NOTE: This is Part II of a three-part commentary on solitary confinement. Part I is here.
Anthony Graves has a story to tell.
But Anthony’s story is no fictional, pretty-boy, imaginative weave of rainbows, sunshine, ice cream Sundays and trips to the beach. There are no velvety beginnings or wonderfully orchestrated endings in Graves’ story. Trumpets blare no angelic melodies and cumulus clouds don’t reveal artistic make-believes only a child of innocence can appreciate.
Anthony Graves’ story is a story about hell. And madness. And slow descents into the madness of hell. And how one, if not careful, can and will plunge into pits of that abyss, never to surface again. There is no phoenix-rising in hell.
Most importantly, however, Anthony Graves’ story is also one about triumph and survival and how a man, who spent more than 18 years in a Texas prison for a crime he did not commit, emerged from the depths of a place where no man or woman, guilty or innocent, wishes to live. In Anthony Graves’ life of hell on earth, “survival of the fittest” took on a new and urgent bearing.
For a solid decade of Graves’ nearly twenty years behind bars, a small, dank holding cell—a cemented space known as solitary confinement—was his home. While the adage, “a man’s home is his castle” can be applicable to those in the free world, Anthony Graves’ “home” warranted no such acclaim. For Anthony, “home” was a cruel, dark and disconcerting place of ill repute. At times, his diminutive, unadorned space seemed to suppress his breath and steal his will to live. But live, he did. And strong, he became. While life and strength can, depending upon one’s essential makeup, become juxtaposed agents in one’s basic desire to overcome the most sinister circumstances, it takes a strong constitution to emerge psychologically sound and not diminished by the memories of dark days and even darker nights.
In a first-ever United States Senate hearing on solitary confinement on June 19, 2012, Anthony Graves, who was released from prison in 2010, became part of the discourse, testifying before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights.
In his address to the Senate Subcommittee on the horrors and hell of the psychologically-damaging—but legal—practice of segregating prisoners within prisons, Graves spoke truth to power. The primary speaker at the Senate Subcommittee hearing, UC Santa Cruz psychology professor Dr. Craig Haney, the nation’s leading expert on inmate mental health, presented riveting testimony on the customary tradition of housing prison inmates in separate housing units within the institution. Solitary confinement, Haney testified, “precipitates a descent into madness.” And while Haney’s testimony was academically, theoretically and statistically insightful, it was Anthony Graves’ personal account of solitary confinement in a Texas prison that literally put a face with the practice of legalized inmate separatism.
While Graves sought no celebrity spotlight in bringing attention to the subject, it took a strong personal commitment to testify about the psychological currents he fought and the external battles he witnessed on a continuous basis and not succumb to the emotional and physical effects of solitary confinement.
He was a powerful presence at the hearing, and he pulled no punches during his very candid testimony.
In eloquently articulating the long-term mental and psychological effects of the legalized practice, Graves recounted how fellow inmates would slowly descend into a psychotic “madness” becoming, as Haney testified, a shadowy fraction of their former selves. A great majority of men who had been relegated to solitary confinement, according to Graves, engaged in aberrant behaviors that were not only mentally erosive, but physically damaging as well, including the practice of self-mutilation and other forms of physical torture. His testimony included the revelation of an inmate who gouged his (the inmates’) eyes and fellow inmates who engaged in equally disturbing physical performances.
Piercing screams, a constant auditory presence in such conditions, were commonplace and could be heard emanating from all corners of the units—at all times of the day and night—as inmates began to slowly lose control of their mental faculties. Fellow inmates, attempting mightily to cope with their own demons became, according to Graves, immune to the verbal onslaughts. Call and response chants had no rhythms, no reasons and no rhymes. Solitary minutes extended into hours, which evolved into days, which expanded into months, which, for many prisoners, stretched into a never-ending land of lost souls amid a restricted, chaotic landscape. Prisoners in solitary confinement, confessed Graves, become dehumanized, desensitized and emotionally bankrupt.
While there exists, Graves noted, a need to separate dangerous prisoners from the general population because of safety issues and concerns, the conditions present in solitary confinement units must be addressed and improvements made beyond the proverbial rhetoric of “prison reform.” Policies, procedures, rules and regulations governing solitary confinement must be implemented through the courts for any changes within individual institutions to be effective and result in any long-term changes. The great majority of inmates in solitary confinement perceive their lives as worthless and their situations dire and hopeless. Nothing good, he testified, comes out of the practice: It is a place no one wishes their most arch enemy to be housed. Not for a minute. Not for a day. Not for a month. And certainly not for a lifetime.
When one is separated from human contact for extended periods of time and denied opportunities to mingle with other prisoners, Graves maintained, the administrative practice serves no social or redemptive purposes, and prisoners can—and very often do—resort to animalistic behaviors and can, just as quickly, begin to feel a psychological and mental violation deeper and more significant than the crime for which they have been accused. For Graves, who maintained his innocence for the duration of his time in prison, his placement in solitary confinement was all the more daunting and repulsive. In such conditions, Graves testified, there is no room for compromise or any promise of a positive outcome, especially when innocent (as he was found to be) of the crime for which one has been accused, convicted and subsequently incarcerated.
Although his testimony on the perils of solitary confinement revealed a legal custom so horrific—and its practice so brutal—that it left members of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee stunned, his testimony ended on a note of positivity, optimism and change.
While the memories of his ordeal in the Texas prison system still form a harrowing reminiscence of monumental proportions, which he must confront on a daily basis, he hopes that his Houston-based charitable foundation, “Anthony Believes” can begin a stream of hope, healing and redemption for those who have experienced the horrors of solitary confinement and are looking for a way to move forward in their lives. His voice is one worth listening to, and his story is a narrative worth repeating.
“Reasessing Solitary Confinement: The Human Rights, Fiscal and Public Safety Consequences” can be accessed at: http://www.judiciary.senate.gov/hearings/hearing.cfm