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Lifetime Lockdown: Mike's Story

Looking out through solitary confinement door
Photo: Martin Vargas

To some, Mike (not his real name) may fit the stereotype of someone who accepted his role as a repeat offender. In and out of Arizona prisons for 40 years, he never managed more than a few years of freedom at a time, and usually less; he often returned to prison within a few days or months.

But a closer examination of Mike’s story reveals a cycle of dysfunction. He didn’t want to stay in prison; he wanted a life outside. Yet after years of being held in isolation for 23 hours a day, he didn’t know how to stay out, and the people in a position to help were not prepared to deal with his condition.

Mike shared his story as part of Project Homecoming, a study that included interviews with more than 40 former prisoners who had spent at least a year in one of Arizona’s super-maximum security prisons. The study is the basis for a new AFSC report, Lifetime Lockdown: How Isolation Conditions Impact Prisoner Reentry.

The report focuses on prisoners’ transition process after being held in isolation for years at a time and on the ability of these individuals to survive, let alone succeed, in society.

One of its driving questions is how spending years alone with little meaningful interaction with others influences a prisoner's possibilities for successful social reintegration. It finds that many of the policies of the Arizona Department of Corrections hinder reentry prospects for former prisoners. For example, ADC policies prohibit maximum-security prisoners from participating in education, including distance learning that they fund themselves, while in isolation.

The new report and its predecessor, the 2007 AFSC report Buried Alive, also document the psychological effects of solitary confinement. Social services agencies are largely unaware of the special needs of prisoners released directly from isolation, so they are unprepared to address them.

Given the length and number of Mike’s periods of incarceration, his experiences demonstrate both the shifts that took place in the ADC over several decades and the personal impacts of isolation.

Mike's Lifetime Lockdown

Mike was one of the first people to enter Arizona’s first supermax prison and one of the first to enter the second one as well.

He was also among the first group of prisoners classified for supermax incarceration based on a "security threat group" policy that identified him as affiliated with a prison gang; he asserted that he was not actively involved in a gang, but was assigned this status based primarily on his race.

When he first entered supermax, life in a cell was not new to him. However, he never adjusted to the increased use of prolonged isolation. He described those first years in supermax as some of the most violent prison environments he ever experienced.

By a conservative estimate, he spent more than 80 percent of his incarceration in isolation, including short periods of four to six months and longer periods of one and a half to three and a half years. His longest stay in supermax lasted nearly five years.

Even when he was released, he was usually under state supervision, and he had trouble meeting the conditions of his parole.

On one occasion, he deliberately violated parole. He was struggling to follow the daily plans it required, and the schizophrenia medication he was taking made him feel “too high to make it worthwhile to be out of prison,” he said.

His failure to remain out of prison weighed heavily on him and only increased the anger he felt with himself. Characteristic of post-traumatic stress disorder, he displaced his self-anger primarily onto prison staff, but also onto any other prisoner who tried to exert “any sort of control” over him. His label as a member of a prison gang ensured that his misbehavior was viewed as deliberate trouble-making rather than as symptoms of mental illness or PTSD. As a result, Mike continued to spend long and frequent stints in isolation.

He described the conditions in isolation and their impact on him:

Isolation was 24-7 locked down; just like SMU II, just like the hole over there in [the Tucson unit where he had previously been held in isolation]. They took us to the shower, handcuffed, from behind. [They] let us shower for five minutes, and then, took us back to our cell. They would let us out for an hour a day to, uh, clean out the cell and the pod. And well, they let us shower three times a week, but they let us out for an hour every other day to [exercise], so that every other day thing was when you did your one hour out of the cell.  Most of the time you [would be] locked down. So you’re locked down more than just 24-7. They added a little bit more onto it for those that were, [STG] associated, you know. [By added on, he meant that STG prisoners in isolation often went for two or more weeks with no release time for showers and exercise.] Yeah it was very, uh, [very long pause, with his eyes closed and head down] Oh man…

Building a Life on the Outside

Mike had entered prison with a high school education and an honorable discharge from the armed services. By the 1990s, in his time outside of prison he had earned a college certificate in counseling. “I’m no dummy…I would like to work, but I can’t find something I can do,” he said during one of the interviews.

In 2008, for only the second time in his life since he was first incarcerated, he was free of all forms of state supervision. He moved in with one of his two sisters. He stayed out of trouble until he was arrested later that year for driving under the influence. He had turned to alcohol largely to manage chronic pain in a body that, he said, was merely showing the consequences of four decades of prison conditions.

Suffering from a range of health ailments, he had little time to look for employment or seek independent housing. Still, given his long prison record, he said that even if he were healthy, he expects he would have difficulty finding living-wage employment.

At the time of his Project Homecoming interviews, Mike was taking medications to help him manage schizophrenia, paranoia, PTSD, and stage-four cancer (diagnosed after his release from prison). He indicated that he wanted to try to make a life for himself out of prison and “find someone to love.” He was supporting himself and managing his medical and mental health issues on the $985 per month he received as disability payment from the veterans administration.

Looking five years into the future, Mike had this to say:

Well, five years from now I’m hoping to be…comfortably remarried…able to love somebody again, because I haven’t really been able to experience love. Every woman I’ve been with, she ends up having to deal with my…attitude, [not] like [my] present attitude. And, my violent actions; like I’ve been locked up, you know what I mean. Being locked up in isolation had a real effect on me.

Mike paused for a long time, perhaps looking for the right words to capture so many varied experiences. He resumed, “[Isolation] made me really hate and wanna kill.  Seriously…it was real, not imagined.”

Mike was the oldest Project Homecoming participant. Since participating and prior to the publication of Lifetime Lockdown, Mike passed away.