by Billy Ball
An excerpt from Central Prison inmate Chris McBride’s letter to Indy Week, dated July 4, 2012:
“Solitary confinement is hell. I agree with the public—it is a form of torture. It is a tiny cell about 6 feet by 8 feet. It has a steel toilet, with a sink built in the top. There is a steel bed, with an extremely thin mattress. There is a small shelf to put your things, and a very small little desk hanging off the wall, but no chair. There is a window, that is about 5 inches wide and about 4 feet tall, but you can’t see out of it. It’s fog/clouded glass. Plus it’s covered by steel with little holes in it. The door window is the same. The light stays on 24 hours a day. At 11 p.m.–6 a.m., a smaller light comes on but it’s still bright.
“We are in this cell 23 hours a day. We are allowed to come out for recreation five times a week for one hour. The rec is a cage. They just stick us in a little cage and we can walk around. That’s it. We are only allowed to take three showers a week. Only three! And we can only take 5 minutes. If we are lucky, we get 10 minutes.
“So if you add up five 1-hour recs, and three 10-minute showers, that’s 5½ hours. Let’s round that up to 6 hours. There’s your answer. Out of the 168 hours in a week, we are out of our cell 6 hours. If that ain’t a form of torture, I don’t know what is.”
On Dec. 16, 2011, the prisoners stopped working.
As Chris McBride, Inmate No. 0644099 at Central Prison in Raleigh, puts it, the hours were too long. The prisoners worked in the kitchen for 10-hour shifts, seven days a week, without breaks. They were paid between 70 cents and $1 per day.
Fifteen inmates at the Raleigh institution refused to return to work, McBride writes in a letter to the Indy. But when correctional officers were called in, roughly half of them changed their mind.
“Only eight inmates stood strong and demanded answers,” says McBride, who is from Chapel Hill.
Promised better hours, they returned to their kitchen duties, but within 15 minutes, correctional officers rounded up the eight.
“Even though we had went back to work without incident,” he says. “No force was used, no mace was sprayed. We went. No problem.”
Charged with disobeying orders, the eight were assigned to intensive control, or ICON, as North Carolina prison officials call it—for at least six months.
ICON is a prison within a prison—long-term solitary confinement by another name. Locked away for 23 hours each day, ICON inmates have little contact with others, and their visitation is limited. ICON inmates may not use the telephone.
McBride’s first six months in ICON were up in July, but officials opted to keep the 31-year-old in ICON for another half year, until January 2013.
In North Carolina, 37 inmates served more than six months in ICON in the 2011–2012 fiscal year, according to state Department of Corrections figures. As of Oct. 20, 850 inmates, or about 2.2 percent of the state’s general prison population, were sequestered in ICON—twice the national average.
Yet statistics offer only a snapshot of the number of inmates in solitary confinement on any given day. Prisoners enter and leave. No national registry of inmates in solitary exists, in part because prisons vary in their definition of what is commonly known in prison-speak as “administrative segregation.”
Nonetheless, the United Nations estimates that 25,000 inmates are in solitary confinement in the U.S.—many in “supermax” prisons built specifically for that purpose. That’s equivalent to about 1 percent of the 2.2 million adults incarcerated in 2010, according to U.S. Bureau of Justice figures.
That number may be an understatement.
The most recent nationwide count dates back to 2005, when a Bureau of Justice census found more than 81,622 inmates in “restricted housing” in state and federal facilities. But that may not include strict interpretations of isolation because many segregated prisoners are housed two to a cell, according to federal Bureau of Prisons spokeswoman Traci Billingsley.
Critics contend this type of punishment is brutal, psychological torture. It’s also expensive, in some cases costing nearly three times more per inmate than for a prisoner in general population. And few believe the practice offers real rehabilitation for hardened criminals.
The rise of solitary confinement has led some U.S. and world leaders, including Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., to demand reforms to a practice they deem inhumane. Last year, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture Juan Mendez called for countries to ban the practice.
“Solitary confinement is a harsh measure which is contrary to rehabilitation, the aim of the penitentiary system,” Mendez said.
Buts its defenders, including North Carolina prison officials, claim solitary confinement is necessary to control a growing prison population and to protect guards and workers from the worst of the worst.
“If the officers are mad at you, they spit in your food. They lose or throw away your mail, amongst other things. And that’s only the beginning. The cells are filthy. We hardly ever get to clean them, and when we do, we only get to sweep and mop. No toilet brush or nothing. Then the medical is ridiculous. An inmate can die in solitary and wouldn’t be found for hours because no one even comes by and checks on us. If we ask to see a nurse, we are ignored. I have seen inmates have seizures, faint, as well as try to kill themselves, and the officers pay no attention. Then if the inmate tells on the officers, they jump on him and beat him. Normal rules don’t apply to solitary. They are supposed to, but they don’t.”
McBride’s extensive criminal record includes convictions for embezzlement, assault on a female, felony breaking and entering, larceny, drug manufacturing, child abuse, resisting an officer and more. “I don’t make excuses. I am who I am,” he writes.
McBride contends he was abandoned by family when he was young. Growing up in foster homes, he says he was abused through his childhood and into early adulthood.
“I just want you and the public to understand that everyone isn’t afforded the advantages and privileges others are,” he writes. “Unfortunately, I didn’t start caring until it was [too] late. Now, I can’t outrun my record, and no matter what I do, I am judged by it.”
For his repeated crimes, McBride was convicted as a habitual felon in Orange County in December 2010 and received a 28-year sentence.
His time in Central Prison has been tumultuous. Since June 2011, he has received six infractions for breaking prison rules, including property theft, fighting and disobeying orders. McBride says those infractions include the alleged theft of a peanut butter packet and a hot dog, as well as engaging in a “Chow Hall” scuffle with another inmate.
Fighting, property damage, drug or weapon possession and attempted escape: These offenses can land an inmate in six months of ICON. Officials refuse to discuss individual cases, but Jennie Lancaster, chief deputy secretary for the N.C. Department of Public Safety’s Division of Adult Correction, says prison officials can judge an inmate’s offense severe enough to compel a second six-month stint in ICON. There is no limit on the amount of time an inmate can spend in ICON.
McBride’s lengthy criminal record and his history of clashes with prison administration, including the kitchen protest, could have prompted officials to keep him in solitary.
Lancaster declines to talk about McBride, although Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Pam Walker calls his account of 10-hour kitchen shifts “seriously embellished.” Walker says the protest happened three days after Warden Ken Lassiter, who assumed his post last year after the controversial resignation of the previous warden, ordered kitchen workers to remain in the food service area for their entire eight-hour shift unless they had permission to leave. The policy was enacted because there had been incidents in which inmates ducked work and wandered into unauthorized areas of the prison.
Lancaster says that, in general, prisoners recommended for ICON can respond to the allegations against them. If they are found mentally unable to comprehend their case, they are assigned a mental health professional to represent them before the committee.
ICON hearings are not public, and inmates are not allowed to have an attorney present.
Following the kitchen protest, McBride appeared before a panel of three prison officials, which typically includes correctional officers and supervisors.
McBride writes that he pled guilty to his infractions after a prison officer told him that he could not win his case. The warden intended to make an example of him, he says.
Lancaster says she understands the arguments against solitary confinement, but she calls it a “common sense” answer. Some inmates show a “chronic inability to conform or get along in the general population,” she says. “We have to have rules and policies within the prison that keep everybody safe, that keep a stable environment for all the inmates and the staff,” she says.
However, the safety of some Central Prison inmates was questioned in an Associated Press article last year, after the N.C. Department of Corrections issued a blistering report in June 2011 stating that inmates with mental illnesses were sometimes isolated for weeks or found alone in cells splattered with human waste. Central Prison Warden Gerald Branker resigned after the report was released. Prison officials blamed media exaggeration for the scandal.
State leaders promised reform at Central Prison after Gov. Bev Perdue deemed the report’s findings “unacceptable.” And in July 2012, at least nine prisoners began a hunger strike to protest the conditions at Central Prison. The hunger strike has ended, Walker said.
Lancaster said state corrections officials have implemented a pilot program to help ICON inmates assimilate into the general prison population and to address the negative impacts of long-term isolation.
“We want safer, more secure prisons,” she said. “But on the other hand, if it’s a fact that [ICON] indeed does cause adverse effects, we need to understand that.”
Lancaster bristles at claims that ICON and solitary confinement are inhumane and unnecessary. ICON inmates do have exercise and shower hours scheduled each week, Lancaster points out, and a nurse checks in on prisoners every day. Chaplains also make the rounds.
“I’d be glad to have them spend a couple of days in a prison to see what it’s like,” she says to the critics.
Corrections officials denied an Indy request to interview McBride in person, so we corresponded via handwritten letters. Administrators also denied our requests to visit a solitary cell and interview an ICON prisoner in person.
Anthony Graves is upbeat. He’s friendly, quick to return a phone call and gracious with his time.
Graves would know about time: He spent 18 years in prison in Texas, at least a decade in solitary confinement. In Texas, all death row inmates are held in isolation.
He was convicted as an accomplice in the 1992 murder of six people, including four children, and sentenced to death. In 2010, he was released after prosecutors acknowledged what Graves’ family and several college journalists had been saying for years: No forensic evidence tied Graves to the Somerville, Texas, murders—and the case relied on the testimony of the actual killer.
That person, Robert Earl Carter, was executed in 2000, and before his death offered sworn testimony that he lied when he named Graves an accomplice. But it took another decade before Graves was finally released for a crime the state now says he did not commit.
Graves was 26 when he entered his cell. Now he’s 47. In between, his children grew up without him, and he missed the birth of his grandchildren.
The state of Texas paid Graves $1.4 million as compensation for his wrongful imprisonment, although not without a bitter legal battle.
During his incarceration, Graves languished in a 8-by-6-foot cell much like McBride’s. Equipped with a single window, Graves could glimpse the sky if he stood on his bed. The cell was equipped with a shelf large enough for a radio or a typewriter.
Graves told the Indy his time in solitary changed him. It’s difficult for him to socialize, and he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I have emotional breakdowns and don’t even understand why,” he said. “I can be out in the world around millions of people and still feel alone.”
He spent the interminable hours writing pleas for help, a ritual that he credits with preserving his sanity.
“I was probably unique because I knew every morning that I woke up that I was innocent,” he says. “I didn’t have time to think about what was going on around me. If I was to think in those terms, I probably would have lost my mind. Every year, those walls get a little closer around you. You start feeling claustrophobic.”
But Graves said he never lost hope, even as the years passed and his appeals failed.
“That would have meant I understood what was happening in my life,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong, I was down. My thing is, I was wondering when is this ever going to end? Am I going to walk out on my own or am I going to go out in a box?”
Graves, who testified on solitary confinement before a U.S. Senate subcommittee in June, calls his time in solitary “the worst inhumane treatment that a man can give another man.”
American prisons need fundamental reforms, Graves says, starting with rehabilitation. Provide education for prisoners, he says, so they are high-functioning members of society when they are released. Solitary confinement falls far short of that goal, according to Graves.
“We don’t seem to be that serious about reforming people,” said Graves. “All we want to do is punish them.”
“Do you believe you could live in a box like that 23 hours a day, a person who goes in normal, and it wouldn’t have any negative impact on you?”
In June, Sen. Durbin grilled Charles Samuels Jr., director for the Federal Bureau of Prisons, during a heated meeting of the Senate Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights.
A life-size replica of an isolation cell, spare and gray, sat in the corner of the committee room.
It was a landmark hearing for solitary confinement opponents, who note Durbin’s subcommittee was one of the first to consider prison reform as a human rights issue.
Samuels—who reported roughly 7 percent, or more than 15,000, federal inmates are held in isolation—later conceded prolonged isolation poses risks for prisoners. It’s not the “preferred option,” he acknowledged.
Durbin, who opposes solitary confinement, said the federal prison system needs policy changes to address this type of punishment. “We can have a just society, and we can be humane in the process,” Durbin said. “We can punish wrongdoers, and they should be punished under our system of justice, but we don’t have to cross that line.”
The number of prisoners being sent to solitary confinement skyrocketed in recent decades. A report from the national law think tank Vera Institute of Justice indicated the number of prisoners held in segregation surged 40 percent between 1995 and 2000. In 2004, more than 40 states operated a form of supermax housing. North Carolina does not run a supermax, although it does operate a similar “maximum control” unit in a Butner institution, Walker said.
Prison leaders often argue isolated confinement is used for the most dangerous inmates who cannot assimilate into the general prison population. But critics say it’s cases like McBride and his fellow kitchen protesters that are the norm: using prolonged isolation as a method of control or punishment for relatively minor prison offenses.
In one notable case in Virginia, Rastafarian inmates were sent into isolation because they refused—on religious grounds—to shave and cut their hair in compliance with a 1999 policy change. Some spent years in isolation, and at least one man spent a decade in solitary confinement.
Stephen Soldz, an influential Massachusetts clinical psychologist and solitary confinement expert, says the “vast majority” of segregated prisoners are isolated as a disciplinary measure, not because they are a threat to other inmates or prison staff.
Soldz, who served as a consultant in Guantanamo Bay trials, generated media attention in 2007 when he called for the American Psychological Association to forbid its members from participating in interrogations that included the use of prolonged solitary confinement. The APA later issued a resolution stating its opposition to torture.
Today, Soldz remains a staunch opponent of solitary confinement.
“There’s no doubt from the research literature and clinical experience that solitary long-term and not so long-term causes distress, depression, anxiety and more severe conditions in a number of cases,” Soldz says. “People have become suicidal or suffer hallucinations.”
Soldz says the practice is especially dangerous in a prison, where many inmates are already mentally ill.
“You’ve got mentally ill people, you put them in a context which causes mental illness in normal people,” he says. “So it exacerbates the illness. They’re less in control, so it causes the situation to keep them in isolation. It’s so barbaric.”
Mental illness is a key component of the solitary confinement debate. A 2006 U.S. Department of Justice study reported 56 percent of inmates in state prisons have some form of mental illness. In federal prisons, it was 45 percent; 64 percent in local jails.
Terry Kupers, a California psychiatrist and author of the 1999 book Prison Madness: The Mental Health Crisis Behind Bars and What We Must Do About It, says the research shows a troubling problem for an already troubled population.
“Solitary causes psychological damage,” Kupers said. “And it causes damage to ordinary people who have a good, strong ego, but if someone is vulnerable to psychological illness, it causes greater damage.”
In a statement to Durbin’s Senate subcommittee this year, Kupers said most research clearly shows isolated inmates are far more prone to anxiety, paranoia, delusions, depression, nervous breakdowns and suicidal thoughts.
According to Kupers, national data show that half of prison suicides occur among the 3 to 8 percent of the prison population that is in segregated or isolated cells.
However, a controversial 2010 study of long-term segregation in Colorado prisons found no evidence that solitary confinement is detrimental to an inmate’s mental health. Most surprising, the study reported some improvement in segregated prisoners.
Critics note that one of the study’s principal authors, Maureen O’Keefe, worked for the Colorado Department of Corrections. The study also relied on self-reports, rather than professional psychological assessments, from prisoners whose primary motivation might be to convince prison officials that they are mentally fit to return to the general prison population.
Meanwhile, critics say solitary confinement is also ineffective in rehabilitating inmates. A 2007 study by University of Washington researchers found supermax prisoners released directly into the community were more likely to re-offend than their general population counterparts.
Kupers said many in his profession believe the key to behavioral change lies in offering positive rewards for good behavior rather than punishment for misbehavior.
“Solitary confinement is the antithesis of rehabilitation,” Kupers said.
If the human rights aspects of solitary confinement don’t prompt public officials to change their policies, the fiscal realities may.
Durbin points out the costs of solitary confinement in an Illinois supermax are a staggering $60,000 per inmate annually compared to $22,000 for an inmate in the general population.
In North Carolina, the annual cost of “close” custody, which includes ICON inmates and other maximum-security prisoners, was $34,153 per inmate at the end of the 2010–2011 fiscal year, the most recent data available. The bulk of North Carolina’s prisoners are held in “medium” custody, which cost $28,214 per inmate last fiscal year.
“I would prefer that the anti-rehabilitative effect and increased recidivism rate would motivate legislators to consider closing isolation or supermax units,” Kupers said. “But if it turns out it’s the expense that motivates them, that’s OK, too.”
Chris McBride’s story is incomplete. According to prison records, he’s not likely to leave prison until 2037. He will be 56.
But, provided he has no additional infractions, McBride is expected to leave his isolation cell in January. If the critics are right, McBride will be a harder, unstable man. If the proponents are right, McBride will be a more disciplined man.
In the meantime, McBride says he will spend his hours sleeping, reading or writing. There’s nothing else to do.
“The public should care about this because we are all human. No, they may not think about prison life on a daily basis, but in the blink of an eye, they could be part of it. I want the public to know about the inhumane conditions we as inmates have to deal with. I want them to know about the mental and physical abuse we have to endure on a daily basis. Just because we are in prison doesn’t make us any less human. There are plenty of criminals not locked up. Look at our government. We still have feelings, and deserve to be treated as people. Not animals.”