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Solitary Confinement Is Used to Break People — I Know Because I Endured It

Illinois lawmakers are considering a bill that would limit the use of solitary confinement. This legislation is vital.

Solitary confinement. Administrative segregation. Administrative detention. Restrictive housing. Temporary confinement. Protective custody. Appropriate placement. There are many names for solitary confinement. In the Illinois prisons where I was incarcerated, it was called “segregation,” but most of the women called it “seg” or “jail.” No matter the language, it is all solitary — and it is torture.

Solitary confinement is being locked in a cell alone and segregated from the general population of the prison for 23 hours a day. More often than not, the allowed hour out does not happen. Meals are delivered through a slot in the door, which is kept locked except during the delivery of meals, mail and medication. Being in solitary means being handcuffed for transport to the shower or a visit.

Depending on where in the building the cell is, there may be a window. Often these windows are painted or clouded over, but some windows can be opened and occasionally there is a window that one can actually see through. No spontaneous phone calls are permitted, no matter the circumstances: Prescheduled calls from a lawyer are the only type of calls allowed.

Most people who’ve never been to prison do not understand what solitary means, or how it affects those who are isolated and their families. Far too many people buy into the myth that only the “worst of the worst” are placed there, but this just is not so.

For years after my last trip to solitary, I still panicked when I saw a correctional officer coming toward me.

Though some are placed in solitary for fighting, most women are placed there at the whim of a correctional officer. One can be placed in solitary for rolling one’s eyes at a correctional officer — for “insolence,” defined as anything said or done that irks, irritates or annoys staff. In prisons, it is well known — though never spoken of openly — that insolence can also mean turning down the sexual advance of a correctional officer, or taking some other stand such as speaking out against abuses of power.

Women have been taken to solitary for having a couple of pieces of candy in their pockets while standing in line waiting for medications or while in “mass movement” (moving in a group to or from the chow hall or job or school assignments). Women have been taken to solitary for waving hello to someone on the other side of the chow hall or in a line or mass movement.

Saying “no” often puts a woman in prison in a dangerous position. When a woman in prison turns down a correctional officer, it is often assumed that she “thinks she is better than other inmates,” and she is targeted. She becomes subject to “random” shakedowns, and her few belongings — including pictures of children and family — may be torn through and often torn up. Other belongings may be damaged or confiscated as “contraband” (the correctional officer decides what qualifies as “contraband,” whether it is available for purchase within the prison or not). Finally, the woman is placed in solitary, because being in possession of contraband is a disciplinary infraction.

The power of the staff in prison is nearly absolute, as evidenced by the casual use of solitary to “punish” women who refuse their advances.

It is rare that a woman is initially sentenced to a year or more in solitary; more often it is a sentence of 30, 60 or 90 days. But these sentences often turn into more months, and even years, once in solitary, because more disciplinary tickets are written, usually for insolence. In other cases, a woman is taken to solitary for 30, 60 or 90 days, then released — and taken back to solitary within a few days.

Women spend years like this, going in and out of solitary. This is jarring to the psyche: to be taken back and forth to solitary, never having the chance to stabilize and readjust to general population, or to receive a visit while in general population — never having the chance to make phone calls or even breathe a little easier, before being taken back. It causes a constant wariness, a paranoiac state of mind.

All of this has happened to me. I was placed in solitary for insolence and “unauthorized movement,” which means being someplace in the prison without permission. However, when the lieutenant came to handcuff me, I was exactly where I was supposed to be: in the kitchen, where I was assigned to work. Nevertheless, he took me to solitary. I knew why I was really going: for saying “no” to an officer. But what was I to do? I had no proof, nothing written and no audio recording — just my word, which counts for nothing in the penitentiary.

When my belongings were finally brought to me in solitary, most of them were missing; the rest were damaged. I spent 60 days in solitary, was released into general population and then was taken back to solitary in less than a week. I spent a few years like this.

Solitary confinement is used to break people, to destroy people. It is not disciplinary. It is torture, and it needs to stop.

I had already spent a year in solitary. Then, the few years of back and forth, in and out. I became very sensitive to the sound of handcuffs, keys and radio. I heard them in my sleep, when I was able to sleep. Correctional officers jingle their cuffs and keys a lot, especially when they are around someone who has been to solitary. These small noises started causing me to shiver. Every time I saw a correctional officer or lieutenant coming my way, I just knew I was going back to solitary.

For years after my last trip to solitary, I still panicked when I saw a correctional officer coming toward me. Even my friends would freak out on my behalf, always worried about me being taken back. I have not been in solitary since 2004 or 2005, and have been out of prison since December 2015, after serving 20 years. Still, any sound remotely like cuffs, keys or radio has me involuntarily shivering. I still sometimes have a hard time in large crowds of people. I am still half expecting to be taken back.

In solitary, a woman is even more at the mercy of correctional officers than she already is in general population. Showering, which is supposed to happen three times a week, is often only made available at the whim of the staff, and sometimes there isn’t enough staff to run a shower. To go take a shower, I had to stand with my hands behind my back and back up to the slot in the door so the correctional officers could place handcuffs on me before they opened the door. Then I would be walked to the shower in cuffs (not only was I already handcuffed, the correctional officer still has to have their hands on you for transport) and step into the shower. The officer then would close the cage door, and I would back up to the gate so I could be uncuffed to take my shower. If I was lucky, the water would be warm, maybe even hot. Most of the time, it was cold.

Meals were also at the whim of the correctional officers. The meals were slid into my cell through the same slot used to handcuff me, and I ate whenever staff got around to serving the meals. Similarly, mail was passed out when staff felt like passing it out — and I received two envelopes from my sister and mother, addressed to me, with my name and ID number on them, but with letters from another woman’s husband and children in the envelopes.

Being on my menstrual cycle in solitary was horrifying and degrading. Getting enough sanitary napkins and toilet paper was a particular trial, and it was near impossible to get a Tylenol or Motrin for cramps. I was told to just “sit on the toilet and let it flow” (which I actually had to do, because I had no pads, and it took hours for staff to locate some and get them to me). I was told that I had to squeeze my legs and vagina shut, to figure out how to hold it in. I had a cellmate once who soiled her sheets and clothing and could not get them replaced or washed for a week.

I refused a visitor from outside the prison — my legal counsel, who was like family to me — once while in solitary because I was so ashamed at being there. I’d been so isolated that I began to isolate myself further. I always felt like I stank of sweat and menstruation, and who would want to see me like that?

Plus, I did not want to undergo the process one must submit to in order to meet with an outside visitor. I did not want to have to strip down in front of staff, to spread my cheeks, squat and cough while on my cycle — all while not being able to get a clean sanitary napkin. I gave up on myself.

To this day, I take three or four showers a day, still trying to wash off the stink and stench of solitary.

I have listened to the screams of mentally ill people placed in solitary because staff does not know what to do with them. I have listened to them being taunted by correctional officers. I have heard the cries of women missing their children or losing their loved ones. I have seen and smelled death and despair.

I’ve been out of solitary for over 11 years, but I still smell my cell. I still hear the correctional officers clanging the bars and jingling their keys and handcuffs. Because I said “no.” Because I took what I believed was the only stand I could make. And that stand brought me to my knees and cracked my spirit.

Solitary confinement is used to break people, to destroy people. It is not disciplinary. It is torture, and it needs to stop.

In Illinois, where I live, there is currently a bill pending to limit the use of solitary confinement to no more than five days within a 150-day period: HB5417, the Isolated Confinement Restriction Act, sponsored by State Rep. L. Ford and others. This bill is vital: Solitary confinement is used arbitrarily to humiliate, degrade and dehumanize people every day in Illinois prisons. It can and does traumatize people so severely that they often cannot function in the general population within the prison, let alone outside in society once released from prison. It is my hope that if and when this bill is passed here in Illinois, it will inspire other states to take similar action to limit the use of solitary confinement. It will save sanity and lives.

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