Wilson Rodriguez, a 59-year-old Lancaster man who was convicted of theft by deception and impersonation of a public official on March 6th, has been in the Lancaster County Prison since October 30, 2013. He believes he is a retired New York City police officer.
He is not.
But that’s what he told people before he was imprisoned–his girlfriend, his family. And when he entered the prison this past fall, that was what he told the people there.
Rodriguez has a history of health-related paranoia: his son Wilson Alvarez, who advocates for his father, said that Rodriguez, a smoker, would sometimes call family meetings to announce that he had throat or lung cancer.
“It was not a lie,” said Alvarez. “It was a delusion. The fear of being sick … And he lies about things and keeps them going for a long time and it becomes part of his life story. It’s very bizarre.”
Other delusions relating to his life history have included telling people, even family members, that he was a first responder to the 9/11 terrorist attacks and that he has PTSD.
“He’s had 9/11 bumper stickers on all his cars,” said Alvarez. “I think that 9/11 really affected him. But, you know, he wasn’t there.”
Alvarez believes that the delusion about having been a cop, and another one about being a retired FBI agent, might stem from his father’s experience of living in New York and then Pennsylvania as a Puerto Rican immigrant with a sixth-grade education. “He wanted the respect,” said Alvarez.
Cheryl Alvarez, Rodriguez’s daughter, said that her father’s mental illness has played a part in his crimes. “He doesn’t take responsibility for his actions; he believes he’s helping people when he takes money from them,” she said.
And he makes things up in even the most mundane, everyday situations: “He’ll say he’s having tea if he’s having coffee,” she said. Alvarez has fought for years to get her father treated and diagnosed for his mental illness. When he was arrested in August 2012 his Medicaid was immediately withdrawn – this is a routine occurrence. When Alvarez did manage to get her father to see a psychologist, he was unofficially diagnosed with major depression and anxiety.
Cries for help
Because administrators considered Rodriguez’s false admission a threat to his safety and the safety of other inmates (inmates don’t react favorably to a person’s admission to being a former cop), on Nov. 20 they moved him to a different section of the prison and reclassified him as Housed Alone Blockout Alone (HABA).
There, he was in a cell by himself but still had inmate privileges – he could make phone calls, purchase snacks and personal comfort items from the commissary, and receive “no-contact” visits from his family. That is, he could see them through a window in a booth in the visitation room.
The “Housed Alone” part means that he didn’t have a cellmate, and the “Blockout Alone” part refers to the time inmates are allowed to spend in the common area in their cellblock and the recreational area. Under HABA status, there is no physical contact, and no chance to walk around and socialize.
In the third week of December, guards did a routine sweep of Rodriguez’s room and found contraband. This reporter was not able to find out from prison officials what sort of contraband was found, but officials said that contraband includes anything from a bar of soap carved into the shape of a bird to a plastic toothbrush sharpened into a weapon.
The contraband, his family said, combined with the fact that he was telling guards he was an FBI agent, was grounds for disciplinary action, which meant he was transferred to a Restricted Housing Unit (RHU) on the lower level of the same disciplinary housing block.
In the prison, the RHU is called “the hole.”
Rodriguez lived under RHU status from Dec. 30 to Feb. 14. When he got there, his privileges were taken away. He spent all but one hour and ten minutes per day (and this only on weekdays) alone in an 8′ by 12′ cell. He had no access to TV, radio, or reading materials – exceptions to this rule are religious texts and legal papers.
While his daughter waged a relentless campaign of social media posts about her father and made phone calls to prison officials (who eventually stonewalled her) and advocacy groups, and before she held vigils outside the prison and not one but two reporters wrote about the case, Rodriguez was for all intents and purposes being held in the RHU indefinitely. Before the inmate was convicted Major Edward Klinovski told Alvarez that it would be recommended that her father stay under RHU status for the duration of his sentence, which could have been one to five years, even if he was transferred to state prison.
“When I went in and saw him under these conditions, I basically lost it–I just cried,” said Cheryl Alvarez, who last saw her father when she was allowed a special visit on Jan. 14 and has advocated for his right to fair treatment that befits his mental-health condition for several months, ever since he was placed under HABA status. (She will be able to visit him on Thursday of this week, since he has been released from the RHU.)
“The prison keeps assuring me that my father is not under any kind of punishment,” she said in an early interview while Rodriguez was still in the RHU, “But when I went in to see him, he looked like a skeleton. He had lost at least 20lbs.”
When she saw him, he told her he was afraid he was bleeding internally.
On Jan. 24 Cheryl Alvarez received a phone call from an inmate named Alex, who had been housed on the RHU block for a week, four doors down from Rodriguez’s cell.
“He said that my father is throwing notes out from his cell saying he needs help, and asking when he would get out of there, and the guards are just walking by ignoring him,” Alvarez said.
A few weeks ago, her father mailed her a packet of notes, some of which were letters to relatives – others desperate cries for help.
Alex also told Alvarez that it was very cold in the RHU and that inmates weren’t allowed sufficient covers to keep them warm. The deputy wardens later revealed that inmates were allowed up to two blankets (apparently a cotton-poly blend) in winter.
“We don’t have solitary confinement,” said Lancaster County Prison Deputy Warden of Inmate Services Joe Shiffer. “There’s nothing preventing them from going up to their door and talking to another inmate, who can hear them.”
County Commissioner Scott Martin and Deputy Warden Shiffer both stood fast on the assertion that there is no solitary at the county prison, because inmates can see, hear and communicate with people passing their cells through the windows and cracks under their doors.
However, according to prison-reform advocacy group Solitary Watch, solitary confinement is defined as “The practice of isolating inmates in closed cells for 22-24 hours a day, virtually free of human contact, for periods ranging from days to decades.”
According to the organization, “Few prisons use the term ‘solitary confinement,’ instead referring to prison ‘segregation,'” the term for HABA and RHU used by county prison staff. Solitary Watch goes on to say that “In Pennsylvania, [solitary confinement units] are called Restricted Housing Units (RHUs).”
When this reporter was given a tour of the Restricted Housing Unit by Deputy Wardens Michael Billy and Joe Shiffer, it was cold to someone wearing a light sweater.
There was an irregular cacophony of muffled yells echoing through the open room, which holds two tiers of housing, the upper of which is for those who are receiving a lower grade of punishment, and the lower for those who have had their privileges taken away.
When the interview turned to questions about heating, one inmate who was particularly close by yelled out, “Don’t believe them! They’re [expletive deleted] lying! It’s cold in here!”
About the yelling, Billy said, “Yes, they still have an opening under the door. Those are the guys on the bottom tier. It’s muffled, but they are still able to communicate.”
The wardens also said, earlier in the interview, that inmates will sometimes tear their sheets into strips, attach notes to them, and fling them out from beneath their doors like fishing line in order to get messages to neighboring inmates.
This reporter was able to see the empty suicide-watch cell in the RHU. The cell was lit by the white light of fluorescents, and the muted sky entered through a long, short window near the ceiling, which was bordered by chipped, dark paint. There were pencil-or-pen markings on its walls and ceiling.
The bed was a salmon-colored metal tray elevated one or two feet above the floor. The tin mirror reflected a warped, indistinct version of this reporter’s face, like a funhouse mirror of poor quality.
Deputy Warden Billy said that inmates under RHU disciplinary status are let outside to exercise for one hour every day, five days a week. During the other two days RHU inmates are locked in their cells. They receive meals through “wicket holes,” slots in their doors that are padlocked shut whenever a tray is not passing through.
For the general population, outdoor exercise consists of recreational time in a high-ceilinged cement room – the “urban yard,” which has large, barred windows 20 feet above the floor. “When it snows, snow can come in, if it’s blowing,” Shiffer said.
“Technically, it’s considered ‘outside’ because it’s fresh air,” Billy said.
In the administrative area near the entrance to the Restricted Housing Unit, one can see the exercise yard through a window. A shower of white winter light comes through the barred windows onto one of its interior walls. Through the windows in the exercise space, one can see the “tower wall,” which has a walkway with guiderails along which corrections officers can do what are called their “exterior rounds.”
On the floor of the urban yard, along the exterior walls, there are six 10′ deep by 4′ wide wire cages, which according to Deputy Warden Joe Shiffer are called “individual exercise runs.”
A typical weekday for an inmate with RHU status includes three meals, one hour of exercise time in his run, and then a shower. He is escorted once a day out to the urban yard in handcuffs, released from his handcuffs when he is in his run, handcuffed again an hour later, taken to the shower, locked in, un-handcuffed through a slot at waist level, allowed to shower without privacy for ten minutes, handcuffed again, and escorted back to his cell.
Shiffer and Billy were unsure at what time Rodriguez exercised, but Alvarez said she had heard he was let out at 2 a.m. every morning.
A history of abuse and the risk of self-harm
In an article titled “Solitary Confinement and Mental Illness in U.S. Prisons: A Challenge for Medical Ethics,” Dr. Jeffrey L. Metzner and Jamie Fellner, Esq., say that the psychological effects of isolation “can include anxiety, depression, anger, cognitive disturbances, perceptual distortions, obsessive thoughts, paranoia, and psychosis.”
Isolation, with its “stress, lack of meaningful social contact, and unstructured days” can exacerbate preexisting mental illness or cause recurrence; “Many simply will not get better as long as they are isolated.”
As of last December, officials in Colorado prisons are prohibited from sending prisoners with severe mental illness into solitary confinement.
A LancasterOnline article states that there have been 11 suicides at the county prison since 1998. Reading about the legal cases is chilling. Inmates have sued the prison for rape by guards, savage beatings, and deliberate indifference. In 2003, for instance, Major Klinovski was one plaintiff to former RHU resident Ivan Lopez-Diaz’s claim of cruel and unusual punishment.
According to a legal memorandum, Lopez-Diaz’s claim involved the fact that he was forced to shower while handcuffed and so developed a persistent “swollen and inflamed” rash on his wrists, back, thighs, and buttocks from improper hygiene. After the rash developed, Lopez-Diaz “allegedly submitted five or six official requests over a two-and-a-half week period for nursing assistance, wrote numerous letters to [former] Warden Guarini requesting medical treatment, and made frequent oral requests that the guards […] permit him to visit the infirmary.” When a nurse eventually examined Lopez-Diaz, she did it from a distance of ten feet outside the inmate’s cell and gave him no medication to treat the rash. She advised him to run water over it and the rash worsened. Lopez-Diaz was never examined again.
All of the former inmate’s claims were dismissed.
Since a series of lawsuits was brought against the prison in 2011 for abuse and neglect by guards, the prison has strengthened mental health services for inmates and increased camera surveillance at the prison; there now seems to be a camera in one’s field of vision at all times.
When told about Rodriguez’s situation, Mary Steffy, who was director of Mental Health America of Lancaster County (MHALC), an organization that partnered with the prison to work with inmates at the time of the lawsuits, said, “I’m really disappointed that some of that is still happening, because I thought they were making some improvements.”
Jan Baily, Executive Director of MHALC, said, “Around the time that I came into the position [eighteen months ago], Interim Warden Paul Smeal was appointed; he along with Deputy Warden Joe Shiffer and Tony Haws (counseling services at the prison) began to drive initiatives to address needs of inmates with mental health issues. That commitment continued and was strengthened by Warden [Dennis] Molyneaux, who brought us in to begin working with male inmates (with mental health needs) – such steps are progress in the right direction.”
Another administrative step that has improved inmate conditions is the fact the prison is much less crowded than it was a few years ago, Shiffer said.
Deputy Wardens Michael Billy and Shiffer say that inmates under RHU and HABA status are checked up on three times a week by prison officials during “segregation rounds,” and inmates can request counseling at these times.
In addition, all inmates are given a mental health evaluation upon intake and, the wardens say, are monitored for changes. There are anxiety and addiction support groups that, needless to say, HABA and RHU-status prisoners cannot take part in.
When this reporter asked the deputy wardens if inmates’ mental health issues affected administrators’ decisions regarding penal measures like isolation, she was again told that all inmates can receive counseling if they request it.
Isolating the most vulnerable
According to the Justice Fellowship, another prison-reform advocacy group, the Bureau of Justice Statistics found in 2005 that 81,622 people in U.S. prisons were held in solitary confinement by one name or another, and although it is hard to estimate, that number holds steady today. This is due in part to inadequate public funds, prompting prisons to use solitary confinement as de facto treatment for the mentally ill.
The Justice Fellowship also confirms that Rodriguez’s experience is not unique: “At [non-supermax] facilities, inmates are placed in ‘disciplinary segregation’ because they have allegedly violated prison rules, which in some cases simply means that they have talked back to a prison guard; or ‘administrative segregation’ because they are mentally ill, they need protection from other prisoners, or they have information on disruptive incidents that are set for hearing. These prisoners often receive exactly the same treatment as the truly disruptive.”
For months, prison officials consistently told Alvarez that her father was not being punished: they said he was in the RHU for his own protection.
But two Thursdays ago that changed. When Alvarez contacted Shiffer, the deputy warden told her that her father had had another infraction while in the RHU. He wouldn’t say what the infraction was, but Alvarez guesses that it had something to do with trying to pass notes to neighboring inmates, perhaps to get snacks or just to talk.
“He hasn’t had contact with his family and he’s hungry because the food is not enough and he’s just trying to get extra food–He wrote me a letter last week that just said, “I wish I had cookies and pretzels,” Alvarez said a week before her father was released from the RHU. To Alvarez, it seemed like a vicious cycle: her father was being deprived of food that tastes good, sensory stimulation, and companionship as punishment, and when he tried to ease the pain of absolute boredom and solitude even a little he was punished more.
Shiffer also dodged Alvarez’s question about how much longer her father would be without his commissary, phone and visitation privileges. “He said he wasn’t sure–he didn’t have the paper in front of him,” Alvarez said.
Cheryl Alvarez will not rest until she knows that her father is safe. With her brother Wilson and some friends, she held vigils outside the prison on Thursday and Friday of the last week before her father was let out of the RHU. She collected the stories of many people who stopped when they were walking by and even pulled over to talk to the group about their own experiences with the prison.
She contacted State Representative Mike Sturla, whose office got in touch with the prison about Rodriguez’s housing conditions; shortly thereafter, she was told that Shiffer personally fixed the heat in Rodriguez’s cell. On the Friday before he was let out of the RHU, Alvarez said, after she contacted Sturla’s office, her father was granted a five-minute phone call. She said he was crying and didn’t understand why he was still being punished.
“His letters are very traumatizing for me,” she said days before her father was released. “Just to know what he’s going through. Whenever I take a bite of food, or take a sip of coffee, to know that he can’t. It’s torture for me.”
Rodriguez is now back in the general population and was released from the RHU on Friday, Feb. 14. He has one roommate. “I spoke with my dad on the phone,” Alvarez said the day after Rodriguez was released. “He is traumatized. He cried a lot. He’s scared to go back. He’s grateful.”
Rodriguez will remain in the Lancaster County Prison for the duration of his one-year sentence. He may soon be eligible for work release.
But for Alvarez, the fight is not over. She has a busy life – she works and has a family – but says she had to make her father a “priority” while he was locked down in the RHU. She plans to continue to work for her father’s fair treatment and that of all prisoners. “[My dad] was voiceless for so long,” she said on Monday. “We had no other choice but to be louder than prison officials. What this has done, if nothing else, is open the door to an important conversation about human rights. What they actually mean to us as individuals and to society as a whole.”
This article was submitted to Lancaster Newspapers, where investigative reporter Gil Smart used it as a guide for his own additional research. His article, “Mentally Ill and in Solitary Confinement,” came out last Sunday.