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ACLU of TX: Solitary Confinement Cells = Incubators of Psychoses


According to a Texas ACLU report one solitary confinement prisoner named Alex lives in a windowless 60 square foot cell the size of a bathroom. His only contact with the outside world is a door slot through which a food tray can be shoved. There are also two thin slits through which prison officers are able to peek in at him without him seeing them. Alex "hasn’t seen stars in 10 years." The report speculates that listening to "constant screaming from other prisoners induces healthier prisoners to madness themselves." Alex keeps a journal he has nicknamed “Wilson” after Tom Hanks’ volleyball in the “Castaway” movie. Alex:

“Everyday from dusk to dawn there’s noise, banging, clanking, yelling, screaming,”... “Everyday someone is getting hurt or hurting themselves. Everyday there’s fire and floods and complete chaos & hate. Everyday there’s loneliness. I woke up last night to someone screaming ‘Let Me Out of Here’ (again) over and over with so much anguish there was no doubt he was screaming from his very soul. But he was just screaming what we are all thinking. Everyday is a challenge here. A challenge against insanity.”

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“I have to be honest, when your back here and the guy next to you is so crazy he’s cutting on his face or eating his feces. It makes things even worse because you don’t know if they came into [solitary] this way, or the walls, this place, has caused it. So you begin to wonder, am I next?”

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As one of the prisoners surveyed [from Huntsville, Texas] told the ACLU:

“I am an honorably discharged combat veteran diagnosed with PTSD, anxiety disorder, panic disorder, etc. Isolation is torture. There can be no other word for it. ‘Isolation’ simply means you are single-celled. You are not removed from the effects of other inmates’ extreme behavior. People flood the areas by plugging toilets. Fires are routinely started so you wake in the middle of the night choking on black smoke. Electricity gets turned off. People scream, yell nonsensical gibberish all night. They bang doors 24 hours.. . .”

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Dr. Craig Haney, a University of California professor, served as an expert in the prisoners’ rights case of Ruiz v. Estelle finding that, “high numbers of prisoners were living in psychological distress and pain”:

“The bedlam which ensued each time I walked out into one of those units, the number of people who were screaming, who were begging for help, for attention, the number of people who appeared to be disturbed, the existence, again, of people who were smeared with feces, the intensity of the noise as people began to shout and ask, Please come over here. Please talk to me. Please help me. It was shattering. And as I discussed this atmosphere with the people who worked here, I was told that this was an everyday occurrence, that there was nothing at all unusual about what I was seeing.”

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The judge presiding in the Ruiz case on solitary confinement in Texas ruled that solitary confinement constituted cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and declared that solitary confinement cells are:

... “virtual incubators of psychoses—seeding illness in otherwise healthy inmates.”

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Kevin Martinez in “ACLU report documents horror of solitary confinement in US prisons” writes of the ACLU of Texas analysis of the impact of prison solitary confinement.

Martinez reveals that across the US there are approximately 80,000 people placed in solitary confinement. He also adds that the United Nations considers solitary confinement a form of torture. Sometimes prisoners go for years or even decades at a time in isolation, removed from face to face human contact.

In the state of Texas, informs Martinez, 6,000 people are presently in solitary confinement. He reports that the average Texas prisoner in solitary confinements spends almost four years that way. Over 100 Texas prisoners have spent 20 years in solitary. This means they live in a tiny cell for 22 hours a day and are "banned" from having direct human contact as well as receiving educational or rehabilitative programming.

Of the 6,000 solitary confinement prisoners in Texas, over 2,000 of them have been diagnosed by prison officials as having mental illnesses. According to Martinez people in solitary confinement are five times more likely to commit suicide than those prisoners who live within the general population. 95 percent of the surveyed prisoners explained that they developed psychiatric symptoms as a result of their solitary confinement. 30 percent reported oral or physical outbursts. 50 percent reported panic or anxiety attacks. 15 percent reported halluciations.

Martinez concludes:

The cruel and barbaric use of solitary confinement is one part of the overall inhumanity of the American criminal “justice” system. The US incarcerates a greater share of its population than any other country in the world. This month, the Vera Institute of Justice reported that American jails have become “massive warehouses” for the poor, while the equivalent of debtors’ prisons exist in Missouri, Alabama and other states.

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The massive expansion of prisons, particularly since the 1980s, has paralleled the growth of social inequality. The victims of poverty and social misery are warehoused by the millions in US prisons, under increasingly brutal conditions. Meanwhile, the real criminals in society, those at the Pentagon, the White House and Wall Street, are never charged, much less punished, for their crimes.

[cross-posted on open salon]

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