“Inside the Box” Project Aims to Inspire Movement to End Solitary Confinement

Posted Feb. 8, 2017

MP3 Interview with Keishar Tucker, former Connecticut inmate, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

solitary

The concept of prison solitary confinement was originated two centuries ago to give incarcerated individuals a chance to reflect on their crimes and vow to follow the straight and narrow upon release. But now, extended solitary confinement – more than 15 days – is considered torture under international law. At any given time in the U.S., it's estimated that more than 80,000 people are being held in solitary confinement, which means being isolated in a cell with no human contact for 23 hours a day. Of that number, many inmates have been held under those conditions for years and some for decades.

From Jan. 30 to Feb. 18, residents of New Haven, Connecticut, will have a chance to experience solitary confinement by sitting in a replica of a solitary cell. The program, dubbed "Inside the Box," is a project launched by a coalition led by the National Religious Coalition Against Torture. The replica cell will travel to three area libraries, and public programs of panels, films and art exhibitions are being offered daily, with the goal of inspiring people to work toward ending solitary confinement in U.S. prisons.

Between The Lines' Melinda Tuhus spoke with Keishar Tucker, now 35 years old, who served several stints in solitary confinement in Connecticut jails and prisons, the first when he was just 16. Here, he describes what spending time in solitary is like, and how he hopes the “Inside the Box” project will help end the practice.

The state of Connecticut now bars anyone under 18 years or younger from being placed in solitary, but many other states still punish juveniles that way.

KEISHAR TUCKER: What initially got me sent to solitary confinement was basically, I couldn’t cope with being in prison. I was in prison for a charge I wasn't ever convicted of, and I was having a hard time, and I was getting disciplinary reports – they call tickets – for just acting out and not obeying, I guess, direct orders, they call it, from the correction officers. They gave me a few tickets. I started in the county jail on Whalley Avenue, and three back-to-back tickets sent me to Manson Youth solitary confinement, which they call chronic. Any time you come out of the cell, you're handcuffed. If you go to Rec, you're handcuffed. If you go to the shower, they handcuff you until you get into the shower, then they un-handcuff you.

What happened that sent me to Northern maximum security solitary confinement – I went to the shower, and as I was getting out of the shower they put the handcuffs back on, and the C.O. was yanking my handcuffs, like pulling me, dragging me, toward the cell. And I yanked back, and I fell, and I think I fell on top of him or he fell on top of me, I don't remember which one. And he wrote the report as if I had assaulted him, and that got me sent to Northern, which is a Level 5 maximum security prison, where they housed, at that time, death row inmates. I was 17 years old and I was thinking, "Wow, this is the craziest, most horrific place I've ever been to."

You're handcuffed and you're shackled, and they strip you down naked. And after they strip you down naked, they give you a uniform – the Northern uniform – and then they put the cuffs back on and shackle you. And then you got to travel down this long hallway. I couldn't do it; the shackles was just hurting my legs, my skin, and I could't walk anymore, and the C.O.s had to pick me up and carry me to the cell. It was just the worst place ever. So, four months altogether I was in solitary confinement.

BETWEEN THE LINES: And you weren't even 18 years old …

KEISHAR TUCKER: Nope, I wasn't even 18. I turned 17 in there.

BETWEEN THE LINES: One thing I wondered, because I'd go absolutely bananas if I couldn't read. When you were in solitary, were you able to have books?

KEISHAR TUCKER: Sometimes I was able to get a book. Sometimes they would only give you religious books. And sometimes I didn't have books. Because I've been in solitary confinement several times; sometimes you get lucky and you get a chance to get a book.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Are you a bad dude?

KEISHAR TUCKER: No, I’m not a bad dude. (Chuckles). I'm not a bad dude. Like I said, I just couldn't cope with being in prison. I'm not a violent person. Any time I was in prison it was for a non-violent crime, and me just not being able to cope sent me into solitary confinement.

BETWEEN THE LINES: They didn’t offer any kind of counseling? I mean, the only response was basically to put you in solitary?

KEISHAR TUCKER: Yeah, that was the only response to anyone acting out or anyone who couldn't cope, whether it was because you had mental health issues or whatever the case may be. The response to that is punishment.

BETWEEN THE LINES: How old are you now?

KEISHAR TUCKER: 35.

BETWEEN THE LINES: So you’re almost exactly twice as old as when you first went in. Do you still experience difficulties from the times you were in solitary?

KEISHAR TUCKER: Yeah, definitely. I'm getting better. For a period of time I was on medication for my anxiety. I didn't feel comfortable being in open spaces around a lot of people. I would have anxiety attacks, panic attacks, and I had to learn how to cope.

BETWEEN THE LINES: So, Keishar Tucker, did you go inside the box here, inside this replica of a solitary confinement cell?

KEISHAR TUCKER: Yeah, I went inside the box here.

BETWEEN THE LINES: And how did that compare to being in a real box in prison?

KEISHAR TUCKER: It's a little bigger than the box I was in before. It reminded me of being in that place, but the thing with me was, I knew that I could open the door and leave out of there anytime I wanted. I didn't have to stay in there that long, but it was definitely scary.

BETWEEN THE LINES: So, do you think for people who've never been in a jail cell, do you think this project is a good project to try to raise awareness and maybe try to get people involved in making changes?

KEISHAR TUCKER: Yeah, I think it’s a good project, and I think it does bring awareness. A lot of people have never seen the inside of a cell before, and can't really imagine or picture what would you be doing in solitary confinement or what do you got to deal with, what are you thinking, what kind of pain you’re going through, or whatever. So it definitely brings awareness.

For more information on the "Inside the Box" project and the movement to end solitary confinement, visit insidetheboxnhv.org.

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