Examining Solitary Confinement

The leading Democratic candidates for president in 2020 have at long last agreed that abolishing this atrocity is an essential part of criminal-justice reform. It is up to us to hold them to their words.

When you hear or read the words “solitary confinement,” what images form in your mind?

A naughty inmate spending some time in a kind of “time out” space wearing a hang-dog expression?

A lonely prisoner in a tiny dark cell gazing at light from the slit of a window, with maybe half a bowl of dirty drinking water at his feet?

A mentally ill man who, after 112 consecutive days of solitary, has just severed his penis with a razor and flushed it down his cell’s toilet? 

One of these things is not like the others.

All three images are rooted in the dark dominion of solitary confinement. Only one of them burns through the fog of euphemism and forces a reckoning with a terrible truth—in this case, one of the most perverse, destructive, and unnecessary varieties of soul-murder yet devised by man.

The topic “solitary confinement” has been raised lately (and gingerly, and fleetingly) by several candidates for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination: raised as an agenda item in their calls for repairing the fissures in America’s criminal-justice system. (Criminal-justice reform is tightly intertwined with reform of our negligent systems of mental healthcare in America.)

Dorothea Dix

The candidates have in turn been influenced—inspired—by the efforts of a bright new coalition of mental-health reform advocates: parents, mostly, spurred to action by the death or deep psychosis of a beloved child. Polite yet unyielding, ferociously informed, they amount to a neo-Dorothea Dix approach to getting justice for the dispossessed. 

Iowa is their perfectly chosen beachhead. Not only does the state offer an early concentration of corndog-chewing candidates for them to buttonhole. Iowa City is the home of the turbo-charged advocacy team of Scott and Leslie Carpenter. Armed with an exhaustive five-point bill of particulars for mental healthcare reform compiled by the California advocate DeDe Moon Ranahan, the Carpenters essentially have brought the grass roots onto equal footing with the political elite—on this issue, at least.

But why shine the spotlight on solitary confinement when the justice reform agendas are crowded with so many other “big-ticket” demands? Cutting the U.S. prison population in half comes to mind, as do ending the notorious “cash bail” system that keeps poor young inmates locked up only because they can’t afford otherwise; or tightening up on police oversight; or legalizing marijuana; or abolishing private prisons. 

Here is the reason: I sense that of all these important, difficult-to-achieve goals, the abolishing of solitary is among the easiest to bring up and then dismiss: the one most vulnerable to lip service.

Thomas Edward Silverstein

And that would be a colossal shame. Stuffing sentient human beings into small, dark, fetid enclosures and leaving them there is about the worst thing it is possible to do to one’s fellow man. The American record for duration in solitary was held by a triple murderer named Thomas Silverstein, who died just last May at age 67. He’d spent more than half his life in isolation. 

It borders on the impossible to find shared humanity with a monster like Silverstein. Yet traces of his humanity struggle to declare themselves like green shoots through cracked pavement. “It’s almost more humane to kill someone immediately than it is to intentionally bury a man alive,” he wrote. For one superb writer’s searching attempt, read Pete Earley’s masterful 1992 book, The Hot House: Life Inside Leavenworth Prison.

Or return for a moment to the lost soul who severed his penis with a razor. That would be the mentally ill inmate identified by his initials, J.I., a solitary inmate at Broward County Jail in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. On the night of September 2018, jail guards, alerted by prisoners’ shouting in a lockdown unit, rushed to the scene, where they beheld J.I., his hands and forearms bloody, who told them: “I have a real medical emergency. I just cut my penis off and flushed it down the toilet. I have no need for it anymore.”

J.I., who survived, had sat in solitary for 112 consecutive days. He’d been sent there for yelling at staff members. Records showed that guards had been negligent in monitoring his therapeutic needs. 1

Solitary is patently barbaric; bereft of any use (other than convenience and a lust for inflicting psychic pain).  It is a legalized yet likely unconstitutional torture which, I have come to believe, is slightly more heinous even than the death penalty: its victims, while not dead, experience death as their own observers, existing in claustrophobic isolation and silence and darkness and decay, with no definable release awaiting them. 

And so in order to tolerate it as public policy or even as a thought, some self-anesthetizing helps. (Those charged with actually imposing it on human beings presumably develop tougher psychic scar tissue.)  “Solitary confinement” is a term useful for the necessary numbing: an abstraction, one of those “Orwellian” constructions that serve more to camouflage than to evoke their full, and usually terrifying implications. 

That very abstraction is dangerous. It can too easily lead to evaporation.  

This blog, then, is a plea to those presidential candidates who have made the abolition of solitary confinement a part of their criminal-justice reform demands: Do not let this happen. Honor the constituency that has materialized in Iowa and exists throughout the nation. Keep this issue alive. 

In subsequent blogs I will trace the peculiar origins of solitary confinement in America, and will look into some of the lesser-known forms of its use—for example, as an instrument of control for juvenile inmates and even schoolchildren.

I will close this blog with a soaring testimony of hope, resilience, faith, and self-reclamation written by a former criminal and solitary inmate named Thomas Tarrants, and published in the August 19 edition of Christianity Today. 2 It was sent to me by my friend, the literary scholar Harold K. Bush of St. Louis University. Thank you, amigo.

An Insane Consequence, and a Monstrous Violation-in-Progress

Unless a national petition sponsored by an Arkansas social-justice group succeeds (see the bottom of this blog), the life of a hopelessly insane man will be extinguished by the Arkansas Department of Corrections on November 9, less than two weeks away at this writing.

Jack Greene was convicted of murder in 1991. Greene’s lifelong history of suffering abuse, organic brain damage, psychotic disorder, and intellectual impairment amount to traditional grounds for being spared the death penalty. That history cries out for psychiatric attention and, yes, perhaps lifelong confinement. But not death. Yet, as this essay by Jessica Brand of Injustice Today reveals, Greene’s legal representation has been spectacularly clueless and negligent. The jury in his capital murder trial never received evidence of the manifold damages to his brain.

Jack Greene is the embodiment of what can (and often does) happen when a state criminal-justice system loses its fundamental sense of justice. But he is also a maimed human being who does not deserve to die for the violence impelled by a deformed brain.

Please sign the petition below, and repost this–and help in the effort to ward off what Brand rightly calls “a stain on our country’s moral conscience.”

Commentary: “It Is So Loud Inside My Head”
The words of a mentally ill man the state of Arkansas hopes to execute on November 9th

via Injustice Today

Photo: Arkansas Department of Correction

Photo: Arkansas Department of Correction

It is so loud inside my head. It feels like electrical impulses are going through my head all the time. If you took that pen and tapped it on the table I can feel it all the way down my spinal column. It is so loud inside my head.”

Those are Jack Greene’s words. He is the 62-year-old man that the state of Arkansas hopes to execute on November 9th for the 1991 killing of Sidney Burnett. Greene suffers from crippling psychiatric deficits, a possible intellectual disability, and a mental illness so severe that there are questions about his competency. He received such grossly inadequate representation at trial that the jury that sentenced him to death never heard of his devastating mental illness — a refrain all too familiar in capital cases. The state is aware of the glaring problems in Greene’s case, but it still hopes to execute him next month.

Greene, for example, regularly stuffs his ears and nose with paper “to alleviateperceived (but delusional) injuries.” Sometimes he intentionally causes his nose to bleed, and guards discover his face covered with blood. He eats out of his sink; his toilet is his desk. He thinks his central nervous system is totally destroyed, caused by, in his words,

[t]he prolong and repeated injuries on me . . . by staff of the Ark. Dept. of Corrections with the deliberate permanent destruction of such vital bodily functioning organs that’s caused injuries so severe and traumaticly [sic] inflicted to my brain, head, left inner ear, etc. . . . for all of which is so painfully torturing and inhumane I can no longer humanly function properly and live with.

He believes that his ex-attorney, the prison warden, a nurse, and a prison guard have conspired together (in that “chronological order”) to destroy “these vital functioning organs,” and that they are also preventing him from being extradited to North Carolina, where he could receive adequate medical care. He thinks his looming execution is part of this conspiracy.

Doctors believe Greene has organic brain damage. He has had a serious head injury in the past, and neuropsychological testing reveals damage to his frontal lobes. Several experts who have examined him have diagnosed him with a psychotic disorder, and his current lawyers are certain he is not competent to be executed. He also might be intellectually disabled, a status that, like incompetence, would render him categorically ineligible for the death penalty.

Then there is the trauma and the familial mental illness visible in many of Greene’s relatives. Greene’s father killed himself when Greene was an infant. His mother would later overdose on pain pills, and his brother later shot himself. Greene’s grandfather physically abused him and his siblings, sometimes rubbing salt in the wounds he caused. Greene lived in a house with no running water, electricity, or plumbing. At eleven, his grandfather handed him over to a notorious state-run training school for boys. While there, Greene was sexually and physically abused.

The evidence described above is the type that often causes juries to spare someone’s life, according to the findings of the Capital Jury Project. But at Greene’s sentencing trial, his attorney did not put on a mental-health expert and he presented no other mental-health evidence, although the signs of his illness were readily apparent. Instead, to convince the jury to spare Greene’s life, his lawyer presented a measly 46 pages of testimony, 33 of which were read from a cold, emotionless, transcript from a prior proceeding.

What happened next is equally disturbing. During post-conviction proceedings, an expert found that Greene might be intellectually disabled but stated that he needed to do additional testing to confirm. Greene, insistent that his lawyers were conspiring to torture him, asked the district court to withdraw the claim. He accused the Federal Defender’s Office of “making [him] out to be some kind of incompetent retard to get their office appointed to [his] case and try and cover up crimes of inhumane injuries maim and torture.” The judge found Greene competent to abandon this potentially life-saving claim and withdrew it. No court has ever heard it.

Perhaps the most shocking thing in Mr. Greene’s case is that, with a little more than two weeks until the scheduled execution, he has yet to receive a hearing to determine whether he is competent for execution under U.S. Supreme Court precedent that bars the execution of persons who lack a rational understanding of the punishment they are to receive. Arkansas’s unusual statute gives the Director of the Department of Correction sole discretion in making competency determinations. This means that the same person who is in charge of carrying out Mr. Greene’s execution also gets to determine –without a fair and independent court hearing — if he is competent for execution.

If the state has its way, Jack Greene will join a group of four other men executed by Arkansas in 2017, a group that to a man suffered from the most debilitating illnesses and trauma and received the worst lawyers. Ledell Lee, who might have been intellectually disabled, had lawyers who tried to withdraw from his case, citing a “gross [ethical] conflict,” a drunk lawyer, a mentally ill lawyer, but never, until it was too late, a competent lawyer. Marcel Wayne Williams had a mother who pimped him out for sex at ten and who tortured him by pouring boiling water on him and covering him with tar; Kenneth Williams may well have been intellectually disabled; and Jack Jones suffered from extreme physical abuse, was brutally raped by strangers, and suffered from bipolar disorder. Juries never heard these stories because of ineffective lawyering.

What is happening in Arkansas is a stain on our country’s moral conscience. Under the Eighth Amendment, the death penalty is supposed to be reserved for the worst of the worst, society’s most culpable. The prosecutors’ continued push for death in the face of severe illness and trauma, never heard about by juries, flouts that constitutional promise. And each time a court allows a state to carry out the harshest of punishments on the most impaired and least represented, it mocks the promise of justice. Will a court finally recognize this reality and intervene? Or will Greene become another tragedy in a system that is completely and utterly broken?

Take Action

Please watch the video below to learn more about Mr. Greene and share his story with friends.

Click here to sign the petition to grant mercy to Jack Greene initiated by the Arkansas Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty.

How to Kill “the Monster in Our National Basement”—a Proposal

In my previous blog, I called for the abolishment of solitary confinement—“the monster in our national basement”–throughout America’s jails and prisons. I left the question open as to how this might be accomplished.

Detention Centres, Solitary Confinement. Credit publik15 via Flickr http://bit.ly/2v2Yf8F

I see one route, and one route only, toward this essential and long-overdue reform: enactment of a federal law that categorically bans solitary confinement in all federal, state, and local prisons, jails, and detention centers. The law would establish strong felony charges (I would stop short of solitary confinement) for wardens and guards who violate it.

The congressional bill calling for total abolishment should be bipartisan, and should be buttressed by as many signatories as possible.

The law should have a name, of course. I propose the Dorothea Dix Humanity Toward Prisoners Act.

I will enlarge on this remedy and its possible champions later in this essay.

It is true that recent years have seen several initiatives to curtail solitary confinement, which currently encages 80,000 to 100,000 American prisoners and inmates on a given day. They are well intentioned half-measures, and they are doomed to meaninglessness and failure. Half-measures will never be enough to eradicate this evil.

Dix-Dorothea-LOC
Dorothea Dix
Among the most publicized has been then-President Obama’s executive order in January 2016 to ban solitary for juveniles in federal prisons. The facts, however, virtually neutralize the order’s headline appeal. How many juveniles reside in the federal penal system? Fewer than thirty, according to a survey conducted by the Marshall Project, a nonprofit organization that monitors criminal justice. This is in contrast to the system’s total population of 197,000). https://www.themarshallproject.org/2016/01/27/there-are-practically-no-juveniles-in-federal-prison-here-s-why#.lRlqKK4Kv

Nearly all juvenile offenders are sent to state prisons, or to local jails. Most of these are pre-trial detainees, trapped behind bars as they await trials that may be weeks, months, or years in the future.

USGS Rikers Island
Rikers Island By U.S. Geological Survey, conversion to PNG by uploader (Herr Satz). [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A scandalous eighty-five percent of adolescents at the dreadful Rikers Island in New York—from a population that often approaches ten thousand daily—are pretrial detainees, most of whom simply cannot afford to pay bail for charges of petty crimes. Although this form of detention has been frequently challenged on constitutional grounds, it persists, with these young captives enjoying the same rights as convicted prisoners: the right to be separated indefinitely from their families; the right to be beaten and slashed by guards and fellow inmates; the right to kill themselves; and, of course, the right to solitary confinement and descent into madness (if they are not mad already, as twenty percent of the Rikers population typically is).

Kalief Browder. Credit Zach Gross

The single most notorious and crushing example of this, which I treat on pp. 150-151 of NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE, is the post-incarceration suicide of Kalief Browder, a promising young African-American man falsely accused of a crime and then packed off to Rikers for three years, two of which he spent in solitary, before being released. Browder was the subject of two piercing essays by Jennifer Gonnerman in the New Yorker, linked below:

http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/kalief-browder-1993-2015

http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/kalief-browder-learned-how-to-commit-suicide-on-rikers

 

Few jails in America, or in history, are as dangerous to their inmates as Rikers. When guards manage to intervene in a suicide attempt, for instance, they often follow up by beating the inmate until his blood and urine flow. (To give credit where it is due, Mayor DeBlasio announced in 2014 that he had a plan to close Rikers. The plan would take ten years to implement. That’s nice. Maybe then he can start helping out on Guantanamo.) Across America, and with varying degrees of official brutality, the young, the mentally ill, and the un-tried are largely at the mercy of inept, negligent, or actively repressive wardens and jailers. As I wrote in my previous blog: “[O]ur state prisons—1,330,000 inmates strong—and our archipelago of county and local jails—with 630,000 behind bars at any given time, most of these young and unconvicted and awaiting trial—function under no such restrictions.”

Endemic in the United States, solitary confinement appears indifferent to a region’s general political values. It is the Monster Who Will Not Die—at least not until a stake is driven through its heart. Half-measures do not contemplate the stake. The federal government must.

 

California prides itself as being among the most progressive of states; yet it has ranked among the most promiscuous in the matter of bulldozing prisoners off for long stretches in “the Hole.” In the state’s charmingly named Pelican Bay State Prison alone, more than 500 prisoners had been held in solitary for more than 10 years, 78 of whom for more than 20. In all, the state held 9,870 prisoners in isolation in December 2012, when inmates, following the longest inmate hunger strike in California history to protest the practice, filed a prisoners’ lawsuit, Ashker vs. Governor. https://ccrjustice.org/sites/default/files/attach/2015/08/2015-09-01-Ashker-settlement-summary.pdf Supported by the Center for Constitutional Rights, the suit was settled in the prisoners’ favor—pretty much—in 2015. Settlement terms resulted in the trimming down to 3,471 solitary prisoners as of August 2016, a 65 percent reduction. It greatly reduced the number of long-term solitary captives as well.

 

Prison officials had long justified solitary by pointing out the high percentage of gang members in their system. Gang-bangers’ influence was considered toxic, and dangerous, within the general prison population.

California’s enforced curtailing of “the Hole” is admirable, even pivotal, as far as it goes. The specter of gang members in the general population has not yet produced chaos: prison administrators have been obliged to seek other remedies, and they have worked. And for the hard-nosed among us, who believe that jailbirds deserve everything they get, here is a hard-nosed fact that may sway them: wiping out solitary confinement saves taxpayers’ money.

California Governor Jerry Brown’s 2016-2017 state budget stipulates a reduction of $28 million as a direct result of the jail and prison housing conversions.

As the nonprofit national watchdog group Solitary Watch has reported, citing the state’s Department of Corrections figures:

“The cost reductions are unsurprising given the long-reported high cost of isolating individuals in California’s prisons. In 2010-11. . .it cost $70,641 annually to hold prisoners in the SHU [Security Housing Unit]. . .In contrast, [spent] an average of $58,324 on general population prisoners.”

Solitary Watch continued: “As our fact sheet on the issue of cost points out, solitary confinement routinely costs more. One estimate put the average difference at as much as $50,000 a year, per-individual.” http://solitarywatch.com/2016/01/08/california-expects-to-save-28-million-by-reducing-solitary-confinement/

All of this is admirable; a promising, if woefully belated, start to the fulfillment of Dorothea Dix’s noble dream.

And yet, it remains just that: a start. A good intention. A half-measure, given the history of what too often happens to good intentions. As 2015 ended, 5,378  men and 199 women in remained in various forms of solitary in California. That is 5,577 solitary inmates too many.

Leahy2009
Patrick Leahy By Senate Judiciary Committee (http://judiciary.senate.gov/about/images/Leahy.jpg) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The most promising—well, half-measure—was introduced last October.  Five Democratic senators brought out a bill called the Solitary Reform Act (S. 3432), which would restrict solitary confinement for all federal prisoners, not just teenagers. The co-sponsors were Senators Dick Durbin of Illinois, Christopher Coons of Delaware, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Cory Booker of New Jersey, and Al Franken of Minnesota.

 

Once again: this proposal is enlightened as far as it goes, and in all likelihood reflects the senators’ understanding of the art of the possible, and its limitations. The legislation would free about ten thousand solitary inmates in federal prisons, roughly 6 percent of the total Yet it would not touch the oppression of the 70,000 people encaged in state prisons and county jails.

I believe that federal law must go much farther—all the way to the death of the monster in our national basement.

I believe that federal law must encompass not just federal prisons, but the very constitutionality of solitary confinement.

113th Congress Official Photo of Rep. Tim Murphy
Timothy F. Murphy By Timmurphy (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

I believe its sponsors should be bipartisan. Surely they must not exclude the Republican Congressman Tim Murphy of Pennsylvania, a trained child psychologist, who emerged last year as his party’s almost solitary champion of the mentally ill and their interests with his breakthrough CARES Act, which was incorporated into President Obama’s Affordable Care Act. The Republican Senate majority whip John Cornyn, a doctrinaire conservative on many issues, has supported reform, and Louisiana Senator Bill Cassidy, a medical doctor.

 

Joe Kennedy, Official Portrait, 113th Congress
Joe Kennedy III via Wikimedia Commons

Potential Democratic sponsors in addition to the five mentioned above might begin with the young Representative Joe Kennedy III of Massachusetts, who leapt into the headlines and television soundbites last March with his riveting and eloquent rebuke to Rep. Paul Ryan, who had called the (doomed) Republican replacement bill to Obamacare “an act of mercy.” “This is not an act of mercy, Kennedy snapped, after rattling off several tenets of the scripture. “It’s an act of malice.” Kennedy’s family, of course, has a long history of involvement in health care and mental-health care issues, and the Kennedy name on such a bill would give it great symbolic power.

Marcykaptur
Marcy Kaptur By Online Guide to House Members and Senators (Online Guide to House Members and Senators) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Finally—for purposes of this short list, anyway—I have admired the progressive zeal and compassion of the longtime Ohio Democrat, Rep. Marcy Kaptur, who has been honored as a Legislator of the Year by the National Mental Health Association for her efforts in defending Medicaid funds for the mentally ill and for expanding insurance parity for such sufferers, and for initiatives to safeguard young people entering the juvenile justice system.

Any and all of these legislators would enhance the prospects of an eventual dispatching of the monster in our national basement.

I believe that such a law is especially urgent in these days of civic turmoil, street terror, collapse of faith in our institutions, widespread ignorance of or contempt for national traditions; even the irreducible dignity of our fellow human beings. Abolishing solitary confinement would do more than end an enduring national scourge. It would enshrine in history the crusade of the frail woman who concluded her timeless “Memorial” to the Massachusetts legislature back in 1843:

Gentlemen, I commit to you this sacred cause. Your action upon this subject will affect the present and future condition of hundreds and of thousands. In this legislation, as in all things, may you exercise that “wisdom which is the breath of the power of God.”

The full text of Dorothea Dix’s Memorial, with a brief explanatory, is here:

https://usa.usembassy.de/etexts/democrac/15.htm

I will continue my discussion on solitary confinement when I return from a brief vacation. Please feel free to repost this.