Several inmates told “Nightline” the only way to mentally survive in solitary confinement, which they sometimes referred to as “segregation” or simply “seg,” is to have a routine.
“I exercise. I read a lot. If I didn’t have books I probably would have already gone insane,” said Freddy Munoz, who was one housing unit over from Marcantel.
Growing up, Munoz, 34, said he wanted to be an astronaut, but at age 13 he got caught up in gangs and committed two murders. Prison officials have kept him in a cell in solitary confinement every day for years because of his violent past and gang affiliations. He knows every crack and every inch of peeling paint in his cell.
“It is perpetual misery,” Munoz said. “It's ennui. It's monotony. It's repetition.”
On the other side of Level Six was Daniel Herrera, who was also placed in solitary because he has been a gang member. He is 23 years old and serving a sentence for kidnapping.
Herrera showed how he and other inmates “go fishing” by pulling and throwing a wire to get things from one cell to the next, “without getting caught,” he said, although the correction officers said they were well aware of the fishing phenomenon. If they are caught, Herrera said inmates can lose privileges like rec time.
“You’ve got 23 hours a day locked down, you got a lot of time to come up with,” Herrera said.
After six hours in solitary, Marcantel was served his first meal: a meat patty, baked beans, wheat bread and cauliflower. After nine hours, he brushed his teeth and got ready for a long night. The next morning, he was served plain pancakes.
“I’ve developed what I call an ‘inmate clock,’” Marcantel said. “I would touch the window and if it were cool and light, I knew it was morning… if it was warm, I knew it was afternoon.”
When collecting food trays, the corrections officers did a check to make sure no one broke off a piece of plastic that could be used to create a weapon.
“It takes a certain kind of person [to do this job],” said one officer. “We’re working inside the lion’s cage with the lion.”
To keep themselves safe, the officers follow rigid protocols. For example, they strip search inmates for weapons or contraband any time they take one out to the yard, which is known as the “rec pen.”
Twenty-four hours into Marcantel’s stay, claustrophobia started setting in.
“I’m feeling a little nauseated and I’m standing at the door now and I’m looking outside and I’m realizing that I can’t get on the other side of the door,” he said. “I felt like the cell was kind of squeezing down on me."
Critics of solitary confinement call it legalized torture. They say studies show it can result in brain damage similar to that made by head trauma. Humans are social animals and we are built for interaction. Take that away, and critics say inmates can literally lose their minds.