1600 Days in Solitary Confinement, and Counting

Women's Prison (Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Sygma via Getty Images)

The United Nations says that solitary confinement, otherwise known as “restrictive housing” or “administrative segregation, is a form of torture, yet incarcerated people are still subject to this, and many other forms of abuse. At Dissent, Justine van der Leun tells the story of Kwaneta Yatrice Harris, a registered nurse and mother of three incarcerated for killing her abusive partner. Her legal team was reluctant to recount her victim’s behavior because they didn’t want to disparage a veteran. Harris has been in solitary confinement for over 1600 days awaiting a hearing. “Harris did not push the attorneys. ‘The stigma and shame of allowing myself to continually accept abusive behavior is stronger than the shame of being a convicted murderer.’”

In a solitary cell in a central Texas prison, as a global pandemic and protests raged, Kwaneta Yatrice Harris was eating cold bologna sandwiches on the better days. On the worst days, she was given nutraloaf, also known as discipline cake: a rectangle of meat, potatoes, margarine, syrup, liquified egg, and anonymous vegetable.

The food was slid through the door of a windowless room the size of a walk-in closet where Harris has been held since 2015. Eventually, she will be returned to a general population unit to serve the rest of her sentence, the estimated end of which is in 2058, when she will be eighty-six. Throughout her time in prison, Harris, like many incarcerated people, has been subject to questionable disciplinary cases brought by guards, including, most recently, the offense of “aiding” me to telephone her under a fraudulent name. She did not do this, but she is still being penalized. Punishments vary: nutraloaf is one of them; more time in solitary is another.

Harris did not work because she was in “restrictive housing,” or “administrative segregation,” which is what Texas calls its solitary confinement. In late 2017, the state announced that it would do away with solitary confinement as a form of punishment, but the reform, in practicality, only affected seventy-five people, according to a 2019 report by the Texas Civil Rights Project. Solitary has been classified as torture by the United Nations, serves no rehabilitative purpose, and causes mental health to deteriorate in as few as ten days. After the pandemic lockdowns, many know this. Millions of people stayed at home for months, increasingly distressed, cut off from community. Those who were alone began to physically throb for human connection.

But true solitary is nothing like shelter-in-place: no quilts or sunlight, no fridges or Netflix or Zoom, no quick bike rides or walks around the block or brown-bag cocktails on the sidewalk at a six-foot distance. I’ve been told by several individuals who have lived in solitary for months and years that the experience magnifies the senses: You can smell the guard’s perfume, hear the click of shoes echoing from far away. You will clean every corner of your cell on your knees, which grow calloused. You’ll become desperate for touch. A woman in California kept a pet cricket and tore off one of its legs so it couldn’t leave her. A man in Minnesota nurtured a baby mouse and taught it to sleep by his head in a Folger’s jar.

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