Raymond Williams, 42, is incarcerated at the Washington Corrections Center in Shelton, Washington. Twenty-five years ago, he was sent to the same prison as a 17 year old. In this essay, Williams looks back on that first experience of being in adult prison. It was 1997, the year riots began in Washington prisons’ Intensive Management Units, and Williams found himself locked in solitary confinement for a year. He writes, “prison was never what I expected back then.” Instead, he says, the intense isolation was worse than anything he could have imagined. —Vaidya Gullapalli
• • • • • • • • • • • • •
The glass shattered into hundreds of thick little squares. I did not expect that. I did not expect the warm liquid running down my foot either—my ankle was severely cut. A consequence of kicking the window out of my cell door, the window shattering, and my leg shooting through the remaining glass.
I had not expected prison to be like this. At 17, I had been in youth detention and county jail as I awaited trial, but those experiences had not prepared me for adult prison, where I sat in a sterile box, isolated from all human contact, fighting for my sanity.
I did, however, expect guards to come and haul me out of the cell with the broken window. As they approached, silence fell on the pod—the older prisoners knew what was to come. Resistance did not cross my mind. When the guards held out handcuffs and shackles I complied.
While I stepped out of the cell, prisoners began screaming and banging on their doors. A raucous chorus of nameless faces in the windows of cell doors. Some of the men’s screams were aimed at the guards, but several men screamed applause for my actions—I craved this praise. I held my head high as they marched me out of the pod. I walked down the corridor, past cells on either side, guards tightly gripping my arms, blood-slicked shackles around my ankles, and hands handcuffed behind my back. In my young mind, I had won a battle.
The guards walked me to a rotunda—the door slid closed behind us with a bang, muffling the cries from the pod behind us. Plexiglass stretched from the floor to the ceiling in every direction. I was a small fish in a very big aquarium. Then we kept going until we were at a small truck waiting to take me…where?
They put me in the back of the truck. There was no escape as the guards slid onto the bench beside me. A bay door opened, sunlight streamed in, and the truck sped off down a gravel road along the perimeter fences, lined with endless feet of rolled razor wire.
My imagination ran wild. As we rode down the gravel road I could only think I was being taken to some field to be beaten. I sat shaking, the rattle of my shackles giving away my fear. A guard looked over to me and asked, “Why did you do that?” A menacing question to my young mind. The kind that precedes some severe punishment. I said nothing.
Prison was never what I expected back then. At 17 years old, I had heard stories and watched movies that set expectations of the horrors I would endure, but those expectations were off-base more often than not. The horrors I discovered proved much worse, much more damaging than the beating in some field that I feared shackled in the back of that truck.
I can still taste the relief when the truck arrived, not at some field, but at the infirmary where they proceeded to stitch my ankle. I can still feel the sense of approval I felt when my fellow prisoners cheered as they brought me back, shackled and cuffed, to a new cell in the pod.
Looking back now, I know that a beating would have been more merciful than the year of isolation that followed my return to the pod. Bruises heal easier than trauma and bones mend truer than one’s sense of self.
Ironically, 1997 saw a progressive step in Washington DOC. Up until this point minors who arrived at prison were simply forced to live with and adapt to life in the adult population. I was one of the first handful of kids placed in the new Youthful Offender Program (YOP). It was, in its own way, a baby step towards our current realization in the difference between youth and adult.
That difference, however, did not extend to solitary confinement. When I arrived in prison, it only took a few weeks before I was placed in Administrative Segregation (“Ad Seg”)—not for an infraction or violation of policy, but because my reputation from juvenile detention had preceded me. It was made clear on my arrival that guards didn’t want me there. They anticipated behavioral problems from me and I was told I would be on a short leash. I was led to a cold isolated cell in the same pod as adult men.
As I sat in solitary, I struggled to understand my plight. When I received the paperwork I felt lost. The Department of Corrections (DOC) had determined that I should stay in solitary until I turned 18. Their claim was that I had been a bad influence on the other kids. I was confused. I couldn’t believe I would be in solitary for so long. I could not comprehend so much time in isolation.
In the history of Washington DOC, the year 1997 is notable. This was the start of the fabled “IMU riots.” My time in isolation fell in the middle of this episode. A most unfortunate induction into prison life for a child.
When the adults started banging on their doors and flooding their cells, the rage within me saw an outlet. My foot quickly found the window—shattered glass burst forth from my cell door—and the direction of my prison life was determined.
My behavior only buried me deeper. A fact I had no way of knowing at the time. When I kicked that window out I was elevated from Administrative Segregation to Intensive Management Status (IMS). A status commonly referred to as getting “a program.” Meaning, I was about to rot in this box for a time well past my 18th birthday.
The IMU riots lasted seven months through peaks and valleys of destruction. We broke windows, lit fires, flooded cells, and prisoners pursued creative ways to harm guards. Meanwhile, guards gassed us with OC (pepper spray), and skipped us for meals, showers and recreation. One night a guard handing out dinner looked me straight in the eye, spat in my food, then tried to hand my dinner tray to me through the slot. I refused to eat it. The abuses set off a series of floods and reprisals from prisoners.
DOC quickly became fed up with our antics. After several months they introduced a practice called “strip cell.” In this practice, if we did something against the rules, they would extract us from our cell and take away every single item we had in it. Clothing, sheets, mattress, writing paper, books, toilet paper—gone. No soap, no toothpaste, no hygiene. They took everything. You were left stark naked within the cold concrete cell.
Once the process of a strip cell went into effect, it took three days to complete. It was three days of hell. During this time they would piecemeal your basic necessities back to you, assuming you did not continue to act out.
In addition to losing your stuff, prisoners on strip cell were given two cold sack meals a day—a dry Bologna sandwich, apple and small carton of milk. Guards threw one in your cell at 6am, and another at 5pm.
My hunger during those days, as an 18 year old, was painful. But the worst part was trying to sleep on a cold bare metal bunk. Eventually we all received a letter from the ACLU stating that DOC was no longer allowed to put us through strip cell and use food as punishment. But the damage was done.
Outside of the torment and madness, the year seemed to pass in a blur. Such is life when the light stays on 24 hrs a day. What I remember more than the cold steel bed against my skin is the isolation, sadness, and despair.
I had no support outside of prison.
As a state-raised youth, my family had long become estranged. Yet I still stood hopeful at the door during mail call. I longed for mail. That piece of paper and envelope that said I mattered. Such mail rarely came. I needed people in my life so desperately I turned to calling random numbers collect in hopes of finding a friend.
While my peers were experiencing the promise of life in American society—college, a family, and a promising career—I was crying in a hole in prison. They were worried about who to take to prom, I was worried if I would get skipped for a meal, or if a guard would spit in my food. While my peers were learning algebra I carefully peeled plastic from single serve packs of crackers to fashion goggles to block the tear gas.
In the past few years, Washington State has adopted reforms to protect kids from living the type of carceral experience I endured. In 2019, the state adopted a law to keep youth who were sentenced as adults in youth facilities rather than adult prisons up to the age of 25 years old. This reform was driven by scientific revelations in youth brain development and the recognition that, during this time, youth are especially amenable to rehabilitative efforts.
The following year, in 2020, Washington legislators banned long-term isolation of youth. Policymakers now say they recognize the consequences of extended periods of isolation for youth, the behavioral health disorders and retardation of social skills. I guess people like me were the case study.
Watching these reforms take place fills me with mixed emotions. I feel like a child whose parent has had an epiphany. As a former state-raised youth this paradigm shift hits close to home. Essentially, Father Washington, what you are saying is you won’t continue to abuse my siblings because you see what it did to me. And you now realize that putting me in school would have been a better choice than putting me in a closet. Cool.
Forgive me that my sense of injustice struggles to compete with the joy and relief I feel for the next generation. That said, I am supportive of the direction the system is turning and hopeful for the next generation. What youth today face is a merciful contrast to the jurisprudence that stemmed from super predator narratives driving policy when I was a youth.
But is this where the conversation ends?
We now know these old policies reduced the life chances of system-involved youth. Now that we all agree about the error and harm of previous policies and the need to protect future generations from this error, what about the rest of us? Will the harm that has been done to us be addressed?
We can not forget about those who are now adults, the ones that went through the trauma and behavioral health issues resulting from long-term isolation as children.
I’m currently serving a life sentence under the three strikes law. My crimes were committed at ages 16, 23, and 28. There is no way to divorce the impact of my long-term isolation as a youth from the behaviors leading up to my crimes. I posit any analysis regarding incorrigibility in adults who lived an experience like mine should include consideration of how crippling such policies were towards the life chances of those youth, and how those experiences shaped the adults they grew to become.
I am now 42 years old. The window of my cell looks directly at that gravel road I once traveled fearfully down in the back of that truck. When I go to yard, the IMU where I turned 18 looms at me from across a single fence. I look over at that dull grey structure and see the windows of holding cells I once occupied as a broken young boy. There isn’t much in prison these days I do not expect. A world that was once unknown and full of imposing danger is now small, cruel, and grotesque.
I don’t go to IMU anymore. I grew out of that a long time ago. Just like, in spite of odds stacked against me, I grew out of the crime cycle. Still, I have yet to grow beyond the consequences of what the state inflected on my youth. Some growth cannot be accomplished alone.
I will die in prison if we cannot find post-conviction review processes that work to consider cases like mine. There is no way to give the youth of the 1990s and 2000s the same shot at life that the youth today will receive. But there is a way to give the adults who were those youth another shot at life.