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Local Column

View: Inmate's letters show effects of solitary confinement

On the first page of a letter to a woman he had never met, the man explained how he ended up in a maximum-security prison by starting at the beginning: “I was born a dope & crack baby.”

“As time went on as a little boy I watched different men do all kinds of unspeakable, twisted things to my mother,” he continued. “I was 10 years old when she died. She was found brain dead in an alley or playground. At my mom’s funeral, she was buried in a pine box (a cheap casket) . . . & she was dressed in the casket like they found her, in crackhead clothes.”

He described being diagnosed with mental illnesses, including bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder and PTSD.

“Most of my family disowned me cause of my mental issues,” he wrote.

I am not telling you about this man so you feel sympathy for him. I am telling you about this man because even if we push compassion aside, he is the reason we should be closely watching a federal class-action lawsuit that was filed earlier this month with the aim of ending solitary confinement conditions at two Virginia maximum-security prisons, Red Onion and Wallens Ridge.

The man served time in Wallens Ridge and in his letters, he describes growing increasingly desperate and more mentally unstable, in solitary confinement.

He also describes this: A release date.

His letters read like a countdown. When he sent that first one, he expected to be released this year. He has since been transferred to another less secure facility, signaling his release could come soon.

When we talk about solitary confinement, the common assumption is that prisons use it to control the worst of the worst, men and women who committed such horrific crimes that they will probably never walk out of those facilities.

The letters from this inmate show that is not the case. They show that what happens behind those barbed-wired fences will be carried outside of them on the backs of those who are released.

The suit, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia and the law firm White & Case, claims inmates at Red Onion and Wallens Ridge are sometimes placed in solitary confinement for small infractions and behaviors related to mental health problems. Once there, they are held for 22 to 24 hours a day in cells the size of parking spaces, under lights that are always on, according to the lawsuit. And they are kept in those conditions not just for days or weeks. The lawsuit describes inmates held in solitary confinement for two to nearly 24 years.

That isolation, according to the lawsuit, has left inmates with “severe physical and mental health damage.”

The Virginia Department of Corrections did not respond to a request for comment about the lawsuit.

When I called the prison to find out what the inmate who wrote the letters had been convicted of, I was told statutory burglary.

I am not identifying him here by name because I wasn’t able to speak to him directly. But Gay Gardner, who is on the board of Interfaith Action for Human Rights, shared nearly a dozen of his letters with me. In them, he expresses interest in sharing his story.

“Please report these issues to everyone & anyone who can help me & can talk to me,” he writes in one. “I’m willing to testify & speak to the public about this prison, if I decide not to commit suicide.”

He mentions suicidal thoughts in several of the letters.

“They keep us locked down 24 hours a day in seg (the hole) & its not fair & its unhealthy for the mind,” he writes in one. “I’m just sick & tired of all this mess, & mental health don’t do checks but once a month, and I sometimes just want to die. I already been thru more than enough in this life as it is, so I don’t know how much more I can take . . . I don’t deserve this kind of treatment. I’m not a slave & I’m not an animal so why am I being treated like one?”

“I don’t know if I can deal with this prison for 6 to 8½ more months, it’s killing me, it’s taking all the mental power I have to cope here,” he continues. “These people make me want to hurt them one minute due to the treatment I’m receiving (all inmates are receiving) & the next minute I want to hurt myself. I’m just fed up. You have no idea how much mental power it takes to deal with and live in this prison. I’m angry & rageful & sad all wrapped into one.”

In that letter, he describes spending more than 18 days in solitary, or restrictive housing, as it is called by the prisons.

In another letter, he describes being there 70 days.

In another, 118 days.

“I’m mentally unstable & I’m completely fed up with life & everything in it,” that letter reads. “My mind can’t cope with this pain anymore.”

There is, of course, no way to know how much truth is in his letters and what happened in the prison that didn’t make it into those envelopes. But what he says should be enough to at least make us pay attention to a lawsuit that will reveal what is happening in two institutions that don’t just hold prisoners for Virginia, but also release them back into the state.

• Theresa Vargas is a columnist for The Washington Post. Before coming to The Post, she worked at Newsday in New York.

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