Hello again. Long time no talk. I wonder what you’ve been up to, how your summer is going. Despite the circumstances, summer is still something to look forward to in here (assuming you’re not in solitary, in which case it’s hella depressing). A friend of my wife’s is curious about solitary confinement and what it’s like. I`ll endeavor to explain it as best as I can, using my recent stint there as the starting point. I refer to solitary as a prison within a prison, because that’s essentially what it is. A lot of guys refer to it as hell. To me, it’s definitely the ninth circle of hell (I`m pretty sure that’s the bottom circle in Dante’s hell). Even as I think back to that time in solitary, more than a year removed, I feel the bands tightening around my heart, a constriction of the chest. That’s the anxiety creeping in again. Some may scoff at the concept of solitary causing PTSD, but let me assure you: that shit will fuck you up.
In order to give you some perspective, I have to explain some of the different custody levels within the NDOC. I think everyone’s generally familiar with the different security-levels of prisons (i.e. minimum, medium, and maximum). Lovelock is a medium-security prison, as is High Desert. Ely is a maximum-security prison, but based on Justice Department definitions, it’s actually a supermax. Ely is pretty much a lockdown facility, meaning that almost every inmate there is locked in his cell 23 hours a day. At Lovelock & High Desert, there are general population units, protective segregation units (also known as protective custody or “P.C.”), and segregation units (administrative segregation and disciplinary segregation). PC conditions mirror GP conditions. There are two inmates to a cell, and everyone gets the same freedoms and privileges. In GP, there’s a “level” system, but detailing that is unnecessary for the purpose of describing solitary.
In both GP & PC at Lovelock, you get to be out of your cell and out of your unit with all the other inmates housed in your unit and neighboring units. At around 6 am, you get up and get to walk to a chow hall with inmates from your unit, all of you sitting at tables(four to a table) together to eat breakfast. You pick up a sack lunch at breakfast, and carry it back to the unit with you, to eat whenever you want between then and dinner. Once you’re back from breakfast, the tier is open for tier time.
“Tier” is a multifaceted word in here, acting as both a noun and a verb. The tier is the physical space all of the cells open up into, the best analogy being an apartment complex courtyard. When you exit your apartment door, it opens up onto a courtyard (if you’re in an outdoor-type apartment complex). If you’re upstairs, you have a walkway with railing, and when you look over the railing, the courtyard is down below. The tier in a prison unit is akin to the courtyard in an apartment complex. Except it’s got a roof & ceiling, and the central area has some tables (the same type of tables they have in the chow hall). Against one of the walls of the tier is a bank of three phones. The wall perpendicular to the phones has three or four showers in a row (there’s a row of showers downstairs and a row of showers upstairs). There’s also a microwave near the phones.
So, when you have tier, or you’re on tier, that means you can come out of your cell to be on the tier. Get back from breakfast and change from your blues (jeans and a button-up blue shirt) into something a little more comfortable. Some shorts & a t-shirt, or a tank top. Tier runs from after breakfast until 11:00 am. You can choose to go outside to the yard (acting as both a noun & verb, same as tier) to play soccer, football, handball, basketball, softball, or maybe even hacky-sack. Or you can work out (push-ups, pull-ups, dips, etc.) on the various workout stations that are available (the same kind of pull-up bars & stuff you might see at a public park). In between all that—or choosing not to do any of that stuff—you can socialize. Talking with other inmates, hanging out with friends, listen to music while you walk around. Despite the razor wire & fences, a man can feel somewhat free out there, socializing and playing sports like a normal human being, enjoying the warmth of the sun on your face on a summer’s day.
If you’re not the outdoorsy type, you can stay inside on the tier (or you can spend an hour on the yard then come in for a shower). You can walk around the tier, sit at a table with other guys, socialize, play cards, cook some food in the microwave, get on the phone, or lean back against a wall and watch everything going on (there are a lot of characters in prison, so there’s never a dearth of entertainment to be had from people watching). Granted, you have to watch everything going on to protect yourself as prison is a violent place at times, and guards and prison administrators rarely fulfill their duty to protect you from the violence at the hands of other inmates. If you want to shower, you can just get your shower stuff (towel, shampoo, etc.) out of your cell and hit the showers. You can shower once, twice, three times a day if you want. You’re allowed an unlimited number of phone calls, so you can stay in touch with family & friends on a daily basis, no problem.
Because all inmates can’t just move freely around the prison at all times of the day, you’re dependent on a written communication system to communicate with various prison departments using specific forms called “kites”. In a regular unit, when you have tier, you can just walk over to the downstairs office and ask the guard sitting in there for whatever forms you need. Then, when you want to submit these forms (or mail a letter), you just walk over to the mailbox and stick the kite or letter in there. If you have a medical issue, you can tell the guard in the office, or walk over to the infirmary on the days they have “sick call”. Have some property you’re waiting for, or wanting to mail out? You walk down to the property room on the “property open door call” day. You get to walk over to the gym (weights, indoor basketball, volleyball, racquetball, and handball) a few times a week and spend an hour or two in there each time. There’s also chapel at least once a week, when you can go to the chapel to worship or commune with people who share your same beliefs. And of course, you can’t forget visiting. A couple days a week(on the weekends), you can get visits from your family and friends, where you just walk over to the visiting room and sit at a table with your people, holding hands, playing games, talking, and laughing.
As you can tell, it’s a fairly normal situation, a routine filled with daily socialization and physical interactions with other human beings. You get outside for fresh air and sun for hours a day, you get daily showers, and you can get a pretty close approximation of normal daily life despite the guards and towers and fences. In addition to that, you can get food and clothing packages, and you get to order unlimited canteen once a week. Please don`t think all these things make prison fun or enjoyable. The loss of freedom and control is absolutely horrible, and none of that other shit can make up for being confined. However, that’s the “baseline” of prison.
At eleven in the morning you lock down for count. That means you go back to your cell (both you & your cellmate) and you’re locked in there while they count all the inmates in the prison to make sure they’re all still alive & still where they should be. After count clears (around noon), you get to go out for tier and yard again. You lock down again at around three, they count again, you get out again at around 4:00 to 4:30, and you can stay on the tier or go to dinner around 5-6. Tier stays open until 6:30, when they count again. That count clears around 7:00, and you’re out for tier again (you get night yard only during the summer). Lockdown for the night is around ten, at which point you are locked in your cell for the night, until breakfast again the next morning.
It’s not too bad, because you are pretty tired from running around and doing stuff all day and ready for sleep at that point. There’s something to look forward to each day.
So now that you know the “baseline” prison experience, I can tell you about solitary and you can see how it’s different, how it’s a prison within a prison. Out in the world, you have unlimited freedom. If you get sent to prison, you lose all that freedom. After a while in prison, a certain routine is established, limited freedoms enjoyed. Get sent to solitary and that limited freedom is gone, same as the unlimited freedom of the outside world is gone when you come to prison. When there is a fight, or you’re under investigation, or your safety is in jeopardy, you’re placed in Administrative Segregation (“Ad Seg”). When you are found guilty of violating prison rules or regulations, you can be sentenced to Disciplinary Segregation (“DS” or “the hole”). Now, Ad Seg and DS are usually in the same building(s), with the only differences being the ability to order canteen, and the number of phone calls you can make. Outside of that, Ad Seg is pretty much the same as DS.
On December 18th, 2012, I was placed in Ad Seg after being assaulted by another inmate. I was placed in a cell by myself, and given a mattress, a blanket, two sheets, a towel, a toothbrush & toothpaste, a bar of soap, an orange jumpsuit, and the underwear, socks & shoes I had on when I was brought over to Ad Seg. When I was brought over to Ad Seg, my hands were cuffed behind my back, and the guard escorting me uncuffed me in the cell’s doorway. Once uncuffed, the door closed behind me. I can’t even properly describe the feeling of absolute helplessness and powerlessness that washed over me in that moment. All I could do was make my bed then look around at the barren cell. It would be a few days before I got my property, so there wasn’t much to do.
This is when time takes a weird elasticity, like they say happens when you get close to a black hole. There’s no clock, no watch, no tv, no radio—no way to tell time except for light filtering through the frosted window. Even the light isn’t a great indicator at first because you have no idea which way your window is facing. Even when you can tell time again, it becomes an antagonist rather than an indicator of anything positive. Every prison runs its hole different. At Lovelock, when I was there, the hole was run by old man Vallaster and one of his kids, so they ran it the way they wanted instead of running it according to regulations and procedures.
I got to the hole after dinner, so no food was coming as darkness descended. Not that I had any appetite anyway. There were a couple of inmates yelling to each other from different cells, but I couldn’t tell who or where they were, so I didn`t interject. In each cell is a button and a little intercom. When you need to contact the guard in the control bubble, you hit the button, which causes a light on the control panel in that control bubble to light up. It’s typically frowned upon to use the intercom button for anything except emergencies (except when the guards tell you to). Depending on what cell you are in, you can see only certain parts of the tier or unit when you look out of the window in your cell door. It takes a minute to get the hang of the schedule & routine, how everything works.
The first evening & night, I tried to sleep. I cried because I was worried about Des and her being worried about me when I didn`t call and out of frustration and anger. I let the depression take over and put me to sleep. The next morning the sound of tray slots opening, and general banging of trays and carts, woke me up. Each cell door has a slot in or near the middle of the door. That slot has a flap/door on it that is unlocked with a key. When the guards are serving the meals, they open up the tray slot and put the tray of food on there. At breakfast you are given your breakfast tray and a sack lunch for later. When you grab your tray off the slot where it’s balanced, the guard closes it again. I would set the tray on the sink, check it for any food stuck to the bottom of it(clean it if there was food stuck there), then sit on the edge of my bed or on the toilet, tray balanced on my knees, to eat. After I got done eating, I put the tray on the floor near the door. The guards came around about an hour later to pick up the trays.
After a couple of days I was given my property, which had been completely ransacked, with a bunch of stuff not allowed in Ad Seg removed and unauthorized. I was allowed only two of my appliances, so I chose my tv and my fan. Within a few days, I was given an Ad Seg classification hearing wherein I was notified I would remain in Ad Seg until an investigation was conducted into the physical altercation that took place. The caseworker conducting the hearing didn’t care that I had been assaulted, and nothing I said at that hearing had any effect on the final results. On December 24th, I was given a kangaroo court disciplinary hearing wherein I was found guilty of assault & battery and sentenced to two years in the hole.
It’s hard to tell what’s worse in the hole: the noise or the silence. When I was sentenced to two years DS, they came in and took all my appliances. Luckily, I had my stamps, pens, paper, and envelopes, so I could write my wife & family to let them know what was going on. It took me a few days of observation and asking questions of the guards when they walked by to figure out how things worked.
Whenever you leave your cell, there’s a routine. First, the guard or guards escorting strip you out. It’s called a strip out. When you get stripped out, you have to get completely naked and hand all your clothes to the guard through the tray slot. After the guard has examined all your clothes for contraband, you have to go through a series of motions, with the guard naming off each motion: show me the fronts and backs of your hands, open your mouth and run your fingers along the gums, show me behind your ears, run your fingers through your hair, raise your arms and show me your pits, lift your dick, lift your balls, turn around, raise your left foot and wiggle your toes, raise your right foot and wiggle your toes, now bend over and spread your ass cheeks and cough. Yeah, that’s for real, people. Pretty humiliating, eh? After the indignity of that little dance is over, you get to get dressed again.
Once dressed, you kinda hunch down to get your hands in the tray slot, behind you, for the guard to cuff your hands behind your back. When your hands are cuffed, the guard bangs the metal header above your door to let the other guard in the bubble know to open your door. Then the guard shackles your ankles by having you lift one foot, then the other. Once you are cuffed & shackled, you’re ready to leave the cell to go to your disciplinary hearing, or whatever. You get to shower once every three days, and luckily you don`t have to get stripped out to go to the shower. You just get cuffed & shackled, then walk over to the shower, trying not to step too large of a stride lest you rip the skin of your ankles with the shackles. It’s a challenge carrying soap & shampoo to & from the shower with your hands cuffed behind your back. It’s the same cuff & shackle routine when you’re locked in the steel cage that surrounds the shower, and when you’re let out of that cage when you’re done showering.
Technically, you’re supposed to get outside to a yard (not the same yard as GP &PC) once a day, or at least five hours a week. I was in the hole at Lovelock for about four months, and I was not given yard a single time, nor did I ever see anyone else ever get yard. The reason being that the Vallasters didn`t want to have to escort inmates out to the yard. So they didn`t. The only time I got outside was for my monthly visit.
In the hole at Lovelock (both Ad Seg and DS), you get only one visit a month, for about two hours, behind glass. When leaving your cell, you go through the usual strip out routine, except instead of having your hands cuffed behind your back, you are placed in a belly chain. That’s a chain cinched and locked around your waist, with two cuffs attached to it, so you have some limited mobility with your hands cuffed to this chain around your waist, the cuffs attached to opposite ends of the chain with little two-inch long chains between the cuffs and belly chain. Walking to visiting takes forever because the length of your stride is shortened by the shackles. I would rip the skin over my Achilles tendon every time when making that walk. Each step causes the chain between the ankle cuffs to tighten, making each cuff twist around each ankle, an endless sawing motion of metal on cotton sock, then flesh.
Anyway, when you finally get to the visiting room, you don`t get to actually go into the visiting room. Oh yeah, instead of a weekend visiting day, visiting for the hole is in the middle of the week. So, you get there, and you have to sit on a little metal stool, and then try to pick up a phone attached to the wall in front of you, contorting your body to hold the phone up to your ear & mouth with one of your hands cuffed to your side. Sometimes the guards would uncuff one of your hands, sometimes they wouldn`t. Then you would talk to your family through the phone, looking at them through a thick, dirty pane of plexiglass. Half of the time the phone wouldn`t work properly, so you end up yelling to be heard and repeating yourself endlessly. Additionally, nothing to eat or drink. Whereas a regular visit is four hours, and you get to eat a bunch of different foods from the vending machines, a behind- glass visit means you don`t get any food or drinks from the vending machines (at least in Lovelock). And the regular visit chairs are plush & padded with backs; that behind-glass stool is hell on your ass.
As you can imagine, going from four to eight, four-hour visits with physical contact each month to a single two-hour visit each month is devastating, both to you and your loved ones and to your relationships themselves. Those unlimited phone calls I had in the regular unit? Gone. In the hole you have to submit a phone request kite, and hope the guards working bring you the portable/cordless phone that day. Then you have to hope the battery is charged and the phone isn`t broken. If the gods are smiling, you actually get a working, charged phone. Then, if you’re on Ad Seg, that phone works for one single 30-minute call a week. That’s it. When you’re on DS, you get one single call a month. If the call somehow drops or disconnects, you’re burnt. Sorry, Charlie, you’ve exceeded your allowed number of calls if you try to call back, and the system won’t let you call.
When you’re on/in DS, you can’t order any food or coffee from the canteen. You can only order stamps, stationary, and hygiene. Once a week, the guards will let you hit your button and tell them what forms you want (phone kites, kites, etc.), and they’ll bring them to you. You’re completely at their mercy. There are also kites for clippers. Your ability to communicate is drastically reduced and diminished. Endless hours alone in a cell. Night turning to day turning to night again on an endless loop.
So, that was the hole in Lovelock. Solitary confinement at a medium-security prison run by corrupt individuals. You are suddenly and drastically cut off from the contact you did have with the outside world.
This post is way too long as is, so I`m going to stop here for now, and save the rest for later. In my next post I`ll talk about solitary confinement at Ely and the psychological effects of that isolation. Until next time, then, hug the ones you love and be grateful you can see them, talk to them, and have actual physical contact with them every day.