Ron Pierce: Solitary confinement is designed to break the human spirit

Ron Pierce is the Democracy and Justice Fellow at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice. During his more than 30 years of incarceration in New Jersey prisons, he spent a total of about four years in solitary confinement. He spoke with Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg for NJ-CAIC about his time in solitary and how solitary is designed to break the human spirit. The interview has been edited with Ron for clarity.

When were you allowed outside of your cell?

You get an hour and a half of yard every other day. Other than that you stay in your cell. That's where your mind can play tricks on you. Everybody's yelling back and forth to each other but there's no contact.

There was one guy on one side of me had such a mental breakdown that he was literally in his cell by himself having a fight with his girlfriend every night. Throwing himself against the wall, yelling at her, beating himself up, trying to beat her up too.

On the other side, the guy painted his cell with his own feces. He had to have constant observation and his light was attached to mine, so 24 hours a day my light was on. Because I only have one eye that closes and one eye doesn't close, it was hard to get sleep. I had to sleep with the pillow over my head. 

I was glad to have kept as many faculties as I have.

What was your access to showers?

You got a shower every morning if you woke early enough to catch the officer as they ran past your cell.

How do you respond when people say that it’s not solitary if two people are in the cell?

Solitary confinement if you're by yourself is bad. Solitary confinement if you're with somebody else, constantly in this small space together -- it's worse. I would recommend try living in a bathroom size room with one other person for a short time and maybe it would give you an understanding of why it is worse.

How has solitary impacted you?

It still has an impact on me. The thing about that is I know what it was. I knew. I studied enough. It's as limited on me as it can be but I still find myself -- if the noise is too loud—getting tense or if I get put in a small room I still feel... if I get closed in an office it's not good. I was never a claustrophobic person, but now I find myself very conscious about entrances and exits.

When I moved into the Highland Park house, I was on the top floor and each of us had our own room. When I was in that room and the door was closed I felt trapped. I moved up to Secaucus. I have a basement, I have a yard. I have the outside deck. I feel good but put me in a small closed area and I start to sweat. I can feel choking up. I feel my heart race.

What was the hardest part of being in solitary confinement?

The hardest thing was to maintain civility because you get edgy about everything. I can give you one instance. There was a guy I went to high school with who became a social worker. He was walking around seeing if anybody needed his assistance and he spotted me.

He started trying to hold a conversation. To this day, I don't know why but I snapped at him -- “Get away from me.” I started yelling at him and I still don't know why and I never saw him again since then to apologize to him.

I had just finished my 30 days in the hole when I told you about the people on either side of me. I was in that cell. I was badly sleep deprived and I hadn't had a shower in a couple days so I was highly agitated when he came to the door.

All he wanted was -- “Do you need anything? Do you need any help?” I ran him off. I think I scared him and I didn't mean to but that's just where my head was at the time. I'll always remember that. I hope one day to come across him to apologize to him and just let him know that wasn't me. That was just a ghost from somewhere within.

How did you survive solitary?

I had a routine. I didn't want to numb myself with the TV. I would watch the morning news until nine. I would put the TV under the locker freeing my desk to write on. I would study/write from 9 to 5. Five o’clock I would eat. Six o’ clock I would bring the TV back up and I would watch TV ‘til I went to bed. That was the routine I had.

I went out in the yard because you have to get out of the cell once in a while. But the problem with going to the yard is as soon as you go to the yard, the officers come in, tear your cell up. That's their way of saying -- “You shouldn't go to the yard.” I didn't care. I went to the yard anyway.

That's how I was able to sustain. You have to develop a routine.

Some guys they'll play chess. They'll call a chess move out to the guy they're playing with. He'll call a chess move back. And they'll have made pieces of crumpled up papers so they know where every piece is. That's how people survive. If you don't keep your mind active then you're going lose a piece of it.

How would you respond to claims that New Jersey does not use solitary confinement?

I would say -- take me to 7 Wing in Trenton and show me that it's not a solitary confinement unit. Take me into Bordentown Ad Seg unit and show me it's not a solitary confinement unit. Just because you house two people in a cell doesn't make it less solitary confinement. It actually makes it worse.

What is phase one of administrative segregation if it's not solitary confinement? Phase one is the replacement of Disciplinary Detention.  You're not allowed any property. You're not allowed any radio, any TV. Your yard time is one hour every two days or one and a half hours every two days. What do you call solitary confinement? Just because two people are in an 8 by 12 room doesn't make it less solitary confinement. That's just a total, total out and out lie.

If you could choose one word to describe solitary confinement, what would it be?

Torture. That's all it is. It's a mental deprivation. It's meant to break you, to take your humanity from you. That's what it's designed to do. It's designed to take your mental stability away from you so that they can control you and that's why a lot of the isolation units are called control units or management units.

Administrative segregation is the administration segregating you from the rest of the population but for the purpose of control. It's meant to make you passive by breaking your human spirit. That's why I would call it torture.