This essay originally appeared in the Yale Law Review (volume 125, 222) and was republished in our prisons symposium with their permission. (All rights reserved.)
Every prison and jail in Virginia has a series of cells used for solitary confinement. Fairfax County jail had three units for solitary confinement. None had windows. The R-Cells had ceilings so high that a tall man could not reach them by jumping. The other had a door so thick and heavy that when it closed no sounds escaped. The third looked like the cells for the general population.
At Southampton Correctional Center, an entire building had been converted to hold men in solitary. The cells looked just like those housing the general population, except the doors only opened to take you to the shower once every three days, or to the kennel-like cages where you periodically had an hour to pace the fifteen steps back and forth, to do push-ups, jumping jacks, to stare out the window into the open countryside that taunted you.
Some of the cells in solitary confinement at Red Onion State Prison faced what people called the gutted side of a mountain. Three times a week guards would shackle and cuff prisoners and escort them, under the watchful eye of a guard holding a shotgun, to the showers.
Sussex 1 State Prison, like Southampton, had units initially constructed for general population converted into solitary-confinement units. Men could stare from their cell into the yard and watch men going about the work of doing time, the basketball games, the circling the yard, the fights. At Sussex, they also held death-row prisoners, and on occasion, while being walked to the shower, you would glimpse a man preparing to die.
At Coffeewood Correctional Center, the solitary-confinement unit had about a dozen cells. The windows were so high up that a tall man would have to leap to glimpse the green of the outside grass. Of all these prisons, only Southampton’s units had windows wider than an open palm or taller than a man’s arm.
In 1996, when I was sixteen, a fifteen-year-old friend and I carjacked a man in Virginia. Shortly after being arrested, I confessed. Back then, I did not know what it meant to be transferred to criminal court. But I would learn. Following John Dilulio’s super-predator theory, state prosecutors began to rely increasingly on statutory mechanisms that allowed them to transfer children from juvenile to criminal court, where, if found guilty, they would be exposed to the same punishments and same prisons as people eighteen or older. In Virginia, carjacking carries a minimum sentence of fifteen years and a maximum of life in prison. Five months after my crime, after pleading guilty to carjacking and a weapons charge, I stood before the Honorable Judge Bach to be sentenced. Before sentencing me to nine years, he said, “I am under no illusion that sending you to prison will help, but you can get something out of it if you want.” It should not have been a surprise to anyone that part of what I got out of my time in prison was nearly a year and a half of solitary confinement.