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Tuesday, June 1, 2010

…And Yet, I’m Still No Better Looking

(Note: This entry was originally posted on Facebook May 10th 2010)

One of the few positive things which can be said about F-Pod is that it is at least very quiet. Having lived next door to serial rap artists and total nutters, this advantage cannot be understated. The doors back here on Level 2 and 3 are sealed up in a way far more complete then on Level 1, which were, frankly, already pretty bad. You tend to feel as if you are the only person in the world back here sometimes, especially at night. Every once in a while, however, something will kick off, and people will start banging on the doors, and it sounds a bit like distant thunder. This happens quite often back here: in the 49 days I’ve spent on Level, I have seen 6 “use of force” scenarios, three gassings, and one fight between “Baby Boy” and Officer Mendoza (which ended with the inmate – wearing leg restraints and handcuffs – having his head beaten into the wall and Officer Mendoza spraying himself in the face with his own mace). People just tend to have shorter fuses back here. I’ve become convinced that these doors have something to do with it.

In the process of examining this hypothesis, I began to read up on SHU Syndrome, a term I have heard about for years but have never researched. Not surprisingly, Secure Housing Unit Syndrome is probably something you have never heard of before. The term was coined, to the best of my knowledge, by Dr. Craig Haney and Dr. Stuart Grassian, a psychiatrist at Harvard University Medical School. The syndrome describes a constellation of medical and physical impairments directly related to long-term solitary confinement. In the case of Madrid v. Gomez 889 F. Supp. 1146,1228 (N.D. Cal 1995), Haney observed that:

“At Pelican Bay 80 percent of the inmates suffered from anxiety, nervousness, severe headaches, and chronic lethargy or tiredness. Over half complained of nightmares, heart palpitations and fear of impending nervous breakdown. Again, over eighty percent complained of ruminations, over-sensitivity to stimuli, irrational bursts of anger, and social withdrawal. Half reported violent fantasies, mood swings and chronic depression. Almost half reported hallucinations amongst other percepted distortions. A quarter of the men at Pelican Bay had seriously contemplated suicide.

These symptoms manifested themselves in disturbing ways. One inmate ripped the sprinkler head off the ceiling of his cell and tried to swallow it. The same inmate also attempted to gouge his wrists with a broken plastic spoon. When interviewed by Dr. Haney, the inmate said, ‘I get dizzy spells, scared, nervous, shaking, crying. I hear voices telling me to tear up my mattress. Demons come out. I see them… I never saw them (before coming to the Secure Housing Unit).’”


These instances of irrational behavior are horrid to contemplate, and even more hideous to behold. Until a few weeks ago, I lived in the house in which “Little Flo” carved his face up before cutting his throat. Two doors down is the cell where “Squirrel” dug his eye out and ate it – the only he had left, after a previous and similar act in the county jail. Then you have the religiously inspired insanity of “Cuba” who circumcised himself in his cell with a pencil sharpener, because TDCJ wouldn’t do it for him. Now, you might object to my hypothesis at this point and declare that these men were already mentally deranged before being placed in solitary confinement cells. If that is your theory, it is a pretty damning commentary on the state of our judiciary, that such men would even be sentenced to death in the first place. Frankly, either way you choose to lean, the situation is badly, horribly broken.

The reality of SHU Syndrome is well documented and acknowledged by prison officials. Despite this, the construction of Control Units continues unabated. After all, it wont be your son or brother or father who will have to survive an environment designed to manufacture madness. Why should you care, right? Here is why (ethical reasons put to the side, obviously): 94% of those presently incarcerated will one day be free. To quote Dr. Grassian:

“It’s kind of like kicking and beating a dog and keeping it in a cage until it gets as crazy and as vicious and wild as it can possibly get and then one day you take it out into the middle of the streets of San Francisco or Boston and you open the cage and you run away. That’s no favor to the community.”


I’d like to add a little something to the conversation, if I may. I have been held in isolation cells for slightly more than four of my five years incarcerated. I have experiences a great many of the previously listed symptoms first-hand, my least favorite being the periods of dizziness. I have learned how to endure most any form of bodily pain, but this vertigo absolutely cripples the mind, which is perhaps why it vexes me so. After a few weeks on Level 3, I also noticed that I was far more physically exhausted than normal, and was sleeping several hours longer than is my custom, with zero increase in energy or vitality. Once I had detected this patter, the little OCD gremlin in my head went into overdrive, and I began to poll the guys around me. You can see the results here

I wasn’t able to speak with everyone on Level, for a number of reasons. To start with, a few of the guys just plain don’t like me, which is their prerogative. Several others were so heavily medicated (“Birdman”, Paul Devoe) that they re only awake when they eat. That said, I managed to poll 20 of them, which represents a statistically large segment of the population currently on Level. I think the results are fairly interesting: a 2.4 hour increase in daily sleep-time after just 30 days on Level 2 or 3. I think this speaks to a root cause quite a bit more complicated than simple boredom could explain. I am not adequately educated enough to make any real statements about this that are not anecdotal, but it does make one wonder what a real psychologist would say, were he to conduct a poll of his own.

I am qualified, however, to come to a rather cynical conclusion about the citizenry of a state who, by large majorities, claims to follow a religion whose main tenets include: brotherly love, forgiveness, and the blessedness of those who give mercy. That conclusion is this: turns out, you can’t spell h-y-p-o-c-r-I-s-y without T-e-x-a-s.

To learn more about the ongoing fight against control units, please see this link.



© Copyright 2010 by Thomas Bartlett Whitaker. All rights reserved.

1 comment:

C.R.S. said...

I cant see anything from the attached files.. Or is just my computer??? can you let me know plz..