28 Years In Prison, 23 Years in Solitary Confinement: Brian Nelson Shares His Story

February 16, 2016

By Adrianna Hernandez

Brian Nelson, a man who spent 28 years in prison and 23 years in solitary confinement, visited Dominican on Feb. 4 to share his story with theology professor Anthony Suárez-Abraham and students currently enrolled in Suárez-Abraham’s Solitary Confinement and Human Rights course.

Suárez-Abraham is co-teaching the course with criminology professor Michelle VanNatta and theatre professor Bill Jenkins. When Professor Suárez-Abraham was asked what he wanted his students to leave with, he said, “Like you and me, Brian is human and, along with every other person in prison or solitary confinement, has human dignity. It is this human dignity that we must uphold, protect, and defend—despite the mistakes we may make in life.”

Nelson and his lawyer, Alan Mills, shared their experiences and stories with students and faculty in order to shed light on the unjust prison systems that we are funding with our taxes.

While Mills spoke, Nelson sat quietly and looked down.

“We (him and other inmates) psychologically go back,” Nelson said.I can taste the cell in my mouth right now; the thick chalk from the walls.”

The crime committed was miniscule in comparison to the torture and inhumane treatment he received at Tamms Correctional Center. Prior to being transferred to Tamms, Nelson was at a minimum-security prison in New Mexico. Unfortunately, the reason behind his transfer was never documented.

During his time at Tamms, Brian lived in an 8 x 12 ft. box cell with gray chalky walls. When he first went in, he weighed 170 pounds and, upon his release, he dropped down to 110 pounds.

Solitary drove him crazy, to the point that he “paced so much every week” they took him to the hospital and had to “cut the blisters off” his feet.

Nelson meets with a forensic psychologist every week and suffers from survivor’s guilt, PTSD and paranoia attacks, on a daily basis. He refuses to take any medication as an attempt to discover who he is.

“Prior to Tamms, I had never taken any psychiatric medication,” Nelson said. “When I got out, they had me on five different types of drugs just to make me sleep four hours a day.”

Nelson believes that the U. S. prison system punishes people for the crimes they commit, without any efforts to reconstruct and prepare them for their release.

“I’m an abolitionist when it comes to solitary confinement,” Nelson said. “I believe it is torture,” Suárez-Abraham said. “It serves no real rehabilitative function to someone that has been incarcerated.”

Nelson and his lawyer agree with Suárez-Abraham.

Tamms closed in 2012, but that doesn’t offer too much reassurance. Tamms was not closed because of its cruel, unjust and destructive way but because of a budget cut. Since the closing, five other solitary confinement prisons have opened.

Nelson is currently working at Uptown People’s Law Center as a prison program coordinator. Even though he is out of Tamms, he isn’t completely free from confinement.

“I will not ride on the ‘L’, or even the bus, for anything in the world because I can’t get out and run,” Nelson said. “I am very far from normal. That cell became my best friend. I was trying to write a book about it, talking about how my cell must be lonely because I’m not there. This is a concrete box and I’m thinking about it like it’s a freaking person.”

Even though it causes him pain, he continues to talk about his experiences for all the other inmates being put through psychological torment and suffering, just like he was.

Junior Catie Soto shared her reaction to Nelson’s story.

“Seeing this man, in tears, with the courage to tell his story amazed me and I just wanted to walk up and give him a hug,” Soto said. “It leaves me speechless that we give all this money to the prison system and it’s not actually helping inmates.”

Suárez-Abraham proposed a variety of options for those who want to help, including education, prayer and carefully voting for government officials.

“We need to advocate for change and support folks who are running for office that are looking to reform the prison system,” Suárez-Abraham said.  

hernadri@my.dom.edu