An excellent article on solitary in North Carolina–the first of its kind, that we know of–appears in the current Indyweek of Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill. “What Life Is Like in Solitary Confinement at North Carolina’s Central Prison,” by Billy Ball, describes conditions in the intensive control unit, or ICON, at the prison in Raleigh.
The piece focuses on the story of Chris McBride, who was placed in isolation in ICON after he and a group of other prisoners held a work -stoppage to protest their long hours. “The prisoners worked in the kitchen for 10-hour shifts, seven days a week, without breaks. They were paid between 70 cents and $1 per day,” writes Ball. After being promised better hours, the eight striking prisoners returned to work–but they were rounded up by guards “even though we had went back to work without incident,” says McBridge. “No force was used, no mace was sprayed. We went. No problem.”
The article quotes at length from McBride’s letters, in which he describes life in ICON:
Solitary confinement is hell. I agree with the public—it is a form of torture. It is a tiny cell about 6 feet by 8 feet. It has a steel toilet, with a sink built in the top. There is a steel bed, with an extremely thin mattress. There is a small shelf to put your things, and a very small little desk hanging off the wall, but no chair. There is a window, that is about 5 inches wide and about 4 feet tall, but you can’t see out of it. It’s fog/clouded glass. Plus it’s covered by steel with little holes in it. The door window is the same. The light stays on 24 hours a day. At 11 p.m.–6 a.m., a smaller light comes on but it’s still bright.
We are in this cell 23 hours a day. We are allowed to come out for recreation five times a week for one hour. The rec is a cage. They just stick us in a little cage and we can walk around. That’s it. We are only allowed to take three showers a week. Only three! And we can only take 5 minutes. If we are lucky, we get 10 minutes.
So if you add up five 1-hour recs, and three 10-minute showers, that’s 5½ hours. Let’s round that up to 6 hours. There’s your answer. Out of the 168 hours in a week, we are out of our cell 6 hours. If that ain’t a form of torture, I don’t know what is…
If the officers are mad at you, they spit in your food. They lose or throw away your mail, amongst other things. And that’s only the beginning. The cells are filthy. We hardly ever get to clean them, and when we do, we only get to sweep and mop. No toilet brush or nothing. Then the medical is ridiculous. An inmate can die in solitary and wouldn’t be found for hours because no one even comes by and checks on us. If we ask to see a nurse, we are ignored. I have seen inmates have seizures, faint, as well as try to kill themselves, and the officers pay no attention. Then if the inmate tells on the officers, they jump on him and beat him. Normal rules don’t apply to solitary. They are supposed to, but they don’t.
The piece, which should be read in full, also provides comprehensive context on the use of solitary confinement in American prisons in general, and in North Carolina in particular. In 2011, Ball writes, “the N.C. Department of Corrections issued a blistering report in June 2011 stating that inmates with mental illnesses were sometimes isolated for weeks or found alone in cells splattered with human waste,” and the warden resigned. In July 2012, a group of prisoners held a hunger strike to protest conditions at Central. Officials have promised reform, but there are few signs of change.
Ball also notes that, as is typical in most states, North Carolina maintains a press ban on access to solitary confinement units and their residents. “Corrections officials denied an Indy request to interview McBride in person, so we corresponded via handwritten letters. Administrators also denied our requests to visit a solitary cell and interview an ICON prisoner in person.” His article ends with another quote from McBride, about why it is important to break the silence that surrounds the use of solitary in American prisons:
The public should care about this because we are all human. No, they may not think about prison life on a daily basis, but in the blink of an eye, they could be part of it. I want the public to know about the inhumane conditions we as inmates have to deal with. I want them to know about the mental and physical abuse we have to endure on a daily basis. Just because we are in prison doesn’t make us any less human. There are plenty of criminals not locked up. Look at our government. We still have feelings, and deserve to be treated as people. Not animals.
(h/t to @brookpete at http://prisonphotography.org/ for alerting us to this story.)