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Ex-inmate describes nine years in Georgia solitary unit — ‘I’ve seen people go crazy’

The sounds that echoed through the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison in Jackson’s solitary unit are not easily forgotten.

Daniel Barfield, who spent nine years inside the notorious special management unit, knows them well. He’s reminded of the agonizing screams from his friend Kareem, so desperate for human interaction that he’d cut himself just to get transported to the prison hospital. At least there he’d be able to talk to people.

“I’ve seen people go crazy. I’ve heard people go crazy,” said Barfield, who completed his 20-year sentence last November. 

“Just out of the blue a person will flip and act out all kind of different ways, saying they’re going to kill themselves.”


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IN-DEPTH: Expert: Georgia inmates in solitary confinement at ‘grave risk of harm’

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Barfield survived the forced isolation and inactivity, confined 23 hours each day to a 7-by-13.5-foot cell, bereft of natural light. But his story goes beyond mere self-preservation. His willingness to tell all has already helped exact major changes to the place where he spent nearly a quarter of his life.

His testimony was pivotal to a settlement reached last last week in which the state agreed to changes in the way it holds prisoners in solitary confinement, according to Sarah Geraghty, a lawyer with the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta, which sued the Georgia Department of Corrections over conditions inside the Jackson prison’s solitary unit.

Dec 20, 2018 Bainbridge: Daniel Barfield, 33, who was just released from prison after serving the last 9 years of his 20 year sentence in solitary confinement, discusses the human toll of being locked up in isolation for such an extended period of time during an interview at his mother’s home on Thursday, Dec 20, 2018, in Bainbridge. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

As a result of the lawsuit, the state prison officials agreed to cap time spent in lockdown to two years, except under special circumstances. Inmates will also be allowed outside their cells for four hours each day.

In a statement, the Department of Corrections said it has reduced its restrictive housing population by 40 percent.

“He (Barfield) provided vital evidence through his truthful and detailed account of what he experienced there,” Geraghty said.

“Chaotic and out-of-control as any such unit I have seen in decades of conducting such evaluations,” said Craig Haney, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who delivered a blistering report on conditions inside the special management unit.

Haney said he encountered some of the most “psychologically traumatized” inmates he has ever assessed in his two decades of experience. He said treatment in the unit could lead to “irreversible” psychological harm that may even prove fatal.

Barfield spent roughly 80,000 hours there. Now 33, he moves like a man 20 years older, stricken by a bad back. Sleep is a nightly challenge. He has trust issues and paranoia is pervasive.

But he was not defeated.

“I never felt like I was important to anybody” 

If Barfield was going to truly rejoin society he needed to do two things: master a cellphone and obtain a driver’s license. He was just 13 years old when he was incarcerated in 1998, back when a cellphone was still a luxury item for most. But he did know how to drive.

“I used to steal my parent’s car,” Barfield said in an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution back home in Bainbridge, where he lives with his mother.

There were other petty crimes — thefts, mostly, but nothing violent. “I was probably doing it to get attention,” he said.

Barfield said he could neither read nor write and struggled to make friends.

“I never felt like I was important to anybody,” he said.

There was a suicide attempt. His mother discovered him hanging from a rope.

“I saw how much my mother cared for me and I knew I was never going to do that again,” he said. “My mother has always been my supporter, someone I can lean on and talk to. That’s what kept me strong through the years, my family.”

Dec 20, 2018 Bainbridge: Daniel Barfield, 33, who was just released from prison after serving the last 9 years of his 20 year sentence in solitary confinement, at the wheel of his Dodge Caravan at his mother’s home on Thursday, Dec 20, 2018, in Bainbridge. Barfield discussed the human toll of being locked up in isolation for such an extended period of time and how he now enjoys just driving around alone. Curtis Compton/ccompton@ajc.com (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

But in 1988, a relative accused Barfield, then 13, of molesting her 3-year-old daughter, an allegation he steadfastly denies. “It was my word against hers,” he said.

The teen was assigned a court-appointed attorney, who advised a plea deal. Five years in prison, he told them.

“Me being illiterate and dumb, I said I’d take that,” Barfield said. “My family didn’t know anything about the law at the time so we listened to the lawyer.”

Georgia code states that a person convicted of a first offense of child molestation shall be punished by imprisonment “for not less than five nor more than 20 years.”

Barfield received the maximum.

“From start to finish his case is illustrative of the worst of the criminal justice system,” Geraghty said. “For one thing, this should’ve been handled by juvenile court.”

Instead, Barfield was tried as an adult. He was sent to two different youth detention centers.

“I was scared but at the time I had the attitude where I didn’t care,” he said. “Growing up with my brother and cousins I learned how to fight.”

But there were still doubts.

“Am I going to make it through? Am I going to make it back home with my family? Would I be alive in 20 years?” he said.

The conversion

When he turned 17 Barfield was transferred to the old Alto prison, where a majority of prisoners were under 25. Their youth made them particularly vulnerable, Geraghty said.

“It was just an awful place,” she said. “The sexual violence that occurred there was unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Rapes were happening on a daily basis.”

Barfield was involved in several fights, determined to be respected. He was disciplined often.

“A lot of times I’d get so mad that I was there because I knew I was innocent,” he said. “That built a lot of anger in me. As I got older I tried to develop myself as a man, to get ready for my family, to not be the angry person I was in prison. Mentally, it was real rough.”

The white boy from South Georgia found solace in an unlikely source, converting to Islam while at Baldwin State Prison. It provided Barfield with the structure and support he craved.

“That helped me a lot with my anger and my temper, ‘cause I calmed down and became a man,” he said.

But he remained volatile. A fight over a stolen knife proved to be his ticket to oblivion.

Barfield, trying to shield some of his brothers, said he took sole responsibility.

A cell in the solitary confinement unit of Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison. Photo: Expert report by (Craig Haney) (Craig Haney)

“The officer said I don’t know why you white boys are always taking the fall for Muslims,” Barfield said. “He said (expletive deleted) the Muslims.”

It took three guards to restrain him. “I hurt two of the real bad,” Barfield acknowledged.

He was sent to “the hole,” a mini-version of solitary. Two months later, he was transferred to Jackson.

“It’s like you’ve been forgotten by life”

The special management unit was conceived as a temporary landing spot for problem inmates. Barfield said he was told he’d return to general population in a year or two.

He began in the notorious E-wing, the most draconian part of the six solitary units. Personal effects are prohibited; inmates receive only sheets, blankets and basic hygiene items, such as a toothbrush. No television or radio. There’s not even a library to access.

Prisoners received only one hour a day outside of their cell. And that was spent in an outside cell, which Barfield compares to a dog kennel.

“You’re still locked down,” he said. “You can’t move.”

An exercise cage in the solitary unit at the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison. Inmates had been allowed out of their cells about five hours a week. Photo: Expert report by (Craig Haney). (Craig Haney)

But at least the yard time allowed for conversation. Inside, the prisoners are separated not by bars but by metal “boxcar” doors. Steel plates covered the mini-windows found above eye level in each cell.

Virtually every activity took place in that tiny metal box, Barfield said. Eat. Sleep. Shower. Despair.

“It destroys you mentally more than anything,” he said. “I’ve seen people, some of the best, go in there and come out so much worse. I’ve seen people harm themselves in all different type of ways.”

He would eventually find solace from his radio or TV, perks afforded inmates who progressed beyond the F and E wings.

“I’d tell myself stories,” Barfield said. “If I remembered a book I’d play it back in my mind. I never got to the point where I answered myself. I may be crazy but I’m not that crazy.”

Faith and family sustained him.

“My mama taught me, you gotta be independent, you gotta count on myself and no one else,” he said. “If I didn’t have a strong mind I wouldn’t have come out of there alive.”

Along the way Barfield said he was repeatedly assured he’d be transferred out of solitary. It finally happened, two weeks before his sentence was completed.

“The review process for inmates was utterly arbitrary and meaningless,” Geraghty said. “There was no way, based on his infractions, that Daniel should’ve been there for nine years.”

Barfield was not alone; nearly 20 percent of the inmates had been retained in the special management unit for six years or more.

Life begins at 33

A woman appears startled when Barfield, unfailingly polite, holds open the door for her at his favorite Chinese restaurant in Bainbridge. Happens all the time, he said.

“People aren’t used to people doing stuff like that,” he said. Of course it might be his neck tattoos that attract the stares, or the Kufi that covers his head. The skull cap is pulled down low, barely exposing his piercing green eyes.

Barfield is always on the move. Midway through a conversation he gets up to sweep the floor in his mother’s kitchen.

Georgia Diagnostice and Classification State Prison in Jackson has agreed to make changes to the way it houses inmates in solitary confinement. (Ben Gray/AJC) (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

“Got to stay busy,” he said.

He has interviewed for a dozen jobs but has yet to be hired for anything but part-time work. Because he’s a registered sex offender, finding employment won’t be easy. Barfield said he may seek training to drive an 18-wheeler.

Most of his time is spent with his sister, Monica Cherry, one year his senior. She has three young children who are just getting accustomed to “Uncle Daniel.”

“I still to this day don’t believe it,” she said of the accusations of child molestation. “I don’t see my brother doing what they said. No way.”

The siblings are working hard to maintain the closeness that marked their childhood. Cherry and her mother convinced Barfield to return to Bainbridge after he got out of prison.

“I didn’t think I’d ever see him again,” she said, unable to hold back tears. “I don’t want him to move anywhere. He’s home where he belongs.”

Barfield figures he’ll stick around for awhile. Transitioning out of prison has been tough. He sees a mental health counselor but doesn’t expect to get much benefit from it.

“Being around people is the biggest adjustment,” he said. He admits to being “scared of the world,” paranoid that somehow he’ll end up back in prison.

But joy is not totally elusive. His mother bought him a 1997 Dodge Mini-Caravan. “Long as I’ve got some gas money, I’m in my van driving around,” he said.

He has also met a woman on Facebook, his first girlfriend. They’re already talking marriage.

“I’m hoping to have a family and settle down,” he said. “Have myself some financial stability.”

He expects to carry his memories behind bars for the rest of his life.

“It’s always going to bother me,” Barfield said. “I just have to learn to deal with it. It might take me awhile, but I’ll get used to it.”

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