About 1 in 8 prisoners in Florida are in solitary confinement, advocates say
He knew that if he spoke to those in the cells next to him, there would be consequences.
Pepper spray. Removal of his belongings, except his boxers, for at least 72 hours. Nowhere to sleep but the cold, hard concrete floor.
The guards wouldn’t talk to him. Sometimes another prisoner would shout and bang on the cell door.
Resident of St. Petersburg Chez-Armand Blackwell spent about 12 of his nearly 15 years in Florida prisons in what the nonprofit civil rights organization The Southern Poverty Law Center defines as solitary confinement.
The 39-year-old said he was first placed in solitary confinement after an argument with a guard turned physical. After that, Blackwell said, guards continued to write him down, extending the time he spent alone while serving time for burglary.
“The human condition is not made for that,” Blackwell said. The guidelines of the United Nations Appeal for limit solitary confinement 15 consecutive days, maximum.
About 10,000 people are in solitary confinement in Florida, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Many of them belong to the same demographic groups as Blackwell: young, black and male.
While Florida Department of Corrections officials say they do not use solitary confinement, they acknowledged in a statement to the Tampa Bay Weather that some detainees are held in a form of restrictive accommodation without a cellmate.
Experts, lawyers and incarcerated people have criticized the state prison system for using various forms of solitary confinement that they say constitutes solitary confinement. Although some people may have cellmates in these prison units, they are confined to smaller cells with shorter periods of time out of the cell and fewer privileges, creating effects similar to those of solitary confinement in an individual cell, experts say.
The Southern Poverty Law Center sued the Florida Department of Corrections and the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice on behalf of adults and juveniles on the alleged use of solitary confinement. A lawyer for the nonprofit, Leo Laurenceau, said it could cause mental health issues.
“It can really run the gamut, exacerbating mental health issues from depression, to anxiety, to heightened self-harm situations, to suicidal tendencies,” Laurenceau said.
According to a to study by researchers at Florida State University and the University of Cincinnati, people from certain demographic groups are more likely to be placed in long-term solitary confinement than other prisoners in Florida. The study identified these demographic groups as black, male, youth, and people with mental health issues.
Researchers examined the administrative records of nearly 192,000 people incarcerated in the Florida prison system between July 1, 2007 and December 31, 2015, including those who entered the prison system and those who were released from it during of this period.
The study did not review all forms of confinement. He looked specifically at a restrictive form of confinement in which people have cell mates, are allowed only minimal time out of their cell, and have few privileges.
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In Florida, blacks were almost twice as likely to be placed in long-term solitary confinement, while Hispanics were 1.7 times more likely to be placed in long-term solitary confinement than white inmates. According to the study, adults aged 18 to 24 were 15 times more likely to be placed in solitary confinement than those aged 50 and over. Men were twice as likely as women to be placed in solitary confinement.
A disproportionate number of people in prison with mental health needs have also been placed in solitary confinement, which experts say worsens their mental health. According to the study, those who spent time in a mental health unit were almost 14 times more likely to be placed in long-term solitary confinement.
Florida Department of Corrections spokesman Paul Walker sent a statement to the Time denying that the agency uses solitary confinement. Yet in the same statement, Walker claimed that, when warranted, the agency segregates inmates from the general population and places them in what it calls “close management.” Walker said a “majority” of inmates in close management are with another inmate and staff members – including guards, chaplains and medical and mental health professionals – make regular visits.
Florida prison officials declined to specify what percentage of those in close custody had cellmates. They also said efforts are underway to enact new rules that will give prisoners in custody “increased access to communication and education materials.”
Walker denied Blackwell’s claim that people isolated from the general population are not allowed to speak to people in other cells and face penalties such as pepper spray or property restrictions.
The Florida Department of Corrections “takes all allegations of inmate abuse or mistreatment seriously and encourages all inmates and staff to promptly report any inappropriate or unlawful conduct,” Walker said in an email. He said grievances and anonymous complaints pointing to misconduct can be filed using an advice line that contacts the agency’s inspector general.
Some advocates define solitary confinement as separation from the general population in more restrictive accommodation, even when an inmate has a cellmate.
In these forms of confinement, inmates find themselves in smaller cells for longer periods of time than if they were part of the general population of the institution. The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization that covers criminal justice issues, documented the deaths of several people who were killed by cellmates in restrictive housing and found that isolation from the general population can exacerbate mental health issues, as well as tensions between cellmates.
In March, an activist who grew up in Tampa and was incarcerated in Florida detailed his experiences in solitary confinement during a New York Times column and called for an end to practice.
“I served 18 consecutive years in solitary confinement because every minor disciplinary offense – like having a magazine with another prisoner’s name on the mailing label – added another six months to my solitary confinement,” Ian wrote. manual in the New York Times. “The penalties were totally disproportionate to the offences. Before I knew it, months of isolation turned into years, years into almost two decades.
An unmanageable system
Yvette Lewis, president of the Hillsborough County NAACP, said she was not surprised by the study results and criticized the Florida Department of Corrections’ use of lockdowns.
She was worried Bias: A guard might interpret a black man waving his hands while speaking or a black woman putting her hands on her hips as signs of aggression, rather than cultural mannerisms, she said.
“They see it as a sign of defiance instead of understanding that it’s their cultural way of expressing themselves,” Lewis said. “Because when they look at the color of the skin, they automatically sense that it’s a threat. So any little thing can add to this threat.
John Molina – who is now mentorship and alumni coordinator at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York – has first-hand experience of solitary confinement. He served a nearly 10-year sentence in New York. Hungry for social interaction, he says he remembers caring for cockroaches that passed through his cell as if they were pets. His normal weight is around 202 pounds, he said, but when he left solitary he weighed 174.
“It’s going to drive you crazy,” he said. “I’m still in therapy.”
Tampa activist Angel D’Angelo, co-founder of the Restorative Justice Coalition, also urges the end of solitary confinement.
“It either creates mental illness where it didn’t exist before, or it can make an existing mental illness worse,” D’Angelo said. “It creates a feeling of isolation, of course – that’s what he’s here for.”
While serving his sentence, Blackwell said younger men sometimes asked him how he survived. He said it boiled down to this: he didn’t want to die in prison.
“To this day, I don’t know how I did,” Blackwell said. “But I see people giving up completely all the time.”
Blackwell has completed his sentence in March. He now works for People Empowering and Restoring Communities, where he is a community advocate and case manager working to help those recently released from prison. He also does community organizing outside of his job, working on projects ranging from raising awareness about the COVID-19 vaccine to lobbying local politicians.
Blackwell had to adapt to a changed world. He had to learn how to perform tasks that most people take for granted, like operating an iPhone. He also struggles with anxiety about being left alone.
When he goes out with friends and the group leaves to go home, Blackwell is feeling the effects of his isolation. A friend says goodbye and leaves. Then another, and another, until he was left alone.
“It’s the worst feeling,” he said, “and I don’t know if that will ever change.”