Irena: This is Irena Sean, a friend of Peter Mukuria also known as Pitt. These are some questions I had for him about solitary confinement. So, number one, how did it feel five years into solitary confinement in comparison to the first six months?
Peter: Well, in 2012 was when I was initially put in solitary confinement under the most restrictive status in the state of Virginia. For prisoners in solitary, we were categorized in two different statuses, which determine the length of time one would spend in solitary. There is the special management (SM status). Those on this status typically are released from solitary confinement after a year and completed the step-down challenge series program.
Then there is the intensive management, IM. Now those on that status were essentially doomed in solitary confinement. There was no clearcut pathway established for them to be released. One could have completed a step-down challenge service program, remaining fresh and free for years and done everything required, but it made absolutely no difference since those on that status were not intended to ever be released. And that is the status that I was put on.
When I first arrived at Red Onion Resort (laughs), it was after an altercation with 13 prison guards. Which obviously one man against 13 guards isn’t an altercation at all. But after I was placed in restraints completely defenseless, I was again physically assaulted, kicked, punched, slammed against the wall, denied medical attention, and strapped onto a metal bunk for three days.
I was then subsequently transferred to Red Onion Resort or Prison (laughs), which is Virginia supermax prison from Sussex, one where the altercation occurred. Upon my arrival here in 2012, I was met by a plethora of guards, warden, assistant warden, union manager, lieutenants, sergeants, etcetera, everybody. And, it was a hell of a welcoming committee, which was obviously strategically intended to put on a show of force—a conspicuous intimidation tactic.
When I was in handcuffs, shackled, chains around my waist, and an electric stun belt around my chest. Exhausted from my six-hour ride. And there I was being bombarded with that talk to how I would never again be let out of solitary confinement. How I would either die or go home from [inaudible]. You know, those were the only options of getting out solitary.
You got to die or get released. And since I’m not being released anytime soon, basically I was doomed in solitary. Despite what they were saying, I never once believed that I would spend the rest of my incarceration in solitary confinement. I did however, believe that I would spend a substantial amount of time in solitary.
The first six months of solitary were the hardest because not only did it require having to psychologically adjust to these abnormal conditions, but I also had to deal with this sporadically being deprived of food, outside recreation, and shower. But those initial six months went by kind of fast. Despite being surrounded with hopelessness, I managed to keep the optimism that this was not going to be permanent.
But that optimism gradually diminished after six months and then you realize no one, who is on the same status as you are, was getting released. After being in solitary confinement for five years, and you have done everything you possibly could, and yet you still aren’t released. All optimism at that point is non-existent and you feel absolutely defeated.
Irena: What were the emotional phases of solitary confinement?
Peter: That’s quite an interesting question: the emotional phases of solitary confinement. One rarely ever asked. I’ve been asked a lot of questions pertaining conditions of solitary confinement, but never asked a question about emotional phases. But this is a question with merit and substance. Because no matter who you are or what you may have done—or are alleged to have done—which led to them being placed in solitary confinement. We’re all human beings and emotions are very much part of us.
And my response, I will make this a generalized answer, but merely give my personal emotional phases I experienced while in solitary confinement. Reading, drawing, studying civil litigation. Writing essays ranging from the conditions of solitary confinement, politics, et cetera, and writing poems. These activities, I believe, played a critical role in helping me preserve my sanity and maintain my mental health.
Emotionally, that’s where it was tough. It certainly didn’t help, since I’m sorta an introvert. Opening up and sharing my feelings wasn’t something I did. You know, in 2015, a close friend of mine passed away and I didn’t want to talk to my family about it. Then have them worry about me. I had comrades and friends I could have talked to, but I just wasn’t comfortable doing so. Therefore I suppressed these emotions and internalized them.
When I’d go outside recreation, locked in a dog cage the size of a small parking spot, I’d be around my peers who are also locked in individual dog cages and were in solitary confinement. No, I talk, joke, and laugh as though everything was fine when it really wasn’t. And, when I be back in the cell alone, reality would hit and I would literally just cry. You know, then the other thing was that I had projected an image of a fighter. Someone who couldn’t be broke by solitary confinement.
And fought for basic human rights but more often than not, there were plenty of times I found myself weak, sad, and lonely. I think loneliness was a major issue. And the irony of it was that I had my family and friends and comrades who I could have turned to. Which I did, but to an extent. I just didn’t quite open up entirely. So they never really quite understood the emotional phases I was enduring.
In some ways, I was comfortable being an introvert and it kind of made being lonely easier. But there was a part of me that just needed and yearned for that companionship and confidant. But since I didn’t have that, putting my thoughts and emotions on paper became a way I could express these feelings. But nothing beats that human connection.
Irena: Were there any major shifts in your thinking?
Peter: I believe a major shift in my thinking came after being jumped and assaulted by 13 prison guards while completely defenseless and in restraints. That experience opened my eyes to a side of incarceration that I never experienced before, most prisoners never experience in society, and at that time were blind to it. That experience played a critical role in shaping my broader perspective of prison in general.
In some ways it also molded my political stance. Prior to being incarcerated, I had long lost faith and/or trust in police. That notion of protect and serve implied terrorize and murder. This was the perception I had of police when I was in my preteens. And years later, as we continue to see through cases of Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, George Floyd, Jacob Blake, etcetera. I had good reasons for those perceptions. Years later, I’m in prison and my perception of not only prison guards, but prison began to be remolded and accurately defined.
I came to first understand that concept of rehabilitation is an empty one. You know, chicanery rhetoric merely intended to deceive the public. I also came to never anticipate or receive any semblance of just treatment. And through studying prison cultures and history, I came to a better grasp of how prisoners are easily deprived of their humanity and dignity. Because when you are viewed as a commodity, rather than a human being, it becomes easy to be deprived of humanity and dignity.
With being in solitary, one has ample of time to studying. And studying was almost a constant temporary escape from my reality. Having been physically assaulted while in handcuffs and shackles, that experience in addition to studying was the first state-was the first step of a major shift in my thinking. Studying made me more cognizant and politically conscious. I suppose Malcolm X said it best when he mentioned and I quote, “I knew right there in prison, that reading had changed forever the course of my life.”
Irena: What are some thoughts and feelings that have been consistent throughout?
Peter: Well, oppression is consistent with the history of America. Be it in society and/or prison. But with oppression, it inevitably breeds resistance. I don’t know whether it’s confidence, courage, or even stupidity, but I’ve always been stubborn at laying down and accepting defeat. Especially when I know I have every good reason to fight.
And no matter what situation I ever found myself in, no matter how much the odds are against me, I just never lose hope. Eight years in solitary confinement were full of ups and downs, or downs and ups. And despite these temporary feelings of losing optimism, that things will get better.
I just never lost that hope that things would indeed get better. And eight years later (laughs), I’m finally out of solitary confinement. Which people promised and saw, and that I will never be released in sol- from solitary confinement. And here I am now back in general population under different circumstances.
Irena: Now that you’re in general population, after having spent eight years in solitary confinement, how are you adjusting?
Peter: It has been pretty tough. You know, as human beings we are naturally social creatures. You know, therefore isolation is abnormal. You know, so when we are forced to accept abnormality as the norm. You know, years of constant isolation will inevitably have an effect on you. I don’t care who you are or how strong you-you are or you might think you are. You know, isolated, you know, human beings were never intended to, you know, last of years in isolation without, you know, psychological consequences.
And, you know, I’ve had moments where, you know, I’ve had difficulty re-adjusting to general population as anyone who has been in solitary confinement for eight years would obviously have difficulty re-adjusting to, you know, constantly being around people. And, despite how difficult it is, I’m just very grateful to have the love and support of my family, my friends, and my comrades.
And, I think they have played a critical role in helping me. Not just, you know, throughout the whole situation of being in solitary confinement, but also just, you know, their support is helping me kind of gradually re-adjust to the change in my circumstances. And, you know, not to go off topic—but in a way kind of going off topic—you know, I’m truly blessed and fortunate to have, you know, my comrades, my family, my friends constantly support me and be there for me.
And I truly love and appreciate them for everything that they have done over the years. And I think that given my circumstances, love is the closest thing that I have to freedom. And, you know, my comrades, my friends, my family, sometimes they may not realize the impact that they have on my life. And, I wish sometimes I could, you know, describe it and it’s almost indescribable. And I truly appreciate each and every single one of them.
And I truly appreciate my friends for, you know, coming up with this idea. And it’s been a privilege and an honor to respond to these questions to the best of my ability. And if this questions will help in any way to, you know, open- open the eyes of you know people in public into, you know, solitary confinement. I think it would be mission accomplished.
Thank you for listening to the questions and answers with my self and Irena. And so I want to give a special shout out to my friend and fellow abolitionist Irena who conducted and presented the questions pertaining solitary confinement. This questions obviously were with great merit and substance, which warranted in depth response. Since my placement in solitary confinement—which lasted for eight years—one primary focus of mine under such draconian conditions and constant retaliation.
Even after being released from solitary confinement, my focus remained on reporting on the barbaric conditions prevalent not just in Virginia, but nationally. Which equates to nothing short of constitution and human rights violation. And since, you know, prison officials—much like police—topped the list of power holders who are conditioned to absolute impunity.
See, prisons function by design to not just keep captive, but wants to keep the public blind. And, I recognize this through many other prisoners, even putting officials, that our real strength and support lies in public awareness. And that was the essence of the questions presented by Irena.
It was an honor and a privilege to have collaborated with her this project. And I hope that the listeners can come out with a better understanding of solitary confinement. And it is indeed my hope that Irena and I did this topic some justice.
Thank you Irena for taking the time to do this and for being an amazing friend and overall human being. And to the listeners, thank you for your time. And thank you for lending us your ears. Lastly, this couldn’t have been possible without the Prison Radio platform. So thank you, Noelle and the Prison Radio staff.
(Sound of a cell door closing.) These commentaries are recorded by Noelle Hanrahan of Prison Radio.