“Nobody can really know the truth about solitary confinement unless they’ve experienced it. I did fifteen
months RHA (Rec and House Alone) on a ‘Transitory/Administrative Segregation’ ride that was a real eye
opener for me. I learned a lot about where my personal limits are (or are not) . I totally commiserated with
when you talked about (what I think of as inevitable) suicidal ideations that come when you’ve been alone
and sensory deprived for a period of time. Personally, what would always get to me the worst was when I
was in the in-between state of sleep and consciousness… I could actually feel the tremendous weight and
the coldness of the cement walls and ceiling pushing down on me to the special point of “I’ll do anything
to end this!” panic. Anyone I’ve spoken to about that feral, reactive place who has done any time in solitary
knows exactly what I’m talking about. I imagine you do too.”
—Excerpt from the author’s personal letter written to Houston Chronicle Journalist Keri Blakinger.
The Special Housing Unit (SHU) is the jail of prison. It’s like a lockdown but without any of your property to make it palatable. You can end up in the SHU for many reasons. You can end up there because of disciplinary or administrative reasons. A disciplinary SHU trip would be if you are on SIS’s (Special Investigation Services—the BOP’s secret police) radar and they think you’re up to no good and they throw you in the SHU for “investigation”. That investigation can last up to three months, and at the end of the investigation, they can turn around and renew it all over again and keep you for another three months.
The physical layout of most of the SHU cells is very similar, nearly identical in the USP’s. Two bunk beds, steel desk and attached stool, sink and toilet combo, and a shower stall. The window on your SHU cell door faces across the hallway to a mirror image of another cell. In many SHU’s any window to the outside that may be present is either frosted so you can’t see anything, or has a steel plate welded over it with little hole drilled in it, or both.
There are no televisions, personal property is not permitted, some SHUs even do not allow radios—so you’re really in a held limbo, a sensory deprivation scenario. The longest I ever did in the SHU was a little under two years, 2008 until 2010. I was on RHA (Rec and House Alone) so I was by myself the whole time. If the no radios allowed edict existed back then, and I had to do that whole time without that little lifeline to the outside world, I don’t think I would have done so well.
Being held against ones will in a small cell for months (or years) on end is a bit of a pill. Something no one can really comment upon unless they’ve done it. An acquired taste if there ever was one. Feelings of suffocating claustrophobia and complete helplessness are the baseline emotive reaction in the SHU. It takes time and practice to learn to do SHU time without being fazed.
For some perspective, as of right now there are 10,607 prisoners in their respective institutions’ SHU. That’s approximately eight percent of the current population. That number does not count those prisoners who are in the Special Management Unit (SMU) or the Administrative Maximum (ADX) restricted housing.