Voices From Solitary: Into the Deep

by | May 30, 2023

Frank De Palma spent more than 22 years of a 43 year sentence in solitary confinement at a Nevada state prison. Released at 62, DePalma faced homelessness and destitution. Despite the lasting psychological trauma and hardships caused by his time in solitary, he says he is  “determined to speak out against the horror of solitary confinement.” In March 2021, he testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee of the Nevada Legislature in support of a bill that would limit the use of solitary confinement in the state. He serves on the Advisory Board of Social Workers & Allies Against Solitary Confinement. In collaboration with Mary Buser, author of Lockdown on Rikers, DePalma is in the process of publishing a book, Never to Surrender!, about his time in prison. —Sara Vogel

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I spent 22 years and 36 days inside a cell in Nevada’s Ely State Prison. It was the most horrendous and nightmarish experience I have had, or will ever have. Placing a man, woman, or child into solitary confinement for any reason is to sentence them to a hell from which few return without being severely handicapped in some form or another.

Solitary confinement is a punishment that is without question torture. It’s a torture that torments one’s mind beyond human endurance. My personality has always been outgoing—a hugger. I’m someone who always craved interaction with others. I’ve always been an emotional, sensitive, feeling person. The thing about solitary confinement is that it attacks a person’s greatest strengths and turns them into their greatest weaknesses. I needed human interaction, but there was no one there. I was completely alone. I needed someone to love, but there was no one to love. I needed to be loved, but there was no one to love me. All I had were memories of my family, and those memories began to dim and fade. No voice to hear except my own. No time, for time ceases to exist in that cell. 

As the years passed, the aloneness I felt became more than just a term to express my emotional state. It became something horribly real and crushing. Like a constant screaming—a shrieking of deep pain, agony, and suffering. I kept trying to figure out where the screams were coming from until I finally realized it was me—they were my own screams. I couldn’t stop the screams and they became so unbearable. 

The pain grows beyond human comprehension. It grows and crushes your will, your spirit begins to wither, and you lose yourself in fantasies of love and normal life. Those fantasies become deeper and grow more and more elaborate. Some people become forever lost within their fantasies as an escape from the torture of solitary confinement. Finding a bug, petting it, feeding it, trying not to lose it because for a while you’re not alone. But for me, the fantasies ultimately became unfulfilling because it was all unrequited love, and that brought my pain and aloneness back with a crushing vengeance.

Earlier on in my incarceration, prior to solitary confinement, I was given forced dosages of an antipsychotic drug called Prolixin. Even though I did not have a mental illness, I received massive doses and my mind would simply go blank. Just shut off. I’d lie there completely unaware. I didn’t even know I was alive. It was a struggle, and I fought to become cognizant again, but I was fearful that the next time I wouldn’t make it back. 

Years later, in solitary confinement, my mind was once again shutting off. Only this time it was me willing it to shut off—willing myself to break free from reality. The world I lived in didn’t want me anymore. I couldn’t stand to be alone anymore. I became lost to the empty levels of darkness. Each level became darker and emptier and the deeper I drifted, the emptier I became, until I broke free into a place that exists yet doesn’t exist. Deep, deep within, where in emptiness, I found my peace. Nothingness became my only embrace. 

For the last eight years in solitary, I was simply gone—unaware and unresponsive to anything and anyone. Imagine a punishment so great that it can drive a man to literally disconnect himself from the world into which we were all born. How could anyone with any human decency disagree that the practice of solitary confinement is torture?

We live in a world of fear. Fear of each other, of mass shootings, of what tomorrow may bring. Our fear grows until we become desperate. Our answer? Harsher sentences for those who break the law. More prisons. That’s the way of this country. We’ve become a nation of fear and punishment. Prisons are filled with the forgotten, solitary confinement is filled with the forgotten of the forgotten. Solitary confinement robs one of hope, and that is something I plead with others not to let go of. Hope. When hope is gone, one literally begins to die from within, the body being the last to go. If our country’s leaders were to abolish solitary confinement completely in every prison in America, it would be a giant first step towards reclaiming our humanity.


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  • Heather

    I am sorry for your son’s suffering. He deserves love and care and dignity and we need to do better on behalf of all men, women and children.

  • Frank De Palma, thank you. This was hard to read. Not because it was shocking–as it is–but, moreso, how all to common the TORTURE, INHUMAN conditions heaped on Frank by the AUTHORITIES who can do whatever they want inside of solitary confinement. 22 years and some days is incomprehensible, but it is not. Others, too, have been held there for similar and longer time then, when released, expectations are that they FUNCTION as if nothing happened. The old adage of “killing the body” but “not the mind” is true here: Frank De Palma is now helping anti-solitary movements across the country but especially as an active board member with the Social Workers & Allies Against Solitary Confinement. No human should be held against their will in conditions like those described by Frank. END SOLITARY CONFINEMENT, NOW!!

  • Margaret Muhammad-Urban

    His story of 22 yrs in SHU is horrific and all to close to home. My son a diagnosed schizophrenic with the most difficult to treat type spent over 1 ¹/² yrs in SHU. It is a very long intricate story of his & my experiences with FL DOC , 4 Florida psychiatric he’ll holes. It began 6 weeks after his dad’s death., with a suicide attempt cutting wrists and jumping off a high bridge. He’d was 21 yrs & 16 days old when he attempted suicide.
    Brutally beatings in a Florida state psychiatric facilities left him with a TBI. FAST
    FORWARD IT was 12th year of suicide attempt on 26 April 2023. He’s still in.
    I’m starting a non-profit for housing SeriousMentalIllness persons re-entering our community. Starting small with a STRONG FOUNDATION will grow outwards, a living legacy.
    Fyi he his brother and cousins + many other young men are victims of a pedophile. No charges against this man. An attorney that fled Florida. LEOs. DAs. SVU TASK FORCE Lawyer boards. DCF in Florida have done nothing. MY LOVED ONE WAS MURDERED BY COPS ON 14 JULY 2023, during a Mental health CRISIS. BULLETS TORE HIS 36 yr old body to shreds. Veteran. Father lived one. UNARMED !! THUS IS OUR WORLD. UNITED TO CHANGE
    lil ole lady. Advocate ty for reading bless u all

    • Jean Casella and James Ridgeway

      We are so sorry to hear of the suffering and loss you and your family has experienced.

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