This post is the first in a series of pieces Solitary Watch will be publishing for a new project calling for people held in solitary confinement to write on various proposed themes. For these pieces, Solitary Watch periodically suggests a specific theme for regular project participants to reflect on in their writings. For each individual topic, we will post several entries, each featuring the work of man or woman held in isolation. Our first theme suggestion calls for participants to describe a day in his or her life in solitary confinement.
The following response comes from Sarah Jo Pender, 34, who is currently 13 years into a 110-year sentence for murder, though she continues to maintain her innocence. She is being held at the Indiana Women’s Prison on the far west side of Indianapolis. After escaping from prison in 2008, she was placed in solitary confinement. Last week, Solitary Watch received word that, after spending over five years in isolation, Pender was recently moved out of solitary to a transition dorm, where she will remain 90 days before being moved back with the general population. –Lisa Dawson
My name is Sarah Jo Pender. I have been held under the wide thumb of prison administrators for five years in solitary confinement at the Indiana Women’s Prison. My official punishment for escaping ended four years ago, but I am still here and there is nothing I can do to get myself out.
Generally, women in segregation are held between two weeks and six months, though multiple offenses can extend sentences to years of punishment. The isolation unit is comprised of twenty-five single cells along one hall separated from general population. My cell is 7′ x 10′ of painted concrete, white and chipping, with a barred, sealed window at the rear and a steel door with a small observation window at the front. A slab of concrete and thin mattress makes my bed. A stainless steel sink and toilet encrusted with years of use sits three feet from my head when I sleep.
Food is never hot and is served on plastic trays through a hatch in the door. Sometimes, it is tolerable only if I don’t chew it first. Unpalatable globs of flour that was once upon a time pasta is drenched in a tomato base and served sixteen different ways mixed with mechanically separated chicken bits and soy pellets marked for animal feed. However, the bread is always edible and I can buy a jar of peanut butter if I want. What a luxury.
Here, it is cold. Artificial ventilation blows directly onto my bed so that no amount of repositioning brings relief from the chill. My bed must be made by 7 a.m. each day, so that I cannot access my full bed linens during the day when it is the coldest. The captain threatens to strip our cells of belongings, including all bedding if we are caught covering ourselves with the sheets during the day. I am wearing three pairs of socks right now, and my toes are purple and stinging cold.
I am confined to my cell 22 hours each day, and the other 2 hours am handcuffed and escorted 25 feet down the hallway to another locked room for “recreation and exercise,” though the space is only twice the size of my cell. In the largest room, I can take nine steps before I must turn around again and again. But there is a television that I can watch public broadcasting and lots of books. Books keep us sane. Since books are a main source of time management and entertainment, the prison uses them as a method of punishment. Women on disciplinary status are only allowed one non-religious book and one religious book at a time. I am allowed to possess up to five books. If we are caught with too many books during a room search, we are subject to further discipline.
Six days a week, my hands are restrained through the door hatch and an officer escorts me into a shower room. Four stalls line one wall; each stall is enclosed by three concrete walls and a steel mesh door that shuts us in and gets locked. I have fifteen minutes to shower with an army of black bugs on the walls. Black mold peppers the baseboards and thick scales of scum cling to ripped shower curtains. Then I am recuffed and escorted back to my perpetually cold cell.
As a kid, I slept with my bedroom door cracked for a sliver of the hall light to visually orient me when my bladder woke me up at night. Now, my room is constantly lit even at 2 a.m. I can push a button to dim the fluorescent bulbs, but I can never, ever sleep in darkness. However, the nights are usually quiet, except for the occasional slamming metal door, ringing phone, and piercing scream from one of the actively psychotic or suicidal women housed on the unit.
Despite knowing that isolation can drive people insane, the mental health care here is woefully inadequate. Once a month, a mental health staff comes to ask us if we are hallucinating, hearing voices, or are suicidal. More frequent meetings can be requested, but they offer no coping skills, no therapy, no advocacy. The luckiest among us are prescribed anti-depressants to numb us from the hardest parts of being alone. I am fortunate to have incredible support from my family and friends. To pass the time, I read, write, learn and plan for the future when I can be with them again. What sanity I eek out of these letters, books, phone calls and visits is enough to sustain me just a little longer. I am mentally stable now, but my mind broke down under the weight of isolation 3 1/2 years ago, and it was a long, slow, painful process of putting myself back together.
Acutely psychotic women who refuse medication are frequently locked in a cell where they bang and talk and argue with voices, scream about God and demons, and/or refuse to shower or eat for fear of being poisoned. This can go one for weeks until some invisible threshold is crossed and E-Squad officers dressed in full riot gear come in, hold her down, and a nurse injects her with an anti-psychotic medicine. This scene gets repeated every two weeks until she cooperates.
Other women who enter sane will become so depressed that they shut down or hurt themselves. I watched a woman claw chunks of flesh from her cheeks and nose and write on the window with her blood. My neighbor bashed her head against the concrete until officers dragged her to a padded cell. When she returned, the scab on her forehead was huge and shaped like the country of Brazil. Right across from my cell, a woman slit her own throat with a razor and was wheeled out on a gurney. Two others tried to asphyxiate themselves with bras and shoestrings. Now no one has shoestrings and we shuffle around in floppy tennis shoes with loose tongues. Once, I found some embroidery floss and tied up the middle lace holes to keep myself from tripping. A guard demanded that I give her the five inch strings and then formally punished me for this violation. Another woman cut her wrists using the metal band around a pencil eraser. Now, all our pencils are stripped naked. It is always the poor prisoner porter who is forced to clean up the blood puddles and shit smears left behind when someone’s mind spirals down the rabbit hole.
How is this an acceptable management tool for human beings? Short-term isolation is understandably useful for investigations, medical quarantines, emergencies, etc., but using long-term isolation to manage behavior is inhumane and hateful, especially when prison administrators do not offer a clear alternative. There is no behavioral therapy, no guidance, no education. There are no identified, achievable goals for the prisoner to earn her way out of isolation. The decisions seem arbitrary and capricious at best. There is no due process to protect our miniscule civil rights.
In the thirteen years I have been held prisoner, I have never committed an act of violence. I escaped from another prison over five years ago with the help of a prison guard. I essentially walked out of the back door. Today, that guard is at home a free man while I am still kept in this earthly purgatory. Why and for how long I do not know, because the prison administrators refuse to tell me. How’s that for human rights in America?