I Spent Over a Year in Solitary Because of One Man’s Imagination

The conditions I faced were outrageous. But the prison administration’s justification for keeping me in the hole was even worse.

I Spent Over a Year in Solitary Because of One Man’s Imagination

The conditions I faced were outrageous. But the prison administration’s justification for keeping me in the hole was even worse.

I spent much of 2009 in One North, a solitary confinement wing at the Washington State Penitentiary, in Walla Walla, Washington. We were on a 23-and-one schedule: Once each day my cell door would roll open, controlled remotely. I would step out alone, given an hour to pace the empty tier or use a pay phone. Back in my cell, I’d be confronted by more emptiness. A steel sink and toilet, a bunk, a battered paperback, and my own thoughts for company.

What you notice first about One North depends on what time of day you enter the unit. Earlier in the day, it’s the smell—an overpowering mélange of feces, urine, pepper spray, and industrial-grade cleaning solution. The smell is so pungent it seems to have weight to it, like a physical substance. The air seems to pool in your lungs, weighing them down.

Should you arrive later in the day, from midmorning on, the noise is loud enough to disorient you. The stench hits you only after your mind recovers from the clamor. The sound of screaming and clanging bars being rattled by a hundred prisoners at once. People jumping up and down on metal bunks, mule-kicking the steel sinks and toilets. Guards shouting over the PA system. Prisoners shouting at the guards and each other. The entire cacophony plays through rattling, off-key acoustics. It feels like living inside an amplifier with a hole kicked in it, cranked up to full volume.

It took only a few days in this environment for my entire psychology to shift. My mind wandered. I was restless, getting up from my bunk and going to the window in the cell door to stare out at nothing, walking back and forth for hours with no clear thoughts. My mood was darkening. All around me, based on the things they would say or scream or, more disturbingly, their deepening silence, other prisoners were obviously undergoing the same process.

As outrageous as these conditions were, the prison administration’s justification for keeping me in solitary was worse, revealing an obscenely arbitrary process through which officials wield this inhumane punishment against people in their custody. Two prisoners who violate the same facility rule—or no rule at all—can spend radically unequal periods of time in the hole. As I would find out, everything depends on the whims of whichever administrator is randomly assigned to your case.

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Before solitary, I was housed in general population. It was July and prisoners were filing out to the concrete recreation area behind our living unit one morning after being locked in our cells since the previous afternoon. Everyone was rushing to get to the phones and the handball courts.

I had made it only a few steps outside with my cellmate when an acquaintance ran up and told us the guards were beating our friend Dwayne. We hurried back in to find Dwayne handcuffed and pinned to the floor just in front of the control booth. Three panting guards were kneeling on his back and neck. His face was turned toward us, smashed against the cement. He saw us coming and flashed a smile. There was blood in his teeth.

The guards followed Dwayne’s gaze and looked up toward us. Then past us. Their expressions fell, visibly frightened. A silent wall of prisoners had fanned out across the dayroom behind us, watching the scene unfold. I would later learn that they had no idea what was happening—they had seen us take off running and followed.

At the bottom of the dogpile Dwayne was still grinning at me. I asked him if he was all right. Never been better, he said. I told him to be cool—that I’d see him around.

Through the control booth windows I could see the first group of goon-squad guards sprinting into the unit. I headed back to my cell just as officers burst into the dayroom, screaming at prisoners to lock down and looking for stragglers to body-slam.

They came for me in my cell about an hour later. They didn’t say why they were taking me, and I knew it was pointless to ask. I submitted to handcuffs, but only after using several choice expletives to tell them what I thought of their colleagues’ conduct and their profession generally.

As the guards hauled me outside, I could smell warm summer rain stirring up the scent of dust. I took in huge breaths, knowing it would be some time before I had the luxury of fresh air again. Every breath felt stolen, and was more pleasant for it. The goon squad walked me to One North. I didn’t know it yet, but I wouldn’t return for 13 months.

There was no question as to whether I’d be infracted. I assumed the charges would be refusing to disperse and that my profanity would be transformed into a threat against staff. It took a week for the paperwork to show up. Refusal to disperse—check. Threatening staff was there, too—standard, ubiquitous, tacked onto every write-up. But they had also added a much more serious charge for good measure: inciting a riot.

Still, the infraction seemed beatable. A staff member I knew authored it, and whether he was confused or deliberately throwing me a lifeline, he presented what I’d said to Dwayne as I told him goodbye—to be cool—as me urging him to comply with the guards. The infraction narrative framed my words as an effort to de-escalate, even though that wasn’t quite my intent. Even under the DOC’s absurdly vague, protean definition of inciting a riot, telling someone to follow staff directives didn’t meet the standard.

At the infraction hearing, a lieutenant read aloud from the report, a tape recorder between us on his desk. He paused when he came to what I’d purportedly said to Dwayne, glancing at me over his reading glasses. He raised his eyebrows but said nothing.

I stayed silent and left the record uncorrected.

The lieutenant finished reading and gave me a chance to argue my case. Then he passed an unhesitating judgment: not guilty. He shut off the tape recorder, set his glasses on the desk, looked me in the eyes, and thanked me. The situation had been on the verge of exploding, he said. He appreciated what I’d done.

Though my infraction had been dismissed, I was to remain in the hole on administrative segregation status until the administrator assigned to my case signed off on my release. That administrator was Lindstrom (not his real name), and Lindstrom was notorious. He’d overseen ad-seg investigations at WSP for years, but you didn’t have to be housed there to have heard of him. His reputation for chicanery extended throughout the system. Prisoners who’d never set foot at the penitentiary cursed his name.

During his weekly rounds through solitary, Lindstrom would make his way down the tiers, limping distinctly from a long-ago car accident that was rumored to have killed his girlfriend and turned him against the world. He would smirk at the catcalls and abuse prisoners invariably hurled at him. If you were on his caseload and he appeared in your window, the sight spelled misfortune. He never stopped to deliver good news, only to inform you of another week in the hole. And he didn’t hide the pleasure he took in this.

Lindstrom being who he was, I expected him to drag things out a few weeks before letting me go. But his recommendation to headquarters came with the mail just a day after my hearing. He was asking for a year in solitary. Ignoring the outcome of my hearing, Lindstrom argued that under different circumstances I would have become involved in a staff assault. He accused me of being the leader of an uprising—not a thwarted uprising of actual fact, but one he saw in his mind’s eye. In his estimation, my conduct during this hypothetical event of his imagining warranted a year in solitary confinement.

In the end, headquarters agreed. After a not guilty finding and an unofficial thank-you, I spent 13 months in the hole because of one man’s daydream narrative.

Eventually, I was transferred out of One North to the less chaotic Intensive Management Unit. But it was still solitary and the routine there was exactly the same—23-and-one, three showers per week, and the inside of a tiny concrete box every other minute of my life, stretching on for nearly 400 days.

Now, 14 years later, little has changed about solitary confinement. Though new rules are in place limiting the duration of investigations and increasing the frequency with which prisoners are reviewed for release, the process of determining who goes to the hole, and for how long, is as arbitrary as ever.

More critically, conditions inside solitary units remain virtually indistinguishable from those I encountered in One North. I’ve been back to solitary many times in the past decade and a half, and each time I return the scene is all too familiar. This is, in part, because public awareness of this practice is so low. Stories like mine, while common throughout the U.S. prison system, rarely see the light of day.

Our country is in the midst of a scarcely noticed humanitarian crisis. Every year, 10,000 people exit prison directly from solitary units and return to their communities. They return damaged— more impulsive, less comfortable with basic social interaction. Their experience in isolation only intensifies whatever mental health issues they brought into the hole with them. Until the public demands change, we can only expect that the situation will go on as it has for decades, causing profound harm and making no one safer.

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