Administrative segregation prisoners take part in a group therapy session at San Quentin state prison, California, June 8, 2012. Photo by Lucy Nicholson/Reuters
The suicide statistics, the squalor and the recidivism haven’t ended solitary confinement. Maybe the brain studies will
by Shruti Ravindran
Heavy-set, with a soft-jowled face, King has a distinctly ursine air about him. We first meet at a Wendy’s in downtown Brooklyn, his teddy-bearishness rounded out by a plushy layer of cocoa-coloured velour tracksuit with a matching hoodie, T-shirt, and beanie hat. He is a garrulous, flirty raconteur. He leans in close over the small white plastic table in the corner and shares, in a gravelly voice, his penchant for Dominican women (‘I’ll take one as my next wife’), his distaste for Indian shop-owners (‘They look at you like you in a zoo. Or the bottom of they shoe’), and his love for his two-year-old grandbaby Vanny. But when he talks about his three-decade long ‘bid’ in various upstate correctional facilities, punctuated by periods of isolation in ‘the Box’ – a solitary confinement cell – he gets quieter, and stares away, distracted and angry.
‘I was in the Box a number of times,’ he says, ‘for dirty urine – when they find weed in your urine – and for arguing with the police over dumb shit. I was never there for stabbin’ or nothin’.’ He produces a long, thin Chick-O-Stick from his pocket and begins to chew on the bright orange flesh. ‘I seen some people, they go into the Box with 30 days, and they in that motherfucker for three years because they went off on a police officer; took some shit or piss and slung it on ’em because they had nothin’ better to do. Once they been there a minute, that’s when they start to see shit, harm themselves, harm others. I wasn’t in there banging my head on the wall, screaming and carrying on. I was chillin’, readin’, I ain’t bother no people.’
In the summer of 2007, King spent 75 days in the Special Housing Unit (SHU) of Fishkill Correctional Facility, a 19th-century asylum-turned-prison in Dutchess County in upstate New York. ‘Some rat told a correctional officer I was selling weed,’ he recalls. ‘So they gave me a Tier 3 ticket [a disciplinary hearing for violating prison rules], and 75 days in the Box.’ He found himself inside a 7ft x 10ft concrete cell with a small bed and toilet. It had a solid metal door with a small window made of hard plastic, out of which he could see a catwalk. A few times a day he saw correctional officers walking past, and once a day, a nurse dispensing medication.
Every morning, for an hour’s recreation, a door at the back opened out on to a ‘recreation cage’: a slightly bigger Box with a tiny, barred window. King wasn’t enamoured of the view: ‘A highway, some grass and trees, and sea gulls flyin’, shittin’ all over the place, eatin’ garbage that other inmates threw out.’ He had been in the Box a couple of times before, but these 75 days were the longest he’d ever been stuck there. After a few days, he found himself double-bunked – penned in with another inmate.
Nobody liked being double-bunked. It felt like being in a cash-strapped zoo, caged in with a restive animal that might turn on you unprovoked. ‘You could get beat up by your bunkmate, or by the police,’ says King. ‘Anything can happen. You ain’t got no wins in there.’
King’s first cellmate was a young Blood (affiliated with the street-gang founded in Rikers Island prison in 1993), who tried to intimidate him and order him around. Then came an ‘ugly-ass motherfucker’ whom King could barely resist throttling after he caught him ‘sneak-thieving’ – rifling his bag for stamps, jealously hoarded prison-currency, in the dead of night. King had no visitors, no classes, no yard-time smoking weed with his friends. The hours stretched on, with a corroding undertow of tension. It was like hanging around in a kennel-sized doctor’s waiting room for an appointment that never came. Worse, he was deprived of the small income he made outside from dealing marijuana and salami smuggled from the kosher kitchen, and his twice-weekly treat of cigarettes, condiments and canned fish from the commissary. All he had was Box food – ‘nasty chicken-soup slop’ – and the relentless, maddening soundtrack of ‘people buggin’ out’.
‘All day, every day in the Box,’ he recalls, staring down at the table, ‘people go off. They yell, they scream, they talk to they-self. They cuss the police out, call them all types of names: “Cracker!” “Incest baby!” At two or three in the morning, somebody starts screaming “Aaaaaa!” You don’t do nothin’, you shake your head sayin’, “Another one”.’…