Featured Story, Prison Stories

Cruel and Unusual Punishment

prison cellMore than 2.2 million Americans are incarcerated, 95 percent of whom will be released back to society. Hundreds of thousands are released every year and the majority is released without any form of transition therapy. Due to a lack of support and no transitional assistance, when inmates move from prison to the free world, every ex-con returning to society is set up for failure. More than two-thirds of parolees will be arrested within three years and almost half will go back to prison either on a technical violation or for committing a new crime. The difference between the prison environment and the outside world can be extreme. For many it is a drastic change. The outside world brings a variety of stimulation that those who were incarcerated could have only dreamed of. Prisoner reentry services go only so far, and as ex-cons try to reintegrate to society, the transition can be difficult to say the least. Even more so for those who have been subjected to the harsh regime of isolation cells and solitary confinement units which populate our prisons today.

At any given moment over 80,000 men are locked down in what prison officials term SHU (Special Housing Units). “Special housing refers to units within our prison where inmates are placed on a temporary basis as a result of misconduct or as a result of circumstances that warrant their separation from the general population.” Bureau of Prisons spokesperson Chris Burke says. Prisoners refer to SHU as “the hole” or “the bucket,” and those held in isolation live in concrete cells the size of an average parking space, often windowless, cut off from all communication by solid steel doors. Beds, desks and stools are all made of poured concrete. Toilets have a valve that shuts off the water in case of flooding and the sinks have no taps or hot water, just buttons. The cells are kept cold and sterile with the lights on 24/7. Prisoners spend 23 hours a day during the week and 24 hours a day on weekends and holidays in the 6 by 9 foot cells. They are allowed 1 hour of recreation, Monday to Friday, in a 10 by 10 foot rec area that resembles a dog pound cage. And if they are lucky, they are allowed three 20 minute showers a week, along with a change of clothes.

“Nothing can really prepare you for living in the hole,” a prisoner tells us. “It’s a world unto itself. Where boredom, emptiness and desperation come together, seeping into your whole being and eventually overcoming your mind. They don’t even treat animals this bad, keeping them locked in cages for months or years. That shit will make or break you. It’s incumbent upon each individual to either build themselves up or allow themselves to be consumed.” The language of security has authorized isolation imprisonment, by treating it not as punishment, but as a set of administrative procedures for managing high-security populations. The procedures, now legally sanctioned, were once considered violations of the US Constitution’s 8th Amendment, prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment. “Solitary confinement is supposed to be for the worst of the worst,” the prisoner says. “Violent convicts who have proved themselves unwilling or unable to function on the mainline. But it’s turned into somewhere to put undesirables, anyone the prison administration has problems with or feels can be disruptive. Prisoners in isolation are treated as subhuman’s.”

The prisoner in SHU may have adequate food and drink, and the conditions of his confinement may meet or exceed court tested thresholds for humane treatment, but it still undermines the identity of the subject, causes sensory deprivation and has been widely denounced as torture. “Suicide is preferable to long term segregation,” the prisoner says. “Those who don’t kill themselves learn to suppress their hatred, but a person like a dog at a kennel, can only take so much before they explode or implode. It’s like you’re being hung slowly, you’re ground down. You can barely keep your sanity.” Banned from physical contact, all interactions are conducted over a telephone, with Plexiglas and bars between prisoners and other humans. With limited visits, and only one 15 minute phone call a month, prisoners are kept isolated, yet under intense surveillance. Every time they leave the cell for rec or a shower they are cuffed and escorted by several officers like they are Hannibal Lecter. It doesn’t matter if the prisoner is a mass murderer or white collar criminal, they are treated the same in SHU. Every aspect of their lives is under official control.

“In SHU your only view to the world is a 42 inch window slot that is 4 inches wide,” the prisoner says. “The guards pass your food trays, change of clothing and hygiene items through a slot in the steel door. You’re denied adequate health care, you can’t work a job or participate in educational, rehabilitative or religious programs and you are stuck in the cell 24/7 basically. Nothing is sacred in SHU. The environment is so grossly abnormal, so foreign to normal human interactions that it twists the insides of your mind. You get bent if you are there too long and end up off center. Right becomes whatever and wrong no longer exists.”

In any special housing unit around the country the screams of prisoners who have lost all ability to control themselves reverberate like a symphony of the sick and damned. “Inmates flush the toilet and run the water all day and night, and scream for hours when the water is cut off. Other prisoners yell that CIA agents are monitoring their thoughts. It’s sad.” The prisoner says. “Many have lost all hope.” The disturbing behavior that goes on includes prisoner’s smearing feces on their bodies, the walls of the cell, eating it or throwing it at guards; they flood their cells and the tiers with water; wailing and screaming while banging on the cell walls and doors; having delusional conversations in their heads and mutilating their bodies or swallowing razors. All of this behavior has been hidden from the press and by extension the public. What happens in solitary confinement stays in solitary confinement. Isolation cells are off limits to journalists and these units are never shown to the media on official visits.

“Day by day life becomes very hard, some lose their minds, some will never be the same, some just give up and take their own lives,” the prisoner says. “The craziness that exists is rampant and it suffocates. You find yourself capable of doing anything at any moment. Each morning wakes with the potential for disaster. Each morning starts with anger before the anxiety. I fight really hard to keep my mind. It is very difficult to cope.” With the noise at all hours, the doors being kicked and men screaming. Letting loose their pent up rage and acting like lunatics, the hole can resemble Dante’s Inferno, an isolated American kind of hell. Prisoners experience intense paranoia, depression, memory loss, perceptual distortions and anxiety. Their only relief is a mental health worker who stops by the door and looks in the window slot. Spending five seconds at each cell while asking, “Are you ok,” before moving on. It’s no surprise so many prisoners lose their sanity when in solitary. Why else would they wage hunger strikes, throw feces and bodily fluids at guards and mutilate or kill themselves?

The lawful, state of the art prison, with its cutting edge technology, strict lockdown polices, lack of amenities and prisoner isolation techniques has come under extreme criticism. Critics say that solitary confinement is a form of sensory deprivation, in that perception shrinks to the dimensions of the space and sensations of confinement. Visual, auditory and even the sense of taste are dramatically depraved, impaired and constricted. Plus incidents of prisoner abuse at isolation units are filling up and clogging the courts. “Prisoners have been gassed, pepper sprayed, four pointed to the bed, strip searched constantly and extracted from their cells forcefully,” the prisoner says. “Uncooperative prisoners are force fed medications like Thorzine and basically SHU staff does whatever they want because there is no accountability and SHU inmates have no recourse to file grievances.”

Due to the recent media scrutiny and public outrage, members of Congress have finally gotten in on the act, calling for the first ever hearings on solitary confinement cells. This is a vital first step to national reform on how the incarcerated are treated. Instead of the lock them up and throw away the key mentality, society is realizing that the majority of those locked up are coming home. Hopefully congress will realize that the use of isolation cells in prison needs to stop, except in the most severe cases. The Bureau of Prisons has agreed to undergo a “comprehensive and independent assessment of its use of solitary confinement in the nation’s federal prisons.” This is a positive step forward, but more has to be done. With all the prisoners coming home, a high number of whom have spent time in SHU, reentry programs and transitional services need to be reevaluated and developed to help those in need readjust to society. With a thorough and detailed investigation, the darkest secrets of the prison industrial complex can come to light and be corrected. It’s time for the abusive and corrupt practices of the BOP and other prison systems to be exposed.