Solitary Confinement: Cries for Help and Voices of Despair from Victims’ Mothers

This blog has lately been focusing on solitary confinement of jail and prison inmates as an intolerable practice in our criminal-justice system. Solitary confinement is inhumane, unproductive as a “corrections” technique, and psychologically destructive. It must be abolished.

My mission is to encourage others who feel this way to petition their congressmen and women to initiate repeal—and to identify and support the several organizations who are already working toward this.

 

I recognize the odds against my voice making a difference. It is all too easy for anyone who’s not personally connected to a victim of “the hole” to utter tsk-tsk noises at a safe removal from Ground Zero. Neither of my schizophrenic sons was ever arrested and threatened with this living entombment. My wife and I have never had to watch helplessly as either of our boys disappeared into one of the jails around the country where this barbaric practice continues unchecked; where the mostly-young and often mentally ill inmates undergo tortures of the damned, and their mothers1 The reader will note that I write, “mothers.” The almost complete absence of fathers from this discussion or from any conversation on their offsprings’ mental illness is a phenomenon that needs further examination. And Pete Early, I am NOT looking at you! agonize while pleading in vain for justice, or at least mercy.

 

Therefore:

 

In this blog, we are going to eliminate the tsk-tsking middleman—me—and hear from a sampling of mothers at Ground Zero whom I know through correspondence. The rawness of their outrage and grief has given them a truth-telling eloquence that far surpasses anything I’ve written or will write. They speak for thousands upon thousands of similarly violated families who cannot or will not seek to make their stories public.  

 

I have edited their emails to me only lightly, for compression and clarity. I have included the identities of two mothers, who have given me their permission. One is Jennifer Tirkot of Coral Gables, Florida. The other is Kimberlee Cooper West, of Fruitport, Michigan.

 

We will begin with some brief entries from a blog kept over several years on a private site by Jennifer Tirkot. Ms. Tirkot’s epic struggle with the state’s corrections system on behalf of her brain-disordered son John far exceed the damage he has endured during several stretches of solitary. I am planning to devote a future blog to her nearly unthinkable plight. Pete Early has also written about Ms. Tirkot: http://www.peteearley.com/2017/02/06/mother-repeatedly-tries-to-get-her-psychotic-son-help-instead-he-beats-her-and-is-arrested-twice/

 

Entry No. 1: I wrote my son’s story to have him taken out of solitary confinement and transferred to the state psychiatric hospital. This is his 2nd incarceration in 2 years for having a brain disorder. The last time he was incarcerated for hitting a police officer and EMT worker. They were Baker Acting him for his psychosis when he hit them. They transferred him to jail and locked him away in solitary confinement for 10 months. I had no choice but to share my story with the world. Pete Earley is publishing it. My son spent last Christmas and this Christmas in solitary confinement for having a brain disorder.  That’s what we do now.  We lock them in solitary confinement in jails/prisons and refuse to medicate them. 

Entry No. 2: I would like to sue the State of Florida for over wait times for competency restoration. My son suffers from schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, personality disorder, bipolar, depression, and anxiety. He’s been in jail for over 7 months without medication.

Entry No. 3: He’s severely depressed and they are not treating his depression. Plus, his hands are all scared and his knuckles are red. I asked him what happened to his hands and he said he’s been hitting his cell wall to punish himself for hitting the patient. After 72 days in solitary confinement, he developed Bell’s Palsy, where the left side of his face became paralyzed. He refused medication for it because he said God was punishing him for hitting the patient. The left side of his face is now paralyzed. He’s been without medication to treat his schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, personality disorder, bipolar, depression, and anxiety for over 7 months. I’ve been told by Elaine, head of DCF Forensic Hospitals, they can hold him incompetent without medication up to five years.

Entry No. 4 (dated July 21 of this year): Today is my son’s birthday…he’s in solitary confinement for having a brain disorder and the State of Florida didn’t take my “Do Not Release” letter seriously sent to Brevard County Circles of Care psychiatric care unit. I can never imagine crying anymore..but…I cry in my sleep, I cry when I wake up, and when I think I can’t cry anymore…I can’t stop crying…Happy Birthday to my loving son…

 

 

This mother, whose tragedy I mention in NO ONE CARES ABOUT CRAZY PEOPLE, posted briefly, and searingly, on a private site:

October 22, 2014 Josh died alone in a jail cell. My 39-year-old son killed himself today. Josh hung himself in a solitary confinement cell in a prison south of St. Louis, Missouri. He died alone, afraid, and powerless. Josh needed help. Instead, he got punishment. Like all mothers, I had dreams for my children — dreams that didn’t include mental illness or prison.

 

I have written before of the nearly inhuman outrages, including solitary confinement, visited on Kimberlee Cooper West’s mentally ill adopted son Tyler, who still awaits trial on a minor charge after being incarcerated last February (!) Kimberlee has bravely encouraged me to tell Tyler’s story, with identification, and she has plunged into research regarding the lingering psychic damage of solitary confinement, which I will draw upon in a future blog.

 

Here is Kimberlee’s latest message to me:

 

Hello Ron. We as a society have to look at Solitary Confinement honestly. The studies have shown high recidivism rates. The psychological effects last a life time. Is that a healthy thing for society?  During solitary confinement, Ty called home dozens of times a day. He was screaming, crying, begging, for our help. He asked what is going on?  Please come pick him up. By this point he was further into his psychosis. He did not understand why he was there. He was suicidal, banging his head against the wall. No one intervened. He did not understand what was happening. There were times they forgot about him. Times he was not fed.

 

Four separate times our son was sent to solitary confinement. It was not because he was a bad kid. He has a serious mental disorder and is also autistic. The jail staff did not know what to do with him. He needed a hospital. They stopped all his antipsychotics cold turkey. This can lead to convulsions, And death. The medication insert warns “Do not stop medication abruptly.” Ty said “My insides and body are uncontrollably shaking.” He said “It feels like I have the flu. It feels like I’m dying. Mommy, I can’t breathe in here.” He has moderate COPD, from his reflux and dysphagia.

 

Why do they put people in solitary with breathing problems? Health problems are not considered. If they live or die, no one cares about inmates. The Jails are short on staff, so they forget about these people. They use their own formulary of a cheaper antipsychotic.  They waited many days before prescribing antipsychotics. CMH [Community Mental Health] decides when they are released. Social workers and case managers, are not doctors. CMH is not there weekends or holidays. This prolongs an inmate’s time in solitary. 

 

Muskegon County Jail has a doctor only on Fridays. They save money by not using doctors. Nurses take the place of doctors. So many inmates will confess to anything to end solitary confinement. Guilty or innocent, it does not matter. Research has shown that autistic people do not benefit from solitary confinement. Yet I know several who are in solitary. It can cause lifelong problems for the autistic. Our son has the maturity of a 12 year old. He has never hurt anyone. Now he has trauma to add to his list of disabilities. Jail staff do not consider these mitigating circumstances. There still are no laws on the books to protect our autistic and mentally ill kids. Ty has experienced delusions and has been in a fog.

 

Solitary accelerated our son’s mental illness. From there on we were on a downward spiral. . . Our independent forensic psychologist has described Ty as in acute turmoil, in a hypomanic state with major depression and diminished coping mechanisms. . . 

 

[The idea of solitary is] to “teach a lesson.” That I challenge. How does that work if someone has an adolescent brain, is mentally unstable or withdrawing from drugs? . . . If I locked my teenage son in his room and tased him I would go to jail. If it is not o.k. for me to do it, then why can they? . . .

 

We unconsciously assume that those thrown into solitary confinement are exclusively men. This letter, from the mother of an adopted daughter, attests otherwise:

 

[Our daughter] has been in solitary confinement several times in NYC and another urban area. One time, she was merely transferred and they automatically put her in solitary for 3 weeks. We got to visit her once for 1 hour. We drove 5 hours to get there. Most depressing visit I can recall. All metal, no touching, no hugging or human tenderness allowed.

When people do not “jump” as requested, they put you in solitary to “teach you a lesson,” as they have told her many times. You get 1 free hour per day, to shower, but that is it. No calls either. Just letters. That is the only form of communication. Another interesting fact is that many, many, many prisoners are adoptees. Many of them have mental health issues, but instead of dealing with that outside the system, thy are remanded to jail/prison. [Our daughter] spent over 2 years in federal prison and is now in a county jail, awaiting sentencing. She is hoping to get out in a month or so. But then she will serve 1.5-3 years on federal probation. If that gets violated, they frequently use it as a means to “throw you” back into prison.

The criminal “injustice” system is a travesty in its present state. I say, “tear it apart and start all over again,” building a system that treats those with medical and/or mental health issues as human beings first, and criminals last. Criminals are not born. They merely took a wrong turn. I do not believe they should be punished for life and/or altered immeasurably. Climbing out of the “hole” society has created for troubled souls is fraught with hazards, roadblocks, and generally impassable terrain.

 

I will be posting more parents’ testimonies regarding solitary confinement as time goes on. I welcome any repostings of this that readers care to make.

 

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.