[TW: This article contains mentions of suicide and violence]
Nick Clark, a prior inmate of several central Massachusetts state prisons for battery assault and drug trafficking is one of the few people who benefited from the pandemic because, for him, it meant that his non-violent disciplinary ticket would be discharged and he would not transfer from a medium security prison to a high security prison. Massachusetts state prisons have a twelve-point system for disciplinary infractions, and prisoners receive a certain number of points depending on the severity of the infraction. If an inmate reaches twelve points, they are sent to a maximum security prison. In cases of extraordinarily violent behavior, the point system can be overridden and an inmate can be sent directly to the “max.” This was the case for Clark, but not because he was violent. He had acquired suboxone, a treatment for opioid addiction, without a formal medical prescription. In an interview over the phone, he told me suboxone is one of the most popular recreational drugs used by prisoners because it is easy to smuggle. Clark said, “People on visits will bring it in and the guy [inmate] will swallow it or stick it up his ass to avoid officers finding it during a search.” Whether an inmate is placed in a high security prison or not often has more to do with the rules that are broken in prison rather than the crimes they commit before becoming prisoners.
There are two types of rules in prison. There are the formal rules, which are mandated by the correctional facility, and there are the informal rules, codified in behavior, not words. Informal rules are the unspoken expectations of toughness: an expectation that if someone cuts in front of you at the cafeteria, shoves you during a pickup game of basketball or even brushes your shoulder as they walk past you, you will act confrontational. If not, then others will likely ostracize you for demonstrating weakness. Clark told me “They might not say anything but they’re thinking in their mind, he let that go because he’s weak. So you have to curse at him. If the guy says, ‘fuck you,’ you have to take action, otherwise it’s worse.” According to him, the only way to avoid this problem is to avoid as many people as you can.
Clark spoke in an unwavering monotonous voice that matched the macho behavior he described. When he told me that he was in the same unit as Aaron Hernandez, the former New England Patriots tight end and convicted murderer, and watched the guards carry Hernandez’s dead body out of the cell after he hanged himself, he didn’t falter or pause in his speech. Perhaps it is because suicide became so frequent in his prison that it was considered a regular occurrence. “I see a lot of people that commited suicide that I knew.”
The Federal Bureau of Justice Statistics ranks Massachusetts fourth in the nation for inmate suicides in state prisons at a rate of 0.032 percent, nearly twice the national average. But these numbers can be misleading because they exclude a large number of attempted suicides that correctional staff prevent. In June of 2021, Massachusetts State Senator Jamie Eldridge proposed a bill that would create a special commission to diagnose the causes of and seek solutions for the problem of prisoner suicides. Leslie Walker, executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts, expressed public support for this bill and said, “We could use more mental health clinicians who can make sure how people like Mr. Hernandez are doing mentally.”
There are two types of torture that prisoners experience in confinement: psychological and physiological. Psychological reactions to prison conditions include irrational rage, perceptual disorders arising from sensory deprivation, lack of impulse control, and severe and chronic depression. Physiological reactions include severe headaches, inability to sleep, appetite and weight loss, and heart palpitations. Besides the scarce visit from a clinician, Clark told me mental health services are nonexistent. But, even the clinicians that are available are incompetent. In spite of being some of the most vulnerable members of society, prisoners have no real emotional support.
Clark said “mental health service was a clinician coming into the cell, and when I said I’m fucking losing it in here the clinician said, ‘maybe you can try out these crossword puzzles to help.’” Experts estimate that about 10 to 20 percent of prisoners in the United States suffer from mental illness. But the number tends to be higher in maximum security prisons where the conditions of confinement are much worse.
There were only three things that one could do outside the solitary cell. Inmates could make a short phone call twice a week, take a fifteen minute shower three times a week or, upon request, spend one hour five times a week in the “dog kennel.” The dog kennel is a fifteen-by-fifteen-foot concrete space confined by chain link fencing. This is the only time outside the cell that prisoners are not handcuffed outside the cell. A series of these chain link boxes are arranged side by side, and each solitary inmate gets their own box for “recreational purposes.” But there are few recreational activities to do because the spaces are empty, just like real dog kennels. Most people just use it to do calisthenic exercises, like pushups or squats, because that’s all you can really do. Clark told me he experienced these limitations of solitary confinement for the first time when the pandemic hit. He was in “the hole” every day from February until April 2020. “I actually got to see the whole thing progress as I was listening to the NPR radio, listening to it in Wuhan, and thinking about all the impact it could have,” he recalled. He also told me that when he found out the government was locking down the whole country, it made him feel like he wasn’t missing out on anything because everyone else was having an experience similar to his. “It made me feel like, not glad, but I’m alright, because everyone else is sitting in isolation just like me.” His daily life remained mostly the same as it was before the pandemic. He spent 23 hours a day in a six-by-nine-foot cell (that’s slightly larger than the size of a typical elevator), and his only routine human contact was with the correctional officers that he hated. He recalls it being surreal to see an officer wearing a mask for the first time because his only experience with the pandemic was over the radio. It is a habit for prisoners in solitary to rush to the door and peer through the window whenever they hear people walking by because hearing the sound of another human was rare during lockdown. “I heard some feet, looked outside and there was an officer with a mask doing rounds and it hit me that it was real,” Clark recalled. He told me that sometimes inmates would cut through the fencing to fight another inmate. Inmates would risk being beaten by correctional officers, charged with a disciplinary ticket and being sent to solitary just to fight another inmate.
Prisoners in solitary are more likely to experience physical abuse from correctional officers because they are viewed as being the worst of the worst, as noted in a report by the ACLU. Officers often misuse physical restraints, chemical agents and stun guns, especially when taking prisoners out of their cells. Now, the inmates do not just see correctional officers as a violent threat to their safety; they also see them as potentially deadly germs. Spending all day alone in a small cell, solitary inmates are some of the most isolated individuals during the pandemic. However, the fate of their health also lies in the hands of an officer who is trained to beat them if they violate the rules.
Violence in prison is inescapable. A study published in February 2020 conducted by Professors Meghan Novisky of Cleveland State University and Robert Peralta of the University of Akron revealed that, during incarceration, a substantial number of inmates are forced to bear witness or directly participate in traumatizing violence. Participants in the study reported witnessing brutal acts of violence including stabbings, multiperson assaults and murder. The participants also reported the long term effects of witnessing or being involved in such horrific acts which included severe anxiety, depression, hypervigilance and suicidality.
Broader research has suggested similarly high rates of violence across U.S. state prisons. A report by the Prison Policy initiative compiled data from Bureau of Justice Statistics surveys as well as a 2010 nationally representative study and found that 21% of incarcerated men were assaulted by staff over 6 months in 2005. The report also found that there were 16,940 accounts of the sexual victimization of incarcerated people in 2015 and 14.6 % of incarcerated individuals had been “intentionally injured” by staff or other inmates since entering prison. High rates of prison violence are exacerbated by the fact that inmates are already mentally vulnerable considering the physiological and psychological effects of living in cruel living conditions as mentioned above.
The Prison Policy iniative’s reports on prison violence as well as the ACLU’s study on physical and psychological abuse should be a call for more research and more concern for prison violence, inhumane living conditions and correctional officer abuse. As a witness of inmate suicide and victim of inmate violence, Clark experienced these things directly and suffered mental health consequences that could have been prevented with better mental health services. Other states should follow Massachusetts State Senator Jamie Eldridge in proposing bills that seek solutions for the issue of prisoner suicides. On a similar note, researchers in the February 2020 study recommend the implementation of trauma-informed training of correctional staff and the expansion of correctional healthcare. The adoption of this model would allow correctional staff to better identify those inmates who are at high risk of victimization, and offer better mental health services. Creating a stronger institution of mental health service within state prisons accompanied by better living conditions would reduce the negative physical and mental consequences of solitary confinement as noted by the ACLU. And while these reforms would address immediate needs of people facing the trauma of prison violence, Professors Novisky and Peralta ultimately call for an overall reduction in exposure to the violent prison environment. This means that lengthy sentences must be reduced and more people must be diverted from the incarceration system to more supportive organizations.