Secret Solitary

Photo by Hédi Benyounes on Unsplash

I will turn fifteen in prison years very shortly. All but about eleven months of those years have been spent in solitary confinement of one sort or another. Eleven of them passed on Texas’s Death Row, a hybrid administrative/punitive segregation regime that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) and state legislators dreamed up for death-sentenced inmates. On February 22, 2018, mere minutes before my planned contact with the nihil, Governor Greg Abbott commuted my sentence to life.

Since then, I’ve been given a sort of all-expenses-paid grand tour of some of the state’s toughest segregation wings — from the Byrd Unit to Michael to Coffield, back to Michael, then to the Walls, Memorial, and now the McConnell Unit — during which time I have come to believe that Texas is making up a story about its efforts to reform its policies on solitary confinement. A story that relies on squishy numbers.

Until very recently, such quantitative legerdemain would not have been required. That there might be something morally troubling about locking a social creature up in a cell for years without any meaningful contact simply didn’t penetrate the provincial Weltanschauung of the contemporary administration. Every time Texas constructed one of its modern, 2,250-bed prisons in the 1980s and ’90s, it always included a 12 Building, composed of 504 solitary confinement cells divided into six pods — a prison within a prison, a world visible but unseen, designed for the state’s most incorrigible “super-predators.” Once they had these cells, it was only natural to fill them.

As is so often the case in the Yeehaw Republic, reality intruded from the coasts. I first began to hear that states were reducing the numbers of prisoners in segregation housing units in 2008. All of a sudden, or so it seemed, prison administrators from blue states began listening to myriad studies that showed conclusively that exposure to long-term isolation cells makes prisoners more dangerous, that it creates and worsens mental illness and engenders a sort of radical alterity that destroys the ability of these humans to relate to other people. In short: solitary confinement cells are recidivism generators, not tools for correction.

As states began reducing their solitary numbers, they noticed that the feared increase in penal violence never materialized. Once released, the vast majority of formerly isolated prisoners adjusted well to the normal, communal penal environment. So much for the super-predator theory. Like many other states in the South, Texas noticed these trends. Reducing its load of segregated prisoners interested certain fiscally minded members of the Texas legislature, as it costs far more to staff isolation wings than it does to secure offenders in the general-population environment.

So reduce them Texas did, over the objections of many wardens. Or so they say. According to the Demographic Highlights reports released in 2014, Texas had 6,564 prisoners in admin-seg, the widely accepted official designation for solitary confinement (although Texas has recently taken to calling the practice “Restrictive Housing,” given the negative connotations that have become attached to the older term). These numbers trended downward over subsequent years: 5,553 in 2015, 4,372 in 2016, and 3,964 in 2017, before beginning to rise again in 2018 to 4,264.

At any rate, those are the numbers the TDCJ released to the state legislature. I have no idea if they are true. Neither do you. Neither does anyone outside of the administration’s offices in Huntsville and Austin. Every biennium for the past few legislative sessions, state Democratic lawmakers have attempted to create an independent oversight office that will monitor conditions of confinement and the treatment of prisoners, as well as investigate complaints. Texas Republicans have always managed to lure the proposed legislation into utility closets deep in the bowels of the capitol, where they are unceremoniously slaughtered.

Even from my side of the razor wire, it’s difficult to get a totally reliable count of the numbers of admin-seg inmates in a particular unit, because there’s quite a bit of fluidity in day-to-day housing assignments. I know, for instance, that of the six pods in McConnell’s 12 Building, four are reserved for admin-seg (336 cells). The other two pods (168 cells) are set aside for prerelease and prehearing detention. Except, they use sections on both of those other pods for admin-seg overflow all the time, often to the tune of forty or fifty inmates at any given moment. So is the true count for this facility 336 inmates or, say, 386? I don’t know, and I doubt even 12 Building’s major could give you an accurate count without sending an officer around to do a tally.

This variability extends across the system: a seg wing closes on Beto Unit, the inmates dispersed across the state. The news rides the whisper-stream until it reaches my ears. Is it reliable? Probably not completely, but I’ve learned to trust the word of certain types of convicts far more than anything that comes out of the mouth of the TDCJ spokesperson.

The following totals are extremely conservative. They were compiled over a period of years, during which I asked dozens of officers and inmates questions about various wings of the prisons I was housed in, and then verified and reverified the given figures multiple times. If there was the slightest haziness in my understanding of a particular pod or wing, I omitted those numbers completely. Similarly, I have not included totals from units I have not personally lived in, even when these data have been verified by multiple sources. I’m pretty certain, for instance, that all of the 504 seg cells at both the Stiles and Telford Units are filled, and that the state has set aside more than 900 cells for admin-seg at the Allred Unit. However, since I have not personally witnessed these facilities, I am leaving them out of my calculations in the interest of getting as credible a figure as possible, within the limitations placed upon me by the state.

Even with these caveats, simple arithmetic brings at least part of the state’s deception into focus. During the eleven years I spent at the Polunsky Unit, all of the 504 seg cells were utilized and filled. During my two trips to the Michael Unit, all 504 seg cells were similarly occupied. At Coffield, four out of the six wings in P1 (a designation representing one specific cluster of wings) and all six on P2 were used for seg, which would suggest a total of 840, but the official figures say 748 — a number that seems puzzling, as it’s not easily divisible by rows or halls. Here at McConnell, in any case, four of the six pods are permanently reserved for seg, for a total of 336.

All of this means that I have personally witnessed, at a minimum, 2,092 seg cells in use, or a little more than 49 percent of the reported total for 2018, and that I managed this feat after living in just four of the more than one hundred penal institutions in this state. What, I wonder, are the odds of that? I don’t know, but they don’t seem to be very high.

* * *

We are the stories we tell ourselves. The Prophet mortised the story he was telling with numbers. The problem for the rest of us was that we didn’t have the slightest idea what these digits meant. It was as if he had sliced open a coldly quantifiable modernity and stuffed it full of wriggly, tentaculate shadows.

As I was escorted up a corroded iron staircase to a new cell for the one weekend I’d spend in Memorial Unit, I first heard the Prophet: “68, 19, 42…ech! A-42! 70! 23! 96!” For a moment, I thought it was an officer screaming cell designations, though that didn’t really make any sense. It wasn’t until I’d reached the eighth or ninth cell on the tier that things became clearer.

The Prophet wasn’t particularly intimidating, just a scrawny kid of maybe twenty-eight years; his unkempt hair was matted to his skull in a way that spoke of poor sanitary habits. If I had to guess, I’d say he was someone who’d spent years in seg: men who looked like that wouldn’t survive in population, and seg is the only place left to house them. His shoulders seemed to be permanently scrunched inward, like he was chafing against a pair of invisible walls on either side. His jumpsuit was stained a dingy yellowish brown that the TCDJ optimistically calls white. His eyes, though — those were off. It was like they had been transplanted from the sockets of a much older man. He swiveled his head to stare at me.

“Seventy-one!” he screamed instantly, his head tilted at an odd angle, twitching so bad that his nervous system was practically visible through his skin. The overall effect was so avian, it wouldn’t have surprised me if his eyelids had started to blink upward.

That turned out to be a very long weekend. Shortly after I settled into my admin-seg cell, the Prophet started one of his “sermons.” It was your typical nutcake served with hefty sides of obscure theology and even more obscure reasoning. The upshot of it was that there were four great Prophets on earth, and he, the “Prophet from the North,” was the greatest. It took my newfound neighbors about twenty minutes before they began to express their appreciation for this unexpected meeting with God’s right hand.

“Man, shut yo bitch ass up!” someone to my left shouted, the opening shot of a verbal onslaught that raged for the next two days.

Around midnight that first night, I began praying to gods I didn’t believe in for two favors: communicable Broca’s aphasia and an invisible audio recorder. If I’d had the latter, I’d have placed it right up on the bars and hit record. I’d have made copies and sent them to all of our state legislators with a note: “You want to know what years in solitary confinement does to people? It does this.”

* * *

As I was parsing some inmate numbers released via a Freedom of Information Act request to the American Civil Liberties Union and the Texas Civil Rights Project, I noticed that the TDCJ claimed only 210 seg inmates at Polunsky, a number that I immediately knew to be wrong. Just as immediately, I apprehended the sort of terminological shell game the department was playing.

Pods on units like Polunsky consist of 84 cells; 210 is exactly 2.5 pods, the number of seg inmates without death sentences held on that unit. The other 3.5 pods — containing another 294 people — were reserved for Death Row. The data provided by the state, in other words, did not consider the men living on the Row to be in administrative segregation, even though the daily conditions of these men are qualitatively no different from admin-seg inmates, and the administrative “Death Row Plan” is based almost in its entirety on the “Admin-Seg Plan.”

I had always assumed that every inmate living in solitary confinement was included in the admin-seg tally — that “admin-seg” equated directly to something like “every human being living without the ability to touch another human being.” This is a mistake that I think everyone else is making as well. We see the totals of prisoners in admin-seg declining, and we think: Wow, Texas is really making an attempt here. It hadn’t occurred to me that the department had simply started labeling solitary prisoners as something other than “admin-seg,” something that conveniently sticks these souls into a category that can easily be overlooked.

Who are these people that make up this dark count? My two trips to the Michael Unit supplied part of the answer to this question. In 2014 — the year the department started bragging about its efforts to reduce the number of prisoners in solitary — the TDCJ created a mental health “therapeutic diversion program” with the intention of moving prisoners in admin-seg with mental health problems back into the general population. This goal is both laudable and necessary: because COs are not generally trained in identifying offenders who are experiencing mental health challenges, aberrant behavior is very often identified as disciplinary violation. The end result is that admin-seg wings have become repositories for the sickest, most vulnerable of inmates. The therapeutic diversion program is housed on both the Michael and Hughes Units and consists of five pods on each (total: 840 inmates).

None of these inmates are included in the department’s publicly released admin-seg totals, even though they are housed just like any other prisoner in seg — which is to say, in isolation all day every day. I met many of these men, as the prison used F-Pod — my home — as overflow for men coming to and going from the program. Their reports on the nature of the program were universally negative.

To begin with, inmates enrolling in the program are told that they should graduate in six months. Yet I met many men who spent more than a year attempting to work their way through this system and still hadn’t graduated yet. At least one man, Cricket, required two years.

All entrants are promised privileges not normally allowed in admin-seg, such as television access, group therapy sessions, art and music classes, and, in later phases of the program, communal recreation. According to the conversations I had with dozens of officers and prisoners, the only part of that list of promises regularly kept was television access. Often, too few officers showed up to work to staff the classes, the recreation groups, and even the therapy sessions. From participants, I know of only two occasions when group sessions occurred. In one, a “therapist” regaled the attendees — one dozen men, shackled to metal desks that look like what you’d get if Tomás de Torquemada had been asked to build an elementary school — with tales from his service in Vietnam. In the other, no therapist ever arrived. Instead, the prisoners gossiped for two hours until being led back to their cells. If security is essentially the art of making nothing happen, I think it’s fair to say that the program at Michael is highly secure.

In all but label, these men were still in admin-seg. Texas is simply pretending that it removed almost a thousand men from solitary and from the admin-seg rolls we use to track it. The department claims that roughly five hundred men have graduated from the program and moved back to gen-pop. Since the state somehow decided not to record the rate at which participants succeeded in graduating — in other words, they somehow decided not to bother quantifying the very point of the entire program — The Texas Tribune began requesting these data in 2017. The statistics released by the state showed that roughly half of the participants failed out of the program. Of those that graduated, a quarter were sent for additional mental health evaluation at other units; while this subsequent process takes place, these prisoners would remain in solitary confinement. Indeed, they might never end up being released.

What happens to this cohort of men incapable of graduating? All are returned to admin-seg, obviously, but some carry a new tag next to their names: Chronic Mental Illness (CMI). From what I was told by officers, this is essentially the death knell for any hopes of ever reaching the general population.

* * *

Most of the CMIs seemed to be stored on E-Pod at the Michael Unit, so I was never really aware of the existence or the finality of this designation until one of my transfers didn’t work out: I arrived to find the inn was full, no admin-seg cells available. Instead, I was housed on F-Wing, 1-Row, an address that I quickly learned was a repository, in the Coffield Unit, for CMI-classed offenders.

My neighbor on the right was a slight Hispanic man named Noe. Every time I left the cell for rec or the shower, he was posted up at his door, his back so straight it begged an architectural metaphor, his hands hanging limp at his sides, palms backward. I never heard him say a word, not in two weeks. Instead, he wrote incredibly deranged messages on scraps of paper and tossed them out onto the run. Some of these were spread around by huge cooling fans and ended up flying directly in my door.

The story I glimpsed was that Noe was the only “real” prisoner in the entire facility — the rest of us were actors wearing “invisible hearing aids,” tasked with stealing his “millions” for a shadowy figure called Queen Omar Perez, about whom Noe had a serious cathexis. This Queen Omar had apparently faked his/her death and pinned this on Noe, and he was as mad as a bag of ferrets over the business. Reading over the notes that blew my way, I started to get a creeping suspicion that Omar was a murder victim — Noe’s victim, his whole fantasy world a construct crafted to obliterate his culpability. Once this thought burrowed in, I couldn’t seem to get rid of it.

Noe got moved before I did, after an officer wrote him a disciplinary case for threatening him. The day after they carted Noe off to the disciplinary wing — another seg wing, but one where all of the inmates have less access to commissary items — I got a chance to look inside his cell, something I’d never attempted while he stood at his door looking like some kind of deranged garden gnome. One entire wall of his cell had been covered in a mural depicting a green hillside and a forest; there was some kind of castle on the far right that looked like a gigantic concrete wart. The main thing I noticed was that the hill had numerous windows and doors embedded in it. That may seem a little odd to you, but I promise, most prisoners readily grasp the allure of rabbit holes and hidden doorways.

* * *

Shortly thereafter I was moved to the fourth floor, where I learned that nearly all of the first two rows were filled with CMIs. The third floor was restricted to G5s, a high-security designation that nevertheless should have allowed both cellies and group rec. All of these men instead were housed in admin-seg conditions, though none of them would have been counted as such in the statistics. I do not know how many CMIs there are in the TDCJ; I’ve learned that many are housed at the Jester IV and Montford facilities, but I’ve never seen hard numbers for those units. I do know that during my entire stay here in prison, over fourteen years in admin-seg, there have been remarkably few instances in which I have not been housed in the immediate vicinity of someone suffering from some form of severe mental illness.

Here is what I fear most. In the Demographic Highlights statistics released to the legislature, there is a category labeled simply “Other Custody.” This follows all of the regular groups: G1 through G5, admin-seg, safekeeping, etc. As the numbers of men in admin-seg have largely dropped, except for a small increase in 2018, this “Other” cohort has ballooned: by 2018, the official count was 9,065, an increase of 30 percent, or 2,116 people, in a single year.

Who are these prisoners? I know this set does not include offenders in SAFP, a program for prisoners with narcotics sentences, because those offenders are found elsewhere in the statistics, and because this program shouldn’t enroll the kinds of high-risk offenders normally found in seg. Some that make up this “Other” number are certainly the men in the previously mentioned mental health program, who are clearly living under solitary confinement conditions. I suspect that inmates involved in the Gang Renouncement and Disassociation process (GRAD) are included; these inmates live in solitary confinement during the first phase of the program and return to solitary if they fail out. This category also probably includes some men held in solitary under protective custody orders. I know such men exist, as I have lived around some of them, but I have no way of obtaining the statistics on such people, since the state doesn’t even let the officers know which inmates in seg are there for disciplinary reasons versus protective ones. The CMI-classed inmates are unquestionably included in this cohort, as are my former peers on Death Row.

Still, this comes nowhere close to 9,065, so there are almost certainly categories of inmates I have not encountered yet. Remember, I’ve only personally lived in a tiny percentage of facilities in the state. I cannot help but wonder how many Prophets or Noes are in this last group — men swept under the statistical rug and overlooked by everyone in a rush to praise Texas for its so-called reduction in admin-seg usage.

For my part, I don’t really know why I’m in seg. After my commutation, I was promised by classification officials at the Byrd Unit that I would be “stepped down” from admin-seg. However, once I arrived at the Michael Unit, I was not only assigned to 12 Building, where everyone is in admin-seg, but also placed on a “high-profile” list and forced to change cells three times a week. The only other men “on rotation,” as this process is labeled in the patois, are those who have been involved in serious escape attempts. The message from the system seemed pretty obvious: someone upstairs in the hierarchy felt I had escaped justice when I avoided the needle and wanted me to know that I hadn’t escaped them.

As of this writing, I am a rare bird: an admin-seg inmate with a clean disciplinary record. I’ve pointed this fact out to various classification officials during each of my “six-month reviews,” and they offer apologies or profess helplessness. I was told by one major at Coffield that there was a note in my file about not releasing me into the general population, with the executive director’s office telephone number attached to it.

My clean record won’t last. They write up disciplinary cases like they breathe in seg, and eventually I’ll zig when I should have zagged, and then they’ll have their “reason” for why I was put here in the first place. I’m resigned to it.

The one thing I am confident that they are not going to do is let me progress on to the general population. In this I am not alone. During the year and a half since my commutation, I have only heard of two people being promoted out of admin-seg — two out of literally hundreds of men I have done time with.

We’ve all heard the rumor that the state was supposed to be reducing the number of those of us in solitary, but that’s all it is to us: a rumor. I know of no one who believes it — not one.

* * *

In my current cell here at McConnell Unit, Stainless, the man to my right, has been in seg since 1986 — thirty-three years. He’s what I like to call an injustice collector: someone who can’t get over anything and will stew and rage over a particular event for weeks at a time. He’s also certifiably insane. Guards sometimes screw with him by waking him up at odd hours to ask strange questions about the “ghosts” that live in his cell, which he then has to immediately “expel” with violent physical attacks on the walls.

There are those who attempt to short-circuit discussions of prison conditions and reform by deploying trite clichés: “If you can’t do the time,” etc., etc. I wish I could show them video footage of what is regularly done to Stainless. I don’t know what he did to be sent to prison; it must have been something fairly heavy to have gotten a thirty-five-year sentence. But whatever took place in 1986, it has nothing to do with a particular officer deciding to deny him recreation time, or a meal tray, or a trip to the shower.

I know this because officers in the TDCJ don’t have access to detailed information on the crimes that placed us all behind bars unless we have told them. An officer would therefore have to do this research on their own. That is not at all a trivial matter for a case as old as Stainless’s, since many hard-copy records from the 1980s have still not been digitized. These officers simply aren’t that motivated or educated, in my opinion.

One guard in particular seems to enjoy lying to Stainless about him making parole or having a visit, something he hasn’t had in decades. Stainless gets so excited, telling everyone willing to listen that he thinks it must be his sister who has come to see him. He puts on his jumpsuit, combs his hair. Then he waits and paces his cell — and then waits some more.

Hours later, this officer, often with another collaborator or two in tow, will come to tell Stainless about how his visitor must have decided to leave, or maybe got into a car accident on the way. They will wear the pinched expressions of people fighting down laughter. This is just fun to them, watching a broken man crumble to pieces. His subsequent rants about the warden being in cahoots with the NSA to deny him his visit are humorous.

Why would they do such a thing? It depends on the guard. The point is, their actions have everything to do with their own moral failures in the present, and nothing to do with the events of 1986, which they are not deputized to punish, in any case. If Stainless is morally responsible for the act that put him in prison, then so, too, are these officers responsible for their actions.

Like nearly all inmates I’ve met with serious mental illness, Stainless is “treated” via a cocktail that puts him in a stupor for days at a time, the chemical equivalent of a velvet sledgehammer to the forehead. When this starts to wear off, he begins to shout and kick and punch the wall. I have no idea how he hasn’t shattered all the bones in his hand, given the ferocity he displays.

When Stainless is discharged, I promise you that you will wish the state had ponied up the dough to treat him clinically, not to mention decently. I invoke the concept of “decency” only after much hesitation because it’s disheartening just how weak moral arguments like that can feel, and because I’ve lost track of exactly what that word means. I can still vaguely recall what it was like to be human and to be considered as such by the Other, to live in a place where holding a door open for someone with a smile only meant: Hey, I acknowledge your existence, and though I do not know you and will likely never see you again, I want to do you a kindness. Here, if you hold the door open for someone, it’s because you plan on attacking them from behind.

I hope my decaying sense of optimism is merely a consequence of confirmation bias responding to a life lived in an oubliette. The only other argument that presents itself goes like this: If you take a dog, lock it in a cage for its entire adult life, insult it at every turn, starve it, drive it insane with rage, and then take that cage into the middle of a public park and let the dog loose, well, what is likely to happen? Stainless, for all his mental disease, is much smarter than a dog, and has a longer memory. I already know how Stainless’s story continues. So do you.

During the writing of this essay, I learned that Ursula K. Le Guin had passed away; she actually died in 2018, but news travels slowly in solitary. I recall reading her short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” when I was an eighteen-year-old freshman. I had to write a paper on it. The basic outline of the story is that there is this perfect city, Omelas, where want has been eliminated and where everyone is intelligent and civil and free.

Le Guin spends pages describing how genuinely utopic Omelas is before taking the reader into a specific basement and mugging them with a disturbing proviso: Everything good and wonderful that has been witnessed — all the peace, all the prosperity — depends in some crucial way on the fact that in a tiny, wet, dismal closet in an otherwise unremarkable cellar, there is kept in isolation a small child. This little one does not understand anything about her imprisonment. She snivels and cries and begs to be released. Citizens from the world above are led into the room to view this misery. Most return to their perfect lives, troubled but willing to rest on the idea that the happiness of the many outweighs the torment of the one. Some, however, leave the basement, walk out of the city, and never return.

At eighteen, my focus was largely on utilitarianism. I argued that every society has tough decisions to make that inevitably lead to the dissatisfaction of certain subsets of the populace, but if the gains outweighed the costs, society and progress required these hard choices to be made. The ends justified the means, even if the means were particularly ugly.

Now all I can think about is the child. The story doesn’t mention what happens when the child gets older, but the administrators of Omelas must swap the kids out every four or five years. Where do they send them? Surely not back to the city, for whose sins they were martyred. I see them sent abroad, exiled, lonely teenagers, their eyes keyholes into worlds where light dares not tread.

Thomas Bartlett Whitaker spent eleven years on Texas’s Death Row before his clemency in 2018. In prison, he has earned both an undergraduate and master’s degree. He has won first place three times in the PEN Prison Writing Contest, and he received an inaugural PEN Writing for Justice Fellowship. He publishes regularly at Minutes Before Six, the nonprofit website project he founded in 2007, when he arrived in prison. His work is anthologized in Hell Is a Very Small Place: Voices from Solitary Confinement and What We Know. He is serving a life sentence and remains in solitary confinement.

This essay, which was written in 2019, was supported by a grant from the Solitary Confinement Reporting Project, managed by Solitary Watch with funding from the Vital Projects Fund.

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