The Horrifying Truth of Life in Solitary Confinement, From People Who Lived It
After attempting suicide in 2005, Henry* was taken out of the general prison population and placed into solitary confinement. While there, he felt like the world was crushing in on him. He began hallucinating, and talking to people who weren't there. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice diagnosed Henry with bipolar I disorder with psychotic features, yet left him in isolation, where self-harm is eight times more likely and suicide five times more frequent than in the general prison population.
Henry is not the only one to meet such a fate. According to a recent report by the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas (ACLUTx), more than 6,500 Texas prisoners, including those with preexisting mental health concerns, are currently confined to 60-square-foot windowless cells, alone.
"If a dog does something wrong, they get put in their cage, right? They're making animals of people. And not all animals are obedient. When they come out, they can actually come out worse."
The ACLUTx collected tales of Texas inmates screaming, self-mutilating and hallucinating while in solitary confinement for its 2015 report, which asserts that such isolation not only compromises inmates' mental health but also leads to increased crime and violence within prisons.
Such assertions are all the more distressing in light of the fact that, as the New York Times has noted, prisoners sent to solitary confinement are often there for breaking a rule, and not for violent behavior. What's more, these horrific stories of seclusion, desolation and abuse aren't exclusive to Texas: Tens of thousands of people across the country are isolated in similar cells, with human contact limited to the hands of correctional officers sliding meals through door slots or, sometimes, physically harming detainees. African-Americans and Latinos are sent to solitary confinement in particularly large numbers, and these racialized groups are also subject to the harshest and most dehumanizing conditions.
Yet because those in solitary confinement are separated from society, they are also the easiest people to forget. They mustn't be. Their lives matter, and their stories deserve to be heard.
"I know people who go in normal and when they get out they need medicine. The confinement, the way it's designed, it broke them."
Mic spoke with nine people who were once held in solitary confinement, either alone or crammed with another inmate ("bunkie") who was sent to "the hole." While their stories and time in isolation vary, they each offer a vital glimpse into the inhumanity faced by those currently languishing in confinement cells across the U.S.
Note: Some of these personal anecdotes contain ableist language, and some suicidal themes may be triggering. These interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity.
Nelson Fernandez, 365 days in solitary
"Solitary confinement is crazy. It's adding more fuel to a fire because you're in a space, locked up, where you're already stressed, but now you're placed in a more critical condition. You're constantly confined to one spot and one smell. There's nothing to do. There's nowhere to go.
"I think I am a little bugged out. It does have that effect on you. But that's the point of putting you in the box. If a dog does something wrong, they get put in their cage, right? They're making animals of people. And not all animals are obedient. When they come out, they can actually come out worse."
Gabriel Reyes, 30 days
"I remember when I entered. It was a small room that smelled muggy, like bad feet, sweat and piss. Before I could turn around, the COs [corrections officers] closed the door. The COs in the hole, man, those are the worst COs in the Orange County jail. The way they talk to you, they think they can do anything to you. They'll tell you, to your face, 'Shut the fuck up. If you keep talking, I'll fuck you up.' And they do it. They'll restrain you. They call their buddies, and then it's 10 of them in a little room against you. You can just be laying on your bed, and they'll lift it up with you on it, for no reason."
Johnathan Reichard, 30 days
Note: Johnathan is the writer's brother.
"It stinks, and it's loud as hell. You have people in other boxes trying to yell and talk to each other, so you hear those conversations. You're hearing yelling, fighting, COs cursing. It's a 24-hour lockdown. I would make believe I was playing ball by myself or just shadowbox. I'd do anything to keep my mind entertained, 'cause you're really feeling like the walls are closing in on you.
"If you get in trouble while you're in there, they put you in another confinement box – a room inside a room. It's smaller. I was there once for eight hours, but it felt like 48. When they were taking me there, they were slamming me into everything. I was shackled, my feet and arms. They were slapping me. Luckily I was quick, so when they tried to bang my head into the walls and rails, I was able to move myself.
"I'd do anything to keep my mind entertained, 'cause you're really feeling like the walls are closing in on you."
"There's no bed in there. There's a toilet without toilet paper. They strip you to your boxers. You don't even get socks. And the room is so cold, like 50 degrees. They call it the ice hole. So it's just you and a hard metal freezing frame that they expect you to sleep on."
Rebecca Laurence, 90 days
Note: Rebecca's name has been changed.
"I was in solitary confinement the first three months immediately after I was arrested. And in some ways, that's one of the worst times to be in solitary confinement, because your whole life is in shambles and you're sort of trying to figure out, like, what just happened to your life. It can make you crazy.
"The temperature would go up to like 95 degrees and then it would go down to like 50, and you were cold and you were hot and, ultimately, I would end up just sleeping on the floor. Trying to find strength in solitary confinement is hard, trying to find humor in solitary confinement, when you're really low, it's really hard."
Joe Gonzalez, 90 days
"It's a lonely experience. You hear people sniffling and crying. Sometimes you begin to act out movies in your head, you become different people, then you start acting it out physically. I'd act out the life that I wanted, talking to myself as if I were talking to a girlfriend or kids. Don't think I'm crazy: It's just the real deal when you're in there alone. I didn't have a bunkie. It was just me for 90 days straight.
"I've had COs spit in my food in front of me, and, since I was starving, I'd have no choice but to try and wipe it off and eat it. It's not all right. It was the most miserable time."
Tony Penaloza, 60 days
"As a citizen, I know I'm entitled to certain rights. As a human, I know that they're supposed to treat me 'fairly.' But I wasn't expecting that, and it wasn't like that.
"I spent a lot of time trying to read when I was in the hole, mostly the Bible. Some others spent it writing and drawing. You can hear people going crazy and yelling. Sometimes I was alone, other times I had a bunkie. One time I was put in with an older guy. He seemed fine and quiet at first, but as time went on, I noticed something was wrong. I tried not to interact with him. A few days went by and he started talking to himself, having self-arguments. I can't lie, it made me a bit fearful. I grew fearful of him, but more than that, I was scared of what I might do to him."
Albert Hart, 120 days
"You become systematic. You know what sounds will be made at what time. If you count, you know what time your food is going to come. You know when the guy upstairs will flush the toilet. You go crazy just knowing every day the same thing. I know people who go in normal and when they get out, they need medicine. The confinement, the way it's designed, it broke them.
"And then there's the punishment while you're being punished. If you're not cooperating, the COs will gas you. They open the flap on your door, stick a gas canister in and pepper spray you. It's all the normal effects of pepper spray plus some. There's the irritation of the skin, shortness of breath, your eyes are burning, you're waving for air, hoping to get escorted out to medical, but, of course, you're not. Instead, they force you to take cold showers afterwards. It's so painful."
Nicholas Martinez, 730 days
"You're locked in for 24 hours of the day, with only time to think and sleep. Both of those things can cause mental and physical issues. Being in solitary confinement can push people to hurt themselves, because you feel empty and alone. I never hurt myself, but I did start hallucinating. I began hearing voices. I once even did 1,000 push-ups in two hours. I wanted to see how much I can do, really push myself to see what I can accomplish, but I also did it to prevent myself from joint pain, which happens when you're sleeping for hours and have little room to move around."
"Being in solitary confinement can push people to hurt themselves because you feel empty and alone."
Jay Carabello, 120 days
"Privileges? You don't have privileges. You're taking a shower twice a week, you don't get to use the phone, you don't get to see anyone, you're smelling other people's shit, you get some reading materials and you're allowed out one hour per day. You're constantly listening to people screaming, hearing them fight with COs.
"They don't give two shits what happens to us. The SHU is one of the worst places you could be."
"Some people cover their doors with feces and flood their toilets. They purposely back it up just so someone can come and they can be taken out of the box. It can make you go crazy. You're living in a cage like an animal. It's like being a dog in a kennel for hours. You can't go out. You have to piss and shit in there. To be locked in for 23 hours by yourself, of course you're going to start talking to yourself.
"I wouldn't say I went crazy, but I was definitely bugging out. I was screaming at the top of my lungs and banging on the walls to get the CO's attention. But then you risk yourself like that. There will be like five or six COs in riot gear taking down one guy. They don't care. They really don't. If they did, then they'd come around more and make sure no one is trying to kill themselves. They don't give two shits what happens to us. The SHU ['special housing unit' or 'security housing unit'] is one of the worst places you could be."
*Henry's last name has been withheld.