“I can’t breathe.” Most of America was first introduced to those three words after footage surfaced of the police murdering Eric Garner in New York City. But those words became a part of my life much earlier. I spent five straight years in solitary confinement while housed at SCI Greene in Western Pennsylvania. At the time, it was Pennsylvania’s only supermax prison. For 61 months straight, I was confined to a small cell alone, 23 hours per day, not allowed to interact with any other human being except for prison guards who hated me as if I were responsible for every hardship that they’d ever suffered.
Solitary confinement is designed to break the hearts and minds and spirits of those forced to endure it. The silence back there is deafening, and even the strong don’t always survive. The hole, as most of us know it, is exactly that: a living graveyard. It’s where prison administrators send prisoners like myself to die, and the only way for many prisoners to survive is to constantly resist.
“I can’t breathe.” They may just be words to you, but when I hear them, I can’t help but to think of my friend, John “J-Roc” carter, who was murdered in his cell by prison guards in 2011 at SCI Rockview. He suffered his entire life from asthma, but that didn’t stop those guards from pumping his cell full of pepper spray. As he was dying, many prisoners recall hearing him utter those three words which have recently become a part of the American vernacular.
“I can’t breathe.” I remember the conversations that took place among prisoners after his brutal murder. In the hole, all we could think was that these guards can kill us with impunity. Every time a door opened, every time we heard the jingle of the guards’ keys, we all wondered if we were next. And that’s exactly how they wanted us to feel. As in society where police satisfy their egos by striking fear into the hearts of poor black communities, solitary confinement and the guards who work there do everything to make prisoners live in fear.
Prisons are America’s dirty little secret. That’s why they’re typically built in rural areas, kept hidden from public view, and most people only begin to care after they become one of its countless victims. Don’t wait until you become one. I can’t breathe, and my name is Sergio Hyland. You can follow me on Instagram @uptownserg.