Below are glimpses into the daily lives of three inmates held in isolation. Each has been in isolation for at least five years. Their reasons for being held in solitary vary–one was validated for gang membership, another for an escape attempt, and another for assaults on correctional officers. Their reasons for incarceration vary, from attempted murder to drug law violations. There are some commonalities in their experiences: none of them have reported meaningful programming opportunities and there is a crippling monotony to their lives. All have reported feelings of frustration–both as an emotional response to their circumstances, but also due to the absence of foreseeable release from isolation.
Inmate M. has been in the Pelican Bay SHU for five years, a validated Hispanic gang member. He describes his cell as roughly 8 x 12; in his cell are a concrete bed, stainless steel toilet and sink, desk, small stool and a thirteen-inch television. He wakes up at 5 AM, exercises, and takes a “bird bath” from his sink. Breakfast and lunch bags arrive around 7:30 AM. After eating, he spends three hours reading, writing, and worrying.
At some point in the day, he is allowed 60-90 minutes on the yard. He describes the yard as a “concrete box, with a mesh ceiling that allows us to see the sky and get fresh air.”
Depending on how much yard time he gets, he usually spends the next few hours watching television, especially sports. Like many on his unit, he enjoys watching “General Hospital.” He then naps.
Mail is delivered at 4:00 PM, dinner at 5:00 PM. He eats dinner and watches television before going to sleep at 10:00 PM. This is what he’s done for five years, every day.
Inmate B. has been in isolation for 5 years, in Utah State Prison, Draper’s Uinta 1 facility. He doesn’t leave his cell to shower or exercise due to the procedures that entail putting a bag over an inmates head, handcuffing and tethering between transports.
“We get a styrofoam dinner, which is warm, but two cold meals of bologna (4 pieces), carrots, celery, bread (4 pieces), two cheese slices and one orange with two fruit bars. I wish I could send you a packet of bologna we’re fed for breakfast and lunch. A guard once stated: ‘This shit could withstand a nuclear holocaust.’”
“I can’t train as much cause my liver really goes through hell. It takes three hours to do it. One hour legs, one hour pushups/burpies, one hour curls/shrugs. But I don’t take medication. The prison won’t treat my Hepatitis-C because they say it’s not bad enough yet! I have to be almost dead before they’ll begin the interferon. My training helps my liver, at least I keep telling myself that. I get real hot, cold. I hve to drink cold water some weeks and hot others. My eyes are always bloodshot and are sunken in. I’m dying that’s the long and short of it.”
“I wake up at lunch 11:00 AM. Eat a white sack and then read or write/sweep floor/clean/bird bath in sink until 4:30PM dinner/styro, eat that. On Fridays and Tuesdays I workout or do crunches at that time too. Then pace from 4:30 to 8:30 or 10:30. I read and write at desk and pace. Each a little. Then second white sack at 8:30 PM. Go to sleep around 3 or 4 AM.
“It sounds…bad doesn’t it? And it would be without me doing my heavy workout and having all the dreams I could possibly want to come to me when I sleep. I think because the days are so bland my dreams are more vivid.”
Inmate G., an Oregon IMU inmate currently held in Texas, described his experience at the Snake River Intensive Management Unit in Ontario, Oregon.
“The cells are sealed off pretty much completely, even the doors shut and have a side-bar type thing that fits along the deal. You’ve got to yell to be heard, which is often more of a headache than it’s worth. There’s four large windows at the front of the cells, but you can only see the depressing view of the tiers, and the guard tower. Snake River IMU has always been the most isolated and depressing of the two [OSP being the other].”
“The cell is eight by twelve. A bunk running along the side wall, where the toilet and sink combo is behind the bunk. A table is attached to the other wall, with a small corresponding stool. That’s one of the only good things about IMU in Ontario, the large and spacious cells. But it’s so much more socially isolated and depressing.”
“SRCI’s IMU is so damn bright, with the powerful florescent lights. Even the ‘night lights’ they keep on 24/7 are similar to an average light! There’s many things that combine that place into being miserable.”
With regards to recreation yards: “In Ontario, you’ve got two. One outside and one inside. And they rotate the days, so you don’t go outside everyday. The inside one is merely a large empty cell pretty much…about ten by fifteen. And there’s a dip bar and pull up bar. The outside rec yards there are probably ten by thirty, with a basketball hoop and ball out there.”
“I’ve always liked to read, fiction and nonfiction, and I try to keep active with a workout, although sometimes it’s incredibly easy to get lazy. I love music, so having a radio has been my escape. I write, although not as often as I used to. There’s not much you can do, but I try to keep busy nevertheless.”