In isolation, your mind starts to play tricks on you. You begin to do anything to numb the pain. Some prisoners will clog their toilets with clothes and flood the cell with water. Others will start to play with their feces or eat them while urinating all over the place.
You have people who self-mutilate by cutting themselves. Or they swallow things like fingernail clippers and pens. Others drink cleaning solutions just to go to the hospital to escape reality.
98% of prisoners in the U.S. ultimately return to their communities. Often, they are more lost than when they were arrested. It’s becoming increasingly clear that psychosis in the wake of long periods of segregation is not unusual. Rather than making something good come out of something bad, the situation has only worsened for the prisoner, his family, and his community. Remember: a prisoner’s life extends past the walls he’s confined to. That life affects his family, his friends, as well as the society into which he’s released.
How, then, is justice served when the system causes a prisoner to go from bad to worse?
Even in the general population, there’s a feeling of despair, of just marking time, that already ensures not much good will come out of the bad. Prisoners spend far too long locked in an 8 x 10 x 8 cell, give or take a foot or two depending on the prison. Rehab is the exception, not the rule.
Here’s What Daily Life Looks Like
Your space will have a set of bunk beds for two people, two mattresses that are 2 1/2 inches thick, one pillow, a small desk, two lockers for your personal belongings, a sink, a toilet, a small garbage can, a plastic chair, a light, a couple shelves, and a mirror. They then give you two bedsheets and one pillowcase. The prison will also issue pants, t-shirts, underwear, socks, and a jacket. They give you a prison ID with your photo and prison ID number that you must wear around your neck anytime you leave the cell.
Your loved ones can order personal t-shirts for you, underwear, socks, sweatpants, sweatshirts, hats, gloves, shoes, tv, radio, books, towels, shower sandals, and writing supplies. And as for hygiene products, the prison gives you small bars of soap, toilet paper, a small toothbrush, and some off-brand toothpaste. Mine was called Greenco.
To obtain dental floss, shampoo, conditioner, lotion, chapstick, Q-tips, brand name toothpaste, a normal size toothbrush, a razor, and deodorant, you have to purchase these items from the prison commissary in which you need money sent in from your loved ones or earn a few dollars from a prison job. Imagine if all you had to take care of yourself was some cheap bar of soap and toothpaste.
There are jobs in prison though sometimes you wait months just to get a job. Jobs pay 12-42 cents an hour. For people who have court fees to pay or child support, the justice system takes 50%- 75%. It also takes an additional 10% for your release account from any money earned or sent to you from loved ones. So a prisoner could work 80 hours just to get a stick of deodorant and a bottle of shampoo.
Prison will heighten your survival instincts. Many things that used to come easy have now become an everyday struggle, as you learn who truly cares about you. You have nothing to offer, and you need support. Without psychological or financial support, a prisoner can go crazy, become bitter, or both.
Imagine being in this cage-like environment called prison where anger and depression are dealt with daily. You are always aware of your surroundings and watching out for those who are having a bad day, whether it is a prisoner or a correctional officer. Because this prison environment affects all of us psychologically and can play tricks on our psyche, causing our anger/depression to be expressed in many different ways. Anything from arguing, fighting, bullying, correctional officers abusing their power, and kindness can be considered a weakness.
And during your stay in prison, almost every prisoner will receive a disciplinary report for a major or minor rule violation. Correction officers give out tickets for minor rule violations for such things as passing food you are not allowed to share, listening to your radio too loud, or disobeying a host of other rules. Your punishment will be loss of recreation, loss of your electronics, loss of day room privileges, or cell confinement for 5-30 days.
Here’s What Solitary Looks Like:
However, your main concern is to avoid major rule violations because you will end up in segregation/isolation. Major rule violations include fighting, assaulting a correctional officer, having a dirty UA for drug use, having pornography, having homemade weapons, or disobeying direct orders from correctional officers. For violating a major rule, you can spend 15-365 days in segregation, followed by a possible indefinite term of time in isolation called administrative confinement.
When you get to the segregation building, you have to strip naked in front of correctional officers. Then they have you open your mouth, check behind your ears, lift up your testicles, look at the bottoms of your feet, bend over, and spread your buttocks, and cough. And they do all of this to see if you’re concealing any contraband, like drugs, weapons, razor blades, gang literature, or pornography. You’re then given a pair of orange pants, an orange shirt, a couple of underwear, socks, and slip-on shoes. Then you’re placed in full restraints and led to a segregation cell.
Upon entering your new cell, you can only hope that the person before you kept the cell clean. The person in your new space sometimes exits only twenty minutes before you arrive. This gives the unit worker less than twenty to clean the place up, get your bedding, toothbrush, toothpaste, and soap. The toothbrush they give you is one inch long, cone-shaped, and fits on your finger. They also give you a rubber pencil and a rubber cup.
A few days later, you will be given a few personal property items, only if you have them in your personal property. These may include a bar of personal soap, toothpaste, deodorant, a comb, a few personal books and magazines, your address book, stamped envelopes, writing paper, legal work, and a deck of playing cards. There is also a small library where you can request two books every few days.
This is also known as phase one of segregation time, in which you’re in lockup until your ticket is heard. You can be placed in segregation for pending criminal investigation and being placed in segregation to determine if you will be placed on administrative confinement.
In segregation, you will get three showers a week in which you also get a change of clean clothes. Some people choose to yell out their cell door all day long, holding a conversation or reminiscing about their past. Some people bang on their steel doors, making a beat/noise to try and rap too while they stress others out, filling the tier with noise although they don’t care. Some people lose their sanity, causing them to play with their feces or urinate all over the place. The noise, the rank smell, being isolated, and the boredom can truly affect a person’s psychological well-being. Welcome to phase one of segregation.
Once your conduct report is heard by the hearing committee of prison staff and correctional officers, you will be sentenced to 30-365 days in segregation. Through halfway of your sentence, you will go to phase 2 of segregation. In phase 2, it is not as loud, and you won’t have to deal with mentally ill prisoners playing with their feces and urinating all over. You will also be allowed to have a normal toothbrush, lotion, your own shampoo, a plastic glass, and food from the commissary if you have money. Eventually, you will be able to earn the privilege of having your TV or radio.
You will also be given a cellmate, and some cells only have one bed; therefore, the other prisoner sleeps on the floor with a thin mattress. Once your segregation time is over, you will go back to general population or administrative confinement.
In administrative confinement, you’re isolated in a single cell locked down all day for an indefinite amount of time. Somehow, prison officials consider administrative detention non-punitive even though it is the same as phase 2 segregation. However, you can have your tv and your radio. Prisoners are placed in administrative confinement when a warden, security director, or other prison staff consider you a threat to the institution’s security.
A security risk could be a high-ranking gang member; or just about anyone displaying “ongoing criminal behavior,” a man the authorities feel will disturb everyday prison life. You will be isolated in administrative confinement for no less than 6 months. Every 6 months, the prison will have a hearing which you can attend to see if the hearing committee will vote to place you back in the general population.
Most prisoners will be in administrative confinement for at least one year. Prisoners have been held in isolation on administrative confinement for periods lasting 1-44 years. After spending months in isolation, you start to feel as though you have been buried alive.
Whether you’re in phase 1 segregation, phase 2 segregation, or administrative confinement, you will only be let out of your cell for three showers a week and four hours of recreation. Recreation is a 5×10 foot fence in a cage with a pull-up bar that you will be locked outside in for one hour, weather permitting.
Once a week, you will get clean bedsheets and a pillowcase. Some sheets come soiled, smelling bad, or badly stained, so hopefully, the correctional officer understands and can exchange them. You also get to clean the cell once a week. You get a small hand brush, dustpan, one rag sprayed with a bit of disinfectant, toilet brush, toilet bowl cleaner, a small paper lunch bag to use as a garbage can, and a mop for the floor. Every tier has about 15 cells, so everyone uses the same mop water, toilet brush, and broom.
If your family or loved ones decide to visit you, you will be placed in handcuffs and shackles before leaving the cell. Then you will be escorted to a room with 2 metal stools and a glass wall in between you and your visitor. You will be able to visit for 1-2 hours, depending upon your segregation status.
No matter which status or phase of isolation you’re on, you have to be in handcuffs behind your back or shackled to your waist whenever you leave the cell. At the same time, the correctional officer holds your arm.
Solitary As Torture
Meanwhile, international law considers anything after 15 days in isolation to be torture. In isolation, you’re detached from humanity, and the psychological effects of isolation on a human being can be irreversible. The isolated cells full of prisoners will have a psychological impact on the correctional officers as well.
As isolation can cause irrational thoughts that lead to irrational behavior, some prisoners will refuse to shower for weeks or even months while falling into a deep depression. As time passes, people start to hold conversations with themselves, hallucinating, and hearing voices. At times it feels as though the walls are literally closing in on you, and a person starts to feel useless as if no one cares while losing touch with reality. Some people go mad by repeatedly kicking on the metal cell door, punching the wall, or banging their head against the wall.
Some people can no longer stand the everyday torture, and they commit suicide. Guards and prison staff say we act up to get attention. However, multiple studies show that exposure to psychological pain and suffering can cause post-traumatic stress disorder, whether it is a long or short-term experience.
In 2016, when last reported, there were 70,000 prisoners in solitary confinement at any given time. 38% were suffering from mental illness. The World Health Organization (WHO) has stated that solitary confinement’s adverse health effects include gastrointestinal and genitourinary problems, insomnia, deterioration of eyesight, profound fatigue, heart palpitations, migraines, back and joint pains, weight loss, diarrhea, and aggravation of pre-existing medical problems. WHO also found prolonged isolation can lead to anxiety, depression, anger, diminished impulse control, paranoia, visual and auditory hallucination, post-traumatic stress disorder, self-harm, suicide, and psychosis.
Administrators do assign us social workers, but that comes to one social worker for roughly 100 prisoners. They are all dealing with a ton of paperwork to file and keep track of. You will be lucky to meet with that social worker unless it’s an emergency or your once a year review to see if you can go to a lower-security prison.
There are all types of abuses inflicted by prisoners, correctional officers, and prison staff. However, there is a prevailing hands-off prison doctrine observed by judges and the prison administrators. Wardens run the prison as they see fit.
Granted, you can always file a lawsuit against the prison; most of those lawsuits fall under the 1st, 8th, and the 14th amendment rights. However, in 1996 the Prison Litigation Reform Act was passed, making it difficult for prisoners to stand up for their constitutional rights. We have to exhaust all of our in-house prison complaints on time before the deadlines, or else the courts will refuse to accept your lawsuit. You also have to pay a $350.00 filing fee when most prisoners are lucky to make .35 cents per hour.
Daily throughout the U.S. prison system, there is bribery, rape, and smuggling everything from cell phones to drugs, or whatever a prisoner might need. There are fights, abuse of power by prison staff, excessive force by correctional officers, inhumane living conditions, and the list goes on and on. Though a small percent is put on the news, the community assumes everything is okay.
Even though there is a complaint system in prison, the system is handled by prison staff. Staffers more than likely have a rapport with whomever you’re writing a complaint on.
As for self-help and rehabilitation groups go, they exist. Still, you will be lucky to participate in more than 75-200 hours total, no matter how long your prison your sentence. Other prison programs are for earning a high school diploma or limited technical degrees. Indeed, there is a form of minimal help in prison.
Still, I see far too many prisoners psychologically damaged, given so much abuse, isolation, and idle time they’re dealing with. When ultimately released into their communities, how can we expect that justice will prevail, not just for them, but for everyone? I ask you to ask yourself, how is justice served if it isn’t by making some good come of something bad?
Tyler can be contacted here:
Tyler Metzner #393001
Fox Lake Correctional Institution
Fox Lake, WI 53933