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.

NEWS: With Loved Ones in Prison, Women Become Leaders in the Fight Against Solitary Confinement in New York

By Keri Blakinger. Reprinted from Solitary Watch.

jessica casanovaJessica Casanova’s nephew wrote her a letter: “I”m here in a steel coffin. I’m breathing but I’m dead.” Casanova recounted, “I didn’t know what that meant so I got on a bus and I found out.”

That was in 2012, and three years later, she’s still finding out. As it turned out, Casanova’s nephew, Juan, was in solitary confinement. He was spending 23 hours a day alone in a cell and deteriorating quickly.

Juan had entered the New York State prison system as a teenager with mental health issues. Casanova said, “He suffered from antisocial personality, borderline personality, severe depression, and addiction.”

His first trip to solitary was in 2001, for allegedly smoking a joint. Although Juan was only isolation for a matter of months, Casanova said, “He’s never been the same after that.” While his first stay was brief, at this point the 33-year-old has now spent a total of about 10 years in solitary. Casanova went on to explain that her nephew now suffers from extreme bouts of depression, paranoia, and mood swings. She added, “Sometimes in the letters it seems like he might be hallucinating.”

“Seeing someone in solitary confinement,” Casanova said, “is like you’re watching them die right in front of your eyes. … I have never in my life experienced another human being being reduced to nothingness.” She added, “I just don’t understand how this can happen in the world.”

Although her nephew’s experience opened Casanova’s eyes, the 43-years-old East Harlem resident is not the only one coming to such realizations. Nationwide, there are at least 80,000 people in solitary confinement on any given day – and most have families who watch them suffer.

Leah Gitter, a retired New York City schoolteacher, is another of those suffering relatives. Her godson, Robert, has spent time in solitary both in Attica and Green Haven, maximum security prisons in New York State.

Gitter said that, during the time Robert was in solitary confinement, “I saw him becoming more unstable and more isolated and sicker. It was like he was withdrawing.” She added, “You get into this mindset where you can’t function because of all that isolation and he wasn’t well to begin with.”

As is perhaps evident from Casanova’s and Gitter’s stories, despite the documented mental health impacts, individuals with existing mental health problems are routinely placed in solitary confinement, a practice which may be counterproductive to any perceived public safety goals. Gitter observed, “I don’t know who benefits from punishing people like that.”

Robin Goods can relate. Her son, George, has spent more than a decade in solitary confinement in California. She said, “I have been visiting with my son George E. Jacobs for the past 10 years behind a glass window. When I look into his eyes I can see the progression of the effects of torture. The first year George had a distance look in his eyes. After the second year in the SHU he had a vague look in his eyes. Now after ten years in the SHU, George has a hollow empty look in his eyes.  I am witnessing my son being slowly and deliberately tortured to the point of … devastating mental health deterioration.”

Initially, her son was isolated for a small infraction – Goods said she was told that he refused to take out his shoe laces before a visit. He was sentenced to two years in solitary, but prison officials gradually extended his stay longer and longer. She said, “When he goes for the review they say it’s small infractions like refusing to eat, sharing food.” Recently, George was let out of SHU, but instead of being moved to general population, he was just placed in another type of solitary confinement know as Administrative Segregation.

Goods said, “The deterioration is so profound that it almost affects me. You feel like you want to scream at the top of your lungs, because how can you help? What can you do?” Answering her own question, she continued, “I felt so depressed and helpless and anything I tried wasn’t going anywhere. Then I became angry and decided to stand back up and fight.”

That urge to fight is something Goods has in common with Casanova and Gitter. As a result of their family connections, all three women have become crusaders against solitary confinement.

Gitter said that, knowing about the conditions of her godson’s confinement, “I was so frustrated. This was the only way I could survive — to think that I could do something, to save his life.” She became active in Mental Health Alternatives to Solitary Confinement (MHASC) and “fought like hell” to get the SHU Exclusion Law passed in 2008.  The law is meant to bar most people with serious mental illness from being placed in isolation in New York’s state prisons. Gitter said, “We had press conferences and lobby days. We were relentless, even though it took eight years – a human rights bill [took] eight years to get passed.”

Jennifer Parish, the director of criminal justice advocacy at the Urban Justice Center’s Mental Health Project, said, “Leah in some way is the godmother of the movement. She’s been a force for speaking to policy makers at all different levels … She had really done so much to gather people around addressing the problem of people with mental illness in our prison system and in solitary confinement.”

While Gitter has been involved in solitary confinement activism for over a decade, Casanova got into it more recently. In 2013, she joined the New York Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement (CAIC) and in 2014 spoke at the first press conference announcing the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act. The HALT Act, which is graduallygaining momentum in both the Senate and the House, would ban solitary confinement in New York’s prisons and jails to 15 days, the limit suggested by the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Torture. Individuals requiring more secure housing over the long term would be placed in new Residential Rehabilitation Units with increased therapy and programming.

Parish said of Casanova, “She’s a tremendous advocate. When she talks about what her nephew has gone through it’s just incredibly powerful.”

Though Goods lives in New Jersey, she’s also been active in CAIC, a New York-based group. Parish said, “Robin has a leadership role within CAIC she’s one of the co-chairs of the legislative committee. She’s been part of taking trips to communities upstate to help form branches of CAIC. She’s done presentations upstate. Her son is in California so the fact that she’s working so strongly here is amazing.”

Goods said that, if there’s one thing she’s learned through her activism, it’s that if you’re a family member of someone in solitary, “You are the extended voice on the outside and you should use it as loudly as you can. There’s nothing worse going to happen than what’s already happened.”

Although Casanova, Gitter, and Goods are all important figures in the movement against solitary, they aren’t the only ones – there are wives, girlfriends, parents, siblings, and children scattered throughout activist groups.

“I think,” Parish said, “one of the most important roles that family members play in the movement is reminding everyone who’s involved about the urgency of changing these policies. Because every day their family members are facing solitary or have the potential to face it, and it reminds us that this is not an abstract problem. I think that for people are in the movement it can sometimes be far away. Prisons are closed institutions. But the families constantly keep the fire burning in all of us to make the changes.”

NEWS: Legislation Limiting Solitary Confinement in New York Gains Momentum

By Marco Poggio. Reprinted from Solitary Watch.

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A bill to significantly limit the use solitary confinement in New York state prison and local jails gained momentum last week, after nine Assembly members and two state senators agreed to support the legislation. The new sponsorships, secured after a day of lobbying that brought more than 120 activists to Albany from around the state, brought the total number of co-sponsors to 33 in the Assembly and 11 in the Senate.

Citing the words of the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Méndez, who condemned long-term solitary confinement as torture, advocates convinced the legislators of the urgency of a sweeping bill called the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act, which would limit the maximum time of isolation to 15 consecutive days, and a maximum of 20 days over any 60-day period.

The bill would also completely ban the use of isolation on individuals with mental illness, as well as youth, seniors, pregnant women and nursing mothers, and members of the LGBTQI community—groups that are particularly vulnerable to the effects of solitary, or prone to abuse while in solitary, or both

“The practice of solitary confinement is subject to widespread abuse,” Méndez said in a videotaped statement, which was played at an educational event held on the morning of April 22 in the Legislative Office Building. “It leads to the violations of fundamental human rights, including the right to personal, physical or mental integrity, and may constitutes cruel and inhumane treatment, and even torture.”

Scientific evidence shows that people who are held in isolation for 22 to 24 hours a day suffer severe irreversible psychological damage, Méndez said, adding that long-term solitary confinement “must be absolutely prohibited.”

Studies have shown that people held in isolation often develop acute forms of paranoia and psychosis that cause them to mutilate themselves, and in many cases, to commit suicide.

Figures obtained by the Correctional Association of New York from the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) indicate that the rate of suicide in New York state prison is 59 percent higher than the national average for incarcerated persons.

Among the individuals who took his own life while being held in isolation was Benjamin Van Zandt, whose mother, Alicia Barraza, also spoke at the morning event.

Van Zandt was arrested and charged for arson when he was 17. Despite being diagnosed with mental health problems, he was placed in solitary confinement multiple times over the course of three years. He reportedly also endured repeated physical and sexual abuse at the hand of other incarcerated with him at Fishkill Correctional Center. At some point during his downward path through despair and acute depression, Van Zandt decided his life wasn’t worth living, and hanged himself in his cell at the age of 21.

Since her son’s death, Barazza has become a passionate advocate for the HALT Solitary Confinement Act. “There is absolutely no reason that another family should have to endure what we went through,” Barazza said

“I think we should put an end to the number of suicides that come from solitary confinement” said Selestina Martinez, a social worker born and raised in the Bronx who joined in the lobbying, which was organized by an advocacy group called the New York Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement (CAIC).

Martinez’s cousin, who has completed 23 years of a 25-year sentence, spent large portions of his time in solitary confinement. Now that he only has two years left before he will be released, Martinez said, her cousin is frightened to come home because he doesn’t know how he will be able re-enter society after a long time spent in isolation.

“It’s kinda like throwing somebody into the water and expecting them to swim when they don’t know how,” she said, referring to people who have done time in solitary confinement.

“I’ve Known Men Who Lost Their Minds”

Across the country, at least 80,000 people are being held in some form of isolated confinement, locked down in one- or two-person cells for 23 to 24 hours a day. In New York State prisons, the number is about 4,500 at any given time. Each year in the state of New York, the Corrections Department sentences over 14,000 people to terms in so-called Special Housing Units (SHUs).

About 8,000 of those sentences, roughly 57 percent, result in three or more months in the ‘box,’ as solitary confinement is commonly called by those who experience it. About 3,900 of the sentences, nearly 28 percent of the total, send people to isolation for six months or longer. Some individuals are kept in “disciplinary segregation” for years at the time, while “administrative segregation” can last for decades.

“I’ve known men who lost their minds,” said Tyrrell Muhammad, who spent seven consecutive years in solitary confinement, and spoke of his experiences at the morning event. During each day in isolation, Muhammad said, he had to fight hard to stay sane.

A few week after entering solitary confinement, Muhammad began suffering the consequences of extreme isolation and idleness.

First, he began having hallucinations while staring for hours at the flaking paint on the walls, which he saw transforming into the faces of famous people. One time, Muhammad said, he recognized Dr. Jay, a basketball star who played during the 1970s. Another time, he saw the face of Abraham Lincoln.

“This is how you could tell you’re slipping,” Muhammad told Solitary Watch. After more time spent in complete isolation, Muhammad said, he often would not realize he had been talking to himself loudly for hours until a guard outside his cell told him to be quiet.

Contrary to what is commonly thought, only in a small number of cases people are put in isolation because of violent behaviour inside prisons or jails. Most of the time, they end up in solitary confinement for minor actions that are considered to be in violations of prison regulations, for example having too many postal stamps, occupying the wrong side of the cell, or talking back to a correctional officer.

Pushing Legislation to Limit Solitary Confinement

The April 22nd morning press event featured sponsors of three bills to limit solitary confinement. A bill introduced by Assembly Correction Committee chair Daniel J. O’Donnell would ban solitary for youth and people with developmental disabilities, as well as individuals with mental illness, and states that solitary confinement sanctions be imposed as a measure of last resort, and for the minimum period necessary. . A bill already passed by the Assembly, after being introduced by Nily Rozic, bans solitary for pregnant women.

The lead sponsors of the HALT Solitary Confinement Act also spoke at the event. Assembly Member Jeffrion Aubry and State Senator William Perkins originally introduced the bill in January 2014.

“We have a human rights crisis here in New York State. The cost of solitary confinement as a state and a society are immeasurable,” said Perkins, a democrat from Harlem. “The encouraging news is that legislators, advocates, and the public have finally come together.”

The HALT Solitary Confinement Act does more than simply reducing the use of solitary confinement. It also seeks to create alternative Residential Rehabilitation Units (RRU), which would substitute the isolation and deprivation of the SHU with treatment and programs of rehabilitation that would help incarcerated people prepare for their transition back into the general population and the outside world.

On April 22, advocates for the bill met with legislators and staffs throughout the day. Organized in teams of four or five, activists spelled out the key features of the bill to Assembly members and state senators, some of whom were not yet familiar with the issue of solitary confinement. In some of the meetings, activists directly affected by incarceration system were able to share their life stories with the legislators.

Tama Bell, the mother of a 23-year old man who’s currently in jail, told Assembly Member David Weprin her son ended up in solitary confinement despite a long history of mental illness and after being diagnosed with a serious form of bipolar disorder.

After only month locked up in a cell alone the size of an elevator, Bell said, her son began talking about suicide. She reached out to the elected officials in her district, and contacted both the state’s Department of Correction and the Office of Mental Health to let the officials know about her son’s situation. Finally, her son’s solitary confinement sentenced was reduced from 18 months to three.

“I can’t even imagine him making it through beyond the three months,” Bell said, adding how lucky she feels that his son is still alive. Were the HALT Solitary Confinement Act in place, her son would have never walked inside an isolation cell in the first place.

While her intervention helped improving the condition of her son, there are large numbers of less fortunate children whose families have no means to get them out of isolation.

Weprin was among the first Assembly members last week to add his name to the list of those who sponsor the legislation. By the end of day last Wednesday, six more Assembly members had decided to co-sponsor the bill, a sign that advocates have been effective in getting the attention of the elected officials on the issue of solitary confinement.

“So many people did so much to make this day a success,” Scott Paltrowitz, Associate Director of the Prison Visiting Project at the Correctional Association of New York and an organizer of day’s events.

“I feel honored, inspired, blessed, humbled and excited to be part of a movement that is challenging such horrific practices with such fierce advocacy, passion, dedication, energy, and love,” Paltrowitz wrote in an email to the activists who took part in the lobby day.

The dozens of activists coming from all across the state, organized by the Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement (CAIC), included a heterogeneous mix of people from different walks of life. While individuals cited different motives for taking part in the day, all of them share the belief that solitary confinement is inhumane and degrading.

“I’m here just because I don’t want to live in a country where we treat anybody like this,” said Shirley Ripullone, who lives in Columbia County.

“As an American who believes in the stated values of our country, I hate to see us acting [in a way] that if it were happening anywhere else we would be wary and self-righteous about it,” said Kenneth Stahl, a man who had no direct experience with solitary confinement but decided to mobilize in favor of the bill out of his own moral principles.

Social workers, lawyers, members of religious communities, and people from the general public were joined by formerly incarcerated people and families of currently incarcerated people in an action that defied demographics.

A Long Road Ahead

Although lobbying efforts in Albany were successful, there are still significant obstacles that sweeping legislation like the HALT Solitary Confinement Bill will have to overcome before it will be able to make it to the floor of the Assembly, much less the Republican-controlled Senate.

Partisan divisions are only part of the problem. Geographic and demographic splits also play a role in opinions on solitary confinement. As illustrated in an infographic distributed by CAIC, African Americans are even more over-represented in solitary confinement than they are in the prison population. In addition, while a majority of incarcerated people come from New York City, most prisons are located upstate, and most prison staff are white.

Political support for solitary confinement is still large around the state, especially in those counties where the local economy relies heavily of the business of correction facilities, and where correctional officer unions have powerful connections inside the state legislature.

Even in a liberal stronghold like New York City, where Mayor Bill de Blasio pledged to fix a correction system plagued by violence and dysfunction, reforms have taken place amid a climate of caution and sometimes skepticism.

“I don’t think it is cruel and unusual,” said Correction Department Commissioner Joseph Ponte in regard of solitary confinement, during a hearing at City Council last month.

But people who have done time in “the bing,” the nickname for the Rikers Island’s Central Punitive Segregation Unit, see it differently.

“Once you go into solitary confinement, all privileges are gone,” said Hallie West, who has twice been in solitary confinement at Rikers. “Privileges mean: telephone calls, food commissary, your books, your music and all that extra stuff. They take it away from you, and they put it on the side. You might get your clothing if you’re lucky.”

Since she first ended up in a SHU on Rikers Island in 1993, West said, things have gotten worse. Today, she said, people held in solitary confinement are never allowed out of the cell for any reason. Visits are heavily restricted, and inmates are denied the chance to make phone calls for several days at the time.

In March, De Blasio and Ponte co-announced a 14-point anti-violence agenda that includes a set limit of 60 days as the maximum amount of time that a person can spend in solitary confinement within any six-month period, and a ban on isolation for all inmates who are 21 or younger.

Despite being a step forward towards a more humane approach to incarceration, it is not yet clear how significantly the agenda will actually reduce the use of solitary confinement.

For opponents of solitary across the state, April 22 gave cause for encouragement, but also served as a reminder of the long road ahead.

“Many don’t believe as we believe, and it’s our job to convince them that they’re wrong,” said Jeffrion Aubry, the democrat from Queens who first introduced the HALT Solitary Confinement Act in the Assembly.

“They may not agree with us at the moment,” Aubry said about those legislators that are unconvinced about the bill. “But information and right ultimately win out.”

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.

NEWS: New York Advocates Offer Testimony to Assembly Hearings on Mental Health in Prisons and Jails

Several key supporters of CAIC presented or submitted testimony to the New York State Assembly Standing Committee on Corrections and Assembly Standing Committee on Mental Health, which held a joint hearing on “Public Hearing on Mental Illness in Correctional Settings” in Albany on November 13, 2014. A collection of testimony appears below, and will be permanently archived on the Resources page.

Correctional Association of New York

Disability Rights New York

Incarcerated Nation Corp.

Mental Health Alternatives to Solitary Confinement

NAMI – NYS

New York Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement

New York City Jails Action Coalition

Urban Justice Center

For more on the hearing, see the following news accounts:

http://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory/ny-lawmakers-probe-care-mentally-ill-inmates-26878665

http://m.timesunion.com/local/article/Learning-to-treat-prisoners-with-signs-of-mental-5891924.php

 

NEWS: New York Lawmakers Probe Care for Mentally Ill in Prison

By Michael Virtanen. Reprinted from the Associated Press

hearingThe head of the troubled New York City jail system said Thursday it’s critical to send mentally ill inmates to treatment programs instead of a lockup.

Department of Corrections Commissioner Joseph Ponte told state lawmakers that Rikers Island is poorly equipped to be a mental health treatment center. The primary goal, one he shares with the medical staff, is to keep staff and inmates safe, he said.

“Violence at Rikers Island the past five or six years has gone through the roof,” Ponte said, adding that assaults on his medical staff have tripled.

Dr. Homer Venters, head of the jail’s health services, testified alongside Ponte. He said admission medical screenings done on every incoming inmate show about 25 percent have mental illnesses, though that diagnosis applies to about 38 percent of the daily population of about 11,500. Those inmates tend to stay twice as long.

Ponte said they’ve taken steps, like limiting solitary confinement, to improve treatment at Rikers, but acknowledged many issues remain. The city also has recently established some courts, including one in Manhattan, focused on handling cases involving the mentally ill.

“We’ve become the de facto mental hospitals,” Ponte said of the jails. “Diversion is critical.”

New York City jails have come under increasing scrutiny since The Associated Press earlier this year first exposed the deaths of two seriously mentally ill inmates — an ex-Marine imprisoned in Rikers who an official said “basically baked to death” in a 101-degree cell and a diabetic inmate who sexually mutilated himself while locked alone for seven days inside a cell last fall.

Lawmakers called the joint hearing of Assembly committees on correction and mental health following these and other reports of afflicted prisoners getting inadequate care.

The hearing also examined other local jails, where suspects go while awaiting trial or serving shorter sentences, as well as the state’s prisons that house about 52,250 inmates with longer sentences.

About 9,300 state inmates have been diagnosed with a mental illness, with 2,300 considered seriously mentally ill, said Donna Hall, director of forensic services at the state Office of Mental Health, which provides treatment. She said the clinicians seldom, if ever, remove or lower those designations.

Jack Beck of the Correctional Association of New York testified that most remain in the general prison population and get limited services. Fewer illnesses now are judged serious, which would give those inmates more care and keep them from the “torture” of solitary confinement, he said.

Alicia Barazza tearfully told legislators that her 21-year-old son suffered from severe mental illness and committed suicide two weeks ago in solitary confinement at Fishkill state prison. He’d gone off his psychotropic medications and had been in crisis, she said. He was sent to prison from Albany County at 17 for third-degree arson. His mother said he’d been abused by another inmate in prison.

Corrections officials declined to comment, citing the potential of a lawsuit.

Advocates said one recurring problem is defendants not allowed by police to take their medications after they’re arrested.

Glenn Leibman of the Mental Health Association called for presumptively enrolling inmates in Medicaid so they can get needed prescriptions when they leave.

Damian DePauw, 35, said he went to Washington County Jail on an assault charge after a violent psychiatric episode. In jail, when he felt symptoms worsening, he said he told a guard he needed medicine and was told to wait for the nurse that night, who said she’d need a prescription from the jail psychiatrist three days later. Over the weekend, he became more delusional, assaulted another prisoner who had threatened him, was stripped and put into a solitary cell, where he rammed his head into the metal door repeatedly, in an effort to knock himself out, until he split open his scalp and was taken by ambulance to a hospital, he said.

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.

NEWS: Hundreds Lobby Against Solitary Confinement

By Keri Blakinger. Reprinted from examiner.com.

Photo: Stacy Burnett

Photo: Stacy Burnett

On Monday, hundreds of activists gathered outside the Capitol in Albany to lobby in favor of a bill that would make major changes to the way that solitary confinement is used in New York’s prisons and jails.

The bill, called the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act seeks to address the underlying behavioral problems that lead inmates to be placed in solitary confinement by offering increased treatment options. For inmates sentenced to more than 15 days in solitary, HALT would ensure that they receive six hours of out-of-cell programming and treatment per day in new units called residential rehabilitation units, or RRUs. Certain vulnerable populations — such as pregnant women, inmates under 21, elderly inmates, mentally or physically handicapped inmates, and LGBTQI inmates — would be excluded from being in solitary confinement for even one day. Instead, such populations would be referred directly to RRUs.

As Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement reports, there are approximately 4,000 men, women, and children in solitary confinement in New York’s state prisons and many more in its city and county jails. Currently, Solitary Watch reports that 5 out of 6 people in solitary confinement in New York are there for non-violent rules violations, including such minor offenses as having too many stamps or talking back to an officer. Solitary confinement entails spending 22 to 24 hours per day locked in a cell approximately the size of an elevator.

Solitary confinement survivor Five Mualimm-ak told a local news channel about the torturous conditions, saying, “We’re talking about human isolation. We’re talking about sensory deprivation. We’re talking about our God-given rights.”

One of the speakers at the rally was renowned academic and activist Cornel West. He spoke passionately about issues of race in regards to mass incarceration, saying, “Everybody knows 12 percent of those on the chocolate side, 12 percent of those on the vanilla side of flying high in the friendly skies every week taking drugs, but 65 percent of the convicteds [on drug offenses] are chocolate. That just lets us know that the legacy of white supremacy is still operating in America.”

NEWS: Lawmakers, Advocates, and Survivors of Solitary Confinement Introduce Sweeping Reforms to Use of Isolation in New York’s Prisons and Jails

Press Release from the New York Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement

CAIC Logo (250px)Albany, May 5, 2014 — At a mid-morning press conference in the Legislative Office Building in Albany, leading legislators joined advocates, people who had experienced solitary confinement, and family members of those currently in solitary to promote the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act (A08588A / S06466A).

At the same time, more than 120 individuals from across the state, many of them directly affected by the widespread use of solitary confinement in New York, gathered for an inaugural lobby day at the State Capitol, meeting with more than 50 legislators.

After years of activism by human rights and civil liberties groups, faith communities, currently and formerly incarcerated people, and other concerned citizens, solitary confinement is currently exploding as an issue, both in the media and on public policy agendas.

Supporters are hailing the HALT Solitary Confinement Act as the most comprehensive and progressive legislative response to date to the nationwide problem of solitary confinement in prisons and jails. As written, it would virtually eliminate a practice that has been increasingly denounced as both dangerous and torturous, while protecting the safety of incarcerated individuals and corrections officers.

According to Assembly Member Jeffrion Aubry, who is sponsoring the bill in the Assembly, “New York State was a leader for the country in passing the 2008 SHU Exclusion Law, which keeps people with the most severe mental health needs out of solitary confinement. Now we must show the way forward again, ensuring that we provide safe, humane and effective alternatives to solitary for all people.”

“Solitary confinement makes people suffer without making our prisons safer. It is counter-productive as well as cruel,” said Senator Bill Perkins, the bill’s Senate sponsor. “Solitary harms not only those who endure it, but families, communities, and corrections staff as well.”

Additional sponsors of the bill include Ruth Hassell-Thompson, Brad Hoylman, Velmanette Montgomery, N. Nick Perry, and John L. Sampson.

On any given day, about 3,800 people are in Special Housing Units, or SHUs, with many more in other forms of isolated confinement in New York’s State prisons. They are held for 23 to 24 hours in cells smaller than the average parking space, alone or with one other person. More than 800 are in solitary confinement in New York City jails, along with hundreds more in local jails across the state.

New York isolates imprisoned people at levels well above the national average, and uses solitary to punish minor disciplinary violations. Five out of six sentences that result in placement in New York State’s SHUs are for non-violent conduct. Individuals are sent to the SHU on the word of prison staff, and may remain there for months, years, or even decades.

The HALT Solitary Confinement Act bans extreme isolation beyond 15 days–the limit advocated by UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan E. Méndez, among others. Méndez, who is the United Nations’ main torture investigator, has found that solitary confinement as it is practiced in New York violates the U.S.’s international obligations with regard to torture and other forms of cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment or punishment.

The Special Rapporteur contributed a statement which was read aloud at the press conference, concluding, “The HALT Solitary Confinement Act reflects both safe and effective prison policy and respect for human rights. It should become law in New York State and a model for change across the United States.”

The HALT Solitary Confinement Act goes well beyond the agreement that was recently reached between the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) and the New York Civil Liberties Union to limit the use of isolation on youth, pregnant women, and people with developmental disabilities. HALT completely bars these and other vulnerable populations from being placed in solitary at all.

For those who present a serious threat to prison safety and need to be separated from the general population for longer periods of time, the legislation creates new Residential Rehabilitation Units (RRUs)–separate, secure units with substantial out-of-cell time, and programs and treatment aimed at addressing the underlying causes of behavioral problems.

“Isolation does not promote positive change in people; it only damages them,” said Megan Crowe-Rothstein of the Urban Justice Center’s Mental Health Project. “By requiring treatment and programs for people who are separated from the prison population for serious misconduct, the legislation requires Corrections to emphasize rehabilitation over punishment and degradation.”

The widespread use of long-term solitary confinement has been under fire in recent years, in the face of increasing evidence that sensory deprivation, lack of normal human interaction, and extreme idleness can lead to severe psychological damage. Supporters of the bill also say that isolated confinement fails to address the underlying causes of problematic behavior, and often exacerbates that behavior as people deteriorate psychologically, physically, and socially.

Rev. Ron Stief of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture said, “The diverse faith traditions represented by NRCAT hold in common a belief in the dignity of each human person. We share a conviction that the use of isolated confinement in U.S. prisons and jails violates basic religious values of community and restorative justice. The HALT Solitary Confinement Act provides New York with a critical opportunity to lead the way nationally in increasing access to rehabilitation and ending the torture of isolated confinement.”

Solitary confinement has never been shown to reduce prison violence. In fact, several state prisons systems, including Maine, Mississippi, and Colorado, have significantly reduced the number of people they hold in solitary confinement, and have seen prison violence decrease as well. In addition, individuals released from solitary confinement have higher recidivism rates. In New York each year, nearly 2,000 people are released directly from extreme isolation to the streets.

“The damage done by solitary confinement is deep and permanent,” said solitary survivor Five Mualimm-ak of the Incarcerated Nation Campaign. Mualimm-ak spent five years in isolated confinement despite never having committed a violent act in prison. “Having humane alternatives will spare thousands of people the pain and suffering that extreme isolation causes–and the scars that they carry with them back into our communities.”

Also speaking at the press conference was hip-hop artist Mysonne, who spent time in solitary in New York, and Jessica Casanova, aunt of a young man currently in solitary.

Many of those represented at the press conference are members of the New York Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement (CAIC), which was instrumental in drafting the bill. CAIC unites advocates, concerned community members, lawyers, and individuals in the human rights, health, and faith communities throughout New York State with formerly incarcerated people and family members of currently incarcerated people.

On May 5, CAIC members from all corners of New York State were gathering at the State Capitol to lobby legislators to support the HALT Solitary Confinement Act.

“CAIC recognizes that we need a fundamental transformation of how our public institutions address people’s needs and behaviors, both in our prisons and in our communities,” said Scott Paltrowitz of the Correctional Association of New York. “Rather than inhumane and ineffective punishment, deprivation, and isolation, the HALT Act would provide people with greater support, programs, and treatment to help them thrive, and in turn make our prisons and our communities safer.”

Date/Time/ Location

Monday, May 5, 10:00 – 11:00 am 

LCA Press Room, Legislative Office Building, First Floor

198 State Street, Albany

Speakers:

Assembly Member Jeffrion L. Aubry (D, 35th District, Queens),

Assembly sponsor Senator Bill Perkins (D, 30th District, Harlem), Senate sponsor

Five Mualimm-ak, survivor of solitary confinement in New York, Incarcerated Nation Campaign, Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement (CAIC)

Mysonne, survivor of solitary confinement in New York, hip-hop artist

Jessica Casanova, aunt of individual currently in solitary, CAIC

Scott Paltrowitz, Correctional Association of New York, CAIC

Claire Deroche, National Religious Campaign Against Torture, CAIC

All speakers will be available for interview along with additional family members of    individuals in solitary confinement, advocates, and members of the clergy, including Rev. Dr. Paul S. Johnson, Senior Minister, Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock

FOR MORE INFORMATION, CONTACT:
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