When Solitary Confinement Is A Death Sentence

Mariam Abdullah died by suicide after the teen spent much of the final two years of her life in solitary confinement.
Isabella Carapella/HuffPost

Their friendship began on July 17, 2014, with whispered secrets shared through the vent in the wall that separated their cells.

Jessica Burlew remembers the exact date because she’d turned 17 the day before, the same day that Mariam Abdullah, then 16 and about to be charged as an adult with armed robbery, had been brought to Estrella Jail in Phoenix, Arizona.

When Abdullah arrived, shackled and belly chained, in the closed custody unit, where girls deemed incorrigible were held in their cells for 23 hours a day, Burlew had been there for about six months. In that time, Burlew said she hadn’t had any contact with other teens and so was glad to hear Abdullah’s voice.

“I very much did consider Mariam a birthday present,” Burlew, now 22, wrote from Perryville Prison in Goodyear, Arizona, where she is serving a 10-year sentence.

Over the months they were held in isolation, speaking through that vent, Burlew and Abdullah shared the things that teenagers do.

Abdullah’s favorite color was red. She wanted to be a firefighter. Her favorite musical artist was Drake.

She was silly, rambunctious and seemingly carefree. Still, the isolation wore on her.

For the next two years, Abdullah spent much of her time separated from others, both to discipline her for what was classified as unruly behavior and to prevent her from harming herself. After she was transferred to Perryville in July 2015, she was in and out of solitary confinement in the minors unit for various infractions. Just after she turned 18, she was transferred to the Lumley Unit, the most restrictive unit in the prison where offenders were confined in their cells 23 hours a day, with one hour of recreation spent in a cage under the searing Arizona sun. When she was not in her assigned cell, Abdullah was in suicide watch cells, where again she was alone. Officers more than once carried her there by force.

After another woman in the prison, Cynthia Apkaw, died by suicide in August 2015, Abdullah wrote in a letter to a friend: “To be honest with you being here makes me feel like that but I just havent acted on it yet.”

On July 19, 2016, she did. A handwritten poem found in her cell after her death read in part:

In this place is a struggle for her

She’s alive but not living

She’s feeling everything, feeling nothing

Tired of existing and longing to join

Those who truly know peace

The dead.

HuffPost examined some 200 documents, videos and photographs from Abdullah’s time behind bars, interviewed 16 people who knew her and reviewed her letters and other writings for this account of her life and death in isolation.

The almost 2.2 million people in correctional facilities in the United States are often amongst the most vulnerable, with troubles — mental illness, addiction, social disenfranchisement — that put them at a high risk of suicide before they even enter a cell. Incarceration exacerbates these problems; isolation makes a bad situation worse.

“So much of who we are and how we function is implicitly dependent on interaction with other people. It’s such a natural part of human life that it’s almost as second nature as breathing,” said Craig Haney, professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz and an expert on the impact of solitary confinement. “When all of that stuff is taken away, it’s destabilizing, psychologically unsettling, in a very profound way.”

Self-harm and suicide rates in some state and federal correctional facilities have risen dramatically in recent years, an issue most recently highlighted by the death of financier Jeffrey Epstein, whose body was found in a federal facility in New York on Aug. 10. Shortly before his death, Epstein, who was awaiting trial on charges of sex trafficking, had been moved from suicide watch to a special housing unit.

Mental health experts and advocates say that the use of solitary confinement is a factor in many cases of suicide. The most recent nationwide data released by the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics shows that prisoner deaths by suicide in state prisons increased roughly 30% between 2013 and 2014 — from 192 to 249 deaths.

At least 61,000 prisoners are in some form of isolation — generally understood as being held in a cell 22 or more hours per day, for an average of 15 or more consecutive days — in facilities across the country, according to a survey done by the Association of State Correctional Administrators and the Liman Center for Public Interest Law.

That reflects a drop nationwide, but the one statistic doesn’t provide a full picture of what is happening in individual states.

An excerpt from a letter by Mariam Abdullah written behind bars.
An excerpt from a letter by Mariam Abdullah written behind bars.

Arizona, where Abdullah died, is tied for sixth highest in its use of solitary confinement. It has also seen an uptick in the number of suicides and instances of self-harm. During the fiscal year in which Abdullah killed herself, six prisoners died by suicide in Arizona prisons. In fiscal year 2018, there were seven suicides and 708 recorded instances of self-harm. For the last three-quarters of fiscal year 2019, after the state changed how it documented these events, there were six suicides, 87 suicide attempts and 1,406 non-suicidal instances of self-harm in the average daily population of about 42,000 inmates. A spokesperson from the Arizona Department of Corrections said the significant increase in instances of self-harm from 2018 to 2019 was in part because the department has “implemented a new method of data collection that dramatically improved the quality and level of information gathered and reported.”

There were two more suicides announced by the department last month — one on July 2, at Perryville, and another on July 22, at the Tucson facility.

In 2016, 40% of “long term secure facilities” reported locking youth in seclusion for at least four hours to “regain control of unruly behavior,” according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Juvenile Residential Facility Census. In the same year, 21% of all juvenile residential facilities also reported locking youth in their rooms when they were deemed suicidal. The American Correctional Association, a nonprofit trade group that accredits correctional facilities, issued standards in 2018 that include banning the use of isolation beyond 30 days for minors and people with serious mental illness “unless there is an immediate and present danger to others,” but it’s not clear whether those standards have had any effect.

And while there are generally limits on the amount of time minors can be isolated in juvenile facilities, if they are charged as adults, then they are typically subject to the rules of the adult facility.

Correctional facilities isolate people to punish them for behavioral issues or to prevent them from harming themselves or being harmed by others. But even when the isolation is purportedly for the person’s own good, experts say that being alone for 23 hours a day in a concrete cell typically smaller than a parking space takes a toll.

At Perryville, women “on watch” are initially stripped of their clothes, dressed in a short smock, and left in a bare cell where corrections officers either watch them continuously or do checks at 10- or 30-minute intervals, according to interviews with currently and formerly incarcerated women and a former Perryville mental health professional.

“They’re alone with their own thoughts, some of which may be negative, depressing,” Haney said. “There’s little to alleviate it. They begin to become depressed. Somebody who’s already depressed gets more depressed than they were before they went in.”

Isolation is a thread that ran through Abdullah’s life from early childhood.

At age 9, she, her mother Suhad, and three siblings fled their home in Iraq and moved to Tucson. At that point, she’d already experienced significant trauma. In an essay she wrote while in jail, she described having to “hide out” during the war “or else I would have died.” When she was 6, her father was beheaded — Abdullah said it was a robbery, but family friends suggest it was because he was assisting Americans during the war.

In Tucson, Abdullah was bullied because she was from Iraq and didn’t speak English. Her mother worked long hours to support her children, but Suhad’s absence left Abdullah feeling like she had no one to whom she could turn.

“I hated myself,” Abdullah wrote in the essay. “I had no friends. I don’t understand why.”

In middle school, she decided it was better to be the bully than to be bullied. She began fighting, taking drugs and running away from home, and, according to friends, she joined a gang. The tough demeanor was a façade to mask loneliness and pain. “I always run and fight, assault, bully, steal, do drugs, have sex, go to jail to forget about all the pain. I have so much hurt and no one can see,” Abdullah wrote. It caused a rift with her mother because it was not in keeping with what was expected of a good Muslim girl.

“She wanted to make her mom happy.”

- Reina Hernandez, a friend of Abdullah's

Child Protective Services eventually removed Abdullah because they felt her mother couldn’t control her, according to Corene Kendrick, an attorney at the Prison Law Office, a nonprofit public interest law firm based in Berkeley, California. Abdullah wound up a ward of the state, living in group homes.

“The trajectory of Mariam’s life, as her mother described it to me, was just a classic [case] of how systems fail children who have serious mental health needs or serious trauma,” said Kendrick, who first met Abdullah in May 2016 when she was in solitary confinement in Perryville’s minors unit.

On May 6, 2013, the state sent Abdullah to the Adobe Mountain School, a juvenile detention center, for a parole violation involving truancy from a group home, taking drugs and skipping school. She’d been there just 18 days when she was sent to the separation unit. She was isolated for only an hour and a half the first time — a hearing is required to hold youth for longer than 24 hours — but over the next year, Abdullah was isolated 83 times, because she was deemed a danger either to herself or to others. The longest she was held in isolation, according to Adobe Mountain records, was one day, 22 hours and 32 minutes.

She’d been out of Adobe Mountain and back in a group home for about a month when she ran away and committed the crime — she lured a man to a location where her boyfriend robbed him at gunpoint — for which she was sent to Estrella Jail and charged as an adult.

Like Burlew, Reina Hernandez met Abdullah through a vent.

Hernandez, now 22, was in general population at Estrella, and Abdullah would call out to Hernandez and the other girls while she was taking her shower during the hour out of her cell. At times, Abdullah was released from closed custody and joined them in general population. They watched television, though there were only three channels — sports, weather and the Food Network.

They made their own makeup by mixing shavings from coloring pencils with gel and shampoo. Abdullah would braid their hair and thread their eyebrows. When Hernandez shaved off her eyebrows, thinking it would make them grow in thicker, Abdullah did the same, as a joke.

“She was always making us laugh,” Hernandez said.

Abdullah was a bundle of contradictions. She was jocular but angry. She was small with a softness to her, in both the lines of her face and her natural disposition, but did things to appear menacing. She had her boyfriend’s name — “Rey” — tattooed in large letters on the left side of her neck and was often aggressive with people she didn’t know. But with her friends, she was loyal.

“She would give you her last dollar if you were her friend,” Jasmine Flores, who was also at Estrella with Abdullah, said in a Facebook message. “And if you werent her friend she might just take it from you.” (The Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, which runs the jail, did not respond to requests to confirm that Burlew, Hernandez and Flores were there at the same time as Abdullah, and did not answer any other questions regarding Abdullah.)

Abdullah told Hernandez and Flores that she planned to get her GED diploma. “She felt that she was the bad child, that she had made her mom suffer a lot,” Hernandez said. “She wanted to make her mom happy.”

But there were days when Abdullah didn’t seem to care much about her future or to appear bothered that she would be going to prison for several years.

“I knew she was sad about a couple things, but she always was optimistic,” Hernandez said. “She would just forget about it, you know? But maybe she bottled it up inside.”

Abdullah’s prison medical records indicate that she had been diagnosed with mood disorder, bipolar disorder and narcissistic personality disorder and that she had attempted suicide 15 times, according to court statements.

The prison classified Abdullah as “SMI” — seriously mentally ill. She should have seen a mental health clinician every 30 days and been given extra programming due to her age and mental illnesses, under the 2015 settlement agreement in Parsons v. Ryan, a class-action lawsuit in which the American Civil Liberties Union and the Prison Law Office argued that the Arizona Department of Corrections was providing inadequate medical and mental health care and maintaining inhumane conditions in isolation units.

But records show Abdullah never had one-on-one meetings with clinicians, according to court statements by Kendrick, who had access to Abdullah’s medical records as a lawyer monitoring compliance with the Parsons stipulations. (Despite the settlement, Parsons v. Ryan is an ongoing case: In June 2018, a judge issued an order of contempt against the Corrections Department for failure to comply with a number of the agreed-upon measures.)

Most of Abdullah’s encounters with mental health staff were brief exchanges to decide whether she could be removed from suicide watch cells. While in solitary confinement as a minor, Abdullah was not even given access to proper schooling, which was supposed to have taken place outside her cell with the other girls.

“She told us that her educational services consisted of the teacher coming back to the cell where she was, talking to her for a few minutes, and giving her little workbooks to do on her own,” Kendrick said.

Another excerpt from a letter sent by Mariam Abdullah.
Another excerpt from a letter sent by Mariam Abdullah.

In May 2016, Kendrick found Abdullah in a cell by herself, where she said she’d been for two months. Abdullah had asked to speak with mental health staff but only received brief cell-front checks, and she indicated she’d been hallucinating, seeing jungle animals on the walls of her cell.

“She said they didn’t scare her because they kept her company,” Kendrick said. “There’s just something so profoundly sad about this young woman. She wasn’t upset or agitated. It made it even all the more profoundly affecting because she seemed so calm as she was describing these conditions that she had been put into and that she was living in that were just unconscionable.”

Two days before Abdullah’s 18th birthday, Kendrick wrote a letter to the Arizona assistant attorney general, asking that she be immediately removed from isolation and evaluated by clinic staff for potential placement in a unit that could treat her mental health conditions.

Instead, days after Abdullah turned 18, she was transferred to Lumley.

Wendy Anderson, 46, is four years into a life sentence at Perryville. As she sits on a bench outdoors in the visiting area, she pulls hand-rolled cigarettes from a clear plastic bag and burns through them, one after another, in a seamless cycle. She nervously shakes her left leg as she smokes.

The tattoo on Anderson’s left arm reads “no justice, no peace.” On her right, about an inch below the crook of her elbow, is Abdullah’s first name.

One of the stipulations in the Parsons v. Ryan settlement was that women classified SMI should be offered activities during their out-of-cell time. One such activity was an art class, and it was there, shackled to tables and coloring outlines of Disney characters with crayons, that Anderson said she first met Abdullah.

Anderson was struck that someone so young had been placed in Lumley, where those on death row and serving life sentences were also housed.

“She had a fresh face look, like a young kid,” Anderson said. “She was a minor and they just threw her to the wolves.”

Anderson considered herself Abdullah’s “jail mom.”

She tried her best to protect Abdullah from the women who harassed her, calling her “ISIS” and “bin Laden,” spitting on her and threatening to assault her.

“They’re in pain to begin with, and then they get put in a painful segregation or isolation unit, they’re in even greater pain.”

- Craig Haney, professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz

Abdullah asked to be moved to another unit, according to several women at the prison. She continued to harm herself and was frequently placed in suicide watch cells. On one occasion, when Abdullah was 17, a video recorded by prison staff shows her standing quietly defiant by a bunk bed as two women try to convince her to go to the watch cell voluntarily. She refuses, and several officers crowd around her as she presses herself into the corner where the bunk meets the wall.

“You’re not going to fight, because you’re not going to win,” an officer says.

But Abdullah fights, kicking even as officers carry her, one holding each limb, into a cell where she is cuffed and pinned down, and her clothes are cut off with shears.

While isolating someone to prevent them from harming themselves is a fine solution if there is immediate danger, being taken by force causes additional trauma. It is in essence an assault, said Haney, the expert on solitary confinement. Long-term isolation without treatment for whatever is causing the suicidal tendencies often creates a cycle.

“They’re in pain to begin with, and then they get put in a painful segregation or isolation unit, they’re in even greater pain,” Haney said.

The issue is, in part, a lack of resources: There simply aren’t enough mental health staff to properly treat prisoners. Angela Fischer worked as a psychology associate for Corizon, the nation’s largest for-profit correctional health care provider, which from March 2013 until July 2019 provided health care services for the Arizona Department of Corrections. She testified during a Parsons v. Ryan hearing that one employee was assigned to mental health assessment and intake for as many as 80 people a day and that she was often called in to assist.

In addition, corrections officers who monitor the suicide watch cells sometimes don’t do checks as frequently as they are supposed to. The Corrections Department fired 13 employees in 2016, after an investigation found that the guards had falsified logs stating they were checking on inmates with mental illnesses every 30 minutes.

On June 29, 2016, according to Corrections Department records, Abdullah told an officer she wanted to kill herself. She was put in restraints, taken for a medical assessment and placed on watch for a week.

She was placed on watch again on July 10, 2016, a little over a week before her death, after an officer noticed a bite mark on her wrist. A video shows that as a nurse phones Dr. Webster, the psychologist on duty, Abdullah sits slouched in a chair, eyes closed, looking worn. The nurse relays Webster’s instructions that Abdullah be placed on continuous watch, meaning she will be in a cell with an officer watching her 24 hours a day. But when the two male officers take her arms, she resists.

“I’m not getting up,” she says.

Though she is sitting still, an officer keeps telling Abdullah to calm down. Then he tells her to get up, and when she refuses, three male officers throw her to the ground, where she strikes her nose on the concrete floor. Blood now dripping from her nose, Abdullah is pinned down and strapped to a gurney, a dark mask is placed over her head, and she is transported to the watch cell, where she remained until July 15.

Beyond providing the videos and records concerning Abdullah’s time in prison, Corrections Department officials declined to comment for this story. In their records documenting the use of force on July 10, prison staff note several times that they “assisted” or “placed” Abdullah on the ground, using “the least amount of force” necessary.

Abdullah’s mother did not want to speak publicly about her daughter’s death, but she talked with Kendrick shortly after Abdullah died.

“She kept saying, ‘I think she was murdered. I think she was murdered,’” Kendrick recalled. “But the longer I talked to her, I think it was more metaphorical. She was murdered by being bullied and not protected and not having adequate mental health care.”

One of the last times Hernandez saw Abdullah was on the eve of Hernandez’s 18th birthday, before she was transferred at midnight to the adult side of Estrella Jail. The girls wished Hernandez happy birthday, told her they loved her and were going to miss her.

“Mariam, she gave me a big old hug,” said Hernandez. “She said, ‘I’m going to see you.’”

Abdullah said that when she was released, she was going to take Hernandez to visit her mother in Tucson. They continued to write each other after Hernandez was let out of jail.

Hernandez keeps Abdullah’s letters in a shoebox in her closet. In most of them, Abdullah sounds upbeat. There are letters with drawings: stick figures of Abdullah and Hernandez, with butterflies and hearts, and “Mariam + Reyna = together forever.” But on one postcard, Abdullah writes about how hard it is to so often be alone.

“It was solitary,” Hernandez said, as she speculated about what it was that led Abdullah to take her own life. “It was so much over a period of time — and maybe lack of communication with us, friends, family. Maybe the meds.”

Though she’d caught glimpses of Abdullah’s sadness, Hernandez still struggles to accept her suicide, especially since she was just six months away from being released.

“She was strong. This is the girl, no matter what happens, she was going to be fine,” Hernandez said, her voice trailing off. “I don’t understand, I don’t understand it, I don’t understand …”

Lisa Armstrong is a 2019 United States Artists Fellow in Writing and a 2018 Justice Reporting Fellow for the John Jay/Langeloth Foundation Fellowship on Reinventing Solitary Confinement.

Original art by Isabella Carapella.

This article was reported in partnership with Type Investigations.

If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HOME to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.

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