Voices from Solitary Confinement

By Stephen LurieJuly 20, 2016

Voices from Solitary Confinement

Hell Is a Very Small Place by Jean Casella, James Ridgeway, and Sarah Shourd

WHAT IS SOLITARY CONFINEMENT? It is the Bing, Box, Hole, Block; a cage, cave, shoe box, ice box, oven, grave; a “grey, limitless ocean,” “an island surrounded by vicious sharks,” a “sea of madness during an eternal perfect storm of despair and heartache”; an unimaginable terror, an austere sameness, an immense darkness, a timeless place, a terrible endurance; it is social death, the slow march of death, a sentence worse than death, a thousand internal deaths. It is disciplinary segregation, punitive segregation, administrative segregation, involuntary segregation. Isolated confinement, involuntary protective custody. Assignment to Special Housing Units, Security Housing Units, Special Management Units, Intensive Management Units, Behavioral Management Units. Special Administrative Measures.

That one thing can solicit such a proliferation of synonyms and pseudonyms suggests that it is a concept that demands description as much as resists it. Still, it is not a difficult concept in itself, whatever the name: it is the severance of the individual from the social. In its most common form — experienced by something like 80,000 incarcerated Americans (we don’t really know the number) — this purpose is served by concrete cells, measuring eight by 10 feet, occupied from 22 to 24 hours a day. The restrictions that accompany a term in solitary are, like placement itself, dependent on the prison administration rather than a judicial sentence. They may include prohibitions on various stimuli (books, magazines, TV, radio), visitation and communication by phone or mail, communication with adjoining cells, and access to outdoor space. The result of this total absence on the human mind and body is also hardly ambiguous, and can manifest after even a few days. As an ACLU report on the practice catalogs:

People subjected to solitary confinement exhibit a variety of negative physiological and psychological reactions, including hypersensitivity to stimuli; perceptual distortions and hallucinations; increased anxiety and nervousness; revenge fantasies, rage, and irrational anger; fears of persecution; lack of impulse control; severe and chronic depression; appetite loss and weight loss; heart palpitations; withdrawal; blunting of affect and apathy; talking to oneself; headaches; problems sleeping; confusing thought processes; nightmares; dizziness; self-mutilation; and lower levels of brain function, including a decline in EEG activity after only seven days in solitary confinement.

And yet, to say what it is and what it does is not the same as understanding how it is — a question asked, by the very rules of solitary confinement, without a capable respondent. Indeed, the public’s knowledge of solitary confinement ranges from academic to absent: a film or TV crew, radio reporter, or print journalist can’t document isolation without violating it, even if they were to be granted access, which they aren’t. Interviews with those who have been in solitary tell a lot, but show little. In the last year, activists, artists, and journalists have attempted creative workarounds, including virtual reality, theater, and contracting an incarcerated columnist (Barrett Brown). These are promising and worthwhile projects. Even as access becomes more consistent, however, it remains true that any practice that is defined by absence and activated by persistence does not easily lend itself to public imagination. People remember naked and hooded detainees, not empty rooms.

Given these real and perceived obstacles, a recent book of essays on solitary from those who have lived it — inside and outside the cell — is a success before the first page. Hell Is a Very Small Place is composed of communication and observation that is not supposed to exist: it is a book as a minor act of rebellion. It also happens to be a crucial contribution to the popular understanding of solitary confinement by giving visceral human form to the practice: we are reminded that many of those in solitary can still describe their experiences, that the act of communication itself is one of the most resilient human characteristics.

The public imagines, Jeanne Theoharis writes in the academic section that concludes the book, that “torture is brutal, gruesome, and loud — extralegal and offshore,” when in reality “torture resounds in isolation,” in silence, and in American prisons as well. Solitary confinement is the United States’s most common form of torture, and yet rarely perceived as such. In part, this is because the majority of writing that does exist on the topic is similar to the latter section of this volume: academic, theoretical, and fundamentally important but largely unapproachable to the uninitiated. The book could have been improved by interspersing these individually engaging essays within the personal narratives: to show and then tell. As it stands, some parts of the latter essays can feel like an afterthought to the visceral examples of life in solitary. One can read that the American prison “has virtually none of the checks and balances found in most European societies — no prison ombudsperson, no inspector of the prisons, no independent monitoring bodies made up of ordinary citizens with access to prisons.” One can read that the American solitary confinement unit is the American prison’s apotheosis, and still fail to comprehend what life in prison means, never mind its most extreme form.

The firsthand accounts in this book offer specificity and form, in contrast, that become hard to read. Uzair Paracha, now in the Communications Management Unit in Terre Haute, Indiana, recalls lending a small mirror to a “neighbor who hadn’t seen his own face for years. For me it was only several months.” William Blake, 29 years in to solitary in New York’s Great Meadow Correctional Facility, writes that he hasn’t “seen a tree or blade of grass” in four years; he has “never seen a cell phone except in pictures in magazines”; and has “never been on the Internet and wouldn’t know how to get there if you sat [him] in front of a computer, turned it on for [him], and gave [him] directions.” Cesar Villa of Pelican Bay State Prison’s Security Housing Unit, serving a sentence of 348 years to life after a third strike for robbery, summarizes the totality he lives. On facing pages, Vila recounts the poles of possibility in the SHU: a procedure involving surgical forceps when a prisoner, “forced to defecate in a seatless chair in a bucket in restraints,” does not produce a satisfactory stool sample; or, when the mailroom prohibits a glittered Father’s Day card from his daughter “because what they don’t need is an over-excited prisoner.” Judith Vazquez, who has maintained her innocence for over two decades, describes “six months of scraping and bleeding before I finally made a tiny little hole […] [in] the rubber seal that held the window to the frame […] Upon seeing this little opening, I acted savagely. I only had room to put one nostril at a time against the hole, and I would breathe in so hard.” Left between chapters is the understanding that these experiences are unique but not dissimilar: everyone who has spent time in solitary has a story like this to tell.

What is most remarkable, in the pause taken between paragraphs or chapters, is the realization we are reading anything at all — that these pages come from minds that outlasted, or outlast, the conditions that ruin many others, and have escaped the regimes that systematically attempt to suppress communication of them. The expert testimony corroborates the first person anecdotes to underline this point: beyond individual pains, it is the deprivation of language that seems most common, most maddening, and the most challenged feature of solitary confinement. While there’s certainly a selection bias — language would be important to the inmates who have pursued writing — the preoccupation with language extends to the administration and inmate societies as well.

There are, unsurprisingly, strict limits on the number and type of books and publications an inmate can receive, as well as incoming correspondence. But it extends much further. Paracha’s living conditions “denied [him] access to radio and television news […] only allowed newspapers that were thirty days old, and the delayed newspapers were supposed to be censored.” William Blake describes how each inmate gets:

[A] set of cheap headphones to use, and you can pick between the two or three (depending on which prison you’re in) jacks in the cell wall to plug into. You can listen to a TV station in one jack, and use your imagination while trying to figure out what is going on when the music indicates drama but the dialogue doesn’t suffice to tell you anything.

Jeanne Theoharis wrote an article about her former student in The Nation; the prison administration censored the issue that contained her article: “Fahad was not allowed to see an article that described his own imprisonment.” In a world of silence (or manic yelling matches), words that have been purposely set in order become precious commodities. Cesar Villa describes the ability of “one good chapter or stanza” to return him from hopelessness. Calling reading materials “prized possessions,” Five Mualimm-ak writes: “We would pass books down the tier, section by section, until everyone who could read had read it. It wasn’t much, but it made us feel a little less bored, a little less helpless, and a little less alone.” For the same reasons, Galen Baughman describes his subscription to The New York Times: “lovingly passed from reader to reader […] Mine was perhaps the most valuable subscription to the Times in the world.”

Communication from and among the incarcerated is similarly suppressed. William Blake was 1,400 handwritten pages into his novel when it was confiscated and destroyed during a cell transfer. Some letters can take months to send, and some will never be received. In the unit, inmates send each other notes called “kites” and chat through vents and under doors. They invent and become fluent in multiple sign languages systems: “The first guys down here weren’t about to wait until everyone could order the same [sign language] books.” Bigger material must be smuggled, often by “fishing” — “[tearing] it into pieces small enough to fit under the door” and swinging it across the cellblock on a line made from bed sheets. The transmission of language requires ludicrous ingenuity and perseverance. About a neighbor who sent him 300 pages of writing under two doors more than 20 feet apart, Whitaker remarks: “The man was a wizard.” Administrators would assert that communication among dangerous inmates is a threat to the facility — that seems exactly right in the case of Todd Lewis Ashker, one of the founders of the “Short Corridor Collective” that led the California prison hunger strike, who wrote and signed the organizing principles and communications of the Collective from his solitary unit (the “Agreement to End Hostilities” is wisely reprinted in the book). After winning a settlement with the State of California, Ashker and other longtime solitary inmates are now involved in monitoring improvements to confinement conditions that the state must implement.

This and other examples of activism resulting from writing from or about solitary confinement surely animated the production of this volume. After all, given the sheer human effort required to get these ideas out of solitary and into print likely makes it among the most devoted undertakings one can read. It wasn’t done for sales or fame, to be sure. In part, as Sarah Shourd notes in the preface, the book allows the contributors to “construct a bridge with one of the few tools they have left: words. In so doing they found a way to write themselves out of isolation.” In the spirit of Atul Gawande’s 2009 New Yorker story “Hellhole” and Jennifer Gonnerman’s account of Kalief Browder’s experience in “Before the Law,” this book humanizes. It likely also aspires to cause lasting reverberations in consciousness and policy. While that’s unlikely for any single piece of writing on any issue, this collection of communication about solitary confinement is potentially extremely important for substantive change. As Laura Rovner notes in her essay: “The law is evolving, and solitary confinement appears to be one of those areas in which the law follows societal attitudes, rather than the other way around.” It depends on our “evolving standards of human decency” to accept or reject the practice. Writing and publishing this book was a form of defiance against repression, and reading and discussing it constitutes a minor form of solidarity with those still inside. It’s not enough, but through these quite unforgettable images of humanity in nothingness, it is something. And communicating something, as those in solitary suggest, is a decent place to start.


Stephen Lurie writes about justice, labor, education, and activism. He can be reached @luriethereal and on stephenlurie.com, where you can find more of his writing.

LARB Contributor

Stephen Lurie writes about justice, labor, education, and activism. He can be reached @luriethereal and on stephenlurie.com, where you can find more of his writing.


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