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Six by Ten

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Six by Ten

  Praise for Six by Ten

  “The voices heard in this powerful collection are haunting. As these men and women make inescapably clear, the practice of removing human beings from everything that makes them sane and stable—keeping them for days, months, and years in utter isolation without light, touch, sound, space, and hope—is unimaginably cruel. Six by Ten is a deeply moving and profoundly unsettling wake up call for all citizens. The use of solitary confinement is deeply immoral and we must insist that it be banned in all of our nation’s prisons. Immediately.”

  —Heather Ann Thompson, Pulitzer Prize–winning author,

  Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy

  “Some of the people in Six by Ten were convicted of crimes, but this book convicts the United States of an incomparably greater crime: blighting the lives and searing the souls of untold hundreds of thousands of men, women, and teenagers by a practice that more enlightened countries consider inhuman. You will not find a more riveting indictment anywhere of our reckless use of solitary confinement, nor one told through such a variety of moving, poignant voices.”

  —Adam Hochschild, author, King Leopold’s Ghost

  Praise for Surviving Justice

  “Surviving Justice is a necessary truth telling that amplifies the voices of the countless wrongfully incarcerated sons, lovers, husbands, fathers, mothers, and daughters who languish in America’s prisons. These oral histories give insight into the nature of the injustice to which they have been subjected, but also offer a way forward. I never could have written An American Marriage without the brave and thoughtful testimonies in this book.”

  —Tayari Jones


  Stories from Solitary





  Haymarket Books

  Chicago, Illinois

  © 2018 Voice of Witness

  Introduction © 2018 Taylor Pendergrass and Mateo Hoke

  Narrator portrait illustrations by Christine Shields

  Cover design by Michel Vrana

  Cover photograph © Richard Ross,

  Published in 2018 by

  Haymarket Books

  P.O. Box 180165

  Chicago, IL 60618


  [email protected]

  Free curricula is available at

  ISBN: 978-1-60846-957-4

  Trade distribution:

  In the US, Consortium Book Sales and Distribution,

  In Canada, Publishers Group Canada,

  In the UK, Turnaround Publisher Services,

  All other countries, Ingram Publisher Services International,

  [email protected]

  This book was published with the generous support of Lannan Foundation

  and Wallace Action Fund.

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication data is available.

  To everyone working to tear down cages

  Additional Interviewers

  Sameer Jaywant, Steven Lance, Hope Metcalf


  Victoria Alexander, Pablo Baeza, Corey Barr, Emma Cogan, Brittany Collins, Charlotte Edelstein, Katie Fiegenbaum, Justine Hall, Miriam Hwang-Carlos, Mary Beth Melso, Ariela Rosa, Barbara Sheffels, Annie Stine, Paul Skenazy, Lucy Wallitsch

  Research Editor

  Annie Stine

  Research Assistance

  Charlotte Edelstein, Kaye Herranen, Miriam Hwang-Carlos, Joe Stephens


  Hannah Murphy


  Brian Baughan


  INTRODUCTION, by Taylor Pendergrass and Mateo Hoke

  Solitary Confinement: A Ten-Point Primer


  Maryam Henderson-Uloho

  “I was the only woman in the prison who was Muslim,

  the only one who wore a headscarf.”

  Brian Nelson

  “There were times where I lost track of time.

  And I’m afraid of that happening again.”

  Aaron Lewis

  “They create this hardened person and then they

  release him to the community, and that person is doomed for destruction.”

  Vernesia Gordon 69

  “They pepper-sprayed him through that slot in the door.

  You see these long shots of pepper spray going in.”

  Mohammed “Mike” Ali

  “In immigration detention, everybody was fighting for their lives

  but in different ways. You knew you might not ever see your family again.”

  Steve Blakeman

  “I think that mercy and justice in proper balance is the key.”

  Shearod McFarland

  “I started to envision myself hanging

  from beams and having other suicidal visions.”

  Sonya Calico

  “It seemed like they had a rule that every time someone

  who’s transgender goes in they automatically go straight to solitary.”

  Travis Trani

  “How safe is that, really, to take somebody from twenty-three-hour-

  a-day lockdown, and now he’s on the street corner in Denver,

  catching a bus with civilians?”

  Tonja Fenton

  “I have developed zero tolerance for anything. I wasn’t like this before.”

  Levi Stuey

  “Is it torture? I’d say yes because we crave human contact.”

  Heather Chapman

  “They’re destroying our family.”

  Michael “Zaharibu” Dorrough

  “I think that many of us reclaimed our humanity. Fighting back will do that.”


  Ten Things You Can Do 243

  Timeline of Solitary Confinement in the United States 246

  Glossary 260

  Intimacy and Violence in a Supermax Prison,

  by Hope Metcalf 264

  Solitary Confinement: Where Reform Is Headed,

  by Amy Fettig 270

  Five Demands of the 2011 California

  Prisoner Hunger Strike 276



  Part 1: Stories that Needed Telling

  Taylor Pendergrass

  From where I was living in New York City in 2010, it was about a seven-hour drive north to the small town of Malone, New York, right on the Canadian border. I’d made the trek with my colleague Scarlet Kim the day before. Now, as the sun was coming up over the Adirondacks, the two of us were standing in chilly fall air behind rows of fencing and concertina wire staring at Upstate Correctional Facility, a massive New York state prison where on any given day about a thousand men are held in solitary confinement in what New York calls “Special Housing Units” or “SHUs.”1

  Even from where we stood behind the fence, separated from the prison grounds by at least a couple hundred yards of grass lawn, we could hear a tremendous clamor: men yelling, hooting, and simply screaming. As a lawyer working with the ACLU on criminal justice issues, I’d been in numerous jails and prisons before, but I’d never experienced anything like this. At Upstate, the people kept in the SHUs were allowed one hour a day out of their tiny cells. That hour was spent in an even smaller “recreation cage” attached t
o the cell—basically a concrete patio with a thick metal grate on one side providing some access to sunlight and air. The door from the cell to the recreation cage is released remotely by prison guards, sending dozens of people out to their patios all at the same time.

  The cacophony of voices we were hearing was the sound that a large group of human beings will make when in earshot of one another after spending twenty-three hours in an isolation cell. We knew that some of the men we were about to talk to had been living this daily routine for years. We listened for another minute, and then walked toward the nondescript front entrance of the prison.

  The night before, we’d stayed in a small bed-and-breakfast in Malone. That evening we settled into the den and accepted the husband and wife owners’ offer of a glass of wine. After some polite small talk, we learned that he had just recently retired after working for decades as a counselor at Upstate. We told them who we were and that we were planning to write and publish a report about the use of solitary confinement in New York state prisons.

  He and his wife exchanged glances. Over the next hour or so, he slowly opened up to us about his experiences over the years trying to counsel the men held in solitary confinement. In this company town with a population of under fifteen thousand, where the three big prisons in the area are the major local employer, the man used hushed tones even in the confines of his own home. “Where we live, it’s a large farming community,” he said. “We have laws on the books against cattle being confined to these huge, huge barns. The Department of Agriculture watches for that type of abuse. Yet when it comes to human beings, we are keeping them in cages that wouldn’t be fit for our cows.”

  Over the next year, we spoke with dozens of men and a handful of women held in New York’s solitary confinement wings. We published our report, gave testimony to the United Nations, filed a federal lawsuit, and are currently in the process of monitoring a multiyear settlement to reduce the use and severity of solitary confinement in the New York state prison system.

  During those initial interviews at Upstate, it became apparent that there was no way to possibly convey all the complicated dimensions of this practice in a report or lawsuit. The stories were too big and too complex. Solitary confinement is the little-known dead end of the US criminal justice system. To understand that system, people need to understand and wrestle with what is happening in America’s isolation cells.


  In the winter of 2014, Mateo Hoke had a stopover in New York City and stayed with me and my wife for a few days. I had first met Mateo in 2002, when we were both students at the University of Colorado in Boulder. We formed a quick and lasting friendship that revolved around campus activism and a shared love of hip-hop. Sitting on my couch in New York, we talked for hours as snowflakes fell outside. I told him about the limits of my work as a litigator and how I continued to be haunted by the stories of the people I’d spoken with in solitary. I’d followed Mateo’s work as a journalist and oral historian. He suggested that we work jointly on a book about solitary confinement for Voice of Witness. This, I thought, was the work that needed doing. These were the stories that would never be told in a lawsuit. That conversation with Mateo eventually led to the stories you hold in your hands.

  Since my first visit to Upstate Correctional Facility, public awareness of the use of solitary confinement has grown. As you’ll read in these pages, states around the country have started scaling back the use of solitary confinement. At least one state, Colorado, has reformed the practice to such an extent that it can reasonably lay claim to having abolished long-term solitary confinement throughout its entire prison system. But as narrator Steve Blakeman said to me, “The punitive default is resilient. The punitive norm is self-perpetuating.” As national legal expert Amy Fettig discusses in one of this book’s essays (see appendix V), meaningful reform is happening, but policy change does not necessarily alter the underlying societal values that led to these practices in the first place. To the contrary, changing policy by tinkering at the edges of the core problem—for example, by tackling only the easiest cases, the people who obviously do not need to be in solitary confinement—can be a way of avoiding a harder conversation.

  Solitary confinement is unlikely to change significantly in America unless there is a corresponding transformation in the underlying values that led to its creation. Unless a shift occurs, including how we view the hardest cases involving serious violence and harm, solitary confinement is likely to continue to exist in some form, however relabeled or repackaged.

  In engaging with the stories here, we hope to delve beyond the surface and look at some of the harder questions that implicate our individual and collective values. How was an individual impacted or influenced by life’s events long before they ended up in a solitary cell? How do we hold people accountable for causing grievous harm, and how do we keep one another safe? Can we accomplish both these goals without resorting to putting humans in isolation cages? These stories provide an essential context for these questions as we evaluate the efficacy and morality of a system that heaps on endless punishment in the form of isolation.

  * * *

  1. SHU can also stand for “security housing unit.” The nomenclature varies by prison system. Whatever the name, a SHU refers to a solitary confinement cell unit. Prisoners and guards commonly refer to “the SHU” as a single word rather than initials, as in “the shoe.”

  Part 2: This Is America

  Mateo Hoke

  If there are men and women anywhere among us who need to have their condition looked into in an enlightened, sympathetic and helpful way; if there are any whose very helplessness should excite our interest, to say nothing of our compassion as human beings, they are the inmates of our jails, prisons and penitentiaries, hidden from our view by grim walls, who suffer in silence, and whose cries are not permitted to reach our ears.

  —Eugene Debs, Walls and Bars, 1927

  This book, being about solitary confinement, is by its very nature about violence—against the spirit as well as the body and mind. But at its heart, this is a book about America.

  In the following pages you’ll read the stories of people whose lives have been deeply impacted by solitary confinement in the United States. And while each narrative does its part to paint a comprehensive picture of contemporary solitary confinement, these stories are more than mere accounts of prison trauma. They are intimate portraits of people you might encounter in the grocery store or at your neighborhood park. They include families and friends, childhood memories, and questionable decisions.

  Various stories that follow, like Shearod McFarland’s and Levi Stuey’s, show us how ordinary kids can find themselves becoming so-called criminals. Other stories, like Vernesia Gordon’s, pinpoint where our mental health and juvenile justice systems fail. Each of the narratives, in its own way, tells us as Americans how to do better.

  These stories cover the United States from Alaska to Florida, from Connecticut to California, and from Michigan down through Colorado, Texas, and Louisiana. They come from the family members of people who’ve been locked in some of the darkest corners of detention centers and from the people themselves. We’ve also included two narratives, from Steve Blakeman and Travis Trani, of people who’ve worked in these units, in hopes of complicating our readers’ thinking by presenting numerous views from within prison walls. In addition to the narratives we collected, we’re including a primer to help readers understand what we’re talking about when we talk about solitary confinement, as well as appendix material, which includes a list of actions readers can take to get involved and essays by Amy Fettig of the ACLU and Yale law professor Hope Metcalf.

  And while we’ve worked hard to put together a complex representation of life in America’s isolation units, it’s worth noting that there is an inherent limitation to producing a book like this. The people most affected by solitary confinement are generally unable to be interv
iewed. They’re frequently too traumatized by the experience to speak about it, or they’ve lost, or never had, the mental capacity to accurately recount their stories. Or they are simply locked too far away to be reached, or they are forgotten, or dead. What that means is that you’ll be hearing from people who survived their solitary confinement experiences with their bodies and minds more or less intact.

  Another challenge Taylor and I encountered is that it is tremendously difficult to interview people currently in solitary confinement. Those in power don’t want the stories of people in solitary getting out, so they make it extremely challenging to collect stories from individuals housed in isolation. It can be impossible to bring a recording device into facilities, even when meeting prisoners housed in general population. When prisoners are in solitary, these difficulties multiply. In fact, most prisoners confined in solitary aren’t permitted visits at all, much less an opportunity for meaningful interviews. Many don’t even get mail.

  To navigate these obstacles, we spent years corresponding with those inside through letters and email. We visited prisons with pen and paper, and we worked with attorneys who interviewed incarcerated people we otherwise would not have had access to. We also found survivors on the outside who shared vivid stories of what they dealt with inside and how those experiences lingered in their lives.

  For many people in the United States, it may seem easy to dismiss or condone solitary confinement when incarcerated people are thought of as “criminals,” or the “worst of the worst,” who are getting what they deserve. But as we found through our interviews, it’s not just those who are in solitary confinement who suffer. Solitary can mean a complete lack of communication, and, as you’ll read in chapters like Heather Chapman’s, not knowing if one’s child or spouse is alive, dead, or losing their mind has a profound effect on those on the outside.

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