Kiana Calloway, who spent time in solitary confinement during his 17 years in prison before being released in 2011, told a crowd of prison-reform activists and others gathered today at Loyola University New Orleans that the criminal justice system isn’t broken.
“It’s structured to do exactly what it’s done,” Calloway said, referring to the brutal conditions he and others said they encountered during time in isolation in their approximately 6-by-9-foot cells.
Calloway was one of about 40 people in the room for the release of a report on Louisiana’s use of solitary confinement — conducted by Solitary Watch, the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana and the Jesuit Social Research Institute/Loyola University New Orleans — in which 709 men and women living in solitary confinement were surveyed about their living conditions.
More than three-fourths of individuals surveyed said they had been held in solitary confinement for more than a year, with 30 percent saying they’d been held for more than five years. According to the report, the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections (LADOC) had not collected its own data on the length of time people in prison spent in solitary.
Respondents described inhumane conditions including stories of being forced to clean toilets with their bare hands and sleeping on floors infested with ants, spiders and cockroaches in an attempt to try to cool off in cells without air conditioning. One respondent claimed to have gone blind in one eye due to being refused medical treatment.
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Calloway told the audience that he said he once saw an officer drag an inmate along the ground — an inmate who had been begging for mental health medication and whose eye was hanging out of his head.
Many respondents reported having psychological effects such as anxiety, panic attacks, depression, hallucinations and paranoia. Calloway said he still wakes up in cold sweats, haunted by the screams he heard from people in neighboring cells while in solitary.
David Cloud, lead researcher for the Vera Institute of Justice’s study of solitary confinement in Louisiana, said the findings in the study echoed many of the same details Vera found in its report released earlier this year.
But the LADOC disputed the survey’s findings. In a prepared statement to The Advocate, LADOC spokesman Ken Pastorick said that many of the survey responses included claims that were "vague and blatant lies," adding that “it appears that information was gathered improperly.”
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“First of all, I don’t know how a lie could be vague and blatant at the same time,” Jean Casella, co-director of Solitary Watch, said in response to Pastorick’s statement. “Our background at Solitary Watch is in journalism. It is traditional to doubt anything that comes out of the mouth of an incarcerated person. … The media does cooperate in that.”
“I’ll tell you if six people write that they are being forced to bark like dogs before they get fed, I believe them,” she added. “If the DOC asked them these questions, they would find out the same thing.”
Albert Woodfox, a New Orleans native who spent more than 44 years in solitary confinement, said he believed the survey respondents because the experiences they wrote about in the study mirrored his own.
“I’m trying to figure out where the lying part is at. Everything that’s said in here, I’ve lived it for the last 44 years and 10 months of my life,” Woodfox said. “The lie is that they refuse to accept the truth.”
Woodfox was a member of the "Angola Three" who, at the time of his release from the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola in 2016, was the country’s longest-standing solitary confinement prisoner. Earlier this year, he released “Solitary,” an autobiography detailing the more than four decades he spent in isolation.
Nearly one in five men in Louisiana state prisons had been in solitary confinement for more than two weeks, according to a fall 2017 count from the LADOC and the study released by the Vera Institute of Justice — a rate about four times the national average.
In 2011, the United Nations (U.N.) called on countries to ban solitary confinement in almost all cases — with exceptions to protect an inmate from being targeted — along with a total end to isolation for more than 15 days and for juveniles and people with mental disabilities.
The U.N. also discouraged its use as a form of punishment for rule breaking inside prisons. But according to the survey, 56 percent of respondents were in “extended lockdown,” which is typically a result of rule violation.
Researchers mailed the 12-page surveys and return envelopes to 2,709 individuals living in solitary confinement in the state. A press release for the Loyola event said it was “the largest survey ever conducted of people living in solitary.”
Panelists said that a response rate of 26 percent showed a desire to be heard among people living in solitary confinement. However, they noted the responses weren’t evenly distributed among state institutions or members of the prison population in general, with fewer responses completed by women and the state’s private prison population.
Furthermore, the written nature of the survey could have prevented certain populations in solitary confinement from participating.
“The surveys we received are devastating and haunting,” Casella said. “But what haunts me even more are the ones that we didn’t receive because either people don’t possess the literacy to fill them out or people are so deeply mentally ill that they are not able to fill them out.
“So as bad as what we’re hearing, we may not even be hearing from the people who are suffering the most,” she added.