Research indicates that the effect of solitary confinement can be lethal. Though only 6%-8% of the prison’s population is in restricted housing, they account for half of those who die by suicide. Dr. Grassian believes one may develop a specific syndrome due to the effects. “It is characterized by a progressive inability to tolerate ordinary things, such as the sound of plumbing; hallucinations and illusions; severe panic attacks; difficulties with thinking, concentration, and memory; obsessive, sometimes harmful thoughts; paranoia” (Grassian, 2006). The focus is usually on the psychological damage of the inmate. However, what happens when that inmate is released directly from solitary confinement into the community? These inmates tend to withdraw, remain aloof or seek social invisibility socially, and could not be more dysfunctional in family settings where closeness and interdependency are needed (Haney, 2001). There is little to no count of that effect after an inmate is released from incarceration into the community. Here is my story….
My oldest brother, Virgilio, was 17 years old when he was first incarcerated for petty theft of auto parts. Back in 2009, it was the thing among young men in our neighborhoods to do illegal car racing and steal each other car parts. One day, he got caught, and as a result, he was arrested and put on probation for a year. Three years later, he was arrested again for domestic violence ( a verbal dispute). During this time, though, it was different. Immigration and Customs Enforcement put a hold on him within hours of being arrested (which means he could get deported for violating the USA laws). A day after incarceration, he got into a fight and was put in solitary confinement for two months. During this time, he was not allowed to have visitors or receive letters from his loved ones. He was entitled to one phone call every few days during his hour of recreation, usually after 9 pm. Every day I waited for his call, he sounded depressed, and the things he would say did not make sense. Our family paid for a psychological evaluation to use it as evidence and perhaps grant leniency. Following a doctor’s recommendation, a judge granted my brother to be admitted to a psychiatric hospital instead of incarceration for further evaluation. We were happy, thinking he would get better, but his mental state was different. I remember how my family and I would cry in the car whenever we visited him. The sadness in my mother’s eye made the pain even worst.
At 23, my brother was diagnosed with Bipolar I Disordered. He was released back to jail to await a decision from Immigration. he was put on heavy medications by a Riverside Regional Jail psychiatrist. Even though he was under medication, he was still not “normal.” It became harder to converse with him or get him to express how he was feeling during this time. We went for two weeks without hearing from him. I went to Riverside Regional Jail to get information and was advised that he was put in solitary confinement. I asked when he would get released, and the lady said, “I am not sure; he will call you when he gets out.” For the second time around, my brother was in solitary confinement, and this time it was for four months. My brother did five times the jail sentence he would have received for domestic violence if found guilty. He was incarcerated for one year, and within that year, he did a total of 6 months in solitary confinement.
We kept fighting for a release. Finally, however, during his last court hearing at an Immigration court, the judge asked my brother if he had anything to say for himself, and I remember like it was yesterday, my brother said, “I can’t; my mind will not let me speak, solitary confinement fucked me up, send me home .” The courtroom went silent; all you could hear was my mother weeping. A few days later, he called from an Immigration jail about five hours away from us and said that he had been transported the night before and was getting deported the next day.
He was deported to Dominican Republic (D.R.). Our home in the Dominican Republic looked utterly different; Virgilio used to put metal chains around the front and back door, and the door to his bedroom would be padlocked from the inside. The lady who took care of him left his food at the window because he refused to open his door. He would go days without eating or showering. He would not talk to any of us for weeks at a time. He used to put wood on the windows so it would be dark in the house. His room looked like a jail cell. He used to say that he heard voices and thought he would be harmed; My brother was mentally impaired after being released. Many would say that “he violated the law, that is what he gets” or “all immigrants violate the law, they do not deserve to be here”… I HAVE HEARD IT ALL! but where is the human element? Where is the 8th amendment? (cruel and unusual punishment). I will never say not to punish, but solitary confinement is a harsh punishment; it psychologically damages inmates and their families. Past forward 11 years and my brother is still not the same. He has mental breakdowns and cannot be around too many people. He cannot function. Due to his mental health, he is not able to obtain employment. He is not able to interact socially.
What is it being done by State officials?
In the state of New York, the Senate passed the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term Solitary Confinement Act (HALT) in 2021, which limits the use of segregated confinement for all incarcerated persons to 15 days; it implements alternative rehabilitative measures, including the creation of Residential Rehabilitation Units (RRU) (Ny State senate Bill S2836 2021). In addition, in 2021, the Virginia Department of Corrections (DOC) removed restrictive housing (solitary confinement) in Virginia’s prisons. Instead, they created the Secure Diversionary Treatment Program, which diverts inmates with serious mental illnesses who are at risk of engaging in severe and disruptive incidents from a restrictive housing setting into a program where their unique needs are met and supported (Vadoc, 2021).
While solitary confinement affects an inmate mentally, physically, and emotionally for a lifetime, those same effects affect a whole family. My family suffered mentally, trying to figure out how to help my brother. My mother and father became physically and emotionally sick because they couldn’t fathom the idea that their firstborn was not “normal.” The criminal justice system affects the family as a whole. Getting therapy has helped me cope with what I was exposed to during my brother’s incarceration. At 17, I was supposed to be on my way to college and live my life. Instead, I was trying to figure out why my brother looked dead, why he was not talking. It was a life-changing experience for all of us. Due to this experience, I decided to work in the criminal justice system, to make a difference” one family at a time,” and to delegate changes within Community Corrections that would best fit the recently released clients.
Senate passes the ‘halt’ solitary confinement act. N.Y. State Senate. (2021, March 18). Retrieved August 15, 2022, from https://www.nysenate.gov/newsroom/press-releases/senate-passes-halt-solitary-confinement-act
Haney, C. (2001, November 30). The psychological impact of incarceration: Implications for post-prison adjustment. ASPE. Retrieved August 15, 2022, from https://aspe.hhs.gov/reports/psychological-impact-incarceration-implications-post-prison-adjustment-0
Vadoc – Virginia Doc completes removal of restrictive housing, WINS award from Southern Legislative Conference. Virginia DOC Completes Removal of Restrictive Housing, Wins Award from Southern Legislative Conference – Virginia Department of Corrections. (2021, July 22). Retrieved August 15, 2022, from https://vadoc.virginia.gov/news-press-releases/2021/virginia-doc-completes-removal-of-restrictive-housing-wins-award-from-southern-legislative-conference/
Stuart Grassian, Psychiatric Effects of Solitary Confinement, 22 WASH. U. J. L. & POL’Y 325 (2006), https://openscholarship.wustl.edu/law_journal_law_policy/vol22/iss1/24