In 1890, the United States Supreme Court subjected the practice of solitary confinement to constitutional scrutiny for the first time. It stopped short of striking it down completely but held that it may violate the Constitution in some circumstances. The court also noted that even short periods of solitary confinement cause severe impacts on inmates’ mental health and ultimately people were left unreformed and broken.
The court noted, “Solitary confinement as a punishment for crime has a very interesting history of its own” and “experience demonstrated that there were serious objections to it.” They added, “and it is within the memory of many persons interested in prison discipline that some thirty or forty years ago the whole subject attracted the general public attention, and its main feature of solitary confinement was found to be too severe.”
Four years after that judgment, across the Atlantic, Oscar Wilde was imprisoned for acts of “gross indecency”; the charge itself a historical injustice. While incarcerated, Wilde was subjected to solitary confinement. Having completed 18 months in such conditions, he wrote in desperation to the Home Secretary:
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Rehabilitation as a sentencing ideal now seems quaint, with many prisons across the United States today principally oriented toward excessive punishment and control. Crucial in this system is the tool of solitary confinement.
“The complete isolation from everything that is human and humanising plunges one deeper and deeper into the very mire of madness.” He later added, “But the solitary confinement, that breaks one’s heart, shatters one’s intellect too: and prison is but an ill physician: and the modern modes of punishment create what they should cure, and, when they have on their side Time with its long length of dreary days, they desecrate and destroy whatever good, or desire even of good, there may be in a man.”
Over a century on, the “modern modes of punishment” that Wilde and the Supreme Court decried have been mechanized, normalized and applied en masse, particularly through the ubiquitous supermax. In the English language, the word “maximum” is used to describe the greatest possible quantity or degree, the upper limit. In the language of modern prisons, supermax (short for supermaximum security level) creates a new category beyond the upper limit. Spinal Tap would be proud; it is the penal equivalent of amplifiers that go to 11.
Rehabilitation as a sentencing ideal now seems quaint, with many prisons across the United States today principally oriented toward excessive punishment and control. Crucial in this system is the tool of solitary confinement. In the United States, on any given day, at least 25,000 people are held in supermax prisons and about 80,000 people are held in some form of punitive segregation.
The American Correctional Association describes supermax as “the highest level of custody and security … inmates are housed in single secure units. … They typically spend twenty-three hours per day in their cells.” In addition to supermax facilities, an assortment of other forms of punitive segregation operate across the US prison system. The names vary – control units, secure housing units, the gray box and many others – but the conditions in each are virtually the same. Inmates typically spend 23 to 24 hours a day alone in small, usually windowless cells, with one-hour “recreation,” usually in a slightly larger concrete enclosure prisoners refer to as a “dog run” – again alone. All meals are consumed in the cell, delivered through a slot in the door. Movement outside the cell involves being heavily shackled. People can, and often are, held in these conditions indefinitely. The recently departed Black Panther Herman Wallace spent 41 years in solitary confinement, 41 years in a gray box. He eventually was released on humanitarian grounds to die of cancer, days later.
Self-Perpetuating Social Control
In 1842, Charles Dickens embarked on a visit to the revolutionary new civilization of America, capturing his impressions in a rather hostilely received book, American Notes. One of the first penitentiaries built in the United States was the Eastern Penitentiary in Pennsylvania. Upon visiting this institution Dickens observed:
“The system here, is rigid, strict, and hopeless solitary confinement. I believe it, in its effects, to be cruel and wrong.” He was however, “well convinced that it is kind, humane and meant for reformation,” but was equally persuaded that the men that devised the system and those that carried it out, “do not know what it is they are doing,” and that “few men are capable of estimating the immense amount of torture and agony which this dreadful punishment, prolonged for years, inflicts upon the sufferers.”
“If I try to imagine what kind of death, even a slow one, would be worse than twenty-five years in the box – and I have tried to imagine it – I can come up with nothing…. had I known in 1987 that I would spend the next quarter-century in solitary confinement, I would have certainly killed myself.”
In an interview with Truthout, Brian Nelson, a former prisoner who spent more than two decades in solitary confinement, points to the spontaneous and unrecorded way in which the punishment is applied. “The federal government in the US just released a report that they don’t know who is in solitary confinement, how long they have been there or why they are there in US federal prisons. This is happening as food stamps are being cut, mental health care is being cut and unemployment is at an all time high.”
A Living Death
In Jim Jarmusch’s 1995 film, Dead Man, William Blake, played by Johnny Depp, is shot in the chest shortly after arriving in the Western frontier town of Machine. He wakes to find an American Indian called Nobody trying to dig the bullet out of his chest. Nobody gives up. It cannot be removed. William Blake is a man condemned by a bullet to walk dead; a dead man.
Some are born to sweet delight,
Some are born to endless night.
William Blake 1909-14
William Blake is also the name of an inmate who is condemned to a kind of living death because of a bullet. He has been held in solitary confinement since 1987. He wrote an award winning essay published on Solitary Watch titled “A Sentence Worse Than Death.” In it he wrote:
“If I try to imagine what kind of death, even a slow one, would be worse than twenty-five years in the box – and I have tried to imagine it – I can come up with nothing. … Had I known in 1987 that I would spend the next quarter-century in solitary confinement, I would have certainly killed myself.”
William Blake remains in a solitary confinement cell – 27 years and counting.
In 1992 in Somerville, Texas, a 45-year-old woman, Bobbie Davis, her 16-year-old daughter and four small grandchildren were brutally murdered. A man named Robert Carter was arrested. He confessed and was tried and sentenced to death. He also named an accomplice, 26-year-old African-American man Anthony Graves. Although there was no physical evidence linking Graves with the crime, the jury relied heavily upon Carter’s testimony, and he was also found guilty and sentenced to death. Soon after the trial, Carter recanted, saying he had implicated Graves under pressure from the prosecutor. He continued to recant, and Graves continued to protest his innocence. Carter’s last words were:
“To the Davis family, I am sorry for all of the pain that I caused your family. It was me and me alone. Anthony Graves had nothing to do with it. I lied on him in court. … Anthony Graves don’t even know anything about it.”
Robert Carter #999091 Last statement. Executed 31 May 2000. Texas.
Anthony Graves eventually was exonerated, but not before spending 18 years in prison, 12 in solitary confinement. When Truthout asked how he survived, his response revealed a level of inner strength few would be capable of. “I survived my experience with death row and solitary confinement in particular by not over-burdening myself with my circumstances. It was my choice as to how I wanted to respond to the injustice that was taking place in my life, and I chose to live instead of overburdening myself with the possibility of death. … I was in a small cage, no more than about 60 square feet, and I was restricted to that area 22-24 hours every day without television, etc. or any form of human contact.”
“When you have designed a system to break a man’s spirit, his will to live,” he says, “then that can never be a safer solution.”
In a prison letter, Wilde stated “reforms in our stupid and barbarous system are urgently necessary. Every prisoner should have an adequate supply of good books.” In Alexandre Dumas’ epic The Count of Monte Cristo, young Edmund Dantes, wrongly imprisoned at the Chateau D’if, “entreated to be allowed to walk about, to have fresh air, books, and writing materials. His requests were not granted, but he went on asking all the same.” Graves understands the importance of being able to read; “we were allowed reading material, and that’s how one would discover a world in which he could live in,” he says, “between the pages of a book.”
Proponents argue that solitary makes the prison system safer. Anthony Graves rejects the logic of this: “When you have designed a system to break a man’s spirit, his will to live,” he says, “then that can never be a safer solution.” Research also suggests this is not the case. One study supported by the US Department of Justice, presented “strong preliminary evidence that supermaximum prisons cannot be justified as a means of increasing inmate safety.” It found evidence was more “equivocal” regarding officer safety, but ultimately “the effectiveness of supermax prisons as a mechanism to enhance prison safety remains largely speculative.” It concluded by noting more humane and theoretically informed alternatives to reduce prison violence exist and should be considered.
On October 27, 2010, Anthony Graves was freed thanks to work done on his case by a professor and her students. One in seven people sentenced to death in the United States are proven innocent later.
At the age of 17, Brian Nelson was found guilty of murder and armed robbery. In 1998, he was a trustee at a minimum-security prison in New Mexico. He worked as the prison tailor and had significant privileges. Then one day, completely without warning, he was shackled and transferred to the notorious Tamms supermax in Southern Illinois. Upon arrival, he was met by 75 corrections officers in full riot gear as well as sharpshooters with rifles aimed at his head. Nelson, an epileptic, promptly had a seizure. He was held down by the officers – including with an officer’s combat boot on the back of his head and neck – while they screamed, “Welcome to Tamms.”
Brian spent a total of 23 years in solitary confinement. “I don’t know if I have survived it,” he said. “Some days I am still overwhelmed by it. I can taste the concrete, feel the walls embracing me and be overconsumed by the gray walls. It takes very little to trigger the memories and then it becomes so real again, the tears will start to fall. There are moments that I am afraid that I have lost my mind and become so psychotic that all I am living is only happening in my head and I am afraid I will wake up back in that gray box.”
It is well documented that prolonged isolation quite literally sends healthy people insane.
The “worst of the worst” mantra is sounded frequently to justify sending people into extreme and indefinite isolation. But the decision is made by prison administration – not the judiciary. Criteria also vary by state. Western common law legal systems give expression to what society regards as criminal and indeed “the worst” criminal behavior through a “public trial,” as the Sixth Amendment calls it, not the individual command of a king or prison administrator. To practically enable the functioning of a penal system, of course, some authority must be ceded to corrections employees. But as it currently exists, prison officials exercise largely unfettered powers to condemn prisoners to solitary confinement with little transparency or data collection and minimal avenues of oversight or redress.
Although some people are sent into solitary for a violent infraction, others find themselves segregated for arbitrary reasons – or, like Brian Nelson, for no reason at all. Alleged gang affiliation is common. Stories abound of people being put into solitary for reading books deemed “evidence of gang affiliation,” and other similarly insubstantial reasons. Others are segregated because they are mentally ill or because they are targets for other prisoners.
Brian Nelson was released in 2010. He has never found out why he was transferred to Tamms.
Deliberate Destruction of the Human Spirit – Solitary As Torture
The isolation of solitary is bad enough, but with time on its side, as Wilde wrote, the good is desecrated and destroyed. The damaging psychological consequences of solitary confinement have been well-documented over the past few hundred years. Suicide rates and incidents of self-harm are higher for inmates in solitary confinement. Brian Nelson explains the self-harm those incarcerated are driven to, “watching my fellow prisoners deteriorate so bad, they would use their own body as a cutting board. They castrated their selves, cut off fingers; others would repeatedly beat their head into the wall. Most of this was done to feel something, because you become so numb in that gray box. … Supermax prisons have three times as many mental health workers, compared to regular maximum security prisons.”
Prolonged extreme isolation of human beings, who are reliant upon others for a sense of self, runs counter to the very essence of what it is to be human.
“The modern modes of punishment create what they should cure,” Wilde observed in 1894. Likewise, 83 years later, President Jimmy Carter said, “penalties against possession of a drug should not be more damaging to an individual than the use of the drug itself.” It is well-documented that prolonged isolation quite literally sends healthy people insane. For those with a pre-existing mental illness, the effects are catastrophic. Behaviors that can be a manifestation of mental illness – self-mutilation, throwing of feces and urine, refusing instructions – cruelly become justifications for a prisoner’s continued placement in solitary. On top of this, because they are so isolated, solitary prisoners are at greater risk of medical neglect, abuses of power and excessive force.
For a country that refers to itself as the land of the free, many wonder how such a system exists. “Because it comes from a place that shows a lack of respect for human dignity,” Graves said. In the 1890 Supreme Court case, the court noted that those in solitary confinement who “stood the ordeal better” and didn’t fall into a “semi-fatuous” catatonic state or become violently insane or commit suicide, “in most cases did not recover sufficient mental activity to be of any subsequent service to the community.” Echoing the Supreme Court, Nelson said, “Men are being released from solitary that are now on Social Security disability because of what happened to them in solitary. They are unable to hold a job, adapt to being around people or able to function normally in society. … This is not rehabilitation. This is wrong.”
Man is by nature a social animal, as Aristotle put it. Prolonged extreme isolation of human beings, who are reliant upon others for a sense of self, runs counter to the very essence of what it is to be human.
In 1991, Human Rights Watch identified the growing “Marionization” (the increasing use of supermax prisons like Illinois’ Marion Correctional Center) as the “most troubling aspect of the human rights situation in U.S. prisons.” United Nations Special Rapporteur Juan Méndez has called for an “absolute ban” on solitary for juveniles, the mentally ill, pregnant women, as well as those serving a life sentence and prisoners on death row. He has repeatedly stated it should be used only in the most “exceptional of circumstances and for as short a time as possible.” The UN expert also states “any imposition of solitary confinement beyond 15 days constitutes torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, depending on the circumstances.”
Nelson and Graves are just two of thousands of solitary-confinement survivors. In Graves’ case, a death row exoneree as well, from Texas. They are two of millions of survivors of the US criminal justice system. Today, Nelson works as the Prison Right’s Coordinator at the Uptown People’s Law Center in Chicago. Graves travels around the world telling his story. He received $1.45 million from the Texas Legislature for his wrongful incarceration. In 2013, he donated some of those funds to set up a law school scholarship in the name of one of the attorneys who helped free him.
On a Wednesday I’m Down in Solitary
In American Notes, Dickens debates with himself, would he allow it? Would he say yes to solitary confinement in certain cases if the term of imprisonment was short?
“I solemnly declare, that with no rewards or honours could I walk a happy man beneath the open sky by day or lie me down upon my bed at night, with the consciousness that one human creature, for any length of time, no matter what, lay suffering this unknown punishment in his silent cell, and I the cause, or I consenting to it in the least degree,” he decides.
Johnny Cash played prison concerts for most of his music career. His first was Huntsville, Texas, in 1956. He would later play Folsom and San Quentin, recording some of his best albums. In a documentary on the Live at San Quentin album, the narrator says, this is the record “which really laid bare how he felt about prisons. He had no love for them at all, but it was firmly a dislike of prisons, not the prisoners. Cash and prisoners related on a deep level.”
Cash got the poor and beaten-down, the victims of the times, and he gave them a voice. For many, direct experience is not necessary to question the value or moral standing of a practice. For others Keats’ maxim rings true, nothing becomes real ’til it is experienced. Politicians who support solitary confinement from around the world should now join senior prison administrators in a very simple experiment; try a night in the gray box.
“Johnny Cash remembers the forgotten men,” as Phil Marsh wrote in Rolling Stone in 1969. “They love him. Singing inside a prison to men whose spirits are being destroyed by our mindless penal system. … Music is inherently destructive of everything penology stands for. Music affirms. Music liberates.”
San Quentin, may you rot and burn in hell
May your walls fall and may I live to tell
May all the world forget you ever stood
And may all the world regret you did no good