it is impossible for me to express every pressure solitary confinement has exerted on me and my peers, but I hope this letter explains enough to help you understand how someone can survive and become acclimated. Deep-sea divers understand what can happen to human consciousness without proper acclimation. (People pass out) Likewise, those of us in isolation also need to protect our consciousness from an equally dangerous pressure: sensory deprivation. (Which also endangers consciousness)
So, I was 16 years old when I was certified as an adult, and I was placed in solitary confinement at Dallas County Jail. Despite certification, everyone under 17 years of age were considered teenagers/juveniles, so I was not allowed to live in general population (G.P.) right away with the adults. Walking into a single cell with no other people, no tv, no sources of entertainment or sense of connection to anyone was a culture shock. Every guard or neighbor around me was a stranger, and with criminal charges also being a cloud of confusion swirling in my mind, I was disoriented.
Hopelessness, anxiety, depression, and confusion were common on-again/off-again mental-states for me. Unsurprisingly, the guys around me felt the same way from time-to-time. Some guys dealt with negative emotions by taking psyche meds and sleeping all day. Other guys completely lost their sanity: screaming all day and off hours of the night, banging on the door and walls, and even self-mutilating their face and arms with razors. And as I looked around at my neighbors, there was not anyone around me that was like me. Until…there was.
Other Kats from the Henry Wade Juvenile Facility were certified as adults too, and a few of them I met during my time in Dallas County were placed in solitary in proximity to me. Almost daily, we screamed out of the side of our doors just to communicate. We synchronized our exercizes, taking turns doing push-ups, burpies, pilates, crunches, jumping jacks, and dips off the bunk. We started picking up on when commissary came through, what time we could make phone calls to the house 8 friends, and what days we could leave the cells to go to group-recreation. Accomplishing such small goals made the time go by faster; looking back, accomplishing small goals also released positive chemicals within our brains too. (Like Dopamine) Thus, I discovered that the only way to build routines is to first understand your environment, then set and accomplish small goals. It has been said that it takes 21 days to form a habit, and for me, creating good habits counteracted a lot of negativity.
Whenever I self-destructed as a kid growing up, I was never fully aware of why I was the way I was. I had a lot of anger, I had been through a lot of child abuse, and frankly, I saw enough f’d up things in my life that I lived with painful memories recycling in my mind. Yet, preventing self-destruction in solitary confinement was almost a daily mental-health battle. Here’s what an inner dialogue would look like on a bad day: “Dang…it’s Saturday. No rec..No visits. Everybody else is asleep. Should I just sleep until tomorrow? (sigh) Sounds good, that’s the plan then; I wont eat today, just sleep.” - Perhaps one day like this does not seem bad, but how about 4 days in a row? Or 12 days like this out of 1 month? See, without good habits, the struggle against-self-destruction is constant.
Overall, I spent 7 months in solitary at Dallas County Jail before turning 17 and moving on to G.P.. In those 7 months I learned minute ways to innovate my time: drawing, reading the Bible, writing letters, and braiding crosses out of strings from blankets. Eventually, I went to prison (TDCJ). Although I was 17 when I came to TDCJ, spending over a year in jail somewhat prepared me for what I encountered. Yet, I quickly learned why the prison-form of solitary was far worse than the jail-form of solitary.
Due to a prison riot, I found myself in solitary again from the fall-out. The Clemens Unit in Brazoria, Tx. is a red-brick unit; one of the oldest prisons still standing in Texas. Everyone told me Clemens was a “gladiator unit” when I first pulled up, I just didn’t understand why. After a senseless riot, I figured out why though: youngsters fight just to fight! Anyhow, the Ad-Seg there was underground (literally). It was crazy there!!! Not only was there no air conditioning in 100°F weather, but all the windows were busted out. I had mosquitos, flying cockroaches, rats (not mice, RATS), and even a green frog all roam into my cell and around my cell at various times. For a while, I would wake up every few hours from a mosquito bite.(Hiding underneath the sheets just didn’t stop them jokers from tagging me either. Plus, there were actual birds flying through the hallways!) Clemens was a concrete jungle for-real.
None of my “healthy routines” learned in jail helped me while in solitary/Ad-Seg at Clemens. It was too hot to exercize, and the droves of mosquitos would not leave me alone. I wasn’t allowed out of my cell to go to rec.. All I had was my radio and my letters and prayer. I remember telling myself, “If you can make it to tomorrow, you’ll be able to look back during hard times and say, ‘I’ve been through worse than this. I can make it.’” Probably the only positive gain I made from the 3 months I spent in Ad-Seg at Clemens was learning said mantra. My will to survive was tested in those 3 months, and lo’ and behold, I’d need that strength again down the road.
A few years later, after a 5-year journey in G.P., I was sent to Ad-Seg again on the Allred Unit. Located in a rural area of Texas, the staff there came from a completely different walk of life than I did. The cells there were cleaner and more spacious than the Clemens Unit’s cells, and they were above ground. However, a large portion of the staff were lawless. Guards would make the rules, then break the rules (with impunity) whenever it was convenient. Moreover, as a result of the guards having disciplinary quotes, I received bogus disciplinary cases, and I had no mechanism to stop them. Tolerating guards’ lawlessness was a new level of frustration that was difficult to adjust to…but I developed a new perspective: “Focus on what you can control.” This perspective didn’t prevent me from being frustrated, but it did help me focus on staying proactive. Thus, despite my controlled environment, no one could control how I thought about the circumstances but me. No one could dominate my mind.
I do not recall when I first heard it, but someone once said, “Don’t get too far ahead of yourself and keep stressing yourself out! Take 1 day at a time and focus on each day’s challenges.” Man, that is truly the daily challenge in solitary. But part of using time to do meaningful and useful work requires taking 1 day at a time. Even the transition from G.P. to Ad-Seg had an affect on my sense of time - it’s like everything slowed down and I could only accomplish a fraction of what I could in G.P.. I couldn’t stand being so limited! Like a fish in deep, dark water, I had to discover bio-illumination. I had to create my own light in a dark place.
I spent a little over 2 years in Ad-Seg at the Allred Unit. While there, I ordered educational books, excercized, wrote letters, and talked to guys in the cells around me. One of my greatest beliefs is that education should be continuous - which is why I’m always trying to add to my knowledge & understanding. As such, I studied a lot at Allred Unit. I read books about the Bible, Texas criminal law and procedure, chess, drawing, autobiographies, and all things Harry Potter.(lol) Despite (of) being in isolation, life was not over. The reality of long-term isolation v. temporary isolation was a hard pill to swallow, but then, it was just another situation that would either break me or make me stronger. I believed that as long as I had life, God wasn’t done with me yet - regardless of my circumstances or my past crimes.
Faith in God is personal - far more than a social status. Because faith is personal, I never try to force my beliefs onto people. Likewise, I never allow anyone to disqualify me from my faith either. As the Apostle Paul said, “Nothing can separate us from the love of God.” Therefore, even when I trip-out or do the wrong thing, I know that God hears me, I know that He sees me. I can not underscore enough how much peace I have obtained just by trusting in God and depending on Him to work all things out for my good.
Navigating the conditions of confinement is a mental and physical challenge all the time. This environment is un-natural, and now that I have been on Texas’ Death Row for almost 4 years, the looming threat of execution is a different challenge altogether. With almost 7 years total in solitary - over different times in my life - I have learned to shift my perspective. I have the courage to suffer for the things I believe in - which transcends the petty lawlessness guards engage in. I still take 1 day at a time, and I try to help out those in my community through conversations and camaraderie. I admit: there are those I have seen along the way completely lose their mind. For them, they have been lost to the system (and may God save them). In contrast: there are those shining in a dark place - acclimating despite the heavy pressure. I can only compare those of us shining in solitary to glow-in-the-dark fish in deep waters because that is how different our world seems to be. Outsiders do not expect to find us still living life here… but then some seek and find wonders.
In conclusion, stranger, I want you to know that many stories of suicide, insanity, and oppression will never be told. Poverty and race still factor in to whether men succeed or fail to thrive in the depths of solitary. If you meet or know people feel or think that those of us in solitary deserve mistreatment, I encourage you to challenge their education about mass-incarceration. (Especially the late 80’s and the 90’s time-period) The political DNA of pro-segregationist has not changed much since 1865, and those who champion mass-incarceration efforts are still polluting equal justice and human rights. (Those sentiments are like floating pieces of plastic in the sea - ensnaring all sea-life indiscriminately.) If nothing changes until something changes, solitary will continue to be what it has continuously been: a world of un-natural, debilitating pressure.
I wish I could show you videos of the people here, of how bright some of us are, and how mutated the humanity of some have become - those that barely exist. Ah, but I will close here. Just know that awareness of this solitary world doesn’t change this environment, but I hope your perspective shifts.
Dillion G. Compton
Polunsky Unit, Livingston, Texas
6 years in solitary / ad seg
July 24, 2022
Words by DILLION COMPTON
Photography by TEXAS LETTERS