been traveling two hours back and forth between Bedford
Hills and the New York City court system to press charges against the
"I had marijuana and a five dollar bill on me," she recalled. An officer
noticed and placed his hands to begin a search. "I had been molested as
a girl," she explained. "I didn't realize he was going to search me. All
I knew was that he put his hands on me." Hylton pushed him, leading to
an altercation where other staff members wrestled her to the ground and
handcuffed her. The sergeant whose sexual advances she had tried to
report joined in, ultimately charging her with possession of money and
assault on staff. She was sent to the Special Housing Unit.
In the SHU, women were allowed one hour of recreation time out of their
cell each day. As in the federal system and many other state systems,
recreation consists of spending time in a cage outside. "There's a stone
table with stone slabs you can sit on," Hylton described. "It's a little
bigger than your average-sized bathroom. It has razor wire over the top
of the rec yard. There's also a gun tower." Showers lasted five minutes.
"By the time you take off your robe, they've turned off the water," she
She remembered women screaming day in and day out. People tried to kill
themselves and sometimes succeeded. "The isolation can break you down
mentally, emotionally," she explained. "It was torturous." Mental health
check-ups consisted of a mental health staffer asking her, through the
food slot in her door, "You okay? Do you want to talk?" There was no
privacy to talk one-on-one with either mental health or medical staff.
*"We Need to Eliminate Solitary for Everybody"*
From inside her solitary cell, Natschke has been trying to speak out.
"I want to help make prisons better, so I don't mind people knowing what
I'm going through," she wrote.
Out of prison, both Litwok and Hylton have become outspoken advocates
against solitary confinement. On December 19, 2014, four months after
her release from prison, Litwok testified
<https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=anEWR3wFyAg> about her SHU experience
before the New York City Board of Corrections, which establishes and
monitors minimum standards in the city's jails. The board was hearing
testimony about a proposal
to build a $14.8 million, 250-bed "Enhanced Supervision Housing Unit" on
Rikers Island to isolate people deemed to be violent or threats to security.
"I am the face of someone who is considered a security risk," the
Hylton also testified <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BLGM4Qb_Zc8>,
recounting her experience in solitary and urging the board to consider
adding positive programming to Rikers, such as the college programs AIDS
Counseling and Education and Family Violence, addressing abuse and
violence, which she had helped create at Bedford Hills.
At its January 13, 2015, meeting, the board approved the proposal to
build the Enhanced Supervision Housing Unit, with amendments excluding
people age 21 and younger and setting 30-day duration limits. Litwok,
who attended the three-hour hearing, was appalled. But she's resolved to
"We should be eliminating prison for most people," Litwok said, "but we
need to eliminate solitary for everybody."
Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission
<mailto:editor at truthout.org>.
Victoria Law <http://truth-out.org/author/itemlist/user/45103>
Victoria Law is a writer, photographer and mother. She is the author of
"Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women" (PM Press
2009), the editor of the zine Tenacious: Art and Writings from Women in
Prison and a co-founder of Books Through Bars - NYC. She is currently
working on transforming "Don't Leave Your Friends Behind," a zine series
on how radical movements can support the families in their midst, into a
Freedom Archives 522 Valencia Street San Francisco, CA 94110 415
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