Stories from Solitary

Clarence Elkins was an innocent man in prison, falsely accused of murdering his mother-in-law and assaulting his niece. He served six and a half years in an Ohio prison before he was exonerated in December of 2005. In the years he was incarcerated, he was placed in “protective custody”– solitary– on three different occasions, the rational behind each confinement more ridiculous than the last.

Last June, the Senate Judiciary Committee held the first ever hearing on solitary confinement and the human rights issues (namely the violation of the 8th amendment) inherent within. I worked with Clarence to draft a written submission of his experiences to be read before the committee. His stories are painful to hear, not because he was an innocent man who was subjected to the torture of solitary, but simply because he was a human being subjected to the torture of solitary.

While imprisoned in Lucasville, Ohio, Clarence was subjected to bi-weekly drug testing. He was expected to urinate into a container, in full view of a small scrum of prison guards. During his first drug test, he found it difficult to use the bathroom in front of so many people, so he was unable to fill up the container fully. The sergeant on duty told Clarence that this was tantamount to refusing to submit to testing, and he was sent to solitary as punishment. Says Clarence:

“…they put me in the hole. I stayed in there for a while, drinking lots of water, but the sergeant refused to take my sample even when I gave him enough. I was in solitary for a week, and then I went to a hearing and beat the case. That was the first time.”

The psychological stress of being wrongly imprisoned for the murder of a family member was, obviously, enormous for Clarence.  His second trip to solitary came on the heels of a mental breakdown. Instead of sending him to a psychologist, or having him evaluated by any kind of mental health professional, prison staff learned that he was hearing voices and immediately sent him to solitary.

“…I pretty much lost my mind. I didn’t get to talk to anyone, not a single person. They just put me in solitary until they thought I was OK, and then they let me out and put me right back in my cell. I was hearing people plotting to kill me. A couple of weeks later, they put me back in solitary.”

About six years into his sentence, Clarence’s wife, who had always believed in his innocence and had hired a private investigator to help her prove it, alerted Clarence to another inmate serving time at the same prison. The inmate looked remarkably similar to Clarence,  was serving time for a violent sexual assault, and had been staying in Clarence’s mother-in-law’s neighborhood when the murder had taken place. Acting as his own detective, Clarence waited until the inmate had finished smoking a cigarette and stole the butt from the ashtray. He mailed the evidence to a DNA lab to test against the biological evidence collected from the crime scene. Miraculously, it was a hit. The results conclusively proved that Clarence was innocent (the other inmate, Earl Mann, has since been convicted of the murder and is serving life without the possibility of parole).

When the hit came back pointing to Mann’s guilt, Clarence was immediately placed back in solitary, under the guise of protection from Mann’s wrath.

“I was put in solitary the last time because they thought I was in danger—it was ‘protective custody.’ I did absolutely nothing wrong, yet I was treated no differently than anyone else in there. I didn’t get any assistance from the staff. They walked right by me like they couldn’t see me or hear me. I felt neglected, and even worse, I felt utterly invisible. I felt like I didn’t mean anything. 

The noise in solitary is absolutely unbearable. 24 hours a day, there’s inmates hollering and screaming about nothing. I really thought I was going to lose my mind. One night, I just started screaming too. I was so lonely. It’s the worst of the worst.”

After the DNA results came back, Clarence was held in solitary confinement for over 6 months. When he was finally exonerated, he was released directly from solitary to the outside world. He hadn’t touched another human being in over half a year.

“When I finally walked out of the prison, some news reporters were out there waiting and someone raised my hand up in the air. I was actually numb. Physically numb. I thought, “OK. This is another day.” I didn’t actually know if it was real. Coming out of solitary and into society, I just didn’t have any feelings when I walked out the door. You don’t know what to expect, or what to do, or how to act. Six years later, I’m still re-learning how to live my life.”

Clarence’s story is especially compelling. He’s a wonderful person– kind, soft-spoken, eloquent,brave– and he’s suffered unjustly. It’s impossible to allow an innocent man to be punished in the way that he was. But knowing what we do about the horrors of solitary, can we, as a people, inflict this upon anyone?

Solitary confinement fits the definition of torture as stated in several international human rights treaties. The UN Convention Against Torture  defines torture as any state-sanctioned act “by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person” for information, punishment, or intimidation.

To respect our responsibility to follow international human rights law, to take a stand against torture, and for the sake of our common humanity – solitary confinement in prisons must end.

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