March 6, 2013
Man Spends 2 Years In Solitary After DWI Arrest

A New Mexico man who said he was forced to pull his own tooth while in solitary confinement because he was denied access to a dentist has been awarded $22 million due to inhumane treatment by New Mexico’s Dona Ana County Jail.
While in solitary confinement, a prisoner is entitled to one hour per day out of the cell, but often times, Slevin wasn’t even granted that, Coyte said. He was deprived of showers and grew fungus underneath his skin. He lost his will to even want to get out and live in the outside world, Coyte told

God bless America.


February 21, 2013
George Will: 'Solitary' A Crazy Way To Run Prisons

George Will is killing it recently on criminal justice issues.  So glad to see a Conservative columnist writing about government overreach in the criminal justice system, especially since orthodox American Conservatives typically wash their hands of the criminal justice system out of a misplaced sense of aggression and condemnation for those that find themselves on the wrong side of the law, by hook or by crook.

June 21, 2012
Solitary Confinement (Still) Makes You Crazy

Via L.A. Times:

For most of his 12 years on death row, Anthony Graves lived in what he called an 8-by-12 “cage.” To see outside he would stand on top of his rolled-up plastic mattress and look through a small window at the top of the concrete wall in the back of his cell. He spent 22, sometimes 24, hours a day in this room.

"Solitary confinement does one thing: It breaks a man’s will to live and he ends up deteriorating. He’s never the same person again," said Graves, who served over 18 years in a Texas prison before being exonerated of all crimes in 2010.

Speaking at what was described as the first congressional hearing about solitary confinement, Graves told a Senate Judiciary Committee subcommittee that the practice was "inhumane and by its design is driving men insane."

When 18th century prison reformers first began experimenting with solitary confinement, they believed it was the most humane punishment that could be visited on a person short of death.  But after seeing what it did to prisoners, not a few jurists had a change of heart, referring to solitary confinement a “greater evil than certain death.” (See Haney & Lynch, 1997).  It was reported in late 18th century American newspapers that prisoners housed in solitary confinement “[begged], with the greatest of earnestness, that they be hanged out of their misery[.]”  (see id.).  

Solitary confinement was a universal failure everywhere it was tried in the late 17th and early 18th century.  It singularly destroys prisoners from the inside out, making them more mentally unstable, and thus an even greater threat to themselves and others than when they were first placed in solitary confinement to begin with.  Even the most optimistic prisoners often find that they cannot bear complete and enduring isolation.  Consider the experience of Bobby Dellelo, an inmate who thought he could take it:

“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.

Atul Gawande’s article, linked above, notes the experience of several survivors of solitary confinement.  He recalls the experience of journalist Terry Anderson, who was captured in Beirut in the 80’s:

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.

Here’s Senator John McCain’s experience:

“It’s an awful thing, solitary … It crushes your spirit and weakens your resistance more effectively than any other form of mistreatment.”

Gawande also notes a study that took place in 1992, which looked at 57 prisoners of war who were released from prison camps in former Yugoslavia.  Medical examinations of the prisoners revealed brain abnormalities, consistent with a person “who had endured either head trauma sufficient to render them unconscious.”  Which is to say that long-term solitary confinement inflicts brain damage on its victims equivalent to suffering a severe concussion.

Solitary confinement does more than drive you crazy.  It literally does physical damage.  It destroys your brain.  There are few things more cruel or inhumane than placing a human being in a metal box for 23 hours a day, with no human contact and very little to keep themselves occupied.  There are also few things more counterproductive from a standpoint of institutional security in corrections facilities.  

It’s good to see that it’s finally getting some attention on Capital Hill.  But given the bi-partisan consensus on being tough on crime, I don’t predict a graceful expulsion* anytime soon.

*with apologies to Cold Specks.

March 13, 2012
"[D]ry words on paper can not adequately capture the senseless suffering and sometimes wretched misery that defendants’ unconstitutional practices leave in their wake. The anguish of descending into serious mental illness, the pain of physical abuse, or the torment of having serious medical needs that simply go unmet is profoundly difficult, if not impossible, to fully fathom, no matter how long or detailed the trial record may be."

— Madrid v. Gomez, 899 F.Supp. 1146, 1280 (N.D. Cal. 1995).  In this 152 page opinion, the court addressed the question of whether the petitioners, representing a class of prisoners at Pelican Bay State Prison in California, were subject to conditions of imprisonment which violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.  Despite this powerful, emotional language, the court’s final order was somewhat scattered, ruling in favor of the petitioners on some issues and against them on others.  

March 9, 2012

I’ve been in the S.H.U. [secure housing unit] for over 6 1/2 years where I’ve been locked in a cell for 23 to 24 hour[s] a day 7 days a week. in March of 2002 I had a mental breakdown because of being in S.H.U. and I attempted suicide by swallowing 150 pills. I was saved and sent to Central New York Psychiatric Center for treatment where I stayed for about 7 weeks. I was then discharged and sent to Wende Correctional Facility…

Upon my arrival at Wende I was put in an observation cell in the mental health unit where I was kept for 25 days in a strip cell. I was mistreated and denied everything. There was no heat in the place. I was put in a dirty, bloody cell. I was jumped and assaulted by correctional officers, and was left unattended to by the mental health staff. In the time I was there I continually requested to be sent back to CNYPC for further treatment because I went into a relapses [sic] and could not bare being locked in a cell 24/7 again. Instead the mental health staff took me off my mental health anti-depression medication and told me that they was not going to send me back to CNYPC no matter what I did or said.

In the course of the 25 days I spent in M.H.U. I attempted suicide 3 times. Twice I was rushed to Erie County Medical Center for treatment and sent back to Wende where I was again placed in M.H.U. and left without any king of further medical or mental health care. I Told the head mental health staff that I can’t stay locked in a cell 24/7 anymore and that if they sent me back to S.H.U. that I’ll kill myself. They said I’ll just have to do that and they sent me back to S.H.U. and was taken to E.C.M.C. for treatment again and then sent back to Wende and back in S.H.U.

Right now I don’t know what more to do. I’m writing this letter in hopes that someone will do something about the way these people in the mental health department here treats people, after I’m gone because I simply cannot carry on no more like this[.] I hope that my death will being about some good, if not at least I’ll finally find some peace.


— Prisoner C.X., New York, July 28, 2002, from Report, NYSBA Committee on Civil Rights (2012), pg. 82.

March 9, 2012
I’ll be digging through this for the next seven hours.
Hold my calls.

I’ll be digging through this for the next seven hours.

Hold my calls.

March 6, 2012
Drafting A Resolution For Prisoner’s Rights

On Friday, I will be meeting with the Executive Director of Prisoner’s Legal Services of New York to discuss drafting a resolution to be (hopefully) adopted by the American Bar Association, condemning the use of long-term solitary confinement in both federal and state penal institutions.  It’s a pro bono project, and I’ve already done some preliminary research in this area, so it should be an interesting project, to say the least.  And if the stars align, perhaps the ABA will adopt it at the next delegates meeting, which would be a phenomenal step forward for prisoner’s rights in America.

The draft should be completed by the end of March.  If I’m not bound under any non-disclosure requirements, I’ll share an unofficial copy here with you all when I’m done.  Until then, you’ll just have to get by on pictures of cute animals.

March 6, 2012
"Please torture me in the old way … Here they destroy people mentally and physically without leaving marks."

Letters From Guantanamo. (via lukehackney)

(via lukehackney)

March 5, 2012
"[T]here is not a single published study of solitary or supermax-like confinement in which nonvoluntary confinement lasting for longer than 10 days, where participants were unable to terminate their isolation at will, that failed to result in negative psychological effects. The damaging effects ranged in severity and included such clinically significant symptoms as hypertension, uncontrollable anger, hallucinations, emotional breakdowns, chronic depression, and suicidal thoughts and behavior."

Craig Haney, Mental Health Issues in Long-Term Solitary and “Supermax” Confinement, 49 Crime & Delinq. 124 (Jan. 2003).

May 15, 2011
Is Solitary Confinement Torture?

Thomas Silverstein, who has been held in Federal Prison under a “no human contact” order for 28 years, describes his experience in “the side pocket” cell which has become his world:

The cell was so small that I could stand in one place and touch both walls simultaneously. The ceiling was so low that I could reach up and touch the hot light fixture.

My bed took up the length of the cell, and there was no other furniture at all…The walls were solid steel and painted all white.

I was permitted to wear underwear, but I was given no other clothing.

Shortly after I arrived, the prison staff began construction on the side pocket cell, adding more bars and other security measures to the cell while I was within it. In order not to be burned by sparks and embers while they welded more iron bars across the cell, I had to lie on my bed and cover myself with a sheet.

It is hard to describe the horror I experienced during this construction process. As they built new walls around me it felt like I was being buried alive. It was terrifying.

During my first year in the side pocket cell I was completely isolated from the outside world and had no way to occupy my time. I was not allowed to have any social visits, telephone privileges, or reading materials except a bible. I was not allowed to have a television, radio, or tape player. I could speak to no one and their was virtually nothing on which to focus my attention.

I was not only isolated, but also disoriented in the side pocket. This was exacerbated by the fact that I wasn’t allowed to have a wristwatch or clock. In addition, the bright, artificial lights remained on in the cell constantly, increasing my disorientation and making it difficult to sleep. Not only were they constantly illuminated, but those lights buzzed incessantly. The buzzing noise was maddening, as there often were no other sounds at all. This may sound like a small thing, but it was my entire world.

Due to the unchanging bright artificial lights and not having a wristwatch or clock, I couldn’t tell if it was day or night. Frequently, I would fall asleep and when I woke up I would not know if I had slept for five minutes or five hours, and would have no idea of what day or time of day it was.

I tried to measure the passing of days by counting food trays. Without being able to keep track of time, though, sometimes I thought the officers had left me and were never coming back. I thought they were gone for days, and I was going to starve. It’s likely they were only gone for a few hours, but I had no way to know.

I was so disoriented in Atlanta that I felt like I was in an episode of the twilight zone. I now know that I was housed there for about four years, but I would have believed it was a decade if that is what I was told. It seemed eternal and endless and immeasurable…

There was no air conditioning or heating in the side pocket cells. During the summer, the heat was unbearable. I would pour water on the ground and lay naked on the floor in an attempt to cool myself…

The only time I was let out of my cell was for outdoor recreation. I was allowed one hour a week of outdoor recreation. I could not see any other inmates or any of the surrounding landscape during outdoor recreation. There was no exercise equipment and nothing to do…

My vision deteriorated in the side pocket, I think due to the constant bright lights, or possibly also because of other aspects of this harsh environment. Everything began to appear blurry and I became sensitive to light, which burned my eyes and gave me headaches.

Nearly all of the time, the officers refused to speak to me. Despite this, I heard people who I believed to be officers whispering into my vents, telling me they hated me and calling me names. To this day, I am not sure if the officers were doing this to me, or if I was starting to lose it and these were hallucinations.

In the side pocket cell, I lost some ability to distinguished what was real. I dreamt I was in prison. When I woke up, I was not sure which was reality and which was a dream.

Silverstein’s solitary confinement resulted from his killing 2 fellow inmates and a prison guard, which he claims was done in self-defense.  He is now arguing that his confinement violates the 8th Amendment’s prohibition on Cruel and Unusual punishment, as well as his guarantee of Due Process.

This case shouldn’t concern you because Silverstein doesn’t deserve to be punished; he does.  Indeed, Silverstein himself acknowledges his own guilt and understands that he deserves to live the rest of his life in prison.  However, there are three issues here: the first is the appropriate level of culpability for his actions: if indeed he did act in self-defense, then these killings were justified, and he certainly does not deserve to be put in solitary confinement for 28 years.  

The second issue concerns the negative externalities of solitary confinement: harsh punishments can do more to encourage criminal behavior than to stop it.  How on earth should we expect anyone to leave prison rehabilitated after being subject to punishments which result in severe psychological damage?  It would make more sense to replace any extended solitary confinement sentence with a de facto life sentence without parole, since these individuals are highly likely to either a) be incapable of functioning at normal capacity upon release, or b) re-offend based on their substantial alienation from society.

The third issue is the imperfection of our Criminal Justice System; for the vast majority of crimes, it is empirically impossible for our criminal justice system to prove that any crime happened with 100% certainty.  That’s why we have burdens of proof like “preponderance of evidence” and “beyond a reasonable doubt” rather than “with 100% certainty.”  100% certainty often isn’t possible.  We want to be as sure as we can that someone is guilty before we put them away.  But even if our system is 99% accurate, that means 1 in every 100 criminal trials result in an innocent person being put away for a crime they didn’t commit.  That’s what is at stake when we talk about these kinds of harsh punishments.  What if that prison guard he killed really was killed in self-defense?  Is it really all that far-fetched given the frequency with which prisoners are abused?  If such is true, then we’ve subject a man to an extremely severe form of punishment which, even if you assume isn’t cruel and unusual, he nonetheless did not deserve in the first place.  Punishing someone for a crime they didn’t commit is scary enough.  Subjecting them to the equivalent of psychological torture is far, far worse.

When we acknowledge the necessity of the Criminal Justice System, we must also acknowledge its limits: one of those limits is the ability to know the facts of a “crime” with 100% certainty in most circumstances.  Given that limitation, we should not be subjecting even serious criminals to this sort of treatment.  Why?  Because they might not be a criminal at all.  And there’s more of them than you think.

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