I exchanged letters with a man in solitary confinement. Here’s what he taught me.
I do not know what Victor Ramirez did to warrant solitary confinement. Frankly, I do not care. When I decided to participate in Lifelines to Solitary, a nonprofit prison correspondence program, my intention wasn’t to preoccupy myself with legal deliberations nor take perverse pleasure in someone else’s pain. Rather, I had questions that only someone like Victor could answer:
How does someone living through hell on earth manage to put one foot in front of the other every day? How, when you are locked inside a windowless concrete box for 23 hours a day, is it possible to find solace? How is it possible to live a life of meaning when you’ve been severed from life as you know it? How is any of this possible when we, with our endless luxuries, oftentimes can’t seem to bear life’s blows? How is any of this possible?
The bleak reality is that for many in solitary confinement, it is not possible. The psychological damage of extended solitude and sensory deprivation combined with untreated mental illness and physical and mental abuse forms a toxic brew that compels thousands of people in solitary confinement to take their own lives. The U.S. Department of Justice reported that between 2001 and 2014, suicide was the leading cause of unnatural death in federal prisons. Suicide accounts for seven percent of all deaths in prison, roughly four times greater than the portion of suicides outside of prison.
Based on what Victor told me, people in solitary confinement may spend up to three days a week, sometimes longer, without leaving their cells. Neglect is common. Inmates may be denied basic supplies such as soap and food. They are allowed to shower once every two days, though temperatures soar to above 100 degrees in the summer. Inmates with mental health issues are frequently mocked, harassed, and abused by prison staff. Many injure themselves, ironically, for temporary relief in the form of a trip to a different cell. “They do whatever they want with us.”
The question remains: how does one endure such a nightmare?
Through Victor’s broken English, I began to see that his life in solitude reflected that of another Viktor: the author and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl who understood that everything can be taken from a man besides the last of human freedoms: the decision not to submit to what Frankl called “the powers which threaten to rob you of your very self.” Plainly, Victor Martinez and Viktor Frankl both refused to fold into what the system wanted them to.
All of us suffer to some degree. But it is how we accept this suffering, how we bear our proverbial crosses, that determines whether we walk the path of dignity or the path of death. There are times when Victor’s prison goes on full lockdown. Through no fault of his own, he loses his one hour of time outside his cell. “I’ve gotten used to [it],” he told me. “It doesn’t bother me. I shower out of my sink, do exercises, and draw.”
Rather than allowing these circumstances to cripple his mind, as many of us would, he doubles down on the seemingly insignificant possessions that nobody can take from him: fitness, art, books. For Victor, living a life in which he wants less makes him infinitely richer than we who have everything and desire more.
I asked Victor about faith. “I truly don’t follow no religion, but I respect them all.” He admires Buddhism for its emphasis on self-discipline and modesty — and it shows. While I am, relatively speaking, many times richer than Victor, I don’t experience a fraction of the joy that he told me he receives from an hour outside, a meal, or a letter in the mail. What are immense treasures for him are trivialities, or even inconveniences, for you and me. He recognizes, as the Stoic philosopher Seneca did 2,000 years ago, that “It is not the man who has too little that is poor, but the man who craves more.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote that “Every man I meet is my master in some point, and in that I learn of him.” This perennial truth was validated through my exchanges with Victor. I have worked alongside millionaires, studied prominent thinkers, and received an education reserved for a privileged few — and yet, a man without a high school diploma was, in some vague sense, my teacher.
Victor Ramirez taught me that hope does not die when we are stripped of physical and mental possessions, but when we forget that life is independent of those possessions. He taught me that professed faith and religious rituals are useless without a life of faith, one in which we transcend race and creed to pursue and experience truth, beauty, and goodness. And most importantly, he taught me, as Nietzsche put succinctly, that “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”
My correspondence with Victor ended abruptly for reasons unknown. In the last letter he wrote, he did not conclude with any complaints or grievances. Instead, he maintained the same stoic indifference that enabled him to endure his fate.
“Take care of yourself,” he said. “And please forgive my spelling, it’s not the best.”