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North Carolina's Central Prison. (Photo: -ted/Wikimedia Commons)

16 Months in the Hole: Lessons From Solitary Confinement

• April 07, 2014 • 4:00 AM

North Carolina's Central Prison. (Photo: -ted/Wikimedia Commons)

A reformed drug dealer on the prisons of North Carolina.

What follows is an interview with a 24-year-old black man, Mr. W. who spent around 16 months, on and off, in solitary confinement at various prisons in eastern North Carolina. His longest stretch in the hole lasted eight months. The interview has been abridged, mildly sanitized, and edited to clarify chronology, but each paragraph comes verbatim from Mr. W.’s testimony.

A short note on the recent history of solitary confinement and its casualties in this state: At the end of May 2013, Kenneth Lassiter, warden of North Carolina’s Central Prison, was promoted to direct operations at 12 prisons in the central region of the state. Lassiter received a raise of over $10,000 per annum. There was no public announcement, perhaps because two weeks earlier, North Carolina Prisoner Legal Services had named Lassiter on a shortlist of defendants in an abuse claim on behalf of eight inmates who had witnessed or been victims of cruel and unusual punishment while in solitary confinement in Unit One—Central Prison’s designation for its least-conspicuous area of solitary confinement. Inmates and guards call one particular corner of this cell block “The Desert”; it’s the corner with no video surveillance. Whether out of ignorance or something worse, Lassiter was following in a state tradition. Recently retired Central Prison administrator Gerald J. Branker stepped down only after internal reviews, obtained and excerpted by the Associated Press last May, reported that “inmates with serious mental disorders were often kept in isolation for weeks, sometimes nude, in roach-infested cells smeared with human waste.” Branker is also named in the abuse claim.

Branker has yet to see jail time, let alone enjoy the solitude of the hole. Mr. W. was not one of the plaintiffs in the case. Now on parole, Mr. W. has adopted a pair of orphaned dogs; tends to his family; holds down two jobs; and has taken primary responsibility for the affairs of his dying uncle.

* * *

HOW MANY TIMES WAS I arrested? Ten times? 20 times? I don’t know. Somewhere between 10 and 20 times. I got arrested for breaking and entering but that was at a young age—I was 15, 16, going around, tryin’ if people’s doors were unlocked or kicking in people’s doors or jumping through windows, just seein’ if they got games or TVs or computer things. I wasn’t even takin’ people’s jewelry or nothing. I was just thinking like a kid. I wouldn’t do that now.

I was 14 the first time and went to a group home for youth offenders for if you get displaced, and my probation had displaced me. I stayed there for like seven months. Get up, go to school, you had to come make your bed up, then you got certain little chores, washing the dishes, cleaning the living areas, the bathroom areas, all the areas, and there was this lady, her name was Miss Perkins. She was a cooler lady—she used to take me out with her and ride, just me and her, just ride and let me listen to rap music ‘cuz I couldn’t do that in the home. She would ask me about my fam, about my peoples. My aunt would come visit. She came every week, on the weekends.

“Back in ’07, I could probably sell a whole ounce in one day, all in 20 bags. You know how many 20s that is? That is a lot of 20s. I could be making anywhere from four g’s to five g’s like that, sometimes over the course of a day.”

I can’t recall my dad ever coming. Naw, he never came. I think he was mad at my momma anyway for I guess letting me even get to that point, but it wasn’t her fault, I was a young boy, I liked getting into trouble. When I was young, I stayed in a neighborhood full of boys, like at least, like a neighborhood with like 18, 19 boys out there, all black boys, and it was really wild ‘cuz we was all together, stayed out there for at least 16 years. It just made me act like a boy. Boys trying to teach each other how to be men.

It’s not like this for everybody, but a lotta people I know, they father’s not around. White and black people, you know what I mean? I guess it’s a lot of sorry men out here. I love my dad, though, I really do love my dad,  but back then he stayed in New Jersey and he was on drugs, so he was out of state and on drugs—how the hell you gonna get down here?

I got out, went back home, I was playing football the whole time through it all—I played running back in middle school and cornerback in middle school, and when I got to high school they didn’t want me to play both sides so I went full running back. Playing both sides was wearing me down, having to play all the downs. But even then I was scoring.

I ain’t gonna never forget the first time I smoked weed. My Homeboy O’s house. He was sittin’ on his porch, he was sittin’ there smokin’ and—me, I was all about football—so I was like bro why you smokin’? He said, “You need to hit it.” Something about, “You couldn’t handle this” or something. Man, gimme that shit. I hit it, felt fit to cough out a lung ‘cuz I hit it too hard. He laughin’. I sit there for a minute, regroup for a second, chest burnin’ and shit, I hit it again, I ain’t cough, then I passed it to him—and then after that I started seeing life with different eyes, you know what I mean?

I ain’t start drinkin’ ’til I was like 20. Coke in my 20s. I took an X pill before I started ever drinking or snorting. Just took a pill, smoked weed, you know. So after that in my 20s I started drinking and snorting. Hard to believe it took me so long, since I was selling dope at 17. I was staying with my grandma, or my aunt, or else I might be up all night if I was selling, up in a crack house on this side of town or the other. I started selling the way we all do: One day I was just like shit I need some fuckin’ money man. Plus, the area where my grandma stay uptown, all that shit was like a crackhead haven. Crack central. And when I say that, you can come up there any time and you can sell—motherfuckers were selling fake dope to people, still making tons of money. The crack boom did not end uptown.

On a Monday, I was probably buying like a pound of reefer, and about an ounce of crack. No heroin. Where I was, anyway, I don’t think you coulda made no money off that heroin shit. And motherfuckers wasn’t selling powder either. Back in ’07, I could probably sell a whole ounce in one day, all in 20 bags. You know how many 20s that is? That is a lot of 20s. I could be making anywhere from four g’s to five g’s like that, sometimes over the course of a day.

February 2011. I was just going to sell this lady a 20 of crack, and I was leavin’ out my grandma’s house, went down there, sold a little 20 bag. While I was in there she lit her cracker up, and when she used to smoke this girl got real twisted, just out of control, and the police knocked on the door, boom boom boom banging and shit, “Come on, we know you in here,” saying my name, and she was in there twisted. “You under arrest for possession with intent to sell and deliver cocaine.” And they already knew me pretty well, motherfuckers stopping you every other day and it’s not a big town. Went down there, stayed locked up for ’bout a week or two, then my momma came and got me out. And I said, if you get me out, I’mma finish my GED before I go to prison it’ll help me with probation later, I kept my promise that I’d made her, so I got my GED then I got sentenced. I got locked up on my mom’s birthday.

First they was trying to give me four to five years, but they called it 48 to 57 months, and I was like aw hell no, so they told me if I took a plea, if I’d go and plead out, they’d give me 20 to 27 months. And then I talked to my lawyer, I was like, c’mon, you can’t get better than that? This my first time. But they was doing a big bust, bustin’ everybody around this motherfucker, and they sent down those sentences without pity. And I got caught in the net.

At 17 I was picked up for strongarm robbery, but since I pleaded guilty they took it down to common-law robbery. But motherfuckers see robbery, you never gonna get a job or shit. Specially way the economy is now, the way they do things on the computer, you don’t really have a fighting chance far as filling out an application on a computer, know what I mean, because, it goes—it’s like a, we gonna check him first out. When you click that shit that say “felon,” it’s automatic—cross him out, let’s move along.

I got picked up with the crack and the weed when I was 20, three years later. I had sold to an undercover, or rather a confidential informant. CI was a student who’d gotten busted on campus and started workin’ for the police and he set me up.

Prison is a whole other world. It’s like a world inside a world. Honestly it’s like hell on Earth, bro. It’s the jungle, wild, lots of people into gangbangin’ and still young, still tryin’ to be all, “Who’s the lion in the jungle, who’s packing up with the hyenas,” shit like that. All depends on where you go, what officers you get put with. I mean, I went to some fucked up places, and then I got sent to places like M— and T— and redneck towns. Anyway, the corrections officers were rednecks and most of the prisoners are black. Of course, there are a lot of black COs at some prisons. Places I was at, mainly white COs.

In those places the Aryan Brotherhood didn’t carry a lot of weight ‘cuz it wasn’t a lot of them, I mean, I feel like people get the wrong picture of prison. Like I seen a documentary one day about how the Aryan Brotherhood run everything out West. But on the East Coast, you go to prison, it’s the Bloods that run everything. Like, really, because there’s so many of ‘em. Numbers count. This isn’t like 300 and the Romans. You ain’t never gonna see that in this day and age. It’s all about numbers because people are more cowardly than back then, when more people stood for like honor and respect, and motherfuckers over here gonna gang up with they people, where they do less work and feel untouchable because they around so many people but really—really they are scared. And that’s what turns so many people to the gang, ‘cuz they scared can’t handle themselves.

My first solitary experience ever was the first time I went to prison for the robbery. I went and I did eight to 10 months for that and was in solitary confinement twice. The first time, I was fighting the first time—I was guilty—I hit this guy in the chow hall ‘cuz see I was a loner and he felt ‘cuz he was part of a gang, or he had people behind him, he can do or say whatever he want to anybody. And one day I was takin’ my tray up to the window and he knocks into me, hits my stuff down, I said watch where you’re going he said I don’t care about none of that. Man what’s wrong with this dude? So before he could get it all out I just hit him. And it was, after that, I got respect from people when I came from out solitary confinement. I stayed in there for eight days. An A charge will give you 60 days to the max, so you get an A charge you goin’ long-term. B charge, C charge, 30 days maybe. I got a C charge but only got eight days ‘cuz they had so many people coming in and out and so much trouble they didn’t have no room. Couldn’t put people in solitary fast enough.

When you in prison, you in prison with all kinds from all kinds of places around your state, and your mind says, because you just got six months, you just wanna read a couple books, do this and that and get out, but then you locked up with guys who got 40 years, life, 20 years, 10 years—them mindsets are totally different. Because your time—there’s still light there for them, too, but some people get so trapped in that life. And they perform. But there’s so many people who know each other in prison, so when they try and come in there and act like they this King Kong outside of here, someone else from his hood arrives in and says, “Aw, this dude’s just a sad crackhead out there.”

I went back in the hole ‘cuz one of the gangs jumped this guy and beat him down bad, and then they tried to come and say it had something to do with me. It was blacks on Latin Kings—we called ‘em Migos. A lot of people got blamed for it. Got sent to the hole for some gang stuff. For the gang stuff, I spent probably 27, 28 days ’til they came and got me after they found I had nothing to do with it.

“Prison is a whole other world. It’s like a world inside a world. Honestly it’s like hell on Earth, bro. It’s the jungle, wild, lots of people into gangbangin’ and still young, still tryin’ to be all, ‘Who’s the lion in the jungle, who’s packing up with the hyenas.’”

Going to solitary confinement, when you go down there it’s really a whole other world. I seen guys kill theyselves and everything. ‘Cuz they was in the hole for so long. They was hangin theyselves, chokin theyselves out. And it’s really hard to even kill yourself in the hole. But I done seen motherfuckers shit on the floor, and then wipe it all over his face and body when the guards took him out. He just wasn’t ready to get out the hole. He was scared of not being in the hole.

My experience being in there, I know how my uncle’s dogs feel, they been put in cages and locked up, and hell, you don’t wanna be caged up. That’s why I’mma put my dogs outside, now it’s warmer—I’ll put ‘em out here so they can run around, long as they not freezin’ or too cool, but that cage will mess with you man.

What kept me sane was my family, my peoples, ‘cuz people were writing me, and it was something to look forward to, at the end of the day when they give you your mail, they pass out your mail right after you finish eatin’ dinner, so you go to bed on that feelin’, there was nights when I might get five, six, seven letters. And that’s wonderful bro.

But I feel like that’s another way, a way God works for people that make mistakes, and he sets up events for them to make them know that this ain’t what he need you to be, he wants you out there doin’ his plan for you, the plan he got set up. The Lord let you know: This not what you need to be, this not where I want you to be.

They give you a Bible but it gets to a certain point in solitary confinement if you act too crazy they might come in there, take your pillows, take your blankets, take all your clothes and make you stand in there butt naked and it’s already cold as hell, and make you lay on the steel for three days. And you don’t get no shower or nothin’.

I read a lot of books in there. I read a lot of urban books—black-published books or you know black authors—and some James Patterson and I actually read this poetry book one time and I can’t remember what it was called; I got it from the library there. You had to request it and they’d come by like once every two weeks and you’d have to fill out this little slip and send it it. They got a list of categories—action, adventure, drama, suspense, poetry, science fiction, romance, comedy. Run for Your Life by James Patterson was probably my favorite.

I read more of the Bible in there than I do out here, though this is really where we should be reading it. When I really wanted to get into, it, I would get into it. I read all of Exodus. And all of Revelation.

Times, days, I felt like I was ’bout to go crazy. But most of that time, it wasn’t just because of being inside the box. It was stuff going on outside the box, and maybe some stuff inside, that I couldn’t control until I got out of that box. Out here in the free world, my mom was troubled over findin’ some place to stay, and I was worried about her of course. I prayed a lot.

I just had something to look forward to I guess. But there’s a lot of people bro who’d rather be dead than to be locked away the rest of their life. Some people are stronger than others. And some people really feel like they have nothing to live for.

At M—, two of my buddies—not close but I trusted them—they jumped this white dude. All about a carton of cigarettes. That’s why I spent my last eight months in solitary: Two niggas who wanted tobacco. White dude used to shake out the leaves and hide ‘em in bags up in light fixtures and shit. Which is funny, ‘cuz most of the time in prison people suitcase stuff—put it in their ass. People suitcase cell phones, put ‘em up there, all the way up in there—and I’m not talking about just one phone; one or two or three phones up there. People actually told me they put the phones up in there and they felt them phones floatin’ around in their lower stomach area.

I’m not gonna say necessarily I’m grateful because I’m not sure what I missed out on by being in there instead of being out in the world. But I know what I learnt from being in that place, and I learned that I didn’t want to miss out. I don’t understand people who don’t learn from their mistakes—that’s something more than ignorance. Punishment and hard time is just life, it’s nature runnin’ its course, just like you got bees pollinatin’ the Earth, and everything and every being has it, every insect and reptile, even the trees and the dirt and the sand, everything has its purpose.

In prison, a 70-year-old man is not a 70-year-old man you see on the outside. There was guys who was 40 or 50 years old who was in way better shape than me. And that’s because in a way prison preserves you. If you ever look at a certain kind of person when they get out of prison, I just want you to see the little glow they have on they skin and they body. That comes from their being locked away, not being able to drink, or smoke, forced to shower, working out.

That last stretch, I did 500 push-ups and 300 sit-ups a day. They say if you run in place for like eight minutes then it’s like runnin’ a mile, so I’m in my little cell and my little window looks across the hall, there’s another black dude, and he got a watch—I don’t even have a watch—and one day we start workin’ out together. He wanted to do it but he needed motivation to keep doin’ it, and plus I need to do it for myself anyway. So he across the hall, he say yo, I’m bout to run, eight minutes straight, if you wanna get in shape, tone your body up, and in prison they have they own alphabet, symbols you make with your hands for each letter. It became easy to stand back from your window, use the signals, and then develop shortcuts with the language.

And we’d run. Every day, we would run.

Ted Scheinman
Ted Scheinman has written for the Los Angeles Review of Books, Slate, the Paris Review, the Oxford American Quarterly, and elsewhere. His first book of non-fiction will appear via Faber in 2014. Follow him on Twitter @Ted_Scheinman.

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