Solitude's Despair

A solitary confinement cell of the former remand prison Elwe in Kassel, Germany. Uwe Zucchi/EPA

When the tabloids splash a gruesome crime across their pages—"Suburban Lawyer Stabs Children, Eats Wife"—I yearn for the days of justice dispensed cruelly and unusually, not as a corrective hand but a lick of purifying flame. Put a gallows in Times Square, a crucifix on Capitol Hill, bring back what the philosopher Michel Foucault called "the gloomy festival of punishment." The awesome power of the state revealed in fatal violence upon sinful flesh, the citizenry frightened into probity as a felon is disemboweled, pulled apart, hanged, burned, just as in medieval Spain.

We are too humane for anything like the above, or at least too clever. Today, we keep the felon's privations well out of view and shroud them in so much anodyne rhetoric of the bureau-democracy that the ordinary American thinks nothing of the 80,000 individuals wasting away in solitary confinement across the land. These are, the thinking goes, society's dregs: killers, rapists, terrorists. May they rot in hell and, prior to that, rot for a slightly shorter forever in the blank confines of a prison cell. At least a few of them would prefer the guillotine to this endless tundra of time. Some have said so.

The arguments against solitary confinement are legion, but none are quite as intriguing as that found in Lisa Guenther's recent book, Solitary Confinement: Social Death and Its Afterlives. A young philosopher at Vanderbilt who also volunteers at the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville, Guenther argues that while solitary confinement may be a failing of criminal justice and a psychological abomination, it is, above all, a flagrant offense against the idea of personhood.

Guenther's book is probably the most original study of solitary confinement since the surgeon Atul Gawande published "Hellhole" in The New Yorker in 2009, wherein he detailed the psychological duress of spending some 23 hours a day without any human contact. Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois told me that Gawande's article served as an "epiphany" for him. Durbin, a Democrat, held the first congressional hearings on the use of solitary confinement in 2012, which he said were among "the more graphic and memorable" of his career.

Last month, Durbin held a second round of hearings, amid signs that the nation is finally rethinking solitary confinement. New York state has agreed to curb its use for some populations, including juveniles, the developmentally disabled and pregnant women. (I suspect I was not the only American to discover that pregnant women could be placed in solitary confinement.) Around the same time, the head of Colorado's Department of Corrections, Rick Raemisch, wrote an op-ed for The New York Times after spending a night in solitary confinement. Raemisch, who was called by Durbin to testify, concluded that today's virtually indiscriminate use of the practice was "both counterproductive and inhumane."

States like Maine and Mississippi have already curbed solitary confinement, Durbin told Newsweek. "When the United States of America is led by a reform movement in the state of Mississippi...." He didn't need to finish the thought.

If Guenther's book does not prove quite as epiphanic as Gawande's article, the uncompromising sophistication of her ideas may be the cause. It's hard to think of another criminology tract that bears a section titled "A Levinasian Critique of Supermax Rhetoric." An obviously hard-core student of phenomenology (the study of how human consciousness perceives the world), Guenther drops the names of Edmund Husserl, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Frantz Fanon, Emmanuel Levinas and Martin Heidegger like they were late-'90s rap stars you revisit occasionally on the treadmill. She does it while dipping into murky pools of social policy, race relations and politics. This ain't bathroom reading, OK?

In this photo taken Thursday, Feb. 20, 2014, with belongings in hand new arrivals to the Deuel Vocational Institution are taken inside the prison near Tracy, Calif. California counties are thwarting the state's efforts to comply with a federal court order to reduce it's inmate population by sending state prisons far more convicts than anticipated including a record number of second-strikers. The state is trying to comply with a landmark restructuring of its criminal justice system through a nearly 3-year-old law pushed by Gov. Jerry Brown that keeps lower-level felons in county jails while reserving scarce state prison cells for serious, violent and sexual offenders. Rich Pedroncelli/AP

Though daunting, Solitary Confinement is lucid as hell. Lucid about hell, too. Its fundamental premise is that no man is an island, and that throwing inmates into concrete rooms, especially for minor offenses like possessing Black Panther writings or disobeying guards, is an exile no human psyche should (or can) bear. "The absence of even the possibility of touching or being touched by another," Guenther writes, "threatens to unhinge us." Jean-Paul Sartre said hell is other people. Guenther reminds that this hell of Others is far better than the hell of no Others at all. You don't have to care about prisons or prisoners to care about the philosophical valence of the human touch. That, I'm pretty sure, is what this book is really about.

Some researchers have tried to quantify the suffering of solitary confinement. In 2003, Craig W. Haney of the University of California at Santa Cruz published a study of inmates in the Security Housing Unit at Pelican Bay State Prison in Crescent City, Calif. He found that 88 percent of those in prolonged isolation suffered from irrational anger; chronic depression plagued 77 percent, while violent fantasies visited 61 percent of these prisoners. Nearly a third (27 percent) wanted to kill themselves.

But quantifying the psychosomatic toll of solitary confinement is tricky; it is entirely possible that many prisoners "in the box" found to be suffering from psychological maladies had them before being sequestered. Those pre-existing ailments could have contributed to their removal from the general population. To tease out solitary confinement's effects on mental health, a researcher would have to conduct a controlled assessment of inmates before and after, across several institutions. Given the insularity of prisons, that's not likely. But it may not be necessary, either, since just about no one thinks that solitary confinement is good for the human mind, especially one already troubled.

Guenther's approach is ultimately more intrepid. It relies not on numbers but on ideas. Ideas not of criminal justice but of human experience.

The Quakers helped introduce solitary confinement to the United States at the end of the 18th century, first with Philadelphia's Walnut Street Jail in 1790 and, in 1829, with that city's Eastern State Penitentiary, whose appearance was to convey "a cheerless blank indicative of the misery that awaits the unhappy being who enters within its walls," according to the aspirations of prison officials. The goal was to chasten the mind through sensory starvation: purification by nothingness. "Left to their own devices for years on end, with no contact with family or friends and no news of the outside world, prisoners would learn to rely on their own moral and physical strength," Guenther writes. Yet instead of turning into model citizens, many inmates appeared to suffocate. When Charles Dickens visited in 1842, he was troubled by the prison's "daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain."

It would be another half-century before solitary confinement returned as a favored practice in American prisons. In 1953, soldiers came back from the Korean War with stories of Chinese prisoner-of-war camps where, in Guenther's words, "the personhood of the prisoner could be broken down and rebuilt in the form of a Communist sympathizer or revolutionary fanatic." By the 1960s, American behaviorists had what they figured was an ideal population for their experiments: African-American prisoners whose anger must have seemed like an anti-social affront. Back in 19th-century Philadelphia, the reformer Benjamin Rush had sought to make prisoners into "republican machines." The sensory deprivation of solitary confinement would accomplish just that, his 20th-century counterparts hoped

They hoped wrong. "I might be the most resilient dead man in the universe," wrote the Black Panther George Jackson in what would become the epistolary collection Soledad Brother. "The upsetting thing is that they never take into consideration the fact that I am going to resist." Resist he did, right up to the day they shot him in the yard of San Quentin in 1971 during a bloody escape attempt.

Then, on October 22, 1983, two officers were killed at the federal prison in Marion, Ill., "the new Alcatraz" that opened when the old Alcatraz closed in 1963. As a result of the two murders, both by members of the Aryan Brotherhood, the prison would remain under lockdown until 2006, becoming the nation's first Supermax prison—that is, a facility where the majority of inmates spend the majority of their time alone, with minimum human contact, under maximum surveillance. During the 1980s and 1990s, an estimated 44 states built a total of more than 50 such prisons, where a good portion of inmates were kept in near-total isolation. Currently, about 25,000 people are in Supermax prisons across the nation (not all Supermax inmates are in isolation, and not all isolation happens in Supermaxes, though there is a strong correlation between the two).

Amy Fettig, a lawyer for the National Prison Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, explains that the building of Supermax prisons was a reaction to the prevailing political winds, rather than a result of scrupulous criminological study. "Once you build those beds, you fill them up," Fettig told me. Many of those who wound up in solitary confinement within a Supermax had committed minor rule infractions—for example, "affiliating" with a gang by sporting certain tattoos.

In 1999, well before solitary confinement had become a cause célèbre, Human Rights Watch published a report on the Red Onion State Prison in Virginia. The group's finding suggested a scenario worthy of Colonel Kurtz:

Their world is austere, cramped and claustrophobic. Security procedures imposed on all inmates in segregation exceed those reasonably necessary for safety; their real purpose may be simply to intimidate and degrade. Prisoners' minimal physical requirements—food, shelter, clothing, warmth—are met, but little more. The facility offers nothing but bleak isolation to encourage or enable an inmate to return to general population or to enhance his ability to live peaceably once he has.

"I don't think that even prison officials think of it as a corrective practice," Guenther told me over the phone. Later, in an email, she explained how she first became interested in solitary confinement "as a way of dealing with the ethical trauma of living in the United States. I'm not-so-secretly Canadian, and I moved to Nashville in 2007 after teaching in New Zealand for five years.

"How could I move to a country that abandoned people during Hurricane Katrina, tortured people at Abu Ghraib, and continues to detain and force-feed people at Guantánamo Bay? Just for a job—teaching philosophy, of all things? What good is philosophy if it leads you to make decisions like that?"

While she is cognizant of policy concerns, Guenther is more curious about how the human ego responds to the absence of all other egos (a guard checking bodily cavities for contraband does not count). Using the work of early 20th century philosopher Edmund Husserl, she concludes that "the personal ego is essentially constituted in relation to a world and to other egos," which makes individuality a flimsy thing when confined to itself. We tend to think of objectivity as a bedrock of fact, but it is actually something we create communally: the crowdsourcing of reality, if you will. We may disagree about politics, but we do not disagree that it is March. No such certainty is possible when your only companions are four featureless walls.

While solitude can be reflective, solitary is confining, an endless date with your own mind. The murderer Jack Henry Abbott, infamously championed by Norman Mailer, described how solitary had him "awash in pure nothingness."

Still, some see solitary confinement as a necessity. Donn Rowe, who heads the New York State Correctional Officers and Police Benevolent Association, said in an emailed statement that "it is simply wrong to unilaterally take the tools [of solitary confinement] away from law enforcement officers who face dangerous situations on a daily basis." It's hard for those of us who have never served as corrections officers to refute that argument.

Regardless, many consider solitary confinement to be in violation of the Eighth Amendment's injunction against cruel and unusual punishment. Jerry Elster, a former Crips member from California who spent more than two decades in prison for murder, knows better. "Of course it's torture," he told me, having spent much of his first five years behind bars in solitary confinement for a variety of infractions. "It is as close as you can get to physically just attacking someone without actually putting your hands on 'em." Elster, who now works for the Bay Area organization Legal Services for Prisoners With Children, says solitary confinement is "like being in a dirty bathroom."

Guenther quotes as readily from those who've languished in the box as she does from philosophers. The insights of the former are so meticulously horrific that you're suddenly overcome with the realization that what we promised to correct we have further corrupted instead. They know this, too, and will not let us forget it. Visitors to segregated housing units commonly report prisoners throwing excrement at the walls, sometimes smearing themselves with it. This may be a sign of mental illness, but it could also be a rational response to an irrational situation: by making their waste flagrantly visible, the prisoners announce that they are still alive, that they cannot be ignored. They are shoving their humanity in the guards' faces.

One of the more curious arguments Guenther proffers is that arguing for human rights for inmates in solitary is not as effective as arguing for their animal ones. "Animals in factory farms or laboratories face many of the same challenges as prison inmates," Guenther writes, "and suffer many similar effects on their physical, mental, and emotional health." It does seem a little strange that while cage-free eggs and free-range beef are celebrated, caged, no-range people are ignored.

One of those who testified at Durbin's recent hearing was Damon A. Thibodeaux, who in 1997 was sentenced to death for allegedly raping and murdering a 14-year-old cousin. He was incarcerated at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, which sits on a former plantation and is one of the nation's most troubled prisons. Thibodeaux spent 15 years in solitary confinement. In 2012, he was exonerated, the 141st death row inmate to receive such a reprieve since 1976.

"I do not really have the words to tell you fully how much physical, mental and emotional harm is done to those of us who are placed into solitary confinement for any length of time," Thibodeaux says in the written statement prepared for his testimony. But what he could tell was sufficiently troubling: "I saw men lose their minds. Some screamed at all hours of the night. Some just stared at a wall....

"I watched the state slowly execute many of my fellow inmates before it could legally put the needle into their arms."