Americans were once riveted by the horrific news of U.S. soldiers’ and military contractors’ treatment of enemy combatants at the Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad. Media reports beginning in 2004 made us cringe with shame when we realized Americans had humiliated, raped and even killed prisoners of war — and casually taken snapshots of their own crimes.
Today, I believe there is another atrocity taking place inside our own American prison system. Oh, it doesn’t involve naked inmates being paraded around on dog collars, as happened in Baghdad, but the end result is just as appalling — if not more so.
In a groundbreaking work by journalist Susan Greene titled “The Gray Box,” it is revealed that tens of thousands of American prisoners are being held in prolonged states of solitary confinement in prisons across the country.
Now, before you say, “Well, they were convicted criminals — that’s what they get!” let’s delve into Greene’s award-winning essay.
After years of corresponding with inmates, Greene paints a chilling picture of what our penal system is doing to those labeled as “security risks.”
She writes, “Among the misperceptions about solitary confinement is that it’s used only on the most violent inmates, and only for a few weeks or months. In fact, an estimated 80,000 Americans — many with no record of violence either inside or outside prison — are living in seclusion. They stay there for years, even decades.”
Trying to escape, fighting or being affiliated with a gang can get an inmate tossed into solitary. So can cussing at a guard, filing a lawsuit against prison conditions or simply being a juvenile who’s safety might be at risk in the general population.
Make no mistake, I believe prison guards should feel safe at work and that prisons are for punishment. If an inmate breaks the rules, then a few days in the box is standard operation procedure. But aren’t prisons also supposed to try to rehabilitate inmates who will someday be released? What good does it do to keep a convict secluded for so long that he either emerges in a state of vengeful rage or as a broken, unfixable person?
Greene’s article quotes letters and personal interviews with longtime residents of solitary confinement. Their stories of struggling to maintain their minds while in the box reveal disturbing details. So many years go by for some that they have no idea what they look like or what year it is. Clocks, calendars and mirrors are often not provided.
Alone, they walk in endless circles in cells as small as two queen-sized mattresses. They create art out of the few items they are allowed, they count ceiling tiles over and over, some go on hunger strikes. Some inmates take insects as pets so they have something to talk to. A few of the isolated have televisions or cells with a window, but most do not. They get one shower a week, and meals are slipped through a slot in the door. There are no computers and few telephone calls, and many residents of solitary have been there so long their family doesn’t even write anymore.
Greene recounts several cases of the mental deterioration caused by prolonged solitary confinement.
Take the case of Anthony Gay of Illinois. He ran afoul of the law after punching another kid and stealing his hat and a dollar. After Gay violated his parole, he ultimately landed in the Tamms super-max prison. He now displays all the classic signs of profound mental illness. He regularly cuts his genitals and eats his flesh. He flings his own waste through the food slot and has earned a 97-year sentence in the box. He wrote to Greene: “I’ve been trapped for approximately nine years. The trap, like a fly on sticky paper, aggravates and agitates me. America, can you hear me? ... Please speak out and stand up against solitary confinement.”
Osiel Rodriguez has lived in total isolation for eight years after trying to escape from a federal penitentiary in Florida, sent there for armed robbery at 22 years old.
“I got it in my head to destroy all my photographs,” he wrote to Greene from his solitary cell in Colorado. “I spent some five hours ripping each one to pieces. No one was safe. I did not save one of my mother, father, sisters. My parents will be dust if/when I ever get out of prison.” In his mind, life on the outside is just too painful to remember anymore.
Sometimes inmates are isolated for no legitimate reason. After a drunken-driving arrest in Las Cruces, N.M., Stephen Slevin was tossed into a solitary cell and forgotten. Nearly two years later — without ever seeing a judge — charges were dropped, and a disheveled, delusional Slevin was released. He thought he had been incarcerated for two months. A jury awarded him $22 million.
Greene writes: “This is what our prisons are doing to people in the name of safety. This is how deeply we’re burying them.”
I am as ashamed of this as I was hearing the news about Abu Ghraib. America is supposed to be a compassionate country. This sounds like state-sponsored torture to me.