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Prison Inside of Prison

Updated: Sep 1, 2023

              Written By: Benjamin Case

Author of: My Dad's a King


Lockup is a prison inside the prison. Lockup is the name we use, but this particular beast has many names: Restrictive Housing Unit (RHU), Security Housing Unit (SHU), Ad seg, High Max, the hole, and solitary confinement are a few. There are many reasons you could end up in the hole and no one confined to prison is exempt from seeing the inside of one of these cages. This mechanism is used as punishment and is meant to break the individual from undesired behavior. In this article, we will examine the effects that lockup has on an individual and the prison population. The reader will be left with a challenging question.


               While serving out my life sentence in the South Carolina Department of Corrections, I have seen lockup or RHU from quite a few different perspectives. I have inhabited RHU cages on three different occasions, in three different prisons. I have worked on lockup and I have visited men in lockup from the chapel. Recently, I have had the privilege to sit with men on lockup and offer them a listening ear or some sound advice. As a prisoner, I must always remember that these cages could imprison me at any moment, and for any reason.


               First, I will paint a picture of what lockup is for those who have never seen it, from the inside. There are generally a series of mechanical doors that lead to lockup that are controlled by officers in a booth. These doors have a distinct sound that is unique to the experience. Once the last door to the entrance is opened, a smell will fill your nostrils that will soon permeate your clothes. This smell is a mixture of body odors, mildew, smoke, and fear all mixed into an odor that you never want to smell. The sounds that you will hear are men calling out in frustration to the guards, arguing amongst each other, men kicking on doors, as well as, men having conversations through doors, playing chess, and sometimes there is silence. You may see water cascading from the top tier to the bottom floor (because someone has flooded their cage); guards leading men to the shower on a leash (in their boxers); mental health officers talking to men; prisoners from population who work on lockup doing any number of tasks; or strings attached to something heavy being slid across the floor to exchange notes or items that will fit through the small cracks. This just names a few of the many everyday situations that you may experience on a visit to the prison inside of a prison, if you are not being led into one of the cells.


               The next thing that one needs to understand is how you can end up in one of these cages as a prisoner. The most common way to end up on lockup is through violating prison laws or policies. Generally, there are only a small number of lockup cages compared to the number disciplinary infractions handed out by the institution. As a result, only the most serious infractions are held in lockup for extensive periods of time. Serious infractions may include: assaulting an officer, fighting with a weapon, escape, or possession of large amounts  of contraband. Another way that you can end up on lockup is by asking for protective custody (PC). We call this checking in. When a prisoner is in fear for their life, they may request PC, and the state is obligated to honor their request to protect them. Many times, prisoners are denied this protection because there is no space available or the guards are either unconvinced or unconcerned about the safety of the prisoner. You can also be placed in lockup for “investigation.” This word is used when the administration hasn’t charged you, but wants to keep you separated front the rest of the population. Investigation is often weaponized by the administration. There is also Administrative Segregation, which means that you are a threat to the operations of the institution in some way. The bottom line is that anyone can be put in lockup, if it be the will of the administration.


               Now, we must establish how lockup looks from the inside of a cage. Ninety-five percent of the time, when someone is placed in lockup, they are angry. You generally arrive to this cage with only the boxers that you had on when you were apprehended. Your orange (or whatever color your state restricts you to) uniform is taken away and a different color (yellow in South Carolina) jumpsuit is given to you. These cages are usually dirty and bare. You have to wait for your mattress and bed linens to arrive. You are allowed to have legal work and hygiene items, but you are at the mercy of the officers and prisoners who work on lockup. While it is true that you are generally placed on lockup for violating policy; the administrators of the lockup unit rarely if ever adhere to the policy themselves. You are only allowed to shower three days each week (and that is if you are lucky).By policy, you are supposed to get an hour outside of your cell each day for recreation. This is another rarity. So, what you are usually left with is your anger, a bare cell, and solitude. Once the anger subsides, you are left with your thoughts and all the sounds and smells of despair that lockup produces.


               As the days pass, you will either learn to cope with this new environment or you will let it drive you crazy. The best way to cope is to develop a routine and not let the environment shape your thoughts. Lockup is the trenches of the psychological war that takes place in prison. Other ways of coping are dangerous. Some guys yell through the door all day long, some guys try to escape by getting any drugs they can get their hands on, and some will mutilate themselves to get the attention of the administration. Suicides in prison usually happen in lockup cells. It is when a man is left with nothing but his failures and his thoughts that he can see a bitter end.


               There are rules that are put in place, specifically to make your stay in lockup as mentally tormenting as possible. You can’t get books to read, other than the bible. Your family can’t send you pictures. Phone calls and visitation are restricted, if they are allowed at all. A survey of lockup policy would reveal many rules that would seem contrary to the rehabilitation of men serving their time. Many times, when men spend long periods of time in lockup cells, they need counseling to integrate back into general population because of the trauma they experience.


               Though this place is made to break you, I often tell men the blessing that solitude can offer. Your life has been halted and all you have are your thoughts. No other time in life, will you have the time to think as clearly and uninterrupted as you will in lockup. Paper and pen were my saving grace in lockup. I wrote constantly. I still have books of the bible written in my own handwriting from my stay in lockup. Many men in lockup give me pictures they have drawn or poetry they have written. Prayer is another weapon that you have in lockup. It is a time where you will be alone with God. He hears us in those times. Lockup is also a time to examine your case. You are allowed to have your legal paperwork in your cell. This is a time that you have uninterrupted time to think through your case. No one knows your case as well as you do.


               Although lockup is a place you never really want to go, I find peace in going to aid and assist the men who have been placed there. It is always a learning experience, and I appreciate the fact that I have that opportunity. Many times, it is a heavy burden and I leave with a weight on my shoulders that I didn’t arrive with. By the grace of God, I will continue to bear the burden and make time to be a friend to those who need it the most. On any given day, I could be looking through one of those doors, waiting for a man of God to walk through the door to encourage and help me. The question I want to leave you with is this: What would you do to cope if you were left in a small cage with nothing but your thoughts and no idea when you would be leaving that cage?

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1 Comment


How is thisnn be legal punishment on top of punishment cruel inhumane and someone can be in solitaire for years

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