A Voice from Prison Blog | Criminal Justice Reform & Constitutional Rights

Post 2: Solitary Confinement

One of the most tortuous parts of the US criminal justice system is Solitary Confinement. This form of discipline is actually considered a barbaric form of torture by the United Nations. Very few counties in the developed world still use this as a form of discipline.

Many correctional institutions refer to solitary confinement simply as “The SHU,” which stands for Special Housing Unit. It is really just a pretty label slapped on something that our criminal justice system has done for a long time. There are two forms generally, administrative segregation and disciplinary segregation. The former is used for several reasons, but may refer to those waiting for review of disciplinary sanctions as well as those in ‘protective custody’. Administrative segregation can also apply to those in transfer or possibly, as in the case of COVID-19, quarantine. Disciplinary segregation is used primarily after an infraction has been officially documented by administrative staff in the prison or jail.

One might ask what types of infractions could result in solitary confinement? Personally, I have experienced this several times. During my time in transit and with the BOP, l have been held in solitary confinement numerous times.

My first experience dealing with solitary confinement was over a turkey sandwich. Yes, a turkey sandwich you would eat. I was sick for days (in jails and prisons, sickness is common and spreads quite fast) and had saved my meal, which happened to be a turkey sandwich for lunch, because I was still coughing too much and resting due to being nauseous. An hour later, while resting, my cell was subject to a ‘random’ search, where they discovered this ‘contraband’. I was not allowed to save the meal – eat it immediately or throw it away, even if you are nauseous and sick. The guard took my meal and threw it away and I was placed into solitary confinement for the rest of the day as well as the next day. Yes – over a turkey sandwich while I was sick.

My next experience with solitary confinement had to do with an extra blanket – which was authorized and given to me by medical. On another one of these popular raids, which are incredibly common and often used by guards to torment inmates they think are weak or easy to incite, they discovered this major contraband item. The authorized extra blanket. I explained that I had been authorized the extra blanket, and they then attempted to verify this with medical. But since there was no one present who would verify, I was placed in solitary confinement for the remainder of the day and the following day. I pleaded with the guard to attempt to verify, which they were finally able to do, but they still could not release me until the captain got in to verify this for himself. I was eventually allowed to return to general population. In this case, I attempted to speak to the watch commander, but they didn’t appreciate me pointing out their error. I was subjected to many more ‘random’ raids where they would enter my cell and throw all my stuff on the floor, often pouring liquid or damaging legal paperwork. I learned from this experience to choose my battles.

My other experiences with solitary confinement have been much harder on me mentally and physically. These were not for ‘disciplinary’ reasons, but for ‘my safety and safety of others’ – to use a famous administrative status. Blame COVID-19 if you will, but all these other times were all related to quarantine due to the pandemic. I have done approximately 6 months total of my over 2 years so far in solitary, while in transit at different facilities. Often, I would arrive at one facility and immediately be put into quarantine, even after a negative test prior to leaving the previous facility and another arriving at the new facility. In all solitary confinement cases, you are permitted at least one hour outside your cell every day per law. I can honestly say this has never once happened consistently at ANY of the facilities I have been at, both Marshal contract facilities, private prisons, county jails, or the BOP. In my travels while incarcerated, during COVID-19, we were often only allowed out of our cells every three days or so to take a 10 minute shower and then quickly shuffled back to our cells. Hygiene was a joke. We were lucky to get enough toothpaste to brush our teeth for more than two days. The soap lasted for maybe three showers after which we were rarely issued any more. Not to mention what it does to a person’s mind being in a cell without anything to do or anyone to talk to. 

You begin to question the purpose of life, to wonder what life like this amounts to or if it is even worth living anymore. You think of old times, memories that might bring a smile to your face for a few seconds, only to go even lower when you snap back to reality. Your only interactions throughout the day are meal times, where you are slid a tray through a slot to eat in roughly 5 minutes or so before they come back to pick it up, if you are finished or not. Hours drag on, with absolutely nothing to do. It is incredibly common to not be granted any reading or writing materials. I can not tell you how many days I wanted to die because the hours would feel like months, and I had literally nothing to do but sit there and think and be depressed. Books are an outlet at least. I was so thankful the one time I was afforded a book, that I would read it as many as five times in a day before I had to let it go for the next inmate. But again, this was rare.

Exercise was at your own discretion. You could do push-ups and sit-ups in your cell, but there was a trade-off. You sweat and you are only able to take showers every few days if you are lucky enough to have enough soap for that shower. So there were many weeks when I would be idle with nothing but time. If you were incredibly lucky, the prison would be overcrowded in solitary confinement so that you would have someone else placed in your cell, someone who you could share stories and interact with. But this was extremely rare. The last cellmate I had, however, was extremely violent and had three bodies on his record (murders) and was part of a nationally well known gang. It’s interesting, but not uncommon, that they choose to mix violent inmates with inmates who have no history of violence at all. In fact, if you had ‘suspected’ gang affiliations, you were thrown in solitary confinement, just as a precaution – ignoring who else was already in there and the reason why.

There are many more reasons that you can be put in solitary confinement, pretty much endless. One of the reasons that scared me most, was at the request of an intelligence agency. Since I was a previous government contractor with clearance, ANY intelligence agency in the United States could place a quick call or e-mail to the administration and I would automatically be enrolled in solitary confinement for 365 days. Upon the expiration, they could choose to automatically renew this. Basically in the concern for ‘national security’, that I might share some information with other inmates that could bring harm to the United States. No judicial hearings, no oversight or review, and absolutely no due process as guaranteed by the US Constitution. Just a quick note to the warden would suffice, and bang, solitary confinement indefinitely.

It’s interesting how the justice system would turn to solitary confinement so often and in such minor cases. One of the justice system’s biggest concerns is ‘antisocial behavior’. This is explicitly clear in so many program statements regarding recidivism and other crime reduction measures. They consider the antisocial nature of criminals to be a root cause of their criminal ways. I have to ask, why does the system itself turn to reinforce those qualities in people who need socialization the most? The point isn’t to isolate more from society but to integrate, and to show the value in living a life that corresponds with positive social interaction.

It’s hard to even describe what solitary does to the mind. When I spent time, back to back, in solitary confinement I was effectively punished for the potential of being sick, even though their own tests showed I was negative throughout all my travels. I questioned life and how this incredible hardship could be transformed into something positive. The answer: it can not. There is absolutely nothing beneficial in this practice. It is pure torture. It is a measure of how strong your will is to not give into the idea of suicide. In fact, they take anything away from you other than basic clothes, and if you are allowed a pen – it is a safety pen which can not be used to harm yourself, a blanket too thick to make a knot, and no pillow or anything else in your very small cell including food or commissary items. Not even pictures are allowed. Some cells are even padded, because it happens that inmates begin to bang their heads on the floor or wall. If the system knows how common it is to want to die in these situations, and if their answer is to simply take away more things and provide more padded rooms, how can they justify this practice in the first place.

Anytime you are allowed out of your cell, you are shackled like a maximum security inmate, something you would imagine being reserved for the most heinous criminals – serial killers. But no, this practice is unfortunately common. Having limited to no contact with family is also a part of this horrible practice. Only legal mail is allowed, to remind you of how much of a criminal you are and to remind you of the offences you were charged with. Others have had it worse than me. Years and decades in solidarity confinement. This is very sad to think about.

I still have not recovered. I often spend time alone, away from general population. Those who were able to go into a facility directly, without going through transit from facilities all over the United States, are fortunate. They will never know what this feels like, unless they themselves keep a turkey sandwich or an extra approved blanket. I still have nightmares of being locked in a cell for what feels like months when only days have passed. I am forever changed by this experience and I am sure it will not be my last. This is the saddest part, because I have never caused harm to anyone, enemy or friend, intentionally. Nor have I caused problems other than just existing in a system where you are not viewed a human, other than exercising my first amendment rights… Solitary confinement has no place in the US justice system. I hope my experience will shed some light on this problem and reach those members in the community who believe in the fair treatment of all human beings. I hope my experience can prevent at least one other person questioning their own life in a cell locked for days at a time. If it has, my horrible experience has meant something.

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