Guest Commentary: Indefinite Solitary Confinement is Purgatory

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Suffering and mental health deterioration with no end in sight

By Michael “Scientific” Rivera

“Indefinite solitary confinement” is a phrase coined by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in 2017 to define a sub-class of prisoners, who are being held in solitary confinement indefinitely, without any clear path back to the prison’s general population.

For the past seven years of my incarceration, I have been unceremoniously assigned to Pennsylvania’s restricted release list (RRL), which means that I am to be housed in solitary confinement until the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections (PaDOC) takes me off of the list.

In effect, this means that I shall be uncompassionately confined to my small cell for 23 hours per day, with little to no human contact, until prison administrators decide otherwise.

Being a moderately successful jailhouse lawyer, I could write countless pages about the legal landscape surrounding indefinite solitary confinement. However, I want to focus my energy on the humanity of prisoners currently serving their sentences on indefinite solitary confinement.

We are here, and we are suffering. We are despondently languishing in what I call “restricted housing unit (RHU) purgatory,” in a sad and miserable existence.

All prisoners on the restricted release list are permanently housed in the RHU which means that we are deprived of educational programs, vocational training and recreational activities which areregularly offered to all other prisoners in the general population. Basic access to school, library, church, gym and yard are all unavailable to me.

Being held indefinitely in solitary confinement means that I am by myself at all times in a housing unit that mandates that I be strip searched, handcuffed and, at times, even shackled to leave my cell and go anywhere.

When weather permits, I am escorted outside to an open-air cage with no exercise equipment in it, where I am allowed to be unrestrained for one hour per day. This is considered to be recreational yard time.

The law library is also an open-air cage, containing a legal research computer and nothing else. I am permitted to go to the law library three times each week, but I only go there when I feel it’s absolutely necessary because the process of being stripsearched is so humiliating and degrading.

This is also why I sometimes skip showers, which I’m offered three times per week in a single-man shower stall for 10 minutes. When I go, I spend most of my time shaving because I’m not permitted to shave in my cell.

After seven years of this same routine, I have become indifferent to the monotony and tedium of it all.

Do you think that’s normal? Since early 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic began, I’ve seen and heard many health professionals speak about “COVID fatigue,” which is fascinating to me. I laughed out loud at people on TV complaining about being forced to quarantine for 14 days on five-star luxury cruise ships. I find it ironic that not one of the mental health professionals on TV ever mentioned the fatigue of being “quarantined” in prison on indefinite solitary confinement. Is anyone concerned about my mental health?

The saddest and most hurtful part of my environment is the mental health deterioration I witness daily. It pains me to hear grown men screaming incoherently for hours. Others kick at their cell doors pointlessly, while some frivolously argue about nothing with anyone willing to engage them. I’ve seen several men cover themselves and their cell walls with their own feces — and a few times with their own blood too — just for a temporary reprieve from the claustrophobia of our situation.

After such degrading episodes, these feces-covered men are taken to the medical department for 72 hours, where they’re treated slightly better — temporarily — only to be returned to the same filthy cells they defiled three days prior.

I have personally witnessed five suicides in the RHU during my seven years here. I’ve also seen prison staff thwart three other suicide attempts. What pains me the most is that mental illness goes untreated. Sometimes the behavior — the symptoms of the mental illness — are ridiculed.

Given this situation, I’m left to my own devices to cope and to stay positive and productive. My primary weapon is my pen, so I write. I write mostly to the courts and to the PaDOC, but today I write to you.

I sign off as your real-time war correspondent, reporting live and direct from a psychological battleground.

Michael “Scientific” Rivera is a writer incarcerated in Pennsylvania.   Originally published by Prison Journalism Project.  Prison Journalism Project trains incarcerated writers to become journalists and publishes their stories.

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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