By Joseph Dole
I have a very intimate understanding of the effects of long-term isolation a person’s mental and physical health. An entire decade of my life was spent involuntarily entombed in isolation at the notorious Tamms Supermax Prison in southern Illinois.
Serving a sentence of life without parole, I was sent to Tamms for knocking out an assistant warden in yet another Illinois prison where humans are simply warehoused without any programs, with few jobs, and with constant disrespect and dehumanization from staff and administrators alike. In retaliation for that assault, several staff members assaulted me while in handcuffs, prior to shipping me off to Tamms, breaking my nose and other injuries.
Tamms was allegedly opened as a sort of “shock-treatment” for violent inmates and gang leaders. If the inmate behaved he was supposed to be transferred out after a year. This never occurred, though. The reality was that, once opened, the IDOC administration abused their power and used Tamms to mete out retaliation. It was not just to get staff assaulters either, it included jailhouse lawyers and many of the mentally ill whom the administration wished to lock in a closet somewhere.
In the ten years I was there, I never received a single legitimate disciplinary infraction. Nonetheless I was denied a transfer out of Tamms thirty-nine times. Upon arrival, and for the next seven or eight years, I was repeatedly–and gleefully–told that I would never be released from indeterminate disciplinary segregation, would never get out of town Tamms, and would, in fact die alone of old age in that concrete box. I was twenty-six at the time. To get their point across, I was forced to send out all property not allowed at Tamms, because I was assured I would never see another prison where I could possess it.
While at Tamms, I not only studied all of the available literature on solitary confinement, but also observed how isolation affected both myself, the inmates around me, as well as those who partook in isolating us.
For nearly the first three years, I was denied a television or radio. Thus, I spent every waking hour reading, writing, cleaning, or working out in order to try to maintain my sanity. Nonetheless, by year five, I was experiencing auditory hallucinations (thinking I heard someone calling my name), extreme anxiety, erratic heart palpitations, and severe bouts of depression. All of which are direct consequences of direct long-term solitary confinement, and which would get increasingly worse as the years wore on.
Luckily, those were the extent of the mental and physical repercussions of being isolated for so long. That is, if you don’t count the atrophy of my eyesight, hearing, social skills, and a number of my relationships with family members and friends. I say luckily because it could’ve been much worse.
I went to Tamms bloody, but without any mental illness, so I was able to withstand its effects for longer than those who arrived mentally ill. Had I been bipolar, schizophrenic, or even just illiterate, who knows what would have happened? Imagine being trapped behind the steel door for years on end with no television or radio, unable to read or write with no one to teach you and absolutely nothing to do. For many this is a daily reality.
I may have ended up cutting or biting off chunks of my skin like many did while I was there. Or, I may have killed myself or attempted to, like so many others I know. Or it may have been another inmate watching Correctional Officer Bundgren carry off my severed penis, instead of the other way around. Who knows? I survived intact. Many others don’t.
I know that many Americans feel that I got what I deserved. We Americans have perfected both being sanctimonious and deliberately indifferent to the plight of others. While I can agree that I deserve to be punished for my actions, at a certain point (after my nose is broken in my opinion) the isolation ceased being about punishment or even “institutional security” and just became a sadistic display of an abuse of power.
The public may not care not care for my well being, nor that of the 100,000 Americans who are currently being held in long-term isolation, but they should. Through their indifference, the public is directly responsible for the torture of their fellow citizens, the deterioration of their mental health, and all of the suicides that occur in isolation units (which account for one half of two thirds of all prison deaths).
Moreover, the American public is responsible for the effects these facilities have on the people who work there, as well as the threat these places pose to society at large.
People who work in isolation units are severely affected by their work brutalizing people on a daily basis. Not only do they have higher rates of alcoholism and spousal abuse, but their average life expectancy rate is 20 years less than the average citizen. They become accustomed to being above the law and being able to abuse people at will. They then bring that attitude home to their family and community.
Control units in supermaxes are also extremely expensive, siphoning limited resources away from things that actually protect society, like rehabilitation programs, police and fire departments, and school (better educated people are also more law-abiding). Then there is the additional court costs of all the lawsuits isolation units generate.
These places make people so irrationally angry that is that it is the height of folly to continue operating them and even more absurd to then release people straight to the streets from them. Consider Evan Ebel. He was a mentally ill man who was sentenced to eight years in prison in Colorado for carjacking, and ended up spending the entire eight years in solitary confinement. His mental health steadily deteriorated the entire time.
Prior to release, Ebel filed a grievance: “Do you have any obligation to the public to reacclimate me, the dangerous inmate to being around other human beings prior to release, and, if not why?” The arbitrary written response he received was that a grievance was not the appropriate place to discuss policy.
Within two months of being released straight to the streets, Ebel would kill a pizza delivery man after having him read a statement condemning solitary confinement, wear the pizza man’s uniform to the home of the Director of the Colorado Department of Corrections whom he would shoot to death, and then get into two shoot outs with police before dying of gunshot wounds.
This does not surprise me at all. I witnessed countless people grow angrier and angrier, year after year, due to being arbitrarily isolated and brutalized. In the eight years, that I’ve spent in general population around thousands of different men, I’ve never witnessed anyone become a Muslim extremist. However, in the decade I spent in Tamms around just a few hundred men, I listened as many did so, and then listened to them expound on their hatred of America and the West in rants that would last for days.
Solitary confinement units are incubators of hate, which is completely understandable. Treat people inhumanely long enough, and not only will they cease to view you as humane, but some may want to return the favor.
The good new is that many people are finally, belatedly, starting to realize all of this. In January of this year alone, both Indiana and California settled lawsuits by promising to severely curb their use of long-term isolation, and President Obama ordered the Bureau of Prisons to do so as well.
Control units and supermax prisons are the most widely abused tool in corrective departments across the country. While the above-mentioned reforms are welcome, they will barely put a dent in the number of people being abused around the country, including Guantánamo Bay
Tamms wasn’t closed quickly enough to save hundreds of us from years of torture and its ill effects. Nor did Colorado reform its use of solitary confinement in time to save the community from being victimized by Evan Ebel. For everyone’s sake, let’s hope more states choose to accelerate these reforms, rather than fight them.
Joseph Dole #K84446
Stateville Correctional Center
PO Box 112
Joliet, IL 60434