The United States of Solitary Confinement

“What happened to me in that cell tore me down. I scream at night. In my dreams, I’m back in that cell,” says Brian Nelson, who spent 12 years in solitary confinement. But that’s not how the story began. Brian Nelson was sentenced to 26 years in prison for participation in an armed robbery that resulted in a murder. However, Brian was a no-problem inmate and spent the first 16 years of his sentence without incident.

Then, without warning or reason, Nelson was packed up from his regular prison and sent to Tamms Correctional Center in southern Illinois, a supermax prison specializing in solitary confinement. Nelson had not been a threat to anyone or to himself while serving his first 16 years, but he was slammed down into solitary for the last 12 years of his sentence. After 12 years, he was released directly from solitary to the streets.

The United States of America not only has more people incarcerated than any other country (over 2.3 million prisoners), but also has over 80,000 prisoners in solitary confinement, more than any other country in the world.

Let’s talk about New York State for a minute. In the Empire State, there are approximately 4,500 prisoners in solitary confinement on any given day. The majority of them, surprisingly, are in solitary for non-violent offenses. Perhaps a prisoner was found with an unauthorized book or contraband. Maybe a correctional officer thought someone’s mustache was too long. It almost sounds like a joke, but it is totally humorless to the ‘offender’ who is placed in solitary.

There are no time limits to solitary, and many prisoners, once placed in this type of confinement, serve the remainder of their sentence there. The cell, at best, is as big as a parking space — the type they have in those indoor garages for compact cars. It has a toilet and the walls are either cement or plastic. Some solitary confinement cells have little opaque circles all over the walls so you can just make out the shape of a person on the other side, but the features are blurred.

There is no physical contact with anyone at any time and you are in the cell 23 hours a day. For one hour, you may be released into a small dog run with plastic or cement walls and you can pace the run. If you are lucky, you can look up and see the sky. At all times the screams and shouts of other prisoners are audible. It is never absolutely quiet, even at night. The lights are always on in your cell.

There is a drawer in the front of the cell with a plastic slide covering it. At meal times, if they remember to feed you, the slide moves back and the drawer, filled with a plate and plastic implements, is slid back into the cell. In New York State, there are prisoners who sometimes find hair in their food. There is no recourse to this; if you don’t like it, you don’t eat it.

Some solitary cells in overcrowded prisons in New York State are set up with two men per cell. Although they have no privacy while performing intimate bathroom acts, one could say that these are the lucky ones. Physical contact can be vital for most creatures, including humans.

Solitary confinement is growing all over the country because of the trouble-free environment for the people who administer the units. The prisoners themselves, even after just 5 weeks, begin to show signs of mental illness. Brian Nelson, while in solitary, exhibited signs of depression within months. He lost weight and began having panic attacks, his sleep patterns were altered, and sometimes he didn’t sleep for days. This is not uncommon.

Pacing in the small cells is not uncommon. Brian Nelson, at one point, had a pattern of pacing his cell for 18 hours a day. His feet became blood-blistered. Approximately every two weeks, Brian was taken to the infirmary for treatment. When he returned to his cell, he would resume the pacing and the treatment would be repeated in another two weeks.

Brian could read while he paced. He knew exactly how many paces would take him to the wall and he didn’t take his eyes off the book; he would automatically turn at precisely the right spot.

Brian is one of the lucky ones. You could say he survived his 12 years in solitary confinement somewhat intact. A few years after his sentence ended, Brian began to work as a paralegal in a prisoner’s rights firm. He is in a relationship and has his own place to live.

There is damage though. “I get scared out here in the world. I get real scared. Everything is so fast—everything is congested, with no space for me. Once I step outside, it’s everybody’s space.” According to the December 6 issue of Rolling Stone magazine, Brian still seeks corners to hide in and will suddenly need to run back to his living space.

The first solitary confinement on record was in Rome at a place named the Hospital San Michele in 1703. In the United States, solitary was first used by the Quakers in what they called, ‘a humane practice to bring people closer to God.’ In 1829, the Eastern State Penitentiary was the first prison to be completely filled with solitary confinement cells.

Solitary is literal sensory deprivation. After a period in solitary, people typically suffer from an inhibited attention span. They become unable to shift their attention from one thing to another—their focus is so strong on one thing that their survival instinct is destroyed. Pre-existing psychiatric diseases become worse in solitary confinement and new mental illness arises in previously healthy people.

One wonders how solitary confinement has grown so rapidly, when you consider legal precedent. In 1890, there was a case in Colorado, a man named James Medley, who was convicted of murdering his wife and held in solitary confinement in lieu of the death penalty. His lawyers took his case to the Supreme Court and the court overturned his sentence on the grounds that solitary confinement came under what could be called “cruel and unusual punishment.” James Medley was set free on time served.

When one considers the damage done to the psyche from solitary confinement, it is astonishing that, in New York State alone, at least 2,000 prisoners per year are set free, when their sentence is up, directly from solitary confinement with no adjustment period prior to release.

It is ironic that Cameron Douglas, the son of actor Michael Douglas, while serving 60 months for selling heroin in New York State, was placed in solitary confinement for one year because he was found with a small amount of drugs in his cell. According to Rolling Stone, he was not given any drug treatment in prison. Solitary was the solution.

Then there is the case of Stephen Slevin, who was arrested for drunk driving in New Mexico. Slevin was given a two-year sentence and because he was judged by the system to be mentally ill, he was forced to serve his two-year sentence in solitary. Upon his release, Slevin’s lawyer stated, “He is totally unequipped; he is hollow. They have removed his humanity from him.” In New Mexico, this type of treatment is common. And not just in New Mexico.

Brian Fisher, the Commissioner of the New York State Department of Corrections and the Commission Supervisor, sums it up when he says, “I’ll be the first to admit it—we overuse it.” Mumia Abu Jamal, a journalist and former minister of information for the Black Panther Party, at this very moment is in solitary confinement in a supermax prison in Pennsylvania. Mumia, an honorary citizen of 25 cities around the world including Paris, Copenhagen, and Montreal, would agree with Fisher’s statement.

It is amazing that a “civilized” country such as the United States should be the leader in the inhuman practice of placing prisoners in solitary confinement. But then again, we are the country with the highest incarceration rate in the world. Why not lead the world in solitary confinement, an extremely damaging and debilitating punishment for a human being? Why treat a disease when we can punish a patient? It is time for us to call our corrections system the name it truly deserves—a system of despair.

Marc D. Goldfinger is a member of the board of directors of the Homeless Empowerment Project, which publishes Spare Change news. Formerly homeless, he serves as the paper's poetry editor.

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