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"Solitary" (The Survey)

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[page 7]


The offense for which men are most frequently placed in solitary is refusal to work. Undoubtedly this is a serious offense from the point of view of administration. Many men are sent to solitary, also, for "missing their gangs," that is, for failure to accompany their work squads to work. Sending out uncensored mail-"undergrounding letters "-is another misdemeanor for which men are sent to solitary. I learned of one prisoner who was recently confined for fourteen days on bread and water, for refusing to answer a question propounded to him by the Department of Psychiatry and Sociology. Men have been sent there for disrespect to the chief psychiatrist. There is no specified list of offences for which they may be sent to solitary. The regulations of the adjutant-general permit such punishment to be imposed for insolence, insubordination, disrespect, the "use of indecent or profane language"-for any "punishable offence", in short, for which a mere reprimand may be given. This means that whether or not solitary is used for trivial offences depends in part upon the character and previous conduct of the individual prisoner and in part upon the mood of the officer imposing punishment.


Before going to the barracks I had heard that men were confined in solitary for three, four and even five weeks. Desiring to verify these reports, I asked permission to consult the official records in the executive office. Presumably these showed the disciplinary history of each prisoner. After a search of an hour or so, almost at random, I had found the following instances of confinement for long periods:


Thomas Shotken, general prisoner No. 15063, was on November 3, 1918, sentenced to fourteen days in solitary, “nine hours standing or rock pile,” for “refusing to do any kind of work on November 4.” (The phrase “nine hours standing or rock pile” means that Shotken was given his choice of working on the rock pile during the day or of standing in his cell, handcuffed to the door. At that time the handcuffing had not been abolished.) His sentence began November 9. On November 23, exactly fourteen days later, he was again sentenced to fourteen days solitary, on full diet, nine hours standing or rock pile, for refusing to work. A third sentence was imposed on December 9, the diet again being bread and water. On December 23, a fourth sentence followed, on full diet. Shotken thus spent fifty-six out of fifty-eight consecutive days in solitary confinement. During twenty-eight of these he was given only bread and water. (Shotken is a conscientious objector.)


Jake Conovaloff was on October 21, 1918, sentenced to “fourteen days solitary, nine hours standing, bread and water, or rock pile” for “refusing to work.” On November 5, he was again sentenced. Successive sentences followed on November 19, December 3, and December 17. Conovaloff thus spent seventy consecutive days in solitary confinement. Fifty-six of these were on full diet. (Conovaloff is a conscientious objector.)


Joseph Fontaine was sentenced on November 20 to “fourteen days solitary, bread and water, nine hours standing or rock pile” for “refusing to work.” He said, “I would not work on day shift anyway,” or words to that effect. On December 12 Fontaine was sentenced to five days in solitary, on bread and water, for “refusing to work on first gang this A.M.” He also “failed to report for duty this A. M.” Fontaine thus spent nineteen out of twenty-seven consecutive days in solitary on bread and water, a clear violation of the regulations of the adjutant-general. (These regulations will be cited later.)


Andrew Shubin, No. 14864, was on October 30, 1918, sentenced to fourteen days in solitary, “nine hours standing or rock pile,” for willfully refusing to work. On November 15, he was again sentenced to fourteen days, on full diet. A third sentence followed on November 29, special leniency being shown by a continuation of the full diet, specifically “corn flakes and milk.” On December 13, a fourth period in solitary was imposed and corn flakes and milk again allowed. The two days between the expiration of Shubin’s first period in solitary and the beginning of his second are doubtless accounted for by the words “two days in hospital” written across one of his record sheets. This also accounts, presumably, for the special diet. Shubin spent fifty-six out of fifty-eight consecutive days in solitary.


Jacob Wortman was sentenced on November 4 to “fourteen days solitary, nine hours standing or rock pile” for “missing his gang this A. M. without any cause” and “willfully refusing to do any kind of work.” On November 18, he was again sentenced, full diet being allowed him. A third sentence, on bread and water followed on December 2, and a fourth, on full diet, on December 16. Wortman thus spent fifty-six consecutive days in solitary, twenty-eight which were on bread and water.


Nathan Berkowitz was sentenced on November 17, 1918, to “fourteen days solitary, bread and water, nine hours standing or rock pile” for “refusing to fold his arms at count when ordered to do so,” and being “guilty of direct defiance of orders of O. D.” On December 3, he was sentenced to “fourteen days solitary on full diet (vegetarian) nine hours standing or rock pile” for “willfully refusing to do any kind of work at all.” On December 17 he was sentenced to “fourteen days solitary, bread and water” for “refusing to work.” He thus spent forty-two out of forty-four consecutive days in solitary, twenty-eight of which were on bread and water.


Evan W. Thomas, a conscientious objector, was admonished on November 5 for “talking in mess hall while marching from mess room this date.” On November 6, he was sentenced to “fourteen days solitary, nine hours standing or rock pile,” presumably for “refusing to work.” On November 21, he was sentenced to “fourteen days solitary on full diet, nine hours standing or rock pile,” presumably for refusing to work. On December 5, he was sentenced to “fourteen days solitary, bread and water, nine hours standing or rock pile” for “wilfully refusing to do any kind of work at all.” Thomas thus spent forty-two consecutive days in solitary confinement.


Morris Kamman was sentenced on December 4 to “fourteen days solitary, bread and water, nine hours standing or rock pile” for “wilfully refusing to work.” On December 19, he was again sentenced to “fourteen days solitary on full diet” for “wilfully refusing to do any kind of work at all.”


The officials of the barracks made no attempt to conceal these facts from me. They justify such excessive terms of solitary confinement (the longest I have found in any prison I have visited but one) under the “Regulations for the Government of the United States Disciplinary Barracks and its Branches,” published in a little blue pamphlet by the adjutant-general. The section that defines the uses of solitary is as follows:


32. A prisoner who violates any of the rules and regulations of the barracks, who is insolent, insubordinate, disrespectful, or disorderly, or who uses indecent or profane language, or commits any other punishable offence, will be tried by court-martial, if the gravity of the offence so demands, or will be disciplined by:


(a) Reprimand.


(b) Deprivation of a meal.


(c) Deprivation of tobacco privilege.


(d) Deprivation of letter privilege.


(e) Reduction in class.


(f) Solitary imprisonment on restricted diet.


(g) Solitary imprisonment on restricted diet and handcuffed to the door. 1


(h) Loss of part of good-conduct time.


(i) Loss of all good-conduct time.


Solitary confinement on bread and water will not exceed 14 consecutive days at any one period, and will not be repeated until an interval of 14 days shall have elapsed.


Now what does this language mean? Does it mean that a prisoner may be kept in solitary confinement indefinitely, under all of the restrictions of such confinement, provided only that during alternate periods of fourteen days he be taken off bread and water and given regular prisoner fare? That is the construction placed upon it at Ft. Leavenworth. Or does it mean that solitary confinement itself may continue only for fourteen days, and may not be repeated until an interval of fourteen days has elapsed?


I have asked eleven different people, none of whom was connected with the barracks in any way, what the language means. Only one gave the same construction as the barracks, and she was later inclined to doubt her own interpretation. Of the other ten, one thought that although the intention of the framer was clearly not in accord with this construction, a very literal and narrow reading of the words might so interpret it. The remaining nine thought that the section was meant to prohibit solitary confinement entirely for any period longer than fourteen days. One of these was a former dean of a law


[footnote]


1. This punishment was abolished by order of the War Department last December. The prison authorities have been criticized on the ground that the handcuffing was not actually abolished until six days after the order was issued. The facts are that the newspaper announcement of the order was given out in Washington on the morning of December 6 and published in the afternoon papers that day. The order to the commandants of the three disciplinary barracks was actually issued on December 9, and reached Ft. Leavenworth by mail December 12. The use of handcuffing ceased the day the official order was received.

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