Solitary Confinement and the Scary Reality in Florida Prisons

January 26, 2022 Criminal Defense, News & Announcements

Being charged with a crime can completely alter the course of your life. Along with the initial shock of getting arrested, going through the legal process, and going to the court room, often the big question remains: what happens after the sentencing?

Of course, there are expensive fines and the potential jail time to consider when the charge has been made. Yet, we don’t often discuss what happens in the unfortunate event that the defendant is sentenced to jail or prison. A guilty charge is just the beginning of a horrifying long road ahead.

While prison institutions were created for people to serve their time, think about their mistakes, and return to society a ‘changed person’ –that is not so easily the case. The state of the prison institutions can be extremely harsh, and many people wind up having a horrible experience when locked behind bars. The poor quality of life and the lack of socialization can have harsh and long lasting effects to a person’s psyche.

Arguably one of the worst aspects of going to prison is when an inmate is sent into solitary confinement. Under the National Commission on Correctional Health Care, solitary confinement is defined as the housing of an adult or juvenile with minimal to rare meaningful contact with other individuals. Solitary confinement can have a variety of terms under different jurisdictions. Some of these terms include isolation, protective or disciplinary segregation, permanent lockdown, maximum security, intensive management, and restrictive housing units. Overall, solitary confinement is meant to deprive an individual of meaningful contact with others.

When most people think of solitary confinement, they imagine inmates who have caused danger to other inmates, or to the correctional officers working in the prison. People believe that solitary confinement is only used in the most extreme circumstances. However, many would be surprised to learn that roughly 1 in 8 Florida prisoners are in solitary confinement.

Both activists and experts have claimed that this restrictive form of housing in prison, even when there is a cellmate, has disproportionately impacted people—especially people of color, and those with mental illnesses.

Taking a deeper look at the current statistics in Florida prisons, along with firsthand experiences and responses by the Florida Department of Corrections office can help provide a deeper understanding of the current situation of Florida’s prison system.

What are the Statistics Regarding Solitary Confinement in Florida?

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, about 10,000 inmates are subjected to solitary confinement in the state of Florida. Among this number, many of them fall into the same demographic as recently released St. Petersburg local, Chez-Armand Blackwell—young, male, and Black.

A study conducted by Florida State University and the University of Cincinnati discusses the current situation of inmates in solitary confinement. According to the study, certain demographic groups are more likely to face long-term isolation than other inmates in Florida prisons. Identified as the more likely demographic groups are Black people, men, young people, and inmates with mental health issues. 

After an administrative review of records for over 190,000 inmates in the Florida prison system between 2007 and 2015, it shows that Black people were almost twice as likely to face long-term solitary confinement. Hispanics were 1.7 times more likely to see solitary confinement than white inmates. The most common age to be placed in solitary confinement is between 18 and 24, which is 15 times more likely than inmates over the age of 50.

There was also a disproportionately large number of inmates who suffered from mental illness that were placed in solitary confinement. Experts have stressed that these inmates are likely to see their mental health worsen as a result of isolation. The inmates who received time in mental health units were 14 times more likely to be placed in solitary confinement.

The Marshall Project, a nonprofit dedicated to create a justice reform for the U.S. criminal justice system, documented deaths of several people killed by cellmates while in restrictive housing and found that isolation creates mental health issues and tension among cellmates.

What are the Responses?

The Florida Department of Corrections Department officials claim that there is no use of solitary confinement. Instead, the department has admitted to placing certain inmates in a restrictive form of housing if deemed necessary. Typically in this instance, the inmate would be isolated from any other cellmates.

Spokesperson Paul Walker, for the Florida Department of Corrections Department, denied the use of solitary confinement. However, within the same statement, he confirmed that inmates can be separated from the general population and are placed in what they refer to as ‘Close Management.’

Criticism has been placed on the state prison system for various forms of isolation that they believe constitute as solitary confinement. This criticism is shared across experts, advocates, and previous incarcerated inmates. Even if inmates have been given cellmates in their prison units, they may be confined to smaller spaces with less allotted time for out-of-cell privileges. The argument is that even in these instances, it can create effects similar to isolation.

Michelle Glady, another spokesperson for the Department of Corrections, questioned the center’s definition of solitary confinement. Glady confirmed that about 4,100 inmates were in Close Management, and 1,880 of those inmates were in single cells.

The Southern Poverty Law Center has now sued the Florida Department of Corrections and the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice on behalf of inmates who have experienced solitary confinement. The nonprofit’s attorney, Leo Laurenceau, gave a statement on the effects of mental health: “It can really run the gamut, exacerbating mental health issues from depression, anxiety, increased situations of self-harm, [and] suicidal tendencies.”

The Florida Department of Corrections says they “takes all allegations of abuse or mistreatment of inmates seriously and encourages all inmates and staff to promptly report inappropriate or illegal conduct,” Walker stated in an email.

Yvette Lewis, Hillsborough County NAACP president, says it is not surprising to see the findings on the matter, and continuously criticizes the use of solitary confinement by the Florida Department of Corrections. Bias is a major issue that worries Lewis. Such bias may lead to viewing a Black inmates’ expression as a sign of aggression rather than a cultural mannerism.

Angel D’Angelo, the co-founder to Restorative Justice Coalition, also has a strong opinion on ending the isolation practice. “It either creates mental illness where it didn’t exist before, or it can aggravate existing mental illness. It creates a sense of isolation, of course—that’s what it’s there for.”  

St. Petersburg Resident’s Experience with Solitary Confinement

Chez-Armand Blackwell, 39-year-old St. Petersburg resident, had spent almost 12 of his 15 years behind bars in solitary confinement. Blackwell was serving a sentence for burglary and said that he was first put into solitary confinement after getting into an argument with a guard. The argument was heated and turned into a physical fight, which was the reasoning for his first placement in confinement. However afterwards, Blackwell claims the guards would continuously write him up and extend the amount of time he had to spend alone in isolation.

Blackwell says, “The human condition isn’t built for it.” In the United Nations Guidelines, it calls for limiting solitary confinement to only 15 consecutive days at most.

Florida Department of Corrections spokesperson Paul Walker denied Blackwell’s claim that inmates in isolation are not allowed to talk to other inmates. He also claims there is no use of pepper spray and other forms of punishment on inmates.

In addition to Blackwell’s story, a Tampa activist who was once incarcerated in the state of Florida discussed his time in solitary confinement with the New York Times, asking for an end to the practice. Ian Manuel was quoted:

 “I served 18 consecutive years in isolation because each minor disciplinary infraction – like having a magazine that had another prisoner’s name on the mailing label – added an additional six months to my time in solitary confinement. The punishments were wholly disproportionate to the infractions. Before I knew it, months in solitary bled into years, years into almost two decades.”

Lasting Effects of Solitary Confinement

When Blackwell talks about his time in prison, he stresses that life outside the cell has had just as much of an impact on his life. Simple tasks that people take for granted, such as using a smartphone or going out to meet friends, are now exhausting tasks for him. He is also riddled with anxiety whenever left alone, which makes sense given his past experiences. Even as he’s out and social, he can feel the effect of solitary confinement, feeling the stress of each person leaving one by one until he is stuck alone again.

People often ask Blackwell how he managed to survive so long while stuck in solitary confinement. His answer is simple: he refused to die in prison. “To this day, I don’t know how I did it,” Blackwell says. “But I see people all the time just completely give up.”

Now after Blackwell’s release in March, he has begun working for People Empowering and Restoring Communities, where he’s a community advocate and case manager to help those being released from prison.

When thinking of the effects of being alone for so long, he leaves the final comment: “It’s the worst feeling, and I don’t know if it’ll ever change.”

For now, the issue of solitary confinement is still prevalent not only in Florida, but also across the nation. While prison is meant to be an institution to help inmates heal and learn from their mistakes before being released back into the world, it seems like some aspects may be doing more harm than good.

Finding a Defense Attorney in Tallahassee, Florida

Going to prison may be the most terrifying option a person can think of. After reviewing the statistics and firsthand experiences of individuals who spent life behind bars, you may feel as if you’ve lost all hope with a legal case. However, that is not the case. If you or a loved one have been accused of a crime, the first step you should take is reaching out to a criminal defense attorney in your area. Seeking out proper legal advice can make all the difference in a case, and potentially make the difference between serving time behind bars and walking away free. Don Pumphrey and his team at Pumphrey Law Firm have worked with numerous clients across Florida regarding different legal cases. They have the skill and the determination to provide you the best possible criminal defense. Call (850) 681-7777 today and receive a free consultation regarding your case.

Written by Karissa Key

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