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
Wallens Ridge State Prison*
P.O. Box 759
Big Stone Gap, Virginia 24219

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.”
     Upon arrival in Utah I refused to be photographed for a prison ID, i.e., I made funny faces and stuck my tongue out. At that point a fully geared up goon squad was brought in to escort me to a cell. I was told that I would cooperate or be broken. I was placed in a small cell, 8’ x 10’, at best, with low ceiling. There was no window. Bar door, and then a solid steel door that was closed to cut off any contact with others. Once locked in, with steel door closed, the overhead light was turned off. The cell became pitch black. I could not see my hand in front of my face, nor see the toilet/sink combo. I stayed like that for 10 days. Twice a day a bag meal would be tossed into the cell through a food hatch that would slam shut behind it. The mice had a field day.



     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.
     I went on a hunger strike that lasted about 80 days.



     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.

     [paragraph removed]

     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.
     In SHU at Red Onion the days all ran together. Mental stimulation was, by design, limited. I was locked in the cell 23 hours a day. We were allowed 1 hour “outside” rec in a cage that was smaller than the cell. Eventually



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.
     We were only allowed a small amount of property, e.g., legal material, religious materials, writing material, and a very limited amount of personal hygiene items. Anytime you had to leave the cell you were cuffed from behind. Then had to get on your knees until you were shackled (for the first 4 years you would also have a Taser pressed to the back of your neck until you were shackled and leashed). Once you were standing you had 2 guards escort you (one with a Taser pressed to your kidney area the other holding the leash).



     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 very bright cell light would come on at 5 a.m. and go off at 10 p.m. There was a “night/security light” that stayed on all night. It was bright enough that one could read or write with no eye strain anywhere in the cell. That could really get to you. We would use a towel or t-shirt to cover our eyes.
     There was some natural light, though not much. The cell had a window, 3 ½’ x 5”. They covered it with an opaque film that dulled the light and blocked any view. I suffer from Vitamin D deficiency to this day, and have to take a Vit. D supplement daily, prescribed by the prison physician.



     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.
     The days really would run together and one’s perception of time could really get screwy. I found myself constantly asking guards what time it was. You were never sure if you were getting a straight answer. If you received mail you would know what day it was because the mailroom would date stamp the envelopes. But it was not unusual to lose track of days, weeks, or months.
     My 8 years in SHU made me less sociable. I get extremely uncomfortable being around or in groups of people. I have experienced panic attacks in these situations. Since being released to g.p. [general population] and transferred here to WRSP [Wallens Ridge State Prison], I have probably gone to the mess hall 6 - 10 times in 5 years, I can’t tolerate the crowd, being locked in that small space with them and being that close. I survive by eating out of the prison commissary: p- butter, crackers and ramen noodles. Seriously. I generally do not initiate conversations. I do respond if someone speaks to me. I have become much more of an introvert. Depression remains a problem.
     The psychiatrist at Red Onion was responsible for getting me out of SHU and transferred. Initially I was placed in a “progressive housing unit,” but not in a double cell as was the routine. I was placed on single cell status for almost a year before I transferred to WRSP general pop.



     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.
     Human beings are social creatures. We need psychological, intellectual, spiritual, environmental stimulation to function properly, to grow and develop. Without that stimulation we deteriorate. I do not care how strong one is mentally solitary confinement will adversely affect you. I have literally watched grown men deteriorate before my eyes, and go mad. There were times during my 8 year stint that I lost it and began to hallucinate and lose my grip on reality. What the public needs to realize is that eventually all of those who experience that will be released back into society, far more broken than when they went in.
     The use of solitary should only be used as a last resort and, then, for only very short periods, 1 - 3 days tops. If not abolished completely. The real problem is that our prison systems are badly broken. Simply eliminating solitary will not solve the problem, but it’s a facet of the problem that needs to be addressed.


  *Hyperlinks added by ACLU for more information.
**Items in [] denote redactions or clarifications by the ACLU.

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