Joe Giarratano - Stories from Solitary
Joe Giarratano is a prisoner at Virginia’s Wallens Ridge State Prison. He spent a total of eight years in Secure Housing and supermax units, sometimes spending as many as 23 hours a day in isolation, with little or no human contact or natural light. The following is a handwritten letter from Joe along with a typed transcription. The letter has been redacted by the ACLU at the request of Joe’s counsel.
From: Joe Giarratano #1027820
Male, Caucasian, DOB: 8/26/56
My first long stint in SHU [secure housing unit]** came in August of 1996, when I was involuntarily transferred from Virginia to the Utah State Prison in Draper, UT. According to the UDOC spokesman, as reported in the news media, [the director of the Virginia Department of Corrections] called [the director of the Utah Department of Corrections] and stated “I have a politically hot prisoner that I want to get rid of.”
Once lawyers locate where I was at they contacted the lawyers at the ACLU office in Salt Lake City. Those folks demanded to see me. Because of that I was taken out of that cell, into the light, and allowed to shower. I was then moved to the supermax unit and placed in SHU there (the building was known as Uinta 1). The cell was a bit larger: 8’ x 12’. Solid slider door with small window in it. They kept the window covered with a magnetic flap (picture a large, flexible, refrigerator magnet). The cell had a concrete form bunk with very thin mattress. Stainless steel toilet/sink combo. There was a cell window, approximately 3’ x 5”, which let some natural light in for a few hours in the morning/afternoon. I was allowed a small amount of legal material, and religious materials, and writing material. I was allowed 2 hours of “outside” rec and 2 10-minute showers per week. The outside rec was in a small, high walled cube area with no roof. Maybe a little larger than a cell. Yelling to other prisoners was not permitted. If you did it you would lose your rec period and shower. Only human contact was with guards or counselor. If the counselor wanted to see you, the guard would shackle you, cuff you behind your back, place you on a short leash and sometimes put a hood over your head. You would be escorted to a room and chained to a wall where the counselor would speak. Then you would wait to be escorted back—could take a few minutes, could be 2 hours chained to the wall.
Eventually I was moved to the medical unit. Once placed on IV Utah demanded that Virginia retake custody of me in February of 1997. Except for about 30 days in medical unit I was in SHU for a total of 5 months.
After leaving Utah Virginia dumped me off in Illinois, first at Joliet, and then at Stateville. At Stateville I went on another hunger strike. Again, after about 80 days, and hooked to IVs, VA was told to retake custody. My next stop was Red Onion Supermax Prison in Pound, VA (far southwest VA), where I was placed in super segregation. I arrived there in September of 1998 and was not released from there until December 2006. To this day no reason has ever been given for my placement at Red Onion. It is assumed that it was due to my having the audacity to force my way back to Virginia and for being a thorn in the [Department of Corrections’] side.
you would skip going out because many of the men in the SHU began arguing with each other over the vent or cell door, and to get at each other they would throw feces and urine at each other while in the cages. To avoid getting caught in the crossfires, and to avoid the stench (the cages were rarely cleaned), one would just remain in the cell. There was really no “daily life” in SHU. The days were the same. Some days it would be extremely quiet. Some days when the quiet got to be too much for some of the guys they’d pick fights on the vent, bang on doors, or bang on the sink/toilet. That was always the worst for me. That noise could go on for hours at a time. Often times guards would kick on doors, or refuse to feed someone, and that would set off some hours of noise. Sometimes guys would just snap and the goon squad would do a cell extraction. They would gas the cell, rush in with electric shield, and take the person down hard. That person would wind up strapped down to a bed.
The days were monotonous. I, like many, slept until one could sleep no more. The few books I had I read, re-read, and read again, and again. To this I can go to any one of those books and immediately find a passage I’m looking for. For most the high point of each day was meal time. Each door had a cuff port or, bean hole, where we would get our trays. The tray was placed in a metal box contraption that the guard would place over the locking mechanism for the bean hole. The box would fit flush to the door. The plexiglass box would be opened, the tray placed in, and top closed. The guard would snap the latch for the bean hole. The prisoner would push the bean hole flap, get the tray, and the guard would lift the box which would slam the flap closed. Many of the men would trade their rec time or shower for an extra tray. The guards were quite lazy and didn’t like pulling rec or showers. Some guys would go months without rec or shower. Most all were on psychotropics or antidepressants.
The only physical contact was with guards, when being cuffed, etc., or when you might have to be examined by the doctor. If one went to rec to stand in the cage, there wasn’t even room to pace, you could talk to the prisoner in the cage next to you.
I’ve still not sorted out all the ways 8 years of SHU impacted me. In some ways I’m stronger and in others I feel screwed up.
| *Hyperlinks added by ACLU for more information. |
**Items in  denote redactions or clarifications by the ACLU.