If you stare at the same spot on the wall for an hour, then you’re probably bored or daydreaming. If you intermittently stare at the same spot on the wall for 120 days in a row, you’ve probably lost your mind.
I don’t regret receiving a discipline report (DR) that cool winter day in 2006. In fact, given the opportunity, I’d do it all over again. I was serving time in state prison for theft, and now on my way to “the hole” for fighting. I got 60 days in solitary confinement for assaulting another inmate, and 60 days for lying about it. I didn’t lie, but I’ll get to that later.
I’m not violent by nature, nor do I bully men with certain charges, but after hearing a pedophile brag about dating his 12-year-old stepdaughter, I couldn’t remain silent. I challenged him to a fair fight. I kicked his ass up and down the cell block then peacefully put my hands on my head as a group of correctional officers surrounded me and put me in cuffs.
But I’m not here to talk about that story.
The Florida Department of Corrections (FLDOC) believes wholeheartedly in the use of solitary confinement as a means of discipline.The rules of the FLDOC are outlined in Chapter 33 of a lengthy tome titled, “The Florida Administrative Code.”
The list of infractions carrying a punishment of solitary confinement is extremely long and the length of time spent in confinement is never equal to the seriousness of the offense. Often, an inmate who violated a small rule spends months in an inhumane situation. Months.
In addition to receiving a discipline report for our own actions, we also have to worry about guards who might lie about a DR in order to frame an inmate. The paperwork always says the same thing: “Guilty, based on an officer’s statement.”
A DR may be issued for minor offenses such as smoking cigarettes, talking back to an officer, not shaving, being in an unauthorized area or not making your bunk for inspection. These violations carry a penalty of 30 days inside a 6-by-10-foot cell shared with another inmate.
Solitary confinement is common practice in America’s prisons and is a cruel punishment that is all too common. In 2020, a U.N. expert on torture voiced alarm at the excessive use of solitary confinement. He recommended solitary confinement to be used only in exceptional circumstances or as a last resort for as short a period as possible.
In recognition of the lasting sociological damage and mental health problems associated with extended isolation, 10 states, including New York and California, adopted 14 measures aimed at curtailing the use of solitary, abolishing solitary for juveniles or the mentally ill, improving conditions in segregated units and gradually easing isolated prisoners back into the general population.
While the tide in thinking may be shifting when it comes to this common practice, there are still an estimated 80,000 people held in long-term isolation across the U.S. on any given day, according to national watchdog group Solitary Watch.
Corrections departments, which still employ solitary confinement as punishment cite the security concerns of keeping violent inmates in the general population, but the problem with this thinking is that most of the men in solitary confinement are there for the aforementioned minor offenses, not violent ones.
I deserved to be punished for fighting; I made a choice. But was four months in solitary confinement an appropriate punishment for getting into a fistfight? I’d already lost 90 early release days for bad behavior.
Would the same punishment be appropriate for, say, making homemade wine? That infraction also currently carries a punishment of four months in solitary confinement. How long should it be for refusing to go to an unpaid job assignment (currently three months)? What about gambling? Should a man who gambles on a football game be thrown into solitary confinement for two months?
Of course, there has to be some form of punishment for inmates who refuse to obey the rules, especially for violent inmates or gang members who stab someone or incite riots. The severe punishment for those offenses is already classified as controlled management (CM). The purpose of CM is to hold men who commit major offenses such as murder, rape, aggravated assault or attempted escape in solitary confinement for an extended or indefinite period of time, often for years, and always by themselves.
But sending inmates to the hole for petty infractions should be considered a violation of basic civil rights. This practice is, without question, cruel and unusual punishment.
Proper nutrition and cleanliness are guaranteed rights for the 2.3 million men and women incarcerated in the U.S., and solitary confinement provides neither.
Two grown men live in a confined area together with stained concrete block walls and no window. Your food is brought to you, handed through a dirty flap in the solid steel door. The bright fluorescent lights rarely go off and the toilet/sink combo is a mere two feet from the foot of your metal bed. There is no privacy and little peace. Your cellmate might decide to scream to his buddy on the confinement block all morning and night. You have no phone or books, just boredom and your thoughts. Some men sleep the time away; others create chess pieces from wet toilet paper and pass the time with their cellmates. I wrote poems. The only property allowed inside the cell is some paper, envelopes, a mini-pen, and a Bible or religious text.
There were many days when I was given less than 1,000 calories to eat; weeks when I slept on a thin, dirty sheet and had to use writing paper for toilet tissue; months when, after being handcuffed and shoved into a mop closet, I could only “bird bath” shower for 60 seconds with no soap. I was an American citizen in prison for selling stolen property at pawn shops being treated like a third world refugee.
I don’t remember the exact day I broke. Day 86? Day 112? My sanity didn’t leave in an instant, like a supernova exploding in outer space. It happened more gradually, like warm summer afternoons that grow cooler or a fistful of gritty sand that slips slowly through your fingers onto the beach. I don’t remember the exact day it happened, but I do remember the reason why.
Inmates doing time in solitary confinement are given, according to the Florida Administrative Code, one hour per week of outdoor recreation in what we call the “dog cage,” a small chain link enclosure attached to the confinement block. Each week, an officer comes to your door and asks if you want rec.
For my first several weeks in the cell, I answered “Yes,” loud and clear. But the guard would check “No” on his clipboard, smiling and walking away. At first, I pretended to be nonchalant, but my determination grew weaker every day, to the point where I would beg to be let out, only to be ignored. One day, after my 12th or 13th week of isolation, the correctional officer opened my door when I said yes, only to close it again and tell me, “It’s not your day to go out, asshole.”
I began to cry.
If I close my eyes very tight, I can feel the moment when rationale was replaced by rage and lunacy, the pico-second when it all changed and I began having babbling feuds against invisible ants on the wall. My descent into psychosis was real and absolute.
When I walked out of solitary confinement after four months and noticed that late summer had turned to winter, I knew that I’d lost a piece of myself there.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.