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The prison within a prison

The prison within a prison

Published: September 9, 2015

The UN has said that long-term solitary confinement amounts to torture, but U.S. prisons continue to hold tens of thousands of people in isolation for months, even years.

Ojore Lutalo was 37 years old when he entered Trenton State Prison, a maximum security facility in New Jersey. He spent most of the next three decades of his life there, including 22 years in solitary confinement.

His cell measured 9 feet by 14 feet—about the size of a parking stall—and consisted of four concrete walls, a stainless steel sink and toilet, and a bedframe and mattress.

“I was locked down in my cell 24 hours one day, 22 hours the following day,” Ojore says. “This continued day in and day out, year in and year out. I didn’t know how long I was going to be there.”

That prison cell became Ojore’s entire world.

Meals were delivered through a slot in the steel door. On days that Ojore was allowed out for recreation or a shower, a guard shackled his wrists through that same slot before opening the door. His recreation space was another concrete-enclosed pen, surrounded by high walls, with a view of the sky through steel bars.

During the few visits Ojore was permitted from visitors, he was separated from them by a Plexiglass window and had to communicate by phone. The only physical contact he experienced in those 22 years came from the prison guards who routinely strip searched him.

To maintain his sanity, Ojore created a schedule for himself: Wake up. Read for an hour. Exercise for an hour. Write letters. Eventually, he started creating collages to document his experience using magazines, newspapers, and glue.

Tear, fold. Tear, fold. Tear, fold, glue. Sometimes he’d spend the whole day working on a collage.

By the time Ojore was finally released from solitary confinement into the general prison population, he was nearly 65 years old. “Surviving isolation is 90 percent psychological,” he says. “A lot of the prisoners couldn’t cope with the constant lockdown. They deteriorate mentally. But I didn’t want them to break me.”

“I’m afraid of myself”

At any given time, more than 80,000 men, women, and children are held in solitary confinement in prisons across the United States, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, although that figure doesn’t include people in jails, juvenile facilities, and immigrant detention centers. Nearly every state uses some form of solitary confinement, but there’s no federal reporting system that tracks how many people are isolated at any given time.

Solitary goes by a number of names—administrative segregation, special housing units, communications management units, permanent lockdown, management control units—but the basic idea is the same: Inmates are removed from the general prison population, placed in small rooms (often smaller than the cell that Ojore occupied in Trenton), and deprived of human contact for about 23 hours per day. Inmates eat, sleep, and defecate in this space.

The isolation can be temporary, but since the 1980s, solitary confinement lasting months, years, even decades has become common in correctional facilities across the country. There are now dozens of so-called “supermax”—or super maximum-security—prisons, made up almost entirely of units built for long-term isolation.

Bonnie Kerness, director of AFSC's Prison Watch Program in Newark, NJ“There might be a good reason to place a person in isolation for 10 hours, even a day, but 22 years? There’s no reason for it,” says Bonnie Kerness, director of AFSC’s Prison Watch Project in Newark, New Jersey, which monitors human rights abuses in federal and state prisons.

Since the 1990s, the United Nations Committee Against Torture has repeatedly condemned the use of solitary confinement in the U.S. In 2011, the U.N. special rapporteur on torture warned that solitary confinement “can amount to torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment when used as a punishment, during pre-trial detention, indefinitely or for a prolonged period, for persons with mental disabilities, or juveniles.”

In 2014, AFSC submitted a “shadow report” to the U.N. Committee Against Torture, featuring testimonies from people subjected to long-term isolation. Many of those testimonies came from the letters AFSC’s Newark office receives from thousands of prisoners every year—letters that go back to 1986, when Ojore first contacted AFSC from solitary confinement in Trenton.

It’s difficult to imagine what isolation can do to a person, Bonnie says. “I tell our interns to spend just four hours in their bathroom to get a taste of what it’s like—most of them don’t last the whole time.”

Multiple studies have documented the harmful psychological effects of long-term isolation. The conditions that inmates face amount to sensory deprivation, which can produce debilitating symptoms—hallucinations, panic attacks, hypersensitivity to noise and touch, paranoia, uncontrollable feelings of rage and fear, and difficulty with thinking, concentration, and memory.

These effects are magnified for two particularly vulnerable populations: juveniles, whose brains are still developing, and people with mental health issues, who are estimated to make up one-third of all prisoners in isolation.

“Prisoners who are prone to depression … will become very depressed in isolated confinement,” wrote psychiatrist Terry Kupers of the Wright Institute in 2006. “People who are prone to suicide ideation and attempts will become more suicidal in that setting. People who are prone to disorders of mood, either bipolar … or depressive will become that and will have a breakdown in that direction.”

Study after study in correctional facilities across the country confirm that solitary confinement makes prisoners more of a danger to themselves and others.

“One of the arguments for solitary confinement is to isolate people who are considered dangerous to reduce violence in prisons, but what we’ve found is that solitary actually increases violence,” says Caroline Isaacs, program director at AFSC’s Arizona office, which has published several reports on solitary confinement. “People in solitary start to act out more, and it exposes staff to a tremendous amount of risk.”

The profound impact of isolation on inmates can threaten public safety outside of the prison walls, too. Because prisons often hold people in solitary confinement until they complete their sentences, thousands of inmates are annually released directly from isolation into the community. More often than not, they haven’t received counseling, anger management classes, or other rehabilitative services provided to others in prison. Not surprisingly, they’re more likely to recidivate.

In 2012, AFSC’s Arizona office published a report based on the research of University of Arizona anthropologist Brackette Williams, who had interviewed dozens of former inmates who had spent long stretches in solitary.

“Many of them were living in the desert because they couldn’t hold down jobs, and they couldn’t stand to be in homeless shelters, either,” Caroline says. “What you hear from them is, ‘I can’t be around people.’ One person even told us, ‘I’m afraid of myself.’”

Defenders of solitary confinement claim that it is reserved for only the most violent offenders, but in practice, that often isn’t the case.

Prison officials have broad discretion in deciding who gets placed in lockdown and for how long, says Laura Magnani, director of AFSC’s Healing Justice Program in San Francisco. Some prisoners are placed in solitary for minor infractions, such as talking back to a guard or getting caught with a pack of cigarettes. And a large number are placed in solitary without violating any rules at all.

That’s what happened to Ojore at Trenton State Prison. He was incarcerated after an armed robbery conviction, but he was placed in solitary confinement because of his affiliation with the Black Liberation Army.

In California and other states, prison officials have used solitary confinement as a tool to manage rival gangs, but even the smallest “infractions” have landed prisoners in isolation—from talking with another suspected gang member to possessing images of ancient Aztec drawings, which have been associated with Latino gangs.

“It’s a very sophisticated kind of racial profiling,” says Laura. “About 90 percent of those in solitary in California are people of color.”

Signs of progress

In 2013, California Families Against Solitary Confinement marched to support hunger strikers at Pelican Bay and other prisons. Photo: Tudor Stanley

In 2013, California made international headlines when 30,000 prisoners across the state went on a 60-day hunger strike in protest of solitary confinement. Two earlier hunger strikes had taken place in 2011 at Pelican Bay State Prison, a supermax facility near the Oregon border. Members of four prison gangs representing different racial groups initiated each of the strikes, and support was provided by California Families Against Solitary Confinement and dozens of organizations, including AFSC.

Laura is part of the mediation team chosen by inmates to represent them in discussions with the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Since the hunger strikes, the state has made permanent a pilot “step-down” program to release inmates from solitary. Of the more than 1,000 inmates whose cases have been reviewed, over 70 percent have returned to the general prison population.

On Sept. 1, California announced that it would overhaul its use of solitary confinement, as part of a landmark legal setlement against the state. The settlement includes prohibiting placing people in in-definite solitary confinement based solely on presumed gang involvement.

“The robust work of prisoners in solitary confinement, their family members, and lawyers and other activists on the outside have brought about a significant victory in our attempts to end long term isolation in California,” Laura says. “The movement has really been led by the individuals inside prison.”

In Michigan, AFSC's work with individuals in prison informs advocacy on the institutional and state levels. Photo: Jon Krieg/AFSCIn Ann Arbor, Michigan, AFSC has worked closely with the Michigan Department of Corrections to cut the number of solitary beds in the state from 1,400 to 1,100 over the past four years, partly by moving people with mental health issues out of isolation and increasing access to mental health services.

Director Natalie Holbrook and program associate Peter Martel work with a team of interns to support individual inmates and look for patterns in their experiences. The data they collect from the more than 1,200 prisoners who contact them annually helps them push for systemic changes.

“Hearing from people allows us to keep our finger on the pulse to figure out what’s going on with administrative segregation in the state,” Natalie says. “We do a lot of individual advocacy to help get people out of long-term administrative segregation while raising awareness about the use or overuse of it.”

And these days, Ojore is free, after winning litigation in 2009 with support from AFSC. He now volunteers in AFSC’s Newark office and gives presentations around the country about his 22 years in solitary confinement, using the collages he made while in prison to illustrate the torture he endured.

“It’s hard to believe that this could happen in America,” Ojore says. “But what could happen to me could happen to anyone.” 

—RONNA BOLANTE