Letter from MarQui: November 2019

This is the eighth installation of a column composed by MarQui Clardy Jr, one of our pen pals incarcerated at the Lawrenceville Correctional Center in Virginia.

Last week, I stood in the doorway of my cell, quietly watching as a young, Muslim inmate filled a Segregation transport cart with his belongings. This guy, who I'll refer to as "Ahk," did his best to maintain a demeanor of contentment as he made the back-and-forth trips between his cell and the cart, carrying plastic bags containing his clothing, commissary items, books, and electronic devices. But I, as well as everyone else in the housing unit who were watching him, knew his contentedness was a facade. He didn't WANT to forsake the relative comfort of our general population housing unit for the Segregation Housing Unit (SHU). He didn't WANT to deal with the discomforts of solitary confinement, which would include being stuck in a cell 23 - 24 hours a day; having his TV, music player, commissary, and other personal property items taken away; and losing his visitation and phone / email privileges. After all, he hadn't broken any rules or incurred any institutional infractions to warrant being sent to Segregation. Regardless, he continued packing his belongings into the transport cart, and when he was finished, a correctional officer came and escorted him to Segregation.

 

What the officer didn't know was that other inmates were forcing "Ahk" to check-in, which in prison is the act of volunteering to be put in Segregation. "Ahk's" dilemma began two days prior when he'd been caught (by a different officer) in his cell using a cellphone. Cellphones are contraband in prison and being in possession of one is a VERY serious offense. Offenders who get caught with cellphones are put in Segregation for at least two months, given a disciplinary infraction, given an extra year or two added to their prison sentence, and they're transferred to a high security prison. So, when "Ahk" was caught with his cellphone and taken to Segregation, no one at this institution expected to see him again. However, the very next day, he was inexplicably released from Segregation and brought right back to our housing unit. He claimed he'd been found not guilty of the cellphone possession offense. Naturally, this raised a lot of suspicion, since everyone knew that a C/O had personally caught "Ahk" caught red-handed with that cellphone. The general belief in prison is that the only way someone can walk away from such a serious offense unscathed is if they've struck a deal with the administration to become an undercover informant and snitch on other prisoners. Fearing that "Ahk" had been sent back into the housing unit for this reason, a group of offenders approached him and told him he had to check-in or he'd be attacked.

There may not be any official statistics on this matter, but a large number of the offenders in Segregation across the U.S. are there because they've checked-in; not because they're being punished for breaking the rules. Prisoners do this for a number of reasons. As in "Ahk's" case, it can be a result of pressure or threats from other inmates. It's common to see sex offenders, homosexuals, prisoners who've been labeled snitches / informants, and prisoners who've been kicked out of gang’s check-in, since their presence in general population is often unwanted. For them, solitary confinement is preferable to being assaulted, extorted, or otherwise oppressed. But just as often, there's no pressure or coercion involved at all. It's also common for prisoners to check-in completely of their own volition. This typically happens when an offender is unwilling to accept certain unfavorable living conditions in general population and choosing to be sent to Segregation is the only other option. For example, an offender may be assigned to a cell with an inmate who is unhygienic and has poor cleaning habits; or if he's a gang member, he may be assigned to a cell with a member of a rival gang; or an offender may be moved into a cell with someone who holds fanatic religious beliefs that create a hostile environment. Rather than accept such housing assignments, these offenders may elect to check-in and take their chances with Segregation.

Every day, offenders choose the onerous living conditions of solitary confinement over being in general population because it’s their only option. The main reason for checking-in is to leave an unfavorable living situation for a more favorable one. The problem is that the more favorable living situation they're going to is Segregation, which isn't a good living situation at all. It's simply the "lesser of two evils," that inmates choose because prisons don't offer another alternative. There are no "transitional housing units" for inmates who check-in. Those would be ideal. Segregation / solitary confinement is designed to punish offenders who break the rules. Offenders who check-in haven't broken any rules, so is it fair to send them there just because they want to escape being housed in an unsafe and uncomfortable place?


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