Friday, June 30, 2017

The Box

Anyone with access to the news has, at some point, heard about the issue of Solitary Confinement. Inmates are spending months or even years locked in a small cell with minimal human contact. The story of Kalief Browder has brought much needed attention to mass incarceration and the misuse of Solitary Confinement in our Prison System. Sadly, his is one of so many and it had a tragic end.

Solitary Confinement (also known as The Box) has touched my family as it has so many others. I speak from my perspective and can't even begin to imagine what it's like to actually experience it. During the early years of my husband's sentence, we were blissfully unaware of the box. Back then, an inmate had to have committed a grave offence before getting sent there. As the years have passed, I have heard of more and more people being put in the box for the most ridiculous reasons.

Inmates go to a 'hearing' where they have the opportunity to defend themselves. Then a decision is made and punishment is determined. My husband calls it a fake hearing, as he has explained that the people involved are all Prison employees; they are biased. He has never heard of anyone who has been treated fairly at one of those hearings.

My husband has been in the box several times during his almost 24 years in. Most times the reason has been surrounding cultural or religious beliefs. He is part of the Nation of Gods and Earths and has been punished for having writings or speaking in a group, even though they are his (religious) rights. Imagine spending two months in Solitary Confinement for walking around with a bible! That happened to him. Once, he was sentenced to four months for speaking at a service. He was given prior authorization and a prison official was present to supervise. 24 hours after the 'incident' he was taken out of his cell and sent to the box. He was then moved four hours away to serve his box time (four months).

How do I find out he's in the box, you ask? Well, one of three ways: 1. Another inmate's wife calls me to let me know. 2. I get a letter from him. 3. I notice that he hasn't called for several days in a row, so I call the facility, speak to his 'counselor' who then says, "Well, it looks like he got himself into some trouble. He's in the box." No other information. Then begins the frantic feeling of having to go see him. Mostly to make sure he's physically OK.

Visitation rules change when an inmate is in the box. My experience has been that they are allowed one visit per week. It is non-contact; with a thick piece of Plexiglass or a 'fence' between us, kind of like the way Hollywood portrays prison visits. Once I made the mistake of visiting too soon after his arrival and he had to remain shackled during our visit. He had a hard time drinking from a can of soda. His face was scruffy, hair unkempt. I know he felt terrible that I went to see him in this condition, mostly because it was painful. My heart ached for him, this treatment is inhumane! Nonetheless, the box is part of the prison experience. Everyone in our situation has a story or two to tell.

Then come the flood of letters! I actually have two three-inch binders full of them, mostly from his box stints. I have them organized in chronological order and they read like a book. As I re-read those letters, I came to the realization that there is a distinct pattern in their content. His emotions seem to be cyclical. They go from paranoia ("how come I haven't heard from you, is there something going on that I should know?") to gratitude ("thank you for always sticking by me, I admire you..") to determination ("I've been researching my issue, talk to a lawyer and see what he/she says") and back again. His letters are written with an urgency that is not present in his 'regular' letters. During these times I have made an effort to write daily. I tell him about the things that happen each day, like a narration of our lives. I try to give him a bird's eye view of his family and our very ordinary adventures! School, sports, the cat, doctor's visits and even the weather can become the subject of the day.

As the end of his box time nears, we prepare for the next move. Will he end up farther away? Well, for the last three years he has gotten farther and farther away each time. He started his latest journey being a mere 1.5 hours from home. Today he's out of the box and the drive is about 5.5 hours each way. In addition to my husband, who else do you think is being punished?

Read about kids in the box here


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. This archaic method of punishment has no positive benefit. From my experience, the letters you mention are written in wild, crazy person handwriting and sound crazy. As you said, they sound paranoid. That's what this torturous punishment does to people. It doesn't create better citizens. Yes, they put them in there for anything and everything. Once, Jon was put in the box for 30 days because he did not have his name tag on his wrist as he slept in the jail. This was a brand new rule, and he was unaware of it. 30 days for that. Sick.