No matter what you think about someone’s guilt or innocence, the type of crime, or any other excuses you can come up with, solitary confinement is torture, end of story. The mental and physical health impacts are numerous, severe, and long-lasting. It is a human rights crime and one that is still far too common in the United States. Twenty percent of state and federal inmates and 18 percent of people incarcerated in local jails have spent time in solitary confinement. Thirty percent of them have spent more than 30 days in those conditions. For at least the last two years, most people incarcerated in Philadelphia prisons have been imprisoned in conditions very similar to those faced by people in solitary confinement.
Arthur Johnson (Cetewayo) was convicted of the murder of Jerome Wakefield in 1971 when he was just 18, for which he received a life sentence without the possibility of parole. A half a century later, the facts would show that the Philadelphia police beat confessions out of him and the one other witness in his case. His co-defendant in the case would admit that Cetewayo had nothing to do with the murder a year after his release.
At the heart of this story lays this conviction and imprisonment for a crime he didn’t commit, an original sin, if you will.
Cetewayo entered the Pennsylvania State Prison system during a time of strong black resistance both inside and outside of the prison system; it would also be the beginning of mass incarceration in America.
Around this same time, James Baldwin, in his Open letter to Angela Davis, writes of the era, “One might have hoped that, by this hour, the very sight of chains on black flesh, or the very sight of chains, would be so intolerable a sight for the American people, and so unbearable a memory, that they would themselves spontaneously rise up and strike off the manacles. But, no, they appear to glory in their chains; now, more than ever, they appear to measure their safety in chains and corpses.”
Like many African Americans specifically and poor Americans broadly, Cetewayo had to drop out of school. Still, when he was forced into the cages and chains behind America’s prison walls, he started his real education. He taught himself how to read, but it would friends like political prisoners Joseph Bowen (Joe-Joe) and Russel Shoatz (Maroon) who would be his professors.
Cetewayo would do the same thing for many others from his institutional exile in the “hole,” we’ll get to that in a moment. What’s important is to understand that the prison system found him so dangerous wasn’t his behavior. It was the impact he and those like him would have on the hearts and minds of their fellow prisoners. Everything else is pretext predicated on the original sin of his kidnapping and the show trial that led him to his status as a prisoner of the war on Black America.
Before Cetewayo committed any infraction, the Department of Correction (DoC) had already placed him in Administrative Custody for 39 months upon arrival in DoC custody while at Graterford State Correctional Institute. His time isolation would continue for years before the DoC would do away with even the pretense of justification.
The Middle District Court of Pennsylvania bears this out in its opinion on Cetewayo’s case, “Astoundingly, Mr. Johnson continues to endure this compounding punishment, despite the complete absence of major disciplinary infractions for more than a quarter-century, Said Chief Judge Johnson in the court’s opinion.
Bret Grote, one of Cetewayo’s attorneys in the fight to get him out of solitary, called the prison’s “concern,” that he was an unrepentant escape artist speculative conjecture “rebutted by nearly 30 years of impeccable conduct.”
“For years and years and years, I get no misconduct, get no kind of problems whatsoever, it doesn’t count. The only time it counts, when you do something, then it counts,” Cetewayo told the court. “So that becomes even much more frustrating because you realize how powerless you are. You tell yourself; I’m never going to get out of here, and that’s caused all kinds of problems for me, but I hold it to myself.”
According to DoC records, Cetewayo had been involved in at least three attempts to escape. It’s unclear what was involved in the two of the three that led him into institutional exile, but an attempted escape is described as being anywhere an inmate isn’t authorized to be at that time. The third and final escape attempt is apparent, though records show that Cetewayo bound, gagged, and locked a C.O. in a prison cell. He was also found with two “zip Guns” during the escape attempt.
By 1987 Cetwayo had racked up more than 90 class 1 misconducts, many of them related to the escape attempts and other acts of resistance.
Prison guards “routinely engage in racist harassment and intimidation, targeting black and Latino prisoners with fabricated misconducts, physical abuse and assault, and deprivation of food, water, and other rights,” according to a report titled Institutionalized Cruelty.
But given that he was being held against his will for a crime he didn’t commit, what else would you expect of him? Resistance is one of the most basic human reactions to injustice.
According to court documents, Cetewayo lived in 68 sq foot cell, with a minimum of 47 sq feet that could be unobstructed. It details that he had a radio, T.V., bed, mattress, desk, toilet-sink combo, a small 6 inch by 3-foot window with a view of the exercise yard, and two narrow windows on his cell door that allowed him to look out on the block common area.
This is a little misleading because the radio, T.V., and any reading material he had in his cell were only granted between 1990 and the early 2000s. Before this, inmates could only have basic religious reading material such as a Bible, Torah, or Koran, and for a long time before this, you weren’t even allowed this.
“The lights were on 24 hours a day; it was tough to sleep,” said Cetewayo. “I suffered from insomnia for decades, getting a little sleep here and there, but rarely ever more than a couple of hours at a time.”
I remember “one time I had woke up and I just could not go back to sleep, and I said — I told myself, it was just spontaneous, I said, I wish I could just go to sleep and wake up no more because I just can’t continue living like this, you know, where your life is the same thing every single day, do the exact same thing, and that becomes really, really frustrating,” said Cetewayo.
Court documents reflect that Cetewayo had to eat, sleep, wash up, and use the bathroom in this tiny space, about the size of a bathroom in an average Philly rowhome.
“We were only allowed half rations, and they would bunch our meals so that you might eat earlier or later; it depended on the guard, so you were always hungry,” said Cetewayo. “The guards would spit in your food if it fell on the floor, they’d just put it back on the tray, so it might have dirt on it, a lot of times they’d drop it on purpose, to retaliate for some perceived slight or just because they didn’t like you.”
“I was only allowed to take a real shower a couple times a week if I was lucky, so I had to take bird baths out of the sink attached to the toilet,” said Cetewayo. “The water was always cold, and the entire process was dehumanizing, having to wash myself over the same place used the bathroom.”
“You’re allowed a real shower three times a week on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. We’re handcuffed with a tiny towel wrapped around you,” Cetewayo told the judge during a hearing about the conditions he lived under for 36 years. “When you get to the shower, they put you in, take off the handcuffs and lock you in the tiny stall. We’re supposed to get ten minutes, but usually, it’s less because they’re always trying to rush everything.”
According to court documents, inmates are only allowed an hour out of their cells, each day if the weather is good. During the winter, the staff tells inmates it’s too cold, “you can’t go, and then you don’t get no substitute to that, that’s it, you stay in your cell all day.”
The recreation yards for inmates in the hole are a set of nine cages with chain-link fencing on four sides and the roof, lined up in a row, like a set of dog kennels. Each pen is approximately 20 ft. by nine ft., about twice the size of their cells.
According to DoC, policy, inmates can talk to one another from their cells and during Recreation time. But the reality of that is a far cry from the policy. The doors that close the cells off to the outside world are thick metal doors, a small thick window made from plexiglass.
“It muffles your voice, so that you can’t be heard clearly, a person can’t hear you unless you holler and you’re not allowed to do that, if you do you get a misconduct for hollering out,” said Cetewayo.
“When I was at Huntington if they wanted to punish you in the hole, they had what they called the glass box, it was a cell with everything taken out, a double pained glass ceiling, set up in such a way that it was always dark in there,” said Cetewayo. “They took out the toilet so that there was only the hole for you to go to the bathroom in, they took everything from you including your clothes; you were in there in nothing but your boxers, it was always really cold or really hot depending on the time of year, because they would blow in hot or cold air.”
According to several former inmates, these cells were filthy, feces on the floor that no one would clean up. Rodents, roaches, and other insects would regularly come into the cell. When they fed you, they would give you what is commonly called prison loaf, which was whatever was being served ground up and shaped into a loaf. They reported typically finding hair, dirt, insects, and other bodily fluids in their meal while in the glass box. These men were kept in these conditions for ten days as an extra means of torture. This form of torture was only ended after the courts forced the prison to repurpose the cell they had been using for it into a regular cell.
The purpose of the hole becomes clear even upon a cursory glance at the conditions faced by people held in these dank, filthy, solitary hell holes, run by hateful, racist guards who thrill at the idea of abusing inmates to teach them their perceived place as non-humans!
If you’re interested in learning more about solitary confinement and how you can help end this practice of unrepentant state torture, click on one of the links below and continue to follow this story and other stories from NW Local on prison conditions.