Article sent to Milwaukee IWOC by someone incarcerated at Columbia Correctional Institution on 10/10/18. Content warning: torture, psychological abuse, mental illness.
This topic has made national headlines time and time again, yet for the most part nothing has been done to address it. Which is unfortunate because the long lasting psychological ramifications of segregation is as real as it gets. When a person is subjected to long period of isolation – they tend to become detached from humanity itself. That very essence that makes us all people can become lost within- where its replaced by a more base form of mentalilty that’s closer to an animal. And once a person gets to this point in their psyche, its hard to realign it back to normalcy. But regardless of these facts, unfortunately, there is still a need for segregation within our prison systems. Because people are people, and they misbehave and make mistakes no matter what or where they’re at. And there has to be consequences for their actions and choices – otherwise they would never learn from them and chaos would ensue. But how much punishment is too much punishment? And what exactly happens to the officer psyche after working in these condition for too long? Also, what happens to the officer psyche after working in these conditions for too long? Does it change both the inmates and guards perceptions and warp their perspectives? Or does it have no effect at all? These are some of the questions that I’ll attempt to answer in this article, and I hope these answers help enlighten people to the truth about things. Because if segregation continues on the way its been in MOST state penitentiaries, then we’re going to have continuous problems not only in them -but out in the rest of the world as well.
The residual effects that trickle out into society are scary to say the least, which has the potential to cause an epidemic on a massive scale. Whether its from the people who work in these prisons or from the prisoners who are bound to get released (most of which will) the systemic problems segregation causes has no boundaries. Like our noble men and women in the military that come back from war. Exposure of any kind of psychological turmoil can have impactful negative effects. And whether its long-term or short-term exposure can make a world of difference. In prison, short-term exposure to segregation can help certain people see the error of the their ways. It gives a person time to reflect on whatever they might’ve done wrong. And allows them time to review their mistakes and hopefully learn from them. But long-term stings in segregation can have just the opposite effect. Instead of the extended time helping a person learn from their mistakes, it warps and twists, the mind until it justifies those mistakes due to the harshness of the prolonged conditions in segregation. The inmates psyche starts rationalizing irrational thoughts and behavior due to being subjected to segregated conditions for months and sometimes years on end. And make no mistake about it the condition for months and sometimes years on end…
And make no mistake about it the candidates of most segregation units are deplorable indeed. They stink. They’re loud. And they’re filled with mentally ill people whose isolation only exacerbates their illness. And after a while of being isolated yourself, you begin to understand their plight. The walls start closing in on you as well ,both from the inside and outside. And before you know it you start to go crazy yourself. But in order for you to understand this truth more thoroughly, let me break it down so you can further comprehend the dynamic of the situation. And I’ll use C.C.I.’s segregation process and structure for an example. When a person comes to segregation for whatever reason they’re usually brought to a place called DS-1. This designation stands for disciplinary segregation housing unit one, and is a terrible place to spend any length of time in what-so-ever. And that’s for both staff and inmates alike. When a person is brought to DS-1 they are locked inside a musty shower box- where they are stripped of all their clothes and other personal items. The shower stall is exposed to everybody by clear windows, and the officer performs the routine strip-procedures before you’re given the segregation orange clothes. This includes the inmate lifting his genitals. And also bending over and spreading his butt cheeks. After this humiliating process, the inmate is put back in restraints _ then he’s taken to a rancid cell where he’s tethered to the door before he is allowed to step in. Once the metal door slams shut and the restraints are removed, that’s when the fun really begins.
The cell itself was built to be as completely uncomfortable as possible. Where the metal bed is bolted into place about 6 inches off the floor. And bedsides the slimy lights that are controlled outside your cell, the only other objects within it are the filthy metal toilet and sink, four nasty walls, and a disgustingly filthy window that doesn’t open to let air in. And you can’t see out of most of the windows either, because the heavy metal screens covering them are usually caked in gunk, which can consist of anything from bar-soap, toile tpaper, food, vomit, piss, feces, etc…. And it’s usually a combination of all the above. Most if not all of the cells in DS-1 have been visited by mentally ill inmates over the years – who have done EVERYTHING unimaginable within them. This includes urinating all over themselves and the cells, cutting themselves and painting the cells with their blood, throwing food and vomit all over the place, flooding the cell with dirty toilet water creating a cesspool of of nastiness, eating and smearing their feces EVERYWHERE, etc.,etc.,etc. And all this grossness seeps into every crack and crevice in within the cell.. including the recycled mattresses and pillows we all have to use. Of course these cells and items are usually cleaned before re-use (But not always), but its impossible to get everything clean after this type of defilement. And the continuous smells and stains within the cells are a constant reminder of this fact. Which is and of itself plays havoc on a person’s mind.
Besides the dirty dwelling and pungent odors – you’ll find a roll upon the uncomfortable bed with the following items. One blanket, two sheets, one pillowcase, one towel, one washcloth, one DS-1 rule sheet with various forms, one roll of toilet paper, two small bars of soap, one rubber cup if you’re lucky, one rubber pencil, one toothpaste, and a fingertip toothbrush. And two of these items are more frustrating than useful to say the least. The rubber pencil barely writes, and it only last for a few pages of paper at best. Which means if you’re trying to write to the courts or your loved ones than you better make it quick. This is frustrating and disheartening on so many levels. For one, corresponding is the only means we have for getting things done around here, and two it’s our only outlet to stay connected to our loved ones on the outside world. So when that bendy pencil isn’t working right (which is more often the case) it affects people negatively where and out there as well. People’s family and friends get concerned when they don’t hear from their loved one, which causes unneeded stress from both sides. And the last thing anybody needs regardless of the circumstances is more stress in their lives. But for most people in DS-1 the ridiculous fingertip toothbrush is the worst item of all. It’s approximately an inch long and out of 100% plastic that kinda fist on your fingertip. This toothbrush literally falls apart after maybe a weeks worth of use, and you’re not allowed another one for a whole month. So your teeth and breath ultimately become foul no matter what you do. You’re also only allowed two showers per week while in DS-1 – which just adds to the overall foulness you’re already feeling.
And after a while of being subjected to these disgusting conditions, your inside starts to take on the demeanor of your foul outside. Depression starts to kick in fairly shortly after being in these circumstances, and progressively gets worse as time slowly ticks by… But we’re just scratching the surface of things when it comes to the deplorability of segregation, because it definitely gets A LOT worse. And one of the absolutely worst things about segregation is the noise. Loud doesn’t even begin to describe it. And the turbulent clamoring is almost non-stop 24/7. The way these places were designed and structured – even the smallest of noises are amplified beyond reason. And when you have multiple people talking, yelling, singing, rapping, kicking, and hitting the metal door, banging on the walls/toilet/sink/vents/etc… the noise becomes so incessant that you can’t even hear yourself think. It’s kinda like living inside a capacity filled sports stadium 24/7, except you’re stuck in a filthy box alone with no game to enjoy. The constant noise in segregation is definitely one of the worst things about it, which unfortunately helps the overall insanity to ensue.
One of many examples of this madness is as follows. Let’s say you’re in DS-1 talking quietly to your neighbor about something – then someone else down the way starts talking quietly to their own neighbor as well. Because of the bareness of segregation and the way its structured, their noise is going to reverberate louder down by you and your neighbor.. and you’re noise will be louder down by them. So now you have to raise your voice so your neighborhood can hear you, then they have to do the same. And this goes so on and so forth until its so loud that nobody can hear squat! Then besides your own frustrations and theirs – other people around you get frustrated and angry by all the constant noise as well. And before you know it they start yelling obscenities and being disrespectful to you out their doors. Now you’re in a shouting match with them making even more noise, and spreading the incessant hate it breeds. Then of course there’s ALWAYS a handful of legitimately mentally ill people on every single tier, who get rile up by all the noise and banter. They start screaming incoherently or start banging on their door, walls, toilets, sink, etc… to try and hush the chaos rattling around in their mixed up heads.
And this continuous cycle of noise and hate goes on day in and day out – until you yourself start questioning your own sanity?! I mean sleeping through this ongoing madness is absolutely impossible, and the inevitable sleep deprivation that segregation causes reeks havoc and everybody’s’ psyche. Peoples’ decision making skills and other cognitive abilities become dulled at best, which leads to poor choices that can lead to more time in segregation itself. And this is where the real danger lies for the inmate. Because the longer they’re subjected to these conditions the more warped and twisted their perceptions and perspectives become. Some guys end up shutting down completely, becoming hopelessly depressed and suicidal. Where others lash out at other inmates and guards because of their rattled minds and anger – which usually cost them more time in segregation causing them further psychological damage. Others simply lose it altogether, succumbing to the madness that surrounds them. Making them one of the MANY unfortunate statistics that become seriously mentally ill due to being in segregation. Lastly, there’s those of us that make it out of segregation with most of our faculties intact. But no matter who you are you’ll definitely be affected by the negative experience, which is a good segue to explain how this environment affects the staff that are subjected to it as well.
In segregation the guards not only run the unit, but they pretty much do ALL the daily tasks themselves. This includes but is not limited to the following: handing out medication, passing out supplies and forms, handing out meals, taking guys out for various reasons, including phone calls, showers, haircuts, law library, limited rec, doctor appointments, etc… And about a dozen or so other things with limited time to get them all done. Which can become easily overwhelming, especially when you have multiple guys with multiple personalities you have to deal with all shift long. But what makes things even worse is that for whatever reason the majority of the guards that work in segregation are rookies? And in this environment not knowing what’s going on or how to do things can cause it to become even more stressful then it already is. Both for the guards and the inmates alike. Im not sure if having the rookie guards work in segregation is a right of passage or something? Or maybe it’s a strategy to inculcate a certain perception upon them of the people their guarding? It could also be a way for the administration to weed out the guards that just can’t cut it? But regardless of the reason there’s absolutely no doubt that working under these conditions negatively misshapes their perspectives about the people they’re getting paid to guard.
As I’ve already stated, there’s lots of mentally inmates in DS-1 (approximately 1/3 of the population), who do everything from cutting themselves, pissing on the food traps, smearing feces all over the place, and everything else in between. These are the first impressions that these new guards are subjected to, and A LOT of them start to equate all inmates as nothing more than animals. This misconception is further instilled by A LOT of the old guards that have worked in segregation for years. They’re the ones that train the new guards, and have been subjected to these types of horrific conditions for far too long themselves. Most of the old guards perceptions and perspectives are just as warped and twisted as many of the inmates – – and some of them have deep psychological issued because of this fact. Over time many of the guards develop a similar defense mechanism that allows them to deal with the insanity of it all. It’s a philosophy they’ve created over time to help them justify the deplorable of the environment and what it actually does to people, which allows them to treat inmates like animals and use various tactics to try and modify their behavior.
In their minds they think most of the guys doing insane things in segregation are just playing a “GAME.” They believe these mentally ill inmates either want/need attention of sorts, or they don’t want to take responsibility for their actions and are just trying to get shipped to the nuthouse. This is the general consensus amongst most corrections officers. And its just about universal in every segregation unit across America. But what they fail to realize or simple don’t want to is that even if it did start off as a cry for attention or a “GAME” of sorts – what kind of place could elicit psychological EXTREMES in which these inmates go?!? I mean once a person crosses that line within their mind that makes cutting themselves, smearing and eating their own feces, etc… okay, the “GAME” is over. The reality is that these people need some psychological help to get their minds back on track, because the conditions of segregation have thrown them way out of whack.
And the fact that a lot of the guys refuse to see this truth and continue to be complicit in a system that causes this kind of human devastation, only further substantiates the psychological toll segregation has taken on them as well. It’s clear that these places create an environment that’s conducive to mental instability, and causes various forms of psychosis to all those subjected to it for too long. And when the jailor and the jailed are both affected and effected by these problems – they self-perpetuate and become a dangerous hateful cycle that continues on and on … Which creates even more instability within our prison systems, and also poses a major danger.
Conditions in the Wisconsin prison system need to change.