Archive for the ‘Solitary Confinement’ Category

This post originally appeared on The Huffington Post blog.

A prison can’t function without its pecking order. Call it what you will, chain of command, hierarchy, rank, it all comes down to power. Who’s got it, who doesn’t. Who’s on top, who’s on bottom. It’s an all-inclusive, endemic culture: wardens, top assistant wardens, captains, sergeants, and rank and file officers. Frontline correctional officers top inmates, and inmates top whomever they can.

Support staff is notched in there somewhere, just one step above inmates. These “civilians”—medical workers, teachers, social workers, chaplains—are viewed by corrections with almost as much suspicion and contempt as inmates. I know firsthand all about that suspicion and contempt from my years teaching high school offenders locked up in an adult county prison. You get the message pretty quickly when time after time you’re kept standing behind some prison gate or security door, waiting in plain view for an officer to buzz you through while he or she finishes joking with their buddy or finally looks up from their crossword puzzle.

Inmates’ lives are dominated by this same top to bottom hierarchy. For them it’s a food chain that is more blatant, more calculating. The only way to survive is to have your heel, in one way or another, on other inmates’ necks. The young men I worked with had an apt image for making it out alive: “We’re all crabs in a pail scrambling to get out, pulling down the guys in front of you, stepping on them, shoving them down to the bottom so you can make it out.” Extortion, physical strength, ruthlessness, a coldhearted distrust of everyone are the “tools” of survival. Without them an inmate’s well-being and safety are in jeopardy.

You might expect that locked up young kids are on the lowest rung of that ladder both on the block and in the general prison population. Certainly their age, undeveloped thinking and decision-making processes, their inability to physically fend for themselves (despite their bluster and bravado) make them more vulnerable to intimidation, abuse, threats, bullying, and physical force.But it goes lower: incarcerated women—what I call the invisible prison population. Despite the fact that more women are being locked up—an 800 percent increase in the last 10 years—you seldom hear what prison life is really like for them (forget the make-believe you see on “Orange is the New Black”).

The prison I worked in is one small example of how women are unfairly treated in lockup. Aside from the brutal fact of female inmates’ increased vulnerability to sexual assault by staff, the women’s unit in this particular prison was more overcrowded than the men’s, and women had limited or no access to any kind of recreational facilities, while their male counterparts had both gym and yard privileges on a daily basis.

Added to the usual indignities experienced by all women imprisoned in the U.S., the female inmates in the county prison where I taught had to endure the callous authority of a male warden. Among the many arbitrary restrictions he imposed (for example at holiday time teachers on the men’s units were allowed to bring in donuts and hot chocolate while permission was denied for the women’s block), he instigated several “cost saving measures:” rationing of toilet paper, and most egregious and insulting, limiting the feminine hygiene products each woman could receive. This has got to be the bottom of the prison hierarchy for locked up women. How could it not be? To have a man dictate how many tampons you’re allowed to use regardless of your body’s needs.

But it’s not. Some women sink even lower in the prison pecking order. As limited as the public’s awareness of female incarceration is, an even more neglected population are those women in solitary confinement. There has been a lot of attention lately to the U.S.’s overuse of solitary confinement. The United Nations Committee on Torture strongly criticized our use of this form of cruel and unusual punishment, making it clear that it was a form of torture—criticism that the U.S. diplomatic delegation sloughed off with America’s usual disdain whenever confronted with its own human rights violations. But even in the media’s coverage of the hearings and its own investigation of solitary confinement abuses one often heard about the sufferings of male inmates but nothing about those women in isolation.

In 2014, the Federal Bureau of Prisons had agreed under some pressure to conduct an “internal audit” on the uses of solitary confinement. Initially no women’s prisons were included on the list of sites to be examined. Under pressure from human rights groups some women’s units were added. However no one was able—or willing—to say exactly which ones. Once again locked up women, this time women held in solitary, didn’t even exist. Solitary Watch, the website which is a fierce advocate for all people held in “special housing units,” called these women “buried.” Another word comes to my mind, one borrowed from repressive Latin American regimes: “disappeared.”

 

I’ve written a lot about solitary confinement and the terrible damage it does to anyone–but especially young people who are still physically, intellectually, psychologically unformed, vulnerable–children. I’ve seen kids in solitary lock-up; in a very small way I’ve experienced the sensory deprivation that they experience 24 hours a day, and witnessed what that deprivation does to them. There have been calls, pleas from all kinds of organizations both nationally and internationally, for the US to end the practice of putting kids in isolation. To no avail. Why? I can’t help asking. Why?

Solitary Watch is our watchdog site that won’t let us forget what goes on in these rooms of isolation. They recently had a graphic that brought back to me the times I’ve been able to visit young people in solitary. I share that graphic.

This is what we are talking about when we talk about “solitary confinement.” Imagine yourself in that room, 24 hours a day, month after month. Now, imagine you are 16 years old.

https://i0.wp.com/solitarywatch.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/adx-florence-7.jpg

More and more people are talking about the inhumanity of locking young kids up in solitary confinement. It’s a topic that I’ve written about before and will continue to write about because I’ve seen firsthand the abusiveness of this “practice” especially on  mentally disturbed kids.

International groups have criticized the United States for using solitary confinement on the young, calling for this practice to be stopped completely.  Yet the governmental response to the issue has been tepid at best. Its guidelines call for this practice to be used  “cautiously.” Tell that to a fifteen-year-old  who is finishing up his 200th day in total isolation.

John Sutter, a human rights and social change writer for CNN, did a probing story about young offenders and solitary that is worth reading. A strong voice in a debate that shouldn’t even be a debate.

Alternet had a very moving piece on the abuse of solitary confinement in US jails entitled “Why is the US the World Leader in the Utterly Inhumane Practice of Solitary Confinement.”  The video is worth watching and says so much about what is wrong with our criminal justice/prison system.

 

Over the last several months I’ve written a lot about kids locked away in solitary confinement. The experience of solitary is real to me in a small way having spent time on the isolation units with my young students. I’ve tried to describe what the utter bleakness is like: the stripped down environment, the cold atmosphere of  glass, steel and concrete, and the overactive AC systems, the deprivation of not seeing another person for hours, in some cases days at a time.

There are reports and studies documenting what life is like for America’s kids in solitary lock-down. Human Rights Watch  “Growing Up Locked Down” and Alternet “The Unbelievable Inhumanity of Solitary Confinement” are two such reports. Each is worth reading.

More powerful than the words of those reports–and remember, I’m a word man struggling to make the suffering of these kids lives palpable –are the drawings that Solitary Watch recently published showing what the inside of an isolation cell looks like. These are powerful pictures. Looking at them I could feel my gut tighten up, my breath shorten. The tomb-like brutality of the place washed over me. Sounds dramatic I know. But I’m not looking for an affect. The sheer stripped down bleakness of the pictures brought it all back.

And they made me think something I’ve thought over and over: if that’s what it was like for me, what must it have been like for the kids I sat with there. If those are my visceral reactions, what might theirs be.

Looking at those drawings makes me wonder, once again, what are we as a nation trying to accomplish by building places like this and locking children up in them?

Annie Sapucaia, a book reviewer for New Books Network with a particular interest in sociology, interviewed me recently. Her questions were pretty insightful and once again left me with the feeling that there are caring people in the world who want to “do the right thing” by all people. Here’s her introduction to the interview.

“It is easy to dismiss juveniles in prison as “bad seeds”, as people with which we have nothing in common, and of which we want only distance.  David Chura, however, did not maintain his distance, and has been working with at-risk kids for other 40 years.  His new book, I Don’t Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine: Tales of Kids in Adult Lockup (Beacon Press, 2010), is a collection of stories from the time he taught kids in a New York County jail.  These narratives paint a picture of children who have been abused, neglected, and chronically disappointed by those in their lives and in the justice and foster system.  Chura exposes a number of issues in the justice system and in society at large  which contribute greatly to the outcome of these kids’ lives, and seeks to inform us that far from simply being “bad”, the gulf between these children and ours are mainly due to circumstances, not to personality or inborn traits.   Chura shares stories that we rarely hear, of a world we barely know, in order to give a voice to those who are often silenced. Take a listen at New Books Network.”

I recently wrote about the “cruel and unusual” punishment of putting young offenders in solitary confinement, forcing them to live in an environment of complete isolation in some cases for months at a time. The reasons for their isolation are myriad: to maintain what corrections calls “safety and security;” to separate the mentally ill  especially if they appear to be disruptive to general population; to “teach them a lesson” (adolescents especially in prison can be oppositional and rebellious); to separate “troublemakers” who  raise issues that perhaps challenge the prison culture.  Whatever the reason, the effects are negative and far-reaching.

Solitary Watch a wonderful and tenacious watchdog of the murky world of solitary confinement, recently posted an article that shows the devastating damage that solitary isolation has on young minds. What consistently comes to my mind is that the damage we do to the young will only come back to hurt society since a damaged young offender will inevitably grow up to be an even more damaged and potentially dangerous adult.

I urge you to check out the article.

I was recently asked to write an opinion piece for Youth Today and am happy to re-post it here, “The Harm We Do: Kids in Solitary Confinement” For those of you who aren’t already familiar with this publication it is an excellent source of information and in-depth reporting on issues confronting at-risk youth. Youth Today is available as an online journal or in print. I personally get the printed version. I’m just a traditionalist that way, but I also find that the visual presentation and layout look great on the full page. Either way the topics covered and the reporting and writing are of the highest quality in any publication I’ve seen in the field–and I see a lot. Check it out Youth Today.

When most Americans hear the familiar constitutional phrase “cruel and unusual punishment” they can tell you what it means, at least to them. Hanging. Flogging. Chopping a hand off. Chain gangs.

Putting juvenile offenders in solitary confinement is high on my list of “cruel and unusual punishment.” What else do you call locking up fifteen, sixteen year olds, some even younger, in total isolation for 24 hours a day, in some cases for months at a time, never leaving their cells? “All an inmate’s needs are met right here,” was the way the warden of the adult county jail where I taught high school students proudly described it as he gave a group of professionals a tour of the new Special Housing Unit (SHU). It was true. Each cell had its own phone, shower, toilet, concrete bed, and adjacent small enclosed rec area. All an inmate’s needs were met, except for the most essential: human contact of any kind.

These conditions are intolerable for anyone and are replicated nationally in our jails. The United Nations Human Rights Council reported that the US has more inmates in solitary confinement than any other democratic nation. But locking up a kid in those conditions, a kid with more energy than a playground can hold; whose body at times practically vibrates with urges that many more advantaged teens struggle to control; whose emotional and intellectual development is at best undernourished, can only be called “cruel and unusual.”

Human Rights Watch agrees. It’s recently released “Against All Odds: Prison Conditions for Youth Offenders Serving Life Without Parole in the United States” documents the overuse of solitary confinement with minors and its devastating effects on them, effects heightened by the prospect of life without parole. The young people interviewed considered isolation a “profoundly difficult ordeal,” leaving them with “thoughts of suicide, feelings of intense loneliness or depression.”

But it’s not just “lifers” in solitary who experience those “profound effects.” I saw it when I visited my jailhouse students who were locked up in “the cage,” as they called it. They were there because corrections deemed them a threat to “safety and security.” In too many cases, however, that “threat” came from their acting-out behaviors due to untreated mental health issues or ADHD. Still others were seen as “pains in the ass” who “just needed to be taught a lesson.”

It didn’t take long for the new SHU to fall apart, the way everything else does in prison. Walls were scuffed and gouged from inmates being dragged in; cell door windows were smeared as guys jammed and angled their faces to see anything, anyone. The only thing shattering that intense sensory deprivation was the sound of inmates shouting to each other, howling through the thick walls, trying to connect with another human, announcing to the world, “I’m still alive.” And when they weren’t screaming, they were sleeping—15, 16 hours a day.

My students deteriorated as well. Once in isolation they abandoned any sense of civilized behavior. Young guys who would come to class shaven and showered, smelling of Old Spice deodorant, in fresh county oranges, now reeked of unwashed bodies; their hair dirty and matted, faces fuzzed; their eyes caked and puffy from sleep. I would bang on the window until they woke up and lifted their heads from under the pillows and blankets they burrowed under against the cold. They’d shuffle over to the door and we’d squat on our own sides of the concrete and glass wall and talk through the meal tray slot. It was then that I’d be hit by their sour, foul breath as though they were slowly decaying from the inside out.

Finally in 2009 the Department of Justice investigated these abuses. The DOJ reported that half of the inmates in the SHU were between 16 and 18, and that the average stay in isolation for juveniles was 365 days. As a result of these “extremely lengthy sentences,” the mental health of these young people worsened significantly, aggravated “by the jail’s failure” to provide routine treatment. Unfortunately, this is far from an isolated case. Abuses of minors in solitary are happening around the country.

I don’t know how many people get the irony involved here, but I do know that the kids I taught did, even though they never “got” irony in class: We lock children up in inhuman conditions in order to teach them how to act human. Unfortunately, as studies have shown, inmates learn a far different lesson. When they leave isolation they are angrier, more distrustful, more cynical about ever getting justice, and more prone to violence. What could be a more “cruel and unusual punishment” then to confirm these young people’s bedrock belief that America as it is now has no place for them other than behind bars?

Originally appeared in Youth Today

Solitary Watch has reported that the American Civil Liberties Union has called on the United Nations to investigate civil liberties violations for US prisoners held in solitary confinement and to put pressure on the US to end this punitive and cruel practice. In the county prison where I worked,  I saw first hand the effects of solitary on inmates who were locked up in total isolation for months at a time, and I described some of those effects on Solitary Watch. Although the stated purpose for the “special housing unit” (SHU) was to contain the most disruptive and dangerous prisoners, the SHU ended up being filled with mentally ill inmates left untreated. Once again the US is out of step with our Western European allies in the humane treatment of those who break the law.

I had just finished reading “Safety and Security,” a chapter from my book I Don’t Wish Nobody to Have a Life Like Mine: Tales of Kids in Adult Lockup, at a recent book event. It describes a morning I spent proctoring a state exam for a student who was locked up in solitary confinement at the county jail where I taught high school for ten years.

Each time I read that chapter the horrors of that morning come back to me: the emergency response team dragging in an inmate, struggling, crying, screaming that he couldn’t breathe, that he was dying, couldn’t anybody please help him, until the glass and metal door of his cell slammed shut on his pleas. That morning I knew that I had seen something that no civilian was meant to witness. And I knew, as well, that every man on that block, locked in his own cage of silence, had had a similar story of despair to tell.

After I finished reading the chapter that evening, my listeners sat in stunned silence, caught in the nightmare of solitary confinement. Then, tentatively a hand went up.

“I was married to a man who was in solitary for several years,” a woman in her 60s said. “When I asked him how he made it through, he told me that he practiced walking meditation, and that he got to know, really know, every concrete block in his cell. He said he learned a lot.”

I didn’t doubt her husband’s experience—or her perception of it. Yet I sensed in what she said an attitude I’d heard before from people trying to make sense of this brutal practice. It is an attitude, I suspect, that offers people comfort: solitary confinement as the monk’s cave, as the scholar’s study, as the New Age guru’s retreat; a time for meditation, yoga, reading; self-discovery.

It’s a romantic image—the lone prisoner triumphing over his keeper—that’s been around for awhile and has made its way into the general consciousness. Burt Lancaster in The Birdman of Alcatraz as Robert Stroud serving a life sentence in solitary surrounded by his books and birds. Or Denzil Washington in The Hurricane as Rubin Carter studying his way to personal liberation from his isolation.

Nothing could be further from the truth for the majority of men and women in prisons across the country buried in isolation cells, some for years.

As often as I could I visited my students—some as young as 15—who were locked up in solitary. (Luckily, state education law mandated that an incarcerated high school student must receive some kind of education even in solitary confinement.)

Contrary to that romantic image, the men—young and old—I saw on my escorted walk down the block’s hallway had triumphed over nothing.  “The cage,” as my students called it, reeked of unwashed, long neglected bodies. The walls were scuffed and gouged where shackled inmates writhed and kicked as they were dragged in. The cell door windows were smeared as prisoners jammed their faces at odd angles against the glass, desperate to see anyone, anything, hungry for visual stimulation. If the men weren’t sleeping (and many slept for 15, 16 hours a day, barely waking for meals) they were screeching, howling through the walls, trying to make contact with each other, with another human being, even if those shouts were indecipherable and incomprehensible.

That evening, listening to the woman’s comment, I couldn’t help thinking about those inmates I saw. Few of them, for whatever reasons, had any of her husband’s resources, especially the young men—children really—that I taught whose lives were fractured, some seemingly beyond repair, and whose identities were too fragile to withstand the assault of solitary.

Put in isolation, for behavior the department of corrections deemed dangerous and uncontrollable, a threat to “safety and security”—behavior considered less than human— those individuals were made to live in subhuman conditions in order to learn how to act human. But the only lesson learned is one that most locked up people have known all their lives: There is no end to how cruel we can be to each other; and how easily we are able to justify that cruelty.