By Victoria Law / Truthout
Even nine years after leaving prison, Evie Litwok is still haunted by the seven weeks she spent in solitary confinement. She suffers continual headaches, migraines, vertigo and claustrophobia. She cannot be in places that are too loud, too crowded or too small. The first time she walked into a crowded elevator after her release from prison, she suffered a panic attack and fainted.
“Solitary tests the limits of your ability to think cohesively,” she told Truthout. “Physically, mentally and emotionally, it destroyed me forever.”
A recent report by Solitary Watch and Unlock the Box reveals that, according to the latest data from 2019, over 11,000 people in federal prisons and another 11,490 in federal jails are in some form of solitary or restrictive housing, where they are locked in their cells for at least 22 hours each day.
Combined with local jails and state prisons, a staggering 122,840 people are in isolation. Between 55,000 and 62,500 have been isolated for 15 days or more. These figures do not include immigration detention facilities, which have also disproportionately meted out solitary confinement.
Last week, six federal lawmakers introduced legislation to eliminate the practice for people in federal prisons and jails as well as those in Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention. The End Solitary Confinement Act (HR 4972) would eliminate 22-hour isolation with the exception of a four-hour emergency deescalation period. The bill allows placement in alternative units for people who need to be separated for longer periods, but requires they be allowed out of their cells for at least 14 hours each day, including seven hours of group programming to address mental health, substance abuse and violence prevention. It would also implement due process protections, including access to representation, and require the federal government to regularly report the numbers of solitary placements, the demographic breakdowns and the number of instances of self-harm, suicide attempts and completed suicides in segregation.
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While the act only applies to federal jails, prisons and immigration prisons, it also incentivizes states and municipalities to adopt similar bans by decreasing federal funding to any state or local entity that does not enact them.
“It is indisputable that solitary confinement is torture,” Rep. Cori Bush, the bill’s lead sponsor, said in a press conference announcing the bill. “It doesn’t matter what it’s called, whether administrative segregation or restrictive housing or anything else. It leads to self-mutilation, to suicide, heart disease, anxiety, depression, psychosis, mental and physical deterioration and a significantly heightened risk of death.”
“I Would Not Wish Those Conditions on My Enemies”
In 1998, Samuel Wesley-El was accused of being insolent to staff at the federal prison in Cumberland, Maryland. For that, he spent seven days in the prison’s Special Housing Unit (SHU), the term for solitary confinement in the federal prison system. “I was locked down for 23 hours a day for two days,” he told Truthout in an e-message from prison. On those two days, staff allowed him out of his cell for an hour. On the other five days, they did not.
The next year, he was placed in SHU pending an investigation. The investigation lasted 45 days, but he was never told what it was about. He was constantly cold, he recalled, and the lights were kept on until 10 pm.
In 2021, Wesley-El was placed in isolation twice. Once, he was sent to medical isolation for two days in preparation for a procedure. Later, he was sent to the SHU for six days because he had a bag of books on his bed. But, he recalled, the conditions were the same regardless of the reason. If he or anyone else received an incident report while in isolation, they would be “put in paper,” which he described as being placed in a paper jumpsuit and underwear for a week. People put in paper were also deprived of their mattresses during the day. While Wesley-El never incurred this penalty, he recalls that others did.
Reflecting on those experiences, he wrote, “I would not wish those conditions on my enemies.”
Litwok is not the only one for whom the effects of solitary extend past their release date. Pamela Winn learned that she was six weeks pregnant when she entered a federal jail. That was in 2008, years before the federal Bureau of Prisons (and the majority of state prisons) passed regulations restricting the use of leg irons, belly chains or black boxes on pregnant people. Winn experienced all three each time she was transported to and from her court dates.
During one of those trips, Winn fell while trying to step into the van. Shortly after, she began bleeding, but her repeated requests for medical attention were ignored. At 20 weeks, she miscarried. Instead of being offered grief counseling or therapy, she was placed into medical observation which was, in effect, solitary confinement. When she was transferred to a different jail, staff placed her in segregation, ostensibly for her protection against other incarcerated people. She spent a total of eight months in isolation.
“There is no day, no night, no time, just your thoughts,” she recounted. Those thoughts included a constant replay of being in pain in her cell while waiting for medical attention, being shackled to the hospital bed, and being told by a nurse that she had miscarried.
Fifteen years later, that time in isolation continues to color her daily life. She is now the grandmother of a toddler, but has trouble connecting with her granddaughter or other family members and friends.
Despite these difficulties, Winn is determined to ensure that no other woman goes through what she experienced. After her release from prison in 2013, she founded RestoreHER, a policy advocacy organization in her home state of Georgia.
Since then, RestoreHER spearheaded Georgia’s HB 345, which passed in 2019 and now prohibits the state’s prisons and jails from shackling pregnant people. Winn and the organization are now working with lawmakers to ban solitary for pregnant people in federal custody, and she was part of the press conference to announce the introduction of the End Solitary Confinement Act.
Surviving Solitary and Advocating for Its End
In 2014, Litwok was weeks from being released from the federal prison in Tallahassee, Florida. Then, she learned about the death of a woman who had long been complaining of excruciating stomach pains. Medical staff refused to take her complaints seriously, telling her that she was fat and that she needed to walk on the track and drink water. It was the same advice they dispensed to every woman, including Litwok, regardless of their symptoms.
Two weeks later, the woman’s gallbladder burst. She died.
Infuriated, Litwok sent a story blasting the prison’s lack of medical care to a friend, who was maintaining her website. It wasn’t the first time that Litwok had written about prison conditions, but it was the first time she sent it via the prison’s e-messaging system, which is monitored by staff.
Within an hour, staff handcuffed and brought her to the SHU. She would spend the next seven weeks confined nearly 24 hours a day to her cell bathed in fluorescent lights that were never turned off.
On her first day, the lights triggered a severe migraine. Litwok had never before had migraines, but this became the first of many. “My blood pressure had to be off the charts because I was shaking,” she said. Her family has a history of heart disease — her father died of a sudden heart attack — and Litwok repeatedly asked the doctor who made his rounds each morning to check her blood pressure. When he finally did, it was 200/100, indicating a hypertensive crisis, or medical emergency, which could lead to a heart attack, stroke, organ damage, or other life-threatening health problems. But Litwok was not offered follow-up care.
Then there was the constant cacophony of 60 women screaming at all hours. “Even now, I hear it in my head,” she said. “It was an echo chamber of people screaming, ‘Get me the fuck out of here.’”
Suicides and attempted suicides occur disproportionately in solitary confinement. Litwok remembers multiple women attempting suicide during her seven weeks in isolation. “You wouldn’t see it,” she explained, noting that the cells were offset so that one person could not see directly into the cell across from them. “You would hear it. It sounded like someone changing their sheets. But in solitary, you only had one sheet.” When a woman heard that sound, she would begin yelling, hoping that staff would arrive in time to stop the attempt.
“I didn’t want to commit suicide,” Litwok recalled, adding that her Jewish faith prohibited suicide. But when she heard that someone else had tried, she would ask God to let her die.
Litwok did not die. She was released in 2014 and returned to New York City where she joined the Jails Action Coalition, a local advocacy group fighting to improve conditions in New York’s notorious Rikers Island. At that time, jail officials placed 1 in every 10 people in segregation. The coalition’s efforts included pressing the Board of Correction, the agency which establishes and oversees minimum standards in the city’s jails, to drastically limit solitary confinement. Litwok was part of the group that met with individual board members to advocate for change. She also repeated her story at their public hearings. Ultimately, the Board of Correction passed a rule limiting segregation to no more than 30 consecutive days or, within any six-month period, 60 days.
Recounting her time in solitary, even years later, still makes Litwok want to cry. But, she said, as the daughter of two Holocaust survivors, she grew up watching her parents repeatedly talk about their childhood experiences at high schools and colleges. “Every time they spoke, it bothered them, but they taught me one thing — you must testify. You must never forget. You must memorialize your experiences because no one else will.” In 2016, she founded Witness to Mass Incarceration to challenge and change narratives around incarceration.
“Solitary confinement is a depraved and sadistic practice,” Congresswoman Bush stated when she introduced the act, adding that, in 2011 and again in 2020, United Nations experts have condemned prolonged solitary, defined as 15 days or more, as psychological torture. “Together we will save lives by ending this heinous and immoral practice once and for all,” she said.
“Solitary is such a violation of your mind,” Litwok said, reflecting on those trauma-filled seven weeks and her life afterwards. “You’re fighting the light, the noise, the complete attempts at dehumanization. You’re never right again.”
Victoria Law is a freelance journalist who focuses on the intersections of incarceration, gender and resistance. She’s the author of “Prisons Make Us Safer”: And 20 Other Myths about Mass Incarceration (2021) and the coauthor of Prison by Any Other Name: The Harmful Consequences of Popular Reforms (2020). Her latest article published by the Intercept is, “BLIND SPOTS – Sexual Assault Allegation Exposes Self-Policing Prison System.”