From Solitary To The Streets: Released Inmates Get Little Help

Jun 11, 2015
Originally published on May 12, 2016 10:50 am

In prison, Brian Nelson lived in solitary confinement. That meant 23 hours a day in a small cell. No human contact, except with guards — for 12 years straight.

Then, his prison sentence for murder was over. One moment he was locked down. The next, he was free.

NPR and The Marshall Project, an online journalism group that focuses on the criminal justice system, investigated the release of tens of thousands of prisoners from solitary confinement to find out how many prisoners, like Nelson, go straight from solitary to the streets.

What was stunning is that most prison systems say they have no idea.

The Marshall Project and NPR surveyed all 50 states. About half reported they don't keep track or could not provide numbers of which inmates go straight home from solitary. And a recent audit for the federal Bureau of Prisons said it doesn't keep numbers, either.

But our tally from the 24 states that say they count shows that last year, at least 10,000 inmates came straight out of solitary.

Yet inmates released from solitary often need the most help — and get the least.

In solitary, they're cut off from things that help with re-entry. There are no education classes, no job training; and when they are released, they often get less supervision than other prisoners.

When Nelson's mother picked him up at the distant supermax prison in Tamms, Ill., he told her how he was given a television during his last year of solitary and kept seeing ads for a fast-food ice cream.

"And I kept seeing a Blizzard. I kept seeing these Blizzards. And I'm like, 'God that looks so good.' So all I wanted was a Blizzard," he says.

On the drive home, they stopped for a Blizzard at a Dairy Queen.

"And I'm standing there and a guy walked behind me. And I was not used to people being that close to me. And I started cussing. I turned around, I'm ready to fight because I thought I don't know if he's going to attack me," Nelson recalls. "I have prison mentality in my mind. And then I looked up and saw my mom crying, like 'Oh my God, what have they done to him?' You know, because I couldn't handle being around people."

That was five years ago. It's still hard for Nelson, 50, to be around people.

Researchers and prisoner reformers say inmates who spend long stays in solitary confinement often deal with lifelong emotional damage. That became an issue this week with stories of one of the youngest and one of the oldest inmates in solitary confinement.

On Monday, a federal judge in Louisiana ordered the release of a man thought to have been in solitary confinement longer than any other prisoner. Albert Woodfox, 68, went into solitary in 1972 after being charged in the death of a prison guard that year. The Louisiana attorney general's office announced it would appeal the ruling, seeking to keep Woodfox in prison.

That came right after reports that 22-year-old Kalief Browder had died last weekend by suicide. He was 16 when he was arrested on suspicion of stealing a backpack, a charge he denied. Browder spent nearly three years on Rikers Island, New York City's large jail complex, awaiting trial. Two of those years were spent in solitary. The charges against him were dropped and he returned home.

Last October, Browder described to a New Yorker writer how he struggled during long stretches in solitary confinement and still suffered once he was out of jail. He had attempted to take his life several times while he was behind bars and again once he was released. Browder's story led New York, last December, to end the use of solitary for 16- and 17-year-olds, noting that the practice often caused mental illness.

In Chicago, Nelson is now a paralegal and works as a prisoner's advocate at the Uptown People's Law Center. But he still thinks about the inmates he knew during his 28 years in prison.

"To me, it's therapy," he says. "Because I have survivor's guilt. I left some good friends behind in solitary that are still there."

The Department of Justice estimates that about 80,000 prisoners in the U.S. are in solitary confinement. The system drastically expanded in the past 30 years as the U.S. prison population grew. Corrections officials built supermax prisons and added other new programs to isolate the inmates who were considered the most dangerous.

"The United States is unique and this is a relatively new experiment," says Alan Mills, who is Nelson's boss at the Uptown People's Law Center. "And now we're dealing with people who have spent a decade in solitary and are getting out. Mental health professionals don't know how to deal with it. And don't have treatment for it yet. It's a brand new world and unfortunately it's one that we as a society have created for ourselves."

Mills says, at the least, prisons need to take inmates out of solitary months before they leave prison and give them mental health treatment, job training and other help to get them ready to go back home.

A few states, and the federal prison system, have started doing that.

Unlike most prisoners who are given parole when they are released, inmates in solitary are less likely to get supervision. That's because they "max out" their sentence and fall outside the parole system.

That's clear in data several states provided to The Marshall Project and NPR. For example, in Texas, only 14 percent of inmates in the general prison population are released without supervision. But for those who are home from solitary confinement, that number is 63 percent.

"I went from solitary confinement straight to my Mom's," Nelson says.

A month before Nelson was released, he says he was moved from his solitary confinement unit at the supermax prison at Tamms to another prison where he also ended up in solitary.

"No reintegration. I begged for help," he says. "Get me ready. Help me."

Nelson says he now has many problems that resulted from years of being isolated from human contact. He still has trouble being around other people; his office at the law clinic is away from the main office, in a building down the block; he sleeps only a few hours a night.

Sometimes he'll come into the office at 2 a.m. Some days, he's so nervous, he'll pick and pick at his skin, until his hands bleed.

And there are days he says he just can't work at all. Because something — maybe a letter from one of the thousands of inmates he corresponds with — triggered his nightmares of solitary. Just doing this interview drained him for days.

"I never had mental health issues before," says Nelson. "I never saw a psychiatrist. I never took psychotropic medication."

Now he needs those things to get by. He knows other men in his unit who had a harder time: the men who died by suicide, the man who mutilated his testicle.

Nelson pulls out a large cardboard box he keeps next to his office.

"This is one of the things I did to keep sane." he says.

Inside, there are more than 4,000 pages, in Nelson's handwriting, in blue ballpoint ink. He picks up Page 1.

"Genesis," he says. "It took me one year, nine months and two days to copy the entire Bible. That's the Catholic Bible. Word for word, copied."

It was his Catholic faith, he says, that pulled him through the last 12 years in solitary.

Nelson was convicted of armed robbery and murder in Illinois when he was 17. He says he went along with another man selling stolen property, who did the killing.

But Nelson says no prison official explained why he was put into solitary. At the time, he'd been living in a minimum security prison in another state.

An official with the Illinois Department of Corrections says the record from that time is sealed.

Rick Raemisch also knows what solitary confinement cells are like.

He describes his: "It was very typical for a confinement cell. It was about 7 feet by 13 feet and everything, of course, was metal with a small pad to sleep on."

Raemisch is the director of corrections for the state of Colorado. Last year, he spent 20 hours in a solitary confinement cell.

His predecessor had been murdered by an ex-inmate who said he was avenging the time he'd spent in solitary. So Raemisch wanted to understand the controversy over solitary.

One of the biggest misconceptions he says — the day he went in — was that his isolation cell was going to be quiet.

"I'd been very busy at work and I thought, 'I'll just go in there and take a nap for 20 hours.' And it was loud and it was banging and screaming and actually sensory overload," he says.

The inmates, who didn't know he was there, were loud and angry. Some were psychotic. If they'd gone into solitary with any mental illness, the problem almost certainly got worse. If they didn't have a mental illness, he says, then many developed one.

"The fact of the matter is that I came out of there feeling that, that really nobody should be spending, if at all possible, any lengthy periods of time in there," Raemisch says.

Among the reforms the corrections chief has made in Colorado: No one stays in solitary for more than a year, and no one goes in who already has a serious mental illness. (Some of this reform was actually started by Raemisch's assassinated predecessor — Tom Clements.)

One result of the new rules: Inmate-on-staff assaults are down to the lowest level in nearly a decade.

A few other states — including New York and Mississippi — have made similar reform. But most prison officials still say they need solitary confinement as a way to control violence.

In Colorado, Raemisch also changed the way prisoners are released. They used to go directly from solitary confinement to the streets.

When he first got to Colorado, he says he heard stories of how correctional officers would take an inmate being released from solitary to the bus station in handcuffs and shackles. They'd put the inmate on the bus and then take the shackles off. "And I thought," Raemisch recalls, "'My God, everybody on that bus should get up and run.'"

In 2011, 200 inmates in Colorado went from solitary to the streets. But since last March, shortly after the director of corrections spent that night in solitary, no prisoner has gone direct from solitary to the streets.

"And when you consider that 97 percent of the inmates go back to the community," Raemisch notes, "it makes no sense whatsoever to be releasing them directly from segregation, where supposedly we consider them too dangerous to be in the general population. Yet we're releasing them out into the community. It just made no sense."

There have been notorious cases where prisoners came out of solitary and went on killing sprees. The one in Colorado and another in Nebraska.

But those cases are rare.

What's more common: Prisoners come out of solitary emotionally damaged. They can't work. They behave in ways that test and fray the few important relationships they have with friends and family.

Of the dozens of ex-inmates NPR and The Marshall Project found who spent extended time in solitary confinement, Nelson is one of the few who are successful and working.

But he says it's a daily struggle. There are things that center him, such as prayer, his family, sitting on the couch with his girlfriend, and her touch. He also says his work at the law office as an advocate for other prisoners helps.

"There's times out here where it's like, I don't know if I belong out here. And everybody looks at me like, 'What? You're doing great,' " he says. "No, I'm not doing great. There are days I do great, there's days I put on a face, and then there's days where people are like, 'Please go away.' "

This story was reported with The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization that covers the U.S. criminal justice system. Read more of this investigation from The Marshall Project: From Solitary To The Street.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

They're supposed to be the most dangerous and violent inmates. That's why prisons say they're in solitary confinement.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Almost all of them will eventually go home. Yet, in some states, they're making that return without job training or mental health care, things often provided to other inmates. A new investigation also finds that these states don't keep track of who goes right from solitary to the streets.

CORNISH: This comes from reporting by NPR and the journalism group The Marshall Project. Here's NPR's Joseph Shapiro.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO, BYLINE: In prison, Brian Nelson lived in solitary confinement. That meant 23 hours a day in a small cell, no human contact except with guards for 12 years straight. Then one day, his prison sentence for murder was over. One moment he was locked down. The next, he was free. His mother picked him up at the distant super-max prison in Illinois. His last year in solitary, Nelson got a television. He told his mother how he'd been seeing the ads for a fast food ice cream.

BRIAN NELSON: I kept seeing a Blizzard. I kept seeing these Blizzards, and I'm like, God, that looks so good. So all I wanted was a Blizzard. And we went into the ice cream place.

SHAPIRO: On the drive home.

NELSON: And I was standing there. And a guy walked behind me, and I was not used to people being that close to me. And I started cussing, and I turned around. I'm ready to fight 'cause I thought - I didn't know if he was going to attack me. I had prison mentality in my mind. And then I looked up, and I just saw my mom crying, like, oh, my God; what have they done to him, you know, 'cause I couldn't handle being around people.

SHAPIRO: That was five years ago. It's still hard for Nelson to be around people. He's 50, short, strong, his head shaved. Now he works as a paralegal, as a prisoner's advocate, at a storefront law office in Chicago.

NELSON: In the wintertime, this gets very cold running back and forth.

SHAPIRO: But he doesn't work in the main office of the Uptown People's Law Center. Instead, he goes outside and a few doors down the street to a separate office.

NELSON: I prefer away from the crowds and all that stuff. I get very jittery if there's too many people, and if I'm alone, I can do a lot more work.

SHAPIRO: The Marshall Project, an online journalism group that focuses on the criminal justice system, did a state-by-state survey with NPR. We wanted to know how many prisoners like Brian Nelson go straight from solitary confinement to the streets. What was stunning is that most prison systems say they have no idea. About half the states told us they don't keep track or can't provide numbers of which inmates leave solitary and go home, and the Federal Bureau of Prisons, in a recent audit, said it doesn't keep numbers either.

NELSON: So now this is my office.

SHAPIRO: But our survey shows that at least 10,000 inmates last year came straight out of solitary. That's the total from just the 24 states that did provide numbers. Here's a reason why all states should be keeping track because inmates coming from solitary often need the most help but usually get the least. In solitary, they're cut off from things that help with reentry. There are no education classes, no job training. Alan Mills is Brian Nelson's boss at the Uptown People's Law Center.

ALAN MILLS: The United States is unique, and this is a relatively new experiment. And now we're dealing with people who have spent a decade in solitary and are getting out. Mental health professionals don't know how to deal with it and don't have treatment for it yet. It's a brand-new world, and unfortunately, it's one that we, as a society, have created for ourselves.

SHAPIRO: Mills says at the least, prisons need to take inmates out of solitary months before they leave prison and give them mental health treatment and job training. A few states in the federal prison system have started doing that. But inmates in solitary are considered the most dangerous and violent of prisoners. They're more likely to serve all or most of their sentence. And that means when they leave prison, they're not on parole, so they don't get the help with reentry. That's clear in data several states gave to the Marshall Project and NPR, like Texas. For inmates in the general prison population, only 14 percent are released without supervision. But for those home from solitary confinement, it's 63 percent. Brian Nelson says he was on his own in Illinois.

NELSON: I went from solitary confinement straight to my mom's.

SHAPIRO: A month before Nelson was released, he says he was moved from his solitary confinement unit but just to another one.

NELSON: No reintegration. I begged for help. Get me ready. Help me, you know? And it's - sometimes I don't think I belong out here. I mean, it's that hard to adjust.

SHAPIRO: Nelson says he's got lots of problems that resulted from his years of being isolated from human contact. He sleeps only a few hours a night. Some nights, he'll come into the office at 2 in the morning. Some days, he's so nervous, he'll pick and pick at his skin until his hands bleed. And there are days he just can't work at all because something, maybe a letter from one of the thousands of inmates he corresponds with, will trigger his nightmares of solitary. Just doing this interview drained him four days.

NELSON: I never had mental health issues before. I never saw a psychiatrist. I never took psychotropic medication.

SHAPIRO: Now he needs those things to get by. He knows other men on his unit who had a harder time - the men in the solitary who died by suicide, the man who mutilated his testicle. Nelson pulls out a large cardboard box he keeps next to his office.

NELSON: This is one of the things I did to keep sane.

SHAPIRO: Inside, there are more than 4,000 pages in Nelson's handwriting and blue ballpoint ink. He picks up page one.

NELSON: Genesis - took me one year and nine months and two days to copy the entire Bible. That's the Catholic Bible word-for-word copied. (Laughter). Yes.

SHAPIRO: It was his Catholic faith that pulled him through those 12 years in solitary. Nelson spent 28 years in prison. He was convicted of armed robbery and murder in Illinois. He was 17 then. He says there was a dispute, and he went along with another man who did the killing of a man who was selling stolen property. Nelson says no prison official explained why he was put into solitary for those last 12 years. At the time, he'd been living in a minimum-security prison in another state. An official with the Illinois Department of Corrections says the record from that time is sealed. Rick Raemisch knows what solitary confinement cells are like.

RICK RAEMISCH: It was a - it's very typical for a confinement cell. It's about 7 feet by 13 feet, and everything, of course, is metal with a small pad to sleep on.

SHAPIRO: Raemisch is the director of corrections for the state of Colorado. Last year, he spent 20 hours in a solitary confinement cell. His predecessor had been murdered by an ex-inmate who said he was avenging the time he'd spent in solitary. Raemisch wanted to understand the controversy over isolation. On the day he went in, one of his biggest misconceptions was that his cell was going to be quite.

RAEMISCH: I'd been very busy at work, and I thought, I'll just go in there and take a nap for 20 hours. And it was loud, and it was banging and screaming and actually sensory overload.

SHAPIRO: The inmates, who didn't know he was there, were loud and angry. Some were psychotic. If they'd gone into solitary with any mental illness, the problem almost certainly got worse. If they didn't have mental illness, he says, then many developed one.

RAEMISCH: The fact of the matter is is that I came out of there feeling that really nobody should be spending, if at all possible, any lengthy periods of time in there.

SHAPIRO: Among the reform the corrections chief has made in Colorado, no one stays in solitary for more than a year, and no one goes in who already has a serious mental illness. One result - inmate-on-staff assaults are down to the lowest level in nearly a decade. A few other states, including New York and Mississippi, have made similar reform. But prisons are violent places, and corrections officials say they need solitary to make things safer. In Colorado, Raemisch also changed the way prisoners got released. They used to go directly from solitary confinement to the streets.

RAEMISCH: When I first got here, I would hear stories of someone being taken in shackles out of segregation, being placed on public transportation by two correctional officers, having the shackles taken off of them. And I thought, my God, everybody in that bus would - should get up and run.

SHAPIRO: In 2011 in Colorado, 200 inmates went from solitary to the streets, but since last March, shortly after the director of corrections spent that night in solitary, no prisoner has gone direct from solitary to the streets.

RAEMISCH: And when you consider that 97 percent of the inmates go back to the community, it makes no sense whatsoever to be releasing them directly from segregation where, supposedly, we consider them too dangerous to be in the general population, yet we're releasing them out into the community. It just made no sense.

SHAPIRO: There've been notorious cases where prisoners came out of solitary and went on killing sprees - the one in Colorado, another in Nebraska. But those cases are rare. What's more common - prisoners come out of solitary emotionally damaged. They can't work. They behave in ways that test and fray the few important relationships they have with friends and family. Just this week, there's been a tension to what could happen to some of the 80,000 inmates in solitary around the country with the suicide in New York of one of the youngest and the ordered release in Louisiana of one of the oldest, a man who's been in solitary for 43 years.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Sausage, egg and cheese.

SHAPIRO: Back in Chicago, Brian Nelson goes out to lunch with a recently released prisoner he's befriended, Earl Bassett.

NELSON: Feels good to eat real food, though, ain't it?

EARL BASSETT: Yep.

NELSON: Both of us have gained a lot of weight since we've been out.

BASSETT: I was eating that there - all that soy - no taste. And I got out there and got real food. Oh, man, I overdid it

NELSON: Same thing I did. I do not like silverware or glass because you're so used to plastic. Glass against my teeth bothers me.

SHAPIRO: A couple times during lunch, Nelson excuses himself to go outside. The crowd and noise get to him. But of the dozens of ex-inmates we came across who spent extended time in solitary confinement, Nelson is one of the few who are successful and working. To Nelson, though, it's always a struggle.

NELSON: There's a song by Johnny Cash called "Hurt." Have you ever heard it? I cut myself today just to feel the pain. Solitary confinement is where men cut theirself. And we do that so you feel something. You get so numb in there.

SHAPIRO: Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HURT")

JOHNNY CASH: (Singing) I hurt myself today to see if I still feel. I focus on the pain, the only thing that's real.

CORNISH: And you can read our full investigation with The Marshall Project, from solitary to the streets, at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.