Kalief Browder was imprisoned in New York City’s Rikers Island prison complex for three years, awaiting a trial that never came. He was just sixteen years old when he was picked up by the New York City Police Department as he walked home from a party. Browder was accused of stealing a backpack, but no physical evidence tied him to a robbery and he steadfastly maintained his innocence.
Browder spent the majority of his time at Rikers in solitary confinement. Like many people charged with petty crimes he was offered several plea deals, but refused to plead guilty to a crime he swore he did not commit. Solitary confinement, and beatings at the hands of guards and other prisoners, took a massive psychological toll on the young man. He attempted suicide several times, once just a few months before he was released in May 2013.
After his release, Browder suffered severe bouts of paranoia and depression. Just six months after he came home, he tried to kill himself again, resulting in hospitalization. Despite these challenges, he was working hard to put his life back together. He agreed to share his story with Jennifer Gonnerman at the New Yorker, which led to television appearances and help with his tuition at Bronx Community College.
For a while, it looked like Browder was going to be able to put the torturous effects of his imprisonment behind him. But on June 6 this year, he fatally hung himself at his parents’ home in the Bronx.
Just four days later, eighteen-year-old Kenan Davis took his own life at Rikers, the second suicide at the jail this year.
Then on June 15, the story of Carlos Montero, who has been imprisoned at Rikers for seven years waiting for a trial, came to light. Montero was seventeen when he was sent to jail for a crime of which he says he is innocent. “I’m depressed in here. I just want to go home,’’ he told the New York Post.
Even before these stories exposed the conditions at Rikers Island, the prison has been the subject of scrutiny and a target for reform. The New York Times reported in April that over four hundred people have been at Rikers for over two years without trial.
In recent years, city officials have introduced a series of reforms intended to reduce overcrowding and curtail abuse, including the provision of therapeutic programs for prisoners and a ban on the use of solitary confinement on sixteen- and seventeen-year-old prisoners. This week, the city reached a deal with the US Justice Department that includes adding thousands of new surveillance cameras to the prison and developing a computer system to track use-of-force incidences.
But while brutal, Rikers Island is hardly an anomaly. As Amnesty International reports, “The USA stands virtually alone in the world in incarcerating thousands of prisoners in long-term or indefinite solitary confinement.” And over the last few decades, the US prison system has ramped up the use of this barbaric practice.
The Supermax Era
A 2013 report from the Government Accounting Office found that the federal system holds about 7.1% of its 217,000 prisoners in some form of solitary confinement, and “from fiscal year 2008 through February 2013, the total inmate population in segregated housing units increased approximately 17% — from 10,659 to 12,460 inmates.”
Because of the lack of reliable reporting from state to state, it is difficult to determine how many prisoners are being held in solitary on any given day in the United States. In 2005 the Bureau of Justice Statistics conducted a census of state and federal prisoners and found that over 80,000 people were being held in solitary confinement — over 25,000 in supermax prisons.
The rise of these high-security facilities — designed specifically for solitary confinement — is one reason for the increase in segregated prisoners. Many state death row populations are housed in supermax prisons, as are inmates serving sentences of life without parole. Over forty-four states now have supermax prisons; the federal government also runs one: the infamous ADX prison, in Colorado.
The growth in supermax prisons was spurred by the death of two guards at a federal penitentiary in Marion, IL, in 1983. What followed was a twenty-three-year lockdown and calls for a better system for housing prisoners classified as high security risks.
The proliferation of supermax facilities in the the late ’80s and ’90s was predicated on this idea that a safer environment was needed to house “the worst of the worst” prisoners. The wellbeing of the prison staff was paramount, and concerns about human rights violations were shunted aside.
The ADX prison typifies this brutal approach: inmates spend twenty-three hours a day in small concrete cells where they receive their meals, have no joint recreation time with other prisoners, and no access to educational, job training, or religious programs.
“The ADX is a far more stark environment than any other prison I’ve ever seen, and I’ve been to all of the federal prisons,” former ADX warden Robert Hoodwas recently told the Boston Globe. “When I call it a clean version of hell, I mean that it’s squeaky clean and quiet, because everyone there is locked down. It’s a very abnormal environment.”
Darrell Cannon, who was housed in Illinois’ Tamms supermax prison for nine years, describes the conditions this way: “Everything you do, you do alone . . . It was designed to break you mentally, by not allowing you to have another human being right there with you that you can interact with.”
A Tool of Torture
While the use of solitary confinement has spiked, prisons have done little to determine the punishment’s long-term effects on prisoners’ mental health.
Early research on animals and people had catastrophic results. One study undertaken by McGill University researchers in 1951 placed volunteers in a small room and had the subjects wear goggles, earphones, and gloves to deprive them of sensory input. The study was intended to last for six weeks, but after only seven days, the participants began to show limited cognitive ability, and many of them experienced visual and sonic hallucinations.
Universities today typically won’t sign off on such studies because of the dangerous consequences — making our nation’s prisoners the guinea pigs for a barbaric experiment in physical and mental isolation.
More recent studies have been similarly arresting. One looking at California’s prison system discovered that almost half of all suicides were prisoners in solitary confinement. Another examining the federal prison system “found that 63 percent of suicides occurred among inmates locked in ‘special housing status,’ such as solitary or in psychiatric seclusion cells.”
In testimony against Attica State Prison, Stuart Gassian, a psychiatrist and former faculty member at Harvard Medical School, explained the practice’s adverse effects on prisoners after evaluating “the psychiatric effects of solitary confinement in well over two hundred prisoners in various state and federal penitentiaries.”
“I have observed that, for many of the inmates so housed, incarceration in solitary caused either severe exacerbation or recurrence of preexisting illness, or the appearance of an acute mental illness in individuals who had previously been free of any such illness.”
Most of the available data regarding the mental and physical health repercussions of solitary confinement corroborate Gassian’s conclusions. In some cases, the effect of this isolation on people’s mental health is irreversible, persisting even after they’ve been released. Often those prisoners are juveniles, many whom are already at risk of developing mental health issues stemming from things like poverty and abuse.
Take the case of former death row prisoner Paula Cooper. Convicted of murder at the age of sixteen, Cooper was sentenced to death in Indiana despite revelations of sexual abuse at the hands of a family member.
The youngest person given a death sentence in the state’s history, Cooper spent twenty-seven years on death row, at least three of them in solitary confinement. During her time in prison she was raped by guards. Despite this brutality, she eventually graduated from high school and began working on a college degree behind the walls. Like Browder, she was released in 2013, and was struggling to find her place in the world after her long years in prison. Last month — one week before the suicide of Kalief Browder — she tragically took her own life.
Partnering with the Marshall Project, NPR recently compiled numbers on how many prisoners came straight out of prison from solitary confinement. Of the twenty-four states with available data, over ten thousand prisoners were released directly from solitary in 2014 alone.
These prisoners receive little to no help navigating reentry into society. “Inmates released from solitary often need the most help — and get the least,” noted the report. “In solitary, they’re cut off from things that help with re-entry. There are no education classes, no job training; and when they are released, they often get less supervision than other prisoners.”
Browder’s death, as well as the case of Albert Woodfox — held in solitary for decades in Louisiana’s Angola prison — have thrust the barbaric nature of solitary confinement into the national spotlight this summer. But the fight against this practice is not new.
Over the last decade, prisoners, family members, and activists have built a series of important campaigns against the supermax and solitary confinement.
Beginning in 2008, activists in Illinois rallied, lobbied, held public forums and art installations, and published the voices of prisoners held in Tamms super max prison. In 2013, their efforts paid off when then–Gov. Pat Quinn signed off on closing the facility.
In 2011, prisoners at California’s Pelican Bay State Prison — the first supermax prison specifically designed to house inmates in solitary confinement — went on a hunger strike to protest conditions there, demanding an end to solitary confinement and the elimination of group punishment. At its height, the strike spread to thirteen other state prisons and involved almost seven thousand prisoners.
Two years later, Pelican Bay prisoners initiated another hunger strike, which lasted sixty days and grew to include over thirty thousand prisoners across California. The 2013 action led to calls for reform in the California legislature and prompted the Department of Corrections to review its policies on solitary confinement.
Last year, Alexis Agathocleous and Rachel Meeropol of the Center for Constitutional Rights detailed some of the gains wrested from the prison system:
Nearly 400 prisoners have qualified for release into general population and 152 have already been moved, giving lie to California’s frequent refrain that those men subjected to the cruelty of solitary were the worst of the worst, who could not be released without endangering the prison population. These accomplishments would not have happened without the prisoners’ solidarity and organizing.
Organizing around the core demands of the Pelican Bay strikers has spread outside the prison walls as well: family members and activists have put on solidarity actions all over California and in other states.
While these are substantial victories in state campaigns, the larger struggle against solitary confinement has a ways to go. Solitary confinement and other harsh punishments are the hallmarks of a prison system that has abandoned all pretense of rehabilitation.
From arrest to imprisonment to release, the modern criminal justice system provides a powerful tool of repression against populations deemed disposable to ruling elites.
The dehumanizing language of criminality and racism makes it especially difficult to organize against the prison system. It’s also what makes the voices of prisoners and families such a vital part of these campaigns. Their stories drag abuses into the light of day, and people are forced to recognize prisoners as human beings, rather than simply a number in cell. Part of our struggle is to advance the idea that prisoners’ lives matter.
Also key is solidarity among prison justice activists engaged in campaigns against the many tentacles of the American carceral system. The growth of the Black Lives Matters movement is an important development in the fight for abolition of the prison system as we know it. Many of the most important prison uprisings over the last century were led by political prisoners trained in struggles against racism and oppression on the outside. The same system that allows police to murder unarmed people of color in the streets is the system that incarcerates, tortures, and murders people behind the walls.
It is only through these struggles that the cruel practice of solitary confinement will be brought to an end. Because in fighting for a world without prisons, first we must ensure there are no more Kalief Browders.