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Roughly 1 in 8 Florida prisoners is in solitary confinement, advocates say

Experts and activists say the state’s most restrictive forms of housing isolate the incarcerated — even those with a cellmate — and disproportionately impact people of color and those with mental illness.
St. Petersburg resident Chez-Armand Blackwell, 39, spent about 12 of his nearly 15 years in Florida prisons in isolation while serving his sentence for burglary. He is now the project coordinator for the Hidden Voices Project.
St. Petersburg resident Chez-Armand Blackwell, 39, spent about 12 of his nearly 15 years in Florida prisons in isolation while serving his sentence for burglary. He is now the project coordinator for the Hidden Voices Project. [ JOHN PENDYGRAFT | Times ]
Published Jan. 14
Updated Jan. 15

He knew if he talked to those in the cells next to him, there would be consequences.

Pepper spray. Removal of his possessions, except for his boxers, for at least 72 hours. Nowhere to sleep except the cold, hard concrete floor.

The guards didn’t want to talk to him. Sometimes, another prisoner would scream and kick the cell door.

St. Petersburg resident Chez-Armand Blackwell spent about 12 of his nearly 15 years in Florida prisons in what the civil rights nonprofit Southern Poverty Law Center defines as solitary confinement.

The 39-year-old said he was first placed in solitary after an argument with a guard that turned physical. After that, Blackwell said, guards continued writing him up, extending the time he spent alone as he served his sentence for burglary.

“The human condition isn’t built for it,” Blackwell said. Guidelines from the United Nations call for limiting solitary confinement to 15 consecutive days, at most.

About 10,000 people are in solitary confinement in Florida, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Many of them fall into the same demographic groups as Blackwell: young, Black and male.

While Florida Department of Corrections officials say they don’t use solitary confinement, they acknowledged in a statement to the Tampa Bay Times that some inmates are held in a restrictive form of housing without a cellmate.

Experts, advocates and those who have been incarcerated have criticized the state prison system for using various forms of isolation that they say constitute solitary confinement. While some people may have cellmates in these prison units, they are confined to smaller cells with shorter amounts of out-of-cell time and fewer privileges, creating effects similar to those of isolation in an individual cell, experts say.

The Southern Poverty Law Center has sued the Florida Department of Corrections and the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice on behalf of adults and juveniles over the alleged use of solitary confinement. An attorney for the nonprofit, Leo Laurenceau, said it can cause mental health issues.

“It can really run the gamut, exacerbating mental health issues from depression, anxiety, increased situations of self-harm, suicidal tendencies,” Laurenceau said.

Disparate treatment

According to a study by researchers at Florida State University and the University of Cincinnati, people in certain demographic groups are more likely to be placed in long-term solitary confinement than other prisoners in Florida. The study identified those demographic groups as Black people, men, young people and those with mental health issues.

Researchers reviewed administrative records for almost 192,000 people incarcerated in the Florida prison system between July 1, 2007, and Dec. 31, 2015, including those who entered the prison system and those released from it in that time period.

The study did not review all forms of confinement. It looked specifically at a restrictive form of confinement in which people don’t have cellmates, are allowed minimal time out of their cells and have few privileges.

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In Florida, Black people were almost twice as likely to be placed in long-term solitary confinement, while Hispanics were 1.7 times more likely to be in long-term solitary confinement than white inmates. Adults between the ages of 18 and 24 were 15 times more likely to be placed in solitary confinement than those 50 and older, the study found. Men were twice as likely as women to be placed in solitary confinement.

A disproportionately large number of those in prison with mental health needs also were put into solitary confinement, which experts say makes their mental health conditions worsen. Those who spent time in a mental health unit were nearly 14 times more likely to be placed in long-term solitary confinement, according to the study.

Florida Department of Corrections spokesperson Paul Walker sent a statement to the Times denying that the agency uses solitary confinement. Yet in the same statement, Walker asserted that, when warranted, the agency separates inmates from the general population and places them in what it calls “Close Management.” Walker said that a “majority” of the inmates placed in Close Management are with another inmate and that staffers — including guards, chaplains, and medical and mental health professionals — conduct regular visits.

After this story published Friday on tampabay.com, Michelle Glady, a spokesperson for the Florida Department of Corrections, questioned the center’s definition of solitary confinement. Glady said about 4,100 inmates were in Close Management, with about 1,880 in single cells.

Prison officials also said efforts are underway to enact new rules that will give prisoners in confinement “increased access to communication and education materials.”

Walker denied Blackwell’s claim that those in isolation from the general population are not allowed to talk to people in other cells and face punishment such as pepper spray or having property restricted.

The Florida Department of Corrections “takes all allegations of abuse or mistreatment of inmates seriously and encourages all inmates and staff to promptly report inappropriate or illegal conduct,” Walker said in an email. He said grievances and anonymous complaints reporting misconduct can be lodged by using a tips line that contacts the agency’s inspector general.

Some advocates define solitary confinement as separation from the general population in more restrictive housing, even when a prisoner has a cellmate.

In these forms of confinement, those in prison find themselves in smaller cells for longer periods than if they were in the facility’s general population. The Marshall Project, a nonprofit news organization that covers criminal justice issues, documented the deaths of several people who were killed by cellmates in restrictive housing and found that isolation from the general population can exacerbate mental health issues, as well as tensions between cellmates.

In March, an activist who grew up in Tampa and had been incarcerated in Florida detailed his experiences in solitary for a New York Times column and called for an end to the practice.

“I served 18 consecutive years in isolation because each minor disciplinary infraction — like having a magazine that had another prisoner’s name on the mailing label — added an additional six months to my time in solitary confinement,” Ian Manuel wrote in The New York Times. “The punishments were wholly disproportionate to the infractions. Before I knew it, months in solitary bled into years, years into almost two decades.”

An unmanageable system

Yvette Lewis, president of the Hillsborough County NAACP, said she wasn’t surprised by the study’s findings, and she criticized the Florida Department of Corrections’ use of confinement.

She worried about bias: A guard might interpret a Black man waving his hands while talking or a Black woman putting her hands on her hips as signs of aggression, rather than cultural mannerisms, she said.

“They look at that as a sign of defiance instead of understanding that this is their cultural way of expressing themselves,” Lewis said. “Because, when they look at the color of the skin, they automatically feel it’s a threat. So, any little thing can add to that threat.”

John Molina — who now serves as the mentoring and alumni coordinator for the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York — has firsthand experience with solitary confinement. He served a sentence of nearly 10 years in New York. Starving for social interactions, he said he remembers caring for the cockroaches that passed through his cell as if they were pets. His normal weight is about 202 pounds, he said, but when he left solitary, he weighed 174.

“It will drive you crazy,” he said. “I’m still in therapy.”

Tampa activist Angel D’Angelo, co-founder of the Restorative Justice Coalition, also urges an end to solitary confinement.

“It either creates mental illness where it didn’t exist before, or it can aggravate existing mental illness,” D’Angelo said. “It creates a sense of isolation, of course — that’s what it’s there for.”

Lingering effects

While serving his sentence, Blackwell said younger men would sometimes ask him how he survived. He said it came down to this: he didn’t want to die in prison.

“To this day, I don’t know how I did it,” Blackwell said. “But I see people all the time just completely give up.”

Blackwell completed his sentence in March. He now works for People Empowering and Restoring Communities, where he’s a community advocate and case manager working to assist those who recently have been released from prison. He also does community organizing outside of his job, working on projects ranging from COVID-19 vaccine outreach to canvassing for local politicians.

Blackwell has had to adjust to a changed world. He had to learn how to perform tasks most people take for granted, such as operating an iPhone. He’s also contended with the anxiety of being left alone.

When he’s out with friends, and as the group leaves to go home, Blackwell feels the effects of his time in solitary. A friend says goodbye and leaves. Then another, and another, until he’s left alone.

“It’s the worst feeling,” he said, “And I don’t know if it’ll ever change.”