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Former Dane County, Wisconsin, Sheriff David Mahoney shows how small a solitary confinement cell is at the county jail in 2019. Mahoney retired this month after 14 years as sheriff; during his time in leadership, he pushed for several criminal justice reforms, including more humane conditions in the jail. (Morry Gash/The Associated Press)

One Cell, a Lifetime of Pain: Waking to the Truth of Solitary Confinement

Behind prison’s steel doors, a staggering number of people are held in isolation for months, years, even decades, and many will leave broken in mind and body. Now, some states are realizing they’ve gone too far in the name of punishment. 

Lois Pullano used to be of the mind that society was safer and better off with “bad people” locked up behind bars. That solitary confinement was an acceptable punishment for the crimes people committed, and that the incarcerated were getting what they deserved.

Then Pullano’s 15-year-old son, who began showing signs of a mental illness at the age of 4, was placed in an adult prison in Michigan.

Then her boy, who grew up loving the outdoors and spent hours playing in the woods, was placed in solitary confinement’s concrete box.

Then the Michigan mom received images in the mail showing her son bloodied and shackled.

“For us to take human beings and lock them up in this way and heap on more and more punishment that drives them to madness, it doesn’t make any sense,” said Pullano, who began advocating for the elimination of long-term solitary confinement in Michigan not long after her son Kevin entered the system. “It became very clear to me that this is a system in which they believe they can teach individuals how to behave by punishing them further.”

But it has long been proven that solitary confinement — where an incarcerated person is locked up alone, typically in a cell the size of a parking space, for at least 22 hours a day — is not an effective form of punishment. Instead of deterring bad behavior, solitary tends to exacerbate it. Instead of rehabilitating a person, it can wreak extensive damage.

Now, more states are taking notice of research and survivor testimonials and are working to curb long-term solitary confinement. The hope, advocates say, is that more people will come to see the reality of solitary and open the doors to change.

“It’s the most extreme and most unbelievably inhumane practice that says so much about the way we treat people in the criminal justice system,” said Juliene James, vice president of criminal justice at Arnold Ventures. “It’s people’s bodies and people’s minds, and once you know this is the thing they are doing inside prisons, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that this isn’t just a place where people do time — it’s a place where people go to be broken.”

Ever since he was released from prison nearly eight years ago, Johnny Perez has worked to eliminate solitary confinement, first at the Urban Justice Center and then, beginning in 2017, at the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, where he is director of U.S. Prison Programs. (Courtesy of Johnny Perez)

By Any Name, For Any Reason

Most people assume solitary confinement is a punishment reserved for incarcerated people who are deemed too violent to be among the general population. But that is not the case.

Yes, people can be placed in solitary for assault or drugs or weapons, but they can also end up there by mouthing off to a corrections officer or having an extra orange or too many stamps in their cell. Some may be put in solitary for trying to harm themselves with a razor blade or broken light bulb — which is considered a “misuse of property.”

“People have no idea that it’s not reserved for the worst of the worst,” said Jessica Sandoval, senior campaign strategist of the national Unlock the Box campaign, which aims to end solitary confinement in all U.S. correctional facilities. “They think there are five solitary cells in a prison somewhere, but, in fact, there are entire prisons built only to isolate everyone. And what we know is that 85 percent of the reasons people go to solitary are all very low-level kinds of infractions.”

Johnny Perez, who spent 13 years in the New York prison system, including three years total in solitary confinement, would often get sent there for marijuana possession. But once he received a 30-day stay in isolation for having an altered cord in his cell. His Walkman had run out of batteries and he altered an electrical cord to hook it up to the music player.

“I think the general population doesn’t understand that people in solitary aren’t animals: They are real human beings who have the same feelings, hopes, and dreams as everyone else,” said Perez, who now leads the National Religious Campaign Against Torture’s movement against solitary confinement as director of U.S. Prison Programs.

Incarcerated people often refer to solitary confinement as “the hole” or “the box.” In the corrections system, it goes by many names, including “administrative segregation,” “keeplock,” and “segregated housing” (aka “the shu”). “Protective custody,” for those whose safety is at risk, is also considered a form of solitary confinement, Sandoval said.

But no matter the name, the atmosphere is primarily the same.

A solitary confinement cell in New York City’s Rikers Island jail complex is pictured Jan. 28, 2016. (Bebeto Matthews/The Associated Press)

The concrete-block room is typically about 6 by 9 feet. Hold your arms out and you might be able to touch both sides of the cell. There’s a bed, sometimes with a thin mattress, a toilet, and a sink. Food is often pushed through a metal slot, which is also where incarcerated people stick their hands to be cuffed before leaving the cell.

For about one hour a day, there’s usually the opportunity to step out of the box into “the yard,” which isn’t like the prison yards of TV and movies but a slightly larger barred cell outdoors where people can get fresh air and exercise alone. Sometimes that one hour comes at 5 a.m. Sometimes, in the winter, it can be unbearably cold because clothing layers are not permitted.

Perez entered the prison system at the age of 21, but he experienced solitary confinement long before that. At 16, he was sent to the Rikers Island jail complex in New York City. On his first day, he got into a fight over the phones. On his second day, the steel door of solitary was shut behind him and he was left alone for 60 days.

Over the course of his time in prison, Perez ended up in solitary about five times, mostly for 30 or 60 days, but once for 10 months.

55K-62.5K

Estimated number of people who were held in solitary confinement for 22 hours or more per day across the United States as of the summer of 2019

A routine, Perez said, is critical so you don’t completely lose touch with reality. He would write in his journal and keep track of the days based on when he’d get meals. “Writing helped me organize my thoughts in an environment that was almost designed to disorganize me,” he said. He would also read books and do pushups — and then, because the boredom was relentless, he’d challenge himself by reading books upside-down or trying to do 1,000 or 2,000 pushups.

One of Perez’s worst experiences was during a 30-day solitary stay in a prison in Upstate New York. His window in the prison cell faced a wall, so he couldn’t see the sun rising and waning. He was the only one on the entire tier — there were no neighboring cellmates he could call out to — and the only sounds he heard were when there was a shift change, when the gate opened, or when he’d find himself talking out loud, acting out characters just to hear a voice.

“Talk about Pavlov,” Perez said. “I’d hear the gate open, and I’d spring up to the window to see who was going to pass by. I’d knock on the door if someone was passing by to get them to talk to me.”

Craig Haney makes a statement during a commutation hearing at the Utah State Prison in Draper, Utah, on June 10, 2010. (Trent Nelson/The Associated Press)

The Effects of Solitary

There’s a reason the United Nations considers keeping a person in solitary for more than 15 days torture. The effects it has on a person — mentally and physically — can be devastating.

When psychologist Craig Haney started studying the effects of prison confinement in the 1970s, he was focused on overcrowding. But by the early 1980s, he started witnessing a different kind of housing on the opposite end of the spectrum: Increasingly, people were being put into solitary confinement for disciplinary reasons.

“At first I wondered whether solitary confinement would actually be beneficial, if prisoners would see it as a respite to get out of the really overcrowded conditions they were in and have the opportunity to achieve some solace and some solitude,” said Haney, now a professor of psychology at the University of California Santa Cruz. “I was quickly disabused of the notion that there were any real benefits.”

And that’s when Haney began documenting the substantial harms he witnessed.

Most people who experience solitary settings suffer from depression and anxiety. Some have panic attacks and heart palpitations. Others have a difficult time concentrating, have impaired memory, or lose their sense of identity. In more extreme cases, people report hallucinatory experiences, paranoia, and high rates of suicide and self-harm. And the harmful conditions typically worsen the longer a person is kept alone.

In the early 1990s, Haney studied people in solitary confinement in California’s Pelican Bay State Prison. When he went back 20 years later, some of the men he had interviewed were still there. And they had deteriorated further.

“In 1992, they were depressed and anxious, and they were downtrodden and angry,” Haney said. “The people I interviewed in 2012 were all of those things, but in addition, there was a kind of profound sadness or grief about them. They had in a sense become resigned to the fact that they were never going to be part of the social world again and that they had lost the capacity to connect to other people. They were looking at the abyss.”

That “social death,” as Haney called it, is what happens when people who are naturally social creatures are cut off from all contact. Perez knows what that feels like. Once, he suddenly began cursing out a corrections officer, who then wrote him up for the “unprovoked” attack. But to Perez, it wasn’t unprovoked.

“He walked by me a whole week and didn’t say anything when he was giving me food, no ‘good morning,’ no nothing, and I got to a point where I needed to get a reaction out of him somehow,” Perez said. “It was me wanting to be seen and heard. I am a human being, acknowledge me. He couldn’t even look me in the face, and when the only person you come in contact with doesn’t even acknowledge you, it eats at you.”

It’s easy to see then, said Haney, how people end up staying in solitary for decades. Each time they act out — a reaction to their environment — they get cited, and each citation may add another 30, 60, or 90 days to their solitary time.

After Lois Pullano’s son Kevin turned 18, a fight sent him to a Level 5 solitary confinement cell at Ionia Maximum Correctional Facility, where after banging his head on the cell wall, corrections officials hit him twice with pepper spray and placed belly chains and leg irons on him. (Photo courtesy of Michigan Department of Corrections via Lois Pullano)

A Higher Risk

For those with mental illness, solitary confinement can be an even greater threat to their health.

Pullano’s son Kevin was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and placed on psychotropic medication at the age of 11. She tried everything to help him, but when he was 13, he tried to rob a Little Caesars with a toy gun. He didn’t take any money and ran out of the pizza place scared, but he was convicted, and at 15, Kevin entered the Michigan prison system.

From age 15 to 18, most of his time was spent in isolation. At times he was forced to go without his medication. In his first seven months, he racked up 73 citations for such incidents as destruction of property, threatening behavior, and disobeying orders, Pullano said.

“Every day he would have huge mood swings,” Pullano said. “He could very quicky go from being OK to escalating and going into a full-blown rage.” And while those who are in psychiatric facilities can receive medication to calm themselves down, those in solitary can’t receive as-needed medication, “so the tool for treatment when individuals are starting to lose it is to pepper-spray them, gas them, hog-tie them, restrain them,” Pullano said. “It becomes a form of treatment.”

After Kevin turned 18, a fight sent him to a Level 5 solitary confinement cell at Ionia Maximum Correctional Facility. In the four months he was in solitary in Ionia, he was pepper-sprayed and restrained numerous times, Pullano said, including being hog-tied for 18 hours. Then one day, corrections officials found him banging his head in his cell.

According to a Detroit Free Press article citing a critical incident report, “Officers ordered [Kevin] to stop banging his head, but he continued. After [Kevin] told officers who tried to restrain him that they would have to kill him, he was hit twice with pepper spray, then manacled in belly chains and leg irons.”

Pullano submitted a formal request for records of the incident. When she opened the envelope, she saw photos of her son bloodied and shackled to a bed, wearing only his underwear and a helmet, with smears of blood on the wall behind him.

“I just laid in bed and sobbed,” she said. Her son had already been removed from Ionia, but she knew there were so many others like him being treated in this manner. She told the Michigan Department of Corrections that if they weren’t willing to change their practices, she’d go public with the photos and share Kevin’s story.

Nothing changed, Pullano shared her story, and still the harsh practices continue, she said. “There are still individuals being hog-tied. Frankly, there are individuals who will never be as fortunate as my son. There are individuals who are dying in these conditions.”

And conditions don’t tend to improve for people after they leave prison. Solitary survivors report high rates of PTSD, depression, and anxiety. Some self-isolate because their social skills have atrophied after years of being kept alone, Haney said.

500%
Increase in the use of solitary confinement across the country — from about 60,000 people to 300,000 — because of COVID-19 Source
9.6%
Proportion of incarcerated people in 33 states who were held in solitary confinement for more than three years in 2019; of that subset, more than half were in isolation for six years or more. About 14.5 % were held for one to three years. Source
3,000
Estimated number of incarcerated people with serious mental illness who are being held in solitary confinement in 33 states. Source

Perez has been out of prison for more than seven years but just recently started engaging in therapy and anger management. “It shows up in my relationships in self-defeating ways,” he said. “Having a lack of patience, a frustration when the environment changes or when I can’t predict what’s going to happen next.”

Research also shows that people who have experienced long-term solitary confinement have a much higher risk of early death after they leave prison. A North Carolina study published in 2018 found that compared with people who were incarcerated but not placed in solitary, those who experienced isolation were 24 percent more likely to die in the first year after release. They were 54 percent more likely to die by homicide and 78 percent more likely to die by suicide.

“I see this as an index of the level of trauma to which people are exposed in solitary confinement,” Haney said. “The trauma has an impact, not just on their psyche but also on their physical well-being, and it’s manifested in the extent to which they succumb to various forms of physical trauma, which shortens their life.”

Then-Wisconsin Corrections Secretary Rick Raemisch, left, is pictured with his Division of Adult Institutions administrator Bill Grosshans in February 2010. Three years later, Raemisch took a job leading Colorado’s Department of Corrections and would go on to enact sweeping changes to its solitary confinement policy. (Dan Reiland/Eau Claire Leader-Telegram via The Associated Press)

A Better Way

States that are now starting to reexamine their use of solitary confinement can look to Colorado for proof there is a better way. When Rick Raemisch stepped into the role of executive director of the Colorado Department of Corrections in 2013, he felt a sense of urgency to reform the state’s prison system, in particular its use of solitary confinement. The initiative had been started by his predecessor, Tom Clements — before Clements was assassinated by a man who had just been released from prison after spending seven years in solitary.

Within his first year and a half on the job, Raemisch banned the use of solitary for those with mental illness and prohibited people from being directly released from solitary confinement onto the streets — as Clements’ killer had been.

In some jurisdictions, upward of 50 percent of people released from solitary are released straight into the community, said Sandoval of Unlock the Box.

“That’s a major public safety issue; it’s seriously dangerous for the public and for that person,” she said. “They’ve just come out of torture and trauma. It puts them in a very precarious situation right out of the box.”

Sandoval has heard of people in New York coming out of the prison system only to find themselves in the middle of 42nd Street surrounded by stimuli: the lights, the sounds, the smells. “And those fight or flight instincts come out, and bad things can happen.”

When Raemisch banned the use of solitary in his state’s two mental health prisons, he was told “you’re going to get someone killed.” But his decision wasn’t to simply rid the facilities of an option for those who needed more serious help — it was to reform the option. The corrections staff created “de-escalation rooms” patterned after the state hospital system’s calming rooms.

They took former solitary cells and transformed them with comforting colors, a comfortable chair, a blackboard to write on, soothing noises piped in like wind and waves, and de-escalation materials to read. The unlocked rooms were open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and people could stay as long as they wanted. “Some went there five to seven times per day,” Raemisch said. “Now that’s five to seven times per day they weren’t exploding on someone.”

When Raemisch got to Colorado, the wait to get into the mental health prisons for those who needed more extensive programming was more than two years. When he left in 2019, there were 50 vacant beds.

“That told me that as our reforms solidified, they were causing a decrease in mental health issues,” Raemisch said, “which means previously we were manufacturing our own problem.”

Nathylin Flowers marches with protesters against solitary confinement during a rally at the state Capitol in Albany, New York, on June 19, 2019. (Hans Pennink/The Associated Press)

The Mandela Rules

There are no national standards concerning solitary confinement. The closest thing to guidelines came in 2015 with the United Nations’ Nelson Mandela Rules, which state that keeping someone for more than 15 days in isolation is considered torture and that the practice should be banned for vulnerable populations.

The Mandela Rules are a good place to start reform, said Unlock the Box’s Sandoval, because they are endorsed worldwide and were drafted by a group of diverse people, including correctional leaders and those who had experienced solitary confinement. Indeed, Raemisch was a member of the U.S. delegation.

In 2017, Raemisch limited solitary confinement in Colorado to 15 days and only for serious disciplinary violations; he also banned the practice for women. His was the first state in the nation to incorporate the Mandela Rules into its prison policy.

Two years later, a significant number of state legislatures began to take on the issue, with 12 passing bills that limited solitary or banned it for certain groups. Among them: New Jersey, which passed the strongest law at the time by restricting the practice to 20 days.

And then came New York. Advocates had been pushing for nearly a decade to limit long-term solitary confinement in the state and they got close in 2019, but the bill didn’t even get a vote after the threat of a veto from the governor.

But this year, on March 18, the HALT Solitary Confinement Act — which will bring New York fully in compliance with the Mandela Rules, limiting solitary to 15 days, implementing rehabilitative treatment, and banning the practice for juveniles, the mentally ill, and pregnant women — passed the state Senate with enough votes that the governor’s signature wasn’t needed. Still, he signed it.

James of Arnold Ventures called the news “a watershed moment.”

“It’s an important milestone — the fact that there is a law on the books that actually makes real this idea that we can’t do this to people,” she said.

When Perez heard the news, he cried. “I felt like a weight was lifted, because we’ve been going back year after year, and long before I came along, there were people who were fighting — people who never missed a rally and put blood, sweat, and tears into the campaign.”

Jessica Sandoval is a senior campaign strategist of the national Unlock the Box campaign, which aims to end solitary confinement in all U.S. correctional facilities. (Courtesy of ACLU via Jessica Sandoval)

Unlock the Box, which launched less than three years ago, has quickly gone from supporting three state campaigns to 18, supporting grassroots efforts and centering the voices of solitary survivors and their families. Last year, 26 states introduced 63 pieces of legislation to restrict or prohibit the use of solitary, with seven states passing reform, Sandoval said. And this year, 75 pieces of legislation have been introduced in 32 states, including in Connecticut, where last month the PROTECT Act — which would essentially end solitary confinement in the state — made it out of committee with bipartisan support.

Pullano hopes to one day see that kind of support in Michigan. Her organization, Citizens for Prison Reform, recently launched its Open MI Door campaign, supported in part by Unlock the Box. They’ve been working with the Michigan Legislature as well as talking with the state’s corrections department leader and union. Last year, they were able to get two bills introduced, but the legislation didn’t get out of committee. The fight, however, is far from over.

“I believe we really have to work at boots on the ground, shifting the culture inside,” Pullano said. “That’s why we’re working on all fronts.”

While Sandoval has been buoyed by the successes happening around the country, she worries about recent events that could set the anti-solitary movement back.

In June, the campaign released a report noting a 500 percent increase in the use of solitary across the country — from about 80,000 people to 300,000 — because of COVID-19. Solitary became prison systems’ de facto public health response.

“I’m not so sure that we’re not going to find ourselves in a kind of rolling back of some of our hard-fought gains in the past 10 years with this pervasive use of solitary,” she said. “I just feel even more urgent that this cannot be an option anymore. We have to take this off the table.”

Cynthia Tucker of Manhattan talks about her son Darryl Tucker — who was in solitary confinement in New York state correctional facilities — during a rally at the state Capitol in Albany on June 18, 2019. Advocacy by the family members of people in solitary was an essential element to getting New York’s sweeping reform bill passed. (Hans Pennink/The Associated Press)

Changing the Narrative

The advocacy by solitary survivors and family members like Pullano was an essential element to getting the New York law passed, Perez said. With so many misconceptions about the practice, it was important to have people who have experienced the harms of solitary share their stories.

“It was critical in changing the narrative and ensuring the right narrative was there,” Perez said. “When people knew about the issue, they in many cases felt morally obligated to do something.”

One of things that has shifted in the political and public discourse, Haney said, is a franker recognition of the human costs of punishment.

“Should people experience consequences for what they’ve done, of course, but what should those consequences be and how far should we go in the name of punishment?” Haney said. “That has now become part of the mainstream discussion, and it wasn’t for a couple of decades. People are not embarrassed to say, ‘Is that too harsh? Is that going to hurt people?’ That’s the kind of discussion we had suspended for decades and we’re now reengaged in.”

95%

Proportion of incarcerated people who will eventually return to their communities.

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