|Solitary confinement cell: Entombed alive|
Interview with a Former Corrections Officer Who Worked in Prison Isolation Units
Recently, Solitary Watch had the opportunity to sit down with “X,” a former corrections officer who spent almost two years working on a segregation unit in Pennsylvania. (The guard requested complete anonymity in exchange for the interview).
X, now 48, worked for the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections between 2006 and 2009, and in the Special Housing Units (SHU) from 2008-2009. He spoke candidly with journalist Aviva Stahl about what drew him to work “in the hole,” what he saw while he was there, and what he thinks about the growing movement to reform the use of solitary.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity
AS: Did you start working in the SHU or did you work in general population first?
X: It’s always general population first. Always. You don’t work in solitary confinement until you’ve established yourself as a CO. They want to see how you react. How you handle yourself. How you are with the other CO’s, how you interact with inmates. And they take that all… and you get to know your lieutenants, your captains, your majors, and your other staff members, your peers, your other CO’s. Whether or not they can trust you and you can trust them before you’re ever considered for down there, the hole. We used to call it the hole. People want to see what you’re made of.
AS: Do you remember the kind of people who were there for disciplinary or punishment, do you remember the range of stuff they had done to warrant being put in the hole?
X: Mm-hm. It could be an offense towards an officer. It could be, any inmates if they got in any kind of a fight or something both of them automatically go down. Normally a couple days, you have a trial, find out what’s going on, bring the officers in that seen it. “Yeah I seen this, the inmate so and so you know initiated it.” So normally the one that didn’t, they’d get released back to general population. They could be down there for, I mean, stealing, whether it had been in the chow hall, from one of the workshops trying to bring things in, offenses that they committed during visiting when they were visiting family and friends during visiting hour. There would be state offenses against officers like spitting, hitting. Anything.
AS: Did you ever see people go crazy in the SHU?
X: Oh yeah. Yeah it was, we had one inmate, he was in his 70’s… We had another inmate being transferred from another institution and he said yeah, he would take a cellie. Well, ended up, both celled together. It was the second night together and the younger inmate who was like 24, raped the 77 year old inmate. And I remember when [the 77-year-old] came out of there, the Lieutenant comes out and we had him on a stretcher and I mean this man, we thought he was going to have a heart attack, a stroke or…he was just horrified that this had happened.
AS: I think you told me you walked in on someone who had hanged himself, right?
X: We had one inmate, he was dead when we got him. He snapped his neck from hanging himself. Had some that the genitalia, tried to cut it off with a plastic spoon.
AS: And the people who tried to commit suicide in solitary or who cut themselves, do you think it was because they were in solitary? Do you think it was the solitary that was driving them crazy?
X: No, I think it was just incarceration. And situations that happen while they were in there, if they had a loved one that died or their spouse or their child or someone you’re going to know what happens when it happens. The inmates don’t take time to tell you. They’ll tell you what happened. But they can’t go on anymore and they’ll tell you they don’t want to live anymore. They’ll write Dear John letters. It’s the same as what happens out here. They start giving away everything, they write a note, they start, they lose all affect for anything. You don’t want to be involved anymore and they withdraw. It’s a norm. [In fact, 50 percent of all prison suicides take place among the approximately 5 percent of prisoners held in solitary.]
AS: The other thing I was curious about that we talked about when we met was forced cell extractions. I don’t know if you want to talk about that, what it was like to participate in those or kind of what it looked like.
X: Basically, where we would be doing, whether it would be a fence, they would grab ahold of one of the nurses, when it was pill-passing time. They would mix up stuff, they would defecate all over their cells, they would paint the windows, so you have to be able to see, no matter what, you have to be able to see to do your count, make sure for the safety of the inmates. You have to be able to see in that cell. And they would cover the windows with feces, it was bad. And man, it stunk. But you don’t know if they were dead or what was going to go on there. If they had something they had made shanks out of. We had one inmate he took towels and kind of strapped his shanks to his hands and he was like “come and get me.” And so you have to go in, that’s just it. So a team assembles and you give them several chances to come to the grill to be cuffed and he comes down there, he’s the one giving the order, and no matter what happens before the cellie’s direction or any sort of pepper spray or anything there’s always a lieutenant there. He’s the one giving the order. I’m ordering you to inmate so and so, I’m giving you a lawful order and you need to come to the pie hole to be handcuffed. “No. Come on and get me.”
If they didn’t want to come out then be cuffed up, you have no other choice but to go in. Or you have to hit them with pepper spray. We had our teams for them with our batons and our pepper spray and everybody has a set of cuffs on them. You used to have to overpower them and take them down. I mean you came out with some bangs and bruises on you but, you got done what had to be done.
AS: How often would that happen?
X: Sometimes you may not have a cell extraction for a week or two. But normally it was probably 2 or 3 times a week. Yeah, it happened quite frequently. If you believe somebody had something in their cell, a weapon, and they wouldn’t come out, you’d have to go in and get it.
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Source: Solitary Watch, Aviva Stahl, June 28, 2016