Note: This is one of a series of stories about solitary confinement. Here’s an overall look at the issue: Torture does happen in N.J.'s prison, former inmates say.
By Ron Pierce
I was incarcerated in New Jersey prisons for more than 30 years. I went in at 27 and came out at 58. I am now 60. I spent a total of about four years in solitary confinement.
You got an hour and a half of yard every other day. Other than that you stay in your cell. That’s where your mind can play tricks on you.
I went out in the yard because you got to get out of the cell once in a while. But the problem with going to the yard is as soon as you go to the yard, they come in, tear your cell up. That’s their way of saying -- “You shouldn’t go to the yard.” I didn’t care. I went to the yard anyway.
There was one guy on one side of me had such a mental breakdown that he was literally in his cell by himself having a fight with his girlfriend every night. Throwing himself against the wall, yelling at her, beating himself up, trying to beat her up, too.
Solitary confinement will be shortened at this jail as part of lawsuit settlement
Attorneys argued that solitary terms constituted cruel and unusual punishment
On the other side, the guy painted his cell with his own feces. He had to have constant observation so his light was attached to my light so 24 hours a day my light was on. Because I only have one eye that closes and one eye doesn’t close, it was hard to get sleep. I had to sleep with the pillow over my head.
The hardest thing was to maintain civility because you get edgy about everything. I can give you one instance. There was a guy I went to high school with and he became a social worker. He was walking around seeing if anybody needed his assistance and he spotted me.
He started trying to hold a conversation. To this day, I don’t know why but I snapped at him -- “Get away from me!” I started yelling at him and I still don’t know why and I never saw him again since then to apologize to him.
I had just finished my 30 days in the hole with the people on either side of me. I was in that cell. I hadn’t had a shower in a couple days so I was highly agitated when he came to the door.
All he wanted was -- “Do you need anything? Do you need any help?”
I ran him off. I think I scared him and I didn’t mean to but that’s just where my head was at the time. I’ll always remember that. I hope one day to come across him to apologize and just let him know that wasn’t me. That was just a ghost from inside.
People ask me, how did I survive?
Who said I survived? Even today I can’t be enclosed in a small room without my heart racing. The minute I walk into any unfamiliar place I have to know where the exits are. I need to know I am not trapped. No one completely survives.
Ron Pierce, who served a 30-year prison sentence for murdering 27-year-old Wayne Ferragine in Bayonne in 1986, is the Democracy and Justice Fellow at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice.