He can’t forget the first day. White walls. Room the size of a ping-pong table. The silence.
It came in November 2014. Kevin Bushrod Jr. said he didn’t understand why he was isolated. A cop had pulled him over for driving on a suspended license. He tried to escape. The cop shot him in the left shoulder. Bushrod, a former top athlete at a Bible college, was charged with assault on an officer while armed — the car was the weapon. And now, he was here. Facing years in prison. Alone in a cell with little beyond a steel toilet and sink.
Bushrod, whose medical records show that he suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety, said he waited until evening so he could be sure that guards wouldn’t check on him. He said he wept, pulling the sheet off his bed. He said he folded it into a noose. He said he tied one end to the top of a bunk bed and slowly lowered himself.
And, he said, when he realized he couldn’t even successfully kill himself, he felt a sense of failure so profound he could barely catch his breath. This was Bushrod’s first day in the District’s Special Management Unit — but it wouldn’t be his last. Six months he would spend in isolation in the darkest corner of the city’s jail system, wondering why he was there and when, if ever, he would get out.
The use of solitary confinement has reached a watershed moment in the United States. Most experts — from correctional officials to academics — agree that the hardships placed upon thousands of isolated prisoners, some of whom are mentally ill, push them to a dangerous place. President Obama, citing the “devastating, lasting psychological consequences” solitary confinement can inflict, announced a ban this week on isolating juveniles in federal prisons and reduced the maximum number of days federal inmates can be isolated for a first offense from 365 days to 60.
The reforms, however, will do nothing to change the circumstances of the vast majority of the nation’s isolated inmates. Roughly 90 percent of these prisoners, like Bushrod, are held at state and county facilities — each with its own procedures, data-keeping methods and definitions of confinement. A smattering of states — New York, Colorado and California — have promised to reduce the number of inmates in solitary confinement and how long they can stay there.
But for many institutions, that path is strewn with challenges. Isolation has been a pillar of American justice since the 1800s and remains one of the first methods institutions use to punish and protect inmates.
“It is a needed tool within correctional management,” said Thomas N. Faust, director of the D.C. Department of Corrections. “And within my opinion, it’s a tool that corrections have to have. However, I think that we need to do a better job of it.”
A national survey released in September, conducted by Yale Law School and the Association of State Correctional Administrators, suggested that between 80,000 and 100,000 inmates are in isolated confinement — roughly the same estimate as a decade ago.
“It’s really hard to turn the Titanic,” said Deborah Golden, director of the D.C. Prisoners’ Project of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee. Reform at the state level “can’t be created overnight,” she added. “Facilities need to be built and designed, and people need to be hired. And the problem is that government bureaucracy is slow.”
Another problem, underscored by Obama’s call for greater transparency, is institutional opacity. Some facilities don’t keep records or disclose how often they isolate prisoners.
“Lack of data and transparency is the baseline problem for systems across the country,” said Amy Fettig, senior staff counsel of the National Prison Project at the American Civil Liberties Union. “If a system is never held accountable for results it produces or if their results are so poor it’s in their interest not to track data, then you arrive at the systems we currently have — billions of dollars spent for no clear reason, with no evidence to support why American taxpayers are funding a practice.”
District officials, responding to a public-records request from The Washington Post, reported that nearly 2,100 inmates were placed into isolation between 2012 and 2014 and spent an average of at least 54 days there.
Some of the information provided in the response, however, appeared to show that the Department of Corrections wasn’t following its policies. The agency isolated 2,071 inmates in pre-hearing detention for an average of nearly eight weeks, according to the report. The department’s program manual says inmates should spend at most seven days in pre-hearing detention, where prisoners await disciplinary hearings in segregated cells.
When asked to explain that discrepancy, Department of Corrections spokeswoman Sylvia Lane said about half of the data the agency provided The Post was wrong. Some data, she said, was taken “from an incorrect data column” and other information was collected “in error.” She said only 1,373 inmates went into pre-hearing detention between 2012 and 2014 — not 2,071. Because of faulty record keeping, the agency couldn’t determine the length of time that inmates had spent in pre-hearing detention.
“Because the electronic records system had not been updated in a timely manner to reflect appropriate status changes . . . inaccurately long time periods remained on the record,” Lane wrote in an email. Lane added: “Our issue is not adherence to the policy, but lack of timeliness in records system documentation.” Between January and August 2015, Lane said, the agency had placed 209 inmates into pre-hearing detention.
The error didn’t surprise Keramet Reiter, a professor at the University of California at Irvine who has studied the correctional system. “Why would you keep data . . . when you do keep data you tend to get criticized?” she said. Solitary confinement, she said, is even more hidden because “it’s a prison within a prison.”
The most inscrutable pocket, experts agree, is administrative segregation. Unlike disciplinary detention, which often has clear procedural guidelines and time limits, this isolation unit has fewer encumbrances. In the District, jail officials reserve it for prisoners considered an escape risk or a danger to others or the institution, and they wield wide discretion in deciding who fits that bill. Inmates don’t receive legal representation to contest that reasoning.
And, in late 2014, this was exactly where Bushrod found himself.
He had seen the inside of a jail before. A product of what court records call an alcoholic mom and an absent father, the 29-year-old grew up in Northeast Washington and later picked up convictions for possession of cocaine, attempting to carry a pistol without a permit and attempted robbery.
But Bushrod didn’t think he would see the inside again. He thought he had turned his life around. Between 2010 and 2012, he attended Washington Bible College, pulling in A’s and B’s his first two semesters, his college transcript says. He got on the basketball team and played three seasons. “He was one of our leading scorers and rebounders and made his presence known in each game,” Brian Smith, the college’s athletic director, wrote in court papers. He preached at the City of Zion Church in Laurel, Md., “becoming a role-model for young men in and outside of the church,” one psychologist added in a court letter.
And now, here he was again, inside a cell — but this one was different. Bushrod had only five hours per week outside its confines, and he quickly felt demons tugging at his thoughts. The police officer’s gunshot had “shattered” his left humerus, D.C. Department of Corrections medical records show, and would “likely exacerbate” his PTSD.
Bushrod had just tumbled into administrative segregation, where inmates have spent years. Between 2012 and 2014, more than 170 inmates at the Department of Corrections were placed into administrative segregation, records show, spending an average of nearly 19 weeks. Others did considerably longer stints. One inmate did 1,231 days. Another spent 804 days. One more spent 510 days.
The agency’s program manual says a panel of three employees, called the Housing Board, holds frequent hearings with inmates, explains why they warrant segregation and affords them an opportunity to dispute that rationale.
But the jail doesn’t record the frequency of these meetings, how often inmates appeal its decisions or the number of prisoners found to be a danger or an escape risk. Oluwasegun Obebe, the correctional facility’s records official, said two people sit on the Housing Board — Winifred Hawkins and Shelena Johnson — not three.
Four inmates who spent time in administrative segregation in the past five years said in interviews they couldn’t recall Housing Board hearings as they are described in the agency’s program manual. “They are supposed to have three people on the Housing Board, but there is only one woman making the decision,” said Leonard Johnson, who has spent 17 months in administrative segregation. “My mom was trying to speak with someone higher up, but they’re giving her the runaround.”
Romeo Hayes, who spent more than nine months in administrative segregation following his arrest in August 2014, recalled the same. Authorities say he and several others departed a club near Union Station, fired at an off-duty officer and tried to carjack another off-duty officer, shooting him four times.
He immediately landed in administrative segregation, he said, without any clear reason. He didn’t know what to tell his family. The uncertainty, Hayes said, was “like torture.” “It makes you go crazy in the head,” said Hayes, who has difficulty remembering what he did during his nine months in isolation. “I never thought I’d get out.” He later pleaded guilty to assault with intent to kill and is awaiting sentencing.
His attorney, Nikki Lotze, lamented his isolation at a court hearing in January 2015. “Mr. Hayes allegedly shot at police officers, and my fear is that it’s that — for that reason, he’s being, you know, additionally penalized by [being] put in the hole, and that’s something that the Department of Corrections would never say,” Lotze told a judge, according to a transcript. She added: “It seems clear that’s what’s going on, and that seems completely not right.”
Faust, the jail director, disputed assertions that inmates don’t know why they are segregated. “This isn’t done absent of the inmate,” he said. Lane, the jail’s spokeswoman, said separately that the hearings “are conducted as described in the program policy. . . . We seriously question the accuracy of the four inmates’ stated recollection.”
The agency denied two requests for documentation showing Bushrod’s interactions with the Housing Board. The second carried a consent form filled out by Bushrod. He asked for the release of records showing “all appointments.” Obebe, the records manager, said Bushrod didn’t specifically refer to the Housing Board — and denied the request.
Bushrod said the process was pretty simple. Every few weeks, he said, one female employee would come by his cell. “She used to give me a form to sign every month [saying] that they had a board hearing and this was the decision they made,” he said. “I would just sign it and get her out of my face. There were no hearings.”
The patient “presents with extremely depressed mood, withdrawn affect, negative outlook,” the medical examiner wrote in November. Bushrod, following two months in isolation under medical supervision, was trying to adjust to the Special Management Unit. The psychiatric medication, he told clinicians, wasn’t helping his depression.
He “expressed frustration with legal situation as he feels he is wrongly accused of charges he faces,” the report said. He “reports limited family support and a sense of isolation since his on lock 23 hours per day because of his custody level.”
Despite how distraught Bushrod appeared throughout these weeks — “freaking out,” he told doctors — he denied harboring suicidal thoughts, and it’s unclear whether the medical staff knew about his suicide attempt. Bushrod said he was scared to talk about it. He had heard rumors that suicidal inmates are stripped naked and placed in even more austere conditions.
“Only in the most acute cases — when an inmate is actively attempting to harm him or herself, would clothing or any other items posing immediate danger be removed,” Lane said. “In those acute cases, clothing is replaced with a paper gown to prevent self-harm.”
Suicide, self-harm and segregation have long had a close relationship at the District jail. Nearly 60 percent of the jail’s 49 suicide attempts in 2013 occurred in a segregation unit, a Department of Corrections report said. “Inmates in segregation units are at a higher risk” of suicide, the report stated. It recommended: “Consistent with national recommendations on suicide prevention, NO ONE is placed in a single cell unless there’s an overwhelmingly compelling reason to do so.”
Bushrod pleaded for answers in a grievance report. “At this juncture, I am almost at a loss for words,” he wrote. “. . . I have suffered unjustly and been given insufficient excuses as to why.”
But, days later, Bushrod thought everything was about to change. His trial had arrived. And the most serious allegation — that he had assaulted a police officer while armed with a car — suddenly looked shaky.
The officer, Zachary Blier, said he tried to pull Bushrod over in September 2014 for driving on a suspended licence. Bushrod attempted to escape, court records say, running a red light before slowing to a stop. Blier then approached Bushrod, gun drawn, and opened Bushrod’s car door. The officer grabbed Bushrod, who put the car in reverse. It jerked backward, and the open door hit Blier’s leg. The officer, who said he feared for his life, shot Bushrod.
Defense attorney Craig Moore held two pictures in his closing arguments, according to a court transcript. The first showed how Blier’s leg looked after the incident. “Pants aren’t even ripped,” Moore said. “Like he banged his leg going around the corner of the table. That is not a serious bodily injury.”
Moore held up the next image. “This is a serious bodily injury. This is Mr. Bushrod after he had been shot and had to go to the hospital.”
The jury acquitted Bushrod of the charge that he assaulted Blier with a deadly weapon. But it convicted him of misdemeanor assault on a police officer — which legal experts say means he resisted arrest — destruction of property, leaving after colliding and driving without a license. Having shaken off a charge that could have locked him up for years — and guilty of lesser crimes — Bushrod thought his time in solitary confinement was over.
In early March, more than two months later, Bushrod met with a medical examiner at the D.C. jail. He “reports he is still in [solitary] due to his custody level,” the clinician wrote. “His legal situation has been resolved.” Another medical report filed days later: He “continues to stress about his legal situation and being on segregation unit.”
Jail officials say they are working on making it easier for inmates with mental illness to return to the general population. Described as an “intermediate unit,” Faust described it as “pathway for them to step down from segregation.” The challenge, he said, will be transitioning inmates back into the general population — and re-socializing them. “So they can function normally,” said Faust, who said he has directed a task force to implement changes.
That sudden juxtaposition between life inside the hole and life outside was one of the hardest parts of isolation, Bushrod said. In May, he emerged from what he called “a whole other world” and now struggles in social situations in federal prison in Cumberland, Md., where he is serving an 18-month sentence. He looks older than his 29 years. Wrinkles line his eyes. His shoulder never healed properly, he said, and that restricts his range of motion.
So he tries to focus on the future. Awaiting release, he talks to his old girlfriend, Tameka Jackson, about maybe getting back together. He talks about going back to school. Starting a business. Maybe picking up some ministry responsibilities. He talks about anything, except for what he has been through. Solitary confinement marked the lowest months of his life. And no way, he says, is he going back.