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Exploited, abused, neglected: Mental illness and solitary confinement in Texas prisons

July 18, 2017

These mentally ill prisoners are in Houston’s Harris County Jail. In 2014, the Department of Justice was asked to intervene in a Texas sheriff’s investigation over allegations that a county jail inmate was locked in a cell for weeks amid piles of excrement, rotting trash and swarms of insects. He was only discovered when outside inspectors made a surprise visit. Twenty-four-year-old Terry Goodwin, incarcerated on a marijuana charge and reportedly in need of mental health care, was alleged to have been locked in a filth-ridden solitary confinement cell for as long as two months. A sign attached to the exterior door of Goodwin’s cell instructed guards to keep it closed. – Photo: Melissa Phillip, AP

by Noah ‘Comrade Kado’ Coffin and Keith ‘Comrade Malik’ Washington

Imagine spending 23 hours each day alone in a 6-by-9-foot space. Crowd into it a toilet-sink combo, rusty iron set of bunk beds and overhead lockers, layers of peeling paint in multiple colors, showing the years of neglect, black mold, roaches, rats, along with spiders and bugs I can’t even identify – then you’ll have some idea of what home looks like to many people here in Texas’ Eastham Unit.

No outside investigators are permitted access beyond the perimeter fence of the Criminal Injustice Compound. Those who cry out in protest are met with retaliation in a variety of fashions. If they have any support at all, the most used tactic is to label the targeted “offender” a threat to security (STG) or “escape risk” – which requires little or no evidence to support – and lock them in solitary confinement, which is where I now sit.

Over three and a half years of the seven I’ve completed in this corrupt system, I have endured and I have experienced “ad seg,” which is the absolute tyranny of the Texas Department of “Justice.” The feeble-minded do not survive in this place. The shouting of 54 prisoners who have no other means to socialize is a steady and unrelenting presence.

Sleep, whenever you can find it, is interrupted every 15 minutes by a prison guard who will first use a flashlight to shine in your face, then should this not rouse you, a loud metal-to-metal “clank, clank, clank!” on the cell front usually does the trick. The prisoner must then recite his offender ID number before being left to try once again to find that restless half-sleep until the next “security check” in 15 minutes.

I’ve known men to be confined in solitary less than one year and commit suicide. It’s not only the harassment, the terrible living conditions, cold food or the toxic water (see Comrade Malik’s “Texas Prisoners at Eastham Unit Challenge Contaminated Water and Deadly Heat in US Federal Courts”); it’s the other torture tactics implemented here.

I’ve known men to be confined in solitary less than one year and commit suicide.

Mail is either denied going out or coming in, weeks behind coming or going but often it is lost altogether. Take that ability to reach out beyond these walls from a person in this state of torment and they begin desperately looking for a way out, some way to just make it stop.

The ones who have some fight left in them lose themselves in terrible ways – lashing out, raving and assaulting their tormentors in some of the most creative and pitiful ways, challenging a five-man team of officers suited in full riot gear from the crowded confines of their small cell. It’s always the same result.

Chemical agents are sprayed to blind, choke and weaken the desperate person before the assault. As the “offender” hacks, chokes and gropes blindly about his confines, no doubt trying to brace for the onslaught of violence, the guards scream for the door to be rolled by the officer operating cell doors.

Once the door is open wide enough, all five rush in, shield bearer at the front, like armored offensive linesmen using the shield to ram, batter and crush the single, blinded and choking man to the ground, all the while screaming, “Stop resisting, stop resisting!”

While this 100 seconds or more drags on for what seems like much, much longer, there is a rare momentary hush amongst the remaining 53 prisoners. That disquiet remains like an entity – thick, palpable – until the “offender” is pulled out on the stretcher, bleeding, covered in orange chemical agent, snot and mucus draining out of his nose while unconscious.

The burn from the gas will torment the “offender” for a week or longer and run all down his body in the shower, leaving no part of his body untouched by the awful burning sensation, which is so hot it literally makes you shiver under the waves of heat. Some of the prisoners resort to using their own type of “biological agent” to deter officers – fecal matter, urine or spoiled food is a weapon or repellant used by some who have all but given up on a semblance of humanity. These are merely the desperate, frustrated ones struggling under the crushing weight of the system.

The burn from the gas will torment the “offender” for a week or longer and run all down his body in the shower, leaving no part of his body untouched by the awful burning sensation, which is so hot it literally makes you shiver under the waves of heat.

Some submission training programs exist for them, should they chose to attempt them. However, these programs are voluntary, very hard to handle, and are designed to make you fail, quit or break. They also have a long waiting list, during which time you can be removed for any reason.

I’m writing on the subject of those who haven’t the mental capacity to even understand a problem exists: These poor souls are on every “line building” I’ve been on (three rows, 18 cells each), never showering, speaking gibberish and clearly mentally ill. Once a month, a mental health practitioner will do a very stealthy “walk through” and only suffer to speak with you if you holler at them or flag them down. I just had to switch housing with one such person. (Every 180 days or less we must relocate our cell or housing, so I moved into his cell, and he moved into my cell.)

It is known that this man is mentally ill. If engaged directly in conversation, he is able to respond, although only in very short sentences. He knows he is from Nebraska, and that he is here for “trespassing too much.” When asked why he’s in solitary, he states, “They want me to do work and it’s too hard” or “The guards yellin’ all the time, I get upset.”

Yes, general population requires a high level of conformity to the guards’ instructions, and at any time guards yell to do this or do that. And pat downs or strip searches in the crowded hallways can be stressful even for strong minds. Each officer that searched his cell (every 72 hours or less, “offenders” are shackled and taken to the shower while their cell is thrown into disarray before being returned) would yell at him to shower and clean up while holding their noses. When I was moved into the cell that he had just left, I saw first-hand the severity of his illness.

Roach droppings as thick as sprinkled dirt were on every surface. Filth was caked on the floor. Pieces of towel that had been wet and left to dry had literal roach colonies in them, which, when moved in my attempt to clean up, sent roaches scattering, crawling over my hands. I was given one small paper cup (the little cone shaped one) with “bippy” scouring powder, and a small piece of towel which is all TDCJ provides once a week. While cleaning, the smell, the mold, muck and bugs completely blew me away. This poor guy …

Roach droppings as thick as sprinkled dirt were on every surface. Filth was caked on the floor. Pieces of towel that had been wet and left to dry had literal roach colonies in them, which, when moved in my attempt to clean up, sent roaches scattering, crawling over my hands.

The very first shift supervisor (sergeant) I saw was Sgt. Vasquez. He works 2-10 p.m., or “second shift.” I asked Sgt. Vasquez if officers are supposed to report any people’s behavior or actions that could be harmful to others or themselves. Vasquez said “yes.” I told him everything. His response was a simple, “Where is he now?” I told him. No one has pulled him out or even spoken to him. They aren’t going to – it’s been over a month.

I’ve tried to talk with the mental health practitioner while doing the “walk through” but was told I couldn’t speak with them about another “offender.” I’ve even tried to ask the poor man himself if he would talk to the psych, and his reply was “I’m not crazy.”

I was once told that insane people, truly insane, do not know that they are. What’s so terrible is that this poor guy has signed away years of his life to this corrupt system. Living in filth, being neglected, and for what? Trespassing? Solitary confinement: alone, mentally ill and without a voice.

We must lay the blame for this person’s medical and mental health – and that of many others – where it belongs, and that is at the feet of Bryan Collier, the executive director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Bryan Collier promotes, condones and sanctions the abuse and neglect of mentally ill persons housed in solitary confinement (ad seg) in Texas! Human rights activists, please amplify my voice! Cry out for this man, among so many others who have no voice!

He knows he is from Nebraska, and that he is here for “trespassing too much.” … Living in filth, being neglected, and for what? Trespassing?

This is Comrade Kado, new to the struggle, but not so new to the fight. I’m only half done with a sentence of 15 years in this corrupt and terrible system. My being the voice to protest will certainly bring the system down on me hard. I welcome it. I have found my voice and I will not be quiet. Dare to struggle! Dare to win! All power to the people!

Send our brother some love and light: Noah Coffin, 1795167, Eastham Unit, 2665 Prison Road #1, Lovelady, TX 75851. He writes, “I welcome and encourage news of the struggle, letters in solidarity and support. Comments and questions too.”

A final word from Comrade Malik

Peace and blessings, sisters and brothers! It is July 2017 and every day in this hot, sweltering cell seems like a day in hell. The human being Comrade Kado spoke about in his essay is a real person. He lives only three cells away from me. He has no fan and really doesn’t know or understand how to ask for one, so he suffers more than the normal prisoner in ad seg.

If I try to speak for him, I’m told, “Mind your own business!” and yet from the senior warden all the way down to the lowest-ranking correctional officer, no one sees the importance or urgency of obtaining a fan for this mentally ill human being.

There is a quote from the former tyrant Kim Jong Il of North Korea, which describes exactly what is happening inside these ad seg units operated by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice: “We must envelop our environment in a dense fog to prevent our enemies from learning anything about us” (cited in the book “Escape from Camp 14” by Blaine Harden).

Kim Jong Il of North Korea described exactly what is happening inside these ad seg units operated by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice when he said: “We must envelop our environment in a dense fog to prevent our enemies from learning anything about us.”

TDCJ’s enemies are people like you! The thoughtful and caring human beings reading this essay. In February 2015, the American Civil Liberties Union released a scathing and shocking report entitled, “A Solitary Failure: The Waste, Cost and Harm of Solitary Confinement in Texas.”

Sisters and brothers, I’m here in front of you today, asking for your help. Help in shedding discerning light on the inhumane and torturous conditions which exist right now inside Eastham Unit and numerous units like it. Comrade Kado and I are not rich and famous. He is a poor white man, and I am a poor Black man, but we care about our fellow human beings. Please amplify our voices! Thank you.

Comrade Malik

Send our brother some love and light: Keith “Malik” Washington, 1487958, Eastham Unit, 2665 Prison Rd 1, Lovelady TX 75851.

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