I have a very intimate understanding of the effects of long-term isolation on a person’s mental and physical health. An entire decade of my life was spent involuntarily entombed in isolation at the notorious Tamms supermax prison in southern Illinois.
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While serving a sentence of life-without-parole, I was sent to Tamms for punching an assistant warden in another Illinois prison where humans are simply warehoused without any programs and with few jobs, and where we were constantly disrespected and dehumanized by staff and administrators alike. In retaliation for that incident, I was assaulted, while in handcuffs, by several staff members who broke my nose and did other damage, prior to shipping me off to Tamms.
Tamms was allegedly opened as a sort of “shock-treatment” for violent prisoners and gang leaders. If the prisoner behaved, he was supposed to be transferred out after a year. But the reality was that the Illinois Department of Corrections abused its power and used Tamms to mete out retaliation and not just against those who were violent. Jailhouse lawyers and many of the mentally ill prisoners, whom the administration wished to lock in a closet somewhere, were sent to Tamms.
In the 10 years I was there, I never received a single disciplinary infraction. Nonetheless, I was denied a transfer out of Tamms 39 times. For the first seven or eight years after my arrival at Tamms, I was repeatedly told that I would never be released from indeterminate disciplinary segregation and would, in fact, die alone of old age in that concrete box. I was 26 at the time.
For nearly the first three years, I was denied a television or radio. Thus, I spent every waking hour reading, writing, cleaning, or working out in order to try to maintain my sanity. Still, by year five, I was experiencing auditory hallucinations (thinking I heard someone calling my name), extreme anxiety, erratic heart palpitations, and severe bouts of depression. All of these conditions were a direct consequence of long-term solitary confinement, and would become worse as the years wore on.
Luckily, that was the extent of the mental and physical repercussions of being isolated for so long. (Well, that is, if you don’t count the atrophy of my eyesight, hearing, social skills, and a number of my relationships with family members and friends.) I say “luckily” because it could have been much worse.
I went to Tamms bloody, but with no mental illness, so I was able to withstand its effects longer than others. Had I been living with bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, or had I been illiterate, who knows what would have happened? Imagine being trapped behind a steel door for years on end with no television or radio, unable to read or write, with no one to teach you, and absolutely nothing to do. For many, this is a daily reality.
I may have ended up cutting or biting off chunks of my skin, as many did while I was there. Or, I may have killed myself or attempted to, like so many others I know. Or, I might have cut off my penis and watched a guard carry it off. Who knows? None of that happened to me. I survived intact. Many others don’t.
I know that many Americans may feel that I got what I deserved. We Americans have perfected the art of being both sanctimonious and deliberately indifferent to the plight of others. While I can agree that I deserved to be punished for my actions, at a certain point, the isolation ceased being about punishment, or even “institutional security,” and became a sadistic abuse of power.
The public may not care for my well-being, or that of the nearly 100,000 Americans who are currently being held in long-term isolation — but they should. Through their indifference, the public is directly responsible for the torture of their fellow citizens, the deterioration of their mental health, and all of the suicides that occur in isolation units (which account for nearly one half of all prison suicides). They are also responsible for the effects these facilities have on the people who work there, as well as the threat these places pose to society at large.
People who work in isolation units are severely affected by their work of brutalizing people on a daily basis. Their average life expectancy, according to one study, is 20 years less than that of the average citizen, and rates of alcoholism are significantly higher. They also have higher rates of spousal abuse. Becoming accustomed to being above the law and able to abuse people at will, they bring that attitude home to their families and communities.
Beyond the direct human impacts on prisoners and guards, control units and supermax prisons are also extremely expensive, siphoning limited resources away from things that actually protect society, like rehabilitation programs, police and fire departments and schools. Plus, there are the additional court costs of all the lawsuits isolation units generate.
These places make people so irrationally angry that it is the height of folly to continue operating them, and more so to then release people straight from solitary to the streets. No example is more demonstrative than that of Evan Ebel, a mentally ill man who was sentenced to eight years in prison in Colorado for carjacking, and ended up spending the entire eight years in solitary confinement. His mental health steadily deteriorated over time.
Prior to release, Ebel filed a grievance asking, “Do you have any obligation to the public to reacclimate me, the dangerous inmate, to being around other human beings prior to release, and, if not, why?”
The written response he received was that a grievance was not the appropriate place to discuss policy.
In 2013, within two months of being released, Ebel killed a pizza delivery man and wore the man’s uniform to the home of the Director of the Colorado Department of Corrections, whom he shot to death. He got into two shootouts with police before dying of gunshot wounds.
This did not surprise me at all when I read about it. I witnessed countless people grow angrier and angrier, year after year, due to being arbitrarily isolated and brutalized.
Solitary confinement units are incubators of hate, which is completely understandable. Treat people inhumanely long enough, and not only will they cease to view you as humane, but some may want to return the favor.
The good news is that many people are finally, belatedly, starting to realize all of this. In the past year alone, both New York and California settled lawsuits by promising to curb their use of long-term isolation, and President Obama ordered the Bureau of Prisons to limit its use of isolation.
Still, there is a long way to go. While all reforms are welcome, those currently underway will barely put a dent in the number of people being abused in solitary confinement around the country. Control units and supermax prisons are the most widely abused “tool” in corrections departments across the country.
Tamms wasn’t closed quickly enough to save hundreds of us from years of torture and its ill effects. Nor did Colorado reform its use of solitary confinement in time to prevent the tragedy of Evan Ebel. For everyone’s sake, let’s hope more states choose to accelerate reforms instead of fighting them.