Survivors of Solitary: Still Haunted by Memories

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solitary confinement

Rev. Matthew Burke "can't shake the memory" of the time he spent in solitary long after he left prison. TCR photo

The last time Rev. Matthew Burke heard the dull thud of a solitary confinement cell door shutting behind him was over a decade ago.

But long after his release from an upstate New York prison after 23 years in captivity, he’s still haunted by the extended time he spent isolated from normal human contact 22 hours a day in a concrete cell little bigger than an apartment bathroom.

“I can’t shake the memory,” says Burke, who sees a psychiatrist regularly. “It’s going to be with me for the rest of my life.”

In the midst of stepped-up nationwide efforts to improve services aimed at helping the formerly incarcerated lead productive and law-abiding lives after their release, the unique psychological and health problems facing those who have endured long-term stints in what is officially called “segregated housing” for incarcerated individuals are often overlooked.

Adjusting to normal life after extended periods of incarceration is difficult enough—but solitary confinement leaves those who have experienced it with a range of medical and psychological issues that are rarely addressed even in the most progressive approaches to post-prison counseling, experts admit.

“For vulnerable populations leaving prison, the system is already difficult to navigate,” says Rebecca Hochman, who works with the formerly incarcerated as manager of the New York City-based nonprofit Coordinated Behavioral Care.

“But for (those who experienced solitary), you really need a trauma-informed approach.”

With current systems of community supervision already under acute pressure, the special needs of solitary confinement survivors are often missed, admits Pamella Harris, a supervisory U.S. probation officer in the Southern District of New York.

“We need to do better at helping them navigate,” said Harris.

At a conference at John Jay College last week, where she shared the speakers’ platform with Rev. Burke and another solitary survivor, Rev. Hector Custodio, Harris turned to both of them and offered an emotional “apology” for the system’s failure to take their needs into account.

solitary confinement

Rev. Hector “Pastor Benny” Custodio was confined for 1,480 days to an isolation cell in New York’s Rikers Island facility. TCR Photo

“That’s the first time anyone apologized to me,” responded Custodio, whose four-year prison term included 1,480 days in the Central Punitive Segregation Unit—nicknamed the “Bing” by detainees—of the Rikers Island facility in New York City.

Rev. Custodio, once a leading member of the notorious Latin Kings gang, is now pursuing his doctoral dissertation (in mass incarceration) and is founder and chief executive officer of the Brooklyn, NY-based Never Forsaken Reentry Ministries, and senior pastor of Immanuel First Spanish United Methodist Church.

But, like Rev. Burke, his time in solitary left permanent scars.

‘I still find it difficult to hear a person say ‘I love you,’” Custodio, known also as “Pastor Benny,” told the conference, entitled “Rethinking Solitary Confinement: Where Do We Go From Here?” Friday.

“Our bodies are free but our minds are not.”

A day earlier, conference participants, including 24 journalists from around the country, heard medical experts describe the deep psychological damage associated with long-term periods in isolation.

“The harm starts immediately,” said Dr. Stuart Grassian, a former Harvard Medical School physician and researcher who was credited with having identified a syndrome that solitary triggers in many people, characterized by agitation, confusion, paranoia, and delusions.

Dr. Grassian said that solitary confinement can cause psychosis in people who did not have it before being isolated, and sometimes they do not recover. The most common long-term effect is an inability to withstand sensory stimulation—making it doubly hard to master the tasks of finding employment and housing, reconnecting with friends and family, and even pursuing normal activities like walking in a crowded street or taking public transit.

But the incarcerated are not the only victims of a system that has so far placed a higher priority on punishment than on rehabilitation.

“At least six corrections officers have been killed in the last six months,” said Susan Jones, former warden of Colorado’s supermax state penitentiary, where its population of high-risk prisoners were held in solitary cells on 23-hour lockdown.

solitary confinement

Former Colorado Supermax warden Susan Jones believes solitary confinement is only one component of a system that is “deeply unstable.” TCR photo

“That’s indicative of a system that’s deeply unstable.”

She provided no source for the figure.

One source of the instability appears to be the specially charged climate of violence in prisons where segregated housing, “administrative segregation,” or Special Housing Units (SHUs) are used as a form of coercion and control by correctional officers who are often overworked, highly stressed and inadequately trained.

Adding to the tension, according to Jones, who said she was herself “beaten nearly half to death” over a decade ago by a prisoner, is the feeling of lack of control and uncertainty about policy—even among correctional administrators.

Research supported by the National Institute of Justice suggests that corrections officers suffer high levels of alcohol abuse and psychological trauma as a result of the climate of stress and threat they experience daily; and some as-yet-unpublished studies are exploring whether they experience a heightened risk of premature death even after retiring.

Even correctional officers who admit that solitary confinement can be overused say policymakers, state legislators and the general public have given them conflicting signals about how to handle the tensions boiling up in prisons that are often overcrowded.

solitary confinement

Elias Husamadeen, head of NYC’s correctional officers’ union, ran the Punitive Segregation Unit at Rikers for four years. TCR photo

“You’re not sending (offenders) to us for a hug,” said Elias Husamudeen, president of the 10,600-member Corrections Officers Benevolent Association of New York City. “You’re sending them to us to keep them away from you.”

Critics say the lack of transparency and oversight has given correction officers virtually arbitrary power to determine which internal rule “violations” will send an incarcerated individual into solitary confinement. The officers respond that such front-line decisions are made for the safety of the detainee or for the safety of either corrections officers or other inmates.

Husamadeen, who headed a Punitive Segregation Unit at Rikers for four years, said “99 percent” of those sent to isolation never committed further infractions after having endured the extreme disciplinary sanction of solitary.

“But tell us what we should do with the one percent,” he said, adding that efforts to “reform” the use of solitary or other correctional practices without addressing the conditions that brought traumatized or mentally troubled individuals into prison in the first place were hypocritical.

In fact, it is often left to the courts to force correctional institutions to curb the arbitrary manner in which solitary confinement is enforced.

In a landmark December, 2015 decision, Federal Judge Shira A. Scheindlin of the Southern District of Manhattan imposed a settlement on New York intended to “greatly reduce the frequency, duration and severity” of solitary confinement in the state. The ruling came in a class action suit brought by the New York Civil Liberties Union after receiving a complaint from an inmate who spent three years in solitary for keeping papers in his cell.

solitary confinement

Federal Judge Shira Scheindlin (ret.) presided over a landmark settlement forcing New York to curb solitary confinement practices. Photo via

Scheindlin, now retired from the bench, told Friday’s conference that setting strict limits on the length of time individuals spend in special housing units, along with requiring prison administrators to provide basic amenities such as headphone jacks and access to telephone calls, represented a step towards the goal of ensuring that solitary was not used for anything “except incapacitation of a particularly violent person.”

The specific violations that trigger a “ticket” sending an individual into isolation can vary widely across states and even individual correctional institutions in a single state, adding to the apparent arbitrariness of the practice.

Custodio recalled that while he was performing maintenance duties in the visiting area of Rikers he spotted a mother waiting to see her 17-year-old son, who had not been told that her son had just committed suicide. He decided to tell her himself, and she broke out in loud sobbing— bringing correctional officers running into the room.

Custodio says he was dragged away and thrown down the prison stairs, breaking his arm, and sent into isolation for violating a rule of never talking to outside visitors without permission.

“I can still hear those woman’s screams,” he said.

In another landmark case in Wisconsin, U.S. District Judge James Peterson ordered the Lincoln Hills juvenile detention facility to reform the practice of isolating juvenile offenders on the grounds that it violated the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment, and in particular their “right to rehabilitation.”

In a widely quoted statement at the time, Peterson observed that “Ted Kaczynski has less restrictive confinement than the youth at Lincoln Hills,” referring to the Unabomber held at the federal Supermax prison in Colorado.

But Peterson, who also spoke at the conference, said he remained skeptical of the courts’ ability to achieve systemic and long-lasting reform.

“Solitary confinement is part of a system of control (and) if you disrupt one element, it’s going to have a consequence somewhere else,” he said, noting that the courts are put in the position of merely ensuring that prisons adhere to basic standards—“what is the worst that (we) will tolerate for a government institution”—rather than set in motion the genuine changes that only legislation can achieve.

Lincoln Hills

Lincoln Hills School for juveniles. Courtesy Wisconsin Department of Corrections

“We’re not supposed to be activists,” he said, noting that his ruling generated a backlash from angry Wisconsin legislators after a series of incidents in which corrections officers were attacked by violent youths at the Lincoln School. Peterson’s ruling was blamed for setting the climate for those incidents.

While Peterson refused appeals to reverse his ruling, he admitted that the bureaucratic process of enforcing and monitoring compliance was the “Bleak House method of reform”—a reference to the fictional decades-long legal case that was the centerpiece of a 19th-century Charles Dickens novel of the same name.

“Reforming prisons was not one of my courses in law school,” he joked.

Scheindlin, however, countered that judges needed to act when the political process seemed to be going nowhere.

“Courts are the last bastion of protecting our rights,” said Scheindlin, who won national attention for her controversial 2013 ruling ordering the New York Police Department (NYPD) to cease its “stop, question and frisk” strategy on the grounds that it violated the constitutional rights of minority New Yorkers who were disproportionally affected by the practice.

“The courts can and should be active to right (a) wrong,” said Scheindlin, who noted that since her ruling NYPD stops had been reduced by 90 percent, with no corresponding rise in crime.

“When a court is looking over your shoulder, you’re far more responsive than without it.”

All the same, outright abolition of solitary confinement appears unlikely, either through litigation or legislative action.

Many correctional institutions, echoing New York union chief Husamadeen’s argument that the system needed to ensure a way of keeping unruly or disruptive individuals away from the general prison population, merely changed their description of the isolation units or slightly reduced the restrictions on their inhabitants, in response to court injunctions or media attention, such as dropping the time required to be locked down from 22 or 23 hours to 17.

Estimates of how many incarcerated individuals are placed in isolation in state and federal institutions in any given year range from 81,000 to 100,000, but some researchers believe that if all forms of segregation are included, the number could be as much as three times that.

And no reliable figures are available to track how many are affected by the practice in the thousands of county and municipal jails across the nation.

In the meantime, those on the front lines—whether correctional officers or the incarcerated—will continue to be traumatized by a form of punishment that prisons in other countries, such as Germany, have long since abandoned as counterproductive.

Husamadeen conceded that correctional officers themselves needed the kind of de-escalation instruction recommended for police officers to handle the provocative confrontations that have resulted in controversial shootings of unarmed civilians.

It would be helpful for them to get the same crisis “scenario” training in how to deal with such incidents that’s now commonly available to police—thus reducing the need to rely on punitive segregation, Husamadeen said.

Similarly, the high proportion of mentally troubled individuals inside correctional institutions who are often placed in segregation could be reduced if more counseling or treatment were available.

But correction officers forced to deal with situations that posed threats to themselves or others had few other remedies, said Husamadeen.

“Most people have no idea what we do, and what we face on a day-to-day basis,” he added.

But for Rev. Burke and Rev. Custodio, changes in the practice of solitary—or even its elimination—won’t alleviate the need to address the trauma caused by an arbitrary and extreme form of punishment.

Such trauma leaves long-lasting psychological as well as social stigmas, which in turn cripple formerly incarcerated individuals’ ability to lead healthy, productive lives after they have served their sentence.

“It’s like Cain in the Bible,” said Rev. Custodio. “We roam the earth with a mark on our foreheads of being formerly incarcerated.”

Stephen Handelman is editor of The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.

2 thoughts on “Survivors of Solitary: Still Haunted by Memories

  1. The article “Survivors of Solitary: Still Haunted by Memories”
    by Stephen Handelman was excellent — but included a critical mistake. Retired Warden Susan Jones was the “state” supermax warden in Colorado — not the “federal” supermax facility. When readers click on the highlighted area for “Colorado’s Supermax Prison,” it directs readers to the wrong penitentiary (the federal not state prison where Jones worked). Hope this helps.

    Bob Hood, Warden (Ret.) – Federal “Supermax” Penitentiary – Florence, Colo.

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