Living in Isolation
Lawsuit filed on behalf of prisoners in solitary confinement
For 23 hours a day, a roughly five-by-ten-foot concrete box is what Aaron Fillmore calls home. He’s been living in a room like that for the past 15 years.
That’s according to a lawsuit filed last week by the Uptown People’s Law Center (UPLC) against the Illinois Department of Corrections (IDOC). It claims Illinois turns to solitary confinement as a punishment too readily and for too long.
Fillmore is one of three inmates the UPLC is suing on behalf of. The lawsuit claims that the way Illinois uses solitary confinement constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. They want the state to adopt a set of standards for solitary confinement created by the American Bar Association.
Larry Foutch spent eight years in solitary confinement at Tamms Correctional Center; a super maximum security prison made up entirely of isolation units. He said after the first few years with limited human contact, he started noticing something was wrong. He recounted an incident during his yearly physical. When the nurse touched him to take blood it made him feel unusually nervous.
“Instantly this anxiety came over me. It was like a panic attack started hitting me,” Foutch said “I got woozy and lightheaded, and I started to pass out.”
Tamms closed in 2013 after numerous human rights groups complained about conditions in the prison. Although he has been out of the Tamms facility since 2006, Foutch said the psychological impact of his time there lingers and that the lasting effect of his isolation have become an obstacle to surviving on the outside.
“I’ll have problems probably the rest of my life, I’m sure,” he said. “There’s very few jobs that I can work because I can’t be around numerous people.”
Brian Nelson, prisoner’s rights coordinator with UPLC, is himself a former resident of Tamms for 12 years. He said he entered the facility never having seen a psychiatrist, but left needing five different types of psychiatric medication just to sleep. He said everyone has their own coping method for dealing with the lasting effects of their isolation.
“We all have a little closet somewhere.” Nelson said. “I’ve got a place in the basement where I go hide – its pitch black, and I can just sit there and I cry.”
Foutch and Nelson both expressed a concern that though the psychological impacts were very real to them, they are somewhat invisible to the people around them.
“Every one of us that comes out of there, we’re your next door neighbors,” Nelson said. “And nobody will know that I suffered this unless I tell them.”
Former inmates are not alone in their assessment of the psychological effects of isolation. Juan Méndez, who wrote a report for the UN on various forms of torture, said in his 2011 report that after 15 days, solitary confinement becomes what he calls “prolonged solitary confinement.”
“It is at that point … that some of the harmful psychological effects of isolation can become irreversible,” Méndez said in presenting his report.
Méndez said the psychological impact of prolonged solitary confinement hurts the ultimate goal of preparing inmates to re-enter society.
In announcing the lawsuit, UPLC executive director Alan Mills made specific mention of the UN report, which classifies segregation from other prisoners for 15 days or longer as torture.
“Illinois does not keep people in segregation for 15 days,” Mills said. “Often we will see people who have been in segregation for 15 years in Illinois.”
Mills said that prisoners sent into solitary confinement are often denied due process to challenge their additional punishment. He also said prisoners could be sent to isolation for almost anything, including insubordination or possessing “drug paraphernalia” which in the prison system could amount to an apple.
A representative of the Department of Corrections said that they were reviewing the case, but they had no comment.
“As with every case we file, we hope that the department will sit down and discuss things with us and try to resolve this matter,” Mills said. “But if not, we are fully prepared to litigate this.”
Contact Alan Kozeluh at firstname.lastname@example.org.