I arrived at the Anamosa Iowa Men’s Reformatory in October 1992. I can still remember riding in the van, wearing a set of cold steel shackles and handcuffs attached to a long dog chain that went around my waist and attached to a black box. The black box was padlocked around the cuffs, immobilizing my hands. I had heard rumors that a prisoner actually invented this black box contraption and I cursed him silently as we took a 2½-hour trip, which seemed more like it took all day.
Immobilized in cold, noisy chains, I silently looked out the window of the county van, watching cornfield after cornfield pass by. An ex-convict, who had been to prison several times and was on his way back with me, excitedly explained the ropes to me and told me I needed to be ready because I would be going to “gladiator school.” His ramblings were soon drowned out by my own thoughts about how I would survive. Gladiator school was a term used to describe how prisoners were ready to fight at a moment’s notice.
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We eventually pulled up to a facility with 30-foot-high limestone walls and guard towers, all held together by reinforced steel bars. We passed through the prison gates and were directed to get out of the van, so we shuffled our way off. Prisoners, young and old, watched us with eager, suspicious, angry and hopeful eyes. The stares were piercing and I stared back, refusing to flinch, silently stating that I, too, could be a gladiator if need be.
As I scanned the crowd of prisoners, I immediately recognized several faces, but was quick to keep scanning and let them come to me, rather than show the relief I felt from knowing someone from the neighborhood. Before this moment I’d heard the stories, watched the movies and knew that I needed to not laugh, smile or appear soft. It was a lot to remember for a 17-year-old, but I was determined to survive by any means necessary.
I was placed into the orientation cell house and immediately hooked up with associates from my neighborhood. With my defiant attitude, the old friends and finding ways to make myself comfortable, it was only a matter of time before the long, dark hand of solitary confinement would reach out and find me, reminding me of how she likes to torment me. I thought I had experienced the worst of solitary confinement at the Iowa State Training School, but I had a lot to learn.
Within my first month, I was approached by two correctional officers for breaking several rules. True to my identity as inmate Wallace #1039260, I immediately became disruptive, belligerent and combative, which resulted in several additional correctional officers being called to assist in forcibly carrying me up some stairs, around a corner and to a cold dark closet they called a cell.
Once in there, I had a Taser shoved in my face as they showed me the electricity that flowed between the points and gleefully told me they would Taser me if I moved. They cut all my clothing from my body and then slowly backed out of the cell, laughing as they left me naked on a cold concrete slab with my hands still cuffed behind my back. They returned some time later with the Taser still in hand and threatened, again, to use it if I moved the wrong way. They removed the handcuffs and left me with a pair of jeans that had Velcro instead of zipper and a T-shirt. Again, they slowly backed out of the cold dark cell and appeared to hope that I would move so they could use the Taser. I didn’t give them the pleasure.
I was left there for approximately three days with no books, no shower and no human contact, with the exception of the guards. They would bring me food and insinuate that they had spit in it, so I didn’t eat much. I counted every crack, brick and imperfection in the walls a few hundred times a day.
The silence was deafening and the monotony and lack of stimulation was unlike anything my young 17-year-old brain/body had experienced. It was much worse than the solitary confinement I had experienced at the State Training School, because here they didn’t even have to pretend they cared and instead treated us like cattle being sent off to slaughter.
I was eventually taken to the actual “hole,” which had two sides: the “dark” side and the “light” side. Of course, prisoners wanted to go to the light side — it sounded like the better deal. However, I soon found the only difference between the two sides was that on the dark side, prisoners had control over whether the lights in their cell were on or off, while on the light side, the lights were always on.
Leaving the lights on 24/7 was one of the many ways that prison administrators placed value on the most insignificant items and kept prisoners from focusing on true habilitation. I specifically use the word “habilitation” because when you look at the pre-incarceration lives of these prisoners, you can see it would be virtually impossible to “rehabilitate” someone who had not had the opportunity to develop the habits of a socially responsible individual before they were incarcerated. These practices still exist today and I must assert that these rituals tend to help institutionalize prisoners and do nothing to discourage the recidivism we see in prison statistics.
I was kept in the hole for approximately 30 days that first time and was told I would be transferred to Administrative Segregation for 180 days. This is often referred to as “AD Seg.” The cell is just like the hole, except you have a roommate and are allowed a few more items of property. You are still segregated from the general prison population and are forced to always be handcuffed, and sometimes shackled, when outside your cell.
Exercise space was provided in a large dog kennel that had barbed wire on top. This is where the many “gladiator fights” would take place, repeatedly, as human beings would release years of frustration and pain in a combat of blood and sweat, until the correctional officers would spray tear gas from a canister that looked like a fire extinguisher, coating our lungs and filling our eyes.
In 1992, at the Iowa Men’s Reformatory, Administrative Segregation took place on the third floor — the “Mountain.” While in the hole, I heard stories about what to expect when I got there for my 180 days. I began to get my mind ready for the violence and my new roommate. He was 22 years old and we were able to talk about everything, until there was nothing to talk about and then we talked about everything again.
I engaged in my own gladiator fights and had countless battles with the guards, as I sat in this cell for 23 hours a day and felt the walls close in day after day. I continued to battle and fight until I had extended my Administrative Segregation time far beyond the original 180 days and made countless trips to the hole. I had sunk into a state of madness and paranoia and was eventually made into a bitter, angry, violent, aggressive, impulsive 17-year-old, who thrived on the stimulation of any conflict.
Two weeks before my 18th birthday, I was awakened by the guards and told to eat breakfast at about 4 a.m. I immediately woke my cellmate and told anyone within the sound of my voice that I was being taken somewhere and to write my family and let them know. They eventually came to my cell and gave me a white jumpsuit, putting me through the degrading routine of a strip search with all the shackles, handcuffs, waist chain and that hated black box around my cuffs.
It was then that I learned I would be transferring to the Iowa State Penitentiary. I may have been an adult on paper, but in reality, I was still a scared kid. Still, I put on the thousand-yard glare and moved forward. I was worried because the state penitentiary was where Iowa’s most dangerous criminals were placed. Most prisoners were serving sentences so long they would never get out. I braced myself for the next stage of my life, which, at that moment, felt more like death.
I spent a total of four years in solitary confinement during my incarceration and didn’t learn anything from it, except that this methodology is a huge factor in why many convicts leave prison only to return months later, because they were ill-equipped to cope with societal norms.
They didn’t learn the habits of socially responsible individuals. They didn’t develop the social and emotional skills that would help them navigate the real world. They didn’t get an education that could lead them to employment and away from criminal activities. Solitary confinement is not a solution to behavioral issues. It is a reinforcement of them.
Jeff Wallace has spent most of his life studying the effects of the policy and procedures followed by the criminal justice system on at-risk youth — first as one of those youths and then through his undergraduate and graduate degrees in criminal justice. He is founder and president of STEPQuadCities.org. His email email@example.com. See his Tedx talk at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TOxpjjzP6lM
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