Commentary

Three years in solitary confinement: An open letter from the Allegheny Co. Jail | Opinion

Those who endure solitary confinement have long been buried, nameless and voiceless, in the dark heart of the Allegheny County Jail

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By James Byrd

(Editor’s Note: James Byrd has been held in the Allegheny County Jail’s men’s solitary confinement unit for over three years. 

Byrd is both a state and federal pretrial detainee who has been held in “administrative custody” or what is commonly referred to as “the hole.” According to jail policy, administrative custody level is given to incarcerated persons that are “designated by administration as high risk. This designation includes but is not limited to severity of charges, escape risk, requests from law enforcement agencies…” Incarcerated persons charged by the federal government are often segregated from the general population at the jail. 

Byrd has been held as a pretrial detainee at the Allegheny County Jail since 2015. In 2019, Byrd was briefly transferred to a correctional facility in North Carolina for about five months—May 23 to Oct. 31 –where he received a psychiatric evaluation, after which he was transferred back to the jail where he is currently held. 

At the Allegheny County jail, Byrd’s lockdown exists at the same time the jail is supposed to be preparing for the elimination of the use of solitary confinement by Dec. 

In May, Allegheny County became the first county in U.S. history to ban solitary confinement by referendum. As a result, most uses of solitary confinement must end there in December. 

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That means incarcerated persons can no longer be confined to a cell for more than 20 hours a day except in cases of lockdowns, medical or safety emergencies and protective separation requests.

In addition to Byrd, most of those now incarcerated at the Allegheny County Jail still remain in cells for close to 23 hours each day for unspecified safety issues, according to jail officials. Read more about the jail’s 23-hour-a day lockdown here. )

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The political oppression and racism has been an intricate part of my life.

I can’t emphasize enough the impact it has had in the development of my character as well as my perception of what life as a Black man in the United States means.

But even more influential, mentally and emotionally impacting, has been the past three years I have spent incarcerated in solitary confinement at the Allegheny County Jail (ACJ).

Despite the recent abolishment of solitary confinement in this year’s election, Warden Orlando Harper and Chief Deputy Warden Laura K. Williams have failed to take the necessary measures to end the use of solitary confinement

Those who endure solitary confinement have long been buried, nameless and voiceless, in the dark heart of the Allegheny County Jail.

Over time you experience a social death.

A gray limitless ocean stretches out in front of and behind you – an emptiness and loneliness so all encompassing it threatens to erase you. Whether you’re in this world for a month, a year or a decade, you experience a life changing transformation. Day by day you lose your connection to everything and everyone outside of jail. You lose everything you were and everything you knew. You wake up every morning to the reality that if everyone you knew hasn’t already forgotten you, chances are they eventually will.

The case against solitary confinement

And even if you get out, you fear the “you” who has walked through the world since the day you were born might be irrevocably damaged, changed, and unrecognizable. Who is to say you even exist.

Over the past thirty years, prisons and jails have become the nation’s largest inpatient psychiatric centers. The Treatment Advocacy Center estimated that in 2012, more than 350,000 people with serious mental illness were housed in prisons and jails, while a tenth as many – 35,000 – were in state mental hospitals. Many enter jails or prisons with relatively minor charges, then ultimately obtain additional, often more serious, charges as a result of untreated illness, and end up spending a lifetime in and out of incarceration.

Solitary confinement cells, in particular, are now used to warehouse thousands of people with mental illness, as well as people with developmental disabilities, physical disabilities, and substance addictions. Human Rights Watch estimated that, based on available data, one-third to one-half of those held in solitary confinement had some form of mental illness.

At some point you’re going to snap.

This might be after one week or one year, depending on how you are wired and how mentally strong you are. Sometimes prisoners scream at the top of their lungs or talk to themselves. Others ball up their fists and pound on their windows and doors, vomiting every expletive they can think of.

What solitary looks like

Solitary confinement at the ACJ is the practice of isolating people in closed cells for 23 to 24 hours per day, largely deprived of human contact for periods of time ranging from days to years.

The cells measure approximately six by nine, or eight by ten feet in size. They have solid metal doors. Meals are provided through a slot cut into the door with a metal flap. Showers are generally permitted two to three times per week.

Incarcerated persons are escorted in restraints–which include handcuffs and a tether that looks like a human dog leash–to a fenced-in or caged area for an hour of recreation time per day, at best.

Most incarcerated persons, although not all, are permitted to have books or legal papers within their cell areas. Visitation with family or friends is typically conducted through a plexiglass barrier. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, video visitations are conducted through tablets.

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The incarcerated persons here are predominantly housed in single cells and have very little opportunity for out-of-cell recreation time or freedom to associate and interact with other human beings. There are no meaningful opportunities to access vocational, educational, or therapeutic programs. We eat, sleep, and relieve ourselves of bodily waste within the confines of our tiny cells.

Other men are often reduced to mindless zombies who can no longer even recognize their loved ones by voice or physical appearance. These individuals pace aimlessly in circles during recreation.

I no longer simply live in solitary confinement, solitary confinement forever lives within me! Like myself, a number of other inmates who both do and don’t suffer with mental health issues continue to suffer.

Nothing I tell you can actually prepare you for what it’s like to be in solitary confinement at the ACJ.

I have watched men on the brink of total insanity as a result of spending time in solitary confinement, and I feel I must display strength of spirit so that maybe these other men will see in me what they need in that moment, to hold on to their sanity and dignity, just a little while longer.

But what if the adaptation is itself evidence of how effective this form of torture can be?

Even during unspeakable horrors and loss, a person’s spirit has the extraordinary ability to retain the capacity to care for others, offer support, endure hardship, and to move forward through the seemingly endless or impossible circumstances. For it is in those moments of uncertainty and despair, that I am able to see clearly that compassion, forgiveness, and equality will only ever be possible through moral courage and faith that change is sure to come with time.

People in solitary confinement commit suicide at a much higher rate than any other incarcerated population. Some go visibly crazy, ripping away at their own flesh with their teeth, and others mutilate their genitals to inflict physical pain as a distraction from the psychological pain. Others adjust, showing no outward signs of insanity.

But what if the adaptation is itself evidence of how effective this form of torture can be?

What if silent scream internalizes what’s being done to you, making you identify with, or even become, your own torturer?

I could most likely spend months trying to verbalize the effects of my experience of the past three years. It is because of the abusive practice of long term solitary confinement and the physical and psychological torture involved, which creates the necessity for individuals such as yourself to understand and get involved. And it is with great honor and admiration for the men and women who both survive and perish under conditions of solitary confinement, similar or the same as those at the ACJ, that I reach out to address the circumstances discussed today, and call to abolish solitary confinement across the globe.

James Byrd wrote this op-Ed for the Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, where it first appeared

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