The lasting effects of solitary confinement on formerly incarcerated people

Written by Rachel Crumpler

Drew Doll spent 15 consecutive months in solitary confinement.

The first week, Dole said, “I was bounced off the walls.” Spending 22 to 24 hours a day in a cell, he could take about four steps vertically and two steps horizontally before hitting the wall. He had no one to talk to and nothing to take with him.

“Oh my god, it’s like an animal in a cage – that’s you,” Doll recalled.

The days continued monotonously. He felt abandoned and alone.

“You just get numb,” Dole said. “Nothing matters. It’s just sitting there. You’re just being warehoused.”

He has been out of prison since 2009, but said the long period of isolation had changed him forever.

Currently, Doll spends most of her time at home, in her office with the door closed. Because it’s a safe place for him.

“I don’t sit in the living room with my family and watch TV in the evening unless someone comes to pick me up,” he said. “I’m sitting here because it’s comfortable. I feel safe in a small room with the door closed. I didn’t do this when I was a kid. I didn’t do this when I was 30 or 40. I spent a year and three months doing this. I did this after spending some time in solitude.”

Ms. Dole and other survivors of solitary confinement were appointed by the North Carolina Office of Disability Rights on August 31 to raise awareness of the physical and psychological harm experienced by those subjected to such confinement. He spoke about his own experiences at a listening session held on the same day. The group advocates for the practice to be completely abolished in North Carolina’s prisons and jails.

“The effects are lifelong,” Dole said. “That’s just wrong.”

Usage in NC

On average, nearly 3,000 people (about 10% of the prison population) are held in solitary confinement in North Carolina prisons at any given time, according to the North Carolina Office of Disability Rights. People can spend days, weeks, months, or even years in such isolation.

Solitary confinement, also known as restrictive housing or segregation, is used in prison systems across the country. They often spend 22 to 24 hours alone in a cell the size of a parking space. People in solitary confinement eat in their cells, have limited visitation, and have restrictions on when and how they can exercise or shower.

A small cell in a North Carolina prison. Inside the cell is a toilet and a mattress.
Solitary confinement at Granville Correctional Facility. Most cells are about the size of a parking space. credit: Courtesy of North Carolina Disability Rights

Craig Waleed is the project manager for Disability Rights North Carolina’s anti-solitary confinement campaign, Unlock the Box, which is pushing for an end to the practice. He knows firsthand the harm that long-term isolation can cause. When he was incarcerated in New York more than 20 years ago, he spent 30 days in solitary confinement twice.

Waleed said he felt himself starting to unravel. It was becoming more and more difficult to maintain self-awareness day by day.

“Solitary confinement is torture,” Waleed said, adding that he still suffers from the days of isolation.

The United Nations agrees, Solitary confinement for more than 15 consecutive days is considered a form of torture. The group adopted the Nelson Mandela Rules, a set of standards for the treatment of prisoners around the world, including a ban on long-term solitary confinement for more than 15 consecutive days and 22 hours a day.

In 2020, Governor Roy Cooper’s Task Force on Racial Equity in Criminal Justice called for limiting the use of solitary confinement in North Carolina’s prison system. Recommendations included mandating strict limits on the amount of time and days a person can spend in isolation, adopting the Mandela Rules.

According to Waleed, there is little movement to make that a reality. In fact, as NC Newsline reported in February, recently appointed Director of Adult Corrections Director Todd Ishee said during his confirmation hearing that he did not believe it was feasible for the state prison system to comply with the standards. said.

“There are some [people] It poses such a serious safety risk that it must be kept in a more controlled environment for more than 15 days,” Issi said at the hearing.

Ishy also said at the hearing that the Department of Adult Corrections is working to review its policies regarding solitary confinement. A department spokesperson was unable to provide detailed information on its progress to NC Health News by the time of publication.

Task Force Recommendations:

  • Require strict limits on the amount of time and days people can spend alone
  • End limit housing as follows:
    • People under 21 years old
    • pregnant person
    • People diagnosed with severe mental illness, disability, or substance use disorder
    • Indefinite period
    • Period exceeding 15 consecutive days
  • Reduce the types of violations that can lead to solitary confinement, such as profanity and unlicensed tobacco use
  • Implement “step-down” plans or transition programs for people in restrictive housing;

lasting impact

Survivors of solitary confinement camps who spoke during the listening session emphasized the psychological damage caused by the period of isolation, damage that they still suffer from years after their release.

“For me, solitary confinement is mental torture,” said Daquan Peters, who has been in and out of prison for 30 years, spending about 10 years in solitary confinement. “It’s like killing a soul.”

Peters said the environment left him mentally numb. He felt helpless and hopeless.

Mona Evans, who also experienced solitary confinement, agreed.

It stripped me of my dignity,” Evans said. “I didn’t feel like a human being anymore.”

When she was locked in solitary confinement, she lost phone privileges and was unable to obtain photos of her children. Those losses were the most emotionally difficult, she said.

“I went from talking to my kids every day to not talking to them at all,” Evans said.

Evans emphasized that even after leaving isolation, the damage from being isolated remains, even though she is in her own home in the community. She developed PTSD, she said. She hates the door to her house being closed. She can’t sleep in the dark.

“Many of us are still dealing with the backlash to this,” Evans said. “No matter how many therapists I see, I’m still getting through this.”

A 2019 study by researchers at UNC-Chapel Hill found that people who spent time in solitary confinement while incarcerated in North Carolina prisons died within a year of release compared to people who did not experience solitary confinement. It turns out that the chances are 24 percent higher. Specifically, people in solitary confinement are 78% more likely to die by suicide in the first year, 54% more likely to die by homicide, and are 54% more likely to die from an opioid overdose in the first two weeks after release. They were 127% more likely to die. .

encourage change

Waleed said the frequent use of solitary confinement ignores personal reports and research showing that solitary confinement can have long-term effects on a person’s mind and body. He knows there are alternatives.

In May, Waleed traveled to Germany and Norway with others who work in the criminal justice system to observe how their practices differ from the U.S. prison system. He was struck by the stark contrast in solitary confinement practices. It hardly existed in both countries, and even when it was used, it was only a quick and temporary fix.

Mattress photographed through the door of a prison cell
This is the cell Waleed visited when he visited a foreign prison. credit: Courtesy of Craig Waleed

“Prison officials say someone can be in for 45 minutes to an hour a day, during which time someone is constantly checking on them,” Waleed observed in two European prison systems. He spoke to NC Health News about this. “It made me seem a little more human, which left a lasting impression on me.”

That’s the direction Waleed and others who oppose solitary confinement in North Carolina want the practice to change. But he knows it’s a tough road with gradual changes.

Still, he is undaunted in his efforts to achieve his long-term goal of eliminating the practice completely, and he believes that hearing the stories of lives forever changed over time in solitude will inspire policymakers and the public. Hoping to make an impact.

After all, about 95 percent of people in North Carolina’s prisons, many of whom have experienced solitary confinement, will return to their communities as neighbors.

“We have to do something different,” Waleed said. “If we don’t, we’ll continue to send people back into their communities in worse conditions than when they came.”

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