By Chastyn “Nova” Hicks / Prison Journalism Project
When Richard Belec spent 10 months locked down in solitary confinement in Arizona, the mice and cockroaches started cooperating with each other.
“They joined forces,” he said. “The mice would chew open a corner of our commissary items, and then the cockroaches would come in for the feast.”
He tried using peanut butter jars to trap the roaches.
“I couldn’t make them fast enough,” he said. “At one point, I had three of them inside my cell and two outside my door. They filled up in less than a week.”
In prison, getting sent to the hole is like being exiled to a distant planet. Your mind begins to play tricks on you.
Isolation for an extended period of time can cause severe anxiety, memory loss, PTSD, and a diminished ability to interact with others, research shows. Yet according to a Solitary Watch report, “at least 122,840 people are locked daily in solitary confinement in U.S. prisons and jails for 22 or more hours a day.”
Earlier this year, a group of House Democrats introduced a bill to ban solitary confinement in federal correctional facilities; it did not pass. Some states have limited the use of the practice, but no state has banned solitary confinement.
Belec tried to bring grievances about pests and food to corrections officers. Getting traction was “an uphill, if not vertical, battle.”
That’s because inmates need special letters, or kites, to make official requests. Belec was fortunate enough to land a library job. In a porter closet, stashed away, he found a stack of grievance forms. It made him the go-to guy of grievances.
“I’ve seen people with clogged toilets for three or four days before maintenance came to fix it,” Belec said. And because sinks drain into attached toilets, clogs mean no brushing teeth or washing hands or clothes.
Then there are the more psychological challenges of solitary.
A prison cell is a small room — maybe 6 feet by 8 feet — smaller than some parking spaces. Most don’t have windows, at least not in my prison. Yet long periods of lockdowns are common due to quarantines, medical emergencies, and lack of staff, especially on what inmates call “short-staff Saturdays.”
“At one point I remember being locked down for two and a half weeks,” Belec said. He got out for a shower every two days. “If I was lucky.,” he said.
I too have had a similar experience. During the first three months of the COVID-19 pandemic I was locked in solitary confinement. While I was not a threat to anyone within the inmate population, I was treated like one. I was ignored all day by corrections staff, and my only means of interaction was shouting through the air vents. Luckily for me, I had my TV. Other inmates housed nearby were not so fortunate. Ninety-one days can seem like eternity when you are living alone.
Sometimes you spend the night on a metal-frame bunk. Sometimes on a concrete floor. Either way, the bright fluorescent lights stay on all night, hindering your ability to sleep. Your meals are delivered cold. If you’re lucky, you may get to use the phone or nab library books to settle your anxiety.
And solitude does not mean safety. Away from cameras, corrections officers have been known to seek retribution when an inmate had a physical altercation with staff, even if you no longer pose a threat.
Incarceration scares people even when they’re not totally alone.
That was the case for Devon — who asked that his last name not be used because of pending litigation — when he was locked in solitary confinement at a Phoenix jail in 2021. In Phoenix jails, especially during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, people often shared solitary cells because of overcrowding.
During his stay in the hole, Devon was so scared he could barely move. “I was terrified,” he said. “I did not come out of my cell, not even to shower, for almost a week.”
In my experience in solitary, I’ve generally been given eight hours each day outside of my cell. Devon, who has bipolar disorder, said corrections officers restricted his time outside to two to four hours, citing security issues from understaffing. Even with a cellmate, that schedule can destroy the fibers of the mind. Devon found himself having panic attacks and suicidal thoughts. “I struggled,” he said.