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“People Are Being Tortured in These Units”: The Fight Against Solitary Confinement

Among the most vocal opponents of solitary confinement are those who have spent years in isolation behind bars.

(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)

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When Daletha Hayden arrived at California’s Pelican Bay State Prison on Valentine’s Day weekend, she expected to visit her son Ian Whitson with a glass window separating them. That was how they had spent each and every one of their visits over the past seven years after Whitson had been labeled a “gang associate” and placed in the Security Housing Unit (SHU) in 2009. There, he was confined to his cell for at least 23 hours each day.

In 2011 and 2013, prisoners across California went on headline-grabbing mass hunger strikes to protest conditions inside the SHU. At the time, the SHU held two types of prisoners — those serving a fixed Secure Housing Unit sentence for violating prison rules, and those serving an indeterminate term for alleged gang affiliation. For the latter group, the only way out of the SHU was to “debrief” or provide information incriminating other prisoners. That’s what landed Ian Whitson in the Secure Housing Unit — another man, desperate to be out of isolation, named Whitson as a gang member. The only other piece of “evidence” is a drawing Whitson made that supposedly contained gang-related imagery; that piece of artwork justified placing Whitson in isolation on charges of gang affiliation. By 2011, Whitson had spent six years in isolation. He joined each hunger strike.

The strikes not only garnered media attention, but also connected family members, advocates and lawmakers who pushed for change. At the same time, the Center for Constitutional Rights filed a class-action lawsuit against the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) challenging prolonged solitary confinement as unconstitutional. In September 2015, two years after California prisoners ended their historic 60-day hunger strike, attorneys and family members announced what they called a “landmark settlement,” which prohibits indeterminate Secure Housing Unit placement. It also limits placement in Pelican Bay’s Secure Housing Unit to five years, eliminates Secure Housing Unit placement based solely on gang affiliation and requires CDCR to review people already in the Secure Housing Unit on accusations of gang affiliation.

In 2016, Hayden got a Valentine’s Day surprise. On February 12, 2016, she drove the 770 miles from her home in Victorville, California, to Pelican Bay State Prison, where her son had been transferred in June 2015. There, she learned that Whitson had been released from the Secure Housing Unit to general population the night before. That Saturday, Hayden was able to hug her son for the first time in more than seven years.

As of March 2016, 582 people are held in Pelican Bay’s Secure Housing Unit, approximately half of the 1,147 people who were confined in March 2015. Whitson is one of the many who have been released from Pelican Bay’s extreme isolation.

On New Year’s Day, Dolores Canales was able to hug and kiss her son Johnny for the first time in 15 years. Canales, who plunged into the fight to end solitary when Johnny joined the 2011 hunger strike, describes that first visit as bittersweet. “We’d be sitting there laughing, eating chocolate cake,” she recalled, noting that it was the first time she had seen her son eat in 15 years. “I was sitting there watching him eat that piece of cake and thinking, ‘He had to sit in solitary confinement for 15 years for what?'”

Todd Ashker spent more than 25 years in the Secure Housing Unit, arriving at Pelican Bay shortly after it opened in 1989. During the hunger strikes, each of the four different racial groups elected a spokesperson to represent them. Ashker became the spokesperson for the white prisoners. He also became the lead plaintiff in the class-action lawsuit Ashker v. Governor of California to challenge California’s policy of indeterminate Secure Housing Unit placement.

“I am still amazed at how big the sky looks.” After more than two decades inside windowless concrete cells, Todd Ashker is relearning how to navigate the outdoors.

Even after all his activism, Ashker was surprised when, in January 2016, the review board approved him for placement in general population. He was moved to Kern Valley State Prison, less than 200 miles from Los Angeles. For the first time in 25 years, he is now able to talk to other people face-to-face instead of screaming through a cell door to faceless others down a corridor. “I am still amazed at how big the sky looks,” he wrote. After more than two decades inside windowless concrete cells, Ashker is relearning how to navigate the outdoors, even if that outdoors consists of a fenced-in prison yard.

“The sun gets hot!” he wrote. “I’ve already gotten burned a few times.”

To Envision Solitary, Imagine Being Locked in Your Bathroom for Five Days

California is not alone: In other states, advocates are fighting hard to limit the use of solitary confinement. And as in California, many of these struggles are co-led by those who have experienced firsthand the devastating effects of isolation.

In Illinois, advocates are pushing for the Isolated Confinement Restriction Act to limit solitary to no more than five days during a 150-day period. One of its champions is 51-year-old Brian Nelson, who spent 23 years in solitary. Twelve of those years were at the notorious (and now-closed) Tamms supermax prison in southern Illinois.

Nelson was released directly from solitary to the streets. Now the prisoners’ rights coordinator at the Uptown People’s Law Center, he told Truthout that the effects of being locked in a cell for 12 straight years remain with him. “I cannot ride a bus or a train,” he said. “I get paranoid. I cannot be in a crowded room. I rip my fingernails off until they bleed.”

“I still dream about it. I wake up thinking I’m still in [segregation] … I get panicky and freak out.”

Nikki Natschke spent two years in solitary at Illinois’ Logan Correctional Center, and she, too, still feels its devastation. “I still dream about it. I wake up thinking I’m still in seg,” she told Truthout. She regularly dreams that she is staring at the gray wall in her segregation cell; when she wakes, her heart is racing. “I get panicky and freak out.”

If passed, Illinois’ bill would impose the strictest time limit for solitary in any US jail or prison system.

Juan Mendez, the United Nations special rapporteur on torture, has stated that he believes more than 15 days in “complete 24-hour isolation” constitutes torture. So why the five-day time limit?

Mary Dean, a paralegal working with Uptown People’s Law Center, drafted the bill. She explained that, as she researched legislation in other states to limit solitary, she found a study reporting that extreme mental duress can start after only a few days in isolation.

Other studies have shown that seven days in isolation can cause a host of negative physiological and psychological reactions, including hypersensitivity to stimuli, hallucinations, increased anxiety, rage, irrational anger, fears of persecution, severe and chronic depression, problems sleeping, self-mutilation and lower levels of brain function, including a decline in electrical activity in the brain.

Nelson doesn’t need a study to tell him that. “Have you ever been locked in your bathroom for more than 24 hours?” Nelson asked. “Imagine having all your stuff taken from you and being locked in your bathroom. It will affect you within five days.”

Recounting his experiences distresses him, but Nelson forces himself to do it to make lawmakers and the public understand the devastating effects of even a few short days in isolation. He and Gregory Koger, who spent six consecutive years in solitary starting at age 17, are collecting testimonies of others who have endured isolation — as well as their family members — for a website they’re developing called Torture Survivors Against Solitary.

Isolation doesn’t simply harm those within, Nelson pointed out. It also hurts their family members, who are denied contact visits with their loved ones. Nelson recalled meeting an 8-year-old girl whose father is currently in solitary. “It was her birthday the next day and all she wanted was to hug her dad,” he said.

Lawsuits and Legislation to Limit Solitary

U’Bay Kwame Lumumba spent decades inside New Jersey State Prison’s Management Control Unit, an isolation unit specifically for prisoners whose political convictions were seen as a security threat. In 1994, he was part of a class-action lawsuit against the New Jersey Department of Corrections, claiming that placing prisoners in the Management Control Unit because they were Black violated their constitutional rights. The New Jersey Department of Corrections settled with them the following year, but Lumumba was not released from the Management Control Unit for another 20 years.

In a recent letter, Lumumba drew attention to the Department’s May 2016 proposed amendments to its regulations which would limit placement in administrative segregation to no more than 365 days. He also noted that New Jersey lawmakers have reintroduced the Isolated Confinement Restriction Act (S.51), which would limit isolation to 15 consecutive days or 20 days out of every 60 days. It also requires mental health supervision for those in solitary and prohibits the practice for juveniles and people with mental illness. “There’s no doubt that ending and modifying of practices like detention and capping administrative segregation sanctions at one year is directly the result of the current national and local wave of activism and legislative actions,” he wrote.

In New York City jails, isolation, also known as punitive segregation, is prohibited for 16- and 17-year-olds. Jail officials are developing alternatives to solitary for people ages 18 to 21 and, for older adults, isolation is limited to 60 days except in cases of severe assaults on jail staff.

In New York’s state prison system, the Secure Housing Unit Exclusion Act, which went into effect in 2011, requires that people with serious mental illnesses be placed in alternative disciplinary mental health units rather than solitary. In 2014, the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) agreed to an interim stipulation in Peoples v. Fischer, in which prison officials would not place pregnant women in the Secure Housing Unit. In addition, 16- and 17-year-olds are allowed out of their cells for six hours on weekdays and DOCCS must create an alternative to the Secure Housing Unit for some people with developmental disabilities. In March 2016, DOCCS and the New York Civil Liberties Union reached a full settlement that continued these limitations.

However, for those who are not pregnant, young or suffering from mental or developmental disabilities, there are no time limits on solitary. Advocates and lawmakers are seeking to change that with the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act, which restricts isolation to no more than 15 consecutive days and 20 days total in any 60-day period. Like Illinois’ Isolated Confinement Restricted Act, some of its most vocal proponents are those who have experienced solitary confinement firsthand.

As a 16-year-old, Johnny Perez spent 60 days in solitary at Rikers. Four years later, after another arrest, he spent eight months in isolation. When he was sentenced to state prison, he spent an accumulated three years in isolation. Since his 2013 release, Perez has been an outspoken advocate against solitary for people of any age. He helped push for the limits to segregation at Rikers and is now helping to push for similar restrictions on the state level. “If we value human dignity and human worth, then limiting solitary to 15 days reflects those values,” he told Truthout. “We can’t continue to support a system that continually and knowingly damages people the way we are doing now.”

“Brilliance,” who asked that only his moniker be used, spent an accumulated six years of his nine-year sentence in isolation. Less than two years before his release date, he filed a grievance against his prison counselor. Soon after, he was sent to the Southport Correctional Facility in New York, where people are locked alone in their cells for 23 to 24 hours each day. He spent the next 17 months there. Then, he was released from his cell, given his belongings, driven to a nearby bus stop and given a check for $40 and a bus ticket to Times Square.

Once at Times Square, he not only had to figure out how to cash his check and buy a MetroCard, but, after 17 months in extreme isolation, also contend with the stress he experienced when people brushed against and bumped into him. Like Perez and many others across the country, he’s determined to make sure that no one else ever has to go through the same experience.

“People are being tortured in these units. It’s actually fracturing the minds of the people.”

On April 12, 2016, Brilliance and Perez traveled to Albany, New York, joining more than 200 people from across the state to lobby for the HALT Solitary Act. They brought a replica of an isolation cell covered with poems, drawings and writings, which they set up in the lobby of the state legislative building. They also met with 98 legislators, leaving each with a poem, drawing, statement or piece of origami from a person currently in isolation. “Surprisingly, they were unaware,” Brilliance recalled. “Me expressing [my experiences] was an awakening to them.”

Although many of these legislative campaigns are uphill battles, those inside and outside of prison stress the importance of continuing the push to limit time in isolation. “We have 78 legislators co-sponsoring the bill,” Perez told Truthout. “At one point, that number was zero. People don’t want to be on the wrong side of history.”

“People are being tortured in these units,” declared Brilliance. “It’s actually fracturing the minds of the people.”

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