The National  Memo Logo

Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.

Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

Tag: solitary confinement

Despite 'Reforms,' The Torture Of Solitary Confinement Persists Unabated

Albert Woodfox passed away on August 4, 2022. In what’s believed to be the record for the longest stint in solitary in American history, Woodfox spent approximately 43 years alone in a 6-by-9-foot cell in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, colloquially called Angola, the name of the plantation that once occupied the same land.

The circumstances of his incarceration are as mind-boggling as the length of time Woodfox languished in loneliness. Along with an inmate named Herman Wallace, Woodfox was falsely accused — and wrongly convicted twice — of killing a corrections officer. Woodfox, Wallace, and another inmate were known for their indefinite placement in segregation and were dubbed the “Angola 3.”

It’s not as if administrators, lawyers and even judges didn’t know that the Angola 3’s duration in isolation was beyond objectively unreasonable. In 2005, federal United States Magistrate Judge Docia Dalby wrote that the Angola 3’s confinement went “so far beyond the pale” that there seemed not to be “anything even remotely comparable in the annals of American jurisprudence.”

Yet Woodfox remained in isolation for over ten more years after that judicial proclamation. Only when he was finally released in 2016 when he pleaded guilty to lesser charges did he get out of the box.

Despite the fact that the United Nations declared that solitary is torture, no prison will completely eliminate the practice of confining people for weeks and even months, sometimes years, in a parking space sized cell. This “affront to our common humanity”— as former President Barack Obama called it — persists. And it will, since even reforms to the system often don’t stick.

In what was heralded as a bipartisan win and demonstration of humanity, the Criminal Justice Reform Act became law in Massachusetts in 2018. It was designed to, among other changes, make the time spent in isolation more humane and bearable, as well as cap periods of time spent in isolation at six months. But the hoopla might have been premature. Inmates filed a class action lawsuit on July 23, 2022 alleging that the Department of Correction isn’t obeying that law and are leaving them in solitary confinement for as long as 10 years.

It’s not just Massachusetts that’s seeing reform’s empty promises; the solitary confinement refit in New York City isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. The Board of Correction, the oversight body for New York City Department of Correction, had put forth new rules that former Mayor Bill DeBlasio claimed would “end” solitary confinement in the city.

But overhauling the “restricted housing” at Rikers Island came to a “screeching halt” according to reporting in the publication The City when Mayor Eric Adams signed Executive Order 148 in July, pausing implementation because the department lacks sufficient staff.

Even if the rules went into effect, they’re not that drastic of a change. Solitary confinement goes by different names so reforming it can be as easy as changing a label. Indeed, that’s what the Board of Correction will be doing should Mayor Adams ever give them the green light. The new rules will christen the system as the Risk Assessment and Management System or RAMS instead of ‘Punitive Segregation’ or ‘PSEG.’

Typical conditions for solitary confinement are 23+ hours of isolation with only a few minutes of time in an outside area - alone. The new rules boast 10 hours of out-of-cell time - longer than an average work shift. The problem is that this freedom happens in a literal cage placed outside of the cell. The out-of-cell time allows people to see and hear each other - through indoor chain link fencing.

The now-indefinitely paused new rules for New York City don’t limit the amount of time a person can be held in these conditions, a stark contrast to the state statute, the HALT Solitary (Humane Alternatives to Long Term Solitary Confinement) Act, which limits segregation stays to 15 days no more than 20 days every 60 days, in accordance with what the United Nations calls The Nelson Mandela rules. United States District Court judge Mae A. D’Agostino recently tossed a lawsuit filed by New York State Correctional Officers And Police Benevolent Association, Inc. — the guards’ union — that sought to invalidate the law, so this statute might have some staying power.

But even if the HALT Solitary Act endures as a public law, legislation is a long way from implementation as the claims of the Massachusetts inmates demonstrate. James Pingeon, litigation director for the Prisoner Legal Services of Massachusetts, told Michigan law professor Margo Schlanger in a recent interview that Massachusetts’ Criminal Justice Reform Act came about because advocates had used litigation to garner political support.

The same is true for New York’s trajectory of limiting use of isolation; it started in response to litigation. In 2016, the state of New York settled a class action case — it consolidated a number of pro se prisoner suits into one case — and agreed to remove young, pregnant, and disabled prisoners from extreme segregation and set first-ever maximum limits on the time people can spend in extreme isolation. The Peoples v. Fischer settlement paved the way for the 2021 passage of the HALT Solitary Act. The law is brand new. In four years, the State of New York may be facing litigation similar to what Massachusetts confronts right now, amid allegations that the changes aren’t panning out.

Addressing honest complaints about continued reliance on solitary confinement need not take so long. New Jersey’s reform wasn’t in place for even a year when the law appeared to be violated. The Isolated Confinement Restriction Law went into effect in 2020, with segregation limited to 20 day terms — five more than the 15 day limit established in the Mandela rules — or no more than 30 days in a 60 day period. However, a review of disciplinary records found that women at the Edna Mahan Correctional Facility were sent to “Restorative Housing” — another clever name change — for anywhere between 60 days and a year.

It’s not that reform of solitary hasn’t made any strides. The American Civil Liberties Union called 2019 a watershed year for change, with twelve states enacting some measure of reform. A new law in Connecticut limits the use of confinement to no more than 15 days at a time and no more than 30 days within a 60-day timeframe. Ridding correctional spaces of torturous practices will require patience because it’s an incremental process.

But that’s the problem. Incrementally phasing out human rights abuses seems insufficient. When faced with atrocities, we ban them. Implementation may take time but the moral position is clear immediately.

Not only is this slow reform ethically dubious, it’s not even effective. Passing a law about solitary confinement seems almost meaningless at this point, leading to changes that are largely cosmetic if they happen at all.

It’s one of the most perplexing realities of modern corrections: Despite substantial consensus — five of six voters support restricting use of this type of isolation — and broad acknowledgment that solitary confinement is abusive and harmful to people with disabilities and mental illness, reducing its use is almost impossible, even with statutes in place that demand change.

Chandra Bozelko did time in a maximum-security facility in Connecticut. While inside she became the first incarcerated person with a regular byline in a publication outside of the facility. Her “Prison Diaries" column ran in The New Haven Independent, and she later established a blog under the same name that earned several professional awards. Her columns now appear regularly in The National Memo.

Looking To End Time In ‘The Box’ For Youthful Offenders

By Garrett Therolf, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

LOS ANGELES — Daivion Davis, 21, was convicted of second-degree attempted murder and voluntary manslaughter in 2009 after he opened fire in a gang shooting that killed a 16-year-old honors student attending the homecoming football game at Wilson High School in Long Beach, Calif.

During his time at Barry J. Nidorf Juvenile Hall in Sylmar, he made more than three dozen trips to the solitary confinement unit, Davis says.

Those stays, he says, ranged from four hours to 17 days. A few times, guards sent him there for fighting. At other times, they put him in “the box” for walking too slowly, not going to his room when ordered, for disrespecting staff or for drug possession. Over time, he says, his anger grew, trips to solitary became more frequent, and his stays became longer.

In 2011, he says, he was transferred to a facility in Ventura where, for whatever reason, guards never put him into solitary confinement. “That’s when I finally started thinking better,” says Davis, who is now living in an apartment provided by a charity and attending Los Angeles Mission College.

Juvenile and mental health advocates and officials nationwide have long debated whether placing young inmates like Davis in “the box,” or any form of solitary confinement, does more harm than good.

In May, Contra Costa County settled a lawsuit brought by two public interest law firms. The county agreed to stop putting juveniles in solitary confinement as a form of punishment or when doing so simply seemed expedient.

State legislators are pushing to pass a bill by summer’s end that would eliminate solitary confinement for juveniles except for detainees who become a physical threat to themselves or others — and prohibiting it even in those cases if the threat is caused by a mental illness. If the bill becomes law, California will join a national trend moving away from solitary confinement for juveniles.

Detention facility officials’ use of terms such as “special handling unit” and “administrative segregation” make it difficult to track the number of juveniles in solitary confinement. As of 2011, the Department of Justice reported that 61,423 minors were being held in 2,047 juvenile facilities nationally, of which roughly 1 in 5 appear to have used some form of isolation.

In recent years, 19 states and the District of Columbia have ended the practice of punishing detainees younger than 18 by isolating them. New York City went one step further and banned solitary confinement for Rikers Island inmates up to age 21.

Anyone who has sat on the stainless steel stools of the spare day rooms or walked the grass-tufted concrete of California’s juvenile detention facilities has heard young detainees and guards talk about “the box” to describe the constantly looming threat.

A recent report showed that 43 percent of the youths at Camp Scudder in Santa Clarita spent more than 24 hours in solitary confinement. The department did not release the reasons behind the placements nor the mental health conditions of those affected.

According to Los Angeles County’s Probation Department handbook, guards can send inmates to solitary confinement for “readjustment or administrative purposes” or to monitor them for mental health issues. The purpose, it says, is “to maintain order, safety and security.”

Los Angeles County Probation Chief Jerry Powers says that his department uses solitary confinement as little as possible and only to keep facilities safe, adding that when guards use it to punish detainees who do not pose a safety threat, the youths are sent there only for a matter of hours. “There is no box. You think of ‘Cool Hand Luke’ when you think of the box.”

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Mark Leno, defines solitary confinement as any time a youth is restricted to a room or cell alone during waking hours.

“We know it’s going on,” says Leno, D-San Francisco. “We know it’s being used abusively. We need to define it, document it and limit it.”

Leno’s bill stipulates that inmates can be held in solitary only for the minimum time necessary to address the safety risk and establishes strict reporting requirements. It would allow guards to use solitary confinement in juvenile correctional centers only when an inmate poses an immediate and substantial risk of harming others or threatening the security of the facility — and after less harmful options have been exhausted.

Juvenile solitary confinement map jail

Advocates pushing a similar proposal in 2012 failed when they hit resistance from probation system bosses and union representatives who said they used the practice as a last resort to maintain security.

“It’s a solution looking for a problem that doesn’t exist,” Bill Sessa, a spokesman for the state Division of Juvenile Justice, said at the time.

But Powers, a longtime leader in the state association for county probation department heads, says that he does not expect the organization to oppose the proposal this time.

“Sen. Leno has a lot of credibility among the probation chiefs, and he is a pretty reasonable guy,” Powers says. “There is a willingness by the chiefs to make this bill workable for probation and still satisfy the author and the advocates.”

Sticking points remain.

One recent study found that 92 percent of the incarcerated youths in Los Angeles County have at least a minor mental health diagnosis. The bill prohibits using solitary confinement on those whose mental illness is severe. But some experts expressed skepticism about the proposed solutions.

The bill requires staff to use their training, rather than solitary confinement, to restore calm, but training procedures don’t always work — especially when an inmate becomes detached from reality.

The bill also requires staff to send detainees to a mental health treatment facility rather than to solitary confinement, but regulations limit emergency hospitalizations to 72 hours, and hospitals often discharge youths sooner.

“It’s like Sacramento gives us no option,” Powers says. “In some ways, they are going to force us to violate the law on the first day it is passed. What would they have me do?”
Leno says he understands the concern and will find a solution. “I can’t be more specific at this time.”

But he remains steadfast that solitary confinement is something “we can all agree will ultimately only exacerbate that situation when it comes to the severely mentally ill.”

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, as well as the United Nations, have announced opposition to solitary confinement for juvenile offenders. A 2009 U.S. Department of Justice study showed that juvenile wards in solitary committed half of the 110 suicides over a four-year period in the late 1990s. More than two-thirds had been put into facilities for nonviolent offenses.

A 2002 Justice Department investigation of young inmates showed that many become anxious, paranoid and depressed even after very short periods of isolation.

“Solitary just leaves the kid floundering in his own island. It doesn’t show the way out,” says Cheryl Bonacci, a longtime chaplain in the county’s camps and halls. She says she has watched the use of solitary confinement diminish over the years, but she still believes that it is sometimes used not to protect detainees or staff, but for punishment or the staff’s convenience.

Davis, the former detainee, remembers “the box” vividly.

He recalls what it felt like to walk into the room whose white walls were covered with years of gang moniker etchings, carrying only a Bible and wearing a sweatshirt, underwear and socks but no pants.

“It was freezing cold. I slept on a thin mattress on the floor with no sheets, under a strong air-conditioning vent that never stopped,” he says.

Sometimes a guard would give him a book, then another guard would find it with him and give him more time in solitary, he says.

Each day, guards arrived to strip-search Davis. They allowed him to visit the restroom only on their own erratic schedules. Sometimes, he says, he had to urinate into his sweatshirt in the corner of his cell.

Felicia Cotton, a deputy director for the Probation Department, says confidentiality rules bar her from commenting on specific cases, but she notes that policies require guards to check in on youth every 15 minutes to ensure they are safe and have access to the bathroom. “We have zero tolerance for staff who violate these policies.”

Los Angeles County Supervisor Sheila Kuehl says studies convinced her that incarcerated youths can become more violent after solitary confinement. She says she hopes a state ban will be followed locally by the creation of a citizens’ oversight commission and professional monitor. Their responsibilities, she says, would include keeping solitary confinement in check.

“If they are prone to stab their fellow kids,” she says, “then isolation is an appropriate factor, and it would be more humane to have a guard and mental health worker there to talk to them than to just keep them in their cell and hope the problem goes away.”

Photo: Daivion Davis sits in his apartment on May 7, 2015 in Los Angeles. Davis, 21, just got out of prison, where he went to solitary confinement more than three dozen times while he was serving time for murder. There is currently a bill in Sacramento to ban the use of solitary confinement for juveniles. (Bob Chamberlin/Los Angeles Time/TNS)

Idaho Teen Held In Solitary For Months After Murder Charges

By Matt Pearce, Los Angeles Times

The crime was so awful that readers of the local paper in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, complained that the details were too graphic to print.

“Blood everywhere,” one officer noted in a police report, describing the apartment where he’d found blood on the floor, blood on the ceiling, and the bloody body of a boy on his dead father’s lap.

In a confession at the police station, 14-year-old Eldon Gale Samuel III told an interrogator that he shot his father, Eldon Samuel Jr., 46, after his father had beaten him and told him to “get out,” according to court records.

Then the teen turned a shotgun on his brother, Jonathan, 13, who was hiding under a bed, and hacked him to death with a knife and a machete, officials said. “Eldon III informed us he ‘hated’ his brother,” one officer said in police reports, which also said that Eldon had tortured animals when he was younger. “Eldon reiterated that he did not care about, or feel bad about, killing his brother,” who reportedly had Down syndrome.

The slayings in March horrified sleepy Coeur d’Alene, population 45,579, where years can pass without a homicide. It’s even rarer to see a suspect so young charged with murder — which has set up a whole new problem.

Eldon, who was born in Modesto, Calif., has been in solitary confinement in an adult jail for more than 70 days, first when he was charged with the murder of his father and brother and most recently after a judge ordered him back to the adult facility. In between, officials say he spent about six trouble-free weeks in a juvenile facility, which is where his attorney wants him returned.

Under state and federal laws, authorities are required to separate juveniles from the adult population for their own safety, which has resulted in Eldon being in solitary confinement at the adult jail.

“He’s being punished before he’s been convicted,” the boy’s public defender, John M. Adams, told the Los Angeles Times on Tuesday. “He’s losing sleep, he’s starting to hallucinate and he’s angry…. Since he’s been in solitary, I have seen his physical and emotional and mental state all deteriorate.”

The teen, now 15, has been charged as an adult with second-degree murder in the death of his father and first-degree murder in the death of his brother. (According to police reports, Eldon’s mother was living in Modesto at the time of the killings; she could not be reached for comment.)

A judge entered a not-guilty plea for the boy after he stood silent at his arraignment Monday.

The practice of solitary confinement, especially for juveniles, has come under criticism, including from U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. Both Eldon’s attorney and the Idaho chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union have filed motions calling his treatment illegal and asking that he be transferred to a juvenile facility.

The ACLU has campaigned against solitary confinement for juveniles, citing evidence that it can be psychologically harmful.

In an amicus brief filed Friday, the ACLU of Idaho said Eldon was being held alone for most of the day in a cinderblock cell at the Kootenai County Jail “under conditions like those we hold terrorists and enemy combatants in” at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The brief said the boy eats alone, has to shout to get the attention of guards and gets only an hour outside for recreation.

“It’s just a relic of a bygone era that people would even consider holding children in solitary confinement,” the group’s legal director, Richard Eppink, said in an interview Tuesday.

Eldon is kept in a 9-by-12-foot medical holding cell near the booking area of the Kootenai County jail because state and federal laws don’t allow juveniles to be in view or earshot of adult inmates.

Because of that, and because of the way the building is structured, the jail must be put on lockdown when Eldon meets with his attorney so that he does not have accidental contact with adult inmates on his way to a meeting room. Jail officials said Eldon was their only juvenile inmate.

“We’re limited where we can house him,” Capt. Andy Deak, the custody division commander for the Kootenai County Sheriff’s Office, told The Times, adding that Eldon is under constant supervision. “I can’t put him next door to a bunch of men who are going to be yelling at him all night. The jail’s a dark place sometimes, and inmates yell at each other to instigate them; he’s young. … It’s the safest place in the jail for him, short of building a new wing or something for him. We very rarely get juveniles.”

Eldon was first placed in the adult jail after his arrest in March. His attorney, Adams, said the holding cell is noisy because deputies are always bringing in new arrestees.

“The place runs 24 hours a day. It’s never quiet, the lights never go out,” said Adams, who successfully petitioned a magistrate judge to move the boy to a juvenile facility. There, Eldon had contact with other boys, got education five days a week, and exercised every day as he awaited trial.

But that changed after his case was assigned to District Judge Benjamin Simpson, who was “outraged that this defendant is being housed in the juvenile detention center,” Adams said.

Simpson worried that Eldon might harm the other boys and ordered him back to the adult jail.

“I just can’t in good conscience order him to continue to be held in the Juvenile Detention Center,” Simpson said during a hearing this month, according to the Idaho Spokesman-Review.

Simpson did not respond to a request for comment.

Photo: x1klima via Flickr

Interested in national news? Sign up for our daily email newsletter!