For Clinton Terrell, dog-eared copies of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Homer’s Odyssey, slipped to him by an older inmate, just about saved him when he was in solitary confinement. Were it not for the classics, Terrell — who just transferred from Cabrillo Community College in Santa Cruz to UC Berkeley — might still be incarcerated.
But this is no Orange Is the New Black comedy-drama. Terrell served hard time in some of California’s toughest penal institutions for residential burglaries and auto theft, mostly to feed a heroin habit. A 15-month stint in a windowless 8- by-6-foot cell in Tehachapi State Prison’s SHU, or security housing unit, left him with social anxiety that, to this day, makes him dread being touched.
“I got so comfortable being alone that I would get panic attacks when they took me out of my cell,” says Terrell, who has been crime- and drug-free since his release in 2011. “Having a correctional officer handcuff you, touch you, and then walking past the cells with everyone looking at you. I definitely lost my social skills.”
Overhauling solitary confinement
As California embarks on reforming solitary confinement policies in the wake of a landmark settlement that was reached in September, Terrell and thousands of other current and former prisoners continue to suffer from the lingering effects of being isolated in cramped cells 23 hours a day while serving sentences that can stretch from months to years.
A federal class-action suit, filed on behalf of Pelican Bay inmates in 2012, successfully argued that sustained solitary confinement constitutes cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment. As a result of the settlement, one-third of the state’s 3,000 prisoners who were relegated to isolation – many for suspected gang affiliations – are gradually being transitioned back into general prison populations.
UC Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner, who studies emotion and social interaction, was among the expert witnesses in the case known as Ashker v. the Governor of California. In his brief, Keltner outlined how mammals ranging from rats to chimpanzees to humans learn nurturing, trust, compassion and cooperation through touch.
His is among a broader body of research that helps explain how social isolation might trigger or exacerbate mental illness, causing some prisoners to withdraw so deeply inside themselves that they suffer a form of social death.
“The science is clear. Depriving humans of the ability to touch another human being denies them a basic form of social interaction critical to the functions of soothing in response to stress, creating a sense of safety, and fostering cooperation,” he wrote in his expert witness brief.
From incarceration to academia
Terrell, 30, is among a dozen or so ex-convicts who belong to UC Berkeley’s Underground Scholars Initiative, a 2-year-old campus support group for current and prospective students who have transitioned out of incarceration and into academia.
On campus, he comes across as an engaged, capable, affable young man. At first glance, there is little about him that hints at the long months of seclusion he endured as he ruminated about the hand he’d been dealt.
“I just sat in my cell and thought about all the people who did me wrong, my parents, my high school teachers. I got really bitter,” he says. “That kind of environment really breeds hate.”
And when he did get a cellmate, he could barely tolerate him: “Everything he did made me irritable,” he says. “If he got up to get some water, made a noise, I would be rehearsing violence.”
Terrell grew up mostly in the Sierra Nevada foothills, the only child of a single mother. Until he was 8, he says, his only contact with his father was through letters he received from county jails in Idaho, Montana and Washington.
His home life, he says, was plagued with domestic violence and drug use, and he recalls sharing bunks with his mother in various women’s shelters. He lost interest in school in the eighth grade and dropped out completely in his freshman year of high school.
At 14, he stole marijuana from the home of a friend, got caught and served six months in Placerville’s juvenile hall. There, he got his first taste of solitary confinement, which shook him up.
“They take away your reading material, your mattress and bedding and they play educational stuff over the loudspeakers over and over and just leave you there,” he says. ‘I totally lost it. I wanted to kill myself.”
Once released, he returned to the streets, then made a U-turn back to juvenile hall for truancy and testing positive for marijuana. He got into a fight with another young inmate, which brought him a “gang enhancement,” more solitary confinement and a 13-month stay in youth boot camps in Colusa and Del Norte counties.
Dogged by the gang label
By the time he was 18, he says, he was doing hard drugs and had graduated to adult incarceration facilities, including Deuel Vocational Institution in Tracy, a “reception center” where inmates are evaluated based on their criminal records and profiles, then transferred to a state prison.
Around that time, he befriended a suspected gang member, which landed him a point on the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s gang validation criteria. Over the next decade, validation points for mostly nonviolent infractions earned him several terms in solitary confinement.
At Deuel Vocational Institution, inmates were strictly segregated by race, as were members of the rival Latino Norteño and Sureño gangs. But that didn’t stop Terrell from getting caught in the middle of a gang brawl between whites and Norteños.
“All the correction officers saw was me tangled up with this guy on the ground, and I had pepper spray on me,” he says. “That got me written up for participation in a riot with a gang enhancement.”
Much worse, it got him assigned to Tehachapi State Prison, near Bakersfield, with an 18-month sentence in the SHU for the gang enhancement. A veteran inmate at Deuel taught him how to survive isolation in state prison.
“He told me to wake up early and organize myself as if I were getting ready to go to work,” he says. “Make the bed, do push-ups, take a bird bath in the sink, do the laundry, eat lunch, read for a few hours, write letters, go to bed, wake up and do it again.”
At 20, Terrell faithfully followed that regimen while reading bestsellers by John Grisham and James Patterson. But he got tired of those books, and knocked on his neighbor’s wall. The older inmate suggested he try something weightier, like Beowolf, and Romeo and Juliet.
Finding the action in Shakespeare
Terrell found the former archaic and the latter lacking in action: “Many of us inmates look for tales of war and honor and nobility,” he says, “We’re trying to model ourselves after the heroes in these stories, be honorable criminals.”
But then he discovered Julius Caesar, and Calpurnia’s warning to Caesar not to go to battle, and was blown away by Caesar’s response:
“A coward dies a thousand times before his death, but the valiant taste of death but once. It seems to me most strange that men should fear, seeing that death, a necessary end, will come when it will come.”
“That opened up my mind, and after I left that facility, those were the kinds of books I sought out,” he says. “Anything that looked like it might be taught in a college classroom, I grabbed, whether it was Shakespeare, The Odyssey, The Iliad, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain or other classics. And that’s how I got to community college.”
In 2011, as the Pelican Bay inmates went on a hunger strike to protest the harsh conditions of solitary confinement, Terrell finished up his prison sentence and moved to Santa Cruz.
He got clean, worked odd jobs, lived on a sailboat and met a woman with whom he had a baby. Then they split up: “Relationships are hard,” says Terrell, who spends weekends with his now-2-year-old daughter.
Meanwhile, his grounding in the classics gave him an edge at community college. He interned with the nonviolence organization Barrios Unidos, and worked on a creative writing project with prisoners.
He also founded the Student Solidarity Coalition for formerly incarcerated students, which was among the organizations chosen to address recidivism as part of the Clinton Global Initiative University conference in Arizona in 2014.
It was through prisoner advocacy efforts that he met Steven Czifra, a UC Berkeley graduate who had spent time in isolation at Pelican Bay State Prison before transitioning to academia. Czifra encouraged Terrell to get a university education, and connected him with Berkeley’s Underground Scholars Initiative.
From isolation to fiat lux
This fall, Terrell started his undergraduate studies in English literature at Berkeley. His first writing assignment earned him a B-plus.
“I was really happy with it,“ he says, adding that he got help from his friends in the Underground Scholars Initiative, who meet regularly in a space at Stiles Hall on Bancroft Way.
It’s too early in Terrell’s college career to tell where he’s going, but he’s thinking of getting a Ph.D. in English and teaching.
The focus and discipline he practiced during his time in solitary has refined his study habits. But he still has trouble forming close social bonds.
“I still don’t like people to touch me. Someone will talk to me and pat me on the shoulder or on the back and it doesn’t feel natural. ” he says.
But, as Ophelia says in Hamlet, “We know what we are, but know not what we may be.” That classic wisdom bodes well for Terrell, whose future is so much bigger and brighter than an 8-by-6-foot windowless cell.