three years in solitary confinement: an open letter from the Allegheny County Jail
James Byrd has been held in the Allegheny County Jail’s men’s solitary confinement unit for over three years. "Over time you experience a social death."
This essay by James Byrd was originally published by the Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, which provides coverage of the issues that directly affect our local communities and the people who live, work and go to school in them.
The political oppression and racism has been an intricate part of my life.
I can’t emphasize enough the impact it has had in the development of my character as well as my perception of what life as a Black man in the United States means.
But even more influential, mentally and emotionally impacting, has been the past three years I have spent incarcerated in solitary confinement at the Allegheny County Jail (ACJ).
Despite the recent abolishment of solitary confinement in this year’s election, Warden Orlando Harper and Chief Deputy Warden Laura K. Williams have failed to take the necessary measures to end the use of solitary confinement
Those who endure solitary confinement have long been buried, nameless and voiceless, in the dark heart of the Allegheny County Jail.
Over time you experience a social death.
A gray limitless ocean stretches out in front of and behind you – an emptiness and loneliness so all encompassing it threatens to erase you. Whether you’re in this world for a month, a year or a decade, you experience a life changing transformation. Day by day you lose your connection to everything and everyone outside of jail. You lose everything you were and everything you knew. You wake up every morning to the reality that if everyone you knew hasn’t already forgotten you, chances are they eventually will.
And even if you get out, you fear the “you” who has walked through the world since the day you were born might be irrevocably damaged, changed, and unrecognizable. Who is to say you even exist.
Over the past thirty years, prisons and jails have become the nation’s largest inpatient psychiatric centers. The Treatment Advocacy Center estimated that in 2012, more than 350,000 people with serious mental illness were housed in prisons and jails, while a tenth as many – 35,000 – were in state mental hospitals. Many enter jails or prisons with relatively minor charges, then ultimately obtain additional, often more serious, charges as a result of untreated illness, and end up spending a lifetime in and out of incarceration.
Solitary confinement cells, in particular, are now used to warehouse thousands of people with mental illness, as well as people with developmental disabilities, physical disabilities, and substance addictions. Human Rights Watch estimated that, based on available data, one-third to one-half of those held in solitary confinement had some form of mental illness.
At some point you’re going to snap.
This might be after one week or one year, depending on how you are wired and how mentally strong you are. Sometimes prisoners scream at the top of their lungs or talk to themselves. Others ball up their fists and pound on their windows and doors, vomiting every expletive they can think of.
What solitary looks like
Solitary confinement at the ACJ is the practice of isolating people in closed cells for 23 to 24 hours per day, largely deprived of human contact for periods of time ranging from days to years.
The cells measure approximately six by nine, or eight by ten feet in size. They have solid metal doors. Meals are provided through a slot cut into the door with a metal flap. Showers are generally permitted two to three times per week. [continue reading here.]
Editor’s Note: The Pittsburgh Institute for Nonprofit Journalism policies regarding coverage of incarcerated individuals includes not listing an individual’s charges when reporting on conditions at the Allegheny County Jail. We’ve made an editorial exception in this piece due to the circumstances of James Byrd’s incarceration and subsequent long-term solitary confinement at the facility.
James Byrd has been held in the Allegheny County Jail’s men’s solitary confinement unit for over three years.
Byrd is both a state and federal pretrial detainee who has been held in “administrative custody” or what is commonly referred to as “the hole.” According to jail policy, administrative custody level is given to incarcerated persons that are “designated by administration as high risk. This designation includes but is not limited to severity of charges, escape risk, requests from law enforcement agencies…” Incarcerated persons charged by the federal government are often segregated from the general population at the jail.
Byrd has been held as a pretrial detainee at the Allegheny County Jail since 2015. In 2019, Byrd was briefly transferred to a correctional facility in North Carolina for about five months—May 23 to Oct. 31 –where he received a psychiatric evaluation, after which he was transferred back to the jail where he is currently held.
At the Allegheny County jail, Byrd’s lockdown exists at the same time the jail is supposed to be preparing for the elimination of the use of solitary confinement by Dec.
In May, Allegheny County became the first county in U.S. history to ban solitary confinement by referendum. As a result, most uses of solitary confinement must end there in December.
That means incarcerated persons can no longer be confined to a cell for more than 20 hours a day except in cases of lockdowns, medical or safety emergencies and protective separation requests.
In addition to Byrd, most of those now incarcerated at the Allegheny County Jail still remain in cells for close to 23 hours each day for unspecified safety issues, according to jail officials. Read more about the jail’s 23 hour a day lockdown here.