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Five Omar Mualimm-ak, speaking at St. Lawrence University earlier this month. Photo: Tzintzun Aguilar
Five Omar Mualimm-ak, speaking at St. Lawrence University earlier this month. Photo: Tzintzun Aguilar

Five Mualimm-ak: A voice out of solitary confinement

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Last month, the state of New York made sweeping changes to its use of solitary confinement. The new policy, signed by a federal judge, prohibits anyone under the age of 18, women who are pregnant, and people with severe mental illness, from being locked away in solitary.

Five Mualimm-ak helped write the new protocol. He's a prison reform activist. Mualimm-ak spent five years of his life in solitary confinement, out of 12 years he served inside New York prisons on charges that were later overturned. He was in Canton last week for talks and events at St. Lawrence University, and sat down with Martha Foley.

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Martha Foley: So what were the infractions that led you to be put in solitary?

Five Mualimm-ak: One of them was that I had over 50 stamps. Another was having too many pencils, because I was doing artwork.

Martha: So how long would you be in solitary for the pencil infraction?

Five: So it’s all about how you articulate it. Just like in New York City, how we have a lot of cops who do stop-and-frisks. It’s how you articulate the charge. So like I was saying, with the pencils, they’re listing them as sharp wooden objects. That implies they are some type of weapon. 

Martha: Did you ever commit violence on anybody else in prison. That’s what springs to mind in a layperson. Why would you put a person in solitary confinement?

Five: Right. And this is a huge issu,e because a lot of people have two disbeliefs. One, that people are placed in solitary solely on their original crime commitment that got them into prison. And they think of solitary as the worst of the worst, as these Hannibal Lectors, and that these people are like animals and you have to keep them caged and away from the rest of society, or else they’re going to jump up and bite your nose off or something. But the fact of the matter is that these people are just being placed there, and the level of disciplinary reasons that get you the highest form of punishment has dropped as the population of these facilities has dropped. So they just lessen the reasons to get in there.

Martha: What do the cells look like?

Five: So we’re talking about--when you are in Southport you live in a 6 X 9, which is a single cell. But they have a slightly bigger cell which they use for double celling. You see, New York has a unique form of torture called double-celling. That’s when you’re in solitary, and they come open the door and throw someone else in there. There are two people sharing one facility. Like, if I am on the toilet, I have to be on the toilet facing you.

Martha: And how big is that cell?

Five: It’s a Shoe 200 facility. It’s a cell maybe half the size of this room.

Martha: So about 10 X 12?

Five: Yeah, about that size. There’s a little shower box, like a small area, and then there’s a little door that leads out to another cage which is attached to the back of the cell.

Martha: And that’s how you go outside?

Five: Yeah, that’s your rec. That little five-step cage that you can take five steps in.

Martha: No lap around the track or anything?

Five: Track? What track? There’s no track. There’s a cage on the side of that cell. Literally you never leave that cell. It’s like being locked in your bathroom and they open the shower curtain and say, go out there for rec.

Martha:  A lot of the corrections officers we’ve interviewed and members of the prison guard union believe solitary is necessary, disciplinary-wise, to keep prison safe.

Five: If you look at the statistics, even the statistics the Department of Corrections produces, it actually cures zero percent of violence. You’re actually creating the next level of offenders. 80 percent of people that leave solitary return. People don’t function and thrive better. You’re psychologically damaging a person. You’re also psychologically damaging children who are at their developmental stages. A stage where they are likened to a sponge, because they just absorb everything that’s going to program and dictate things for the rest of their lives. So you’re permanently inflicting a person with that. Number two, most suicides happen inside of solitary. People come out enraged, angry, and end up going right back.

When I hear that comment, I always refer back to this story. When I first came home, my friends and family tried to get me out and socialize a bit more. One night we went to a hockey game, the first hockey game I’d been to in a while. I remember sitting there and seeing one guy get a penalty for fighting with another guy on the ice.

Martha: And they put him in the penalty box. Two minutes in the penalty box, right?

Five: Exactly. So he got two minutes in the penalty box, and he was in there standing up and getting angry, and as soon as he was released he went right back out and fought the same guy. So I’ve seen the way solitary works and the way it’s supposed to work. It’s just not effective as a rehabilitative strategy. Until society changes the fundamental way that we address problematic behavior in people, when incarceration is not the answer--when containment of our citizens is not the first response to everything. We respond to drug abuse with incarceration, we respond to mental illness with incarceration, physical disabilities with incarceration, youth just being youth with incarceration. I don’t know if you’ve ever had a teenager; I do. They are crazy people. We address teenage growing pains with incarceration. That is only reflected inside.

Martha: What was it like coming out? 

Five: I crashed. I didn’t make it. Nobody makes it.

Martha: You crashed? For how long?

Five:  I went from solitary confinement to open a door, bus ticket, and "there you go. Have a nice life." That same day, literally like 2 hours later I’m at 42nd Street with like 10 million commuters, and I’m freaking out. I’m not used to having that many people around me and my heart is raging and mind is blowing and I’m just thinking, and I just back myself into a corner and I’m rocking myself. Next, this homeless guy comes over and asks if I’m okay. I was like “what does he want? Why is he next to me? What is he doing?” My mind is racing because I don’t have the social skills to communicate. I don’t even know how, because it’s been so long. My face doesn’t even know what to do. Then he’s like, “Oh, you just came home,” because he understands. He sees this thing on a regular basis.

Martha: Given all that, how do you get free today? Are there moments when you literally find yourself back inside. What do you do with that?

Five: I always read and heard about posttraumatic stress disorder, and I always thought about it as a little dramatic. You know, the guy comes home from the war and hears a car back-firing and hits the ground, that sort of thing. This is sad to say--it just happens. It’s internal nervousness, panic. It grows from the inside out. In crowded spaces, like elevators.

In New York City we have the worst crowded transportation system in the world. I hate that. But I’ve overpowered that with the ability and the understanding that if I don’t do this work, nobody’s going to. I’m sad to say I’m socially damaged. I don’t do anything else. I don’t have any interests. I’m kind of socially numb. You have to understand, I had 12 years of my life robbed. I missed my entire children’s life growing up. Friends that I had now are married, they had kids, moved on. Everyone I know is still inside being tortured, and I work for them. I work for the people that are still inside.  

Mualimm-ak now devotes his time to work with The American Friends Service Committee, the Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confunement. He’s founder and program director of the Incarcerated Nation Campaign, which helps former inmates transition out of prison. 

Some of his art is currently on display at SLU’s brush Art Gallery, as part of the exhbit "Cellblock Visions" (hear Todd Moe's interview with curator Phyllis Kornfeld and see some of the pieces from that exhibit.) Kornfeld will give a lecture on the exhibit tonight at the gallery, at 7 pm.

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