Why we must listen to survivors of solitary confinement
By: Maya Schenwar
The United States holds more than 80,000 people in solitary confinement on any given day. Hell Is a Very Small Place collects firsthand accounts describing the miserable realities of life in solitary and showing how isolated people hold on to their humanity and even build solidarity with those next to whom they are incarcerated, without ever meeting face-to-face. Order your copy of this important book by making a donation to Truthout today!
After years of relentless pressure by activists and writers — both inside and outside of prison — solitary confinement is solidly on the national political radar. Thanks in no small measure to the hunger strikes organized by prisoners in California, most notably in 2011 and 2013, momentum around the issue has been building steadily, and even making its way into mainstream politics. In January, President Obama issued an executive order banning solitary for juveniles, and urging limits on the use of solitary for adults.
There’s still a long way to go: Between 80,000 and 100,000 people remain in solitary confinement, and Black and Brown people are overwhelmingly more likely than whites to be placed in solitary. In order to shrink — and hopefully someday eliminate — that giant tally, sustained public education and advocacy will be required. That’s why last month’s release of Hell Is a Very Small Place: Voices From Solitary Confinement could not be timelier. This collection of essays by survivors of solitary, as well as activists and family members on the outside, is a deep dive into the pain and lasting trauma wrought by isolation. After taking in the words of survivors — including well-known resisters like Herman Wallace, Shaka Senghor and Todd Lewis Ashker, as well as voices not heard publicly before this volume — readers will be left with no doubt that solitary confinement is, indeed, torture.
The book is also a call to action. The grimness of its stories is overlaid with a vital urgency: a message from people behind bars that it is up to us, on the outside, to hear their pain and join them in pushing for the abolition of solitary.
In this interview with Jean Casella and Sarah Shourd, co-editors (along with James Ridgeway) of Hell Is a Very Small Place, they explore the violence of isolation, the history of the practice, the importance of prison-based resistance and the growing movement to end solitary for good.
Maya Schenwar: Solitary confinement is such a heavy topic — one of the heaviest topics! In founding the website Solitary Watch and now with the book, why did you choose to zero in on solitary in particular? Why did you think it was important to spotlight this issue in its own forum?
Jean Casella: Short of the death penalty, prolonged solitary confinement is the worst thing that can legally be done to human beings in this country. When Jim Ridgeway came up with the idea for Solitary Watch in 2009, the issue of solitary confinement was, with a very few exceptions, absent from the mainstream and even the progressive media, and from the agendas of policy makers and most activist groups. Yet there were tens of thousands of people living in solitary confinement in American prisons and jails, and anyone who had spent more than the shortest of times in solitary did not hesitate to call it torture.
The focus at the time was on torture at Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib — but this was torture happening in our own backyards. Supermax prisons and solitary confinement units were — and remain — domestic “black sites.” Our goal in founding Solitary Watch was to bring these places out of the shadows and into the light of the public square. In doing so — and in creating this book — we wanted to place at the forefront the experiences and voices of the buried human beings who were actually living in these concrete tombs.
In Sarah’s preface, solitary is described as targeting not only people’s bodies, but in particular, “the part of us that makes us human.” Can you describe what that “part” is, and how solitary threatens it?
Sarah Shourd: Physical contact is essential for most (if not all) species, but humans are perhaps the most highly socialized creatures on the planet. We need meaningful social contact in order to feel safe, to regulate our nervous systems and to make sense of the world around us. Having no one to talk to, no eye contact, not even a handshake or embrace for weeks, months or years at a time … many people lose a sense of who they are, an identity that roots them in the world. We’re just not wired for such extreme deprivation. When all human contact is taken away, many become unhinged. This is why we see so much insanity and suicide among the population of prisoners in solitary confinement. Eventually, isolation will take a heavy toll, both physically and psychologically, which can be permanent.
As you point out in the intro, solitary confinement emerged in the late 18th century in the United States — and from the beginning, it was a failure in accomplishing its stated goals. Why did it spread anyway, and why is it so incredibly prevalent today?
Casella: The rise of solitary confinement in contemporary times tracks with the rise of mass incarceration, starting in the early 1980s and gathering steam in the 1990s and through the early 2000s. I don’t think anyone was looking back at accounts from the 18th and 19th centuries about how it drove men mad instead of reforming them (which was the original goal of solitary). There was an exploding prison population, and solitary was perceived as a tool to control it by heaping punishment upon punishment.
Even today, when we have a growing body of evidence showing that solitary confinement increases both prison violence and recidivism, there are many, especially among rank-and-file corrections staff, who refuse to accept that solitary is counterproductive, as well as inhumane.
I found all of the stories in Hell Is a Very Small Place to be deeply moving. Judith Vasquez’s piece stuck in my mind, partly because she talks about how after being released from solitary after several years, she experienced an “urge” to return to solitary. Where does this “urge” come from and why does it happen, given that solitary is indeed torture?
Shourd: The fact that this is so common is one of the most deeply disturbing things about solitary confinement. Prisoners become agoraphobic, terrified of groups and open spaces. All you think about for days, weeks, years at a time is getting out of the hole; then, you find yourself unable to cope on the outside, tortured by a desire to crawl back into the miserable but familiar world you’ve become accustomed to. I suppose we adapt to horrifying realities when we have no other choice but to survive, but that adaptation damages us. When your mind turns against you, sometimes there’s no going back.
It was a relief to find stories of resistance amid all these stories of brutality. Shaka Senghor’s piece mentions some of the creative forms of resistance that men in his unit used, like the strategy of overflowing the toilets when injustice was done. Can you talk a little bit about some of the ways in which people are able to organize, despite their isolation?
Casella: In solitary, in which isolation is an instrument of punishment and control, any act of connection with another human being is subversive. In the stories told in the book and elsewhere, we find the lengths to which people will go to make these connections — the ingenuity they employ, and the risks they take. For example, in solitary blocks there is a practice called “fishing,” which involves tearing a long strip off of a bedsheet, tying something heavy and flat onto the end of it, and shooting the “line” out from the crack underneath a cell door. If you can cross your line with another person’s line, you have established a connection — a way of passing things back and forth. Then you can communicate through notes, share meager resources or read books “together” — by tearing them into sections and passing each section down the cellblock. This may sound trivial, but I can guarantee you that it has prevented countless people from losing their minds in solitary, by allowing them a shred of human community. And as a result, it is strictly forbidden — and sometimes punished by additional time in solitary.
The book of course contains the story of the hunger strikes at Pelican Bay, which spread across the state of California. In 2012, in the lead-up to the last hunger strike, prisoners released an Agreement to End Hostilities. Could you briefly discuss why this is important, and what role it played in resistance against solitary?
Shourd: The historic California hunger strike and Agreement to End Hostilities ignited a movement that has led to significant changes in California’s prisons. A recent historic legal settlement forced CDCR (California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation) to end the (illegal) use of indefinite solitary confinement as a tactic to force prisoners to inform on each other. Over a hundred prisoners, those who had been in solitary for 10 years or more, have been released into the general prison population — yet thousands remain.
Despite this victory for human rights, the practice of long-term solitary is far from over in California. Unless CDCR actually shuts down or converts solitary confinement units, many fear that newly emptied cells will soon be filled with more prisoners.
What do you see as the most promising routes to stopping solitary? What can Truthout readers do to get involved?
Casella: There is now a significant movement against solitary confinement in this country, operating on several fronts. There are lawsuits, such as the one that resulted in recent changes in California. There is legislation such as the HALT [Humane Alternatives to Long-Term] Solitary Confinement Act, which is making its way through the state legislature in New York. There is grassroots activism, much of it led by people who have themselves survived solitary confinement or have family members in solitary, as well as incarcerated people like the hunger strikers.
Under pressure, several states and the federal government have instituted reforms — though so far they are all designed to “reduce” rather than eliminate the use of solitary. Ending solitary confinement as we know it requires a sea change in the way we think about and deal with problematic behavior, whether it is within the prison environment or in society at large. It requires us to abandon the thirst for punishment in favor of rehabilitation, such as treatment and education.
Truthout readers can find a list of organizations working on the issue at SolitaryWatch.com, where they can also find information about our Lifelines to Solitary program, which reaches out to people who are currently in isolation and offers them some human connection.