Solitary’s terrible toll

Murphy, Michael Heath

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Solitary's Terrible Toll by Michael Murphy "Every shutting up of a creature within the dungeons of its own mind is hell." -C.S. Lewis On August 21st, 2008, I was pushed out a side door of the Walls unit in Huntsville, TX and stepped out of prison for the first time in 10 years. It was an unbearably hot day made more so by the fact that I had not been exposed to the sun in more than 8 years. I proceeded to burn like a lobster and in the days to come would soon realize this was just the beginning of things I was distinctly ill-prepared for. To truly appreciate why I was so unprepared for unrestricted freedom, you have to understand that I had just spent 7 years in Solitary Confinement; 5 years of that in a "high security" unit which is Texas' answer to super seg. These units are designed to hold the supposed "worst of the worst" but in reality the vast majority of people held this way are model prisoners. I certainly didn't belong there. I've never been disruptive, assaultive, or any kind of disciplinary problem at all. I was in solitary solely because of my "status" as an STG (security threat group) member, not for any wrong doing whatsoever. Back in the 90's I had joined a gang for protection and survival in a very harsh environment. In today's world, with the "safe prisons" initiative, I would never have had to make that choice. In fact, I have had cause to regret that decision many times over as it has devastated my life. I was made to fully discharge a non-aggravated 10 year sentence, despite holding trusty status the entire time, because unwritten policy prevented any STG prisoner in ad-seg from being granted parole. The adverse psychological effects of solitary confinement are well-documented. I didn't realize this. I didn't notice what had happened to me. Thats what makes time in solitary so insidious and debilitating. It changes you so slowly you don't really notice the incremental accumulative effects that permanently leave scars on you psyche: According to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, "prolonged isolation and coercive solitary confinement are, in themselves, cruel and inhumane treatments, damaging to the person's psychic and moral integrity and the right to respect of the dignity inherent to the human person." Because of its potentially deleterious effect on prisoners' mental and physical health, the Committee Against Torture, the official body established pursuant to the Convention Against Torture (a treaty ratified by the United States and part of United States Laws), has recommended that the practice be abolished altogether. 1 Upon release, I found myself unable to function in the modern world. I had none of the skills or support networks that one would typically depend on during the re-entry phase of a supervised release. It wasn't just that the world had changed; I had changed as well. I suffered from, and still do, severe anxiety, frequent panic attacks, confusion, concentration & memory problems, insomnia, and paranoia. I also experienced prolonged periods of despair, black depression, and thoughts of suicide. Much of the time I found myself in a semi-dissociative state. Not fully there. As if the most mundane things my body did were happening to someone else and I were watching it happen. Dissociation is the inevitable consequence of being locked up for so long in your own mind. You build walls for survival and then can't find your way back. My greatest fear is that I'll never be the same. That it will always be like this. You're alive, but not truly living. I forgot how to communicate with others. I'd have things to I'd like to say but somehow it would come out all wrong. You can speak with anyone that knows me and they'll tell you, I'm a little off. I can't tell you how many times someone would say, "wtf is wrong with you?" More than I can count on 2 fingers and toes. Sometimes it's just the inside of your own head that's the problem. Through isolation, you regress to the point where you are socially inept. Prior to my incarceration, I was extremely outgoing, the life of the party with friends everywhere. Suddenly I'm the polar opposite. I would unintentionally flinch from normal human contact. It makes me very uncomfortable being around others. I can't handle crowds. I began to withdraw to the point where I alienated everyone I know. I couldn't maintain employment or hold a job. Eventually I couldn't find a job no matter how I tried. I became homeless, sleeping on couches at first, but eventually lasping into having to sleep in empty buildings, trailers, and vacant houses. I was extremely unstable, lacking effective emotional control. I ended up flaming out in a drug induced heat stroke on the side of Jacksboro Hwy with a pistol in my waist band. I had gotten the pistol that morning with the vague intention of ending it all. Instead I was arrested for felon in possession of a firearm and sent back to my own private ring of hell, inadvertently leading to the places that had made my life so unmanageable in the first place. I never want to experience a world where I can barely function. This is why I've made it my mission to seek help and to take whatever steps possible to get my mind right and to put my past behind me. Individually I've had some success. I consider my time here as an opportunity for growth. I'm teaching myself Spanish and German. I've sought out and read the basic works of Aristotle, Plato, Lucretius, Epictetus & Marcus Aurelius. I've read self-help books like the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People and the 3 classic books by Napoleon Hill. I sent off for and read the NA basic text. I've read over 40 other books on varying subjects ranging from economics, to marketing, to physics & psychology. Trying to learn all I can and move in a positive direction. The biggest gift to myself has been my daily study and practice of Buddhism. Earnestly following the precepts and practices of Buddhism has opened my heart to kindness and compassion and has significantly changed my world view. I would not have been able to educate myself in this manner if it weren't for non-profit organizations that send free books and educational materials to prisoners and the wonderful volunteers that make it happen. Institutionally, I haven't had any success, though not for lack of trying. I have sought help every step of the way. I asked the county for help, my attorneys, the prosecutor, the judge, and I've continually asked TDCJ; so far no luck. In county I was able to attend AA meetings and saw a psych doctor for help with depression. These minimal gains were forefeited when I caught chain to TDCJ. I was soon taken off anti depressants because I had asked for either a higher dosage or another medication when the dosage I was on proved ineffective. In my experience TDCJ's mental health apparatus is designed to suppress rather than address mental health issues, especially in administrative segregation. Medical, in general, is substandard in ad-seg. For instance, in 2011 I had a bad accident resulting in total reconstruction of both ankles; plates, pins, screws, rods, the works. If I were in population, I would have been given braces and medical shoes to properly support my ankles and reduce swelling. I would also receive pain and anti-inflammatory medication. Because I'm in solitary, I'm not eligible for these treatments. So I'm constantly in pain and spend much of my time laying down with my legs elevated to reduce swelling. Consequently my quality of life is unnecessarily limited. As soon as I stepped off the bus entering prison intake, I was immediately thrown in hand cuffs and marched directly to administrative segregation (solitary confinement) because I used to be a gang member. I've been trying to get out ever since. I haven't been a gang member in many years and had taken the extra-ordinary step of formally renouncing my membership and any affiliation or association during sentencing on my case in front of an entire courtroom full of people. Mainly because I recognized the suffering I had endured through this association, but also because I wanted to make a statement; to make it perfectly clear that I had severed that connection and moved on. You know, the way I was raised, I had always thought that in this country we judge you on your merits as an individual, not as a member of a group. It doesn't work this way in prison. I have done everything I can do to distance myself from gang life. Everyone knows I'm an ex-gang member. Thats the very first thing I let people know is that I'm an ex and that I'm trying to go to that program. Every step of the way I have done all I can to get this STG label off me. The only avenue available for STG members to obtain release to general population is a program called GRAD (Gang Renunciation and Disassociation). In fact, that's the only program available to us. I met all prerequisites and immediately signed up. I procedurally followed and met all requirements. I went through the whole process, jumped through all the hoops, did everything asked of me, and broke no rules. Yet I was still denied access to this program. During the final interview, there was a disconnect somewhere in the conversation between the G.I. conducting the interview and I. For whatever reason, she decided she didn't like me, was antagonistic throughout the interview, and at the end told me flat out that, "if I decided I don't believe you, I'm gonna call Huntsville and have them pull your shit." This is exactly what happened. 21 days later Huntsville pulled my packet because they, quote, "don't believe you.", although I didn't find this out till much later. Personally, I believe that the unexplained antagonism was fomented because I'm a Buddhist. She had just completed searching my cell prior to the interview and my cell is full of Buddhist religious material. We are in the heart of the Bible belt and its the only explanation that makes sense. It's very discouraging to honestly and sincerely do everything possible to make the changes you need to progress forward and proactively seek the help you so desperately need, only to be arbitrarily denied when you've done everything you're supposed to. Now I'm stuck in perpetual limbo, seemingly locked in solitary confinement without legitimate purpose for the entirety of my sentence, unless something gives between now and then; i.e. they finally allow me to participate in the GRAD program, something changes as far as policy concerning solitary confinement, or death gives me release. You wouldn't believe the conditions we live in. At present we haven't had a shower in 5 days. Every couple months we have a plumbing crisis and our water gets shut off. You can imagine the hardships this can cause when you are essentially locked in your bathroom. By far the worst, everytime it rains our cells flood with brown foul smelling water stemming from a leak in the roof. This problem has been ongoing ever since I arrived on this unit 3 years ago and recently the administration chose to install surveillance cameras rather then fix the roof. I'm amazed this place hasn't been red-tagged. I'm still shocked that we are held in what you would expect in a Central American Dungeon. Only this is Texas 2016. Our walls weep water and rust tinted sludge runs in rivulets down the wall. We have to trudge through inches of this filthy contaminated water to get our food trays, use the rest room, or whatever. You have to rush to remove things from the floor or suffer water damage to your property. To make it worse we have to clean it up with no cleaning supplies and some of this water is issuing out our pipe chase and smells of raw sewage. We should not be exposed to such miserable hazardous conditions. I can't express how miserable it is. I realize there is probably not alot of sympathy for prisoner rights issues and calls for systematic change in Texas prisons. I have been reading a lot about isolation and the importance of interdependence in life and our social fabric. We are all one and our very well-being depends on how well we adapt and interact with others in our communities. At some point we must reach out from our isolation and join hands for change. I am not alone. There are thousands like me, unnecessarily being held in solitary confinement for many years with no hope for release. It's senseless and it affects us all; black, white, brown, gay, straight, transgender, and regardless of religious creed. An example of this detailing the excessive use of solitary confinement and this practices impact on LGBTQ prisoners: In addition to the conditions themselves amounting to torture, solitary confinement usually restricts a persons access to education, work, and program opportunities. These opportunities are not only essential for maintaining a persons mental health, but are usually necessary for achieving good time credits and being paroled. This means that LGBT people, who are likely to serve much of their time in isolation, are also more likely to serve the maximum time (or longer) of non-life sentences. This holds true no matter who you are. It certainly is in my case. My only goal right now is to get to general population where there are several programs available to help us socially adjust, to learn marketable skills through vocation training, and to acquire the skills I need to survive outside these walls. The whole point is to gain a path out of darkness and into light, to do something positive, change me life, and help others. My life has purpose and meaning. I just need some help. We have a precious opportunity here to make a difference. We just have to be aware and use it. The winds of change are starting to blow. Texan Against Solitary Michael H Murphy "The outward freedom that we shall attain will only be in exact proportion to the inner freedom to which we have grown at a given moment." -Mahatma Gandhi End notes: 1. Lobel, Jules. "Prolonged Solitary Confinement and the Constitution." University of Pennsylvania Journal of Constitutional Law 11.115, 2008 2009-19 2. Hanssens, Catherine, et al. "Road map for change: Federal Policy Recommendations for addressing the Criminalization of LGBY People and People Living with HIV" 2014 Dear APWA, Here is my first essay. I want to thank you for the opportunity to share my experiences. As things come up, I will be sure to write more and to stay in touch. If you need any further information, please feel free to contact me, Thank you for your time, service & dedication to this project. Sincerely yours, Michael H Murphy

Author: Murphy, Michael Heath

Author Location: Texas

Date: April 28, 2017

Genre: Essay

Extent: 8 pages

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