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Making It on the Outside, After Decades in Solitary

Daud Tulam spent 18 years in isolation in the New Jersey State Prison. Now on the outside, he finds it difficult to make eye contact or make small talk with other people, including his family.
Douglas Hopper, NPR
Daud Tulam spent 18 years in isolation in the New Jersey State Prison. Now on the outside, he finds it difficult to make eye contact or make small talk with other people, including his family.

Daud Tulam likes to sit on the porch of his mother's house in Salem, N.J., and watch traffic whiz by.

"I spent most of the whole summer out here, daytime and night," he says. "After being confined for that long period of time, you really do have an appreciation for the outside."

That "long period" was the past 25 years, which Tulam spent inside the New Jersey State Prison. For most of that time, Tulam was held in isolation. He spent 23 hours a day alone in a cell no bigger than a bathroom and one hour in a concrete exercise yard.

Tulam is one of more than 25,000 inmates who serve their sentences this way in the United States. It's not what these prisoners did on the outside that sends them to isolation: It's how they behave on the inside. And once in isolation, there is often no way out.

Two Decades in Solitude

In Tulam's case, he was sent to prison for trying to rob a gun store. He was sent to isolation after prison officials say they caught him planning to assault officers. He stayed in isolation for 18 years.

New Jersey prison officials say he never participated in any programs that could have gotten him out. Tulam says he tried to participate, but they never let him out, so he gave up.

Now, on the outside, Tulam has trouble making small talk. Even after all those years alone, when faced with people looking for a conversation, Tulam doesn't engage.

Tulam is taking a class on welding at a local community college. During one recent session, he hid in the back of the classroom.

When the teacher comes over to check his work, Tulam only looks at the floor. At one point, the instructor asks Tulam if he understands a welding technique. Tulam does not look up -- or answer. Eventually, the instructor gives up and moves on.

'I Lost My Social Skills'

In many ways, Tulam's days are still filled with this kind of silence. But there is one place where Tulam suddenly has a lot to say: behind the wheel of his car, when his eyes -- and yours -- are on the road.

"I'm certain that I lost my social skills to a certain extent," Tulam says as he drives through the rundown streets of Salem. "Not that I'm unable to socialize. Just that trivial conversation for conversation's sake, I don't have no tolerance for."

Tulam's 6-foot-frame seems too big for the 15-year-old Taurus he's driving. He's wearing what he wears everyday: old jeans and a sweatshirt. He passes boarded-up buildings and liquor stores. Much has changed about this town, but he says even more has changed about him.

Tulam's luckier that most ex-convicts. He has a family, a place to stay and even some occasional construction work. But he finds much about society difficult. He doesn't like grocery stores, busy sidewalks or going to the movies. And he doesn't like parties.

That came as a shock to his family. Tulam's mother, Charlotte Fletcher, says Tulam used to love to socialize.

"He always had a few friends. But as far as I was concerned, it wasn't the right kind," Fletcher says.

Early on, she says, it was hard to keep her son away from kids who wanted to party.

"He was a young kid when he first got in trouble -- last year of high school," Fletcher says. "He was around with these guys. They been doing a lot of drinking and other things, so I guess he did some wild things."

Looking for 'Some Kind of Relief'

On the day Tulam was released from prison, his family threw him a party in the backyard. He spent the whole time sitting alone in a folding chair in the corner, while his nieces and nephews played. That's the other thing Tulam doesn't like anymore.

"You know, in prison there are no children," Tulam says. "The trivial kind of things kids do, the nonsensical things kids do, you don't have a tolerance for that. I'm still trying to really adapt."

Tulam says he struggled to make the days he spent in solitary pass. He began dividing his time into little increments: Make the bed. Write a letter. Do push ups.

"Even if I would have to go to sleep early, just to look for the next day to bring some kind of relief," Tulam says.

He still does that now. He schedules his day into activities: Take a shower. Eat breakfast. Sit outside. Go for a drive.

"I never use alarm clocks," Tulam says. "I've done it for so long, it's almost like second nature."

'You Become Your Best Company'

New Jersey has one of the least restrictive isolation units in the country. Prisoners in solitary are allowed visits with relatives, though Tulam's family could rarely afford the trip. They are also allowed televisions. Tulam says he kept his TV set on every day, morning until night, for 18 years.

"Up until that time, I never owned a TV, never had much interest in TV," he says. "But when I got into solitary, it was so quiet in there, I genuinely had to get me a TV, just to hear some noise."

Now he can't stand television. But he doesn't want to hang out with people, either. He doesn't talk much with his family. He hasn't joined any groups. He doesn't talk about having any friends.

"Having been in isolation, with hardly anybody to talk to, anyway, you just acquire a knack of just being able to -- like with me, you become your best company," Tulam says.

The Odds Against Making It

There are few statistics about how inmates who spend time in isolation adjust on the outside. Only two studies have been conducted; one looked at former inmates in Washington state, the other at those in Texas. The results weren't good.

In both studies, the rate of recidivism for inmates released from isolation was higher than for those released from the general prison population. And in Washington, researchers found these ex-inmates were more likely to commit violent crimes than their general population counterparts.

In that sense, Tulam is doing better than expected. Having a place to live and a mother to make him food has made a big difference. But at 51 years old, he's spent almost half his life in prison, most of it alone.

"I do have some regrets," he says, pausing for a moment before getting out of the car. "But ask me if I would ever want anybody else's life? Nah. I'm comfortable with the life that I've been given. You know, like saying that I'm a realist. I genuinely believe that every individual struggles in this life, anyway."

So after 18 years of isolation, Daud Tulam's greatest struggle may be finding a way not to live an isolated life.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Laura Sullivan is an NPR News investigative correspondent whose work has cast a light on some of the country's most significant issues.