“TOTAL ISOLATION”: SOLITARY CONFINEMENT IN OREGON
David “Joey” Pedersen was arrested in 1997 for armed robbery. He was 16 years old, had been taking the antidepressant Zoloft for years (which he continued to take throughout his incarceration), and was determined to have a “slight” potential for violence. Due to Oregon’s Measure 11, he was charged as an adult. Pedersen joined prison gangs and received dozens of disciplinary write-ups. As a consequence, he would spend 11 of the next 14 years in solitary confinement. Much of that time was spent in Oregon’s Intensive Management Units (IMUs).
Pedersen was paroled in May 2011. Months later, he and a girlfriend would go on a murder spree, killing four people.
“I knew Pedersen personally. I know all too well the horrors he went through in prison as a juvenile up until his release and how isolation in ‘supermax’ slowly changed him until there was so much pent up inside he turned into a person who would kill four innocent people within months of release from Oregon’s IMU,” writes M.O., an Oregon inmate who has spent over 18 years in prison, over 16 of which have been spend in solitary confinement.
“Corrections officials,” M.O. writes, “are unwilling to consider other alternatives to meet their legitimate concerns. In the case of Pedersen, ‘supermax’ produced exactly what it has been designed to create.’”
Oregon has a prison population of 14,109 as of June 1, 2012. Of them, approximately 390 are classified as Security Level 5. Inmates in Security Level 5 are held in one of several solitary confinement units in the Oregon prison system. The units have a variety of names: Intensive Management Units, Administrative Segregation, and Behavioral Health Units for inmates with mental health issues. There are also Disciplinary Segregation Units, which are generally used for shorter terms in solitary.
According to Oregon Department of Corrections Spokeswoman Elizabeth Craig, “We… recognize that it is not a long-term solution for behavioral problems. Given that, we have made changes over the years that focus on helping inmates improve behavior so they can return to general population.”
Inmates in solitary confinement can expect to spend up to 24 hours a day in a 7×12 cell. Dr. Stuart Grassian, who has worked with hundreds of inmates in solitary confinement, has reported that such conditions can produce feelings of paranoia, hallucinations, obsessive thoughts, and increased impulsivity. Such prolonged terms in isolation have been linked, by the bipartisan Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons, to higher recidivism rates.
A large percentage of inmates in Oregon’s prison system will end up in isolation at some point. In 2010, approximately 4,704 inmates were sent to one of Oregon’s Disciplinary Segregation Units at least once. In 2011, the number fell slightly to 4,498. On average, an inmate sent to disciplinary segregation will spend 20.83 days in the DSU. The housing records of one inmate show DSU terms ranging from five days to over a month.
M.O. described the DSU this way: “Its lights are sunk deep in the wall and the cells are dark and you have nothing but a bunk, toilet, and sink. There are no conversations with other prisoners as you’re in a cell inside a cell. There were no books, no reading materials at all. It is, and was, a sensory deprivation chamber. It was my first experience of total isolation.”
For inmates who are deemed to consistently pose a security risk, there are the Intensive Management Units. Each of the four inmates in this article have records involving assaults on correctional officers and/or fellow inmates; some of these incidents go back over 10 years.
Approximately 210 inmates are currently housed in IMUs, primarily in Snake River Correctional Institution in Ontario, Oregon. According to the Department of Corrections, it is policy to “assign maximum custody inmates to special security housing and programs in a designated intensive management unit or cells separate from general population housing in Department of Corrections facilities to provide the maximum level of inmate security, control and supervision.”
IMU programming is based on four levels, with increasing privileges. IMU-status inmates start at Level Two; promotion and demotion is based on behavior, with more than one minor disciplinary infraction preventing promotion to a higher level. Inmates in Level 1 cannot receive visitation and are only allowed out of their cell three days a week for showering. Those in Level 2 are allowed recreation time five days a week for forty minutes, as well as two one-hour visitations a month. There is a classification review every 30 days to determine whether IMU placement is justified. Participation in programming is considered an important factor.
B., who has spent the majority of the last 14 years in solitary confinement comments on the programming in the IMU: “The programming was and is a joke. They give you packets like ‘anger management’ but nobody goes through them with you or anything. As long as you circle answers, they don’t care.”
The Intensive Management Units began in 1991 at Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem, Oregon; the first Oregon supermax unit. “OSP’s IMU was a dark dank place, poor lighting. It really messed with your mind,” writes B., “OSP’s units were infested with mice. It was dirty, loud. The worst pieces of crap were there in the IMU, masturbating to every staff that walked by, playing with or throwing poop on the tiers.
Violence was also common. “Back in the day at OSP IMU we would bust the sprinklers and flood out when the cops fucked with us,” writes M.O., “I got beat bad back in 2001 so bad in the OSP IMU I was taken to the ER in Salem. They broke my nose and split my head open. I had to get the back of my head stapled up…After they beat me they stripped me naked and dragged me to the IMU ‘infirmary.’”
“For those inmates who are determined to be in need of this maximum custody program unit (through a review process), they are placed in IMU after the inmate completes his/her DSU sanction. The program targets inmate behavior and focuses on getting them stabilized so they can transition back to general population,” says the DOC.
The IMU was relocated to Snake River Correctional Institution in Ontario, Oregon in 2009.
According to the Oregon Department of Corrections, in 2008, a total of 784 inmates were assigned an IMU status. They were there an average of 112.5 days. Of the 784, approximately 145 spent more than six months in the IMU. Over the next three years, approximately 47.2% would return to the IMU, sometimes within a month of release from the IMU to general population.
B., like M.O. and Gary, are among the many Level 5 inmates sent out of state, where they remain housed in solitary confinement. Since 2007, over 20 Level 5 inmates were sent out of state through the Interstate Corrections Compact; currently, there are 11 Level 5 inmates out of state.
Gary, who has been incarcerated since he was 14, writes that between 1998 and 2005, he did time “by and large in IMU and the hole (DSU)…. I did two short stints [in general population], first at Snake River during the summer of 1999 and last at Two Rivers from late 2002-early 2003…the two short stints combined for perhaps six months, and were my only reprieves from the IMUs.”
He reports receiving very little in terms of rehabilitative programming: “Back when I first started out in the IMU I was 16 years old, so they were required by law at the time to offer me more educational programming…I got my GED in 1999 there at OSP-IMU. But after that, and generally speaking, it’s really a joke.”
Like all the other inmates who have corresponded for this article, Gary has reported feelings of anger and rage rather than reform. ”However mentally tough you may be, years of sensory deprivation, total isolation, lack of mental/physical stimuli, and otherwise enduring the struggle that is a part of it all, takes a tremendous toll. Nearly without fail it instills a bitterness and hatred in you. After a number of years it often becomes difficult to do any other type of time; being around people in typical or normal environments becomes uncomfortable and even unbearable,” he writes.
This is a sentiment echoed by W., currently in Administrative Segregation at Snake River Correctional Institution, who reports that he has felt himself “becoming more anti-social and misanthropic.”
“I’ve been in prison for 16 years, and ten of them have been in solitary,” W. writes, “my first stretch was when I was 14 (in a juvenile hall) in which I did about six months where I wasn’t allowed to talk to anyone except staff a couple times a day. I think that really messed with my head at the time. By the time I came to prison when I was 16 I was used to solitary confinement. It doesn’t really bother me anymore. It’s all I know. I’ve seen other people have their will broken or begin to lose their minds.”
Administrative Segregation (Ad-Seg) currently holds 70 inmates, who can expect to spend an average of 185 days in single cell units. It is slightly less restrictive than the IMU. “We get 60 minutes of recreation, 7 days a week, and a shower. We’re allowed to go to recreation with one other person. Out in the rec area are some weights, pull up and dip bars. We are still handcuffed every time we leave our cells, just like in IMU or DSU,” writes W.
W. has been in Ad-Seg for over four years, following a two year long IMU term. “I’ve had 10 hearings thus far, and in each of them the same thing is said and no matter what I do I’m always given six more months. They haven’t even said what I could do to get out…They claim this is not a permanent thing, but every time they say I may get out to general population they change their minds,” he writes, “The idea that lock own units ‘correct’ anything is absurd. Everyone that is honest with themselves has to admit that.”
The negative psychological effects of isolation are well documented. Between 1998 and 2007, 14 of Oregon’s 25 prison suicides took place in the DSU or IMU. The strict conditions of the isolation units create hostile environments that aggravate problems.
According to documentation sent to me, M.O. was placed on food restrictions for two weeks (amounting to receiving only 1/3 of meals), for refusing “staff directives about [being] properly dressed at door to receive meal.” M.O. has written about his subsequent diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder related to his experiences while incarcerated; he reports frequent nightmares and being easily startled by sudden noises.
B. says that years in isolation have harmed his psychological well-being: “I’ve spent so many years isolated that I can’t function right around people. I have anxiety attacks, I get paranoid…I’ve stood at my cell door looking out into the tier for hours not knowing what I was doing before snapping out of it.”
According to the Managing Mental Illness in Prison Task Force report in 2004: “Thirty to forty-five percent (30-45%) of the more severe mentally ill population in DOC is housed in the most restrictive security units, Intensive Management Unit (IMU) and Disciplinary Segregation Unit (DSU).”
With more than 1 in 3 Oregon inmates diagnosed with a mental illness, Oregon took the step of expanding mental health services, including turning the OSP IMU into a mental health unit.
“Recognizing that mental health can play a factor in behavioral issues, we also recently revised our hearings process so that mental health case managers can weigh in on misconduct hearings for inmates who have serious mental health issues,” according to the DOC. Included at OSP is the Behavioral Health Unit, in which Level 5 inmates with a psychiatric diagnosis receive services. “I spent a year in the BHU unit,” B. writes, “I wasn’t in the program but for the most part I did everything they did and got most of the privileges. It’s a new thing and probably evolved. They change OSP’s IMU to it. More privileges, more time out of the cell, with up to two others. The mental health case managers see people all through the week on an individual basis. The overall feeling of the place greatly improved.”
However, the mental health unit at OSP hasn’t been without criticism, particularly due to the reality that the unit remains structurally the same as when it served as the supermax unit. B. also notes that “there’s still a lot of problems with staff treating people like it’s still IMU, playing head games , messing with mail, etc.”
There is a growing movement to limit the use of solitary confinement. On June 19th, the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Human Rights and Civil Rights held a hearing on the matter. “We also must have a clear eyed view of the impact of isolation on the vast majority of prisoners who will one day be released,” said Illinois Senator Richard Durbin.
It remains to be seen whether Oregon will follow the growing trend against solitary confinement and place tighter limits on its use of solitary. The Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon is reportedly in talks with the Oregon DOC officials, who claim that they are conducting an internal review of their segregation policies with the potential goal of reducing the current use of solitary confinement. No further clarification was provided by the ODOC at the time of this writing.