VOICES: A Second-by-Second Attack on Your Soul

By Johnny Perez. Reprinted from Solitary Watch.

The following is a collection of excerpts from an interview with Johnny Perez, who went to prison at the age of 21 and served a total of 13 years in various New York City and State facilities. He spent an accumulated three years in solitary confinement, with his longest consecutive stay being ten months. Since his 2013 release, Perez has been working at the Urban Justice Center as a Safe Reentry Advocate. He is a full-time student at St. Francis College of Brooklyn through the post-incarceration program Hudson Link and is also involved in various advocacy groups such as the Jails Action Coalition (JAC) and New York Coalition for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement (CAIC). — Hallie Grossman

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johnnyperez2

Photo credit: Allegra Abramo

The cell itself is very small, very quiet. Sometimes it gets so quiet that you can hear your own heartbeat. It also can get so loud from the noises and sounds that the other men in other cells make. You find yourself going to sleep to the cacophony of different voices. In the summer, it gets real hot, so hot that the walls sweat. Sometimes, it gets so cold that you have to try to cover yourself with as many blankets and sheets and wear pants and shirts to bed. I’ve been in cells where I could touch both walls with my hands if I stretched my hands out…It could be claustrophobic at times.

[There is] no interaction whatsoever with other humans. The officer comes by every hour, and even then there’s no contact, no talking, no communicating, not even any eye contact in extreme cases. The last meal is at four-thirty in the afternoon with the next meal being at six o’clock in the morning. If you’re not standing wide awake, by your door, when the officer walks by, you don’t get a tray.

[In terms of communicating with people in other cells,] you can stand by your door and yell at the top of your lungs, and somebody in another cell could hear you. There’s definitely no face-to-face contact, communication, that kind of thing, where you could read somebody’s body language. I was playing chess with a guy for months, and I never knew what he looked like…As far as contact with the outside world, you can write a letter, but there are no phone calls. If your family doesn’t come visit you, then you don’t get no visits…Even on a visit, if you’re on level one, you go on the visit and they don’t uncuff you.

[Solitary confinement] affected me in a number of ways at different times. As a youth—because I did some solitary time as a teenager—it affects your self-esteem, it affects your self-confidence and the way that you see yourself. It makes you aggressive, it makes you angry, it makes you impulsive, it makes you an introvert…There were times when I contemplated thoughts of suicide, though I never voiced it out loud. I tended to internalize a lot of the oppression…Sometimes, officers tell you, “Hey, you ain’t shit! This is you, this is your life, you’re nothing but a criminal.” Hearing that once or twice is nothing, but hearing that day in and day out for months at a time, you start to say, “Damn, you know what, maybe I ain’t. Maybe I’m not good enough. Maybe I am what they say that I am.”

As an adult…my behavior was more reactionary towards others…I remember hating all authority figures, no matter who it was. Supervisors, officers, judges, lawyers, just hating the entire world, you know? So a lot of that was more outward, versus when I was a teenager, it was more self-directed.

So, when I got out, it wasn’t easy at first. Thank God I wasn’t released directly from solitary to society, as some of my friends have been. But I was released in 2013, and 2011 was the last time I was in the box, when I went to Rikers Island. They dropped me in the middle of 42nd Street Times Square, after being gone for 13 years. And there’s these flashing lights, there’s people, there’s, like, Elmo is fighting the Statue of Liberty. There’s the guy with the sign that says, ‘I need money for weed,” there’s all of these lights, these cameras, these big billboards, and it’s overwhelming. It’s very, very overwhelming. All these yellow cabs, and these cars going back and forth. When I got off the train, I hadn’t crossed the street in 13 years…so I’m standing there with all the crowds of people going back and forth, and I’m just standing there, to just take in the scene. I spent maybe half an hour or forty-five minutes just standing.

I learned that with solitary—or even prison, but more like solitary—it’s a second-by-second attack on your soul, where every second is spent thinking about the next second, and that just makes the day so long. You try to sleep it off, but sometimes too much sleeping drives you to be awake for long periods of time…You don’t do solitary time, you survive solitary time. And I know this to be true because some of my peers did not survive solitary time. They’ve either left psychologically different than when they came in, or committed suicide.

A lot of injustices go on in solitary, mainly at the hands of officers who might put people together who are from opposing gangs, opposing height and weight, things like that, as their own little human cockfights. They stand at the door and they bet on who’s gonna win. They might say to the guy inside the cell, “If you beat him up, I’ll give you an extra tray of food,” things like that, you know, very barbaric, very dehumanizing.

It’s real difficult to get out of solitary confinement because every ticket that you catch while you’re there leads to more box time. So, it’s not uncommon to find someone who was sentenced to thirty days, or even ninety days, tested positive for marijuana or any other drug, and then end up in there for years at a time, accumulating numerous tickets while they’re in there. Something as simple as using your sheet as a shower curtain at Upstate CF could get you another thirty days in there.

From an advocate point of view, I would say that as a nation, we cannot keep victimizing people to teach them that they shouldn’t victimize people. It’s like the death penalty: We kill people to teach them not to kill people. It doesn’t make sense. We have to be careful about becoming the cure that is worse than the disease.

VOICES: Injury x Insult

By Geri Irwin. Reprinted from Solitary Watch.

The following is a compilation of writings by Geri Erwin, who is serving 25 years to life on a second-degree murder charge. Erwin is a transgender woman involved in various facets of activism regarding sexual assault in prison, as well as just treatment of incarcerated individuals who are on the LGBTQIA+ spectrum. She began her activism at 13, and she continues to advocate from New York’s Southport Correctional Facility, where she has spent time in solitary confinement. – Hallie Grossman

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Most everyone has the essence of a prison cell in their mind: 6 ’x 9’, bars, bed, sink, toilet, light, locker, bikini-clad pin-up pasted on the wall…

But that is like saying we all know the essence of a house – 4 walls, roof, door or two, same windows…then we all know there are many variables in houses, what they were like when they were new, what condition they are in now, and, most critically, as the real estate people will sing in chorus: “Location, location, location!”

Like much in life, jails and their subcomponent cells depend upon the perception of the occupant. When one is fresh and new to prison, everything will look, sound, and feel more foreboding and scary than it really is; this is when you’ll take that eternally long walk through a surreal environment. So many foreign sights and sounds, but it’s all sort of a blur, anxiety expanding in your chest like a steam boiler peaked to explode at any moment. Then suddenly you’re there. Just the briefest impression of the cell front bars – 6 feet high 6 feet wide – two feet or so slides to one side and you’re inside…

This is where you live now…

The cells don’t vary much from one to another. In the end, it is you who makes the cell different from the next, and over time you change – for better, for worse, it doesn’t really matter – you are who you are and the prison is what it is.

I am a 48 year-old, white, male-to-female (pre-op) transgender prisoner. I’m 20 years into a 25 to life sentence.

Life as a transgender person is complicated with a capital “C.” Think of being, say, Anna Kendrick trapped in Bruce Willis’ body. I am 5’10”, 225 pounds with broad shoulders and an overall masculine appearance. I can, and most often do, “pass” as a straight white male – though my sisters and brothers under the LGBTQI rainbow know better, often with as little as initial eye contact…

For 17 years I was blessed to continue my practical, yet patently cowardly, closeted lifestyle. Then my luck ran out. Keen predators had sniffed me out. Through anti-gay hate or morbid desire, I was targeted for attack.

I was jumped by three gang members. While I fought, I was quickly beaten to the shower floor. Cold, hard, wet, slippery—kicked and incapacitated. So fast, with a kaleidoscope of images and thoughts swirling in my overwhelmed mind—a core screaming alert siren blares in my brain:

I can die here—now!

Weapons—do they have weapons?!

I compress into myself, anticipating icy flare of pain when a steel or sharpened Plexiglas shank rips into me. I’ve been cut and stabbed before—I know what it feels like.

But now, no weapons—not homemade, anyhow. What comes is different, worse.

The leader seizes me around waist while another grabs my shoulders. I struggle but am spent, helpless. I’m not processing what’s unfolding. Even as the leader yanks down my boxers and begins raping me, I just can’t believe and accept that this is actually happening, happening to me. All this through a disorientating filter of disbelief.

Yet it’s all too real. The taunting, the harsh manic laughter as the leader continues to thrust into me. The one immobilizing me from the front has his erect penis in my face – trying to get me to perform oral sex. When I won’t comply, he strikes me in the head and face more. Frustrated he settles for masturbating and ejaculating into my face, smearing his semen-coated penis between my lips, against my teeth and gums. Determined to somehow penetrate, inject some of his essence into his victim.

This crowning act of defilement prompts more laughter. I feel the last thrusts and burning, stinging surge as my rapist reaches his climax: Semen hot and alien inside me. Flash of new and different pain as he withdraws from me. They deliver a final flurry of kicks to my sides and back and melt away. Leaving me lying limp, used up—like a bag of garbage…

I gather myself up, assessing injuries, but focus on cleaning the blood (mine) and semen (theirs) from my body. I wash and scrub under shower spray frantically trying to think how I can get back to my cell without COs noting I’ve been in an incident. I dress and limp my way through recreation yard, trying to be inconspicuous. But an alert CO notes blood seeping fresh on my face. Snatches me up and escorts me to the facility hospital.

The evidence of rape is quickly noted. Blood and semen-stained boxers confiscated as well as painful and humiliating swabs (of rectum and throat). I am given minimal medical treatment, no X-rays. The staff takes the rest of my clothes. I am forced to leave wearing only small towel wrapped and held around waist (too short to tie). I am escorted in this manner to Involuntary Protective Custody (IPC).

I am not provided with any further or follow-up medical care. Instead I am issued tickets (misbehavior reports) for:

  1. Not reporting an injury
  2. Drug use – positive for marijuana (yes, I do in fact use marijuana)

Given a perfunctory hearing on charges, I am sentenced to 30 days keeplock for the first charge and six months SHU for the second charge.

For the next two months, I sit in isolation with no staff interview, no further medial follow up. I am then put on transfer to Upstate CF (a dedicated SHU facility).

NYDOCCS rarely transports prisoners directly to the destination facility. One or more transit stops, with overnight to several day stays involved. At a layover stop, I am escorted by a staff member, handcuffed behind by back. I am directed into small room and sit on bench. The staff member closes the door, makes some reference to the rape incident, exposes his semi-erect penis and, standing in front of me, tells me to “polish his knob.”

I am absolutely shocked, but recover enough to bluff. I tell him he’d better just “pull the pin” (personal alarm). He backs off, rezipping his pants, trying to play it off as if he were just “joking” with me. No sane, rational person would believe these actions as a mere “joke.” Had I complied, that act of oral sex would just have been a bonus for a predatory staff member.

I arrive at Upstate CF exhausted, stiff and stressed out. A sexual abuse incident followed by an eight-hour bus ride with handcuffs attached to my waist, chain, shackles…

As a trans woman in prison I always feel some level of threat/danger, but being held in Upstate CF SHU, I never knew if they would put another prisoner in (double cell) with me – policy is policy, but I’m not even “registered” LGBTQI, for their classification purposes (not that my identity is a secret to staff). I struggled to overcome fear of being forced to double cell with stranger, a potentially violent homophobe or my next rapist… Recovering from one rape, an attempt of a staff member to coerce oral sex from me while handcuffed—the unknown is the scary thing, whether day or night.

I spend my entire time in this SHU wondering if they will toss in a cell mate at any given time – forcing me to try to live/sleep with stranger, and potential next sexual predator, locked in this isolated space.

There is very little staff/prisoner interaction, and when there is you are forced to try to yell through plexiglass window, making communication difficult and negating any shred of confidentiality.

I try several times to get mental health staff to put me on call-out for interview, help with after effects of sexual assault, but with no success. I pursue follow-up medical care and STI testing, finding, to my surprise, that reports and documentation of the sexual assault incident do not exist. The medical report in the file states, “Inmate fell, in yard,” then goes on to detail injuries inconsistent with a “fall” and some unique to sexual assault (perhaps patient fell, and landed on erect penis….).

I am now stating, to them, an initial report of sexual assault. This spurs a Kafkaesque Groundhog Day sequence of fresh interviews by security staff every time “sexual assault” is mentioned. Yet each is either not documented, or inaccessible to the next interviewer. On the whole, these interviews are conducted in an insensitive and dismissive manner. One I terminated when the questioning appeared more to fill a need for titillation of the interviewer than legitimate purpose…

When I was finally given interview with mental health unit staff, I was told that: “I wouldn’t be at this facility long enough to be worth their time/effort to open case on me…”

I have once again been transferred to another general population facility. It is quite challenging and disorienting re-acclimating to the “normal” prison routine. From 23 hours a day in a cell for 18 months to scurrying all over jail – expected to keep pace with prisoner peers, most half or less than my age. There is no type of “transition program” or consideration given to this adjustment period. Perhaps this is an unwritten” part of SHU punishment.

VOICES: Cycles of Despair

By Anthony Davis. Reprinted from Solitary Watch.

The following essay was written by Anthony Lamar Davis, who has spent approximately six of his past eleven years in prison in solitary confinement in New York’s “Special Housing Units,” or SHUs. In 2008, New York passed a law restricting the use of solitary on people with serious mental illness. The “SHU Exclusion Law” has removed several hundred people from isolation and placed them in alternative mental health units. It has also been criticized for being too narrowly focused and easy to circumvent. Here, Davis points out an additional shortcoming of this and all laws and regulations that focus only on people with an underlying mental health diagnosis. As he notes, solitary confinement itself causes such severe psychological damage that it often renders individuals incapable of functioning effectively in the general prison population. Thus begins a vicious cycle in which such individuals, who receive little or no support making the transition to general population, land back in solitary once again. Anthony Davis welcomes letters, and can be reached at: Anthony Davis, 04-A-3293, Green Haven Correctional Facility, P.O. Box 4000, Stormville, New York 12582-4000. 

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I have noticed how Politicians and prisoners’ rights advocates have been advocating for changes in how the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision handles prisoners in long-term solitary confinement. There has been an outcry from these groups regarding the lengthy amount of time being imposed on those sanctioned to solitary confinement, the treatment of prisoners, and the psychological effects of long-term solitary confinement. As a prisoner who has spent a substantial amount of time in long-term solitary confinement, I obviously am an advocate of anything that limits the amount of time that a prisoner has to be subjected to extreme isolation.

I am a witness of its torturing ways and have been greatly affected by them. I’ve screamed for help, only to be ignored, and, in some cases, laughed at by the very people who I have asked for help. Unfortunately, the prison culture doesn’t provide the necessary tolerance for people with mental illness, so, I have been alienated by both, the prisoners as well as the authorities and that gives me a sense of hopelessness and loneliness, which enhances my psychological reactions which derived from spending years in solitary confinement.

The extreme sensitivity that I have been experiencing as a result of being isolated for substantial amounts of time has increased my rage. I often find myself wanting to hurt people for minor things – and had I not been in solitary confinement, I am confident that I would have done just that. With me, there is no frustration; only raging anger. I was not like this prior to me being placed in solitary confinement, and that is scary because the types of thoughts I have when I am angry are not conducive to my desire to do well and remain positive.

What’s more is that the inability to control myself could have disastrous results. Solitary Confinement has made me impulsive to the point where I have begun to feel like I am fighting a war with myself. The understanding I have for what extreme isolation has done to me is not necessarily advantageous towards me fighting the psychological damage. What it does is creates two versions of myself: On one end, I try to fight the other version of me, which is the one who has succumbed to what the results of long-term solitary confinement has to offer. I try to use the power of knowledge and information to fight these demons, but it’s the other version of myself who wins out usually. It becomes difficult for me to apply the information that I have researched because my mind has already been manipulated by the effects of extreme isolation.

For every time that I have been subjected to extreme isolation, my mental health deteriorated upon my release back into general population, and the more I am subjected to that type of inhumane torture, the worse I become. For example, just this past April I was reintegrated back into general population after an eleven month stint in solitary confinement. While in solitary confinement, I realized that I had completely lost control of myself and had basically become a walking time bomb ready to explode at the slightest provocation. I even suggested to my therapist that I be given more time in solitary confinement because I knew that I was not ready to be reintegrated back into general population. Of course, there was no way that he could accommodate my request, but the point is that I understood the mental metamorphosis that was occurring in me and I feared that I would end up doing something that could possibly jeopardize my life and freedom – which goes back to me fighting a war with myself because a part of me wants to live and be free, but another part of me wants to die and be free.

Almost immediately upon my reentry into general population I felt out of place; like I didn’t belong. I exhibited anti-social behavior along with a very negative attitude and aggressive behavior towards both prisoners and correction officers. The proverbial time bomb had begun ticking and there was no chance of defusing the potential explosion. My pleas for help from mental health staff during my time in solitary confinement went unanswered and what I was experiencing was the results of those unanswered pleas. It was as if I was ready to unleash all of my frustration at any moment on anybody. Not to mention, the fact that there was a lot going on in my personal life between my children and I, and being that I was psychologically damaged from spending time in a long-term solitary confinement, my whole perspective had changed. So I could not even evaluate the situation with my children in a logical manner. I responded to everything with rage and fury

As of today, I have been placed back in solitary confinement resulting from a physical altercation between myself and the authorities. I was not the aggressor in this incident, but I do believe that my negative attitude had contributed to me being assaulted. Unfortunately I was unable to adjust to general population and I am now back in the place where the foundation of my psychological damage derived from after only about five months in general population. During my brief stay in general population, I expressed to my therapist countless times that I was having a difficult time adjusting and needed help. Though I had not known what it was exactly that I needed help with. I did know that something was going terribly wrong inside of my mind because, not only did my way of thinking change but so did my behavior.

But with all of these programs put in place for solitary confined prisoners who have been diagnosed as having a serious mental illness (i.e., Residential Mental Health Unit, Special Treatment Program, Behavior Housing Unit, and Correctional Alternative Rehabilitation), I have to wonder what happens to the prisoners such as myself who suffers from the psychological effects of being in long-term solitary confinement. It is apparent that there is no regard for prisoners like me, so when we are done with our time in solitary confinement, we are thrown back into general population and basically told not to get into any more trouble without regard for the psychological damage that has affected us associated with extreme isolation.

So it becomes a cycle; each turn more severe than the previous one, meanwhile, the time spent in long-term solitary confinement increases as my mental health deteriorates. No one seems to care about the difficulties of adjusting to general population despite the vast amount of people who claim to understand the psychological effects of long-term solitary confinement. I can only hope that my pleas are heard and some type of action is taken before it is too late.

VOICES: End the Torture of Solitary Confinement with the HALT Act

By Five Mualimm-ak. Reprinted from the Albany Times-Union.

I am a survivor of 2,054 days of torture. And like many people who have endured such abuse, I suffer lasting psychological effects.

I often experience memory loss and flashbacks. It’s sometimes hard for me to focus. I get upset and angry easily, and have abnormal reactions to ordinary things. I find it difficult to sleep. I do not like being touched, and have difficulty connecting to people. I suffer from depression.

The torture I endured did not take place in some foreign land, or at the hands of a vicious psychopath. It happened right here in New York state, amidst communities of decent, law-abiding people. My torture consisted of five years in solitary confinement in New York’s prisons.

southport bigOn any given day in the United States, more than 80,000 men, women, and children are in some form of extreme isolation in our nation’s prisons. In New York, the number is about 4,500. These individuals spend 23 to 24 hours a day alone in bare, sometimes windowless cells, without human contact, work, treatment, or programming. They are fed through a slot in the door, and given at most one hour a day to exercise by themselves in a fenced or walled dog run.

Most of the people in solitary confinement in New York are there for nonviolent misbehavior. Disobeying an order or speaking back to a correction officer, testing positive for marijuana use, or having too many postage stamps — all of these rule violations can land a person in “the box” for months, and the months can add up to years. For me, the infractions included having too many pencils, refusing to eat an apple, and failing to sleep in a broken bunk.

Even when it is meted out in response to more serious behavior, solitary confinement is not the answer. A recent study in Texas confirms that solitary does not reduce violence in prisons. An earlier study in Washington state showed that being released directly from solitary to the streets — as 2,000 people are in New York every year — increases the likelihood that people will land back in prison.

Today, there is a growing consensus that solitary confinement is both inhumane and counterproductive. But prison systems are slow to change. Recent reforms have reduced the number of people with mental illness held in solitary in New York, and limited the use of isolation on children under 18, pregnant women, and people with developmental disabilities. But the numbers of people removed from solitary confinement are small, and thousands still remain.

For the people who still endure this torture on a daily basis in New York, the best hope lies in legislation introduced last year in both the Assembly and Senate. The Humane Alternatives to Long-Term Solitary Confinement Act (A. 4401/S. 2659). This legislation would ban the use of solitary confinement beyond 15 days, which is the limit recommended by the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture, and ban solitary altogether for the most vulnerable groups. It would also replace long-term isolation with intensive treatment and programming in special secure rehabilitation units. And it would provide corrections officers and other prison staff the tools and training they need to do their jobs safely.

For me and other survivors of long-term solitary, it may be too late to avoid the permanent scars of psychological torture. But for thousands of other people in prison — people for whom we, as New Yorkers, are responsible — the time for change is now. The HALT Solitary Confinement Act is gaining momentum in the Legislature, and last week more than 100 people converged from around the state to lobby for the bill. HALT provides New York’s legislators, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the opportunity to make our state a leader in banning solitary confinement and saying no to torture in our own backyards.

Five Mualimm-ak spent 12 years in New York state prisons for illegal weapons possession. He is founder of the Incarcerated Nation Campaign and an active member of the New York Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement.

VOICES: A Mouse and a Murderer

By William Blake. Reprinted from Solitary Watch.

mouseWilliam Blake is in solitary confinement at Elmira Correctional Facility in upstate New York. In 1987, while in county court on a drug charge, Blake, then 23, grabbed a gun from a sheriff’s deputy and, in a failed escape attempt, murdered one deputy and wounded another. He is now 50 years old, and is serving a sentence of 77 years to life. Blake is one of the few people in New York to be held in “administrative” rather than “disciplinary” segregation—meaning he’s considered a risk to prison safety and is in isolation more or less indefinitely, despite periodic pro forma reviews of his status. He is now in his 27th year of solitary confinement.

Billy Blake is a prolific reader and a gifted writer who has written for Solitary Watch before, notably a piece that went viral worldwide called “A Sentence Worse Than Death.” Here, he describes what happens when he bonds with another creature in his solitary cell. He welcomes mail at the following address: William Blake 87-A-5771, Elmira C.F., P.O. Box 500, Elmira, NY 14902-0500. –Savannah Crowley

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“Pop! Pop-pop-pop! Pop-pop!” I heard the loud noise echoing through the solitary confinement unit at Shawangunk Correctional Facility in the spring of 1988. It sounded like somebody was slapping a sneaker onto the concrete floor of their cell.

I put down the book I was reading and went to my cell gate to call my neighbor, as it sounded like the noise might be coming from his cell. “Willie, is that you making all the racket?”

“Yeah. There’s a mouse in my cell, and he picked the wrong cell to try to steal some food from. I’m gonna kill his ass now,” the man locking next to me said. Willie had been my neighbor since I had arrived at Shawangunk’s Special Housing Unit (SHU) in July of the year before.

“Don’t kill him, bro, just chase him out of your house. He’s just trying to live like everyone else is,” I pleaded for the little rodent’s life.

“Fuck that! I’m gonna kill this sucker so he can’t come in here again. They ain’t feeding us good enough to be giving anything up to a damn mouse,” Willie said.

I heard a few more pops as Willie chased the tiny creature around his cell, swatting at it with his sneaker. All the sudden, as I stood at the bars looking toward Willie’s cell, I saw the mouse fly onto the company and stop a few from the wall opposite the cell fronts.

“Yeah! I got that motherfucker,” Willie loudly said, sounding happy about ridding the unit of one mouse. It would not make his food any safer, though, the little he would save from his trays during the day to eat come nighttime. Shawagunk’s box was loaded with mice, roaches too. I have never seen a prison that isn’t, and I’ve been in many. Killing one would make no difference.

The mouse didn’t move for several minutes as I watched it, so I at first thought it was dead. But then it moved and began to head down the company, right toward my cell. It was moving very slowly, though, nothing like a mouse usually does, furry little rockets on four feet that they normally are, shooting across open areas to move about along the walls. As it got closer and I could see it better in the dim light shining on the company, I saw that the mouse was dragging itself by its front legs only. Its back legs were stretched out behind it, looking useless and not moving at all.

The angle the mouse was taking would have put it just past my cell gate, so it probably was trying to make it to the door of the pipechase between my cell and my neighbor’s to the left–Willie’s cell was to my right. Mice run under the solid-steel doors of the pipechases all the time, and once in there are safe from any traffic there might be when guards are taking inmates out of their cells to shower, for recreation in the empty SHU yards, or to visits or call-outs to the prison hospital or elsewhere. That is probably where they make their homes, as those pipe chases are dark and are rarely opened. They could hide safely during the daytime and come out at night to search for food, as mice like to do, nocturnal things that they are. It looked to me like the injured mouse was heading to the safest place it knew, heading home to the pipechase.

Willie may have been happy because he thought the mouse dead and still lying out near the wall, but to me it was a terribly sad sight to see that tiny mammal struggle down the company dragging its useless back legs behind it. I have always loved animals, totally innocent and completely without malice as they are. It is with people that I have had my problems. People often operate with malicious motivations and ill intent, while animals never do.

My heart went out to that injured mouse as I watched him bravely make his way down the company, and I wanted to help him.

A “missile” is mandatory cell equipment for inmates doing time in SHU. It is a short pole made of rolled-up newspaper or other paper. After pulling thread from a bed sheet, or from anything else with thread in it, we make a long string (called a “dragline” in prison parlance) and attach it to the missile. By firing the missile through the cell bars and down the company, inmates cross draglines, and the inmate whose line is on top of the other’s pulls the line in. Magazines and newspapers go through many hands before they are discarded, and guys make deals to swap food all the time. A man might need a stamp to mail a letter or any number of other things, and because nobody can get their hand through the cell bars, there is only one way to pass something. The cell bars are in a plain-weave pattern of about two-inch squares, and feed-up hatches in gates and back doors stay locked, so no hand or arm is getting out of the cell to pass anything. If an inmate wants to send or get something from another prisoner, he must go “fishing.” To do that he has to have a dragline and missile

Fishing is against the rules, possessing a dragline or missile is not allowed, and the prison authorities have tried many things to stop inmates from passing items from cell to cell in SHU. But none of this has stopped the show. Almost every inmate in the box (SHU) keeps a dragline, and when the guards take it and its missile the inmate will simply rip another sheet for thread and roll up some more paper, usually before the day is done. Nearly every inmate will at one time want to pass something to or get something from a neighbor, so he will need the equipment to do it. Fishing goes on every single day in SHU. All the threats to write tickets that officers make, or actually writing them, and their many attempts to stop it in different ways, has never done a thing to keep inmates from fishing daily. And it never will short of sealing the cells up tight.

When my cell bars had been sealed off by a plexiglass shield that had been placed on them, I have fished under the gate with only a half-inch space to work with, tooth-paste squirted into folded paper and put into an envelope being my “car” or “whip” to attach a dragline to, to get it down the company. I have pulled crushed bread rolled up in a sheet of writing paper through a hole in my cell wall no bigger around than a number two pencil. I loosened the bolts beneath the steel bedframe, which ran through the wall to my neighbor’s bed, by jumping up and down on my bed like a kid on a trampoline till sweat poured out of me. Once I had gotten a bolt loose enough to turn, I unscrewed it and pulled it out. A small hole ran through the wall, and when I looked through it I saw my friend’s brown eye looking back at me. I smiled and knew he was too, though all I could see was his eye. Then I heard him say, “It’s chow time now, Billy!” The guards hadn’t fed me in more than two days, and they had put garbage cans and pillows on the narrow company to block it off and make it impossible to fish under my plexiglass-covered gate. I could eat at last, though, pulling bread that my buddy rolled up in paper through that tiny hole in the wall.

Leave just a crack or small hole anywhere in a cell and the men and women locked in solitary will find a way to reach through it to the world outside their steel and concrete cage.

I used a missile to reach under my gate to gently guide that injured mouse into my cell. He needed help, and I wanted to see if I could give him some.

I am no veterinarian or doctor of any kind, but after watching how the mouse’s hind legs were dragging uselessly behind it, it did not take a medical degree to figure that its back may be broken. I was worried about causing the little animal more pain than it was already likely in, or doing more damage, so I slid a sheet of writing paper under it to pick it up rather than use my hand, which would squeeze it no matter how gentle I tried to be. When I got the mouse onto the paper, I took it to my bed and set it down there. I wanted to check it out thoroughly.

The mouse was clearly a baby. I didn’t have a clue at the time as to how fast mice grow or how long they live, but since the mouse’s body, sans the tail, was no longer than the tip of my pinky to the first joint, I knew it had to be very young, just a baby. I could see a bump on the lower part of its spine that didn’t look like it belonged there, and it grew bigger before long. This made me feel certain that its back was broken.

What could I do? I thought to myself. I expected that it would probably die before the night was done, so I decided to just try to make the tiny creature comfortable till it did. If I let it go it was not likely to find any food or do very well in the condition it was in, so I set it in my dry sink to keep it from wandering off while I made a box for it.

In the early part of 1988 I was allowed the same property in my cell as population inmates, though I was housed in SHU. I was in the box then, as I still remain twenty-six years later, because the prison authorities had deemed me a security threat too risky to be allowed in general population. I was in the county jail charged with armed robbery and possession of cocaine when I shot two police officers during a failed escape attempt in 1987, killing one. It was for this crime that corrections officials deemed me a security threat and placed me in SHU upon my arrival to the state prison system. Later in 1988 New York State would enact more draconian laws for its administrative segregation status inmates, which I was, so they would be allowed no more privileges or property than inmates serving SHU disciplinary sentences for serious violations of prison rules.

I had all the privileges and property that a general population inmate would have when I tried to help the paralyzed mouse, I was just segregated and kept locked in a SHU cell all day apart from population. I had no disciplinary sanctions and had violated no rules or regulations but would soon be living under the exact same barren conditions as the SHU disciplinary status inmates around me, when the Department of Corrections changed its regulations regarding how it treats its inmates who have violated no prison rules but whom they have labeled a threat to prison security for one reason or another–or for no good or real reason at all, as is my situation today. My crime is nearly three decades old, and I am a world away from the young fool I was when I committed it. But in ad seg I have remained for all these years.

So I had tape when the paralyzed mouse happened along, though I would soon be banned from possessing it and most of the other property in my cell. I used it to tape the cardboard backs of five writing tablets together to make a box for the mouse. When I finished putting it together I put the mouse in it, keeping the sheet of paper underneath him lest he be jostled about while I was trying to slide it out.

When I was a kid growing up on the south side of Syracuse, New York, the city’s worst neighborhood, we had plenty of mice in every house we lived in, all of which were multi-family homes. My father, with whom I lived with a younger brother, fought a never-ending battle against the rodents and roaches that he never gave up on despite the futility. I remembered him mentioning that mice love peanut butter and jelly on bread better than any cheese; and since he was always catching plenty in the traps he would set around the house, I figured he must know what he’s talking about. I didn’t have any cheese on hand anyway, so I could not have tested the theory had I wanted to.

I did have plenty of peanut butter and jelly, though, so I dabbed a bit on a small piece of bread and put it in the box with the mouse, right in front of him so he wouldn’t have to crawl at all to get to it. To wash it down the tiny fellow would need some water, so I put a little in the lid of a Styrofoam cup and put it within easy reach for him.

Back in 1978, ten years before the handicapped mouse and what today seems to me like forever ago, I was a 14-year-old doing time in a juvenile facility called South Lansing Center, not far from Ithaca, New York. I took a first aid class there that, as it would happen, helped me save the life of a friend who had cut his wrist wide open with a butcher knife and severed veins. Among other things, I learned how to treat shock in that class. I thought that with a broken back the mouse might be in shock, since I recalled that severe physical trauma could cause it. I could not elevate the mouse’s feet above the level of its head as I was taught to do in the case of a person in shock, but I had the thought that the mouse’s physiology didn’t require it to help the flow of blood to the brain. His head was down and resting on the paper he lay on, I saw and looked to be as low to the ground as any part of him. It was early spring, though, and pretty chilly on the unit. So I knew what he needed.

I got my small blunt-tipped scissors out and cut a little square from my blanket. I then laid it over the mouse’s back, taking care not to cover his head so as not to interfere with his breathing. That was about everything I could do after doing that, little though it seemed to me to be.

A prayer isn’t something that I have ever been convinced guarantees anything, or even has a chance to work well for anything but the peace of mind of the one making it, but I was at the time–as I still am–talking to God daily on the off chance that He may be listening. So I said a prayer for that baby mouse, asking God to ease the pain that I knew it must be in. I did not ask God to save the tiny creature. What could a paralyzed rodent living in a solitary confinement unit do to stay alive? I had thought. Likely nothing. But I was not going to pray for the poor animal’s death either.

So I prayed that its pain would be relieved, and I hoped in my heart that it would be. Whether the mouse lived or died was in God’s hands, or fate’s, or whoever it is that has dominion over such matters–and I am not going to pretend to know.

I never told Willie, or anyone else, that I had the injured mouse in my cell that night. So no one on the unit knew.

The next morning, soon as I got out of bed, before I even went to the commode to take my morning leak, I checked on the mouse. He was still alive, and he had moved. He had also eaten all the bread with peanut butter and jelly on it. I put my finger in front of his nose to see if he had made some kind of miraculous recovery and would try to run, but he didn’t move at all, just stood there frozen, eyes wide open so I knew he was not sleeping. I could see rapid movements on his body signaling fast breathing and the speedy heartbeat of a small animal, so he wasn’t dead with his eyes stuck in the open position. I could also see the bump on his spine far down his back; it looked bigger than ever.

When I touched him with my finger he moved then. He was still dragging his hind legs.

I didn’t know if the mouse was a he or a she, and I knew not a thing about their anatomy that would allow me to have a look and see what it was. When I was talking to him as I did what I could to make him comfortable that first night, though, I had referred to him as a male. So he was always a he to me, even if he was in actuality a she.

Since he had lived through the night I became hopeful that he would make it for the long haul, and I really wanted him to. As I watched him still dragging his back legs uselessly behind, I was convinced that the bump on his spine was indeed a break that meant he would never run like a normal mouse again. But I was loving that tiny animal before he had twenty-four hours in my cell, and I wanted him to live. He could not be set free in the condition he was in because he would either starve or be easily caught dragging himself slowly about by an inmate like Willie, and I knew this. But I would take care of him and hope the guards would leave him alone when they were in my cell searching it, as they did several times a month when I was at rec.

Days passed and the mouse lived and got more and more active along the way. I stopped keeping him in the box except when I was out of my cell. When I was in the cell I would block the front gate and back door off so he couldn’t slip under them and get away. This allowed him to roam freely around the cell, and I thought it good for his rehabilitation. He needed the exercise.

After the first few days, when I was convinced that he would live, I officially gave my new pet a name. I called him Mouse. I did not want to give him a female name and have him turn out to be male–and you know he would never forgive me for that. Likewise, if I gave her a male name when she was in fact female, that would not be cool. So I gave it the genderless appellation Mouse, figuring that there could be no name more aptly suited to a mouse. That was what I had been calling him since the first day anyway.

One day, as I was watching him drag himself across the floor, I had a flashback to something I had seen on TV awhile before. I couldn’t recall what show I had been watching at the time, but while watching television one day years before I had seen paralyzed dogs in these contraptions with two wheels that looked a bit like the buggies that jockeys ride in as they race harness horses, the trotters and pacers that I had watched run countless times at the track my father would bring me to when I was a kid. The dogs had broken backs just like Mouse did, and the two-wheeled buggies allowed the animals to run around by using only their front legs, bodies resting on and held aloft by the buggy, its wheels acting as substitutes for the animals’ useless hind legs. Could I make a buggy like that for Mouse? Would he even move around in it if I did? I was going to find out.

I used Styrofoam feed-up trays that I was served my meals in to make most of the buggy, with a paper clip as an axle for the two tiny wheels I had fashioned to spin on it. I cut a harness out of one of my green prison shirts and sewed it right to the platform of the buggy that Mouse’s body would rest upon. In a couple of hours, after a little trial and error, I had the buggy done. Now to see if Mouse would like it.

A couple months had passed since Mouse’s back had been broken and he had grown bigger quickly, had even gotten a bit fat. I spoiled him with Carnation Instant Milk, which he loved, and any food he cared to have that I would get in my meal trays or in packages and commissary (both of which were privileges I would lose when the ad seg regulation changed). Though he remained paralyzed he seemed to otherwise heal well, and I could pick him up with no apparent distress. I even discovered that he was far smarter than I ever thought a mouse could be.

I was wondering if Mouse was in any manner trainable, so I decided to put him to the test. Before I fed him I would tap a plastic pen loudly on the cell’s concrete floor and do it in a distinctive pattern that I would never alter, sort of like spelling the same message out each time in Morse code. Then I would go get him–usually from under the bed where he liked to hang out–and feed him. So he only ate after hearing the same distinctive tapping sound being made on the floor. For a few weeks I’d tap and wait before I went to get him, and eventually he did exactly what I had been wondering if he would ever do: he came out from under the bed on his own, to where I was tapping and had his much-loved PB and J on Keebler Townhouse Crackers with Carnation Instant Milk, looking to eat. He was tentative at first but before too long would come quickly whenever I would tap. Mouse was trainable after all, a veritable genius among mice, I was certain.

I maneuvered Mouse into his harness, wrapped the little strap around his back that secured him snugly, locked the strap in place with its clasp made of a staple, and put him on the floor in his new buggy. He took off immediately just a short distance at first, like he was surprised that he could move so easily and quickly, but then he was gone, zooming all over the cell like a joy-filled man who had just been healed at a Christian revival after spending half his life in a wheelchair. Just like the paralyzed dogs I had seen on TV. Mouse could now run fast and well, with wheels for hind legs.

I learned a lot about mice from Mouse during those first couple of months that I had him, and one of those things was that mice will play just like a young kitten and puppy will do. At least young mice like Mouse was will. When I would put my finger on the floor and slide it back and forth very quickly in front of him, he would watch it intently just like a kitten does, head snapping from side to side to follow and looking like he is ready to pounce. When I’d shoot the finger toward him real quick Mouse would jump as much as having only two good legs would allow, take off running in his buggy, make a quick circuit of the cell and come right back to play some more. Sometimes he wouldn’t come right back, though. But a tap of the pen on the floor would bring him to me fast.

Mouse was not so little anymore–once even requiring me to rebuild his buggy and make a new harness–when I went to the yard one fateful day, as I did almost every day back then. I always put him in his box when I would leave my cell and I did likewise this day, like I had done for all of the seven or eight months I had him. When I returned to my cell, after putting the newspaper barrier back in front of the gate to block it off, I went right to the box to set Mouse free. I kept him in his buggy most of the time so he could move around the cell easily as he pleased, taking him out for his thrice weekly baths, that I suspected he never cared for, and not much otherwise. He was still in his buggy when I looked into his box, but the buggy was crushed. Mouse had a black Papermate pen stuck through his back, the same kind of pen that I used to call him to me, only this was one that a C.O. had owned, as many did since the prison gave them out free to officers and inmates alike. There was blood all over the cardboard box.

A C.O. had come into my cell when I was at rec and murdered Mouse. My best friend in that prison was dead and I was on fire inside.

I had three dogs that I loved when I as growing up, and I loved Mouse every bit as much as I had loved them. For the months he was with me he had been good company in a place that can be a lonely world, and I would miss him dearly.

No inmate could tell me who had gone into my cell and killed Mouse because none had seen. The inmates in the area of my cell were at rec in the SHU yards just as I was, or in the dayroom if they were protective custody inmates. Any C.O. could have come out of the SHU control “bubble” (console) and gone into my cell unobserved by any prisoner. But I knew who had done the dirty deed.

All the guards knew I had the paralyzed mouse and none had bothered him for the months that Mouse was with me, though they regularly came into my cell to search it when I was at rec or on visits. There is no such thing as privacy in prison and nothing that you might think is yours is truly your own. The police will come into your cell whenever they please, take what they please, break and destroy what they please, and few have any regard for the law or prison rules or regulations themselves, not the regulations regarding cell searches or property confiscation or any other regulations. To them, the law and rules and regulations are for the inmates alone. We have no rights but what the whim and fancy of our keepers deign to grant us at a given moment. These are facts that no corrections official would ever publicly admit, but that every prisoner knows only too well.

I had written a complaint against a SHU officer (for all the no good it would do) days before Mouse was killed, and in the days that followed he would let me know that it was he who had done the deed. I had known it immediately anyway, before he began taunting me about my friend’s bloody death.

On top of the sadness I felt over the loss of my buddy, I was angry in a monumental way, the Irish in me working its curse through a fiery temperament. I thought about making a counterattack on the man in blue who had murdered Mouse to punish me for writing what was a totally truthful complaint, but in the end I chose to handle the blow without riposte rather than get myself in serious trouble by serving the cop the comeuppance that he rightly deserved. Back then, in my younger and more foolish days, I did not always make this sort of smart choice: I did not always let an injustice or misdeed be served up to me without seeking to make the one who had served it wish to God that he had not, no matter what the consequences of the payback might be.

But we live and learn, and if we are smart we gain some wisdom along the way. I like to think that I have.

Voices: Double Celling

By Five Mualimm-ak and Shaquille Mualimm-ak.

five shaquilleThe following piece was jointly written by Five and Shaquille Mualimm-ak, who are father and son. Five Mualimm-ak is now a prison reform activist and director of the Incarcerated Nation Campaign. While incarcerated in New York State prisons, he spent five years in solitary confinement for nonviolent disciplinary infractions, and has written previously about its effects on him. Here, both father and son describe the effects that the years of separation and isolation had on their relationship. Shaquille grew up with little contact with his father, since individuals in disciplinary segregation in New York are most often denied visits and phone calls.  

The title of the piece refers to the practice, common in New York and many other states, of locking down two people in a cell together for 23 hours a day–a form of extreme isolation that many describe as worse than solitary confinement. Here it suggests the idea that isolation affects not only prisoners, but also their families–that loved ones also “do time” in solitary.  –Jean Casella

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

[Five] During my time of incarceration, I always stood tall and strong. I was sure of my innocence and was determined to battle those charges to the end. I imagined myself one day being vindicated, and when that day came I knew I would fight back against a system that had wrongfully imprisoned me, and then tortured me with years in solitary confinement.

I would one day leave that tiny cell that had grown to be my only landscape. So familiar were those walls that even closing my eyes could not erase the sight burned into my retina. Trapped there 23 hours a day, week in, week out, month after month of endless hollow chatter that I could never get out of my head , the distant conversations of muffled voices. I cannot remember when I started talking to myself but soon even that began driving me insane. I would one day not feel trapped like a caged animal–though unlike me, caged animals have rights and people who protect them from abuse and intentional harm.

I would one day see my son. I could tell from his letters that he really needed me. He was having to face the world alone and without me there to be by his side. I lost the ability to focus on the exact details of his face, and then my thoughts would drift to: Who is there for him? Who walks him to school? Who is making sure he is eating right? I hope he knows diabetes run in our family. I would reread his letters to me a thousand times, but they brought no ease to the pain of missing my child.

Even though I used the word “I” to describe my experience inside, it wasn’t until I met the child, now a man whom I call my son, that I realized I was never sentenced alone. Throughout my time I was double celled. I was locked away and out of his life, but still we were both trapped in this perpetual cycle of distance. Beyond those walls topped with razor wire, beyond the guard tower with armed men waiting to shoot down any attempts to escape this world inside of a bigger world–there was my creation, my young son, whom I couldn’t reach, and in some ways still can’t. Yet I’ve learned that he, in fact, was isolated from me and at the same time sentenced to be mentally confined with me for over 1,825 days…

1,825 days…

[Shaquille] 1,825 days I spent isolated from the man I call my father;  the man I was a spitting image of; the man who had the answers to problems I faced as a growing teen. Problems such as puberty, sex, hormonal rage, and many other things teenage boys typically go through were uncomfortable to talk to my mother about. I didn’t know how to bring those conversations up to her, and she didn’t know how to respond or what to say the seldom times I attempted it.

I needed my father at that crucial time in my life to show me how to be and act like a man. All around me at school I had friends with absent fathers or fathers who were also incarcerated and they ended up picking up drugs or ditching class because they didn’t have anyone to guide them and explain to them the importance of an education. Luckily I had a good mother who would steer me back in the right direction when I fell off course. But emotionally and mentally, I felt damaged by the lack of understanding she had for my teenage issues. A parent can only teach you but so much. I had to make a conscious decision to follow and apply the principles she taught me at home in my day to day life. I had to teach myself how to overcome the problems I faced as a poor black teen, and make good decisions when not in her presence.

The confinement of my father felt like I too was incarcerated, doing the time right along with him. Communication with him was difficult because of the circumstances he was under. I felt angry. I was pissed off at the world, and I knew that a lot of my minority peers were too, because they were in the same boat as me. A lot of them ended up getting caught up in the vicious cycle of repeating their incarcerated parent’s crime or something similar to it.

Solitary confinement not only kept my father locked in a box, but it kept him locked out of my life. It’s not hard to see that this system of ‘justice’ is corrupted when we are aware of the psychological effects that locking a parent out of the life of a growing child can have on the mind of that child. Even though I was physically free, mentally I was trapped in a 6×9 cell, isolated from my parent, the only man in my life, and locked into a sentence of solitude. As much as I stated “I,” it was more like were both doing time.

VOICES: Doing “Bing Time”: Memories of a Mental Health Worker in Rikers Island’s Solitary Confinement Unit

A cell in Rikers Island's Central Punitive Segregation Unit.

A cell in Rikers Island’s Central Punitive Segregation Unit.

Reprinted from Solitary Watch.

The following post is a chapter from an unpublished book by Mary Buser, who worked in various capacities in the mental health system on Rikers Island. In Buser’s own words: “I worked in the Rikers Mental Health Department as a psychiatric social worker for five and a half years, leaving Rikers in 2000. I started off as a student intern in the island’s sole women’s jail…[and] returned to Rikers to work in a maximum security men’s jail…[then] was promoted to assistant chief of Mental Health in another jail, where I supervised treatment to the island’s most severely mentally ill inmates. From there, I was transferred to my fourth and final jail, which was connected to the “Central Punitive Segregation Unit,” aka, the Bing. Here, I supervised a mental health team in treating inmates held in solitary confinement–determining whether or not someone warranted a temporary reprieve based on the likelihood of a completed suicide. Although I had become disillusioned with the criminal justice system, the Bing was my Rikers undoing. The final section of my manuscript is focused on my daily trips to the Bing, the inmates who occupied these cells, and my struggle to justify doing this work.” Names have been changed to protect the privacy of the individuals involved in the episodes Buser describes.

As jails have come to replace psychiatric hospitals as repositories for people with mental illness, Rikers become one of the nation’s largest inpatient mental health centers (second only to the L.A. County Jail). A disproportionate number of these psychiatrically disabled individuals end up in solitary confinement, doing “Bing time” for rule infractions precipitated by their illness. Buser’s account of her time overseeing treatment in “the Bing” is of particular interest now, when years of activism by the Jails Action Coalition and two scathing reports commissioned by the New York City Board of Correction have finally spurred efforts to reduce the use of solitary and improve mental health treatment on Rikers. These efforts have thusfar yielded at best mixed results. –James Ridgeway

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

At the end of a long cinderblock corridor, a guard in an elevated booth passes the time with a paperback book.  Across from the booth, a barred gate cordons off a dim passageway.  Along the passageway wall are the words:  CENTRAL PUNITIVE SEGREGATION UNIT.

The guard looks up as I approach, and nods.  As acting chief of “Mental Health,” I’m a regular over here at the “Bing” – an unlikely nickname for this five-story tower of nothing but solitary cells — 100 of them on each floor.  Designed for Rikers Island’s most recalcitrant inmates, the occupants of these cells have been pulled out of general population for fighting, weapons possession, disobeying orders, assault on staff.  The guards refer to them as “the baddest of the bad” – “the worst of the worst.”  I’m not so sure about that.

The guard throws a switch and the barred gate shudders and starts opening.  Around a bend, I step into an elevator car.  Since the problem inmate is on the third floor, I hold up three fingers to a corner camera, waiting to be spotted on a TV monitor.  This is no ordinary elevator — no buttons to push here, likely engineered for some security purpose.  The sweaty little box starts lifting, and as the muffled wails of the punished echo through, my stomach tightens — the way it does every time I’m called over here, which is often.  Solitary confinement is punishment taken to the extreme, inducing the bleakest of depression, plunging despair, and terrifying hallucinations.  The Mental Health Department looms large in a solitary unit – doling out anti-depressants, anti-psychotics, and mountains of sleeping pills.  If these inmates had no mental health issues before they entered solitary, they do now.  But even the most potent medications reach only so far, and when they can no longer hold a person’s psyche together – when human behavior deteriorates into frantic scenes of self-mutilation and makeshift nooses – we’re called to a cell door.

The elevator rattles open on the third floor.  Ahead, a foreboding window separates two plain doors, each one leading onto a 50-cell wing.  Behind the window, correctional staff hover over paperwork.  A logbook is thrust out, I sign it, and point to the door on the left, ‘3 South.’  When the knob buzzes, I pull the door open and step into what feels like a furnace.  A long cement floor is lined with gray steel doors that face each other – twenty-five on one side, twenty-five on the other.  Each door has a small window at the top, and on the bottom, a flap for food trays.

At the far end, Dr. Diaz and Pete Majors are waiting for me.  I hesitate for a moment, dreading the walk through the gauntlet of misery.  The smell of vomit and feces hangs in the hot, thick air.  Bracing myself, I start past the doors, trying to stay focused on my colleagues.  Still, I can see their faces – dark-skinned, young – pressed up against the cell windows, eyes wild with panic.  “Miss! Help!  Please, Miss!!”  They bang and slap the doors, sweaty palms sliding down the windows.  “We’re dying in here, Miss – we’re dying!”  Resisting my natural instinct to rush to their aid, I keep going, reminding myself that there’s a reason they’re in here – that they’ve done something to warrant this punishment.  The guards, themselves sweat-soaked and agitated, amble from cell to cell, pounding the doors with their fists, spinning around and kicking them with boot heels — “SHUT—THE  FUCK– UPPP!!

[Read more…]

VOICES: Solitary Confinement’s Invisible Scars

By Five Omar Mualimm-ak. Reprinted from The Guardian.

nys doccsAs kids, many of us imagine having superpowers. An avid comic book reader, I often imagined being invisible. I never thought I would actually experience it, but I did.

It wasn’t in a parallel universe – although it often felt that way – but right here in the Empire State, my home. While serving time in New York’s prisons, I spent 2,054 days in solitary and other forms of isolated confinement, out of sight and invisible to other human beings – and eventually, even to myself.

After only a short time in solitary, I felt all of my senses begin to diminish. There was nothing to see but gray walls. In New York’s so-called special housing units, or SHUs, most cells have solid steel doors, and many do not have windows. You cannot even tape up pictures or photographs; they must be kept in an envelope. To fight the blankness, I counted bricks and measured the walls. I stared obsessively at the bolts on the door to my cell.

There was nothing to hear except empty, echoing voices from other parts of the prison. I was so lonely that I hallucinated words coming out of the wind. They sounded like whispers. Sometimes, I smelled the paint on the wall, but more often, I just smelled myself, revolted by my own scent.

There was no touch. My food was pushed through a slot. Doors were activated by buzzers, even the one that led to a literal cage directly outside of my cell for one hour per day of “recreation”.

Even time had no meaning in the SHU. The lights were kept on for 24 hours. I often found myself wondering if an event I was recollecting had happened that morning or days before. I talked to myself. I began to get scared that the guards would come in and kill me and leave me hanging in the cell. Who would know if something happened to me? Just as I was invisible, so was the space I inhabited.

The very essence of life, I came to learn during those seemingly endless days, is human contact, and the affirmation of existence that comes with it. Losing that contact, you lose your sense of identity. You become nothing.

Everyone knows that prison is supposed to take away your freedom. But solitary doesn’t just confine your body; it kills your soul.

Yet neither a judge nor a jury of my peers handed down this sentence to me. Each of the tormented 23 hours per day that I spent in a bathroom-sized room, without any contact with the outside world, was determined by prison staff.

[Read more…]

VOICES: The Loneliest Place in the World

By Shawn Smith. Reprinted from Solitary Watch.

elmira2The following essay is by Shawn Smith, who is serving time for drug sales and assault in New York. He is one of some 4,500 individuals currently being held in isolated confinement in the state’s prison system. In a letter to Solitary Watch, he writes “I’m so lonely that I dream of human contact with the outside world…and I was hoping that you could find it in your heart to embrace me as a friend and help me get my essay up on your website. So that people can become aware of the levels of injustices and sorrow that has been bestowed upon me involving my solitary confinement experience…I feel so hopeless that I’ve spilled out my heart into this essay and I’m sending it to you in hopes that some change can come to me from it.”  Shawn Smith’s mailing address is #07A1605, Elmira Correctional Facility, P.O. Box 500, Elmira, New York 14901-0500. –James Ridgeway

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Four walls! A ceiling! And a floor eight by ten feet in dimension! In my eyes, this is the worst torture device in the history of the universe! Within this small enclave many men have fallen apart and broken down mentally into a deep stage of sorrow. That has made us (myself included) drop to our knees with lakes of tears under our eyes that cascade down our face. As we ask God “Why me? Why must I suffer this unbearable pain and burden?”

This place has made me feel so hopeless that I’ve dosed on pills two times and was rushed to the hospital where they pumped my stomach clean of the many painkillers and anti-depression pills that I digested in hopes of going to a better place! I’ve hung up with a self-made noose and sliced my wrist, because this place has driven me to the brink of insanity and I felt like I would rather be dead than live like a dog in a cage at the unwanted animal shelter.

In this place, I’ve lost and found my sanity time and time again. What really shook me up and made me find the inner strength to fight for the willpower to want to live my life and fight to survive in this place was when I saw the COs carry a friend I made in the brother in the cell next-door to me away in a black bag!

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VOICES: You Are Solitary Confinement

By Nicholas Zimmerman.

The following narrative and poem are by Nicholas Zimmerman, who is currently incarcerated at Attica. He has spent, in total, a decade in solitary confinement. The website maintained by his loved ones is  www.FREENicholasZimmerman.com. Thanks to CAIC member Desiray Smith for sharing his story.

You are the most profound form of Cruel and Unusual Punishment Know to mankind, yet the Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution seems to have no effect on you?

You are only 6 feet by 8 feet in size, but your impact is devastating and long lasting.

You are a silent killer, slipping in and out of prison cells late at night to claim your next victim.

You are the Department of Corrections’ most effective weapon in inflicting mental and physical torture upon its captives.

Your existence is undeniable; you’ve been around for hundreds of years.

Numerous experts have complained about you for decades to no avail.

You are the cause of my depression, my high blood pressure, my anxiety, my sleepless nights, and my restless days.

I’ve watched you kill people with out laying a hand on them.

I’ve watched people hang themselves from your support beams within minutes of being in your clutches.

I’ve seen people slice and dice themselves with hopes of escaping your misery.

And I’ve also watched the Correctional Officers and Mental Health staff enjoy every minute of it.

You’re a Bitch in my eyes; not man enough to show your face and fight me one on one, but coward enough to attack me while I’m sleeping and inject fatal thoughts of suicide into my dreams.

Through lawsuits, maintenance, funding and security, you cause the taxpayers billions of dollars per year to stay afloat, yet they know very little about you and how unnecessary and counterproductive you really are.

Lately, you have been under fire by the media, however. But will this end your reign of terror? Only time will tell.

I’ve been battling you for the past 10 years and everyday I look at you and grin knowing that you are on your last leg. Your defeat is imminent, but your history will be legendary. Tomorrow you might be a thing of the past, but today at this very minute, as I write these words, you are torturing another soul and plotting your next murder.

And you legally get away with all of this simply because of who you are!

You are…

SOLITARY CONFINEMENT!

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