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From Six by Ten, a collection of firsthand accounts of solitary confinement edited by Mateo Hoke and Taylor Pendergrass. This story is by Brian Nelson, who was convicted of murder in Illinois in 1983 and sentenced to twenty-six years in prison. He was released in 2010. The book will be published in October by Haymarket Books.

This would have been around 1987.


There was a riot between the black and the white gangs. Big riot. Two weeks later, the warden called me to the office and told me the guards wanted me to find out what the issues were. They’re like, “Both sides. We want you to talk to them to find out what’s going on.” I’m like, “Ain’t no way in hell I’m gonna do that.” That makes me a stool pigeon and puts my life in danger. I refused.

Because I wouldn’t be their informant, they put me on “the circuit.” I didn’t know what it was at the time, but it was sort of a psychological experiment. Being on the circuit meant I was constantly being transferred. I would eat one meal in one facility, the next in a different facility, and the third in a whole new facility. After every meal I just got in the car and they took me somewhere else. I was moving three times a day. That went on for three months.

After that, I’d be moved like once a week, every couple of days, every two weeks. For the first four or five years, I never stayed longer than thirty days in any prison. At any time, day or night, they’d say, “Let’s go,” and put you in a car. My family rarely knew where I was.

What I came to understand later was that they were moving me to different prisons so that the tactical teams could practice on me. They were using “circuit riders” to train new teams that they were creating as they were opening up all these new prisons. We were their guinea pigs.

Here’s one of the games they would play. You’d come in new to a prison, and they’d give you a strip search in the shower. Toward the end of the strip search, one of the correctional officers would make a disrespectful comment like, “Turn around and show me that cute little ass on you, boy.” It was all a setup. The cell right across from the shower had like eight officers in riot gear waiting for this. As soon as I said, “What?” the officer pulls the shower door open and these guys run in and beat me up because I was “refusing to follow a direct order.” I was beaten maybe sixteen different times while I was handcuffed with leg-irons on. One time I was beaten and woke up in an outside hospital three days later. I deteriorated. I became, at times, violently insane. When does this stop? And nobody ever had an answer for me.

I  got out of my cell one hour a week. That was it. I got one hour out a week for my yard and shower. It all had to be done within an hour, and then I was locked back up. I wouldn’t have had access to books if it wasn’t for my mom sending them to me, and sometimes I got them, sometimes I didn’t. There were a lot of times, my mom and sister would drive to a prison to visit me and I just wasn’t there no more.

There were correctional officers who disapproved of the way I was being treated. There were a few of them like, “Man, you need to sue and find out why they’re doing this.” I started doing hunger strikes to demand a copy of the rules for the program I was in. And officers would tell me, “There are no rules for this program. This program doesn’t exist. You’re not here.”

In Danville Correction Center they built a solid steel box. And I mean solid steel, the entire cell. So cold in the wintertime, if your skin touched it, it was like being burned. This was the special cell for me. Every prison was different.

During that time, I was probably transferred like thirty times a year. I would file grievances, hundreds of them, and not one of the replies would ever call it the circuit. That’s why I was shocked when they finally answered a grievance, saying I had been part of a psychological experiment for seven years. I think someone just screwed up in putting it in black and white.

I got off the circuit because of a lawsuit. I filed that case myself, and then they appointed a lawyer to represent me. We went through three days of trial in Chicago. I’m on the stand and allegedly everyone is all done asking me questions, and I turned to the judge and I said, “How come no one is asking me about the circuit?” And then we ended up talking, just me and the judge, for like two hours about what they were doing to me. He was appalled. Everyone, even my lawyers, thought I was making it up. It was just that evil.

After seven and a half years on the circuit, they took me off, gave me a bit of money, and left me alone for a while.

Then, in March 1998, all of a sudden, US Marshals come running into the prison, weapons drawn. They chained me to a dolly, put me in a van, put me on an airplane, and transferred me. I was in a cellblock all by myself. No property—all I got was two pairs of underwear, two pairs of socks, one jumpsuit, and shower shoes. They would take my weight every week because I got so small. I looked like I’d given up. I had no appetite. Nothing. I just wanted it to end.

I spent my last two years in prison begging for help: “My out date is coming, I need to get ready, I need help.” As my release date got closer, they put me in a building by myself. No soap, no toothpaste, no shower, no yard, no nothing. A hundred degrees in a box, and that’s how I spent my last month in prison.

I was on five types of psychotropic medication. But when I walked out I had no medication, no prescription, nothing. So not only am I shocked by being out, I have to quit cold turkey from medication, and I’m scared shitless.

I got out June 29, 2010. My mom drove up to get me. I was basically a caveman going into society. The trip home, I had been out maybe fifteen, maybe ten minutes, we stopped to get ice cream, and a guy walked in behind me, and I started shaking. I become so scared and enraged just because he had gotten in line behind me. And my mom was looking at me like, What the fuck is wrong with you? What did they do?

In solitary, there were periods in which I lost complete track of time. I have maybe a hundred watches now. I’ve got some very expensive watches, but most of them are ten- or twenty-dollar watches. I have one watch on my wrist, I have a pocket watch, and I have the clock on my phone. I have time everywhere around me.

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September 2018

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