Austin’s Story: the Tragedy of Solitary Confinement in our State Prisons

On June 19th at a statehouse hearing on criminal justice bills, including solitary confinement bills, I gave a statement about the young man I visit in solitary confinement in the hope that my experience will reveal this barbaric practice for the torture that it is. Here is my testimony, as presented to the Joint Committee – Caroline Bays.

Aloneliness – it should be a word. That’s what the young man I visit in solitary says. I can’t tell you his real name but he is the same age as my own child, so I’ll call him by my son’s name – Austin.

I started visiting Austin when a friend called me, frantically looking for someone to visit him in solitary because friends were worried he was suicidal. The last six months have opened my eyes about the cruelty and inhumanity of solitary confinement in Mass. I already knew it in my head, but now I feel it in my heart.

Everything I thought I knew about solitary is wrong. For instance – there is no standard sized cell. Austin spent months in a cell so small he could touch all four walls without moving. He couldn’t walk because the sink overlapped the bed. It used to be a bathroom, so every inch of the walls and floor were tiled. All the sound reverberated loudly off the walls. I watched as this slowly drove him mad as week in and week out he was subjected to the echoing noise of flushed toilets, yelling inmates, banging cell doors. He was literally put in a tomb of torture.

There was no escape…the 1 hour of yard time is also a myth. For the majority of the inmates, they find it impossible to go outside. Some don’t have coats, some are concerned for their own safety, but most don’t go outside because the guards use this as an opportunity to toss their cells, leaving their belongings trashed, with items broken or missing.

But the worst is the isolation from any human compassion. Once a guard took him to the showers and was polite, even nice to him – unlike all previous guards. The guard took out a bottle of shampoo. Austin’s heart leapt – since he had been denied shampoo for weeks. The guard unscrewed the cap and put it up on a ledge near Austin, as if to give it to him. Austin, so grateful for this one act of generosity, reached out to take the shampoo. Just as he reached out towards it, the guard knocked the opened bottle off the ledge, pouring the shampoo all over the shower floor. Can you imagine the crushing blow? A human being who is isolated from any form of good-will, from any form of compassion – when he finally thinks he is experiencing a moment of human kindness, only to have it twisted into an act of cruelty. Aloneliness it should be a word. It’s not just a loneliness of the body and mind – it’s a loneliness of the soul. Human beings aren’t meant to endure this kind of treatment – and he must endure it for four long years! How does someone come out from this kind of treatment with their psyche intact?

I was talking to a friend, cataloguing the horrors I was bearing witness to when another friend who overheard asked “What country is this happening in?” People can’t believe that this torture is happening right here – right now in our own state of Massachusetts.

And I am asking – no begging you to do something about it! There needs to be oversight. The prisons need to tell you who is in there and for how long. I find it unbelievable that in the year 2017 I am pleading with you to pass a bill that simply calls for humane conditions in prisons in Massachusetts.

Caroline Bays is a resident of Watertown.