The Hell Inside Hell: Solitary Confinement in Texas Hides the Sexual Abuse of Women and Girls

by | June 3, 2024

The gifted and prolific incarcerated journalist Kwaneta Harris received a grant from Solitary Watch’s Ridgeway Reporting Project to write her latest piece, just published by Scalawag. Harris, who wrote this scathing expose from inside a solitary confinement cell, reveals how solitary units become fertile ground for the sexual abuse and exploitation of women and of girls as young as 16. What follows is an excerpt from that article, which can be read in full at Scalawag. Read more of Kwaneta Harris’s writing on Solitary Watch and on her website. —Jean Casella

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I have called The Hell inside Hell home for eight of the 17 years that I’ve been incarcerated. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) adult women’s solitary confinement on Lane Murray Unit has many aliases: Administrative Segregation, Alternative Housing, Special Housing, The Hole, The Box. This is so they can deny the existence of solitary confinement. Don’t be misled: solitary is alive here, and virtually absolute. 

As physical and sexual abuse scandals have become routine in girls’ and women’s prisons nationwide, the pivotal role solitary confinement plays is often ignored, concealing a host of rampant abuses from grooming to sexual violence. In prisons the state designates as female, officers don’t just use the threat of solitary to extract sexual favors. Once someone is in The Hole, guards use the isolation as the perfect place to predate uninterrupted. 

I’m not suggesting all abuse would magically cease without segregation. But isolation has always been a key tenet of abuse. The threat of solitary forces us into a sick game of “Would you rather.” Would you rather be ordered to flash your breasts in General Population? Or ordered to masturbate with a bottle of water in segregation? 

People on the outside are usually surprised to learn that incarcerated women and girls fear staff, not each other. In General Population, there’s safety in numbers; there are places to hide, ways to avoid the sexual predators on staff, and allies to enlist as distractions. In The Hole, we depend solely on security staff to eat, shower, and receive toilet paper and tampons. No place to run or hide. 

We spend 23-24 hours of the day with only bright lights, loud noises, and smells of unwashed bodies to accompany the complete isolation. This is barring the rare excursion to the medical building, which involves a strip search, handcuffs, ankle shackles, and a belly chain. As we’re escorted, our peers in General Population are ordered to “Catch a wall!” That’s prison lingo for demanding everyone turn their backs to us. Per policy, making eye contact or speaking to us is punishable as a disciplinary infraction. Breaking this rule often results in the person joining us in The Box, effectively criminalizing all human emotions, concern, contact, and love for other prisoners, especially those in isolation. 

Collectively, we resist by establishing community and chosen families. To overcome communication barriers, we talk through shared heating vents. To communicate across floors, we make sweeping large letters to spell words using our entire hand. We also pass written correspondence known as kites. 

We are so desperate to feel a friendly touch, see people wearing non-uniforms, and hear different voices. Texas doesn’t offer personal televisions to purchase for any incarcerated person. For a while, we were allowed to watch one hour of mandatory Fox News only during caged indoor recreation, but not anymore. Before 2023, phone access was limited to one five-minute-long call every three months. During our one hour of recreation twice a week in an enclosed metal cage, we climb up the toilet onto the sink, then balance precariously on a thin concrete ledge, just to see each other’s faces and graze fingertips. Severe mental illness is so endemic that it’s a rare treat to experience a vent neighbor who doesn’t bang her head open. These are the times when bonds are forged and tears are shed. 

TDCJ’s spokesperson insists Restrictive Housing is to prevent “gang members from recruiting.” We don’t have gangs in Texas women’s prisons. Adult women are placed in solitary for a range of reasons: refusing to work, “extreme hairstyles,” phone sex, contraband possession (even if you were set up), assaults, or writing escape letters to the warden (to get out of working in the brutal fields). The average stay is seven years. Conversely, any history of assault while incarcerated in a youth prison is also used to justify transfer to adult solitary for juveniles as young as 16.5 years of age. 

In a building of 228 isolation cells, I am one of only five women over fifty. I arrived at segregation to find an overwhelming representation of LGBTQ+ Black and brown youth. 

I was perplexed to see teenagers, who were not old enough to buy beer and cigarettes, treated as grownups here. The majority of my neighbors were transferred from the Texas Juvenile Justice Department (TJJD) as teens to an adult prison. TJJD imprisons children as young as 10 years old. There, the innocuous euphemism for solitary confinement is “Security.” Don’t be fooled by the name. It isn’t to protect an extremely vulnerable child. It’s used as punishment. 

The reasons children are placed in isolation stem from immaturity, rather than deliberate so-called criminality. Youth swearing, disobedience, lying, being argumentative, insubordination, and “sexual deviancy” (being caught in bed together) are all major violations falling under the umbrella of “disrespectful behavior towards staff,” which, along with assaults on staff and peers, are punishable with 30-45 days in Security at state youth prisons. Sometimes, youth return to The Hole after less than 24 hours to begin a fresh 30 days…. 

Over the years I’ve heard unbelievable sordid stories of abuse from young women who had never met one another, but all told me similar tales of rapes, arbitrary beatings, and sexual harassment in juvenile solitary confinement by guards, which continued once they transferred to this adult solitary prison. 

It wasn’t long before they made a believer out of me. The first new young girl draped in too-big clothes was escorted past my door with badly swollen wrists. The black box vise we’re forced to wear for long trips covers our handcuffs, pinches our wrists nonstop, and leads to swelling. That’s how I knew she was a new arrival. They placed her in the cell facing me and ignored her request for water. She removed her shirt and bra. Once she was topless, this sexual survival tactic immediately got her some cold water… Read the full article at Scalawag

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1 comment

  • Leslie Gold

    Thank you for your beautiful heart, and your courage to share your utterly painful experiences. I know everyone who reads your powerful writing feels privileged to witness your life and the lives of the precious women you share your daily experiences with. We all send you love and blessings, and pray for your safety. And I pray you continue to find strength and healing through your generous writings and/or other avenues. You are amazing and your love is a gift to our entire Planet.

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