Solitary confinement: stuck in a tiny room with a bed and a toilet, 24 hours a day. (Photo by Michael Freeman).

Standing on the outside, trying to look in, can be pretty rough.
Just ask anyone who has dreamed about working at a particular place, but never been able to land a job there.
Ask someone who always wanted to live in a particular neighborhood or high end building, but couldn’t afford it.
For me, my very different version of standing on the outside has been far more emotionally challenging, even devastating. In my case, it’s not about a job or neighborhood I always craved. It’s about a situation I can’t seem to break out of.
So there I was, on Friday afternoon, leaving one of my favorite Orlando restaurants, The White Wolf, after a very fun and relaxing lunch with a good friend. It felt like a great way to cap off a busy week.
As I was walking back to my car, I turned on my cell phone, and noticed I’d gotten a call while I’d been eating. I checked to see who it was from.
Then I stopped dead in my tracks. My heart sank.
The call had been from the VINE System, which had left a voice message for me.
I cringed as I dialed my voice mail. I knew exactly what the message would be. Listening to the antiseptic recorded voice delivering the message made my skin crawl.
VINE is not a company that sells you nice, fancy products. The Florida VINE System is a victim notification program offered by the Department of Corrections. You can register with it if you know someone, as I do, who is incarcerated in a state prison. When that inmate’s custody status gets changed, VINE calls and provides you with an update.
I sat there in my car and listened passively as VINE informed me that my friend, who I used to employ before he was sentenced to two years in prison, had been transferred from one state prison to another. There was no explanation for the transfer, but I knew exactly what it meant. The prison he’s housed in doesn’t have a solitary confinement unit. The prison he got sent to does.
I drove back home, and called the prison’s Classification Office. I asked about my friend, and was told he’d gotten into a fight, then been placed in solitary confinement. There were no other details provided — who started the fight, whether my friend got injured, how long he’d be in solitary. You get the least amount of information possible; talking on the phone to the classification officer, you feel like you’re begging for crumbs.
The closing comment was that the prison would hold a hearing this week on his DR — discipline report — and would decide then how long he stays in solitary.
Sitting there in a nicely air conditioned house, surrounded by all the amenities I’ve managed to accumulate over the years to make my existence there as comfortable and pleasant as possible … after a phone call like that, there’s a surprisingly sky high amount of guilt that comes from learning that a friend you care about is locked up in what’s often referred to in prison lingo as “the hole.”
It’s a thoroughly depressing thing to contemplate, and you’re left with the anxiety of not being able to contact him and find out if he’s okay, mixed with an overwhelming sense of powerlessness. There’s nothing you can do but sit there and feel nervous about him.
Almost masocistically, I called someone I know who has been in prison, and has spent time in the Special Housing Unit — or the Hole. This former inmate didn’t mince words, or make any effort to soften the blow of what the hole is like.
The tiniest rooms allow you to do little more than extend your arms straight up, or straight across — and that’s about it. You have two bunk beds, a toilet, and a basin. You and another inmate remain locked up in there, 24 hours a day. Your food is served on a tray through a slot in the door. You’re allowed books, a pen and some paper.
It sounds maddening, I said, as I sat on my front porch, rocking away and watching people jog past my house.
It is, this ex-inmate said.
“Fights break out,” I was told. “I’ve seen a lot of bloodshed in the hole between two roommates in there. You can’t do anything, so that’s why the fights break out. You have to be a strong-minded person, or else you’ll go crazy.”
I felt even more depressed, and powerless, now.
Over the years, I’ve watched our society develop a seemingly endless revolving selection of political scapegoats. For a while it seemed like it was gays, who aroused dire warnings about how the “homosexual agenda” would threaten traditional marriage and traditional values. More recently, it seems like illegal immigrants still living in our country or Muslims looking to catch a flight at a U.S. airport have become an even bigger worry among the masses. We so dearly love a convenient group of “others” to demonize.
But there is probably no single group more routinely denounced, trashed and villified than prison inmates. Having violated the laws that the rest of us follow, we so dearly cherish our lock-’em-up-and-throw-away-the-key mentality. Serves ’em right, we insist.
If only it were that simple.
It’s incredibly hard to get into a debate with anyone about the issue of humane treatment of inmates. We still cling to the notion that if bad things happen to them in prison, that’s good, because it serves as a deterrent. They’re less likely to go back there, we like to think, if prison is as miserable a place as it gets.
It doesn’t quite work that way.
For one thing, we routinely set up our inmates for failure once they get released. They leave prison and have to register with their home county as a convicted felon. They have to declare that fact on every job or rental application they fill out. Most doors shut in their face at that point. Their options are extremely limited — if not entirely non-existent. If they don’t have the support of family or friends, they probably have next to nothing waiting for them on the outside.
It’s emotional torture worrying about someone who is trying to survive a stint in prison, to get on the phone with your friend and hear harrowing stories about the violence that goes on there when the understaffed corrections officers are not around.
But again, standing on the outside, there’s nothing you can do except decide between worrying yourself sick about it, or putting it out of your mind altogether because you can no longer cope with it emotionally. What a choice.
And thinking about those tough Law ‘n Order folks, I often wonder ….
How many of the folks who say inmates deserve every misery they endure would feel the same way if a loved ones had one too many drinks at a party, figured they were okay to drive home, and then …
Or if a family member forgot to pay some old speeding tickets, had their driver’s license revoked, and figured they could still operate a motor vehicle before they find the cash to pay those tickets … except they never expected to see those flashing lights behind them …
My friend isn’t a career criminal. He’s a nice 24-year-old kid who got into a bad fight at a party. I worry about what two years in prison will do to him.
And standing on the outside, I dread the thought of not knowing how many more eerie, unsettling VINE messages I’m going to be listening to before it’s all over.

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