The Horror of Solitary
What would compel a man to try to cut his own face off?
I recently witnessed a man try to cut his own face off. For me this wasn’t anything out of the ordinary, but as it played out, I imagined the reactions and questions that might arise in the mind of someone in society if they’d observed the same.
They would probably wonder in shock, “What sort of conditions could be so unbearable that they’d drive a person to suffer cutting through the skin, nerves, muscles and arteries of his own face, at the risk of permanent disfigurement, disability or even death?”
I, of course, knew the answer: torture. More specifically, the torture by official design of living in one of the many solitary confinement units in Amerika’s vast prison system, which is why seeing this sort of thing isn’t uncommon for me—I’ve lived in solitary for nearly two decades.
And, yes, Amerika inflicts such extreme torture on prisoners that they routinely commit such acts as could never be expected of a sane and stable mind. And this is the point—solitary confinement drives people into insanity.
Let’s talk about torture
There are two types of torture. The physical and the psychological. Mental health and torture experts unanimously agree that psychological torture is the worst and most damaging of the two.
We all recognize that pain alerts and protects us against injury and possible death. Aversion to pain is therefore an instinct wired into most healthy living things. Torturers deliberately render one powerless to avert pain, which is what makes torture an effective method of crushing a person’s will and driving them to shameless desperation. Pushed hard enough and it will also drive one insane, which is why psychological torture is the worst sort.
Sensory deprivation—or cutting one off from the sensory stimulation of normal social environments—is the worst type of psychological torture. Experts also agree on this. It’s like isolating a wildflower and starving it of natural sunlight. It will become feeble, wither and die.
Sensory deprivation is the exact form of torture inflicted by design and without relief in the multitudes of U.S. solitary confinement units. Even the United Nations has denounced the practice.
So, one can imagine that these units are places of the greatest tragedies. And life in them is never uneventful. Like witnessing a man try to cut his face off and prison officials’ indifference to such tragedies. Here’s what happened.
Todd Hines strikes (himself) again
On October 20, 2014 I observed two guards, here at Clements unit prison in Amarillo, Texas, move a white prisoner into the cell across from me (cell #H231). A few minutes after the new occupant moved in, he got my attention and asked if I had an extra used razor he could have to shave with. I did not. “How about a shot of coffee?” he asked. I did, so I sent him some. He thanked me and we both retreated to the backs of our cells in our own worlds. We never exchanged names.
After a bit of writing, I nodded off to sleep. I was awakened some time later by the explosive echoes of someone nearby repeatedly kicking his cell door. Each kick sounds off and reverberates like a gun blast inside an echo chamber. Kicking cell doors is a common occurrence in solitary, most often done by one or more prisoners in protest against some guard abuse, or in an attempt to get them to respond to a serious situation. So I got up to see what the matter was and lend my support to the prisoner, if necessary.
Upon reaching my cell door, I immediately observed it was the new occupant of H231 kicking, that his face was covered with blood, and blood was streaming down his torso like a scene from a slasher movie.
Several prisoners, also seeing him, began yelling to the guard working the pod, Jesus Cruz, that the man in H231 was bleeding badly and to come check on him and call medical staff. Cruz replied, “I don’t give a fuck! Fuck him!” The din got louder as I and others joined in the demand to get attention to the situation.
After several minutes of our yelling and banging wearing at him, Cruz finally got up from the desk, however not to go to cell H231, but instead to stage making a security round in the pod. Guards are required to make security rounds at least hourly, walking around the pod looking into each cell to ensure the prisoners’ safety. However, rounds are typically made several hours apart if at all by the guards, who would rather sit at their desk nodding off, reading magazines stolen from prisoners or talking on the telephone.
Cruz began his round downstairs at cell H101. Cell H231 is upstairs at the very opposite end of the pod. Walking with exaggerated slowness, Cruz completed the downstairs round, being cursed by a number of outraged prisoners as he passed their cells. He then slowly climbed the stairs to stage a round on the top tier, again beginning at the opposite end from H231.
When finally he made it to the bleeding man’s cell, Cruz peered in and asked nonchalantly, “What’s the problem?” The blood-covered occupant was sitting silently on his bed leaning foreword with blood running onto the floor from his face. Cruz stood looking at him for a moment then ordered him to, “Kick the razor blade under the cell door,” which he did, then returned to sit on the bed.
Cruz at that point took out his portable canister of OC gas (oleoresin capsicum, also known as pepper spray,) opened the hatch on the cell door and emptied the can of gas into the cell spraying the cell floor, bed and occupant at length. When the canister was completely empty, he closed the slot and called over his walkie-talkie, again nonplussed that a prisoner had cut himself and a supervisor and medical staff needed to report to the pod.
Gradually, other guards trickled in. Among the first was Desmond Finney, a guard well known for his loud mouth and going out of his way to impress his colleagues with bragging compulsively and assaulting prisoners upon the slightest pretext, typically when they are in handcuffs or locked inside a cell.
Upon reaching and peering to cell H231, Finney let loose a litany of curses and insults directed at the prisoner. “What type of dumb motherfucker tries to cut his face off?” he bellowed. “You stupid asshole, you shoulda cut your throat!” Other guards also came to the cell and joined in the insults. A few were visibly shaken.
In came a lieutenant Narciso Sanchez and two sergeants, Candace Martinez and Dustin Anderson (Sanchez and Anderson also joined in the insults and name calling, and threatened to gas the bleeding prisoner from a large canister, “just for being stupid!”) and finally a nurse and portable audio-video camera. When the camera was activated the verbal abuses abruptly stopped and all the guards instantly put on “professional” airs and gas masks or their own protection against the large amount of Cruz’s OC gas that was now circulating outside the cell and throughout the pod contaminating everyone.
Finney, ever eager to play HNIC (Head Negro In Charge,) positioned himself to be the one to order the bleeding prisoner around, beginning with compelling him to perform a lengthy strip search, as he bled profusely from the face. Finney ordered him first to hand out his bloody boxers, then open his mouth, move his tongue around, run his index finger between his lips and gums, permit view into his nostrils, manipulate his genitals, show the bottom of each foot and wiggle his toes, bend at the waist and spread his buttocks; he was then given back his boxers to put on. He was warned if he’d faltered, the entire search process would be repeated until he got it right, his medical state notwithstanding.
The search completed, he was ordered to put his hands out the slot backwards to be handcuffed. He was then made to kneel and, when the cell door was opened, ordered to crawl out backwards on his knees. Shackles were placed on his ankles and he was made to stand. There were large pools of blood all over the cell floor and more gathering where he kneeled and stood outside the cell.
The nurse came over to examine his face, wiping blood away to see the cuts. Long, deep gashes ran down both sides of his face and across his forehead, with one or both temple arteries possibly cut. He was made to walk out of the pod.
The incident began at 2:40 P.M. and took until 2:53 P.M. for Cruz to reach his cell. It wasn’t until 3:12 P.M. that he was finally brought out. Obviously, all involved staff were content to see him bleed to death. Their concern, as noted, extended only to insults and indifference. All else was just a perfunctory performance and with deliberate malicious slowness.
The next day Finney worked the pod and marveled loudly to anyone who’d listen that the prisoner required 95 stitches to his face.
As disturbing as the overall situation was per se, it was no less disturbing to discover who the prisoner was. His name was Todd Hines, #588382. The very same Todd Hines I’d just written an article about, who’d attempted suicide by cutting his throat and temples on September 4, 2014 and guards and a nurse deliberately tried to allow to bleed out.1 Although the October 20th incident had a distinct feel of deja vu, I didn’t recognize Todd initially because, ironically, the last and only time I’d seen and taken notice of him before then, was on September 4th when his face was also covered with blood.
Apparently, when he was moved into H231 he’d just returned to Clements unit from a temporary transfer to a mental health prison, which routinely follows serious suicide attempts. So he was brought right back to solitary and interestingly placed in the cell directly in front of me And only a few hours back at the unit he’d cut himself up again.
A land of laws?
As my prior article noted, Todd is a mentally ill prisoner who by law has no business in administrative segregation, like over half the prisoners housed in this prison’s segregation unit, which for every responsible official is a criminal act.2 Worse still, the federal courts recognized that Texas’ segregation units inflict psychological pain that causes both the mentally ill and the mentally healthy psychological damage.3
What does such brazen official lawlessness say of a country that promotes itself as being a land governed by the rule of law and an example of democratic freedoms to be emulated by the world, that imprisons and criminalizes more people than any other country in the world—past and present—and furthermore proclaims itself the rightful overseer and policeman of the world? The answer is: it is a country ruled by hypocrites, liars and dictators—indeed by fascists no less heinous than those it is so good at self-righteously vilifying. Only such people could subject their own subjects and anyone else to such tortuous conditions as would lead a man to try and cut his own face off.
1 Kevin “Rashid” Johnson, “Prison Assisted Suicide—The Texas Way,” available at rashidmod.com and at Socialist Viewpoint, Vol. 14, No. 6, http://www.socialistviewpoint.org/novdec_14/novdec_14_28.html
2 Texas federal courts long ago recognized and condemned the Texas prison system, holding that, “administrative segregation is being utilized unconstitutionally to house mentally ill inmates whose illness can only be exacerbated by the depravity of their confinement.” Ruiz v. Estelle, 37 F. supp. 2d 855, 915 (S.D. Tex 1999). The violation of any person’s constitutional civil rights is a federal crime. See, 18 United States Code, Section 242.
3 The court stated: “Texas’ administrative segregation units are virtual incubators of psychoses—seeding illness in otherwise health inmates and exacerbating illness in those already suffering from mental infirmities.” Id. at 907.