Formerly incarcerated share lasting impact of solitary confinement

Formerly incarcerated share lasting impact of solitary confinement

By Rachel Crumpler

Drew Doll spent 15 consecutive months in solitary confinement. 

During the first week, Doll said he “bounced off the walls.” In his cell alone for 22 to 24 hours a day, he could take about four steps lengthwise and two steps side to side before hitting the wall. He had no one to talk to and none of his personal belongings.

“Oh god, it’s like an animal in a cage — that’s what you are,” Doll recalled.

The days dragged on monotonously. He felt abandoned and alone.

“You just become numb,” Doll said. “Nothing matters. You’re just sitting. You’re just warehoused.”

He’s been out of prison since 2009, but he said the prolonged solitude permanently changed him.

Now, in his home, Doll spends most of his time in his office with the doors closed because that’s where he feels safe. 

“In the evenings, unless somebody comes and gets me, I don’t go sit out in the living room with my family to watch TV,” he said. “I sit here because I am comfortable. I feel safe in a small room with the doors closed. I didn’t do this when I was a kid. I didn’t do this when I was 30 or 40. I did this after spending a year and three months in solitary.”

Doll and other survivors of solitary confinement recounted their experiences during an Aug. 31 listening session held by Disability Rights NC to raise awareness about the physical and psychological harm experienced by a person subject to such confinement. The group is advocating for ending the practice altogether in North Carolina’s prisons and jails.

“The impacts are lifelong,” Doll said. “It’s just wrong.”

Usage in NC

Nearly 3,000 people on average — about 10 percent of the overall prison population — are held in solitary confinement in North Carolina prisons at any given time, according to Disability Rights NC. People can spend days, weeks, months and even years in such isolation.

Solitary confinement, also known as restrictive housing or segregation, is used by prison systems throughout the country. It often involves a person spending 22 to 24 hours alone in a cell about the size of a parking space. People in solitary eat in their cells, have limited visitation and are restricted in when and how they exercise and shower.

A solitary confinement cell at Granville Correctional Institution. Most solitary cells are about the size of a parking space. Credit: Courtesy of Disability Rights NC

Craig Waleed is pushing to end the practice as project manager for Unlock the Box, a campaign against solitary confinement at Disability Rights NC. He knows firsthand the harm inflicted by the extended isolation; he spent two 30-day stints in solitary confinement while incarcerated in New York more than 20 years ago. 

Waleed said he felt himself start to unravel. It became tougher each day to hold onto his sense of self.

“Solitary confinement is torture,” Waleed said, noting he is still haunted by his days spent in isolation.

The United Nations agrees, deeming solitary confinement of more than 15 consecutive days a form of torture. The body adopted a set of standards — the Nelson Mandela Rules — on the treatment of incarcerated people worldwide, such as prohibiting prolonged solitary confinement of more than 22 hours a day for more than 15 consecutive days.

In 2020, Gov. Roy Cooper’s Task Force for Racial Equity in Criminal Justice called for limiting the use of solitary confinement in North Carolina’s prison system. Among the recommendations was to require hard limits on the number of hours and days a person can spend in isolation by adopting the Mandela Rules. 

There’s been little movement on making that a reality, Waleed said. In fact, as NC Newsline reported in February, the recently appointed head of the Department of Adult Correction, Todd Ishee, said at his confirmation hearing that he didn’t think it was feasible for the state prison system to comply with the standard.

“There are some [people] that just pose such a serious safety risk that they’ve got to be placed in that more controlled environment for beyond 15 days,” Ishee said during the hearing.

Ishee also said at the hearing that the Department of Adult Correction is working to revise its policies on solitary confinement. A department spokesperson could not provide NC Health News with more information on that progress by the time of publication.

Task Force Recommendations:

  • Require hard limits on the number of hours and days a person can spend in solitary
  • End restrictive housing for:
    • People under 21
    • Pregnant people
    • People with diagnosed serious mental illness, disability or substance use disorder
    • Indefinite periods of time
    • Periods of more than 15 consecutive days
  • Reduce types of infractions that can lead to solitary confinement, such as profane language and unauthorized tobacco use
  • Implement “step-down” plans or transition programs for people in restrictive housing

Lasting impact

Solitary confinement survivors who spoke during the listening session emphasized the psychological harm inflicted by their time in isolation — ones they are still working through years after being released.

“For me, solitary confinement is mental torture,” said Daquan Peters, who said he’s spent about 10 years in solitary over his 30 years in and out of the carceral system. “It’s like murdering your soul.”

Peters said the environment made him mentally numb. He felt helpless and hopeless.

Mona Evans, who also experienced solitary confinement, agreed. 

It stripped my dignity,” Evans said. “I didn’t feel human anymore.”

When she landed in solitary confinement, she lost her phone privileges and couldn’t have her photos of her children. Those losses were the hardest psychologically, she said.

“I went from talking to my kids every day to not talking to my kids at all,” Evans said. 

Evans emphasized that after leaving solitary, the damage from her time in isolation remains — even as she’s in her own home back in the community. She said she developed PTSD. She doesn’t like doors being closed in her home. She can’t sleep in the dark.

“A lot of us are still dealing with the backlash of this,” Evans said. “No matter how many therapists I see, I’m still working through it.”

A 2019 study from researchers at UNC Chapel Hill found that people who spent any time in solitary confinement while incarcerated in a North Carolina prison were 24 percent more likely to die in the first year after their release than those who never experienced solitary. In particular, people held in solitary were 78 percent more likely to die from suicide and 54 percent more likely to die from homicide during the first year, and they were 127 percent more likely to die from an opioid overdose in the first two weeks after release. 

Pushing for change

Waleed said frequent use of solitary confinement ignores personal accounts and research that show the practice can wreak long-lasting effects on the human mind and body. He knows there are alternatives.

In May, Waleed traveled to Germany and Norway with other people doing work related to the criminal justice system to observe how their methods differed from the U.S. prison system. He was astonished by the stark contrast in solitary confinement practices; it was nearly nonexistent in both countries and, if it was used, was only a quick, temporary fix. 

a mattress pictured through a prison cell door
A solitary cell Waleed toured while visiting foreign prisons. Credit: Courtesy of Craig Waleed

“Prison staff said someone might go in for 45 minutes or an hour a day, and during that time there’s someone, they say, that’s constantly checking on the person,” Waleed told NC Health News about the two European prison systems he observed. “That just made it seem a bit more humane and stood out to me.” 

That’s the direction Waleed and others opposed to solitary confinement in North Carolina would like to see practices shift. But he knows it’s a tough road ahead — one of incremental change.

Still, he is undeterred from his efforts to accomplish the long-term goal of ending the practice altogether, and he hopes hearing the stories of lives forever changed by time in solitary will have an impact on policymakers and the public.

After all, about 95 percent of people incarcerated in North Carolina prisons — many who have experienced solitary confinement — will return to the community as neighbors.

“We have to do something different,” Waleed said. “If we don’t, we’re continuing to send people back into the community in worse shape than when they came in.”

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