Madison — During the two decades Talib Akbar spent behind bars, he was placed in solitary confinement 10 times, ranging from six months to nearly a year.
Each stay in the 6-by-10-foot cell was mental torture; after his release in 2013, he was diagnosed with severe depression.
Akbar’s stints in solitary while in prison for sexual assault resulted from violating one of the more than 80 rules prisoners must follow. They can't lie to guards, for example, make threats, fight or disobey orders.
“There are a lot of things that can land you in solitary, but what it ultimately comes down to is if the guard likes you or not,” Akbar said. “If they have a problem with you, they can find a reason to put you in the hole.”
Now, at age 69, Akbar is on a mission to help others understand the trauma of solitary confinement. He has built a 6-by-8-foot replica of a prison cell on the back of a box truck, equipped with a toilet and sink, gray walls made to look like concrete, a small bed with a prison mattress, and an intimidating orange door.
He is traveling across Wisconsin, allowing volunteers to spend an hour in the cell, to get a small taste of what it's like to be locked up with no human contact.
I tried it recently and came away with a very different perspective on the use of solitary confinement.
'Everyone who has spent time in the hole tells me I got it right'
During one of Akbar’s stints in “the hole” in 2011, he sketched his cell at the Wisconsin Secure Program Facility in Boscobel. The intricate drawing became a model for the first mock solitary confinement cell created by students at Edgewood College in Madison in 2014. It took the students months to create the 1,000-pound replica.
The solitary confinement cell built by Edgewood College students had the look and feel of the real thing, but it was hard to move. Two years ago, Akbar started building a mobile version.
“I worked every time I had free time and everyone who has been in it, or seen it, who has spent time in the hole tells me I got it right,” he said.
A friend built the door for him with a small window and two slits. One slit allows guards to give a prisoner food. The other is made to shackle the inmate.
Being locked up for 22 to 23 hours a day challenges a person to be creative. Akbar entertained himself by doing push-ups and sit-ups to exhaustion, by reading and by doing paralegal work for other inmates.
“Solitary can play with your mind, so you have to find a way to keep busy while you’re in there,” Akbar said.
Inmates in solitary can get books and magazines to read, but they only get what’s left after the other inmates pick over the best ones.
After a month or two in solitary, Akbar says your brain starts to play tricks with you and it becomes more difficult to keep track of the days or even hours of a day.
“It’s mental torture, no doubt about it," he said. "It’s meant to mess up your mind."
Akbar believes his numerous stints in solitary affected his mental health. When he was released from prison, he dealt with bouts of being homeless.
“It affects you in different ways and you just don’t know how until you are in that situation,” he said.
UN calls it torture
According to the United Nations, prolonged isolation is a form of torture. The UN says the lack of meaningful human contact can lead to an inmate harming themselves or committing suicide.
In a January 2016 commentary for the Washington Post, President Barack Obama argued that the nation should rethink the use of solitary confinement.
Obama cited the 2010 case of 16-year-old Kalief Browder, who was accused of stealing a backpack. The teen was sent to Rikers Island Correctional Facility in New York to await trail. During his time there, Kalief was beaten by both inmates and guards. Court records show Kalief spent 1,100 days behind bars and more than 800 days in solitary.
He was never given a trial. He was never convicted of a crime.
“In 2013, Kalief was released, having never stood trial. He completed a successful semester at Bronx Community College, But life was a constant struggle to recover from the trauma of being locked up alone for 23 hours a day. One Saturday, he committed suicide at home. He was just 22 years old,” Obama wrote.
Solitary confinement gained popularity in the U.S. in the early 1800s but today is overused, Obama argued, noting that 100,000 inmates are held in solitary confinement in U.S. prisons on any given day.
It's fairly easy for an inmate to break a rule that lands them in solitary.
Akbar was once placed in solitary at the Boscobel prison for allegedly filling out a false report with state regulators. His violation: He has said a nurse failed to address his medical needs. The nurse said he lied about that — and that was enough to land him in segregation.
“The report was not false, but I was placed in the hole for it,” he said.
Akbar, who is the vice president of WISDOM, a statewide network of faith communities that supports the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated, said the use of solitary confinement needs to be rethought because of the devastating psychological consequences.
David Liners, director of WISDOM, said his organization follows the United Nations guidelines, which say that anything more than 15 days in solitary confinement is torture.
“To me, even 15 days seems like too much, but if we could get it down to that first, it would be a huge step in the right direction,” Liners said.
So, what do you do with inmates who are extremely troubled or dangerous?
Place them in small units and give them extra attention, Liners said.
Some places, such as Colorado, have stopped using solitary confinement, and there has been a decrease in violations within the prison system.
“People are so damaged by the experience of solitary confinement that they need to be rehabilitated before they can safely be allowed back into society,” Liners said. “That’s why we oppose it.”
My phone is taken, the door closes
When I got inside Akbar’s replica cell, he handed me a pair of green prison clothes.
“They came from one of my friends who was released from prison. He didn’t have any clothes so when he was released from prison, this was all he had,” Akbar said.
Then reality set in as my phone was taken, the door was closed, and Akbar piped in recorded noises from a prison.
The screaming and clanging of metal cups against the metal bars made it impossible to take a nap. I cranked out a few push-ups and dips from the bed, but after 30 minutes, I was bored.
In fact, I had a hard time doing an hour in this make-believe “hole.” I couldn’t imagine being trapped in a cramped cell for 23 hours with little to no meaningful contact for days on end.
“I did over 300 days.” Akbar said. “It’s not easy but you really don’t have a choice. You just have to keep your mind busy.”
Most of the time I laid down on the mattress, but Akbar noted that even in doing that I had violated a prison rule.
“When you lay on the bed, you have to lay with your head facing the security door so the guards can see it,” he said. “If you don’t, they can cite you for another violation and give you even more time.”
Bottom line, it is so unnatural to be confined and alone for a prolonged period of time that it can't be considered anything other than cruel and unusual.
One thing is certain: It isn't rehabilitation.
James E. Causey started reporting on life in his city while still at Marshall High School through a Milwaukee Sentinel high school internship. He's been covering his hometown ever since, writing and editing news stories, projects and opinion pieces on urban youth, mental health, employment, housing and incarceration. Most recently, he wrote "What happened to us?" which tracked the lives of his third-grade classmates, and "Cultivating a community," about the bonding that takes place around a neighborhood garden. Causey was a health fellow at the University of Southern California in 2018 and a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University in 2007.
Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter: @jecausey.
Where to see the mobile cell
Talib Akbar and his mobile solitary confinement cell will be in Milwaukee from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Oct. 7-9 at St. Benedict the Moor Church, 1015 N. 9th St.
He will be in Madison from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., Oct. 14-15 at Bethel Lutheran Church, 312 Wisconsin Ave., Madison. For more information go to www.wisdomwisconsin.org or call (608) 843-0171.
This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Former inmate built a confinement cell to educate public about torture