Recently, Solitary Watch had the opportunity to sit down with “X,” a former corrections officer who spent almost two years working on a segregation unit in Pennsylvania. (The guard requested complete anonymity in exchange for the interview). X, now 48, worked for the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections between 2006 and 2009, and in the Special Housing Units (SHU) from 2008-2009. He spoke with journalist Aviva Stahl about what drew him to work “in the hole,” what he saw while he was there, and what he thinks about the growing movement to reform the use of solitary. This interview has been edited for length and clarity
AS: Did you start working in the SHU or did you work in general population first?
X: It’s always general population first. Always. You don’t work in solitary confinement until you’ve established yourself as a CO. They want to see how you react. How you handle yourself. How you are with the other CO’s, how you interact with inmates. And they take that all… and you get to know your lieutenants, your captains, your majors, and your other staff members, your peers, your other CO’s. Whether or not they can trust you and you can trust them before you’re ever considered for down there, the hole. We used to call it the hole. People want to see what you’re made of.
AS: Do you remember the kind of people who were there for disciplinary or punishment, do you remember the range of stuff they had done to warrant being put in the hole?
X: Mm-hm. It could be an offense towards an officer. It could be, any inmates if they got in any kind of a fight or something both of them automatically go down. Normally a couple days, you have a trial, find out what’s going on, bring the officers in that seen it. “Yeah I seen this, the inmate so and so you know initiated it.” So normally the one that didn’t, they’d get released back to general population. They could be down there for, I mean, stealing, whether it had been in the chow hall, from one of the workshops trying to bring things in, offenses that they committed during visiting when they were visiting family and friends during visiting hour. There would be state offenses against officers like spitting, hitting. Anything.
AS: A lot of people who’ve been in solitary confinement, in the hole, talk about the way it sounds or the way it smells. Do you remember anything distinct about what it sounded like?
X: It was always cold. It was always hollow. Everything was cement. Cement or iron. So it was always cold and it was always, it had a hollow echo. But the whole prison, even our upper blocks, the prison was built in 1878/1879, so it was all the cement floors, cement brick and iron. That’s it. So there was an echo wherever you went but particularly down in the hole, because it was not as tall of a ceiling, there was no really open space.
AS: Was the food fed through a slot?
X: Yes, there would be like a mail slot. Just folded down and secured back. Just a general lock, came down, you set it there. The inmate would have to stand at the back of the cell, hands out to the front of him, palms exposed, you’d go forward place the tray on there and after you’d stepped away then he could come and get it.
AS: And in the SHU, did prisoners go to the yard or the showers by themselves or in groups?
X: Yeah, it was just one. Whenever you’d move each one of them, it was cuffs, shackles, you know leg shackles and handcuffs depending on if they would spit you’d put a spit guard on them. So it was always two on one. Two CO’s to one inmate. They’d shower by themselves. A five-minute shower, seven minute shower. And then you’d escort them back. Yard was a half hour.
AS: So in terms of being shackled to go to the shower or being shackled to go to the recreation, was that the most human contact that people had?
X: Yeah, that was it…
AS: Did you ever see people go crazy in the SHU?
X: Oh yeah. Yeah it was, we had one inmate, he was in his 70’s… We had another inmate being transferred from another institution and he said yeah, he would take a cellie. Well, ended up, both celled together. It was the second night together and the younger inmate who was like 24, raped the 77 year old inmate. And I remember when [the 77-year-old] came out of there, the Lieutenant comes out and we had him on a stretcher and I mean this man, we thought he was going to have a heart attack, a stroke or…he was just horrified that this had happened.
AS: I think you told me you walked in on someone who had hanged himself, right?
X: We had one inmate, he was dead when we got him. He snapped his neck from hanging himself. Had some that the genitalia, tried to cut it off with a plastic spoon.
AS: And the people who tried to commit suicide in solitary or who cut themselves, do you think it was because they were in solitary? Do you think it was the solitary that was driving them crazy?
X: No, I think it was just incarceration. And situations that happen while they were in there, if they had a loved one that died or their spouse or their child or someone you’re going to know what happens when it happens. The inmates don’t take time to tell you. They’ll tell you what happened. But they can’t go on anymore and they’ll tell you they don’t want to live anymore. They’ll write Dear John letters. It’s the same as what happens out here. They start giving away everything, they write a note, they start, they lose all affect for anything. You don’t want to be involved anymore and they withdraw. It’s a norm. [In fact, 50 percent of all prison suicides take place among the approximately 5 percent of prisoners held in solitary.]
AS: The other thing I was curious about that we talked about when we met was forced cell extractions. I don’t know if you want to talk about that, what it was like to participate in those or kind of what it looked like.
X: Basically, where we would be doing, whether it would be a fence, they would grab ahold of one of the nurses, when it was pill-passing time. They would mix up stuff, they would defecate all over their cells, they would paint the windows, so you have to be able to see, no matter what, you have to be able to see to do your count, make sure for the safety of the inmates. You have to be able to see in that cell. And they would cover the windows with feces, it was bad. And man, it stunk. But you don’t know if they were dead or what was going to go on there. If they had something they had made shanks out of. We had one inmate he took towels and kind of strapped his shanks to his hands and he was like “come and get me.” And so you have to go in, that’s just it. So a team assembles and you give them several chances to come to the grill to be cuffed and he comes down there, he’s the one giving the order, and no matter what happens before the cellie’s direction or any sort of pepper spray or anything there’s always a lieutenant there. He’s the one giving the order. I’m ordering you to inmate so and so, I’m giving you a lawful order and you need to come to the pie hole to be handcuffed. “No. Come on and get me.”
If they didn’t want to come out then be cuffed up, you have no other choice but to go in. Or you have to hit them with pepper spray. We had our teams for them with our batons and our pepper spray and everybody has a set of cuffs on them. You used to have to overpower them and take them down. I mean you came out with some bangs and bruises on you but, you got done what had to be done.
AS: How often would that happen?
X: Sometimes you may not have a cell extraction for a week or two. But normally it was probably 2 or 3 times a week. Yeah, it happened quite frequently. If you believe somebody had something in their cell, a weapon, and they wouldn’t come out, you’d have to go in and get it.
AS: Earlier we were speaking about fishing – how prisoners would use lines and cardboard to send notes or others materials between each other’s cells. What did you think when you first saw the fishing? What did you think of it?
X: It’s kind of crazy. You kind of look at it like, “What in god’s name?” You start look out and they explain to you, that’s how they exchange information while they’re inside. So it could be a letter from this guy, this inmate is dating this other inmate’s cousin. So they communicate, they’ll put letters inside of magazines, or whatever so when it’s fished. Anything they could get the string out of and not get caught for damaging state material so if it was their jumpsuit or socks or towels or whatever. They would un-strand them and use it. But yeah, it’s pretty cool to see it, it’s just like a network. You always hear them, you can always hear the whisks of something going over the cement. You look and you have two inmates in a cell, the one is looking for the other one, which was to go so he can cross lines with whoever it is that he’s trying to get something from.
AS: When I think about it, the idea of being alone with my thoughts for that long. With no human interaction or touch, it’s scary for me but I also have never been there so I don’t know if that’s scary for you or if it maybe looks different when you’ve actually been on the SHU.
X: Yeah I mean if you’re a people person, it would be extremely hard. And I’m a people person. What I do now for a living [nursing], I love. I think if you were in solitary housing by yourself it would be one of the loneliest feelings that would ever be…
AS: There are a lot of human rights advocates, doctors, scientists, as well as people who have been in solitary, who say that it’s torture. What do you think of that?
X: No. They’ve never been there. Until you’ve been there, until you’ve worked it, like I said some inmates prefer to be that way. They know they’re going to be in there for their life, they want to spend it by themselves. As far as torture, no. Because I tell you, inmates have so many rights, that it’s not like what it was probably back 100 years ago. It’s nothing like that. They still have interaction out in the yard, they’re able to see able to talk, able to do all that. It’s not like being put out in the sweatbox somewhere. But emotionally and mentally draining? Absolutely. Absolutely. We have nothing to do but sit in a cell and rot and think about what you did. And then some of the activists and liberalists who are out there, it wasn’t that crime committed against their families. I mean, how would you feel? If somebody came and killed your mom or your sister or somebody like that? You’re not going to care if they rot.
AS: Some prison guard unions have been fighting really hard against changes to solitary, so for example in New York City, they changed the laws on how long people could be kept in solitary in Rikers, and the prison guard union has been saying that any limits on the uses of solitary are going to endanger prison guards. Do you think that’s true?
X: I think that’s a textbook response, because they don’t want to change. So their feeling is probably if it’s not broke, don’t fix it. But there’s a lot of things in the judicial system that are broken. It’s just who’s going to step up and get it done. Who wants to step forward. But I think a lot of them band together because if they don’t they’ll be looked down upon by their peers. I know I think that’s a huge one. Because how one thinks everybody should think that way. That’s old school. That’s gone. Things have to change at some point.