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    “How are you?”

    “A polite, mundane, almost obligatory question that begins most conversations. A question that, more and more often, causes me to grind my teeth, bite my tongue, and pause before cheerily convincing others, “I’m fine.”

 

    I’m 41 years old and have been incarcerated for the entirety of my adult life. When I was 17 years old I was arrested for robbing a convenience store. It was my first offense, first time in any serious trouble, and I had no idea how the criminal justice system worked; that it is less concerned with justice, and more concerned with the system.

 

    I was young, scared, stupid, and impulsive. I tried to escape from the county jail prior to sentencing, which seems a fitting allegory for a kid who’d been running from problems most of his young life and over-indulging in the escapism and self-medicating of drugs and alcohol. That final attempt at running from my problems included assaulting two guards who tried to prevent my escape (although neither was seriously injured) and resulted in three aggravated life sentences.

 

    Yes. Three life sentences.

 

    For a dumb teenager who didn’t seriously injure anyone.

 

    “Oh, but you could have seriously injured someone!”

 

    Yes, but I didn’t. And in theory, we’re supposed to be punished for actual harm done, not “potential harm,” which is why someone who gets a DWI isn’t punished as severely as the “potential harm” of crashing head-on into a minivan and killing an entire family.

 

    But this is Texas, a state with a distorted sense of pride when it comes to severely punishing people and “setting an example” to others. Lock ‘em up! Throw away the key! Then go sit in church on Sunday and listen to sermons about forgiveness and mercy and second chances. It’s so easy to be “tough on crime” until it’s your dumbass teenager that ends up in trouble. Easy to be tough on crime when you forget that you probably did some dumb (potentially illegal) stuff that you were never caught for.

 

    And so, I received more time than the average murderer or child molestor. But that’s what happens when you embarrass and anger the arthorities who control the justice system; they’ll manipulate that system for personal revenge and call it “justice.”

 

    I just love it when people who have very little to truly feel bitter and angry about dispense trite advice of “don’t be bitter or angry.” Yeah, ok. Sure. You aren’t the one spending a lifetime in prison for being a dumb teenager. 

 

    “How are you?”

 

    “I’m fine.”

 

    It’s often said the gears of justice grind slowly. Yeah, unless the authorities are angry at you, eager for public revenge, and eager to be rid of you. Then they can have it all done within 29 days by hustling an ignorant 9th grade dropout teenager into court with no idea what he’s actually charged with, a court appointed lawyer who lies to him about the charges and potential punishment while informing the teen that there is nothing he - the lawyer - can do to help the kid avoid a life sentence. This same lawyer can then stand before the court and openly admit to the judge that he conspired with the prosecutor to ensure that his client received an excessively harsh sentence. The prosecutor and court officers can get away with waiting until AFTER inducing the kid to plead guilty, under threat of greater charges, to serve the indictments telling him that he was never even indicted on those greater charges.

 

And then, by the time this ignorant teenager has the time to educate himself, understand his rights, recognize that those rights were violated, and gain enough comprehension of the law to challenge these violations that led to such excessive sentences, the courts determine that he waited to[o] long to challenge it. Because that’s how the justice system works, it’s all about the system and procedures...if you don’t understand it, and your lawyer screws you around, that’s your fault. Justice delayed is ??? what was the rest of that saying? Who gives a damn.

 

    And that’s how a teenager who didn’t even seriously injure anyone gets coerced into three life sentences...because teenagers are so notoriously good at making life decisions. haha, get it? A “life” decision: because they coerced me into pleading guilty for life? See, I’m not bitter and angry. I can make jokes to deflect.

 

“How are you?”

 

“I’m fine.” 

 

The morning after justice was served--or, rather, force-fed to me, but hey, semantics--I was transferred to the next phase of the justice system; the prison system. They sent me to the most violent prison in the state with notoriously violent prisons, which happened to also be the most violent prison in America at the time. A prison where, if a prisoner went to the administration for help or protection, the supervisors and administration would give the same advice as the old convicts gave me upon entering: “Fight, fuck, or bust a 60.”--i.e., fight like a man, or exchange sexual favors for protection, or pay commissary for protection ($60 every two weeks being the maximum amount prisoners were allowed to spend at that time). Only one of those options was acceptable for an angry, defiant teenager like me. So I fought. Sometimes every day. Sometimes multiple times a day. Sometimes I started it to prove I wasn’t afraid to be the aggressor. Sometimes the other guy started it to test me, to try to break me, to see if I would fuck or bust a 60. I never broke. I was too angry, bitter, defiant.

 

“How are you?”

 

“I’m fine.”

 

At visitation. “Oh my god, why is your eye black?”

 

“I’m fine.”

 

The prison system sent a dumb, angry, scared teenager to the most violent prison in America. A prison run by gangs. While also telling him that because of his sentence he was not a priority for education or rehabilitation programs. Teenagers make such wonderful decisions, especially in an environment like that, or when they think it might prevent some of the problems they repeatedly encountered. They sent a teenager to an adult prison run by gangs, where the majority of the prisoners were gang members, told him he wasn’t worth being educated or rehabilitated, then act surprised when that kid joins a gang? This is the “corrections system?”

 

Once you’re in a gang though, it only presents a new, different set of problems. After the first time I was stabbed by rival gang members, I refused medical treatment and returned to my cell.

 

“Are you sure you’re ok?”

 

“I’m fine.”

 

After the second time I was stabbed, they transferred me to another, almost equally notorious and violent prison. It didn’t take long to recognize I was better off on my own and decided to leave the gang. It was around this time that the prison administration informed me that I was going to be “confirmed” as a gang member and placed in administrative segregation...while simultaneously acknowledging that they knew I had disassociated from the gang.

 

And so, after three years in general population I was identified as a gang member and, as per policy, placed in administrative segregation (TDCJ’s bureaucratic euphemism for long-term solitary confinement), where I have remained since August 2001. I was placed in ad-seg solely for membership, not for actually doing anything...membership in something I was no longer a member of. But, as with the justice system, the correctional system is more concerned with the system than with corrections. And, in my case, the system dictated that even though they acknowledged that I was no longer a member, I would remain in ad-seg as a gang member until I completed a program established by the system called Gang Renouncement and Dissociation (GRAD), in order to make it “official.”

 

“Fine with me. Ok. Where do I sign up?”

 

“Oh, you are not eligible due to your escape from the county jail.”

 

“Wait, it’s documented in my file that I’m an EX-member. Y’all did the investigation and debriefing to verify it. Why am I still in seg?”

 

“You must complete the GRAD program to be released from seg. But you are not eligible for GRAD, so you will remain in seg as a gang member until you complete GRAD.”

 

*insert babbling idiot noises* Oh, ok, well that’s completely reasonable!

 

And so, based on this idiotic circular bureaucratic reasoning I have been in solitary confinement for nearly 20 years: 20 years where my only human contact is a guard holding my elbow to escort me to the shower, visitation (through plexiglass), or the rare medical appointment. I don’t go to recreation because it’s just another solitary cage surrounded by steel walls to prevent seeing anyone or anything; a metal roof blocks out all sunlight; the concrete surface is covered in bird droppings and mosquito-breeding stagnant water; there is a basketball hoop (but no ball) and a susty, bird feces encrusted chin-up bar, and a pervasive stench of urine from the lack of toilets.

Twenty years of every meal eaten alone, often cold and congealed, and slopped all over the tray after a trip up multiple flights of stairs in a bulky, awkward to tote carrier.

By an act of the Texas Legislature and signed into law by the governor way back in the 90s, I am prohibited from watching television or accessing any educational or rehabilitative programming. Nor am I allowed access to phones to hear loved ones’ voices.

I live in a 5’x9’ cage, barraged with incessant noise: people yelling from one cell to another for conversation, or people yelling for no reason other than they have guards doing “security checks” shining a flashlight in my face and telling me to make some sort of movement so they know I am alive. For what? What are you gonna do if I’m dead? What is the point of saving someone that the state is slowly killing anyway? Or is that the point; to make it slow? Or is this systematic sleep deprivation torture? I haven’t had more than an hour of uninterrupted sleep in so long I can’t remember...but maybe that’s just the destruction of my memory after so long in solitary confinement (an acknowledged effect of long-term solitary confinement)?

 

“How are you?”

 

“I’m fine.”

Or should I ask you, how are you after a few days of inadequate sleep? Can you focus on a task? Can you think clearly? Do you feel disoriented? Do you feel motivated to do anything? Does your body feel rested? Are you weary, cranky, short-tempered, and on the edge? Does it make you anxious? Tired? Exhausted? Hopeless? Depressed? Could you do that 20 years in isolation? Or would you go insane?

 

“How are you?”

 

“I’m fine.”

 

It doesn’t require a psychology degree to conclude that long-term solitary confinement causes serious, permanent psychological harm. For more than a century it has been documented and recognized by psychologists and sociologists, penologists, and even the U.S. Supreme Court. It is considered a form of torture and a war crime under the Geneva Conventions. The studies and evidence continue to accumulate. Even TDCJ acknowledged that solitary confinement doesn’t work and is harmful both mentally and physically. TDCJ announced this decision to end solitary confinement as a disciplinary punishment, but conspicuously failed to address the issue of long-term solitary confinement in “administrative segregation,” where thousands are still held in solitary. Or, maybe they did address the issue, when they quietly announced that they were dispensing with “administrative segregation”...and simply changing their euphemism to a friendlier sounding “restrictive housing.” Even though the conditions are the exact same.

 

In my 20 years of solitary confinement I’ve witnessed seemingly normal people rapidly decline into complete insanity after only a few years. I’ve seen countless suicides or suicide attempts, many from guys who never exhibited any warning signs; some who were within a few years, or even months, of going home. TDCJ reports hundreds of suicide attempts per year in ad-seg, the ones so significant they can’t hide it. How can anyone spend years in solitary confinement without sinking into depths of despair and hopelessness, feeling broken and giving up? Especially those facing it for the remainder of their lives? The only thing that has prevented me from completing the act thus far is knowing the pain it would inflict upon my loved ones, and the sliver of hope that I’ll one day get out to be with them again. But hey,

 

“How are you?”

 

“I’m fine.”

 

The prison administration’s perfunctory nod to the severe detrimental mental health consequences is to hire a few social workers who are willing to perpetuate these conditions, to perpetuate the source or the problems that they are supposedly hire to “treat.” They don’t have any authority to actually remove us from the conditions that are causing the mental heath crises, but it’s an easy paycheck from the state. Easier than private practice where they actually have to help people solve their problems. It’s much easier to walk around with a clipboard and do a “90-day wellness check” at the prisoner’s cell, knowing that they are unlikely to speak honestly because of the lack of confidentiality when the consultation is right there in front of everyone. Easier to just offer drugs or (no kidding) xerox copied word-search puzzles. Yeah, because searching for the word “happiness” diagonally and backward in a jumble of letters is going to convince someone in solitary confinement not to open a vein. How can any honest mental health professional participate in the charade that continues to harm their patients? Would they encourage an alcoholic to solve their problems by continuing to drink? Only if they were being paid by the alcohol manufacturers.

 

“Hi, my name is ____. I’m with the psych department doing a 90-day wellness check. How are you?”

 

Glaring. Jaw clenched. “I’m fine.” (Go fuck yourself.)

 

“Well, if you need help send me a request,” as they check my name off a clipboard and stroll away.

 

Every six months they conduct a review committee to determine whether I should remain in solitary confinement. Until recently, I was allowed to attend the hearing and make a statement, which is irrelevant because the outcome is predetermined before I ever enter the hearing. My statement is as irrelevant as my complete lack of serious disciplinary history for the entirety of my two decades in solitary, and preceding it. It’s as irrelevant as the documentation in my file that explicitly states I am no longer a gang member. Because, as they repeat at every review hearing: 

 

“Yes, we know you are no longer a gang member. But you must complete GRAD to be released from seg. But since you are not eligible for GRAD, you will remain in seg as a gang member until you complete GRAD.”

 

The only reason they conduct these review hearings is because the federal courts require it to satisfy the Due Process Clause of the 14th amendment. It has been a source of innumerable prison reform lawsuits over the past 40-plus years. Not only did courts require periodic review hearings to hold a prisoner indefinitely in ad-seg, but the courts state that there must be a continuing  valid reason to keep a prisoner in sef, and the hearings must be meaningful, not a perfunctory charade.

 

This seems quite applicable to my circumstances, no? After years of self-education in the law I filed a due process complaint in federal court. The prison administration abruptly changed their excuse for keeping me in seg and told the court that I am now indefinitely held in ad-seg as an escape risk based on the escape from county jail in 1998...the same escape where 29 days later I arrived in TDCJ and was assigned to minimum custody of the general population and was never placed in seg for that.

 

But, according to the federal judge who dismissed my lawsuit, there is nothing which prohibits prison officials from changing their justification for indefinite confinement, and as long as they allow me an opportunity to attend the hearing and make a statement, then “due process” is satisfied and prison officials can do whatever they want, because officials are protected by “qualified immunity.”

 

But don’t be bitter. Don’t be angry. Don’t give up. Don’t despair. Keep your hopes up!

 

Yeah. OK. That’s easy to say when you aren’t the one facing the remainder of your life in solitary confinement.

 

“How are you?”

 

Do you really want to know? How do you express weariness down into your soul? Weariness and despair so deep that more nights than not, you pray not to wake up in the morning, just for an end to it? Can you even fathom 20 years of solitary confinement? And why worry others with my troubles anyways? They have enough of their own worries as it is. So, 

 

“I’m fine.”

 

A certain powerful “Conservative Christian'' state senator who chairs the Criminal Justice Committee is so proud of helping to establish a four-year bible college, handing out seminary degrees to inmates. The program is based on the Darrington Unit where I’m currently held in solitary confinement. From the window across from my cell I can see the building where the god-squad goes to learn all about Jesus, and forgiveness,and mercy, and compassion, and second chances...at a program promoted by “compassionate christian conservative” politicians and prison administrators who keep people locked in solitary confinement for decades, often for no good reason; without human contact; without access to educational or rehabilitative programs; slowly robbing them of their humanity, their sanity, and their lives. How compassionate! How Christian-like! Do they even consider what happens when people spend years or decades in solitary confinement without rehabilitation, only to be released back into society? Is that really in society’s best interests? Does that promote public safety? So much for forgiveness, mercy, and second chances.

 

Of course, these politicians and administrators never venture into solitary confinement to witness the conditions or address the effects of it, so at least there’s no chance of them asking, “How are you?”

 

And it’s a good thing, because I wouldn’t be able to bite my tongue and tell them, “I’m fine.” 

AARON STRIZ TEXAS LETTERS

June 10, 2021

Words by AARON STRIZ

Photography by TEXAS LETTERS

Darrington Unit, Rosharon, Texas

19 years in solitary / ad seg

Aaron

STRIZ

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AARON STRIZ