"Suffocating," created by James D. Fuson, an incarcerated artist, for the book "Way Down In the Hole: Race, Intimacy, and the Reproduction of Racial Ideologies in Solitary Confinement.”
( Jason D. Fuson/Rutgers University Press
Melissa Harris-Perry: Welcome back to The Takeaway I'm Melissa Harris-Perry.
On Wednesday, WNBA star, Brittney Griner was transferred to a Russian Penal Colony to serve out a nine-year sentence for bringing less than a gram of cannabis oil into the country, which she said she did accidentally.
To many in the US, such a severe punishment does not fit the crime of which she was convicted but disproportionate punishment is a common fixture of our criminal system as well. In the US, up to 48,000 people remain locked away in solitary confinement. That's according to a report out of Yale Law School published this year. These are the words of one of those people.
Shaniqua: You need a mirror in your room. If you don't see yourself, your self-esteem gets low. It's like I'm an animal. I've seen women so desperate to see themselves that they try to see themselves in the water in their toilet.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Those were the words of a woman named Shaniqua, one of dozens of people interviewed for a new book titled Way Down In the Hole: Race, Intimacy, and the Reproduction of Racial Ideologies in Solitary Confinement. That was a voice actor reading part of Shaniqua's interview. I recently spoke with the book's co-authors.
Earl Smith: My name is Earl Smith, Rubin Distinguished Professor Emeritus American Ethnic Studies, Sociology at Wake Forest University.
Angela Hattery: My name is Angie Hattery. I'm Professor of Women & Gender Studies and co-director at the Center for the Study & Prevention of Gender-Based Violence at the University of Delaware. Most people think that those people serving time and solitary confinement are "the worst of the worst." In fact, the majority of people serving time and solitary confinement are there because of a misconduct they engaged in while in the general population.
They're often people who are incarcerated for low-level drug offenses of financial crimes who then get caught up in a system. They may have too many honey buns in their cell or don't want to do what an officer tells them to do, or refuse to take a cellmate. Even in jails where most people aren't even yet convicted, 20% of those folks will spend at least some time in solitary confinement.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Earl, how did solitary confinement become such a common tactic?
Earl Smith: Some of these incarcerated persons have highly visible, I'll just call them resumes. One of the men that I interviewed on death row, was essentially, as he put it, a political prisoner. He was writing blogs. He had two books out on his webpage. He was making noise about hyper-segregation, racism, and he was saying that he hadn't committed any crimes other than expressing his views about a political system that he disagreed with. You have some trans people in prison.
They're saying they belong in a different prison system. Many states, the states we did our interviews in are not listening to them, they're put into these cells. Officers allow other prisoners to prey on them. It's horrible. I can't think of another word, punishment.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Professor Hattery, the two of you, and your student researchers spent hundreds of hours in these units, can you describe a bit what it's like?
Angela Hattery: Solitary confinement units, although they're not underground, feel very much like they are. They're dark. There's no natural light. There's no air that's not been recirculated. It feels like a cave, but it's also extraordinarily loud. People who thought of or conceptualized solitary confinement as a place of reflection and looking inward to make yourself a better person, that's not what solitary confinement looks like at all. It's filthy. It's dirty. There's trash everywhere in many units. Some people describe it as literally being buried alive.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I absolutely understand this point that you've made, that no one, you write, no one in the right mind would choose or volunteer for solitary, and at the same time, you all also write about some people who seem to be choosing solitary voluntarily. Professor Smith, can you tell me about that?
Earl Smith: Some people had to choose solitary because of the predatory nature that takes place in general population. If you're in a male prison and you're a small person and people are preying on you to give them money for their commissary, they're fighting, the assaults, often the officers seek prisoners on other prisoners as a form of play or games.
We interviewed people who asked clearly, please send me to solitary, because, in many instances, they would be given a single cell six by nine, I think, 23 hours a day because they needed to be there to be safe. Unbelievable.
Angela Hattery: They often put people who identify in any capacity in the LGBTQ+ community in solitary confinement, especially trans women who are housed in men's prisons "for their protection."
Yet, as we detail in our book and in other places, many trans women incarcerated in solitary confinement report that they're not necessarily any safer there. CeCe McDonald acknowledged that she was sexually assaulted at least seven times in solitary confinement. It's a real myth that people are necessarily safer because they're housed in solitary confinement.
Melissa Harris-Perry: You also write about the distinct experiences that many cisgender women experience around everything from menstruation to childbirth.
Angela Hattery: Yes, we interviewed women who are locked in solitary confinement, who described having to navigate all of the things that we relate to reproductive cycles and menstrual cycles. One of the stories that really left an impression on me, we asked women about the difficulty getting menstrual supplies.
Many of the women we talked to said the problem wasn't necessarily getting menstrual supplies, it was getting a clean uniform. You couldn't get a new uniform without turning in one that had been cleaned. Women described having to take their soiled uniform and wash it in their steel sink toilet combination in their cell. That was one of the dehumanizing qualities for them as it related to managing their men menstrual cycle.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Prof. Hattery, I want to come to you on the other group of people impacted here, and that is the correction officers. You all did speak with correction officers, what was some of what you learned from them?
Angela Hattery: Their perspectives are really important, not only because they need to be visible, but because their perspectives help us understand some of what we've been talking about, which is the persistent use of solitary confinement despite really decades of evidence that it's torture, that it's punishment, and that it mostly doesn't work. One of the things about the correctional officers we interviewed, many of them, is they see this place as appropriate as not harsh enough. Their perspective is that their lives, for many of them, also live difficult lives.
Participant: You don't realize how stressful it is inside the walls. Inmates are running institutions and you have to do things to take care of them and no one is taking care of us. We are Trump's forgotten.
Angela Hattery: We build prisons in rural white communities that have been devastated by globalization and other economic changes. They look up and there's no opportunity for them. They feel in the words of [unintelligible 00:08:49], who's one of the people that we interviewed, they feel left behind. They become very resentful and they turn that resentment not on the government who said, let's build prisons as a form of economic development.
They turn it back on the people that they've locked in cages. In the majority of communities in the United States and absolutely where we conducted our research, the vast majority of people locked in that cage are Black or brown, and the vast majority of officers who hold the keys to that cage are white. As we talk in the book pretty extensively, those are the structures and the brewing pot, the petri-dish for the production and reproduction of white racial resentment.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Both for corrections officers who leave regularly, leave and return, leave and return. For those who are held in solitary, who might eventually be released either back into general population or released altogether, what are the long-term impacts of solitary confinement?
Earl Smith: This is the really sad and hurtful part of doing this kind of research and you would know this, Professor Perry, we worked with the late Darrell. We work with his program. We're very close to the project that he developed, and we now know that the smile that Darrell laid upon us every time we met with him, every time we talked with him, was really false. Inside the trauma from being incarcerated in solitary confinement, in those prison camps all over North Carolina for all those years, it just took a toll. I mean, it was brutal. Phoebe's research shows us this, even though Darrell was very, very good at hiding the trauma from long stints in solitary confinement.
Angela Hattery: It's also a myth that people are only serving a few days or a few weeks. Sometimes that's true, but we've interviewed people and met people who've been released who have served multiple decades in solitary confinement. Frank Dipalma, who we've become connected to, he was released a few years ago, served 22 years and 36 days in solitary confinement. For people who are incarcerated in solitary confinement, they die sooner after release from prison, they literally die sooner, they are far more likely to recidivate. If that's a returning to general population, they cycle in and out of solitary confinement, if that's returning to the streets, they cycle it back in and out of prison.
Those people now live in your community. They are more likely to engage in behavior that exposes them back to the criminal legal system, largely because they have mental health issues as a direct result of being incarcerated in solitary confinement. For the staff, they have higher rates of divorce, they have lower life expectancy, so they die sooner than people who don't work in solitary confinement. We interviewed a correctional officer we call CO Porter, CO Porter said, "I never knew how many people drink a fifth of liquor every night," referring to his colleagues. Again, those people are also your neighbors, depending on where you live.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Do you feel hopeful about the possibility of change?
Earl Smith: When I was in graduate school in between my master's and PhD, I worked in a maximum security prison. I went in starry-eyed, thinking that as a "counselor," that I would have some impact on how things worked for these prisoners on a day-to-day basis. During that time, I'm thinking, wow, if we could just soften some of these rules, get people out so they can reconnect with their family. Many of the colleges and universities had programs that were initiated for higher education, this is long before inside out. I'm looking back now and thinking nothing, nothing, nothing has changed. If anything, it's gotten worse. Like you, I'm dismayed.
Angela Hattery: We are all adversely affected as a society by the use of solitary confinement. I think people would be surprised to learn that we incarcerate somewhere between 40,000 and 100,000 people every single day in solitary confinement units, and we are all negatively impacted as a result.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Professors Earl Smith and Angela Hattery are co-authors of the new book, Way Down In the Hole: Race, Intimacy, and the Reproduction of Racial Ideologies in Solitary Confinement. Thank you both for being here.
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