In prison, Brian Nelson lived in solitary confinement. That meant 23 hours a day in a small cell. No human contact, except with guards — for 12 years straight.
Then, his prison sentence for murder was over. One moment he was locked down. The next, he was free.
NPR and The Marshall Project, an online journalism group that focuses on the criminal justice system, investigated the release of tens of thousands of prisoners from solitary confinement to find out how many prisoners, like Nelson, go straight from solitary to the streets.
The Marshall Project and NPR surveyed all 50 states. About half reported they don't keep track or could not provide numbers of which inmates go straight home from solitary. And a recent audit for the federal Bureau of Prisons said it doesn't keep numbers, either.
But our tally from the 24 states that say they count shows that last year, at least 10,000 inmates came straight out of solitary.
Yet inmates released from solitary often need the most help — and get the least.
In solitary, they're cut off from things that help with re-entry. There are no education classes, no job training; and when they are released, they often get less supervision than other prisoners.
When Nelson's mother picked him up at the distant supermax prison in Tamms, Ill., he told her how he was given a television during his last year of solitary and kept seeing ads for a fast-food ice cream.
"And I kept seeing a Blizzard. I kept seeing these Blizzards. And I'm like, 'God that looks so good.' So all I wanted was a Blizzard," he says.
On the drive home, they stopped for a Blizzard at a Dairy Queen.
"And I'm standing there and a guy walked behind me. And I was not used to people being that close to me. And I started cussing. I turned around, I'm ready to fight because I thought I don't know if he's going to attack me," Nelson recalls. "I have prison mentality in my mind. And then I looked up and saw my mom crying, like 'Oh my God, what have they done to him?' You know, because I couldn't handle being around people."
That was five years ago. It's still hard for Nelson, 50, to be around people.