"Chains and Shackles"
October 23, 2021
When most people imagine what it's like being in solitary confinement, they think of an individual sitting alone in a small prison cell that contains nothing more than a twin-sized bedframe, a sink, and a toilet. There's no television to keep his/her mind occupied; no cellmate for social interaction; and no schooling, programs, or institutional activities to break up the monotony. Just 23 hours of boredom and solitude, locked in a space the length and width of an apartment bathroom. This visage alone is disturbing enough to move those with even a modicum of human rights empathy to advocate for more humane treatment for those in solitary. There are, however, several other aspects of solitary confinement that are equally disturbing, yet seldom talked about.
One of these aspects is how offenders housed in solitary are handled when they're removed from their cells to go to medical appointments, recreation, video visits, the showers, disciplinary hearings, etc. On these rare occasions, there are strict transport procedures the SHU correctional officers must follow. While these procedures are ostensibly in place for the protection of the officers and other staff, they don't consider the physical comfort, psychological impact, or common dignity of the offenders being transported. During my stint in solitary confinement, I experienced this humiliation several times. The process always went as follows: When the officers, always two at a time, arrived at my cell, they would open the tray slot (a metal flap located at the center of the door) and order me to stick both of my wrists out. After placing cuffs on them, they'd order me to take two steps backward and turn in the opposite direction. Only then would it be "safe enough" for them to open my cell door. Next, both officers would come in and place a set of shackles on my ankles and wrap a short, metal chain around my waist. My handcuffs would then be fastened to this chain to lock my wrists against my waist. Per DOC (Department of Corrections) protocol, this was the standard way all SHU (Special Housing Unit) offenders were to be secured for transport.
The transport itself would always entail me being escorted by both officers; one on my left side, holding my left arm, and the other on my right side, holding my right arm as I shuffled along toward my destination. I use the word "shuffled" because the chain between the ankle shackles is no more than a foot in length, so they force you to take short, unnatural steps to keep from tripping and falling over. The motion suggests the phrase, "walk of shame." This was the extent for shorter transports, but for those of longer distances (if we had to be taken to another building, for example), the officers would place us in a wheelchair and push us to our destination. There's something profoundly demeaning about sitting in a wheelchair in cuffs and shackles and being pushed from one side of facility to the other.
If these security measures were used strictly for the dangerous offenders in solitary confinement - those who have records of being physically violent, those who've threatened to use violence against staff, or even those known to conceal and use weapons - they would be understandable. But most of the people in solitary confinement are there for minor, low-level infractions like disobeying an officer, failing a urinalysis, stealing an extra tray from the dining hall, etc. Some haven't even been charged or found guilty of breaking any rules. This includes those waiting for their disciplinary hearings, those simply "under investigation" for an offense they're suspected of committing, and those on suicide watch. An individual who's there for failing a urinalysis will be cuffed and shackled upon being removed from their cell just as someone who's there for attacking an officer.
Being bound in chains, shackles, and cuffs in this manner is an unimaginably dehumanizing experience. That entire procedure tells us that we're dangerous, we can't be trusted, and our personal feelings and comfort don't matter. What's worse is that after being treated that way for so long [note: my stay in solitary confinement on a minor infraction lasted 51 days], you begin internalizing the perception of "you" that the officers show with how they treat you. It's just another way in which being stripped of any semblance of human dignity and constantly reminded that you're at the absolute lowest point in your life seem to be the essence of incarceration.