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Sunday, August 28, 2011

What a difference 3 letters can make

In almost all ways, I'm no different than everyone else out here in the "free world".  Really, the only difference is that my other half resides in prison.  So, my pursuit of solitude and tranquility in a chaotic and hectic life is really no different than anyone elses.  But this entry isn't about solitude, actually it's about quite the opposite.  A word so close, in spelling only, to solitude.  That's solitary.  And what a difference those last three letters make.  Only in the past three years have I come to understand what solitary, in a prison setting, means.  Some may wonder why solitary confinement has anything to do with our story of falling in love.  Maybe the enlightened will see.

Solitary confinement is a hell all of its own.  Sure, it's all prison.  But school is school, right?  Stick a first grader in a senior English class and see how they do?  The difference in a "yard" in prison verses solitary confinement is not unlike that example.  This entry is not to address how KC ended up in solitary (indeed, I agree he deserved a short stay there...not a decade).  I guess I also find this entry necessary because, unfortunately, even though he's been transferred to a new state DOC, with what we hoped would be a fresh start, the previous DOC wrote a letter encouraging the new DOC system to put him back in solitary (despite no tickets in a decade).  So, in a few days KC has his hearing to see if he will be, once again, locked up with the key certainly thrown away.

So, onto solitary.  Solitary comes with different restrictions depending on which state system or federal system.  But, this is about KC's experience.  The logistics of solitary for him were pretty much the harshest in the country.  The word solitary is rarely used anymore.  After all, it sounds pretty dehumanizing, doesn't it?  So, now you hear terms like AdSeg (administrative segregation), the Hole, and SuperMax.  KC came from a system were the inmates had controlled movement.  Which means if one inmate was out of their cell in the pod he was in, no other inmate could be.  A pod consists of eight single man cells.  The thought behind that, I guess, is that these inmates are SO violent, that they can not be around another inmate without a mesh metal door between them.  And, in some cases that's certainly necessary.  While the inmates are out of their cell they must be handcuffed as well.  Even when going to the shower.  They slip their hands through a small trap door and the handcuffs are taken off while they shower.  KC was allowed out of his cell for one hour, three times a week for "rec".  The rec pen consists of 20 feet concrete walls with chain link fence covering the top.  He is allowed a shower 3 times a week.  KC rarely took advantage of his "rec" time.  He was in one of the hottest states down south and the DOC there has a good track record (with the lawsuits of inmates dying in the heat) of leaving inmates in the hot sun for longer than their one hour rec time.  I always tried to encourage him to go outside, but he just didn't seem interested in it that often.  If I said he went outside once every six weeks, that might even be an overstatement.  So, if an inmate takes full advantage of his shower and rec time, he is out of his cell for about 4.5 hours out of every 168 hour week.  His meals and mail are brought to him.  When an inmate wants to use the phone (three 15 minute calls per week), a cordless phone is brought to their cell.  The DOC limits their caloric intake (primarily due to budget cuts, I imagine) to 2,000 calories a day.  Their justification for the 500 calorie reduction is that solitary inmates don't move as much and therefore don't burn as many calories.  Even though the case could be made that these inmates are the most fit because many literally sit in their cells and work out several hours a day.  KC does.  They also only get two meals per day, I believe KC said his "brunch" pack consists of six pieces of bread and lunch meat.  No fruits, no vegetables.  Suffice it to say, the diet that is fed to solitary inmates is deficient in almost every way.  Inmates in solitary are not permitted a pillow.  They have two sheets and a blanket.  The few luxury items which are allowed for solitary inmates, if their family can afford to buy them, are a TV, a cassette player/radio, ten books, writing supplies, a fan, and a light.  KC had all of these items, which provided me with some peace of mind.  That is the logistics of solitary confinement.  The physical aspect, anyway.

The damage of solitary confinement is almost unimaginable.  KC has spent a decade in the solitary environment that I just described.  When first entering solitary he was an angry young man, in his late 20's.  He had never committed a violent act until going to prison.  As he once told me "prison broke me, then it made me".  While the crimes that landed him in solitary were violent, it took the environment of solitary to totally break him.  His anger turned into rage.  Hatred for everyone.  He began having violent thoughts and violent dreams.  He tells me that nightly he had dreams of violently killing people or being killed himself.  He had a one track mind, his focus was on pure violence.  This was his life in solitary for the first few years.  He maintained correspondence with his Mom and Dad, but that was were his "normal" ended.  He is so open and honest about where his mind was in the "dark days" as he calls them, but it is difficult for me to truly comprehend what he was like then.  I can't comprehend what it would truly feel like for my sole focus to be on hurting someone, anyone.  His mind would ping between wanting to kill someone, and taking his own life.  And in solitary, he had all the time in the world to think of how to do both.  After about 3 years in solitary, after being totally broken, mentally and emotionally, he was exhausted.  With life.  He refused to carry on as he was.  He was a desperate man, and he did what many do when the desperation consumes them.  He dropped to his knees one fateful night and prayed.  He was raised in a christian home, but I don't believe until a while after that night that he truly believed in God.  But he prayed as his life depended on it.  I guess that it did.  I'll never forget what he told me that he prayed for.  He asked God to restore his soul or to end his life.  He couldn't and didn't want to continue the path that he was on.  He continued praying, every night.  His life started to turn around.  His environment didn't change, but his heart, mind and soul slowly did.  After a few months rage and violence no longer consumed his every thought.  When we speak about this, we refer to it as his "transformation".  Here is something he wrote to me from one of his first letters to me.  "you said I should be proud of my positive transformation.  I am very proud of it.  I have come such a long way.  Four years ago I thought there was absolutely no hope for me.  And I assure you, anyone that would have known how my mind truly functioned would probably have felt the same way.  I only fear that I will be put in a position in the future to have to do something serious again to save my own life.  I feel if I have to commit anymore acts of violence or aggression, it would completely erase all these years of progress.  I will never initiate any future acts of violence unless I know my life is in jeopardy if I don't."  That was a letter written in 2008.  He has come a long way even from that.  While his extensive history of violence is, unfortunately, respected amongst inmates I believe that KC will go to extreme lengths now to avoid violence at all.  Even in the case that someone threatened him.  His body is fine tuned to intimidate just as his history of violence, but it is something that he wants no part of now.  His mind is on the present and the future.  He feels he is working towards coming home.  To me.  And as he says every decision he has to make in there, he thinks of how it will affect us.  So, after several years of truly working on himself mentally and emotionally he finally feels that he is a positive man who is on the right track.  And he's right.  So if the goal of solitary confinement is to prepare inmates to reintegrate back to a more social "yard" setting, surely, he had met this goal, and prepared for his eventual release back to the yard.  That day never came.  On the inside he felt like a new person.  Like the man once capable of violence, and evil thoughts no longer existed.  The DOC has a really long memory, however.  It is at this point that one may say KC was at a crossroad.  What to do?  Usually those in solitary know why they are there, and if they are capable of being honest, they would probably agree that that is the safest place for them.  But there are inmates, such as KC, who shouldn't be there.  They are not a danger to themselves, other inmates, or staff.  So, why do they keep them there?  My opinion is that it is this point that damage really begins.  Imagine being held back a grade in school.  Most likely, if someone is held back, there's a reason.  But does that mean they should be held back every year.  Pretty soon their classmates are graduating and the child held back still has years to go to finish.  How long can we continue to hold inmates back?  The ones who are truly ready to continue progressing in life.  Work, school and vocational opportunities are woefully lacking in the prison system in this country, and even more so for inmates who are in solitary.  Quite honestly, there is no opportunities.  He's ready to continue to progress in life. So KC sat there for 6 years after his "transformation".  He continued behaving, didn't receive any disciplinary write ups, and thought this would show Administration that he was ready.  He continued to remain positive in spirit, but the effects on him were that he became as solitary as his environment.  To this day, KC has showed no interest in making friends inside or outside of prison.  I've tried to have several friends write to him, but he has refused any such correspondence.  Another byproduct of his lengthy solitary stay has resulted in a mental strength that is indescribable.  To be able to go without human contact for a decade, without any social interaction requires a total adaptation to life that goes against what makes a human...a human. He has had to retrain his mind to accept that human touch, interaction with other people is not a luxury afforded to him, nor will it be.  A total acceptance of this left him withdrawn and very serious in nature.  Having said all of this it is nothing short of a miracle that he put up an ad seeking penpals.  And right from the start he said he wanted only one true friend that he could be completely honest with and not be judged.  He found that in me.  A couple of months after we were writing he wrote and asked the website to remove his profile.  He had found what he was looking for in me.

I have only scratched the surface on solitary confinement.  For as many solitary inmates as there are, there are that many different stories of the effects that it has on them.  KC is indeed, in some ways, quite lucky.  The rates of mental health, increased violence, and suicide rates of solitary inmates is shocking.  For that reason alone, more regulation needs to accompany institutional solitary confinement policies.  So far, KC has avoided all of these.  He is still, to this day, left with the violent dreams he used to have, although he says he only has them about once a week now.  And he feels guilty for having them. 

If they leave a man in solitary confinement long enough, he will eventually turn into the monster they feared he always was.  My fight is to get KC out solitary before I lose the heart, mind, and spirit of the man I love to his hell on earth environment.

Since KC was transferred to the new state, he spent 55 days in "general population" at which point the Administration decided to bring him up on an AdSeg hearing to see if he's a danger to staff and inmates.  Perhaps they should look at his behavior in the past 55 days to see if he is a danger to staff and inmates rather than his behavior 11 years ago.  Yes, I think I see the irony in this.  I wonder if the DOC will?

1 comment:

KC's Girl said...

Thought I'd leave a comment and share the good news! KC did have his adseg hearing and he won! So, he is now at the reception center awaiting transport to his permanent facility. He'll be on "the yard", and we couldn't be happier! This is such wonderful news for us, and I'm so glad to see that the DOC sees how far he has come.