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.
This is the ninth installation of a column composed by MarQui Clardy Jr, one of our pen pals incarcerated at the Lawrenceville Correctional Center in Virginia.
A couple days ago, another inmate in my housing unit got into a heated argument with a correctional officer. The officer threatened to put the inmate in solitary confinement for a couple weeks if he didn't shut up. The inmate, however, responded that he didn't care about going to the hole. "I'll just sleep those weeks off and be right back out here before you know it," he arrogantly retorted. That altercation, which happens several times a day every day in prison, shows not only how easy it is for offenders to get thrown in the hole by power stricken officers, but also the contemptuous apathy with which some offenders regard being punished with "hole time," and it may be a reflection of how they view being incarcerated in general. Just as I can say that the hole is terrible, and, after having experienced it, I never want to go back in there, I can also say that prison is terrible, and that after this experience is over, I will never be incarcerated again. Conversely, if the threat of being put in solitary confinement does NOT deter offenders from bad conduct in prison, maybe the threat of re-incarceration won't deter them from bad conduct when they're back in society.
Most offenders, including me, who have experienced solitary confinement, avoid it like the plague. We are respectful to the staff, follow the institutional rules, and spend our time productively working, taking educational classes, vocational trades, correspondence courses, and rehabilitative programs, reading, watching TV, listening to music, exercising, playing sports, attending religious services, etc. But there are also those offenders who, when given the choice to do right or wrong, are in the habit of choosing what's wrong, even when the consequence of those wrong choices is placement in solitary confinement. These offenders spend their time antagonizing the staff (and other offenders), gambling, stealing, fighting, gangbanging, avoiding school, buying and selling illegal drugs, getting drunk on prison wine, and violating other institutional policies. The threat of being locked in the hole means nothing to them, therefore, it has no bearing on their behavior.
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.
This is the seventh installation of a column composed by MarQui Clardy Jr, one of our pen pals incarcerated at the Lawrenceville Correctional Center in Virginia.
The function of the criminal justice system is ostensibly to protect society by removing criminal offenders from it. There are additional purposes, but this is the most basic, most universally accepted of them. But what constitutes a society? More importantly, what happens to members of a society when you remove them from it? Webster's Collegiate Dictionary defines a society as "a group of human beings bound together by shared knowledge and culture." By this definition, it can be posited that prison institutions are their own individual, microcosmic societies. Though we've been removed from the macrocosm (free world society), the social instincts and inclinations which are part of our human nature do not change. We simply fell into the social roles of a different society where the commander in chief bears the title of Warden, instead of President; institutional rules are the laws of the land; and order is enforced by correctional officers, instead of police officers. This microcosm functions much the same as the macrocosm. For example, violating institutional rules will result in judicial action - being summonsed to a disciplinary hearing - where the charged offender will either be found innocent or guilty. A guilty verdict may result in the offender being arrested and locked in the Segregation Housing Unit, which we refer to as "jail."
The similarities don't end there. Like the free world society, which is divided into nations and groups that share common ancestry, religions, and cultures, our prison "society" is also divided into nations (Aryan Nation, Folks Nation, United Blood Nation, Nation of Islam, Nation of Gods and Earths, etc.) that each have their own social structures, beliefs, teachings, ideologies, and in some cases, proprietary language that non-members can't understand. These nations also have their own internal laws and, to a degree, systems of self-government to ensure accountability for their members. When conflicts arise, the heads of these Nations often convene to attempt diplomatic resolutions.
This is the sixth installation of a column composed by MarQui Clardy Jr, one of our pen pals incarcerated at the Lawrenceville Correctional Center in Virginia.
When a person is incarcerated, it's expected that they'll have a number of the rights they enjoyed in society stripped away from them. But you'd also expect that certain basic human rights, such as sufficient medical care, would be inviolable. You would be wrong. In 2011, while working in the inmate kitchen at another prison, I experienced a terrible accident that showed me how little my rights matter in prison.
On this particular day, I was rushing through the kitchen and mistakenly slipped on some cleaning solution someone had just poured onto the floor. I landed directly on my face and blacked out, having suffered a blunt force head trauma injury. When I regained consciousness a few minutes later, I was leaning up against a hotbox being attended to by two nurses. I was in a slight state of delirium; my neck was in so much pain, I could barely hold my head up; there was blood pouring from my nose, mouth, and a nasty gash on my forehead; and my jaw felt broken. The nurses advised that I be immediately transported to the hospital to see a doctor. However, despite the obvious severity of my injuries and nurse's advisement, the C/O's made me wait until they changed shifts - which took almost an hour - before clearing me for transport.
This is the fifth installation of a column composed by MarQui Clardy Jr, one of our pen pals incarcerated at the Lawrenceville Correctional Center in Virginia.
According to a 2016 report on parental incarceration, the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that more than 5.1 million U.S. parents currently spend time in jails and prisons before their children reach adulthood. Being incarcerated for a prolonged period obviously damages the parent-child relationship. But there are also less obvious, albeit equally deleterious, impacts on both parties' daily lives and relationships with others. Children of incarcerated parents often suffer emotional, behavioral, academic, and/or psychological issues, and they're six to seven times more likely to be convicted of crimes and incarcerated when they become adults. The overwhelming majority of parents behind bars - particularly the first time offenders - had no idea of those consequences when we made the decision to break the law; however, knowing these statistics and seeing how our children are ACTUALLY being affected due to our incarceration creates degrees of guilt, shame, incompetence, and parental failure that can never be adequately conveyed to non-incarcerated parents. A large part of daily prison life is learning to numb ourselves to such feelings in order to deal with the more "immediate" struggles of this environment. But every time we call home and hear our kids' long-distance voices, or look at frozen images of them taped to the walls of our cells, or even when we see televised depictions of mothers and fathers and their children playing, educating, disciplining, loving, living normal lives, those feelings rear their ugly heads to remind us how much we're failing as parents. It's a battle that will continue to haunt us long after we've won the war for our freedom.
At the time I was incarcerated, my oldest son was a six year old kid about to start first grade. Last week he turned 18, and he has just completed high school. What do you call a parent who doesn't take their child(ren) to their first day of school, show up to any of their sports games or PTA meetings, help them with any of their homework, provide financial support, or even attend their graduation? The word 'deadbeat' comes to mind. Having spent the majority of my son's childhood - and the entirety of his grade school years - in prison serving my 33 year sentence, I'm aware that I am an archetypical deadbeat dad who has utterly failed as a father. With every day that passes, and every missed moment from my son's life, this fact becomes evermore apparent and psychologically grievous.
This is the fourth installation of a column composed by MarQui Clardy Jr, one of our pen pals incarcerated at the Lawrenceville Correctional Center in Virginia.
It's been over 72 hours since I've showered, since I've breathed fresh air, since the sun's rays have touched my skin, and since I've been able to call or email my family. My complete range of motion has been limited to the confines of my prison cell for over 72 hours. My skin and hair are starting to itch, my back aches from laying in my bunk so much, I have no appetite since I'm not expelling any energy, and I'm so bored I often catch myself staring blankly around the cell, sort of "stuck" in thoughts about absolutely nothing. Any semblance of control over my mobility, hygiene, and social life I may have held 72 hours ago has been completely stripped away from me.
What frustrates me is that this punishment to which I'm being subjected is due to no fault of my own. It's the result of a gang fight that occurred in my housing unit a few days ago, during which weapons were used. Even though the fight was caught on camera, all the offenders involved were identified and taken to segregation, and all of the weapons used were recovered, my entire housing unit has been placed on lockdown. This sort of mass punishment happens all the time in prison. All it takes is for a handful of offenders to get into a serious altercation, and the whole unit - or sometimes the entire institution - gets locked down. This is another form of segregation that usually goes unnoticed. Just like the offenders in the actual Segregation Housing Unit, we're locked in our cells 24 hours a day, unable to enjoy most of the rights and privileges we'd normally be entitled to in general population.
This is the third installation of a column composed by MarQui Clardy Jr, one of our pen pals incarcerated at the Lawrenceville Correctional Center in Virginia.
"My clemency petition WILL be granted! I WILL be going home this year! My clemency petition WILL be granted! I WILL be going home this year!" These words are written in large black letters on the back of an institutional request form taped to the front of my bunk. Ever since I was contacted by the Virginia Governor's office in 2017 to confirm that my clemency petition was received and is being investigated, these words have become my mantra. Having studied countless books on the power of autosuggestion - repeating something to yourself until it burns into your subconscious and begins influencing your actions - I've convinced myself that if I recite these words enough and believe them wholeheartedly, I will speak them into fruition! These words have become my only source of hope that this nightmarish existence called prison will soon be over.
Therefore, every morning when I'm startled out of my sleep by these rude correctional officers loudly blowing their whistles, smacking their clipboards against the metal rails, and banging on every cell door during morning count, I recite these words. When I open my eyes and realize that, despite the previous night's dream of being back at home relaxing with my family and friends, the reality is that I'm still trapped inside this tiny, 8 x 12 foot metal and concrete cell for the next two decades, I recite these words. When my inconsiderate cellmate wakes up and lights his morning blunt, and I have no choice but to duck my head under my blankets to avoid catching a contact high, I recite these words.
This is the second installation of a column composed by MarQui Clardy Jr, one of our pen pals incarcerated at the Lawrenceville Correctional Center in Virginia.
Researchers estimate that, on average, at least 30% of all U.S. prisoners held in solitary confinement are mentally ill (*1). Jail and prison correctional officers aren't medically trained to treat mentally ill individuals, so when these inmates display problematic behavior, the officers' first reaction is usually to place them in solitary confinement, either as a means of punishment, or simply so they won't have to deal with them. My first time in segregation made this notion crystal clear.
This incident occurred in 2008 while my case was still being adjudicated. After my trial - which resulted in me being convicted on all thirteen of my charges - the Commonwealth's Attorney had explicitly promised me that she was going to recommend a LIFE sentence, further adding that the judge always went with her recommendations. I'd already been in jail for about six months, and the thought of spending the rest of my life in such an awful environment, away from my children, my family, my career, my life...it was more than I could handle. I'd been previously diagnosed with poor mental health during my enlistment in the military, and all the stress I was under in jail likely triggered my disorder. I began rationalizing that my life was over anyway, so it would be best if I just ended it. Suicide seemed to be the obvious solution to my problems.