Voices from Solitary: “Finally Out and Among the Living”
This essay by John Jay Powers was published by the Colorado Independent, with the following introductory note by editor Susan Greene. Greene has corresponded with Powers for years, and included him in her multimedia investigation of solitary confinement, The Gray Box.
“Jack Powers is an inmate in the federal Bureau of Prisons convicted of bank robbery and escaping from prison. He spent more than a decade in extreme isolation at the ADX where he amputated his fingers, earlobes, a testicle and his scrotum. He has tried several times to commit suicide. ‘The world outside is like another planet,” he wrote from ADX. “I feel like I am trapped within a disease.’ Powers is a plaintiff in a civil rights lawsuit against the federal government regarding its use of longterm solitary confinement for the mentally ill. – S.G.”
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After 12 long, hard years at the ADX Control Unit Supermax Prison in Florence, Colorado, I’m finally out and among the living. Oh, I’m not on the streets. I’m here among the general population of a federal penitentiary in the dry and dusty desert of Tucson, Arizona.
For a guy who has lived alone in a cement box for more than a decade, the transfer here was really something. First there was a bus and then air-service called “Con-Air” – big passenger jets flown around the U.S. by the Marshalls Service. I had the opportunity to speak with other prisoners and see a couple of cities both from land and air. It was a trip for me for sure.
When we pulled up at the pen, I was all prepared to go straight to the segregation where, once again, I’d be put into solitary confinement. Instead, a number of prison officials met me inside the door and told me that I’d be going directly into the population – into the best unit, in fact, where I’d have single cell. I was so shocked by this turn-around that I began to shed tears.
After being alone in a tiny space for so many years, I had adjusted to a kind of self-sufficiency. My eyes had adjusted to seeing things only up close. To be trusted to be around other people without handcuffs, leg irons and belly chains was incredible. I kept waiting for someone to tell me to place my hands behind my back and turn around. But nobody did. Suddenly, I was a regular prisoner in a regular prison. To most people I figure may be reading this, I realize it may not sound like great fortune. But to me, it’s big luck to be back among the living.
Still, now free to walk and talk among other prisoners, I’m starting to notice the effects that solitary confinement had on me. The noise and movement all around me is disconcerting. My conversational skills aren’t that good (as if they ever were) and I’m talking too slowly and pausing too often to gather my thoughts. If someone came up behind me, I’d jerk around to assess whether he meant harm. If somebody clasped my shoulder, I might whirl around and strike him because I’m not used to being touched, especially in a friendly way.
And there’s another thing. Because I have tattoos on my face and head that make me look like an avator/avatar, I get a lot of looks. My appearance makes other prisoners wary of me. They ask where I had come from – what joint. And when I tell them, they shake their heads knowingly. They understand that I’ve been damaged.
The years I spent at ADX have taken their toll in ways I couldn’t have expected.
Like the first night here in Tucson when I tried to play basketball in the rec yard. I could dribble all around. But when I tried to take a shot the ball felt like a brick. Actually, a cinder block. The years I spent playing in my cell with a sock as my ball and a paper rim taped by my wall had destroyed my actual skills.
Same thing when I tried to play the guitar. I amputated my fingers while at ADX. They can no longer work strings to make music. And I have no confidence that I’ll ever play again.
What I can still do is write. And so I put these words onto paper, hoping that the experience of coming out of long-term solitary is something even people who’ve never spent even a day behind bars could find interesting.
Everything seems surreal. It’s like I am dissociated, floating around in a fog, observing this new world from an emotional and psychological distance. In the chow hall, everyone sits in sections according to race and affiliations. It is segregated by the prisoners themselves. But I can go to any table and sit down and no one objects because they understand that I am no one and everyone at the same time. They know by the way I look and by the way I carry myself and by what they have already heard about me. They realize I carry some burden that was born from pain. Some of them offer me extra food, even by silently placing it next to my tray. One man offered two sugar cookies that I concealed in my sock. I got back to the unit unscathed by a shakedown, went into my cell, closed the door and ate them in the dark.
For the most part, the unit I’m housed in is quiet. But whenever the inevitable idiot begins to holler, I get instantly stressed out. After so many years of silence, I long for the quietude. There is something inherently annoying about loud noise that everyone except the noise-maker knows about. As strange as it may sound, I’ve been tempted to pack up my meager belongings and head back to solitary. I feel like mutilating myself again. I feel like committing suicide. But I don’t feel like screaming because that is the worst.
To give credit where credit is due, the lawsuit that was filed by Ed Aro of Arnold & Porter in Denver was the reason for my release from the ADX-Supermax. If not for them and for the Assistant U.S. Attorney Amy Padden in Denver and the editor of The Colorado Independent, Susan Greene, I would still be in a deep, dark hole and likely would not be alive right now. I think they know that a lot of bad stuff happened, and I think they are doing their best to fix it.
All in all, I do not know where I’ll go from here. I will continue my mission to promote “The Manual,” a guide to getting by that I wrote at ADX. I’ll try my best to adjust to this new life with the fewest setbacks possible. And, if anyone wants me to, I’ll write about my experiences again for The Independent. Perhaps the writing itself – and the readership – is my catharsis. I want to be accepted. I want to be normal. I want to be the best human being I can be. But it may just be that I’m forever outside and beyond those possibilities. The intent of injury to my heart and mind is unclear as of yet, and right now I’m somewhat confused.
After wearing pants without pockets for a long, long time, even having pockets is weird. I was just now standing by the door with my hands in my pockets and a guard came by and told me to take my hands out of my pockets. I complied, but then involuntarily went back to doing it – as if each hand needs the tight darkness. It makes sense to me. So much sense that I wonder whether I’ll be sent back to solitary for nothing more than sauntering around with my hands in my pockets.
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I understand what this man has gone through. When I was 16 years old I was sentenced to 30 years in prison for a botched bank robbery. From 4 to 15 I was raised in foster homes due to an abusive mother who used to stab me with knives. I eventually wound up in an orphan home at 14. During my second year of prison(1984) I was in the Rincon Minors Unit in Tuscon Arizona for juveniles sentenced as adults. By the time I was 19 years old I wound up in CB-6 SUPERMAX and was the youngest in there with the exception of one other. During my years in prison I spent close to 10 years in isolation.
We are very sorry to hear what you endured. You must be strong to have survived. Thank you for sharing your story.
I feel no pity, has this guy stopped for one second to think that maybe his victims feel exactly like him and live the same kind of existence he does, yet what did they do to deserve this. If you do the crime, do the time – whatever this may entail.
Can I make a suggestion? Everyone who feels compassion reading this should do more than just read it, experience a moment of heartache, and then move on. Start a support group to men in solitary like I am doing. My husband and I adopted a young man serving a LWOP sentence for a crime he was involved in at the age of 15. Before writing to him about his art, we had never had a single moment of exposure to the criminal justice system whatsoever. But this correspondence changed us dramatically. When the young man we now consider another son went to the hole for a disturbingly minor “incident” he later won on appeal, he “met” another young man “through the vents” who was in deep despair. We have begun writing to him now too and see such a huge improvement in his outlook. That gave us the idea to start a support group which, after discussing it with Prison Admin, they SUPPORT.
The bottom line here is we can ALL do something more than just read about things like this and feel bad about them. When average every day people care enough to get involved, change can happen. In the words of Gandhi, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”
And to Jack, your words made me tear up as well. Be strong and know that there is always a purpose to what we go through as long as we can use it to help someone else.
Being imprisoned is the punishment for the crime – prison shouldn’t bring with it further psychological damage to the prisoner. Solitary confinement must only be used in extreme cases and then only for very short periods to calm excessive behaviour.
I hope, Jack, that you can use your writing as a positive and that you are able to take part in whatever positive schemes there are in general population to help you feel that you are indeed back in the world again and have something worthwhile to share there. Stay strong.
You’ll find a lot of problems with the death penalty for one the unequal application.
Read the numbers here.
Also please ready my other comment to you on the prison rape issue. It sounds like you haven’t done time yourself so here is some info you may find useful.
According to Edward Bunker up until that time whites were still about 70% of the incarcerated population in San Quentin and he witnessed little racial tension. Then he noted in this article:
Harper’s Magazine Feb. 1972
“War Behind Walls”
Page 4, a religious doctrine of hate:
…what increases racial polarization in prison beyond conciliation is the mutative leap in black militant rhetoric. This rhetoric is heard within prison walls by unsophisticated minds and gives those blacks that already hate whites a rational for murder. …
Everyone understands that blacks have been brutalized by generations of institutional racism, and recently by inertia and indifference. What the sympathetic fail to grasp is that sometimes the psychological truncation is so great that it cannot be repaired. Nothing is left but hate. They have no desire—no motivation—for anything but revenge …
This view is echoed in this UT Law article covering a Hispanic American personal experience in the Texas prison system.
In Texas prisons, violence and racism reign
by Jorge Antonio Renaud
Published: Nov. 22
Jorge Antonio Renaud, a graduate student in the School of Social Work, spent 27 years in Texas prisons. This post is part of a Know series on the Texas prison system
“Relieved of the certainty that random violence might result in deadly retaliation, incoming gang bangers — overwhelmingly black and Hispanic — brought their street codes into prison: the drive-by mentality took hold, and it was visited against Anglos. These cons didn’t limit their violence to enemies — they adopted the attitude that any “white boy” was fair game, and that he could and should be broken by continual, unexpected gang beatings administered regardless of whether he fought back, or whether he showed “heart.” The unwilling joined white supremacy gangs for protection, while those men weary of constant beatings became sex slaves and cash cows.”
In closing he wrote:
“This aspect of Texas prisons results in thousands of men leaving the system with a predator mentality or a raging racism buried so deep it might never be eradicated. Reducing barriers to reentry is one thing — understanding and relieving the trauma this unceasing violence leaves on the thousands of Texans returning to our streets is another.”
Hope this helps you make a case against sexual violence without calling for reprisals.
Obviously, a prosecutor’s office (or police department) which knowingly tampers with evidence should be held accountable. Those on death row are overwhelmingly guilty. The notion that a perfectly innocent man (ie, one who has never engaged in serious/violent criminal activity) is very likely to be wrongfully sent to death row is ridiculous. The possibility of an innocent man being executed, which always exists, must be weighed against other variables, like justice for the guilty (and thus some measure of closure for crime victims or their loved ones), deterrence for future capital criminals, and costs to taxpayers. And, of course, the really important issue is NOT avoiding executing the innocent, but protecting completely innocent citizens from being criminally victimized.
Solitary is evil in a certain sense, deriving from the Benthamite “Panopticon” proposal. Three points. First, what is really needed is regular executions. Most (but not all) hardcore criminals are truly evil, and ought to be exterminated, both as a matter of justice and public safety. Second, nonviolent criminals, however, should never be incarcerated at all. They should be made to wear ankle bracelets/trackers, and then put to work making restitution to their victims (and repaying trial costs), perhaps with some corporal punishment thrown in. Finally, I should just note that for many, solitary would be far preferable to being literally “thrown to the wolves”, that is, gang-raped and then turned into a homosexual slave, to be sold for sexual services in payment for intraprison “debts”. This has happened to tens of thousands of often morally innocent white men, usually at the hands of unimaginably cruel, Satanic blacks. Who speaks for them? The ACLU? (Ha!)
If I were ever falsely convicted and sent to prison, I would request solitary, so no, solitary per se is not wrong, though it should be the choice of the individual convict.
“First, what is really needed is regular executions. Most (but not all) hardcore criminals are truly evil, and ought to be exterminated, both as a matter of justice and public safety.”
Assuming that you are referring to the death penalty I disagree!
The death penalty is barbaric, inhuman, and as we all have been seeing in the last couple of years, also, and that is more important I think then a compassionate and or social position, subject to grave errors in judgement by as well juries, witnesses, and judges!
When someone is incarcerated and an error comes to light, the error can be corrected, when someone has been put to death (or executed), an error can never be corrected!
Yes, compensation can be given to the relatives, the people left behind of the then victim, but he or she can never be brought back to life!
A lot of people have been sentenced in the past on the basis of race, witnesses who gave evidence simply because an accused was seen as guilty due to skin color, we all know of cases were witnesses have stated officially that they deemed the person guilty because he or she was “not of their kind”……… People have been sentenced to death based on that! And were found later to be innocent of the accusation!
If such people would have been executed they would have been murdered!
IF that responsibility is something you will take on yourself …… go ahead, it is your conscience! But…. and this is serious, are you ready to take indeed the responsibility to take the place of the individual who was sentenced based on false statements and or evidence? I doubt it!
And that is what i think should be or become practice… that those who gave false statements or fiddled with the evidence to have someone sentenced or convicted, OR those who are pro-death penalty, take the place of those who are convicted of a crime they did not commit! And yes, that includes judges who knowingly accept(ed) false statements and or fiddled evidence, as well as all officials and authorities involved in such case(s)!
I think that when such a rule would be implemented, investigations would be much better, statements would be better checked, officials, authorities and judges would be much more careful with their accusations and sentences!
Besides, the death penalty is something from the Middle Ages, do you want to be regarded as someone living in the Middle Ages?
We are supposed to be living in the enlightened era……….
This has me weeping in tears :(
in one word—-s.a.d.
God, how can the penal system say solitary confinement helps anyone but the prison guards?
Wow as much as this man is a criminal and has to pay the penalty of his crime…pedophiles in Australia get treat so much better than this poor soul….