Whenever he can, Adam Hall calls his mother and sister from the phones at Great Meadow Correctional Facility in upstate New York. When he has stamps he dictates letters. Sometimes he talks about how badly he wants to come home. But what he talks and writes about most is how he is trying to die.
In February he tried to do it by slicing up his arms. Before that, he tried to collect his meds for an overdose. Five years ago it was by setting himself on fire. As Hall, who struggles with severe mental illness, continues to rack up charges for suicide attempts and refusals to follow rules, he has seen probation turn into a three-year sentence and an arrest for stealing cigarettes escalate into an eight-year odyssey through the prison system.
If Hall is lucky, and nothing else goes wrong, he could be out by the end of 2018. But Hall has never been lucky, and his hope is gone.
“At this point,” says his mother, Carole Holleran, “he just wants to die. He feels like he’s never going to get out. They keep adding time, adding time. Every time he does something wrong, the bill adds up, adds up, adds up.”
Hall has been diagnosed with a panoply of psychiatric disorders: ADHD, bipolar, impulse control, depression. He has violent outbursts, paranoia, and suicidal tendencies. Unable to follow rules, Hall has repeatedly been thrown into solitary confinement, and in those stints his condition has gotten worse. In a decade, he has been transferred between prisons at least seventeen times. In January, he went from the Attica Correctional Facility back to Great Meadow, a prison where his experience has been especially dire, and where last fall he filed a lawsuit alleging that four guards brutally assaulted him in retaliation for a suicide attempt.
Hall’s mother has been fighting for him, with little success, since he was a young child. At age five, he tried to burn down his family home outside Utica in upstate New York. Afterward, he drew a picture of his family having a happy reunion in heaven.
In family photos he looks at the camera with a shy smile, revealing a distinctive gap between his front teeth, just a kid in a neat checked button-down. Behind the smile is an interior storm. There was no money for decent psychiatric help. Through most of his childhood, Hall was in and out of psychiatric institutions and group homes. Holleran says he was molested in two of them, but never effectively treated.
Like many such histories of abuse and mental illness, Hall’s leads straight from childhood to prison. After several misdemeanor arrests as a juvenile, at nineteen he was convicted of inappropriately touching a neighbor’s young daughter and sentenced to probation and therapy under the condition that he not be arrested again. Months later, he was arrested on charges of petit larceny stemming from a dispute over whether he took a neighbor’s car. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and was sentenced to time served in the county jail and $180 in restitution.
In front of the judge, the teenager could barely say the word “guilty.” “Will you plead guilty or not guilty?” the judge asked. “Yes, sir,” Hall answered. “That was a guilty plea?” “Yes.”
“Yes, sir.” “Yes.” Though he couldn’t have known it at the time, what Hall accepted in 2006 was something that might someday become a death sentence. With the misdemeanor petit larceny, he had violated his probation conditions on the attempted-sex-abuse conviction, earning him one to three years in prison and a sex offender label. And the one to three, as is often the case for people with mental illness who rack up small violations in prison, meant the full three.
From there it snowballed. After serving the maximum sentence, Hall was released to his mother’s house. Holleran pleaded with him to stay indoors at night. For a while it worked. Hall pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor stemming from an argument over video games, then for four months managed to stay out of trouble with the law. Then came an arrest for stealing groceries from Walmart, a misdemeanor, and after that a theft from a store called Smoker Friendly — “cigarettes and tobacco” products, according to the Herkimer, New York, police department. There is little further detail on the charge.
That small theft, in January 2009, earned him a new trip to the county jail on a petit larceny charge. Awaiting disposition of that case, Hall, according to his family, grew distraught and suicidal. The young man fought with a group of officers trying to take him out of his cell. Hall was then arrested for assault on a law enforcement officer, sentenced to serve two years, and shipped off to Auburn Prison.
At this point Hall, tarred with the sex offender label and having already spent much of his prior three years in Special Housing Units (SHUs) — solitary, or “the hole” — was quickly deteriorating. According to his sister, Nichole Eller, his stretches in solitary have been punctuated by increasingly erratic outbursts. He often spends just a few months in a facility before being shipped to the next. He throws toothpaste, milk, and feces at guards and other prisoners, fashions weapons, and tries to start fires.
At the beginning of 2010, halfway into his term for assaulting an officer, Hall was caught with a homemade knife. He told his sister he needed the knife because the sex offender label put his life in danger. Regardless, he pleaded guilty to promoting contraband, and got another one and a half to three years added to his sentence.
By 2011, increasingly despondent, Hall was again trying to kill himself. In one attempt, he took the wires from his headphones and connected them to an open light fixture, setting his mattress and sheets on fire. The flames rose up around him.
“He pulled the wires out of the cell wall, he told me,” his mother says. “And he sparked it up against the blanket and got the blanket on fire, and sat right there on the blanket, just waiting to get burnt up.”Guards put out the fire before anyone was hurt, but a window was damaged. Instead of responding with mental health treatment, or even treating the incident as an internal disciplinary offense, prison officials turned the case over to a Utica district attorney, who brought Hall before a grand jury. His court-appointed trial counsel subsequently entered him into a plea bargain where he was sentenced to an additional three to six years, plus $375 in damages. He waived his right to appeal.
Hall apparently did not understand what he was agreeing to: In the court transcript he tells the judge, “I was going to ask to talk to you on the side before I go through this. I wanted to talk about if there is any chance I can get an evidence hearing, if that’s available.” The judge was confused and responded, “You’ve already pled guilty. You’re here for sentence today.”
Despite the obvious severity of Hall’s mental illness, by 2012 his disciplinary infractions had earned him prison penalties that would have left him in the hole through most of 2017. Legal Aid intervened on his behalf, asking the state Office of Mental Health to reconsider his condition and transfer him to a Residential Mental Health Unit (RMHU). Prison authorities, Legal Aid wrote, “need to intervene to end his current cycle of repeated disciplinary tickets for behaviors related to his serious mental illness.”
Since Hall first went into prison, New York’s laws have changed, and people with serious mental illnesses are not supposed to be placed in solitary confinement. Under the SHU Exclusion Law, passed in 2008 and in full effect since 2011, when people like Hall receive disciplinary sanctions, they are supposed to be sent into RMHUs, not punitive solitary cells.
These treatment programs, offered at four men’s prisons, are meant to provide heightened care, out-of-cell therapeutic programming, and reassessments of mental conditions. Yet Hall’s family says he continued to be placed in the SHU after the law went into effect — and that even in RMHUs he is often in solitary by another name.
After Legal Aid intervened, Hall did find his way into cells with psychiatric care. He spent some of 2013 at the inpatient Central New York Psychiatric Center in the town of Marcy, where according to his mother he stopped thinking of suicide and even expressed an interest in learning to write. But space there is limited, and Hall was returned to prison.
Even when placed in medical housing, Hall has experienced frequent abuse. During the required out-of-cell group treatment in RMHUs, participants are often shackled to chairs and physically separated from others with dividers. And physical and verbal abuse is reported by incarcerated people and outside oversight groups.
Hall’s letters reveal a sharp contrast between the boy who went into prison and the man it has created. Confused and polite as he pleaded guilty at his hearing, a year later he is angry. “Understand I can’t and won’t do the 3–6 years,” he says in a letter from 2013 (Hall cannot write, and dictates his letters to cellmates). If he can’t get help, Hall says, “Well, let’s just say the state [provides] me with something that will help me with all my pain troubles and suffering,” and he is amassing a collection of it that will be enough to know for sure that “my pain will go away for good.”
Last August, while in Great Meadow’s Behavioral Housing Unit, Hall cut his wrist and arm in a suicide attempt and was taken to the medical unit. He later filed charges that as he was being transferred to the observation cell, with his hands cuffed behind his back, the sergeant escorting him “began punching me in my face, along with choking me and slamming my head into the door at the end of the hospital hall. Due to such attack, my face was bleeding profusely and I was clearly injured.”
Hall says he was then taken to the strip/frisk area, where he was assaulted by the sergeant and three officers. “I was again punched in my face repeatedly and my face was also slammed into the wall several times from the constant beating,” the grievance alleges. “I was thrown down on the floor where I was kicked in my ribs and face and stomped in my head. This beating and assault continued for several minutes.”
While it’s difficult to corroborate the details of Hall’s account, it is in line with the observations of others who have spoken to prisoners in what are supposed to be units designed for the mentally ill. Jack Beck, director of the Prison Visiting Project at the Correctional Association of New York, testified at a 2014 state assembly hearing that many inmates in those units, “at Five Points and Great Meadow in particular, reported physical abuse, verbal harassment, and threats by security staff. Respondents described horrific examples of confrontations in which security staff brutally beat them or taunted them specifically about their mental health issues or self-harm.”
In early December, Hall was up for parole. In desperation, his sister wrote the parole board a letter seeking help for her brother. She ended it:
“I am begging you to please let my brother go. After all he has endured his entire life and is still enduring, he literally has never had a chance. He has never had a life without abuse. He deserves to see the light of day in a place without bars or fencing and a place where he feels safe.”
Hall was denied parole. Instead, in January, he was transferred from Attica back to Great Meadow, the prison where he served many months in isolation and alleges he was attacked. His sentence now runs until December 2019.
Last week, Eller visited him there. While Hall is normally entitled to visitors only on weekends, the prison made an exception to let her come on her day off work, a Wednesday, because authorities thought family contact could calm him down. The news his sister received during her visit was not good: Hall told her that he had been fingerprinted and will likely face new charges, for throwing milk at a nurse. He expected prison authorities would try to tack on another one to two years to his sentence.
The state of New York may not let a prisoner kill himself, as Hall has tried to do again and again. But it will certainly bury him alive. According to a veteran former New York State corrections officer, Hall’s story, though heartbreaking, is common. People with serious mental illnesses often accrue small felony charges in prison, extending their sentences bit by bit and ultimately spending most of their lives locked away in solitary confinement.
On good days, Hall’s mother talks about the chances her son will leave prison alive. “I’m fifty-four,” she says, “and I’m thinking, Adam is in his thirties and he’s still locked up. I just want to live at least long enough to see my son walk out them prison doors and be a free man.” But as the bill adds up, there are fewer good days, and his mother acknowledges that it may never happen. “It’s getting worse and worse and worse and worse. And this kid is going to end up getting carried out of there in a body bag.”
James Ridgeway is co-director, with Jean Casella, of Solitary Watch, a project that investigates and documents solitary confinement in U.S. prisons. Ridgeway and Casella first wrote about Adam Hall’s case in 2012.