The American Friends Service Committee has a long history of advocating for the rights of the incarcerated, and against injustice and abuse in U.S. prisons, jails, and detention centers. Recently, AFSC released a report called Survivors Speak: Prisoner Testimonies of Torture in United States Prisons and Jails. The document was prepared as a Shadow Report to the official U.S. Periodic Report on its adherence to the UN Convention Against Torture (CAT), which is further explained in this earlier post.
In the executive summary to the report, AFSC writes:
The list of abuses committed against U.S. prisoners is long and deeply distressing: sexual violence, humiliation, unsanitary conditions, extreme temperatures, insufficiently nutritious food, inadequate medical care, isolation, psychological torture, racism, chemical abuse and disproportionate uses of force. These are just a sample of experiences you will read about in these first-hand accounts from individuals living in jails and prisons throughout the United States.
Other civil society shadow reports addressing corrections conditions feature legal analysis, data illustrating the prevalence of ill treatment committed against prisoners and insights from experts. This shadow report supplements those crucial examinations by bringing the human experience to bear. Statistics are helpful in understanding the ways in which the U.S. prison system is fundamentally broken. Yet even the best charts are unable to fully convey the reality of what it is like to live through breaches of CAT obligations. These are their testimonials − verbatim − of inhuman conditions under which they are held, abuses that irrevocably change their lives.
What follows is a selection of testimonies from the section of the report that deals with prison isolation. Thanks to Bonnie Kerness of AFSC’s Prison Watch program for forwarding this material to Solitary Watch. –Jean Casella
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“None of the locks on cell doors work which resulted in the death of 5 prisoners in one month… We are supposed to get an hour a day outside our cell but that’s not true in Georgia. We gone [sic] months without seeing the sunlight with nothing to read but a bible. Prisoner suicide has tripled and it’s a medical fact that everyone has lost weight in this program.” —J.H., Hayes State Prison, Trion, GA, 2014
“They called it a 23 hour lockdown, but during the hour out, you had no other human contact- not even staff… As you are aware we are made to eat and sleep in a concrete and steel bathroom…In my particular case they never turned off the light. My window was covered on the outside with some type of white plastic so that we could not attempt any type of visual communication with whatever may have been out there.” —D.L., Plymouth County Correctional Facility, Plymouth, MA, 2014
“I have been in solitary since 1998. From 1998-2005 I was held on “High Risk Potential”… which in part includes zero staff and/or inmate contact, no group activities, no program participation, stripped of privileges (e.g. phone, canteen, contact visits, hobby craft, inter alia), and escorted with arm and leg restraints that have a dog leash attached to them during any movement. In 2005 I was removed from the “HRP” status and Disciplinary Segregation, but placed on Administrative Segregation. I’m still stripped of privileges, staff and/or inmate contact, no group activities, no program participation and in-cell confinement for 23 hours a day. I also only get to shower every 3 days.” —G.P., Ely State Prison, Ely, NV, 2014
“First and I feel most importantly is the solitary confinement at the last prison I was at. It is a dungeon like setting. Dark, no windows, you go weeks and months sometimes not seeing light. These are dangerous and unsupervised for the most part. Men are put in these cells with other men which fight and get injured without anyone knowing for hours on end… I have seen several times inmate getting beat while in cuffs or ganged up by a number of officers…” —C.M., Staton Correctional Center, Elmore, AL, 2014
“The conditions were very inhumane…hot, no working vents at all… stuffy and humid…my first cell bugs were biting me all over my body, when I said something about it they (the medical staff) played like I was crazy then finally after constant complaining they gave me Benadryl then moved me and still didn’t clean the cell. They had a light on all day that felt like a rotisserie lamp. It was hard to sleep because of the hot humid cells and constant bugs biting me all day and night…we had no cups to drink the brown colored water that came out of the sinks and toilets. There was constant screaming yelling kicking and banging (with objects on doors to multiply the sound on the doors).” —A.S.A., SCI Dallas Restricted Housing Unit (confinement), Jackson Township, PA 2014
“I have basically been in seg64 housing unit and while being here the guards have tormented and encouraged me to cut myself and even specified jugular, carotid arteries, and have taunted me every time I have cut my wrist arteries, saying that I did not do it to their satisfaction and have threatened to beat me to a pulp.” —G.C., Wapun Correctional Institution, Wapun, WI, 2014
“It’s hard to explain the multitude of little factors that induce stress, anxiety, frustration, and depression…My best attempt to describe prolonged isolation in a supermax prison is that it’s like Chinese water torture. A single drop may not harm you but the millions of little drops of stress, anxiety, uncertainty, depression, and sorrow build up until you can begin to feel your mind breaking. I wish I could explain it better. Maybe then people could understand and wouldn’t allow this hell to continue.” —J.D., Tamms Correctional Center, Tamms IL, 2009
“I’ve been in the (hole) for three years and now so paranoid that I can’t be around people. I can’t even sleep in a cell with someone else even if I knew him all my life. I’ve tried every treatment, medication possible, no help…I am now so paranoid I can’t even be on the yards. Even in a lock [sic] cell, a lock [sic] shower, a lock [sic] rec cage, I’m still paranoid so how is it going to be on the streets when I am around others? I’ve really tried to work on it but nothing at all works even the medications. So all I ask is, is this place really need[ed].” —J.H., Federal Correctional Complex, Oakdale SMU, Oakdale, LA, 2010
“A suicide attempt. That’s what happened to me during my time in solitary. A serious, legitimate suicide attempt. I suffer of [sic] schizophrenia and while I was in segregation all I had to talk to was the voices in my head… While in solitary I was electrocuted due to faulty wiring. After that everything just went downhill for me. Every day I talked to delusions more and more. It got to the point that I did whatever the voices told me. Eventually I decided that was no way to live and chose to try to kill myself. I was found in my room passed out and cover [sic] in blood. The next morning I went right back into trying to kill myself as soon as [sic] woke up. I tried to kill myself by diving into a metal stool… I suffer of brain damage… If I would [sic] had daily conversations with other people, I would have not interacted with delusions. Delusions that led me to try to kill myself.” —D.A., Central New Mexico Correctional Facility, Los Lunas, NM, 2014
“This term [in solitary confinement] I have been in a little over 4 years straight, but overall most of the past 15 years… After doing a substantial amount of time inside alone, then being released is shocking. It is a blast for a few days then the people, colors, sounds, touching, movement, kids, cars, and social interactions become way too much, kind of like over-stimulation of the senses, it gets really uncomfortable around everyone and everything, so much that it usually takes alcohol or drugs to ‘feel’ comfortable.” —R.T., Corcoran State Prison, Corcoran, CA, 2014
“Even now, six months out of the hole I still remain affected. I withdraw from social interaction/setting. I feel frustrated for no apparent reason. Possibly the most damaging aspect of segregation is the sense of powerlessness. You can yell, scream, report misconduct and abuse to prison officials to no avail.” —B.S., Jefferson City Correctional Center, Jefferson City, MO, 2010