Clarence Elkins spent six and a half years in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, but the worst of it was the last three months leading up to the day he was exonerated and released. Because the true perpetrator of the crime that had stolen Elkins’s freedom was in the same prison, Elkins was placed in solitary confinement for his own protection. Solitary is sometimes used as a means of separating inmates. Even though Elkins had done nothing to deserve it, he was treated like any other person in solitary. It was a nightmare. Last week Elkins and five other exonerees reported their solitary confinement experiences in a written report to the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Human Rights.
I feel certain that the short but powerful report, here, would appall the vast majority of Americans.
Samplings from the report: “No blanket, no underwear, or pillow…no bed mat. The lights were on 24/7…you were given one meal every third day…it is so cold…the noise in solitary is unbearable. Twenty-four hours a day there are inmates hollering and screaming…”
“Being locked up in a tiny cell that long is cruel and unusual,” wrote Elkins about his three months in solitary in Ohio’s Mansfield Correctional Institution in 2005.
Imagine solitary for 23 years. Nicholas James Yarris spent that long in solitary confinement as a death row prisoner in Pennsylvania before DNA exonerated him in 2003. He wrote, “I have witnessed or understood every form of deprivation or sensory starved confinement one can know.”
The testimony of Julie Rea, wrongfully imprisoned for three years in Illinois before exoneration in 2006, is also inconceivable. She stated that her solitary confinement occurred in a county jail before she was tried and falsely convicted.
A sampling of Rea’s testimony: “…it is so cold. One is chattering and curled up as tightly as one can get for warmth…From the audio speaker the guards had access to communicate with me in the cell. There was also a video camera. So they were able to access my person and activities for ‘my safety’. Not minutes from lying down, a tape was started, one of a woman being tortured. It took me a bit to realize it was a tape and not someone in the next cell in agony at the moment. I froze. My God what could I do? What was happening? What was this place?”
Anthony Graves testified in person before the Senate Committee on Tuesday (June 19, 2012). Graves spent 18 years—16 on death row—in Texas before he was exonerated. Mark Godsey’s post today provides a link here to an interview with Graves, which describes his Senate hearing testimony and his experience of “a culture of madness.” Please be warned that the descriptions of self-mutalization in this testimony are very difficult and for a mature audience only.
Here is another report that includes clips from the hearing.
James Ridgeway, Co-Editor of Solitary Watch, estimates that there are at least 80,000 persons in solitary today.
The Innocence Project prefaces the report:
“The Innocence Project, a founding member of the Innocence Network, submits the following six statements of exonerated men and women who have served time in American prisons and jails for crimes they did not commit. These innocent men and women experienced solitary confinement the way that thousands of other Americans have experienced such conditions.
…Their experiences are typical of the experience of millions of people who have been confined in institutions that routinely and excessively use solitary confinement as a way to manage incarceration. These six innocent individuals add their voices to the many others that ask the Congress to stop this practice.”
I believe that most Americans are caring people, committed to fundamental human rights, justice, and fairness. The vast majority would oppose this inhumane treatment if they knew it was occurring. Wrongful conviction has become an enormous wakeup call. I pray we do not turn a deaf ear.