Women in Solitary Confinement: “The Isolation Degenerates Us into Madness“
by Victoria Law
A mass prisoner hunger strike rocked California’s prison system last year, drawing international attention to the extensive use of solitary confinement in the United States. Increasingly, solitary is finding its way into the mainstream media and onto activist agendas. Nearly all of the attention, however, has focused on solitary confinement in men’s prisons; much less is known about the conditions and experiences inside women’s prisons.
During legislative hearing on solitary confinement in California in October 2013, lawmakers asked prison officials about women in solitary confinement. Officials from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) stated that 74 women were held in the Security Housing Unit at the California Institution for Women (CIW) and a handful of women were awaiting transfer from the Central California Women’s Facility (CCWF). CDCR does not separate people in the SHU with mental illness from those without mental illness. CDCR officials did not address the number of people in the Administrative Segregation (or Ad Seg) Unit.
According to CDCR statistics, as of September 2013, 107 women were held in Ad Seg at CCWF, which has a budgeted capacity of 38. The average stay was 131 days. Twenty women had been there longer than 200 days, two had exceeded 400 days and another two women had exceeded 800 days. At CIW, 34 women were in Ad Seg with an average stay of 73 days. Two women have exceeded 200 days.
Lawmakers’ inquiry prompted advocacy group California Coalition for Women Prisoners to send an open letter to Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner requesting that she investigate conditions of solitary confinement in women’s prisons. The group noted that, with the conversion of Valley State Prison for Women to a men’s prison and the transfer of several hundred women to California’s other two women’s prisons, the use of solitary confinement has dramatically increased.
To justify the increase, CDCR has cited “enemy concerns” or a documented disagreement between people that may have led to threats or violence. Those designated as having “enemy concerns” are locked in their cells 22 to 24 hours a day and lose all privileges. CDCR reports do not separate the number of people in Ad Seg or the SHU for rules violations versus those confined because of “enemy concerns.” The California Coalition for Women Prisoners has noted that many of these “enemy concerns” are based on incidents that happened years ago and may not be valid today.
Dolores Canales has a son who has spent 13 years in Pelican Bay’s SHU. Canales has also had firsthand experience with solitary confinement. While imprisoned at CIW, she spent nine months in Ad Seg, where she was confined to her cell 22 hours a day. “There, I had a window. The guards would take me out to the yard every day. I’d get to go out to the yard with other people,” she recalled.
But the isolation still took its toll: “There’s an anxiety that overcomes you in the middle of the night because you’re so locked in,” she described. Even after being released from segregation, Canales was unable to shake that anxiety. She broke into a sweat and panicked each time she saw a group of officers even though she had broken no rules. “I just can’t forget,” she stated years after her release from prison.
Although the spotlight on solitary has focused largely on California, every women’s prison has a solitary confinement unit. Florida’s Lowell Correctional Institution for Women has a Closed Management Special Housing Unit (CM SHU) where women are confined to their cells 23 to 24 hours a day. “There is no free movement or social interaction,” reported one woman. “We just sit locked in a concrete and steel room the size of a small residential bathroom.”
In Indiana, Sarah Jo Pender has spent nearly five years in solitary. “My cell is approximately 68 square feet of concrete with a heavy steel door at the front and a heavily barred window at the back that does not open,” she described. “Walls are covered in white; the paint chipped off by bored prisoners reveals another layer of primer white. No family photos or art or reminder notes are allowed to be taped to the walls; they must remain bare. Our windowsills would be a great place to display greeting cards and pictures, but those are off-limits, too....
“There is a concrete platform and thin plastic mat, a 14-by-20-inch shelf and round stool mounted to the floor, and a steel toilet-sink combo unit. We get no boxes to contain our few personal items. Everything must fit on the shelf, bed or end up on the floor.”
Her cell is searched daily by guards although, like everyone else in the prison, she is strip searched any time she leaves the unit for a doctor’s appointment or a no-contact visit. When she is taken to the showers, she is handcuffed, then locked into a 3-foot-by-3-foot shower stall with a steel cage door for a 15-minute shower. As is the case across the country, visits are conducted behind glass.
Pender was placed in solitary confinement after successfully escaping from prison in 2008. With the assistance of a guard who had been having sex with her and several other women in the prison, she escaped. After 136 days, she was found, re-arrested and returned to prison, where she began her unending stint in solitary confinement.
Because Pender is considered a high escape risk, the administration has taken steps to isolate her even within the segregation unit. “Other women could talk to each other through their doors, but they were instructed to never talk to me or else they’d be punished,” she recounted. “The male guards were never to speak to me unless there was a second guard present, and only to give me orders. Female guards only spoke when absolutely necessary, per orders, except they chatted freely with any other prisoner.”
As in many jails and prisons, those with mental health concerns are often placed in segregation. “One of them is going to be released to society this month,” Pender wrote. “She has been in solitary for six or eight months because she has repeatedly cut herself with razors, including her throat, several times. Their solution: Lock her in a room and don’t give her a razor.”
Another woman spent two-and-a-half years in segregation, originally for disruptive behavior. Her stay was extended each time she hurt herself. “She cut her wrists in the shower. They found her, took her to the hospital, stitched her up, put her back in lock and wrote her up for self-mutilation.
“She ripped the stitches out and got another battery write-up. Threw a mop bucket at the sergeant for another assault write-up and was completely maxed out on her sentence, so they let her go home from solitary. She returned that same year with new charges. She never got therapy while here – or any mental health care that she obviously needed.”
While Pender did not enter with preexisting mental health concerns, years of little to no human contact has taken its toll. At times she feels lethargic and depressed. In 2010, she had a psychotic break, which lasted nine months. Since then, she has been on and off half a dozen kinds of psychotropic medications.
“I didn’t need the meds for the two years I spent in godawful Marion County Jail and didn’t need them for five years at Rockville prison,” she recalled. “But when you lock people in rooms for long periods of time, the isolation degenerates us into madness, or at least depression.”
Others with no preexisting mental health conditions have also been affected. “I watched a woman claw chunks out of her cheeks and nose and write on the window with her blood,” Pender said. “My neighbor bashed her head against the concrete until officers dragged her out to a padded cell. Two other women tried to asphyxiate themselves with shoestrings and bras.”
In Florida, faced with the prospect of ten months in CM SHU, a woman attempted suicide. “I had hung myself and was quite dead when the guards cut me down. My heart must’ve stopped because of the loss of involuntary functions, but still they wrapped me in a sheet and rushed me to medical and succeeded in reviving me,” she recalled.
Despite being locked in a cell the size of a bathroom for the foreseeable future, Pender hopes the increased outrage about solitary confinement leads to concrete changes. What would she ask people to do?
“They can help by contacting their legislators and judges about their views on long-term solitary confinement. They can help by supporting small groups of activists and organizations who are passionate about this topic.
“Many people don’t have the desire to donate two hours of their week or month to a group, but what about two hours of their monthly wages? Or the book of stamps and box of envelopes that has been collecting dust since email was invented?
“There are lots of ways to help change the system. Whatever you choose to do, just DO something. Just having conversations with others about the subject is doing something. Someone else might volunteer to type up and format a newsletter. Help design a website. Circulate the info. Make phone calls to organize events. Anything is better than turning the page to the next article and forgetting about us, leaving us alone in our cells,” she said.
Sent to solitary for reporting sexual assault
It seems absurd that a person who has been sexually assaulted would be punished for speaking up, especially since prison policy prohibits sexual contact between staff and the people whom they guard. Yet, in many women’s prisons, many of those who report rape and other forms of sexual assault by prison personnel are sent to solitary confinement.
After enduring over a year of repeated sexual assaults by a guard, Stacy Barker became one of 31 women incarcerated in Michigan who filed Nunn v. MDOC, a 1996 lawsuit against the Department of Corrections for the widespread sexual abuse by prison guards. The following year, Barker was repeatedly sexually assaulted by an officer who was also a defendant in Nunn.
After a month of silence, she reported the assaults to a prison psychiatrist. Barker was immediately placed in segregation and then transferred to Huron Valley Center, which was then a psychiatric hospital for prisoners. There, she reported that hospital attendants verbally harassed her.
In October 1997, Barker attempted suicide. She did not receive counseling or psychiatric evaluation. Instead, three male guards stripped her naked, placed her in five-point restraints (a procedure in which a prisoner is placed on her back in a spread-eagle position with her hands, feet and chest secured by straps) on a bed with no blanket for nine hours. She was then placed on suicide watch. She reported that one of the staff who monitored her repeatedly told her he would “bring her down a few rungs.”
Placing women in solitary confinement for reporting staff sexual harassment or abuse is far from rare. In 1996, Human Rights Watch found that, in Michigan, incarcerated women who report staff sexual misconduct are placed in segregation pending the institution’s investigation of their cases. The placement is allegedly for the woman’s own protection. The five other states investigated also had similar practices of placing women in segregation after they reported abuse.
Not much has changed in the 13 years since Human Rights Watch chronicled the pervasive and persistent sexual abuse and use of retaliatory segregation in 11 women’s prisons. Former staff at Ohio’s Reformatory for Women have stated that women who reported sexual abuse are subjected to lengthy periods of time in solitary confinement, where cells often had feces and blood smeared on the wall.
In Kentucky, a woman who saved evidence from her sexual assault was placed in segregation for 50 days. In Illinois, a prison administrator threatened to add a year onto the sentence of a woman who attempted to report repeated sexual assaults. She was then placed in solitary confinement.
In 2003, the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) became law, ostensibly to address the widespread sexual abuse in the nation’s jails and prisons. Among its recommendations was “the timely and comprehensive investigation of staff sexual misconduct involving rape or other sexual assault on inmates.”
However, this has not stopped the widespread practice of utilizing solitary to punish those who speak out. An investigation into sexual abuse at Alabama’s Tutwiler Prison for Women found that women who report sexual abuse “are routinely placed in segregation by the warden.”
Some prison systems have also created new rules to continue discouraging reports of staff sexual assault. At Denver Women’s Correctional Facility, a woman reported that prison officials responded to PREA by creating a rule called “False Reporting to Authorities.”
“A lot of us do not report any kind of staff misconduct because history has proven that any kind of reports true or false are found [by the administration] to be false,” she stated. “When it was found to be false, the people were immediately found guilty and sent to administrative segregation.” In some cases, a woman may not even file an official complaint but may only be speaking within earshot of another staff member.
“I didn’t want to believe it, but then I experienced it first hand with a close acquaintance of mine. She had conversations with a guard and he asked sexually explicit questions about what she would be able to do in bed because of her disability and it went on for a while.
“She came to me and said she didn’t want to be around him and she told an office worker about him and he ended up writing a report on her, before she could do it to him, and she was eventually questioned. I was questioned and I told the investigator that I believed her and that the officer was a pervert and flirted openly with any girl who was desperate for a man’s attention.
“I told him I felt like he was a predator and shouldn’t be working at a women’s prison. I later found out she went to the hole and was going to be Ad Seg’d just like the others but she left on her mandatory parole to go back to court and was re-sentenced and brought back. Luckily they didn’t Ad Seg her when she came back. I’m not sure why they dropped it but maybe it was because she was gone for a while.”
Under PREA, those accused of sexual assault are sent to solitary confinement even before the charges are proven. In California, Amy Preasmyer was placed in solitary confinement after being accused of sexual assault by another woman.
“I was abruptly removed from my bed late in the evening to face an extended wait and then a transfer to Ad-Seg,” she reported. “Upon entering my newly assigned chambers at 3 a.m., I found the toilet was backed up and a DD3 (EOP) [person with a disability] had urinated everywhere prior to me, leaving extremely unsanitary conditions and aromas.” She was not allowed to access supplies that would allow her to clean or disinfect her cell.
Although she was eventually cleared of all charges, being in Ad Seg forced her to miss her final examinations for college. During that time, she also lost the privilege to shop, walk outside or even call home.
Preasmyer reflected on the double standard between prison staff and prisoners accused under PREA: “Had this woman falsely accused an officer, would that officer have been arrested and forced to relinquish rights pending results of the investigation into the accusation? Would the employee suffer a wage loss? Would disciplinary action and consequences be rendered to the accuser once charges turned out to be baseless?”
After reading Preasmyer’s article in her segregation cell in Indiana, Sarah Jo Pender, who has spent five years in solitary confinement after an officer helped her escape, agreed. She noted that, although the officer who helped her escape had had sex with her and seven other women in the prison, he evaded a sexual misconduct charge as part of a plea bargain.
He was sentenced to seven years in prison and released after two years. As far as Pender knows, he spent no time in solitary confinement. On the other hand, the superintendent at the Indiana Women’s Prison has told her that she will remain in segregation so long as she is incarcerated so that he knows where she is at any given time.
We might know more about the prevalence of isolating those who report sexual abuse if that threat didn’t hang over their heads. But it does, bullying who-knows-how-many into silence. As one woman in Texas reported:
“When officers and inmates are found to be involved, the common course of action here is to move her to another facility. If she consented in any way, she will be placed in Ad Seg. Being moved with the jacket of a prior officer relationship can make time very difficult. And, if they found any reason to write the inmate a major case, it also costs her at least a one-year parole set-off. Being moved, time in isolation, a label and a set-off? Those are powerful motivations to keep a girl quiet.”
Victoria Law is a writer, photographer and mother. She is the author of Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women (PM Press, 2012). Her writings, many of which focus on gender, incarceration and resistance, have appeared in Bitch, HipMama, The Nation, SolitaryWatch and Truthout. This article was originally published in two parts by SolitaryWatch (www.solitarywatch.com) in December 2013; it is reprinted with permission of the author.
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