June 25th 2024

For more than 22 years, Frank De Palma sat alone in a cell at Ely State Prison, a maximum-security facility in northeastern Nevada. | Spenser Heaps for the Deseret News


What’s the future of solitary confinement?

Frank De Palma spent a third of his life alone. Researchers and lawmakers are only beginning to understand what that does to a person

Published: June 13, 2024, 8:49 p.m. MDT

By Natalia Galicza

It was midafternoon and the blinds were drawn. Splinters of sunlight pushed through the border of the windowpane, but for the most part, the office where Frank De Palma sat was dark. He preferred it this way; he found comfort in the absence of light. And in March 2021, as he prepared to testify before the Nevada Legislature, he needed all the comfort he could get.

“Please bear with me, I’m very nervous,” the 64-year-old pleaded to the Senate Judiciary Committee. He looked pale. His cheeks were sunken in and creased by time, his head cue ball bald. He tried to steady his focus on the Zoom call, to direct his gaze at the grid of state senators on the computer screen, but his eyes darted about wildly. “I’m really afraid,” he said, fidgeting in his seat. “I’m afraid I won’t be able to convey the truth as I lived it.” Frank had 20 minutes to distill two decades of his life in support of Senate Bill 187 — a bill to reduce the use of solitary confinement in Nevada’s state prisons. Though he was not a policy expert or advocate with impressive credentials, he had intimate knowledge of the subject.

For more than 22 years, Frank sat alone in a cell at Ely State Prison, a maximum-security facility in northeastern Nevada. Now, seven years after his isolation and two years after his release from prison, he sat in front of a webcam to recount his experience.

“Darkness became like a blanket of protection to me,” Frank said. He admitted that he struggles to maintain a clear concept of time; that he tenses at the thought of anyone behind him while out in public; that, despite his best efforts, he still considers himself peripheral to society. More shadow than person. “There’s something in me that’s different.”

Frank’s story is emblematic of an American phenomenon. No country uses long-term solitary confinement more than the leader of the free world. More than 80,000 people on a given day experience solitary confinement in prisons nationwide, according to the nonprofit watchdog group Solitary Watch. That number rises to about 123,000 when including jails. The state with the highest percentage of its prisoners in solitary, as of 2019, is Nevada.

This punitive measure has burgeoned nationwide in the last few decades, as tough-on-crime politics gave rise to the creation of super-maximum security facilities. While these “supermax” units, which rely on isolation as a cudgel, were rare before 1990, they exist in 44 states today.

Between 1995 and 2000, the growth rate of inmates held in solitary outpaced that of the general prison population by more than 10%. The practice grew in popularity, including out West.

California’s Pelican Bay State Prison, built in 1989, was the state’s first supermax facility and remains one of the country’s most notorious. The Federal Bureau of Prisons’ ADX Florence facility in Colorado, built in 1994, is known as the toughest federal prison in the country and is the bureau’s only facility to hold all of its inmates in solitary.

Spenser Heaps for the Deseret News

Prolonged isolation can cause post-traumatic stress disorder, paranoia, impulse control, loss of identity, psychosis. Memory failure, difficulty with concentration, an inability to grasp time. Hypertension, musculoskeletal pain, strokes.

Some symptoms manifest in mere days. Many prove permanent or life-threatening.

“If you’ve been in (solitary confinement) for years, decades even, it’s changed who you are. It’s changed your psychological DNA,” says Craig Haney, a social psychologist and leading expert on solitary confinement and its impacts on brain health. “You turn into somebody else. That somebody else may or may not be transformable back into the person you were.”

That somebody else will, however, encounter the general populace once they’re out of prison. Incarcerated people who endure even short-term isolation face a higher likelihood of reoffending after their release; recidivism rates are as much as 15% higher for formerly incarcerated people who experienced solitary confinement than for those who didn’t. In the eyes of its opponents, it’s an issue of public safety as much as it is one of torture.

A recent wave of reform efforts hope to stanch that, including two bills awaiting action in the House and Senate to end the practice in federal prisons; more than 40 states have passed bipartisan legislation to place at least some limitations on solitary confinement.

“Punishment has got to be just and it has to be humane,” says Democratic state Sen. Pat Spearman, who introduced the Nevada bill. “Because if there are things that you do to people while they are incarcerated that warp their mind and make them worse mentally than they were when they went in, then people on the outside will have to deal with that.”

Spearman was one of eight senators present during Frank’s testimony. The bipartisan committee listened intently while the man in the half-dark spoke, to understand how he survived long-term confinement, and how he got there in the first place.

Incarcerated people who endure solitary confinement are 15% more likely to reoffend after their release from prison than those who don’t.

The cell was about four and a half steps wide. A small metal bunk sprouted from the wall. It faced a toilet. There was a desk beside the bunk, with a window above. Frank couldn’t see much when he looked out of it. Shadows shifting over the desert. Maybe a patch of sagebrush. Light extinguishing as day gave way to night. Sometimes he thought back to when he was 18 years old, sitting handcuffed in a transport van on his way from Las Vegas to Carson City. He had more than six hours to stare out the window then, admiring mountain ranges and lone bushes splattered across an otherwise desolate landscape as he inched closer to the Nevada State Prison.

An emotional decision he made as a teenager in the early 1970s had altered the trajectory of his life. Frank, his father, stepmother and older sister had recently moved to Las Vegas from Brooklyn, New York, when Frank’s dog, a Labrador named Bud, was killed. Frank saw it happen. A truck ran over Bud without stopping. Frank, short and plucky, was always quick to emotion and slow to curb his rage. He followed the driver of the truck home, stole the truck out of the driveway and drove it through the man’s house. The charges included grand larceny with a sentence of 10 years. He had the opportunity to get out on parole after only a couple years if he didn’t accrue additional charges. But once his sentence began, he made mistakes far more consequential. Attacking another prisoner with a weapon, battery, second-degree murder. He says the murder was self-defense; an altercation with a member of a prison gang, all of which Frank had avoided joining despite the target he claims his independence placed on him.

When he and other inmates transferred to Ely State Prison, which would later replace the former facility, those crimes and their consequences followed him. In 1992, at 36 years old, correctional staff put Frank in solitary confinement. Due to his history of violence, they wanted to separate him from incoming gang members. In that room roughly the size of a parking space, there was no radio or television. No books or magazines. No social interaction. His only breaks from the same four walls were for showers or trips to the recreational yard a few hours each week.

As the days turned into months, Frank’s time in lockdown appeared longer than it should have for a precautionary placement. He grew leery of guards, and eventually he cracked. While escorted out of his cell one day, he attempted to murder a correctional officer by strangling him with his chains. After that, he stayed locked in his concrete room with no clear end in sight.

The United Nations defines solitary confinement as isolation for 22 or more hours a day, with prolonged confinement beginning after 15 consecutive days. In American correctional settings, it’s often called “restrictive housing.” It’s also labeled “protective custody,” “disciplinary segregation” or “administrative segregation.” Prison staff might choose to isolate an inmate if they are a target of violence, if their presence poses a threat to others, or as a form of punishment. In North America, the practice dates back to 18th-century Quakers, who experimented with isolation as a means of reforming criminals based on a belief that time alone creates more space for prayer and repentance. It was seen as a humane alternative to the physical punishment once common in imprisonment. Yet even then, many who endured it degraded mentally. When French politicians Gustave de Beaumont and Alexis de Tocqueville investigated the United States’ penitentiary system in the 1830s, they concluded that “this absolute solitude … is beyond the strength of man; it destroys the criminal without intermission and without pity; it does not reform, it kills.” Decades later, in 1890, the Supreme Court came to a similar conclusion. In a majority opinion for a case known as “In re Medley,” Justice Samuel Freeman Miller wrote that solitary confinement rendered some prisoners “violently insane” and suicidal. “Those who stood the ordeal better were not generally reformed,” he added, “and in most cases did not recover sufficient mental activity to be of any subsequent service to the community.”

Motivations behind its use have morphed from its idealistic genesis — as a tool for rehabilitation — to something reserved for the “worst of the worst.” When his own confinement began, Frank did feel like the worst. He’d formed a reputation as particularly dangerous within the Nevada Department of Corrections. Wardens and staff at different facilities who’d never met Frank De Palma knew his name and associated it with violence. He hated who he’d become, what he’d done and how he’d hardened. He felt like he’d lost himself in prison. Although he’d soon learn there was plenty left to lose.

He paced those four and a half steps across his cell often at first. One, two, three, four, turn. One, two, three, four, turn. He was still athletic and trim about a year into his confinement, so he did whatever he could to maintain his strength. Pushups, situps, pacing. The routine offered him structure. He figured the only way he would withstand the effects of isolation was if he disciplined himself. So he did. For several months.

For more than two decades, Frank De Palma, confined to a dark cell about four footsteps wide, had only his mind and memories as company. | Spenser Heaps for the Deseret News

Then one day in the early ‘90s, about a year into his confinement, Frank was out in the recreation yard, staring up at the sky through webs of wire and fencing, when his vision tunneled. The walls around him seemed to close in, tighter and tighter. He could feel his heart gallop, his pulse quicken. Am I having a heart attack? Frank begged the guard on duty to let him back into his cell. Once he made it inside those four walls, the crushing sensation stopped. He was able to catch his breath.

Another day, while out for a shower, it happened again. The same feeling. One he’d later recognize as agoraphobia. He’d never felt anything like it before — never had a panic attack prior to prison. Since he failed to understand what was happening, or what caused it, he started to view anything outside his cell as a threat. He grew terrified to leave, never wanting to incite another episode. He stopped going out for his few hours of recreation each week. He began to opt out of showers, instead wiping himself as clean as he could with his sink so he wouldn’t have to risk the walk to the shower room. One irrational fear led to another, and soon the light posed another problem.

The cell’s vertical and narrow gash of a window only permitted meager sunlight on even the brightest days, and he’d always enjoyed looking out of it, but then, without warning, the light began to feel overstimulating. He stuffed a towel against the pane to block out the sunshine. After a while, even that wasn’t enough. He shut off the cell’s single fluorescent light bulb. Frank had enough sense to suspect that near-permanent darkness wasn’t good for his mental and physical health. But he couldn’t get himself to act on that survival instinct. The dark felt safer. It helped him escape reality. His solitude became a waking dream.

The only person who had seen Frank enough to bear witness to how much he’d deteriorated was the prison chaplain, James Stogner, who made regular rounds through the units and cell blocks to offer inmates spiritual guidance.

For years, whenever Stogner had passed by Frank’s cell, they discussed faith and family together through a locked door. It was the closest Frank could get to another person. Common courtesies like a simple question of “How are you?” had helped tide him over. “Holding up, chaplain,” Frank would respond hopefully, “holding up.”

He hated who he’d become, what he’d done and how he’d hardened. He felt like he’d lost himself in prison. Although he’d soon learn there was plenty left to lose.

One day while on his rounds, Stogner stopped by Frank’s cell and saw the lights were off. Normally, if the cell was dark, Stogner took it as a sign the inmate didn’t want to be disturbed and would move on. But on this occasion, he felt compelled to check in.

He knocked on the door several times and heard a weak grunt from inside. “Frank, it’s Chaplain Stogner,” he called out. “Come over to the door and let’s talk.” Stogner could make out Frank’s silhouette through the armored glass window; he could see that he was hunched over.

As Stogner spoke, it took Frank several minutes to recognize the chaplain. He could barely communicate. He was a shell of himself.

“I thought that Frank was near death,” Stogner later recalled. “I just didn’t think he was going to survive that.”

Adrift in an unending daydream, Frank had long lost his ability to keep track of the years. He imagined fictional characters and played out scenarios in his mind to forge some semblance of human connection.

In one fantasy, he’s at a supermarket. He saunters around aisles of fresh produce to look for honeydew melons. When he finds them, he pokes and prods. He thumps the bottom of each melon, searching for a deep, hollow thud to signal if they’re ripe. As he scours, he sees a beautiful woman approach. There’s small talk, jokes, laughter. He wonders if he should ask her out on a date but decides against it. Better to see if I run into her again, he thinks.

In another scenario, he’s a married man. A father. He and his wife have a son and a dog. It comes to Frank’s attention that his son has started beating the dog. This disturbs him deeply. He tries to devise a plan of how best to approach his child about the matter. Should I yell at him? Hit him? No, I could never hit him, he thinks. How do I become a good father? He never settles on an answer.

Outside of his fantasies, Frank could stave off loneliness if a stray insect, a beetle, say, wandered into his cell, a chance to both see and touch another living creature. It felt like a luxury.

Of all the insects he came across — and spoke to, and fed, and gently petted with his index finger — the most special was a ladybug. He recalls picking up the little red dot, balancing it on his thumb and asking, childlike: “What’s it like to be a ladybug?” Quite liberating, he assumed. Though he didn’t understand why any independent being would voluntarily enter this cell. He flicked it off his hand so it could fly away freely. Days later, he found it dead on the ground.

Spenser Heaps for the Deseret News

Outside the cell, beyond the prison walls, time wore on. The Earth rounded the sun five, 10, 15, 20 times. The world shrunk as the public gained access to an invention known as the internet. The World Trade Center crumbled from the New York City skyline. Wars came and went. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture called prolonged solitary confinement “cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.” Frank sat as the loneliness gnawed at him, as it changed him.

Finally, in 2014, he transferred to the Northern Nevada Correctional Center, about 30 minutes from Reno. His prison sentence was scheduled to end soon. And given the amount of time he’d spent in confinement, the move to the correctional center was meant to help him learn how to socialize again before parole. This was a medium-security facility, with fewer restrictions than the maximum security in Ely. It would offer Frank more programs and, comparably, more freedom.

Shortly after his arrival, a nurse at the correctional center’s mental health unit handed Frank a mirror. He trembled as he held it, afraid to look, with only a vague idea of what he’d see when he met his reflection. He knew he was 58 years old, but only because the nurse told him. He knew, by touching his head, he’d lost all his hair, and he’d seen the damage time had wrought on his hands — the topography of wrinkles and scars. But his face remained unknown. He understood that once he looked into the mirror, he would have no choice but to confront who he’d become and what he’d lost. So he braced himself. Then he looked.

His shoulders appeared stuck in a slouch, like his posture had forfeited all rights to confidence. He had missing teeth. Fine lines ringed round his forehead and under his eyes. Is that me? Tears rolled down his cheeks.

There were many occasions over the last two decades when he wondered if he existed at all. For at least the last five of those years, he never once stepped outside the confines of his cell. But there he was now. Face to face with himself for the first time in 22 years.

The associate warden of programs, Lisa Walsh, arranged to meet with him. She’d heard plenty about Frank De Palma over the years. His reputation — violent and problematic — preceded him. Yet when she reviewed his institutional files, she saw he hadn’t caused any trouble in years.

“In retrospect now, I probably thought that it was too long without giving him a chance,” she told me. “Obviously he met the criteria to go back to medium custody.”

Walsh felt obligated to ensure he was mentally healthy enough to rejoin society before the time came. For his sake and others.

“If we don’t figure out what to do with this guy, he’ll be put out at a bus station to go wherever,” she thought, “and God help whoever he runs into.”

Walsh didn’t know what she expected to see when she met Frank for the first time. She was shocked to find a feeble, nearly 60-year-old bald man who stood 5-foot-6. Even more shocking was that he looked so scared.

Frank begged her not to send him back into the general prison population. He pleaded for isolation. Walsh, like most prison staffers, believed in the efficacy of solitary confinement. For those working in high-security institutions with violent criminals, it’s seen as one of the quickest and safest ways to de-escalate a hostile situation.

But she also believes it can be overused, and for inmates who would later leave prison, like Frank, it risked creating future victims of future crimes. While Frank was in isolation, he’d refused to leave his cell.

“We can’t make them,” Walsh says. But now that he was under new care and faced a ticking clock, Walsh got permission from the warden to develop a recovery plan.

They started with talking. When all the other inmates held in his unit were locked up, Frank could walk around from cell to cell, while supervised, and strike up conversations. Just to see what it was like to chat freely with others again. That would also help Frank find his cellmates.

Walsh had convinced Frank to move out of the lockdown unit and into general population housing, but she gave him time in a cell of his own — rather than the dormitory style cells where he would live among others — to search for people he’d feel compatible with. Finally, there were walks around the recreational yard. Guards brought Frank outside when no other inmates were around so he could ease back into moving while uncuffed and unrestrained.

“It’s a lengthy process and it’s kind of time consuming,” Walsh says. “Plus you don’t want to rush something like that in case somebody snaps. We got lucky with Frank De Palma.”

As they progressed, he could have attempted to harm himself, another inmate or a guard at any time. In Frank’s case, the risk proved worth it. He eventually started bunking with cellmates in the general population and eating communal meals in the culinary hall just like anyone else. It took about six months to get there, but he was healing.

“If we don’t figure out what to do with this guy, he’ll be put out at a bus station to go wherever,” the associate warden thought, “and God help whoever he runs into.”

A year before Frank’s release from prison, a friend asked him to write a poem. Something short and sweet to express care and gratitude. He agreed to try.

The exercise proved challenging. For a third of his life, Frank thought he had nothing to be grateful for, save for the delusions and fantasies he’d indulge to pass the time. So he thought back to childhood, before his adult life got muddled by poor choices and seclusion. One memory stood out above the rest.

When Frank was about seven years old in Brooklyn, his parents took him and his older sister to Madison Square Garden for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus. They arrived about an hour and a half before the performance, walked around the arena and found a roped-off area with elephants. The behemoths were bound by a ball and chain, but attendees could feed them peanuts. Frank stuck out his hands and watched as elephants carefully picked up the treat with their trunk. He was impressed by how creatures capable of such great force could appear so gentle.

He secretly placed a peanut on his sister’s head, and watched with awe as an elephant’s trunk swooped over her scalp for the hidden treat. When his parents scolded him for the prank, Frank stormed off. He roamed toward the back wall of the circus tent. Heavy red velour drapes guarded what appeared to be a forbidden area, but he found an opening in the curtains and snuck inside.

He was backstage. The lights were dim. Scattered around were byproducts of circus performances: wooden pallets, saw dust, a lone stagecoach. He walked toward the carriage and noticed it was enclosed with plexiglass, except for a few holes. He stuck his arm inside one to feel if there was anything in the stagecoach. Then he noticed movement. As his eyes adjusted to darkness, he saw, sitting in the corner, a gorilla. “Hey, monkey, hey,” Frank called out. It slowly lifted its head to look at the boy before slouching back down.

“I was looking at it and all of a sudden I just started to feel so alone. So empty,” Frank says. “There was nothing, just misery. And I started to cry.”

He tried a final time to get a reaction out of the ape. Again, he stuck his arm inside the stagecoach, when he felt large, leathery hands on his shoulder, then down his arm, then at his fingers. He heard a grunt of acknowledgement before the gorilla scuttled back to its corner.

That memory had all but escaped him until he sat down to write the poem in April 2017. “I never talked to anybody about it. I never told my sister, I never told mom or dad,” Frank says. “I was meant to remember it now. Because I experienced it exactly for myself. That emptiness, that aloneness, I felt that.”

Despite how solemn he’d felt when he stumbled across the gorilla as a child, the memory brought him comfort now. He thought it gave meaning to his pain, that it proved all things are connected — past and present, man and beast — even when isolation makes it feel otherwise.

In January 2024, a new law went into effect in Nevada. Senate Bill 307 defines solitary confinement as isolation for more than 22 hours a day for any reason. It caps the duration any Nevada prisoner can be held in solitary at 15 consecutive days — the limit recommended by the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners — before a mandatory administrative review.

It’s designed so no inmates in isolation fall through the cracks, the type of precautionary measure Frank testified in support of in 2021. Except, unlike its predecessor, this reform passed, unanimously, and was signed into law by Republican Gov. Joe Lombardo, a former county sheriff.

Through the new law, Nevada became one of only three states to restrict solitary to 15 days or less at a time. Though advocates are pushing for similar reforms in California, Oregon and Washington, Nevada is the first state in the West to do so. “We have a Republican tough-on-crime governor,” says Nicholas Shepack, board chair of the prisoners’ advocacy group Return Strong, who presented the bill alongside Spearman. “I think this says a lot about a shift in the narrative, that a former sheriff who ran for governor on a tough-on-crime platform signed more prison reform legislation than we’ve seen in probably the last three or four sessions combined in a single year.”

De Palma, now living in an apartment complex in Reno, Nevada, is slowly adjusting to life on the outside. | Spenser Heaps for the Deseret News

Frank is now 68 years old. He lives in a studio apartment in Reno, Nevada. “For a time I became somebody who did not belong out of prison,” he told me when I visited him in March. The single window beside his bed was open, to let in the spring breeze, but the blinds were shut. A small lamp on his desk was turned on, the light dimmed by extra fabric placed over the lampshade. “There’s a lot of conditioning that I’m trying to undo,” he said.

He still can’t ride the bus without fear of another panic attack, and he dislikes crowds. He spends most days in his apartment. He stays awake for days at a time to coax a sleep deep enough to mute his recurring nightmares — the worst of which involves the mother of the other inmate he killed. In it, he tries to explain himself and apologize. He can feel the hatred steaming off her as she stares back in silence.

But occasionally, he’ll walk across the street to a nearby food market for iced tea. Or just step outside his door to feel the sun against his skin. He even co-wrote a self-published memoir, “Never to Surrender!” which chronicles his more than four decades in prison. And he’s no longer alone.

As we spoke, a soft hum of conversation filtered into his room from the open window. He stood up and followed it out the front door. He hobbled 20 feet over to the apartment complex’s communal fire pit. The hearth was unlit, the community swimming pool it overlooks covered with a plastic tarp, the grill between them cool to the touch. Yet his neighbors were there, sitting around the pit in Adirondack chairs. They’d left one open for Frank.

There was Che, tall and lanky, an Oakland expat in a pale yellow Jimi Hendrix T-shirt; and Gina, in flip-flops and sweatpants, her fingernails manicured a bright red, her hair a sleek brown bob. They asked Frank how he was doing, about his cat Fatty, about his memoir.

“You should do a signing,” Gina said. “It’ll bring a lot of people.”

“Yeah,” Che added, “call Barnes & Noble.”

Frank shifted awkwardly in response. It still felt unfamiliar, receiving compliments. Yet they kept coming.

“You’re doing so good, adapting to everything,” Gina said. “You even know about technology better than me,” she quipped, citing Frank’s iPhone prowess and frequent use of Siri.

Despite his proximity to his neighbors, Frank sometimes goes months without seeing them. When the need to isolate in his apartment feels overpowering, he excuses himself from their fireside chats. Though he knows that, whenever he’s ready, there will still be a seat left open for him.

“This is a really safe environment, he doesn’t have to worry about being judged,” Gina told me as more people filed in. Soon, there was Maria, Tony, Albert, Sonny. A new neighbor who’d just moved into the complex approached the group to swap introductions. “We’re like a family unit here,” Gina said.

They laughed and sat outside long enough that the sun went from harsh and overhead to ducked behind the trees. Much longer than Frank can usually muster for social interactions. But this time, he stayed anyway.

This story appears in the June 2024 issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.

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