Being placed in solitary confinement was unquestionably the worst experience I've had in my twelve years of incarceration. I spoke in depth of that experience in my essay in IAHR's April 2019 newsletter. 51 days is the total time I spent stuck inside that tiny cell with most of the small "freedoms" I'd previously enjoyed in prison either severely restricted or cut off altogether. Toward the end of my stay, I honestly felt as if I were on the cusp of losing my sanity. But my 51 day punishment was a cakewalk compared to some other offenders I know who have spent as long as a year in solitary confinement. There are even stories of offenders spending decades there. For most, it's unfathomable how mentally torturous that cell becomes as the days, weeks, and months pass by. Even if there's any ambiguity about whether it constitutes a violation of the eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment, the long-term psychological damage solitary confinement has on people cannot be questioned. But thanks to the hard work of advocates and advocacy groups, including IAHR, some changes are being made to solitary confinement practices.
Some prisons, including the one at which I'm housed, have ended the practice of holding us in solitary confinement for prolonged periods. After serving the initial penalty (the number of days to be served in segregation), we are promptly released back into general population. By contrast, when I spent my 51 days in solitary confinement in 2011, my initial penalty was only 15 days. The extra 36 days I was held were due to arbitrary - and completely unwarranted - administrative extensions. Barring certain major infractions such as extreme violence, this no longer happens. And even in those instances, the Warden or his designee are required to approve of holding us in segregation longer than 30 days. I see guys being put in Segregation all the time. Thankfully, they're usually out within a week or two.
Another recent, important change at this institution has been the implementation of an incentive program that rewards us for good behavior. In Virginia DOC, it is known as the "Step Down Program" (a three-level system that allows offenders housed in solitary confinement to earn extra privileges by following the rules), and it has been implemented statewide. Although I have not been in solitary confinement since this program was implemented, I have spoken to several other offenders about the way it actually works. Everyone who is placed in administrative segregation starts out at Level 1, which maintains the usual restrictions for which segregated housing units are known. These offenders are not allowed to have personal property in their cells, with the exception of religious books and a radio; they're only allowed to order a maximum of $15 dollars' worth of commissary per month, which is limited to hygiene and stationary items, and a very limited quantity of snack items; they're only allowed to make two phone calls per week; they only receive one hour of outside recreation per day; and they must be handcuffed, shackled, and escorted by two officers any time they're let out of their cell, whether they're being taken to outside recreation or even to the shower.
August 19, 2020
Scientists estimate that between 50 - 70 percent of a given population needs to be protected against a virus, whether by vaccine or by having contacted the virus and developed antibodies, in order for the population as a whole to be free from large outbreaks. Since the government has yet to approve a vaccine, this threshold, known as "herd immunity," may be what ultimately ends this pandemic. According to the New York Times, parts of some densely populated cities such as London, Mumbai, and NYC that had record numbers of COVID cases may have already reached the threshold and are on the path to recovery. Well, as someone who's also living in a densely populated environment that was hit hard by this virus and is recovering, I'm witnessing firsthand how herd immunity works.
Over the past two months, the majority of the prisoners at this institution were infected with COVID (editor’s emphasis). The unsatisfactory manner with which this pandemic was handled here - which I expounded upon in previous essays - made a large outbreak inevitable. We were all tested around May or June (before the outbreak exploded), and only a handful of those tests came back positive. However, once those cases began spreading, the virus quickly swept through the entire institution. The problem is that, barring a few serious cases, most of us were never retested, which of course means we were never officially diagnosed with COVID in the institution's records. But, documented or not, I know for a fact that there were hundreds of positive cases here because almost everyone got sick and displayed about two weeks' worth of the exact same symptoms, including: chest and nasal congestion; muscle and bone aches; simultaneous hot flashes and chills; fever, fatigue, and COVID's ultimate telltale signs, loss of taste and smell. Instead of retesting everyone, the medical staff lazily attempted to identify infected offenders by coming into each housing unit and doing daily temperature checks.
July 15, 2020
As I'm writing this, it's 12:45 p.m. and breakfast is just now arriving to my housing unit. As of late, meals are always served late. Lunch won't arrive until around 5:00. Dinner is usually served just before we lock down at 6:00; sometimes even later than that. This has been our "normal" meal schedule ever since COVID-19 entered the institution and began wreaking havoc. From the day the first cases were confirmed, almost nothing has been running according to standard operating procedure.
The reason we are just now receiving breakfast at 12:45 in the afternoon is primarily because of how heavily this virus has impacted the staff, several of whom have tested positive for it. Not only have they been sent home so that they can place themselves on quarantine; other staff members they've come in contact with and potentially spread the virus to have been sent home as well. As I've stated in previous essays, this institution was already understaffed. Now there's barely enough available to conduct day-to-day operations. Serving meals late is just the tip of the iceberg. Outside recreation has been halted because there aren't enough officers to supervise the rec yard. Some days, we aren't even allowed out of our cells for pod recreation due to a lack of officers inside the buildings. One particular night shift has come to be known as the "lockdown shift" because they're so severely short, the entire institution is always on lock when they're on. Sadly, this staffing issue will likely get worse as the virus continues to spread.
To no one's surprise, offenders here have also began testing positive. With so many infected staff - and the lack of adequate safety measures on behalf of the institution and DOC [we've yet to be issued bleach or ammonia to kill the virus on surfaces, nor have we been issued any new facemasks since April] - this was inevitable. The virus is spreading at such a fast rate that a lot of the officers who are still working are hesitant to make security rounds in the housing units for fear that they might also become infected. There's no separate quarantine area to send infected offenders, so unless they display severe symptoms, they're left in their housing unit. Of the 18 housing units at this prison, all but two contain infected offenders. Thankfully, the unit in which I'm housed is one that has no known cases, but I feel it's only a matter of time before someone in here tests positive. After all, when the officers do make security rounds, they must pass between each housing unit in the building, potentially spreading the virus from unit to unit. Ideally, the administration would contain this by assigning each officer to one housing unit and restricting them from entering the others. But again, they're too understaffed to be able to take such a safety measure.
This is the twelfth installation of a column composed by MarQui Clardy Jr, one of our pen pals incarcerated at the Lawrenceville Correctional Center in Virginia.
Last month's killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers is the most recent, high profile example of excessive use of force by law enforcement, and as a result of it, the topic of officer aggression has been brought to the national forefront. Far too often in recent history, we have seen officers show unnecessary force. As if the murder of George Floyd wasn't incendiary enough to Americans who increasingly feel antagonized by the very people tasked with making us feel safe, fuel was added to the fire when EVEN MORE instances of officer aggression and misconduct occurred at a number of the subsequent protests across the nation. Protesters were met with squads of officers clad in black riot gear with paintball/pellet guns, batons, shields, tasers, stun grenades, and tear gas who, on several occasions, opted to engage rather than mediate. At a protest in Buffalo, New York, officers pushed a 75 year old man onto the sidewalk, leaving him bleeding from one ear. Officers in Atlanta inexplicably tased two college students who were fully complying with them. Officers in Asheville, NC terrorized a medical tent that had been set up to help protesters. These incidents and others have left many Americans fed up with the police's oppressive behavior and demanding systemic changes in law enforcement.Click to Read More
This is the fifteenth installation of a column previously composed solely by MarQui Clardy Jr, one of our pen pals incarcerated at the Lawrenceville Correctional Center in Virginia.
This letter is by Henry Goldberg writing from the Federal Correctional Complex in Butner, North Carolina.
I hope that all is well with you and your staff. I would like to update you on what's going on here since our last correspondence.
This is the fourteenth installation of a column previously composed solely by MarQui Clardy Jr, one of our pen pals incarcerated at the Lawrenceville Correctional Center in Virginia.
This letter is by Chuck Bunnell who is in a federal prison.
I just received your letter dated March 29th. Yes, now that the holidays are past, the mail seems to be getting around better. Though there are new concerns here about the mail. It won't affect you, as you are already doing it. We just got a new warden, and he is being a hard case about contraband on the compound. In here, there are a few things that we take for granted on the streets, that we no longer are able to have. Things like cell phones, cigarettes, thumb drives, and for those who are predisposed to them, drugs.Read more
This is the thirteenth installation of a column previously composed solely by MarQui Clardy Jr, one of our pen pals incarcerated at the Lawrenceville Correctional Center in Virginia.
This letter is by Henry Goldberg writing from the Federal Correctional Complex in Butner, North Carolina.
I hope this reaches you in full health and spirit. I attempted to reach you by phone several times to give you the updated information faster. On March 25th, Assistant Warden Hayward informed each housing unit that an officer somewhere on the Butner Complex tested positive for COVID-19. More strict regulations were enacted, such as units would go to recreation, education and the cafeteria separately. Essential jobs such as laundry, food service, and facility repair would continue at a lesser capacity. When asked about the UNICOR factory (which is not essential) we were told that it would continue to operate. UNICOR employs about one-quarter of the population here, the same people they want to isolate were still working together in close proximity. One inmate asked Captain T. Leslie why hasn't there been a UNICOR stoppage. She responded by saying "I don't know" then rubbed her thumb, index, and middle fingers together and said "money".Read more
This is the twelfth installation of a column previously composed solely by MarQui Clardy Jr, one of our pen pals incarcerated at the Lawrenceville Correctional Center in Virginia.
This letter is by Michael Thompson writing from the Special Management Unit at the American United States Penitentiary in Thomson, Illinois.
I recently received a response to my correspondence inquiring about IAHR's mission statement. In your brochure, it indicates IAHR's focus (Maryland, VA, DC) & also BOP [the Federal Bureau of Prisions]. Does this mean I can't be a part of IAHR's services being that before my incarceration I resided in Kansas City, Missouri? I pray not.
I am a 34-year-old Moorish American male currently serving an 180-month sentence for possession of a firearm. I just recently have been sent to what is called the SMU, Administrative United States Penitentiary. Here we spend 23 hour weekdays in the cell, if all goes well we get an hour outside in a cage. Three showers a week. On weekends we remain in cell for 24-hour days.Read more
This is the eleventh installation of a column composed by MarQui Clardy Jr, one of our pen pals incarcerated at the Lawrenceville Correctional Center in Virginia.
The word dreadful may best describe the way I felt the first day I was placed in that small, cold, empty, isolation cell, and heard the door lock behind me. I still remember sitting on the bunk looking around at what would be my new home for the following few days, weeks, or months. [I had no idea how long the administration would keep me in there. It ended up being 51 days.] I remember how my heart began beating so hard, I thought it would burst; how my breathing became ragged as if I'd just finished running a mile; how sweat beads dotted my forehead and pooled under my armpits; and how I struggled to calm my mind from tricking me into believing the walls and ceiling were closing in on me. The officers didn't allow me to bring my TV with me. I was given my CD player, but I wasn't allowed to have any CDs or my adapter, and I had no batteries. On top of that, my library books were taken from me, even though that was clearly the time I would need them the most. I had no idea how - or if - I would survive being stuck in there with nothing to stimulate my mind and help ease the boredom.
On day #2 of my isolation, I was shocked beyond words when the officers entered the pod and announced, "REC CALL! REC CALL! GET READY FOR OUTSIDE REC!" Then, cell by cell, they began opening the doors and escorting everyone outside. This surprised me because I'd been under the impression that isolation meant I'd be locked inside my cell 24 hours a day and would only be allowed out once every three days to take a shower. So of course, I was beyond elated about being able to get out of that stuffy cell and go outside, work out, maybe shoot some hoops, and socialize with a few other people I knew who were also in segregation. "Maybe the hole isn't as bad as I'd assumed," I thought to myself as I stood at my door eagerly awaiting the officers.
This is the tenth installation of a column composed by MarQui Clardy Jr, one of our pen pals incarcerated at the Lawrenceville Correctional Center in Virginia.
Two months ago, at Mississippi State Penitentiary (Parchman), an altercation between two gangs erupted, during which four offenders were killed. This incident, which could rightfully be described as a massacre, made national headlines and left a lot of people wondering just how dangerous America's prisons are? How did the prison staff allow four murders to occur at the institution? And what, if any, security policies are in place to prevent such atrocities? It should come as no surprise that violent conflicts are quite common in prison. However, staff responses to these conflicts are often the difference between them being minor / isolated and them becoming major incidents with serious casualties. What may be surprising is that the dissatisfactory staff response at Parchman, which allowed the incident to escalate to the point of lives being lost, is quite common.
Depending on the security level of the institution, there are policies in place designed to make prisons safer, not only for offenders, but also for staff. These policies dictate operational procedures such as how many officers are to be posted in each building and housing unit at all times, how often the floor officers must "make rounds" through the housing units, whether or not the officers will be armed with weapons, and what types of incidents warrant use of force. There are also protocols for how officers should respond to offender altercations, some of which state that they should immediately radio for back-up, lock down the housing unit where the altercation is occurring, and, if need be, radio for emergency medical assistance. On paper, these security policies should, at the very least, prevent the chance of any offender altercation ending in serious harm or death, and at best, stop violent altercations altogether.