An insider’s look at the torturous effects of U.S. solitary confinement (2013)
Much has been written of late on the torturous effects and wide-scale use of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons and the fact that this torture causes mental pain and suffering, and in many cases psychosis. Not much has been written, however, that illustrates the forms this damage takes and the suffering it causes both the victims and those around them, which is the purpose of this article.
I’ve witnessed the mental deterioration of many a prisoner over my years in solitary (nearly two decades). Often the worst cases are those who lack outside contacts, and thus have no one to turn to for compassion, material support, and basic human interaction. Deprived of human companionship and the complex sensory stimulation of “normal” social environments, the mind closes in on itself, searches desperately for stimulation, and attempts to create (compensate for) internally, what it is deprived of externally.
The resultant imbalances and psychoses take many forms. Even mental health experts admit there is no single nor simple diagnosis of the mental impairments sensory deprivation causes. But common patterns do emerge.
I don’t usually use prisoners’ names in my reports and articles without their express consent. However, in the present case I’m making an exception; first, because the prisoner in question—Ellery Oliver #304611—needs help, which he won’t get if I conceal his identity, and second, because I don’t believe he is capable of competently giving or withholding consent. What is most disheartening is there are thousands of cases like his hidden away within the vast U.S. prison system.
Oliver’s case is not exceptional.
Persecuted by the persecuted
Prisoners like Oliver are almost universally disliked by other prisoners. Also by the guards. Their “behaviors” enrage and frustrate others, few of whom are inclined toward, and none of whom are trained to have, patience, tolerance, nor understanding in dealing with or relating to the mentally infirm. And most who victimize them, or turn a blind eye, or applaud when they are abused, rationalize the lack of compassion by contending that the prisoner “really isn’t crazy,” “has good sense,” “knows what he’s doing,” etc.
So they feel justified in condoning or participating in venting their own frustrations with the disturbed prisoner’s behaviors through their own and/or others’ physically and verbally abusing them, which leaves the victim even further isolated in terms of lack of human compassion and healthy social interaction in their lives, as they are abused by both guards and other prisoners.
Often I find myself explaining to my peers that these men really are mentally damaged. I have to point out symptoms and direct them to studies and share my writings on the effects of solitary. I also frequently find myself explaining that persecuting them for manifesting the symptoms of their psychological injuries (injuries caused by their captors) is like persecuting people who’ve been crippled as the result of beatings and physical torture by prison officials.
But I do understand that living in close proximity to these prisoners day after day (often for months to years) will severely strain the reason and resilience of even the most self-controlled person, which makes keeping an objective outlook on their situation particularly challenging.
Also, I believe many prisoners and guards alike take a defensive and hostile position toward them because they fear empathizing with them, which requires putting oneself into the shoes of another. In this case that would mean seeing oneself as vulnerable to mental breakdown, which I believe is instinctively terrifying to many. So they project their own anxiety and fear of losing their own sanity onto these prisoners by persecuting them and making them objects of hate, ridicule, and alienation, which are simply defense mechanisms.
Then there’s the conditioned hyper-macho tendency in prison culture, and U.S. popular culture in general (cultural Darwinism), to persecute and ridicule the weak, which is how prisoners who break down under the pressures of prison life are perceived by their peers. Many of them also transfer their own suffering and vent their own inability to cope with the stresses of solitary on these ready and “acceptable” targets.
Coming to terms with and understanding this condition is something I’ve had to do, both for the sake of “helping” my peers and keeping myself grounded as well. This because one of the many tactics of abuse and retaliation used frequently by prison officials against those who challenge them through complaints, litigation, physically, etc. is to house them close (typically next door) to these mentally impaired prisoners as a form of torment. For many, the technique is highly effective, in that if the experience doesn’t substantially wear the resistant prisoner down, it at least diverts his focus from officials to trying to cope or coming into conflict with his “disturbed” neighbor. I’ve been an especial target of this practice, which is how I remained Oliver’s neighbor for almost two months. But I’ve refused to allow it to serve its intended purpose.
TDCJ—seedbed of psychosis
The Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) is one of the few prison systems in Amerika whose segregation units have been found by the federal courts to be unconstitutional because they inflict psychological torture and cause consequent mental illness. The courts stated:
“Texas’ administrative segregation units are virtual incubators of psychoses—seeding illness in otherwise healthy inmates and exacerbating illness in those already suffering from mental infirmities.”1
Following and in response to a federal lawsuit I’d recently brought against Oregon prison officials and various articles I’ve written about abusive conditions in Virginia’s and Oregon’s prisons, I was transferred to and thrown into administrative segregation in the TDCJ on June 14, 2013, where I’ve since remained.
I was initially assigned to the TDCJ’s notoriously abusive Estelle 2 High Security Unit (E2U) and housed in cells next to Ellery Oliver for most of my two moths stay at E2U.
. . . And here’s Ellery
Ellery Oliver has been in solitary confinement (administrative segregation) in the TDCJ for over a decade. He’s a New Afrikan/Black male in his mid-50s, who’s been confined to E2U for about four years. During that time he’s been brutally beaten by guards on numerous occasions, once having all his hair (then in long corn rows) ripped out; sprayed down and left contaminated with OC gas over 20 times (guards usually turn his in-cell water off for hours to days so he can’t wash the gas off). He’s had all his personal belongings destroyed over and over (consisting mostly of notes he writes about guard abuses in the unit, and books and pamphlets he’s obtained from free-books-to-prisoners programs and Anarchist Black Cross groups)—on one occasion guards simply threw away some five large bags of his legal records and books.
He is routinely starved by guards, who “jack” (i.e. refuse) his meals for any reason and no reason, often for days on end, which often escalates into incidents where guards use violence against him.
Oliver embodies a sort of stubborn rebelliousness. Although its expression seldom takes “rational” form, he refuses to relent to guards’ brutal efforts to break him or his peers’ persecutory responses to his erratic behaviors. He usually outlasts them and wears them down. One can see in his behaviors a struggle to cope with and resist the weathering effects of a compulsory solitary confinement, devoid of a normal environment and social stimulation.
He has a remarkable memory. He can give the full names of almost any guard and other staff person at E2U (nearly 1000 people) without fail, and can identify them simply by their shoes, mannerisms, etc. Indeed, I often turned to him to identify various guards and others, including those involved in abuses who were otherwise unidentifiable because dressed out in full body riot armor. He compulsively writes down everything, especially guard misconduct that happens around him. When he cannot get paper or guards trash his, he writes on the cell wall.
Upon my E2U assignment, I was confined to a cell he’d previously occupied. Every wall from floor to ceiling was covered with his notations of dates and times that he and other prisoners had been beaten, denied meals, etc. by guards, with all participants’ full names. Independent of his notes, he remembers the dates, times, and places of about every incident of serious abuse that has taken place around him, and the name of each prisoner victim. I often tested and double-checked his memory and information for accuracy, and found most of what he recollected to be exact. His efforts seem to evidence obvious struggles within the limits of his environment to oppose guards’ abuses and hold on to what was certainly once a keen mind and colorful personality.
All who’ve known Oliver for years attest to his lost mental balance. That he is “nothing like he used to be,” and only a shadow of his former witty, outspoken, and jesting self.
Which brings me to his dark side.
Oliver has the nastiest, most provocative mouth one could imagine. And all it takes to set him off into an hours-long tirade of cursing and insulting some poor soul is his delusional belief that one was talking disrespectfully to or about him. You could’ve been dead asleep in your cell, but he will swear you were just insulting him. As a result, he will rain down every vulgar insult and vile name imaginable on you at the top of his voice for hours on end, and if he has a line of view of you (the cells in E2U are positioned in rows along either side of a long corridor and face each other; each cell has a solid steel door with two glass windows in them measuring 3” x 34”), and you are foolish enough to stand at your door looking out, he will hurl sexual insults at you while masturbating in your full view. He believes himself to be perpetually persecuted by prisoners and guards alike, and when in his more rational states, explains his “behaviors” as self-defense against his persecutors (real and imagined).
He also believes himself to have direct contact with god. And will shift seamlessly from cursing and insulting someone to high heaven to sermonizing about Judgment Day and obedience of the scriptures with the rhythm and fire of a Southern Pentecostal minister. Then he will sometimes shift just as easily into occult mode, explaining his knowledge of the teachings and abilities of various occult schools, proclaiming himself to be a Rosicrucian and able to see through walls and beneath the ground. He once told me that his occult powers revealed to him that E2U sits above a secret underground nuclear missile site.
Even in his less-distorted moments, it’s near impossible to get him to listen. If one opens the door to a dialogue with him, even by simply asking a guard’s name, he will go off into a loud droning and rambling discussion of all manner of things. Unless one has special skill at defusing him, Oliver will not stop rambling until he burns himself out, which can take up to 16 hours or more.
He has a particular aversion to white male guards; I suspect because they are typically the most abusive. That a guard working the pod is a white male is enough for Oliver to “know” there’s a plot in the making to “jack” his next meal. So he often preemptively goes into counterattack mode, screaming every imaginable racial insult and threat at the guard he can think of because he “knows” the guard is planning to “jack my tray,” which often leads the furious guard to do just that. Oliver’s attacks will then include other prisoners whom he will accuse of accepting and eating his meal in a conspiracy with the guard against him. The unlucky prisoner thus accused is then subject to hours of being cursed and having to avoid coming to his cell door if his cell faces Oliver’s.
Oliver might also chuck feces under his cell door, then flood the tier causing feces-contaminated water to run into others’ cells to their utter outrage. And he’s prone to go into one of his tirades at any time of the day or night, whether at two in the afternoon or at three in the morning, which means if one is not accustomed to living amid bedlam, he will not enjoy a normal and healthy sleep cycle. This is torture in itself.
What is most frustrating about those like Oliver to many is that he cannot be controlled. He interrupts and prevents sleep, conversations, and general peace of mind. Powerless to escape them, his behaviors are tormenting to others; this fuels and generates their bitter animosity that for many is vindicated when guards abuse him, which many prisoners encourage and celebrate or at least watch in silent satisfaction. Even those who recognize and acknowledge his acute mental disorders still get sucked into arguments with him and take his behaviors personally, as though they expect a person of unsound mind to behave normally and reasonably.
A sound response to unsound minds
My approach to types like Oliver is to be courteous but firm. When they go into their “episodes,” I don’t antagonize and often don’t respond at all to them. If it’s feasible, I’ll divert them into conversations about their pre-solitary experiences and things that interest them. I’ll encourage and reward their positive behaviors, and I find that sometimes when they’re particularly irate, it works best to just not say anything to them for a few days.
I challenge their abuses by guards and am responsive to their needs—I’ll give them books, writing and hygiene supplies, and items that guards may vindictively deny or take from them. I struggle to reason on their behalf with other prisoners, and sometimes so that guards can hear and gain some insight themselves. I am usually one of the only people they respond positively to, and who has success in defusing their behaviors that enrage others. I make clear to them that their tirades and such will not prompt me to insult, mistreat, nor turn a blind eye to their mistreatment; but neither will it gain my cooperation on anything. I engage and reward their positive interactions. And I don’t take their behaviors personally.
Most of these prisoners crave social interaction (the very thing solitary deprives them of), and acting out is the only way of predictably provoking others to respond to them—even if only negatively (which gives the appearance of their being “freaks for pain” since their behaviors provoke only abuses from others, yet they keep up the same behaviors). Also, this pattern and inclination to seek attention and satisfaction by acting out, leads many prison officials, mental health “experts,” and others to dismiss them as fakers and malingering mental disorders. They are not. But they are struggling—often desperately—against being starved of the normal social and environmental stimulation that solitary causes, which is acutely torturous to the average person and causes these prisoners mental distress.
Because officials see these prisoners’ behaviors as particularly disruptive, they are the ones least likely to be given mental health care or consideration. They’re conveniently dismissed as pretenders or behavioral problems and left to the punitive treatments and brutal tactics of frustrated guards.
Most segregation or supermax prisoners live around or know prisoners like Oliver. Many are on a similar downward mental spiral themselves, which is the “natural” result of these completely “unnatural” environments. Some cope better than others, but no one escapes harm. My only defense is recognizing the situation and being conscious to counteract it through both psychological and physical conditioning.
None are unaffected
I still acutely recall the overwhelming sense of sensory overload I experienced for months, and had to consciously overcome, following my February 2012 release to General Population in the Oregon Department of Corrections after 17 years in solitary. I had to relearn how to “interact” with people in an “open” environment, and how not to feel “crowded” and often defensive in areas with many people milling around me. For months I suffered a sense of feeling emotionally retarded—unable to readily interpret and appropriately respond to people’s emotions, body language, facial expressions, and other nonverbal cues. It was like Assata Shakur described in her autobiography, where she had literally to relearn how to talk again after being held incommunicado in solitary for months. I also couldn’t sit and write articles as I’d previously done while in solitary because adjusting to being around and interacting with many people was literally mentally exhausting.
But as a practical person who believes in confronting challenges head on, I was conscious to identify and understand what I was experiencing and devising methods of remedying it, while I was also struggling to carry out political struggle and work amongst the prisoners around me.
Many people, however, don’t independently have or cultivate the internal reserves nor have the needed outlets of social support, and thus don’t “adjust” or survive long-term solitary with their minds still largely intact.
What manner of society is this?
Few societies in history have persecuted and sought to dispose of their mentally disabled in prisons like Amerika, except the German Nazis. Few others have had such little compassion for their weaker members. I’ve personally witnessed guards empty canisters of OC gas into Oliver’s cell and onto his body, then leave him naked for over a week with gas still covering the cell’s surfaces and turned off his in-cell water for days: solely to torture him.
It literally took days of my pressing guards to turn his water back on and persistently explaining to him how and that he needed to wash the gas off his body and cell for him to finally do so on one occasion. He believed he’d been sprayed with a nerve gas captured from a chemical weapons stash of Saddam Hussein’s during the Gulf War, and if he washed it off his flesh would fall off. So he endured days of sleeplessness because of the burning gas all over him.
The torture of solitary confinement must stop! Tens-of-thousands of prisoners languishing in U.S. custody from Guantanamo Bay to California, from Virginia to Oregon and Washington State have staged massive hunger strikes in protest of solitary confinement and other abuses. Such torture causes acute mental damage and especially targets the disadvantaged and weak.
Only the most insensitive society of people could, with this knowledge, sit by silently and acquiesce in such practices.
Join the struggle to stop the torture because every mind is a terrible thing to waste . . . away.
Dare to Struggle. Dare to Win!
All Power to the People!
1Ruiz v. Johnson, 37 F. Suppp. 2d 855, 907 (S.D. Tex. 1999)