Restarting Life After Solitary Confinement
At the start of the month, the New York Civil Liberties Union won a class-action lawsuit against the New York State Department of Corrections. It was over reforming the use of solitary confinement in New York State prisons. The 4,000-strong solitary population will now drop by a quarter, and guidelines have been introduced to cap the time a prisoner can stay in solitary to 90 days. But in the eyes of the UN, more than 15 days in solitary is torture. As Oliver Arnoldi reports, many think the lawsuit has not done enough for the thousands remaining in solitary.
Foot steps ambi
ARNOLDI 1: Johnny Perez walks in a rectangle, six paces long and four across, the size of a parking space or a small bathroom. It’s tiny. We’re at the Urban Justice Center in lower Manhattan, a non-profit that advocates for vulnerable New Yorkers.
This is a space where I spent three years of my life, being boxed in a human cage.
ARNOLDI 2: In 2000, Perez was sentenced to thirteen years in prison for robbery and spent three of those in solitary confinement. In New York prisons, when you break a rule a correctional officer gives you what’s called a ticket. Perez got many tickets, for what he calls minor offences, like cursing at inmates.
One time I went to the box for sixty days for having a frying pan, which they considered contraband.
ARNOLDI 3: And while the Urban Justice Center is light and airy, he remembers his 6×9 cell differently.
The space is very hot, so hot that the walls start to sweat. No direct sunlight comes inside the cell. And you look around, there’s nothing but a metal bed and a mattress, a small table with a pull-out metal bench, and this is your home.
ARNOLDI 4: Imagine spending 23 hours a day like this with no visitors, and almost no interaction.
I played chess with one of my neighbours for about six months, we played once or twice a week…
ARNOLDI 5: Through the vent that connected their cells. They made chess pieces out of tissues and boards out of paper, and they would call through a vent to say where they moved their pieces.
The whole time I never knew what he looked like.
ARNOLDI 6: Then Perez’s neighbour left, so he had to find his own ways to cope.
You keep a calendar, you get a watch, if you can, you iron your clothes, you try to wake up in the morning as if you’re going somewhere.
ARNOLDI 7: But Perez says there is only so much he could do.
It’s a second by second attack on your soul. You know, every second is spent thinking about what’s the next minute gonna feel like, or the next day. You start to wonder — if something happens to me I wonder would anyone care, I wonder would anyone find out?
ARNOLDI 8: This kind of experience is what Alex Reinert, a lawyer working with the New York Civil Liberties Union, has been trying to change for the past two years. He wants to see solitary confinement ended.
The Supreme Court had said that it was a failed experiment, drove people mad, that was in 1893…
ARNOLDI 9: Solitary as punishment had been adopted from European penal regimes, but by the end of the nineteenth century courts realised it didn’t work. But it came back in force during the 1960s as prison staff felt they had fewer tools to deal with prison violence, and by the 90s, the creation of solitary-only regimes had become widespread. The Civil Liberties Union lawsuit aimed to turn back the clock by reducing the population and capping first time stays in solitary to three months. But…
Of course the devil’s in the details…technically these aren’t time caps, these are guidelines,
ARNOLDI: The terms of the settlement are suggestions, not requirements.
so if an officer wants to go higher or lower they can go higher or lower.
ARNOLDI 10: But if the UN states that keeping someone in solitary for above 15 days is torture, why is this still happening? Psychologist David Cloud says it’s down to a culture of justice in the United States focussed on locking people up, not rehabilitating them.
It’s a vicious cycle for people…You can land in a solitary confinement environment and kind of go mad. Those behaviours can lead to more infractions, more disturbances, worse relationships with correctional officers.
ARNOLDI 11: And he says the lack of mental health staff in New York prisons is a part of this problem. On Rikers Island, there is 1 mental health worker for 40 inmates, so correctional officers can become the first ports of call for mental health issues, but they’re guards, not doctors.
They may receive a little bit of training, a very quick crash course on mental health, but prisons and jails were never designed to be hospitals.
ARNOLDI 12: Which can make the transition back to the outside world difficult. Back at the Urban Justice Center, Johnny Perez remembers finally getting out.
You finally get to look in the mirror, and you realise that you have this big santa claus beard, this big 1970s afro, wow, I don’t even look like myself anymore.
ARNOLDI 13: After three years in total isolation, a two hour bus ride took him to the middle of Times Square. He hadn’t crossed a road in thirteen years, so he stood frozen on the sidewalk, taking it all in…
Times Square ambi
You can hear all of these different sounds, whether it’s cars with their horns blaring music, movie previews, the sound of a child’s laughter, you know, there are no kids in jail. All of these things, hitting you all at once.
ARNOLDI 14: Perez says New York City continues to be a place that overwhelms him. He suffers from anxiety and paranoia, he hates taking the subway and being touched. But his friend Kris Acosta is even worse. He developed symptoms of depression while in solitary at the same time as Perez, and often can’t leave the house because of panic attacks.
They make you feel like you’re having a heart attack and when you’re not having a panic attack you’re having anxiety over the next time that you might have a panic attack and it just kind of…it just becomes a spiral. [awkward cut]
Acosta hip hop track ambi
ARNOLDI 15: Acosta produces hip hop as a way of battling his anxiety, but he feels that he is still learning about how solitary affected him.
Until you get back into normal society and realise how that experience has changed you, nothing can really prepare you for how it’s actually going to be. [awkward cut]
ARNOLDI 16: As for Perez, he recently got a job at the Urban Justice Center, where he provides the type of re-entry support that he feels was lacking for him and others like Acosta. This year, he’s advocating for a new law — the HALT Solitary Confinement Act. If passed, no prisoner in the United States would be kept in solitary for longer than 15 days.
Oliver Arnoldi, Columbia Radio News
[Over a hundred years ago the United States decided it didn’t work.] [experiment explained] [what happened in 1893?]
And any further tickets an inmate picks up once inside the box — like those picked up by Johnny Perez — could land an inmate in the box for far longer. And prolonged time spent in solitary is when psychologist David Cloud thinks mental health issues manifest.
[If in eyes of UN solitary is torture why is this still happening?] What’s new? [And this is what trying to be done — HALT]
Perez 8 [potentially cut]
All of these characters, you know, Elmo, Statue of Liberty, the different smells, whether it’s the hot dogs or people’s perfumes and colognes, all of these things, hitting you all at once. [change>>colourful?]
ARNOLDI: Perez recently got a job at the Urban Justice Center, where he provides the type of re-entry support that he feels was lacking for him and friends like Acosta. But he thinks that the only true remedy is to abolish it altogether.
We call each other solitary survivors but you never really survive solitary, in very much the same way that a veteran doesn’t always survive war.
ARNOLDI: Despite this, Perez is hopeful. He is a chief advocate on the HALT Solitary bill, which would outlaw solitary in the whole of New York State. A verdict will be heard in the coming months.
Mary Anderson bite
for the longest time i was in denial about having anxiety, you know, because it’s looked as as something that’s a mental weakness,
Mention Benevolence perspective/ Obama banning solitary for juveniles?/ UN raaporteur definition of torture. / mental health taboo of being in prison?
>>market for mental health care
>>Mary Beth Anderson
There’s a lot of people who end up there who are very sick and need a lot of care and they’re under the custody and supervision of…frankly, correctional officers that aren’t trained to identify their needs or respond to their needs and in any meaningful, clinically appropriate way and that can spiral into very disturbing
they may receive a little bit of training, a very quick crash course on mental health, but they’re not trained to respond to people with serious psychosis, schizophrenia, things like that and just the level of services that. (On Rikers Island, there is one social worker for every 40 inmates)
But it also made him think a lot.
you start to wonder — if something happens to me I wonder would anyone care, I wonder would anyone find out? //
General feelings, ****** I wonder — are people thinking about me? For a lot of years, I was told, “Hey, you’re just a forgotten person.” Nobody’s thinking about you, nobody cares about you, you know those things…and I’m talking about every day. You hear this every day, every day for months at a time. And after a while you believe it.
, it might be easier for me just to hurt myself to either get out of this situation or just to end this a whole lot faster. You know?
David Cloud: “human rights crisis” etc
Alex Reinert: something about settlement
But he knows that
Perez got out:
you finally get to look in the mirror, you know, and you realise that you have this big santa claus beard, this big 1970s afro, you know…[haha], wow, I don’t even look like myself anymore.
we call each other solitary survivors but you never really survive solitary, in very much the same way that a veteran doesn’t always survive war.
Perez and his team at the Urban Justice Center [NOT A TIME WILL TELL ENDING!]
Account of someone in solitary
>>include it on tickets?
And he would think, a lot.
He developed habits to pass the time, like playing chess.
NCYLU trying to do something about it. Alex Reinert worked on the case Details of settlement. But Reinert (OR MAYBE SWITCH TO CLOUD) also knows that the settlement is far short of perhaps what is needed.
One of the problems not addressed by the bill is tickets/offences.
Solitary causes many to act up, which in turn leads to more time in the box.
Dehumanizing for inmates but also for prison guards
Prison guards aren’t mental health carers (but prison have become that)>>on the inside
>>Taboo of mental health (Kris/David Cloud/Mary Beth Anderson)
KRIS? (mental health taboo?)
But even though they’re out, what happens inside doesn’t leave them. >>
Johnny Perez: “re-program yourself” >> but nothing can necessarily prepare them for re-entering
Kris “these are issues that you can’t really account for at that time…certain things are gonna take place and there are certain programs that are supposed to talk to you about reintegrating into society and things of that nature but nothing can really prepare you for how it’s actually going to be.
[Back to Johnny?]
Journal study fact. Another group trying to do more.
For many, they can only rely on themselves. Kris Acosta
[Back to Johnny?]
need view of Benevolence assoc at some point