'You’re Afraid of Forgetting Who You Are': The American Prisoners Who Spend Years in Solitary Confinement

They are held alone in a cell the size of an elevator, sometimes with no window. They’re denied contact with other people. Thousands of American prison inmates are held for years in solitary confinement, cut off from the world. A few of them tell Haaretz their stories

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Tzach Yoked
Tzach Yoked
Tzach Yoked
Tzach Yoked

Even though he emphasizes the point from the outset, and even though it’s a straightforward declaration that doesn’t leave much room for interpretation or misunderstanding – I’m still convinced that I’m missing something in the story of Ian Manuel. The facts seem clear, yet the mind refuses to accept them, even when Manuel repeats them over and over, during our phone conversation.

“I was held in solitary confinement for 18 consecutive years, from age 15 to age 33,” he says in a dry, emotionless tone of voice, as befits someone who for almost two decades was deprived of his humanity by the authorities.

“Eighteen years running, I was imprisoned in a cell the size of an elevator, with no window,” he continues.

Still I refuse to believe this, I can’t get my head around it.

I want to be sure I understood you correctly. You were in solitary confinement for 18 years without being allowed out for even a single day?

Manuel: “Yes.”

For 18 years you were denied the company of other inmates, for even a few hours?

“Correct.”

I’m trying to comprehend how that’s even possible. The regulations in the prisons where you served time don’t allow sending an inmate to solitary for more than six months at a time. What you are saying, then, is that every time you completed six months there, you were immediately sent for another six months, without spending even one day in a regular wing with other inmates?

“Not even one day. I was put in the hole each time for half a year, and then, after five months and 29 days, when I thought I was going back to the general wing, when I already saw the light at the end of the tunnel, they would find some excuse to leave me in isolation for another six months. They had a different excuse each time. One time they found a magazine on me with another inmate’s name on it. Another time I stood next to the cell door while a female guard passed by in the corridor, which was against the rules. Once they claimed I spoke rudely to a guard, and another time they extended solitary because I argued with one of the staff.”

Half a year in solitary because you had words with a member of the prison staff?

“Look, I’m not saying my behavior was perfect; I was a rash kid back then who didn’t think much before he spoke. Maybe there was reason to deprive me of a phone call, for example, but they always sentenced me to six months in isolation for each little offense. It went on like that for 18 years, without a single day outside [of solitary]. I was also not entitled to visits. I was in isolation from 1992 until 2010, and during that entire period, I was allowed one short visit, by my brother, in 1997.”

Eighteen years in a small cell the size of an elevator. How do you stay sane? How do you pass the time?

“You write poetry, do pushups, walk back and forth. And above all, you imagine. Luckily I had a well-developed imagination. They tried to break me, but I survived thanks to my imagination. I would think about the day when I would be released and plan how I would become a rap star or a movie actor. Regular people live their lives; I imagined mine.”

Ian Manuel. “I would think about the day when I would be released and plan how I would become a rap star or a movie actor. Regular people live their lives; I imagined mine.” Credit: Nir Arieli

‘You could read the Bible’

When Manuel, who is today 44, describes the conditions of solitary confinement at the innocuously named Reception and Medical Center, the state prison in Lake Butler, Florida, about an hour west of Jacksonville, in the north of the state, once again, reason finds it difficult to accept the facts

“It was a cell of 2 by 3 meters [about 65 sq. ft.],” he says. A computer, television or radio was out of the question, and so were books. “You were only allowed to bring in religious books – you could read the Bible.”

For the first eight years, from 1992 until 2000, he hardly ever saw the sun. “Once every few weeks they took me outside and put me in a small cage, like for dogs. I walked around it in circles, and after an hour I was taken back to the cell.” Beginning in 2000, a new regulation granted him two outings a week in the cage. He was still not allowed to meet with other inmates.

It was another seven years before Manuel was permitted to see television. During the final years, he was given one hour of viewing a month. Showering, a basic right of every inmate, was a privilege awarded at the whim of the guards.

“One time a guard came into my cell with a large bucket of water and for no reason poured it all over the space, including on the sheets,” he recalls. “They would spray prisoners with chemical substances for the most minor disciplinary infractions. A guard would turn on the light in the middle of the night out of sheer abuse – to deprive you of the sense of time.” The prisoner had no control over the electric lighting in the cell. And there was no window, he emphasizes repeatedly. Not even a crack.

In spite of the incomprehensible conditions, Manuel today leads a perfectly regular life. He lives in a small apartment in Brooklyn, is in a relationship and works in New York’s coronavirus-care system doing contact tracing. When I ask what else he’s doing, he explains that he speaks at schools and social organizations around the country about his experiences. His newly published book, “My Time Will Come: A Memoir of Crime, Punishment, Hope and Redemption,” tells the story of his life and his years in solitary confinement.

I was in isolation from 1992 until 2010. I wasn't entitled to visits. A computer, television and radio were out of the question, and so were books – except religious texts. You could read the bible.

Ian Manuel

He grew up on the wrong side of the tracks in Tampa, and violence was a routine part of life from a young age. His father, a truck driver, was a drug addict who abandoned the family when Ian was an infant. His mother, who also served time in prison, became sick with AIDS, and died when her son was 19. He relates in the book how she abused him in his childhood, whipping him with an extension cord.

Manuel lived in a residential project where drugs and weapons were a standard part of the adolescent experience. With this background, it’s not surprising that he ran afoul of the law for the first time when he was just 11. “I got back from school and someone brought a pistol and suggested that we start robbing passersby,” he recalls. “We stole $3 here, 75 cents there. The police got to us that very same night.”

That case ended with 21 days in a closed institution for juveniles. Two years later, in July 1990, came the incident that would wreak havoc on his life. “I was 13, at the end of the seventh grade,” he recalls, adding that he and a few friends had gone downtown. “Someone brought a pistol and we started looking for people to rob.” They finally came upon Debbie Baigrie, a 28-year-old Jewish mother of two, who was coming out of a park with a friend.

“My friends went over to the man and demanded money,” Manuel relates. “They said I should be the one to hold the gun, because I was the bravest of the group. At one point I aimed the pistol at the woman’s face. She started screaming hysterically, and by mistake I shot her, at close range.” The bullet struck Baigrie in the face, but miraculously she survived; she underwent a series of operations to rehabilitate her jaw and gums. (At some point, he sent her a letter, she responded, and that led to an exchange of correspondence for a time.) Manuel was arrested three days later. His conscience bothered him, he says, and he immediately confessed. He did the same in court, at his lawyer’s urging. “He told me that if I confessed, I wouldn’t get more than a 15-year sentence, and that if I went to trial the judge would get angry and sentence me to life.” But it was bad advice: He was convicted of attempted murder and sentenced to life without parole.

Manuel was 14 at the time of his conviction. A few months after he entered prison, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Condemned to life in prison and labeled mentally ill, Manuel’s road to protracted isolation was short.

Imagine you’re in a small cell with no release date, he writes in his book, “where in a deadly routine you sleep, wake up, shit, piss, eat – food slipped through a slot as if you were an animal; where you are denied the possibility of human contact except as physical or mental abuse… Imagine life without hope in a brutal hellhole of sameness designed to break your spirit and challenge your sanity. The United Nations considers solitary confinement for more than 15 days torture. It was my condition for 18 years.”

The feeling of despair led Manuel to extreme solutions. He needed external stimulation, he writes. So to break the routine he would shout to the guards, “‘I’m going to kill myself,’ and so initiate a psychiatric emergency. Guards would rush to your cell, strip you of your clothes, and take you to the psychiatric infirmary, where they would lock you in a cold room with a concrete bunk for three days at a time.” From his point of view, he says, the very fact that could speak with the nurse and walk around a room was already a tremendous improvement compared to his usual situation.

According to Manuel, the way the system isolated him and pushed him into a corner, in its attempt to bring about submission and obedience, achieved the exact opposite. “The more time I spent in solitary, the harder it was for me to meet the guards’ expectations from me,” he says. “And the harder it was for me to meet their expectations, the more brutal they became in attempting to ensure that I would behave as they expected.”

In 2000, after eight years in solitary, Manuel was transferred to a federal prison in Florida. “By that stage I had stopped making my bed in the morning,” he relates. “I would quarrel with the guards deliberately. I was no longer capable of biting my tongue when they spoke to me disrespectfully, which they did pretty much all the time. I stopped obeying orders that the guards barked at me inhumanly. Their behavior was barbaric.”

You say you survived thanks to the power of the imagination, but I’m sure there were many moments when you broke down.

“Every Christmas you spend alone, every birthday that you spend in solitary without family and friends – those are rough moments. But there were two moments of crisis that I especially remember. The first was in 1996, when my mother passed, and I wasn’t allowed to attend the funeral; and the second was in 2011, when the Florida Supreme Court resentenced me to 65 years in prison. I’d been in prison for 21 years then, and I was sure they were going to release me. That was a tough moment.”

Five years later, after his attorney appealed to the court, his sentence was reduced to 40 years. The authorities decided to give him a third off for good behavior, even though he’d been repeatedly punished, and he was released.

Jermaine Manley. “You go outside to a small cage and you do some turns in it and go back. Imagine a dog pound with a lot of dogs, each one in a separate cage. That’s the yard.” Credit: Nir Arieli

Tea bag infraction

Jermaine Manley, who is today 46, spent 26 years in prisons around New York State, after being convicted of first-degree murder at the age of 16. Of that period, he was in solitary confinement a number of times – a total of 12 years.

There was no lack of reasons for sending him into isolation, he relates now. Like other inmates who found themselves there, he too describes a routine in which taking a tea bag without permission is due cause for an inmate to be thrown into “the hole” for a month. A torn bed sheet constitutes destruction of public property, and even an overly sharpened pencil can quickly lead to a charge of possessing a weapon and solitary confinement.

“One time I was put in solitary because my shoelaces weren’t tied,” he recalls, speaking by phone from New York. “Their explanation was that this was evidence of membership in a gang.”

The word “gang,” as the conversation with Manley shows, hovers over prison life like a general excuse that is enough on its own to justify time in solitary. “One time my hair was combed in a way that they read as ‘gangster style,’ and I was put in solitary for a month. If an inmate didn’t shave for a few days, he would be accused of belonging to a gang.”

There was also a case in which a letter Manley received from a childhood friend in Harlem led to no less than 18 months in solitary: On that occasion, too, he was accused of membership in a gang.

“The language I was raised on in Harlem, the street language that my friends and I speak, isn’t always something that the white guards in prison are capable of understanding,” he explains. “A letter arrives from a friend that has phrases like ‘What’s poppin’, ‘bro?’ or a term like ‘big money’ or the letter F written backward, like the number seven. They go through the letter and they aren’t able to understand our lingo, the slang, the nicknames we give each other, and they assume they’re coded messages of a gang. There was nothing illegitimate in that letter, but it cost me a year and a half in isolation because they didn’t get it.”

Taking a tea bag without permission can get you thrown into “the hole” for a month. A torn bed sheet constitutes destruction of public property. An overly sharpened pencil can quickly lead to a weapon possession charge.

Jermaine Manley

Manley served his time in solitary confinement in a cell of 2 meters by less than 3 meters. He spent 23 hours a day there, with one hour in the “yard.” “You go outside to a small cage and you do some turns in it and go back. Imagine a dog pound with a lot of dogs, each one in a separate cage. That’s the yard.”

He was allowed to shower every other day. Food was served through a slot, but it wasn’t something you could count on getting, he says: “You get the minimum of the minimum, just enough to survive. I was supposed to get three meals a day, but there were days when they only brought two – for no reason, just depending on what mood the guards were in.”

How do you get through years in solitary confinement?

“You sleep a lot, you imagine a lot. When I was allowed to bring in a book, I would read. And that’s more or less it. When I got out of solitary I had to get used to life again. Every situation I was in with other people, I would get edgy. After so much time alone, you’re not used to people approaching you. I kept looking over my shoulder to see whether anyone was standing behind me.”

Bikers’ gang

Ronald Pierce, 62, served 30 years in New Jersey prisons after being convicted of second-degree murder in 1986. Almost five years of that period were spent in solitary confinement.

“I entered prison after being convicted on a charge of manslaughter while committing a robbery,” he says, speaking from his New Jersey home, but preferring not to elaborate. “It’s a charge used in cases where you didn’t intend to kill anyone during a robbery, but someone fell while trying to escape or got a heart attack. In a case like that, the punishment is life imprisonment.”

Why was he put into solitary confinement? On one occasion he was tattooed without permission, another time he got into a fight with an inmate, and once he was said to belong to a motorcycle gang whose members were in the prison. Pierce insists that he wasn’t accused of committing even the slightest disciplinary infraction in prison. He didn’t fight with anyone, was never caught with a weapon in his possession, and he also avoided getting into verbal altercations with the guards. Nevertheless, he spent five years in a small cell, cut off from the world and other inmates.

“In the 1990s, New Jersey earmarked money to stamp out the gangs that operated in the prisons,” he explains. “In the Newark prison where I was, they identified five gangs, and anyone who belonged to them was sent into solitary, even if they hadn’t committed an offense. There was a white supremacy organization, an organization of Hispanics, one of Blacks, one of native peoples, and the one I belonged to, of bikers.”

Roland Pierce. “I screamed and cursed at the social worker, even though he hadn’t done anything wrong. After a month alone in a small space,I had stored up so much anger that I burst out at him.” Credit: Nir Arieli

What did they actually do – put everyone in isolation until further notice?

“They created a three-stage plan. In the first stage they put you into solitary until you agreed to denounce the group you belonged to publicly. If you did that, you moved to stage two, where you would be confined together with an inmate from a rival group. After a few months, if everything went peacefully, you would go through a few more training sessions and then be returned to the general wing. In my case, that process took almost two years.”

For Pierce, even worse than being in solitary was being isolated with just one other person. “Imagine being locked up with another inmate in a cell of 3 by 4 meters, 24/7. No rehabilitation, no activities with other inmates in the wing, no time in the yard. When you’re alone you can create a daily schedule for yourself, a routine. With another person everything is tense. You’re dependent on him in everything, and it’s totally explosive. It was torture.”

Every few days he was taken out and put in a pen of 2.5 by 4 meters in the open air. And they even tried to deprive him of that in all kinds of creative ways, Pierce says: “The guards don’t want you to take advantage of your right to be in the cage outside, so every time before we went out they would enter my cell and make a mess under the guise of doing a search. They wanted you to think twice about whether it’s really worth it, but I didn’t pass up those chances, even if it was just to move in circles in a small fenced-off area. Without going outside, I’d have gone crazy.”’

You mentioned that you tried to make a schedule for yourself.

“The most important thing was to get up every day at 5 A.M., because otherwise you’d miss the opportunity to go into the yard and to shower. The guards would do that early round on purpose, because they knew that many inmates were still sleeping, so it saved them work. During the first month in solitary, you’re not allowed to bring in anything except a shirt, pants and two pairs of underpants and socks. On the 31st day I was allowed a small television with a 13-inch screen and all my legal materials. The next day I had a short meeting with a social worker. The moment they brought him into the cell I jumped at him like a crazy man. I started to scream and curse, even though he hadn’t done anything wrong to me. After a month alone in a small space, without a break, I had stored up so much anger that I burst out at him. That was the turning point, because I understood that if I didn’t have a regular routine, I would go out of my mind.”

The guards don’t want you to take advantage of your right to be outside, so every time before we went out they would enter my cell and make a mess under the guise of doing a search. They wanted you to think twice about whether it’s really worth it.

Roland Pierce

Can you describe your schedule?

“I would get up at 5 A.M. to register for the yard and for a shower. Afterward I’d watch the morning news on television, from 6 to 9. During that I’d do a long workout, for an hour and a half to two hours. Sometimes I would do 500 pushups, followed by abs exercises. You have to work out, otherwise your body goes slack. At 9, I would turn off the TV and I went over my legal material. I’d sit each day for hours, reading some legal books [while preparing for an appeal] and taking notes. At 6, I would put the legal things aside and watch television, and I’d go to sleep at 9:30 in order to wake up at 5 for the guards’ round.”

Ineffective punishment

According to the Prison Policy Initiative, a criminal-justice think tank, some 2.3 million people are incarcerated in federal and state prisons, juvenile correctional centers and other detention facilities in the United States, but no one knows exactly how many inmates are in solitary confinement. The official data is meager. According to a 2015 Justice Department report, the number of inmates in isolation at the start of the last decade stood at 63,000. A more up-to-date report, issued last year by Yale University’s Center for Public Interest Law, also placed the number in solitary at about 60,000 – almost 4 percent of all inmates. The Yale report also noted the following shocking figure: Eleven percent of the inmates held in solitary confinement – more than 6,000 people – have been in isolation for more than three years.

In the past few years the has been rising awareness that, beyond being a moral stain on the United States, the wholesale use of solitary confinement is not effective. “Research suggests that solitary confinement has the potential to lead to devastating, lasting psychological consequences,” President Barack Obama wrote in a Washington Post op-ed in 2016. “It has been linked to depression, alienation, withdrawal, a reduced ability to interact with others and the potential for violent behavior. Some studies indicate that it can worsen existing mental illnesses and even trigger new ones… It’s an affront to our common humanity.”

Obama turned his words into deeds. He signed an executive order banning solitary confinement in federal prisons for juveniles and also for inmates convicted of low-level infractions. However, this was no more than a drop in the ocean, as the order only covered the country’s 110 federal penitentiaries.

A significant reform would require legislative measures in the individual states. Some states, notably New York, have already adopted a policy that prohibits solitary confinement lasting than 15 consecutive days. Eleven additional states, including New Jersey, Colorado, Georgia, Nebraska and New Mexico, have taken initiatives to restrict the use of solitary confinement for both juveniles and adults.

“The most troubling aspect of solitary confinement is the mental damage caused to inmates,” social psychologist Craig Haney, from the University of California, Santa Cruz, probably the leading expert in the field, tells Haaretz. “In some cases the damage is irreversible. It’s hard to exaggerate the intensity of the suffering they experience.”

Back in 1993, Prof. Haney published a study based on interviews he conducted with 56 inmates who had been held in conditions of solitary confinement in a California prison for more than 10 years. One was held in complete separation for no less than 28 years. Since then, Haney has interviewed more than a thousand inmates in isolation wings across the United States. When he returned, 20 years later, to the California facility, Haney was stunned to discover that some of the inmates he had interviewed in the early 1990s were still being held in the exact same conditions.

“Today we understand that people’s personal identity depends in large measure on their social ties,” Haney tells me in a phone interview. “The coronavirus pandemic made people understand how much being cut off from your surroundings undermines the sense of identity. We can make use of a computer and communicate by Zoom, teach and do research. An inmate in solitary can’t do anything productive. Inmates told me that they had lost their sense of self, their sense of who they really were. Inmates told me that they were no longer sure they existed as human beings.”

In the first period of isolation, Haney observes, “many of the inmates suffer severe anxiety attacks. Afterward comes adjustment, but it’s not a good adjustment. At a certain stage, instead of longing for human contact and for encounters with other inmates, they move to a place in which they don’t wish to or are no longer able to connect to other people. When I conducted my study, I learned at quite an early stage not to extend a hand to inmates I met with. The inmates admitted to me that it made them feel uptight, or that it violated their private space. One inmate explained that he hadn’t touched another person for a year and a half, and suddenly I was coming and holding out a hand to him. Today I ask inmates for permission to shake hands, and some say explicitly that they would rather not.”

What happens when these inmates are released? Do they suffer from trauma?

Haney: “Many inmates who came out of solitary confinement told me that they continue to suffer from severe anxiety when they are in the company of other people. Relatives of released prisoners called to tell me that they refused to leave their room, let alone leave the house. Some succeed in getting over it, but there are those who don’t.”

You write that the use of solitary became much more frequent beginning in the 1970s. What caused that?

“There were two developments. For one, prisons became far more crowded, and at the same time the concept that views prison as a rehabilitative institution was abandoned. When prison became a chaotic place, and the warden had almost no incentives to rehabilitate the inmates – he opted for punishment.”

Why was the rehabilitative approach dropped?

“It was due to political reasons, based on academic studies that claimed that some of rehabilitation programs were ineffective. The truth is that some of the rehabilitation plans at the time really didn’t work the way they were supposed to, and became a tool in the hands of politicians who wanted to stop funding them. Gradually the approach that inmates are a lost cause spread.”

Pamela Winn: “You’re alone and no one hears you. Every day I screamed at myself, accused myself of what I had done to my children. I cursed myself out loud and cried until I couldn’t cry anymore.”Credit: Lynsey Weatherspoon

‘Convenient for the guards’

Pamela Winn, who founded a private clinic to assist pregnant women, didn’t really fit the profile of this article since she was never involved in any crime involving physical violence. But Winn, who is in her 50s and comes from the state of Georgia, was caught submitting fictitious requests for reimbursement of expenses for women in the clinic, was sentenced to six-and-a-half years in prison for insurance fraud, and found herself in solitary confinement. She had been pregnant during her trial but suffered a miscarriage while beginning to serve her sentence. She received medical treatment but was then sent to solitary confinement in a different facility – because that way she would be under supervision, the prison authorities claimed, explaining that she had been convicted of a federal offense and that this was the policy.

“What was hard in my case is that I really didn’t commit a significant infraction,” says Winn, who after her release founded an organization to improve the conditions of female inmates and recently promoted legislation in Georgia banning solitary confinement for pregnant women. “I was held in that cell for 23 hours [a day] and I was allowed to shower only twice a week. The cell was 2 by 3 meters – sink, toilet, mattress. That was it.”

Not exactly conditions for human beings.

It’s more convenient for the guards. That way you don’t bother them anymore. When you’re in solitary, they have to check on you less, and you have no one to make trouble with.

Pamela Winn

Winn: “No. I was tremendously anxious. I wasn’t allowed to talk to my two children. I didn’t know if they were all right, I had no idea when I would be released from solitary. No one talked to me. Food was supplied through a slot in the door. When I asked when I would come out of solitary they said they didn’t know, and that they were doing it for my benefit. I had no sense of day and night. I talked to myself for hours, praying that everything would work out, and then, when I fell asleep, they would turn on the light in the cell deliberately. In the morning, when I was awake, they turned off the light and left me in total darkness.”

In the past few years, you turned the fight against solitary confinement into a central part of your life. How do you explain the fact that such a cruel practice became such a widespread sanction?

“The answer is quite simple: It’s more convenient for the guards. That way you don’t bother them anymore. When you’re in solitary, they have to check on you less, and you have no one to make trouble with. All they have to do is check that you haven’t committed suicide, but besides that they have no worries or headaches. The mental damage caused to people is of no interest to them.”

Like many other inmates who were released from solitary – she spent a total of a year and a half there – Winn, too, suffers various symptoms. “I’ll give you a supposedly small example. After my release, I bought myself a large double bed, so I could sprawl,” she says and bursts into tears. “To this day, even though eight years have passed since my release, I still sleep at the edge of the bed every night, the side that’s next to the wall. I have all the room in the world, but I’m still afraid of falling out of bed, like I felt in solitary, with that narrow bed. I often tell myself that tonight I’m going to let myself sleep in the center of the bed, comfortably, but I’m just not capable of it.”

What about crowded places? Many inmates talk about the difficulty of being in the company of other people.

“I can’t cope with that, it gives me anxiety. It’s still more natural for me to be alone. From that point of view, the coronavirus period was convenient for me.”

How did you cope with the isolation? Did you make a regular routine for yourself?

“Unfortunately, I lost the sense of time in solitary. When I woke up, I had no idea what time it was, or even whether it was morning or night. That’s what it’s like when guards sometimes shut off the light during the day and turn it on at night. I had no routine at all. I didn’t have a television. With the exception of a small notebook and a pencil – and even those only at the end of the isolation period – I didn’t have anything.”

How did you pass the time?

“When I woke up, no matter when, the first thing I did was to think about the two children I’d left at home [on their own], two boys of 14 and 16. I was consumed by worries, I didn’t know if they were all right, if they were going to school. My biggest fear was that the welfare services would take them. I would sit and pray that everything would be all right with them.”

Gradually the worry morphed into anger, which escalated into fits of rage. “You’re alone in the cell and no one hears you, so I could scream as much as I wanted. I remember that every day, after thinking about the children, I started to scream at myself. I accused myself of what I had done to my children. I cursed myself out loud and cried until I couldn’t cry anymore.”

What did you do the rest of the time?

“I walked a lot, from one side of the cell to the other, and a lot of the time would pass with me just lying on the mattress. I would imagine myself in other places, on the beach with the children, in a restaurant with friends. I could pass quite a bit of time, imagining all the things I wanted to do when I got out. Besides that, I was really afraid of forgetting basic things, so for hours I would recite names of relatives, of people I’d worked with, of streets, professional terms. When you’re cut off from the world for such a long time, you’re afraid of forgetting who you are.”

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