State of Kansaz mistakenly kept a man in solitary confinement for 1,000 dayz


by Justin Wingerter

On June 19, 2010, James Jamerson was prepared for battle.

He had heard the rumors around his cell block at Lansing Correctional Facility. Matthew Astorga, an inmate with a history of violence, was threatening to kill him. Astorga believed he was a rat. Even guards had heard the threats, the rumors said.

So, on that day, Jamerson taped a 10-inch knife to his right hand. Magazines were attached to his body as makeshift armor, in case Astorga had a knife of his own.

Around 7:30 p.m., two guards saw what they first described as horseplaying. Astorga had his hands to his side, nursing stab wounds to his arm and lower back. Jamerson was ordered to the ground. Faced with the possibility of pepper spray, he complied, turning over his weapon.

“I understand that wearing body armor and having a big knife sounds bad,” Jamerson wrote in a recent letter from his prison cell, “but I don’t have the option to call 911 in here. When the people in charge of keeping me safe choose not to do their job, I have to protect myself. I don’t want to die in prison.”

A Kansas Department of Corrections manual states Jamerson should have been sentenced to a maximum of 45 days in solitary confinement. Instead, confidential records obtained by The Topeka Capital-Journal show Jamerson was erroneously held in solitary confinement for more than 1,000 days due to false statements by at least one KDOC employee.

‘Found no evidence’

One month after the attack on Astorga, Jamerson was transferred to El Dorado Correctional Facility and placed in solitary confinement. An unsigned report from an unknown KDOC employee explained why: “You have been written into long-term administrative segregation… since your incident involved a weapon and was gang-related. You will be in administration segregation at least six months.”

It was a bizarre allegation made anonymously. There is no history of gang affiliation in Jamerson’s disciplinary file and the murder he committed as a teenager that sent him to Lansing wasn’t related to gang violence.

Yet, when Jamerson went before an administrative segregation review board in September 2010, that body also erroneously claimed he was involved in gang violence. Each month, he went before the board. Each month, they kept him in solitary confinement.

His mental health was slipping. Unknown voices began talking to him. During a panic attack, he split his head open on a desk. During another, he choked, requiring CPR. He would wake up in the middle of the night screaming. He was given medication to ease his anxiety, personality disorder and obsessive-compulsive behavior, all of which he developed, he says, while in solitary confinement.

After his first year and a half in solitary, he was considered for release. A mental health counselor, noting his worsening condition, recommended it. It was denied, however, because a slip of paper in Jamerson’s file still said he was a gang member.

Carrie Marlett, a KDOC employee who oversaw Jamerson’s cell block, wrote in a confidential report on April 17, 2013, that Jamerson’s attack on Astorga, based on existing reports, was gang-related and his request to leave solitary confinement had somehow been lost. Jamerson pressed her for details and she asked investigators at the prison to review the facts related to Jamerson’s case.

After they did, she wrote to the inmate with a different conclusion: “It was determined that the incident was not STG related,” Marlett said, a reference to security threat groups, or gangs.

Jamerson would be transferred from solitary confinement to a behavior modification wing, Marlett told him. A month later, an investigator identified only as “Mr. O’Brian,” came to the same conclusion.

“I found no evidence to suggest the June 19, 2010, incident was STG related nor was any information obtained from any other source which would substantiate that finding,” O’Brian wrote.

Nearly three years had passed between the time El Dorado prison officials incorrectly labeled the incident gang violence and the day they corrected their mistake. Still, Jamerson remained in solitary confinement. A legal motion followed that would gain the attention of the state’s most powerful judges.

Unprecedented

By the time the Kansas Supreme Court issued its opinion in Jamerson’s case last June, he was no longer in solitary confinement. The matter, it would seem, was moot. Yet the court, acting unanimously, knew the question of solitary confinement’s constitutionality was anything but.

In a landmark decision, the seven justices ruled Kansas judges must consider an inmate’s duration in solitary confinement when determining whether the inmate’s rights have been infringed upon.

“While it may be difficult to ascertain at what point duration becomes extreme, drawing such a conclusion in a particular case requires specific inquiry and fact-finding by a district court to determine the specific conditions of the administrative segregation,” wrote Justice Eric Rosen.

The ruling should not be lightly regarded, Rosen wrote, as he noted an oddity in prisons’ use of solitary confinement: disciplinary segregation is short term but administrative segregation can last for decades.

“A correctional classification that is so harsh that it is used as punishment on some inmates may thus be imposed for longer periods of time on inmates who have not been designated for punitive treatment,” he said.

Jamerson fancies himself a jailhouse lawyer, filing briefs and helping other inmates do the same. The Supreme Court decision wasn’t his first legal victory but was undoubtedly his most precedential. Another inmate, Cledith Bohanon, has challenged the length of his solitary confinement and more are expected to follow.

‘Points of paranoia’

Bohanon is 58 years old. He has been in prison for most of his time on Earth, since an assault and burglary he committed when he was 19. He has been in solitary confinement for 1,000 days.

“It is a form of physical, social and psychological torture,” he wrote from his cell at Hutchinson Correctional Facility. “It pushes many self-respecting, rational thinking, decent-minded men and women to a quest for excitement, acts of desperation and the most extreme points of paranoia.”

Kenneth Leek, 41, has been in prison for most of his life as well. He has been in solitary for more than six years, by his count, most recently at El Dorado.

“I’ve seen prisoners that come down here with their faculties intact only to see them eventually cutting their own wrists and playing in their feces,” Leek said.

Richard Grissom, 56, has been in solitary confinement for 19 years, despite few disciplinary problems during his time in prison. He believes the length of his solitary confinement is due to racial anger at the crimes he was convicted of committing: the serial murders of several white women.

“An administrative segregation inmate is locked in his cell 24 hours a day unless he chooses to attend one hour of out-of-cell exercise in a cage up to five times per week,” Grissom said. “But that is occasionally cancelled due to staff shortage, inclement weather, facility lockdown and on holidays.”

Sleeping is arduous, inmates in solitary say, due to overhead fluorescent lights. Sound rarely enters the cells. Extreme boredom is prevalent, leading to high levels of stress and, in some cases, madness.

“Picture being locked in your bathroom for days, months, years,” Bohanon said.

“These are steel and stone torture chambers where, absent various forms of social stimuli, the human mind can become so debased, so dehumanized and sink so low.”

The sands of time

Citing confidentiality rules, KDOC spokesman Todd Fertig declined to speak specifically about Jamerson’s case but said, “It is KDOC classification policy to house offenders in the least restrictive housing possible given the individuals’ security risk.”

There is evidence, according to inmates, that KDOC has improved its treatment of prisoners under KDOC Secretary Joseph Norwood, who was appointed last year. Even Leek, a longtime critic of the KDOC, has been impressed.

“Prisoners with mental health issues now have a program geared toward getting them back into the general population as opposed to rotting in segregation,” he said.

Fertig said KDOC views restrictive housing, such as solitary confinement, as a practice to be used only when absolutely necessary and only for as long as absolutely required.

“A national consensus has emerged focused on limiting the use of restrictive housing, and thus the agency has been engaged in reviewing restrictive housing and inmate discipline practices and policies for several months,” he said.

Leek put it a different way: “The sands of time are running out on these segregation units.”

“If you keep your ear to the ground,” he wrote in a letter, “I think in the near future you’ll be writing a follow-up article about how the KDOC has all but abolished long-term segregation. One can hope, right?”

source: http://cjonline.com/news/crime-courts/state-government/2017-02-26/state-kansas-mistakenly-kept-man-solitary-confinement

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