Solitary Confinement a Fate Worse Than Death, Inmate Writes

William Blake's spent more than a quarter century in "administrative segregation"


administrative segregation

In 1987, William Blake, at the age of 23, killed a police officer and injured another while trying to escape a county courthouse he was held in on a drug charge. He was given a 77-year minimum sentence and has spent the last 26 years in solitary confinement at the maximum-security Elmira Correctional Facility in New York state. Blake wrote an essay on his experience in jail where he calls solitary confinement a fate worse than death. He starts with some background:

"You deserve an eternity in hell," Onondaga County Supreme Court judge Kevin Mulroy told me from his bench as I stood before him for sentencing on July 10, 1987. Apparently he had the idea that God was not the only one justified to make such judgment calls.

Judge Mulroy wanted to "pump six buck's worth of electricity into [my] body," he also said, though I suggest that it wouldn't have taken six cent's worth to get me good and dead. He must have wanted to reduce me and The Chair to a pile of ashes. My "friend" Governor Mario Cuomo wouldn't allow him to do that, though, the judge went on, bemoaning New York State's lack of a death statute due to the then-Governor's repeated vetoes of death penalty bills that had been approved by the state legislature. Governor Cuomo's publicly expressed dudgeon over being called a friend of mine by Judge Mulroy was understandable, given the crimes that I had just been convicted of committing. I didn't care much for him either, truth be told. He built too many new prisons in my opinion, and cut academic and vocational programs in the prisons already standing.

It seemed like everybody wanted him dead, Blake writes, and he couldn't blame them. What he ended up with, he writes, was worse:

Though it is true that I've never died and so don't know exactly what the experience would entail, for the life of me I cannot fathom how dying any death could be harder or more terrible than living through all that I have been forced to endure for the last quarter-century…

I've read of the studies done regarding the effects of long-term isolation in solitary confinement on inmates, seen how researchers say it can ruin a man's mind, and I've watched with my own eyes the slow descent of sane men into madness—sometimes not so slow. What I've never seen the experts write about, though, is what year after year of abject isolation can do to that immaterial part in our middle where hopes survive or die and the spirit resides. So please allow me to speak to you of what I've seen and felt during some of the harder times of my twenty-five-year SHU odyssey.

I've experienced times so difficult and felt broken and loneliness to such a degree that it seemed to be a physical thing inside so thick it felt like it was choking me, trying to squeeze the sanity from my mind, the spirit from my soul, and the life from my body. I've seen and felt hope becoming like a foggy ephemeral thing, hard to get ahold of, even harder to keep ahold of as the years as the years and then decades disappeared while I stayed trapped in the emptiness of the SHU world. I've seen minds slipping down the slope of sanity, descending into insanity, and I've been terrified that I would end up like the guys around me that have cracked and become nuts. It's a sad thing to watch a human being go insane before your eyes because he can't handle the pressure that the box exerts on the mind, but it is sadder still to see the spirit shaken from a soul. And it is more disastrous. Sometimes the prison guards find them hanging and blue; sometimes their necks get broken when they jump from their bed, the sheet tied around the neck that's also wrapped around the grate covering the light in the ceiling snapping taut with a pop. I've seen the spirit leaving men in SHU and have witnessed the results.

Read the rest of the piece, which won an Honorable Mention in the Yale Law Journal's Prison Law Writing Contest, here.

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  1. he calls solitary confinement a fate worse than death

    It seems like he’s smart enough to follow that premise to a conclusion.

    1. Hard to kill yourself in prison.

      1. His writing listed multiple examples of people doing it.

      2. If a pussy bitch like Aaron Swartz could pull it off, anybody can.

  2. I fail to see how that is somehow more humane than the death penalty. If New York doesn’t have the will execute this, then they have the moral duty to treat him like a human being.

    1. Based on the article, New York does. Cuomo doesn’t.

      1. Do they have the death penalty now? It’s been quite a while since Mario Cuomo was governor.

        1. Wouldn’t matter, they couldn’t apply it retroactively.

  3. Just got back from San Francisco and a tour of Alcatraz. Cells are pretty damn dinky. I didn’t realize the solitary cells just sat side by side with the regular cells, they just had doors that didn’t let any light in. There were no toilets or beds or seats in them. I wonder did guys just have to sit in their own filth on the concrete floors.

  4. There’s nothing a human being can do that would make them deserve that kind of treatment.
    I think prison reform is something that libertarians and principled liberals could work on together, if only there were principled liberals.

    1. He’s already murdered while in custody and he can’t be executed. How should he be handled?

      1. By execution. SHU units are nothing but a result of our inability to enforce the death penalty. In the past you could treat even someone doing a life sentence humanly because they knew if they killed in prison they were dead. In fact, the threat of a death sentence combined with a humane prison created a good incentive for these people to behave. Without the death sentence, the only deterrent is increasingly harsh and inhumane treatment.

        1. I agree, but that option isn’t on the table here.

        2. I could probably be convinced to support the death penalty for people who commit murder while already serving a life sentence. That and for corrupt cops and other government officials who abuse their power.

        3. Another alternative would be to isolate people in a less cruel way. Very dangerous prisoners could be kept locked in a cell without being left in total darkness with no stimulation for most of the day. They way solitary confinement is does just seems sadistic.

          If someone is going to be locked up for the rest of their life already, you don’t need a deterrent necessarily, you just need to make it impossible for them to be in a situation where they could hurt other people.

      2. So what would you do, NEM? Torture?

        1. Given that he can’t be executed, it seems like keeping him away from other human beings until he dies is probably the best that can be done.

          Again, how should someone who’s already demonstrated the willingness to murder be handled? Even if you don’t care about the guards, don’t the other prisoners have a right to be protected from him?

          1. Sure, but I don’t think that requires being locked in the dark and shitting on the floor.

            1. I haven’t read the whole thing yet. Where does it say that’s how he lives?

              1. Well, not literally, I guess, but there is this:

                I have lived for months where the first thing I became aware of upon waking in the morning is the malodorous funk of human feces, tinged with the acrid stench of days-old urine, where I eat my breakfast, lunch, and dinner with that same stink assaulting my senses, and where the last thought I had before falling into unconscious sleep was: “Damn, it smells like shit in here.”

                1. If that’s a problem with the prison’s waste system, that’s one thing. If that’s a problem with other prisoners causing the problem, that’s another thing.

                  I don’t think he should be thrown in a black box. I don’t think he should have to live in the equivalent of an overflowing porta-john.

                  If he’s sick, he should be treated.

                  I don’t have a problem with his being locked in a cell 23 hours a day and I don’t have a problem with his never seeing a cell phone or touching a computer or getting to watch TV, no matter how sad and introspective that makes him. The guy he murdered doesn’t get to do any of that, either.

    2. Actually the people most active in prison reform tend to be evangelicals. It is pretty hard to find many liberals who give a shit about prison reform.

      1. Are the active in reforming prisons or prisoners? There’s a different. I don’t know, legit question.

        1. Both but I think prisons as well. Prison ministries are pretty much the only people talking about issues like prison rape and inhumane treatment.

      2. Unless they’re FOR-PROFIT PRISONS!!

  5. The worst part of it all is that it serves no purpose.

    Extreme punishments do not serve as a deterrent to crime, never have and never will. Long term solitary confinement works directly against any possible rehabilitation of the prisoner by preventing any possible socialization. To the extent that punishment provides any comfort or benefit for the victims and their families this is inferior to the death penalty because of it’s open endedness and yet it simultaneously manages to be both more cruel and inhumane.

    Treating prisoners like this works against all possible goals of imprisonment save for the possible exercising the sadism of the Jailers and yet it persists because people are incapable of having an intelligent conversation of what the actual goals of a criminal justice system are in the first place

    1. He got a 77 year minimum sentence at 23. I’m not sure rehab is a factor here.

      1. But I am not referring to this case in specific but the practice in general.

        What are the goals of the criminal justice system? Punishment, Rehabilitation, Restitution, to provide a slave labor force? To simply remove the criminal element from society?

        What is the goal?

        Thing is whatever goal or set of goals you choose locking prisoners into long term solitary confinement is at best a sub optimal solution and nearly always works counter to the actual goals of the system, and yet the practice persists because of exactly the mistake you are making, you confuse the minutia of one specific case as being relevant to the much larger question.

        I never said that the State of New York had any intention of rehabilitation this guy, I said that if such was on their list of goals for locking the guy up then they were working counter to that goal.

        1. I don’t think there can be just one goal for the entire spectrum of prisoners.

          Maybe some guy who made poor choices, dropped out of school, and ended up stealing can be rehabbed and be productive. Maybe others, as well. Others are just bad seeds.

          What to do with prisons is a multiple can of worms question. My step one would probably be to stop imprisoning non-violent drug dealers and users. Step two would be to stop mixing violent and non-violent criminals. Step three would probably be to try to sort out which non-violent criminals are just screw-ups who want and might be able to have an actual semi-productive life and which are just lazy, recidivist assholes who will just be back no matter what you do. Step three is already pretty shaky and it just gets worse from there.

    2. Rehabilitation cannot be the purpose of a justice system. If it’s the goal, you produce a system that has no room for justice. You can’t, for example, give fixed sentences sentences known in advance. The murderer who is reformed in five should be let out then; the guy who shoplifted a couple beers remains in until even fifty years if you can’t manage rehabilitate him sooner.

      The goals of a justice system are comparatively simple, restitution and retribution. Men are done unto as they do unto others, and the others are made whole.

      The great beauty of an actual justice system is it leaves victimless crimes completely unpunishable; the person harmed by the act (if any) is the offender, and so he has already waived restitution from himself and has already inflicted the harm on himself. Even with a law forbidding his act, you can’t give him any sentence?if you have a justice system.

      On the other hand, a criminal rehabilitation system, well, you send the guy to be rehabilitated of his crime, as long as it takes. If after twenty years he still wants to smoke marijuana, hire prostitutes, have sex with other men, drink alcohol, or criticize the government, well, obviously you still haven’t managed it.

      It’s true, there is indeed no having an intelligent discussion on the purpose of a justice system with someone who is doublethinking enough to speak of having a “justice system” with the goal of “rehabilitation”.

  6. Making this guy write an essay for Yale Law Journal was a terribly dehumanizing act.

    1. What do you call one Yale Law Journal author getting locked in solitary confinement?

      1. A good start! Amirite?!!

        1. Oh mama mia, mama mia, mama mia let me go

  7. “He built too many new prisons in my opinion, and cut academic and vocational programs in the prisons already standing.”

    I do not think those are for the benefit of a lifer, Mr. Blake. For those in for less, certainly.

    As for dismal solitary conditions – while I am primarily a retributivist – those conditions serve no legitimate function. In fact, you make things worse…someone in such a condition is going to be more of a risk to anyone he manages to interact with. Obviously someone who kills while in custody needs to be segregated, but it should not be some sort of scene from Papillon.

  8. This gets a shrug out of me. I’m supposed to feel sorry for the guy cause he got access to a Word-A-Day calendar and peppered his morose prose with flowery language of despair?

    Heck, living out here in the real world you get the same kind of results. But at least we didn’t kill anyone.

  9. It’s interesting to compare how we deal with murderers to the way they were treated in ancient societies. In the Roman world, you would be either exiled or executed (thrown in a river in a bag with a viper, cock, dog, and ape for parricides). Amongst the ancient Germans, the murderer (or manslaughterer) would pay the weregild to the family of the murdered and the affair would be over. But what is common about the ancient methods is the lack of prison. I think that most every ancient would consider our modern practice of warehousing hundreds of thousands of people in cages to be the height of barbarity.

  10. Maybe we should ask the people he killed what they think about his time in prison.

    Oh, wait…..

  11. While I completely understand the reaction of many to Blake in thinking he deserves his isolation for the tremendous pain and suffering he’s caused to the family of the person he murdered, it is important to understand the greater context of what he’s written.

    Approximately 80,000 prisoners across the country are currently experiencing what Blake has described. Not all of them are there for violence; in Virginia, a group of Rastafarians have spent a decade in isolation for refusing to cut their hair; in New York, prisoners may be placed in isolation for possessing too many stamps; in California, you may be placed in isolation for tattoo equipment.

    Here is why it matters to libertarian minded folk:

    It costs significantly more to house prisoners in solitary confinement,

    Prisoners in isolation have a higher chance of having a serious mental health problem that is likely only to be aggravated by isolation,

    Prisoners may spend months, years, and even decades in isolation, a practice that is used relatively little in other advanced countries,

    Prisoners in isolation are typically not able to access any meaningful programming or rehabilitative outlets.

    For more on solitary confinement, check out Solitary Watch’s website, and feel free to shoot me any questions you might have.

    Sal Rodriguez
    Assistant Editor, Solitary Watch

  12. What was the underlying crime here?

    “William Blake … killed a police officer and injured another while trying to escape a county courthouse he was held in on a drug charge.”

    Deadly force against arbitrary kidnapping is legitimate. I say pardon him.

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