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Sunday, June 17, 2012

1 in 30,000

Well, I find myself turning to this blog as a sort of therapy.  Absent for a while, yes, but like the prodigal son, I have returned.  Unfortunately, I find myself deep in thought about the unpleasantness of, you guessed it, all things prison.  There are, indeed, many more prisoners in this country then those simply behind bars.  I have to smile when I reflect back on a recent conversation with a friend when I said that I was in my own carefully built self made prison.  His response, funny, true and sad was "You are the prisoner, the warden and the correctional officer".  He's right.  MOST would say if you're the warden, just let yourself out.  Of course, those are the people who have never had a loved one in prison.  Because if they had, that question never would enter their mind.  I find myself banging away at this keyboard with several things on my mind.  At this time, the one topic I feel I can talk about is solitary confinement.  Here's where I mention KC is back in solitary.  Why isn't important right now.  But he's there.  So just two weeks shy of his one year anniversary of being solitary free, I realized this morning, I guess I'll have to take his "one year solitary free anniversary platter" back to Tiffany's.  Luckily, I hadn't yet had it engraved.

So commences Solitary Confinement 101.  Let's get the high level overview out of the way.  The history of solitary confinement.  The practice started, at the very least in a benign fashion, and perhaps even in a noble attempt at true rehabilitation.  It started in the late 1820's at Eastern State Hospital in Philadelphia based on a Quaker philosophy.  The idea was to provide prisoners with time to reflect on their actions, a stab at gaining understand, remorse, and rehabilitation for their actions.  Early on, however, it was dismissed as the experiment yielded examples of increased suicide rates, and an inability to function in a social setting after periods of confinement upon release.  So, "A" for effort, it didn't work, moving on.  Right?  Wait, no!  Let's, collectively as a society, take this concept that at it's very origin was immediately dismissed as a total failure at rehabilitation, and let's try to perfect it.  The motivation behind the origin was admirable, and still remains a valid question.  And the Quaker philosophy was onto something with their belief that rehabilitation can come truly from only one source.  And that source is the offender themselves.  Has torturing someone into rehabilitation ever worked?  If you're reading this blog entry, you are enlightened enough to know that the answer is clearly no. 

As a commonly used practice, indeed, solitary confinement took a sleepy hiatus for quite a while.  But, it rears it's ugly head again.  While, give or take, 40 years passes, the sleeping giant continues its slumber, and is jolted out of hibernation with the advent of Alcatraz.  And with it comes the more modern concept of solitary, which is, where to house "the worst of the worst".  And now we take a concept whose origin was to rehabilitate criminals through extended periods of time of thoughtful reflection, which at it's very core didn't work, and is revived as a concept to warehouse "the worst of the worst" with the pursuit of rehabilitation nowhere in sight.  Even then, though, the practice of using solitary confinement on any kind of solid penal practice, is an outlier, an anomaly.  Fast forward another half a century and we're in the bustling 1990's.  As a society, we're individually and globally pursuing and perfecting the concept of hedonism and excess.  Big surprise that our incarcerated counter parts are doing the same thing.  And here comes a freight train called "SUPERMAX" facilities.  They are big.  They are scary.  They are intimidating.  They are ominous.  They are constructed to illicit such a response.  What the architect didn't know he was constructing in the blue prints is the less tangible feature of walls that become self fulfilling prophecies.  While the manifestation of these solitary cell walls and what they contain varies from state to state, there's some common features that almost all share.  Here's what the cells look like.  They're small.  Smaller than your bathroom.  They have either solid doors, or perforated steel mesh doors.  They are the color of concrete, or a drab grey, blue, tan or white.  There is a steel slab welded and bolted to the wall, with a mattress several inches thick.  There is a steel toilet with no seat.  There is a sink a stool bolted to the floor and a very small desk, also bolted to the wall.  There are institutional lights which are not controlled by the inmate.  Some have a window, most do not.  So that's what they look like.  I have pictures of one particular supermax solitary cell where KC resided for eleven years.  I obtained these pictures through a photographer who was allowed to photograph this particular cell/pod as a result of a lawsuit on the living conditions of this facility.  A little harder to spot, but ALL of these cells have a built in thief in them.  The thief, while invisible, robs each resident of their hope.  Sometimes the thief also steals the conscious and soul of the tenant.  The conspiracy theorist in me thinks this was an intentional characteristic of these facilities.  While the Pollyanna side of me hopes that it was an unforeseen design flaw.  The possessions that these inmates are allowed varies widely depending on the particular facility.  Some are allowed TVs, some aren't, some may have a book, some aren't allowed that privilege.  Of course the theory is the more miserable you make these cells, the more they become a deterrent.  Wrong again. 

I must clarify something before I go any further into our virtual solitary confinement tour.  There are many types of inmates sitting in these solitary cells throughout this country.  So, let's meet the "worst of the worst". Rare is the occasion that a newly sentenced convict goes straight to solitary.  Residents of these cells have earned their way into their solitary cell.  Earned?  Well, that's open to debate.  The worst of the worst are there because of what they have done since entering the correctional system, NOT what they did to get there.  They have earned their way there because they have committed violent acts on staff or other inmates.  Most common would be murdering, raping or assaulting staff or another inmate.  Yes, these are the ones who should be isolated.  But even that isn't as black and white as it may appear.  Because once you cross this line in the sand, there's no turning back.  In a conversation with a friend recently on this very topic, his response was either be prepared to keep these guys in solitary until the day they die, or they are released (whichever comes first), or try addressing the mental health issues at hand.  Therein lies the problem with this particular solitary confinement resident.  There is no such thing as psychological help for anyone in prison.  There answer is prescription drugs, which is perhaps the only drug no inmate wants to get a hold of.  So, counseling, therapy, psychological services are completely lacking.  In prisons where there are upwards of 3,000 inmates, you'll be hard pressed to find more than a few jobs relating to any kind of social services.  So, they don't commit any resources to any kind of mental health assistance to inmates who clearly need them the most.  Ok, well, an unenlightened approach, but the other option, as my friend points out is to truly lock these guys up and throw away the key. Now, in rare circumstances this does happen.  But the vast majority of solitary confinement inmates will return to a general population yard.  Yes, ones that murder, rape and assault other inmates and staff will probably, eventually, get out of solitary confinement.  Why?  Well, theirs the legal aspect of solitary confinement.  It's a widely debated constitutional issue, stemming from "is it cruel and unusual punishment"?  Therefore, it is more likely than not that regardless of what the "worst of the wost" do, if they have enough time remaining on their sentences, they will most likely be released back into a general population setting.  Understand that they are being released back into the general population after sitting for months, years, and even decades in solitary confinement, having literally never seeing a mental health professional to address what landed them in solitary to begin with.  The other kind of inmate who "earns" their way into solitary confinement is one, believe it or not, has never perpetuated a single violent offense.  Typically, they have gotten numerous "tickets" for minor/major infractions.  Truly these infractions are not violent but can run the gamut of taking food from the chow hall, to testing positive on a drug test.  Rules broken?  Yes.  But have they earned their spot in the most expensive prison real estate there is?  No.  The third and last type of inmate who is sitting in solitary is the ones "under investigation".  They are being investigated from rule infractions, or more serious crimes.  They will sit there longer than you think.  If there is a criminal trial involved, they can sit there for years while they try to prove that they didn't "earn" their infamous cell.  So, that is who is sitting in these solitary cells.  For the  approximate 30,000 inmates sitting in them, there are 30,000 different, and unique stories and circumstances.  Those 30,000 inmates represent close to 1.5% of the entire jail/prison population in this country.  While I am playing statistician, here's another one.  At the precise time you are reading this entry, nearly 1 out of 100 people in this country is currently in jail or prison.  Put another way, close to 1% of this country is currently incarcerated.

The last topic of the day in Solitary Confinement 101 will be only a high level summary of what is happening in the minds and bodies of these inmates.  Brief in that that topic alone could fill hundreds of books.  At it's very core, solitary confinement ensures that there is no human contact, and that 23-24 hours a day are spent inside there cell.  It has been deemed by the Supreme Court of this great nation that there is a required number of minutes that solitary inmates are constitutionally entitled to leave their cell/go outside (albeit in handcuffs, and escorted by two correctional officers).  And they are constitutionally entitled to a set number of showers per week.  Other than that, they are in their cell with extremely limited resources, if any, and no human contact.  The rare solitary inmate who gets a visit from family is granted a non contact visit and is behind glass.  A significant amount of scientific research has been published on the effects of long term solitary confinement.  And here's what the research says, simply put.  These inmates lose touch with reality, mental health issues develop and spread like wildfire, and this population has an unprecedented rate of suicide.  In addition to mental health issues at rates almost unimaginable, there is scientific evidence of actual physical changes in these inmates brains in as little as two days.  Absolutely no one coming out of solitary confinement comes out "better" than when they went in.  Some leave in straight jackets, some leave in body bags, and some come back with homicide and rape charges and will spend years back in their solitary cell, and will probably, eventually be released from solitary again, if their sentence is long enough.  And those years will provide no mental health services whatsoever. It's a vicious cycle, and no one wants to get involved.  Well, actually, let me clarify, as my wise friend said the people who can affect change, won't do it.  And the people who care, devote their lives to caring, haven't been able to effect change.  It seems a true impasse.

KC is my 1 in 30,000 solitary confinement story.  And, there's more to come on that.  Be certain of it.

My friend I have spoken about throughout this entry, he has his 1 in 30,000 solitary confinement story.  His story ended when his son in solitary confinement killed himself.  I assure you, his story hasn't ended.  The only thing that ended was his sons life.  So he, like myself, has had to become his own expert on solitary confinement.  Like somehow knowing the enemy makes these tragedies easier.  I'm learning at my own pace that it doesn't.

As someone who's profession is in the field of finance, in an effort to reach those from a dollars and cents (or should I say sense) standpoint, there is an economic aspect of this kind of warehousing.  Generally speaking, it costs around $30K a year to house a general population inmate.  To house a solitary confinement inmate, the price tag jumps to approximately $70K a year.  As we as a society continue to put more and more inmates into solitary, which tends to be a revolving door for their residents, the demand for more supermax facilities, and more prisons with an increased number of solitary cells required, the cost to the federal government and respective state governments will continue to grow.  More guards are required to manage these inmates, more expensive environment is necessary, in every aspect, this is absolutely the most expensive way to manage a population of people. Solitary is a necessary tool, but without extensive mental health services for these inmates, there is no hope that even one of these inmates has any chance.  Then there is the less tangible costs of solitary and it is all of the human life lost.  It comes in several ways.  It comes with a a disproportionally high rate of suicide.  And it comes with blood shed once these inmates are released back into a general population setting.  Having spent years or decades in solitary, with no one addressing why these inmates landed there in the first place, they come out violent, even if they didn't go in that way.  This manifests itself by assaults, homicides and rapes.  I am a huge proponent of taking responsibility for your own actions.  But who's hands is the blood on?  Yes, it's on the inmates who do these acts.  But collectively, the most blood is on the hands of the states DOC's and the federal BOP's hands.  They are the ones who have the knowledge, the power, and the tools to admit what they are doing is not working, and start working towards a solution.  But instead they chalk the spilled blood up to these inmates being "the worst of the worst" and they put their head in the sand. 

 So, in an effort to wrap up Solitary Confinement 101 I'll close with this.  Only a fool sees this as the answer.  This is not the answer.  Sometimes I am jealous of the 99% of society who don't have to know about this.  But I also know every day there is the one percent, who one by one, enter this private hell.  They are either victims, or loved ones of the "worst of the worst".  I myself haven't walked through life with a victim mentality.  But, I'll say this, in relation to this topic, there are only victims.  How badly you get stung depends on your 1 in 30,000 story.  The 99% see these inmates, and inmates as a whole, as faceless nameless thugs.  And I assure you, they are unenlightened.  Either deal with these thugs now, or deal with them later.  The 1% who has to deal with them will soon become 2% and on and on.  I'll end with two thoughts. 

This is from an article about solitary confinement called The Grey Box.  An inmate who has spent years in solitary confinement said this, to a reporter he corresponded with.  “Anyone who spends more than three years in a place like this is ruined for life.  Two or three hundred years from now people will look back on this lockdown mania like we look back on the burning of witches.”

"If you're not outraged, you're not paying attention."


Whit Smith said...

Well done, dear one, well done.

KC's Girl said...

Thank you for your support. You give me someone to look up to.