‘Silenced: Voices from Solitary in Michigan’ Shares Prisoner Letters

Silenced: Voices from Solitary in Michigan

A few weeks after he was placed in solitary, Tunc Uraz lost it. He started screaming and hitting his head on the wall. Trembling, he tied his bedsheets into a noose, but there was nowhere to hang it.

“My days were nights and my nights were my days, and after a while it all blended together and I was living inside my head,” Uraz wrote to prisoner advocate Jacquline “Jacq” Williams. “I just remember thinking, ‘I’m going to die. I’m stuck here in this animal cage and I am going to die.’”

Jody Hill feels abused and neglected by the Michigan Department of Corrections, which doesn’t provide adequate protection to trans women in its male facilities, she says. “I’m fighting a system that refuses to acknowledge that I even exist,” she writes to Williams from the Muskegon Departmental Facility. Behind bars since 2001, she once spent five years in isolation and had forgotten her own age when she got out.

“I found myself surrounded by guys screaming obscenities through doors all day,” Hill wrote in a letter. “Beating on the desk in their cells all night, and fighting the hunger pains and depression that often drove a guy to paint the cell wall with his feces or bash his head into the wall repeatedly as he tried desperately to stop his mind from feeding on itself for lack of new stimulation.”

“I don’t like to share this part of what I’m about to share,” wrote Anthony McGowan, an inmate at Iona Correctional Facility in Michigan. “But while in [segregation], right before I hung myself I wrote on the wall with my own body waste.”

For five years, Williams has worked for a prisoner advocacy organization, AFSC Michigan Criminal Justice Program, that communicated directly with people inside. She developed relationships with several inmates through letters, and began to see what life was like for inmates segregated from the general population. “I noticed a lot of patterns in [conversations] with people in isolation — and I noticed other things too, like their handwriting changing or delusions becoming prevalent,” she says. “The more I learned about conditions, the more I understood segregation for what it was: social and sensory deprivation that amounted to legalized torture.” She began to collect these letters, eventually creating “Silenced: Voices from Solitary in Michigan,” a new website that features vital testimony about solitary. It’s meant to expose a practice inherently prone to near-total secrecy. The site features nearly 100 letters and is searchable by the category of terrors experienced by the inmates, from hallucinations to sucide attempts. 

“They want to be heard,” Williams says, adding that when she first started collecting accounts from prisoners, she was worried that they’d face punishment from prison guards. What she found was that the inmates didn’t care “They said, ‘It can’t get any worse for me right now. The benefit of contributing outweighs the risk of retaliation,’” Williams says. “There’s not much worse they can do.”

solitary confinement

Justin Gibson, Jonathan Lancaster, and Jody Hill all submitted letters that appear on the website.

Courtesy of Silenced.in

The mental and physical impacts of solitary confinement have been clear for two centuries. In 1829, Pennsylvania Quakers opened the first prison designed for solitary, hoping to inspire reflection in the inmates. Instead, many went crazy or committed suicide. Thirteen years later, Charles Dickens made his first trip to America, and after seeing it first hand, solitary confinement shocked a writer whose bleak perspective inspired an adjective for intolerable suffering. “He is a man buried alive,” he wrote.

In the century and a half since, multiple international agreements have codified the practice as inhumane. In 2011, Juan Mendez, the U.N. special rapporteur on torture — who was himself jailed and tortured by the Argentinean military dictatorship for more than a year in the 1970s — declared that more than 15 days in solitary constitutes torture.

“Solitary confinement is recognized as difficult to withstand; indeed, psychological stressors such as isolation can be as clinically distressing as physical torture,” wrote Jeffrey L. Metzner and Jamie Fellnerin in the Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, in a paper about the medical ethics of physicians who participate in punitive isolation measures.

According to a report by Citizens for Prison Reform, there are 3,200 people in isolation in Michigan for more than 20 hours a day among the state prison population, like Richard Goddard, who has been in isolation for 47 years; James Miller, who has been segregated from the general population for about 36; and Daniel Henry, for 12. Clarence Henderon, who at 67 had been in isolation has been confined to a wheelchair due to severe arthritis. He allegedly goes months without going outside. “It’s just torture,” says Mario Lee, who goes by the name Akesi and has been incarcerated since 2005, currently serving time at the Ionia Correctional Facility.

Chris Gautz, a spokesperson for the MDOC, denies that the department regularly keeps inmates in solitary confinement for years. (A request for comment on the whereabouts of the individuals in Silenced was forwarded to the state’s FOIA office, and we’ll update if we hear back). “As of February of this year, there was one prisoner who has been in [administrative segregation] for more than one year, but less than two, out of 32,000 prisoners,” Gautz said. But Jessica Sandoval, senior campaign strategist with the national Unlock the Box campaign, says the MDOC fudges those numbers by labeling isolation a variety of technical terms, like Mental Health Unit; Observation; temporary segregation. And Alternative to Segregation (START program).

Akesi, who was recently moved to the START program, says the difference is meaningless. “The program is classified as general population. In reality, it’s administrative [segregation]. The only distinguishing features is that we are required to attend and participate in one hour of group therapy sessions once a week,” he says. “On the other hand, the similarities to seg are many. We are allowed one hour of outdoor recreation five days a week, confined to individual enclosures with concrete floors and enclosed by a steel and wire mesh cage.” He says they’re denied access to any congregate activities including religious services. “We spend between 23 and 24 hours per day in our cells. By no stretch of the imagination can the department of corrections claim that this program is general population or otherwise an alternative to segregation.”

“As social (i.e. human beings) one of the most severe punishments humanly possible that society can mete out to a human is to banish and condemn us to the tombs for the living — or otherwise subject us to extreme social isolation and sensory deprivation,” Akesi wrote in 2020 from the Ionia Correctional Facility in Ionia, Michigan. “It’s endless torture, psychological and physical.”

“This is the techno jargon that keeps the system opaque. All these euphemisms are for essentially solitary confinement,” Sandoval says. She says anything that forces an inmate to stay in isolation for longer than sleeping hours should be defined as solitary. (Gautz told Rolling Stone he didn’t have that information and forwarded the query to the department’s FOIA office.) The Michigan Department of Corrections counts 835 inmates in administrative, or long-term segregation, and 130 in punitive solitary detention, as a short term punishment. The race breakdown is stark: more than 70 percent of inmates placed in long term solitary are Black.

The prisoners’ descriptions are remarkably consistent: they describe severe mental health problems arising from solitary, from hallucinations to paranoia to suicidal ideation. One inmate reports losing his vision after staring at nothing in the near distance for so long. Another, Williams says, was screaming on the phone; he’d forgotten how to talk at a normal volume.

Williams points out that it’s not just the “worst of the worst” being held in isolation — Hannibal Lecters who would wreak havoc if they weren’t segregated. Inmates can get thrown in the hole for any reason, she says, or no reason at all. She claims it’s entirely based on the whim of the guards. “One man was sent to isolation unit after knocking over a glass of water,” she claims. (Gautz, the MDOC spokesperson, denied that guards put prisoners in solitary without due process or a just reason.)

Williams also notes that many facilities are in rural, almost entirely white towns: in some cases, the prison is the main industry. “You’re taking Black people to extremely isolated places. The town survives off of these Black bodies.”

“The further you go up North… its like some parts of the South in the 50’s and 60’s,” writes inmate Andraus McCloud. “The KKK turned in their robes for MDOC uniforms,” writes inmate Anthony Richardson. “Nobody is watching while they do their hate practices.”

jody hill art

Jody Hill/Silenced.in

When Danielle Dunn, a real estate broker, spoke to her little brother, 38-year-old Jonathan Lancaster, in February of 2019, he whispered the entire time. “There was a change in his voice. Clearly he was having mental health issues,” she tells Rolling Stone. Lancaster had been thrown in solitary after a scuffle with another inmate, and had become increasingly paranoid. “He was saying there was gas pumped into his cell. That his food was being poisoned. I said, ‘Are you OK? It sounds like you’re cracking up a little bit.” Lancaster got silent, Dunn recalls. “Then he whispered again, ‘They’re going to kill me.’”

Even as Lancaster started losing weight and continued to act erratically — he suffered from a variety of mental illnesses, his sister says, including schizophrenia — his sister alleges that prison staff failed to get Lancaster proper medical treatment. He began to hallucinate, crouch in the fetal position, and refused food and water. The Detroit Free Press reported that he lost 26 percent of his body weight in three weeks, dropping 51 pounds, according to the lawsuit.

“They didn’t even know why he was still in solitary confinement,” Dunn says. She begged staff to give him proper care but claims she was told he was “physically fine.” March 8th, 2019, he was pepper sprayed and put in an observation room, where he didn’t have access to water, according to the lawsuit. On March 11th, they cleared him for a hospital visit. Early that morning, they strapped him into a restraint chair and left him in his cell for several hours. At 12:50 he was found unresponsive and later declared dead. (Lancaster’s family is suing MDOC staff for wrongful death; Gautz declined to comment on the ongoing litigation.)

“My brother was severely tortured,” Dunn says, tearing up. “They beat him. There were bruises all over him. Pepper sprayed, beat, when he was unresponsive. They sat there and they literally watched him suffer and die.” Her mother was put in a mental health hospital. “It’s all but killed my mother. She’s suffering terribly.”

“The cruelty, leaving him to die in his own waste, suffering,” Dunn says, of her brother.

Surviving in solitary can be its own cruelty. Daniel Henry has spent more than a decade in segregation and, he says, he’s been told he’s never getting out. “It’s been a long 12 years in solitary at ICF and I have learned so much about the darker side of human nature and how cruel people can become when there is no real accountability or oversight,” Henry wrote to Willams. “I have also learned a lot about myself. And I’ve met many people in here and out there who have taught me how to sympathize with the next man’s pain and suffering.”

“Other countries do not utilize solitary confinement like we do let alone incarcerate their citizens for such lengthy sentences that virtually remove any hope for a future life outside of the criminal justice system,” Henry added.

He, and others, worry about Richard Goddard, who’s spent almost 50 years in isolation. “The man is the most kind, caring and humble human being I’ve ever met and he clearly presents no threat to either himself or the MDOC any longer,” says Henry. “The appearance is that they want us to suffer as much as possible on top of being confined to a small space for years.”

Williams hopes to turn outrage over conditions into action; the website has a “Take Action” page that lets people share their stories and lobby political leaders, like Michigan’s Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer.

“I am hoping that public pressure makes the MDOC admit that there’s a huge problem, and actually work toward fixing it,” she tells Rolling Stone.

She wishes elected officials could really see the conditions they perpetuate with their inaction. “I want legislators to visit these prisons in July or August, to step inside of a segregation cell and close the door when it’s over 100 degrees and see how long they last.”

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