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Boxed In

News & Features | December 7, 2015

Five Mualimm-ak was handed 40 dollars and dropped off in the middle of Times Square on January 15, 2012. He had just spent years in a cell where the only people he interacted with were trained not to speak to him or look him in the eye. Now, he was in the center of a sea of commuters, surrounded by billboards and lights. Within moments he had a panic attack and ended up in the hospital.

“That’s what we do, that’s what reentry now is,” Mualimm-ak said. “‘Hey it’s been ten years, let’s open the gate. Here’s a bus ticket. Here’s 40 dollars. Make it.’”

Mualimm-ak spent 12 years in prison on weapons and drug trafficking charges that were later overturned. Over half of his prison sentence was spent in solitary confinement, an institution that he has now devoted his life to eliminating from the criminal justice system. After being alone in a 6×9 foot cell for months at a time, Mualimm-ak believes he retained permanent psychological damage from the time he spent in solitary. Having experienced isolation firsthand, he also believes that the at least 80,000 people currently alone in prison cells across the United States aren’t being punished, but tortured.

Mualimm-ak isn’t alone in this opinion. Since 2011, the United Nations has called for a ban on solitary confinement, arguing its use can amount to a violation of human rights. This year, President Obama ordered the Department of Justice to review solitary’s implementation at the federal level. In the past few years, states including Maine, Illinois, and New York have limited the use of solitary confinement in prisons. But critics of solitary confinement don’t think this is enough and call for a swift overhaul of the criminal justice system. At a National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) convention in July, Obama said the practice of isolating prisoners is unproductive and needs to be stopped. “That is not going to make us safer. That’s not going to make us stronger. And if those individuals are ultimately released, how are they ever going to adapt? It’s not smart,” he said.

Part of what makes solitary so inhumane, according to Mualimm-ak, is the way it numbs a prisoner’s senses. While “in the box,” he said he became so accustomed to his surroundings that his brain was no longer curious or stimulated.

“You stare at the wall until you see the paint strokes in the wall. You know every crack in your wall. The drip that’s driving you crazy doesn’t bother you now but it’s never going to stop. The light has been on so long that it just buzzes because it’s overworked,” he said. “Those things are just silent in the background. You don’t really focus in on [them] but [they’re] happening.”

To pass the time in the box, he wrote out the entire Webster’s dictionary. Then he wrote it backwards. He ripped up pieces of paper and wrote on them to make a deck of cards for playing solitaire. When his boredom became unbearable, he would try to sleep for the entire day with a blanket over his face to block out the fluorescent light beating down on him. The only thing that broke up the monotony of isolation was when correctional officers brought him his three daily meals through a slot in his door. Whenever he tried to speak with them, they ignored him in accordance with their training. He said the constant fight for attention and recognition was one of the hardest parts of living in solitary confinement.

“When people aren’t listening to you, you just get upset really fast because you’re asking for your medication to stay alive, toilet tissue, your food to eat, and people are ignoring you…but you have to deal with it, you have to put up with it,” he said.

Mualimm-ak, who is diabetic, constantly struggled to stay healthy in solitary confinement. In one instance a nurse unknowingly failed to give him a proper injection, and he didn’t receive enough insulin to get through the day. While he was going through insulin shock, correctional officers walking by his cell didn’t respond to his pleas for medical attention, so he got their attention the only way he knew would work for certain: harming himself. He managed to cut his hand before a guard came by to deliver his meal. When the guard saw Mualimm-ak’s hand was bleeding as he reached for the tray, he was forced to get medical assistance.

“It’s a system that breaks you down morally. You will do anything for attention,” he said.

The New York State Officers and Police Benevolent Association, a union that represents correctional officers, wasn’t able respond to The Observer’s request for comment on Mualimm-ak’s description of the conditions in solitary. However, in a 2012 op-ed published in the New York Post by Donn Rowe, the group’s president, Rowe said that conditions “[bear] no resemblance to the Hollywood stereotypes that perpetrate a myth of inhumane treatment.” According to Rowe, inmates are “closely monitored through constant rounds made by correction officers, security staff, prison management, mental-health staff, medical personnel, the inmate-grievance coordinator and other staff.”

Rowe and other prison officials say that solitary confinement is needed in prisons to keep order and ensure that inmates and correctional officers are safe from violent prisoners. In his op-ed, Rowe cites examples of how solitary is used to separate dangerous inmates with histories of beating guards and starting fights from the rest of prison population.

“This is our reality. Inmates continue to perpetrate violence even after they’ve lost their freedom and are living behind prison walls,” he said.

But solitary confinement is not reserved only for the violent. According to a 2012 report by the New York Civil Liberties Union, only 84 percent of tickets that send prisoners to solitary in the state result from violent infractions. Mualimm-ak received tickets for infractions including “hoarding,” “possession of multiple weapons,” and “possession of stolen property,” all of which landed him time in the box. While the titles of these infractions sound extremely serious, Mualimm-ak says it isn’t the acts that he committed, but the way in which they were labeled that is harsh. For example, he received a ticket for “hoarding” too many postage stamps and t-shirts in his cell. The citation for “possession of multiple weapons” came from the 24 pencils he used to draw portraits and that a guard classified as “ice picks.” He was accused of “possession of stolen property” because he had borrowed a magazine from a friend. He didn’t want to tell the guard that a fellow inmate had lent it to him because that could have gotten his friend in trouble.

“I think that when two human beings live and cohabitate next to each other in cages then they’re going to tend to do certain things…like talk to each other, like have a conversation, like maybe exchange something and say ‘Do you want to read this book?’ Those are normalities that are actually punishable by tickets.”

In solitary confinement, any contact between inmates is punishable. Mualimm-ak said he could hear a lot of the inmates in the solitary cells close to his struggling with their isolation—particularly the younger ones still in their teens. He said that in order to cope, they would rap, sing, and yell songs all day. After a week he could hear them forgetting the lyrics and eventually the songs would turn into frustration and crying.

Ending solitary confinement for teenagers and minors has been at the top of the agenda of advocacy groups and organizations across the country, and some strides have been made. The work of groups including the New York Civil Liberties Union ended solitary for minors in Rikers Island Correctional Facility this year, and the groups Disability Rights Advocates and Los Angeles-based Public Counsel did the same for a Bay Area juvenile detention center. Advocacy groups in Massachusetts are aiming to make similar reforms. One group, Prisoners’ Legal Services Massachusetts, testified before the Legislature’s Joint Committee on the Judiciary in October with a list of proposed reforms that would not only limit the age of prisoners that could be put in solitary, but would also restrict the amount of time prisoners can be left in solitary. Right now, Massachusetts has one of the harshest solitary policies in the country, and prisoners can be punished with isolation for up to 10 years at a time.

Mualimm-ak directs his own advocacy group, Incarcerated Nation Corp., a network of ex-inmates, criminal justice experts, and others based in New York City with firsthand experience in the prison system. Their goal is to improve human rights in prisons, lower the recidivism rate (which is now over 50 percent nationally), and end solitary confinement. But Mualimm-ak said that the work of formal advocacy groups like his aren’t the only force of change in the criminal justice system. He credits college students and protestors with raising awareness in recent years.

Multiple universities in the Northeast have protested solitary confinement in the public sphere. For the past three years, students at schools including Boston University, Harvard, and Yale have demonstrated by standing in 7×9 foot duct tape squares on busy streets to display the conditions of prisoners in isolation. Students at CUNY Law School and NYU conducted reports on the effects of psychological solitary confinement in New York State and brought them to City Hall. Mualimm-ak said that their work has been key in raising political awareness and making strides in the fight against solitary because it takes more than prisoners upset by the system to bring about change.

“City Hall didn’t listen to us at first because they thought ‘There’s a guy who just came from prison. Of course he didn’t like it,’” he said. “[Student testimony] is what gave us the leeway to approach the city council…That is what broke the ground.”

Reports like those done by college students at NYU and CUNY Law about the psychological effects of solitary confinement on prisoners are in no short supply. In 2011, the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on torture, Juan Méndez, said “indefinite and prolonged solitary confinement in excess of 15 days should…be subject to absolute prohibition,” and cited scientific studies proving that even a few days in isolation can lead to irreparable damage. In 2006, psychiatrist Stuart Grassian published an extensive study on the psychiatric effects of solitary on inmates, interviewing hundreds of prisoners who were isolated for long periods of time. According to Grassian, half of prisoners acquired extreme fears of persecution. He found that one third of inmates in solitary are “psychotic and/or acutely suicidal and urgently in need of acute hospital treatment.” The study concluded that solitary can lead to a specific psychiatric syndrome with symptoms of hallucinations, panic attacks, and paranoia. Dr. Raymond Patterson, a psychologist commissioned by a federal court to study the effects of solitary in the California prison system, discovered that inmates kept in the box are 33 times more likely to commit suicide than individuals in the general population.

Despite knowing about the psychological impact of solitary, many prison officials worry that limiting its use in the prison system will threaten both prisoners and correctional officers.

“Today’s disciplinary confinement policies have evolved over decades of experience, and it is simply wrong to unilaterally take the tools away from law enforcement officers who face dangerous situations on a daily basis,” The New York State Officers and Police Benevolent Association said in a statement this September.

Others are warming up to the idea of reform.  The director of Colorado’s prison system, Rick Raemisch, voluntarily spent 24 hours in solitary last year to experience the conditions firsthand. Since then he has vowed to stop what he sees as an overuse of solitary in the state. Last year, the state stopped putting prisoners with longstanding mental illnesses into isolation, and this year it started a program to limit the use of solitary confinement on all prisoners.

“We realized it was a time for a change,” Raemisch said. “We talked to our executive team and said, ‘Somehow we’ve lost sight of our mission.’ To send someone out worse than they came in is not part of our vision.”

The psychological effects of solitary can stay with prisoners long after they leave the box. Mualimm-ak says his short-term memory is permanently damaged from the years he spent in isolation. Dr. Grassian’s study found that this is common in many inmates kept in solitary for long periods of time. According to the study, in solitary, prisoners’ brains become so “hyperresponsive” and alert to the limited world around them that it becomes challenging for their brains to store information subconsciously. Mualimm-ak says it’s hard for him to retain new information, so he always keeps dozens of Post-Its on him for note-taking. He claims his ability to process information subconsciously is so damaged that he is no longer able to dream while he sleeps.

Aside from the damage done to his memory, Mualimm-ak said his ability to interact with other people is also very limited, and that he “[doesn’t] have social skills anymore.”

“I don’t know how to respond to things. I try to smile, I think,” he said. “I don’t like when people touch me…Sometimes I respond, I jerk and it makes people uncomfortable and it automatically puts me in a weird situation.”

Mualimm-ak said that today, aside from the life he has with his two sons in the Bronx, he doesn’t have much of a social life and spends most of his hours working for Incarcerated Nation Corp and other advocacy groups. He gives speeches, runs programs, and drafts legislation aimed at ending solitary and helping inmates who return to society stay out of prison. He said his sense of injustice and anger is what drives him.

“My [psychologist] sent me this clip when Avengers had came out and it was this little scene when the Hulk said ‘Well that’s my trick, I’m always angry.’” Like the Hulk, Mualimm-ak is constantly motivated by rage. “But,” he says, “I’m content with that.”

Mualimm-ak said part of the reason the advocacy movement to end solitary confinement has picked up in the last few years is that more and more prisoners are coming forward and sharing their stories. He believes that is the best way to get people outside the prison system as angry about it as he is.

Once while in prison, one of Mualimm-ak’s fellow inmates was applying for his GED, and preparing to write a paper on a magazine article. The article, covering a PETA demonstration, frustrated him. People were rallying because they believed it was inhumane for labs and companies to keep mice contained in small boxes for 24 hours. The inmate wondered why, if people were passionately fighting for animal rights, they weren’t fighting for prisoners’ rights.

“He was like ‘Are they outside here? Are they rallying about here?’” Mualimm-ak said.

“But we have no human rights like that.”

 

Podcast by Jordan Abosch