Does separation equal suffering?
Some state inmates spend years in solitary. Critics say that is cruel and unusual.
By MEG LAUGHLIN
Published December 17, 2006
Ian Manuel had just turned 14 when he went to prison for shooting a woman in a botched robbery on a Tampa sidewalk. Mouthy and disobedient, he was sent to solitary confinement a year and a half later.
That was in 1992. He has been there ever since.
Now 29, Manuel has spent half his life in a concrete box the size of a walk-in closet. His food comes through a slot in the door. He never sees another inmate. Out of boredom he cuts himself just to watch the blood trickle.
Attorneys who advocate on behalf of prisoners call Manuel "the poster boy" for the ill effects of solitary confinement.
There are 3,500 inmates in solitary confinement in Florida prisons. More than 1,400 of them are held under the strictest conditions, like Manuel.
They are not allowed out of their cells except for three quick showers a week and five hours in an empty outdoor cage that resembles a dog run.
They are not allowed to stand at their doors and look out the narrow plexiglass window in their cells, bathe in their sinks when it's hot, or use their blankets as a wrap when it's cold.
They are not allowed to call out chess plays from cell to cell or read anything but legal and religious materials. If they violate any of these rules, their time in solitary is extended.
In Florida a larger percentage of inmates - 4 percent - live "behind the door" than in any other state. Their numbers are increasing by about 250 people a year, despite a state plan intended to decrease the numbers. Forty-seven of the inmates in solitary are younger than 18. Seventy-seven percent of the women and 33 percent of the men are diagnosed as mentally ill, raising questions of whether solitary confinement is a dumping ground for inmates whose illnesses are aggravated by isolation.
The Department of Corrections was brought to federal court in 1999 to defend itself against allegations that its use of solitary confinement amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. Seven years later, attorneys for the inmates argue the state still has not addressed the issue, despite a court-approved plan to do so. A federal judge will soon decide who is right: the state or the inmates.
During a September federal court hearing on the alleged abuses in solitary, Chase Riveland, former chief administrator for prison systems in Colorado, Washington and Oregon, said: "Prisons have people who must be kept away from the general population. The problem in Florida is not that (solitary) exists, but who goes in and who goes out and why, and how they are treated when they're in."
More than 50 percent of the inmates are held there for years, Riveland said, "because of minor disciplinary infractions, not because they're a threat to others."
Ian Manuel holds the record for being there the longest without a break.
A call to apologize
On a muggy July night in 1990, Debbie Baigrie, 28, was walking with a friend in downtown Tampa. Three boys walked up as she got to her car and demanded money. Manuel, then 13, pulled a gun and fired.
A bullet tore through Baigrie's open mouth and out her cheek, shattering five teeth and part of her gum. Manuel pleaded guilty to attempted felony murder. At his sentencing, the judge cited 17 prior arrests for shoplifting, purse snatching and stealing cars. He gave Manuel a life sentence without parole.
In 1991, when Manuel arrived at the prison processing center in Central Florida, he was so small no one could find a prison uniform to fit him, Ron McAndrew, then the assistant warden, recalled. Someone cut 6 inches off the boy's pant legs so he would have something to wear.
"He was scared of everything and acting like a tough guy as a defense mechanism," said McAndrew, now a prison and jail consultant in Florida. "He didn't stand a chance in an adult prison."
Within months, Manuel was sent to Apalachee Correctional Institution in Jackson County, which McAndrew called "one of the toughest adult prisons in the state." At Apalachee, the boy mouthed off to other inmates and correctional officers and made obscene hand gestures, racking up disciplinary infractions that landed him in solitary.
On Christmas Eve 1992, he was allowed to make one phone call. He called Debbie Baigrie, the woman he had shot.
"This is Ian. I am sorry for all the suffering I've caused you," she remembers him saying.
They began to correspond regularly. Baigrie said she was impressed with how well he wrote.
She asked prison officials to let him take the General Educational Development test and take college courses.
"I got a second chance in life. I recovered and went on," Baigrie said. "I wanted Ian to have the same chance."
But the rules of solitary forbade Manuel from participating in any kind of self-improvement or educational program. Instead, he sat in his cell day in and day out, without reading materials or human interaction, racking up more infractions for "disrespect," which only extended his time in solitary.
After several years, Baigrie gave up.
"Not because of Ian," she said, "but because the system made it impossible for him to improve. What does it say when a victim tries to do more for an inmate than the very system that's supposed to rehabilitate him?"
Harsh yes, but right?
But rehabilitation is not the point of solitary confinement, which officials call "close management."
Its intent is "to provide housing that removes inmates from the general population to ensure the safety of staff and other inmates," said James Upchurch, the head of security for the state Department of Corrections.
Under the strictest conditions, he said, inmates are still allowed "numerous privileges," among them, "stamps, mail, paper and (rubber) pens, a prison uniform, bedding, legal and religious material, three 10-minute showers a week and haircuts."
In September, when he was state attorney general, Charlie Crist, with Assistant State Attorney Jason Vail, wrote a brief saying solitary conditions "can be severe, even harsh, without violating the Constitution."
Their example: Sleeping on a concrete floor and "being denied a mattress or a bed for several days does not violate the Eighth Amendment."
Even if the state's "remedial action (is) unsuccessful," they said, the court cannot continue to monitor solitary unless the evidence shows the state "acted with the very purpose of causing harm."
Over nine days in September, inmates testified via video before Federal District Court Judge Henry Adams.
Anthony Sutton, 29, an inmate at Santa Rosa Correctional Institution, told the judge that he first went into solitary in 2002 when correctional officers found a knife in his roommate's mattress.
Sutton recently filed a written grievance because correctional officers won't allow him to wear the knee brace he requires to walk. Their written response: "Limited mobility of (solitary) status makes the knee brace unnecessary."
Inmate Marcus Green, 33, who is on the lowest level of solitary, told Adams, "Their rules aren't on the rule sheet. They make up their own rules. I was denied access to the day room because my pillow fluff wasn't neat the way they wanted. I was denied day room because I put paper on my vent to try to guide some ventilation in my cell."
Attorneys for the Department of Corrections did not dispute inmates' version of events. Vail said their stories "did not add up to systemic violations," which were required to prove cruel and unusual treatment.
"These prisoners don't practice civilized behavior. They don't follow rules. They don't deserve civilized treatment. It's a different world," Vail told the St. Petersburg Times.
Two days later, Vail asked to amend his statement: "What I meant to say was that these inmates don't conform and are there because they don't follow the rules. It's that simple."
Going slowly crazy
On the fifth day of the September hearing, Ian Manuel testified.
"It's my belief," he told Judge Adams, "that the reason I haven't been able to progress off CM (close management) all these years is the way the system is set up. One DR (disciplinary report) will keep you there for six months and those six months add up to years and those years turn into decades."
In the past seven months, prison records show Manuel received three disciplinary writeups: one for not making his bed, another for hiding a day's worth of prescription medicine instead of taking it, and yet another for yelling through the food flap when a correctional officer refused to take his grievance form. Those reports extended his stay on the strictest level of solitary for nine months.
Manuel told the judge that in isolation he has become a "cutter," slicing his arms and legs with whatever sharp object he can find - a fragment of a toothpaste tube or a tiny piece of glass.
Don Gibbs, a psychiatrist for the Department of Corrections, said cutting and watching the blood flow is how hundreds of inmates "relieve the boredom and stress of isolation."
It takes from two to six months, Gibbs said, for inmates in solitary to start exhibiting signs of mental illness, if they are not already mentally ill.
"Nobody can be isolated for long periods of time with nothing to see and nothing to do and not deteriorate," he said. "If you're not mentally ill when you go in, you probably will be when you come out."
In the past year, Ian Manuel has attempted suicide five times. In late August he slit his wrists. A prison nurse closed the wounds with superglue and returned him to his solitary cell.
When the judge asked him why he attempted suicide, Manuel said, "You kind of lose hope."
In early 2007, Adams will rule on whether solitary conditions should continue to be monitored by his court.
About that time, staff at Union Correctional Institution will review Manuel's status to see if, after 14 years in solitary, he will be allowed to go to the day room four hours a week to watch TV in handcuffs and shackles.
"Every day," he says, "I pray for this."
Researcher Angie Holan contributed to this report. Meg Laughlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8068.