Yesterday, I was released from solitary confinement, or the “Restrictive Housing Unit,” as it’s now known in the state of Wisconsin. The prisoners in here just call it “the hole.” It wasn’t a long stay — just seventeen days. Yet, in spite of that, the experience still had severe and profound effects on my mind and body.
I’m certainly no stranger to the hole. In fact, I’ve grown quite familiar with the experience over the years. I’m entering my nineteenth year of incarceration, and I’ve spent over a quarter of that time in the hole. I’ve lived through some of the most harsh and cruel conditions, including waking up to tear gas being employed down the hallway, and being forced to kneel in order to receive my meals, a “precautionary measure” placed upon me for holding open the food trap in my cell door until I could speak to a supervisor.
But yesterday was different. This time I paid close attention to the experience and the entirety of its effects. The first stage is psychological and I undergo the same thing every time. I suffer through an acute depression. It varies in degree of severity, but there’s a sort of “adjustment period.”
I’m hurting from the loss of routine, of work, companionship with friends, and the distraction of recreation and exercise. In other words, the loss of what gives an individual purpose. I lay on my bed and my eyes grow heavy. I blink a few times and then I’m out. A moment later, I jerk and suddenly I’m startled awake. It feels like I’m dreaming, but I quickly realize the nightmare is real. I can’t sleep, can’t stay awake. I’m sick, I’m lonely. I’m lost. In an agonizingly slow pace, the minutes turn into hours, and the hours turn into days. I count every crack and brick in the walls as I eventually let go of all the comforts I’ve lost. I pace back and forth in my small cold cell. Four strides to the door, turn, then four strides back to the vail.
In minutes I’m dizzy so I sit down, but soon my back begins to ache. I lay down and try to read an old yellowed paperback, but it’s my neck and shoulder that hurts. Joint, muscle, and nerve pains. I’ve entered the next stage of my misery.
Soon my entire body is nothing but aches and pains, and my dry skin itches incessantly. I take medication but find no relief. My mouth grows dry and my throat becomes sore. I drink cup after cup of water but that doesn’t seem to help. The recycled air in the closed room takes its toll. Soon I have a sinus infection and a cough. It’s been just three days.
By the end of the first week, I’ve lost my voice. I have constant headaches, and now I’m suffering from digestive issues.
I make myself exercise but it’s difficult to find the motivation. I know that if I don’t, however, it will only get worse. The push-ups, sit-ups, and squats aren’t enough to keep up with my previous level of activity, and my body continues to break down, sending my mental health into a downward spiral.
Eventually, after what feels like a lifetime, I’m told I can leave. Now comes the stress and anxiety. I really want to leave, but at the same time I have the irrational urge not to. It’s hard to make myself step out the door. I’ve made it to the final stage: reintegration. I suppress the psychological distress and step outside. I blink and squint my eyes behind my glasses, but it’s difficult for me to see. My eyesight has atrophied. Everything in the distance is an aching blur.
As I’m pushing my cart of property to my new housing unit, I hear someone call my name. I try to return the greeting but my vocal cords are sore from disuse. I croak out a reply and keep walking. My mouth is completely dry and my palms are sweaty. I’m nervous for absolutely no reason. I get to my room and scramble through my boxes frantically, looking for my plastic cup. I need water badly. I take a deep breath and attempt to relax. It’s time to put the pieces of my life back in order.
I was placed in solitary confinement for a substance use infraction, so was the intent of my recent experience to “cure” me of my self-medicating coping mechanism? Seventy percent of the time I’ve spent in the hole over the nearly two decades of my incarceration have been for substance use issues. I’ve never been allowed to take any substance use programs. I’m not violent, I don’t engage in disruptive activities. I work as often as I’m alloyed, usually in the academic department as a vocational tutor. Yet I’m caught in a trap that’s been impossible for me to escape from.
I consider myself fortunate however. I suffer but I endure. Many I’ve known have not. Self-mutilation seems to be a common coping mechanism. Cutting and bleeding. I’ve seen many hang themselves with a sheet. Even when there’s nothing to attach the makeshift rope on, guys that desperate will just strangle themselves, and the response by the prison guards is never very urgent. A friend of mine named Kevin spent three months on suicide watch with nothing but a safety smock to wear and a hard rubber mat to sleep on. He lost over fifty pounds during that time. Most other guys just scream all day, kicking and pounding on their cell doors. It makes it difficult to get any sleep.
Some places I’ve been in provide a TV or allow you to get a TV and those segregations have such a low level of self harm or suicide. Just that little bit of mental stimulation means so much. We’ve had groups advocating for solitary confinement reforms, and even in this state they’ve limited the amount of time they place you in there for, but I believe there should be a push for the conditions of confinement. If someone needs to be separated from he general population for whatever reason, is it necessary to remove all comforts and mental stimulations that keep a person engaged and sane? Some limited hobby items, their tablet for music and communication. That’s the solitary confinement reforms I would love to see.
Studies have shown that solitary confinement is strongly associated with an increased risk of self-harm, and not just during the confinement. According to an article in the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry, isolation can be as distressing as physical torture.
The range of mental health problems include:
- Anxiety & stress
- Depression & hopelessness
- Anger, irritability, hostility
- Panic attacks
- Worsened pre-existing mental health issues
- Hypersensitivity to sounds and smells
- Problems with attention, concentration, and memory
- Hallucinations that affect all the senses
- Poor impulse control
- Social withdrawal
- Outbursts of violence
- Fear of death
- Self-harm or suicide
The recorded physical health effects of solitary confinement are no less exhaustive:
- Chronic headaches
- Eyesight deterioration
- Digestive problems
- Excessive sweating
- Fatigue & lethargy
- Genitourinary problems
- Heart palpitations
- Hypersensitivity to light £ noise
- Loss of appetite
- Muscle S joint pain
- Sleep problems
- Trembling hands
- Weight loss
Having recently suffered through the experience myself, I’m not too surprised to learn I fit the bill on many of these points. The lasting effects have yet to be determined, but I’m well-grounded nevertheless. I haven’t completely given in to despair and hopelessness, and I try to stay engaged in activities that promote positive growth in my body and mind. And yet, that insidious need to self-medicate…
Some places I’ve been in provide a TV or allow you to get a TV and those segregations have a low level of self harm or suicide. Just that little bit of mental stimulation means so much. We’ve had groups advocating for solitary confinement reforms, and even in this state they’ve limited the amount of time they place you in there for, but I believe there should be a push for the conditions of confinement. If someone needs to be separated from the general population for whatever reason, is it necessary to remove all comforts and mental stimulations that keep a person engaged and sane? Allowing for some limited hobby items, their tablet for music and communication. That’s the solitary confinement reforms I would love to see.
To be fair, the Department of Corrections has recently made changes which limit the amount of time an individual will be sent to solitary confinement. They used to hand out punishments of six months to a year or more, now they only give out one to two months on average. [Editor: New York passed a law 4/2021 which will limit solitary stays to 15 days. It takes effect in 2022.] But as my recent experience shows, it doesn’t take long for the effects to set in. While prison security must remain a priority, it should be weighed against the harm of solitary confinement, and some new approaches should be considered.
Joshua Shadduck #332317
Fox Lake CI
PO Box 200
Fox Lake, WI 53933