Gemma Pena in her kitchen, showing Kristophers baby footprints from the hospital. Photograph: Matthew Teague
He leaned back. Oh, he said, raising his voice. Now I guess you want me to take a hot shower. Is that what you want? You want me to take a
Pena stared, baffled. She didnt know that another mentally ill inmate, 50-year-old Darren Rainey, had recently died at Dade Correctional, when guards locked him in a shower for more than two hours with the hot water turned to the maximum. In January the local medical examiner ruled that Rainey had died of a combination of schizophrenia, heart disease and confinement in the shower. So far no charges have been brought against any of the guards watching Rainey, who was in solitary confinement.
Shortly after that last visit Kristopher, now in his late 20s, disappeared into the box.
It could have been anything, Pena said. Any little infraction. The guards say, Walk on this line, or Step into this cell, and give him a little push. He might push back, because he has no idea whats going on.
A court eventually granted Pena power of attorney for Kristopher, which meant she could access his medical records. And they horrified her: suicide attempts. Self-injury. At one point he had torn off most of his penis, which doctors at a local hospital had sutured back together.
In her kitchen as she remembered it, Pena slowly looked up at her ceiling, leaning back while her eyes filled. Once the tears broke, she tilted forward until her face touched the pile of papers on the table before her. You dont know what its like, she said. Its torture.
For two years Pena lobbied to see her son, without success. Her requests for visitation were denied because he was unfit for visitors. He wasnt safe.
Finally, in 2015, she gained a visit. Across the divider she saw a metal cylinder with holes, where Kristopher would sit.
Beyond it, down the hall, she saw four guards walk an old man in shackles toward the visiting room. A guard steadied each arm, because the inmate could hardly walk. And with growing horror Pena realized the old man was her son.
She recoiled, and burst into tears, as they moved him into the enclosed cylinder. He had lost 100 pounds, and his hair. His normally brown skin was white. The last time she had seen him, he had not recognized her.
And now, after time in solitary confinement, she could not recognize him.
In the visiting area there was a small commissary where family members could buy up to $50 in food. Pena bought $50 in hamburgers and gave them to the guards, who took them to Kristopher in his cylinder. The visit lasted two hours, and neither mother nor son spoke. For two hours she watched him eat hamburgers in silence.
She was allowed to send a few dollars each month to an account that Kristopher could use for food and toiletries beyond the standard fare. All he had to do was fill out a small form indicating what he wanted to buy.
How much money is in his account? she asked the prison administrators.
$500, they told her.
A couple of months ago Pena received word that Kristopher had been taken out of solitary confinement. He was taking a new medicine, prison officials told her. Haldol.
Kristophers overseers had reached back to the 1950s, at the height of Americas mental-institution boom. Drug-makers invented Haldol as a knockout drug, essentially, for schizophrenic patients. Hound dog, nurses call it today.
Now that hes back in the general prison population Kristopher can receive visitors on Thursdays. He has been moved to Union Correctional, near Jacksonville. Its six and a half hours from Miami. So Pena rations out her vacation days, and once a month, after work on Wednesday, she drives through the night to the prison. She endures the searching and probing, sits with her son a little while, and then drives back south toward her little apartment.
Its exhausting. And all of it the paperwork, the lobbying, the doctors, the advocating has disrupted her life until it is unrecognizable to her. Kristophers father died a few years ago, and Pena weeps at the idea of trying to start a new life with someone else. I dont want to be a woman any more, she said, trembling. I only want to be a mother.
Last year the governor of Florida appointed a new secretary of the department of corrections, Julie Jones, who has indicated interest in alternatives to isolation. This month she attended a conference on solitary confinement at Yale.
Afterward she wrote that it is important that we take into serious consideration the challenges faced by this practice along with the realities that necessitate it.
McKinley Lewis, the FDCs spokesman, said: Its a passion of hers.
Pena remains skeptical. Only God can change it, she said.
On Haldol, Kristopher is semi-present. His eyes drift away from hers, and shell playfully snap her fingers to catch his attention. Sometimes he simply falls asleep, and she watches him. Its like having a little boy again, almost.
When he was a teenager, between schizophrenic episodes he talked about using his disability check to get a place of his own. Now, as a 30-year-old man who is both ancient and toddling, he sometimes talks about being released in 2018.
Hes had enough alone time, he told his mother during her last visit.
Mom, he said. Can I live with you?