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Solitary: "An Environment That Mimics Hell"

By John Masson
March 28, 2013

While no one expects to have an easy time in prison, Khalil Shabazz's time as an unwilling guest of the State of Michigan was more painful than most.

During the 1980s Shabazz was sentenced to life in prison at age 19 for second-degree murder. A Wayne County judge sincerely believed Shabazz would be paroled in 10 years, as was common at the time. Only that parole never happened, in part because Shabazz was snowed under by a blizzard of "tickets," or conduct violations, once he was behind the walls patrolled by the Michigan Department of Corrections.

Often, Shabazz said during a lunchtime talk today, the tickets were written at the whim of guards who appeared to be actively seeking out reasons to write up a black man. As a paralegal and a leader in the Nation of Islam, Shabazz said, he presented a tempting target.

More often than not such tickets land their recipients in solitary confinement—where Shabazz ultimately would spend 14 of his 25 years behind bars.

"Isolated confinement can be based on whether you have a piece of paper on your bunk, or if you call a guard a derogatory name," Shabazz said.

Shabazz's talk, "Solitary Confinement: A View from the Inside," was presented by Michigan Law's Prisoners' Rights Organization of Students and cosponsored by the Michigan Journal of Race & Law, the American Constitution Society, and the Criminal Law Society.

Prisoners in solitary are essentially at the mercy of the officers who guard them, Shabazz said. Often that means no mail, no visits, and no contact with other people.

"It's just an environment that mimics hell," Shabazz said. The noise level is constant and unbelievable. In some facilities, the lights stay on 24 hours a day. Prisoners are locked down at least 23 hours every day, and the other hour is spent in a small cage in the exercise yard—if there's enough staff available to transport prisoners there and back. "As a sane individual I could hardly handle it. ... It's a way of psychologically breaking a human being."

For inmates who are already mentally ill—a significant minority in the prison system—solitary confinement can lead to special horrors as guards, frustrated by problematic behavior, take out those frustrations on prisoners far from the eyes of any but the most powerless witnesses, Shabazz said.

Other serious issues with solitary, Shabazz said, include a disproportionate number of African-American prisoners who end up there.

"As you go higher in security (levels), the faces grow darker," Shabazz said. "Eighty percent of people in administrative segregation are African American."

The problems cited by Shabazz were echoed by his attorney, Susan Meinberg of the Michigan State Appellate Defender Office. Meinberg urged the law students in the audience to take a tour of the segregation units in the nearby Ionia correctional facility.

"I was just so shocked by the level of noise," Meinberg said. "And it was just so compelling to see that exercise yard, with its small cages."

Throughout her visits, Meinberg said, inmates shouted at her. " 'We're not animals,' " she said, " 'but you see how they treat us.' "

For Shabazz, the quarter-century nightmare ended after he convinced the courts to take a look at a flaw in the original case made against him. The Wayne County pathologist who conducted the autopsy in his case made an error when he estimated that the victim had been shot at a distance of 15 feet, Shabazz told Meinberg. The evidence, the two then argued, supported Shabazz's argument that the fatal shot was fired while the two men were struggling.

A pathologist from neighboring Oakland County agreed, Meinberg and Shabazz said, and a Wayne County judge ordered Shabazz released that very day—in 2011.

But for Shabazz, the intervening 25 years, more than half of which were spent in solitary, took their toll.

"You crave some human interaction," Shabazz said. "The only human interaction you get is when they open your slot and slide in your meal tray."

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