No Peace Outside ‘The Box’: Solitary Confinement of Mentally Ill Prisoners

No Peace Outside ‘The Box’: Solitary Confinement of Mentally Ill Prisoners

Jeff  Rockefeller never got past the eighth grade growing up in Troy. He spent his  20s in the Capital  District Psychiatric Center and has struggled with severe depression and  suicidal thoughts.

"He's never had a day of peace in his life," his mother said.

Now 44 years old and released from state prison five months ago, Rockefeller  spent nearly 20 months, half his 40-month incarceration, in solitary  confinement. Even as a free man, he still struggles with sleeplessness,  nightmares and crying fits. "I was locked up in a cage like an animal," he said.  "It's torture."

"He's different since he got out," said his girlfriend, Mary, a 66-year-old  retired state worker who asked to be identified only by her first name. "He  can't sleep. He's jumpy. He's having a hard time easing back into his former  life. Nobody should be treated the way he was."

She recalled his anguished letters from prison, writing that he couldn't take  it anymore and wanted to end his life. In phone calls from prison, he broke down  in sobs.

Rockefeller's psychiatric problems — which helped land him in "The  Box" and worsened during his long months in 23-hour-a-day disciplinary  isolation — symbolize a form of punitive incarceration that prisoner advocates  call inhuman. Correction officials defend it as an effective method to control  unruly inmates.

Prison watchdog groups said Rockefeller's prison experience is a sad but not  uncommon saga. On any given day, about 4,500 inmates are in solitary confinement  in New York's prisons, according to the state Department  of Corrections and Community Services. There are currently 8,197 mentally  ill inmates out of a total prison population of 54,643. Three of the 14  prisoners who committed suicide in 2012 were in solitary confinement, according  to DOCCS records.

Prison suicides between 2001 and 2010 rose 186 percent to the highest level  in 28 years, according to the Correctional  Association of New York State, a watchdog group.

Prisoners in solitary are confined to cells 6 feet by 8 feet, with almost no  human contact. One hour per day, in newer prisons, a caged balcony is unlocked  remotely so inmates can breathe fresh air. Lights and shower are controlled  remotely. Meals are pushed through a slot in a reinforced cell door. Inmates  experience intense sensory deprivation in these so-called Special Housing Units,  or SHUs.

Dr. Stuart  Grassian, a board-certified psychiatrist in the Boston area and former  professor at Harvard  Medical School, coined the term "SHU syndrome." In an authoritative study,  Grassian found that prisoners confined for lengthy periods in solitary show a  range of symptoms of mental illness: depression, increased paranoia, agitation,  manic activity, delusions, florid psychotic illness and suicide.

"I walk along rows of The Box in the middle of the day and the guys have been  so isolated they've lost their ability to interact socially," said Jack  Beck, director of the prison visiting project with the  Correctional Association.

Studies showed there are heightened incidents of prisoners in solitary  injuring themselves, attempting or successfully completing suicide, Beck said.  "It's a very common pattern," he said. "It's a terribly toxic environment for  people with mental health issues and they end up deteriorating."

"It's disappointing that we haven't made more progress after we've pushed on  this issue for so long," said Robert  Corliss, a retired advocate for mentally ill prisoners who worked for more  than a decade on the issue.

"More and more people in New York and across the country are realizing that  solitary confinement remains a problem," said Jennifer  Parish, director of the mental health project for the Urban  Justice Center. The center is part of a coalition that helped get  legislation passed in 2011 that provides additional psychiatric treatment and  diverts the most seriously mentally ill patients from The Box.

Opposition to solitary confinement is rising across New York, led by a  coalition of groups that calls itself the Campaign  for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement, or "Think Outside  the Box."

In a February column, conservative newspaper columnist George  Will issued a passionate call to end what he called a violation of the  Eighth Amendment prohibition of "cruel and unusual punishment."

Will cited an independent review of solitary confinement in federal prisons  that found half of all prison suicides are committed by prisoners held in  isolation. There are an estimated 105,000 inmates held in solitary confinement  currently in state and federal prisons.

"Americans should be roused against this by decency — and prudence," Will  wrote, noting that it is more costly than regular confinement and ends up  releasing back to local communities psychotic and mentally  shattered individuals.

Beginning in adolescence, Rockefeller racked up a long rap sheet with dozens  of misdemeanors, mostly low-level harassment. His mother said he was diagnosed  with serious mental illness at age 10 after a childhood traumatized by an  abusive father, her ex-husband, and a long series of treatments and  hospitalizations made little improvement.

"Things never work out for me," he said in a low, flat monotone. He has  deep-set, dark-rimmed eyes and a prominent brow. His receding brown hair is  parted in the middle. He is a giant of a man, but by most accounts he is gentle  and not prone to violence.

Rockefeller was convicted four years ago on a count of attempted terroristic  threat, his first felony, after a 2006 incident involving harassing and  threatening Gary  Gordon, an investigator with the Rensselaer County district attorney's  office. Rockefeller entered the state prison system in the summer of 2009. The  6-foot-6 inmate, nicknamed "Too Tall" by other prisoners, soon fell into a  spiral of complaints filed against correction officers, denied appeals  and recriminations.

Rockefeller filed seven grievances of abuse and misbehavior against guards,  according to Tom  Mailey, a state DOCCS spokesman. All were denied. DOCCS does not comment on  individual prisoners and the records speak for themselves, Mailey said.

Each time he filed a grievance, mouthed off to guards or acted out in  inappropriate ways, he was issued a ticket for additional time in solitary  confinement. During a 16-month stretch in The Box, he knotted up sheets and  tried to hang himself. He was discovered before he did serious harm.

Rockefeller continues to press his case through lawsuits alleging beatings by  correction officers and one alleged violent assault by a half-dozen guards at  Attica on Feb. 22, 2011, that Rockefeller said ended with him being sodomized  with a nightstick.

He detailed the assault in a meeting in January with a State Police  investigator in the town of Attica. Rockefeller also gave a typed account of the  alleged assault to the Wyoming County District Attorney's Office. Neither agency  acted on Rockefeller's allegations.

Rockefeller, who shares an apartment in Cohoes with his girlfriend of 13  years, works sporadically as a roofer and still struggles with mental  health issues.

"Why would anyone treat a human being like that?" asked his mother, Diane  Daigneault of Troy. "He was beaten and sodomized in prison. Putting him in  solitary all that time destroyed him."

She visited her son several times in prison. She said he was emaciated and  listless, as if in a stupor. Because he was in disciplinary isolation,  Rockefeller was shackled with heavy chains at his wrists, waist and ankles  during visits and confined to a small glass booth.

"He got so much worse in prison," she said. 518-454-5623 @PaulGrondahl


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