Voices from Solitary: “I’m Ready to be Treated Like a Human Again”

Dennis Hope, Who Brought His Case to the U.S. Supreme Court, Describes Being Freed from Solitary After 27 Years

by | December 20, 2022

Dennis Hope was placed in solitary confinement in Texas in 1994. After more than a quarter century in isolation and years of litigation, in January 2022, he asked the Supreme Court to consider the constitutionality of solitary “measured in decades, rather than weeks, months, or even years.” The case attracted national coverage. Shortly thereafter, the prisons department transferred Hope out of solitary. In June, he wrote about his experience of that long-awaited but complicated transition in the essay below. Hope’s petition to the Supreme Court is being held in abeyance pending negotiations with the State of Texas. —Vaidya Gullapalli

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In 2017, I shared with Solitary Watch some of the experiences I had with solitary confinement. For twenty-seven years, I endured the torture, both physical and mental, that solitary confinement places on the body and mind. I have always considered myself physically and mentally strong and this tested every aspect of that. One of my biggest fears was that I’d lose my sanity while in solitary. For now that fear has subsided. 

Although the district court dismissed all of my complaints in the lawsuit I filed in 2018, I filed an appeal. The MacArthur Justice Center reached out to me and offered representation for the appeal, first before the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals and then the Supreme Court of the United States. 

Ironically, on February 4, 2022, just seven days after we filed with the Supreme Court, the leadership of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) decided to move me out of solitary and place me in a four-month transition program. 

On February 7, 2022, I was abruptly transferred from the Polunsky Unit to the Ellis Unit and placed in the Cognitive Intervention Transitional Program (CITP). This is a program that helps you transition from solitary to being around other people. It helps you address how you think and understand the consequences of your actions. For four hours a day I was in class with others who were also coming out of solitary. 

For the first time in over 27 years I was allowed out of a cell without being strip searched or handcuffed. It felt weird after so many years of that routine. I felt off balance walking with my hands free and not restrained behind my back with two guards holding onto me. I felt like I was doing something I wasn’t supposed to do. I took it slow and followed others. Everyone in that program had gone through the same adjustments, some longer than others. 

I’m still not comfortable with someone standing behind me or close to my side. The four months I was in the program I wasn’t given a cellmate. Almost everyone else had a cellmate. 

When I saw the flat screen TV in the dayroom my eyes had trouble adjusting to the bright colors and rapid movement. I questioned whether things on the screen were really that fast or just my perception. I hadn’t seen a TV since 1996—a lot had changed. It took me about four days for my eyes to get eyes adjusted. I’m still adjusting to the content. 

I could now use a telephone. It felt awkward being allowed to talk to people I previously had only written. It was a newfound freedom. It brought an overwhelming feeling for me. It allowed me to feel human again, I felt alive, I felt that I mattered.

Although escorted anytime I left the wing, I walked to the commissary, chow hall, and showers now. Even though I had done this decades before, I felt like it was the first time.

The classes allowed real human interaction and I got to know some of the guys on a personal level. Each day we read a quote and journaled about them. One quote was about finding something that matters to you and making a change in it for the better.

For that assignment I chose solitary confinement. I wrote about some of the things it does to people, things I had witnessed and why it must be stopped. While I stood in front of the class reading it I became overwhelmed. I thought of how men go crazy, mutilate themselves and commit suicide. Tears filled my eyes and I couldn’t speak. The class was silent. They understood. I sat down and said I’d continue after I regained my composure. Later when I finished it was with the applause of the class. I never expected to become emotionally overwhelmed talking about solitary. It’s further proof of the impact solitary has on us, whether we see it or not. Many of the other men choked up while discussing some of their experiences in solitary. There are some things that we cannot remember and then there are some things we’ll never forget. Solitary confinement is something I will never forget.

On May 22, 2022, I was taken to the hospital because I had difficulty breathing. I was shackled as if I was in solitary again and transported via ambulance to the hospital. It was determined I had pneumonia. 

For the next seven days I remained in the hospital for treatment. The entire time I was there the authorities had me in restraints—leg irons around my ankles, handcuffs with the black box over them, a belly belt, and a chain from the leg irons to the handcuffs with a padlock on it. For seven days I lay there in the hospital, more physically restrained than I had ever been before. The horrors of solitary engulfed me the whole time. I was willing to refuse treatment just to get out of there and be out of the restraints 24/7. When I returned to the Ellis Unit I had cuts and scabs on both wrists, all a reminder of solitary. 

Two days later I graduated from the program. Two days after that I was again shackled and placed in a van for a five-hour trip to the Connally Unit. 

I’m currently housed in minimum custody and have a cellmate. I am slowly adjusting to waking up with someone in the cell with me. I’m adjusting to walking long distances, up and down stairs, choosing what food I want on my tray, waiting in lines, getting up to go eat, and conversing with others. I feel as if I’ve come out of a cave and into the public. 

I still deal with bouts of anxiety and depression when I’m in the cell. When I see a person in handcuffs I think of how that was me. It wakes me up to where I am and where I was.

I remain optimistic that the state officials and prison administrators will end the use of solitary confinement. It truly is a form of torture of both body and mind. 

After I successfully completed the program, the department approved others for release from solitary into the program. In the last four months TDCJ has begun looking at people that are in solitary for escape and has released some to this program. Most of them have been in solitary for 15 years or more. The ball appears to have begun rolling in a positive direction for some solitary prisoners in Texas. Let’s hope it picks up speed in the coming days.

Everyday I feel the effects of having been kept isolated without human contact. I look forward to my first contact visit. I’m certain I will be emotionally overwhelmed. That’s OK because I’m ready to be treated like a human again.

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A Note to Our Readers: Our correspondence with Dennis Hope began seven years ago, when he had little hope of release from solitary, and we have kept in touch with him throughout his journey. Since its founding, Solitary Watch has maintained a correspondence with thousands of people like Dennis, who reside 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 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. (Dennis Hope, touchingly, asked that his payment be donated to Solitary Watch!) 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 think about what it is like to be cut off not only from loved ones but also from all of humanity—on holidays and every day. Then please give whatever you can to allow our work to continue and grow. If you DONATE NOW, your gift to Solitary will be doubled, up to $1,000 per donation, thanks to NewsMatch. Choose to make your gift recur monthly, and every one of your donations will be matched throughout the year. From everyone on the Solitary Watch team, thank you for your generosity and caring—and most of all, thank you for listening.

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