Skip to content Skip to footer

Women in Solitary Confinement

Despite heightened attention to the issues surrounding solitary confinement, women often remain overlooked.

(Image: Silhouette glass via Shutterstock)

Victoria Woodrich had had enough. On November 11, 2014, six weeks before her 36th birthday, she tied a sock around her neck; she tied the other end to the top of her bed structure. By the time staff found her at 3:30 that afternoon, she was dead.

Most prison officials eschew the term “solitary confinement” these days.

Woodrich, known as Shortybang to her friends, had been in prison for more than a decade and at Illinois’ Logan Correctional Center since its 2013 conversion to a women’s prison. Earlier that month, she was placed in the prison’s segregation unit, where women are locked in their cells nearly 24 hours a day.

“She kept telling me she wanted to die,” recalled Nicole Natschke, who was in segregation during that time. “She told me that everyone would be better off without her.” Three days later, the woman awoke to screaming. That was when she learned that Woodrich had hung herself.

Most prison officials eschew the term “solitary confinement” these days. They use other names for the units in which people are isolated to their cells nearly all day. In California, it’s usually the “administrative segregation unit” or “security housing unit”; in New York state and in the federal system, it’s the Special Housing Unit (or SHU). In Logan prison, the unit is known as the “segregation wing.”

Regardless of the name, women in these units spend 22 to 24 hours in their cells. They are allowed out of their cells for showers up to three times each week and for one hour of exercise and recreation per day inside a different cage outdoors. This isolation exacerbates any existing mental health problems and, even for those without preexisting conditions, can cause severe psychological and emotional trauma.

“Solitary confinement traumatized me far more than being in prison did. And prison traumatized me.”

Dr. Craig Haney, widely considered an expert on the effects of isolation on mental health, rattled off a list of the effects of solitary confinement in his 2012 testimony before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee, including significantly increased negative attitudes and affect, irritability, anger, aggression and even rage; chronic insomnia, free floating anxiety, fear of impending emotional breakdowns, a loss of control, and panic attacks; severe and even paralyzing discomfort around other people, social withdrawal, and extreme paranoia; hypersensitivity to external stimuli (such as noise, light, smells), various kinds of cognitive dysfunction, such as an inability to concentrate or remember, and ruminations in which they fixate on trivial things intensely and over long periods of time; a sense of hopelessness and deep depression; and signs and symptoms of psychosis, including visual and auditory hallucinations.

Haney is not alone in his findings. Not only do others in the mental health field agree, but directors of various state prison systems have also come to recognize solitary’s harmful effects. But, despite the increasing attention being paid to solitary in men’s prisons – from the 2013 mass prison hunger strike in California to prison commissioners experiencing the isolation firsthand and condemning the practice – far less attention has been paid to the practice in women’s prisons.

“You Have Lost Your Freedom in a Way That You Never Have Thought of”

“Solitary confinement traumatized me far more than being in prison did. And prison traumatized me,” Evie Litwok told Truthout. Litwok, who was released from prison on August 19, 2014, is still affected by her stay in solitary. “You have lost your freedom in a way you never have thought of,” she said. “Your nerves are shot. You feel more edgy.”

Evie Litwok spent seven weeks in the SHU, which she describes as a prison-within-a-prison at the Federal Correctional Institution in Tallahassee, Florida. There, she was confined to her cell nearly 24 hours each day. For one hour each morning, she was also allowed to leave her cell to exercise in another cage. To do so, she was chained, handcuffed and walked to the recreation cage outside, which she described as “probably never having been cleaned.” After one hour, she was handcuffed, chained and escorted back to her cell.

“I was with 60 women in the SHU . . . Everyone who was charged had their charges dropped or reduced.”

She was allowed to shower three times each week; each shower lasted less than 10 minutes. Other days, she had to improvise in her cell. “I would strip naked and pour water over myself,” she recalled. Like many of the other women in the SHU, Litwok was double-celled and so had to do so in front of her bunkmate. She was also exposed to the eyes of any guard or staff member who walked by her cell door, since prison policy prohibits covering the small window on the door at any time.

What landed Litwok in solitary? Publicizing the death of a woman named Miriam Hernandez. According to Litwok, Hernandez had been complaining of excruciating stomach pain. Medical staff dismissed her complaints, telling her, “You’re fat. You need to walk on the track. You need to drink water.” Hernandez died two weeks later when her gallbladder burst.

People incarcerated in the federal prison system have access to CorrLinks, a limited version of email. Litwok emailed the details of Hernandez’s death to a friend, who posted it on her website, Ex-Offender Nation. Within an hour of the story’s posting, Litwok was handcuffed, strip searched and sent to the SHU.

There’s little quiet in the SHU, Litwok explained. All day, women screamed, “Get me out of here! Get me the fuck out of here!” The screaming was always worse at night.

Women who were on medication sometimes received a fraction of their prescription after being placed in the SHU. Litwok recalls that her cellmate was one of those women. “She was freaking out,” she said. “It was clear that she couldn’t take it. She kept asking, ‘Why am I here? I’m not charged with anything.’ “

Litwok was able to flag down the psychologist, who gave the woman the proper dosage for that one night. But the following day the medications were gone, and the woman’s freak-out resumed. Two months later, Litwok’s cellmate, who had been placed in SHU “under investigation,” was released without charge. She was not the only one in the SHU whose charges were ultimately dropped.

“I was with 60 women in the SHU,” Litwok recalled. Most were awaiting the outcome of an investigation and hearing. “Everyone who was charged had their charges dropped or reduced,” she stated. She remembered women accused of bringing in contraband. After spending four months in isolation, their charges were dropped. Another woman spent eight months after she cursed about a correctional officer within his hearing, and was charged with threatening the officer. The charges were ultimately dropped.

“I have a darkness that I never had, a cloud that sits over my head. And you can’t fix that.”

In solitary, women must depend on prison staff to bring them necessities. Litwok remembers the humiliation of having to beg for toilet paper. In Illinois, Natschke reported that officers frequently refused to hand out sanitary pads until women staged a disturbance. “I went two days with no pads,” she said. “There were several other women who also needed pads. The officers ignored us or would tell us that there aren’t any.” The women had to stage individual protests: “One woman ended up flooding her cell. I held my chuckhole open so I could see a lieutenant. Other women were banging on their doors.”

They received their necessary pads, but each was also issued a misconduct ticket, which prevents them from having their segregation time reduced. “If we didn’t do that, we would’ve still been sitting on the toilet,” noted Natschke, whose solitary sentence will not end until August 3, 2015.

Cellmates in Segregation: Enabling Human Interaction or a Result of Overcrowding?

Prison administrators have pointed out that some people in segregation are allowed cellmates and thus are not “solitary.” In Logan, for instance, prison watchdog group the John Howard Association found that 92 of the 99 women in segregation shared cells with one other person (a term known as double-celling). In California’s women’s prisons, only two of the 158 women in Administrative Segregation and four of the 78 women in the Security Housing Unit were in cells alone; the others are double-celled. But advocates, including people who have spent time in these units, say that this double-celling is more about prison overcrowding than ensuring human interaction.

As of October 2014, for instance, the California Institution for Women, originally designed to hold 1,100 people, housed 1,799; the Central California Women’s Facility, originally designed for 1,895, housed 3,676. In Illinois, Logan, with a rated capacity of 1,106, currently holds 1,950 people.

Having a cellmate, however, does little to ameliorate the effects of prolonged confinement. “When the lights close, you’re in this small space,” Litwok explained. “You can’t turn on the TV; you can’t listen to the radio; you can’t read a book.” Four months later, she still has difficulty falling asleep. When she does, she has nightmares. “I have a darkness that I never had, a cloud that sits over my head. And you can’t fix that,” she said. “I wonder if I’ll ever be relaxed.”

Protective or Punitive?

When 20-year-old Donna Hylton was first arrested and sent to Rikers Island, New York City’s island jail, she was placed in protective custody (solitary confinement). “It was horrible!” she told Truthout. “I was isolated. For a long time, I didn’t see anyone. I got taken to court by myself or, if I was on the bus with anyone else, they’d put me in the caged part by myself.” The isolation was ostensibly to protect her because of her high-profile case in the kidnapping and murder of a real estate broker.

But the lack of human contact soon resulted in nightmares, which resulted in medical staff prescribing psychotropic medications. “I didn’t know what it was,” Hylton explained. “They told me I had to take it or I’d get in trouble. I didn’t want to get in trouble, so I took it.”

The lieutenant told her that, without evidence, they would not believe her accusations. . . . “The next time he pulls out his dick, I’m going to bite it off and bring you the evidence.”

After six months, she was taken off protective custody and allowed into general population. A few months later, after returning from court, she was told that staff had found a straight razor among her possessions. She was sentenced to 45 days in solitary and sent back to the same unit, this time as punishment. “I was in the same unit, same corridor. It was no different.” The only difference was the label explaining her placement.

Report Sexual Abuse? Go to Solitary

Although the 2003 Prison Rape Elimination Act prohibits sexual contact between staff and the people they guard, prison administrators frequently use the threat of solitary to dissuade women from reporting staff abuse. Donna Hylton knows this firsthand. She recalled one particular sergeant who tried to coerce her into having sex. She tried to report his behavior to the administration.

“They told me, ‘If you keep making these allegations, we’re going to send you to SHU,'” she remembered. The lieutenant told her that, without evidence, they would not believe her accusations.

In response, Hylton snapped, “The next time he pulls out his dick, I’m going to bite it off and bring you the evidence.”

Recalling the conversation, Hylton said, “I sat on the floor of the administration building and screamed it out,” she recalled. The sergeant stopped his behavior, but found a way to punish Hylton for speaking out.

A few months later, Hylton was involved in an altercation with another sergeant. She had recently learned that her daughter had been assaulted, and Hylton had been traveling two hours back and forth between Bedford Hills and the New York City court system to press charges against the assailant.

“I had marijuana and a five dollar bill on me,” she recalled. An officer noticed and placed his hands to begin a search. “I had been molested as a girl,” she explained. “I didn’t realize he was going to search me. All I knew was that he put his hands on me.” Hylton pushed him, leading to an altercation where other staff members wrestled her to the ground and handcuffed her. The sergeant whose sexual advances she had tried to report joined in, ultimately charging her with possession of money and assault on staff. She was sent to the Special Housing Unit.

In the SHU, women were allowed one hour of recreation time out of their cell each day. As in the federal system and many other state systems, recreation consists of spending time in a cage outside. “There’s a stone table with stone slabs you can sit on,” Hylton described. “It’s a little bigger than your average-sized bathroom. It has razor wire over the top of the rec yard. There’s also a gun tower.” Showers lasted five minutes. “By the time you take off your robe, they’ve turned off the water,” she recalled.

She remembered women screaming day in and day out. People tried to kill themselves and sometimes succeeded. “The isolation can break you down mentally, emotionally,” she explained. “It was torturous.” Mental health check-ups consisted of a mental health staffer asking her, through the food slot in her door, “You okay? Do you want to talk?” There was no privacy to talk one-on-one with either mental health or medical staff.

“We Need to Eliminate Solitary for Everybody”

From inside her solitary cell, Natschke has been trying to speak out. “I want to help make prisons better, so I don’t mind people knowing what I’m going through,” she wrote.

Out of prison, both Litwok and Hylton have become outspoken advocates against solitary confinement. On December 19, 2014, four months after her release from prison, Litwok testified about her SHU experience before the New York City Board of Corrections, which establishes and monitors minimum standards in the city’s jails. The board was hearing testimony about a proposal to build a $14.8 million, 250-bed “Enhanced Supervision Housing Unit” on Rikers Island to isolate people deemed to be violent or threats to security.

“I am the face of someone who is considered a security risk,” the 62-year-old testified.

Hylton also testified, recounting her experience in solitary and urging the board to consider adding positive programming to Rikers, such as the college programs AIDS Counseling and Education and Family Violence, addressing abuse and violence, which she had helped create at Bedford Hills.

At its January 13, 2015, meeting, the board approved the proposal to build the Enhanced Supervision Housing Unit, with amendments excluding people age 21 and younger and setting 30-day duration limits. Litwok, who attended the three-hour hearing, was appalled. But she’s resolved to keep fighting.

“We should be eliminating prison for most people,” Litwok said, “but we need to eliminate solitary for everybody.”

Join us in defending the truth before it’s too late

The future of independent journalism is uncertain, and the consequences of losing it are too grave to ignore. To ensure Truthout remains safe, strong, and free, we need to raise $50,000 in the next 9 days. Every dollar raised goes directly toward the costs of producing news you can trust.

Please give what you can — because by supporting us with a tax-deductible donation, you’re not just preserving a source of news, you’re helping to safeguard what’s left of our democracy.