Powerful Words from Texans Trapped in Solitary Confinement

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Editor’s Note: The letters in this article were adapted from Texas Letters, an ongoing anthology featuring writers in solitary confinement. Volume 2 was released this month. (Another version of James’ essay was published by the Dallas Morning News.)

I have friends in hell. They send me pain-soaked letters every month that feel like a punch to the gut when they land in the mailbox. They are some of the rawest and truest letters because they come from a place so devoid of hope as to bare any veneer. 

This veritable inferno is solitary confinement in Texas—the epicenter for long-term isolation with more people spending 22-24 hours a day in a bathroom-sized cell for three years or longer than every other state and the federal government combined. More than 500 people have endured this torture for a decade or longer in the Lone Star State, despite the fact that the UN has declared it torture and that it’s a war crime under the Geneva Conventions. Most European countries consider it a human rights violation to lock up someone for more than 15 days in solitary. In Norway, solitary confinement is almost never used or tightly restricted to 8 hours. Unsurprisingly, violence is rare. 

The dehumanizing impact of such treatment has long been known stateside, dating back to Alexis de Tocqueville’s tour of a New York prison that practiced an early experiment in isolation wherein the French statesman and author remarked, “This absolute solitude, if nothing interrupts it, is beyond the strength of man.” Solitary confinement has never been shown to decrease prison violence; instead, researchers find, it contributes to higher recidivism rates and a disproportionate number of prison suicides.

But Texas has a history of priding itself on being a rugged outlier. It’s this Lone Star State of mind that bucks national reform trends. And it’s this very state of mind that enables locking up people in solitary cages for 20 or 30 years, as though it served some higher purpose.

The caliber of excessive punitive measures no doubt serves to prop up Texas’ long-standing reputation for being tough on crime. Texas is the state with the largest prison system in America and the capital of death row, where executions have far outnumbered every other state since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976. It’s a place that perpetuates the belief that prisons are, in many respects, a bulwark of public safety. 

There’s a saying that “everything is bigger in Texas.” I have come to realize that this holds true when it comes to the scale of torture carried out in Texas prisons. Having written to, visited, and befriended dozens of people in solitary confinement for nearly half a decade, including those on death row, long-held assumptions about public safety and supposed justice have been actively dismantled for me, unhinged from the braggadocious brand of muscular authoritarian government Texas runs on. 

This dismantling began in 2020, in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic after I had started writing to and visiting numerous incarcerated individuals throughout the statewide Texas Department of Criminal Justice prison system, spurred on by an indwelt interest to meet and get to know people on the periphery—in communities that are hidden away, far-removed from society. I wanted to learn what life was like for the people trapped in these lingering lies: who they were, where they’d come from, and where they hoped to go. During this time, I have seen the need to correct the good guys-versus-bad-guys punitive fantasy and challenge myths of “the criminal.” 

And so, Texas Letters was born, an ongoing anthology and book series featuring the unedited writings of a diverse and growing ensemble of people who have spent months, years, and sometimes decades in extreme isolation. The following letters, which are preceded by background information on the writers, are adapted from this project. — Damascus James

Roger Uvalle has foregone eating numerous times in efforts to end over three decades of pure, inextinguishable solitude in custody—including last year when solitarily confined individuals at 11 facilities across the state went on a hunger strike, beginning, quite intentionally, on the same day the 88th Legislative assembly convened at the Austin capitol. In the aftermath, legislators introduced several bills to limit the amount of time people can be placed in isolation as well as study effects on mental health. None of the bills were voted into law. And so hell rages on. For Roger, this means “Conditions are making us worse and making [it] more unlikely for our recovery of our illnesses–suicides and attempts are regular.”

Roger Uvalle (Courtesy/Texas Letters)

“I am on Hunger strike as of 1-10-23. It’s 1-18-23, 8-days without eating and I’ll be going till I get sick. I rather suffer this way than to continue in the Ad seg/restricted housing conditions that I’ve been in the past 29 yrs that has tortured me and caused irreparable damage physically and mentally. I’m classified mentally Ill (CMI) But still held in Ad seg/Restricted housing conditions; no other programs are not available… that was what classification committee told me the last 3 time I’ve seen them.

Since I’ve notified officials/medical of my hunger strike, mental health has not come to check on my well being—nor do they do their mandatory checks on us being on psych load. I had made demands to Warden Smith here at the Allred Unit when I informed him of my hunger strike. I had demanded to be release to general population or to one of the Mental Health programs that is offer to others not Labelled as STG [gangs security threat groups]. I have had no response from them.

Medical is doing the daily check ups since after my 3rd day of hunger strike, taking my weight, and vital sign and uranalisys. Im still struggling with depression, anxiety, hearing voices. Medication they are giving does not help. I’ve told that to the psych doctor, but [he] tells me there’s no other medication to give: this has been since March 2022. I quit taking all meds and my mental illnesses have gotten worse. All I do is sleep all day, crying every other day, voices starting to get very bad with saying bad thing that get me mad or more depressed. Im shaky all the time I hear the voices of when I leave my cell. [I] havent been able to do anything. I was struggling to write this letter. I haven’t written much since I stop eating. I know there’s a lot of people in this protest for prison reform to end this torture of being in isolation indefinitely I pray for that reform and for a chance to regain a small portion of what I used to be before I was put in Ad Seg and have an equal opportunity to the programs, Mental health treatment, and privileges as everyone else in general population, especially contact visits with my family.”

Kiera Henderson, only 25, has attempted to end her life numerous times over the course of nearly 5 years in solitary confinement and writes about enduring countless forms of abuse, including sexual assault by officers who were never punished for their crimes. She fears this will happen again, a valid fear given Texas’ reputation for being the “prison rape capital of the world.” She’s also witnessed “at least 5 suicides and at least 50 suicide attempts.” Unfortunately, this isn’t abnormal in Texas prisons. Remember, this is hell—a fiery place where hellish things happen, every day, ad nauseam. 

Kiera Henderson (Courtesy/Texas Letters)

“Clink Clank Clink Clank” the sound you hear as you do the walk of shame to MPF AKA Crisis Management AKA the ice house. It’s called the Ice house due to the coldness, and if you ask why it’s cold, it’s because: “There are patients on psych meds and have heat Restrictions so it has to stay cold.” You notice the temperature difference from outside to inside, it’s so cold you’re shivering. You’re wearing a paper gown, shower shoes and shackles around your wrist, feet, and a belt around your waist which is all connected together [and] make it difficult to walk. The officer have on their uniform and a vest while some have on jackets. From the door to the nurses’ station is about a 45-second walk. The nurse station consists of a long desk where the officers sit and a room for the nurses. “Get your weight,” states a nurse as you hit the nurse’s station. Then you sit down in a chair that has a towel on it. The nurse began to ask medical questions about injuries or “Are you suicidal?” After she checks your blood pressure, she pricks your finger for your blood sugar and makes sure you don’t have injuries, if you do the nurse will clean them and re-bandage them. 

Then you’re cleared to go to a cell. They make you stand up and kneel on the chair while removing shackles while officers stand around you and hold on to your shoulders. Then you’re escorted to a little brown Rusty Cage, it’s a metal cage that you have to stand in to get strip searched which consists of being naked, lifting your breasts, running your fingers through your hair, bending at the waist and spreading your buttocks. Then you’re taken to the Boss II chair which is a metal chair…You have to sit on it and raise your Legs, lift to the side and wiggle. While coming out of the cage you are put on this sheet gown and walked to your cell. And if you’re approved you receive a suicide blanket, which is basically a blanket that is hard to tear. If not approved you have to be in the cell naked cold and shivering. 

The officers knock on your door every 15 minutes and you gotta respond or they take your blanket. 

When you have to use the restroom you have to ask for tissue and they give you a “roll off” which is 8 sheets of tissue. If you need more you have to ask. Don’t let you be on your period because all you get is one pad and you gotta prove you’re on your period by showing blood…

The place degrades you as a human being, Having to ask to use the restroom, having to prove you’re on your period. It makes you feel less than human, Like a animal. The day after being sexually abused by an officer (5/19/22) which wasnt taken serious until I went to MPF… and I felt Low, degraded, and violated. 

I witnessed at Least 5 suicides and at Least 50 suicide attempts. My arms is all cut up (self mutilation) because you have to prove you need help, [you] can’t just say it. If they (Mental Health and officers) took us seriously there would be less suicides or cutting. After the fact they want to ask you “Why did you do that?” or “You couldve just talked to me?” And they take you real serious when you’re bleeding everywhere. Being in an environment that shows you’re nothing [makes] it hard to want to live.”

Kwaneta Harris, or ‘Mama Detroit’ to her younger solitary neighbors, a 51-year-old woman, former nurse, and mother going through menopause entered solitary confinement in 2015. She’s a prolific prison writer who often shares how TDCJ uses menstruation as a form of punishment and about females dying and suicide attempts rising as the increasingly hot summers take their toll at the ‘Miserable Murray’ unit, a fitting sobriquet for a place, she writes, where a searing cell can transform into a fiery furnace resembling a “brick pizza oven or a cauldron.”

Kwaneta Harris (Courtesy/Texas Letters)

“Alexis de Tocqueville, French statesman and author, said almost two centuries ago that putting prisoners in isolation “Does not reform, it kills.” We’ve known this. Solitary confinement is acknowledged as TORTURE by the United Nations. We’ve known this. America is addicted to imprisonment from slavery to mass incarcerations. America has immunity from the International Criminal Court of Justice? Let’s not play make believe.

We have been exporting torture for years. We teach torture techniques to military reps of various dictatorships. A school of torture. We practiced at home, in the vast gulag of prisons across the US in the form of solitary confinement. 24% of the total population of incarcerated women in the US are African American but 41% of the women held in solitary confinement are African American. We are the victims of practicing torture using restraint chairs, gas, stun guns, pepper ball rifles, Random brutality, systemic rape and abuse–it’s all common practice. America’s pretensions to moral authority on the world stage–colossal hypocrisy.

You can change laws easier than minds. People of color have been fighting to be seen as human beings, since the country’s existence. I’ve often wondered how could the Nazis at Auschwitz engage in such horror and go home, eat dinner, listen to Bach records and make love to their wives and sleep soundly? In order to treat someone in a dehumanizing manner, you must convince yourself—they aren’t human. This is the commonality of all genocides. They must make us into monsters to justify their mistreatment.

The harm I’ve experienced comes from exposure not to a single terrifying incident, but to prolonged, repeated trauma in solitary confinement, and wont be an easy fix. I can’t expect a PTSD counselor to help me upon release. No, I need someone specializing in treating P.O.W.’s. Intense PTSD treatment.

People leave solitary after decades, released directly in society from Texas women’s prisons. We just began a Corrective Intervention Pre-release Program (C.I.P.P.) for 90 days prior to release. A type of re-entry. Where are the studies of completion? By my account, less than 25% of people finish. Many opt to spend their last 3-6 months in solitary. If we are so “dangerous,” why haven’t there been any violent episodes of people recently released from solitary? Men, who are majority in solitary confinement, have an option–Gangs Renunciation. We don’t have gangs, so we have no option to get out.

We are stuck here–forced to listen to weekly in-person sermons. The latest was: women must learn to prevent harm by not drinking, dressing inappropriately, walking places and don’t lead a man on. All burdens of preventing their own assault. Rather than teaching men not to do such things or to simply value our humanity. The media isn’t allowed to visit solitary, but preachers/church groups do. I have watched so many people slowly descend into madness. I was an extrovert, a social butterfly who would talk to everyone. Im quiet. I’m guarded. Not having physical/emotional freedom is like having a whale confined to a creek.

I’m confused about the STG [Gang security threat group] label at male solitary units. We have guards with tattoos–lightning bolts, feathers, 44, HH, 88. All of which are confirmation tattoos for white nationalist groups. If you’re living in prison, you must live in solitary with those tattoos. But, if you work at the prison, it’s accepted.

When someone from solitary is escorted to doctor appointments and must walk amongst peers, others must stop, face away from you and not talk to you. A public shunning masqueraded as “safety.” But each time I’m escorted, women yell, “Keep your head up sister! We love you! Dont let them break you!” Once, a friend I hadn’t seen in a decade, touched my arm as I passed and said, “God Bless You.”

I withdrew, so very uncomfortable with human touch.

Recently I was in county court and realized during a meeting with my attorney that I’m having difficulty maintaining eye contact. I’m afraid I come off as deceptive, but I truly don’t know why it has become so difficult to look anyone in the eye. I reflexively avert my eyes.

Last June, my cell temp reached 129. I had a heat episode. Winter 2023 has been mild. I am terrified of melting this summer.

The staff shortage is so severe, I’ve had my hospital appointments rescheduled several times. Staff morale is in the toilet. They have bad leadership training at the top. They are overly focused on hiring staff, instead of keeping staff. The new hires always quit. It’s not because of us. It’s the working conditions, excessive hours, travel, and low pay. Many confide they dont like the supervisors, nor the way they’re punished when they show us humanity. This is unsafe. The system is collapsing on itself.

The fairly new TVs in the inside rec cages lack closed captioning. The tablets lack phone access, podcasts, TV shows, movies, games. We’re only permitted one book weekly from the library. I notice the younger girls, direct transfers from juvenile to adult solitary confinement at 16 ½ become so bored that they begin to self harm. Many are older now, 19-20. They can’t purchase beer or cigarettes but they’re adult enough to be tortured in solitary… People should be evaluated for “current” risk of violence. Not a “History” of violence. I have a history of being a size 4. That isn’t current.

My cell is not much larger than a broom closet. I don’t live in solitary, I exist, this could never be mistaken for living.”

Unfortunately for Kwaneta and those locked away at Lane Murray Unit, the Legislature decided not to prioritize reducing prison heat despite having a record $32 billion state budget surplus. A longstanding issue embroiled in lawsuits and civil rights cases, TDCJ has made its position on air conditioning clear for years, opting to pay for climate-controlled barns for its pig farming program back in 2013 while those incarcerated sweltered. With the vast majority of Texas prisons still lacking air conditioning in most living areas, thousands of prison officers and tens of thousands of incarcerated individuals are forced to suffer potentially deadly consequences.

Texas’s punitive ecology has mutated into a time-tested torture machine: an apparatus that doesn’t just create the conditions for the steady decline of sanity and humanity but foments a ruthless world sponsored by a complicit state where an endless escalation of harm ensues.

But what if Texas wasn’t this way? What if Texas decided to be a leader in something different than torture, say, abolishing and eliminating this archaic practice in its prisons? Through Texas Letters, we are demanding an end to solitary confinement in a state that outweighs all others in its punitive weight class. In this effort, we are united by a collective grief over what is happening right here in America.  — Damascus James

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