Solitary Confinement, many attest, is a mentally and physically torturous experience
By: Mike Givens/TRT Assistant Editor—
In September, Mike Cox will embark on a spiritual journey. The 31-year-old Starbucks manager will travel to Peru, Nepal, and India as part of his own personal healing process. A practicing Buddhist, Cox’s hope is that the trip, filled with long stretches of meditation and self-reflection, will help repair the damage he says he experienced while incarcerated.
Cox served more than five years in prison for an array of serious charges including attempted murder, assault and battery with a dangerous weapon, and mayhem. It was Memorial Day Weekend in 2007 and Cox, 22 at the time, was in Provincetown. High on painkillers and Valium, an anti-anxiety medication, Cox was shoplifting from stores in Provincetown when the owner of one of the stores recognized him with an item of clothing he’d stolen earlier in the day.
Cox alleges that the shop owner approached him, brought him back to his apartment, and coerced him into having sex as restitution for the item he stole. But during the purported sex, Cox says he became violent.
“I just kinda blitzed in the moment,” he said.
Cox picked up a 10-pound dumbbell and smashed it into the head of the store owner. He was arrested and in March 2009 plead guilty. He was sentenced to six years in prison. The shop owner, 59 at the time, spent three weeks in a hospital, but survived.
Cox estimates that while serving his time, he spent a total of four months in solitary confinement—a common practice in federal, state, and local jails and prisons to place inmates in isolated cells for days, weeks, months, and sometimes, years.
“I was so out of my mind, I lied to the mental health workers and said that I was hearing voices so that I could get a sedative, so I could mentally check out,” he said of one of his stretches in solitary confinement.
A psychiatrist wrote Cox a prescription for Abilify, a powerful anti-psychotic medication commonly used to treat depression, Schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder.
“It was super strong, it made me like a zombie,” he said of the drug, noting that it was a way for him to numb himself to the isolation. “I was super lethargic. My personal hygiene went downhill. I didn’t eat a lot. I was really just trying to sleep the whole time away.”
Cox says he went into solitary confinement a total of five times during his sentence. To this day, he says that he’s still dealing with the repercussions of the long stints without human contact, spending 23 hours a day in a six-by-nine foot cell.
“There needs to be more oversight because the impact on inmates is more severe than [the Massachusetts Department of Corrections] realizes,” he said.
On June 11, at the Boston Pride Festival in the city’s Financial District, Black and Pink, a Boston-based nonprofit supporting LGBTQ prisoners and advocating for the national abolition of prisons, launched a campaign to end the practice of solitary confinement in jails and prisons across Massachusetts.
“They should be looking at other resources and not putting people in torture cells,” said Reverend Jason Lydon, national director and founder of Black and Pink, of the widespread practice of isolation that many inmates across the country are subjected to.
Black and Pink is specifically advocating for the closure of the Departmental Disciplinary Unit, DDU, a solitary confinement housing unit located at the Massachusetts Correctional Institution—Cedar Junction in Walpole, and for the complete dismantling of solitary confinement units in every jail and prison in Massachusetts.
“After the release of our survey report, ‘Coming Out of Concrete Closets’ it became abundantly clear that abolishing solitary confinement was a key priority for our members,” said Lydon of the survey released last fall reporting that 85 percent of the more than 1,100 respondents across the nation had been put in solitary confinement while incarcerated.
Solitary or systemic confinement?
According to the Massachusetts DOC’s website solitary confinement can take four forms: administrative, disciplinary, protective, and the DDU.
“Administrative Segregation” is a temporary form of solitary confinement imposed when an inmate’s presence in the general population could pose a significant disruption or threat. For example, an inmate who is being investigated for a serious offense may be placed in administrative segregation if the DOC deems the inmate a threat to others. The duration of the segregation lasts until the perceived threat is resolved or the investigation is completed.
“Disciplinary Detention” is a punitive form of isolation handed down when an inmate has committed a serious offense. Massachusetts state law says that this form of confinement cannot exceed 30 days for an offense or subsequent violations related to the offense. Inmates accused of a violation are subject to a disciplinary hearing to determine guilt.
An inmate can be placed in administrative segregation while an investigation is conducted into an incident that may warrant disciplinary detention. As a case in point, if an inmate is being investigated for starting a fight, that inmate can be held in administrative segregation while the investigation is performed, and if found guilty, can then be sentenced to disciplinary detention for the offense.
“Protective Custody” involves segregating an inmate from the general population if the inmate, or the facility’s staff, has expressed a serious health and/or safety concern. Many LGBT inmates request protective custody for fear of being harassed or assaulted because of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. The length of a stint in protective custody is dependent upon periodic assessments conducted by staff to determine the veracity of the health and/or safety concern.
There are four categories of violations that could warrant an inmate being sent to the DDU, from a Category 1 (killing another inmate, setting a fire, committing sexual assault, etc.) to a Category 4 (possession of contraband, destroying state property, failure to maintain acceptable hygiene, etc.). Category 1 and 2 offenses, the most severe, are typically the offenses that are referred to the DDU, according to Chris Fallon, the DOC director of communications and administrative resolution. A 23-year veteran of the DOC, Fallon is also a former captain of the unit.
While administrative segregation, disciplinary detention, and protective custody confinements are commonplace in jails and prisons across Massachusetts, assignment to the DDU requires a special hearing. An inmate can be assigned to the DDU for up to 10 years.
According to Fallon, as of June 26, all 124 beds in the DDU were filled.
The Department of Corrections oversees 18 facilities in the state of Massachusetts, while each of the 14 counties in Massachusetts oversee their own jails.
Cox isn’t alone in the suffering he experienced while in solitary confinement. There are even more anecdotes detailing the stress solitary confinement can have.
A transgender woman spends 15 years alone in a cell. The isolation becomes so unbearable that she resorts to cutting herself with the sole intent of being able to feel something; a destructive attempt to blot out numbness and inflict a small amount of life-affirming pain.
A gay man in a medium security prison, forced to spend 23 hours a day alone inside of a cell, eventually loses his desire to live; he stops eating and refuses to get out of bed for most of the day.
Lydon shared these anecdotes with The Rainbow Times and says that there are even more. Black and Pink’s campaign launch featured first-hand accounts of solitary confinement posted along a wall at the Boston Pride Festival. Through these written words a common narrative filled with suicide, depression, anguish, hopelessness, sleep deprivation, the dissolution of relationships, and mental unbalance emerged.
“Mentally, I am still going through a stage of how to be adjusted here in society and also dealing with psychological issues,” said Douglas Rogers, who was incarcerated from 1992 to 2005 and said he spent a total of nearly two years in solitary confinement during the more than 13 years he spent in prison. A Black and Pink member-leader, Rogers helped staff the kickoff of the campaign.
While in solitary, Rogers said he spent 23 hours a day in a six-by-nine foot cell and was allowed one hour a day of recreation held in an outdoor cage he referred to as a “kennel.” More than a decade after being released from prison, he still struggles heavily with what he experienced. He said that several times prison staff left the lights on in his cell 24 hours a day, which caused him severe sleep deprivation.
“They do things psychologically to mess with your mind,” he said.
In the summer of 2014, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) released a report, “The Dangerous Overuse of Solitary Confinement in the United States highlighting the detrimental effects of solitary confinement, including, “ … hypersensitivity to stimuli; perceptual distortions and hallucinations; increased anxiety and nervousness; revenge fantasies, rage, and irrational anger; fears of persecution; lack of impulse control; severe and chronic depression; appetite loss and weight loss; heart palpitations; withdrawal; blunting of affect and apathy; talking to oneself; headaches; problems sleeping; confusing thought processes; nightmares; dizziness; self-mutilation; and lower levels of brain function … ”
According to Jean Casella, co-director of Solitary Watch a web-based initiative to publicly discuss solitary confinement and its effects, the national statistics on isolation practices in prisons are alarming.
“About 5 percent of all prisoners are in solitary confinement, but 50 percent of all prison suicides take place there,” she said of the national trend, noting that isolation can cause decreased neural function and brain shrinkage.
In late April, the National Commission on Correctional Health Care, a Chicago-based advocate for quality health care in correctional facilities, issued a 17-point statement calling for the end of prolonged periods of solitary confinement. In its rationale, the NCCHC noted that solitary confinement stints longer than 15 days were, “cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment.”
The nonprofit also called for correctional facilities to only use administrative segregation as a last-resort option; that inmates in protective custody should be housed in “the least restrictive conditions possible;” and that programs be established to help inmates transition from solitary confinement back into the general population or into the community post-incarceration.
Fallon, however, said that it’s hard to determine the psychological effects of solitary confinement because of the complexities of inmates’ mental health prior to being sentenced to segregation.
“The inmates in our system have a higher than normal incidence of mental health and substance abuse issues compared to the general population,” he said. “Many have both substance abuse and mental health issues co-occurring.
“We continually review inmates who are housed in segregation cells in order to ascertain their mental state, health care needs, [and] appropriate placement. Our goal is to return offenders to [the] general population as quickly as possible.”
The Rainbow Times did not receive a return phone call from the Massachusetts Partnership for Correctional Health, a state contractor providing mental and health care services to the DOC, regarding any documented physical or psychological effects of solitary confinement on inmates.
Crime and punishment
The first time Cox says he was sent to solitary confinement was due to a safety concern. Being housed with a career sex offender, Cox alleges that his roommate kept touching him. He requested to be moved and was placed in administrative segregation. After being transferred to another facility, Cox was placed in administrative segregation for two months while waiting to be moved into protective custody. After he was transferred to protective custody, he spent one year there.
The third time, however, Cox says he was put in segregation for a hug. A fellow inmate and friend was being transferred to another housing unit and Cox leaned in to give him a hug. He alleges that he was placed in disciplinary detention for three days.
“It sent me over the roof that they would use that as a pretext to lock me up,” he said angrily, noting that inmates were often sent to solitary over a federal law called the Prison Rape Elimination Act.
The 2003 law provides research and guidance on how to reduce the number of instances of sexual assaults in jails and prisons, but according to Lydon and Cox, the policy has been abused heavily by prison staff, particularly to the detriment of LGBT inmates.
“I began to modify my behavior,” said Cox. “You almost become paranoid in a sense. You always know you’re being watched. I didn’t hang out with the other gay [inmates] as much. I would shower when no one else was showering.”
“There have been seemingly endless PREA violations across the country that we have gotten notices for,” said Lydon. “One person reported getting a PREA disciplinary ticket for having his shirt off in the day room. A person here in Massachusetts reported getting a ticket for sitting too close to another prisoner, thighs touching. It’s really outrageous.”
Lydon even theorized that within the next decade there will be a significant drop in parole for LGBT people because of accumulated PREA violations leading to solitary confinement and other forms of punishment.
Fallon said that PREA violations are quite rare.
“We don’t have a huge amount of validated PREA violations,” he said. “We are 100 percent PREA compliant.
“We don’t just make up the rules, we follow them. There’s a whole lot more to a PREA violation than just a hug,” Fallon continued, noting that he did not know the specifics of Cox’s incident. “Inmates walk up to each other; they hug or do a handshake with a hug. That happens all day.”
Fallon emphasized that there’s no such thing as consensual sex in DOC facilities, but that acts such as hugs or gestures of affections are not considered offenses, otherwise corrections officers would be issuing violations repeatedly. However, overt sex acts are subject to PREA tickets.
“We would rather have inmates in the general population than segregation,” he noted. “Dealing with offenders in general population is much less resource intensive and allows for better institutional adjustment during incarceration, in terms of access to classrooms, jobs, [and] programs.”
Fallon admitted that there are problematic corrections officers who overstep their bounds when dealing with inmates, but said that there are safeguards in place to protect those who’ve been victimized.
“Have we disciplined corrections officers for misconduct? Absolutely,” he said, noting of the 5,200 DOC staff, 3,800 are corrections officers. “We have internal affairs staff. Inmates can file grievances against an officer. No officer has the power to place someone in segregation, that’s an administrative task.”
He also noted that while some inmates may levy fabrications of abuse against corrections staff, those in charge can spot a problematic officer and take steps to address abusive behavior.
“If there’s smoke, there’s fire,” Fallon said. “Sometimes inmates make false allegations. But when you hear inmates say things over and over again, we have an investigative unit [to address grievances].”
Marginalized communities and incarceration
Lydon said that gay men and transgender women are more likely to bear the brunt of abuse in prisons.
“When you sentence a gay man or trans woman to prison, as a judge, you are saying ‘I think it is okay for you to more likely than not be sexually assaulted,’” he said.
Black and Pink’s “Coming Out of Concrete Closets” report noted that, nationally, inmates are more than three times as likely to sexually assault LGBT inmates than prison staff. Of those respondents who said they’d been sexually assaulted, 76 percent said that they were intentionally placed in environments where prison staff knew they would be attacked.
The report also noted that transgender women, Two-Spirit people, and cisgender gay men are put into solitary confinement against their will at the highest rate.
“While prison staff may claim they are placing LGBTQ prisoners in solitary confinement for their own safety, it is often being done so as an attempt to decrease sexual activity amongst prisoners or to control what they see as disruption of the social order of the prison by LGBTQ prisoners,” the report noted.
Black, Latino/Hispanic, and Native American inmates were twice as likely to be placed in solitary confinement than their white counterparts, said the report.
The U.S. Department of Justice Bureau of Justice Statistics released a report last October highlighting national “restrictive housing” trends and the data roughly matches that of Black and Pink’s report. “Use of Restrictive Housing in U.S. Prisons and Jails, 2011–12” did not track gender identity, but did report that, nationally, lesbian, gay, and bisexual inmates (27.8 percent) experienced higher levels of restrictive housing than heterosexual inmates (17.5 percent) in prisons. Though white and Latino/Hispanic inmates during the same timeframe experienced equal levels of solitary confinement (16.0 percent), black inmates were put in segregated housing at a slightly higher rate (20.8 percent).
In 2013, Margo Schlanger, a law professor at the University of Michigan, was able to document what she referred to as a “racialized skew” in solitary confinement practices based on statistical data collected using 2005 BJS census data. In her report, she noted that Massachusetts had a slight overrepresentation when it came to people of color being sentenced to solitary confinement.
Fallon said that sexual orientation is noted during the initial housing intake assessment when inmates are processed for lodging, but is not a demographic marker that is tracked throughout incarceration. If an inmate identifies as lesbian, gay, or bisexual, Fallon says that accommodations are made to keep the inmates in safe housing quarters.
The DOC does track gender identity and has 17 inmates who identify as transgender, according to Fallon.
“If we have someone who has gender dysphoria, we are going to try to place them in a place where they’ll be safe and other inmates will be safe,” he said. “For example, if an inmate identifies as female, but had demonstrated violence against females, we would need to consider that before placing them among female inmates, because we have a duty to protect everyone as best we can.”
Fallon emphasized that transgender inmates are treated “accordingly, based on what their needs are” and said that accommodations are made for inmates who require hormone therapy, laser hair removal, and other treatments.
“We try to mirror the treatment [standard] that inmates would receive in the community while still prioritizing safety.”
Fallon said that the DOC does not have data readily available concerning the demographics of the inmates currently being held in solitary confinement. He did note that, including the 124 people in the DDU, there are 460 inmates currently being held in some form of segregation.
Exploring the alternatives
“I wish this campaign was going on before my time,” said Cox of his belief that solitary confinement does more harm than good. “Some people leave prison in a worse condition than what they were previously in. It’s really sad. I’ve seen it happen.”
When asked about alternatives to solitary confinement in the DOC, Fallon discussed two options that are presented to inmates, but only those suffering from mental illness.
The Behavior Modification Unit is reserved for inmates who have consistent behavioral problems. The unit offers therapeutic group sessions, intensive psychotherapy sessions, and conditional programming that reward good behavior with perks.
The Secure Treatment Program is reserved for those who are classified as seriously mentally ill. Inmates in the STP are given very intensive psychotherapy and more hands-on treatment for behavioral issues.
“I still think there’s a need for segregation,” said Fallon. “If someone’s not severely mentally ill, do they need the BMU? From our perspective, there’s a need for segregation.”
Lydon said he believes that dealing with behavioral issues should be more restorative than punitive.
“You put people who are too dangerous together. You put people who are at-risk together. You don’t put them in solitary confinement, you put folks that are of similar risk levels in the same space,” he said.
Black and Pink’s executive director would like to see restorative justice circles in prisons and jails. Inmates who have experienced harm would be placed in therapeutic groups together while inmates who have caused harm are placed in similar groups. Inmates experiencing harm would be given the space to heal and process their experiences while those inmates who’ve caused harm would be held accountable in their groups while having their dignity as human beings affirmed. Trained mental health professionals would facilitate both groups and, if requested, inmates who’ve experienced harm can be allowed to participate in restorative circles with those who’ve caused harm to help process and move beyond the experience.
Fallon said that the DOC’s current policy is to house inmates together who are assessed to be at similar risk levels.
“We tend to house predators with predators and victims with victims,” he said, noting that sometimes segregation cells have two inmates in them and that cells are often placed next to each other so that inmates are not completely isolated.
Solitary Watch has spent the last year conducting national and international studies of changes in solitary confinement practices and has published articles on their observations. In April, they highlighted the state of Colorado, which reportedly reduced its number of inmates in administrative segregation from 1,500 to 160. With 20,000 inmates in Colorado prisons, over the course of five years it reduced the number of inmates in administrative segregation from seven percent to less than one percent. By “reclassifying” hundreds of inmates and transitioning mentally ill inmates from solitary confinement to residential treatment programs, the state was able to make a substantial change in its segregation policies.
Though ambitious, people like Rogers are still hopeful that Black and Pink’s campaign to abolish solitary confinement in the Commonwealth will be fruitful.
“I would like this to [spread] all over the country,” he said. “Most of these people that are coming out [of prison], it has been a mental strain on them and their family. I lived it. I know what goes on in these prison systems.”
As for Cox, he’s landed on his feet. After being released from prison, he devoted himself to staying sober, went back to school, and received an associate’s degree in business management.
But the pain is still something he lives with daily.
“It got to the point where it affected my intimate relationships,” he said of his experience being incarcerated and victimized because he’s gay.
When serving inmates like Cox, Jean Casella of Solitary Watch stresses “services and rehabilitation” over “punishment and isolation:”
“No one has ever turned into a more productive, more fulfilled, or better socialized human being by being locked in a concrete box.”
[Originally published on July 7, 2016]