Doubling Up Prisoners In 'Solitary' Creates Deadly Consequences Imagine living in a cell smaller than a parking space or a king-size mattress. Now add a roommate. The result for some inmates forced to live together in solitary can be murder.
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Doubling Up Prisoners In 'Solitary' Creates Deadly Consequences

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Doubling Up Prisoners In 'Solitary' Creates Deadly Consequences

Doubling Up Prisoners In 'Solitary' Creates Deadly Consequences

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This seems like a contradiction. Put a prison inmate into solitary confinement, and then give him a cellmate. Well, it's a little-known but common practice - two inmates considered so dangerous and violent that they're removed from the general prison population but then put together in one solitary confinement cell. An investigation by NPR with Christie Thompson of The Marshall Project finds it is dangerous and sometimes deadly. Here's NPR's Joseph Shapiro.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO, BYLINE: Let's start this story with a quick trip to a mattress store.


SHAPIRO: Hey there. How are you?

I've come to measure the king-size bed.

So it's 6 feet 4 inches wide and 6 feet 8 inches long.

Because a king-size bed is just a little bit smaller than a solitary confinement cell at a prison I'm going to tell you about in Illinois, a cell where not one but two men live together for 23 to 24 hours a day.

And think about what goes into that prison cell - two bunks, metal, nothing comfortable like this mattress, a shelf, a sink, a toilet. Now imagine being locked in a cell about the size of this king-size mattress with a cellmate who's violent, a murderer like David Sesson.


THOMAS: Mr. Sesson - is that how you pronounce it?


SHAPIRO: This video was in black and white. The camera looks down from ceiling level on a heavyset man in a prison jumpsuit. He's handcuffed and sits uncomfortably on a small chair.


THOMAS: My name is investigator Thomas. This is Lieutenant Lee. We're going to go ahead and read you your Miranda rights.

SHAPIRO: It's a few hours past midnight on November 20, 2014, and David Sesson is about to make a confession.


THOMAS: So you're admitting that you strangled your cellie to death.


SHAPIRO: His cellie - he murdered his cellmate. Solitary confinement is a place where dangerous inmates who break prison rules and threaten safety can be isolated. NPR worked with The Marshall Project, a news site that specializes in criminal justice issues.

And we found a widespread twist on solitary confinement - two men placed in the same solitary confine cell, a practice called double-celling. And when two men get put together in solitary, it's common that they fight, attack, and sometimes, like David Sesson, they kill.


THOMAS: How did you choke him the first time?

SESSON: I choked him with a shoestring.

THOMAS: Before that?

SESSON: Before that, it was just my hands.

THOMAS: Just your hands.

SHAPIRO: At least 18 states use double-cell solitary confinement, and in federal prisons, 80 percent or more of the 11,000 inmates in solitary share a cell - two prisoners in isolation together up to 24 hours a day. Sesson had just moved into his new cell. Just five hours later, he says he jumped off the top bunk and strangled his cellmate. Sesson tells the detective, I hate having a cellmate.


SESSON: And frankly, I'm tired of living with people.

SHAPIRO: He's tired of living with people. It was the fourth time in less than two years that one inmate in a segregation cell killed a cellmate at the Menard Correctional Center in Illinois. Prison officials had plenty of warning about Sesson. The investigator's report which we obtained shows that Sesson strangled and tried to kill another cellmate just 11 days earlier. This was news to the sisters of Bernard Simmons, the man he did kill.

DEBRA SIMMONS: Are you serious?

RENESA PETERSON: Eleven days prior. That's what...

SIMMONS: To Bernie dying...

SHAPIRO: Let me repeat it. So the documents show that 11 days before your brother died, 11 days before this man strangled your brother, he had tried to also strangle and seriously injured...

SIMMONS: In Menards...


SIMMONS: And they still put somebody in there with him.


SIMMONS: Oh, my God.

SHAPIRO: That's Debra Simmons and her sisters Renesa Peterson and Tiffany Ryan. They sit in the living room of Debra's new-built townhouse on Chicago's South Side, looking at faded snapshots of their brother when he was a kid.

SIMMONS: This is my father and Bernie on the steps. That's little Bernard and big Bernard.

SHAPIRO: Bernard Simmons was the fussed-over baby boy in the family. He was smiley, happy, reading books already by age 4. But he changed. By middle school, he joined a gang. He was 34 the day he died in prison.

SIMMONS: Nese and I were in Walmart, shopping for Thanksgiving, and I got a text message. And I looked at the text, and it said, B. Simmons was killed in prison 10:30 p.m. - a text message. I turned to my sister. I said, they said our brother's dead.

PETERSON: And we didn't believe it ourselves standing in Walmart.

SHAPIRO: That text message was sent by the corrections department, not the family but to an inmate's victims because here's the thing. Debra Simmons and her sisters are not only Bernard's older siblings. They are also his victims. The crime that sent him him to prison for life was that he murdered his parents.

Bernard Simmons had spent eight years in prison on an earlier charge of aggravated assault. On the day he was released and came home to Chicago, his family picked him up at the train station. But the sisters say their brother changed in prison. He was agitated and angry. He declared he was God.

And when he got into an argument with his mother that first night, that favored son took a knife from the kitchen and brutally stabbed her and his father to death. Those deaths haunt the family, but so does the death of their troubled brother.

SIMMONS: You know, my brother had his issues. He was not a saint. But he was still my brother. It was blood. But you know, for a prison to be the judge and jury and the executioner all in one day, you chose that path when you put open the gate - the cell door - and out him in there with that guy. They turned the key, and my brother walked to his own execution.

SHAPIRO: We found, since 2010, there have been at least 17 murders in double-cell solitary. Among the victims, a 58-year-old inmate with schizophrenia in Pennsylvania, in Ohio, a man who was two days from his release.

Prison officials in Illinois told us they are currently reviewing their policies on solitary confinement, a review that began shortly after the death of Bernard Simmons. But they declined to talk to us about the four deaths at Menard, so we went to the prison town. Chester, Ill., on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River, is best known for two things.


SHAPIRO: There's "Popeye," Popeye statues, a yearly festival. The cartoon's creator grew up here. And there's the Menard Correctional Center, a prison with thick, stone walls built almost 130 years ago.

In the parking lot, we met Eddie Caumiant. He's an official with the union that represents prison guards. Only don't call them guards.

EDDIE CAUMIANT: We very much prefer the term correctional officers in the state of Illinois.

SHAPIRO: His point is that correctional officers do much more than just guard prisoners, like oversee health and safety. And some correctional officers say double-cell solitary is one thing that complicates safety.

CAUMIANT: People are so tightly packed together. I've heard it described as a powder keg. I've heard it described as an accident waiting to happen, that we should know better than to put folks who have a demonstrated, ongoing sort of proclivity for violence together in double cells.

SHAPIRO: The union official says the closure of some other Illinois prisons created overcrowding. Jeremy Walker, the local prosecutor, says that overcrowding limits what prison officials can do.

JEREMY WALKER: Cons have a way of working the system. They've tried to work the system their entire life, and that's usually why they're down there. And if every time that somebody said that they were having a problem with their cellie, they had to move somebody, it would just be a constant carousel down there.

SHAPIRO: Walker prosecuted the murders at Menard. He went to see the cellblock.

WALKER: And it's a very imposing place to spend time. It's certainly no place I'd want to be. It's very small, very thick-walled. We were down there in the middle of summer, and it was incredibly, incredibly hot. It's just - people that say that cons have it easy - they ain't never been in Menard.

SHAPIRO: The cell where Bernard Simmons died is just 4 feet 8 inches wide and 10 feet 8 inches long, more narrow and just a few feet longer than a king-size mattress. In other prisons, solitary confinement cells for two people are sometimes a little bigger, still smaller than a parking space for your car.

In January, President Obama and the Justice Department announced some reforms of solitary in federal prisons, but the changes did not address what Stuart Grassian, a psychiatrist who studies solitary, says is the hardest part of double-celling - the mental strain of being isolated with someone you probably fear.

STUART GRASSIAN: Everything about your cellmate becomes toxic, noxious. You can't stand the stimulation from them, whether that's smells, sounds, everything. So imagine having the simulation of another individual whom you don't really know and don't really trust 24 hours a day. And he's - the toilet is within three or four feet of where you're sleeping. I mean, of course it's going to create paranoia and violence. I mean, it's just common sense.

SHAPIRO: In ordinary solitary confinement, suicides spike, so prison officials justify placing two inmates in the same solitary confinement cell as suicide prevention. Officials say they carefully screen cellmates for compatibility. Sometimes two inmates do get along well, but Craig Haney, a psychology professor, says that's the exception with double-celling.

CRAIG HANEY: I don't know of a single piece of research which suggests that this is a good idea. Double-celling itself, 40-or-so years ago, was regarded as a correctional harm. It was regarded as a practice to be engaged in only under the worst possible circumstances when you had no other choice.

SHAPIRO: In 40 years, the number of people behind bars in the United States jumped 700 percent. So with little choice and little space, prisons bolted a second bunk into already squeezed cells.


SHAPIRO: The sun is starting to go down on a cold winter day. The sisters of Bernard Simmons take us to Washington Park on Chicago's South Side. They grew up in a house across the street from the park.

SIMMONS: So that's the tree looking right in front of you. Look at the tree.

SHAPIRO: Under this small oak with two trunks, the family said prayers and spread the ashes of their murdered parents in 2009. And then last spring, on the birthday of their murdered brother, they spread his ashes here too.

SIMMONS: My mother...


SIMMONS: I think she would've haunted us - my belief...


SIMMONS: ...Without her son near her. He was her life's blood. She lived for my brother. She loved that baby.

PETERSON: She did.

SHAPIRO: Last August, the man who killed Bernard Simmons pleaded guilty of first-degree murder. David Sesson, who said he'd hated sharing a small solitary confinement cell, got 40 years added to what was already a life sentence. As he left the courtroom, Sesson had a message for the Simmons sisters. Tell the family I'm sorry; I just had to get out of there.

David Sesson did get moved to another prison. Today he lives in that single cell he'd said he wanted. Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.

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