One of America's harshest isolation units was exposed by a desperate, handwritten account from t
In February 2015, a Georgia prison inmate mailed a handwritten complaint to the federal court in Macon, saying he’d been held in a windowless cell for nearly 24 hours a day for five years.
The inmate, a convicted rapist named Timothy Gumm, said he’d been put there after a failed escape attempt in January 2010 and was told he’d remain there indefinitely, even after the escape charge was wiped from his disciplinary record. He lost contact with loved ones, dropped 50 pounds and was “deprived of almost any environmental and sensory stimuli and of almost all human contact,” he wrote.
He saw no way out.
“I hate that I even have to trouble you and the court with this matter,” Gumm wrote in a cover letter to the court clerk.
That longshot filing, written on 11 pages of loose-leaf paper without a lawyer’s help, persuaded a skeptical judge to listen, and to eventually force Georgia to open up its isolation unit to outsiders. A social psychologist who’d studied prison conditions for 40 years was shocked at what he saw: metal cells without openings, including one smeared with blood; mentally ill prisoners screaming in anguish; and a crudely drawn sign that said, “HELP.”
The psychologist’s report, released publicly last year, led to a settlement in which the state agreed in January to curtail its use of solitary confinement — a small step in America’s slow-moving shift away from a practice that human rights advocates call torture.
“It’s no longer a conversation about is this something we should be doing,” said Sara Sullivan, who leads the nonprofit Vera Institute’s work with state prison systems to curtail solitary confinement. “There’s a lot of momentum for this. But we still have a long way to go.”
A TURNING TIDE ON SOLITARY CONFINEMENT
Solitary confinement has flourished in American jails and prisons since the 1980s and ʼ90s as a way of controlling dangerous inmates, punishing a misdeed or protecting vulnerable prisoners from the general population. Dozens of states, as well as the Federal Bureau of Prisons, have built “supermax” facilities where solitary confinement is standard. An estimated 61,000 people ─ including juveniles, pregnant women and the mentally ill ─ were held in solitary confinement in 2017, according to the most recent comprehensive count by the Association of State Correctional Administrators and the Arthur Liman Center for Public Interest Law at Yale Law School.
The numbers were once even higher, but have declined as more elected leaders and corrections officials have acknowledged that solitary confinement is overused and misused, with many inmates being sent back into society when their sentences end. Some researchers say the practice causes permanent psychological damage, while others say it makes inmates more likely to get into trouble after their release.
Around the country, from Maine to Colorado to Virginia and in Congress and the U.S. Supreme Court, authorities are reconsidering solitary confinement through new laws, policies, court opinions and legal settlements. Many are influenced by harrowing recollections of life in solitary confinement — like the tale of Anthony Gay, who was locked up as a teen for allegedly stealing a dollar bill and ended up spending 22 years in solitary confinement in Illinois. Others react to a streak of inmate suicides, as in Alabama recently.
Critics of solitary confinement include Rick Raemisch, director of the Colorado Department of Corrections, whose predecessor, Tom Clements, was murdered in 2013 by a man who’d just been released after seven years in solitary confinement.
In the wake of Clements’ death, Raemisch worked to reduce solitary confinement, and Colorado eventually enacted the country’s strictest limit, 15 days at a time, which meets the United Nations’ “Mandela Rules” for treatment of prisoners. (The United States is not bound by those standards.)
“When did it ever become OK to lock someone in a cell the size of a parking space 23 hours a day for years?” Raemisch says in a video tweeted last month by the American Civil Liberties Union.
In 2015, several Supreme Court justices condemned solitary confinement in written opinions. In 2016, President Barack Obama moved to curtail solitary confinement in federal prisons and cited Kalief Browder, who spent years in solitary confinement on New York’s Rikers Island while awaiting trial and killed himself after being released from prison. The same year, the American Correctional Association, which recommends standards for prisons, called for restrictions on solitary confinement, particularly for the mentally ill. In December, Congress passed, and President Donald Trump signed, the First Step Act, a criminal justice reform bill that includes a ban on solitary confinement for juveniles in federal lockups.