In 2013, I met a woman who’d spent two years in solitary confinement. Her words rattled me. She told me, “You’re not going to get it. You think you get it, but you don’t, and it’s so much worse than you imagine.” I certainly didn’t get it — but I wanted to get it, or to come as close to getting it as possible.
Solitary confinement is used in prisons, jails and even immigration detention centers to keep the population in line. Without the threat of solitary to deter bad behavior, correctional officers say they are nervous they will lose control of a violent population. But its psychological effects are well-documented. People in solitary get paranoid, hypersensitive. They can have panic attacks, breaks with reality, suicidal thoughts.
When I looked closer at the scientific studies on solitary, I realized that almost all of them focused solely on men. No systematic study has ever looked at how solitary confinement affects women.
The deficit in research on women in solitary confinement is upsetting but unsurprising. For many of us, our authority on women in prison is Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black. The media isn’t helping much either, with spotty coverage, at best, of incarcerated women. On one hand, this makes some sense — women only make up 7% of the prison population. But in New York state prisons alone, 1,600 women are admitted to solitary confinement every year.
Prompted by the absence of information on women in solitary, I interviewed 12 women last year who’d been through this experience in New York prisons and jails. Some of them went to solitary for obvious things like smuggling drugs into detention facilities or fighting with other inmates. Others had more ambiguously defined charges — disobeying a direct order, being “out of place” or having contraband. For one woman I interviewed, borrowing a radio earned her a month in solitary. For each of these charges, accused prisoners are entitled to an in-prison hearing where they can ostensibly defend their case, albeit without legal representation. But it’s worth noting that in New York, over 90% of in-prison hearings end in guilty verdicts.
Deborah, who we focused on for our illustrated video for AJ+, landed in solitary for 60 days for disobeying a direct order. We focused on Deborah for the video because her story embodied the themes I heard repeatedly in the stories of the dozen women I interviewed.
As for most of the women I spoke with, the first things that bothered Deborah in the solitary cell were physical. She complained about the stuffiness, how thin the mattress was. Some women told me they never received a pillow, so they would fold up one of their jumpsuits to prop under their heads to sleep.
All but one of the women told me they weren’t given enough sanitary napkins during their periods. This is not a fluke. The day after Deborah’s video came out on AJ+, the Guardian published an op-ed entitled, “Prisons that withhold menstrual pads humiliate women.”
The inability to take care of themselves drove the women I talked to nuts. Deborah was not the only woman to tell me that she saved her butter from her breakfast tray to use as moisturizer.
The way Deborah’s mental health deteriorated in solitary is pretty standard, according to current research on men in solitary. About two weeks into her sentence, she started to get paranoid and have panic attacks. She became obsessed with the footsteps she heard down the hall outside her cell. The paranoia stopped her from leaving her cell altogether. She didn’t go out for her rec hour. She stopped taking showers.
There’s more to Deborah’s story, though — details that help make sense of why Deborah reacted to solitary confinement in the way she did. I wanted to share some of those details here.
Like many incarcerated women, trauma paved Deborah’s path to prison. It began when she was 13, when she was gang-raped at a party. The assault was led by an older boy who we’ll call Mike. Deborah says she was too embarrassed to tell anyone, so when Mike kept coming around, her family assumed he was her boyfriend. After continued harassment, Deborah went to live with Mike in his apartment. She dropped out of school at 14, and Mike would lock her in the apartment when he left for school. During this time, Deborah told me she starting shoplifting, because she liked how it felt to be invisible and to wear nice things. Grand larceny — shoplifting over $1,000 dollars of merchandise — put Deborah in prison. In prison, she says she was safe from Mike for the first time.
Ninety percent of women in New York prisons have experienced sexual or physical trauma before coming to prison. While trauma is pretty much ubiquitous in prison, three times as many women in prison have PTSD than men. Once in solitary, these women are prone to retraumatization, psychiatrist Dr. Terry Kupers told me. The lack of stimulation in solitary makes the mind hypersensitive to noise, so little disturbances like a door slamming can catalyze a full flashback of a past trauma. For Deborah, this meant that whenever she heard a door slam, or footsteps down the hallway, she felt like she was locked in Mike’s room, waiting for him to come home.
These narratives — of having a period in solitary, being separated from children, or being retraumatized — are missing from the media, research and policies on people in solitary confinement. This situation is not unique to solitary confinement. Prison policy experts told me that across the prison system women are kind of an afterthought.
“The prison system fails to individualize,” Jack Beck told me. Beck is an attorney at the Correctional Association of New York. “And this happens most frequently with women. We have one system and we apply it to everyone.”
The use of solitary confinement in U.S. men’s prisons is a hot topic in policy and media right now. But women’s experiences of this practice differ from men’s, and their stories deserve light, too. Deborah’s experience is just a tiny glimpse into what it’s like for them. We hope this is just the beginning of an inclusion of their narratives.
For more information on the campaign to end solitary confinement in New York, check out New York’s Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement.
For national resources on ending isolated confinement, see the ACLU’s Stop Solitary project, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture’s U.S. Prisons Project and Solitary Watch.