Eric Wilson never finished college, let alone got any formal legal education. But, during the 10 years he spent behind bars, the longtime resident of the North Shore taught himself enough criminal law to be his own jailhouse lawyer.

Eventually, Wilson used his knowledge to piece together a 611-page habeas corpus petition on his own — a feat he attributes to countless hours he spent at the prison law library.

But, over the years, Wilson’s legal work ran into repeated interruptions in the form of lengthy stints in “the hole” — being locked up, along with another prisoner, in a cell the size of a parking space for 23 hours a day, allowed out only for shower and brief exercise.

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Such conditions are found in what’s normally referred to as solitary confinement or “double-cell solitary” — or euphemistically as “disciplinary segregation.”

Wilson, convicted on several charges relating to domestic violence, says he was often kept in segregated confinement for months on end — a punishment meted out for as little as arguing with a prison official over a grievance form.

Had he served his sentence in Hawaii, Wilson wouldn’t have had to endure such prolonged segregated confinement.

Under the Hawaii Department of Public Safety‘s policy, “disciplinary segregation” lasting longer than 60 days is supposed to be limited to exceptional circumstances — and granted only with written approval from the administrator of the department’s Institutions Division.

But Wilson served seven years of his sentence at the Saguaro Correctional Center, an Arizona prison where about 1,400 Hawaii prisoners are housed.

Hawaii’s policy doesn’t apply at Saguaro; instead, the state’s mainland contractor, Corrections Corporation of America, is allowed to set its own policy governing the use of segregated confinement there.

Under CCA’s policy, any offense that poses “a threat to the safe and orderly operation of the facility” can trigger weeks in “disciplinary segregation” — up to 30 days for each offense.

WCC Windward Correctional/Prison during tour. Segregated inmate sleeps in her cell at Windward Correctional Center. 17 dec 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
At the Women’s Community Correctional Center (above) and seven other facilities in Hawaii, “disciplinary segregation” lasting more than 60 days is limited to exceptional circumstances. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2015

Wilson says months-long sanctions were commonplace at Saguaro. By his estimate, each of his stints in segregated confinement lasted an average of about three months.

Critics denounce the arrangement, saying that Saguaro prisoners are unfairly singled out for harsher punishment.

“It is troubling that we have prisoners who may be subjected to two very different sets of rules depending on where they may end up,” said Dan Gluck, who until last month was the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii.

Shahrzad Habibi, research and policy director at In the Public Interest, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, says Hawaii should treat all inmates, whichever facility they’re in, equally.

“If the state has a set of policies that they think are important to be applied to their own prisons, they should have a consistency across all of their facilities, no matter who’s operating them,” Habibi said. “At the end of the day, the state is ultimately responsible for taking care of its prisoners.”

“The way we run our prisons here in Hawaii is what should be done at Saguaro. If they can’t, I would like to find out why.” — State Sen. Will Espero

State Sen. Will Espero, vice chair of the Senate Public Safety Committee, says the point being raised by critics is “very sound and reasonable.”

“Yes, the way we run our prisons here in Hawaii is what should be done at Saguaro,” Espero said. “If they can’t, I would like to find out why.”

But Espero might find getting a straight answer elusive.

In a statement, Toni Schwartz, public safety spokeswoman, did not directly address the difference in the policies; instead, she noted that CCA’s operations at Saguaro are closely monitored by the department.

CCA “sends disciplinary/misconduct reports to the (department’s) mainland branch at the end of each month for review and monitoring, with the aid of (the department’s) inmate management system,” Schwartz wrote.

For his part, CCA spokesman Jonathan Burns denied that Saguaro has any “solitary confinement inmate housing.”

That’s because a prisoner who is kept in “disciplinary segregation” at Saguaro is always doubled up with another prisoner, and CCA doesn’t consider the setup — with no prisoner isolated in a cell — to be solitary confinement, even though others refer to such housing as “double-cell solitary,” as the conditions are otherwise identical.

As a result, any questions about solitary confinement are “not applicable to Saguaro specifically or to CCA generally,” Burns told Civil Beat in a statement.

‘An Affront To Our Common Humanity’

In recent years, the use of prolonged segregated confinement has received a steadily increasing drumbeat of criticism, with leaders from President Barack Obama to the pope voicing opposition to the widespread practice.

Obama, who became the first sitting president to visit a federal prison last year, penned a Washington Post op-ed column in January: “How can we subject prisoners to unnecessary solitary confinement, knowing its effects, and then expect them to return to our communities as whole people? It doesn’t make us safer. It’s an affront to our common humanity.”

Seven months earlier, in his concurring opinion in Davis v. Ayala, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy also chimed in. Citing evidence ranging from the 1890 case In re Medley, in which the high court recognized that solitary confinement could lead to madness and suicide, to more recent psychological studies, Kennedy wrote: “Years on end of near-total isolation exact a terrible price.”

Against this backdrop, a growing number of states have begun to reduce the number of prisoners in segregated confinement, often through innovative programs that take prisoners through multiple rehabilitative steps.

Saguaro Correctional Facility, Eloy, Arizona with workers. Not quite sure if these are prisoners or security personnel. 6 march 2016. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
At the Saguaro Correctional Center in Arizona, a Hawaii prisoner who is kept in segregated confinement is always doubled up with another prisoner. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

In 2012, for instance, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation launched the Step Down Program, which puts prisoners through five steps, each of which grants greater privileges, such as phone calls and visitation.

In Hawaii, a similar program has yet to be introduced at any of the state’s eight prisons and jails. But, at Saguaro, CCA has its own version of the “step-down” program, called SHIP — short for “Special Housing Incentive Program.”

According to the “SHIP/Segregation Handbook,” Saguaro’s program works a lot like California’s, except that it has three steps, instead of five, and allows prisoners to opt into the program.

As they progress through the steps, SHIP participants are given an increasing amount of privileges — going from showering only three times a week to showering daily, from getting one hour of outdoor recreation time to three hours of outdoor and dayroom recreation time, and from having two monthly noncontact visits to four monthly contact visits.

According to the January report by the state’s on-site monitor at Saguaro, 93 Hawaii prisoners were participating in SHIP.

But Wilson said he was never interested in SHIP — he knew he would be required to maintain a good behavior for a minimum of six months before moving up to the next step.

“So, in total, you end up spending 18 months in segregation,” Wilson said. “That didn’t sound like a good deal to me.”

Saguaro Correctional Center, Eloy, Arizona patrol. 5 march 2016. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Corrections Corporation of America says none of its facilities, including the Saguaro Correctional Center in Arizona, has any “solitary confinement inmate housing.” Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Sanctions For Mail

Opting out of SHIP left Wilson with only one choice: to spend 23 hours a day inside a tiny cell, doubled up with another prisoner.

Wilson said the cell’s amenities were spartan: Its dimension was about 6 feet by 12 feet. A bunk bed with no ladder was bolted in one corner. A toilet sat in another corner, next to a small sink. One wall had a window, but it was frosted to block a look outside. The metal door had a small slot, through which trays of food were delivered three times a day.

Outside activities were limited to one hour of daily recreation and a 10-minute shower three times a week. Phone calls to attorneys weren’t restricted, but other calls were allowed only once a month.

Neither the Department of Public Safety nor CCA would disclose the number of Saguaro prisoners who have been kept in segregated confinement for more than 60 days. Civil Beat’s public records request for the information, originally filed in February, has not been answered.

But the on-site monitor’s report noted that 38 Saguaro prisoners were placed into non-SHIP segregated confinement in January alone, though the lengths of their sanctions were not recorded.

Neither the Department of Public Safety nor CCA would disclose the number of Saguaro prisoners who have been kept in solitary confinement for more than 60 days.

For Wilson, the first stint in segregated confinement came in November 2008, shortly after he was first transferred to Saguaro.

According to his disciplinary report, Wilson was found to have “contraband” in a letter he was trying to send to Daphne Barbee, an attorney who was representing him at the time. His sanction: 20 days in segregated confinement. But he says he was kept there for 34 days without an explanation.

Wilson maintains that his letter, which had been clearly marked “legal mail,” was inappropriately confiscated, and that he was trying to forward copies of other prisoners’ grievances as a corroborating evidence for his own grievance about not receiving proper medial treatment.

When Barbee tried to intervene, then-Warden Todd Thomas called her, referring to Wilson, who is black, as “Johnnie Cochran” — the late attorney who represented O.J. Simpson. Thomas told her that Wilson’s possession of other prisoners’ documents constituted an “unauthorized receipt of property.”

In a follow-up letter, Barbee called Thomas out for the Cochran reference — to which he wrote back saying that it was a “reference to (Wilson) as a jailhouse lawyer,” and that Wilson hadn’t been approved to assist other prisoners with legal matters under Saguaro’s “strict policies on inmate legal aides.”

A few weeks later, Tommy Johnson, then in charge of the department’s Corrections Division, wrote to Barbee and explained that legal mails were subject to be opened “in the presence of the inmate” — as allowed under the law — and “scanned for contraband but is not read.”

“This is done to ensure the safety and security of the facility, staff and inmates alike and ensures contraband is not introduced into the facility,” Johnson wrote.

But Wilson maintains that his letter was opened in his absence, and that Johnson’s explanation didn’t address why an outgoing letter had to be confiscated.

Eric Wilson for Rui story portrait. 1 july 2016
Eric Wilson’s legal efforts at the Saguaro Correctional Center in Arizona was hampered repeatedly by lengthy stints in segregation. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The Inevitability Of Hindering

Wilson served another stint in segregated confinement when he was written up for complaining about a new pair of glasses that had been ordered for him — they turned out to be reading glasses, instead of the bifocals that he needed.

The official charge for Wilson was “failure to follow,” but another offense was also tacked on: “hindering.”

Hindering is a charge leveled against prisoners for interrupting “the performance of a correctional function,” and Wilson says it’s routinely used as a way to lengthen the sanctions.

When he was kept in segregated confinement, Eric Wilson says he kept himself from losing his sanity by focusing on his legal work.

It’s a practice that the Hawaii Office of the Ombudsman ruled as “inappropriate” in 2011, when it was reviewing a case in which an inmate at an unidentified Hawaii facility had been cited for refusing to move to a cell in a different module.

It turned out that the inmate had also been found guilty of hindering — for simply forcing prison officials to “drop what they were doing” and “physically come to the module” to attend to the incident.

The ombudsman’s office ultimately ruled against the hindering charge, saying the way it had been applied in the case would make it inevitable that, “every time an inmate is guilty of any misconduct, the inmate would also be guilty of” hindering.

The Department of Public Safety later agreed to dismiss the charge and expunged it from the inmate’s record.

But Wilson says hindering is still routinely used by Saguaro officials.

According to his “progress report” maintained by the state, Wilson was found guilty of hindering on at least five different occasions at Saguaro before he was released in March.

Civil Beat reached out to Burns with the details of Wilson’s accounts, but he did not respond to our request for comment.

A Legal Outlet

When he was kept in segregated confinement, Wilson says he kept himself from losing his sanity by focusing on his legal work.

While he wasn’t allowed to visit the prison’s law library, Wilson could request the law books and keep chipping away at his habeas corpus petition.

Wilson also took meticulous notes on every hostile encounters with Saguaro officials and kept every document — including grievance forms and disciplinary reports — in his files. He used them to file appeals against every disciplinary charge lodged against him.

Wilson’s appeals almost always ended up getting rejected by Saguaro officials, but they kept his mind off of his isolation.

But Wilson says other prisoners didn’t fare as well as he did; some withdrew into themselves, while others resorted to violence or became suicidal.

“Me, I was just frustrated all the time,” Wilson said. “But I had the outlet that other inmates didn’t have.”

Kat Brady, coordinator of the Community Alliance on Prisons, says all this is why segregated confinement should be used as the last resort.

“A lot of prisoners have mental health problems or suffer from PTSD. And putting them in solitary is about the worst thing you can do to them,” Brady said. “It should be avoided at all costs.”

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