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  • Rob Will

Solitary Confinement And The Mentally Ill

Updated: Mar 29, 2023

“My experience was hell. I always liken it to something that you would consider to be your worst nightmare. I had to go through that experience every day for 18 years. And it was just no way to live.”  

– Anthony Graves, on Democracy Now!, 6.22.12

There has been much talk in the media lately about the effects solitary confinement, which of course is a very good thing. It never ceases to amaze me how far prison officials will go to deny the reality of what goes on in solitary. They deny everything. And this is something to keep in mind that is rarely discussed: 95% of the horrible things that go on in solitary units are never revealed. We are talking about highly isolated worlds—buildings that are completely shut off from the outside world and even the rest of the prison.

In the above quoted interview, a statement was played by one of the top U.S. prison officials, in which he had the audacity to say that mentally ill prisoners are never put in segregation, and by policy they are referred to psychiatric medical centers for care. For one, this is just an outrageously bold, outright lie—the majority of mentally ill prisoners are in seg. And two, there are psychiatric units, but many times they are more like medieval horror – show torture dungeons than “care facilities”, and even at best they certainly aren’t “caring.” Here is Anthony’s response to what the prison official said: “Yeah, he’s speaking about the guidelines that are written on paper. But in actuality, those things are not practiced. As I say, there’s a culture of madness down there.”

He is, of course, speaking about Texas Death Row, and something happened about an hour ago that illustrates the chaotic, unpredictable and arbitrary nature of this environment. There is, indeed, extensive and exhaustive written policy, but staff choose to follow it when they see fit—and riots, murders, rapes and assaults can be spurred on or prevented by small- split second decisions by individual staff members. Earlier, my schizotypal—i.e., mildly schizophrenic—neighbor was moved and they brought another schizotypal guy on the section.

As soon as he got in the gate he started freaking out. A CO wanted to put him in the dayroom but the guy is half insane and is absolutely terrified of the dayroom (the “rec cage”); he’s been here for like three years and he’s never once left his cell and gone to the rec cage. COs ask everyone if they want to go to the dayroom/rec 6 days a week, but this guy truly believes that for years they’ve had a plot to try to get him into the rec cage to do assorted nefarious things to him.

The CO just wanted to put the guy in the dayroom so he could put all of his property in his cell before he went in there, but he thought the CO was trying to “get him.” So, he started ranting about them trying to get him naked to video tape him and other crazy things, and this disturbed the CO’s Ego functioning so he started threatening to gas him. I know the guy, so I yelled down to the rec cage to try to calm him down and I spoke with another CO who I have a decent rapport with, basically explaining that they guy is insane and how to easily resolve the issue with him…

Long story short, a Sergeant arrives and this is a pivotal point: Will she do as far too many other supervisors have done in the past and argue with, threaten and antagonize the person and escalate the situation? Or will she act like a decent human being and try to handle and diffuse the situation? (“Care” is certainly never offered.) Well, in a firm but fair manner she resolved the situation. Contrast that to two weeks ago, when they gassed my other neighbor (two cells over), “Crazy B.”

Same type of situation: Crazy B wouldn’t move from his cell when they came to our section to shake down. He was diagnosed as schizophrenic before he ever arrived here and everyone knows he is insane. Crazy B has never assaulted anyone and has never been violent in any way in the approximately 20 years he’s been locked up. He was in a completely catatonic state, just sitting there, staring off into space. By their always spoken of, selectively adhered to and ever elusive “policy,” if this type of situation occurs, psychiatric staff is supposed to be notified and subsequently brought to the scene to help resolve the situation. Was this done? No.

For certain officers shakedown time is like a fanciful grand ball of opportunity—opportunity to strut about greedily seeking out ways to oppress. “Come out of your cell or we’re gon’ gas your ass!!” is all I heard said to Crazy B while walking down the run to the next section to go in the shower while they shook down. He falls into completely catatonic states fairly often so I didn’t think much of it—I’ve seen psych come a number of times when similar situations have arisen and get Crazy B to snap out of it (and ranking officers also). This wasn’t done and not long after I left the section the SWAT team stormed over there and assaulted Crazy B with a violent burst from an OC Crowd Control gas canister, then he was cuffed and left with nothing but boxers in a super seg cell on disciplinary status.

Policy is meaningless—arbitrary whims of individual staff members dictate the daily operations of segregation units. The above two examples of the dramatically different outcomes of similar situations illustrates this well. (And my neighbor was being belligerent and Crazy B wasn’t.) Now my half insane neighbor is calling me—no one else on the section will talk to him—and saying something about people poisoning him and wanting to hang himself. I’ve seen far too many bloody bodies dragged off to the morgue or hospital since I’ve been here—let me go talk to him.

From The Polunsky Death Camp In The East Texas Piney Woods, With Strength & Love:


*There are two choices in Hell: Rise above your surroundings and create your own culture and lifestyle or let that which surrounds you become a part of you and tear you apart from the inside.

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