Prisoners ‘buried alive’ living in 24/7 silence and darkness in solitary confinement – Mirror Online

Posted: September 30, 2019 at 6:52 pm

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For the first month he spent in a cell by himself, Marcus Bullock was mostly concerned with how his mum would punish him when he got out.

The then 15-year-old had found himself in the bowels of Virginia's Fairfax prison, locked away by himself so he couldnt collaborate with his co-conspirator in the institutions one youth wing.

As he waited to stand trial for stealing a car, a low-watt bulb kept on 24 hours a day ensured guards could periodically look in at the increasingly sleep deprived teenager.

When he was eventually sentenced to eight years in prison, Marcus was left in a state of disbelief and shock.

In those first few months I would dream about what I would do when they released me, he explained.

I thought I was going home and that I would be with my mum and girlfriend.

I assumed I was going to my homecoming so I thought about what I would get for my girlfriend for Valentines day.

I was also nervous my mum would put me on punishment. That was going through my brain.

It wasnt until two years after he was first locked up that the reality of his life inside sunk in for Marcus, when fellow inmate Danny Brown told him hed spent 30 years behind bars.

The realisation that he was totally confined hit like a tonne of bricks, making him feel as if his life was over.

Before, the 6x9ft dimensions of his solitary cell were too little to contain a teenager full of energy.

He would do push-ups, jumping jacks and flips off the wall before erecting an imaginary basketball hoop and practicing invisible jump shots.

After his chat with Danny, Marcuss high spirits mutated into fury.

It was a very dark time, he said. I got very angry and frustrated and began using my very high levels of energy for violence.

The more he fought and rioted, the longer he was locked up alone in the hole with no entertainment beyond a toilet/sink combi and a blanket half the size of his body.

Marcus's predicament and descent into anger fueled depression is not unique to him, but shared by many of the 80,000 inmates a Yale Law School study estimated are kept in solitary by the US authorities.

One such person is Abdul Latif Nasir, a Moroccan national who has been kept in a solitary cell in Guantanamo Bay since his capture in 2001.

While the US Department of Defence alleges he was a Taliban fighter, no charges have ever been levelled against Abdul, who human rights charity Reprieve believe was sold by the Northern Alliance to America for a bounty.

Fourteen years after he was locked up in a cell with nothing but a chequers board to entertain him and no one to play it with, Abdul was cleared for release.

In a bid to break the monotony Abdul wrote a 2,000 word Arabic to English dictionary.

The fact he remains inside three years later has left him in a state of purgatory Reprieve's founder and Abdul's lawyer Clive Stafford-Smith described as "devastating".

"The problem with all prison but in particular with Guantanmo's really rigorous isolation is that the whole experience is designed to destroy your sense of ego," the Gandhi International Peace Award recipient explained.

"Our ego is built on the notion that you make choices, you choose when to do this and that. What prison is designed to do is to reduce you to an automotom."

Realising that he was slowly being stripped of his sense of self, Abdul decided to follow in the footsteps of Hurricane Carter.

The celebrated boxer was wrongly convicted of murder and spent 20 years in prison before being immortalised by Bob Dylan.

Like Carter, Abdul fought against the ego crushing unfairness and loneliness of his predicament by breaking the rules.

"He decided to do exactly the opposite of what the guards told him to do," Stafford-Smith explained.

"If they told him to go to bed he would get up. He stayed up all night writing a book about his treatement."

Another Guantanamo inmate held without charge was British citizen Shaker Aamar, who spent 13 years in isolation before his 2015 release.

"He got the idea that to maintain his sanity he had to make his own choices," explained Stafford-Smith.

"We came up with this idea that if he was out on the rec yard, which was a little square, he would ask the guards a question.

"If they got the answer right he would agree to go back to his cell, if they answered wrong he would stay.

"The thing is if you disobey the guards in Guantanamo they beat the shit out of you.

"One time he tried asking 'what's the name of the vice president of the United States?' They didn't know their own vice president so he refused to go inside."

While this form of self-harm probably isn't for everybody, one might imagine a man locked in a blank room with no entertainment might resort to another form of self-flagellation to break the monotony.

Stafford-Smith claimed this is not the case, suggesting the combination of depression and stifling isolation is a near total turn off.

Instead, to keep the mind busy, solitary inmates often invent strict schedules.

Kris Maharaj, a Brit convicted of gunning down father and son Derrick and Duane Moo Young in Miami in 1986, sat on Florida death row in a solitary cell for 21 years.

Because educational materials are not given to those destined for execution - primarily on the logic that it's pointless to educate someone you are going to kill - Kris built his own imaginary institution within the four walls of his cell.

"He used to have a total regime," Stafford-Smith continued.

"Get up, say his prayers, have the breakfast they thrust through the doors, walk up and down the cells for miles.

"Push-ups and sit-ups. Take an hour to write letters. It was a total regime."

There are others who turn away from the self improvement path and take a more disruptive route.

"A lot of people do dirty protests," explained Dr Sharon Shalev, who has written extensively on solitary confinement in the US, UK and New Zealand.

"People throw excrement. They eat it and smear it, mostly on the walls and doors.

"It is often anger at the system and frustration that motivates them. It's an attempt to get the system to move on, to find a resolution."

One man Shalev wrote about suffered from serious mental health issues, but not enough to have him admitted into hospital care.

"He would occasionally smear himself because of his mental health," she continued.

"They would take him out and clean him. It stinks. It is horrible for everyone, but it is a form of control."

Although dirty protests are not unheard of in British prisons - where 50 to 60 people are locked in solitary at any given time - the relatively short stays and availability of books make it a somewhat tolerable experience.

That is, unlike in the USA, where thousands of people are kept in near total isolation in the vaults of Supermax prisons.

With no stimulus, sentences that can run into the hundreds of years and stints in solitary stretching, in the most extreme cases, to 40 years without respite, the mental health effects can be devestating.

"There are people that have a lot of rage and direct it at themselves," Shalev said.

"I have come across some real extremes in self harm.

"One person in the Supermax took their eye ball out and then ate it.

"One prisoner told me he self-harms because seeing blood feels like a form of control."

Although she is quick to argue that solitary standards in UK prisons do not constitute torture, Shalev said the practice earns the label elsewhere in "extreme conditions".

While the length and totalness of isolation in the US might earn it the badge following the Oxford academic's suggestion that "mental torture is worse than physical torture because your mind doesnt shut off", one unlikely country certainly makes the grade.

New Zealand, a country which recently prioritized gross national well-being over economic growth, is responsible of possibly the worst form of solitary - certainly of a western country.

"In New Zealand people were getting tied up by all four limbs," Shalev said.

"They would have a helmet on their head. I saw this when I was invited by the government to do a review back in 2017.

"A lot of high security prisoners have tie down beds. They would be left on there for days at a time."

In the United Nations funded report Shalev found one prisoner was tied-down on a bed in a solitary cell for more than a month to stop him self-harming.

While interviews with these prisoners have so far proved impossible, it is fair to assume the mental toil of physical restraint and complete isolation is fairly gruelling.

As much as Marcus's regular trips to the hole were less extreme than for those who suffered at the hands of a practice now banned in New Zealand, they took their toll.

The dad lives in Washington DC with his wife and two kids and has found a purpose in campaigning against the use of solitary confinement - a practice he considers an "ineffective and inhumane means of social management".

Yet he is not free of his eight years inside.

"Im still affected," he said.

"When I first came home it was bad. I would get in cold dark spaces and say 'dont be around me'.

"Now its more macro. Im able to easily detach from humans and be okay being by myself.

"I know how to talk to myself. I dont feel the need for human interaction, which is not the best way to manage yourself as a family man."

As much as a less isolating, more emotionally holistic prison experience might have served to rehabilitate Marcus rather than leave him with deep rooted mental health issues, he could have been left worse off.

"When I was very dark my mum would visit, write me and talk to me on the phone and she began to see I was not okay," he said.

"One day she promised to write me a letter every day from that day forward. She did that.

"That decision saved my life.

"She would send a picture of everything from the wallpaper her office had installed or what she had eaten for lunch.

"She would attach anoteto the photo and say 'it's a little more cosy now' or 'I need to get some groceries.'

"It was three page letters about nothing but it made me a part of her day, every day. No one else in prison had that.

"It gave me a window to the world no one had.

"Instead of living in a constant state of depression I had my church and I could see my niece and nephew growing. I knew that someone cared about me.

"I knew there was a big bottle of love that was waiting for me when I came home.

"My mum was Instagram before Instagram was Instagram. It gave me access to the world I so wanted."

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Prisoners 'buried alive' living in 24/7 silence and darkness in solitary confinement - Mirror Online

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September 30th, 2019 at 6:52 pm

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