A biweekly column in which various contributors from both sides of prison walls explore common ground for effecting change.
From my own experience doing time in segregation, some prisons hand time out like candy. My first time getting into a fight in Rush City I received 45 days, and that was a deal. I had the option of a trial with the same officers that offered me the deal as the judge and jury. So the only choice I had was to take 45 days or go to trial, lose, and get 120 days. I took the 45 days because I knew I don’t have a chance at winning.
The experience in the hole is a lot more mental damage than anything. I say this because as soon as you get in segregation you get stripped of all your clothes. You have to bend over in front of the officers.
After that, you sit on the bed naked until an officer comes and gives you segregation clothes that everyone in segregation wore. You don’t get anything new. You will have the same underwear someone had on last week, and everything is pink— socks, t-shirt, underwear, everything.
After you have on clothes that hundreds of inmates have had on, all you can do is lay in your bed and think with a bright light over your head that you can’t turn off. I feel that design is to try and keep you up, because that light is not going out until 9:15 pm at night, and it comes on about 6 am in the morning.
When I was in segregation we could use the phone one time only on Sundays at 7 am, and who’s really up at that time on a Sunday? Your 15 minutes start as soon as your door opens up, not when you are actually on the phone.
I could come out of my room one time a day. No one is out with me, so there’s no interaction with anyone. I didn’t go outside at all. I feel the whole science behind segregation is to break you, and it will have a long-lasting effect on you mentally.
Part of this effect is because of the D.O.C. rules in segregation, like the pink underwear worn by other inmates, stripping you down and making you bend over, keeping the light on so you can’t sleep, and limiting calls to one early Sunday morning. I feel segregation is designed to break someone mentally because of what is done to you as soon as you arrive there. Anyone who spends up to a year in segregation would come out with mental issues.
When I asked some corrections officers their thoughts on segregation, this is what they told me:
Officer (1): “I don’t think anything is wrong with segregation. Do I feel some things should be changed? Yes, I do. I know the answer’s no. but what would we do if there is no punishment? Would us officers be safe to someone who has a life sentence if it’s no real punishment behind their actions?”
Officer (2): “We tend to stay away from political questions, but segregation is for the safety of the public and other inmates.”
Officer (3): “It’s like, what do you do? I know I would go crazy if I stayed in there one day, but how can segregation be reformed in a good way where it’s effective and safe for everyone? I think no one should be in there for a long time, but what do you do?”
Officer (4): “I don’t think anything about segregation. Anyone that goes to the hole has to be responsible for their actions.”
I feel what needs to be done is giving inmates that option to interact with other inmates and not be so isolated. Give inmates an option to have a radio to listen to, not to be comfortable, but so no one goes crazy. After some time in the hole, you should be required to see a psychologist about why you are in and before you get out of segregation.
Some people do years in segregation and get right out without anyone one checking their mental health. That needs to change.
Deon Miller is a participant in Voices for Racial Justice’s “Bridging the Gap” partnership. Reader responses are welcome to firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more about the organization’s work, visit www.voicesforracialjustice.org.