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Solitary Confinement & Casual Cruelty

Torturing With Ignorance, Smiles, & Banal Indifference

Photo by Fabrice Villard on Unsplash

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I only spent a few days in solitary confinement myself.

Months before I accepted a plea bargain and served three years in State Prison in Michigan, I was arrested for the very first time and driven, in handcuffs, to the Macomb County Jail.

I had no idea what to expect and really only had television and movies as a guide to my immediate future.

When the officer at intake asked me if I was feeling depressed, I made the rookie mistake of admitting that I did indeed feel, “a little down.”

Within hours I was wearing what they call a “Bam-Bam Suit” and was taken to the jails psych unit (A Bam-Bam suit is a unique and bizarre kind of padded suit that — in theory — cannot be used by someone to commit suicide).

For the first day, I was kept in an all-glass observation cell but was lucky enough to be sharing the cell with several other inmates (some equally disoriented and others experienced).

Next door to us, in an adjacent plexiglass cell, was a woman strapped to a restraint chair while forced to wear a mask-like apparatus that prevented her from biting or spitting at the Correctional Officers.

She spent that entire night alternating between screaming and crying.

I felt like I had been moved to one of the circles of hell.

After that, I was moved into a solitary cell for about a day and a half.

A tiny room, one bunk, one all-metal toilet.

Barely wide enough for me to stand up and extend my arms out.

One door with a slot for the Correctional Officers to shove food trays through.

A small window at the end of the room, if I stood on my bunk and concentrated hard I could make out some of the town around the jail.

For the first time in my entire life I could not leave my room (except for one hour a day), had no access to entertainment or communications, and had no books or paper.

I was warned by the Correctional Officer as I was moved to the cell not to cause problems or bother other officers while I was in my cell. I was told that I was only allowed to ask questions, take care of my hygiene, or make phone calls during the one hour that I would be allowed out of my cell every day.

Time quickly lost all meaning.

I began to search for anything I could think of to do in order to occupy my mind.

Slowly, I started to train myself to recite the alphabet backward in my head (silently). For the rest of my bit (my time in jail and prison), this became habitual for me.

Whenever I found myself incapable of keeping terror at bay, from that moment forward, I would recite the alphabet backward in my head.

Even today, when I am experiencing PTSD or feel like I can’t cope with something in my life, I just start reciting the alphabet backward in my head.

I spent less than two days in solitary confinement. Just a day later, a psychologist saw me and quickly determined that I did not belong in the psych unit. And right after I was moved from the unit, the news came down that I had finally been bailed out.

And remember, I was NOT in solitary because I had caused trouble in the jail. I was in solitary because they were worried that I might have a mental health problem.

As a point of comparison, I know people who spent up to 6 years in solitary confinement during their prison sentences.

In fact, I met people in that same jail wing who had been in solitary for mental health reasons (while awaiting sentencing) for over a year.

Friendly Fascism

Two days ago I was a presenter at a training teaching social workers about how to better work with formerly incarcerated people.

One of my fellow panelists was a very high ranking psychologist for the Michigan Department of Corrections.

During one part of his presentation, he started to talk about Administrative Segregation (the official term for Solitary Confinement) and said:

“It bothers me that people call it solitary confinement, our inmates get a window in every cell and they regularly pass notes back and forth between cells, they are not treated cruelly or isolated.”

I was not able to rationally listen to the rest of his presentation.

I found myself incapable of giving anything else he had to say a fair hearing because this one statement had thrown me into the red so completely.

After his presentation, he was sitting right next to me in the room and we started to engage in small talk.

To my great surprise, I found that I genuinely enjoyed our discussion.

We started talking shop — me as a criminal justice reformer and him as a high-ranking MDOC official — and we quickly came to a general agreement on many of the topics that we both deal with (therapist shortages, program denials, calls for more resources).

By the end of our conversation, I became convinced he was a thoughtful and even a caring human being so it was very hard for me to square this person with whom I had just had a great conversation and the person who had so glibly denied the cruelty of solitary confinement.

After a bit of reflection, I remembered him also saying that part of the purpose of prison is punishment. In his mind, since he had already reduced prisoners to bodies worthy of punishment, solitary was really only a matter of degree.

Once we reduce people to objects worthy of abuse, it becomes increasingly easy to see abuse as acceptable treatment.

In addition, it occurred to me that he had never experienced solitary confinement himself. He had never been forced to see a room with a window as a forever box where the occupant is suspended — as totally as possible — in both time and space — from the normal operation of human civilization.

So often these days I hear people talk about checking privilege. In this case, if you really want to understand solitary confinement:

Check you citizenship privilege

Check your rights privilege

Check your associational privilege

Check your time privilege

Check your space privilege

Check your mobility privilege

Check your communications privilege

Check your entertainment privilege

And check your considered a human being privilege

End Solitary Confinement

Back to before I went to prison.

Eventually, I got sentenced and had to go back to Macomb County Jail as I waited for my transfer to the Michigan State Prison system.

Oddly enough, I ran into that same therapist who had quickly released me from solitary several months before.

I asked if it was okay if I asked her an honest question.

She said, “okay.”

I said, “all of those people in that unit were in a mental health crisis, how does locking them up in solitary for 23 hours a day — in any way — help their recovery?”

She looked at me, thought for a second, and then replied:

“It’s not optimal.”

These casually cruel words have haunted me ever since.

They remind me of what Hannah Arendt called the “Banality of Evil.”

Our system is terrible because the PEOPLE entrusted with inmate care have become so accustomed to seeing inmates as “less than human” and so used to seeing them treated like animals that it has become NORMALIZED.

Solitary Confinement has become so NORMALIZED that in South Carolina, they give out two years in solitary for having a contraband cellphone.

Solitary Confinement has become so NORMALIZED that one mental health professional thinks a tiny window and the ability to send notes between cells is the same as being humane while the other casually accepts the counterproductive cruelty built-in to her jobs business model.

When I give public speeches on this topic, I usually suggest that folks try, just for a few hours, to create the reality of solitary confinement for themselves. Put away the cell phones, turn off the television, get rid of all reading material, close your door and just try to imagine that there will be no relief coming.

Even with experience, I find that I can only force myself to do it for a few hours at a time.

Across this country right now, thousands of men and women — often in mental health crisis — are all alone and in rooms that they can’t escape from, and that is simply because we don’t care enough to STOP IT.

Despite all of our technological prowess and our incredible gifts for problem-solving and innovating, we have decided that settling for the worst-possible solution is okay whenever the people in question don’t really count (are not really people at all).

Recently, in Michigan, we started the process a package of laws designed to allow for more mental health diversion throughout our State but the problem INSIDE our jails and prisons remains largely unaddressed.

Locking people in rooms alone and throwing away the key as a means of “addressing” mental health should NEVER be okay.

It is time to end solitary confinement in the United States of America.

Josh is the host of the Decarceration Nation podcast and is a blogger and freelance writer who writes about criminal justice reform, television, movies, music, politics, race, ethics, and more.