Voices from Solitary: You Have to Be There

by | January 22, 2024

At 16 years old, Dillion Compton was tried and convicted as an adult, resulting in his placement in solitary confinement at a Texas jail as a child. Having described solitary as “a world of un-natural, debilitating pressure,” Compton has spent almost nine years in total in temporary and long-term solitary over different periods of his life. After five years of being on Texas Death Row, the threat of execution continues to loom. However, Compton says he navigates the mental and physical challenge of his circumstances through drawing, writing letters, and reading the Bible. Compton is a certified paralegal with an advanced certificate from Blackstone Career Institute. The following is one of Compton’s essays originally published on the Texas Letters Project, which sheds light on the solitary world. —Kilhah St. Fort

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Reader, try to string these pearls:

The Reverend Al Sharpton once said on “Face the Nation” that, “It takes an institution to defeat an institution.” Reverend Al employs lawyers to file his lawsuits against racist laws, and he uses his political connections to challenge police brutality. In addition, Reverend Al also visited the Death Row in Georgia one time with current U.S. Senator Warnock (D) to pray with a Death Row inmate. These few facts give credence to how institutions are dismantled, and when un-changing, can still be impacted by helping people within them.

Imparting conversations of value is an important part of leaving a meaningful legacy for guys on Death Row. Whenever the news reports a scheduled execution and reporters disparage a guy’s character, what I think of is the man I got to know. To see a person that is healthy, gifted, and mentally re-newed be executed causes a lot of sadness. Sometimes we (Death Row) come to the door after an execution and have a memorial service. During a memorial service I often ask people, “So what was you favorite memory of _____?” (Fill in the blank) And the stories shared by guys are a lot like seeing rain before evaporation in a remote forest—you have to be there to appreciate it.

With the recent developments of the JP6 tablets, the phone app, TVs in the dayrooms, and the 106.5 “The Tank” radio station here on Polunsky, there is a new sense of connectivity. For decades guys on the row were limited to one five-minute call once every few months. So for someone with family that lives out of state, those calls represented the only chance to hear a loved one’s voice. Now, guys can call seven days a week between 2pm and 8pm as long as we aren’t on lockdown. As such, there is overwhelming relief and jubilation over these recent developments—since everyday life now incorporates a combination of them for most people. 

At times it feels like our oppression is compounded by lawmakers who push through laws that are criminally regressive. Every two years when the Texas legislature convenes, I watch as more laws increase criminal punishments while scapegoating officials’ misconduct and criminal behavior. Why is it that so many Republicans are always looking to take something away or punish more people in harsher ways? And no matter what they pass, the crime rate doesn’t change! Murders in Houston stay steady, drug crimes increase then decrease routinely, and frankly society is still ignorant-at-large about laws anyway until they get into trouble. In my prison experience I have met three or four guys who knew the criminal justice process before they got into trouble; that’s out of about 4,000 people I’ve met. 

Therefore, oppression compounds when every two years a new law that aims to take something away from Death Row or Ad-Seg goes into effect. I live here daily just trying to do meaningful work and be progressive, and not even that disposition tempers the regression Texas law-makers are instituting right now. 

Another pattern I notice among TDCJ officials in charge of oversight of Death Row is cognitive dissonance. Most guys in white are familiar with how TDCJ says one thing and does another on a myriad of issues, particularly on the individual C.O. level. But a pattern has emerged where officials think the harshness of solitary has been mitigated by the aforementioned recent developments. They aren’t seeing the guy whose skin still jumps when being escorted because he isn’t used to another human touch. They overlook the guy who hasn’t showered in two months, who is stuck and dysfunctional from taking too many pills/medications. See, our physiology is being harmed because of solitary, and cognitive dissonance is contributing to a disinformed perspective of that harm. I mean, it is an unlimited fallacy to tell a person in pain, “You’re not really hurting, it’s just in your mind.” How long will officials shift explanations of the clear mental decline of people caused by solitary confinement? (Then again, how long have they been doing it?)

I think that Texas as a government has accepted that prisons are a permanent part of society. Prisons brought jobs to rural Texans, and brought investment from big-time capitalists. Some groups report that 95 percent of incarcerated people get out of prison at some point and rejoin society. But for those of us stuck in prison for a lifetime or until we die (the five percent), solitary confinement is the worst place to be housed. For a lifer stuck in Ad-seg or a man on Death Row, it can feel like nothing will ever change or that life isn’t worth living anymore. Solitary confinement isn’t like a storage building for furniture, it really is torture. Far too many Texans have accepted a permanent form of torture that people make money off of. 

When my friend Arthur Brown Jr. (AJ) was executed after being on Death Row for 30 years, I reflected on some of the ways he found meaning in life. One time he told me, “Little brother, one day we gonna leave this motherfucker behind—one way or another. The key is to survive anyway you can that’s positive.” So to my brothers in the struggle, I’ll leave you with AJ’s words; and to other readers, remember that it takes an institution to defeat an institution. 


Dillion Compton 


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