After 15 stays in solitary at prisons in Arizona and Washington, I now suffer panic attacks and hear whispers.
Jeffrey McKee is a writer imprisoned in Washington State and contributes to the Prison Journalism Project, a national news organization that trains incarcerated writers to become journalists and publishes their work. Warning: the descriptions in this article are disturbing and may be upsetting to some people.
Imagine a 7-by-10-foot box with peeling paint — gray, pea green. A red line two feet from the door marked the spot where you needed to stand in order to eat, shower or exercise. If you weren’t on that red line when the guards came by, you’d have to try your luck the next time around. Decades-old boogers and dried feces were smeared on the wall. The toilet and sink were 24 inches from where you slept, from where you ate. A small slit in the wall was painted over so you could not see out, and the window on the door revealed only a bare wall. At any moment, you could be forced to share this space with a stranger.
That was the segregation cell at a private prison in Arizona, the first time they sent me to the hole.
In different institutions at different times, solitary confinement is given various clinical-sounding names by the government, with attendant acronyms: Administrative or Disciplinary Segregation (Ad-Seg/D-Seg), Behavior Management Unit (BMU), Communication Management Unit (CMU), Special or Security Housing Unit (SHU), Intensive Management Unit (IMU).
We prisoners prefer the simpler term because it captures what it’s like living in a tiny cell roughly 23 hours a day, segregated from the rest of the prison population.
The use of the hole in American prisons began in Pennsylvania in 1790. Sixteen small cells at the Walnut Street Jail in Philadelphia segregated prisoners from others to provide them with alone time to contemplate what they had done and induce penitence – hence the term “penitentiary.”
One hundred years later, in 1890, the United States Supreme Court fell short of ruling solitary confinement unconstitutional, with Justice Samuel Miller noting in a majority opinion that “a considerable number of prisoners fell, after even a short confinement, into a semi-fatuous condition, from which it was next to impossible to arouse them, and others became violently insane; others still, committed suicide; while those who stood the ordeal better were not generally reformed, and in most cases did not recover sufficient mental activity to be of any subsequent services to the community.”
According to data from 2019, an estimated 55,000 to 62,500 incarcerated Americans had spent the past 15 days in solitary confinement. Oftentimes, a stint in solitary lasts more than a month. Research has shown that solitary confinement shortens lives, even after release. And people who spend time in solitary confinement are at greater risk of experiencing adverse psychological, emotional and behavioral effects.
More than 130 years after Miller’s majority opinion, U.S. prisons still use the hole for either punishment or protection, depending on what box officials mark on a form. In my 18 years in prison, I have had both boxes marked. The various vague reasons typically cited — “safety and security concerns,” “threat to orderliness of the facility” — don’t help clarify the matter.
My first trip to the hole, in Arizona, lasted 30 days. The stated reason was my refusing a cell assignment and a direct order by a staff member to proceed or disperse from a particular area — two major infractions for a single action.
I was new to the system, a “fresh fish,” as we were called. I had known that if I celled up with the individual assigned to me there would be a physical altercation, and I had notified prison staff of the concern. They responded by instructing me to stay in my cell or go to the hole.
Before long, I was taken to a small cage and strip-searched. There, a corrections officer handed me a jumpsuit and ordered me to sign a piece of paper — my acknowledgement that the solitary confinement cell was clean, free from graffiti, in good working order, and that the guard and I had inspected it together.
In my experience, they have never actually verified that the cell is clean and functional.
I was then introduced to my hole, a barren cell. A ceaseless whooshing burst through an air vent. The fluorescent light overhead buzzed and burned 24 hours a day.
The constant light and the inability to check the time was disorienting. Was it morning? Was it night?
Over time, I began to see shadow monsters, little dark spots in my peripheral vision, always moving just out of view. I heard whispers that were hard to make out.
That was when I began head-banging — not enough to leave evidence, just enough to quiet the monsters.
On good days, I received an hour of exercise time in another box, just as small as the hole. There I had barely enough room to pace around.
When it came time to shower, I was locked in a small cage with no privacy. I pressed a button for water that had a pre-set time and temperature. When it began to flow, the water was scalding hot. I tried to move in any direction while the water burned my skin, but, in such a confined space, I only managed to even out the burn.
Around the end of my 30 days, an infraction hearing was held. I was found guilty and sanctioned to time served. I was ordered into another cell with another incompatible cellmate. I had learned my lesson this time and celled in.
I have never refused a cell assignment since.
Determined to die
Since 2006, I have been to the hole 15 times. On almost each occasion, it was shortly after filing a lawsuit or writing to the governor to criticize some local prison practice. Each time, the emotions, visions and sensations began where they left off — and grew progressively worse as time went on.
In late 2018, I was once again taken to the hole for what I believe to be reasons connected to a lawsuit I filed against Washington State Department of Corrections. A custody unit supervisor claimed I improperly possessed “legal property of other inmates.” While I was in possession of legal documents, the paperwork in question was related to a co-plaintiff suit I filed with another prisoner.
I had just returned from a three-day trip to the hospital for hiatal hernia surgery, and was taken straight to the cage. I was fed up. I stopped eating and drinking. I was determined to die.
A makeshift noose
The following week, my body expelled its remaining contents. A black, thick, oil-like substance emptied into my jumpsuit. I had spent most of the morning trying to get the guard’s attention for toilet paper, only to be ignored. Finally, he said in a disgusted tone that I would have to wait for the next shift.
The next guard played the same game. Finally, by the third shift, I had caught the guard’s attention. I remember her telling me I would have to wait for the first or second shift.
“We don’t do toilet paper on this shift,” I recall her saying.
I lost it. From somewhere deep within, I yelled a guttural “fuck you” over and over until all that my vocal cords could muster was a low growl. I kicked the steel door as hard as I could, again and again and again. The guard appeared to smile at my efforts, which I had interpreted as her delight in my misery. I threw a rubber cup that held gel deodorant. It splattered all over the window and door. I smeared it everywhere.
Soon, I made a haphazard noose out of my sheets, tied it to the foot of the bunk and leaned forward. It broke free the first attempt.
During the second attempt, I got caught. The last thing I remember is someone on my back, tying my wrists together. I felt intense pain where the surgeon had made incisions in my stomach.
After I was transferred to another cell, my jumpsuit, underwear and t-shirt were cut off. The guard told me not to move.
There I was, naked and still.
Fifteen days in solitary
In response to my suicide attempt, I received 15 days in solitary confinement and lost 10 days off early release. By that time, I had been in the hole for four months.
Two months later, after bad experiences with a cellie who stole my $30 pair of earbuds and about $75 worth of food my family had purchased, I returned to solitary confinement. I was able to hold my fury until I entered that steel cage — then I lost it.
After 15 stays in the hole, I now suffer panic attacks around small groups. I still hear whispers. I am easily agitated and can be overly aggressive. I cannot stand overhead lights. Most of all, I have intense thoughts, feelings and compulsions, which, if articulated, would surely land me in the hole indefinitely.
Additional reporting by Prison Journalism Project editorial staff.
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