Susan Greene Wins February Sidney
The Sidney Hillman Foundation announced today that Susan Greene has won the February Sidney Award for “The Gray Box,” her shocking look into the use of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons. The piece appeared as an in-depth reported story and video in Dart SocietyReports, an online publication of the Dart Society which advances compassionate and ethical coverage of trauma, conflict and social injustice.
“Greene’s report is full of powerful details about the agony of solitary confinement, one of the great under-reported human rights abuses of our time,” said Sidney judge Lindsay Beyerstein.
A prisoner in seclusion typically spends 23 hours a day in a cell the size of two queen-sized mattresses and another hour alone in an exercise cage. Indeed, large lab animals are entitled to more space and sensory stimulation than the estimated 80,000 American prisoners housed in solitary confinement.
Susan Greene is a journalist in Denver who specializes in investigating social justice issues. She worked in newspapers for twenty years, most recently as a metro columnist for The Denver Post.
1. “The Gray Box” is the product of many years of reporting. How did you get interested in the topic of solitary confinement?
I used to work as a newspaper columnist here in Colorado, where a lot of state and federal prisoners are living in isolation. Some read the paper very closely and would send me thoughtful letters especially in response to columns I’d write about criminal justice issues. A few became great sources. I kept in touch.
2. You mention that you had better access when you covered the secret Nevada air force base known as Area 51, even though the base didn’t officially exist. How did you go about reporting on prisoners who are cut off from human contact?
Mainly through letters back-and-forth from solitary and interviews with people who’ve gotten out. Some prisoners would start phoning me once they stepped down into general population prison settings. I’ve accepted a lot of collect calls. One of my most prolific letter-writers got my name and mailing address from a prison staffer who used to follow my column. Another man who writes often is the childhood sweetheart of a mom from my kid’s soccer team.
3. There are an estimated 80,000 prisoners in solitary confinement in the U.S. on any given day, some of whom have no history of violence. How does a non-violent prisoner end up in solitary?
Some have escaped from prisons or are perceived escape risks. Some are in for their own so-called protection, as defined often all too vaguely – by prison officials. Some have real or perceived terrorism links or gang affiliations. Some end up in solitary for filing lawsuits, writing
grievances or starting hunger strikes. All too many are simply sick. These are the guys who howl all night long or bang their heads against their doors. They’re considered nuisances. Solitary can be an easy default for corrections officials who don’t know how else to deal with them.
4. The prison reformers who invented solitary in the 1800s hoped that it would reform felons by spurring self-reflection and repentance, but it didn’t work out that way. How does isolation affect prisoners’ minds?
We’re wired for social contact. Prisoners atrophy in extreme boredom and sensory deprivation. Supermaxes are specifically designed to disorient your sense of space. Some prisoners, especially those without natural sunlight or outdoor recreation, lose track of time. Many develop serious anxiety disorders and depression.
5. It’s interesting that solitary confinement was rejected as barbaric in the late 1800s, but then it re-emerged in 1983. What happened?
The tipping point, I think, came on one day at USP Marion when two corrections officers were killed in separate incidents by members of the Aryan Brotherhood. The prison went into permanent lockdown, and others followed suit. Lawmakers were eager to build supermax prisons as a way to weaken gang control and crack down on prison violence. Construction companies and chambers of commerce in rural communities where supermaxes were being built didn’t complain. Then came the “War on Terror,” which heightened the perceived need for mass isolation.
6. You interviewed former prisoners who spent years in isolation. What are they like when they come out?
They’re terrified. Some have lost contact with family or friends and are alone in their freedom. Many haven’t dealt with women in any meaningful way for years, even decades. Crowds and social situations can be extremely scary. Even basic stuff like shaking hands, making eye contact or sustaining a conversation can be tough. Lots of guys hole up in their moms’ basements or in dark corners of their bedrooms to feel safe. Some tell me they want to go back.
7. What are some ways that prisoners in solitary occupy their time, constructively or self-destructively?
Pacing, counting, meditating, praying, doing sit-ups, doing push-ups, reading, drawing, watching Seinfeld reruns, playing chess against themselves, filing lawsuits, striking up relationships with bugs, copying the bible word-for-word, writing their families, writing members of Congress, writing novels, self-help books and love-letters. They find ways to communicate with each other such as yelling through drainpipes or lip-reading through windows. Some prisoners I’m in contact with regularly cut themselves in elaborate ways that seem to require a lot of planning.
They make art out of all sorts of improvised supplies. One man explained how he smuggled bits of sponge from the shower room and fit them into ballpoint cartridges to make paintbrushes. For paint, he would rub the dye off M&Ms and Skittles from the commissary and mix the color with powder from vitamins and instant coffee.
8. You found that some inmates even manage to keep improvised pets…
They strike up relationships with whatever insects work through way through the air vents into their cells. Several men have described friendships with spiders, moths and grasshoppers. They give them names. They make little habitats for them. In solitary, hanging out with a bug can mean serious intimacy.
9. How did the Bureau of Prisons, which produces educational courses for prisoners to watch in their cells, decide to create one about Hitler?
Great question. Someone should shoot off a FOIA.