Ending Inmate Isolation: Inside the Battle to Stop Solitary Confinement in America

Just before 2:30am Daniel Treglia jostled awake at the sounds of the mechanical iron doors slowly screeching open. The jangling keys and the heavy footsteps that followed were all part of the normal soundscape inside the Security Housing Unit (SHU) at Pelican Bay State Prison, where guards patrol hourly each night.

But on that early morning in March, these sounds signified something new — after nearly nine years, Treglia’s time in solitary confinement had finally come to an end.

There was time for one last look at the peeling white paint covering the barren concrete walls of his 8 by 10 foot cell, the small metal sink he had filled with soapy water each morning to clean himself and mask the smell that wafted from his neighbor’s toilet, and the slot in the perforated metal doors through which his meals were delivered twice daily. He had only been allowed a reprieve from this cell for about an hour and a half each day, when he was entitled to exercise in a small concrete room with a skylight, or during the three showers he could take each week.

He was shackled and led to holding cell to spend the rest of the night waiting. Just before sunrise the bus arrived that would take him and about a dozen other inmates to their new prison assignments. He was leaving Pelican Bay — and the SHU — he hoped, for good.

Treglia is one of more than 900 prisoners who have been transferred out of the Pelican Bay SHU since state officials settled a class-action lawsuit challenging the prison policies that landed inmates in isolation indefinitely. Close to 100 of them had spent more than twenty years in segregation.

The settlement has been heralded as a major success. It requires the state to put specific time limits on SHU sentences barring prisons from isolating inmates for more than five consecutive years. It also created a two-year step-down process that grants inmates increased privileges every six months. Perhaps most importantly, it ended a controversial policy used to identify and isolate suspected prison gang members based solely on their associations.

Former-Pelican Bay inmate Christopher Avitea drew the inside and dimensions of the SHU cell he lived in

Once an inmate was “validated” as a member of a prison gang — a process that was considered an administrative decision and therefore required no trial and little evidence — there was almost no way out.

“It’s how we used to say — parole, snitch, or die, says Treglia, who was validated in 2007 after a birthday card he had signed for another validated inmate was discovered during a cell search. His is one of the few cases on record because he unsuccessfully tried to challenge his placement in the SHU in court.

In order to end a SHU term, inmates had to prove they were no longer affiliated with a gang through a process called debriefing that entails admitting your transgression and identifying other associates. Otherwise, they could spend the remainder of their sentences in solitary — or sometimes the remainder of their lives.

Advocates are hopeful that the settlement will mark a turning point in the battle to end solitary confinement, not only in California — but also across the country.

“Now the time is right for a move to try to end the practice. We have severely limited it, but not ended it,” says Jules Lobel, one of the lead attorneys who represented inmates in the lawsuit against the state. “California had the most people locked up in solitary and locked up often for flimsy reasons. For California to change what has been a thirty-year-old policy in a sweeping dramatic way sends a signal to the rest of the country that the jig is up — that it is time to reform.”

Over the past two years, several states enacted restrictions on the use of segregation and the American Correctional Association has also begun to reevaluate its standards on solitary confinement. In January President Obama announced that he has called upon the Bureau of Prisons to make big changes at the federal level, beginning with barring isolation for juveniles.

While advocates say these changes are promising, recent estimates suggest that more than 80,000 prisoners are currently being held in some form of isolation in state and federal prisons across the country. The actual number is unknown due to lack of data and transparency in the prison system and estimates don’t include those housed in jails, military facilities, immigration detention centers, or juvenile justice facilities. Despite the progress in California many states continue to use policies that land inmates in segregation indefinitely.

Even at Pelican Bay there are still close to 500 inmates housed in the SHU—and the newly empty cells may not stay that way for long.

Inmates will no longer be housed in solitary based on gang association alone but will be placed in segregation if they commit a “SHU-eligible offense.” Strickman says the vague language used to describe these offenses allows them to be easily interpreted by prison officials, which could undo some of the intentions enacted through the settlement. “You can talk a good game about your culture change but when the rubber hits the road, what are you doing?” she says. “We have already seen pretty garbage write-ups.”

Artwork done by Michael Russell

Ultimately, changing policies may be less important than changing the ideology that drives the way these policies are implemented — ideology built directly into the infrastructure of the concrete confines and cemented over time by the real challenges correction officers face on the job each day. Decades of surging inmate inflows combined with diminishing resources created the need for harsh punitive policies used in American prisons today.

That is why, despite the growing amount of evidence that restrictive housing is psychologically damaging — and becomes a greater public safety concern when inmates are released from solitary to the community — corrections officials still cling to the idea that segregation is essential to running a safe and secure prison in an efficient way.

“I think as long as we have the ability to remove people from the General Population that pose a threat, then we can still manage and allow our General Populations to program and function,” Pelican Bay’s warden Clark Ducart says. “I don’t see [the settlement] as having a huge impact on how we are doing things moving forward. It’s just the length of stay that will really change.”

Now, even as advocates successfully achieve reforms, as the public begins to call for better prisoner rehabilitation, and as politicians finally see the importance of heeding warnings from psychologists in the name of public safety, the system is still resisting — and the infrastructure isn’t easily undone.

“This is an issue that, 10, 20 years from now we are going to look back and say how could we have done this,” Lobel says. “We are now on the cusp of history — but you don’t change the culture with an announcement.”

It was the summer of 1988 when a small group of Senators gathered in California to name the newest state prison. It would be one of twenty built over the following two decades but this one was special: it was the state’s first “supermax” designed to house a new “breed” of inmate that other notorious prisons like Folsom and Cochran couldn’t handle.

Close to 300 acres had been acquired for construction near coast, close to the Oregon Border. The “Dungeness Dungeon?” one Senator suggested. Perhaps the “Slammer by the Sea?” another offered.

Ultimately they would decide on Pelican Bay, but the name would be one of the few decisions made by legislators. As Keramet Reiter, a Criminology Professor at the University of California, Irvine wrote in a paper on the topic in 2012, the design of the new supermax was left in the hands of corrections officials who set out to create the ultimate punitive environment.

The Director of Finance for the Department of Corrections in the 1980s, a man named Carl Larson, played a key part in constructing what would become a national model for a new type of prison:

“Larson recalled that the legislature struggled only briefly with the idea that the Pelican Bay design was single-purpose: the prison could never be anything but a supermax, keeping people in total isolation without access to any form of programming, like education or group drug treatment.

In the end, Larson said, he simply defended the Pelican Bay supermax to legislators in these terms: ‘It’s not Draconian, it’s Spartan.’”

More than a thousand cells measuring eight-by-ten feet were built out of solid concrete without windows — a detail decided by the architect of the first supermax built in Arizona, to save space.

Several other states followed suit and it wasn’t long before supermax prisons modeled after Pelican Bay sprung up across the country. The shift sparked the attention of Human Rights Watch, which published a report in 1991 calling the trend “the most troubling aspect of the human rights situation in U.S. prisons.”

Still, the Pelican Bay SHU remains one of the harshest prison environments, notorious for its security features. To date, no inmate has escaped and assaults on guards are rare — inmate interaction with them extremely limited.

Five months after the facility opened in 1989 the LA Times ran a story detailing how the prison was designed to keep guards safe. “Pelican Bay is entirely automated and designed so that inmates have virtually no face-to-face contact with guards or other inmates,” reporter Miles Corwin wrote.

“They don’t work in prison industries; they don’t have access to recreation; they don’t mingle with other inmates…They shower alone and exercise alone in miniature yards of barren patches of cement enclosed by 20-feet-high cement walls covered with metal screens. The doors to their cells are opened and closed electronically by a guard in a control booth.”

The “tough on crime” sentiment that had been growing since the 1970s, had now been built directly into the infrastructure of the prison.

Critics were quick to highlight the potential risks to both prisoners and the public, resulting from the psychological trauma that was sure to come out of that degree of isolation — especially for inmates who would eventually be released back into the public.

“I’ve never seen a facility where people are isolated as totally and as completely,” psychology professor Craig Haney told the LA Times in 1990. “It’s unprecedented in modern prisons. The psychological consequences could be severe.”

More than ten years later, in 2003, Haney published a full analysis of the mental health issues stemming from the type of solitary confinement created in supermax prisons. By that point, it was clear that segregation produced serious problems.

During his research conducted at Pelican Bay, he found inmates suffered “anxiety, chronic lethargy, and a very high percentage (70 percent) felt themselves on the verge of an emotional breakdown.” Many couldn’t sleep and experienced nightmares, along with physical symptoms like headaches, trembling, and heart palpitations.

In 2005 mental health experts filed an amicus brief to the United States Supreme Court summarizing clinical and research findings on the topic. They concluded that every single study on solitary confinement lasting more than 60 days showed evidence of negative psychological consequences.

Ten years later, in 2015, based on the years worth of research, the United Nations codified standards on the treatment of prisoners that both defined and condemned the use of prolonged solitary confinement. The new “Mandela Rules” require that inmates have access to windows and prohibits segregation for more than 15 consecutive days.

According to a 2015 report by the Vera Institute of Justice, the Federal government and 19 states still hold inmates in isolation indefinitely. There’s limited data on how long inmates spend in solitary in the United States, but state estimates show that often they remain there for years — and sometimes decades.

Despite the new International standards, corrections officials continue to rely on segregation as they try to keep prisons running safely and efficiently with limited resources.

Ducart has been warden since 2014 but has been at the prison in various roles since it opened in 1989. He says he is supportive of the outcomes agreed to in the settlement and that he is overseeing the implementation of programs that offer incentives for good behavior.

Inmate artwork done by F. Bermúdez

Still, he and many members of his staff are quick to emphasize that the prisoners housed in SHU earned their spot there, and there aren’t any plans to fully put an end to its use. At both the higher levels in the Department of Corrections and on the ground in the prisons, officials don’t even use the word solitary confinement.

“We call it segregated housing,” Ducart explains. “That paints a more accurate picture of what it is. We have segregated you from general population because of your behavior and the fact that you posed a threat to the safety and security of the institution.”

According to a report issued in 2013 by the Government Accountability Office, however, there is no evidence that the use of segregation actually makes prisons safer. The report highlights that within the Bureau of Prisons the segregated population has grown faster than the number in general population, but no assessments have been done to quantify the upsides.

What has been demonstrated is that by using segregation to make prisons safer, officials are actually creating an even bigger problem — especially in regard to public safety.

The negative mental symptoms produced by isolation — including irrational anger, confusion, and extreme social anxiety — often persist even after inmates are released from solitary.

“There is a syndrome of what happens to people when they come out of the SHU, it doesn’t seem to matter whether they go home to the community or they go to a general population prison unit,” says psychiatrist Terry Kupers, who specializes in prisoner treatment and is the author of the upcoming book, Solitary: Supermax Isolation and the Future of Prison Rehabilitation.

While he emphasizes that more research needs to be done to fully understand long-term effects, it’s clear that what he calls “Post-SHU Release Syndrome” severely affects prisoners who have spent time in segregation.

In 2014 the ACLU released a briefing paper detailing how mental illnesses created or exacerbated in the SHU follow inmates when they are released into communities, which found that holding inmates in isolation great increased the likelihood that they would commit more violent crimes once they were out of prison.

The report was released one year after inmate Evan Ebel filed a series of grievances with the Colorado Department of Corrections from his segregated cell in the Colorado State Penitentiary, raising concerns about his own release.

He scrawled three messy objections asking the department to rehabilitate him or provide some kind of transition training. He would never be given the assistance he asked for.

As Susan Greene reported in The Colorado Independent in 2013, the 28-year-old, who had been sent to prison on a robbery charge, filed several complaints with the department during his seven-year sentence and when they went unheeded he responded with violence — in one instance attacking a guard — or smearing feces across the concrete wall of his cell.

“Our lives are monotonous enough in CSP where we’re locked down 23 hours a day and basically do the same thing over and over again. The least you could do is give us a little variety of music to listen to so we could leave here with a small degree of our sanity intact,” he wrote at the end of 2006. “Also you continue to take privileges from us for no reason at all and then wonder why we act up. Well here’s your answer. If you could please revert to the old radio station schedule we’d most surely appreciate it. Thanks.”

There were others that detailed problems with his light that would not turn off keeping him up at night, issues with the mail system, and concerns about his laundry going missing. But as his release date crept closer his grievances became less focused and challenged the system itself.

He often voiced fears about his ability to cope after spending years in solitary confinement. He told friends and other prisoners how his struggles to socialize filled him with rage.

He wrote the grievance just weeks before his release. The DOC didn’t respond until after he was free, citing procedural issues with his handwriting.

About two months later, Ebel carjacked and killed pizza delivery man, Nathan Leon. Two days later, dressed in Leon’s uniform, he arrived at the home of Colorado Department of Corrections Executive Director Tom Clements — and shot him as soon as he answered the door.

Ebel was killed during a shootout with police not long after, as he attempted to abscond to Texas. Authorities would later discover an audio recorder with a voice memo that Ebel forced Leon to recite, detailing his motives for the murder:

“In short, you treated us inhumanely, and so we simply seek to do the same, we take (comfort) in the knowledge that we leave your wives without husbands, and your children fatherless. You wanted to play the mad scientist, well they will be your Frankenstein.”

Rick Raemisch craned his neck searching for a small piece of sky visible above the concrete, through the small window in his 7 by 13ft cell in the restrictive housing unit at Colorado State Penitentiary.

He had tried to sleep but was unable to drown out the noises that echoed through the cellblock. The screams and shrieks from other inmates as they thrashed against their cell doors accompanied the sounds of muffled TVs and radios and the clicking of door handles as officers who patrolled every thirty minutes checked that cell doors were secure.

“People that talk about segregation and isolation talk about sensory deprivation,” he says. “But to me it was the opposite — it was sensory overload.”

Inmate artwork from Pelican Bay SHU

Though Raemisch had entered the cell shackled, he hadn’t done anything to earn his spot in solitary. Actually, he had chosen to spend the night there.

As the successor hired to replace Tom Clements, Raemisch was the Executive Director of Colorado’s Department of Corrections, and he decided that, in order to fully grasp how to change the system, he had to see what it was like for himself.

He tried to guess how many hours had gone by but was unable. With a set limit of 20 hours total, unlike most inmates housed in the cells next to his, he knew exactly when he was going to get out — but the hours still bled together and he lost all track of time.

“It was the blink of an eye — a grain of sand on the beach,” he says, adding, “The amount of time was so small compared with what many people spend in an isolation cell that I don’t pretend to understand what it’s really like.” Still, after only 20-hours in solitary he was convinced.

“I thought, even if I had a TV, which some do, and books, which some do, and could write letters, which they can, that lack of social contact,” he pauses with a long sigh, “it didn’t take me long to realize that sitting in a cell like that for an extended period time without any social contact is damaging.”

After Clements was murdered Raemisch was hired to continue his work reducing the reliance on segregation, to ensure inmates like Ebel were never again released into the community without rehabilitation. Working with the governor and legislature, he set out to change the system — and change the culture in corrections. He knew it would be a challenge.

“I have been in the criminal justice system for about forty years now and I have been in segregation cells I couldn’t count the number of times,” he explains. “But I had never spent any lengthy time in one. So when I got here I thought that, well, partly in assisting to change the culture, if I enter a segregation unit as an inmate and spend some time there and then write about my experience, that might help change the way people think.”

When he got out he was resolved to reform the system, and do it quickly.

Since he took over in 2013, Raemisch has made sweeping changes, instituting new programs to help those with mental illnesses, and putting strict caps on how long a prisoner can be segregated, greatly reducing the numbers in solitary.

“Our numbers today are less than 1 percent in restrictive housing,” he says. “We are also one of the only states in the nation that, when an individual is going into restrictive housing, they know when they are coming out. The maximum they are going to be in, in the most extreme circumstances, is for one year.”

Along with changing the policies themselves, he says he worked with staff on the ground to ensure the changes resonated through the prisons. It didn’t always go smoothly. He received emails from prison staff voicing concerns that his orders were going to get someone killed. It didn’t take long, however, to see that ending segregation was actually making the prisons safer.

Raemisch says that inmate on staff assault is the lowest it has been in over a decade falling by close to 50 percent. The need to use restraints has declined by 93 percent and required cell entry by 77 percent.

“The bottom line is it is a safer facility,” he says. “It is safer for the staff, and ultimately, when [inmates] get released, it is safer for the community.”

He says he included the staff in decisions and tried to placate their concerns. He enlisted their help in trying out the new solutions, even if only temporarily, emphasizing what everyone already knew: that the old system wasn’t working.

Now, instead of the screaming and the banging he heard during that day he spent in solitary, he says men are socializing in the day room, engaging in activities, and using the gym. Still, he says, the work is not done. Raemisch is now dealing directly with the unused buildings and says he has plans to convert the supermax that now stands empty into a rehabilitative facility. Another has already been repurposed.

“I think this is something that is always an evolving process,” he says. “When we started this I tell people, not only was there no map — there was no road. No one had gone down this path before.”

With the data on his side, he is now helping other agencies that hope to follow down the path he forged in Colorado. Raemisch emphasizes that he isn’t in the position to lecture leaders of other departments — especially states like California, which he says have unique bureaucratic challenges — but he has proven that big changes can be achieved.

Last year he was named as an adviser for the Vera Institute of Justice’s “Safe Alternative to Segregation Initiative,” he is helping the American Correctional Association revise its standards on segregation as the co-chair on the Restrictive Housing Ad Hoc Committee, and was a member of the US State Department Delegation to the UN Crime Commission, out of which the Mandela Rules were created.

In October of 2015, Raemisch presented on the positive results coming out of Colorado’s reduction in restrictive housing at a conference that brought together prison reform advocates, experts and academics, and corrections officials from around the country, in an effort to come to a consensus on strategies to end isolation in prisons.

The colloquium highlighted the obstacles that lay ahead for changing the system but brought ideological adversaries together over potential solutions.

One of the main findings was that the real issue driving the increasing use of solitary confinement over the past several decades was not that there was a new “breed” of bad inmate coming into prisons, but rather that there were just too many prisoners in the system. As prison populations ballooned in the nineties, many systems struggled to maintain adequate accommodations on limited resources. The strains produced aggravations from both staff and prisoners.

“Putting someone into a segregation cell or restrictive housing allows you to run a more efficient institution,” Raemisch acknowledges. “But here, we felt that by doing that, we had lost sight of our mission. Our mission is public safety. It is not running a more efficient institution. That is a noble goal but it is not our mission. Our mission is that we ensure that we return people back to the community better than when they came in.

Inmate artwork from Pelican Bay done by Michael Russell

One of the concerns, as prisons across the country attempt to cut their restrictive housing populations, is that officials will not be able to reinvest the savings into new programs and prisoner rehabilitation—the tools actually proven to help prisons run more smoothly.

Still, across the US at the state and federal level agencies are attempting to reduce mass incarceration, which could be the key to ending prison reliance on solitary confinement. Overcrowding builds tension and breaks budgets, putting additional strain on the system. By addressing it, governments could enact small changes that have a big impact.

“It’s really an exciting time. I haven’t seen anything like this in my forty years in all aspects of the criminal justice system,” Raemisch says.

“I think there are incredible opportunities,” he adds. “I think that the door is open for a lot of changes and I think right now — this minute — we need to work on those changes before that door closes.”

Daniel Treglia stared out the window of the bus careening southward through the wooded canyons of Northern California. It had been years since he had seen trees or open swaths of sky.

Without a window in his Pelican Bay SHU cell he would often use the hour and a half allotted for exercise positioned underneath the small square cut-away opening in the overhead covering that was just slightly bigger than the camera pointed down at him.

Now, on his way to Calipatria to join the General Population, he was thrilled by the small details passing by outside. The rocks, the snow on the mountains, “people talking to themselves on Bluetooths!”

There will be more challenges ahead. He has two more years on his sentence and will be offered little assistance during the transition. Treglia says he hopes to continue focusing on the future — his plans for going into law upon release — to keep himself grounded and focused, like he did when he was in segregation.

He also says he plans to continue to advocate against the use of solitary confinement.

“We should all see hope. Everybody deserves a chance. I just hope people don’t color us ugly or as bad but color us people.” Treglia says wishes to overturn assumptions the public has about prisoners and how to treat people who have made mistakes.

“When [prisoners] see things they get ideas. And when they get ideas they want to change. When they want to change they do different things, and when they do different things they become better. If they become better they are no longer the bad people — they are the good people. I think everybody can be good.”

Over the next year more inmates housed in Pelican Bay SHU will be transferred out. Advocates and lawyers now turning their attention to making sure the settlement agreement is implemented adequately and that inmates coming out are getting treated properly.

“We weren’t trying to fix the entire prison system,” Lawyer Carol Strickman says. “All of that is going to be the battleground where the next reforms are going to have to come probably, because we may see a lot of abuses, but I don’t think they will be able to get as many people in [to solitary].”

With other issues to take on and other reforms to go after, at least it is clear that the punitive culture can be changed in California and across the country and that the use solitary confinement could soon come to an end — but it won’t be easy.

Both Strickman and Lobel emphasize that individuals from the public can have a big impact on the system. Beyond advocacy, it could be as simple as writing a letter or volunteering as a tutor.

“There are penpal programs, so people who don’t have one person, can have one person,” Strickman says, explaining that letters offer inmates both social support and a mechanism for creating awareness about conditions on the inside.

“You can do other things in the community as well as in the prisons and jails, for crime prevention,” she adds. “Really what we want is prevention rather than punishment.”

Until then advocates, prison officials, and a team of inmate representatives have worked together in California to ensure others won’t end up segregated for decades like they were in the past. Inmates like Treglia, who spent years in solitary, are now being transferred out of the SHU.

After two sleepless nights and hours spent chained to other prisoners on the bus, Treglia finally arrived at Calipatria. None of his belongings successfully made the trip, despite assurances from officials that they would, but he didn’t let that bother him. He was happy just to get there.

He and the other inmates were unloaded for a meeting with the prison’s gang investigation unit, who warned them not to get into trouble. Then, he was allowed to go outside.

“I got all vampired out when I stepped out of the building. I had my hand and arm covering my eyes,” Treglia says, adding, “It was like the break of dawn.”

A note from the author: I did not get paid for the months of research, interviewing, writing and editing that went into this project. In order to continue reporting on important issues, I rely on support from readers. Please consider donating to my journalism fund if this article and video had an impact on you.

Journalist/Filmmaker who focuses on prisons, people, and progress. Learn more about my work at www.gabriellecanon.com

Journalist/Filmmaker who focuses on prisons, people, and progress. Learn more about my work at www.gabriellecanon.com