By Lara Trace Hentz (Third Mom)
The following essay was written by my nephew Jesse Fasthorse Neubert. I’ve adopted him into my family. He first wrote to me when my article “Generation after Generation We are Coming Home” was published in 2005 about adoptees called Lost Birds. Since then we have been in constant contact by phone and letter. Jesse calls me his “third Mom” and I am proud of that. Jesse is incarcerated in Arizona, found guilty of armed robbery when he belonged to a gang. He is an adoptee like me. He’s Lakota (Cheyenne River) and Dakota (Rosebud). He’s a good writer and contributed to the two anthologies Two Worlds and Called Home (excerpt.)
Until last month Jesse was held in solitary confinement. He ate two meals a day, not three. He was very underweight. He was not allowed outside for sunlight and fresh air. I asked him to write about it so all of us would know what it feels like… His words: An Observation from Within was written on Feb. 24, 2015.
“The use of solitary confinement contributes to untreated serious mental illness and high rates of suicide.”
By Jessup Fasthorse Neubert
“The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” -Dostoyevsky
I know why the caged man screams.
So that you may also come to know why he screams, take a few moments and imagine a windowless concrete room about the size of an average household bathroom. Like any other bathroom, this room has a sink and a toilet. However, in place of a bathtub or shower, there is instead a small bed and perhaps a tiny desk bolted to one of the walls. All of the walls are blank and gray and there is no mirror. The only view beyond this room is through slits or perforations in a steel door that faces nothing but another gray stark wall in an empty corridor. An oppressive white light constantly emanates from a ceiling fixture that can’t be controlled. It dims only slightly for a few hours each night. Natural sunlight or fresh air will never reach into this room. For all intents and purposes this room is nothing more than a box, a human cage. Can you imagine a room like this?
Now for a few moments longer, can you imagine being indefinitely confined to this room for months or even years on end? Imagine only being allowed out of this room of yours maybe three times each week for a limited recreation period and a brief shower. Basically only 8-10 hours of the 168 hours in each week might be spent beyond your room. Even your two daily meals will always be eaten alone at your tiny desk. An abrupt search of your room, a medical appointment or an emergency, or a two-hour visit from your loved ones once a week (typically separated by plexi-glass) might be the only other reasons that you will temporarily escape your soul-stifling room for the foreseeable future. Your desire and need to attend church or school won’t even be reason enough to leave your room since such services will almost entirely be denied to you during your confinement here. Essentially the vast majority of your daily existence has been reduced to this one room – this cage – of yours – for years, possibly decades to come. Imagine that for just a moment longer.
Imagine how being caged alone like this, for any prolonged amount of time might affect you? Could this perpetual mental, physical and spiritual separation make you scream too?
If you can imagine these dehumanizing conditions, then now you have an idea of what solitary confinement in prison is like – and now you know why a caged man screams out from within in such a place. Regrettably, solitary confinement is not some imaginary place, it’s real for those who have languished there before, or currently still are. For them solitary confinement isn’t something abstract or easily ignored – it is a suffocating reality that exists, albeit hidden, deep within the walls of variously-named isolation or control units throughout this nation’s prison system.
I am one of those unfortunate enough to know the reality of solitary confinement. Since July 2009, I’ve been indefinitely locked-down under such conditions here in Arizona’s Special Management Units (S.M.U.). (First at Eyman and now at Lewis). Whether known as an S.M.U., S.H.U., Ad.Seg. or by any other Max-Custody designation – these dark prisons within a prison all share similar or parallel details as the one I described for you.
Some may find themselves trapped in these modern dungeons for clear and easily articulated reasons – such as having committed a serious disciplinary infraction; while others may find themselves in here for less valid or speculative reasons – such as being classified as “a potential threat to security” based on groundless conjecture. Either way, both rationales will often perpetuate a prolonged or indefinite term of confinement to these units. With no serious disciplinary convictions since 2009, I remain caged in here according to the latter reasoning (speculation) by the prison administration.
During my time in this place I’ve experienced how mind-numbing and soul-wrenching it can be. I’ve observed the many forms of deterioration and madness that this place can drive men into, after years without meaningful social interaction or human contact. I’ve seen men, with and without documented Mental Health issues, decline and fall into pieces. It’s often discomforting to hear an otherwise rational man begin to mutter or talk to himself – but the screams of a man who has gone completely stir-crazy or insane in the SMU are always the most jarring. Worse still is when a man can no longer cope with this harsh reality and attempts suicide – sometimes even succeeding. Maybe the sorrow of losing a loved one while in here was too much to bear, or maybe he just could no longer endure the forced solitude – and so, feeling anguished and forsaken, he sought some desperately needed attention or an immediate end to his caged misery.
Sadly I’ve observed enough tragedy in here to know that most of it must be ascribed to solitary confinement itself. These tragedies are ongoing testament to the detrimental effects that this place will have on those subjected to these conditions. Although this crushing depravation won’t necessarily break everyone who enters it – none will emerge from it completely unaffected or unscathed. A dysfunctional behavior, a personality disorder, or a mental illness may develop or become exacerbated after years of isolation and being treated like a caged animal.
If prison is a microcosm of the problems with our society – a reflection of our degree of civilization – then the institution of solitary confinement should remind us of our most poignant failures. When institutions fail us, we as a civilized society have a moral obligation to abolish or reform those institutions. Experience compels me to argue for the former in regard to solving the problem posed by solitary confinement. We must stop living in a state of denial or ignorance about its existence, widespread use and the nature of solitary confinement. We must dispel our collective apathy or complacency towards this uncomfortable reality and instead confront this dilemma in order to address it. This is because a neglected problem will never just disappear or spontaneously solve itself – in fact, it will usually only worsen when ignored. Hence, we can no longer morally or fiscally afford the high cost of ignoring the discrepancies between the ideals we espouse and the actual practices we exhibit when it comes to the conditions in our prison systems. We must recognize that no good will ever come from the inhumane treatment of any member of our society.
For although we prisoners are currently the pariahs of society – most of us, including myself in 2016, will eventually reenter society for better or for worse.
Solitary confinement ensures the likelihood that a man will exit prison worse than when he went in because being caged alone hinders rehabilitation. As a society that claims to be civilized with a high standard of moral decency, we must then be guided by the moral discipline expressed by Goethe:
“Treat a man as he is and he will remain as is. Treat a man as he can and should be and he will become as he can and should be.”
Let’s finally put an end to solitary confinement. We need to imagine a better way.
Jessup is incarcerated in the Arizona State Prison Complex-Lewis in Arizona until 2016. Please write him: Jesse F. Neubert, #186050, ASPC LEWIS, Buckley Unit, PO Box 3400, Buckeye, AZ 85326. He is now in general population and continuing his college degree.
UPDATE: Mississippi has proven that it is possible to dramatically curb the use of solitary confinement and still put safety first. Prison officials there reduced the solitary-confinement population by 90 percent. Doing so resulted in a 70 percent decrease in violence and $8 million annual savings. There are already 2,000 maximum security inmates in solitary confinement in Arizona’s prisons in 2013. Arizona Gov. Brewer was still finalizing plans in 2013 to construct 500 new maximum-security prison beds and 1,000 new privately contracted prison beds, adding to the already bloated $1 billion annual corrections spending. (Source: “More max-security prison beds make no sense” www.azcentral.com/opinions/articles/20130314)
AEON / Twilight in the Box by
“In 2005, there were an estimated 81,600 prisoners in solitary in the US; this month’s Senate Subcommittee Hearing puts the numbers at about the same. That’s 3.6 per cent of the 2.2 million presently incarcerated, many of whom, like King, were put in there for random acts of non-violent rule-breaking. Some, like him, shuttle in and out of solitary; others remain locked up for decades. Prison authorities in every state are running a massive uncontrolled experiment on all of them. And every day, the products of these trials trickle out on to the streets, with their prospects of rehabilitation professionally, socially, even physiologically diminished.”
Jesse wrote in great detail about his adoption experience and being raised by Mormons in my book Two Worlds [read more https://laratracehentz.wordpress.com/2012/11/18/ebook-two-worlds/.]