Self-Inflicted Solitary Confinement

Marquis Omar Gilliam

Marquis Omar Gilliam

By Marquis Omar Gilliam, guest writer for Prison Lives

Let the past be the past. You can't change it. 

If you make the mistake of living in guilt today because of something you did yesterday, you won't have the strength you'll need to live this day in victory. Your only limitation is the one you set up in your mind.

Limitations easily become a form of confinement. Isolating ourselves breeds the solitary perspective that can immure us.

I am incarcerated, but part of me recognizes that a lot of you who live outside these walls are as well. Life choices can build prisons within the mind if one isn't meticulous in making healthy choices. 

The goal of any prison is to break down one's resolve. Understanding this ideology took some time on my part. The formula that allowed me to solve this: Embracing the concept of adversity builds us.

Another solution to defeating confinement comes through investing heavily in educating oneself. Through the channel of learning, freedom roams without restriction. It allows the mind true liberty in eluding the hands of confinement. 

One must harbor aspirations of seducing the minds of our youth into excellence, which would emancipate any likelihood of mediocrity. There is a psychological chain that must be broken in order to restore justice in the hearts of problematic individuals.

Albert Einstein once said, "The world can't be changed until we change our thinking." If one would just maintain this key of understanding, confinement could not place roots in the mind. 

Solitary confinement is used to correct negative behavior. But it also has the ability to thwart being social in healthy fashion. Subjecting the mind to isolation over abnormal periods of time often creates an unbalanced emotional individual.

I'm speaking to someone out there. I would ask that you take the proper inventory within the mind to recognize where you may be placing prison confinements within yourself.

Marquis Omar Gilliam is a prisoner at Stanley Correctional Facility in Wisconsin.

Prison Phone Calls: Trump May Cut the Lifeline 

Originally posted on Forbes

Prison phone

The cost of a phone call today is no more of a thought than the air we breathe. The cost of a phone call from prison, however, can take your breath away. For those who must pay such costs, which can easily average as much as a monthly luxury car payment, breathing just got a lot more labored. 

Phone calls between prisoners and their loved ones on the outside often represent the only contact inmates have with the world beyond prison walls. Recent studies and common sense have shown that maintaining these outside ties is a vital link to successful prisoner reentry, and thus key to reducing recidivism rates. But high prison phone rates have dramatically restricted the amount of meaningful contact that prisoners can have with those that care about them. 

Up until this week, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was doing something about it. The cost of a call from prison to an out-of-state loved one was as much as a dollar per minute in most states just a few years ago. That was until the FCC stepped in to enforce rate caps at a quarter of that price. 

Suddenly, inmates were able to connect with those they cared about four times more often. 

The FCC was currently fighting to likewise reduce local/in-state calling rates, now as costly as long-distance calling. It just became painfully apparent, however, that they will likely be abandoning this effort, a devastating about-face for those hoping to soon be able to afford more quality communication with those on the other side of the wall. 

The reason? President Trump. 

Just as the Supreme Court is about to be dominated by the conservative side of the political landscape, so too is the FCC. Prison phone regulations were able to take hold during the Obama administration thanks to a 3-2 democratic majority amongst the five FCC commissioners. But with two majority members of the commissioners retiring from their post last month, President Trump gets to appoint new members, thus creating a new majority. 

One of the likely first acts of the new commission: Roll back the prison phone regulations set in motion by the former office. 

The price-gouging practices of the giant for-profit prison phone providers have been known, as have the millions of dollars in "commission" kickbacks that the prisons receive for utilizing them. As one FCC official, Mignon Clyburn, put it, "In my 16 years as a regulator, this is the clearest, most egregious case of marked failure I have seen." 

The phone providers disagree. Counsel on behalf of the prison phone industry, Michael Kellogg, argues that the proposed regulations, when combined with recent caps and kickbacks paid to prisons put them "under water." A statement that is hard to swallow knowing that this is a $1.2 billion industry. 

Some states have proven that they care more about reducing recidivism rates than profiteering by adopting practices that restrict or ban kickbacks from the phone providers, effectively reducing phone prices. Dramatically so. For instance, while the average cost of a 15-minute in-state call is $2.46, Ohio, New York and New Jersey charge an average of 70 cents. The Virginia's, even though they still accept millions of dollars in kickbacks, have managed to drop their phone rates to a relatively reasonable 3 to 4 cents per minute. 

The majority of states, however, will not reduce rates until they are told they have to. With Trump in office, it is unlikely that requirement will come anytime soon. 

In the meantime, prison systems, prison phone providers, and the incarceration philosophies of a president are allowing exploitation of those most affected by incarceration, essentially and callously extending the punishment to both sides of the prison wall. 

Perhaps partisan politics won't spill over to the upcoming FCC considerations of prison phone company regulations. Perhaps they will wisely see the correlation between prison phone and recidivism rates and opt not to be penny-wise and pound foolish. 

We're not holding our breath. 

Doing Frozen Time: A 30-Year Inmate's View Of Modern Technology

Originally published on February 15, 2017 by Forbes

David Simonsen

By David Simonsen written for Prison Lives

I have never held a cell phone, much less used one to text or take a selfie. I didn't know what a "selfie" was until a couple of years ago. I have never owned a personal computer, much less "surfed" the internet. The internet didn't even exist the day I landed in prison, nearly 30 years ago.

Ronald Reagan was president. Frogger was one of the most popular video games in the world. The highest rated television program was The Cosby Show. The last movie I saw as a new release at the theater: Platoon.

My calendar is stuck in 1988. The penitentiary walls form the lining of the time capsule I live in. What is now considered to be ancient, what I last knew as "modern technology" is still current to me. The only signals that it is not come in the form of looks of bewilderment on the faces of new arrivals when I divulge that my last TV set required the turning of a nob or that my phone had a rotary dial.

The world beyond the walls doesn't seem to be able to exist without the modern conveniences. Can you imagine life without a smart phone, for example? I can. In fact, I'm not allowed to exist with such things. To have my hands on an internet-enabled device would mean an immediate trip to solitary confinement, a place that offers nothing more technologically advanced than a paperback book.

On one hand, I'm envious, knowing how severely I am missing out. The conveniences that technology affords would allow me to do incredible things with the time I must serve. I spend my time in as many positive pursuits as possible, despite my confinement. Unfortunately, hwever, this often requires outside assistance to access the information and resources I need to keep advancing. Internet access would allow a self-sufficiency that I can only dream of.

At the same time, though, from this perspective, it all looks a little absurd. Everyone seems to be completely dependent on technology, almost enslaved by it. The phone is handcuffed to nearly every living unincarcerated person, requiring its holder to be constantly accessible and to respond with an immediacy that looks more intrusive than convenient.

It seems the world is completely dependent on it, as if life can't be enjoyed without it. When I watch a televised event, for instance, I see a thousand cell phones raised trying to capture a moment on stage, a thousand people almost completely missing the best parts because of it.

Recent data states that the average amount of time spent on the internet is in the neighborhood of 25 hours per week, a part time job spent browsing, checking email, and camped out on social networking sites. I cannot relate. It sounds exhausting.

There is a trickling of authorized technology making its way through the prison walls, though. Just a taste. In my prison, for example, I can now purchase what is essentially, I'm told, an iPod from over a decade ago. Today, I have the "privilege" (the prison administration's word, not mine) of downloading overpriced Mp3 music. So, I've stuck my toe in, now buying music as I can afford it -- all 70s and 80s artists, of course. A relative fortune spent on something I should easily still have on cassettes.

Now rumor has it that tablets are beginning to be introduced to prisons across the nation, which will include games, eBooks, magazine subscriptions, and other features, charged by the minute. It's a great money-making scheme for the prison systems, but I'm not sure what's wrong with playing cards and publications you can hold onto.

Living in the nostalgia of my time, without the distraction of the fast-moving world, isn't so bad. It's worked for my entire lifetime. I'm contented. Why change now?

From the contented inside view looking out, it makes me wonder if the world might be a happier, less stressed place without the nonstop pressures of technological "advancement." Or just maybe self-driving cars will indeed be the key to all future happiness. 

Perhaps one day I'll find out, on that morning I'm released from my prison confines wearing my old trusty Levi's button-fly 501 blue jeans clocking my first minutes of freedom on my classic Swatch watch. But until then, 1988 sounds like a perfect year to be stuck in.

Life in the SHU: An Inside Look

By Danny Varner written for Prison Lives

Originally published at the Huffington Post


Displaced from society, we are the faceless and rejected. We are wasting unnecessary years as a punishment, denied basic human rights, comforts, and relief. We've lost our freedom because we temporarily lost sight of what mattered most. But for many of us, our punishment is much greater than what we were sentenced to, as we're forced to reside in a place where we may never find ourselves again.

We are displaced from the general population of prisoners, locked away in a prison inside a prison. Housed in the SHU, short for Special Housing Unit, we are segregated into isolated cells where we remain on lockdown for almost all of every day. Housed under one of three classifications -- administrative segregation, disciplinary segregation, or protective custody -- we are all treated the same. We all live in what amounts to solitary confinement, except with a cellmate.

Upon arrival, even though our classifications are separated by policy, we don't know in advance whether we will be housed with someone who is violent, mentally unstable, disabled or elderly. With no intercoms or panic buttons, assaults brought on by being housed with the wrong person, or other medical emergencies, often fall on deaf ears. Hours may go by before a severe need is known by staff.

Leaving a cell is more akin to removal from it. Hands behind our backs, we are required to stoop down to a slot in the bars that doubles as the porthole for our meal tray. We extend our arms through to be shackled by handcuffs. Refusal results in being coated in pepper spray until we comply. 

Some cells have showers. Most do not. For those of us without, we are escorted, cuffed, to a shower in a cage. We are afforded ten minutes. To shower three times per week is a luxury.

If conditions allow, we are given the privilege of as much outdoor recreation time as can be enjoyed in a cell-sized cage for one hour. Although slated for up to five days each week, the safety and security of the entire prison always takes precedence. Weather and lockdowns often deny us of our privilege.

Cleanliness of the cell is our responsibility. But the SHU presents unique challenges that fight against those efforts. Cleaning supplies are only afforded occasionally, never allowed to be stored in our cells. When they are accessible, they are used to fight the effects of the dirtiness of roaches, infections, and diseases that often prevail, potentially fed by what remains in the toilets that only flush when a timer tells them to do so. Tellingly, correctional officers always don latex gloves.

The age of the prison and its location makes for a chilly stay. The authorized single small blanket offers only weak protection, which is often restricted to nighttime use only. Beds must be made in a military style by day. Complaints go ignored.

Senior staff members make rounds in what are known as "walk-throughs," designed to give us the option of airing complaints or express our needs. Rarely are these actually heard, though, much less acted on.

Food in the SHU? Cold and spartan. Canteen can be purchased to supplement our diet, but the SHU drastically restricts those options for "security" reasons, regardless of whether we actually did anything wrong to land us here. If here for an extended stay, weight loss is guaranteed.

Contact with the outside world is limited to the stamps and writing materials that we can afford... or one phone call each month.

Displacement to this prison within a prison will take a toll. Where we may have lost our sight for a painfully lasting moment before, we are now confronted with the danger of losing our mind. Life was not meant to be lived this way. But with the loss of freedom came the loss of choice. All we can do is hope to survive.

Danny Varner is a guest writer for Prison Lives, a 501(C)(3) non-profit organization established to educate and enable prisoners to be productive individuals while incarcerated for a positive existence both inside and outside of prison life.

Prison Lives provides prisoners and their families with access to information and resources specific to their circumstances through 500+ page publications, including prisoner resource guides, prisoner education guides and prisoner entertainment guides.

Why States Should Pay For Inmates Sex Changes

Originally published on The Hill

Tara Ellyssia Zyst is Oregon's only transgender death row inmate, perhaps the only transgender death row prisoner in the nation. 

Born Karl Anthony Terry, she was convicted in 1995 on two counts of aggravated murder for the deaths of her boyfriend and his brother. Since that time, Tara has sat on Oregon's death row, where she has consistently been denied requests for hormone therapy and sexual reassignment surgery for a diagnosed Gender Identity Disorder.

Continue reading this article on The Hill

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