It’s a measure of the torment of solitary confinement that by comparison, life in the general population of a maximum security prison could seem like paradise. Joseph Aragon was”validated” as a gang member and placed in solitary confinement at Corcoran’s Security Housing Unit, even though he renounced his membership 13 years ago and is now 52 years old. In an August Voices from Solitary post, Aragon recounted what were then his most recent experiences:
I spent the better part of 2008 and part of 2009 in a cell without any glass in a 2 foot by 4 foot window frame. I had to use the blanket I was issued as a window covering. I slept with all my clothes on a bare mattress so I could have two sheets to cover myself with. I also lived with huge cockroaches and mice and had to secure my food items by hanging them in a t-shirt from the ceiling vent to keep bugs and rodents out. I’ve had to drink water with toxic levels of arsenic and selenium well above federal standards. If this is not torture, I don’t know what is.
Last week, Lois Ahrens, who publishes the excellent web site The Real Cost of Prisons, received unexpected news in a letter from Aragon:
I am writing today from an actual mainline! How about that? I was transferred to Delano-Kern Valley State Prison Transitional Housing Unit last Monday. As soon as I got here the handcuffs came off and I was able to have movement without restraints. It felt a little weird and yet very exhilarating. It’s still a bit restrictive as it’s a level 4 mainline (maximum security). We are fed in our cells, but have unrestricted yard time and dayroom time. It’s not much, but even just a little is a whole lot more than I have had over the past 16 years. Showers are done unrestricted and much longer than the 3 minutes I’ve been accustomed to and I got a razor issued to me for about 3 hours in my cell and can take my time and shave correctly. We had chicken last night and I actually got a full quarter of a chicken with the bone. I was in absolute ecstasy as I have eaten only chicken patties (processed) and to beat all, the CO gave me a second tray! I am still confined to quarters until I go to classification which will be either this Wednesday or next. I can have phone calls, quarterly packages and contact visits. Is that cool or what?
(Aragon welcomes correspondence, and his new address is Joseph Aragon GO8220 Kern Valley State Prison T4U P.O. Box 5101 D7-211U Delano, CA 93216.)
This is not an example of how justice prevails. It is an example of the difference between treating a person as a caged animal for years, and then treating him like something closer to a human being. Think of what it would be like if the tens of thousands of prisoners in who live in solitary confinement—some for a few months, others for five, ten, twenty years or more—were able to write such a letter. In fact, that’s what needs to happen before the United States can say that it is committed to ending torture.