How 4 Inmates Launched A Statewide Hunger Strike From Solitary

Mar 6, 2014
Originally published on March 6, 2014 6:30 pm

Last summer, four alleged leaders of rival prison gangs worked together to coordinate a hunger strike at California's Pelican Bay State Prison. They were protesting long-term, indefinite incarceration in solitary confinement.

All of the men were in solitary when they launched the strike. One of them, Todd Ashker, has been in solitary for more than 20 years. On the first day of the strike, 30,000 prisoners across the state's prison system refused their meals. The story of how the four prisoners coordinated the hunger strike, and the larger issue of how solitary confinement has become a more long-term and widely used punishment in the past three decades, are the subjects of an article in New York Magazine called "The Plot From Solitary," by Benjamin Wallace-Wells.

Pelican Bay is a maximum-security prison that opened in 1989. There are more than 1,000 isolation cells in its Secure Housing Unit, which is known by the acronym SHU. Wallace-Wells tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross how the strike leaders managed to organize such a widespread movement from inside solitary confinement.

Gross also talks to Craig Haney, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, about the psychological impact of solitary confinement, which he has been studying for more than 30 years.


Interview Highlights

On how the alleged leaders of four rival prison gangs ended up in the same pod of the solitary confinement unit

Wallace-Wells: In 2006, prison officials at Pelican Bay reorganized the SHU; they reallocated the prisoners into different spots in the Security Housing Unit. They thought that the gangs had found ways to work even within these extremely isolated environments. Gang leaders ended up next to gang lieutenants and they wanted to break that up.

So what they did, effectively, was they took all the people who they thought were the most influential, of whom they were the most scared, and they put them all together in one small part of the SHU — it's called the Short Corridor. The theory was you would separate the guys who were very heavily monitored ... from the guys who had become accustomed to doing their bidding, the more junior players. One thing that this did, effectively, was it brought all of the most senior and most influential men in the prison system into physical proximity with one another ...

Every cell in solitary is part of a pod of eight cells, and though the prisoners don't see each other, they can shout to the people in those other seven cells. Also, prisoners are ingenious, and they have figured out how to shout through toilet drains in their own cell to people in other cells and nearby parts of the prison. They figured out how those drain networks go.

On how long it took for the strike leaders to come together

Wallace-Wells: I think it took a long time. These four men who led the hunger strike — Todd Ashker, [allegedly] of the Aryan Brotherhood, had the initial idea; Sitawa Jamaa, who is allegedly from the Black Guerilla Family; and Arturo Castellanos, allegedly a senior leader of the Mexican Mafia; and Antonio Guillen, allegedly one of the three "generals" of Nuestra Familia — they were put together in basically the same space years ago, in 2006, and it took five years for them come together.

That was a long process. They were very wary around one another at first, but they are each in their own way political and both Ashker and Sitawa Jamaa in particular had been reading revolutionary texts for years. In their own way, each of them had come to see their fight as fundamentally with the system itself rather than fundamentally with each other.

They also are all about the same age. They're now in their late 40s and early 50s and they had a ton of time in the pod and they had nothing to do but talk. So what they will say is that they first came together, they first developed some intimacy, not by talking about the abuses that they believed they were suffering and not by talking about gang politics, but by talking about their families. The kind of catalyst, after all, of that was Ashker and the other white inmate on the pod ... had become a kind of revolutionary book club and they would talk about these books by shouting through the pod. The impact for Ashker was to kind of highlight that they were members of a prisoner class, that the racial divisions among them were artificial and had been coached along by the guards.

On the conditions of solitary confinement

Haney: They are grim places to look at and to be in, particularly after someone has lived in them for long periods of time. The cell is a bunk where you will sleep, a toilet, a sink, they may or may not have a small table area or small concrete desk area. Prisoners keep their property in these units.

This essentially becomes the margins of their existence because solitary confinement means that you live in this environment, essentially, around the clock. In most of these units, you get out of your cell no more than an hour or two a day, so the other 23 or 22 hours a day you are living in that cell. That means you eat in your cell, you defecate in your cell, you sleep in your cell — all aspects of your life take place within this small space. It begins to absorb the wear and tear of someone's around-the-clock existence, by which I mean the places begin to look and feel and smell different as a result of someone having to live there all of the time and never really being able to leave that place for any significant period of time.

On the common psychological reactions to solitary

Haney: After a while, the reality of the situation that they're in sets in and the magnitude of the isolation and the magnitude of the deprivation, the distance from other human beings begins to register on them ...

Prisoners oftentimes [report] anxiety. Sometimes it's anxiety that they experience or feel immediately — there's a term, "isolation panic." It's a frightening thing to have the door close behind you and look around your cell and realize that you're going to be there, and you're going to be there day in and day out without any other activities that you can engage in, with few, if any, opportunities to work your way out of this environment. Some prisoners are overcome with full-blown anxiety reactions and they panic in the face of this.

Anger is another common reaction. Prisoners get frustrated over things. There are few outlets, very few opportunities, for prisoners to not only blow off steam but to release the stress that they're under. So they will report that these feelings begin to build up in them and sometimes that frustration, irritation results in an explosive outburst, not necessarily against anyone else, not necessarily against the staff, sometimes against themselves. Sometimes they find themselves banging on the door, banging on the wall or hitting their head against something just as a way of releasing the tension or the pressure or the stress.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Four alleged leaders of rival prison gangs worked together to coordinate a hunger strike last summer at California's Pelican Bay State Prison in protest of long-term, indefinite incarceration in solitary confinement. Each of the four men were in solitary when they launched the strike. One of them, Todd Ashker, has been in solitary for more than 20 years.

On the first day of the strike, 30,000 prisoners refused their meals. The story of how the four prisoners coordinated the hunger strike and the larger issue of how solitary confinement has become a more long-term and widely used punishment in the past three decades are the subjects of an article in New York magazine called "The Plot from Solitary" by my guest Benjamin Wallace-Wells. He's a staff writer for the magazine.

Pelican Bay is a supermax facility that opened in 1989. There are over 1,000 isolation cells in its Secure Housing Unit, which is known by its acronym, the SHU. Benjamin Wallace-Wells, welcome to FRESH AIR. Until reading your article, I thought of solitary as this temporary punishment for, you know, a crime committed, an assault, whatever, in prison and that you're there for like a week, a month, a few months, but that was it.

But reading your article, I got a very different sense of that. Can you talk a little about the amounts of time that prisoners today are held in solitary confinement?

BENJAMIN WALLACE-WELLS: Many of the men who I spoke with had been in solitary confinement or conditions that we think of as solitary confinement for 25 years. They are in a cell that's 11 foot by seven feet 23 hours a day that are taken out of their cell for one hour, where they go to a concrete room, where they exercise alone, and then they are brought back.

They are fed through a slot in the door. Other than staring out at the same blank wall as seven other inmates, so they're in a sort of a pod, a group of seven cells, they can't see the seven other inmates, but they look out at the same blank wall, they have virtually no social interaction at all. They are never touched by another human being except to be put in chains or taken out of chains.

There's no programming for them. They don't eat with other inmates. They don't take classes with other inmates. With the exception of that one hour a day that they spend exercising, they are entirely alone in their cell. It's a pretty extreme form of isolation.

GROSS: Why did you want to write about the hunger strike organized by prisoners in solitary confinement in Pelican Bay?

WALLACE-WELLS: There were two reasons, I think. The first was simply the scale and coordination. On July 8th, 30,000 people around the California state prison system, 30,000 inmates refused food on the same day. That was in protest o f the policy of indefinite confinement in the SHU at Pelican Bay. It had been organized by people who are housed in those conditions.

And so just the simple fact that you could have such a vast protest organized from such restrictive conditions was incredible to me. Some of those men, including the leaders, stayed on hunger strike for 60 days, which is really pushing death by everything we knew about the medical impact of hunger strike, of self-starvation beforehand.

The second thing is to the hunger strike leaders and their advocates themselves, this was a pure human rights protest. It was men who were at the end of their rope, who had been stuck in inhumane conditions for decades who were taking control of the one means of expression that they had, which was to deny themselves food as a way of calling attention to their conditions and as a way of generating a political movement.

But to the prison officials and to many people outside, this was something very different. It was a tactical gang activity. They saw these men as leaders of prison gangs, and they thought that the conditions that they had put the prison gang leaders in had effectively made it much more difficult for the prison gangs to operate, and they thought these are gang leaders who are using the language and methods of human rights protest in order to regain an ability to operate as gangs throughout the prison system.

GROSS: You interviewed one of the leaders of the hunger strike, Todd Ashker, who is an alleged leader of the Aryan Brotherhood in Pelican Bay prison. And this is a white supremacist prison gang. Am I describing that correctly?

WALLACE-WELLS: Yeah, I think white supremacist prison gang is fair.

GROSS: And he does have swastika tattoos on his body, yeah.

WALLACE-WELLS: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

GROSS: So why is he in solitary?

WALLACE-WELLS: Todd Ashker is in solitary because he was validated, which is the formal administrative process that California offers, as a member of the Aryan Brotherhood many years ago, in the early 1990s. Todd had originally been in prison for burglary, but when he was in his early 20s, he killed another inmate in the inmate's cell. He stabbed him 26 times.

The guy who died, the victim, was also an alleged member of the Aryan Brotherhood, and the prison officials and prosecutors said that this was a gang hit, that the man who Ashker killed had been cutting the gang out of proceeds from methamphetamine deals he had been arranging on the outside. Ashker himself said it was self-defense.

Todd is an incredibly charismatic, intense individual. He's 50 years old now. He is - has a handlebar moustache. His upper body is covered in white supremacist tattoos. He's got three swastikas on him, all of which he got in prison. He is self-taught, politically radicalized...

GROSS: And he got his paralegal certificate in prison, sued the prison system 15 times. What for?

WALLACE-WELLS: For everything from personal injury, being shot and then being poorly treated, to the prisoners being denied access to the prison law library in the way they were supposed to be. He sued the prison system over after what was at the time a no warning shot policy, where prison guards could shoot prisoners without firing a warning shot, effectively; all range of small and large violations.

I think the interesting thing for Todd about those lawsuits is that the law gave him something to sink his mind into. The simple pressure of time in these conditions, of being in a cell by yourself for years and years and years, can become oppressive. And many of the people who thrive in this environment harbor some sense of grievance, some outrage, and also tend to find something to sink their mind into, to occupy them.

And for Todd that was the law.

GROSS: Before we talk about the actual hunger strike, would you just describe how you got permission to talk with him and what talking with him was like, just even physically since he never gets face-to-face time with anybody and since even the food that he gets is like slipped through a slot in the door, he doesn't even see the guard giving him the food. Did you actually get face time with him?

WALLACE-WELLS: Yeah, of a sort. You've probably seen in movies about prison a sort of setup where a prisoner will sit and talk on a phone, and then they're in a little booth, and then there's a thick plate of glass, and then there's a visitor, usually a family member or a lawyer, on the other side.

So the prisoners are brought in to one side of that booth, and then you file in to the other side, and you talk through the phone to them. You know, I had two hours with him and two hours with Sitawa Jamaa, who is one of the other four leaders of the hunger strike.

And one of the things that was interesting about that experience was you can hear in their voices that they have been practicing what they're going to say to you. There's a careful and studied cadence, set of words, and you do realize in even these interactions that there are so few things that happen to these people in a month that everything that happens is thought through many times over, beforehand and afterwards.

So the conversations are recorded and monitored. But, you know, Todd was willing to speak very freely and felt comfortable doing so.

GROSS: So explain some of the reasons he had for organizing the hunger strike.

WALLACE-WELLS: Todd had been politically active in his own head. He'd been developing as a kind of political thinker for a very long time. In 2006, prison officials at Pelican Bay reorganized the SHU. They reallocated the prisoners into different spots in the Security Housing Unit. They thought that the gangs had found ways to work even within these extremely isolated environments. Gang leaders had ended up housed next to gang lieutenants, and they wanted to break that up.

And so what they did effectively was they took all the people who they thought were the most influential, of whom they were the most scared, and they put them all together in one small part of the SHU that they - it's called the short corridor. And the theory was you would separate the guys who were very heavily monitored, who had a great deal of difficulty getting mail out, from the guys who had become accustomed to doing their bidding, the more junior players.

But one thing that this did effectively was it brought all of the most senior and most influential men in the prison system into physical proximity with one another.

GROSS: Well, how can that be? Because they're in solitary, so how are they in physical proximity?

WALLACE-WELLS: Right, OK. So it's because of the pod. Every cell in solitary is part of a pod of eight cells, and though the prisoners don't see each other, they can shout to the people in those other seven cells. Also when they are - prisoners are ingenious, and they have figured out how to shout through toilet drains in their own cell to people in other - in other cells, in nearby parts of the prison, they figured out, you know, how those drain networks go.

GROSS: So like acoustically the drains...

WALLACE-WELLS: Reverberate in certain predictable ways, and over many years they've figured out, you know, how to use those to communicate from one pod to another. The exercise rooms that they are taken to for an hour a day, they're fully concrete, indoors rooms, but they share one wall with another exercise room from an adjacent pod. And you can shout through those walls and thereby communicate with a man who's in the exercise room from the pod next door.

So though it's enormously difficult for these men in the SHU to communicate with each other, it can happen. You know, there's a guy I talked to who's a former member of the Aryan Brotherhood who was what's called debriefed. He's formally quit the gang and gone to the prison officials and said I'm leaving the Aryan Brotherhood and I want to get out of the SHU. And there's a formal process that lets you do this.

And I talked to him, and he said, you know, the members of the Aryan Brotherhood would sometimes take votes on whether to admit a new member, on whether to have somebody killed. And even though all of the members of the Aryan Brotherhood, all the people who are voting are housed in this environment, we could conduct the votes.

He said it sometimes took us six months to do it, to circulate those yes-es and no's around the short corridor, but they did happen.

GROSS: My guest is Benjamin Wallace-Wells. His article about the hunger strike protesting long-term indefinite incarceration in solitary confinement is published in New York magazine. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my gust is Benjamin Wallace-Wells. We're talking about his article in New York magazine called "The Plot from Solitary," about a hunger strike organized last summer by prisoners who had been held indefinitely in solitary confinement in Pelican Bay Prison in California.

OK, so you're in an environment now where with great difficulty it's possible for the leaders of the gangs to communicate, which is how they organized the hunger strike. But let's point out here that these are leaders of rival gangs. So you get the white supremacist gang. You have the leader of an African-American gang. You have the leader - two leaders of Latino gangs. And they'd all be fighting each other in prison, but now they're fighting for the same cause, for some way out of solitary. For - yeah, so can you talk a little bit about what that meant for them to be communicating with each other for a common goal?

WALLACE-WELLS: Yeah, I think it took a long time. These four men who led the hunger strike - Todd Ashker of the Aryan Brotherhood sort of had the initial idea; Sitawa Jamaa, who is allegedly from the Black Guerilla Family; and Arturo Castellanos, allegedly a senior leader of the Mexican Mafia; and Antonio Guillen, allegedly one of the three generals of Nuestra Familia - they were put together in basically the same space years ago, in 2006. And it took five years for them to come together.

That was a long process. They were very wary around one another at first. But they are each in their own way political, and both Ashker and Sitawa Jamaa in particular had been reading revolutionary texts for years. And in their own way each of them had come to see their fight as fundamentally with the prison system itself rather than fundamentally with each other.

They also are all about the same age. They're now in their late 40s and early 50s. And they had a ton of time in the pod, and they had nothing to do but talk. So what they will say is that they first came together, they first developed some intimacy not by talking about the abuses that they believed they were suffering and not by talking about - and gang politics - but by talking about their families.

But the kind of catalyst after all of that was Ashker. Ashker and the other white inmate on the pod, a man named Danny Troxell, had begun a kind of revolutionary book club, and they would talk about these books by shouting through the pod. And the impact for Ashker was to kind of highlight that they were members of a prisoner class, that the racial divisions among them were artificial and had been sort of coached along by the guards.

GROSS: So they, the alleged prison gang leaders sharing the pod in solitary, decide to organize a hunger strike. Thirty-thousand people, 30,000 prisoners initially joined with them. How do you get the word out to that many people when you're in solitary, and you don't really have a means of communicating with other prisoners or with the outside world?

WALLACE-WELLS: It's an astonishing story, and a lot of this is still ambiguous. And this is where I do think the gangs probably did play a role. But what the hunger strike leaders will tell you is that they wrote letters. And though they are censored, many do get through. And they wrote handwritten letters to an activist website, and the prison activist groups, particularly in California, are pretty well-established, and they distribute their materials throughout the prison system.

And they said here are our grievances. We think this is torture. We feel like we're never getting out. We've been here for so long. We think this policy is inhumane, and we're planning on hunger striking, and here is the date on which we're going to start.

Now, when you talk to members of other gangs and former members of other prison gangs within the California system, they will sometimes tell you that when they saw those letters with those names, they knew those four hunger strike leaders not necessarily as political or human rights figures but as gang leaders.

And so they will tell you that they took that as an order from gang leaders that they were expected to participate. So there's some combination here of aboveboard, transparent political communication that gets through to these activist groups, which then publish newsletters that are distributed to prisoners, specifying what's going on, explaining what's going on, combined with some below-board gang communications.

And the prison officials will tell you that they saw messages about the hunger strike, political messages moving out from the SHU in the same manner and through the same connections that gang communications tended to, you know, coded message to family members.

GROSS: So it sounds like there's some degree of implicit intimidation.

WALLACE-WELLS: Yeah, you know, that's certainly what the prison officials will say. But it is notable that there is virtually no explicit coercion that they can find. There's one case in Corcoran State Prison where an inmate was beat up by his cellmate, and the guy who was beat up told prison authorities that this was because he refused to help his cellmate participate in the hunger strike.

But other than that, there is not a single case of somebody being explicitly coerced to participate in the hunger strike, which doesn't mean there wasn't a lot of implied expectation that people would participate. But even so, to get 30,000 people with virtually no violence to be willing to do harm to themselves for an idea, for a cause, is to me pretty impressive.

GROSS: But most of the 30,000 didn't stay on the hunger strike for long.

WALLACE-WELLS: That's right.

GROSS: But the leaders of the strike lasted 59 days before ending the strike.

WALLACE-WELLS: That's right.

GROSS: Why did they decide to end it?

WALLACE-WELLS: The decisive thing was that a judge issued an order allowing the state to force-feed them if they were near death. Right around the 40th day of the hunger strike, the prison system in California had gone to a federal judge, and because the prison system said they were worried that people were being coerced into staying on this strike for long, because the prison system said they did not have confidence that the do-not-resuscitate orders that many prisoners had filed with the system had been written freely, they suspected there was gang coercion, they said they wanted the right to force-feed prisoners if it came to that.

And the judge signed off on it. The procedures for force-feeding have been in place, you know, at Guantanamo Bay for a decade now. And they're pretty well-established. But to the hunger strike leaders this meant that all their leverage was lost.

Todd Ashker told me, you know, our leverage was the threat of death, and once this force-feeding order was approved, was signed by the judge, that leverage was gone.

GROSS: What did the hunger strikers accomplish? Did they accomplish anything in the 59 days that they refused food?

WALLACE-WELLS: I think they did help to elevate this issue. One of the things we've seen over just the last couple weeks is that there's been a little bit of a rolling back, maybe, a little bit of a reconsideration of solitary confinement nationally. At a hearing in the Senate on solitary confinement conditions, New York State has agreed to - just in the last couple weeks - has agreed to change, to modify, to liberalize its policy.

In California itself, there's now a bill before the state legislature that would cap the amount of time that anybody can be kept in solitary confinement indefinitely at 36 months, which is, you know, a fraction of what many of these men have spent there.

GROSS: Benjamin Wallace-Wells will be back in the second half of the show. His article "The Plot from Solitary" is in New York magazine. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Benjamin Wallace-Wells. His article "The Plot from Solitary" in New York magazine is about four alleged leaders of rival prison gangs who organized a hunger strike last summer in protest of long-term, indefinite incarceration in solitary confinement. They were in solitary when they organized the strike. The article is also about how solitary confinement has become a more widely-used and long-term punishment in the past three decades

Are the leaders of a hunger strike still in the same cells and still communicating with each other?

WALLACE-WELLS: Ashker has been moved away from the others. Ashker was the public face of this thing more so than the other three prisoners. He was taken to a cell where he's in a pod with seven other guys, none of whom is white and many of whom speak only Spanish. When I saw him, he complained to me about his mattress. You know, the man is passing into his sixth decade of life. When he moved into this new cell, he was given a mattress on which he just couldn't get comfortable. It was too short. It was too - he sunk into it, all the padding sunk to the outside and so he's sleeping on this plastic sleeve on a stone bench in a trench in the middle of the mattress. And, you know, he told me when I saw him that he was fixing to go back out on hunger strike, you know, just as soon as he could get, you know, the legal work done for the force-feeding order. He was angry. He was ready to go again. And listening to that and just sort of seeing this anger in him, you do realize that your life in these circumstances is so controlled that any little thing can push you over the edge.

In the case of some of the other hunger strike leaders, that might have been having their mail messed with a little more than was usual, or one of the other hunger strike leaders had a petition to donate a kidney to his sister denied - his sister was dying at the time. But the control is so absolute that your mattress can kind of send you over the edge. From the outside, it seems sometimes that looking back this was an effective protest. They won quite a bit. From the inside, I'm not sure that it feels that way.

GROSS: One of the things that surprised me in a way was the will to live. And I assume that in spite of the 59 day hunger strike, that the alleged leader of the Aryan Brotherhood in the Pelican Bay Prison, who you interviewed, wanted to live. Now I know he was going to be force-fed if he didn't stop the hunger strike, but I'm assuming he wanted to live even though he knew that meant going back to the conditions that he was on a hunger strike for and was willing - he was willing to die on that hunger strike.

WALLACE-WELLS: Yeah.

GROSS: Did you talk to him at all about the will to live when your life has been unchanged for decades in like a very small room, not interact - not able to see anybody?

WALLACE-WELLS: Of course. Each of the people that I talked to who were in the shoe now or have come out of the shoe dealt with it in different ways. Todd Ashker, the man you're talking about centrally, it seemed to me that he really thought about this as work. He had come to over a period of years think that there was something left in his life that had tremendous meaning - which was he could improve conditions for all of these people, he could change the consciousness of all of these prisoners. And he said to me, you know, if I think too much about the past or I think too much about the future, it gets really depressing. He said I looked at it as my life has been a waste. But what you can do, he said, is you can exist pretty terminally in the present and you can continue doing work. And, you know, even though there is a sort of dimming, you know, there's a sort of limitation of all kinds of stimuli, intellectual stimuli, emotional stimuli, they do exist.

And, you know, I spoke with a prisoner who has been in solitary in Ohio for years and years and years, who told me a story about finding a blade of grass that like drifted down through the grate that covered his exercise room and keeping that under his pillow for months and just looking at it and thinking, there is a living world out there. There are men in Pelican Bay who would keep frogs alive in their toilets for months and months by giving them tiny bits of food, that frogs crawl up through the drain pipes. So I don't know about a will to live exactly. That certainly exists. What was more striking to me was just the ways in which these men forced what we would think of as emotional relationships, as relationships of responsibility, as family relationships, intellectual relationships into an environment that was built almost precisely to deny them all those things.

GROSS: Well, Benjamin Wallace-Wells, thank you so much for talking with us.

WALLACE-WELLS: I really enjoyed it. Thanks so much for having me.

GROSS: Benjamin Wallace-Wells' article, "The Plots from Solitary," is in "New York Magazine." Coming up, psychologist Craig Haney talks about his 30 years of research into the psychological affects of solitary confinement.

This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Earlier on the show, we talked about a hunger strike organized at California's Pelican State Prison last summer, challenging the constitutionality of its solitary confinement unit, on the grounds that indefinite long-term confinement there constituted cruel and unusual punishment.

My guest, Craig Haney, has interviewed about 1,000 prisoners and former prisoners who have done time in solitary, including prisoners in Pelican Bay. He's been studying the psychological impact of solitary confinement for 30 years. Haney is a professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Craig Haney, welcome to FRESH AIR.

CRAIG HANEY: Thank you. It's nice to be here.

GROSS: You trace the rise of long-term use of solitary confinement in America's prisons to the '70s and the '80s. What changed then?

HANEY: It was a perfect storm, Terry, of several things coming together in concert. There was a change in laws in the United States, which resulted in mass incarceration. Those changes involve the drug wars of the 1970s and '80s, mandatory minimums, lengthening of sentences that prisoners routinely were given, and all of that resulted in lots and lots of more people coming into prison. This was also a period of time just following the institutionalization of the mental health system in the United States. So there were increasingly fewer and fewer mental hospitals and community mental health resources that were supposed to materialize never did. The criminal justice system became a default placement for the mentally ill, more and more mentally ill prisoners than there had ever been before.

Prison systems began to use isolations in a different way. They began to put prisoners in there, not just because they committed disciplinary infractions, but also because they perceived them to be potential threats to the safety and security of the institution, as the prison administrators would term it. And this increasingly involved people who were suspected of being gang members, and sometimes prisoners were placed in these units because, frankly, I think the systems didn't know where else to put them. And eventually, prison systems began to build units that were designed specifically for this so that entire units were constructed - and then in some instances, entire prisons so-called supermax prisons were devoted exclusively to the confinement of people in isolation type units, where - and this is the other major change - they typically stayed for long period of time and in some instances, the expectation was that prisoners would stay there indefinitely and indeed, they have stayed there indefinitely in many prisons across the country.

GROSS: I'm sure there's some variation from prison to prison in what a solitary confinement cell looks like. But if there is a typical cell, describe what it looks like for us.

HANEY: They are - they're grim places to look at and to be in, particularly after someone has lived in them for long periods of time. In the cell is a bunk where you will sleep, a toilet, sink, they may or may not have a small table area or a small concrete desk area. Prisoners keep their property in these units. And this essentially becomes the margins of their existence because solitary confinement means you live in this environment essentially around the clock. In most of these units, you get out of your cell no more than an hour or two a day, so the other 23 or 22 hours a day you are living in that cell. That means you eat in your cell, you defecate in your cell, you sleep in your cell. All aspects of your life take place within this small space. It begins to absorb the wear and tear of someone's around-the-clock existence, by which I mean the places begin to look and feel and smell different as a result of someone having to live there all of the time and never really being able to leave that place for any significant period of time.

The other painful component of it prisoners will tell you is that they're denied an opportunity typically to have contact visits with anyone. So it is possible for prisoners to go for years - even decades - without touching another human being with affection and this loss of human touch underscores the loss of normal human social contact that prisoners in isolation experience complain about and suffer from.

GROSS: What would you say are the most common psychological effects of solitary?

HANEY: I think the most common psychological effect or reaction that prisoners report is perhaps, not surprisingly, depression, sadness, a sense of hopelessness. Prisoners don't necessarily always experience this immediately, but after a while, the reality of the situation that they're in sets in and the magnitude of the isolation and the magnitude of the deprivation and distance from other human beings begins to register on them. The other thing that prisoners oftentimes report is anxiety. Sometimes it's anxiety that they experience or feel immediately. There's a term, isolation panic. It's a frightening thing to have the door close behind you and look around your cell and realize that you're going to be there and you're going to be there day in and day out without any other activities that you can engage in with few, if any, opportunities to work your way out of this environment. And some prisoners were overcome with full-blown anxiety reactions. They panic in the face of this.

Anger is another common reaction. Prisoners get frustrated over things. There's very few outlets, very few opportunities for prisoners to not only lost steam, but to release the stress that they're under. And so they report that these feelings begin to build up in them and sometimes that frustration, irritation resulted in a kind of explosive outburst - not necessarily against anyone else, not necessarily against the staff, sometimes against themselves. Sometimes they find themselves banging on the door, banging on the wall or hitting their head against something just as a way of trying to release the tension or the pressure or the stress.

There are many other reactions, but one final characteristic reaction that prisoners have is they begin to paradoxically, many of them begin to withdraw from whatever little contact with the world they're permitted. Some of them find that the deprivation of social contact becomes too great and so they find themselves distancing themselves from it. And in fact, some prisoners will tell you that they're extremely anxious in the presence of other people, so they will tell you sometimes - again, it's not everybody - but they'll tell you, you know, I cut off contact with my family. I've told my family not visit me, not to write me. Some prisoners don't go out to the yard. The little bit of outside their cell activity that they're given they forego because it's too problematic, it's too troublesome. The interactions with the correctional staff are fraught with uncertainty and so they isolate even further into their cells.

GROSS: Do other Western democracies have solitary confinement for long periods in the way that we do in many American prisons?

HANEY: No. The United States is really an outlier in that regard. We're an outlier - as you probably know - in terms of the extent to which we imprison our citizens in general. There's no other Western democracy that is remotely close to us in terms of their rate of incarceration. In most other prison systems, it tends to be used the way we used to use it in the United States before the 1970s and '80s. That is as a relatively infrequent punishment practice that was engaged in for short-term confinement. There were a few, oddly enough, a few Scandinavian countries that use it for pretrial detention. But even there they don't use it remotely as extensively and for nowhere near the lengths of time that we do in the United States.

GROSS: So you've interviewed about 1,000 people who have been in solitary. Could you describe one of the prisoner interviews that you did that really stands out in your mind?

HANEY: Well, you know, the ones that stand out in my mind are the extreme ones, and they're not necessarily representative, but they give you a sense of what the magnitude of the anguish and the extreme nature of the psychological problems that people can suffer in these environments. I, you know, I remember talking to a prisoner in Massachusetts who explained to me that he had a practice that he was very proud of, and he described in great detail how he disassembled his television set and ate the contents of it and then was taken to a...

GROSS: How do you even do that?

HANEY: You know, he - I needed actually afterwards to look at his medical records, and sure enough he had in fact done that. He had broken the television into small pieces and had ingested a fairly substantial amount of it, went to a hospital, of course had his stomach pumped and was taken to a mental health unit for a period of time then was placed back in the solitary confinement unit that had precipitated this and did it again.

So this is an example of the level of - the profound level of mental illness that can exist in an environment like this, like these. When I interviewed this man, he was in a solitary confinement unit, in a punishment unit. So, you know, I could go on. There are many, many of these kinds of stories of profoundly mentally ill prisoners, not subtle cases, profoundly mentally ill prisoners, acting on the basis of a mental illness.

And instead of receiving treatment and instead of receiving a response which alleviates the painful experience which they're having, they in fact are punished more for really manifesting these symptoms of their mental illness and punished in a way that keeps them in the very environment that's exacerbating the problems from which they suffer.

And then there are less dramatic cases. I mean, you know, there are prisoners who talk about not being able to touch their family members. I, you know, have had prisoners who have been in solitary confinement for long periods of time who have watched from a distance their children grow up, and they've never touched them. And they've seen them grow from children to teenagers to adults, and they've never been able to hug them, they've never been able to touch their hand.

Prisoners who will tell you that they have forgotten what their family members' voices sound like because they've been denied the opportunity to have telephone calls. And on and on the stories go. It's a practice which we've only recently begun to look carefully and systematically at. I think it's a practice which has been allowed to go on and become much more widespread than it should have.

And I think there's some rethinking taking place. But, you know, about 80,000 people in solitary confinement in the United States on any given day, and these are the kinds of things that people are experiencing in most of those places.

GROSS: What impact has spending so much time in prison interviewing inmates had on you?

HANEY: Well, you know, it's had a kind of - it's had two contradictory effects. One is that there are times that you do despair at what we do to our fellow man. You know, it's hard to avoid sometimes the feeling coming out of these places and having heard these stories that there is an institutional cruelty that is sobering and saddening, and it is relatively widespread, and there are people who have gotten used to seeing it, and there are people who have gotten used to experiencing it.

On the other hand, there are oftentimes as many moments of frankly inspiration that the human spirit manages to survive in these environments and manage - people manage to hold on to aspects of themselves that are precious and that are uniquely human.

You know, it is not uncommon in an interview when someone's telling you about years in solitary confinement and the nature of the deprivation for them to do something, which is uniquely and extraordinarily human, whether it's a moment of humor or whether it's an observation about themselves or about you or about a family member.

And you're just constantly reminded how despite the pain and despite the ways in which people are being changed how extraordinarily resilient human beings can be in spite of the way they're being treated.

GROSS: Craig Haney, thank you very much for talking with us.

HANEY: Thank you, Terry. It's very good to talk to you.

GROSS: Craig Haney is a professor of psychology at the University of California Santa Cruz. Coming up, rock critic Ken Tucker reviews Pharrell Williams' new album. It includes the song "Happy," which he performed Sunday at the Oscars. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.