Elizabeth Hawes is an award-winning prison writer and former editor of Reflector, the prison news magazine at Minnesota Correctional Institution (MCI)—Shakopee, where Hawes is serving her Life Without Parole sentence. In November 2020, Hawes won an award in the PEN America Prison Writing Contest. In 2018, Hawes completed the play Supernova, examining women’s incarceration and its effect on children.
For this piece, Hawes interviewed 51 women representing a variety of ages, races, sexual orientation incarcerated at MCI—Shakopee about their experiences in solitary confinement. The common thread across the interviews was the women’s history of trauma and the worsening of their mental health in isolation. This piece, originally published on Truthout, was written with support from the Solitary Confinement Reporting Project, managed by Solitary Watch with funding from the Vital Projects Fund.
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At Minnesota’s Shakopee Correctional Facility for women, where I am incarcerated, solitude is something we seldom have a chance to experience. Loud, muffled over-head announcements begin every morning at 5:30 and continue until 9:30 p.m. when we are counted for the last time of the day. There is little privacy; everyone can hear each other’s business when we talk on the phone. Every aspect of our life is micromanaged, from when our blinds have to be raised and lowered, and how many books we can put on a shelf in our room, to the date we have to wear our winter coats regardless of the outside temperature. Prison is manila-walled, grey-clothed and full of blue plastic chairs. Any prisoner could tell you what’s for breakfast on a Wednesday or what’s on TV on a Monday night because our lives are a study in monotony. All of us are called “Offender” all day long.
By its very nature, prison is isolating. Stripped of our personal physical identifiers — wedding rings, contact lenses, clothing and makeup, we are away from our homes, family, pets, employment, favorite activities, foods, computers and green spaces. Our lives are condensed. To survive, we cling to what comforts us — small rituals that give us a sense of normalcy and help us retain our dignity. For some, this means going to the gym or walking outside in the courtyard. For others it means calling their mom or child every morning. Some people eat a lot, some church a lot, some read a lot, some play cards with their friends every day. The communities built in prison, as unlikely as they appear, are vital. Whether we have one good friend or a larger group of friends, our community relationships help us navigate and stay balanced while we are here. This balance is upended when we are taken to solitary confinement, or as most people in prison call it, segregation.
In Shakopee, the segregation unit is separate from the other living units. There are 33 segregation beds in 33 cells. Each cell is 10 by 12 feet and contains a narrow bed with a thin foam pad, two blankets and a pillow covered with a water-resistant material. Bolted to the wall is a metal sink with buttons to push for water and a metal toilet. There is a light switch, an outside-looking window, and a “mirror” made of a reflective metal. The door to the cell is wood and has a narrow 4-by-20-inch window and slit to push through a tray of food, change of clothes, or medicine. The mail is slid under the door. There is a small desk and a stool attached to the wall. Some cells have a camera in them, or a camera pointed at them.
The most common response when asked about segregation conditions was that it was cold.
I see people taken to segregation nearly every day — often several times a day.
When people are brought to solitary in this prison, they are handcuffed unless they are pregnant. Two female officers stand at the open door of the cell and like any strip search, have a prisoner take off their clothes piece by piece and hand them to the correctional officers (CO) who pat the items down and shake them. Once naked, prisoners are asked to bend at the waist and run their fingers through their hair. They are asked to show behind their ears, open their mouth, show the bottoms of their feet, and squat and cough three times. A pillow pack (a pillowcase containing two flat sheets, two towels and a washcloth) and clothes (plastic sandals, two socks, one pair of underwear and a pair of orange scrubs) are given out. People can wear their own bra. They are allowed an inhaler, a personal phone book, glasses, hairbrush and up to 10 envelopes. They are also given a small bag of generic toiletries, five sheets of paper, a cup and a small rubber pen.
They are allowed to change their clothes every day and shower every other day.
But worse than the physical austerity of solitary, is the severe psychological harm it delivers. The boredom and loneliness is extreme and often amplifies mental illness, psychosis and suicidal tendencies.
People are led to believe that segregation is used to contain extremely dangerous, violent people. In a women’s prison at least, this is hardly the case. While women can be and are sent to solitary for fighting, the truth is women are more often there because of mental health issues and for a wide range of petty infractions that have nothing to do with violence. Between April and July 2019, I interviewed 51 people who had gone to segregation and discovered that regardless of age, race, or sexual orientation, the common denominator was not a tendency for violence, but a history of trauma.
The demographics of the prison population at Shakopee, where I am incarcerated, break down like this: 59 percent are white, 20 percent are American Indian/Alaskan Native, 16 percent are Black, 4 percent are Asian/Pacific Islander, and 5 percent are Hispanic. The youngest prisoner is 19. The oldest is 87. The average age is 37. Eighty-five percent are mothers. Fifty eight percent are here on drug-related offenses.
The lack of mental health care was the most prevalent topic during the interviews. The consensus was that segregation made mental health issues worse. People often felt suicidal or very depressed while isolated, and felt they were not given the help they needed before, during or after their segregation. As of late November 2020, there is only one psychiatrist for the 407 people in this prison, most of whom have PTSD and backgrounds of abuse.
Solitary confinement is often used as a quarantine for mental health. Jayde Moon, a white woman in her late 20s, has been to segregation six times. “Now they say that seg is not ‘punishment,’ … but there is a girl I know there who bangs her head ‘til it bleeds just to get out of her cell. They isolate people so they don’t have to deal with them. Why don’t they just chop off a body part? It is just as outdated. As a society, don’t we have a better way to deal with mental illness? Let’s look at the why. The root cause. Let’s look at passive women who have been repeatedly exposed to trauma and help them.”
Patti Becht, a white woman in her 50s who has always struggled with mental illness, said, “Mentally ill people should not be locked in seg. They should be safe, not condemned. I hear voices all the time. Christmas music all the time. Seg amplifies this.”
A Native woman in her mid-30s said, “Seg feels normal to me. When I was young, I would often hide in small spaces to feel safe. Being hidden feels safe to me. I am often lost within the outside world.” Darcy Drobec, a white person in her mid-40s who has been to segregation 45 times, said, “Isolation makes everything worse. It makes people want to hurt themselves or hurt others. It should only be used in extreme cases.”
If anyone in the prison’s general population says they are having suicidal thoughts, the protocol is to take them to segregation and put them on COS [Constant Observational Status], constantly watched by guards. They are usually there for 10 days. A white woman in her mid-40s said, “I was told by a CO that the only way I could get help for my mental illness was to tell them [staff] I had suicidal thoughts and be put in segregation. This was true. Medical staff had taken me off all my Seroquel — all at once, which put me in a state of psychosis. I needed help. I wasn’t getting help.”
Many of the mental health issues for which people are placed in solitary confinement are based on trauma. I met with a young Spanish-speaking woman in her 20s who had been to solitary five times because of her inability to urinate for drug tests. Testing for drug use is done randomly at the prison. When pulled for a UA (Urine Analysis), a prisoner is stripped in front of two female COs who then stand over the prisoner as they urinate into a cup. This woman is unable to urinate because of past sexual trauma. She was sexually abused for 14 years. There is no reason that the door could not be shut and a person could do their business in private. The water is turned off in the room; a prisoner would not be able to alter their urine sample.
To speak with women about their solitary narrative, I would go to the courtyard and ask people if they had been to segregation and if they had, could I ask them a few questions about their experience. Soon I didn’t have to ask. Once women understood what I was doing they approached me. “When you have a minute, I would like to talk to you.” I soon learned that more people had been to segregation than I had thought and everyone seemed to want to share their story.
Over and over, I heard comments about how segregation amplified people’s depression. A Black woman in her 50s told me, “Seg takes me back. It means failure to me. I’m let down. I fight for what I want, for what is right. I heard, ‘You’ll never be nothing’ all my life. Seg gives me sad feelings.”
Sabrina Flowers is an African American woman in her early 20s who leaves prison in a month. She has been to solitary 35 times. She told me, “I’m often suicidal up there. I survive by thinking about my daughter. I act out when I’m locked in. Seg makes me act worse. It gets worse every time.” Like everyone I interviewed, Sabrina felt once you went to segregation you were marked; an easy target to go back again. Staff now sees her as a problem and is ready to send her to segregation for the smallest infraction. A Native woman in her mid-30s said, “Staff has me marked. ‘Hey Trouble-maker!’ Especially the new ones. My pockets are constantly searched. My room is searched repeatedly.”
I spoke with a Native woman in her early 30s about mental health care. She had been to segregation 16 times; 13 times for cutting herself with a razor, spending 15 days in solitary for every incident. I asked her why she cut herself. “Shame. Guilt. It’s how I cope.” (She didn’t cut herself before she came to prison). When she writes to Mental Health Services for help, she gets no response, cuts herself and then is sent to solitary. I asked her if she received any help once she was there. “They [mental health workers] come through, but don’t stay and help. They say ‘try some deep breathing,’ or ‘send a kite [paper communication between prisoner and staff] to your mental health worker.’ I do. No response. Mental Health [Services] is a joke. They cut off medication randomly. I emotionally shut down … we can’t just stuff our emotions every day and expect not to explode.” She is the mother of five sons, now all adopted out. Like many of the women here, her depression stems from being stripped of her children.
In 1997, a law was passed called the Adoption and Safe Families Act, which states that if a parent does not have physical custody of their children for 15 out of the last 22 months, they can lose custody. For an incarcerated parent, this means that even if they are a great parent and are doing everything they can to fix the problem that landed them in prison, they can lose their child to the system. A recurring statement in many of my interviews was, “I have no reason to live without my children.”
Another piece of the mental health issue and segregation is the difficulty people had when they were released from solitary and put back into general population. They are taken from a relatively quiet, isolated environment and abruptly moved to a noisy atmosphere — surrounded by people and constant over-head announcements. A woman of Puerto Rican/Native descent told me, “I have severe mental health issues. I have a hard time being alone. Walls breathe, I see things, and I talk to myself. When I’m released, I have a hard time; I’m messed up. I talk weird. I stutter.”
A 24-year-old Black woman said, “I feel that putting someone in seg makes mental illness. Especially when we are put there for stupid things instead of talking to us [and] working through the issues. Seg leaves us more institutionalized, makes us worse.” I heard how people were often taken to segregation for small infractions. If people were put in solitary for something like fighting, they understood it. If people were put in for loitering or other small nonviolent offenses, they felt insulted and picked on. They no longer cared about the rules and said they were inclined to behave worse in the future.
“[We go for] petty reasons,” said a white woman in her mid-30s. “We shouldn’t be sent for a bad day. And once people go to seg, or go to seg a lot, if they get in trouble it’s immediate seg as a first response rather than having them go to Holding or talking to them. We are taken for small, petty things.”
I began to ask people about their most trivial reason for going to segregation. I talked with people who had gone to solitary for singing during count, singing in the lunchroom, putting someone’s bag lunch on the floor, braiding someone’s hair, walking backwards on the sidewalk in the courtyard, having talcum powder in their shoes, loitering, passing food, and for eating someone’s piece of cake in the lunchroom when it was offered to them. The reasons seem insignificant but most every time people go to segregation they lose. They lose their room placement, their job, their programming, and are taken away from their community and moved to another living unit. When people’s belongings are packed up, whatever does not fit into two bins (equivalent space as two milk crates) has to be thrown out or shipped out. Very few people can fit all their belongings into two bins.
The more I researched women’s segregation, the more I realized there was a pattern of discipline that extended beyond the walls of Shakopee. A report released by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in 2020 confirmed what NPR found; women prisoners are disciplined more often than male prisoners — two to three times more — and often receive harsher punishments. The commission states that the population of women in prison has increased by 730 percent over the last 40 years. Data shows that women prisoners consistently got in more trouble more often than their male counterparts. More disruptive? No.
The majority of women prisoners have histories of sexual and physical trauma that cause them to react in a certain way to male guards. Women in prisons are more likely to have a history of substance abuse, mental illness, and to be the primary caregivers of minor children.
Moreover, what soon became apparent was there was a culture of staff homophobia in Shakopee. Homophobia, or the appearance of homophobia, is linked with the prison’s long-standing policy on touch.
On September 4, 2003, a federal law was enacted called PREA, the Prison Rape Elimination Act. Since then, throughout the state of Minnesota, there is a zero tolerance policy against sexual harassment and sexual abuse. Next to the prison hallway phones are posters in both English and Spanish with a number to report any abuse, as well as a list of victim advocate services. People feel this is good, but that Shakopee had failed them in the assessment of appropriate touch.
From its establishment until last year, the Shakopee Women’s Prison had a no-touch rule in place. Prisoners were not able to help someone up when they fell, hug them when a parent died, or shake their hand when they earned their GED. All these gestures were considered “sexual.” All touch was considered sexual. A prisoner at Shakopee who did not get visits — where an outside visitor can give a brief hug and a kiss on the cheek when they arrive or leave — would not have had human touch in a long time. Some people had literally not been touched for years. This draconian policy had been strictly enforced.
Staff’s view of touch seems extreme. A Native woman in her mid-30’s told me, “In 2018, I went to seg for a ‘sexual’ because our feet were touching under the table in the dayroom. We both got 15 days.” I was told a similar story by several people. Every person I asked, regardless of sexual orientation, thought that there was homophobia within staff. A 28-year-old white woman said, “I am targeted [for] my sexual orientation. Verbal harassment is constant. They use intimidation, always threatening to take me to segregation.”
I spoke with a white woman in her mid-30s with a very long sentence. She said, “I need human contact, it doesn’t matter how much. I’m here for a long time. I need to do what I need to do to survive. If that means I need a hug, I’m going to hug someone.” When asked if segregation made her more or less likely to follow the rules, she admitted it made her more likely to break the rules. “If I can go for the smallest of things, (she got 15 days for hugging someone and one day and an overnight — but not charged — for holding someone’s hand) if I get in trouble for holding someone’s hand, why not just hug them? What’s a reason not to go bigger? I know it’s bad to hit someone; I’m not going to do that. But hug someone?”
Last June, there was an article written about the no-touch policy in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, where Shakopee’s Warden Tracy Beltz (now the Warden of Faribault Prison) “denied inmate claims that they are sometimes punished for minor touch offenses.” Beltz said, “There aren’t women going to segregation for doing one another’s hair, they’re going to discipline because they’re engaging in inappropriate sexual activity.” I talked with several people this summer who had gone to segregation for minor touch infractions, including braiding hair.
Because of outside pressure by advocacy groups like the ACLU, this no-touch policy changed. On July 10, 2019, an assistant warden came to the living units and read off the “new appropriate touch policy.” The new touch guidelines include “fist-bumps, handshakes, high-fives, or a pat on the shoulder/shoulder blade…. Physical contact should be brief, lasting only a few seconds.”
Before I came to prison, I assumed prisoners were just bad people. The truth is, I’ve met some wonderful people, many of whom suffer from addiction. The December 2020 Minnesota Department of Corrections Shakopee Inmate Profile states that 235 prisoners are here because of drug charges. Two thirds of the population of this prison suffers with addiction. Many began their addiction by self-medicating a mental health issue or to cope with a major crisis or tragic loss. As a population, they are far more wounded than violent. Their fight is not against the world but for sobriety.
Solitary confinement is not just ineffective; it is destructive. Based on everything I’ve experienced and everything I’ve learned, it makes people act worse within the community and feel worse about themselves.
Traumatized people need more care, not increased isolation.