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Mfume Obalaji Mtume, also known as Herbert “Moochie” Bailey, Jr., spent seven years in solitary confinement in a South Carolina prison for refusing to cut his dreadlocks.
Commentary

What Solitary Did To Moochie — But Not Manafort

Isolation leaves lasting marks beyond incarceration

I once believed the South Carolina Department of Corrections had done my oldest brother, Moochie, a great favor when it decided to place him in solitary confinement. Naively, I thought it would keep him safe, away from being raped or attacked by other prisoners.

This commentary was published in partnership with The Guardian.

I now know that even when a man leaves solitary, it may never leave him.

That’s why I initially empathized with Paul Manafort when reports surfaced that he had been placed in solitary while facing charges from the much-discussed Robert Mueller probe. Honestly, though, I was of two minds. I was irritated that people I had never heard say a single caring word about the incarcerated suddenly demand that criminal justice reform activists raise hell about Manafort’s treatment. The fate of a wealthy white man was important in a way the many black and brown men and women who have been mistreated by the system never were.

Then I learned what “solitary” meant for Manafort. According to Mueller’s team, Manafort had nearly all-day access, from 8:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., to a separate workroom to meet with his legal team. He had a personal telephone. He had his own bathroom and shower facility. He had a personal laptop. He was caught during a monitored phone call saying he was being treated like a “VIP.”

For an estimated 80,000 U.S. prisoners, solitary means spending 22 or 23 hours a day in an 8 by 10 windowless cell. It means little to no contact with other human beings. It means food served to you through a slot in your cell door. Sometimes it means being strip-searched before you are taken to a tiny recreation area for your hour of “freedom” every day. It’s usually dark and dank and designed to be just that.

Given how it affects the brain, solitary is akin to being “buried alive,” according to some accounts.

That’s not what Manafort experienced.

But Moochie did.

Manafort was placed in the Northern Neck Regional Jail because he had violated the terms of his release as he awaits trial, moving from home confinement in a $3 million condo into the VIP section in jail. Herbert “Moochie” Bailey, Jr., was serving a life sentence after being convicted of killing a man, meaning he left our green-and-white tin can of a single-wide mobile home, was placed behind bars, then into real solitary.

Life Inside

Essays by people in prison and others who have experience with the criminal justice system

I remember watching Moochie, who was my hero before he went to prison, be transformed by solitary into a man I could hardly recognize. I wanted no one else to have to watch a loved one go through the same thing, not even Manafort. Solitary is torture, an unnecessary form of punishment for those already behind bars.

After Moochie had spent about a decade and a half in prison, he was placed in solitary because SCDC changed its grooming and security policy, which required all prisons to have closely-cropped hair. Correctional officials believed it was necessary for security purposes because weapons could be hidden in the hair, no matter that it was a religious matter to some, like Moochie.

Initially, after the new policy, he and about two dozen others — fellow Rastafarians, Muslims, and a handful of others resisting “The Man” — were double-booked in tiny cells. They created a kind of fraternity, supporting each other, encouraging the youngest prisoners, sticking to vows of silence in the presence of guards, until all but Moochie finally agreed to haircuts and were released back into the general population.

Moochie resisted for seven years. His dreadlocks were that important to his spiritual growth. He didn’t cut them until we convinced him he’d otherwise have no chance of being paroled. Before we could, however, he became a different person. Guards became convinced he was a mute. My then-fiancée was taken aback by his strange affect when I was finally able to take her for a visit at the prison and watched him rock back and forth the entire time like a madman, communicating by furiously writing on small scraps of paper he had folded and refolded dozens of times.

He later told me he went in and out of “craziness,” which couldn’t be avoided even with his focus on reading and meditation.

Moochie’s last day in solitary confinement was nearly a decade and a half ago. He was released from prison in 2014 after 32 years. And yet, after all this time, I still notice his going in and out of that “craziness;” not violently, but psychically. His moods go from jovial or relaxed to impossibly passionate — generating a level of intensity that can intimidate the strongest strong man — at a moment’s notice, as though he is warding off demons that joined him in that darkness.

I am grateful he’s free. I’ve seen him grow, seen him begin to love again. And though I know his battle against the shadows that kept him company in solitary are not yet won, he is getting better, which heartens me. Still, I know solitary changed him, and me as well.

Issac Bailey is the author of “My Brother Moochie: Regaining Dignity in the Face of Crime, Poverty, and Racism in the American South” (Other Press, 2018) and a detailed account of his brother’s conviction and incarceration in The Marshall Project in 2016, “The Day My Brother Took a Life and Changed Mine Forever.”