U.S prosecutors want Ali Charaf Damache in the worst way.
An Irish resident originally from Algiers, Damache, 50, is accused of using online chat rooms to recruit American women into a would-be terrorist cell operating in this country and Europe.
One man and two women, including Damache’s wife, have already been convicted in U.S. courts of providing material support to terrorists. And Damache was captured by Irish authorities in 2010 in Dublin on a separate charge of making a telephone death threat and held without bail.
But despite requests from U.S. prosecutors to have him extradited to this country for trial in Philadelphia, the High Court of Ireland has refused.
It’s not because they want to prosecute him themselves or believe he is innocent. Rather, the Irish court ruled that Damache, if sent to the United States, would probably be locked up in the federal “supermax” prison. And to the court, that amounted to “cruel and unusual” punishment.
The court’s refusal to extradite Damache highlights the conflicting perspectives on incarceration between the U.S. and Europe. Some European nations see the U.S. prison system as a barbaric anomaly in a country that has often insisted on the protection of human rights around the world.
Even a terrorism convict, the Irish High Court said, should not be subjected to the harsh conditions at the supermax facility in Florence, Colo., with its 24-hour solitary confinement, no family visits and lack of access to the media.
Such a prison, the Irish court said, “amounts to a breach of the constitutional requirement to protect persons from inhuman and degrading treatment and to respect the dignity of the human being.”
So on May 21, High Court Justice Aileen Donnelly set Damache free, after he had served his time on the lesser death-threat conviction and faced no additional charges in Ireland.
Opened in 1994, the Colorado supermax prison is the toughest and most controversial correctional facility in the U.S. federal system.
It is dubbed the “Alcatraz of the Rockies,” and has housed some of the nation’s most notorious prisoners, including Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber; and Ramzi Yousef, the 1993 World Trade Center bomber. No one has ever escaped.
Food is delivered through a slit in the cell door. Family visits are banned, conversations with others are restricted, and rarely, if ever, do inmates glimpse a tree or a bird through a window. They spend days and nights alone, their feet on concrete, their thoughts to themselves.
It’s considered so harsh that in recent years, defense lawyers have increasingly used the specter of the prison fortress to persuade jurors to vote against the death penalty and instead send their clients to supermax. They argue, in effect, that time there would be worse than capital punishment.
In the 2006 capital murder trial of Zacarias Moussaoui, the self-described “20th hijacker” in the Sept. 11 attacks, prison expert James E. Aiken testified that inmates at supermax “rot” away. Moussaoui, he predicted, “will deteriorate.” The jury agreed and sentenced Moussaoui to life without parole at supermax.
This May in Boston, defense expert Mark Bezy testified that Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, if spared the death penalty and sent to supermax, would be limited to two 15-minute phone calls with his family each month, and his mail would be screened.
For the victims and their families, he would be forgotten, Bezy testified, calling supermax “a mechanism to cut off an inmate’s communications with the outside world.”
The jury sentenced Tsarnaev to death anyway. Though he was initially transferred to supermax, he will eventually be moved to federal death row in Terre Haute, Ind.
The issue of solitary confinement has been raised in other formats too. President Obama, who last month became the first sitting president to tour a federal prison, wondered whether solitary confinement “makes sense.” Last month, Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said locking someone away all day and night “exacts a terrible price.”
In the Damache extradition effort, U.S. officials argued there was no certainty he would end up in supermax, and they denied allegations of mistreatment. But they said harsh conditions are necessary to ensure that convicts do not continue to run criminal operations from inside prison.
Kenneth Fulton, unit manager at the prison, offered a rare glimpse of supermax when he told the Irish court in legal documents that the prison houses less than one-quarter of 1% of all the federal inmates in the U.S.
Christopher Synsvoll, supervisory attorney at the penitentiary, said that as of August 2014, 407 inmates were kept there — out of the total 207,504 in the federal system.
Jennifer A. Williams, lead assistant U.S. attorney in Philadelphia in the Damache extradition effort, is coordinating with Justice Department officials in Washington to challenge the Irish ruling. “We are exploring the possibility of an appeal,” said spokeswoman Patricia Hartman.
In her 333-page decision, the Irish justice said there “is compelling evidence” the Colorado prison is inhumane, citing affidavits from human rights groups and other records.
“I am satisfied,” Donnelly said, “that prolonged exposure to involuntary solitary confinement exacts a significant physiological toll, is damaging to the integrity of the mind and personality, and is damaging to the bodily integrity of the person.”
She further noted that Damache already had completed a three-year prison sentence in 2013 in Dublin for the separate Irish charge. He was held until the U.S. extradition request was adjudicated.
Damache was indicted in Philadelphia in 2011 along with the three others on charges of plotting to assassinate a Swedish cartoonist who depicted the prophet Muhammad as a dog.
The others all pleaded guilty and were sentenced last year. Mohammad Hassan Khalid, a Pakistani native, was 15 years old and living in Maryland when he was recruited into Damache’s plot. He was sentenced to five years in prison. Jamie Paulin-Ramirez, whom Damache married, was given eight years; and Colleen R. LaRose, dubbed “Jihad Jane” in the media, received 10 years.
At her sentencing, LaRose still spoke highly of the thin, bearded Damache. “I had so much respect for him,” she told the court. “He was so brave.”
As head of the cell, Damache allegedly recruited others online to wage jihad and created separate teams to plan, research, recruit and finance terrorist operations.
Damache apparently believed that American women would draw less attention from security officials. The indictment said he emailed LaRose of his desire to die a martyr’s death, writing that “i tried twice but I wasn’t successful…[but]…I will…try until Allah will make it easy for me.”
Upon his release from jail in Dublin in May, his tone was strikingly different.
“I always had faith in the Irish legal system,” he said in a statement issued by his lawyers. “After more than five years in jail, I am looking forward to moving on with my life here.”
July 21, 2015
WASHINGTON — Before he was exonerated of murder and released in 2010, Anthony Graves spent 18 years locked up in a Texas prison, 16 of them all alone in a tiny cell.
Actually, he does not count it that way. He counts his time in solitary confinement as “60 square feet, 24 hours a day, 6,640 days.” The purpose, Mr. Graves came to conclude, was simple. “It is designed to break a man’s will to live,” he said in an interview.
An estimated 75,000 state and federal prisoners are held in solitary confinement in the United States, and for the first time in generations, leaders are rethinking the practice. President Obama last week ordered a Justice Department review of solitary confinement while Congress and more than a dozen states consider limits on it. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, in a Supreme Court ruling last month, all but invited a constitutional challenge.
“Do we really think it makes sense to lock so many people alone in tiny cells for 23 hours a day, sometimes for months or even years at a time?” Mr. Obama asked in a speech at a convention of the N.A.A.C.P. in Philadelphia, where he called for an overhaul of the criminal justice system. “That is not going to make us safer. That’s not going to make us stronger. And if those individuals are ultimately released, how are they ever going to adapt? It’s not smart.”
While other changes to the justice system would require Congress to act, this is one area where the president has at least some latitude, although it is uncertain how much. Either way, it could be a test of his drive in his final 18 months in office to remake America’s prisons. In his N.A.A.C.P. speech and during a visit to a federal prison, the first by a sitting president, Mr. Obama expressed a concern for the lives of prisoners that few, if any, of his predecessors have shown.
“No president has ever suggested that there’s anything problematic about solitary confinement, that we should be studying it or that it’s overused,” said Margaret Winter, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project. “I feel like that has got to be some sort of a tipping point.”
The Rev. Ron Stief, executive director of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, called the moment “a game changer.” He said: “We’ve been saying for decades, ‘It’s time,’ and it really feels now like it is time. The silence has been broken.”
Studies have found that solitary confinement exacerbates mental illness and that even stable people held in isolation report experiencing psychiatric symptoms, including anxiety, depression, anger, self-cutting or other acts of self-harm, or compulsive actions like pacing or cleaning a cell over and over.
“When they get out, they are broken,” said Dr. Terry Kupers, a psychiatrist in California who consults on prison conditions and mental health programs. “This is permanent damage.”
Cornell William Brooks, the president of the N.A.A.C.P., said prolonged solitary confinement amounted to torture. “Putting someone in solitary confinement does horrible things to a person’s personality, their psyche, their character,” he said. “It might be said that condemning a person to solitary confinement treats a person as an animal. And so that they emerge from such treatment exhibiting animalistic behavior can’t be surprising.”
Many corrections officials, even those who believe that solitary confinement is overused, caution that in some situations, it may be unavoidable.
“If someone has committed a violent assault, whether it be a staff member or another inmate, until you can somehow solve that problem, that person is going to need to be isolated,” said Rick Raemisch, executive director of Colorado’s corrections department. He pointed to an inmate who said he would kill someone if he were allowed out of solitary, a threat mental health professionals considered credible.
Mr. Raemisch has worked to substantially reduce the use of solitary confinement in Colorado but said groups that opposed it altogether should help develop other ways to handle inmates who pose a danger of violence. “There are those that say this is bad,” he said, “but when you look around for an alternative, people have left the room.”
June 22, 2015
Texas executes more of its citizens than any state in the country, and there’s new evidence that what we call justice is actually a corrupt, inhumane and morally indefensible system.
Alex Hannaford’s cover story this month shows an alarming correlation between trauma that happens to adolescent boys, the biological damage it does to their brains, how that altered physiology leads to violent behavior in their adult lives and their ultimate journeys to death row.
It’s been clear for a long time that poverty, violence, poor education and crime are interconnected. (We executed a 45-year-old man last year whose education ended in fourth grade and a 53-year-old man this year whose education ended in sixth grade.) And 97 percent of the people on death row are men.
We traditionally have used that sociological framework to examine homicidal behavior. Then, we find a personal comfort level with it and our individual moral codes.
But new studies and the data Hannaford collected from Texas death row inmates show the situation is more complex. There also are biological factors at work, and that discovery raises new questions about the morality of the Texas system.
As recently as the 1980s, professionals believed that the human brain was genetically determined by the time of birth. Now, studies by American and British scholars show that trauma actually changes the physiology of the brain and that those altered brains work differently in males and females. (Females tend to process the stress and trauma internally, directing destructive action at themselves; men tend to process it externally, focusing violence on other people.)
Male children who are physically, emotionally and/or sexually traumatized experience physical changes to their brains that make violence a common response to similar experiences later in life.
When that violence leads to a capital crime, the state places the man on death row, where the average inmate spends a full decade in an environment of emotional isolation, physical depravation, authoritarian relationships, and little or no interaction with any type of family or support network.
It’s a classic list designed for an assault on someone’s mental well-being. In fact, the state essentially drives many of those waiting to be executed insane. Then, we stick a needle in the arm of that adult traumatized child and kill him.
It is a shameful, barbaric process that many of us choose to look past, but every person who loves Texas should look directly at it. Texas is better than this.
Justice Kennedy practically invites a challenge to solitary confinement
Courts ‘may be required’ to decide if prisons need to find alternatives to solitary, Kennedy says
Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, in an unusual separate opinion in a case wrote that it may be time for judges to limit the use of long-term solitary confinement in prisons.
His comments accompanying a decision issued Thursday marked a rare instance of a Supreme Court justice virtually inviting a constitutional challenge to a prison policy.
“Years on end of near-total isolation exacts a terrible price,” he wrote. He cited the writings of Charles Dickens and 19th century Supreme Court opinions that recognized “even for prisoners sentenced to death, solitary confinement bears ‘a further terror and a peculiar mark of infamy.'”
Sentencing judges and the high court have largely ignored the issue, Kennedy said, focusing their attention on questions of guilt or innocence or on the constitutionality of the death penalty.
“In a case that presented the issue, the judiciary may be required,” he wrote, “to determine whether workable alternative systems for long-term confinement exist, and, if so, whether a correctional system should be required to adopt them.”
Amy Fettig, an attorney for the ACLU’s National Prison Project, said Kennedy’s comments came as a welcome surprise.
“It’s a remarkable statement. The justice is sending a strong signal he is deeply concerned about the overuse and abuse of solitary confinement,” she said.
States such as Virginia and Texas routinely put death-row inmates in solitary confinement, she said. “They are automatically placed there. It has nothing to do with their being violent or their level of dangerousness,” she said.
This month, a federal judge in Virginia is weighing a “cruel and unusual punishment” claim brought by inmates on death row there, she noted.
Kennedy usually joins with the court’s conservatives in cases involving crime and punishment, but he has also voiced concern over prison policies that he deems unduly harsh. These include life terms for juveniles and long mandatory prison terms for nonviolent drug crimes. 4 years ago, he spoke for a 5-4 majority that condemned overcrowding in California’s prisons and said it resulted in unconstitutionally cruel conditions.
Both sides of Kennedy’s views were evident in Thursday’s decision. He joined a 5-4 majority to reject a San Diego murderer’s bid for a new trial, but wrote separately to raise the issue of possible constitutional limits to solitary confinement.
The case before the court involved Hector Ayala, who had been convicted and sentenced to die for shooting to death 3 men in the attempted robbery of an auto body shop in 1985. A 4th man had been shot, but survived and identified Ayala as the shooter.
Ayala has been on California’s death row ever since his conviction a generation ago. The California courts upheld his conviction and death sentence, but 2 years ago a U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals panel overturned both. In a 2-1 decision, the appeals court cited the trial judge’s decision permitting prosecutors to remove all seven of the blacks and Latinos who were considered for the jury.
The Supreme Court reversed that decision and restored Ayala’s conviction and death sentence. Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. said the “conscientious trial judge” had spoken to each of the potential jurors and decided the prosecutor was justified in removing them. “His judgment was entitled to great weight,” he concluded.
In his separate opinion, Kennedy said he agreed Alito’s opinion was “complete and correct,” but said he was nonetheless troubled to learn Ayala had been kept in solitary confinement. This means he has “been held for all or most of the past 20 years or more in a windowless cell no larger than a typical parking spot for 23 hours a day,” he wrote. An estimated 25,000 inmates in the United States are being held in solitary confinement without regard to their conduct in prison, he added.
Kennedy’s comments drew a short, but sharp retort from Justice Clarence Thomas.
“The accommodations in which Ayala is housed are a far sight more spacious than those in which his victims … now rest. And, given that his victims were all 31 years or age or under, Ayala will soon have had as much or more time to enjoy those accommodations as his victims had time to enjoy this Earth,” Thomas wrote.
Source: Los Angeles Times, June 19, 2015
April 18, 2014
You need to watch only the first five minutes of Solitary Nation, the first of two Frontline documentaries that will air on PBS starting Tuesday. The inmates, corrections officers, and prison bureaucrats all appear stooped and burdened, tamped down, by the oppressive nature of the place in which they spend the bulk of their lives. That’s what prison is, of course, but Frontline captures something deeper here.
“This is what they create in here, monsters,” one inmate tells Frontline’s reporters. “You can’t conduct yourself like a human being when they treat you like an animal.”
“It’s like being buried alive,” another prisoner says off camera.
Now, every inmate in the history of the world likely has complained about the conditions of his confinement. But the point of the film, I think—and perhaps the best argument against the continued use of solitary—is that regardless of how inmates feel about it, there is no redeemable value to it to the rest of us.
Solitary confinement surely makes prisons safer—that’s the argument wardens use over and over again to justify its continued use. But it also creates or exacerbates mental illness in the men who are condemned to it. And that illness, in turn, pushes inmates in solitary to engage in harmful or self-harming conduct that, in turn, prompts a severe disciplinary response from prison officials.
That, in turn, causes the men to turn deeper into their own insanity. And then these broken men are released back into the world without adequate mental health treatment or “step down” services that will help reduce their chances of recidivism. It’s a cycle everyone recognizes but cannot seem to change. It’s madness upon madness.
Adam Brulotte, one of the inmates featured in the film, gets caught in this cycle. He’s a young man who says he wants to study for his GED so he can get a real job, instead of selling drugs, when he is released. Because he has broken the rules, he is placed in isolation. And because he is in isolation, he goes mad. And because he goes mad, he breaks more rules. The prison is safer but we see Brulotte broken before our eyes. If this young man is not treated now, how much will the rest of us pay when he is ultimately released?
You don’t have to sympathize with the inmates featured in this documentary to appreciate just how broken the prison system is today. Solitary Nation is a valuable addition to the growing body of work that slowly is pushing America away from this form of confinement. It shows the blood and the feces and the numbing foulness of solitary for humanizing both prisoner and guard, and it chronicles the ambiguities that exist in these cases (is the inmate truly mentally ill or just faking it?).
There are, however, a few critical elements missing from the documentary. Because the stage is set in Maine, I guess, there is virtually no reference to the oppressive racial component to solitary confinement (or to American prisons more generally). Almost every single one of the faces that appears on film is white. Perhaps this means that white viewers will more fully empathize with what they are seeing. But I’d love for the journalists who created Solitary Nation to undertake the same sort of project in a southern prison.
Nor is there any insight in the film into the enormous political and financial pressures that coalesce around prisons. Even progressive wardens like Rodney Bouffard in Maine, who comes off in the documentary as a reasonable man trying to make the best of a bad situation, must negotiate with officials of the guards’ union in order to effect changes that might impact prison security. And even the harshest wardens must beg for funds from state lawmakers. These dynamics drive prison policies. They are an inescapable part of the story.
Nor did the film even attempt to offer broad answers to the many questions that surround the use of solitary confinement today. Why are lawmakers continuing to endorse policies and practices that make men mad and then toss them out onto a largely unsuspecting society? Why is there political reluctance to provide adequate mental health care to inmates, even when there is such strong evidence that it saves money (and perhaps lives)? The film raises many smart and poignant questions but sadly does not answer them.
The next installment in this series, Prison State, will air the final week of April, and perhaps viewers will get some answers then. But of course if there were easy answers here, the scandal of solitary confinement would not exist today. When I watched Solitary Nation the first time, I brought to it all of the prison stories I have covered over the past few years. When I watched it a second time, with someone who has not been so immersed, I saw the dread creep up over his face. Good, I thought, it’s long past time that America saw the horror of all this.
It’s not just the immorality of the solitary confinement that shines through in this worthwhile film. It’s the futility of it. Frustration and despair hang over the characters the way that fetid, stagnant air hangs in the tiny, soulless cells that host the 80,000 or so men and women living and dying today in solitary confinement in America. Both captive and captor seem to understand, as they interact amid the blood and the shit and the anguish, that its use is not just inhumane but utterly self-defeating.
March 17, 2014
The Supreme Court has ruled that the death penalty itself does not constitute “cruel and unusual punishment.” Yet the treatment of the condemned is nonetheless subject to Eighth Amendment protections, as well as Fourteenth Amendment guarantees of due process.
In the past few years, this ironic legal reality has been the subject of a renewed national debate centering on execution methods. The European drug companies that U.S. states have historically relied on to provide the materials for lethal injections have refused to replenish supplies. As a result, states have developed new drug protocols, often implementing them without testing or research. Last month, Dennis McGuire struggled and gasped for well over ten minutes before he finally died.
But at a recent Senate Judiciary Subcommittee hearing, exoneree Damon Thibodeaux called attention to a different, rarely-discussed aspect of death row that he believes also constitutes “torture, pure and simple” – the conditions of confinement that people endure prior to execution:
“I spent my years at Angola, while my lawyers fought to prove my innocence, in a cell that measured about 8 feet by 10 feet. It had three solid walls all painted white, a cell door, a sink, a toilet, a desk and seat attached to a wall, and an iron bunk with a thin mattress. These four walls are your life. Being in that environment for 23 hours a day will slowly kill you. Mentally, you have to find some way to live as if you were not there. If you cannot do that, you will die a slow mental death and may actually wish for your physical death, so that you do not have to continue that existence. More than anything, solitary confinement is an existence without hope.”
Thibodeaux was exonerated after spending fifteen years on death row at Angola State Penitentiary in Louisiana. While his story may be unusual, his experience of extreme isolation is standard for people facing execution.
A recent ruling, however, suggests that the federal courts may soon mandate higher due process protections for individuals sentenced to death. Last November, U.S. District Court Judge Leonie Brinkema found in Prieto v. Clark that the state of Virginia had violated the Constitution by automatically placing individuals on death row in indefinite isolation. In January, she rejected a request from state attorneys to delay the implementation of her ruling.
In her determination, Judge Brinkema describes what people on death row in Virginia must bear from the time of their sentencing to the time of their execution:
“Plaintiff’s conditions of confinement on death row are undeniably extreme and atypical of conditions in the general population units at [the prison]. He must remain alone in his cell for nearly 23 hours per day… The lights never go out in his cell, although they are scaled back during the overnight hours… Plaintiff is allowed just five hours of outdoor recreation per week…and that time is spent in another cell at best slightly larger than his living quarters… He otherwise has no ability to catch a glimpse of the sky because the window in his cell is a window in name only… Nor can he pass the time in the company of other inmates; plaintiff is deprived of most forms of human contact… His only real break from the monotony owes to a television and compact disc player in his cell and limited interactions with prison officials…”
As the judge outlines, those on death row are automatically and permanently placed in solitary confinement – forced to withstand particularly severe conditions purely as a consequence of their sentence. This placement is functionally indefinite since it can take years, or even decades, before individuals exhaust their appeals and finally face execution. (According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, those executed in 2010 had spent an average of 14.8 years on death row). By contrast, all others incarcerated in Virginia are assigned an initial security classification based on eight factors, including several unrelated to their sentences: their history of institutional violence, escape history, current age, etc.
The Court’s finding in Prieto v. Clark is that the automatic placement of death row prisoners in solitary confinement violates their Fourteenth Amendment rights, since they endure “uniquely severe” conditions without any kind of procedural protections or stopgap measures.
Judge Brinkeama concludes that the Virginia prison authorities have two options: either providing an individualized classification procedure for each person sentenced to execution, or altering conditions on death row “such that confinement there would no longer impose an atypical and significant hardship.”
The court’s ruling comes several months after the publication of an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) report that examined the conditions of confinement endured by those on death row. As the ACLU notes, this extreme isolation constitutes a “punishment on top of punishment”:
- Cell size: Most common cell size is 8×10 feet (27% of prisoners), just a bit bigger than the size on an average bathroom.
- Basic comfort: Beds provide in death row cells are made out of: Steel 60%; Concrete 13%; Steel with mattress 9%; Concrete with pad 6%; Metal 6%.
- “Enforced idleness”: States that allow death inmates to exercise for one hour or less: 81%.
- Social isolation: States with mandated no-contact visits for death row inmates: 67%.
- Religious services: States that fail to offer religious services to death row prisoners: 62%.
At the Senate hearing on solitary confinement last month, Thibodeux told the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee that he had contemplated ending the appeals process – despite his innocence – in order to escape his extreme isolation:
“Fairly early during my confinement at Angola, I very seriously considered giving up my legal rights and letting the State execute me. I was at the point where I did not want to live like an animal in a cage for years on end, only to lose my case and then have the State kill me anyway. I thought it would be better to end my life as soon as I could and avoid the agony of life in solitary. Fortunately, my lawyer and friend, Denise LeBoeuf, convinced me that I would be exonerated and released someday, and she gave me hope to keep fighting and living.”
According to the NAACP’s most recent quarterly report on the death penalty, published last week, since the death penalty was reinstated 140 individuals – about 10% of those placed on death row – were executed after giving up their appeals.
Judge Brinkema’s ruling is significant since it accords at least minimal due process protections to those placed in solitary confinement, even the so-called “worst of the worst.” But calls to change the blanket use of isolation on death row have also emerged from outside the courts and the Senate subcommittee hearing. Last month, Texas’s largest correctional officers’ union called for low-risk individuals on death row to be housed with others, and recommended that state prison officials introduce privileges to those on death row, including work assignments and streaming television.
By Anthony Graves, Death Row Exonoree #138
When I was on death row, I saw guys come to prison sane and leave this world insane, talking nonsense on the execution gurney.
I am death row exoneree #138.
There are 12 more people like me from Texas. Twelve people who spent years of their lives locked alone in concrete cages waiting to die before they were set free, exonerated for their innocence.
Eleven people have committed suicide on Texas’ death row. All because of the conditions.
When I was sentenced to death, I did not know that this sentence would also mean that I would have 12 years without any human contact, i.e. my mother, my son, my friends. All those people were stripped from my life because of this injustice. I did not know it would mean 12 years of having my meals slid through a small slot in a steel door like an animal. I did not know it would mean 12 years alone in a cage the size of a parking spot, sleeping on concrete steel bunk and alone for 22 to 24 hours a day. All for a crime I did not commit. The injustice.
For me and the 400 other prisoners on Texas’ death row while I was there, a death sentence meant a double punishment. We spent years locked alone in a tiny, concrete cage in solitary confinement, with guys going insane, dropping their appeals, doing everything they could to check out of this place before we were ever strapped to an execution gurney. All because of the conditions.
I am writing today because the ACLU has put out an important new paper about what it does to people to lock them alone in cages on death row. They found that over 93% of states lock away their death row prisoners for over 22 hours a day. Nearly a third of death row prisoners live in cages where their toilet is an arm’s length away from their bed. Sixty-percent of people on death row have no windows or natural light.
Solitary confinement is like living in a dark hole. People walk over the hole and you shout from the bottom, but nobody hears you. You start to play tricks with your mind just to survive. This is no way to live.
I saw the people living on death row fall apart. One guy suffered some of his last days smearing feces, lying naked in the recreation yard, and urinating on himself. I saw guys who dropped their appeals and elected to die because of the intolerable conditions. To sum it up, I saw a bunch of dead men walking because of the conditions that killed everything inside of them. And they were just waiting to lie down.
After I got out, I have tried to use my time to raise awareness about these conditions. I am currently working on a book and traveling the globe trying to share my message and educate people about the effects of solitary confinement. I have created AnthonyBelieves.com, which is my consulting firm that I use to help attorneys, nonprofit organizations, etc. I am asking for your support in my endeavors to bring attention to such inhumane issues by going to my website and ordering anything from my store to help offset my travel expenses. There’s also a petition on my webpage that I am asking 10 million people around the world to sign in solidarity with me as I stand up for justice.
Please help me and the ACLU get the word out about these conditions. Our death penalty system is broken in this country – it is applied unfairly against people. When you have a broken system, innocent people like me can end up on trial for their life. And subjecting anyone in prison to solitary confinement is torture. I am speaking on experience. Many of these same people are returning to our society, and when they do they come with all the baggage we put on them in the system. This keeps the rate of recidivism high.
In this country, we should be doing better than that. We should not have a criminal justice system turned into a criminal by the way we treat our citizens. Even when we do not like people or believe they have done something wrong, our emotions should not govern our society. We should be making laws from a rational perspective. We have to be above the criminal by keeping our system humane. Everyone should be treated like a human being. This is America.
Please share the new video I recorded for the ACLU to help get the word out about the double punishment of solitary confinement on death row. And make sure to read the ACLU’s new report. Also please check out AnthonyBelieves.com and give me your support while I cross the county and try to educate people about the inhumane treatment in our criminal justice system.
Thank you and best wishes.
For more on the double punishment of solitary confinement on death row, read the ACLU’s report A Death Before Dying.
Amnesty International USA issued the following comments today from Thenjiwe McHarris, senior campaigner in the U.S. program, in response to the death of a prisoner at the Corcoran State Prison in California:
“The state of California must immediately order a thorough, impartial investigation into the death of prisoner Billy Sell and make the results public” said McHarris. “This case underscores our concerns at treatment of and conditions for prisoners in CA SHUs, whether or not they are participating in the hunger strike. It is imperative that the public know the facts surrounding this death – whether they reveal that Sell was refusing food as part of the hunger strike, and requested medical attention in the days before he died, as prisoners advocates have alleged, or was a suicide, as prison authorities attest and the country coroner ruled. The state is obligated to find the truth in this case and make the facts public. There must be no uncertainty or dispute over how Billy Sell died.”
“Conditions for prisoners in solitary confinement in California are an affront to human rights and must end. No human being should be held under the deplorable conditions we have witnessed in California prisons for prolonged periods, even decades – this amounts to cruel, inhumane and degrading conditions.”
The hunger strike by prisoners in solitary confinement in California entered its 23rd day on Tuesday, with the state reporting about 600 prisoners refusing food. The strike had involved 30,000 prisoners at the start. Amnesty International visited California’s prison isolation units in November 2011 and issued a highly critical report, “The Edge of Endurance“ the following year.
The severe negative psychological consequences of isolation are such that suicides occur more frequently in isolation units than in the general prison population. In California, over a five-year period from 2006 to 2010, the average number of prison suicides was 34 a year, with 42 percent occurring in administrative segregation or isolation units.
On July 5, in advance of the hunger strike, Amnesty International issued a full statement calling on California authorities to respond to the planned strike by enacting reforms. Read the statement.
Read Amnesty International’s 2012 report, “The Edge of Endurance: Prison Conditions in California’s Security Housing Units“
The United States holds tens of thousands of inmates in long-term solitary confinement. Is this torture?
Human beings are social creatures. We are social not just in the trivial sense that we like company, and not just in the obvious sense that we each depend on others. We are social in a more elemental way: simply to exist as a normal human being requires interaction with other people.
Children provide the clearest demonstration of this fact, although it was slow to be accepted. Well into the nineteen-fifties, psychologists were encouraging parents to give children less attention and affection, in order to encourage independence. Then Harry Harlow, a professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, produced a series of influential studies involving baby rhesus monkeys.
He happened upon the findings in the mid-fifties, when he decided to save money for his primate-research laboratory by breeding his own lab monkeys instead of importing them from India. Because he didn’t know how to raise infant monkeys, he cared for them the way hospitals of the era cared for human infants—in nurseries, with plenty of food, warm blankets, some toys, and in isolation from other infants to prevent the spread of infection. The monkeys grew up sturdy, disease-free, and larger than those from the wild. Yet they were also profoundly disturbed, given to staring blankly and rocking in place for long periods, circling their cages repetitively, and mutilating themselves.
At first, Harlow and his graduate students couldn’t figure out what the problem was. They considered factors such as diet, patterns of light exposure, even the antibiotics they used. Then, as Deborah Blum recounts in a fascinating biography of Harlow, “Love at Goon Park,” one of his researchers noticed how tightly the monkeys clung to their soft blankets. Harlow wondered whether what the monkeys were missing in their Isolettes was a mother. So, in an odd experiment, he gave them an artificial one.
In the studies, one artificial mother was a doll made of terry cloth; the other was made of wire. He placed a warming device inside the dolls to make them seem more comforting. The babies, Harlow discovered, largely ignored the wire mother. But they became deeply attached to the cloth mother. They caressed it. They slept curled up on it. They ran to it when frightened. They refused replacements: they wanted only “their” mother. If sharp spikes were made to randomly thrust out of the mother’s body when the rhesus babies held it, they waited patiently for the spikes to recede and returned to clutching it. No matter how tightly they clung to the surrogate mothers, however, the monkeys remained psychologically abnormal.
In a later study on the effect of total isolation from birth, the researchers found that the test monkeys, upon being released into a group of ordinary monkeys, “usually go into a state of emotional shock, characterized by . . . autistic self-clutching and rocking.” Harlow noted, “One of six monkeys isolated for three months refused to eat after release and died five days later.” After several weeks in the company of other monkeys, most of them adjusted—but not those who had been isolated for longer periods. “Twelve months of isolation almost obliterated the animals socially,” Harlow wrote. They became permanently withdrawn, and they lived as outcasts—regularly set upon, as if inviting abuse.
The research made Harlow famous (and infamous, too—revulsion at his work helped spur the animal-rights movement). Other psychologists produced evidence of similarly deep and sustained damage in neglected and orphaned children. Hospitals were made to open up their nurseries to parents. And it became widely accepted that children require nurturing human beings not just for food and protection but also for the normal functioning of their brains.
We have been hesitant to apply these lessons to adults. Adults, after all, are fully formed, independent beings, with internal strengths and knowledge to draw upon. We wouldn’t have anything like a child’s dependence on other people, right? Yet it seems that we do. We don’t have a lot of monkey experiments to call upon here. But mankind has produced tens of thousands of human ones, including in our prison system. And the picture that has emerged is profoundly unsettling.
Among our most benign experiments are those with people who voluntarily isolate themselves for extended periods. Long-distance solo sailors, for instance, commit themselves to months at sea. They face all manner of physical terrors: thrashing storms, fifty-foot waves, leaks, illness. Yet, for many, the single most overwhelming difficulty they report is the “soul-destroying loneliness,” as one sailor called it. Astronauts have to be screened for their ability to tolerate long stretches in tightly confined isolation, and they come to depend on radio and video communications for social contact.
The problem of isolation goes beyond ordinary loneliness, however. Consider what we’ve learned from hostages who have been held in solitary confinement—from the journalist Terry Anderson, for example, whose extraordinary memoir, “Den of Lions,” recounts his seven years as a hostage of Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Anderson was the chief Middle East correspondent for the Associated Press when, on March 16, 1985, three bearded men forced him from his car in Beirut at gunpoint. He was pushed into a Mercedes sedan, covered head to toe with a heavy blanket, and made to crouch head down in the footwell behind the front seat. His captors drove him to a garage, pulled him out of the car, put a hood over his head, and bound his wrists and ankles with tape. For half an hour, they grilled him for the names of other Americans in Beirut, but he gave no names and they did not beat him or press him further. They threw him in the trunk of the car, drove him to another building, and put him in what would be the first of a succession of cells across Lebanon. He was soon placed in what seemed to be a dusty closet, large enough for only a mattress. Blindfolded, he could make out the distant sounds of other hostages. (One was William Buckley, the C.I.A. station chief who was kidnapped and tortured repeatedly until he weakened and died.) Peering around his blindfold, Anderson could see a bare light bulb dangling from the ceiling. He received three unpalatable meals a day—usually a sandwich of bread and cheese, or cold rice with canned vegetables, or soup. He had a bottle to urinate in and was allotted one five- to ten-minute trip each day to a rotting bathroom to empty his bowels and wash with water at a dirty sink. Otherwise, the only reprieve from isolation came when the guards made short visits to bark at him for breaking a rule or to threaten him, sometimes with a gun at his temple.
He missed people terribly, especially his fiancée and his family. He was despondent and depressed. Then, with time, he began to feel something more. He felt himself disintegrating. It was as if his brain were grinding down. A month into his confinement, he recalled in his memoir, “The mind is a blank. Jesus, I always thought I was smart. Where are all the things I learned, the books I read, the poems I memorized? There’s nothing there, just a formless, gray-black misery. My mind’s gone dead. God, help me.”
He was stiff from lying in bed day and night, yet tired all the time. He dozed off and on constantly, sleeping twelve hours a day. He craved activity of almost any kind. He would watch the daylight wax and wane on the ceiling, or roaches creep slowly up the wall. He had a Bible and tried to read, but he often found that he lacked the concentration to do so. He observed himself becoming neurotically possessive about his little space, at times putting his life in jeopardy by flying into a rage if a guard happened to step on his bed. He brooded incessantly, thinking back on all the mistakes he’d made in life, his regrets, his offenses against God and family.
His captors moved him every few months. For unpredictable stretches of time, he was granted the salvation of a companion—sometimes he shared a cell with as many as four other hostages—and he noticed that his thinking recovered rapidly when this occurred. He could read and concentrate longer, avoid hallucinations, and better control his emotions. “I would rather have had the worst companion than no companion at all,” he noted.
In September, 1986, after several months of sharing a cell with another hostage, Anderson was, for no apparent reason, returned to solitary confinement, this time in a six-by-six-foot cell, with no windows, and light from only a flickering fluorescent lamp in an outside corridor. The guards refused to say how long he would be there. After a few weeks, he felt his mind slipping away again.
“I find myself trembling sometimes for no reason,” he wrote. “I’m afraid I’m beginning to lose my mind, to lose control completely.”
One day, three years into his ordeal, he snapped. He walked over to a wall and began beating his forehead against it, dozens of times. His head was smashed and bleeding before the guards were able to stop him.
Some hostages fared worse. Anderson told the story of Frank Reed, a fifty-four-year-old American private-school director who was taken hostage and held in solitary confinement for four months before being put in with Anderson. By then, Reed had become severely withdrawn. He lay motionless for hours facing a wall, semi-catatonic. He could not follow the guards’ simplest instructions. This invited abuse from them, in much the same way that once isolated rhesus monkeys seemed to invite abuse from the colony. Released after three and a half years, Reed ultimately required admission to a psychiatric hospital.
“It’s an awful thing, solitary,” John McCain wrote of his five and a half years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam—more than two years of it spent in isolation in a fifteen-by-fifteen-foot cell, unable to communicate with other P.O.W.s except by tap code, secreted notes, or by speaking into an enamel cup pressed against the wall. “It crushes your spirit and weakens your resistance more effectively than any other form of mistreatment.” And this comes from a man who was beaten regularly; denied adequate medical treatment for two broken arms, a broken leg, and chronic dysentery; and tortured to the point of having an arm broken again. A U.S. military study of almost a hundred and fifty naval aviators returned from imprisonment in Vietnam, many of whom were treated even worse than McCain, reported that they found social isolation to be as torturous and agonizing as any physical abuse they suffered.
And what happened to them was physical. EEG studies going back to the nineteen-sixties have shown diffuse slowing of brain waves in prisoners after a week or more of solitary confinement. In 1992, fifty-seven prisoners of war, released after an average of six months in detention camps in the former Yugoslavia, were examined using EEG-like tests. The recordings revealed brain abnormalities months afterward; the most severe were found in prisoners who had endured either head trauma sufficient to render them unconscious or, yes, solitary confinement. Without sustained social interaction, the human brain may become as impaired as one that has incurred a traumatic injury.
On December 4, 1991, Terry Anderson was released from captivity. He had been the last and the longest-held American hostage in Lebanon. I spoke to Keron Fletcher, a former British military psychiatrist who had been on the receiving team for Anderson and many other hostages, and followed them for years afterward. Initially, Fletcher said, everyone experiences the pure elation of being able to see and talk to people again, especially family and friends. They can’t get enough of other people, and talk almost non-stop for hours. They are optimistic and hopeful. But, afterward, normal sleeping and eating patterns prove difficult to reëstablish. Some have lost their sense of time. For weeks, they have trouble managing the sensations and emotional complexities of their freedom.
For the first few months after his release, Anderson said when I reached him by phone recently, “it was just kind of a fog.” He had done many television interviews at the time. “And if you look at me in the pictures? Look at my eyes. You can tell. I look drugged.”
Most hostages survived their ordeal, Fletcher said, although relationships, marriages, and careers were often lost. Some found, as John McCain did, that the experience even strengthened them. Yet none saw solitary confinement as anything less than torture. This presents us with an awkward question: If prolonged isolation is—as research and experience have confirmed for decades—so objectively horrifying, so intrinsically cruel, how did we end up with a prison system that may subject more of our own citizens to it than any other country in history has?
Recently, I met a man who had spent more than five years in isolation at a prison in the Boston suburb of Walpole, Massachusetts, not far from my home. Bobby Dellelo was, to say the least, no Terry Anderson or John McCain. Brought up in the run-down neighborhoods of Boston’s West End, in the nineteen-forties, he was caught burglarizing a shoe store at the age of ten. At thirteen, he recalls, he was nabbed while robbing a Jordan Marsh department store. (He and his friends learned to hide out in stores at closing time, steal their merchandise, and then break out during the night.) The remainder of his childhood was spent mostly in the state reform school. That was where he learned how to fight, how to hot-wire a car with a piece of foil, how to pick locks, and how to make a zip gun using a snapped-off automobile radio antenna, which, in those days, was just thick enough to barrel a .22-calibre bullet. Released upon turning eighteen, Dellelo returned to stealing. Usually, he stole from office buildings at night. But some of the people he hung out with did stickups, and, together with one of them, he held up a liquor store in Dorchester.
“What a disaster that thing was,” he recalls, laughing. They put the store’s owner and the customers in a walk-in refrigerator at gunpoint, took their wallets, and went to rob the register. But more customers came in. So they robbed them and put them in the refrigerator, too. Then still more customers arrived, the refrigerator got full, and the whole thing turned into a circus. Dellelo and his partner finally escaped. But one of the customers identified him to the police. By the time he was caught, Dellelo had been fingered for robbing the Commander Hotel in Cambridge as well. He served a year for the first conviction and two and a half years for the second.
Three months after his release, in 1963, at the age of twenty, he and a friend tried to rob the Kopelman jewelry store, in downtown Boston. But an alarm went off before they got their hands on anything. They separated and ran. The friend shot and killed an off-duty policeman while trying to escape, then killed himself. Dellelo was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. He ended up serving forty years. Five years and one month were spent in isolation.
The criteria for the isolation of prisoners vary by state but typically include not only violent infractions but also violation of prison rules or association with gang members. The imposition of long-term isolation—which can be for months or years—is ultimately at the discretion of prison administrators. One former prisoner I spoke to, for example, recalled being put in solitary confinement for petty annoyances like refusing to get out of the shower quickly enough. Bobby Dellelo was put there for escaping.
It was an elaborate scheme. He had a partner, who picked the lock to a supervisor’s office and got hold of the information manual for the microwave-detection system that patrolled a grassy no man’s land between the prison and the road. They studied the manual long enough to learn how to circumvent the system and returned it. On Halloween Sunday, 1993, they had friends stage a fight in the prison yard. With all the guards in the towers looking at the fight through binoculars, the two men tipped a picnic table up against a twelve-foot wall and climbed it like a ladder. Beyond it, they scaled a sixteen-foot fence. To get over the razor wire on top, they used a Z-shaped tool they’d improvised from locker handles. They dropped down into the no man’s land and followed an invisible path that they’d calculated the microwave system would not detect. No alarm sounded. They went over one more fence, walked around a parking lot, picked their way through some woods, and emerged onto a four-lane road. After a short walk to a convenience store, they called a taxi from a telephone booth and rolled away before anyone knew they were gone.
They lasted twenty-four days on the outside. Eventually, somebody ratted them out, and the police captured them on the day before Thanksgiving, at the house of a friend in Cambridge. The prison administration gave Dellelo five years in the Departmental Disciplinary Unit of the Walpole prison, its hundred-and-twenty-four-cell super-maximum segregation unit.
Wearing ankle bracelets, handcuffs, and a belly chain, Dellelo was marched into a thirteen-by-eight-foot off-white cell. A four-inch-thick concrete bed slab jutted out from the wall opposite the door. A smaller slab protruding from a side wall provided a desk. A cylindrical concrete block in the floor served as a seat. On the remaining wall was a toilet and a metal sink. He was given four sheets, four towels, a blanket, a bedroll, a toothbrush, toilet paper, a tall clear plastic cup, a bar of soap, seven white T-shirts, seven pairs of boxer shorts, seven pairs of socks, plastic slippers, a pad of paper, and a ballpoint pen. A speaker with a microphone was mounted on the door. Cells used for solitary confinement are often windowless, but this one had a ribbonlike window that was seven inches wide and five feet tall. The electrically controlled door was solid steel, with a seven-inch-by-twenty-eight-inch aperture and two wickets—little door slots, one at ankle height and one at waist height, for shackling him whenever he was let out and for passing him meal trays.
As in other supermaxes—facilities designed to isolate prisoners from social contact—Dellelo was confined to his cell for at least twenty-three hours a day and permitted out only for a shower or for recreation in an outdoor cage that he estimated to be fifty feet long and five feet wide, known as “the dog kennel.” He could talk to other prisoners through the steel door of his cell, and during recreation if a prisoner was in an adjacent cage. He made a kind of fishing line for passing notes to adjacent cells by unwinding the elastic from his boxer shorts, though it was contraband and would be confiscated. Prisoners could receive mail and as many as ten reading items. They were allowed one phone call the first month and could earn up to four calls and four visits per month if they followed the rules, but there could be no physical contact with anyone, except when guards forcibly restrained them. Some supermaxes even use food as punishment, serving the prisoners nutra-loaf, an unpalatable food brick that contains just enough nutrition for survival. Dellelo was spared this. The rules also permitted him to have a radio after thirty days, and, after sixty days, a thirteen-inch black-and-white television.
“This is going to be a piece of cake,” Dellelo recalls thinking when the door closed behind him. Whereas many American supermax prisoners—and most P.O.W.s and hostages—have no idea when they might get out, he knew exactly how long he was going to be there. He drew a calendar on his pad of paper to start counting down the days. He would get a radio and a TV. He could read. No one was going to bother him. And, as his elaborate escape plan showed, he could be patient. “This is their sophisticated security?” he said to himself. “They don’t know what they’re doing.”
After a few months without regular social contact, however, his experience proved no different from that of the P.O.W.s or hostages, or the majority of isolated prisoners whom researchers have studied: he started to lose his mind. He talked to himself. He paced back and forth compulsively, shuffling along the same six-foot path for hours on end. Soon, he was having panic attacks, screaming for help. He hallucinated that the colors on the walls were changing. He became enraged by routine noises—the sound of doors opening as the guards made their hourly checks, the sounds of inmates in nearby cells. After a year or so, he was hearing voices on the television talking directly to him. He put the television under his bed, and rarely took it out again.
One of the paradoxes of solitary confinement is that, as starved as people become for companionship, the experience typically leaves them unfit for social interaction. Once, Dellelo was allowed to have an in-person meeting with his lawyer, and he simply couldn’t handle it. After so many months in which his primary human contact had been an occasional phone call or brief conversations with an inmate down the tier, shouted through steel doors at the top of their lungs, he found himself unable to carry on a face-to-face conversation. He had trouble following both words and hand gestures and couldn’t generate them himself. When he realized this, he succumbed to a full-blown panic attack.
Craig Haney, a psychology professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz, received rare permission to study a hundred randomly selected inmates at California’s Pelican Bay supermax, and noted a number of phenomena. First, after months or years of complete isolation, many prisoners “begin to lose the ability to initiate behavior of any kind—to organize their own lives around activity and purpose,” he writes. “Chronic apathy, lethargy, depression, and despair often result. . . . In extreme cases, prisoners may literally stop behaving,” becoming essentially catatonic.
Second, almost ninety per cent of these prisoners had difficulties with “irrational anger,” compared with just three per cent of the general population.* Haney attributed this to the extreme restriction, the totality of control, and the extended absence of any opportunity for happiness or joy. Many prisoners in solitary become consumed with revenge fantasies.
“There were some guards in D.D.U. who were decent guys,” Dellelo told me. They didn’t trash his room when he was let out for a shower, or try to trip him when escorting him in chains, or write him up for contraband if he kept food or a salt packet from a meal in his cell. “But some of them were evil, evil pricks.” One correctional officer became a particular obsession. Dellelo spent hours imagining cutting his head off and rolling it down the tier. “I mean, I know this is insane thinking,” he says now. Even at the time, he added, “I had a fear in the background—like how much of this am I going to be able to let go? How much is this going to affect who I am?”
He was right to worry. Everyone’s identity is socially created: it’s through your relationships that you understand yourself as a mother or a father, a teacher or an accountant, a hero or a villain. But, after years of isolation, many prisoners change in another way that Haney observed. They begin to see themselves primarily as combatants in the world, people whose identity is rooted in thwarting prison control.
As a matter of self-preservation, this may not be a bad thing. According to the Navy P.O.W. researchers, the instinct to fight back against the enemy constituted the most important coping mechanism for the prisoners they studied. Resistance was often their sole means of maintaining a sense of purpose, and so their sanity. Yet resistance is precisely what we wish to destroy in our supermax prisoners. As Haney observed in a review of research findings, prisoners in solitary confinement must be able to withstand the experience in order to be allowed to return to the highly social world of mainline prison or free society. Perversely, then, the prisoners who can’t handle profound isolation are the ones who are forced to remain in it. “And those who have adapted,” Haney writes, “are prime candidates for release to a social world to which they may be incapable of ever fully readjusting.”
Dellelo eventually found a way to resist that would not prolong his ordeal. He fought his battle through the courts, filing motion after motion in an effort to get his conviction overturned. He became so good at submitting his claims that he obtained a paralegal certificate along the way. And, after forty years in prison, and more than five years in solitary, he got his first-degree-homicide conviction reduced to manslaughter. On November 19, 2003, he was freed.
Bobby Dellelo is sixty-seven years old now. He lives on Social Security in a Cambridge efficiency apartment that is about four times larger than his cell. He still seems to be adjusting to the world outside. He lives alone. To the extent that he is out in society, it is, in large measure, as a combatant. He works for prisoners’ rights at the American Friends Service Committee. He also does occasional work assisting prisoners with their legal cases. Sitting at his kitchen table, he showed me how to pick a padlock—you know, just in case I ever find myself in trouble.
But it was impossible to talk to him about his time in isolation without seeing that it was fundamentally no different from the isolation that Terry Anderson and John McCain had endured. Whether in Walpole or Beirut or Hanoi, all human beings experience isolation as torture.
The main argument for using long-term isolation in prisons is that it provides discipline and prevents violence. When inmates refuse to follow the rules—when they escape, deal drugs, or attack other inmates and corrections officers—wardens must be able to punish and contain the misconduct. Presumably, less stringent measures haven’t worked, or the behavior would not have occurred. And it’s legitimate to incapacitate violent aggressors for the safety of others. So, advocates say, isolation is a necessary evil, and those who don’t recognize this are dangerously naïve.
The argument makes intuitive sense. If the worst of the worst are removed from the general prison population and put in isolation, you’d expect there to be markedly fewer inmate shankings and attacks on corrections officers. But the evidence doesn’t bear this out. Perhaps the most careful inquiry into whether supermax prisons decrease violence and disorder was a 2003 analysis examining the experience in three states—Arizona, Illinois, and Minnesota—following the opening of their supermax prisons. The study found that levels of inmate-on-inmate violence were unchanged, and that levels of inmate-on-staff violence changed unpredictably, rising in Arizona, falling in Illinois, and holding steady in Minnesota.
Prison violence, it turns out, is not simply an issue of a few belligerents. In the past thirty years, the United States has quadrupled its incarceration rate but not its prison space. Work and education programs have been cancelled, out of a belief that the pursuit of rehabilitation is pointless. The result has been unprecedented overcrowding, along with unprecedented idleness—a nice formula for violence. Remove a few prisoners to solitary confinement, and the violence doesn’t change. So you remove some more, and still nothing happens. Before long, you find yourself in the position we are in today. The United States now has five per cent of the world’s population, twenty-five per cent of its prisoners, and probably the vast majority of prisoners who are in long-term solitary confinement.
It wasn’t always like this. The wide-scale use of isolation is, almost exclusively, a phenomenon of the past twenty years. In 1890, the United States Supreme Court came close to declaring the punishment to be unconstitutional. Writing for the majority in the case of a Colorado murderer who had been held in isolation for a month, Justice Samuel Miller noted that experience had revealed “serious objections” to solitary confinement:
A considerable number of the prisoners fell, after even a short confinement, into a semi-fatuous condition, from which it was next to impossible to arouse them, and others became violently insane; others, still, committed suicide; while those who stood the ordeal better were not generally reformed, and in most cases did not recover suffcient mental activity to be of any subsequent service to the community.
Prolonged isolation was used sparingly, if at all, by most American prisons for almost a century. Our first supermax—our first institution specifically designed for mass solitary confinement—was not established until 1983, in Marion, Illinois. In 1995, a federal court reviewing California’s first supermax admitted that the conditions “hover on the edge of what is humanly tolerable for those with normal resilience.” But it did not rule them to be unconstitutionally cruel or unusual, except in cases of mental illness. The prison’s supermax conditions, the court stated, did not pose “a sufficiently high risk to all inmates of incurring a serious mental illness.” In other words, there could be no legal objection to its routine use, given that the isolation didn’t make everyone crazy. The ruling seemed to fit the public mood. By the end of the nineteen-nineties, some sixty supermax institutions had opened across the country. And new solitary-confinement units were established within nearly all of our ordinary maximum-security prisons.
The number of prisoners in these facilities has since risen to extraordinary levels. America now holds at least twenty-five thousand inmates in isolation in supermax prisons. An additional fifty to eighty thousand are kept in restrictive segregation units, many of them in isolation, too, although the government does not release these figures. By 1999, the practice had grown to the point that Arizona, Colorado, Maine, Nebraska, Nevada, Rhode Island, and Virginia kept between five and eight per cent of their prison population in isolation, and, by 2003, New York had joined them as well. Mississippi alone held eighteen hundred prisoners in supermax—twelve per cent of its prisoners over all. At the same time, other states had just a tiny fraction of their inmates in solitary confinement. In 1999, for example, Indiana had eighty-five supermax beds; Georgia had only ten. Neither of these two states can be described as being soft on crime.
Advocates of solitary confinement are left with a single argument for subjecting thousands of people to years of isolation: What else are we supposed to do? How else are we to deal with the violent, the disruptive, the prisoners who are just too dangerous to be housed with others?
As it happens, only a subset of prisoners currently locked away for long periods of isolation would be considered truly dangerous. Many are escapees or suspected gang members; many others are in solitary for nonviolent breaches of prison rules. Still, there are some highly dangerous and violent prisoners who pose a serious challenge to prison discipline and safety. In August, I met a man named Robert Felton, who had spent fourteen and a half years in isolation in the Illinois state correctional system. He is now thirty-six years old. He grew up in the predominantly black housing projects of Danville, Illinois, and had been a force of mayhem from the time he was a child.
His crimes were mainly impulsive, rather than planned. The first time he was arrested was at the age of eleven, when he and a relative broke into a house to steal some Atari video games. A year later, he was sent to state reform school after he and a friend broke into an abandoned building and made off with paint cans, irons, and other property that they hardly knew what to do with. In reform school, he got into fights and screamed obscenities at the staff. When the staff tried to discipline him by taking away his recreation or his television privileges, his behavior worsened. He tore a pillar out of the ceiling, a sink and mirrors off the wall, doors off their hinges. He was put in a special cell, stripped of nearly everything. When he began attacking counsellors, the authorities transferred him to the maximum-security juvenile facility at Joliet, where he continued to misbehave.
Felton wasn’t a sociopath. He made friends easily. He was close to his family, and missed them deeply. He took no pleasure in hurting others. Psychiatric evaluations turned up little more than attention-deficit disorder. But he had a terrible temper, a tendency to escalate rather than to defuse confrontations, and, by the time he was released, just before turning eighteen, he had achieved only a ninth-grade education.
Within months of returning home, he was arrested again. He had walked into a Danville sports bar and ordered a beer. The barman took his ten-dollar bill.
“Then he says, ‘Naw, man, you can’t get no beer. You’re underage,’ ” Felton recounts. “I says, ‘Well, give me my ten dollars back.’ He says, ‘You ain’t getting shit. Get the hell out of here.’ ”
Felton stood his ground. The bartender had a pocket knife on the counter. “And, when he went for it, I went for it,” Felton told me. “When I grabbed the knife first, I turned around and spinned on him. I said, ‘You think you’re gonna cut me, man? You gotta be fucked up.’ ”
The barman had put the ten-dollar bill in a Royal Crown bag behind the counter. Felton grabbed the bag and ran out the back door. He forgot his car keys on the counter, though. So he went back to get the keys—“the stupid keys,” he now says ruefully—and in the fight that ensued he left the barman severely injured and bleeding. The police caught Felton fleeing in his car. He was convicted of armed robbery, aggravated unlawful restraint, and aggravated battery, and served fifteen years in prison.
He was eventually sent to the Stateville Correctional Center, a maximum-security facility in Joliet. Inside the overflowing prison, he got into vicious fights over insults and the like. About three months into his term, during a shakedown following the murder of an inmate, prison officials turned up a makeshift knife in his cell. (He denies that it was his.) They gave him a year in isolation. He was a danger, and he had to be taught a lesson. But it was a lesson that he seemed incapable of learning.
Felton’s Stateville isolation cell had gray walls, a solid steel door, no window, no clock, and a light that was kept on twenty-four hours a day. As soon as he was shut in, he became claustrophobic and had a panic attack. Like Dellelo, Anderson, and McCain, he was soon pacing back and forth, talking to himself, studying the insects crawling around his cell, reliving past events from childhood, sleeping for as much as sixteen hours a day. But, unlike them, he lacked the inner resources to cope with his situation.
Many prisoners find survival in physical exercise, prayer, or plans for escape. Many carry out elaborate mental exercises, building entire houses in their heads, board by board, nail by nail, from the ground up, or memorizing team rosters for a baseball season. McCain recreated in his mind movies he’d seen. Anderson reconstructed complete novels from memory. Yuri Nosenko, a K.G.B. defector whom the C.I.A. wrongly accused of being a double agent and held for three years in total isolation (no reading material, no news, no human contact except with interrogators) in a closet-size concrete cell near Williamsburg, Virginia, made chess sets from threads and a calendar from lint (only to have them discovered and swept away).
But Felton would just yell, “Guard! Guard! Guard! Guard! Guard!,” or bang his cup on the toilet, for hours. He could spend whole days hallucinating that he was in another world, that he was a child at home in Danville, playing in the streets, having conversations with imaginary people. Small cruelties that others somehow bore in quiet fury—getting no meal tray, for example—sent him into a rage. Despite being restrained with handcuffs, ankle shackles, and a belly chain whenever he was taken out, he managed to assault the staff at least three times. He threw his food through the door slot. He set his cell on fire by tearing his mattress apart, wrapping the stuffing in a sheet, popping his light bulb, and using the exposed wires to set the whole thing ablaze. He did this so many times that the walls of his cell were black with soot.
After each offense, prison officials extended his sentence in isolation. Still, he wouldn’t stop. He began flooding his cell, by stuffing the door crack with socks, plugging the toilet, and flushing until the water was a couple of feet deep. Then he’d pull out the socks and the whole wing would flood with wastewater.
“Flooding the cell was the last option for me,” Felton told me. “It was when I had nothing else I could do. You know, they took everything out of my cell, and all I had left was toilet water. I’d sit there and I’d say, ‘Well, let me see what I can do with this toilet water.’ ”
Felton was not allowed out again for fourteen and a half years. He spent almost his entire prison term, from 1990 to 2005, in isolation. In March, 1998, he was among the first inmates to be moved to Tamms, a new, high-tech supermax facility in southern Illinois.
“At Tamms, man, it was like a lab,” he says. Contact even with guards was tightly reduced. Cutoff valves meant that he couldn’t flood his cell. He had little ability to force a response—negative or positive—from a human being. And, with that gone, he began to deteriorate further. He ceased showering, changing his clothes, brushing his teeth. His teeth rotted and ten had to be pulled. He began throwing his feces around his cell. He became psychotic.
It is unclear how many prisoners in solitary confinement become psychotic. Stuart Grassian, a Boston psychiatrist, has interviewed more than two hundred prisoners in solitary confinement. In one in-depth study, prepared for a legal challenge of prisoner-isolation practices, he concluded that about a third developed acute psychosis with hallucinations. The markers of vulnerability that he observed in his interviews were signs of cognitive dysfunction—a history of seizures, serious mental illness, mental retardation, illiteracy, or, as in Felton’s case, a diagnosis such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, signalling difficulty with impulse control. In the prisoners Grassian saw, about a third had these vulnerabilities, and these were the prisoners whom solitary confinement had made psychotic. They were simply not cognitively equipped to endure it without mental breakdowns.
A psychiatrist tried giving Felton anti-psychotic medication. Mostly, it made him sleep—sometimes twenty-four hours at a stretch, he said. Twice he attempted suicide. The first time, he hanged himself in a noose made from a sheet. The second time, he took a single staple from a legal newspaper and managed to slash the radial artery in his left wrist with it. In both instances, he was taken to a local emergency room for a few hours, patched up, and sent back to prison.
Is there an alternative? Consider what other countries do. Britain, for example, has had its share of serial killers, homicidal rapists, and prisoners who have taken hostages and repeatedly assaulted staff. The British also fought a seemingly unending war in Northern Ireland, which brought them hundreds of Irish Republican Army prisoners committed to violent resistance. The authorities resorted to a harshly punitive approach to control, including, in the mid-seventies, extensive use of solitary confinement. But the violence in prisons remained unchanged, the costs were phenomenal (in the United States, they reach more than fifty thousand dollars a year per inmate), and the public outcry became intolerable. British authorities therefore looked for another approach.
Beginning in the nineteen-eighties, they gradually adopted a strategy that focussed on preventing prison violence rather than on delivering an ever more brutal series of punishments for it. The approach starts with the simple observation that prisoners who are unmanageable in one setting often behave perfectly reasonably in another. This suggested that violence might, to a critical extent, be a function of the conditions of incarceration. The British noticed that problem prisoners were usually people for whom avoiding humiliation and saving face were fundamental and instinctive. When conditions maximized humiliation and confrontation, every interaction escalated into a trial of strength. Violence became a predictable consequence.
So the British decided to give their most dangerous prisoners more control, rather than less. They reduced isolation and offered them opportunities for work, education, and special programming to increase social ties and skills. The prisoners were housed in small, stable units of fewer than ten people in individual cells, to avoid conditions of social chaos and unpredictability. In these reformed “Close Supervision Centres,” prisoners could receive mental-health treatment and earn rights for more exercise, more phone calls, “contact visits,” and even access to cooking facilities. They were allowed to air grievances. And the government set up an independent body of inspectors to track the results and enable adjustments based on the data.
The results have been impressive. The use of long-term isolation in England is now negligible. In all of England, there are now fewer prisoners in “extreme custody” than there are in the state of Maine. And the other countries of Europe have, with a similar focus on small units and violence prevention, achieved a similar outcome.
In this country, in June of 2006, a bipartisan national task force, the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons, released its recommendations after a yearlong investigation. It called for ending long-term isolation of prisoners. Beyond about ten days, the report noted, practically no benefits can be found and the harm is clear—not just for inmates but for the public as well. Most prisoners in long-term isolation are returned to society, after all. And evidence from a number of studies has shown that supermax conditions—in which prisoners have virtually no social interactions and are given no programmatic support—make it highly likely that they will commit more crimes when they are released. Instead, the report said, we should follow the preventive approaches used in European countries.
The recommendations went nowhere, of course. Whatever the evidence in its favor, people simply did not believe in the treatment.
I spoke to a state-prison commissioner who wished to remain unidentified. He was a veteran of the system, having been either a prison warden or a commissioner in several states across the country for more than twenty years. He has publicly defended the use of long-term isolation everywhere that he has worked. Nonetheless, he said, he would remove most prisoners from long-term isolation units if he could and provide programming for the mental illnesses that many of them have.
“Prolonged isolation is not going to serve anyone’s best interest,” he told me. He still thought that prisons needed the option of isolation. “A bad violation should, I think, land you there for about ninety days, but it should not go beyond that.”
He is apparently not alone among prison officials. Over the years, he has come to know commissioners in nearly every state in the country. “I believe that today you’ll probably find that two-thirds or three-fourths of the heads of correctional agencies will largely share the position that I articulated with you,” he said.
Commissioners are not powerless. They could eliminate prolonged isolation with the stroke of a pen. So, I asked, why haven’t they? He told me what happened when he tried to move just one prisoner out of isolation. Legislators called for him to be fired and threatened to withhold basic funding. Corrections officers called members of the crime victim’s family and told them that he’d gone soft on crime. Hostile stories appeared in the tabloids. It is pointless for commissioners to act unilaterally, he said, without a change in public opinion.
This past year, both the Republican and the Democratic Presidential candidates came out firmly for banning torture and closing the facility in Guantánamo Bay, where hundreds of prisoners have been held in years-long isolation. Neither Barack Obama nor John McCain, however, addressed the question of whether prolonged solitary confinement is torture. For a Presidential candidate, no less than for the prison commissioner, this would have been political suicide. The simple truth is that public sentiment in America is the reason that solitary confinement has exploded in this country, even as other Western nations have taken steps to reduce it. This is the dark side of American exceptionalism. With little concern or demurral, we have consigned tens of thousands of our own citizens to conditions that horrified our highest court a century ago. Our willingness to discard these standards for American prisoners made it easy to discard the Geneva Conventions prohibiting similar treatment of foreign prisoners of war, to the detriment of America’s moral stature in the world. In much the same way that a previous generation of Americans countenanced legalized segregation, ours has countenanced legalized torture. And there is no clearer manifestation of this than our routine use of solitary confinement—on our own people, in our own communities, in a supermax prison, for example, that is a thirty-minute drive from my door.
Robert Felton drifted in and out of acute psychosis for much of his solitary confinement. Eventually, however, he found an unexpected resource. One day, while he was at Tamms, he was given a new defense lawyer, and, whatever expertise this lawyer provided, the more important thing was genuine human contact. He visited regularly, and sent Felton books. Although some were rejected by the authorities and Felton was restricted to a few at a time, he devoured those he was permitted. “I liked political books,” he says. “ ‘From Beirut to Jerusalem,’ Winston Churchill, Noam Chomsky.”
That small amount of contact was a lifeline. Felton corresponded with the lawyer about what he was reading. The lawyer helped him get his G.E.D. and a paralegal certificate through a correspondence course, and he taught Felton how to advocate for himself. Felton began writing letters to politicians and prison officials explaining the misery of his situation, opposing supermax isolation, and asking for a chance to return to the general prison population. (The Illinois Department of Corrections would not comment on Felton’s case, but a spokesman stated that “Tamms houses the most disruptive, violent, and problematic inmates.”) Felton was persuasive enough that Senator Paul Simon, of Illinois, wrote him back and, one day, even visited him. Simon asked the director of the State Department of Corrections, Donald Snyder, Jr., to give consideration to Felton’s objections. But Snyder didn’t budge. If there was anyone whom Felton fantasized about taking revenge upon, it was Snyder. Felton continued to file request after request. But the answer was always no.
On July 12, 2005, at the age of thirty-three, Felton was finally released. He hadn’t socialized with another person since entering Tamms, at the age of twenty-five. Before his release, he was given one month in the general prison population to get used to people. It wasn’t enough. Upon returning to society, he found that he had trouble in crowds. At a party of well-wishers, the volume of social stimulation overwhelmed him and he panicked, headed for a bathroom, and locked himself in. He stayed at his mother’s house and kept mostly to himself.
For the first year, he had to wear an ankle bracelet and was allowed to leave home only for work. His first job was at a Papa John’s restaurant, delivering pizzas. He next found work at the Model Star Laundry Service, doing pressing. This was a steady job, and he began to settle down. He fell in love with a waitress named Brittany. They moved into a three-room house that her grandmother lent them, and got engaged. Brittany became pregnant.
This is not a story with a happy ending. Felton lost his job with the laundry service. He went to work for a tree-cutting business; a few months later, it went under. Meanwhile, he and Brittany had had a second child. She had found work as a certified nursing assistant, but her income wasn’t nearly enough. So he took a job forty miles away, at Plastipak, the plastics manufacturer, where he made seven-fifty an hour inspecting Gatorade bottles and Crisco containers as they came out of the stamping machines. Then his twenty-year-old Firebird died. The bus he had to take ran erratically, and he was fired for repeated tardiness.
When I visited Felton in Danville last August, he and Brittany were upbeat about their prospects. She was working extra shifts at a nursing home, and he was taking care of their children, ages one and two. He had also applied to a six-month training program for heating and air-conditioning technicians.
“I could make twenty dollars an hour after graduation,” he said.
“He’s a good man,” Brittany told me, taking his arm and giving him a kiss.
But he was out of work. They were chronically short of money. It was hard to be optimistic about Felton’s prospects. And, indeed, six weeks after we met, he was arrested for breaking into a car dealership and stealing a Dodge Charger. He pleaded guilty and, in January, began serving a seven-year sentence.
Before I left town—when there was still a glimmer of hope for him—we went out for lunch at his favorite place, a Mexican restaurant called La Potosina. Over enchiladas and Cokes, we talked about his family, Danville, the economy, and, of course, his time in prison. The strangest story had turned up in the news, he said. Donald Snyder, Jr., the state prison director who had refused to let him out of solitary confinement, had been arrested, convicted, and sentenced to two years in prison for taking fifty thousand dollars in payoffs from lobbyists.
“Two years in prison,” Felton marvelled. “He could end up right where I used to be.”
I asked him, “If he wrote to you, asking if you would release him from solitary, what would you do?”
Felton didn’t hesitate for a second. “If he wrote to me to let him out, I’d let him out,” he said.
This surprised me. I expected anger, vindictiveness, a desire for retribution. “You’d let him out?” I said.
“I’d let him out,” he said, and he put his fork down to make the point. “I wouldn’t wish solitary confinement on anybody. Not even him.” ♦