The suffering of solitary confinement extends beyond prisoners, to the families who wait for them outside. The anguish can be particularly keen for the families of inmates with mental illness.
Diana Montes-Walker’s son, whom we will call A, exhibited signs of mental illness from the time he was a young boy. When he was in his 20s, he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder complicated by drug and alcohol dependencies. In 2005, A was charged with auto theft. He was found not guilty by reason of insanity, and sent to Napa State Hospital for two years. While at Napa, Diana says, “he jumped over an inner courtyard fence because he was hearing voices tell him to hit the psych tech that was walking with him, and A did not want to hit him.” A returned to the unit peacefully and voluntarily, but the administration called it an “attempted escape.” He was immediately sent to the maximum-security Atascadero State Hospital.
California’s Welfare and Institutions Code Section 7301 states that whenever “any person who has been committed to a state hospital pursuant to provisions of the Penal Code” is officially deemed to need placement “under conditions of custodial security,” that person can be transferred “from an institution under the jurisdiction of the State Department of Mental Health to an institution under the jurisdiction of the Department of Corrections.” Without a hearing or court order, a resident of a state hospital can be sent to prison instead.
This is what happened to Diana’s son. After several years at Atascadero, A, again hearing voices, hit a guard who was making fun of him. No charges were pressed, and A was finally put on a medication that worked for him, and seemed to be making progress. But several months later, A was without warning transferred to Folsom Prison, where he was taken off the medication that worked (because it wasn’t allowed at Folsom) and placed in isolation. As Diana describes it:
Their common procedure for any mentally ill inmate sent to Folsom is that they go directly to solitary confinement. It’s the Psychiatric Services Unit (PSU); from their very first day there they are in solitary. They have to work a program and earn points in order to move up to a level where they can have a little more freedom.
A had never been in such an environment–no phone calls, only 1 hour of exercise in an outdoor cage each day, 3 showers a week, and he was in handcuffs and shackles any time he was not in his cell. All meals were taken in the cell. He had to go to groups where he and the other men were placed in “modules” which are actually one-man cages the size of a small phone booth, and the counselor would stand or sit outside the cages to lead their group sessions. All visits were non-contact (behind glass and on the phone, only). No canteen privileges if you could not meet at least 75% of the groups and other requirements they had, but they never told A about that until I complained after I sent him a Christmas package and they refused to give it to him because he had not wanted to go to all of his groups.
He became more and more isolated as he became more depressed. They told me that after one year, he could be eligible to go to the next level and have a little more freedom. I told them that I believed that in a year he would have killed himself already.
Because of Diana’s constant advocacy on behalf of A, he was moved to the California Medical Facility in Vacaville. The facility is misleadingly named: it is not a hospital, but a prison for inmates with medical needs. There he is still in solitary; he “has a little more freedom, but not much,” says Diana. Last week, Diana drove to Vacaville from her home in Yuba City. Here, she describes the trip.
Today I drove the 75+ miles to the California Medical Facility at Vacaville ready to meet with my son’s psychiatrist and social worker, and praying, too, that maybe, just maybe, they might feel some compassion and allow me to see him. I’d had this thought in my head that, somehow, they would let me have a “contact” visit–meaning a person to person visit, not separated by glass from one another.
I had previously expressed how important I felt it was that A receive the warmth and comfort the human touch can bring and that they would see the sense of this and let me hug my son and hold his hand, touch his face, rub his head like I use to when he was younger. He is nearly 30 now. They have him in solitary all the time now.
I listened to some good old gospel music on the way over there, praising God and asking Him to give me the right words to say to convince the doctor to let me see A. Praying for some miraculous breakthrough by way of our meeting, some way that we could all work together to try to help A. On the phone, the doctor had sounded so compassionate and sounded as though she was crying for A, too, as she told me how very lonely he was and how he was becoming more delusional. This was why we had set up the meeting. I had been told that it was never done; that a parent never came to meetings with the doctor or the treating team; but I had begged through the tears of a mother desperate to do whatever is necessary to bring help and comfort to my son and they had agreed.
I arrived about 11 a.m. It was already very hot…I don’t get out much, not with the osteoporosis in my neck and back. Long drives are always very hard on my body, but A is worth all of it–it doesn’t matter, if there’s a chance that he can get some sort of relief and help.
I sat in the parking lot and called the prison, dialing the extension of the social worker to let her know I was there. I got her answering machine and figured she’d be back to her office soon, so left her a message. Then I called to the unit counselor, who also didn’t pick up her phone, and left her the same message. I’d left them both my cell phone number so they could reach me in the parking lot. I had arrived early, so I was not too concerned yet. I then decided to call B, a man who answers the phone for the “acute” psychiatric unit. He is always very nice and tries to get messages to whomever I need to speak to. Since Vacaville actually is a prison, they don’t give out direct phone numbers or extensions to the doctors.
It was starting to get too hot in the truck, so I packed up my things, got my I.D. out, and walked over to the lobby to check in and let them know I was there. There was so much activity going on, so many officers walking in and out, others…I looked around and found a female officer standing at a booth where we usually go to check in whenever we visit on the weekends. She was chatting it up with another female officer about switching shifts in the coming week. When she saw me, she asked what I needed; she was very polite. I pulled out my I.D. and let her know that I was there to see A’s social worker and psychiatrist. She looked in a large binder to see if my name was written in the schedule for a meeting. She looked at me and asked if I had an appointment and I said yes, we had spoken and I was to meet them around this time, call from the parking lot, then go in for them to come out to meet me at the lobby. She did not find my name anywhere, returned my identification to me and said sorry, there wasn’t anything she could do.
It was already almost noon by then and getting hotter by the minute. I walked over to another counter where there were 3 officers sitting around, checking in the arriving employees. One of them asked if I needed assistance and I again told my story; he directed me to a phone on the wall and told me to call the social worker on that phone, which I did. No answer. I tried B’s phone but he must have walked away and he didn’t answer either, but I left another message anyway.
I looked around at all the activity; people in uniforms and plain clothes walking in and out of the building, talking, joking, some of them looking very serious. None of them seemed to pay any more attention to me. I wasn’t sure what to do, so I dialed the social worker’s extension again and, again, got no answer. I sat down on a very old-looking sofa that was against a wall and just waited and watched for about an hour.
Finally, my cell phone rang. It was B. He told me that he had looked for the social worker and discovered that she had called in sick. Then he said he had spoken to Dr. G and she had told him to tell me that she could not meet with me unless the social worker could be there with her and that she was very busy! B seemed very apologetic and courteous at the same time. I told him that I had driven from Yuba City, and his voice seemed to make the sound of shrugging shoulders as he told me there was nothing more he could do. He suggested I call back later and reschedule. I felt very helpless and just said ok and hung up. I gathered my things and slowly walked out the front door.
As I walked toward the parking lot where I had parked my car, which was quite a distance, I looked at all the huge, stone buildings. All identical, painted white. Some with a letter of the alphabet painted on the front of it. My son is housed in building P, but I could not see that building. It must be way in the back, I thought. What might he be doing at that very moment? Was he better? Was he acting out? Would we be able to see him this weekend? Did he have a window? Was it hot in there? Had he had his lunch? Had he received our letters and was he able to read them? So many thoughts ran through my mind as I walked slowly back to my vehicle.
I didn’t want to leave. Just knowing that I was so close to him; that he was somewhere nearby. I prayed he would “feel” my presence there and felt so sad and very tired. I had brought with me an envelope with some papers from A’s past and a photo of him from 9th grade so the doctor could see how cute he had been. In the photo, he is wearing a hat, slightly slanted to one side like my father used to wear it. He had on only a tank top and jeans, but he looked so happy. His face lit up with that great smile of his. I thought about how it had been so very long since I had seen that smile.
I reached the car, got in and started it to get the a/c going. I made some notations in my journal; it was so hard for me to go. I just wanted to stay on the same property where I knew my son was; to somehow connect to him in some way. To breath the same air he was breathing; to see the same sky he might be looking at. Finally, after about 30 minutes, I decided I’d better go before someone kicked me off the property…
I drove home on the highway; I drove too slow because I kept thinking about A and forgetting to step on the gas…I didn’t play my music or the radio. Just quiet while I thought and thought. I didn’t know whether I believed what B had told me, but there really was nothing else I could do. The place was a fortress and there was no shoving my way in…I thought, that’s OK, God. You know what you’re doing. Maybe it just wasn’t supposed to be yet. I will call and reschedule and discuss whether they really will allow me in. I better make sure this time, before I leave. My whole body is aching from the drive…It’s OK, though, there will be another day. Tomorrow I will fax them a letter and call. I pray we will be able to see my son this weekend…I can’t give up.