First Chapters

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The Darkest Hour: Shedding Light on the Impact of Isolation and Death Row in Texas Prison, Chapter One

Posted on: May 31st, 2015 by robyn

darkesthour-shedding

By Dr. Betty Gilmore and Nanon Williams

Life in Isolation

To deprive a gregarious creature of companionship is to maim it, to outrage its nature. The prisoner and the cenobite are aware that the herd exists beyond their exile; they are an aspect of it. But when the herd no longer exists, there is, for the herd creature, no longer entity, a part of no whole; a freak without a place. If he cannot hold on to his reason, then he is lost indeed; most utterly, most fearfully lost, so that he becomes no more than the twitch in the limb of a corpse. —John Wyndham, The Day of Triffids 

 

When the cell door closes the first time, it seems final. Steel slamming against steel creates a solid, final, unbreakable sound that would make anyone want to jump out of his skin. The sliding steel door instantly steals away the sight of the world, separating everything within from the rest of civilization. The sense of being buried alive is overwhelming. The cell becomes its own microcosm, a concrete tomb; separate from humanity, separate from society, separate even from the lowest caste that exists at the bottom of the human quagmire.

The visual appetite remains hungry with the need to feel connected to something, anything, but there is nothing. In just a few seconds, one can scan the whole of the enclosure, yet the need to see something new cannot be quenched. The “nothingness” is all-consuming; it is suffocating. There is nothing on the concrete walls; nothing on the concrete floor; nothing on the ceiling. There is nothing to examine but the same six by 10 feet enclosure of absolute nothingness.

There is a steel slab that protrudes from the wall with a blue plastic, sweat-ridden mattress that other men, many of whom are now long dead, have slept on. Built more like an oversized shelf than an actual bed, the steel frame bites into a person’s skin. The water from the sink and toilet, which are combined into a single unit, are the only link to the outside world. As the water flows in and back out, a sense of envy is born—the water can leave; it is only here until the next flush. But even the water has a miserable existence amid the feces caked onto the toilet bowl by the many men who have lived and possibly died in this godforsaken nothingness.

Hours pass, and then days. The months turn into years. The nothingness has become an armor worn on the hottest of days. The solitary cell and the body seem to become one. There is no fresh air and no circulation, and temperatures can creep as high as 120 degrees Fahrenheit. The heat is a heaviness that accompanies the solitude. The men pour water on the concrete floor to lie in, or they wet their clothes in an attempt to cool their body temperature. The sound of other men screaming, trying desperately to prove that they are indeed alive, becomes the voice of solitary. Solitary itself seems to be its own living breathing entity—it is alive. The person living in solitary, however, often feels dead.

Three times a day a lukewarm food tray is thrust through a slot in the door, a practice that is used to feed animals in captivity. The captors must feed the solitary monster. “Sit down on your bunk, Inmate, if you want to eat;” “Stand up and face the wall, or you will not get a tray;” or, even worse, “Get on your hands and knees and face the wall.” Orders are barked into the cell three times a day as officers walk cell by cell pushing child-sized portions of barely edible food into the belly of the solitary beast. Anyone who refuses to comply with the orders will not be fed. More often than not, the food is not worth the self-degradation required to receive it. What is sometimes worth the degradation is the few seconds of connection to something outside the smothering solitude, even if it is just a voice. For two or three seconds, a brief scent from outside the cell wafts in and the sounds of something other than one’s own heartbeat and deafening breath can be heard. Those two seconds are the reward, not the food that is barely fit for human consumption. Some officers seem to have lost the ability to realize they are feeding human beings; they seem to be feeding the cell itself and not the human inside it.

A walk-in closet, a bathroom, a non-climate control storage unit—there is nothing that feels like home in a 60-square foot concrete box. Contrary to the popular image that media portrays of steel bars slamming shut with the incarcerated individual looking out through the bars, the door of a confinement cell is solid steel. There is a small window that is of questionable size. When questioned about the exact size of the window, TDCJ public information officer replied via email, “I don’t know exactly, but probably ten inches high and maybe 2 feet long.”7 This is approximately the size of a piece of notebook paper. To gain access to it, the individual must climb on the bunk to reach it. The window is the only source of natural light; it is the only connection to the outdoors.

There is little stimulation, and the tiny, porous holes in the wall can only be counted so many times. Cleaning the stench from the walls, sink and toilet can become an obsessive compulsion. Since the cell and the body become one, cleanliness can take on a new meaning. Movement is the only thing that can push back the solitude, but it never gives. The solitude is relentless. The solitude never lessens, and it never offers even the slightest moment of reprieve. Eventually the senses begin to lose the battle. Sight, smell and sound all begin to wave little white flags, surrendering to the solitude and accepting defeat. The solitude, however, is a mighty beast that never gives up. The solitude never surrenders.

Sleep becomes the great escape. Dreams are vacations where the mind can travel and escape the unending nightmare of the waking hours. Waking from these dreams is as heart-wrenching as the escape was life-saving, as the solitude dutifully greets the break of each dream getaway. Sleep never lasts more than a couple of hours at a time. Just as the sweet, nocturnal dreams begin to overcome the beast of solitude, an officer switches on a bright light or bangs on the cell door, and the “fight or flight” mechanism of the brain swiftly puts an end to the great, sleep escape. Adrenaline pumping, heart pounding, all chances of sleep have disappeared.

Count time. “Stand up Inmate. What’s your name? What’s your number?” Orders are once again commanded. Seven times a day officers walk the row taking count of the state’s human property—12:00 a.m., 2 a.m., 5 a.m., 8 a.m., 1 p.m., 3 p.m., 7 p.m., 10 p.m., and then the never-ending cycle repeats itself. There is never more than a two-hour period without someone banging on the door. Sleep, the only escape, is as crushingly unattainable as human contact itself.

The lack of human contact is more painful than a blow to the abdomen would be with a baseball bat; physical violence becomes desirable because at least then there would be human contact. The idea of touching a blade of grass, feeling the wind blow, experiencing any skin on skin contact, or even watching other human beings have these experiences on television, are thoughts that become so painful, it is impossible to even consider them. One constant thought begins to run like a ticker across the mind, “Is death the only way out?”

Solitary, confinement, isolation, the hole, the box, management cell, blackout cell, administrative segregation—all the different terms equate to one word that is a perfect description … hell.

Although it can be difficult to even imagine the misery of what an hour, a week or a lifetime of deprivation can be like, thousands of human beings live this deplorable existence every day. The United States houses far more people in solitary confinement than any other democratic nation.8 The state of Texas alone houses thousands of individuals who are forced to live in isolation cells. As of March 2014, there were 7,433 adult individuals deemed by the state of Texas as “the worst of the worst” and placed in extreme isolation within the walls of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice system (TDCJ). This includes individuals classified by the terminology of TDCJ as being in solitary confinement, protective custody, administrative segregation and those individuals living on death row who also live in solitary confinement.9 All of them are living in the same conditions of isolation. Of those individuals, 273 are awaiting their executions on death row.10 Other than some individuals in protective custody, individuals in isolation do not have telephone privileges, making any opportunity for connection with other individuals an abnormality.11

Prison environments must be safe for the staff, the correctional officers and the incarcerated individuals. This responsibility to safety presents a tremendous challenge to the prison community. There are violent individuals who pose a serious threat to others and the highest level of vigilance is required. Texas prisons are severely understaffed, which makes maintaining this level of vigilance difficult.12 Texas Department of Criminal Justice offers recruitment bonuses to full-time employees in an effort to address these concerns.13 Insufficient staffing increases the threat risk to others, a situation that would ordinarily require heightened levels of security. This problem creates a dangerous vacuum. Solitary confinement serves as a resource to address the repercussions of under staffing in Texas prisons. Although the long-term consequences and threats to safety related to complete isolation can be severe, prison staff find it to be “easier,” at times, to manage individuals who are locked in solitary cells 23 hours per day rather than in large groups where violence is often more difficult to control.

Texas Department of Criminal Justice uses different terminology than what is used in this book for describing conditions of solitary confinement. There are three different types of isolation housing utilized by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Each of these designations has several different levels for which incarcerated individuals may be assigned according to their perceived level of threat to themselves and others. In the Texas system, individuals who live in isolation are assigned to one of the following: 1) administrative segregation, 2) solitary confinement, or 3) death row.

Administrative Segregation

According to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s Administrative Segregation Plan (2012) Administrative Segregation is defined as:

… a non-punitive, maximum custody status involving the separation of an offender from general population for the purpose of maintaining safety, security, and order among general population offenders and correctional officers within the prison and the public.

An offender shall be considered to be in administrative segregation anytime the offender is separated from the general population in a cell for 20 hours or more without disciplinary hearing.

At no time shall administrative segregation be used as a punishment for misconduct.

There are three levels of administrative segregation—all reportedly based on the offender’s behavior. Although the previous statements indicate that segregation shall not be used as punishment, the same document asserts that offenders can be assigned on a level due to being a “chronic rule-violator.”14

There are a few reasons cited by TDCJ as to why an incarcerated individual would be assigned administrative segregation:
If an individual is identified by TDCJ as a gang member in one of the 12 identified Security Threat Groups upon arrival, they are immediately assigned to administrative segregation. They are not entitled to any vocational or academic opportunities. Their status remains permanent while incarcerated unless they apply and are selected to the GRAD program.15

Individuals can also be placed in administrative segregation or solitary confinement as defined by TDCJ for a rule violation. These violations can range anywhere from horrific acts of violence, escape and sexual misconduct, to using obscene language or talking too loud. “Protective custody” is another type of administrative segregation that is used to provide protection to vulnerable incarcerated individuals. These individuals are placed in isolation on a permanent or temporary basis. Individuals who may be placed in protective custody include: those who have been preyed on by people in general population; some members of law enforcement, judges and public officials; someone who has been sexually assaulted; a gang member who is trying to remove himself from a gang.16

In essence, being a victim of a traumatic event during incarceration, such as rape or another violent crime, can lead a person to be placed in harsh isolation conditions, for their “safety and protection.” Although it is not considered to be a punitive status by TDCJ, this practice can also further marginalize a victim in some situations. In one example, a man of small stature was brought in on a non-violent, drug-related charge. Within a few days of his stay in general population, he was sexually assaulted by multiple unidentified men. After receiving appropriate medical care, the sexual assault victim was placed in protective custody to ensure his protection from the men who had violated him. “Protective custody” is complete isolation. While this person may at first feel a sense of relief, his protective custody will become a nightmare, as he will now be forced to serve the remainder of his sentence in complete isolation. Some individuals have expressed a preference to live in isolation, as their fear of being killed in general population is so great. Given the fact that the prison system is too ill-equipped and understaffed to control its violent offenders, vulnerable populations, including juveniles, must be isolated “for their own protection.” Although the term “punishment” is not used, an individual who is placed in this custody level loses a significant amount of mobility and human contact, and the isolation subjects them to a new level of deprivation while they simultaneously attempt to cope with the traumatic impact of their recent victimization. The walls have literally closed in on them.

Protective custody is defined as “an Administrative Segregation status designed to provide the ultimate protection to offenders.”17 According to data obtained from the public information office of TDCJ on May 1, 2014, there were 73 individuals in protective custody at TDCJ.18 These individuals are segregated from general population, but they have different privileges than other administrative segregation offenders. For example, according to the Administrative Segregation Manual, individuals in protective custody are: (a) allowed to group recreate, which is different from all other administrative segregation statuses; b) able to view television programs; (c) provided opportunity to shower seven days a week.19 The idea being that they are not in protective custody because they are a risk to others but because they are in need of special protection, so a greater degree of freedom is permitted.

In a phone interview with the director of the public information office for TDCJ by which the conversation was confirmed over email, he reported that although the policy allows for individuals within this level of administrative segregation to group recreate, the current practice is currently that they do not recreate in groups. Instead, they recreate individually—i.e., in complete isolation. The reason, as described by John Hurt, is that “it is easier that way, as a general rule.”20 Doing what is “easier,” may help temporarily, but individuals whose behavioral health declines may pose a greater threat upon release, creating yet another management issue. In addition, it is a violation of the rights of the individuals who are entitled to group recreation.

Every six months, each administrative segregation case is reviewed to determine whether the individuals should return to administrative segregation or if they should be re-integrated into the general prison population.

Solitary Confinement

On its website, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice defines Solitary Confinement as, “The separation of an offender from the general population as punishment assessed during the disciplinary process.”21 The Offender Orientation Handbook further defines the housing status:

… a segregated housing status, which may be imposed as the result of a major disciplinary hearing or a State Jail offender disciplinary hearing. Solitary confinement is ordinarily used when all other levels of discipline have been tried; where the safety of other offenders or staff is concerned; or when the serious nature of the offense makes it necessary. Offenders in solitary will be allowed out of their cell only one (1) time each day to shower. Offenders may be placed in solitary for up to 15 days. Consecutive terms will be separated by 72 hours.22

Death Row

Death Row is different from solitary confinement and administrative segregation. Death row is not considered a designated status in the prison, but it has its own area of housing. The living conditions for all of the described isolation statuses, including death row, are very similar but may vary slightly depending on the individual unit within the Texas prison system. All individuals living on death row are held in solitary confinement cells that are on average 60 square feet. They live in their cells 23 hours per day with one hour of individual recreation and no opportunities for physical interaction other than the interaction required for shackling their ankles and wrists when being transported from one location to another.

Given that locking individuals in confinement, as referred to when describing protective custody privileges by the public information director, can make the environment easier for the correctional officers and other prison staff to manage, many question if the practice is overused. Steve J. Martin, former General Counsel for the Texas prison system stated, “It is easier to get into segregation than to get out.”23
Overuse of Isolation Conditions

In an effort to gain the perspective of correctional officers on these matters, a qualitative research study was conducted with participation from thebackgate.org, a Texas-based criminal justice and personnel- and employee-based website.24 The response rate was low due to multiple factors including an expressed fear of retaliation and distrust of the true intentions of the survey. After the survey was posted, readers and forum members of thebackgate.org posted comments cautioning TDCJ employees to not participate in the survey. One individual warned, “Be careful boys and girls, be VERY careful.” Another comment read, “This could go real bad. Smells like a story that could turn on you, be careful.”25

The responses that were gained, however, seemed to confirm the views that were expressed by others. One participant, for example, who posted on thebackgate.org,26 shared a similar concern to Steve Martin’s by explaining, “I saw many offenders that were either put into isolation, or mistreated when it was uncalled for. Many of the officers I worked with took advantage of their position and used it to mistreat the offenders.” Another officer stated, “I have seen inmates that are in population who need to be locked in solitary, and some in solitary that could make it in general population. The TDCJ classification system of placing these inmates where they need to be has been broken and ineffective for years.”

Although many people are placed in solitary confinement due to a serious threat to themselves or others, there are individuals assigned to isolation who are not a physical threat and are not incarcerated for violent crimes. Individuals can be sent to solitary confinement for a broad range of issues including rule violations and non-violent acts. The overuse of isolation conditions is raising the same old questions on a new level and on a national scale. On June 19, 2012, the Senate Committee on the Judiciary held the first ever congressional hearing of the Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights entitled, “Reassessing Solitary Confinement: The Human Rights, Fiscal and Public Safety Consequences.” During the hearing, Senator Dick Durbin expressed concerns about what this practice implies about our nation’s values. He also reported his concerns that confinement was not only being used for “the worst of the worst,” but also for individuals who do not need to be there.27

Due to the fact that all of the individuals described above live in almost complete isolation and have very similar housing conditions and maximum security status whereby they are confined for weeks, years or a lifetime, all of these living conditions will be referred to as solitary confinement from this point forward in this book, a deviation from the various terms used by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice to describe individuals who live in isolation cells. The official language adopted by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and other prison systems across the United States used to describe confinement, such as “administrative segregation” and “protective custody,” add a layer of sanitization or a cleaner way to frame the harsh conditions that present isolation in a light of protection and separation. This can ultimately minimize the negative connotation and associations of cruelty that are often used to describe solitary confinement. Regardless of the various terminologies and their respective connotations, they are all mechanisms that describe the immobilization and complete control of human beings. Historically, these mechanisms of control have their roots in, among other factors, a lack understanding and a need to exert power to gain control.

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