Making It on the Outside, After Decades in Solitary Daud Tulam spent 18 years in isolation in the New Jersey State Prison. Now free, he finds it difficult to make eye contact, make small talk, or be around other people, including his family.
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Making It on the Outside, After Decades in Solitary

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Making It on the Outside, After Decades in Solitary

Making It on the Outside, After Decades in Solitary

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

There are more than 25,000 inmates in solitary confinement in U.S. prisons. They aren't sent to solitary for the crime they committed on the outside. They're put there by state or prison officials who say these inmates are too dangerous for the regular prison. And after spending years and sometimes decades alone, most of these inmates will be released back into the public, but there are almost no statistics on how well these prisoners do in the real world.

Well, today in the final part of our series NPR's Laura Sullivan tells about one man who was released from solitary confinement a year and a half ago.


Daud Tulam spends most of his time out here on the porch of his mother's house, sitting by himself on an old couch watching traffic.

Mr. DAUD TULAM (Ex-convict): Yeah, I spent mostly the whole summer out here, daytime and night. Just availability of being outside. After being, you know, confined for that long period of time you really do have an appreciation for the outside.

SULLIVAN: The long period he's talking about is the past 25 years, which he spent in a New Jersey state prison. Eighteen of those years he spent in isolation, 23 hours a day alone in a cell no bigger than a bathroom, one hour in a concrete exercise yard. You might think someone who's spent all that time alone would want to spend all his time now talking.

But instead, when faced with people, Tulam barely says anything at all. At a community college class he's taking to learn how to weld, he hides in the back of the room. When the teacher comes over, Tulam is staring at the floor, even as the teacher offers personal instructions.

Unidentified Male: Just do what I said; just rub that one piece together. Try to weld the other piece until I get back to you, make some -

SULLIVAN: The instructor is staring at Tulam, waiting for a response. There isn't one, even when he gives Tulam a compliment.

Unidentified Male: Nice, boy that looks good. Okay.

SULLIVAN: This happens all day long. In many ways Tulam's days are still filled with silence. But there's one place where you find he suddenly has a lot to say - behind the wheel of his car.

(Soundbite of car door closing)

SULLIVAN: Daud Tulam's 6-foot frame seems too big for this 15-year-old Taurus. He's wearing what he wears everyday - old jeans and a sweatshirt - as he pulls away from his mother's house for a drive. With his eyes, and yours, on the road, he begins to talk about his experience in isolation. The streets of his hometown of Salem, New Jersey, are full of boarded-up buildings and liquor stores now. A lot's changed about this town, but there's a lot more that's changed about him.

Mr. TULAM: I'm certain that I lost, you know, my social skills to a certain extent. Not that I'm unable to socialize, it's just that trivial conversation for conversation's sake, I don't have no tolerance for.

SULLIVAN: Tulam's luckier than most ex-convicts. He has 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.

Mr. TULAM: You don't like a whole lot of sudden movement around you. You don't like surprises.

SULLIVAN: That came as a shock to his family. Tulam used to love to socialize.

Ms. CHARLOTTE FLETCHER (Tulam's mother): He always had a few friends, but they wasn't, far as I was concerned, they wasn't the right kind.

SULLIVAN: Tulam's mother, Charlotte Fletcher, says early on it was hard to keep her son away from kids who wanted to party.

Ms. FLETCHER: He was a young kid when he first got in trouble, last year of high school. And he was around with these guys and they were, basically, they believed in doing a lot of drinking and other things. So I guess he did some wild things.

SULLIVAN: 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.

Mr. TULAM: In prison, you know, there are no children. The trivial kind of things that kids do, maybe nonsensical things, you know, you don't have a tolerance for that, right. I didn't have a tolerance for it. I'm still trying to really adapt to that.

SULLIVAN: Tulam 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 there 18 years. New Jersey prison officials say that's because he never participated in any programs that could have gotten him out of isolation. Tulam says he tried to participate, but they never let him out, so he gave up. Instead, Tulam says he spent the time trying to make it pass.

Mr. TULAM: I've learned the technique of always trying to just get through that day.

SULLIVAN: He divided his day up into little increments: make the bed, write a letter, do push-ups.

Mr. TULAM: Even if I would have to go to sleep early, to look for the next day to, you know, just bring some kind of relief.

SULLIVAN: Tulam still does that now. He schedules his day into activities. Take a shower, eat breakfast, sit outside, go for a drive.

Mr. TULAM: I never use alarm clocks. I've done it for so long, it's almost like second nature with me now.

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

Mr. TULAM: Up until that time, I had never owned a TV, never had interest in TV, but when I got into the solitary it was quiet in there that I genuinely had to get me a TV just to hear some noise.

SULLIVAN: 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.

Mr. TULAM: And having been in isolation with hardly anybody to talk to anyway, right, you know, you just acquire a knack of just being able to, like with me, you become your best company.

SULLIVAN: There are a few statistics about how inmates who spend time in isolation adjust on the outside. There have been only two studies, one from Washington and one from Texas. The results weren't good. The rate of recidivism for inmates coming out of isolation was higher in both studies.

And in Washington, researchers found these inmates were more likely to commit violent crimes compared to inmates from regular prison. In that sense, Daud Tulam's doing better than expected. Having a place live and a mother to make him food has made a big difference.

Mr. TULAM: We're actually here now.

SULLIVAN: As Tulam pulls the car to a stop, he pauses for a moment before getting out. At 51 years old, he's spent almost half his life in prison and most of that time alone.

Mr. TULAM: I do have some regrets, but ask me if I would ever want anybody else's life - no. I'm comfortable with the life that, you know, I've been given. You know, like saying that I'm a realist, I genuinely believe that each individual, you know, every individual struggles - in this life anyway.

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

Laura Sullivan, NPR News.

SIEGEL: Gary Harkins also spent years in an isolation unit in an Oregon prison, except he was there as a correctional officer. To hear his perspective you can visit our website,

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