“0-1-A-0-5-3-2, that was my identity.”
For 20 consecutive days, George Chochos ’16 M.Div. was just one of 80,000 inmates serving in solitary confinement. Depending on their classification, inmates can spend up to 23 hours a day confined to a six-by-nine foot cell. In an interview with The Politic, Chochos described the cramped atmosphere of a prison cell.
“Imagine a room being the size of a big closet. When I reached out my hand, and keep in mind I’m only 5’ 7, I could touch both sides of the wall. Being alone with oneself for a long period of time…It’s psychologically draining,” he said. “You could literally start to hear voices, find yourself talking to yourself. You feel like the walls are closing in. You have to redefine reality in a way that allows you to have some defense mechanism against the isolation.”
Chochos, a recent graduate of the Yale Divinity School, has a unique perspective on the issue of solitary confinement. After experiences in prisons such as Sing Sing Correctional and Clinton Correctional (the facility in which he served 20 days in solitary), Chochos finally settled into the higher-education program at Eastern New York Correctional Facility. He was able to pursue a degree through the Bard Prison Initiative, earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in Social Studies. While Chochos has moved beyond what he terms his “traumatic” solitary confinement experience, many inmates across the country still face these conditions.
The Connecticut prison system does not recognize the term “solitary confinement,” instead employing a practice referred to as “administrative segregation.” Karen Martucci, director for the External Affairs Division of the Connecticut Department of Corrections, clarified the term for The Politic.
“The public in general will use the term solitary confinement attached to a variety of definitions. The terminology itself may give a layman person an idea that there is somebody locked away from everyone, that is isolated. We don’t use that in the state of Connecticut,” said Martucci.
In contrast, United States Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy equated the two terms in his concurring opinion in the 2015 case Davis v. Ayala.
“Ayala has served the great majority of his more than twenty-five years in custody in ‘administrative segregation’ or, as it is better known, solitary confinement,” wrote Kennedy.
While the relationship between the terms “solitary confinement” and “administrative segregation” differs considerably depending on who you ask, this article will refer to the practice as it is known in Connecticut, administrative segregation.
The Association of State Correctional Officers (ASCA) and the Arthur Liman program at the Yale School of Law recently published a report titled Time in Cell. The report offers a new perspective on administrative segregation and details national solitary confinement trends across prisons in the United States.
From the fall of 2011 to the fall of 2014, the median change in the use of administrative segregation for male inmates was a 0.18 percent decrease, as compared to Connecticut, which had a 0.4 percent decrease. Furthermore, Connecticut is one of a handful of states that maintain administrative segregation rates under 1 percent for male inmates. Seemingly at the forefront of administrative segregation reform, Connecticut is addressing this old issue in a new manner. Different sources debate whether the Connecticut prison system has been ahead of the reform curve, or if there is still room for improvement.
In addition to profiling the Connecticut prison system, Time in Cell collected data from 47 jurisdictions across the country in order to gauge consistency in policies regarding placement of inmates into administrative segregation. President Barack Obama cited the Time in Cell report last January in a Washington Post op-ed titled “Why we must rethink solitary confinement.” A Department of Justice report also used the data in addressing prison reforms for which Obama advocated.
“Many states were ahead of federal reforms,” said Judith Resnik, Arthur Liman Professor of Law at Yale Law School and a contributing author of the report. Resnik told The Politic that the ASCA-Liman report was an important step in what she described as “a long series of projects meant to reduce the number of people in solitary confinement.”
According to the report, many policies focused on criteria for entering administrative segregation, but few focused on procedures for leaving. Prisons profiled in the report varied in their standards of what behavior qualifies a sentence of administration segregation. The report also found inconsistencies regarding the person responsible for determining the ultimate placement of the inmate. Most prisons agreed that administrative segregation was a useful tool to protect the general prison population.
Many prison officials in the state of Connecticut share this attitude. Rudy Demiraj, president of the local American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employee Union (AFSCME), which includes prison correctional officers, believes that the practice is important for inmate safety.
“The intent of administrative segregation is to separate the most violent inmates from the general prison population. It’s a tool used to keep other inmates safe,” said Demiraj in an interview with The Politic.
Martucci listed behaviors that would make an inmate worthy of placement into administrative segregation, such as assault on a staff member, fighting with other inmates, or use of a homemade weapon. The practice of segregation for violent inmates in the state of Connecticut coincides with larger national trends.
“The prevailing narrative is one where solitary confinement can be used in instances of clear physical danger,” Korinayo Thompson ‘18, Advocacy Chair and Director of Outreach for the Yale Undergraduate Prison Project (YUPP) said in an interview with The Politic. “[But] even in those cases, it does harm to the individual being isolated.”
YUPP is a student group dedicated to a variety of reforms for the criminal justice system, which includes advocating against administrative segregation as a prison tactic. The organization tasks itself with raising awareness for those experiencing administrative segregation. It launched its inaugural demonstration in 2014. For 23 hours, students occupy a taped-off area equivalent in dimensions to an administrative segregation cell. Demonstrators remain silent, seated patiently for the duration of their “sentence.” Through this silent demonstration, YUPP members attempt to raise awareness for inmates enduring sentences in restrictive housing.
“This demonstration is a reminder to the community at large that there is an individual living on the margins, subjected to what many believe to be cruel and unusual punishment,” said Thompson.
Groups like YUPP have been active in attracting attention from the media, the government, and prison officials alike, by publicly demanding that they address issues with administrative segregation.
In recent years, prison officials have actually reached out to outside parties in order to cooperatively confront the issue of administrative segregation—Time in Cell is one example of this phenomenon. The report’s collaborator, the ASCA, is an organization composed of the directors of state prison systems and the federal system, as well as of some major city jails. Time in Cell reflects how prison administrators have joined with academics and others to limit the use of solitary confinement, administrative segregation, or—as many prisons call it—“restrictive housing.” ASCA established a committee specifically tasked with addressing segregated housing in 2012, and in 2013, it adopted guidelines limiting the use of restrictive placements.
“People who run prisons have come to understand that large numbers of people in extended restricted isolating conditions is now a grave problem to be solved. In the past, the sense was that placing people into such settings was a solution to a problem,” said Resnik.
While administrative segregation was once thought of as the ideal answer to the question of troublesome inmates, it now has a negative reputation that both prison administrators and prison reform advocates are trying to address.
Administrative segregation originated in the 19th century, when Anglicans and Quakers sought to establish a new reform system that was, in their view, more humane than the conditions of overcrowded prisons. In 1829, they opened Eastern State Penitentiary, constructed solely of single cells meant for isolation. In theory, this separation would permit inmates to reconcile their crimes with God and seek penitence (hence the term penitentiary).
Instead, isolation drove many inmates insane.
When renowned author Charles Dickens visited Eastern State Penitentiary, he was aghast by the conditions of the men he witnessed.
“I believe it…to be cruel and wrong…I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain, to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body,” said Dickens.
After suffering through the administrative segregation experience, George Chochos is painfully familiar with the full extent of mental health deterioration associated with it.
“It’s a form of PTSD. It really is,” he said.
Countless scientific studies have warned against administrative segregation due to the psychosocial distress entailed. Dr. Atul Gawande, renowned public health expert, published an article in The New Yorker which argues that social isolation tentatively leads to a loss of interactional skills. In the article, Gawande makes a connection between the treatment of United States inmates in administrative segregation, and United States prisoners of war subjected to the treatment of violent hostiles; both experience a deterioration of social skills due to isolation.
Gawande adds that prisoners in administrative segregation “begin to lose the ability to initiate behavior of any kind—to organize their own lives around activity and purpose.”
With leading scientists decrying the detrimental psychosocial effects of administrative segregation, how does Connecticut’s correctional program view it?
According to Demiraj, the Connecticut administrative segregation program varies significantly from those of other states.
“That’s not the case in Connecticut,” said Demiraj when asked if Connecticut inmates are suffering from this psychological affliction. “The inmates have clear contact with other inmates on a daily basis, and are allowed to interact with other inmates in this program.”
In fact, Demiraj argued that the educational programming and resources available to these inmates are immensely beneficial, to the point that, he says, many inmates choose to stay in administrative segregation.
Meanwhile, Martucci acknowledged that a restrictive environment is not optimal for integration back into society.
“The review process is not an automatic placement,” said Martucci. “We have a hearing, and review the inmate for the placement. One of the biggest pieces is a full psychological exam.”
Inmates in the program also progress through a phased system, which includes educational programming meant to reduce violent behaviors.
The educational programming referenced by both Demiraj and Martucci is a curriculum designed for inmates in administrative segregation, meant to reduce violent tendencies and better prepare inmates for reintegration back into society.
However, the presence of educational programming for inmates does not guarantee full participation. For example, the Time in Cell data highlights instances in which multiple prison systems reported less than 25 percent participation. Additionally, while the programming includes chances for group interaction, a significant portion consists of in-cell education, which limits contact with others.
In contrast, the educational programming for the general prison population yields high participation rates with opportunities to interact with peers as well as teachers. Projects such as the Bard Prison Initiative allow prison inmates to pursue a higher education degree through Bard College. For attainment of a high school GED, tutoring is offered, often in conjunction with volunteer groups like YUPP.
Prison officials and reform advocates agree that education has been shown to improve inmates’ prospects of re-entry into society.
Chochos claimed that during his tenure in Bard Prison Initiative, the higher-education program through which he received his B.A., the classroom was, “[the] only place where our humanity was validated.”
Not only did this program significantly improve his sentence, but it prepared him for reintegration into society. Chochos said that his educational opportunities during confinement significantly eased his transition to divinity school.
Increased educational possibilities for inmates in administrative segregation provide a chance to ease their prison experience as well as an exposure to opportunities that might otherwise have been inaccessible.
The purpose of the criminal justice system to many prison administrators and reform advocates alike is the rehabilitation of inmates into functioning members of society, and a redefinition of their view of themselves and their role in their communities. For Chochos, that redefinition occurred in the classroom.
“Being exposed to some of the major works in Western Civilization, I saw myself as a citizen in a new way”, he said.
He reintegrated into society with a new identity. Not as an ex-offender, not as 0-1-A-0-5-3-2, but rather, as a student vital to his community.