Solitary confinement and unexpected kindness

May. 24, 2014 @ 10:17 AM

Atul Gawane wrote an article for the New Yorker about a man named Robert Felton who was imprisoned in solitary confinement for many years.  Felton was considered to be impulsive, incorrigible, violent and dangerous. 

Felton was arrested at age 11 for breaking into a store to steal video games.  A year later he broke into a building and stole items.  He was sent to reform school, where he got into fights, screamed at the staff, tore a pillar out of the ceiling, tore mirrors and a sink off the wall, pulled doors off their hinges and attacked the staff.  He was transferred to a maximum security prison at Joliet.  His behavior did not improve.  He was released when he was 17.

A few months later, he got in a fight with a bartender which resulted in the bartender being beaten and bleeding.  He was sent to a maximum security prison in Joliet, where he got into serious fights. 

As soon as he was shut in he had a panic attack.  He broke down and began hallucinating.  He yelled for the guards for hours and banged on the toilet. 

He continued to violate rules, and in each case he would be put back into isolation.  He flooded his cell with wastewater, which befouled the whole wing.  In 1998 he was moved to a new high-tech supermax prison.

He deteriorated further, would not clean himself or brush his teeth and fouled his cell.  He attempted suicide twice and became psychotic. 

In time, Felton’s behavior improved and he asked the administrator of prisons in that state to release him from solitary confinement.  Each time, the administrator refused the request.  Felton developed a hatred of the man.  He dreamed of punishing the administrator.

He was not allowed out for 14 1/2 years.

After his release from prison, he fell in love with a woman and married her.  They had two children.  His wife worked, but Felton had difficulty in holding on to jobs. 

In 2008, Atul Gawane visited him at home.   

They talked about prison.  Gawane told Felton that the administrator who had plagued him had been convicted of fraud and was serving a prison term of two years.

Gawane asked him, “If he wrote to you and asked to release him from solitary, what would you do?”

Without any hesitation, Felton responded, “I’d let him out.”

This surprised Gawane.   “You’d let him out?” he asked again.

“Yes,” Felton responded, “I wouldn’t wish solitary confinement on anybody.  Not even him.”

A few weeks later, he broke into a car dealership and stole a car.  He received a sentence of seven years.  Felton is now 41 years old.  I do not know if he is in prison or not.

In the past, solitary confinement was a rare punishment.  As time passed we have used it more and more.  This has resulted in the construction of supermax prisons, including the notorious Pelican Bay Prison in California.   The inhumane conditions at Pelican Bay caused the prisoners to riot. 

It is difficult to know how many prisoners are in solitary, because prisons do not give out this information, but it estimated that the total is approximately 80,000.  This is an incredible number of prisoners.   We use this punishment more than any country on earth. 

Solitary confinement is necessary for some prisoners, but it is not necessary for most of the 80,000 prisoners there.  As for Felton, solitary confinement was necessary at first, but he was confined there too long. 

England has tried to put less and less people in solitary confinement, and when it is necessary, they favor less time in solitary.  This appears to produce less recidivism.

North Carolina has 10 maximum-security prisons.  The best-known of these is Central Prison in Raleigh, where there have been recent allegations of brutality.

This article suggests two things:

1. Robert Felton demonstrated the strength of the human spirit.  There is good in the worst of us.

2.   Solitary confinement is necessary in some cases, but as long-term punishment it does not work.

Stanley Peele is a retired judge.