Risking understatement, I am buried alive inside Michigan’s Marquette Maximum Security Prison. I am locked in a windowless cell measuring 10×8 feet, 24 hours per day. For one hour every other day, I am handcuffed, chained around the waist and allowed exercise and a shower in a small cage. I am not allowed to interact with others, or to participate in any educational, vocational, or employment programs. All meals are delivered to the cell. I have no access to a phone. And while I am permitted two, one hour non-contact visits per month — always conducted through glass — Marquette is 455 miles away from my hometown of Detroit. Opportunities to visit family and friends are rare.
For all intents and purposes, I am dead to everything but melancholic anxieties and horrible despair. This is torture.
I have existed under these conditions for over seven months with no prospect of release in the near future. The system here is rigid, strict and hopeless solitary confinement. It is not natural or humane to be isolated like this day after day, month after month. Actually, it has long been known by those who research and labor to abolish solitary confinement that even a relatively brief exposure of time to severe environmental restrictions and social interactions has a profoundly deleterious — often catastrophic — effect on mental functioning. In such situations people often descend into a mental torpor or “fog,” in which alertness, attention and concentration all become impaired.
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In solitary, one can hear the madness coming from the throats of men who cannot take it any more, frustrated souls from behind the bars of each cell, rasping rackets from the walls, the hollow vibrations from sink and toilet combined into one. Our iron beds are bolted to the floor. Lights are never turned off. These things take on frightening significance. They result in loss of appetite, insomnia, irritability, emotional withdrawal, depression, paranoid ideation and easily provoked anger, which may escalate into “acting out.”
Several guys on my tier have argued the last three days — promising to kill each other if the opportunity ever presents itself — over a pair of socks that came up missing in the laundry. This type of thing happens all the time. Of course, the inability to shift attention away from something as trivial as a pair of missing socks is not the worst of it. Many of the men here with me smear themselves with feces. They mumble and scream incoherently all day and night. They descend into the horror of self-mutilation, some eating parts of their own bodies. My first couple of weeks in solitary an older white gentleman in a wheelchair who repeated over and over again how bored he was hanged and killed himself, on a dare. The frequency in which these acts of despair and hopelessness occur should attract administrative as well as clinical concern, but rarely do. The guy in the cell next to me and a guy around the corner both recently attempted suicide.
Not all people locked down in solitary confinement react precisely in these manners. In some, the trauma and harms are less conspicuous. In others, dejection and utter despondence set in earlier, or later. But none are unaffected. Not anyone. Not me. The challenges of writing under the tensions and hostilities created by social and sensory deprivation cannot just be shrugged off. To encourage myself, I repeat out loud the words of Viktor E. Frankl: “Life holds meaning under any conditions — even the most miserable ones.” I try to believe this.
Before writing, I strip the sheets and blanket from the refurbished piece of corrugated rubber that masquerades as my mattress, then fold it in half to serve as a writing surface. I do the same with a pillow that differs from the so-called mattress only in size, except it is used to cushion my knees. Kneeling is the most comfortable position from which to write. I take several deep breaths, wipe the cold perspiration from my face, and go through a series of knuckle cracking and hand exercises. Writing with a 3-inch rubber “security pen” causes my hand to cramp and swell. The pain is both excruciating and debilitating. I feel like giving up before getting started.
Prison administrators justify the use of all sorts of “security” methods, in which solitary confinement is the central pathogenic technique, by claiming the prison’s need to modify aggressive behavior, reduce tension, make prisoners more obedient and rehabilitate recalcitrant prisoners. However, those justifications do not match the reality. How is making prison smaller, narrower and more confined going to reduce tension? It is far more likely that solitary will not only place people at risk for greater anxiety and stress but also lead to lasting negative changes. These include persistent symptoms of post-traumatic stress (such as flashbacks, chronic hypervigilance and a pervasive sense of hopelessness), as well as a continuing pattern of intolerance of social interaction.
All of these deep issues make people more susceptible to recidivism. The same way over two-thirds of people released from prison are rearrested in the first three years, a high percentage of prisoners released from solitary confinement quickly return. After people are released from solitary confinement, the trauma they experienced often prevents them from successfully readjusting to the environment of the “general population” in prison and perhaps even more significantly, often severely impairs their capacity to reintegrate into the broader community upon release.
My friends write to me and ask how I am holding up. I always reply, “Just fine.” While sincere in my response, I wonder if that is true, or even possible. No one here openly acknowledges the psychological harm or stress experienced as a result of the stringent conditions under which we’re placed. I believe the reluctance to acknowledge this harm is a response to the perception that solitary confinement is an overt attempt by administrators and guards to “break us down.” If we fully acknowledge that solitary is the product of an arbitrary exercise of power (rather than the fair result of a reasonable process), it can be even more difficult to bear.
What is important to note is not only that we as prisoners are often extremely fearful of acknowledging the psychological stress and harm we experience behind these walls, but that administrators and guards are fearful of doing so too. The consequences of caging people cause damage to both jailed and jailer. This is a point that has to be emphasized more often — all who exist or work in this environment are affected. Prison solves no social problem; it merely creates new and more complicated ones. It is a descending spiral ending in emotional and psychological harm for all.
My friends also write and ask how they can aid me. Books and letters help break up the monotony, loneliness and idleness. But I recognize my experience as a social experience, not an individual sort of thing, and so I ask that in aiding “me,” they do not embrace the “spokesperson” model of concern about solitary confinement. Isolating specific exemplary cases will not bring justice. That model tends to emphasize the individual rather than the collective injury. It dismantles collective responses, and diverts attention from the larger picture: Solitary confinement is a form of torture. And every day, in every state, many thousands of people in American prisons are tortured with little recognition or outrage.
My friends, or anyone for that matter, can assist the fight against solitary by becoming more informed that torture not only functions in countries where leaders elect themselves, but routinely in our country, under the cover of criminal “justice.” Become more informed about how torture operates in American prisons through normalizing “security techniques” that are then taken as a given. Just being more informed is likely to bring up the question, “In whose interest does the system of social and sensory deprivation operate?” Asking who benefits and who pays helps to expose our collective lack of imagination when it comes to dealing with problems, pursuing accountability and determining what actions should be taken to meet the needs of victims.
I hope what I write resonates with someone. Solitary is a tragic problem. It’s also terrifying. When you are suffering like we are suffering, you simply cannot imagine that nobody will come along to stop the pain. And when no one does, the temptation to choose death over despair, for many, is overwhelming. Make no mistake: Solitary confinement is torture.