I Spent 16 Months In Solitary Confinement And Now I’m Fighting To End It

| Organize!

Above Photo: From Nationofchange.org

I was just 17 years old when I was sent to solitary confinement in “Camp J,” one of the most severe lockdown units at one of America’s most brutal prisons, the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. I languished in solitary for 16 months.

Back then I didn’t know that Louisiana was the solitary confinement capital of the world. All I knew was that I’d been convicted of a crime I didn’t commit, and I had to maintain my humanity in one of the most dehumanizing places on earth.

It’s called “23 and 1” because you spend 23 hours alone in your cell, with one hour to take a shower or make a phone call, if allowed. There are no educational programs.  You are stuck in your cell with just the voices in your own head and the cries of men who have already gone mad. Most of the other people in my unit were suffering from severe mental illness. I remember how they would ram their heads into the bars, play with their own defecation, or throw urine or feces.

The hardest part of living in solitary is trying not to lose hope. Each morning that I woke up in solitary I would quote the same serenity prayer I remember my father reciting when I was young. “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”

The consequences are devastating. It’s been 22 years since my time in solitary and 8 years since my release from prison, but I still have flashbacks and nightmares. Even when I’m with someone else, I find myself secluded in my own mind. I call it being psychologically incarcerated. I’m learning to identify and deal with it, but I am still not normal.

new report from the ACLU of Louisiana, Solitary Watch and the Jesuit Social Research Institute proves that the degrading conditions I experienced continue to harm other people. The report is based on a survey of more than 700 people held in solitary, and as someone who has experienced solitary first-hand, their stories ring painfully true. “These cells drive men mad,” wrote Carl, one of the report’s survey respondents. “I have personally witnessed one man take his life, another tried to by running the length of the tier and smashing his head into the front bars, sadly for him he still lives, if you can really call it that… Point is the cells are killing men and they know it….”

I hope that the information in this report will help prove to corrections officials that more changes are needed throughout the system, not just for the benefit of people living in solitary – but also for their families and communities.

The report contains specific, immediate recommendations for reducing the Louisiana Department of Corrections’ extreme dependence on prolonged isolation and moving quickly toward more safe, effective, and humane alternatives.

The need for reform is urgent. Because putting people in dehumanizing situations pushes them to do dehumanizing things. If your life is destruction, the only thing you can give out is destruction.

That’s why the United Nations has said that extended solitary confinement can rise to the level of torture, and called on countries around the world to ban the practice beyond 15 days.

Solitary confinement is an experience I will never forget. Just the other morning, my wife told me I was screaming during the night – and I knew it was a nightmare about my time in solitary.

But I’m strong, and through my work with Voice of the Experienced, a grassroots organization founded and run by formerly incarcerated people, I’m blessed to be able to use my experiences to press for reforms to combat mass incarceration and restore the civil rights of those most impacted by the criminal legal system.

For too long, the voices from Louisiana’s solitary cells were silenced. Through this report and the courageous advocacy of other survivors, we can help make sure they are finally heard.

 

  • Bernadine Young

    I am so ashamed to be a human, to live along side of such behavior going on as if it is no effect on our society and politics, but find it more than wonderful that this man survived and has gone on to work against this treatment of people. When you also think about the details of the report he mentions and the very recent and various excellent reports on how innocent people are found guilty because the broad and deep tract record of police lying in court to convict innocent people and other false convictions based on faulty science, from hair analysis to false face recognition, it is clear that our overcrowded, punitive, violent prisons, that keep growing exponentially, and more and more for-profit, are a reflection of a society gone wrong. And note that we are startled to realize more and more that we do the same to our children, and to immigrants and their children. All of this is an emergency for all of us to speak out against. This brave man offers us the way.

  • Infarction

    Many decades ago in the US before the Nixon/Reagan/Clinton/Obama/Trump so-called wars on crime and immigration, there was a movement for prison reform that hoped to end the brutality of prisons. There was a quaint notion of redemption for those souls who found their way into crime. The idea of rehabilitation stemmed from the belief that if you treat people humanely, give them tools like education, job training and emotional counseling, they could be returned to productive society.

    But these high-sounding programs were shoved aside for the capitalists who saw big money in a captive society. Not only was incarceration a big money-maker for the rich, but it also gave the bourgeoisie retribution against the hated poor. As Michele Alexander wrote in her book “The New Jim Crow,” prisons became the repository for the former slave class who had survived the Black Codes and brutal and discriminatory laws against people of color during the twentieth century.

    Prisons in the US hold about 2.2 million people in the gulag system. With only four percent of the world’s population, the land of the free holds in its jails and prisons 25 percent of the world’s prisoners. More than any other nation on the planet.

  • rgaura

    Oddly enough, on of Tim Leary´s proposals when he ran for governor of CA was to abolish prisons.