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OpinionColumnistsMark Chiusano

'Then you're vanished': Living in solitary confinement

Seven years in solitary confinement, now hoping Albany will make a change.

Seven years in solitary confinement, now hoping Albany

Seven years in solitary confinement, now hoping Albany will make a change. Photo Credit: NYCAIC/Scott Paltrowitz

For close to a decade, advocates and formerly incarcerated individuals have gone to Albany pushing for legislative restrictions on the use of solitary confinement behind bars.

The HALT Solitary Confinement Act (Humane Alternatives to Long-Term Solitary Confinement) would mandate reduced use of the practice and create alternative options.

Hundreds of individuals are held in "special housing units" around the state, locked in place for nearly 24 hours of the day. Those who’ve been through solitary describe a nightmare experience of loneliness and deprivation that has, in some circumstances, lasted for years. The practice has faced mounting criticism nationwide, but the previously Republican-controlled State Senate blocked reform.

Tyrrell Muhammad, 59, is hoping the politics have sufficiently changed. Muhammad and a group of others committed a robbery decades ago where an associate ended up killing someone, he says. He was convicted of second-degree murder and spent more than 25 years behind bars— approximately seven of them in solitary.

He was released in 2005 and eventually went to work for the nonprofit Correctional Association of New York. For years, he has lobbied for legislation to limit the use of solitary.  

Can you describe solitary confinement?

I equate it to the whipping post in slavery. Because everybody in the facility knows that you’re being punished. So now you’re ridiculed. Everybody sees you going to solitary.  And once you get there, you don’t see nobody, you don’t hear from nobody. So now you’re paraded and ridiculed in front of the men and then you’re vanished. And when you're vanished, you're left to your own thoughts, your own behavior, whatever that was when you went in there, now it becomes exacerbated ... If you went in there as a young man, 19 or 20, you might turn 45 but still behave like you're 19 or 20. We call that arrested development.

Why were you in solitary?

I went into solitary confinement because I missed the count. I didn’t stab nobody. I didn’t have a fight with nobody. I wasn't in no riot. I missed the count. This was in 1981.

What is missing the count?

I was coming from the rec area and you know you’ve got 1,500 people trying to come into the building. So everybody’s not gonna get where they need to go on time. And because I wasn't there on time, they said I missed the count. And because I missed the count and that’s a very big thing in prison, the count, they called it attempted escape …. So they took me to the box and gave me 60 days. That 60 days wound up to 6.5 years.

Why?

Because when you get there, you get more infractions. If you don’t eat all your food, you get an infraction …. If you’re talking too loud on the gate, you get an infraction. If I put down for recreation and decide at the last minute I don’t want to go, I get an infraction.

How long were you in solitary every day?

They’re supposed to let you out for one hour a day ... In certain facilities, you still have handcuffs on so they’d put you out the yard in handcuffs. Or, in certain facilities, they’d put you in a cage that was no bigger than your cell, you see.

What was your experience like?

Some people say, "Well, you look like you're pretty alright." And I say, "Well, how can you determine that?"

I hallucinated in solitary. I became an introvert. I don’t talk much. I sleep maybe four to five hours tops seven days a week. I wake up every day at 4:30 [or] 5 [a.m.], seven days a week. I’ve been home 15 years and I’ve never slept past 8 o’clock. My physical body won’t let me.

What did you have in the room with you?

What you have is maybe a pack of bar soap, a toothbrush, a broken pencil, maybe some writing paper. And you have maybe some underwear and clothes.

Did you read a lot?

Well that’s all you can do. You become an avid reader.

What did you read?

Everything. Reader's Digest. National Geographic. The stuff that they had. Nonfiction. Autobiographies. Anything to break the monotony of the time.

Have discussions been different in Albany this year?

It’s different because we have a Democratic Assembly and Senate. So the talks are different. You know that. But everything remains to be seen. I don’t go about what people say, I go about what people do.

They’re saying it’s not a problem. [The law] is going to pass … They’re saying all the right things that someone should say when you’re trying to convince someone that this is going to be a done deal.

Do you believe that?

I could never believe that. I’ve been in prison. I only go for what I see, you see? That’s where I’m at. People will tell you anything. They will promise you, and the next thing you know, you won’t get the email back; they won’t call you. They just lied to your face and kept it moving.

You’re living back home in Brooklyn now. How has your return been?

Suffice it to say, I appreciate where I am today, compared with where I was.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

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