The following account is one of the many prisoner testimonies that appear in Institutionalized Torture, a recent report issued by the Human Rights Coalition-Fed Up!, a prisoners’ rights group based in Pittsburgh. The report documents abuses at Pennsylvania’s State Correctional Institution at Dallas, particularly conditions of confinement within the Restricted Housing Unit. The RHU is SCI-Dallas’s lockdown unit, where prisoners live in 23-hour-a-day, not-quite-solitary confinement–a seldom discussed aspect of some control units in the age of prison overcrowding. This statement comes from an RHU prisoner who chose to remain anonymous.
One thing I want to point out first is although this is a level 5 segregated housing unit (RHU), a lot of us, myself included, are forced to have cellmates back here (at least at SCI Dallas). That means 23 and 1 five days a week and 24 hour lockdown the other two with a cellmate not of our choice I think that in itself is pretty inhumane especially being as though this is so-called “solitary confinement.”
I, for one, was physically assaulted by a previous cellmate and some people are even sexually assaulted by cellmates…The cell was disgustingly filthy when I first entered it. There were stains on the walls and the bunk that looked like boogers/snot and dried blood. Hair and dirt was everywhere and it smelled very bad. Also, the cells have no windows and very minimal air circulation. Plexi-glass “spit shields” prevent air from flowing in cells. The water that comes out of the sink and the showers is a dark “rust” color and tastes like chemicals. It even stains my white boxer shorts that I wear in the shower.
We are let out for one hour a day, Monday through Friday, for recreation which consists of being cuffed and led by a “dog leash” attached to the cuffs to an outdoor area where there are a whole bunch of cages similar in size to our cell. We are placed one person per cage and left out there with nothing for one hour. This is where some inmates smuggle containers filled with feces, urine and other bodily fluids and fling it on each other. Some inmates actually undress, squat down and defecate into their hand and throw it like that. We also come out 3 times a week for shower which lasts anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes usually. Occasionally I’ve been left locked in the shower stall for close to an hour or more, obviously forgotten about. This is another area where inmates can throw feces, etc. because they put 2 inmates per shower stall, next to each other only separated by a fence-like partition. Other than special circumstances, these are the only times we come out of our cells…
The noises I hear are mostly constant banging from inmates near and far in the RHU. And I’m talking about 24/7. Some inmates bang on tables, bunks, doors, sinks, etc. and it seems like it never ceases…Also, I hear inmates constantly screaming.
My ability to focus has definitely changed. When I try to read I cannot focus on what I am reading even on rare occasions when it is relatively quiet. I’ll find myself reading the same page of a book for like 20 minutes or half an hour at a time because I can’t concentrate enough to comprehend what I am reading. My mind constantly wanders and I sometimes find it difficult to talk to people because of this as well.
Thankfully, I’ve never had an impulse to hurt myself, or at least a serious one I should say. This place definitely makes you think about it though. I feel sorry for weak-minded or mentally unstable inmates, though, because I can see how they would have such impulses. In fact, at least one inmate committed suicide by hanging himself in his cell while I’ve been in this RHU. It was a few weeks ago, I don’t recall the date. But the jail swept that incident under the rug and put a new inmate in that cell the very next day.
My sleeping patterns are different while in RHU. I must try and doze off during the rare times that it is quiet. But my sleep is often interrupted by banging, clanging, C/Os [corrections officers] yelling, inmates screaming etc. Also the light makes it almost impossible to sleep during the day. My sleep is very disturbed and I’m sure the pattern is unhealthy. I have frequent nightmares. I have daydreams and fantasies very often in RHU. Mostly they are about being somewhere else, what I would be doing or like to be doing if I was home, planning for my future when I get out or just imagining that things were different. I sometimes reminisce about my childhood or past experiences.
My perception of reality is usually OK. I have noticed slight visual hallucinations in my peripheral vision and also if I focus on an object for extended time. Now that I think about it, my perception of reality maybe isn’t as good as I’d like to think it is. I must admit, my thoughts are often irrational in relation to reality and often violent. Sometimes my perception of time is off. I sometimes get paranoid and think my cellmate is watching me or paying too much attention to my business. We get absolutely zero privacy. I often get paranoid and wonder if he is a homosexual. Sometimes I have urges to hurt him, but I try to control myself. I try to remind myself that it is not his fault we are forced to be in this situation. The banging noises and screaming voices often seem unbearable. Sometimes the toilet flushing sound even becomes unbearable as well. Also, I sometimes get very claustrophobic and feel like I am having a panic attack. My heart beats very fast, I sweat and have shortness of breath.
I do not feel that the prison administration was justified in placing me in the RHU. I was placed back here for what I perceive to be relatively minor infractions both times…Often times, I for one, as well as other inmates I’ve spoken to, will plead guilty to charges that we are not guilty of simply because we know the sanction will be much worse if we plead not guilty…
I think that the whole idea of solitary confinement is insane. We are already in prison. This is just a form of inhumane punishment and torture…The administration is obviously indifferent and could care less about the long term affects that this type of confinement has on us as human beings. Obviously we are not human beings to them, we are merely a number. Most of the inmates in solitary confinement need mental help but are not receiving it.
If they were to use solitary confinement in prisons, it should be limited to extreme cases where it is a last resort. As it stands now it is a first resort. Inmates can come to RHU for something as petty as sleeping through count. It’s totally ridiculous. My first time back here was for using a curse word (“abusive language”)…