After Two Years in Solitary, This Mother’s Healing Has Just Begun

"I'm talking to you, and I'm alive, but physically, spiritually, mentally—I died."

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Mar 22 2016, 7:30pm

In this July 23, 2015 file photo, Candie Hailey, center, speaks during a monthly rally calling for the end of solitary confinement in New York.(AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews, File)

Last May, a jury in the Bronx found Candie Hailey not guilty of attempted murder, freeing her from a long and brutal stretch of pretrial confinement on New York's notoriously violent Rikers Island jail complex. But for Hailey, welcome as it was, the verdict didn't come soon enough: Over the course of more than three years on the island, she spent the majority of her time in the severe isolation of a six-by-ten foot solitary confinement cell, awaiting her day in court. While she endured bewildering delays in the Bronx's famously sclerotic criminal justice system, Hailey attempted suicide multiple times.

One attempt saw the 32-year-old swallow a hair removal product.

As arduous as her time on Rikers was, Hailey's acquittal did not mark the end of her battle with New York City. Even after the jury cleared her on the initial charges that got her arrested, the Bronx district attorney's office pursued her with felony criminal mischief and other charges, some related to an incident in which she allegedly broke a jailhouse chair.

Finally, on Monday afternoon, Hailey's odyssey with the local criminal justice system came to an end when a Bronx judge asked prosecutors to drop all remaining criminal charges. In return, Hailey agreed to plead guilty to several non-criminal disorderly conduct infractions punishable by a fine, ending the latest disturbing saga set in a jail under national scrutiny and facing calls from local and state officials to close shop entirely.

By 4 PM, the mother of two had left the court for what she hopes is the last time.

"She leaves today with a completely clean record," Hailey's lawyer, Patrick Higgins, told me shortly after the bench trial was over. "Now she can get on with her life."

For Hailey, the outcome was a bittersweet one: She's finally free of prosecution, but she says the years in solitary confinement have made her a profoundly different person. "I'm talking to you, and I'm alive," she told me over the phone late Monday, "but physically, spiritually, mentally—I died."

After years in an isolation cell, Hailey says she struggles to carry on conversations with people, as she often loses her train of thought mid-sentence or suddenly fears that her words are not making sense. She now wears glasses because, she claims, lacking access to books in solitary confinement, she was left to reread a tiny-print pocket Bible until her vision permanently blurred. Hailey adds that she finds it difficult to sleep at night because the walls in her the bedroom she shares with three other women are blue—like her old cell. And she now prefers to sleep with the lights on, as in her isolation cell, where she believed illumination helped keep rodents and bugs off of her sleeping body.

When she does manage to sleep now, Hailey says she sometimes wakes up after dreaming about Rikers.

"I have nightmares that I'm still in solitary, and when I wake up and look around and say, 'OK, I'm not in solitary,' it's hard to go back to sleep," she said.

Last month, the Associated Press's Jake Pearson profiled Hailey's time on Rikers and subsequent struggle to regain her footing in society after more than two years in isolation. It seemed to epitomize the urgent problems facing the Rikers Island jail complex, which inmates, experts, and advocates often describe as a civil rights catastrophe.

Hailey's case touches some of the most pressing problems at the jail.

Having reportedly been diagnosed with borderline character disorder while in Rikers, the jail's harsh conditions weighed severely on Hailey's emotional state. But the facility provided little in the way of meaningful mental health services: By the AP's account, in response to Hailey's suicide attempts, the jail's administration often simply sent her to solitary confinement, which made things worse. She fought with other inmates and even smeared her body with feces at one point, and yet the jail's psychologists apparently dismissed her as strategically deploying misbehavior to seek more favorable conditions.

"Punitive segregation should be used sparsely and with careful consideration—which is why we've reduced the number of people in punitive segregation by about 75 percent," a New York City Department of Correction (DOC) spokesperson said in a statement Tuesday. "Everyone in our custody deserves to be treated safely and humanely, and we've added numerous alternative housing options to provide rehabilitative discipline. From new mental health training to expanded education for inmates, we're taking aggressive steps to keep our inmates safe and provide them with tools to build productive lives once they leave."

A 2014 New Yorker profile of a former Rikers inmate named Kalief Browder, who also spent some two years in solitary confinement, catapulted the excesses of pretrial incarceration into the national discourse. Browder, whose charges were also ultimately dismissed after he went three years without trial, struggled to rebuild his life, and in June of last year, he committed suicide.

The terrors of isolation can cause inmates who might not otherwise break rules to accumulate new criminal charges while incarcerated, experts and advocates say.

"Inmates can become more difficult to deal with as they suffer the effects of isolation and they try to figure out some way to maintain their mental heath," said Taylor Pendergrass, a senior staff attorney at the New York Civil Liberties Union. He argues that, because of its severe consequences, solitary confinement must be avoided categorically. The problem, of course, is that on Rikers isolation has been used as a go-to tool of enforcing basic discipline. "Like a lot of other places, Rikers has been practicing that form of just routine and punishing isolation for a very long time," the advocate added.

In recent years, thanks in part to a scathing 2014 investigation by the Justice Department, reformers have won a slate of changes at the jail complex. They include a halt to the use of solitary confinement for 16- and 17-year-olds—with plans to expand that up to age 21 this year—and the creation of new programs like Clinical Alternative to Punitive Segregation (CAPS) for mentally ill inmates who clash with guards. "I think the changes that are under way—there are all heading in the right direction," Pendergrass told me. "But I don't think anyone is under the illusion that it's going to be an easy or quick process."

A growing chorus of activists and politicians—including New York Governor Andrew Cuomo—has voiced support for the idea that problems at Rikers are too deep for mere reform, and that the island jail must be closed altogether. A recently-formed commission on Rikers called for by City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito could recommend shutting it down.

Higgins, the attorney, noted that the jailhouse charges against Hailey were initiated before the state lost its initial case, but said he's never seen prosecutors pursue felony charges against a Rikers inmate for criminal mischief. "I think it was a situation where Candie was in there an awfully long time, and the correction officers took an considerable dislike to her," Higgins told me. "I think there was some retaliation in some of the charges she faced. You don't often see criminal mischief charges like this."

Hailey said that, to celebrate the win in court, she had wanted to go get seafood, but couldn't afford it. In fact, she said couldn't even afford the bus ride back to her temporary room in Harlem. "I asked some bus drivers," she told me. "The first two said, 'No,' but the last one was hesitant, but he said, 'OK, I'll let you on.'" A mother of two, Hailey says she occasionally braids hair for money, and eventually, she wants to return to school to pursue either a degree in adult education or law.

She adds that there's one thing she knows with certainty: She will continue to pursue activist work to oppose solitary confinement in jails.

"It's torture," Hailey told me. "There's no other way to describe it but torture."

Follow Spencer Woodman on Twitter.

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