By Naina Bhardwaj / Insider/YahooNews
When Takeisha Brown finally got to visit her son, Tyquine Lee, at the Red Onion State Prison, Virginia, she didn’t recognize him. “I saw someone that wasn’t my son. He was just so small. He was rambling in numbers. He had a language of his own.”
His bones stuck out; his teeth were decaying; his clothes were filthy. It’s horrifying. I’ll remember the sight for the rest of my life,” she told The Appeal.
Lee’s treatment is just one of the thousands of stories of solitary confinement in America that campaigners say is inhumane and should be radically curtailed.
Lee, who was sentenced to 78 years in prison for a string of home invasions in 2011 with his girlfriend, served 600 days in solitary confinement in Red Onion, a state maximum security prison, between 2016 to 2018, and barely survived.
The only time that he was allowed out of his cell was for three showers a week and two hours a day when he could exercise in a yard roughly the same size as a parking space, The Mirror added.
According to The Appeal, Lee, 28, was sometimes given food covered in maggots and filth, and his weight dropped more than 30 pounds. As his mental and physical condition deteriorated, he began to speak in numbers and signed his name using random letters.
When his mother asked prison staff for Lee to be removed from solitary, she was told he would have to complete a series of requirements, including a collection of workbooks, an impossible task given his mental state, the MacArthur Justice Center noted.
Lee’s mother and sister made the 12-hour roundtrip to see him through a plexiglass barrier as often as they could but at one point was banned from visiting him for six months, leaving him bereft of family contact, The Mirror reported.
“Before we left, Tyquine would start to growl and bark like a dog. When I got back to my hotel room, I locked myself in the bathroom for hours crying and praying to God that he has mercy on Tyquine’s life,” Brown said, according to The Guardian.
He was eventually released back into the general prison population in 2018, following a schizophrenia and personality disorder diagnosis.
Lee had struggled with mental health issues for most of his life and, by the age of 10, had already been hospitalized four times.
In January, Takeisha Brown reached a settlement with the VDOC allowing Tyquine Lee to be moved to a correctional facility closer to her in New Jersey. Lee will also receive over $100,000 in damages from the department, the MacArthur Justice Center added.
Red Onion gained notoriety after it was featured in Kristi Jacobson’s harrowing 2016 documentary ‘Solitary.‘ A supermax prison that opened in 1998 designed to house criminals considered ‘the worst of the worst.’ Today, it is treated as an ‘end of the line’ facility for inmates who have broken the rules in other prisons.
In 1999, a year after it opened, Human Rights Watch published a report about the conditions at Red Onion highlighted as “unnecessarily harsh and degrading,” adding that “prison staff uses force unnecessarily, excessively, and dangerously.”
Twenty-two years on from the damning report, both the prison and state of Virginia still regularly come under fire for the inhumane treatment of inmates.
Lisa Kinney, a spokesperson from the VDOC, which runs Red Onion, told Insider that while there is no longer such a thing as solitary confinement in Virginia, she added that on November 30, 2020, there were 45 inmates placed in long-term restrictive housing at Red Onion.
The Pennsylvania Model
Solitary confinement in the US was introduced in 1829 at the Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP), a purpose-built prison in Philadelphia that housed inmates in total isolation.
It was designed specifically so inmates couldn’t communicate with each other, and prison guards wore socks over their shoes so that they couldn’t hear anything as they walked past their cells.
Any time in the yard had to be taken individually in total silence while hoods were placed over inmates’ heads as they traveled to and from their cells to prevent them from seeing any “corrupting influences.”
The purpose of the extreme isolation was to create a place of silence, solitude, and meditation which was widely considered a positive alternative to corporal punishment, common at the time.
Based on Christian ideals, Quakers championed solitary, believing that it would allow inmates to reflect deeply on their actions and become law-abiding citizens upon their release.
Although the prison cells contained little to no furniture, they did have a skylight to remind inmates that God was always watching them and that they should change their behavior accordingly.
This system quickly gained popularity in the US and worldwide and became known as the ‘Pennsylvania Model.’
Solitary confinement had a resurgence in the 80s and 90s after politicians wanted to prove that they were tough on crime.
The prisoner population quadrupled between 1980 and 2009. Today, the US has the world’s highest incarceration rate. It accounts for 5% of the global population but holds 20% (2.3 million) of its prisoners. According to a 2018 Yale Law School report, an estimated 61,000 adults and children were held in segregation.
Ian Manuel, an author, activist, and poet, was sent to prison when he was 14 years old. He was sentenced to life with no parole, spent 18 years in solitary confinement, and witnessed its misery and despair.
“Some people would resort to cutting their stomachs open with a razor and sticking a plastic spork inside their intestines just so they could spend a week in the comfort of a hospital room with a television. Just so they could have a semblance of freedom. Just so they could feel human again,” Manuel wrote in a New York Times column.
The United Nations considers solitary confinement exceeding 15 days to be torture.
A young man, desperately alone
Last month, the New York Senate passed a bill limiting the maximum amount of time that an inmate can spend in solitary confinement to 15 days or a total of 20 days within a 60 day period.
The Humane Alternatives to Long-Term Solitary Confinement Act (HALT) will also ban the use of solitary for those with mental or physical disabilities, people aged under 21 or over 55, and pregnant or post-partum women.
The new law is a testament to Kalief Browder, a Black youth from the Bronx who was arrested as a 16-year-old for stealing a backpack. He consistently maintained his innocence.
He was held at the infamous Rikers Island prison between 2010 and 2013 without trial and spent two years of incarceration in solitary confinement.
Browder first tried to take his life in 2010 and then again in 2012. He later said that Correctional Officers had goaded him to suicide.
He was put in solitary confinement for reacting to violence from both other inmates and prison staff. A video obtained by the New Yorker and released in April 2015 showed a young man desperately alone, trapped in a brutal, terrifying situation.
In November 2013, Browder made another suicide attempt and was admitted to a psychiatric ward for the first of three times. He hanged himself at his mother’s home on June 6, 2015, leading to widespread outrage.
In 2019, 18 people died by suicide in New York’s state prisons, the highest rate since 2000 and 88% higher than the national average, according to a #HALTsolitary Campaign report from May 2020.
Solitary confinement puts prisoners at risk
Jessica Sandoval of the Unlock the Box Campaign, a Washington, DC-based coalition aiming to end solitary confinement, told Insider, “low-level, nonviolent offenses were among the most common infractions to result in disciplinary segregation, about 85%.”
Manuel confirmed this. “Each minor disciplinary infraction – like having a magazine that had another prisoner’s name on the mailing label – added an additional six months to my time in solitary confinement. Before I knew it, months in solitary bled into years, years into almost two decades,’ he wrote.
Inmates who experience isolation are considerably more likely to develop mental health issues than those in the general prison population, including depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts.
“Solitary confinement induces the bleakest depression, plunging despair, and terrifying hallucinations. The Mental Health Department looms large in these units, doling out antidepressants, antipsychotics, and mountains of sleeping pills,” wrote Mary Buser, the author of Lockdown on Rikers.
Professor Craig Haney, a social psychologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who worked on the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment, told Insider: “Solitary confinement puts all prisoners at significant risk of serious psychological and even physical harm. Prisoners with pre-existing vulnerabilities, such as mental illness, are at greatest risk.”
Other states have also begun to decrease the use of solitary confinement within their own penal system. New Jersey has restricted ‘isolated confinement’ to no more than 20 days and only for people between the ages of 21 and 65 last year.
Like HALT, it also bans solitary confinement for pregnant, postpartum, thought to have serious medical and or psychological conditions, and members of the LGBTQ community.
Under the New Jersey law, prisons must provide recreational and rehabilitative interventions during the short time when inmates in solitary confinement are let out of their cells.
Red Onion State Prison now provides a step-down program which Sandoval told Insider helps inmates “who have been deprived of their liberties and placed in isolation start to socialize, get more programming and ultimately return to the general population.”
Professor Haney also told Insider: “The programs need to be trauma-informed and should assist solitary survivors in obtaining housing and employment as well as access to mental health services.
He added: “These transitional programs should not be used as an excuse to delay the prisoners’ exit from solitary or from prison.”
In 2013, the Vera Institute of Justice reported that the Virginia Step Down Program for Administrative Segregation introduced in 2011 had reduced the number of those in solitary confinement by 53%.
It also resulted in increased safety with a 56% reduction in prison incidents and improved morale, as indicated by decreased staff stress and sick leave rates, the Vera Institute of Justice added.
But some still slip through the gaps in the bureaucracy and are forgotten in the parallel universe of solitary confinement. Nicolas Reyes, 55, spent 13 years of his 47-year sentence in solitary at Red Onion State Prison.
A native of El Salvador he could not speak, read or write English and thus could not participate in the step-down program – the only pathway out of solitary confinement. The system abandoned him in “horrifying” conditions until the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) came to his rescue and helped him win $115,000 in damages and access to interpretation and translation services.
“Persons who violate prison rules do not benefit in any way from solitary. Solitary should only be used as a short-term response to an exigent circumstance or crisis; some other more humane and problem-oriented response should be used,” said Professor Haney.