The research has been supported by funding from Spunk Fund and the Bromley Trust.
A commentary by Steven Miles from the Centre for Bioethics and Department of Medicine, University of Minnesota Medical School and an editorial on the article by Wanda Mohr, Associate Editor of the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, are published in the same volume of the journal.
This paper leads on from a 2007 study: Basoglu M, Livanou M, Crnobaric C. (2007) Torture versus other cruel, inhuman & degrading treatment: Is the distinction real or apparent? Archives of General Psychiatry, 64, 277-285.
Copies of this article, the editorial, and commentary, can be obtained from the journal website:
The author can be contacted at email@example.com
The United States holds tens of thousands of inmates in long-term solitary confinement. Is this torture?
By Atul Gawande
March 30, 2009
Human beings are social creatures. We are social not just in the trivial sense that we like company, and not just in the obvious sense that we each depend on others. We are social in a more elemental way: simply to exist as a normal human being requires interaction with other people.
Children provide the clearest demonstration of this fact, although it was slow to be accepted. Well into the nineteen-fifties, psychologists were encouraging parents to give children less attention and affection, in order to encourage independence. Then Harry Harlow, a professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, produced a series of influential studies involving baby rhesus monkeys.
He happened upon the findings in the mid-fifties, when he decided to save money for his primate-research laboratory by breeding his own lab monkeys instead of importing them from India. Because he didn’t know how to raise infant monkeys, he cared for them the way hospitals of the era cared for human infants—in nurseries, with plenty of food, warm blankets, some toys, and in isolation from other infants to prevent the spread of infection. The monkeys grew up sturdy, disease-free, and larger than those from the wild. Yet they were also profoundly disturbed, given to staring blankly and rocking in place for long periods, circling their cages repetitively, and mutilating themselves.
At first, Harlow and his graduate students couldn’t figure out what the problem was. They considered factors such as diet, patterns of light exposure, even the antibiotics they used. Then, as Deborah Blum recounts in a fascinating biography of Harlow, “Love at Goon Park,” one of his researchers noticed how tightly the monkeys clung to their soft blankets. Harlow wondered whether what the monkeys were missing in their Isolettes was a mother.. So, in an odd experiment, he gave them an artificial one.
In the studies, one artificial mother was a doll made of terry cloth; the other was made of wire. He placed a warming device inside the dolls to make them seem more comforting. The babies, Harlow discovered, largely ignored the wire mother. But they became deeply attached to the cloth mother. They caressed it. They slept curled up on it. They ran to it when frightened. They refused replacements: they wanted only “their” mother. If sharp spikes were made to randomly thrust out of the mother’s body when the rhesus babies held it, they waited patiently for the spikes to recede and returned to clutching it. No matter how tightly they clung to the surrogate mothers, however, the monkeys remained psychologically abnormal.
In a later study on the effect of total isolation from birth, the researchers found that the test monkeys, upon being released into a group of ordinary monkeys, “usually go into a state of emotional shock, characterized by . . . autistic self-clutching and rocking.” Harlow noted, “One of six monkeys isolated for three months refused to eat after release and died five days later.” After several weeks in the company of other monkeys, most of them adjusted—but not those who had been isolated for longer periods.. “Twelve months of isolation almost obliterated the animals socially,” Harlow wrote. They became permanently withdrawn, and they lived as outcasts—regularly set upon, as if inviting abuse.
The research made Harlow famous (and infamous, too—revulsion at his work helped spur the animal-rights movement). Other psychologists produced evidence of similarly deep and sustained damage in neglected and orphaned children. Hospitals were made to open up their nurseries to parents. And it became widely accepted that children require nurturing human beings not just for food and protection but also for the normal functioning of their brains.
We have been hesitant to apply these lessons to adults. Adults, after all, are fully formed, independent beings, with internal strengths and knowledge to draw upon. We wouldn’t have anything like a child’s dependence on other people, right? Yet it seems that we do. We don’t have a lot of monkey experiments to call upon here. But mankind has produced tens of thousands of human ones, including in our prison system. And the picture that has emerged is profoundly unsettling.
Among our most benign experiments are those with people who voluntarily isolate themselves for extended periods. Long-distance solo sailors, for instance, commit themselves to months at sea. They face all manner of physical terrors: thrashing storms, fifty-foot waves, leaks, illness. Yet, for many, the single most overwhelming difficulty they report is the “soul-destroying loneliness,” as one sailor called it. Astronauts have to be screened for their ability to tolerate long stretches in tightly confined isolation, and they come to depend on radio and video communications for social contact.
The problem of isolation goes beyond ordinary loneliness, however. Consider what we’ve learned from hostages who have been held in solitary confinement—from the journalist Terry Anderson, for example, whose extraordinary memoir, Den of Lions,” recounts his seven years as a hostage of Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Anderson was the chief Middle East correspondent for the Associated Press when, on March 16, 1985, three bearded men forced him from his car in Beirut at gunpoint. He was pushed into a Mercedes sedan, covered head to toe with a heavy blanket, and made to crouch head down in the footwell behind the front seat. His captors drove him to a garage, pulled him out of the car, put a hood over his head, and bound his wrists and ankles with tape. For half an hour, they grilled him for the names of other Americans in Beirut, but he gave no names and they did not beat him or press him further. They threw him in the trunk of the car, drove him to another building, and put him in what would be the first of a succession of cells across Lebanon. He was soon placed in what seemed to be a dusty closet, large enough for only a mattress. Blindfolded, he could make out the distant sounds of other hostages. (One was William Buckley, the C.I.A. station chief who was kidnapped and tortured repeatedly until he weakened and died.) Peering around his blindfold, Anderson could see a bare light bulb dangling from the ceiling. He received three unpalatable meals a day—usually a sandwich of bread and cheese, or cold rice with canned vegetables, or soup. He had a bottle to urinate in and was allotted one five- to ten-minute trip each day to a rotting bathroom to empty his bowels and wash with water at a dirty sink. Otherwise, the only reprieve from isolation came when the guards made short visits to bark at him for breaking a rule or to threaten him, sometimes with a gun at his temple.
He missed people terribly, especially his fiancée and his family. He was despondent and depressed. Then, with time, he began to feel something more. He felt himself disintegrating. It was as if his brain were grinding down. A month into his confinement, he recalled in his memoir, “The mind is a blank. Jesus, I always thought I was smart. Where are all the things I learned, the books I read, the poems I memorized? There’s nothing there, just a formless, gray-black misery. My mind’s gone dead. God, help me.”
He was stiff from lying in bed day and night, yet tired all the time. He dozed off and on constantly, sleeping twelve hours a day. He craved activity of almost any kind. He would watch the daylight wax and wane on the ceiling, or roaches creep slowly up the wall. He had a Bible and tried to read, but he often found that he lacked the concentration to do so. He observed himself becoming neurotically possessive about his little space, at times putting his life in jeopardy by flying into a rage if a guard happened to step on his bed. He brooded incessantly, thinking back on all the mistakes he’d made in life, his regrets, his offenses against God and family.
His captors moved him every few months. For unpredictable stretches of time, he was granted the salvation of a companion—sometimes he shared a cell with as many as four other hostages—and he noticed that his thinking recovered rapidly when this occurred. He could read and concentrate longer, avoid hallucinations, and better control his emotions. “I would rather have had the worst companion than no companion at all,” he noted.
In September, 1986, after several months of sharing a cell with another hostage, Anderson was, for no apparent reason, returned to solitary confinement, this time in a six-by-six-foot cell, with no windows, and light from only a flickering fluorescent lamp in an outside corridor. The guards refused to say how long he would be there. After a few weeks, he felt his mind slipping away again.
“I find myself trembling sometimes for no reason,” he wrote. “I’m afraid I’m beginning to lose my mind, to lose control completely.”
One day, three years into his ordeal, he snapped. He walked over to a wall and began beating his forehead against it, dozens of times. His head was smashed and bleeding before the guards were able to stop him.
Some hostages fared worse. Anderson told the story of Frank Reed, a fifty-four-year- old American private-school director who was taken hostage and held in solitary confinement for four months before being put in with Anderson. By then, Reed had become severely withdrawn. He lay motionless for hours facing a wall, semi-catatonic. He could not follow the guards’ simplest instructions. This invited abuse from them, in much the same way that once isolated rhesus monkeys seemed to invite abuse from the colony. Released after three and a half years, Reed ultimately required admission to a psychiatric hospital.
“It’s an awful thing, solitary,” John McCain wrote of his five and a half years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam—more than two years of it spent in isolation in a fifteen-by-fifteen- foot cell, unable to communicate with other P.O.W.s except by tap code, secreted notes, or by speaking into an enamel cup pressed against the wall. “It crushes your spirit and weakens your resistance more effectively than any other form of mistreatment.” And this comes from a man who was beaten regularly; denied adequate medical treatment for two broken arms, a broken leg, and chronic dysentery; and tortured to the point of having an arm broken again. A U.S. military study of almost a hundred and fifty naval aviators returned from imprisonment in Vietnam, many of whom were treated even worse than McCain, reported that they found social isolation to be as torturous and agonizing as any physical abuse they suffered.
And what happened to them was physical. EEG studies going back to the nineteen-sixties have shown diffuse slowing of brain waves in prisoners after a week or more of solitary confinement. In 1992, fifty-seven prisoners of war, released after an average of six months in detention camps in the former Yugoslavia, were examined using EEG-like tests. The recordings revealed brain abnormalities months afterward; the most severe were found in prisoners who had endured either head trauma sufficient to render them unconscious or, yes, solitary confinement. Without sustained social interaction, the human brain may become as impaired as one that has incurred a traumatic injury.
On December 4, 1991, Terry Anderson was released from captivity. He had been the last and the longest-held American hostage in Lebanon. I spoke to Keron Fletcher, a former British military psychiatrist who had been on the receiving team for Anderson and many other hostages, and followed them for years afterward. Initially, Fletcher said, everyone experiences the pure elation of being able to see and talk to people again, especially family and friends. They can’t get enough of other people, and talk almost non-stop for hours. They are optimistic and hopeful. But, afterward, normal sleeping and eating patterns prove difficult to reëstablish. Some have lost their sense of time. For weeks, they have trouble managing the sensations and emotional complexities of their freedom.
For the first few months after his release, Anderson said when I reached him by phone recently, “it was just kind of a fog.” He had done many television interviews at the time. “And if you look at me in the pictures? Look at my eyes. You can tell. I look drugged.”
Most hostages survived their ordeal, Fletcher said, although relationships, marriages, and careers were often lost. Some found, as John McCain did, that the experience even strengthened them. Yet none saw solitary confinement as anything less than torture. This presents us with an awkward question: If prolonged isolation is—as research and experience have confirmed for decades—so objectively horrifying, so intrinsically cruel, how did we end up with a prison system that may subject more of our own citizens to it than any other country in history has?
Recently, I met a man who had spent more than five years in isolation at a prison in the Boston suburb of Walpole, Massachusetts, not far from my home. Bobby Dellelo was, to say the least, no Terry Anderson or John McCain. Brought up in the run-down neighborhoods of Boston’s West End, in the nineteen-forties, he was caught burglarizing a shoe store at the age of ten. At thirteen, he recalls, he was nabbed while robbing a Jordan Marsh department store. (He and his friends learned to hide out in stores at closing time, steal their merchandise, and then break out during the night.) The remainder of his childhood was spent mostly in the state reform school. That was where he learned how to fight, how to hot-wire a car with a piece of foil, how to pick locks, and how to make a zip gun using a snapped-off automobile radio antenna, which, in those days, was just thick enough to barrel a .22-calibre bullet. Released upon turning eighteen, Dellelo returned to stealing. Usually, he stole from office buildings at night. But some of the people he hung out with did stickups, and, together with one of them, he held up a liquor store in Dorchester.
“What a disaster that thing was,” he recalls, laughing. They put the store’s owner and the customers in a walk-in refrigerator at gunpoint, took their wallets, and went to rob the register. But more customers came in. So they robbed them and put them in the refrigerator, too. Then still more customers arrived, the refrigerator got full, and the whole thing turned into a circus. Dellelo and his partner finally escaped. But one of the customers identified him to the police. By the time he was caught, Dellelo had been fingered for robbing the Commander Hotel in Cambridge as well. He served a year for the first conviction and two and a half years for the second.
Three months after his release, in 1963, at the age of twenty, he and a friend tried to rob the Kopelman jewelry store, in downtown Boston. But an alarm went off before they got their hands on anything. They separated and ran. The friend shot and killed an off-duty policeman while trying to escape, then killed himself. Dellelo was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. He ended up serving forty years. Five years and one month were spent in isolation.
The criteria for the isolation of prisoners vary by state but typically include not only violent infractions but also violation of prison rules or association with gang members. The imposition of long-term isolation—which can be for months or years—is ultimately at the discretion of prison administrators. One former prisoner I spoke to, for example, recalled being put in solitary confinement for petty annoyances like refusing to get out of the shower quickly enough. Bobby Dellelo was put there for escaping.
It was an elaborate scheme. He had a partner, who picked the lock to a supervisor’s office and got hold of the information manual for the microwave-detection system that patrolled a grassy no man’s land between the prison and the road. They studied the manual long enough to learn how to circumvent the system and returned it. On Halloween Sunday, 1993, they had friends stage a fight in the prison yard. With all the guards in the towers looking at the fight through binoculars, the two men tipped a picnic table up against a twelve-foot wall and climbed it like a ladder. Beyond it, they scaled a sixteen-foot fence. To get over the razor wire on top, they used a Z-shaped tool they’d improvised from locker handles. They dropped down into the no man’s land and followed an invisible path that they’d calculated the microwave system would not detect. No alarm sounded. They went over one more fence, walked around a parking lot, picked their way through some woods, and emerged onto a four-lane road. After a short walk to a convenience store, they called a taxi from a telephone booth and rolled away before anyone knew they were gone.
They lasted twenty-four days on the outside. Eventually, somebody ratted them out, and the police captured them on the day before Thanksgiving, at the house of a friend in Cambridge. The prison administration gave Dellelo five years in the Departmental Disciplinary Unit of the Walpole prison, its hundred-and- twenty-four- cell super-maximum segregation unit.
Wearing ankle bracelets, handcuffs, and a belly chain, Dellelo was marched into a thirteen-by- eight-foot off-white cell. A four-inch-thick concrete bed slab jutted out from the wall opposite the door. A smaller slab protruding from a side wall provided a desk. A cylindrical concrete block in the floor served as a seat. On the remaining wall was a toilet and a metal sink. He was given four sheets, four towels, a blanket, a bedroll, a toothbrush, toilet paper, a tall clear plastic cup, a bar of soap, seven white T-shirts, seven pairs of boxer shorts, seven pairs of socks, plastic slippers, a pad of paper, and a ballpoint pen. A speaker with a microphone was mounted on the door. Cells used for solitary confinement are often windowless, but this one had a ribbonlike window that was seven inches wide and five feet tall. The electrically controlled door was solid steel, with a seven-inch-by- twenty-eight- inch aperture and two wickets—little door slots, one at ankle height and one at waist height, for shackling him whenever he was let out and for passing him meal trays.
As in other supermaxes—facilities designed to isolate prisoners from social contact—Dellelo was confined to his cell for at least twenty-three hours a day and permitted out only for a shower or for recreation in an outdoor cage that he estimated to be fifty feet long and five feet wide, known as “the dog kennel.” He could talk to other prisoners through the steel door of his cell, and during recreation if a prisoner was in an adjacent cage. He made a kind of fishing line for passing notes to adjacent cells by unwinding the elastic from his boxer shorts, though it was contraband and would be confiscated. Prisoners could receive mail and as many as ten reading items. They were allowed one phone call the first month and could earn up to four calls and four visits per month if they followed the rules, but there could be no physical contact with anyone, except when guards forcibly restrained them. Some supermaxes even use food as punishment, serving the prisoners nutra-loaf, an unpalatable food brick that contains just enough nutrition for survival. Dellelo was spared this. The rules also permitted him to have a radio after thirty days, and, after sixty days, a thirteen-inch black-and-white television.
“This is going to be a piece of cake,” Dellelo recalls thinking when the door closed behind him. Whereas many American supermax prisoners—and most P.O.W.s and hostages—have no idea when they might get out, he knew exactly how long he was going to be there. He drew a calendar on his pad of paper to start counting down the days. He would get a radio and a TV. He could read. No one was going to bother him. And, as his elaborate escape plan showed, he could be patient. “This is their sophisticated security?” he said to himself. “They don’t know what they’re doing.”
After a few months without regular social contact, however, his experience proved no different from that of the P.O.W.s or hostages, or the majority of isolated prisoners whom researchers have studied: he started to lose his mind. He talked to himself. He paced back and forth compulsively, shuffling along the same six-foot path for hours on end. Soon, he was having panic attacks, screaming for help. He hallucinated that the colors on the walls were changing.
He became enraged by routine noises—the sound of doors opening as the guards made their hourly checks, the sounds of inmates in nearby cells. After a year or so, he was hearing voices on the television talking directly to him. He put the television under his bed, and rarely took it out again.
One of the paradoxes of solitary confinement is that, as starved as people become for companionship, the experience typically leaves them unfit for social interaction. Once, Dellelo was allowed to have an in-person meeting with his lawyer, and he simply couldn’t handle it. After so many months in which his primary human contact had been an occasional phone call or brief conversations with an inmate down the tier, shouted through steel doors at the top of their lungs, he found himself unable to carry on a face-to-face conversation. He had trouble following both words and hand gestures and couldn’t generate them himself. When he realized this, he succumbed to a full-blown panic attack.
Craig Haney, a psychology professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz, received rare permission to study a hundred randomly selected inmates at California’s Pelican Bay supermax, and noted a number of phenomena. First, after months or years of complete isolation, many prisoners “begin to lose the ability to initiate behavior of any kind—to organize their own lives around activity and purpose,” he writes. “Chronic apathy, lethargy, depression, and despair often result. . . . In extreme cases, prisoners may literally stop behaving,” becoming essentially catatonic.
Second, almost ninety per cent of these prisoners had difficulties with “irrational anger,” compared with just three per cent of prisoners in the general population. Haney attributed this to the extreme restriction, the totality of control, and the extended absence of any opportunity for happiness or joy. Many prisoners in solitary become consumed with revenge fantasies.
“There were some guards in D.D.U. who were decent guys,” Dellelo told me. They didn’t trash his room when he was let out for a shower, or try to trip him when escorting him in chains, or write him up for contraband if he kept food or a salt packet from a meal in his cell. “But some of them were evil, evil pricks.” One correctional officer became a particular obsession. Dellelo spent hours imagining cutting his head off and rolling it down the tier. “I mean, I know this is insane thinking,” he says now. Even at the time, he added, “I had a fear in the background—like how much of this am I going to be able to let go? How much is this going to affect who I am?”
He was right to worry. Everyone’s identity is socially created: it’s through your relationships that you understand yourself as a mother or a father, a teacher or an accountant, a hero or a villain. But, after years of isolation, many prisoners change in another way that Haney observed. They begin to see themselves primarily as combatants in the world, people whose identity is rooted in thwarting prison control.
As a matter of self-preservation, this may not be a bad thing. According to the Navy P.O.W. researchers, the instinct to fight back against the enemy constituted the most important coping mechanism for the prisoners they studied. Resistance was often their sole means of maintaining a sense of purpose, and so their sanity. Yet resistance is precisely what we wish to destroy in our supermax prisoners. As Haney observed in a review of research findings, prisoners in solitary confinement must be able to withstand the experience in order to be allowed to return to the highly social world of mainline prison or free society. Perversely, then, the prisoners who can’t handle profound isolation are the ones who are forced to remain in it. “And those who have adapted,” Haney writes, “are prime candidates for release to a social world to which they may be incapable of ever fully readjusting.”
Dellelo eventually found a way to resist that would not prolong his ordeal. He fought his battle through the courts, filing motion after motion in an effort to get his conviction overturned. He became so good at submitting his claims that he obtained a paralegal certificate along the way. And, after forty years in prison, and more than five years in solitary, he got his first-degree- homicide conviction reduced to manslaughter.
On November 19, 2003, he was freed.
Bobby Dellelo is sixty-seven years old now. He lives on Social Security in a Cambridge efficiency apartment that is about four times larger than his cell. He still seems to be adjusting to the world outside. He lives alone. To the extent that he is out in society, it is, in large measure, as a combatant. He works for prisoners’ rights at the American Friends Service Committee. He also does occasional work assisting prisoners with their legal cases. Sitting at his kitchen table, he showed me how to pick a padlock—you know, just in case I ever find myself in trouble.
But it was impossible to talk to him about his time in isolation without seeing that it was fundamentally no different from the isolation that Terry Anderson and John McCain had endured. Whether in Walpole or Beirut or Hanoi, all human beings experience isolation as torture.
The main argument for using long-term isolation in prisons is that it provides discipline and prevents violence. When inmates refuse to follow the rules—when they escape, deal drugs, or attack other inmates and corrections officers—wardens must be able to punish and contain the misconduct. Presumably, less stringent measures haven’t worked, or the behavior would not have occurred. And it’s legitimate to incapacitate violent aggressors for the safety of others. So, advocates say, isolation is a necessary evil, and those who don’t recognize this are dangerously naïve.
The argument makes intuitive sense. If the worst of the worst are removed from the general prison population and put in isolation, you’d expect there to be markedly fewer inmate shankings and attacks on corrections officers. But the evidence doesn’t bear this out. Perhaps the most careful inquiry into whether supermax prisons decrease violence and disorder was a 2003 analysis examining the experience in three states—Arizona, Illinois, and Minnesota—following the opening of their supermax prisons. The study found that levels of inmate-on-inmate violence were unchanged, and that levels of inmate-on-staff violence changed unpredictably, rising in Arizona, falling in Illinois, and holding steady in Minnesota.
Prison violence, it turns out, is not simply an issue of a few belligerents. In the past thirty years, the United States has quadrupled its incarceration rate but not its prison space. Work and education programs have been cancelled, out of a belief that the pursuit of rehabilitation is pointless. The result has been unprecedented overcrowding, along with unprecedented idleness—a nice formula for violence. Remove a few prisoners to solitary confinement, and the violence doesn’t change. So you remove some more, and still nothing happens. Before long, you find yourself in the position we are in today. The United States now has five per cent of the world’s population, twenty-five per cent of its prisoners, and probably the vast majority of prisoners who are in long-term solitary confinement.
It wasn’t always like this. The wide-scale use of isolation is, almost exclusively, a phenomenon of the past twenty years. In 1890, the United States Supreme Court came close to declaring the punishment to be unconstitutional. Writing for the majority in the case of a Colorado murderer who had been held in isolation for a month, Justice Samuel Miller noted that experience had revealed “serious objections” to solitary confinement:
A considerable number of the prisoners fell, after even a short confinement, into a semi-fatuous condition, from which it was next to impossible to arouse them, and others became violently insane; others, still, committed suicide; while those who stood the ordeal better were not generally reformed, and in most cases did not recover suffcient mental activity to be of any subsequent service to the community.
Prolonged isolation was used sparingly, if at all, by most American prisons for almost a century. Our first supermax—our first institution specifically designed for mass solitary confinement—was not established until 1983, in Marion, Illinois. In 1995, a federal court reviewing California’s first supermax admitted that the conditions “hover on the edge of what is humanly tolerable for those with normal resilience.” But it did not rule them to be unconstitutionally cruel or unusual, except in cases of mental illness. The prison’s supermax conditions, the court stated, did not pose “a sufficiently high risk to all inmates of incurring a serious mental illness.” In other words, there could be no legal objection to its routine use, given that the isolation didn’t make everyone crazy. The ruling seemed to fit the public mood. By the end of the nineteen-nineties, some sixty supermax institutions had opened across the country. And new solitary-confinemen t units were established within nearly all of our ordinary maximum-security prisons.
The number of prisoners in these facilities has since risen to extraordinary levels. America now holds at least twenty-five thousand inmates in isolation in supermax prisons. An additional fifty to eighty thousand are kept in restrictive segregation units, many of them in isolation, too, although the government does not release these figures. By 1999, the practice had grown to the point that Arizona, Colorado, Maine, Nebraska, Nevada, Rhode Island, and Virginia kept between five and eight per cent of their prison population in isolation, and, by 2003, New York had joined them as well. Mississippi alone held eighteen hundred prisoners in supermax—twelve per cent of its prisoners over all. At the same time, other states had just a tiny fraction of their inmates in solitary confinement. In 1999, for example, Indiana had eighty-five supermax beds; Georgia had only ten. Neither of these two states can be described as being soft on crime.
Advocates of solitary confinement are left with a single argument for subjecting thousands of people to years of isolation: What else are we supposed to do? How else are we to deal with the violent, the disruptive, the prisoners who are just too dangerous to be housed with others?
As it happens, only a subset of prisoners currently locked away for long periods of isolation would be considered truly dangerous. Many are escapees or suspected gang members; many others are in solitary for nonviolent breaches of prison rules. Still, there are some highly dangerous and violent prisoners who pose a serious challenge to prison discipline and safety. In August, I met a man named Robert Felton, who had spent fourteen and a half years in isolation in the Illinois state correctional system. He is now thirty-six years old. He grew up in the predominantly black housing projects of Danville, Illinois, and had been a force of mayhem from the time he was a child.
His crimes were mainly impulsive, rather than planned. The first time he was arrested was at the age of eleven, when he and a relative broke into a house to steal some Atari video games. A year later, he was sent to state reform school after he and a friend broke into an abandoned building and made off with paint cans, irons, and other property that they hardly knew what to do with. In reform school, he got into fights and screamed obscenities at the staff. When the staff tried to discipline him by taking away his recreation or his television privileges, his behavior worsened. He tore a pillar out of the ceiling, a sink and mirrors off the wall, doors off their hinges. He was put in a special cell, stripped of nearly everything. When he began attacking counsellors, the authorities transferred him to the maximum-security juvenile facility at Joliet, where he continued to misbehave.
Felton wasn’t a sociopath. He made friends easily. He was close to his family, and missed them deeply. He took no pleasure in hurting others. Psychiatric evaluations turned up little more than attention-deficit disorder. But he had a terrible temper, a tendency to escalate rather than to defuse confrontations, and, by the time he was released, just before turning eighteen, he had achieved only a ninth-grade education.
Within months of returning home, he was arrested again. He had walked into a Danville sports bar and ordered a beer. The barman took his ten-dollar bill.
“Then he says, ‘Naw, man, you can’t get no beer. You’re underage,’ ”Felton recounts. “I says, ‘Well, give me my ten dollars back.’ He says, ‘You ain’t getting shit. Get the hell out of here.’”
Felton stood his ground. The bartender had a pocket knife on the counter. “And, when he went for it, I went for it,” Felton told me. “When I grabbed the knife first, I turned around and spinned on him. I said, ‘You think you’re gonna cut me, man? You gotta be fucked up.’”
The barman had put the ten-dollar bill in a Royal Crown bag behind the counter. Felton grabbed the bag and ran out the back door. He forgot his car keys on the counter, though. So he went back to get the keys—“the stupid keys,” he now says ruefully—and in the fight that ensued he left the barman severely injured and bleeding. The police caught Felton fleeing in his car. He was convicted of armed robbery, aggravated unlawful restraint, and aggravated battery, and served fifteen years in prison.
He was eventually sent to the Stateville Correctional Center, a maximum-security facility in Joliet. Inside the overflowing prison, he got into vicious fights over insults and the like. About three months into his term, during a shakedown following the murder of an inmate, prison officials turned up a makeshift knife in his cell. (He denies that it was his.) They gave him a year in isolation. He was a danger, and he had to be taught a lesson. But it was a lesson that he seemed incapable of learning.
Felton’s Stateville isolation cell had gray walls, a solid steel door, no window, no clock, and a light that was kept on twenty-four hours a day. As soon as he was shut in, he became claustrophobic and had a panic attack. Like Dellelo, Anderson, and McCain, he was soon pacing back and forth, talking to himself, studying the insects crawling around his cell, reliving past events from childhood, sleeping for as much as sixteen hours a day. But, unlike them, he lacked the inner resources to cope with his situation.
Many prisoners find survival in physical exercise, prayer, or plans for escape. Many carry out elaborate mental exercises, building entire houses in their heads, board by board, nail by nail, from the ground up, or memorizing team rosters for a baseball season. McCain recreated in his mind movies he’d seen. Anderson reconstructed complete novels from memory. Yuri Nosenko, a K..G.B. defector whom the C.I.A. wrongly accused of being a double agent and held for three years in total isolation (no reading material, no news, no human contact except with interrogators) in a closet-size concrete cell near Williamsburg, Virginia, made chess sets from threads and a calendar from lint (only to have them discovered and swept away).
But Felton would just yell, “Guard! Guard! Guard! Guard! Guard!,” or bang his cup on the toilet, for hours. He could spend whole days hallucinating that he was in another world, that he was a child at home in Danville, playing in the streets, having conversations with imaginary people. Small cruelties that others somehow bore in quiet fury—getting no meal tray, for example—sent him into a rage. Despite being restrained with handcuffs, ankle shackles, and a belly chain whenever he was taken out, he managed to assault the staff at least three times. He threw his food through the door slot. He set his cell on fire by tearing his mattress apart, wrapping the stuffing in a sheet, popping his light bulb, and using the exposed wires to set the whole thing ablaze. He did this so many times that the walls of his cell were black with soot.
After each offense, prison officials extended his sentence in isolation. Still, he wouldn’t stop. He began flooding his cell, by stuffing the door crack with socks, plugging the toilet, and flushing until the water was a couple of feet deep. Then he’d pull out the socks and the whole wing would flood with wastewater.
“Flooding the cell was the last option for me,” Felton told me. “It was when I had nothing else I could do. You know, they took everything out of my cell, and all I had left was toilet water. I’d sit there and I’d say, ‘Well, let me see what I can do with this toilet water.’”
Felton was not allowed out again for fourteen and a half years. He spent almost his entire prison term, from 1990 to 2005, in isolation. In March, 1998, he was among the first inmates to be moved to Tamms, a new, high-tech supermax facility in southern Illinois.
“At Tamms, man, it was like a lab,” he says. Contact even with guards was tightly reduced. Cutoff valves meant that he couldn’t flood his cell. He had little ability to force a response—negative or positive—from a human being. And, with that gone, he began to deteriorate further. He ceased showering, changing his clothes, brushing his teeth. His teeth rotted and ten had to be pulled. He began throwing his feces around his cell. He became psychotic.
It is unclear how many prisoners in solitary confinement become psychotic. Stuart Grassian, a Boston psychiatrist, has interviewed more than two hundred prisoners in solitary confinement. In one in-depth study, prepared for a legal challenge of prisoner-isolation practices, he concluded that about a third developed acute psychosis with hallucinations. The markers of vulnerability that he observed in his interviews were signs of cognitive dysfunction—a history of seizures, serious mental illness, mental retardation, illiteracy, or, as in Felton’s case, a diagnosis such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, signalling difficulty with impulse control.. In the prisoners Grassian saw, about a third had these vulnerabilities, and these were the prisoners whom solitary confinement had made psychotic. They were simply not cognitively equipped to endure it without mental breakdowns.
A psychiatrist tried giving Felton anti-psychotic medication. Mostly, it made him sleep—sometimes twenty-four hours at a stretch, he said. Twice he attempted suicide. The first time, he hanged himself in a noose made from a sheet. The second time, he took a single staple from a legal newspaper and managed to slash the radial artery in his left wrist with it. In both instances, he was taken to a local emergency room for a few hours, patched up, and sent back to prison.
Is there an alternative? Consider what other countries do. Britain, for example, has had its share of serial killers, homicidal rapists, and prisoners who have taken hostages and repeatedly assaulted staff. The British also fought a seemingly unending war in Northern Ireland, which brought them hundreds of Irish Republican Army prisoners committed to violent resistance. The authorities resorted to a harshly punitive approach to control, including, in the mid-seventies, extensive use of solitary confinement. But the violence in prisons remained unchanged, the costs were phenomenal (in the United States, they reach more than fifty thousand dollars a year per inmate), and the public outcry became intolerable. British authorities therefore looked for another approach.
Beginning in the nineteen-eighties, they gradually adopted a strategy that focussed on preventing prison violence rather than on delivering an ever more brutal series of punishments for it. The approach starts with the simple observation that prisoners who are unmanageable in one setting often behave perfectly reasonably in another. This suggested that violence might, to a critical extent, be a function of the conditions of incarceration. The British noticed that problem prisoners were usually people for whom avoiding humiliation and saving face were fundamental and instinctive. When conditions maximized humiliation and confrontation, every interaction escalated into a trial of strength. Violence became a predictable consequence.
So the British decided to give their most dangerous prisoners more control, rather than less. They reduced isolation and offered them opportunities for work, education, and special programming to increase social ties and skills. The prisoners were housed in small, stable units of fewer than ten people in individual cells, to avoid conditions of social chaos and unpredictability. In these reformed “Close Supervision Centres,” prisoners could receive mental-health treatment and earn rights for more exercise, more phone calls, “contact visits,” and even access to cooking facilities. They were allowed to air grievances. And the government set up an independent body of inspectors to track the results and enable adjustments based on the data.
The results have been impressive. The use of long-term isolation in England is now negligible. In all of England, there are now fewer prisoners in “extreme custody” than there are in the state of Maine. And the other countries of Europe have, with a similar focus on small units and violence prevention, achieved a similar outcome.
In this country, in June of 2006, a bipartisan national task force, the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons, released its recommendations after a yearlong investigation. It called for ending long-term isolation of prisoners. Beyond about ten days, the report noted, practically no benefits can be found and the harm is clear—not just for inmates but for the public as well. Most prisoners in long-term isolation are returned to society, after all. And evidence from a number of studies has shown that supermax conditions—in which prisoners have virtually no social interactions and are given no programmatic support—make it highly likely that they will commit more crimes when they are released. Instead, the report said, we should follow the preventive approaches used in European countries.
The recommendations went nowhere, of course. Whatever the evidence in its favor, people simply did not believe in the treatment.
I spoke to a state-prison commissioner who wished to remain unidentified.. He was a veteran of the system, having been either a prison warden or a commissioner in several states across the country for more than twenty years.. He has publicly defended the use of long-term isolation everywhere that he has worked. Nonetheless, he said, he would remove most prisoners from long-term isolation units if he could and provide programming for the mental illnesses that many of them have.
“Prolonged isolation is not going to serve anyone’s best interest,” he told me. He still thought that prisons needed the option of isolation. “A bad violation should, I think, land you there for about ninety days, but it should not go beyond that.”
He is apparently not alone among prison officials. Over the years, he has come to know commissioners in nearly every state in the country. “I believe that today you’ll probably find that two-thirds or three-fourths of the heads of correctional agencies will largely share the position that I articulated with you,” he said.
Commissioners are not powerless. They could eliminate prolonged isolation with the stroke of a pen. So, I asked, why haven’t they? He told me what happened when he tried to move just one prisoner out of isolation. Legislators called for him to be fired and threatened to withhold basic funding. Corrections officers called members of the crime victim’s family and told them that he’d gone soft on crime. Hostile stories appeared in the tabloids. It is pointless for commissioners to act unilaterally, he said, without a change in public opinion.
This past year, both the Republican and the Democratic Presidential candidates came out firmly for banning torture and closing the facility in Guantánamo Bay, where hundreds of prisoners have been held in years-long isolation. Neither Barack Obama nor John McCain, however, addressed the question of whether prolonged solitary confinement is torture. For a Presidential candidate, no less than for the prison commissioner, this would have been political suicide.
The simple truth is that public sentiment in America is the reason that solitary confinement has exploded in this country, even as other Western nations have taken steps to reduce it. This is the dark side of American exceptionalism. With little concern or demurral, we have consigned tens of thousands of our own citizens to conditions that horrified our highest court a century ago. Our willingness to discard these standards for American prisoners made it easy to discard the Geneva Conventions prohibiting similar treatment of foreign prisoners of war, to the detriment of America’s moral stature in the world. In much the same way that a previous generation of Americans countenanced legalized segregation, ours has countenanced legalized torture. And there is no clearer manifestation of this than our routine use of solitary confinement—on our own people, in our own communities, in a supermax prison, for example, that is a thirty-minute drive from my door.
Robert Felton drifted in and out of acute psychosis for much of his solitary confinement. Eventually, however, he found an unexpected resource. One day, while he was at Tamms, he was given a new defense lawyer, and, whatever expertise this lawyer provided, the more important thing was genuine human contact. He visited regularly, and sent Felton books. Although some were rejected by the authorities and Felton was restricted to a few at a time, he devoured those he was permitted. “I liked political books,” he says. “ ‘From Beirut to Jerusalem,’ Winston Churchill, Noam Chomsky.”
That small amount of contact was a lifeline. Felton corresponded with the lawyer about what he was reading. The lawyer helped him get his G.E.D. and a paralegal certificate through a correspondence course, and he taught Felton how to advocate for himself. Felton began writing letters to politicians and prison officials explaining the misery of his situation, opposing supermax isolation, and asking for a chance to return to the general prison population. (The Illinois Department of Corrections would not comment on Felton’s case, but a spokesman stated that “Tamms houses the most disruptive, violent, and problematic inmates.”) Felton was persuasive enough that Senator Paul Simon, of Illinois, wrote him back and, one day, even visited him. Simon asked the director of the State Department of Corrections, Donald Snyder, Jr., to give consideration to Felton’s objections. But Snyder didn’t budge. If there was anyone whom Felton fantasized about taking revenge upon, it was Snyder. Felton continued to file request after request. But the answer was always no.
On July 12, 2005, at the age of thirty-three, Felton was finally released. He hadn’t socialized with another person since entering Tamms, at the age of twenty-five. Before his release, he was given one month in the general prison population to get used to people. It wasn’t enough. Upon returning to society, he found that he had trouble in crowds. At a party of well-wishers, the volume of social stimulation overwhelmed him and he panicked, headed for a bathroom, and locked himself in. He stayed at his mother’s house and kept mostly to himself.
For the first year, he had to wear an ankle bracelet and was allowed to leave home only for work. His first job was at a Papa John’s restaurant, delivering pizzas. He next found work at the Model Star Laundry Service, doing pressing. This was a steady job, and he began to settle down. He fell in love with a waitress named Brittany. They moved into a three-room house that her grandmother lent them, and got engaged. Brittany became pregnant.
This is not a story with a happy ending. Felton lost his job with the laundry service. He went to work for a tree-cutting business; a few months later, it went under. Meanwhile, he and Brittany had had a second child. She had found work as a certified nursing assistant, but her income wasn’t nearly enough. So he took a job forty miles away, at Plastipak, the plastics manufacturer, where he made seven-fifty an hour inspecting Gatorade bottles and Crisco containers as they came out of the stamping machines. Then his twenty-year- old Firebird died. The bus he had to take ran erratically, and he was fired for repeated tardiness.
When I visited Felton in Danville last August, he and Brittany were upbeat about their prospects. She was working extra shifts at a nursing home, and he was taking care of their children, ages one and two. He had also applied to a six-month training program for heating and air-conditioning technicians.
“I could make twenty dollars an hour after graduation,” he said.
“He’s a good man,” Brittany told me, taking his arm and giving him a kiss.
But he was out of work. They were chronically short of money. It was hard to be optimistic about Felton’s prospects. And, indeed, six weeks after we met, he was arrested for breaking into a car dealership and stealing a Dodge Charger. He pleaded guilty and, in January, began serving a seven-year sentence.
Before I left town—when there was still a glimmer of hope for him—we went out for lunch at his favorite place, a Mexican restaurant called La Potosina. Over enchiladas and Cokes, we talked about his family, Danville, the economy, and, of course, his time in prison. The strangest story had turned up in the news, he said. Donald Snyder, Jr., the state prison director who had refused to let him out of solitary confinement, had been arrested, convicted, and sentenced to two years in prison for taking fifty thousand dollars in payoffs from lobbyists.
“Two years in prison,” Felton marvelled. “He could end up right where I used to be.”
I asked him, “If he wrote to you, asking if you would release him from solitary, what would you do?”
Felton didn’t hesitate for a second. “If he wrote to me to let him out, I’d let him out,” he said.
This surprised me. I expected anger, vindictiveness, a desire for retribution. “You’d let him out?” I said.
“I’d let him out,” he said, and he put his fork down to make the point. “I wouldn’t wish solitary confinement on anybody. Not even him.” ♦
November Coalition Foundation
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Solitary Confinement in U.S. Prisons Making Thousands Psychotic
March 24 2009
By Sherwood Ross
The United States today is housing tens of thousands of inmates in
long-term solitary confinement, a form of numbing mental torture that
drives about one-third of them psychotic, induces irrational anger in
90 percent, and ups the likelihood they will commit violent crimes
“It’s an awful thing, solitary,” U.S. Senator John McCain once wrote
of his two years spent in a fifteen by fifteen foot prison cell in
Viet Nam. “It crushes your spirit and weakens your resistance more
effectively than any other form of mistreatment.” Testimony from
other notables that have endured long stretches in solitary have
elicited like comments.
Yet, the U.S. today has the dubious distinction of incarcerating “the
vast majority of prisoners who are in long-term solitary confinement”
around the world, according to an article in the March 30th The New
Yorker magazine. And they make up a growing portion of our 2.3
million inmates, a shameful statistic that ranks America first among
all nations. Gawande’s article is titled “Hellhole.”
The first supermax built anywhere was Sydney, Australia’s “Katingal”
unit at Long Bay Correctional Centre in 1975. Dubbed the “electronic
zoo,” it lasted a brief two years before it was closed down over
human rights concerns, according to Wikipedia.
In the 17 years beginning with the construction of the first U.S.
“supermax” prison in Marion, Ill., in 1983, 60 such prisons have
sprouted---prisons specifically designed for mass solitary
confinement, reports Atul Gawande in the The New Yorker. The Federal
Bureau of Prisons euphemistically refers to its solitary cells as
“Special Housing Units.” Most of the supermax prisons have been
erected by State governments and two-thirds of all states have them.
“The number of prisoners in these facilities has since risen to
extraordinary levels,” Gawande writes. “America now holds at least
25,000 inmates in isolation in supermax facilities. An additional
50,000 to 80,000 are kept in restrictive segregation units, many of
them in isolation, too, although the government does not release
The Urban Institute found the per cell cost for confining one
prisoner in solitary for one year is $75,000. Taxpayers could put a
dozen students through community college for the same bucks and
society would get a better return. From every indication, money spent
on a supermax is money poorly spent.
Boston psychiatrist Stuart Grassian, who interviewed more than 200
prisoners kept in solitary, concluded that about one in three of them
had developed acute psychosis with hallucinations. Prisoners so
confined spend their time talking to themselves, pacing back and
forth like animals in cages, and blank out mentally. Some beat their
heads against the walls until blood flows. Others lapse into
catatonic states, utterly destroyed as functioning human beings. “EEG
studies going back to the nineteen-sixties have shown diffuse slowing
of brain waves in prisoners after a week or more of solitary
confinement,” Gawande writes.
Often, prisoners can be confined in solitary for minor infractions of
prison rules, such as taking too much time in the shower or
associating with a gang member. By denying an inmate social
interaction, “the human brain may become as impaired as one that has
incurred a traumatic injury,” Gawande points out. After all, he
notes, “Human beings are social creatures.” The writer quotes Craig
Haney, a psychology professor at the University of California at
Santa Cruz allowed to study inmates at California’s Pelican Bay
supermax, as finding many prisoners “begin to lose the ability to
initiate behavior of any kind---to organize their own lives around
activity and purpose. Chronic apathy, lethargy, depression, and
despair often result.” Additionally, many of the solitary inmates
become consumed with revenge fantasies. We need to ask, “What is the
cost to society in treasure and blood after their release?” “How many
go straight to mental hospitals?” “How many wind up right back in
There are defenders of the supermax model, however. One inmate wrote
the Denver Post he was not affected by the boredom and considered the
silence “wonderful.” He said, “I still have a relatively intact mind.
It could be infinitely worse.” And in Forbes magazine, author Ian
Ross (no kin), wrote, “It’s worth considering that the Supermax
model--which includes prisoner isolation for 23 out of every 24 hours
a day--may be serving as a deterrent to some violent criminals, a
kind of brightly lit billboard that advertises the life of rather
extreme measures they are facing. There’s no way to quantify that,
but it’s not out of the realm of possibility.” (It may be, indeed!)
In June, 2006, after a year-long study, the Commission on Safety and
Abuse in America’s Prisons called for an end to long-term isolation
of prisoners. It said there were no benefits to the practice beyond
10 days of punishment. What’s more, Gawande writes, “evidence from a
number of studies has shown that supermax conditions---in which
prisoners have virtually no social interactions and are given no
programmatic support---make it highly likely that they will commit
more crimes when they are released.”
The writer says our willingness to confine our own citizens to
solitary made it easy to discard the Geneva Conventions prohibiting
similar treatment of foreign prisoners of war. “In much the same way
that a previous generation of Americans countenanced legalized
segregation, ours has countenanced legalized torture. And there is no
clearer manifestation of this than our routine use of solitary
confinement---on our own people….” Since prolonged solitary is little
more than the sadistic crucifixion of thousands of human beings,
where, oh where, is the public outrage?
Sherwood Ross worker as a reporter for the Chicago Daily News and
a columnist for wire services.
He currently operates a public
relations company for worthy causes.
Reach him at; firstname.lastname@example.org
Solitary Confinement in U.S. Prisons Making Thousands Psychotic
Art Review | 'Performance 1: Tehching Hsieh'
A Year in a Cage: A Life Shrunk to Expand Art
Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times
Performance 1: Tehching Hsieh, at the Museum of Modern Art, displays a wooden cage like one in which the artist spent a year, doing nothing.
By ROBERTA SMITH
Published: February 18, 2009
Art takes total commitment, but few artists maintain it around the clock.
An exception is the Taiwanese-born performance artist Tehching Hsieh (pronounced dur-ching shay), specifically, the five, grueling one-year pieces he executed, mostly in New York, from 1978 to 1986. Their subject and material was time itself.
Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times
Tehching Hsieh on Day 1, left, and Day 365, locked up for art.
The Museum of Modern Art is devoting a small, gripping exhibition to the documentation of “Cage Piece” (1978-79), the first of Mr. Hsieh’s One Year Performances. It entailed spending a year in near-solitary confinement in a cell-like cage doing absolutely nothing. The show makes an altogether apt debut for the Modern’s new series of project exhibitions devoted to performance art.
Few pieces communicate the medium’s potential and its demands in such a basic, resonant way. All of Mr. Hsieh’s One Year Performances were 24/7 artworks.
This sounds easy enough. Ever since Marcel Duchamp’s urinal, countless artists have claimed that their lives are their art. It’s a tired genre.
The catch is that for each piece Mr. Hsieh also established very particular living conditions that required absolute focus, discipline and dedication.
These conditions give each piece a stripped down, shocking clarity — a single, obdurate form.
This form was extreme deprivation. For “Cage Piece” Mr. Hsieh deprived himself of nearly all contact with the world. In the next four pieces he eliminated, in succession, concentration, shelter, privacy and finally art itself.
In each case he altered the nature of time radically for himself and, retrospectively, us. For “Cage Piece” Mr. Hsieh built a cage from pine dowels and two-by-fours in a corner of his TriBeCa studio, furnishing it with a bed, a blanket, a sink (no toilet) and a pail, as well as some personal hygiene items.
He entered the cell on Sept. 30, 1978. Robert Projansky, his lawyer, locked the door and affixed it and each dowel with paper seals that he signed. Every day a friend delivered food and dealt with the artist’s refuse. And each day the friend took a photograph of Mr. Hsieh, who had shaved his head at the beginning.
For the next year Mr. Hsieh was mostly alone with his thoughts: no talking, reading or writing; no radio or television. On designated days once or twice a month his loft was open to the public from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; people could visit it like a gallery and see the work in progress.
On Sept. 29, 1979, Mr. Projansky returned, verified that none of the seals had been broken, and Mr. Hsieh left his cell. At the Modern the small black-and-white daily photographs of the artist are displayed in a single line wrapping around the walls, measuring the days in lengthening hair. Giving each image a cursory look seems to take forever. The cage itself is on display in a shadowy interior gallery, complete with bed, sink and pail.
It is like the jail cell in an American western, only dainty. There’s the temptation to see Mr. Hsieh as a political prisoner (all those mug shots) or as a fanatical devotee of some religion. But mainly his work fits squarely within performance art’s peculiar and extreme explorations of the human condition.
His One Year pieces have the shock value of Chris Burden’s early daredevil performances, those brief, sensational actions that included having himself shot in the arm and crucified atop a Volkswagen. These works were performed in private and publicized after the fact.
Whether conveyed by photographs, videos, statements or simple word of mouth, they made unforgettable impressions.
Still, the extended duration of Mr. Hsieh’s pieces aligns him with more peace-loving meditative artists who measure time through calm, unvarying repetition.
Examples include Hanne Darboven’s journal-like scrawls; Roman Opalka’s gray number paintings; Jonathan Borofsky’s 1969-70 “Counting from 1 to 2,740,321,” a waist-high stack of typing paper covered with handwritten numbers held down by a large plastic ruby; and just about anything by On Kawara, best known for his date paintings. It is the compression of these two strains that gives Mr. Hsieh’s work its impact. You comprehend their extent in an instant; thinking them through makes them expand in your mind. What’s most tangible about the “Cage Piece” is the almost palpable immensity and emptiness of time, nothing but time, of life as the filling of time. Mr. Hsieh carved a notch for each day in the wall. (He didn’t consider it writing.)
He said he spent the time staying alive and thinking about his art.
His subsequent One Year Performances had their own demands, but they also stand as extreme reactions to the hardships of “Cage Piece.”
Mr. Hsieh’s second year long piece required him to punch a time-clock in his studio every hour — or 8,760 times — dividing time into increments, destroying concentration with the constant interruption. (The piece, a combination of time cards and photographs, is on view at the Guggenheim in “The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia, 1860-1989.”)
His third piece was a year spent living entirely outdoors, mostly in downtown New York, filling his time with the basic act of surviving and charting his movements.
His fourth piece was a year devoid of privacy or solitude, spent tied by an eight-foot rope to another person whom he never touched (the performance artist Linda Montano).
Finally Mr. Hsieh spent a fifth year without making, looking at, talking or reading about art.
This piece seems most abstract and hardest to detect or document.
Tellingly, he found that the easiest way to execute it was to leave New York.
In the One Year Performances, especially the first four, Mr. Hsieh did not make his life his art. Instead, with Classical precision and unquestionable monstrousness, he expanded his art until it fully occupied, consumed and suspended his life.
“Performance 1: Tehching Hsieh” is at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, (212) 708-9400, moma.org, through May 18.
A version of this article appeared in print on February 19, 2009, on page C1 of the New York edition.
A Year in a Cage
Torture conditions in U.S. prisons
October 17, 2008
Gabriel Gonzalez was 21 years old when he was sentenced to die for
the murder of a pawnshop owner, a crime that he insists he did not
Along with Kenneth Foster Jr. and Rob Will, Gabriel co-founded the
Death Row Inner-communalist Vanguard Engagement (DRIVE) Movement,
which engages in nonviolent, direct action protest to fight for
better conditions on death row and in opposition to capital
Here, Gabriel describes the effects of isolation and segregation on
THE U.S. criminal justice system is remarkably ineffective, absurdly
expensive, grossly inhumane and riddled with racism.
The slaughter of youth of color characterizes many big city police
Sentencing practices have led to the imprisonment of over 2 million
people in state and federal facilities, with another 3.5 million
under other forms of social control.
The use of sensory deprivation as a form of behavior modification
began as an experiment with the political prisoners--members of the
Young Lords Party, Puerto Rican independence activists, the Black
Panther Party, the American Indian Movement, white members of the
Plowshares, the Black Liberation Army, Muslims, jailhouse lawyers and
prison activists were suddenly removed from the general population
and placed in isolation. They were placed there for who they are and
what they believe.
The former warden of Marion Penitentiary has been quoted as saying
that the purpose of a control unit is to control revolutionary
attitudes in the prison system and society at large.
There is no way to articulate the excruciating torture of sensory
Picture living in a cage, about the size of a bathroom.
You are there 23 hours a day, day in and day out, year in and year
You are allowed one hour a day out in a cage the size of a tiny
ou are allowed one five-minute phone call every six months, which is
Your mail and reading material is maliciously scrutinized and
When leaving your cage, you are subjected to a dehumanizing strip
search which includes a genital and anal probe, and then handcuffed.
You are completely under the control of prison guards who carry
pepper gas and long, black batons that some refer to as "spic and
Sensory deprivation and isolation are brainwashing techniques. The
world of control units and super-max prisons is a world in which
isolation and segregation for long, indefinite periods of time (or
permanently) has led to a psychological brutality of ugly
The expanded use of these units has led Human Rights Watch, Amnesty
International and the World Organization Against Torture/USA to cite
the U.S. with their concerns.
The use of isolation units breaks the United Nations Covenant Against
Torture and the United Nations Covenant for the Treatment of
Prisoner, both of which the United States has signed.
The political function that sensory deprivation and brainwashing
serve is inescapable.
The police, the courts and the prison system all serve as social
The economic function they serve is equally as chilling.
America is enchanted with this form of neo-lynching and slavery.
The wall of silence that has been built around death row and prisons
in general, as well as prisoners has got to be broken down.
We need organizers for public demonstration and education;
Community groups, churches and mosques; grassroots organizations to
help the community mobilize against this torture and dehumanization;
Attorneys to litigate unjust and inhumane prison conditions and
Letter writers and media campaigns;
People who will become a nation-wide emergency response network for
phone calls, faxes and e-mails;
And intervention by people seeking to meet with prison committees and
administrations when we protest conditions, treatment and brutality.
Prisons are one of the largest growth industries in the U.S.
The expansion of the prison system in America has been a boom to
everyone from architects, to plumbers, electricians and food vendors,
all with one thing in common--a paycheck earned off the backs of free
prisoner labor and execution.
With the full cooperation of politicians and media, the public is
being sold a "war on crime" and a "war on drugs" as the cure for the
constantly hawked, yet non-existing rising rate of crime.
Prison issues are class issues--the rich exploiting the poor for
economic gain. The insidious crippling of our poor, young people on
death rows and prisons is expanding, and none of this is about the
rate of crime. It is about capitalism, it is about racism and
Support the DRIVE Movement to end the death penalty and the torture
of sensory deprivation, inhumane conditions and prison abuse.
Inaction in the face of injustice is acceptance and collusion with
state oppression and state-sanctioned murder.
Say no to the death penalty.
Say no to control and isolation units and the torture of sensory
Another Idaho Death in a GEO Group Prison in Texas
Last month saw another tragic death of an Idaho prisoner held in a Texas prison operated by Florida-based private prison corporation GEO Group.
Reports have indicated that the inmate, 37 year-old Randall McCullough, apparently took his own life after spending more than a year in a solitary confinement at GEO Group's Bill Clayton Detention Center in Littlefield, Texas.
According to media reports, McCullough was placed in the solitary confinement cell, which measured 7.5 feet by 12 feet by 8 feet, after allegedly assaulting a staff member, though no charges against McCullough were ever filed in Idaho or Texas court.
The case brings to memory the tragic suicide of Idaho inmate Scot Noble Payne in 2007 at GEO's Dickens County Correctional Center.
The fallout from Noble Payne's death lead to the closure of Dickens and the transfer of Idaho inmates to other GEO facilities across the state.
Meanwhile, Nicole reports that GEO Group continues to expand capacity in Texas, adding opening several new prisons in the state this year.
Another Idaho Death
Inmate suicides linked to solitary
By Kevin Johnson, USA TODAY
The number of suicides in the nation's two largest state prison
systems is ticking upward, and authorities in California and Texas
are linking the increase to the rising number of inmates kept in
In California, which has the largest state prison system with about
170,000 inmates, there have been 41 suicides this year, the most in
at least six years and a 17% increase from 2005. Although an
estimated 5% of California's inmates are ! housed in solitary
confinement — also known as "administrative segregation" — 69% of
last year's suicides occurred in units where inmates are isolated for
23 hours a day, according to state Department of Corrections records.
About half the suicides this year were in such units.
In Texas' prison system, which has 169,000 inmates, there have been
24 suicides this year, up from 22 in 2005. Most of the inmates who
killed themselves were in some form of solitary confinement, says
John Moriarty, inspector general for the prison system.
Texas prisons also are reporting a 17% increase in attempted
suicides: 652 so far this year, compared with 559 in 2005. The number
of attempted suicides this year is the most in nearly a decade,
according to state prison records. Statistics on attempted suicides
in California prisons were not immediately available.
The figures from California and Texas are fueling a debate over
whether solitary confinement is the best way to control or punish
violent or dangerous inmates, particularly those who are mentally ill.
More than 70,000 of the 1.5 million inmates in state and federal
prisons are kept in isolation, a reflection of get-tough policies
designed to separate rival gang members and those who have gotten
into fights while behind bars.
Isolated inmates typically have significant restrictions on visitors
and get little help in dealing with the psychological problems that
can be caused by isolation. They usually are allowed out of their
cells for no more than an hour a day to exercise alone; their
exposure to TV and reading material also is limited.
"Are we housing the mentally ill in prison facilities?" Moriarty
asks. "I think the answer is yes. But I don't know if that's the best
place for them to be."
Moriarty, whose office investigates every inmate death in Texas, says
stress from isolation and increasing numbers of inmates with long
sentences have contributed to the rise in suicides. "Length of
sentence is a big factor. There is despair about not getting out."
The increase in inmate suicides in California has triggered recent
changes in segregation units. In October, guards began checking
inmates housed in solitary confinement every 30 minutes, rather than
every hour, says Shama Chaiken, the state prison system's chief
psychologist for mental health policy.
Some segregation cells also will be modified to remove shelving, vent
openings and other features that offenders could use in hangings, the
most common form of suicide in California prisons, Chaiken says. This
month, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger announced a $1 billion
plan that includes 10,000 new beds in prison medical and mental
A few jurisdictions have credited expanded mental health programs
with reducing prisoner suicides. After Kentucky set up a mental
health program for those in the state's 83 county jails in 2004,
suicides in the jails fell 47%, according to The (Louisville) Courier-
There have been 13 suicides this year in the 188,000-inmate federal
prison system, the same total as in 2005. Florida, the third-largest
state system with 90,000 inmates, has had nine prison suicides this
year; it had eight last year.
Inmate suicides linked to solitary
Commission warns of harm isolation can do to prisoners
Posted 6/7/2006 10:42 PM ET
By Kevin Johnson, USA TODAY
WASHINGTON A group that conducted a yearlong study of the
treatment of inmates in U.S. prisons called Wednesday for an end to
some forms of severe isolation and a halt to releasing prisoners
directly to the streets after long terms in solitary confinement.
A report by the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America's Prisons
said the use of solitary confinement is on the rise in the USA,
where 2.2 million inmates are incarcerated.
From 1995 to 2000, the number of offenders assigned to solitary
confinement increased by 40%, surpassing the 28% rise in overall
prison population growth, according to the group.
The commission also said 300,000 to 400,000 mentally ill offenders
suffer from disease and neglect.
The group, which took testimony from prisoner advocates and
corrections officials in several states over a yearlong period, will
present its findings today to the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on
Corrections and Rehabilitation.
The Vera Institute of Justice, a group that advocates for prisoner
rights, initiated and organized the study. Vera also provided staff.
"If there was ever a time when the public consequences of
confinement did not matter, that time is long gone," the report
Among the findings:
State prison homicides have declined dramatically since 1980, from
54 murders per 100,000 prisoners to four murders per 100,000
prisoners in 2002.
Data on some other forms of violence are not reliable, the
"Perhaps the biggest blind spot," the report said, is that "there
are no national measures of physical violence and excessive use of
force by staff against prisoners, including the inappropriate use of
restraints and non-lethal weapons."
Prisons and jails are ill-equipped to provide proper care to up to
400,000 offenders suffering from mental illness.
Nicholas Katzenbach, co-chairman of the commission and former
attorney general to President Lyndon Johnson, said the number of
mentally ill prisoners was "particularly shocking."
"The need for mental health care is enormous," the report said.
Former Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction director
Reginald Wilkinson said in the report that prisons have become "the
Most prisons are isolated from meaningful public accountability.
"Most correctional facilities are surrounded by more than physical
walls," the report said. "They are walled off from external
monitoring and public scrutiny to a degree inconsistent with the
responsibility of public institutions."
Alexander Busansky, the commission's executive director, said the
rapidly expanding use of segregation to control problem inmates
"concerned the commission."
The group referred to a USA TODAY report last year that chronicled
the struggles and failure of some Texas inmates to adjust to life on
the outside after years spent in solitary confinement.
Up to 1,300 Texas inmates per year are released directly from
solitary confinement to the streets, and the state recently adopted
a pilot program to assist the transition for some of them.
Texas Department of Criminal Justice spokeswoman Michelle Lyons said
the program is not big enough to accommodate all of the exiting
Last year, nearly 10,000 of the state's 150,000 inmates were in some
form of solitary confinement in which offenders are kept in small
cells for up to 23 hours a day with little or no contact with other
Lyons said isolating inmates has become necessary to protect both
prisoners and prison staff from particularly violent offenders.
"These (isolated) inmates are those who have proven to be a
problem," she said.
The commission found that even the most difficult offenders needed
some human contact to guard against extreme conditions "that cause
Find this article at:
After years in solitary, freedom hard to grasp; Ex-cons face long odds on release from isolation
By Kevin Johnson, USA Today
EDINBURG, Texas --
It's not unusual to find Angel Coronado outside his family's trailer here a few miles north of the Mexican border, staring blankly at a nearby hayfield. When he's among family and friends, he often recoils from physical contact. Conversations with him usually are brief, and then fade into an awkward silence.
Coronado was always quiet, says his mother, Trinidad. But since he spent nearly two years in solitary confinement in a Texas state prison for an assault conviction, Coronado, 22, seems to have lost touch with much of the world around him, his mother says.
Unemployed, addicted to cocaine and once again hanging out with members of a violent street gang, Coronado shows little of the optimism he had on a chilly day in November 2002 when he was released from a state prison in Huntsville and talked about getting a job in construction. A USA TODAY reporter joined Coronado that day on a 13-hour bus trip from prison to his South Texas home to begin chronicling how he would adjust to freedom after being in the extreme isolation of a windowless, 6-by-10-foot cell.
Coronado is among tens of thousands of felons who have been released from U.S. prisons during the past decade after spending years in solitary confinement and receiving little or no rehabilitation. They make up less than 10% of the more than 600,000 felons released from state prisons each year, but they often are the most dangerous or troubled prisoners to be freed: murderers, rapists, gang members and others who have been kept in tiny cells for 23 hours a day with restrictions on visitors and little help in dealing with the psychological problems that can be caused by extreme isolation.
This stream of felons is part of the legacy of get-tough policies that have become increasingly common in prisons in Texas and across the nation.
During the past decade, state prisons determined to reduce violence among gang members and inmates who have gotten into fights behind bars have put record numbers of them in solitary confinement, or "administrative segregation," as it is called in Texas.
The inmates typically are allowed out of their cells for no more than an hour a day to exercise alone; their exposure to TV and reading material also is limited.
In the Justice Department's last census of U.S. jails and prisons in 2000, there were roughly 70,000 inmates in some form of isolation, up from about 48,000 in 1995. In Texas, the number of inmates in isolation has risen from 9,681 in 2001 to 9,867 this year. Each year, Texas releases 1,200 to 1,300 inmates directly from solitary confinement.
Justice Department studies have indicated that about 67% of all felons who are released from state prisons commit new crimes within three years. No national studies have been done on the return-to- crime rate for those released from solitary confinement, but anecdotal evidence suggests the rate is higher among those felons.
That was the case for Coronado and the eight other felons who were released from solitary confinement in Texas on Nov. 15, 2002. Thirty-one months later, seven of the nine -- including Coronado, who was caught breaking into a city-owned garage in the nearby border town of Donna, Texas -- have gotten into trouble again:
*Five are back in prison, including Adam Morales, 33, a gang member and convicted burglar who served 10 years in solitary confinement before his release in 2002. He now faces 35 more years in solitary for an incident last year in which he shot up his apartment while drunk, then tried to escape from a local jail the next day.
Convicted killer Bruce Neil Butler was sent back to prison this year for violating the terms of his parole. He will be eligible for release in 2019.
*Coronado and another offender released from isolation on that November day have served additional prison time for additional crimes. They now are free again.
*Two of the released felons have avoided return trips to prison, including Silvestre Segovia, a convicted robber who spent 10 years in isolation because of his association with the Mexican Mafia prison gang. Segovia is barely beating the odds. He has been arrested twice on misdemeanor charges, but he has stayed out of serious trouble and has a job in construction in the central Texas town of Kerrville.
Crime analysts say they're not surprised that most of the felons released from solitary confinement with Coronado have returned to crime.
"When they do get out, they don't survive on the outside for very long," says Craig Haney, a psychology professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who has interviewed hundreds of prisoners held in isolation in Texas, Florida and California. "These environments require people to develop survival strategies to get them through the days, weeks and years" in isolation. "They are utterly dysfunctional when they get out."
Haney says family members of just-released felons have asked him to treat relatives having difficulty adjusting to life outside prison. He says some of the ex-inmates had reconfigured their new living spaces at home to "recreate" the look and feel of their tiny cells.
"The rooms were always small and dark," Haney says. "The beds were made in the same way. Shoes were always stacked by their bed, just like in prison." One of his clients slept in a bathtub during his first few nights out of prison, Haney says, because the "cold, solid tub felt most like his cell."
Government help limited
Government efforts to help released felons adjust to freedom were rare until 1999, when the Clinton administration formed "re-entry courts" to help thousands of felons each year get housing, jobs and mental health services.
The program was created as the number of released felons nationwide topped 500,000 for the first time, largely because many offenders began completing long mandatory sentences imposed during the 1980s and early 1990s. The release of violent felons is widely thought to have helped to push national crime rates up slightly in three out of the past four years.
Little of the federal assistance has been available to those in isolation and following their releases; states routinely ban rehabilitation services for such inmates as an additional punishment.
Texas Department of Criminal Justice officials believe that isolation "continues to be the best way" to prevent violence among gang members who make up an estimated 10,000 of the state system's 150,000 inmates, department spokeswoman Michelle Lyons says. She says solitary confinement helped to reduce homicides in state prisons from 25 in 1985 to fewer than 10 in every year since.
But Stuart Grassian, a Harvard University psychiatrist who has studied the long-term effects of isolation on offenders, says that "if the public understood what kind of condition these people are in when they (are freed), they would be appalled. It's set up for these folks to fail" and "create new victims."
Texas officials realize that freeing felons from isolation can present "some difficulty" for the felons and the communities where they end up living, Lyons says.
In a $1.9 million pilot project funded by the Justice Department, Texas is tracking 46 offenders who have been released from isolation since October. As part of the project, prisoners are shown instructional videos in their cells. The lessons in the videos include reacquainting prisoners with basic current events and hygiene.
The program, which director Donna Gilbert says is the first of its kind in the nation, also provides felons freed from solitary confinement with mentors and case managers to help the felons find housing and jobs. An evaluation of the program is not scheduled until next year, but so far none of the offenders in it has returned to prison or been arrested again, Gilbert says.
"Because of the extreme isolation, these people have a lot of basic needs," she says. "Computer technology and cellphones have passed them by. Some have been in segregation 10 to 15 years. It's like they walked into the mountains and suddenly returned years later."
'I thought it would be easier'
After 10 years in solitary confinement, Silvestre Segovia was beginning to think that his release date would never come. When it finally did in November 2002, he couldn't get enough of the outside world.
On his way home from prison, he stopped in a Houston convenience store and discovered something that had become popular during his years in isolation: wine coolers. He guzzled two bottles in the parking lot. At home in Edinburg, there was more alcohol and marijuana.
"When I saw him (after his release), it was party, party, party," says Ortencia Rosales, 38, who married Segovia after he got out of prison. "It was like he was trying to catch up for all the time he lost."
When the partying finally stopped, Segovia, 32, says he no longer could run from reality: He was broke, he had no prospects for a job, and the local police, aware of his criminal history, were watching him closely. He says he applied for at least 25 jobs, including cleanup work at Dairy Queen and McDonald's. He was rejected each time.
Many of the rejections, Segovia believes, were because of his criminal record, which also included a separate conviction for involuntary manslaughter before his robbery conviction. "I wrote a note on one of the applications, saying the person who went into prison is not the same person now," he says. "I guess I thought it would be easier when I got out."
Eventually, he says, he started "lying on the applications" to have a better chance of landing a job. He found construction work with a salary and health benefits last year with a firm in Kerrville, about 300 miles north of Edinburg.
Segovia's employer knows about his past. "I knew he did some time," says Herb Jackson, one of Segovia's supervisors. "But the guy works hard."
Steady employment is helping provide for Segovia's family, which now includes a 5-month-old daughter, Destinee. But he's still struggling with the effects of his decade in isolation.
"I spent a long time in a room half the size of this living room," he says, gesturing to the modestly furnished space before him. "Sometimes, I have to leave the house just to remind myself I'm still free."
Segovia says police have stopped him at least 10 times since he was released from prison, mostly for traffic violations. He has spent two nights in jail but hasn't been ordered back to prison.
"I know I'm not going to do anything that will give (authorities) reason to send me back," Segovia says.
His wife is wary. "I'm afraid," she says, that "he's gonna be in the wrong place at the wrong time."
Released into the unknown
When he was freed from solitary confinement that November day in 2002, Adam Morales planned a new life in the "free world."
His goals: work hard and stay clean. What he did not anticipate, he says now, was his inability to adjust to life outside his cramped cell.
"It was like being released to a dark room, knowing that there are steps in front of you and waiting to fall," Morales says.
At a Wal-Mart store near his home in the West Texas town of Big Spring, Morales' niece noticed him walking with his back to the walls and avoiding other customers.
"Being in isolation so long, it's hard to explain the feeling," Morales says. "When people get close to you in prison, it's usually because they want to hurt you."
A string of failed jobs and a confrontation with his father set Morales on a path back to prison.
In the spring of 2004, he got drunk and began firing a gun in his apartment. After he woke up in the local jail the next morning and learned that he had been charged with a new felony, Morales says he panicked and tried to escape from the jail's exercise yard.
Convictions on the gun and escape charges earned him 35 more years in prison. He expects to serve all that time in solitary confinement because of his past association with a gang in prison.
"I wake up today, and I can't believe it," Morales says during an interview at a state prison in Gatesville. "I had so many plans, but I guess it's all over now."
Morales, whose most serious offense may have been the weapons case in which no one was injured, will be 68 when he is scheduled to be released in 2040. Counting his previous prison term, he will have spent 45 years in isolation.
A mother's growing concern
Like Morales, Coronado vowed to stay clean after he was released in 2002. At the time, Coronado had the look of an immature but well- meaning kid who had made some bad decisions.
Now, he just looks tired. He perks up only when he offers to show the still-healing stab wounds to his chest and stomach that he suffered during his most recent time behind bars, a six-month term for burglary that ended in February.
Coronado hasn't found work. His cocaine habit is "as bad as it gets," says Rosa Perez, his girlfriend.
Coronado's slip into addiction, and his renewed association with a Rio Grande Valley gang known as the Tri-City Bombers, is no surprise to Fernando Mancias.
Mancias, a lawyer in Mission, Texas, southwest of Edinburg, was the local judge who initially sent Coronado to state prison in 1999. When Coronado was released from isolation in 2002, Mancias said that without drug treatment or any other rehabilitation, Coronado was virtually assured of failure.
Trinidad Coronado fears that things could get worse for her son. She believes he has begun to steal from her to get money to support his cocaine addiction.
Recently, she noticed that the rifle she kept for protection had disappeared. She also says that her son is beginning to show "flashes of temper" when he doesn't get his way.
Asked about his mother's concerns, Angel Coronado yawns. He routinely stays out most of the night and sleeps well past noon.
"If he doesn't get help soon," Trinidad Coronado says, "there's no question he's gonna end up back in prison. Or someone's gonna kill him."
LIFE IN ADMINISTRATIVE SEGREGATION
CAN MAKE, BREAK A PRISONER
Sunday, April 26, 1998
By Tanya Eiserer/Abilene Reporter-News
For nearly a decade, Gary Frank Drinkard Jr. has lived in a prison within a prison.
Drinkard, a Robertson Unit inmate, was put in administrative segregation, the most restrictive level of housing, in 1989 after assaulting a guard in a gang-related fight at the Ferguson Unit in East Texas.
"I wonder how anyone can survive in the situation he's been in," said his uncle, Jerry Dickey, who lives in Amarillo. "I don't think I could do that."
Drinkard, allowed out of his cell one hour a day for recreation, sees the same four walls 23 hours a day in Building 12, Wing D. He is strip-searched, handcuffed and escorted by two correctional officers anytime he leaves his cell.
"At first, it bothers you (to strip)," Drinkard said. "It's degrading, man, especially if there's a woman standing there."
The 32-year-old Amarillo native, who went to prison on an aggravated robbery conviction in 1986, can't tell night from day inside the cellblock.
His door includes just a tiny window, which looks out into the hall. The cell, with whitewashed walls, has a toilet and a bed. Drinkard is permitted only the most basic personal necessities, including a small radio. A television is not allowed.
This is life for nearly 500 inmates in Robertson's administrative segregation.
"This will make you or break you," said the tattoo-covered Drinkard, a Level 1 inmate, the least restrictive of ad seg's three levels. "It's been one hell of an experience. I guess you have to be a little bit crazy to keep from going insane."
In Texas, 22 of the state's 107 prison units have facilities to house ad seg and close custody inmates. Robertson is being remodeled to add about 215 seg beds because of an increased need for maximum-security beds.
"It's the jail within the jail," said Wayne Scott, executive director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
The ad seg concept was started in 1985, a turbulent year in which there were 27 gang-related homicides in the prison system.
"Since we've done that," Scott said, "some years we've had none or very few (homicides) even though our population has vastly increased."
The Estelle Unit in Huntsville, recently featured on "Nightline," is a "super ad seg" facility. TDCJ is building four more 660-bed units like it, Scott said.
The main difference between ad seg at Robertson and Estelle is technology, he said. Everything is handled electronically instead of with keys.
"The concept is the same," Scott said. "They're still locked in their cell, except for when they come out for recreation. They're just more technologically advanced."
Of the state's 143,000 inmates, about 5 to 7 percent are confined to administrative segregation, said Glen Castlebury, a TDCJ spokesman in Austin. Another 5 to 7 percent are held in close custody, a level of confinement just one step above ad seg in which the inmates still work, he said.
Eighty-five percent of the prison population is in medium or minimum custody, and most of them work, he said.
"This is the population we can work with on rehabilitation and education," Castlebury said.
The state spends about $39.50 per day to house a general population inmate and $53-$54, the national average, to house a maximum security prisoner.
Restrictive parole policies and lengthy prison sentences have led to a hardening of the system, and consequently, to an increased need for administrative segregation, Castlebury said.
"The Legislature has been on a 10-year pattern of increasing the mandatory minimum time of incarceration," Castlebury said. "Murder or life has marched from 20 to 40 years.
"On this 10-year inexorable march to longer sentences, you have lost that incentive for good behavior. You have created additional dangers. We call it the hardening of the population."
Dr. Tony Fabelo, director of the state's Criminal Justice Policy Council, agreed.
"The only way to control inmate-on-inmate and inmate-on-staff assaults is by isolating the most dangerous inmates," Fabelo said. "It's just necessary. It's just a fact."
An inmate will land in ag seg if he's staff- or inmate-assaultive, a confirmed member of a "security threat group," such as a gang, has extensive disciplinary violations or is an escape risk.
"It's a further loss of liberty within the prison system that is itself a loss of liberty," Castlebury said.
"They have proven that they are antisocial," he said. "When they were in a group, they assaulted other inmates or guards. These people are being denied rehabilitation programs.
"They are getting their own needed rehabilitation. You have to learn not to stick knives in guards or to throw urine on guards. They've got their own level of rehab; it's just a crude level."
"The ad seg inmates are the worst the prison system has to offer," said Major D.C. Cole, who oversees Robertson's maximum security areas. "The ones that are causing the most problems in here are the ones causing the most problems out there.
"They were predators in free society and they are predators in here. That's why we went ahead and segregated them."
John Castillo, Robertson's security threat group coordinator, said generally the top gang leaders are the individuals put in administrative segregation.
"The gangs usually deal in extortion and strong arming the weaker inmates," Castillo said. "Usually, we take out their rank."
"It's hard to be one when you're locked up 24 hours a day," said Asst. Warden James Mayfield.
While some may complain that those inmates put in ad seg will only be that much worse when they get out, "it's a necessary evil," Cole said.
"To provide the safety for inmates who want to do right and to provide safety for my staff members, it's very necessary," he said.
Castlebury added, "When these people get in there, their psychology is already so extreme and so violent, why the hell are people worrying about their psyche?"
ON THE PICKET
Robertson currently has six wings of ad seg, each of which can hold up to 84 prisoners. Level 1 inmates are housed in wings A-D, Level 2 in E and Level 3 in F.
A large peg board in the main office denotes all the inmates in ad seg -- white tag for white inmates, blue for black inmates, orange for Hispanic inmates, primarily for identification purposes. Stickers on the tags also indicate gang affiliation, prison officials said.
In ad seg, metal doors are opened and closed from the wing's "picket control," an elevated station where an officer can see nearly everything happening on the cellblock.
"Everything is separated by a door," said Capt. David Pizzuto, Robertson spokesman. "You can't go 30 feet without going through a door. That way if something happens it's isolated to one area."
Correctional officers working the floor check cells about every 15 minutes though they're only required to do so every half hour, said Martha Gonzales, a guard.
"We have to make sure they're not hanging themselves or cutting their wrists," Gonzales said.
Inmates communicate in an improvised sign language and by shouting back and forth across the cellblock. There's an almost constant din, caused by inmates beating on cells.
"That's how they keep themselves busy -- yelling at each other and using sign language," Gonzales said. "We don't know half of what they're saying."
"There's a lot of idiots out here," inmate Drinkard said of his fellow habitants. "They disrespect women when they walk by. They masturbate."
In the picket, officers have a peg board, almost like a chess game, that helps them keep track of the inmates whether they're in the day room, the yard, off wing, the showers or in cell. Guards begin moving inmates about 6 a.m. and continue until about 9 p.m.
Level 1 inmates are allowed one hour of recreation seven days a week, Level 2 get an hour four days a week and Level 3 get an hour three days a week. Level 1 inmates also are permitted to have more property, such as a radio, than Level 2 and Level 3 inmates.
Ad seg inmates are also not allowed contact visits with their friends and families. All visits are conducted through the glass over a telephone.
"Every time, they're removed from the cell they're stripsearched," said Sgt. Mike Moore, a supervisor. "They're handcuffed and escorted by two officers. There's never more than one inmate in one area at a time. They are also searched at least once a week for contraband."
Ad seg inmates eat meals in their cells. Food is brought in from the chow hall and served up on trays.
"They eat the same food as the inmates out in population," Cole said. "Level 2 and 3 inmates get the same nutrition, but they don't get the dessert."
Dessert is used as a "little carrot" aimed at improving behavior, he said.
A strip search is conducted each time a general population inmate enters or leaves the cellblock.
"We have people that attempt to bring things in," Cole said. "There's no real privacy in the penitentiary They have their private areas, but it's still open to my staff members."
If an inmate refuses to leave an area or obey an order, or tries to hurt himself or an officer, a team of five correctional officers will suit up in riot gear with protective Plexiglass shields to regain control of the situation, Cole said, even if only one inmate is involved.
"We try to go down there with a show of force so that you don't have a problem," he said. "There's a consequence for everything that happens in here. If they're going to cause a problem, we're going to cause a resolution."
Inmates can work their way out of ad seg, said Robertson Warden Tim Morgan.
"If they want to abide by the rules and regulations, they can work back into general population," Morgan said, adding it takes six months to move to a higher level in administrative segregation and eventually back into general population.
Confirmed security threat group members, however, must prove sufficiently to prison officials that they have quit the gang before they will be released from ad seg, Castillo said.
"The only way to get out is to cut off all contact," Mayfield said.
"If they're a gang member, their chances of ever getting out (of ad seg) are very slim," Cole added.
A state classification commission acts as a checks and balances system, reviewing each inmate's file every six months, he said.
On April 2, a two-man team from Huntsville reviewed 185 Robertson inmate files, releasing about five back into general population.
STUCK BEHIND A DOOR
J.D. Norm, a Level 1 inmate, passes the time writing letters and working crosswords.
"Some people go crazy," said Norm, who was put in administrative segregation about one year ago. "You're stuck behind this door all day. It's not too much fun."
Norm, 33, admits his temper landed him in ad seg. Prison records show that he was put in administrative segregation after assaulting another inmate with a deadly weapon.
"(Time's) going to go by whether I'm here or in general population," the inmate said. "I feel like I'm about 50. I'll walk back out when I'm about 40."
Drinkard, housed in a cell near Norm, hasn't had a major disciplinary problem since 1994.
"I wasn't always like that," Drinkard said. "I was a radical. I would not listen to any type of authority. I was a mixed up young man."
Yet he remains in ad seg because of a past affiliation with the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas.
"Drinkard's gone a long time without having any major problems," Mayfield said. "He's doing well. He's doing better than most of them back there."
But, he said, Drinkard has not sufficiently proven he's quit the gang.
"He's trying to play both sides against the fence," he said. "He's not out, in my personal opinion."
"It's hard to get them to release you back to general population," said Drinkard. "They don't believe that you are really out."
Drinkard, who quit school in the seventh grade, said he joined the Aryan Brotherhood in the late 1980s.
"A white person was the minority," Drinkard said. "It's either fight or be somebody's homosexual. I chose to fight. It's all racial based. You're the underdog here."
Drinkard was given an additional 12 years for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon for the 1989 gang-related attack involving a correctional officer.
"I just want to go back to my family," Drinkard said. "That's one of the main things that bothers you. You can't touch your mother. I'm not a murderer, a rapist or a child molester, but I've spent most of my life in the penitentiary."
Drinkard's got one person in his corner, however. His uncle, Jerry Dickey, has hired an attorney in an attempt to allow him to serve both sentences concurrently.
"Gary didn't have no idea what stacked sentences meant," said Dickey, a rancher and used car lot owner. "He went for the deal. If they would run the sentences concurrent, I would bring him up here and provide him a place to live.
"I think this young man is worth saving and I'm doing everything I can to give him another chance. I'm doing everything that I can to see that he gets it."