Making It on the Outside, After Decades in Solitary

Daud Tulam

Daud Tulam spent 18 years in isolation in the New Jersey State Prison. Now on the outside, he finds it difficult to make eye contact or make small talk with other people, including his family. Douglas Hopper, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Douglas Hopper, NPR

A PRISON OFFICER'S TALE

Prison officer outline

Gary Harkins also spent decades inside an isolation unit — as a correctional officer at the Oregon State Penitentiary. He says solitary confinement takes its toll on inmates and those who watch them.

 

Scroll down to hear Harkins tell his story.

ABOUT THIS SERIES

This is the third story in a three-part series on solitary confinement in the United States.

 

Part 1 — Wednesday, July 26: California's Pelican Bay prison is considered the model for most long-term segregation units in U.S. prisons today. NPR visits the prison's secure housing unit to discover what life is like for the more than 1,200 inmates who live there in tiny, windowless cells. (Read Part 1: 'At Pelican Bay Prison, a Life in Solitary')

 

Part 2 — Thursday, July 27: At Oregon State Pennitentiary, corrections officers are rethinking the idea of isolation and wondering if there might be a better way. (Read Part 2: 'As Populations Swell, Prisons Rethink Supermax ')

 

Overview — Read: 'In U.S. Prisons, Thousands Spend Years in Isolation'

Q&A: Human-Rights Concerns

Jamie Fellner

Jamie Fellner, director of the U.S. program for Human Rights Watch, discusses the civil liberties concerns raised by the long-term segregation of inmates. Read the Q&A with Fellner.

Q&A: Solitary & the Law

Roger Pilon

For more than a century, legal questions have surrounded the use of long-term segregation. Roger Pilon, a legal scholar with the Cato Institute, discusses some of the issues involved. Read the Q&A with Pilon.

TIMELINE

The use of solitary confinement has become widespread in U.S. prisons over the past two decades, but its use actually dates back more than 180 years. From the Quaker philosophy that inspired the practice to its prevalence today, read a history of solitary confinement:

Daud Tulam likes to sit on the porch of his mother's house in Salem, N.J., and watch traffic whiz by.

"I spent most of the whole summer out here, daytime and night," he says. "After being confined for that long period of time, you really do have an appreciation for the outside."

That "long period" was the past 25 years, which Tulam spent inside the New Jersey State Prison. For most of that time, Tulam was held in isolation. He spent 23 hours a day alone in a cell no bigger than a bathroom and one hour in a concrete exercise yard.

Tulam is one of more than 25,000 inmates who serve their sentences this way in the United States. It's not what these prisoners did on the outside that sends them to isolation: It's how they behave on the inside. And once in isolation, there is often no way out.

Two Decades in Solitude

In Tulam's case, he was sent to prison for trying to rob a gun store. He was sent to isolation after prison officials say they caught him planning to assault officers. He stayed in isolation for 18 years.

New Jersey prison officials say he never participated in any programs that could have gotten him out. Tulam says he tried to participate, but they never let him out, so he gave up.

Now, on the outside, Tulam has trouble making small talk. Even after all those years alone, when faced with people looking for a conversation, Tulam doesn't engage.

Tulam is taking a class on welding at a local community college. During one recent session, he hid in the back of the classroom.

When the teacher comes over to check his work, Tulam only looks at the floor. At one point, the instructor asks Tulam if he understands a welding technique. Tulam does not look up — or answer. Eventually, the instructor gives up and moves on.

'I Lost My Social Skills'

In many ways, Tulam's days are still filled with this kind of silence. But there is one place where Tulam suddenly has a lot to say: behind the wheel of his car, when his eyes — and yours — are on the road.

"I'm certain that I lost my social skills to a certain extent," Tulam says as he drives through the rundown streets of Salem. "Not that I'm unable to socialize. Just that trivial conversation for conversation's sake, I don't have no tolerance for."

Tulam's 6-foot-frame seems too big for the 15-year-old Taurus he's driving. He's wearing what he wears everyday: old jeans and a sweatshirt. He passes boarded-up buildings and liquor stores. Much has changed about this town, but he says even more has changed about him.

Tulam's luckier that most ex-convicts. He has a family, a place to stay and even some occasional construction work. But he finds much about society difficult. He doesn't like grocery stores, busy sidewalks or going to the movies. And he doesn't like parties.

That came as a shock to his family. Tulam's mother, Charlotte Fletcher, says Tulam used to love to socialize.

"He always had a few friends. But as far as I was concerned, it wasn't the right kind," Fletcher says.

Early on, she says, it was hard to keep her son away from kids who wanted to party.

"He was a young kid when he first got in trouble — last year of high school," Fletcher says. "He was around with these guys. They been doing a lot of drinking and other things, so I guess he did some wild things."

Looking for 'Some Kind of Relief'

On the day Tulam was released from prison, his family threw him a party in the backyard. He spent the whole time sitting alone in a folding chair in the corner, while his nieces and nephews played. That's the other thing Tulam doesn't like anymore.

"You know, in prison there are no children," Tulam says. "The trivial kind of things kids do, the nonsensical things kids do, you don't have a tolerance for that. I'm still trying to really adapt."

Tulam says he struggled to make the days he spent in solitary pass. He began dividing his time into little increments: Make the bed. Write a letter. Do push ups.

"Even if I would have to go to sleep early, just to look for the next day to bring some kind of relief," Tulam says.

He still does that now. He schedules his day into activities: Take a shower. Eat breakfast. Sit outside. Go for a drive.

"I never use alarm clocks," Tulam says. "I've done it for so long, it's almost like second nature."

'You Become Your Best Company'

New Jersey has one of the least restrictive isolation units in the country. Prisoners in solitary are allowed visits with relatives, though Tulam's family could rarely afford the trip. They are also allowed televisions. Tulam says he kept his TV set on every day, morning until night, for 18 years.

"Up until that time, I never owned a TV, never had much interest in TV," he says. "But when I got into solitary, it was so quiet in there, I genuinely had to get me a TV, just to hear some noise."

Now he can't stand television. But he doesn't want to hang out with people, either. He doesn't talk much with his family. He hasn't joined any groups. He doesn't talk about having any friends.

"Having been in isolation, with hardly anybody to talk to, anyway, you just acquire a knack of just being able to — like with me, you become your best company," Tulam says.

The Odds Against Making It

There are few statistics about how inmates who spend time in isolation adjust on the outside. Only two studies have been conducted; one looked at former inmates in Washington state, the other at those in Texas. The results weren't good.

In both studies, the rate of recidivism for inmates released from isolation was higher than for those released from the general prison population. And in Washington, researchers found these ex-inmates were more likely to commit violent crimes than their general population counterparts.

In that sense, Tulam is doing better than expected. Having a place to live and a mother to make him food has made a big difference. But at 51 years old, he's spent almost half his life in prison, most of it alone.

"I do have some regrets," he says, pausing for a moment before getting out of the car. "But ask me if I would ever want anybody else's life? Nah. I'm comfortable with the life that I've been given. You know, like saying that I'm a realist. I genuinely believe that every individual struggles in this life, anyway."

So after 18 years of isolation, Daud Tulam's greatest struggle may be finding a way not to live an isolated life.

Working the Isolation Unit: A Prison Officer's Tale

Stock photo of prison guard and prisoner.
Corbis

For 25 years, Sgt. Gary Harkins was a correctional officer at the Oregon State Penitentiary. He retired in February. For part of that time, Harkins worked in the prison's isolation unit.

"It's only when you leave it that you really truly understand how much stress you were under," he says of his time in the solitary ward.

Isolation in Oregon and most other states in the country means 23 hours a day locked in a cell the size of a bathroom. One hour alone in a small exercise yard. No contact with anyone. No television. No windows.

These conditions can be difficult for inmates who spend years — and in some cases, decades — in them. But, as Harkins found, they are also difficult on the officers.

"I kept thinking about it. I couldn't get away from the job," he says. "I'd be dreaming about what happened the day before at night. Or I'd be sitting at home, watching [a TV] show, and something would trigger something that happened at work. You know, the times when people would act out. So you would relive some sort of cell extraction or some sort of altercation — you would relive it."

Dark Days

While working in the giant, windowless, gray prison building, Harkins says months went by where he'd never see the sun: "You're down there for 12 hours a day. You walk in at six in the morning just as the sun is coming up. In the wintertime, you're going in when it's dark and coming out when it's dark. Sometimes, you can never see the sun."

Every day, the routine was the same. Deliver food on plastic trays. Take inmates to the shower. Walk the tiers for hours, in front of hundreds of inmates who are often angry, frustrated and abusive.

"When people are driving on you, telling you you're bad, you suck — all day, eight hours a day — you gotta have 16 hours a day where you get all the positive."

But, he says, a lot of officers he knows don't have that.

"Some of them go to the bar. Some of them go home and kick the cat," he says. "I mean, various people would have different ways of trying to get rid of the tension. And some people didn't do a very good job at doing that."

In general population, Harkins says, he could spent half his day talking with inmates about sports or the news. But in isolation, the inmates don't talk to the officers, and the officers don't talk to the inmates: "An us-versus-them attitude quickly takes over."

Cold Interactions

Harkins says there were inmates in the general population with whom he was on great terms. But when they got sent to segregation, they would no longer even look at him.

"When he gets down to segregation, to IMU, to Intensive Management, something changes," he says. "They become hostile. They become withdrawn a bit. They won't talk to you."

Any interaction is short and businesslike: "Instead of saying, 'Please pick the papers up off the floor,' you walk in and say, 'Pick the papers up.'"

And he says the relationship would get even more tense, because in isolation, the inmates can't do or get anything for themselves.

"It's kind of a weird situation in that you're their servant," Harkin says. "Whatever need they want, you're supposed to take care of their needs."

'We're Not Doing Society Any Good'

As each day passed on the dim and noisy tiers, Harkins says he began to feel trapped like his prisoners; he asked for a transfer back to general population, where he worked until he retired. That wasn't uncommon. Even now, Oregon, like most states, is having a hard time getting officers to work in segregation units.

Harkins doesn't have any sympathy for the inmates there — especially those who aren't trying to work their way out. But when he thinks about solitary now, from outside the prison's walls, he says he finds himself worried as much about the unit's effect on prisoners as he is about its effect on officers.

"Those people are going to be your neighbors some day," Harkins says. "And if our system is maintaining people in a negative, antisocial way, we're not doing ourselves any good. We're not doing society any good."

Many officials in Oregon seem to agree. The state has put a number of changes in place in recent years. Prison officials have limited the amount of time inmates can stay in isolation, and they've also started providing therapy. The results so far have been good. Prison officials say they've seen the violence rates in their isolation unit, and in the overall prison population, decrease.

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