This week’s post comes to you from prison.
I recently met Manny Bermudez in the visiting room of Great Meadow Correctional Facility in upstate New York, a few hours’ drive from New York City. It’s a stark place. Prisoners and visitors are separated by a low metal counter. Around us, inmates and family members handed little children back and forth while catching up on their lives. Outside, a massive white wall blocked the view of the nearby Adirondack Mountains.
Manny is slight, with glasses and dark hair cut so short that the scars on his scalp are visible. As we talked, he pulled back the long sleeves of his dark-green cotton shirt and showed off extensive tattoos.
A closer look showed the scars across his wrists.
As Manny explained, he’s one of many people in the prison system who turn to thoughts or actions of suicide while being kept for days, if not months, in solitary confinement.
The New York Civil Liberties Union is just one group that has sounded the alarm about solitary, with its “Boxed In” report on the practice released this year. Last month, New York City announced it would create alternatives to solitary for people who are mentally ill, with a psychiatric ward-like clinic and counseling programs. The city says more than a third of inmates have a mental illness, The New York Times reported, and the city’s health commissioner says solitary doesn’t work for them.
The report also quoted the NYCLU’s executive director, who says the city should cut back on the use of solitary for everyone. “The irony should not be lost on us that solitary confinement creates mental illness itself,” she said. In January, the New York State Bar Association said solitary confinement should be “profoundly restricted,” pointing out that almost 2,800 of the state’s prisoners are serving more than a year there. At the national level, the legal and advocacy group Solitary Watch says at least 25,000 people are in long-term solitary at “supermax” prisons.
I found Manny after reaching out to the New York-based Urban Justice Center, whose Mental Health Project focuses on the dangers of solitary. Manny’s wife quickly responded. She met him when she was a social worker in the prison system, and they married a few years later, after she left that job. She has since testified about conditions in solitary for the state Legislature, and now she works with veterans in crisis.
Manny grew up in the Bronx, the son of an abusive father. Both of his parents got in trouble for drug dealing, both spent time in prison and both died from AIDS. Shortly after he turned 16, Manny shot and killed a man during a robbery. What first struck his wife about him was his honesty about it. “Yeah, I did it,” he told her. “A terrible thing.” She also was impressed by his passion for changing the prison system, and she sought him out after leaving her job. She asked that her name not be used.
Manny doesn’t look it, but he’s been in prison for 21 years. Over the years, he’s been diagnosed with major depressive disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and PTSD. His mind races, and so he reads to educate himself. He does origami, because paper is one of the few things you can have in solitary.
He’s curious about the Internet, which he’s never been able to use. “I’ve heard about it,” he says.
He once spent 17 straight months in solitary. The scars on his wrist are from the time he was held in the mental health version of solitary, the strip cell, where inmates are naked except for a paper smock.
“There’s not one person who doesn’t know the box isn’t right,” Manny says. “Most people don’t care. You have senators say, ‘We’ll do something.’ Whatever. It’s just for votes. If they really wanted to do something, you’d hear about it every day until it stops. It would be every day, all the time. Like the fiscal cliff.”
Between talks with Manny and Manny’s wife, a picture emerged of solitary and the strip cell:
Manny: “I don’t care who you are, when you’re in that cell, there comes a time when you’re in by yourself and you have nothing but yourself and your thoughts. And they affect. They hurt.”
“The worst one I’ve seen is Elmira. It’s dark 24 hours a day. The ceiling is, like, 16 to 20 feet high. There’s a bed frame, a sink and a toilet. A solid door. You just hear voices. You hear the sickest stuff, screaming at all times of day. Outside, there’s cinder blocks and sky. … In most boxes, you can hear people screaming because you can always find ways to scream. People go to all kinds of extremes just to talk to someone. A lot of times, you’re yelling to your neighbor.”
Manny’s wife: “I’ve seen the strip cells at the facility I worked in. One huge heavy door with a slot at the bottom to pass a tray through. Then a tiny window with, like, glass with chicken wire. The walls are really thick. There’s, like, a metal toilet in there. They’d throw a mat on the floor. The staff are, like, 30 feet down the hallway. If you’re in trouble, you’re just locked in. I heard guys beating their heads on the walls in there. I worked in the field of developmental disabilities for years. If you hear head banging, you’re supposed to drop everything and intervene. This time I said, ‘Oh my god, that guy is gonna die!’ They said, ‘Yeah, it could happen!’ It took a couple of days to get someone to the hospital. They don’t get excited about any of it. It’s the strangest thing I’ve seen.”
Manny: “My first time in the box was 1995 to 97. … This was at Coxsackie. I had just come upstate. I questioned a guard over locking us in early. They made false allegations, and they gave me 22 months. I started out there on a hunger strike. In the box, they were going in and beating me five or six times. I didn’t trust the food. I drank water, but they turned it off so I would drink their juice. So I drank water out of the toilet. My neighbor and I, we talked out the window. I said, ‘Can you get a letter out for me?’ I wrote a 12-page letter to my mom. The next thing I knew, the inspector general’s office came to see me. Everybody says, ‘He’s lying.’ The guy was getting nasty to me. The guys at the door were standing like this (making throat-cutting motions, punching their palms). My arm had been fractured. There was no treatment. He said, ‘All right, we’ll get you out of here.’ About a week later, I was out. I went on another hunger strike. A mental health lady, Hispanic, came by, and she spoke to me in Spanish. She said, ‘I’m gonna get you out.'”
“I was sent here, and I was put in observation. They put you in paper gowns. I heard I was going to be sent back, and I scratched my arms. They threw me in the box here. I came out a lot different than when I went in.”
Manny’s wife: “In strip cells, you get nothing. No shoes, shoelaces, no belts, clothes, jewelry. They take his wedding ring, usually. They call it the Barney Rubble style because you have to wear a smock like Barney Rubble.”
Manny: “Back then, you could smoke, and the officers could come around every hour or so to light up. Now you just get a one-piece jumper, and in the winter you freeze. You go outside into a cage, and people around you are in other cages. Technically, you’re caged almost 24 hours.”
Manny’s wife: “I had a really young guy. We’re supposed to meet with them once a month. He was completely psychotic, didn’t know how he got there. They stuck him in a room, and of course he got worse and worse. They were like, ‘What are you gonna do? We’ve gotta wait until they get them to the hospital.'”
Manny: “In (solitary), you have just periodicals, pictures, letters. You can have one visit a week. And a week is when they say it finishes. In the box, there’s no physical contact, unless you have a visit. You wouldn’t have access to a phone. You wouldn’t be able to be sure mail gets to the mailbox.”
Manny’s wife: “After a period of time, what happens is, you go so deep into yourself. He gets flashbacks as a kid, being locked up by his dad. He has OCD really bad, and it just brings up every negative thing that’s happened to him. He goes through it over and over and over again. Others hallucinate, just can’t deal with it. … I would never send anyone to a strip cell unless it was extremely necessary for their safety, like the psychotic kid who could have been taken advantage of. I wouldn’t be able to be in a strip cell myself. Manny says you do what you have to do to survive. He’s told me there have been times when he wanted to die and tried and just get it over with.”
“(The guards) could be playing cards down the hall or kicking the door, making fun of you, putting the fan on you. Because you’re already naked. When he was at Great Meadow last time, not only were they not feeding him, they would tap on the window all night, trying to keep him awake. Because you’re completely vulnerable. It got to the point where he became homicidal and went after the doctor.”
Manny: “Unless you’re almost dead, they’re not going to take self-harm seriously. If a guy says it, you’ve got to take it seriously.”
“I’ve tried a few times. The closest I’ve ever gotten was, I took a bunch of pills when my mom was dying. That was January 2000. I took about 70 or 80 pills. I was throwing up blood and even bile, which they said was impossible. They didn’t even know. They had me on medication and just thought I’d been on it too long. I felt like the devil rejected me. Because, you know, it was like a sign. Like the devil was laughing: ‘You haven’t suffered enough.'”
“The mental health people, they talk to the cops. Also, most have some screwed-up reason to be here. They can write something messed-up in your records. So you can’t really talk to anybody here. No wonder people go crazy here. That alone can drive people to commit suicide.”
Manny’s wife: “He’s supposed to have individual counseling once a month. It’s supposed to be half an hour. Sometimes it’s just five minutes.”
“I think a lot of the people, not all of them, a lot of the mental health people I worked with there couldn’t work anywhere else. I don’t know how to put that nicely. They probably couldn’t survive on the outside in a mental health setting. … I saw a young girl who came in right out of college and immediately buddied up with the officers and was just as cruel as they were. … The officers were mad at me because I was sticking up for people.”
Manny: “I’m not taking psych meds. When I was in the Central New York Psychiatric Center, they tried to force meds, but I got out of it. I talked my way out. … My mind is my greatest asset. I’m not going to let chemicals have me walking around like a zombie.”
“Everybody has thought about suicide, or they’re lying. If it happens, the cops come and make jokes. The guys do, too. They say it’s cowardice. They come, take the body up and take it to medical. They contact the family. Or they take it to the potters field, ‘out back.'”
Manny’s wife: “Even inmates can’t file grievances outside the prison. They have to file within the prison, and the prison has to investigate their own. It’s the most unethical thing I’ve ever heard of. And so they can cover up for everything they do. If there’s a suicide there, they investigate it. Manny has sworn up and down they have killed people in the box. There should be an outside party that can walk in anytime, ‘I want to see records, to see people in the box.'”
Manny: “I’m not going to kill myself. I’m not going to do that. Not to my wife, not to her grandson. It would be worse than killing myself, understand? If they say I killed myself, it’s a lie.”
“My wife always looks for the good in people. I tell her not to do that. Good shows. It can’t be hidden.”
Manny’s wife: “When we weren’t married, it was very difficult to advocate for him. And I would have no rights, even to collect his body. … We married in December 2010. It was like writing a check. Very quick, impersonal. There was a minister, two witness. It took all of maybe 10 minutes. It was nothing like being married out in the real world. No flowers, no party. ‘OK, you’re married, you can go back to the visiting room.’ It was very surreal. I knew what it would be like, but it was still heartbreaking.”
Manny: “What keeps me going? Knowing that when I get out, I can do something to help somehow. Start a nonprofit with my wife to help families in need. Private housing. Education. Instill family values. All that gang stuff, you’ve got to leave that shit at the door. There are all sorts of things I can do. I’ve got it mapped out pretty well.”
“My great-grandfather lived to be 110. I think I’m going to live to be very old.”