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.
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