What is left: solitary confinement

“After the bars and the gates
and the degradation,
What is left?”

Maria Benita Santamaria is a 35 year old transgender woman. In June 2009, she was arrested in northern Virginia and charged with possession of methamphetamine.  In August she pleaded guilty. She was sent to Central Virginia Regional Jail, a men’s prison. The prison placed her in solitary confinement, for “her own protection”. At the end of December, a U.S. District Judge ordered her removed to a federal prison with treatment facilities and counseling for transgender prisoners.  When the holiday seasons intruded, the judge had Santamaria placed in a medical wing until after the end of the festive season. After six months in solitary, what is left?

“After the lock ins and the lock outs
and the lock ups,
What is left?”

For the last two years, Santamaria has undergone hormone treatments in preparation for sex change surgery. That stopped in August. According to the prison staff, while in solitary, Santamaria was treated as a prisoner on punitive lockdown. She left her cell one hour a day, she showered three times a week.

“I mean, after the chains that get entangled
in the grey of one’s matter,
After the bars that get stuck
in the hears of men and women,

When the jail guards talked to or about Santamaria, they called her `it’. She considered suicide. She pleaded to be returned to the general population.

“After the tears and disappointments,
After the lonely isolation,
After the cut wrist and the heavy noose,
What is left?”

Maria Benita Santamaria said take me out of solitary confinement and put me in the general population, where I will most likely be raped. Maybe I’ll survive. It would be better than this.

“Like, after you know that god
can’t be trusted,
After you know that the shrink
is a pusher,
that the word is a whip
and the badge is a bullet,
What is left?”

Across the United States, prison guards call transgender prisoners `it’, and worse. Across the country and around the world, prisoners are placed in solitary confinement for long periods … “for their own protection”. After long terms in isolation, what is left?

“After you know that the dead
are still walking,
After you realize that silence
is talking,
that outside and inside
are just an illusion,
What is left?”

Virginia also operates four `facilities’ for women: Deerfield Work Center for Women; the Central Virginia Correctional Unit #13; the Virginia Correctional Center for Women; and Fluvanna Correctional Center for Women. In June 2008, the four prisons held about 2220 women, of which Fluvanna held 1200.

“I mean, like, were is the sun?
Where are her arms and
where are her kisses?
There are lip-prints on my pillow—
i am searching.
What is left?”

Fluvanna boasts a Pen Pals program, and prisoners can work for the Virginia Correctional Enterprises as optical Braille transcribers or as tailors. But there’s more to Fluvanna, much more.

“I mean, like, nothing is standstill
and nothing is abstract.
The wings of a butterfly
can’t take flight.
The foot on my neck is part
af a body.
The song that i sing is part
of an echo.
What is left?”

Reports have been coming out of Fluvanna that women who `appear to be lesbian’ (short hair, baggy clothes) have been segregated and put in a `butch wing’. A no-touching policy has been instituted. Women walk single file everywhere. Access to religious services has been curtailed. And this: “a woman writes that a mentally ill inmate was kept in solitary confinement for months. `When it’s time for her to take her shower, she is lead, shackled and naked, down the hall, with a dog leash attached to her shackles, by a male guard.’”

“I mean, like, love is specific.
Is my mind a machine gun?
Is my heart a hacksaw?
Can i make freedom real? Yeah!
What is left?”

In March 2009, Dr. Atul Gawande argued, “Public sentiment in America is the reason that solitary confinement has exploded in this country, even as other Western nations have taken steps to reduce it. This is the dark side of American exceptionalism. With little concern or demurral, we have consigned tens of thousands of our own citizens to conditions that horrified our highest court a century ago. Our willingness to discard these standards for American prisoners made it easy to discard the Geneva Conventions prohibiting similar treatment of foreign prisoners of war, to the detriment of America’s moral stature in the world. In much the same way that a previous generation of Americans countenanced legalized segregation, ours has countenanced legalized torture.”

“I am at the top and bottom
of a lower-archy.
I am an earth lover
from way back.
I am in love with
losers and laughter.
I am in love with
freedom and children.”

In 1974, Assata Shakur, a New Jersey prisoner, was one month pregnant. She was taken to Roosevelt Hospital, and shackled to a bed for 10 days. Then she was moved to Middlesex County Jail for Men, and kept in solitary confinement for four months. She was extradited to New York, to Rikers Island, where `the treatment’ continued.

On September 10, Assata Shakur went into labor, and, on September 11, gave birth to Kakuya Amala Olugbala Shakur. When Shakur returned to Rikers Island, she was shackled, beaten, put into solitary confinement for a month. Finally, she was released from `punitive segregation: “So I was no longer locked. Just in jail. And separated from my child.”

And she wrote the poem, “Leftovers – What Is Left”, for her daughter. Parts of that poem run through this reflection.

“Love is my sword
and truth is my compass.
What is left?”

What is left? Solitary confinement.

Solitary confinement is the vital organ of the body politic of prison. When you read that the death penalty might be dropped from the anti-gay bill in Uganda or that capital punishment may finally come to an end in the United States, remember this: solitary confinement is torture, and it defines prison.

Daniel Moshenberg, dmoshenberg@gmail.com