Solitary confinement

Critics of Solitary Confinement Buoyed as Obama Embraces Cause


July 21, 2015

WASHINGTON — Before he was exonerated of murder and released in 2010, Anthony Graves spent 18 years locked up in a Texas prison, 16 of them all alone in a tiny cell.

Actually, he does not count it that way. He counts his time in solitary confinement as “60 square feet, 24 hours a day, 6,640 days.” The purpose, Mr. Graves came to conclude, was simple. “It is designed to break a man’s will to live,” he said in an interview.

An estimated 75,000 state and federal prisoners are held in solitary confinement in the United States, and for the first time in generations, leaders are rethinking the practice. President Obama last week ordered a Justice Department review of solitary confinement while Congress and more than a dozen states consider limits on it. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, in a Supreme Court ruling last month, all but invited a constitutional challenge.

“Do we really think it makes sense to lock so many people alone in tiny cells for 23 hours a day, sometimes for months or even years at a time?” Mr. Obama asked in a speech at a convention of the N.A.A.C.P. in Philadelphia, where he called for an overhaul of the criminal justice system. “That is not going to make us safer. That’s not going to make us stronger. And if those individuals are ultimately released, how are they ever going to adapt? It’s not smart.”

Photo

Anthony Graves, left, at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on solitary confinement in 2012. Mr. Graves spent 16 of his 18 years in a Texas prison in solitary confinement before being exonerated in 2010. CreditJonathan Ernst for The New York Times

While other changes to the justice system would require Congress to act, this is one area where the president has at least some latitude, although it is uncertain how much. Either way, it could be a test of his drive in his final 18 months in office to remake America’s prisons. In his N.A.A.C.P. speech and during a visit to a federal prison, the first by a sitting president, Mr. Obama expressed a concern for the lives of prisoners that few, if any, of his predecessors have shown.

“No president has ever suggested that there’s anything problematic about solitary confinement, that we should be studying it or that it’s overused,” said Margaret Winter, associate director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Prison Project. “I feel like that has got to be some sort of a tipping point.”

The Rev. Ron Stief, executive director of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, called the moment “a game changer.” He said: “We’ve been saying for decades, ‘It’s time,’ and it really feels now like it is time. The silence has been broken.”

Studies have found that solitary confinement exacerbates mental illness and that even stable people held in isolation report experiencing psychiatric symptoms, including anxiety, depression, anger, self-cutting or other acts of self-harm, or compulsive actions like pacing or cleaning a cell over and over.

“When they get out, they are broken,” said Dr. Terry Kupers, a psychiatrist in California who consults on prison conditions and mental health programs. “This is permanent damage.”

Cornell William Brooks, the president of the N.A.A.C.P., said prolonged solitary confinement amounted to torture. “Putting someone in solitary confinement does horrible things to a person’s personality, their psyche, their character,” he said. “It might be said that condemning a person to solitary confinement treats a person as an animal. And so that they emerge from such treatment exhibiting animalistic behavior can’t be surprising.”

Many corrections officials, even those who believe that solitary confinement is overused, caution that in some situations, it may be unavoidable.

“If someone has committed a violent assault, whether it be a staff member or another inmate, until you can somehow solve that problem, that person is going to need to be isolated,” said Rick Raemisch, executive director of Colorado’s corrections department. He pointed to an inmate who said he would kill someone if he were allowed out of solitary, a threat mental health professionals considered credible.

Mr. Raemisch has worked to substantially reduce the use of solitary confinement in Colorado but said groups that opposed it altogether should help develop other ways to handle inmates who pose a danger of violence. “There are those that say this is bad,” he said, “but when you look around for an alternative, people have left the room.”

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TEXAS – The Moral Indefensibility of Death Row


June 22, 2015

Texas executes more of its citizens than any state in the country, and there’s new evidence that what we call justice is actually a corrupt, inhumane and morally indefensible system.

Alex Hannaford’s cover story this month shows an alarming correlation between trauma that happens to adolescent boys, the biological damage it does to their brains, how that altered physiology leads to violent behavior in their adult lives and their ultimate journeys to death row.

It’s been clear for a long time that poverty, violence, poor education and crime are interconnected. (We executed a 45-year-old man last year whose education ended in fourth grade and a 53-year-old man this year whose education ended in sixth grade.) And 97 percent of the people on death row are men.

We traditionally have used that sociological framework to examine homicidal behavior. Then, we find a personal comfort level with it and our individual moral codes.

But new studies and the data Hannaford collected from Texas death row inmates show the situation is more complex. There also are biological factors at work, and that discovery raises new questions about the morality of the Texas system.

As recently as the 1980s, professionals believed that the human brain was genetically determined by the time of birth. Now, studies by American and British scholars show that trauma actually changes the physiology of the brain and that those altered brains work differently in males and females. (Females tend to process the stress and trauma internally, directing destructive action at themselves; men tend to process it externally, focusing violence on other people.)

Male children who are physically, emotionally and/or sexually traumatized experience physical changes to their brains that make violence a common response to similar experiences later in life.

When that violence leads to a capital crime, the state places the man on death row, where the average inmate spends a full decade in an environment of emotional isolation, physical depravation, authoritarian relationships, and little or no interaction with any type of family or support network.

It’s a classic list designed for an assault on someone’s mental well-being. In fact, the state essentially drives many of those waiting to be executed insane. Then, we stick a needle in the arm of that adult traumatized child and kill him.

It is a shameful, barbaric process that many of us choose to look past, but every person who loves Texas should look directly at it. Texas is better than this.

California: Six inmates on San Quentin death row sue over time in solitary


A group of death row inmates has sued the state for keeping them in solitary confinement for years or even decades, locked in windowless cells with no phone calls or human contact. It’s treatment, they said, that “amounts to torture.”
The suit was filed in federal court Wednesday by 6 condemned prisoners, who said they were among about 100 inmates, out of 750 on death row, who are kept in isolation in the Adjustment Center at San Quentin State Prison as suspected gang members or associates. The suit said they are held in their cells 21 to 24 hours a day, with no natural light, no access to education or work programs, no phone calls and no contact visits from family members, who must speak to them by phone across a glass barrier.
One of the men has been in solitary confinement for 26 years, and 2 others for more than a decade, the suit said. Condemned prisoners in California spend an average of nearly 25 years on death row while their cases are appealed. A federal judge cited the duration of their confinement, though not the conditions, in a ruling last year that declared the state’s death penalty unconstitutional. The state has appealed the ruling.
The suit is similar to a case scheduled for trial in December in federal court in Oakland over the solitary confinement of thousands of inmates in various prisons’ Security Housing Units, the maximum-security lockups that house prisoners suspected of gang affiliations. The San Quentin suit was filed separately because the adjustment center isn’t classified as a Security Housing Unit, although the conditions are similar, said Daniel Siegel, lawyer for the death row inmates.
Inmates in both cases claim their isolation violates the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment and denies them due process of law. Until recently, they said, the only way out of the isolation unit was to become an informant. Prison officials say they now conduct case-by-case reviews of each inmate’s gang status or affiliations, and have released some inmates into the general prison population. But inmates say they are still kept in solitary confinement because of books they’ve read or cartoons found in their cells.
Siegel said release from isolation is even harder to win on death row. He said some inmates have been kept in the Adjustment Center solely because their capital crimes were gang-related.
Terry Thornton, spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, said officials haven’t seen the suit and can’t comment on it. But she said no inmates are held in the cells for 24 hours a day, because they’re entitled to 10 hours a week in the prison exercise yard.
Source: Associated Press, June 19, 2015

Justice Kennedy practically invites a challenge to solitary confinement

Courts ‘may be required’ to decide if prisons need to find alternatives to solitary, Kennedy says

Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, in an unusual separate opinion in a case wrote that it may be time for judges to limit the use of long-term solitary confinement in prisons.

His comments accompanying a decision issued Thursday marked a rare instance of a Supreme Court justice virtually inviting a constitutional challenge to a prison policy.

“Years on end of near-total isolation exacts a terrible price,” he wrote. He cited the writings of Charles Dickens and 19th century Supreme Court opinions that recognized “even for prisoners sentenced to death, solitary confinement bears ‘a further terror and a peculiar mark of infamy.'”

Sentencing judges and the high court have largely ignored the issue, Kennedy said, focusing their attention on questions of guilt or innocence or on the constitutionality of the death penalty.

“In a case that presented the issue, the judiciary may be required,” he wrote, “to determine whether workable alternative systems for long-term confinement exist, and, if so, whether a correctional system should be required to adopt them.”

Amy Fettig, an attorney for the ACLU’s National Prison Project, said Kennedy’s comments came as a welcome surprise.

“It’s a remarkable statement. The justice is sending a strong signal he is deeply concerned about the overuse and abuse of solitary confinement,” she said.

States such as Virginia and Texas routinely put death-row inmates in solitary confinement, she said. “They are automatically placed there. It has nothing to do with their being violent or their level of dangerousness,” she said.

This month, a federal judge in Virginia is weighing a “cruel and unusual punishment” claim brought by inmates on death row there, she noted.

Kennedy usually joins with the court’s conservatives in cases involving crime and punishment, but he has also voiced concern over prison policies that he deems unduly harsh. These include life terms for juveniles and long mandatory prison terms for nonviolent drug crimes. 4 years ago, he spoke for a 5-4 majority that condemned overcrowding in California’s prisons and said it resulted in unconstitutionally cruel conditions.

Both sides of Kennedy’s views were evident in Thursday’s decision. He joined a 5-4 majority to reject a San Diego murderer’s bid for a new trial, but wrote separately to raise the issue of possible constitutional limits to solitary confinement.

The case before the court involved Hector Ayala, who had been convicted and sentenced to die for shooting to death 3 men in the attempted robbery of an auto body shop in 1985. A 4th man had been shot, but survived and identified Ayala as the shooter.

Ayala has been on California’s death row ever since his conviction a generation ago. The California courts upheld his conviction and death sentence, but 2 years ago a U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals panel overturned both. In a 2-1 decision, the appeals court cited the trial judge’s decision permitting prosecutors to remove all seven of the blacks and Latinos who were considered for the jury.

The Supreme Court reversed that decision and restored Ayala’s conviction and death sentence. Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. said the “conscientious trial judge” had spoken to each of the potential jurors and decided the prosecutor was justified in removing them. “His judgment was entitled to great weight,” he concluded.

In his separate opinion, Kennedy said he agreed Alito’s opinion was “complete and correct,” but said he was nonetheless troubled to learn Ayala had been kept in solitary confinement. This means he has “been held for all or most of the past 20 years or more in a windowless cell no larger than a typical parking spot for 23 hours a day,” he wrote. An estimated 25,000 inmates in the United States are being held in solitary confinement without regard to their conduct in prison, he added.

Kennedy’s comments drew a short, but sharp retort from Justice Clarence Thomas.

“The accommodations in which Ayala is housed are a far sight more spacious than those in which his victims … now rest. And, given that his victims were all 31 years or age or under, Ayala will soon have had as much or more time to enjoy those accommodations as his victims had time to enjoy this Earth,” Thomas wrote.

Source: Los Angeles Times, June 19, 2015

Creating Monsters: How Solitary Confinement Hurts the Rest of Us


April 18, 2014

You need to watch only the first five minutes of Solitary Nation, the first of two Frontline documentaries that will air on PBS starting Tuesday. The inmates, corrections officers, and prison bureaucrats all appear stooped and burdened, tamped down, by the oppressive nature of the place in which they spend the bulk of their lives. That’s what prison is, of course, but Frontline captures something deeper here.

“This is what they create in here, monsters,” one inmate tells Frontline’s reporters. “You can’t conduct yourself like a human being when they treat you like an animal.”

“It’s like being buried alive,” another prisoner says off camera.

Now, every inmate in the history of the world likely has complained about the conditions of his confinement. But the point of the film, I think—and perhaps the best argument against the continued use of solitary—is that regardless of how inmates feel about it, there is no redeemable value to it to the rest of us.

Solitary confinement surely makes prisons safer—that’s the argument wardens use over and over again to justify its continued use. But it also creates or exacerbates mental illness in the men who are condemned to it. And that illness, in turn, pushes inmates in solitary to engage in harmful or self-harming conduct that, in turn, prompts a severe disciplinary response from prison officials.

That, in turn, causes the men to turn deeper into their own insanity. And then these broken men are released back into the world without adequate mental health treatment or “step down” services that will help reduce their chances of recidivism. It’s a cycle everyone recognizes but cannot seem to change. It’s madness upon madness.

Adam Brulotte, one of the inmates featured in the film, gets caught in this cycle. He’s a young man who says he wants to study for his GED so he can get a real job, instead of selling drugs, when he is released. Because he has broken the rules, he is placed in isolation. And because he is in isolation, he goes mad. And because he goes mad, he breaks more rules. The prison is safer but we see Brulotte broken before our eyes. If this young man is not treated now, how much will the rest of us pay when he is ultimately released?

You don’t have to sympathize with the inmates featured in this documentary to appreciate just how broken the prison system is today. Solitary Nation is a valuable addition to the growing body of work that slowly is pushing America away from this form of confinement. It shows the blood and the feces and the numbing foulness of solitary for humanizing both prisoner and guard, and it chronicles the ambiguities that exist in these cases (is the inmate truly mentally ill or just faking it?).

There are, however, a few critical elements missing from the documentary. Because the stage is set in Maine, I guess, there is virtually no reference to the oppressive racial component to solitary confinement (or to American prisons more generally). Almost every single one of the faces that appears on film is white. Perhaps this means that white viewers will more fully empathize with what they are seeing. But I’d love for the journalists who created Solitary Nation to undertake the same sort of project in a southern prison.

Nor is there any insight in the film into the enormous political and financial pressures that coalesce around prisons. Even progressive wardens like Rodney Bouffard in Maine, who comes off in the documentary as a reasonable man trying to make the best of a bad situation, must negotiate with officials of the guards’ union in order to effect changes that might impact prison security. And even the harshest wardens must beg for funds from state lawmakers. These dynamics drive prison policies. They are an inescapable part of the story.

Nor did the film even attempt to offer broad answers to the many questions that surround the use of solitary confinement today. Why are lawmakers continuing to endorse policies and practices that make men mad and then toss them out onto a largely unsuspecting society? Why is there political reluctance to provide adequate mental health care to inmates, even when there is such strong evidence that it saves money (and perhaps lives)? The film raises many smart and poignant questions but sadly does not answer them.

The next installment in this series, Prison State, will air the final week of April, and perhaps viewers will get some answers then. But of course if there were easy answers here, the scandal of solitary confinement would not exist today. When I watched Solitary Nation the first time, I brought to it all of the prison stories I have covered over the past few years. When I watched it a second time, with someone who has not been so immersed, I saw the dread creep up over his face. Good, I thought, it’s long past time that America saw the horror of all this.

It’s not just the immorality of the solitary confinement that shines through in this worthwhile film. It’s the futility of it. Frustration and despair hang over the characters the way that fetid, stagnant air hangs in the tiny, soulless cells that host the 80,000 or so men and women living and dying today in solitary confinement in America. Both captive and captor seem to understand, as they interact amid the blood and the shit and the anguish, that its use is not just inhumane but utterly self-defeating.

http://www.theatlantic.com

Torture on Death Row: Court Rules Against Automatic Use of Solitary Confinement for the Condemned


March 17, 2014

The Supreme Court has ruled that the death penalty itself does not constitute “cruel and unusual punishment.” Yet the treatment of the condemned is nonetheless subject to Eighth Amendment protections, as well as Fourteenth Amendment guarantees of due process.

In the past few years, this ironic legal reality has been the subject of a renewed national debate centering on execution methods. The European drug companies that U.S. states have historically relied on to provide the materials for lethal injections have refused to replenish supplies. As a result, states have developed new drug protocols, often implementing them without testing or research. Last month, Dennis McGuire struggled and gasped for well over ten minutes before he finally died.

But at a recent Senate Judiciary Subcommittee hearing, exoneree Damon Thibodeaux called attention to a different, rarely-discussed aspect of death row that he believes also constitutes “torture, pure and simple” – the conditions of confinement that people endure prior to execution:

“I spent my years at Angola, while my lawyers fought to prove my innocence, in a cell that measured about 8 feet by 10 feet. It had three solid walls all painted white, a cell door, a sink, a toilet, a desk and seat attached to a wall, and an iron bunk with a thin mattress. These four walls are your life. Being in that environment for 23 hours a day will slowly kill you. Mentally, you have to find some way to live as if you were not there. If you cannot do that, you will die a slow mental death and may actually wish for your physical death, so that you do not have to continue that existence. More than anything, solitary confinement is an existence without hope.”

Thibodeaux was exonerated after spending fifteen years on death row at Angola State Penitentiary in Louisiana. While his story may be unusual, his experience of extreme isolation is standard for people facing execution.

A recent ruling, however, suggests that the federal courts may soon mandate higher due process protections for individuals sentenced to death. Last November, U.S. District Court Judge Leonie Brinkema found in Prieto v. Clark that the state of Virginia had violated the Constitution by automatically placing individuals on death row in indefinite isolation.  In January, she rejected a request from state attorneys to delay the implementation of her ruling.

In her determination, Judge Brinkema describes what people on death row in Virginia must bear from the time of their sentencing to the time of their execution:

“Plaintiff’s conditions of confinement on death row are undeniably extreme and atypical of conditions in the general population units at [the prison]. He must remain alone in his cell for nearly 23 hours per day… The lights never go out in his cell, although they are scaled back during the overnight hours… Plaintiff is allowed just five hours of outdoor recreation per week…and that time is spent in another cell at best slightly larger than his living quarters… He otherwise has no ability to catch a glimpse of the sky because the window in his cell is a window in name only… Nor can he pass the time in the company of other inmates; plaintiff is deprived of most forms of human contact… His only real break from the monotony owes to a television and compact disc player in his cell and limited interactions with prison officials…”

As the judge outlines, those on death row are automatically and permanently placed in solitary confinement – forced to withstand particularly severe conditions purely as a consequence of their sentence.  This placement is functionally indefinite since it can take years, or even decades, before individuals exhaust their appeals and finally face execution.  (According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, those executed in 2010 had spent an average of 14.8 years on death row).  By contrast, all others incarcerated in Virginia are assigned an initial security classification based on eight factors, including several unrelated to their sentences: their history of institutional violence, escape history, current age, etc.

The Court’s finding in Prieto v. Clark is that the automatic placement of death row prisoners in solitary confinement violates their Fourteenth Amendment rights, since they endure “uniquely severe” conditions without any kind of procedural protections or stopgap measures.

Judge Brinkeama concludes that the Virginia prison authorities have two options: either providing an individualized classification procedure for each person sentenced to execution, or altering conditions on death row “such that confinement there would no longer impose an atypical and significant hardship.”

The court’s ruling comes several months after the publication of an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) report that examined the conditions of confinement endured by those on death row. As the ACLU notes, this extreme isolation constitutes a “punishment on top of punishment”:

  • Cell size: Most common cell size is 8×10 feet (27% of prisoners), just a bit bigger than the size on an average bathroom.
  • Basic comfort: Beds provide in death row cells are made out of: Steel 60%; Concrete 13%; Steel with mattress 9%; Concrete with pad 6%; Metal 6%.
  • “Enforced idleness”: States that allow death inmates to exercise for one hour or less: 81%.
  • Social isolation: States with mandated no-contact visits for death row inmates: 67%.
  • Religious services: States that fail to offer religious services to death row prisoners: 62%.

At the Senate hearing on solitary confinement last month, Thibodeux told the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee that he had contemplated ending the appeals process – despite his innocence – in order to escape his extreme isolation:

“Fairly early during my confinement at Angola, I very seriously considered giving up my legal rights and letting the State execute me. I was at the point where I did not want to live like an animal in a cage for years on end, only to lose my case and then have the State kill me anyway. I thought it would be better to end my life as soon as I could and avoid the agony of life in solitary. Fortunately, my lawyer and friend, Denise LeBoeuf, convinced me that I would be exonerated and released someday, and she gave me hope to keep fighting and living.”

According to the NAACP’s most recent quarterly report on the death penalty, published last week, since the death penalty was reinstated 140 individuals – about 10% of those placed on death row – were executed after giving up their appeals.

Judge Brinkema’s ruling is significant since it accords at least minimal due process protections to those placed in solitary confinement, even the so-called “worst of the worst.” But calls to change the blanket use of isolation on death row have also emerged from outside the courts and the Senate subcommittee hearing. Last month, Texas’s largest correctional officers’ union called for low-risk individuals on death row to be housed with others, and recommended that state prison officials introduce privileges to those on death row, including work assignments and streaming television.

(solitarywatch.com)

When I Was on Death Row, I Saw a Bunch of Dead Men Walking. Solitary Confinement Killed Everything Inside Them.


By Anthony Graves, Death Row Exonoree #138

When I was on death row, I saw guys come to prison sane and leave this world insane, talking nonsense on the execution gurney.

I am death row exoneree #138.

There are 12 more people like me from Texas. Twelve people who spent years of their lives locked alone in concrete cages waiting to die before they were set free, exonerated for their innocence.

Eleven people have committed suicide on Texas’ death row. All because of the conditions.

When I was sentenced to death, I did not know that this sentence would also mean that I would have 12 years without any human contact, i.e. my mother, my son, my friends. All those people were stripped from my life because of this injustice. I did not know it would mean 12 years of having my meals slid through a small slot in a steel door like an animal. I did not know it would mean 12 years alone in a cage the size of a parking spot, sleeping on concrete steel bunk and alone for 22 to 24 hours a day. All for a crime I did not commit. The injustice.

For me and the 400 other prisoners on Texas’ death row while I was there, a death sentence meant a double punishment. We spent years locked alone in a tiny, concrete cage in solitary confinement, with guys going insane, dropping their appeals, doing everything they could to check out of this place before we were ever strapped to an execution gurney. All because of the conditions.

I am writing today because the ACLU has put out an important new paper about what it does to people to lock them alone in cages on death row. They found that over 93% of states lock away their death row prisoners for over 22 hours a day. Nearly a third of death row prisoners live in cages where their toilet is an arm’s length away from their bed. Sixty-percent of people on death row have no windows or natural light.

Solitary confinement is like living in a dark hole. People walk over the hole and you shout from the bottom, but nobody hears you. You start to play tricks with your mind just to survive. This is no way to live.

I saw the people living on death row fall apart. One guy suffered some of his last days smearing feces, lying naked in the recreation yard, and urinating on himself. I saw guys who dropped their appeals and elected to die because of the intolerable conditions. To sum it up, I saw a bunch of dead men walking because of the conditions that killed everything inside of them. And they were just waiting to lie down.

After I got out, I have tried to use my time to raise awareness about these conditions. I am currently working on a book and traveling the globe trying to share my message and educate people about the effects of solitary confinement. I have created AnthonyBelieves.com, which is my consulting firm that I use to help attorneys, nonprofit organizations, etc. I am asking for your support in my endeavors to bring attention to such inhumane issues by going to my website and ordering anything from my store to help offset my travel expenses. There’s also a petition on my webpage that I am asking 10 million people around the world to sign in solidarity with me as I stand up for justice.

Please help me and the ACLU get the word out about these conditions. Our death penalty system is broken in this country – it is applied unfairly against people. When you have a broken system, innocent people like me can end up on trial for their life. And subjecting anyone in prison to solitary confinement is torture. I am speaking on experience. Many of these same people are returning to our society, and when they do they come with all the baggage we put on them in the system. This keeps the rate of recidivism high.

In this country, we should be doing better than that. We should not have a criminal justice system turned into a criminal by the way we treat our citizens. Even when we do not like people or believe they have done something wrong, our emotions should not govern our society. We should be making laws from a rational perspective. We have to be above the criminal by keeping our system humane. Everyone should be treated like a human being. This is America.

Please share the new video I recorded for the ACLU to help get the word out about the double punishment of solitary confinement on death row. And make sure to read the ACLU’s new report. Also please check out AnthonyBelieves.com and give me your support while I cross the county and try to educate people about the inhumane treatment in our criminal justice system.

Thank you and best wishes.

For more on the double punishment of solitary confinement on death row, read the ACLU’s report A Death Before Dying.