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What Now After Solitary Confinement? Part 1
By Carl ToersBijns, former deputy warden, ASPC Eyman, Florence AZ
Published: 07/09/2018

Chairs two The following is the first in a two part series

Times are changing, and penology is no exception. Court rulings favor bringing people out of the darkness of prison corridors deeply hidden in the dark setting of tons of concrete and steel. With artificial surroundings and no direct sunlight, people are demanding that prisoners be released from solitary confinement but don’t have a clue what this will do to them if exposed to the settings of a social atmosphere that have been denied them for decades.

When I was assigned the first Security Threat Group (gang unit) step-down program in the Arizona maximum security unit, Special Management Unit II, now called the Browning Unit, we had to emphasise safety over operational issues and assimilation overcoming the mental stress and anxiety of unambiguously identified group of men who have been locked up for more than a decade and who have never been given an extraordinary opportunity to re-connect and socialize with others before their release from the solitary confinement setting. The first step was to identify the gang members and determine their compatibility with each other in an open setting defined as a pod, as that would be the ultimate goal – socialization within a semi-controlled environment but with activities that would allow them out of cell events in an organized manner. The list had been reviewed time after time and the finalist were individuals determined to be the best candidates for a successful transition to an open yard setting.

This selection process took over two years to develop and finalize and included criteria that gave the administration small and lesser risk assurances that they would not renege on their promise to violate the step-down program rules. The STG coordinators did a fantastic job to pick the names based on background checks and gang affiliations. We had to deliberately mix the gangs whether they were rivals or not because the entire purpose of the program was to find a common thread of respect and assimilation for different socio-political viewpoints and cultural backgrounds. In the end, we formed a group of 19 individuals who met the safety criteria and those persons came from four ethnic groups as well as being internal gang rivals.

Color and race were not designed to be a restriction or barrier for entering the program if the program was going to work as it would resemble a general population setting with mixed races and cultures around them.

The second step was to solicit opinions, evaluations, and assessments from the mental health professionals assigned to the unit. Their main purpose was to address red flags related to past history of social adjustments, violence, and drug abuse. Under the terms of the program, everyone had to be clean of drugs, free from gang associations for up to 5 years and a personal effort to improve their educational and vocational skills via the in-cell television mentor program.

There were more expectations, but the ground floor was the ability to socialize without violence. Something you cannot guarantee in a prison but can be reduced through solid risk assessments and feedback from staff who observed these men for the past years.

Keep in mind, the objective is to release them into a general close custody setting where they can work, program out of their cells and have contact visits. These incentives alone stirred the emotions to become eligible for the program. However, we had to be sure that nobody manipulated to program for the wrong reasons.

Their main goal was to overcome the past conditions of incarceration where the state’s use of solitary confinement, in which prisoners are held for years or decades with almost no social contact and the barest of sensory stimuli. We knew that from the beginning, the human body and brain is poorly equipped and ill-adapted to such conditions, and this method or keeping prisoners in the dark [metaphorically] brings some prison activists and some psychologists to equate it to torture.

Regardless of how one felt about the use of this method of incarceration, solitary confinement isn’t merely painful, but such an anathema to human needs that it often drives prisoners mad.

It was the madness we have to address. We cannot expect prisoners kept in solitary to confinement to come out to the light and abide by all the rules and regulations of the institution when, in fact, they have been denied mental preparation and adaptation to adjust to such a setting.

This madness is both physical and psychological. It has been well established that whenever someone is “thrown in the hole” aka solitary confinement, they become angry, anxious and to a large degree delusional of the reality around them. The change is so drastic and so harsh, they become prone from disconnections of reality and experience hallucinations as well as serious personality mood swings. We haven’t even considered the negative effects of the person's state of mind if the already possess predisposed and diagnosed mental illness. For them, the change is exponentially more difficult and requires a mid-step to adjust their character and ability to deal with the new reality. For these types of people, there may be a case of inflicting permanent change that is irreversible. Caution must be taken to not release someone who is unfit for lesser supervision or alternate living arrangement.

Having over twelve years in maximum security settings and over twenty-five years of prison experience, I have witnessed first-hand transformations both good and bad. The bad coming at the front end where they arrive because of a hideous crime committed, a serious assault on another inmate or staff member or self-mutilation. It was often experienced with the use of force, discharge of chemical agents or the use of some type of restraint chair or similar device.

However, it was the release from these small spaces that was most traumatic. When we release them from a maximum security isolated control unit, we forget their mental status and therefore, guilty of failing to consider that this long-term confinement did to them physically, and mentally.

For 23 hours or more per day, in what’s politically correct called “administrative segregation” or “special housing,” prisoners are kept in bathroom-sized cells, under fluorescent lights that never shut off. Video and staff surveillance is constant. Social contact is severely restricted to rare glimpses of other prisoners, encounters with guards, and brief video or non-contact visits/conferences with friends or family.

'Most of these people will return to lower custody levels in our prisons and eventually out to our communities. For stimulation, prisoners might have a few books; they may have a television or a radio. Clothing has always been restricted and blankets and linen are sparsely given. In so much climate control, it is either too hot or too cold in these cells and such amenities as wool hats in cold weather and sweats which are rarely approved for different subjective reasons.

The enforced solitude can last for years or even decades depending on the crime, sentence, gang affiliations, history or violence and lack of institutional adjustment records. We cannot describe the brutality here. We cannot begin to explain the warped nature of solitary confinement and what it does to a person. You have to see it or live it to believe it. It is the ultimate test of mankind to survive solitary confinement without the permanent scars it inflicts and creates that lasts a lifetime.

Some wonder why some prisoners return to maximum security or solitary confinement after being released into a more generous environment as they fail to understand that the adjustment to socialize may be too great to take in one giant leap. Some are referred to mental health as their rejection of freedom appears to be an act of craziness or lunacy if they don’t understand the reasons for the failures.

Some claim these prisoners need a regimented life and depend on others to give them orders on how to do their time. Both may have some validity, but the main reason is lack of preparation for the unleashed new liberty provided by the release.

These shocking conditions are best understood by listening to people who’ve endured them. We may hear an abundant chant from correctional employees that are claiming that prisoners are experiencing or feigning mental illness. There may be a significant amount of truth to those inferences by staff.

Being locked up in a box is hardly natural for a human being and someone who is deprived space, food, sound, light and other abundance of amenities provided in the general setting of a prison and to experience such an abundance will create confusion and at the same time, some paranoia of the reality around them, their personal being, wellness or safety is often compromised as they now feel vulnerable and exposed to harm and psychological enemies of self-doubt and confidence.

Check in next week for more!

Corrections.com author, Carl ToersBijns, (retired), has worked in corrections for over 25 yrs He held positions of a Correctional Officer I, II, III [Captain] Chief of Security Mental Health Treatment Center – Program Director – Associate Warden - Deputy Warden of Administration & Operations. Carl’s prison philosophy is all about the safety of the public, staff and inmates, "I believe my strongest quality is that I create strategies that are practical, functional and cost effective."

Other articles by ToersBijns:


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