On the first page of a letter to a woman he had never met, the man explained how he ended up in a maximum-security prison by starting at the beginning: “I was born a dope & crack baby.”
He described being diagnosed with several mental illnesses, including, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Most of my family disowned me cause of my mental issues,” he wrote.
I am not telling you about this man so you feel sympathy for him. Some of you will. Some of you won’t. Whatever I say here probably won’t change that and truthfully, it doesn’t matter how you feel about him.
I am telling you about this man because even if we push compassion aside, he is the reason we should be closely watching a federal class-action lawsuit that was filed earlier this month with the aim of ending solitary confinement conditions at two Virginia maximum-security prisons, Red Onion and Wallens Ridge.
The man served time in Wallens Ridge and in his letters, he describes growing increasingly desperate, and more mentally unstable, in solitary confinement.
He also describes this: a release date.
His letters read like a countdown. When he sent that first one, he expected to be released this year. He has since been transferred to another less secure facility, signaling his release could come soon.
When we talk about solitary confinement, the common assumption is that prisons use it to control the worst of the worst, men and women who committed such horrific crimes that they will probably never walk out of those facilities.
The letters from this inmate show that is not the case. They show that what happens behind those barbed-wired fences will be carried outside of them on the backs of those who are released.
The suit, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia and the law firm White & Case, claims inmates at Red Onion and Wallens Ridge are sometimes placed in solitary confinement for small infractions and behaviors related to mental health problems. Once there, they are held for 22 to 24 hours a day in cells the size of parking spaces, under lights that are always on, according to the lawsuit. And they are kept in those conditions not just for days or weeks. The lawsuit describes inmates held in solitary confinement for two to nearly 24 years.
That isolation, according to the lawsuit, has left inmates with “severe physical and mental health damage.”
The Virginia Department of Corrections did not respond to a request for comment about the lawsuit.
When I called the prison to find out what the inmate who wrote the letters had been convicted of, I was told statutory burglary.
I am not identifying him here by name because I wasn’t able to speak to him directly. But Gay Gardner, who is on the board of Interfaith Action for Human Rights, shared nearly a dozen of his letters with me. In them, he expresses interest in sharing his story.
“Please report these issues to everyone & anyone who can help me & can talk to me,” he writes in one. “I’m willing to testify & speak to the public about this prison, if I decide not to commit suicide.”
He mentions suicidal thoughts in several of the letters.
“They keep us locked down 24 hours a day in seg (the hole) & its not fair & its unhealthy for the mind,” he writes in one. “I’m just sick & tired of all this mess, & mental health don’t do checks but once a month, and I sometimes just want to die. I already been thru more than enough in this life as it is, so I don’t know how much more I can take … I don’t deserve this kind of treatment. I’m not a slave & I’m not an animal so why am I being treated like one?”
“I don’t know if I can deal with this prison for 6 to 8 ½ more months, it’s killing me, it’s taking all the mental power I have to cope here,” he continues. “These people make me want to hurt them one minute due to the treatment I’m receiving (all inmates are receiving) & the next minute I want to hurt myself. I’m just fed up. You have no idea how much mental power it takes to deal with and live in this prison. I’m angry & rageful & sad all wrapped into one.”
In that letter, he describes spending more than 18 days in solitary, or restrictive housing, as it is called by the prisons.
In another letter, he describes being there 70 days.
In another, 118 days.
“I’m mentally unstable & I’m completely fed up with life & everything in it,” that letter reads. “My mind can’t cope with this pain anymore.”
Alongside some of the letters are documents from the prison. One describes him smearing feces on the window of his cell door, an act he admits to in his letter, but says was done after he was denied dinner, which followed a refusal to give him sheets and bedding and a chance to talk to a mental health professional. Another document from the Virginia Department of Corrections labeled “Mental Health Services Progress Notes” appears to corroborate the mental illnesses he describes.
There is, of course, no way to know how much truth is in his letters and what happened in the prison that didn’t make it into those envelopes. But what he says should be enough to at least make us pay attention to a lawsuit that will reveal what is happening in two institutions that don’t just hold prisoners for Virginia, but also release them back into the state.
In one of his letters, the man talks about the life that waits for him on the outside.
“I have no place to live, & I will only have $115.00 on me when I’m released, so I’m really stressing,” he writes.
Then a few lines later, he talks about how he is eager to let people know “what really goes on in this prison.”
“I will talk to anyone & everyone who will listen,” he writes. “That’s my word on my mother’s grave.”