By Alexandra Arriaga and Dee J. Hall, Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism
Waupun Correctional Institution inmate Cesar DeLeon said he has punched the wall until his fist is bloody during the 15 years in prison in which he has rotated in and out of solitary confinement.
“I can’t understand why I have to do it,” said DeLeon, 34, “but the pain somehow gives me a sense of reality.”
DeLeon is in prison for armed robbery and kidnapping. He also is facing trial for attempted homicide for stabbing a Columbia Correctional Institution staff member in 2014 with a scissors after he was denied a promotion at the prison library where he worked.
Brandon Christian, 29, said he fantasizes about the violence he will commit if he ever leaves solitary, where he has been for more than seven years. He describes being “unfeeling,” adding, “Life has no point.”
The home page illustration is original artwork by Emily Shullaw for the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, depicting the artist’s rendition of the conditions of solitary confinement and based on surveys conducted by the WCIJ.
Not all forms of solitary confinement are equal. A survey by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism gave voice to some of the Wisconsin prisoners kept in “administrative confinement” (where Christian has spent 3½ years).
This is a little-known category of solitary that the state Department of Corrections (DOC) describes as “an involuntary non-punitive status” for inmates who pose “a serious threat to life, property, self, staff or other inmates, or to the security of the facility.”
The agency says these inmates are so dangerous that they must be confined for months, years — even decades — in a cell the size of a parking space with no human contact at least 22 hours a day.
Survey Follows Refusal of Interview Requests
State officials denied reporters’ requests to interview inmates in person about their experiences in administrative confinement, so the Center mailed surveys to more than 100 who had been held in 2016. Responses came from 65 inmates, many of whom have committed horrific crimes including multiple murders, violent attacks and sexual assault.
One respondent to the Center’s survey was in solitary for about 28 years; another has served 20 years.
Ernesto Cervantes, who is serving time at the Wisconsin Secure Program Facility in Boscobel, wrote in response to the survey that he is no longer capable of “normal human interaction” after two and a half years in isolation — spending at least 22 hours a day alone in a tiny, solid-walled cell.
“I have not been able to function properly in a social setting,” Cervantes said of his experience after release from administrative confinement, a status with no specified end date. “I think others are talking about me and feel watched. I also feel like I have lost proper comprehension as when people are speaking to me it sounds like gibberish noise.”
The Center’s survey was conducted in the wake of a seven-month inmate hunger strike launched in June aimed at ending long-term solitary confinement in Wisconsin. The survey asked about prisoners’ living conditions, mental health status, whether they received regular meals and whether they had committed or been a victim of violence while in administrative confinement.
Several, including DeLeon, 34, participated in the hunger strike. Some of them were force-fed.
The results of the survey were stark:
- Ten inmates reported attempting suicide while in administrative confinement. One said administrative confinement “makes you numb, violent, hateful, loud, disrespectful (and) suicidal.” Most described feelings of isolation, hopelessness, anxiety or paranoia.
- Of the 65 respondents, 26 claimed they have had medications or medical devices withheld or threatened to be withheld by security staff who distribute prescriptions, or that they had overheard it happening to other inmates in solitary.
- More than a third of the respondents — 28 inmates — said they had been treated violently by other inmates or prison staff; 13 acknowledged harming or threatening to harm staff members or other inmates.
- Several described sleep deprivation from screaming and banging from other inmates and perpetual lighting.
- Thirteen inmates had food complaints, with some saying guards sometimes failed to deliver meals or that portions were inadequate, leaving them hungry.
How to manage such violent or non-compliant inmates — without worsening their behavior or mental health problems — is a big challenge for prison systems. Because of the negative effects of long-term indefinite solitary confinement, Colorado has largely ended this practice, which a top United Nations expert has said is equivalent to torture after 15 days.
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In 2016, seven states — California, Connecticut, Colorado, Delaware, Maryland, Nebraska and New Jersey — approved either some restrictions on solitary or new reporting requirements. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, however, vetoed his state’s legislation, which would have prohibited use of solitary for non-disciplinary reasons.
Department of Corrections Changes Policies
In 2015, the Wisconsin DOC implemented policies — although not all inmates were aware of the changes — to reduce the amount of time inmates spend in solitary for disciplinary reasons and narrowed the types of offenses that can land them there. It also has moved to take prisoners with serious mental illnesses out of solitary and to require that psychological staff provide input when such inmates are facing placement in solitary, spokesman Tristan Cook said.
The result is a large drop in inmates in all forms of solitary confinement from a high of 1,362 in March 2014 to 1,073 as of last Feb. 28, Cook said. Of those, 93 were in administrative confinement.
“DOC has made significant reforms to the restrictive housing process with the goal of minimizing … (its) usage for all inmates and eliminating the use of restrictive housing for inmates with serious mental illnesses,” Cook wrote in an email.
As of Oct. 1, 2015, Wisconsin held about 3.7% of its inmates in solitary confinement for at least 22 hours a day, 15 continuous days or more, compared to a national average of about 4.9%, according to a study released in November by the Association of State Correctional Officials and Yale Law School.
The study, based on surveys of 48 correctional systems including the U.S. Bureau of Prisons, found that nearly all had made or were planning to make changes to reduce the use of isolation.
The practice has gone from “central to prisoner management” to one used “only when absolutely necessary and for only as long as absolutely required,” the report found.
Wisconsin is one of 17 jurisdictions that told the survey it does not routinely track how long inmates are in solitary.
There are signs that Wisconsin is attempting to improve conditions for inmates held in solitary. Gov. Scott Walker’s 2017-19 DOC budget request includes changes to solitary to boost mental health care and to allow some inmates with serious mental illnesses to spend up to 20 hours a week out of their cells for programming and recreation.
‘Prison within a prison’
Former Waupun prison psychologist Bradley Boivin said that the lack of an end date while in administrative confinement can be especially damaging to inmates’ mental health, creating a “prison within a prison.” The Center approached Boivin last year after inmates raised questions about why he had left DOC.
“Imagine being told you’re going to prison for five years or you’re going to prison for as long as we want to keep you there,” Boivin said. “The ambiguity of it creates additional levels of psychological distress for the inmates.”
Boivin said he resigned after trying unsuccessfully to make changes from within at Waupun.
“It wasn’t about correction at all,” he said. “It was about perpetual punitive behavior (toward the inmates). That’s what I couldn’t be a part of anymore, I guess.”
In solitary units, Boivin said, individuals with the highest mental health classifications are required to be seen by a psychologist once a week. Inmates with a classification of less severe mental illness are seen every two weeks. The brief sessions take place through the inmate’s cell door, allowing others to hear. Inmates call them “drive-bys.”
“There’s nothing clinical or therapeutic about (weekly check-ins) whatsoever. It’s really just a quick check-in,” Boivin said.
These brief encounters are often the only routine clinical contact inmates in solitary confinement receive, he said. Boivin said at times when he attempted to set up individual sessions he got “pushback” from security.
“There’s no way to gather information about a person’s mental health condition … in two or three minutes,” he said, calling the practice “inadequate.”
Suicide attempts, drugs withheld
In the surveys, most inmates presented bleak descriptions of life in solitary confinement.
“I’ve tried many times to hang myself with a sheet, overdose on medication. I start to see things or people who isn’t there; I talk to myself,” wrote Quenton Thompson, 35, who is serving a life sentence at the Boscobel prison for killing his pregnant girlfriend and her unborn child.
Shirell Watkins, 37, said he has tried twice to hang himself. Watkins, who is serving a 25-year sentence for reckless homicide, said he has spent years in various forms of solitary at three institutions, most recently Green Bay Correctional Institution.
In early 2016, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that one staff member was fired, one resigned and another retired from the DOC-run Milwaukee County Secure Detention Facility after they were caught on audiotape taunting an inmate and withholding his medication.
Manuel Salas, 30, wrote that he had attempted suicide a “number of times” over his 10 years in solitary, some of it spent in administrative confinement. Salas, who is serving time for arson and was released on extended supervision in August, said staff had retaliated against him by withholding medicine he takes for post-traumatic stress disorder, sleep and anxiety.
Thompson, the inmate at Wisconsin Secure Program Facility, said officers sometimes withhold medication from him “just to give me a hard time.”
Boivin used to hear these kinds of complaints from inmates, and he usually did not believe them. But the psychologist said he witnessed it himself at Waupun in 2015 after a sergeant, upset with an inmate, threatened to withhold his medication.
The problem, Boivin said, is that untrained non-medical staff should not be administering medicine. DOC has acknowledged the practice is “not acceptable,” requesting more than $1 million over two years for trained medical staff to administer medication at the embattled Lincoln Hills and Copper Lake juvenile prisons.
Cook did not answer questions about whether DOC is considering changes to how medicine is administered in the adult prisons.
Suicide watch ‘humiliating’ for inmates
In Wisconsin, some of the harshest treatment is reserved for inmates who want to kill themselves. Boivin said he personally and professionally felt these suicide watch placements were more torturous than solitary confinement itself.
An inmate in so-called observation status is confined in a cell with a hard bed equipped with only a thin rubber mat. The prisoner wears a paper security gown or a quilted security smock. The lights are on 24 hours a day, and, initially, he is not allowed any property, even a book.
In extreme cases, inmates are strapped down, restrained at their shoulders, their wrists, their ankles and their knees, in an “eight-point restraint.” Boivin said he has seen inmates restrained for hours or days, nude except for a washcloth covering their genitals.
“It’s humiliating, it’s degrading,” Boivin said. “They’re just kind of there, like a tied down animal.”
In 2015, there were 80 inmates with serious mental illnesses in solitary who had a total of 132 placements in suicide watch, according to a DOC budget request.
After a couple of days in observation, Boivin said, the “decompensation” is noticeable. Inmates’ eyes become bloodshot and watery, and they can become aggressive, delirious and eventually “shut down.”
Days filled with boredom and rage
Inmates were asked to describe a typical day in administrative confinement. Many wrote of repetitiveness (“same thing over and over every day”), spending the entire day in bed or that the “days blur into one another.” Reading, watching TV, working out in their cells or the “rec cage,” and writing letters are some of the ways inmates keep busy.
Some inmates say overwhelming isolation takes over their daily lives.
Eric Conner, 30, is at Boscobel serving 30 years on his most recent sentence after stabbing another inmate and injuring a correctional officer. Cook said in all, Conner has had 56 conduct reports since he was imprisoned in 2008 for murder. During his time in solitary, Conner wrote that he hears his victim telling him to kill or harm himself. “I’m stuck in the cell and have nothing to distract me from him,” he wrote.
Tony Caravella, 31, is serving 60 years on three counts of vehicular homicide. Before his incarceration, Caravella said he was not diagnosed with any mental illness, but now takes medications for depression, sleep, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.
In regard to his six months in administrative confinement at Boscobel in 2016, he wrote:
“Administrative confinement has had effect on me for depression, anxiety and loss of self-worth and I crave human contact like a hug from my dad.”
Alexandra Arriaga is a former intern for the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. She now writes for the Chronicle of Higher Education.
Dee J. Hall, who assisted with this report, is a co-founder of the WCIJ and joined its staff as managing editor in June 2015. She worked at the Wisconsin State Journal for 24 years as an editor and reporter, focusing on projects and investigations.
Carley Waits, a student intern with the University of Wisconsin-Madison PEOPLE program, contributed to this report.
The WCIJ’s reporting on criminal justice issues is supported by a grant from Vital Projects at Proteus. The nonprofit Center (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication. All works created, published, posted or disseminated by the Center do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of UW-Madison or any of its affiliates.