Solitary Justice

James Skinner has figured out that the best way to survive in an Arizona supermax prison is to seek justice even when it seems like justice has left the building

Don't wear orange. Don't wear brown. Don't wear a shirt that shows collarbone. Bring change for vending machines. Bring identification.

Two hours. Nothing more.

In the parking lot of the Arizona Department of Corrections' Browning Unit in Florence, I reach for the collar of my white shirt to make sure it's buttoned up completely. My fear, after months of wrangling with the ADOC over paperwork I submitted to visit a prisoner, is that once I'm inside, the corrections officer will say a mistake was made and that no, I am still not on the approved visitor list for James Skinner.

But rather than being turned away, I'm escorted through one of the series of structures I saw while driving through the corrections complex. I'm surprised by the low heights of the buildings, which sprawl over several campuses. No windows. Lots of fence lined with razor wire, but on the inside.

The Browning Unit is one of several maximum security units where prisoners live alone in their cells, leaving only for an hour of recreation, usually in another cell with grating at the top that allows sunlight in. Sometimes prisoners are given a ball to play with. That is, if the prisoner decides that going through the process of leaving his cell—being strip-searched and shackled—is worth it.

Skinner is in what is called a supermax, a highly secure facility where prisoners are not allowed to mix with the general population and are forced to spend their days and nights alone, talking with other prisoners only through the venting system.

In the movies and on TV, it's called SHU, which stands for security housing unit. Usually, it's the place prisoners in the general population are sent after breaking prison rules, perhaps for a couple of weeks. And when they come back they don't seem the same.

But the Browning Unit and others like it at the Florence complex aren't meant for temporary punishment. Skinner, who is imprisoned in Arizona under an interstate compact with the state of Massachusetts, where he was convicted of second-degree murder, has lived in isolation for more than five of the 20 years he's been in prison.

A recent study by the American Friends Service Committee took a close look at Arizona prisoners in isolation or segregation, and concluded that holding prisoners in this manner for years at a time is more than just inhumane—it's a form of torture that's creating a group of prisoners with mental illnesses they didn't have when they arrived in prison, and making it more difficult for them to adjust to life on the outside once they are released.

Plexiglass visions

In order to speak to a prisoner at the Browning Unit you have to get close to them. Prisoner and visitor are separated by a plexiglass window, but there isn't a hole in the middle to speak through or phones on either side of the window. Instead, there's a mesh screen about an inch wide along the edges of the window.

The guard never tells me which window to go to, but since no other prisoners are there, I assume the African-American man dressed in an orange jumpsuit, wearing horn-rimmed glasses and smiling broadly at me is James Skinner.

I reach for a chair but he points to the sides of the plexiglass window.

"It doesn't make sense to sit," he says, while I pull my face close so I can hear him.

So we stand. No tape recorder is allowed. No notebooks, either. (I left one in my car to take notes at the end of our interview.) I wonder what to make of him. After all, this is a prisoner who has won the support and friendship of a Tucson attorney and has helped prison-reform activists reveal that Arizona, despite claims to the contrary, had a violence-control unit far worse than regular isolation and that it usually reserved for the most mentally ill of prisoners.

I ask Skinner if he knows that he's been given credit for bringing this fact out of the shadows? "Really. Someone knows about me out there," he says, smiling and shaking his head in disbelief.

A few days before visiting with Skinner, I sat down with Matthew Loewen, program coordinator for the American Friends Service Committee's Tucson office, which focuses on prison reform, especially advocating against the expansion of private prisons and issues such as isolation.

Loewen wrote the AFSC report, Lifetime Lockdown: How Isolation Conditions Impact Prisoner Reentry, with program director Caroline Isaacs. It was published late last year. Loewen says that in 2007 he sat in on an interview with then-ADOC director Dora Schriro. For several hours, they went over another AFSC report called Buried Alive: Solitary Confinement in Arizona's Prisons and Jails. Schriro wanted to give her input and tell the AFSC where it was wrong.

"She expected us to do a rewrite, but we reminded her that we had asked for this information and never got it," Loewen says.

"And when we got to the section on the violence-control unit, she said that it doesn't exist, but she was angry. Clearly we had hit a nerve."

In the violence-control unit, feces were smeared on walls and the doors were made of plexiglass so there would be no privacy. Prisoners placed there could hear constant screaming all the time, Loewen says.

"Clearly, people were not being treated for their mental illness, and isolated even more so."

Shortly after the interview with Schriro, Skinner was transferred to Arizona from Ohio after an incident involving a white supremacist. He was placed in the VCU. But Skinner had used the power of the law to beat the system before, so he learned ADOC's policies and compared them to the Arizona statutes. He filed a complaint about his placement and the conditions there, and took ADOC to court. The case was dismissed because the ADOC, in its response, said it was planning to dismantle the unit. But because of Skinner's legal filing, the ADOC had confirmed that prisoners with severe mental illness were being isolated and locked away in deplorable conditions.

As we stand almost cheek to cheek but for the plexiglass window, I tell Skinner that I want to talk about his legal filings and that I want to write about the AFSC report on the conditions in isolation units. But there are some ground rules Skinner and I have to go over before we talk. First, Skinner warns me that he's a nonlinear thinker and that I need to be prepared to steer him back to the questions. That's going to be a problem, I tell him, because I'm a nonlinear thinker, too, and easily distracted. We laugh.

"Well," he says, "Maybe this is going to go well after all."

We start with the easy stuff—we share the same birthday, we love reading and books, and we love to talk about what's inside those books. But discussing what his life has been like during the past five years of isolation isn't something he's entirely comfortable with. He makes it clear during our conversation that he doesn't think it's fair for someone to get into his head, especially someone he doesn't know.

Skinner has a television in his cell and he enjoys watching educational shows and documentaries. He reads fiction and nonfiction, and has taught himself several languages. He exercises, and he sometimes talks with other prisoners through the venting system.

But justice is what Skinner wants to talk about today. He says his quest for it is what keeps him sane in the supermax. He enjoys figuring out ways to take on the ADOC in the courtroom rather than doing something that could get him in trouble and prevent him from someday being released.

Not all attorneys are bad

Skinner makes it clear he's not a fan of attorneys. However, he's quick to point out that part of what's helping him keep it together in isolation are the people on the outside who have high expectations for him. Two of those people are attorneys, one in Tucson and one in New Hampshire.

When she was fresh out of the UA law school, Tucsonan Stacy Scheff started working for an attorney taking on cases from prisoners requesting legal assistance. Part of that work requires assessing the cases to see if they are viable. Skinner reached out to her for assistance on his second legal filing against ADOC, on the conditions of his cell and the need for cleaning supplies.

Scheff, who worked on prisoner rights issues in Sydney, Australia, before returning to Tucson to go to law school, said she learned at a seminar that she could make a living doing prisoner litigation. "I figured this is how I can continue to work on prison reform, make money, and I already had an understanding ... I had gotten over that fear of prisoners as a group when I lived in Australia. I already had an advantage," she says.

Most lawyers don't take on prisoners as clients, because they worry that the crimes of their clients will make them unsympathetic.

Scheff agreed to take Skinner's case after meeting with him in detention. She was impressed with how much he knew about the law and his willingness to be part of the process—plus his intelligence and sense of humor convinced her that he isn't a typical prisoner. He was determined to rise above his situation and, like her, use the law to make changes.

Scheff says Skinner told her after their first visit that he felt she was a special attorney because she reached into the holding cell to shake his hand before she left. Most attorneys don't do that, and in fact it's against the rules because of concerns that violent offenders could grab visitors and hurt them. Scheff says she acted on instinct, but it was an act of humanity that meant a lot to her client.

Scheff says working with Skinner was easy. After all, he had "filed on his own and had survived summary judgment" in 2009 before she joined the case in 2011. Skinner's case against ADOC pertained to the conditions of his cell and the need for cleaning supplies—cleansers, brooms and mops are prohibited. Skinner wanted to clean the feces and blood off the walls of his cell left by previous prisoners. And because the toilet plumbing wasn't up to par, he wanted to be able to clean the floors with more than just toilet paper and water from the sink.

"While dealing with this, Jim would see warnings flashed on the TV of his cell from Corrections that there was an outbreak of the antibiotic-resistant MRSA virus," Scheff says.

Watching those warnings, the irony wasn't lost on Skinner.

Eventually, Skinner was awarded cleaning supplies as well as attorney fees, plus a monetary award. Scheff is prohibited by the court from revealing the amount, but she says both she and Skinner were satisfied. The money awarded to Skinner was placed in an account to replenish his prison commissary account. But the cleaning supplies eventually stopped coming, so Skinner went back to court. What's happened in response is what Skinner and Scheff consider retribution. It began with denying Scheff visitation rights until she dismissed herself as Skinner's attorney. The most recent punishment, she says, is withholding Skinner's mail, an issue that Skinner has been relentless in taking on.

Beginning in June, after talking with Scheff on the phone, Skinner realized that he hadn't received several letters she sent him, including legal briefs involving someone in Skinner's cell block. In response to the grievance he filed, ADOC responded that his mail was not being withheld. Following an appeal, he was told the mail had been sent to the prison's paralegal because they were legal documents pertaining to another inmate and it was against prison rules for an inmate to give legal help.

What troubled Skinner was that sending the mail to the paralegal was a change in prison policy—when mail is withheld from a prisoner, the prisoner is usually informed within 48 hours. Skinner believes that more such incidents will occur as he takes on the system and helps fellow prisoners.

"I guess I just don't understand why the system wouldn't want the cells to be clean," Scheff says. "Do the guards want to track potentially deadly viruses home to their children? That's what could potentially happen. Is that what they want to happen?"

A way out

Skinner grew up in Worcester, Mass., a Boston suburb where he and his family were involved in various criminal activities, mostly figuring out ways to steal drugs and money from drug dealers. Scheff says that in 1992, Skinner got a call from his brother that he needed help dealing with someone he had just bought drugs from. Skinner went with his brother and another man to the dealer's house and were ambushed. Skinner ending up stabbing the drug dealer.

In court, Skinner pleaded guilty to second-degree murder and was sentenced to life, as well as 12 to 20 years for armed assault in a dwelling.

In November 2007, Skinner was scheduled for his initial parole hearing, but he opted out and wasn't eligible for another hearing for five years. Scheff and another lawyer, Donna Brown, convinced him it was time to seek parole, and a Northeastern University law student represented him in a parole hearing on Nov. 6, 2012. Skinner wasn't allowed to be there in person and had to participate by phone.

Skinner apologized to the drug dealer's family, but no one from the family was at the hearing. Instead, the one witness brought in to speak against Skinner was the sister of Eric Balagot, an alleged white supremacist that Skinner killed in self-defense in a New Hampshire prison yard. Several white-supremacist websites have built a mythology around Balagot and what took place that day in that prison yard. They see it as reverse racism, painting Skinner as someone with a violent history against whites.

Scheff says Skinner was acquitted because the jury determined it was self-defense. But because he had killed an alleged white supremacist, Skinner began serving his remaining sentence in isolation from the general population, first in New Hampshire, then in Ohio and finally in Arizona.

Skinner was denied parole, but filed an appeal based on a New Hampshire case law that evidence from a case ending in acquittal can never be used to increase a sentence. It's his one shot until he's eligible to go back to the parole board in another five years. Scheff says what will help Skinner's case is getting his security status changed so that he is no longer in supermax. But she says that decision isn't up to Arizona, but to Massachusetts, which is paying Arizona to house Skinner in the Browning Unit.

I called the Massachusetts Department of Corrections and was told by Cara Savelli, acting director of public affairs, that the MDOC is not allowed to comment on specific inmates. She directed me to the agency's website, which lists its policies. The policies describe a board that hears security placement requests, but the real issue is that Massachusetts passed the security status of inmates held outside its state to that state, in this case, Arizona.

On Aug. 16, the ADOC held a hearing to determine if Skinner was eligible to be placed out of supermax. Based on requests from Massachusetts prison officials that Skinner remain in his current placement, Skinner's request was denied. However, his corrections counselor had this to say: "Inmate Skinner presents a quiet and respectful demeanor that is in stark contrast to his history before he came to Arizona. I recommend he be given an opportunity at close custody ... because I believe over four years of a perfect record of behavior shows a change in attitude and outlook. Inmate Skinner still gets upset and angry over things sometimes, but he has found more pro-social outlets for those emotions."

I'm still waiting to hear back from ADOC on my request for comment on Skinner, as well as his claims of retaliation from ADOC, but had not heard anything by press time.

Scheff says she went to Skinner's parole hearing in Boston last year to testify on his behalf as someone who has gotten to know him, and to present a plan for Skinner's release—living in an apartment near Scheff and attending Pima Community College to become a paralegal and eventually gain employment as a law clerk with a local firm.

"They wrote me off as a prisoner-loving social-justice lawyer, even through that's only part of my practice," Scheff says. "When I started speaking ... one of them got up and left the room."

With Scheff was Donna Brown, who represented him in the killing of the alleged white-supremacist in the New Hampshire prison yard. It was July 1998, and Brown was his public defender.

The day of Bagalot's death, Skinner was put in the yard with him and three other white prisoners. A couple of months before the incident, Brown says the warden issued a memo warning prison staff not to put Bagalot in any placement with prisoners of color because of his history of attacking persons of color.

Brown says what took place during Skinner's parole hearing is the biggest travesty of justice she has seen in 20 years as an attorney. She said the testimony of Bagalot's sister was riddled with errors. Scheff contends that the sister's testimony mirrors stories she's seen on white-supremacist websites.

The sister told the parole board that evidence showed that Skinner was jumping up and down on her brother's skull. But the physical evidence and testimony from others who saw what took place indicated her brother had grabbed Skinner's leg to pull him down and that Skinner had stomped on his shoulder, which is what the medical examiner found, Brown says.

Five years from now, at his next parole hearing, Brown says she'll be better prepared, especially if the sister shows up again. For now, she talks to Skinner on the phone every few weeks; they exchange letters often and she enjoys sending him books. She worries about him being in isolation for so long but believes he has figured out a way to cope.

"He's told me things that I've shared with other clients on how to do time without losing your mind. I know he keeps his mind busy, and you have to have connections to people outside of prison," Brown says.

The folly of the prison industrial complex

Brown says that when she sees people like Skinner go through the system, she keeps waiting for someone in authority to question the "folly of our prison industrial complex."

"The war on drugs has really been a war on poor people, mentally ill people, black people, Latinos ... we've become the country with the highest population of a disproportionate amount of black men in prison. It's outrageous. We can't claim to be a country that claims to support civil rights."

The American Friends Service Committee's Loewen understands why Brown worries about her friend, even if he has figured out ways to cope in an Arizona supermax. But in Loewen's research and prison reform work, he's heard stories from many people who've spent years in isolation and were never the same.

"We make a lot of claims that this is torture. This should not happen to anybody no matter what the circumstances. No isolation for longer than a few days. Anything more is horribly detrimental. A few weeks can see impacts," Loewen says.

"When prisoners get out from isolation they do better if they have help from family and friends, but they are usually just managing OK. On one hand it's a testament to how strong we are as humans, but that is not a justification."

One ex-prisoner interviewed for Loewen's report said he sometimes has to lock himself in a room because he is unable to handle certain environments, even though he has family to support him.

"It is literally designed to drive you insane," Loewen says, referring to prisoners who have to deal with symptoms that mirror post-traumatic stress syndrome and mental illness.

Loewen referred to an ongoing class-action lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of mentally ill prisoners in Arizona. He says 50 percent of those named in the lawsuit are, or were, in isolation and not receiving adequate care.

There are, he says, about 2,000 people in isolation units in ADOC, not counting the disciplinary sections for each complex.

What worries him now is that ADOC is getting ready to build another supermax facility with 500 beds at the Lewis complex in Buckeye while at the same time the state has approved 2,000 private-prison beds even though the state's prison population has plateaued. The cost for the 500-bed supermax is $50 million.

How prisoners in isolation are treated for medical or mental conditions is also a big concern for Loewen and the AFSC.

"You have to present a certain attitude in prison," he says. "You don't want someone to know you are weak or having an emotional breakdown. Or sometimes people are left with chronic lingering medical issues. For months they've been trying to get an open sore looked at and are told just wash it out. These are simple stupid things no one should have to go through," Loewen says.

Because 96 percent of those in isolation are eventually released, "How we are treating and caring for people in prison is how we are treating and caring for someone who will one day be a member of our community again," he says.

"The reality is there is no benefit to isolation. We are putting mentally ill people in and, overwhelmingly, people of color."

Saying goodbye

Skinner asks how much time we have left to talk. Our conversation has returned to books and my son's favorite Marvel comics, and sharing our opinions about the Harry Potter series we both read a long time ago.

We have a half-hour left, so I ask him what he wants to see in my story. Skinner says he doesn't want sympathy. That's something he can't do anything with. He wants change, and he hopes prisoners are inspired to do what he does rather than continue to show their frustration in other ways.

He says his own frustration is at an all-time high because of the hold on his mail. He believes the goal is to get him to react inappropriately, so he focuses on writing grievances and appeals—he is seeking justice.

"No, no sympathy," Skinner says.

I can feel my eyes starting to tear up, but I don't want him to see it and I'm not exactly sure why I'm reacting this way.

"What I want is to learn from you," Skinner says. "I think there is a point to everything and that's why we've met. I'll learn something from you."

As the guard tells visitors it's time to leave, we say goodbye. Skinner says, "Send Donna (Brown) my love, and Stacy (Scheff), too."

"I will," I tell him. "I will."