Mark Hopkins Searching for human connection in solitary

Mark Hopkins for NJ-CAIC

Interview courtesy of New Jersey Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement (NJ-CAIC).

Mark Hopkins spent more than 180 days in solitary confinement in New Jersey. He was first tortured by solitary confinement when he was 16 years old. He is now a graduate student at Rutgers-New Brunswick and an organizer with AAUP-AFT.

Below is Mark’s interview with Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg for NJ-CAIC:

What was your first experience with solitary confinement?

I was 16.

One of my cousins was a gangbanger. In his mail he'd sign off with a gang greeting and he was sending it to me from a juvenile facility.

I was in Garden State Youth Correctional Facility/Yardville. They ran down to my room like a standard raid. When they went into my room, they went through all my mail and saw that at the end of the letter. The letter itself had nothing do with anything gang related at all. It was just - “How you doing? I know you just got all this time. Keep your head up.”

“Everyone’s yelling through the door. When you first come in, everyone wants to know who you are and if they know you because people are trying to find human connections at the end of the day.”

They sent me into solitary confinement by saying I had gang materials, STG material -- ‘Security Threat Group’ material. They gave me, I think it was 15 days in solitary confinement.

It's just bars. They strip you of anything that you could possibly use to kill yourself so no shoelaces. Just the fireproof blanket that they give you. Then three hots and a cot. No other contact whatsoever. Shower every other day. When you want to leave you have to go with two officers. You'll be cuffed at your back. When you walk by in the facility everybody else that's in the hallway or can see you, has to turn around and not face you and give you their back.

You're completely ostracized from the general population.

When did you next go into solitary confinement?

A year or so later, I was 17. This was 2008, 2009.

I did 15 days of solitary confinement and then they added 180 days of administrative segregation. [Administrative segregation is solitary confinement but in a separate unit in another building.]

I was in Garden State Youth Correctional Facility and now I'm in Albert C. Wagner Youth Correctional Facility. Once I went to Wagner my family didn't even know where I was. No one even knows where I'm at. I'm in the ad seg unit. I'm still 17. I didn't have the greatest family support but I still had family that would still expect me to call at least once a month.

When you go into the ad seg unit, two officers are escorting you. You're cuffed. They take you into this cage type of holding cell. It's open to the rest of the rooms in the entire ad seg building. Everybody's door faces this center spot and you're strip searched.

You're standing there naked. They'll cuff you while you were naked and go through all your things and do the paperwork to transfer you over.

Once they transfer you over to the housing officer then they'll tell you to put your clothes on.

What was it like when you walked into the administrative segregation unit?

The experience going in is shocking. Everyone's yelling through the door. When you first come in, everyone wants to know who you are and if they know you because people are trying to find human connections at the end of the day.

When you come in there and you don't understand, people will think -- “Damn, people are just yelling at you from this way, from that way.”

But what's actually happening is people are trying to find other human connections. They're trying to see if it's someone they know and then they want to be like - “Yeah, you're going to be good, this is easy, you're going to be alright.”

Because the officer that's housed there doesn't want to hear the yelling, they put this huge thick newspaper and industrial fan that's blowing so the blades are smacking the newspaper. So it's that sound on top of everybody yelling 24/7 and then you just hear the gates and cuffs moving.

You were a juvenile at this time — did that affect how you were treated?

They realized I was a juvenile when they were first admitting me in. They were like - “Yo, Sarge, we can't have him in the room with anybody because he's a juvenile so what do we do?” They're like - “Just put him in the room by his fucking self.”

So they put me in a room by myself.

“He must have heard me one of those nights talking to myself, breaking down crying. ... He said, ‘If you just give me a Reese’s, I'll buy a pack of cigarettes for you.’ He was giving it to me just because he knew I needed it.”

How did you make connections with other people?

Whoever was in the cell next to me, I don't know what he looks like, I just know his hand is a white hand.

I was in the room every night just having these mental breakdowns.

He must have heard me one of those nights talking to myself, breaking down crying. He was like -- “Yo, you need a cigarette?” And I was like - “Hell, yeah, I need a cigarette.” So he gave me half a pack of cigarettes which is valuable as hell. He said, “If you just give me a Reese's, I'll buy a pack of cigarettes for you.” So I started doing that. He was giving it to me just because he knew I needed it. I trade cigarettes with him and then we'd talk a little bit.

What was your access to showers?

My hygiene started to decline exponentially fast.

The first shift officers will pop the door open for two seconds. You have to rush to the door, put your hand out -- “Yo, yo, yo, give me the shower, I'm up.”

I didn't shower for weeks at a time. I had no shower for weeks.

Were you able to leave your cell to exercise?

The only other way to take your mind off things would be exercising. They know by law they have to give us 5 hours worth of exercise in a week. You had to put your name on a list and you had to get on that list by staying up and giving your name to the third shift officer at 4:00 in the morning.

Rec is at 11:00 AM or noon. You had to be up all morning and then hopefully -- because you don't have an alarm clock and usually you're not allowed to have electronics until you're on a certain phase so there's no way to know the time -- you just have to guess and you can't take a nap because nobody's going to wake you up so you're basically just up that whole day.

You got to dedicate your mind to staying up throughout that entire night, all the way up until you can put your name on that list, all the way until it's time to go out for rec. You go outside into this small little cage and workout, talk to other people.

Those 2.5 hours isn't the whole 2.5 hours. You're only getting 45 minutes outside.

Everything that's supposed to be put in place for you to have human contact or to somehow soften the blow of the torture solitary confinement is based upon is slow, non-working or just completely inoperable to the point where it's nonexistent.

“Everything that’s supposed to be put in place for you to have human contact or to somehow soften the blow of the torture solitary confinement is based upon is slow, non-working or just completely inoperable to the point where it’s nonexistent.”

What impact did solitary confinement have on your mental health?

I mentally started to deteriorate in ways in which I can't even explain.

No night I was able to go to sleep so the only way for me to try to go to sleep is I'd take my sweater, I don't care how cold it was -- it was cold as hell sometimes because the heating and ventilation systems obviously suck -- so it was cold as hell. I had a little fireproof blanket and I just had a shirt on. I took my sweater and tied the pillow around my head and stuffed my ears with toilet paper just enough so I can try to get some sort of quieter atmosphere. Even to this day I still sleep with a pillow on my head. I don't even need to anymore but I still think of a bug crawling in my ear.

You were sent back to solitary in 2011 or 2012. Why were sent back to solitary confinement?

I'm a model inmate. I go to school. I got a job. On the tier, I'm quiet.

One of my close friends was arrested and they were facing a lot of time so I wanted to get in contact with him. I had asked one of the educational staff members if they could get the information for me so I can write him, send a letter out.

I consider this person like my brother. So I got information on him. She was like -- “Do you want me to get anybody else?” I'm like -- “Yeah, get my cousin too because my cousin just got arrested too.” I'm like - this is great, I'm going to be able to write my cousin. I hadn't contacted him in years. I'm going to be able to write my brother.

She prints their face sheets out for me in color. It's not really a big deal. We can write other inmates. That's not an issue. How I got the information was not according to the rules.

I had a standard pat down. He pats me down and sees the papers. We can have each other's information in order to write each other but we can't have a full face sheet even though it's open to the public on inmate search.

They were trying to find where I got the information from. I'm not going to tell you where I got it from. I'm not threatening nobody's job that feeds their kids because it's two pieces of paper you all feel seriously about.

I got 15 days solitary confinement and 90 days ad seg.

How do the officers treat people in solitary confinement?

Officers respond to us as if we're constant threats and because of that the only way that they feel comfortable controlling us is through aggression and violence and retaliation and hate for little minor things.

The only time they open your port is for them to insert your trays which they always threaten to not give you. All the time. If they don't like you or if you all shared words while you're behind your door, the officer can completely within their power say -- “You're not eating today. You're not eating all day. You might not eat this week. You better tell your bunkie to share it with you.”

They might just give the bunkie the tray and won't give you the tray. You know your bunkie's not going to let you starve so you're both going to have to survive off of a meal for one person for a whole week or so. They did that shit constantly.

“I was in high school at the time. They slide a packet of fifth grade math and literacy. I remember going, ‘This is below what I need to do. Don’t give me this.’ They basically ignored me so my whole education stopped. It was paused right there.”

What impact did solitary confinement have on your mental health?

I mentally started to deteriorate in ways in which I can't even explain.

No night I was able to go to sleep so the only way for me to try to go to sleep is I'd take my sweater, I don't care how cold it was -- it was cold as hell sometimes because the heating and ventilation systems obviously suck -- so it was cold as hell. I had a little fireproof blanket and I just had a shirt on. I took my sweater and tied the pillow around my head and stuffed my ears with toilet paper just enough so I can try to get some sort of quieter atmosphere. Even to this day I still sleep with a pillow on my head. I don't even need to anymore but I still think of a bug crawling in my ear.

You were sent back to solitary in 2011 or 2012. Why were sent back to solitary confinement?

I'm a model inmate. I go to school. I got a job. On the tier, I'm quiet.

One of my close friends was arrested and they were facing a lot of time so I wanted to get in contact with him. I had asked one of the educational staff members if they could get the information for me so I can write him, send a letter out.

I consider this person like my brother. So I got information on him. She was like -- “Do you want me to get anybody else?” I'm like -- “Yeah, get my cousin too because my cousin just got arrested too.” I'm like - this is great, I'm going to be able to write my cousin. I hadn't contacted him in years. I'm going to be able to write my brother.

She prints their face sheets out for me in color. It's not really a big deal. We can write other inmates. That's not an issue. How I got the information was not according to the rules.

I had a standard pat down. He pats me down and sees the papers. We can have each other's information in order to write each other but we can't have a full face sheet even though it's open to the public on inmate search.

They were trying to find where I got the information from. I'm not going to tell you where I got it from. I'm not threatening nobody's job that feeds their kids because it's two pieces of paper you all feel seriously about.

I got 15 days solitary confinement and 90 days ad seg.

How do the officers treat people in solitary confinement?

Officers respond to us as if we're constant threats and because of that the only way that they feel comfortable controlling us is through aggression and violence and retaliation and hate for little minor things.

The only time they open your port is for them to insert your trays which they always threaten to not give you. All the time. If they don't like you or if you all shared words while you're behind your door, the officer is completely within their power say -- “You're not eating today. You're not eating all day. You might not eat this week. You better tell your bunkie to share it with you.”

They might just give the bunkie the tray and won't give you the tray. You know your bunkie's not going to let you starve so you're both going to have to survive off of a meal for one person for a whole week or so. They did that shit constantly.

“The officer is completely within their power say -- ‘You’re not eating today. You’re not eating all day. You might not eat this week. You better tell your bunkie to share it with you.’”

You were in solitary confinement one more time -- in January of 2017 -- when you had been living in a halfway house. Can you tell me about that?

I had got sent back from a halfway house. They had thought I was intoxicated. My blood and my urine and my eyes and my on-spot nurse exam had said -- not only was I sober but I was in my complete right mind.

I had OD'd on a leg workout and turned a corner and stumbled a little bit and they thought I was drunk.

They assume when you come in from the halfway house it's because you were intoxicated so what they do is strip you completely naked. They put you in an anti-suicide suit and then for 3 days you are on camera, light is constantly on. No bed, no sheets, no anything, no forks, no spoons to even eat your food so you have to eat your food with the corner of the styrofoam.

I was there for three days in the suicide part and then another two days on a regular solitary confinement ward.

It was very torturous experience because I had come so far to come back right there. The whole thing is mentally, physically and emotionally torturing.

A couple guys were trying to kill themselves. One guy across from me was screaming, banging his head on the glass until it was just blood everywhere. He was eating his own fecal matter. The only thing they did with him would just beat him up more and then strap him to a chair and then put a needle in him after he begged them not to -- “I'm gonna calm down, I'm gonna calm down.” They just put the needle in him anyway.

What is one word you would use to describe solitary confinement?

Torture. Simple as that.


To read more survivor stories, visit the NJ-CAIC website.

 

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