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.Read more
September 25, 2021
As America slowly recovers from the COVID pandemic and struggles to regain a sense of normalcy,
How being padlocked inside those cells have affected him, and how it's affecting others, is a topic
When sharing these experiences, my cellmate's eyes tend to become distant, as if he's shaken
In addition to the mental health concerns, padlocking offenders in their cells poses major safety and
This is what offenders at Sussex 1 and 2 have had to endure daily since the pandemic first began
September 30, 2021
(editors note: After spending a little over nine years in federal prison, Henry A. Goldberg, is currently residing at the Volunteers of America halfway house in Baltimore MD. Mr. Goldberg has seen the injustice and fallacies of the prison system in America and wants to be a voice that leads to change. He feels very fortunate that the prison system was not ruinous for him, thanks to a very strong support system and his deep faith in God. While in prison, Mr. Goldberg took numerous paralegal correspondence courses, and left prison speaking almost four languages. He likes to study all types of history, to learn new languages and cultures, and be an advocate for healthy living.)
My journey in federal prison journey began in 2013 and ended in 2021. That journey has taken me to South Carolina, New Jersey, and ending in North Carolina, with various stops in between. Though I have met people who have been to double or even triple the number of institutions I have been to, I can still paint a vivid picture of the inner workings of federal prison.
I will admit that I had a considerable number of prejudices of what I thought life in prison would be like. To my surprise federal prison was nothing like what television had portrayed it to be. It was not a colorless and abrasive environment in which it was killed or be killed; though I will say, United States Penitentiary prisons are exactly how they are or portrayed on television. Inmates generally view new inmates as a part of the collective struggle, so when you walk through the door, you are usually met with tons of support such as food, clothes, and hygiene. Though prison is extremely segregated, there is a strong sense of community from respective groups, or "cars" as they are known. These cars consist of geographical locations such as DC, Florida, and New York as well as gang, religious, and other affiliations. So, in a nutshell when you enter the prison system, you must tether to your respective group: DC with DC, gang with gang, and Muslim with Muslim, with various sub and splinter groups in between.
These affiliations do not imply formal acceptance by these groups; in most cases you have to provide your paperwork, meaning your case information, to verify that you did not cooperate with law enforcement and/or are not a sex offender. Either one those labels will cause you to request protective custody or at worst be violently attacked and at best to become a social leper. Unlike United States Penitentiaries, in some medium and a lot of low security facility prisons these are non-issues.
When I first became incarcerated in a federal prison, I thought that prisoners run the show on the ground level and every cell, seating, and dining hall arrangements were made the inmate population. I came to this conclusion, because people on the inside advised where to sit during meals, or who I should associate with or even live with.
I was very naïve to believe this for many years. I found out after 4 years of incarceration that the prison security and investigation staff or SIS were behind the scenes pulling the strings and perpetuating segregation between groups in the prison system. It was an illusion of control; the inmates actually thought they ran the prison but that could not be further from the truth. When I arrived at Low Security Correctional Institution (LSCI) Butner, showing paperwork, cell arrangements and segregated dining hall seating were prohibited. Things happen or don’t happen according to how the prison staff see fit. That was just the surface of the federal prison illusion.Read more
According to 8News (WRIC Richmond, Virginia), 23 percent of all Virginia offenders are housed in prisons that lack air conditioning. These are mainly the older prisons that were built prior to 1990, before air conditioning was considered a necessity behind bars. Rather than take the necessary measures to upgrade these facilities, the Virginia DOC announced that they opted to spend more than $2 million dollars this summer on extra ice, water, and fans to keep offenders in these facilities "comfortable." In a response to an email from 8News inquiring about these efforts, Augusta Correctional Center - one of Virginia's non-air-conditioned prisons - stated that each of its housing units has ice machines, ice chests and wall-mounted fans, and that offenders have individual fans in their cells. From the outside looking in, it may appear that the VADOC is doing a satisfactory job of preventing overheating at these prisons, but as someone who has been housed at Augusta Correctional Center, as well as other facilities that lack air conditioning, I firmly disagree. Keeping us "comfortable" isn't the issue; it's about keeping us safe.
Some might consider air conditioning a luxury to which prisoners aren't necessarily entitled. However, with the advent of climate change over the past decade or so, spring and summer temperatures regularly exceed 100 degrees. The temperatures inside non-air-conditioned prison cells are often even higher than they are outside, and we are locked inside of them for up to 24 hours a day. Keep in mind that these are not the types of cells portrayed in movies like "Shawshank Redemption" where the walls and doors are made of bars which allow air to circulate freely. Most present-day housing units are constructed with solid walls and doors made of concrete and metal - which both conduct heat - so there's little to no air circulation. Make no mistake about it: it can be VERY unsafe for offenders to be housed in prisons that lack air conditioning. During my time at those facilities, there were several days I caught severe headaches because it was so unbearably hot in my cell, and just as many nights that I laid in my bunk sweating profusely, unable to sleep because of the sweltering heat and humidity. I've also witnessed other offenders faint, have heat strokes, go into seizures, and have other serious medical issues due to extreme temperatures.
Right now, as I'm writing this, I'm standing at the door inside my cell, looking into the dayroom at the other offenders in my housing unit. At a table about twelve feet away from my cell, there's a group of guys yelling, laughing, and arguing over a card game they're playing. At the tables directly behind them are other guys playing games of Monopoly, Scrabble, and Dungeons-N-Dragons. Scattered about the dayroom in groups of different sizes are guys horseplaying, rapping, debating about tonight's NBA Finals game, and just hanging out on the tiers lollygagging. As I stand here, all I can think is, "These are all adults I'm observing, but none of this is adult behavior." Adults don't hang around, playing games and doing nothing all day. So why is this what I'm seeing in prison? Why does everyone I'm observing seem to have regressed to a child-like state of being, reminiscent of the Lost Boys of Neverland from the Peter Pan story? Is there something unique about the prison experience that is impeding our "normal" adult development?
Researchers estimate that 27 percent of offenders were 11 to 20 years old when they were incarcerated, and 34 percent were between the ages of 21 and 30. This means a large portion of us were still juveniles/adolescents and young adults at the time we left society and entered prison - a notoriously cutthroat environment with its own set of rules and standards of conduct. Adjusting to this environment is a double-edged sword: while it is vital to our survival, it is in a lot of ways the antithesis to normal adult maturation. It does not properly prepare a person to re-enter society; it makes them institutionalized (defined as the re-socializing of a person to a state where their habitual thoughts and behaviors are based on the needs, structure, and dictates of the institution they have become part of). None of the primary characteristics of institutionalization - laziness, submissiveness, and passiveness - reflect the behavior of mature adults in society who have responsibilities. Placing juveniles/adolescents and young adults in prison effectively stagnates the natural path toward growth and maturity they might have otherwise experienced in the free world.
There are several possible reasons for this. One is that in prison, we don't have any REAL adult responsibilities. Everything we need is given to us. The institution provides our food, clothing, and shelter at no charge to us. Those of us who have children are not required to pay child support. Even our court fines and fees and any debts we owe are deferred while we are incarcerated. Part of adulthood is learning to responsibly budget finances between needs and wants. We, on the other hand, are allowed to spend 100 percent of our money - the majority of which is given to us by our friends and families - on wants. This lack of responsibility is itself a major impediment to our maturation. After years, or in many instances, decades, of this type of living, laziness becomes a natural part of our character, even if we don't realize it. The same applies for passivity and submissiveness.Read more
June 17, 2021
One of my proudest moments as a father occurred three days ago when my youngest son graduated from high school with honors. When I was incarcerated in 2008, he was just four years old. At the time, the gravity of my prison sentence had yet to take root. I didn't know that I would be behind bars when he started his first day of school; or even worse, that I'd still be here 13 years later when he graduated. I was never able to take him to school or pick him up, attend PTA meetings, help him with his homework or projects, show up to his plays, talent shows, music events or sports games, or do anything that normal students do with their parents. Throughout the years, I always worried that my absence would eventually begin hindering his academic performance, but by the grace of God, it never did. I'd like to believe this is because, despite my physical absence, I remained in constant communication with my son through phone calls, letters and emails, and did my best to be there for him in every capacity that I could be. But I'm also aware that despite my efforts, the fact remains that my son got lucky. Statistically, the odds are against children of incarcerated parents excelling through school. He was an exception to the rule.
Trying to have an instrumental role in your children's education from behind bars is unimaginably difficult due to the many barriers that being incarcerated present. For example, prison schedules are highly unpredictable, making it next to impossible to make plans to call our children on specific dates or at specific times. We never know when we'll be locked down and unable to use the phones, or when the phones will be turned off "for security purposes." Add this to the fact that there are usually no more than 6-8 phones in housing units with around 80 offenders, and you can see that even when we are allowed to use the phones, we still may not be able to because there aren't enough of them. Even the most committed parents may be forced to spend days without getting an opportunity to call their children.
The Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits the cruel & unusual punishment of offenders, ensures that we're afforded the "right" to adequate healthcare in prison. In accordance, most prisons have on-site medical departments staffed with healthcare workers 24/7. There are standards of care they must meet, a formal process for us to request appointments for medical treatment, and even an emergency grievance process for us to request emergency care when needed. On paper, it would appear that adequate healthcare wouldn't be an issue behind bars. But what happens when the healthcare workers (and other staff) at institutions don't uphold the policies/standards that are in place to help us?
Last month, I experienced firsthand how our so-called healthcare "right" is nullified when prison staff undermine the medical policies at their whim. It began when I woke up one morning with what I assumed was a sore tooth. Throughout the day, the pain intensified until it became completely unbearable. By that night, I had a fever and the tooth seemed to be throbbing. It was unlike any pain I'd ever felt, and it kept me from getting any sleep that night.
The next morning when I looked in the mirror, I noticed that a small knot had formed on my gums, right where the pain was emanating from. I immediately knew it was a dental abscess. Dental abscesses are considered medical emergencies because they're pockets of infection. If left untreated, they can spread to other parts of your body, burst, and get into your bloodstream (which is highly fatal), or cause permanent damage to your mouth. I knew I needed to get to Medical ASAP, so - as policy requires - I approached an officer and requested an emergency grievance form. After explaining my emergency, I gave the form to the officer and returned to my cell to wait to be called to Medical. However, the entire day passed, and I was never called. [According to policy, the officer should've taken the emergency grievance form to Medical, had them sign it, and returned a receipt to me so that I'd know they were aware of my emergency. Instead, the officer simply signed the form herself (unbeknownst to me at that time) and gave me a worthless receipt. Medical didn't call for me because they'd never received the emergency grievance.]
For the second night in a row, I was in too much pain to sleep - nor had I been able to eat anything all day - so at about 2 a.m., I approached a different officer to tell her I needed emergency medical treatment. She responded by telling me, "Go back to my cell." I showed her the abscess on my gums, which had swollen even bigger, told her about my fever and the fact that I hadn't slept or eaten, and even explained-- tried explaining-- the danger of the infection. Yet again she responded, "Go back to your cell." No matter how much I pleaded with her, that was the only response she'd give me. She had no desire to help me at all.
What happens when you continually punish a child when they do wrong, while never rewarding them when they do good? When has this sort of rearing method ever been known to produce a positive long-term effect on that child's behavior? Never. In fact, this overly punitive rearing method has been proven to produce negative long-term effects. Although offenders are not children, the "corrections" aspect of the criminal justice system can in several ways be likened to a form of rearing. Just as it is a parent's duty to rear their children into respectable adults, the justice system exists to rear criminal offenders into productive members of society. But where prison administrations go wrong is by acting as the overly punitive parents in response to offender behavior. Just as this practice always yields a negative long-term effect with child rearing, the same negative outcome can be expected with regards to offenders.
When offenders exhibit poor behavior, such as breaking institutional rules, staff are allowed to punish us in countless ways. They write infractions; put us in solitary confinement; fire us from our jobs; take our commissary, phone, email, and visitation privileges; order us to pay fines; transfer us to stricter, higher-level facilities; even add additional time to our prison sentences. The list of punishments at their disposal is too long to fit in this essay. And there is no limit to how much punishment can be doled out to any single offender; meaning if he perpetually displays poor behavior, he will continue being punished again and again and again for each incident.
Good behavior, on the other hand, goes largely unrewarded in prison. In fact, the only reward is being placed at the highest "good time" level. But this is not a genuine reward, as it simply allows us to remain eligible for our state's truth-in-sentencing percentage. Unlike the never ending scroll of punishments, they use for poor behavior, staff do not continue rewarding us for positive strides such as earning college credits and vocational trades, completing rehabilitative programs, making personal accomplishments, remaining free of infractions for extended periods of time, etc. For those deeds, we aren't hired for jobs or given pay raises. We aren't given extra commissary, phone, email, or visitation privileges. We aren't continually transferred to lower-level facilities to be among other model inmates. Most importantly, we aren't allowed to earn extra time off of our prison sentences. Unlike the near infinite punishments allowed for poor behavior, there are no substantive rewards given for good behavior.Read more
February 18, 2021
A few weeks ago, I was awakened out of my sleep at around 3 o’ clock in the morning by the sound of my cellmate (whom I'll refer to as “D”) pacing around the cell and mumbling words that I couldn't make out. My first thought was that maybe he’d been having trouble sleeping so he was up listening to music through his earbuds to help clear his mind. I chalked up the mumbling to him rapping along to whatever song he was listening to. But when I turned around and looked over at him, I was surprised to see that not only was he not listening to his music player; he had his shirt off and was clenching two ink pens in his hands as if they were knives. The expression on his face was one of fear and anger. Though “D” and I had never had any issues, seeing him in this state automatically put me on edge. I had no idea what he was thinking or what he was about to do, so I set up and asked him what was wrong.
“Man, I just heard them out there talking about me!” he exclaimed.
“Who?” I asked
“I don't know! But I think they're trying to come Rob me!” he responded fearfully. “I'm going to stab them if they come in here!”
Again, this was around 3:00 a.m., and our housing unit was locked down. It seemed odd that “D” claimed he heard people plotting against him because no one was supposed to be outside their cells. But just to make sure, I got up and walked to the door to see if there was anyone lurking around the day room.
“See, don't you hear them?” he asked, wanting me to confirm what he thought he was hearing. “You hear them out there talking about me, right?” It was at that moment that I realized he was having some sort of mental health crisis because, as I expected, there was no one in the day room. In fact, it was completely quiet out there. Whatever he was hearing was in his own head.
Throughout the course of the week, “D” began having more of these paranoia-like incidents. He started randomly approaching guys in our housing unit and accusing them of talking about him. He even began walking around with magazines wrapped around his torso, claiming it was to protect him from “them” stabbing him. Seeing the deterioration of his mental state, a few of his close friends and I contacted the mental health department to try to get him some help. When a group of officers arrived later that day to escort him out, we were all relieved, thinking they were taking him to the psych ward to get the treatment he needed.Read more
Today, I watched as my friend Maurice was escorted by officers out of the housing unit on his way to those coveted gates that would mark both his exit from penal confinement and his (re)entrance into the free world. The reason Maurice - or Reese, as we called him - needed to be escorted is because he's in a wheelchair. One of the officers ushering him out pushed the wheelchair while the other pushed a cart containing Reese's personal belongings. A smile stretching from ear to ear covered his face as everyone crowded around him to offer parting words and shake his hand one final time. Seeing someone go home is always a celebratory moment in prison, but for Reese specifically, we had even more of a reason to be happy for him. He'd been waiting on DOC to release him via the Inmate Early Release Plan that Governor Northam authorized in April of last year to reduce the prison population due to the pandemic. In fact, Reese was the very first person at this institution to be administratively approved for early release. Yet, like hundreds of other offenders in Virginia - and thousands of offenders across the nation - his approval ultimately meant nothing because DOC never actually released him early. Today (January 11, 2021) is his regular release date from his court sentencing. Technically, he's still on DOC's wait list to be released "early" . . . .
These COVID-19 early release initiatives were created to help protect us by reducing the prison population. The less people in prison, the more other offenders would be able to practice social distancing. And of course, anyone released from prison would be better able to protect themselves from infection on the outside. By now, it's well known that there are a lot of offenders who have preexisting medical conditions that put them at an increased risk of complications from COVID. But the same states that implemented these early release programs immediately undermined the effectiveness of them by setting "eligibility criteria" that automatically excluded the majority of their offender populations. Why would we need to be "eligible" to be protected from COVID? The criteria varied from state to state, but they generally excluded any offenders with recent institutional infractions, those serving time for "violent offenses," and those with more than 12 months remaining on their sentence. With these exclusions, only a small fraction of offenders was deemed eligible for early release, and that small fraction certainly wouldn't reduce the prison population to the degree needed to make prisons safer in light of the pandemic.