Solitary confinement on death row —  a death before dying – a WW commentary

“It is inhumane, and by its design it is driving men insane. Solitary confinement makes the criminal justice system the criminal.” 

Anthony Graves, survivor of death row and solitary confinement, speaks in Houston after his exoneration and release. WW Photo: Gloria Rubac

These words were testimony presented to the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearing on solitary confinement June 19, 2012, by death row exoneree #138, Anthony C. Graves. (tinyurl.com/5cs4s59y) Graves spent 18.5 years wrongfully incarcerated in Texas, most of them on death row. Like all those on death row in Texas, Graves was housed in solitary confinement.

“Death-sentenced prisoners in 12 states are automatically placed in indefinite solitary confinement, based solely on their death sentence. These prisoners spend between 21 and 24 [hours] per day in their cells, with very limited meaningful human contact. There is no possibility in any of these states for death-sentenced prisoners to have their placement reviewed, to be placed in a less restrictive custody level.” (Merel Pointier, “Cruel but not unusual: The automatic use of indefinite solitary confinement on Death Row,” Texas Journal on Civil Liberties & Civil Rights, Fall 2020)

Solitary confinement is considered cruel and unusual by international standards. The United Nations adopted rules for the treatment of prisoners in 1955; the U.N. General Assembly adopted revised rules in 2015, now known as the Mandela Rules. These rules forbid torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment or treatment. Specifically prohibited is prolonged solitary confinement without human contact for more than 15 consecutive days.

There is strong international consensus against the indefinite use of solitary, but this does not exist in the U.S. The American Correctional Association doesn’t reject the use of solitary. However, the Department of Justice rejects the prolonged use of solitary without specific penological purpose, saying prisoners should be housed in “safe and humane conditions.”

Independent international and domestic reports suggest that the U.S. is an outlier in its use of prolonged solitary confinement. In 2014, the American Civil Liberties Union published a report about the dangerous overuse of solitary in the U.S. Amnesty International found that the U.S. “stands virtually alone in the world in incarcerating thousands of prisoners in long-term or indefinite solitary confinement.”

There can be violations of the U.S. Constitution in the use of indefinite or prolonged use of solitary confinement. The 8th Amendment forbids cruel and unusual punishment. Due process and equal protection are guaranteed under the 14th Amendment.

Recently there have been challenges to the use of prolonged solitary in eight states — Arizona, Florida, Louisiana, Kansas, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Virginia. In Virginia the federal court did rule in favor of the prisoners. In six states legal challenges have resulted in significant changes to confinement conditions, including more out-of-cell time and more human contact. In Florida, the death row prisoners and the prison administration are still in mediation.

While the facts about solitary can be laid out geographically and in statistics, the real crime of indefinite solitary for those on death row is the inhumanity, the loss of sanity, the terror of mental illness.

A prisoner reveals the nightmare of solitary

In his testimony two years after he was released and exonerated, Anthony Graves said: “No one can begin to imagine the psychological effects isolation has on another human being. I was subjected to sleep deprivation. I would hear the clanging of metal doors throughout the night, an officer walking the runs and shining his flashlight in your eyes or an inmate kicking and screaming, because he’s losing his mind. Guys become paranoid, schizophrenic and can’t sleep because they are hearing voices. I was there when guys would attempt suicide by cutting themselves, trying to tie a sheet around their neck or overdosing on their medication. Then there were the guys that actually committed suicide.

“I will have to live with these vivid memories for the rest of my life. I would watch guys come to prison totally sane; and in three years they don’t live in the real world anymore. I know a guy who would sit in the middle of the floor, rip his sheet up, wrap it around himself and light it on fire. Another guy would go out in the recreation yard, get naked, lie down and urinate all over himself. He would take his feces and smear it all over his face as though he was in military combat. This same man was executed. On the gurney, he was babbling incoherently to the officers: ‘I demand that you release me, soldier, this is your captain speaking.’ 

“These were the words coming out of a man’s mouth, who was driven insane by the prison conditions, as the poison was being pumped into his arms. He was ruled competent to be executed.

“I knew guys who dropped their appeals, not because they gave up hope on their legal claims but because of the intolerable conditions. I was able to visit another inmate before he was executed. I went there to lift his spirits, and he ended up telling me that he was ready to go and that I was the one who was going to have to keep dealing with this madness. He would rather die than continue existing under such inhumane conditions.

‘Never the same person again’

“Solitary confinement does one thing, it breaks a man’s will to live, and he ends up deteriorating. He’s never the same person again. Then his mother comes to see her son sitting behind plexiglass, whom she hasn’t been able to touch in years, and she has to watch as her child deteriorates right in front of her eyes. This madness has a ripple effect. It doesn’t just affect the inmate; it also affects his family, his children, his siblings and most importantly his mother.

“I have been free for almost two years, and I still cry at night, because no one out here can relate to what I have gone through. I battle with feelings of loneliness. I’ve tried therapy, but it didn’t work. The therapist was crying more than me. She couldn’t believe that our system was putting men through this sort of inhumane treatment.

“I haven’t had a good night’s sleep since my release. My mind and body are having a hard time making the adjustment. I have mood swings that cause emotional breakdowns. Solitary confinement makes our criminal justice system the criminal.

“It is inhumane, and by its design it is driving men insane. I am living amongst millions of people in the world today, but most of the time I feel alone. I cry at night because of this feeling. I just want to stop feeling this way, but I haven’t been able to.”

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