Disquieting Solitude

While I was in prison, I dreamed of having a room to myself.  Having a single room in housing units that had grown to contain twice as many people as they were originally designed for was just that a dream.  Except for a very limited number of cells in Level II and IV did I see single man cells, and these contained mainly lifers that needed wheelchairs due to health issues.  During the seven months I spent in Level IV there was a total of six weeks where I did not have a roommate.  Those were the last days I would be alone for the next seven years.  Even in Level IV I was able to get two hours of day of yard time, three trips to the chow hall, weekly trips to the library and religious service.  These provided plenty of time to exercise, socialize, and relieve the monotony of being locked down 20 hours a day.  I had a TV and a radio, so I never lacked for input. 

How very different for those in solitary confinement.  While I spent a week in protective custody, it was a two-man cell located in the same housing unit as solitary where people were sent for violating the rules.  In solitary meals are served in the cells through a slot in the door and the only way to leave the cell was in hand cuffs, even to go to the shower every other day.  No personal property, no TV or radio.  No commissary, no phone calls or email.  It was not a nice place and one that I didn’t want to visit.

While out walking the track in the big yard I would hear guys in solitary shouting to each other out the tiny window vents to talk to someone in another cell.  I would also walk past the cages behind the building where guys in solitary got yard time.  The cages were just big enough to pace a couple of steps or drop down and do pushups.  Even in wintertime you would see guys in cages that would be shoveled clear of snow by a unit porter.  Signs posted on the fences separating the yards strictly warned that we were not to communicate with those in the cages.  The signs might as well have said, “Don’t feed the animals.”

This form of punishment inside of prison has been gaining more and more attention in the United States as activists seek to bring this barbaric and discredited practice that is used widely in both federal and state correctional facilities to an end. Articles and videos about the gruesome reality of solitary confinement have been published by many news organizations and prison reform activists including The New York Times, The LA Times, The Guardian, Huffington Post, Scientific America, Psychology Today, The Atlantic, GQ, ABC, NBC, CBS, PBS, CBC, BBC, YouTube, and Facebook to name a few. Those who defend the practice point to the idea that the psychological effects of isolation from the general population serve as a tool to break strong willed inmates who are difficult to handle-The Wall Street Journal. The reality is that there is no evidence that this works in the way it is intended and instead simply breaks the person making them less controllable in prison and unrehabilitatable.

I recently read an article in Rolling Stone entitled ‘Right Before I Hung Myself’: Prisoners Share Tales of Solitary Confinement in Michigan by Tana Ganeva.  First, I would highly recommend that you take the time to read the article because it is professionally well written and brings a national spotlight onto the dark underbelly of the Michigan Department of Corrections.  Secondly it uses firsthand information obtained from correspondence directly with those who have experience serving time in solitary confinement.  Like my blog the author is providing a voice for those who otherwise couldn’t speak for themselves.  But it doesn’t stop with the article there is an excellent website that contains the words and artwork of those whose lives have been forever changed by a practice that is internationally recognized as inhumane and by many to constitute torture.  Please check out ‘Silenced: Voices from Solitary in Michigan’ a website where prisoners tell harrowing experiences in their own words.