A Note to Our Readers: Since its founding, Solitary Watch has maintained a correspondence with thousands of people in the deepest, darkest corners of the U.S. punishment system, cut off from human contact and out of sight of the public and the press. They have served as our eyes and ears as we report on solitary confinement.
For more than a decade, we have also published their writings in our Voices from Solitary series, providing you with a visceral experience of the torturous isolation and brutality of solitary. Authors receive encouragement and professional editing, and are paid for their work. Most importantly, they know that their voices are being heard and their experiences understood beyond the walls of their cells.
This work is possible only with your support. Before you depart to celebrate with family and friends, please take a moment to read Tashon’s essay, and think about what it is like to be cut off not only from loved ones but also from humanity—on holidays and every day. Then please give whatever you can to allow our work to continue and grow.
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Tashon Burke, a 30-year-old Black man with psychiatric disabilities, estimates he has spent over eight years in solitary confinement during his incarceration in the Pennsylvania prison system. In a previous Voices from Solitary piece, Burke explained how his initial 60-day solitary confinement sentence extended repeatedly into several years, even increasing his time in prison.
This summer, Burke finished serving his original sentence and was released directly from solitary confinement at SCI Greene. After being free for only eight days, he was re-arrested during a drug and firearms sweep of his brother’s home. According to Burke, there was no evidence directly connecting him to the recovered items, other than “being at the wrong place at the wrong time,” but he was re-incarcerated at the Allegheny County Jail pending trial. Despite a county ballot measure passed in 2021 banning most uses of solitary confinement, Burke says the jail has been on lockdown through much of his incarceration there—an assertion confirmed by local advocates.
In a recent email, Burke reported: “They lock down the jail a lot, at least every other day or two, for a whole day or half the day. The food and medical conditions are unfathomably cruel…No matter how urgent your medical need, they don’t respond to sick calls for at least a month…I recently caught a severe case of COVID. It felt like I was swallowing needles. I couldn’t taste or smell anything. All the others around me with COVID asked for medical attention and the nurse ignored their requests. This time, I didn’t even put in a sick call so they couldn’t ignore mine.”
In this anguished essay, Burke describes the mental and emotional trauma caused by his years in solitary confinement in prison, as well as his re-incarceration and subsequent lockdowns. —Sara Rain Tree
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Imagine to yourself that you just maxed out a ten-year sentence from a prison facility. Imagine that for those ten years, you weren’t just doing time but you were doing hard time. Time so hard that you realized that you didn’t have to die to go to hell when you did bad things because prison is truly a hell on Earth.
Imagine being in solitary confinement twenty-four hours a day for years and years in a locked cell the size of a small closet. You start to feel the walls closing in around you and you become trapped, breathless, and claustrophobic.
Imagine that your mental state starts to deteriorate. You’re becoming depressed, angry, and suicidal, and it’s bringing out of you aggressive behaviors that becomes too much and too hard for you to control.
Imagine that these behaviors are inflicted on yourself. Cutting your wrists, arms, and face, or banging your face and head on the walls or metal door until the blood from your mouth and nose, the bumps on your head, and the headache satisfies you enough to finally stop.
Imagine that the correctional officers pay you no attention at all, don’t show you any sympathy, or offer you any kind of medical or psychiatric care, or any kind of help at all, but instead laugh at you and encourage you to keep hurting yourself.
Imagine that your screams and cries to talk to someone like a psychologist or psychiatrist fall on deaf ears. Your aggressive behaviors change to breaking things inside your cell, such as the metal bed, desk, and toilet. The correctional officers can’t have you destroying the cells.
Now imagine ten to fifteen correctional officers are present in front of your cell door, and they just discharged a long metal can filled with pepper spray under your door and into your cell. Imagine your skin on fire, your eyes burning to where you can’t open them, so you can’t see. But most importantly, imagine that you literally can’t breathe. You’re choking and banging on the door to surrender, but they won’t get you out of the cell until they’re ready to.
Imagine thinking you’re going to die. They’re going to kill you. When the correctional officers feel like you suffered enough, they then handcuff you through the food slot on the door and pull you out of your cell filled with pepper spray. After the nurse comes to see you to pour milk into your eyes to halt the burning and to clean, stitch up, and bandage your self-inflicted wounds, you’re then stripped naked and thrown into a cold cell for days with no blanket or bed. Literally a freezing cold cell. Imagine the torture and the lack of sleep.
Imagine that for “making” the correctional officers work, you’re now being refused food and showers. You’re also having your incoming mail held and your outgoing mail never sent out. Once this happens, imagine being beaten in and tasered by the correctional officers for fighting for what’s your right and not a privilege.
Imagine constantly witnessing the dead bodies of fellow prisoners, who committed suicide sometime during the day or night, roll pass your cell door on a stretcher. Most of these suicides told the correctional officers that if they didn’t receive their medication they would kill themselves. The correctional officers ignored them so they killed themselves.
Imagine going through all this, but you made it out. Ten years is here, your max date is today, and it’s time for you to go home.
Imagine now that you’re home and very excited to be free and reunited with your friends and family. You’re trying to move past what you witnessed and been through in prison, but you can’t. You’re traumatized. PTSD at its best. You’re traumatized but free.
Imagine you have plans to get counseling and to find a church that could help you exorcize the demons that possessed you during your time in hell. You now have plans to do right and find a legal strategy that would lead you on the road to success.
Imagine that you never got to do any of this. Imagine that after maxing out ten years of hard time in prison, and only being home for eight days, you’re arrested and sent back to jail for something you didn’t do or have any knowledge of. You had the bad luck of being at the wrong place at the wrong time.
Imagine that you’re now in the county jail, awaiting court for charges that could easily get you sent back to prison for another ten to twenty years. Imagine you’re again in solitary confinement for no reason at all, locked down in your cell twenty four hours a day.
The reasons from the correctional officers is that the cameras are not working. The panel they use to open up the cells are broken, the elevators are down, etc. You think to yourself, “You mean this shit is fuckin up every day?” The food is so nasty that if somebody tried to feed it to their pets, they would probably run away thinking their owner doesn’t love them anymore.
Now of course if you never really witnessed or been through any of this, then of course you’re only imagining. It’s fake, made up from your wildest imagination. Well, I don’t have to imagine any of it. I lived it. I am living it. I witnessed it. And you bet your ass, it’s happening to me.
So I hope while you were imagining this, you felt the pain, sadness, and fear I felt and feel, because I may have to go through this horror again for something I didn’t do. Thank you, all who read this, for imagining that you were ME.