Last week someone interviewed me about the time I spent in the Segregation Housing Unit (SHU) while I was incarcerated. She asked me things like, how did you pass the time? How often were you able to use the telephone? Had experienced violence while in the SHU? Those questions took me on a journey through a time that I would not care to remember. When I was being interviewed, I kept waiting for the woman to ask me how I was able to
The last time I was in the SHU I spent 42 days in there because the compound was so overcrowded that I had to wait two weeks for a bed to become available and be released from the SHU, even after my time for my disciplinary infraction was served. I was in the SHU that time for smoking a cigarette after cigarettes were banned from the Federal System. The conditions were atrocious, degrading and downright awful. There were three women to each cell with one woman sleeping on a mattress on the floor parallel to the toilet and face bowl. Even though the policy stated that we were entitled to one hour of recreation outside of our cells, we hardly ever got out. When we did, we were simply locked into another cage either outside on the yard, or inside the SHU in a larger cell.
I spent many other times in the SHU throughout my 18 years in prison, but that last time was the absolute worst. There were moments when I thought I might actually snap. I was fragile. I was five years shy of my parole date and getting into trouble was not a good look for me. I prayed a lot. I spent a lot of time thinking about political prisoners like Mumia Abu-Jamal and Nelson Mandela who did hard time for decades. I thought if they could endure what they did I could endure a few days in the hole. Still, I had moments when I felt like I was forgotten, back there in that dungeon.
Being locked down in the SHU made the General Population seem like the free world. Imagine being locked into a large closet for 23 hours with only a toilet, a sink and a bunk bed. Imagine having your food passed to you through a hole in the door and being entertained by your own thoughts most of the time. In the SHU there is no television or workout equipment. There is limited access to the telephone and you rarely get to shower. Many women took loads of psychotropic medications prescribed and not prescribed. I always vowed not to indulge in such drugs for fear of what they would do to me. I always reasoned that facing the drama that comes along with being incarcerated could not be worse than dealing with the drama of not being able to control my faculties. I always said, My mind is all I have, and I thought if I took medication I would run the risk of giving that away. So, I dealt with incarceration and segregation by praying and willing myself to maintain my sanity. It was a conflict that can’t be told in words.