Editor's note: This story is part of a three-part series about Pennsylvania's use of solitary confinement and the effects it has on inmates who endure it. The focus on this topic is the result of the reporter's participation in the 2018 John Jay/Langeloth Foundation Fellowship on “Reinventing Solitary Confinement.”
Raymond Miles served 16 months in solitary confinement at the State Correctional Institution in Somerset — 16 months of cinder-block walls, constant noise, filth and little contact with other humans. Some days, Ray says he was locked in a full 24 hours.
The time in solitary, which started in 2006, changed his life forever. Years later, he says he’s still coping. Ray was not diagnosed with a serious mental illness while in prison, but the effects of his time spent in solitary have, at times, been debilitating.
People who spend time in solitary can experience lasting mental health issues, particularly those who already have a mental illness.
Ray never had mental health concerns before solitary. Now, a visit to the grocery store can provoke a sweat and panic. Sometimes, he can only stay long enough to buy peanut butter and jelly. When he meets someone new, it’s only a matter of time before he retreats and ends the relationship. He isolates himself. He converted his home office into a jail cell. The misery of solitary confinement became his new normal. He’s changed.
Today, Ray is a contract employee for the Allegheny County Department of Human Services, working in the Allegheny County Jail Service Coordination Unit. He helps people leaving jail find jobs, housing and stability. In May 2018, he founded Realistic ReEntry, an organization that facilitates mentorships for men and women returning to society after time in prison or jail.
Before his time in solitary, Ray had already been incarcerated for about two years on a drug conviction. That’s when he says a man came into his cell and attacked him. A fight ensued. Both men were sent to the Restricted Housing Unit [RHU] as consequence. RHU is another way of talking about solitary confinement or “the hole.”
For 10 days, Ray and the other man in the altercation waited to appear before a board of prison staff to review their infractions and learn their fates.
Ray told the board he was in his cell when the man entered. Ray maintained he was just defending himself from an intruder. He had no prior write-ups before this altercation. His assailant was near release. Ray was trying to make parole.
He wanted to call witnesses: the correctional officer on duty and a friend who watched the man enter his room and start the fight, but the board denied the request.
The board sentenced Ray to 360 days in solitary confinement.
As of fall 2017, Pennsylvania was imprisoning 46,920 people, according to a 2018 report by The Liman Center for Public Interest Law at Yale Law School. At that time, about 1,500 inmates were spending time in solitary.
Four other states were imprisoning more people last year than Pennsylvania. And the United States imprisons at a rate higher than any other country in the world.
Fourteen states had lower percentages of inmates in solitary confinement than Pennsylvania.
Acting out, coexisting
Ray, 39, cycled in and out of prison for most of his life. He was a drug dealer. He ended up in SCI-Somerset in 2004 on a two-and-half to five-year sentence for intent to manufacture or deliver drugs.
About six months into his time in solitary, Ray’s assailant was released from prison. Ray thought his sentence wouldn’t continue. “For two months I believed that, ‘Nah man, y'all are going to get me out of here because this is wrong,’” he said.
But when they didn’t let him out, he got mad. He wanted everybody to be as miserable as he was.
“I thought they would cut me a break, just because the rationale and reason. So they didn't cut me no break on my time. So I just said, 'Fuck this. Fuck y’all. I’m acting a fool.'”
Ray started to instigate the correctional officers.
“I would bang on my door from 10 o’clock at night to 6 o’clock in the morning. I would get so tired sometimes from banging with my hand, I would just lay down and kick the door.”
He would yell and scream to stop other men in solitary from talking to each other. He couldn’t stand watching other inmates come and go.
This frustration manifested into defiance. Ray began flooding his cell by shoving a T-shirt into his toilet. He flushed the toilet over and over, a project that would take all night. A mattress and blanket blocked the cell door so the water would rise in his room.
“When you’re done, you move all the stuff from the door and all the water rushes out onto the tier.”
Ray’s cell was on the top tier of the solitary unit. A cascade of water would fall from his door and out onto the pod. Every time this happened, the correctional officers were forced to take him out of the cell. He said they’d elbow or knee him.
With every infraction (flooded cell, disobeying orders, etc.), he got another 30 days in solitary. Eventually, his 360-day sentence increased to 16 months. His deterioration was met with punishment. Each time extension caused more stress that led him to act out more. It became an endless cycle.
For those 16 months, Ray spent time outside his cell from 5:45 to 6:45 a.m. for recreation. In the winter, he refused to go outside at all.
One would expect a person confined to be eager to leave their small room, but over time, experts say some inmates in solitary become recluses and find it hard to leave the very place they’re tortured by.
Sometimes Ray also lost his water privileges as a punishment. Outside of his cell, officers could access a panel and turn off his water. Twice a day, guards would ask him if he needed to go to the bathroom or wash his hands. So, two times a day, he had a decision to make: say yes, or retaliate and say no. If he decided to retaliate, he had to sit in a insulated room with his own feces and urine.
In a situation where Ray had no other means of power or control, he often declined the guards offers.
A couple of times, Ray resulted to what he calls “biological warfare.” He put his feces into a shampoo bottle and squirted it at the guards. The guards eventually wouldn’t approach his cell.
“It would be the equivalent of flashing a gun at somebody. You really didn’t do nothing, but you let it be known that I will. I have a weapon,” he said.
The guards took his behavior seriously. They realized something may be wrong with him. He said other men covered their walls and bodies in their own feces and urine: “It happens in every hole every day.” He said he was glad he never got to a point where he was smearing excrement on himself.
“The biological warfare was towards the end of my behavior. You have to graduate to that. ...I really cannot believe the things I have done while I was in the hole.”
After this, the guards began negotiating with Ray. They’d bring him the sports section of the newspaper. They started to treat him like a person, asking him how his day was, providing him with vaseline or Motrin.
“Now, in hindsight,” he said, “just imagine if you did that for every-fucking-body without having to go through all of that.”
It took more than a year for the guards and Ray to coexist.
Ray’s cell in solitary was next to Daniel Delker’s. Delker is serving life in solitary confinement. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, in 1974, he (and two other prisoners) were convicted of killing Walter Peterson, who was a captain at Western Penitentiary in Pittsburgh. Peterson was black, and his killers were white. They beat Peterson with wooden chairs and slashed him with razor blades. Courts ruled that the killing was racially motivated. And Delker, the only one alive now, has been in solitary for 44 years.
“He’ll be in solitary probably until he dies,” Ray said. “Unless there’s some sort of legislation or something passes. Or divine intervention.”
Delker has appealed to the courts and even sued the state for his indefinite sentence. He’s considered too dangerous to be released back into general population.
Delker was nearly 60 and using a walker by the time Ray met him.
At first, Ray refused to talk to Delker because he was notorious for killing Peterson.
But, one day, officers restrained and shackled Delker despite the fact that he could barely walk. Ray heckled the guards. He cussed them out for restraining and fearing an “old man.” Delker laughed. Soon, the two inmates became friends.
“It was just us vs. them. That’s how we got cool,” he said.
They would talk through the vent in their rooms.
Later, Delker gave Ray a book that helped change his perspective: “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor E. Frankl. The book chronicles Frankl’s experience as a prisoner of an Auschwitz internment camp. Frankl developed a psychotherapeutic practice in order to find some positivity despite the horrors around him. His method is to find a purpose in life and imagining that outcome.
The book reshaped Ray’s thinking and helped him endure.
Ray was released from prison in 2008 after serving 16 months in solitary. He made parole.
In 2015, he went to school and earned an associate’s degree in social work from the Community College of Allegheny County. In 2017, he graduated cum laude from Carlow University with a bachelor’s degree in social work.
Over the summer, Ray was seeing upward of 70 clients through the program he founded, Realistic ReEntry.
While adjusting to a professional life himself, Ray found solace at home.
“I got an office at my house. I made it a jail cell. I ordered the toilet off of Amazon,” he said, referring to the stainless steel sink and toilet often seen in jail cells in solitary. “I just felt like I wanted that.”
Socializing has become an obstacle for Ray post-solitary. Large groups of people make him uncomfortable and nervous. It’s hard to meet new people. At first, he’ll come off gregarious and fun, but before long, he starts to withdraw again. He’ll disappear.
He says he wasn’t like this before solitary.
“Being in the hole for all that time — being in prison all that time — has affected my ability to form and maintain relationships extending beyond a length of time,” he said.
If Ray reaches his threshold of interaction while helping local politicians campaign or speaking at events about mental health and social justice reform, he is in danger of having a nervous breakdown.
A visit to the grocery store earlier this year was the first time since his 2008 release that he made it through every aisle without running out: “And I was good! It was something I truly couldn’t do.”
One of his goals is getting through a whole year without feeling suicidal. He has sought help, but the therapists he’s seen have “failed him.” “I don’t feel like anyone has ever truly heard me.”
And now, through his own work, he’s committed to making sure the former inmates he meets with don’t walk away feeling the same way. He has the life history to hold genuine conversations about trauma and mental health.
“You, my friend...you’re in pain, you’re in pain...We’re all in pain. But, are we going to talk about it?”
Brittany Hailer is a freelance journalist based in Pittsburgh. She can be reached at email@example.com. Brittany is a Justice Reporting Fellow for the 2018 John Jay/Langeloth Foundation Fellowship on “Reinventing Solitary Confinement.”
This story was fact-checked by Tyler Losier.