Life in a Box

by Diane Dimond on February 27, 2012

Prolonged Isolation Destroys the Mind

Americans were once riveted by the horrific news of U.S. soldiers and military contractor’s treatment of enemy combatants at the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad. Media reports beginning in 2004 made us cringe with shame when we realized Americans had humiliated, raped and even killed prisoners of war – and casually taken snapshots of their own crimes.

Today, I believe there is another atrocity taking place inside our own American prison system. Oh, it doesn’t involve naked inmates being paraded around on a dog collar as happened in Baghdad but the end result is just as appalling – if not more so.

Investigative Journalist Susan Greene

In a groundbreaking work by journalist Susan Greene entitled “The Gray Box” it is revealed that tens of thousands of American prisoners are being held in prolonged states of solitary confinement in prisons across the country.

Now, before you say, “Well, they were convicted criminals – that’s what they get!” let’s delve into Greene’s award winning essay.

After years of corresponding with inmates Greene paints a chilling picture of what our penal system is doing to those labeled as “security risks.”

She writes, “Among the misperceptions about solitary confinement is that it’s used only on the most violent inmates, and only for a few weeks or months. In fact, an estimated 80,000 Americans — many with no record of violence either inside or outside prison — are living in seclusion. They stay there for years, even decades.” (Emphasis added)

L.A. Protester Against Isolation Detention

Trying to escape, fighting or being affiliated with a gang can get an inmate tossed into solitary. So can cussing at a guard, filing a lawsuit against prison conditions or simply being a juvenile who’s safety might be at risk in the general population.

Make no mistake, I believe prison guards should feel safe at work and that prisons are for punishment. If an inmate breaks the rules then a few days in the box is standard operation procedure. But aren’t prisons also supposed to try to rehabilitate inmates who will someday be released? What good does it do keep a convict secluded for so long that he either emerges in a state of vengeful rage or as a broken, un-fixable person?

Guards Need To Feel Safe - But Isn't There a Better Way?

Greene’s article quotes letters and personal interviews with longtime residents of solitary confinement. Their stories of struggling to maintain their minds while in the box reveal disturbing details. So many years go by for some that they have no idea what they look like or what year it is. Clocks, calendars and mirrors are  often not provided.

Alone, they walk in endless circles in cells as small as two queen sized mattresses. They create art out of the few items they are allowed, they count ceiling tiles over and over, some go on hunger strikes. Some inmates take insects as pets so they have something to talk to. A few of the isolated have televisions or cells with a window but most do not. They get one shower a week and meals are slipped through a slot in the door. There are no computers, few telephone calls and many residents of solitary have been there so long their family doesn’t even write anymore.

Greene recounts several cases of the mental deterioration caused by prolonged solitary confinement.

Prisoner Anthony Gay Self Mutiliates

Take the case of Anthony Gay of Illinois. He ran afoul of the law after punching another kid and stealing his hat and a dollar. After Gay violated his parole he ultimately landed in the Tamms super-max prison. He now displays all the classic signs of profound mental illness. He regularly cuts his genitals and eats his flesh. He flings his own waste through the food slot and has earned a 97 year sentence in the box. He wrote to Greene, “I’ve been trapped for approximately nine years. The trap, like a fly on sticky paper, aggravates and agitates me. America, can you hear me? … Please speak out and stand up against solitary confinement.”

Osiel Rodriguez has lived in total isolation for eight years after trying to escape from a federal penitentiary in Florida, sent there for armed robbery at 22 years old.

“I got it in my head to destroy all my photographs,” he wrote to Journalist Greene from his solitary cell in Colorado. “I spent some five hours ripping each one to pieces. No one was safe. I did not save one of my mother, father, sisters. “My parents will be dust if/when I ever get out of prison.” In his mind life on the outside is just too painful to remember anymore.

Stephen Slevin At Arrest & Upon Release

Sometimes inmates are isolated for no legitimate reason. After a drunk driving arrest in Las Cruces, New Mexico Stephen Slevin was tossed into a solitary cell and forgotten. Nearly 2 years later – without ever seeing a judge – charges were dropped and a disheveled, delusional Slevin was released. He thought he had been incarcerated for two months. A jury awarded him 22 million dollars.

Susan Greene writes, “This is what our prisons are doing to people in the name of safety. This is how deeply we’re burying them.”

I am as ashamed of this as I was hearing the news about Abu Ghraib. America is supposed to be a compassionate country. This sounds like state sponsored torture to me.

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{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

donald gutierrez (prof. emeritus of Englishus) February 27, 2012 at 1:55 am

Dear Ms. Dimond: Your essay on solitary confinement (which appeared today in the politically conservative Albuq. Journal), was stunningly good in its informed empathy. Any nation, such as ours, that has a prison population larger than any other country in the world (or all the world’s prisons combined? I forget), has something dangerously corrupt about it. And the average
American’s ignorance of the shocking psychic (and thus physical) impact of solitary is deeply disturbing (let alone his/her ignorance of, or concern about, what’s happening, right now, in Guantanamo and in even more secretive hell holes abroad such as Bagram air base and the black cells run by CIA and “Elite Forces” in Eastern Europe, Thailand, and other places.
And when one considers that the privatized prison system is designed mainly to be profitable, and that a once great education state like Calif. now spends twice as much $ on its prisons as it does on education, it becomes clear that the country is moving into dangerous territory in regard to civil rights concerning any legal offense committed regardless of how trivial.
The general treatment of inmates in corporate prisons is even worse than in the public correctional (so called) institutions. Americans need to get hip to being more merciful towards social (let alone political) prisoners, and humane, cogent essays such as yours today will surely help in that goal.
Lastly, I’d like to recommend a book (if you haven’t already read it– Lockdown America, by Christian Parenti (powerfully written and well documented).

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Diane Dimond February 27, 2012 at 10:32 am

ABQ Journal Reader Kari Converse writes:

“Dear Ms. Dimond –

Great piece in today’s paper. Thanks for calling attention to this barbaric and atrocious practice!”

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Diane Dimond February 27, 2012 at 10:44 am

Creators Syndicate Reader Partsmom writes:

“Do we even know what works in this whole area? Are there prisons that successfully combine removing a dangerous person from society and helping him become fit for the real world? There are people who cannot safely be loose in the world; too many people come out more dangerous than they go in. We need more responsible intelligence applied to the situation and less revenge, ideology, unexamined assumptions.”

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Diane Dimond February 27, 2012 at 11:29 am

DD Web Site Reader Ginnie Oleskewicz Schwartz writes:

“Wow……..these are human beings……..we are making them something they are not……..animals……..this really hit a nerve with me……..ugh……unbelievable……….”

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Diane Dimond February 27, 2012 at 11:30 am

Facebook Friend Fred Mizzi writes:

“You know let’s just tell the truth, we want law and order but we can’t stand the death penalty we want them locked up to teach them a lesson but offer no rehab programs a sheriff in AZ is under attack for makeing prisinors wear pink and living in tents we get young kids who have no home support to speak of who live in violent neighborhoods, but we don’t want them to learn violence, but we charge the schools for not teaching,being a bussed student in the 70s I seen the bank robbers of tomarrow and many in my school ended up in prison but still no rehab programs,so until we address this ,all we do is say the roofs leaking but it won’t be fixed so get a bucket!”

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Diane Dimond February 27, 2012 at 11:31 am

Facebook Friend Déirdre Rock writes:

“People complain when we’re too leniant on criminals, now they’re complaining that its too tough!!!!!! Perhaps if everyone was put in solitary, crime rates, rapes, murders etc would be a lot lower!!!! A real punishment!”

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Diane Dimond February 27, 2012 at 11:32 am

Facebook Friend Morgan Roebuck writes:

“They’re not in there for helping little old ladies across the street…

And I wrote to Morgan: “Read the piece Morgan – love to get your comment on it.”

Morgan Roebuck answered:
“Okay, after reading the entire piece, I’ll backpedal and admit there are some serious problems here that must be addressed… Always the skeptic, I have serious doubts the abuses are as widespread as portrayed but even a handful – especially in respect to minor offenders – is too many. A good read. Hopefully this article is a launch point to help right some wrongs.”

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Diane Dimond February 27, 2012 at 11:33 am

Facebook Friend Donnakay Church writes:

“I understand there are occasional mistakes & people are wrongly confined to solitary & think those should be investigated & righted. But for the most part the inmate is there due to his/her own behavior & they deserve to be there.
I do NOT fall for this poor, poor pitiful me routine they give us. And prisons are NOT there to rehab – they are there to punish. If courts want to rehab inmates then send them to rehab centers not prison.”

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Diane Dimond February 27, 2012 at 11:34 am

Facebook Friend Fred Mizzi writes:

“Yes, let’s skip rehab like what’s been going on cause when an inmate is being schooled to be a better criminal cause when you get out NOOne will hire you ,Members in our society wouldint think of hiring a ex con so either you beg,pan handle, or lay down and die, or just keep the 50 year cycle going of reoffend and get taken care of by the state,either way were paying.”

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Shari Greer February 27, 2012 at 12:14 pm

Americans want criminals punished. But taking human beings and locking them in a dark room for an endless amount of time only creates a harder criminal. Until we look at the ‘whole picture’ of the results of this type of treatment, we will continue to do it wrong. So many people in jail are mentally ill. And many become mentally ill. The resouces to change this are non exitstant. So they take the person.. a human being… and shut them in a box… because….? They don’t have a clue about the results. That person comes out angry, and doesn’t fear anything, as they just lived through the worst situation and assume it will happen again, regardless. So why rehabilitate? Because these folks will get out eventually, and they will reoffend. Until we recognize the mental illness that plagues so many, and find a way to treat it, we will continue to do horrific things like locking people in a box. This is the USA. We should not be living in the dark ages, but we are. Yes, they did wrong. But no one…. ever… should be placed in a solitary confided area for any length of time. It breeds more anger, and more crime. I am ashamed that we contribute to this kind of treatment. Volumns could be written on this subject… but until we open the book for all to see, it will continue to happen. And criminals will become harder criminals…. to pray on the very society that allowed this.

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Diane Dimond February 27, 2012 at 12:20 pm

Facebook Friend Bill Voinovich writes:

“Sorry, but if those guys didn’t do something pretty outrageous, they wouldn’t be there in the FIRST PLACE…….
What about the people that they beat, robbed, murdered & raped????? Most of THEM don’t have many options…”

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Diane Dimond February 27, 2012 at 12:26 pm

Facebook Friend Erika Heckl writes:

“I think it would depend on how violent of an offender they are. The worse of them should stay in solitaire confinement.”

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Diane Dimond February 27, 2012 at 12:40 pm

DD Web Site Reader and Facebook Friend Doug Burns writes:

“People do not realize how cruel that process can be. Prison is all about the little things — the ability to read books and magazines; the
ability to get outside and get fresh air. When you take all of that way, it is beyond cruel, and it’s an important issue that you raise.”

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Diane Dimond February 27, 2012 at 3:49 pm

DD Web Site Reader and Private Detective Danno Hanks writes:

“Diane: I read your article and it brought back memories of my own incarceration in the California penal system.

I spent 9 months in the hole at San Quentin. I was told it was for my own protection. I was a jailhouse lawyer, and the warden argued that I was being “taken advantage of” by the other inmates.

I don’t know what the rules are now, but back then, you could only do 30 days in the hole. So, every 30 days, they would take you before the disciplinary committee where you would be considered “out of the hole.” An hour later, they would take you right back. I was released to the streets right from the hole.

In every police officer training manual, ther is a quote from Plato, “Law without enforcement is merely advice”. Society needs to be reminded that the door needs to swing both ways because they could be next.”

The one thing that they could not legally deny me access to was the law library. That was my salvation, my sanity, and my freedom. The fact that I went on to make something of my life was not because of my “rehabilitation”, but in spite of it!…………. Danno”

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Diane Dimond February 28, 2012 at 2:51 pm

DD Web site Reader DASKIVT1679 writes:

“No, i’d rather they euthanize them,save the us taxpayers $, and prove to be a REAL deterrent to other criminals, please diane, ugh.
I worked in nyc jail system 5 yrs, then police officer 20 years, my opinion may be skewed. Used to say upon arresting someone or when dealing with them in jail “you werent CRYING when you were out robbing people”.Now, you want your cookies from commisary, your meals gotta be Halal in the jail, ugh. im retired, should be wondering when im getting the boat out , or skiing again. dave”

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Linda Lockard Roth March 1, 2012 at 2:14 pm

Dear Ms. Dimond,
Absolutely right on the mark, Diane. My nephew was sentenced to 97 years in a Texas prison for a crime, terrible though it was, committed while in a agitated state of paranoid schizophrenia. John’s court appointed lawyer presented him with a plea deal that he refused because he believed that his peers would judge him fairly. He languished in various jails in surrounding counties for over two years before it was announced that his trial would begin the following day. His “lawyer” met with less than a handful of times prior to the trial. His “lawyer” obtained the testimony of a forensic psychologist that might as well have been paid by the DA. At the trial, the psychologist down-played the fact that my nephew has been dismissed from the navy after an episode and subsequent diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia.
Since John’s conviction and placement in a prison near Houston, Texas, I have been extremely concerned for his safety. He is unmedicated, still having hallucinations and hearing voices. The prison docs tell him that he does not qualify for medications. He refuses to work in the field so he has been placed in SHU detention for months and months.
I am outraged at the horrible attitude that Texas has about their prisons. There is such a terrible desire for retribution, and no attention to rehabilitation in the prisons. Texas overbuilt its prisons and has also added to the list of crimes that a person can be imprisoned for. It is sad statement about attitudes in the current society. Recently a young man convicted and incarcerated on death row at the age of 15 for a crime that he did not commit was finally set free at the age of 37 who had lost his long range vision competely as a result of being in the “box” that you mentioned.
My reaction as a sculptor has been to produce a series of figurative sculptures of men and women who have been placed in solitary confinement. Each figure presents the indignities a prisoner is forced to endure in solitary confinement, perhaps by forced nakedness in chains, by forceable restraints such as straight jackets, or even being chained to a bed while undergoing labor pains prior to delivery. These things do really go on in prisons even when they are unlawful. I hope that I can find a way to present my sculptures to the public in an educational format. I really want to raise awareness of the horrific way our correction officers are programmed to treat those on their watch. We must speak out as strongly as we can against plea deals, indefinite incarceration before trial, and extensive and prolonged detention in solitary confinement.
Thanks for such a wonderful article!
Linda L. Roth

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Diane Dimond March 6, 2012 at 1:57 pm

Huffington Post Reader PatA writes:
As usual, Diane, you’ve written a good article about something that has to be brought to the attention of rational Americans. My vote is for legalizing pot and also getting the minor crack offenders out of prison/jail.

You mentioned “rehabilitation”. I got in trouble on a weekly basis for being caught trying to teach the offenders what was waiting outside. I told them “if you think it is hard in here, just wait until you’re outside”. I showed them how to get a drivers license, social security card, write checks and sometimes I could find an employer who will hire felons. Oil fields are the best place for a felon to search for work.

i worked as a guard and later as a teacher in a private prison in Texas. I kept a journal because I listened and learned what was going on inside the walls. It would take me far too long to write about my experiences.

I could have a student who was in for a minor drug offense and she would get 8 years. The female sitting next to her might have 3 for burglary.

Kudos to the TDCJ for taking action after I quit and I notified my state representative of the conditions and corrupt employees.

I traced the money and finally found the true ‘parent’ of the prison where I worked. I wasn’t surprised to find that Dick Cheney is a part of the ‘parent’ company.

CCA, another private prison, has made offers to all states to buy state prisons…with conditions. The state has to agree to follow the rules of the “war on drugs” and agree to keep the prison at 90%+ capacity…..Thanks, Diane.”

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Diane Dimond March 6, 2012 at 1:59 pm

Huffington Post Reader Connie in Cleveland writes:

“Wonderful post. Shining a light into the darkness, should be a good thing, but so many people have lost passion for ‘real’ things that matter. They care about ‘Dancing with the Stars’, ‘American Idol’, but don’t have time for ‘real’ passion, or shame.

The American people are letting this happen. They are not holding anyone accountable, because they have become accustom to moving along to the wrongs. They move along to wrongs far worse than this, on a daily basis. What would it take to get people to care?

They don’t care that many of our Governor’s are selling our prisons to for profit corporations. They are selling ‘prisons’, which they don’t own. They are voted in to lead, not sell. How dare they sell ‘our’ property. Does anyone else care? No, not really. ‘Nothing to see here, move along’ is just wrong. It’s time for ordinary American’s to pay attention. Stop moving along to the wrongs!”

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Diane Dimond March 6, 2012 at 2:05 pm

Huffington Post Reader BeachBum620 writes:

“Prison is a place you are supposed to want to stay out of,it’s a punishment NOTa vacation. pain mental or physical can be a deterrent!”

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Diane Dimond March 6, 2012 at 2:08 pm

Beach Bum620 – Pain, mental or physical can also be what drives people to revenge and acts of extreme violence. Is this what you want to instill in prisoners who will then be let out to live among us again?
Not me. ~ DD

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Diane Dimond March 6, 2012 at 2:07 pm

Huffington Post Reader ritan7471 writes in response:

“Yes, but extreme examples, (like) the ones in this article are chilling. No, prison is not supposed to be fun, but neither is it supposed to be for pointless torture.

Imagine if you got picked up, accused of drunk driving, and let’s say you weren’t even drunk. Instead you had worked a very long shift and swerved because you were exhausted.
Now, let’s suppose you’re angry at being accused of being drunk, and because the cop felt “threatened” by your angry words and demeanor, you’re thrown into solitary.
Isn’t that extreme?
But imagine being there for TWO YEARS before someone realizes you’ve been held without charge, and without being seen in a courtroom. Even if you were drunk AND violent, you haven’t warranted that treatment.

I wouldn’t say that situation or any of the situations from the article are what I would call just punishment or a deterrent. I’m ashamed that we as Americans can even begin to criticize other countries for human rights violations while we allow these kind of things to go on. Any inmate sinking into insanity from being denied human contact or intellectual stimulation is a shame on our system and a drain on our society.”

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Diane Dimond March 6, 2012 at 2:07 pm

I couldn’t have said it better myself! ~ DD

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