The New Solitary Confinement
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.
After 30 days of good behavior, however, we may be promoted to Level 2 status, which lessens certain restrictions and allows more privileges. Level 2 offenders are allowed to make four phone calls each week; their canteen spending limit is raised to $25 dollars per month and their commissary menu is expanded to include more snack items; they're afforded more opportunities for outside recreation; they're allowed to have more books, magazines, and other personal property into their cell (such as sneakers and sweats, which are infinitely more comfortable than the one-piece jumpers and shower shoes required in Level 1); and they're not required to be cuffed and shackled when they're taken out of their cells.
After an additional 30 days of good behavior, we may be given Level 3 status which of course offers even more of the above-mentioned privileges. One notable privilege this level offers is the opportunity for us to be outside our cells in groups of up to 10 for programmatic purposes. I haven't met anyone who has ever reached Level 3 because offenders are usually released from solitary confinement long before they're even eligible for it, but in the unfortunate event that someone is confined for two months, the perks of this level may offer them some solace.
While these changes in solitary confinement practices are appreciated, we still have not gotten the actual POLICY CHANGES that are needed. Offenders in other states are still being held for inhumane lengths of time and suffering mental health damage and physical weight loss as a result. Also, as helpful as the Step Down program is, its benefits aren't realized until after at least 30 days of confinement, which is still too long. It is also worth mentioning that the "good behavior" requirements for level promotion are entirely subjected to the staff's whim, leaving room for exploitation (something that is not uncommon in prison). Legislation is needed to ensure that we are not left in segregation beyond a reasonable length of time. Likewise, being able to have extra books in our cell and to spend an extra hour outside every day work wonders for our mental health. Being able to earn back these privileges we lose in restrictive housing should be rights; not privileges. Treating us humanely should not be a choice for prison staff; but rather, a requirement.