Lydia Thornton on Solitary Confinement: How am I going to make it through today?

In 2013, Lydia Thornton, then 52, spent nine and a half months in solitary confinement in New Jersey. She is now an advocate working to end the continuing abuses against people who are incarcerated, the homeless, and most importantly those coming home. Lydia spoke with Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg for NJ-CAIC about solitary confinement, or as it is referred to in New Jersey, Administrative Segregation. The interview has been edited with Lydia for clarity.

How long are you locked in your cell per day?

What shocks people is that it is 24 hours some days. Three times a week you get out for a shower and you walk down this row and you go to shower, which is locked and come back.  If you take longer than 7-8 minutes they will turn the water either off, or to cold only.

What was a typical day in solitary?

As I recall, start time generally 5:30, 6 a.m.. Somebody will pound on your door to make sure that you move. The verification is that you're still alive. It really is that simple. If you move, they move on. If you don't, they keep pounding. It's like their job is to ensure that you survived the night and that's an odd statement even coming out of my mouth.

And then breakfast somewhere around 7. And then it's just, you figure out what you're going to do with your day because you're not going anywhere. It's like, “How am I going to make it through today without losing my damn mind?”

Whether you read, whether you write, there are too many hours. If you have been "well-behaved" enough to get a TV or afford to buy one or afford to buy a radio. NPR became my best friend because somebody left me a radio. NPR out of Philly.

And then you just lay there, maybe do some stretching -- and what are you going to do until 11:30 when it's lunch? Then what are you going to do until 4 when it's dinner? You do control your own lights unless they decide to turn them all on. If everybody's making too much noise they'll just turn them all on at night and leave until everybody shuts up.

The officers walk by once an hour to check -- it's not that you're still there because you couldn't get out, it's whether you're still breathing. If you need something or want something in between? Tough luck, you wait until the hour because nobody's coming before that.

I have heard people yell for a guard for 20 minutes straight because somebody next to them said they were going to hurt themselves, or you could hear them fall, or something happened. No one will come because it's not their hour to walk.

Do you ever get to go outside?

Three days a week it's mandatory that you are Offered to go outside in what they call ‘recreation’ and I call a dog run, because that's what it is. It's fully fenced, including the top.

I went out once, and said I'd never do it again and I didn't. Outside sounds like a wonderful break, I chose not to go because you're strip searched to go outside. You strip in your cell. They watch you and check your clothes. Give your clothes back. You put all your clothes back on. You go outside and you walk around in a circle in this dog run for two hours.

If it's too cold, too hot, too whatever, doesn't matter, they don't bring you back in. The only caveat is if, I think, it starts raining while you're out there, they have to bring you back in. But you can't come back in otherwise - so if you need to go to the bathroom, doesn't matter. You stay out until everyone comes back in and then you're strip searched again.

Well, for me, strip searches are one of those things that are such an affront to dignity that I swore going outside was just not worth it.

How did solitary confinement impact you?

I will tell you, to this day I can't stand noise; because noise reverberates off steel doors and off cinder block walls. It echoes. Part of the noise is because the only way you can communicate with each other is to yell through the steel door.  The other part is people screaming just to know that they are alive.

Can you talk about the kind of contact you had with other people when you were in solitary?

In terms of human contact it is less than none because all of it is negative. You would actually be better off with none.

There was one young lady -- she had mental health issues to begin with. She would flip out and just get tired of it all -- the guards, her head, get done with all of it. She would pound her head, try to do something to hurt herself and they would take her out for a day and then bring her right back. And it was an ongoing thing at some point she and I started talking. She liked me because I was quiet.  She was housed two doors down from me, and would say hi if she walked to the showers.

One day she had punched her wall, repeatedly. I could hear her. She was yelling about something. She was upset about something. She'd be punching her wall.

This young lady was walking to the shower and she put her hand in my food port to show me how badly hurt it was. And my instinct being me, being a mother, the first thing I did was kind of gently stroke it. You just reach out. That's what normal humans do. She looked at me and started to cry. And I was like, “I'm so sorry, I didn't even think that that must have hurt like hell when I touched it.” She shook her head and kept going to the shower. As she came back from the shower, I was standing at my door. I said, “Are you okay? I'm so sorry I hurt you.”

She's like, “No, you don't understand. That's the first time I've been touched by other than a guard with any kind of kindness in two years.” It broke me. I was done.

The only touch you have is to drag you out of the cell or to put handcuffs on you or to escort you. These aren't people who give a damn about you. They're people whose job it is to move you to point A to point B, or to stop you from doing whatever you're doing. Not saying all guards are bad. There are decent people in there but they have a job to do. Their job is NOT to create positive human impact.

How would you define solitary in one word?

Torture. Because humans were not designed to be in complete isolation for long periods of time.

More than 90 percent of the individual humans sitting in prison right now, no matter what level of housing they're sitting in, are coming home at some point, whether it's next week, next year, next decade, they're coming to our communities.

People ask me a lot, why should I care? They're prisoners. They earned their spot there. They, they, they.

You should care because at some point they're coming back to your community. How do you want them to come back? Better or worse?

You're appalled by the crime they originally committed. You want them angrier, less stable, less healthy or do you want them to actually be able to become part of your community?