Imagine being locked in a concrete room the size of your bathroom for 20 months with no way out. Under the glare of bright fluorescent lights that never go dark, the only way to tell day from night is by what type of meal slides through a hole in the door.
Now imagine that door is soundproof and the only noises you’ve heard for almost two years are your own voice and the occasional faint metallic banging as someone loses his mind in another room near yours. Imagine being so deprived of stimulation that watching ants race to a chunk of cookie for hours was the most exciting event of those nearly 600 days.
What you are imagining was my life.
My thoughts on this issue don’t come from books or word of mouth but from experience. For 585 days between June 2004 and January 2006, I sat in that room in the Administrative Control Unit at the state’s only maximum security prison, Minnesota Correctional Facility-Oak Park Heights. This is the most isolated unit in the Department of Corrections.
I have been behind bars for over 15 years. My journey in the criminal justice system began when I was arrested in September 2001 on multiple assault charges. As a 17-year-old I was certified as an adult and sentenced to 306 months. Roughly one year into my sentence I was transferred to Minnesota Correctional Facility-Rush City.
Young, angry and misguided, I felt I had to gain a reputation as someone not to mess with. Mixed with resentment and anger toward the justice system and authority in general, this led me to resort back to the only thing I knew at the time — violence. I assaulted a correctional officer and as a result was placed in solitary confinement for 20 months in ACU, Minnesota’s version of a “supermax” facility.
I had previously spent a few stints in segregation for minor infractions. But nothing could have prepared me for the level of isolation that descended then. I understand the need for punishment for these types of actions. However, that type and length of isolation only inflicts more intentional harm.
Recently, the reliance on solitary confinement has received some attention (“Way down in the hole,” four-part series, Dec. 4-7, 2016). But one thing that gets mostly neglected is how it affects the most important aspect of us as human beings: the part of our spirit where hopes live or die and our soul resides. A human being never fully recovers from solitary.
Like all the others, I’ve simply learned how to live with the scars. They may be invisible but they are no less painful or permanent than physical scars. Every day I count my blessings that I’m sitting here, capable of writing about that experience. The only thing I can attribute my sanity to is the amazing support my family provided. That and the grace of God. I consider myself one of the few lucky ones, because so many others didn’t have that support to fall back on. It’s on their behalf that I share my story.
Many studies have proved how a human being deteriorates in solitary. But it’s impossible to really understand unless you witness it firsthand. I’ve known many men who have fallen off the mental tightrope. Guys rubbing feces in their scalps because they think it will induce hair growth, while others use it to paint “murals” on brick walls. Excuse me for being graphic, but this is the reality that some human beings are experiencing in solitary confinement — a place most of society turns a blind eye toward.
A recent letter to the editor of the Star Tribune asked about solitary confinement, “Are we supposed to feel bad?” Well, for those who care about the redemptive value of human beings, yes, you should. How do you expect inmates to feel remorse about the hurt they’ve imposed on people if society feels nothing for how we are treated inside? If prisoners made comments like that, we would be labeled “monsters.”
I understand that for most it’s easier to go about life ignoring the social ills that have contributed to mass incarceration in our country. It is easier to be indifferent until what is happening in our communities injures you or someone you care for. Left misunderstood, though, is how dehumanizing people in conditions that instill mental illness, in the name of our safety and well-being, affects our humanity as a society.
According to the law, deprivation of freedom alone is supposed to be the price society exacts for crimes. Even within this mostly punitive model, people are supposed to be sent to prison as punishment, not for punishment. The DOC has recently shown some initiative on solitary reform. However, much more is needed. Minnesota is one of the few states that have no laws on the books regarding the use of solitary. This is why I ask everyone who believes in the redemptive value of human beings to contact their representatives and urge them to support solitary confinement reform. If I can contribute in any way to those regulations being enacted and to saving the humanity of even one person, then my experience will have served a purpose and all the scars are worth it.
You may be reading this thinking we have no right to complain about our living conditions. But I would ask you to understand that I can take full responsibility for the mistakes I made and the hurt I’ve caused in the past while still reserving the right to speak out when treated inhumanely.
Because beneath these tattoos and despite all the years of pain I’ve caused my victims, family and community, I remain a son, brother, uncle, husband and friend. I have ideas, emotions, insights and, yes, feelings. I laugh, love and cry like every person, and believe it or not, I am still someone’s hero.
Even though I’m in prison, I still remain a human being.
It sometimes feels that is forgotten.
Robert Ives is an inmate at Minnesota Correctional Facilty-Lino Lakes, serving a 26-year sentence for multiple assaults.