The concrete abyss

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The concrete abyss

An inmate looks out from his cell in the Secure Housing Unit (SHU) at Corcoran State Prison in Corcoran, California October 1, 2013. Photo by Robert Galbraith/Reuters

We know solitary confinement annihilates the minds of its victims — but what does it do to the rest of us?

Lisa Guenther is a philosopher at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. Her latest book is Solitary Confinement: Social Death and its Afterlives (2013).

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I first met Five Omar Mualimm-ak at a forum on solitary confinement in New York City. He wore track shoes with his tailored suit. ‘As long as the Prison Industrial Complex keeps running, so will I,’ he explained. After hearing him speak about the connections between racism, poverty, mass incarceration and police violence, I invited Five to speak at a conference I was organising in Nashville, Tennessee. He arrived, as always, in a suit and track shoes. As we walked across campus to a conference reception, I worked up the courage to ask him how he got his name. He told me: ‘I spent five years in solitary confinement, and when I came out I was a different person.’

In an article for The Guardian last October, Five described his isolation as a process of sensory and existential annihilation:
After only a short time in solitary, I felt all of my senses begin to diminish. There was nothing to see but grey walls. In New York’s so-called special housing units, or SHUs, most cells have solid steel doors, and many do not have windows. You cannot even tape up pictures or photographs; they must be kept in an envelope. To fight the blankness, I counted bricks and measured the walls. I stared obsessively at the bolts on the door to my cell.
There was nothing to hear except empty, echoing voices from other parts of the prison. I was so lonely that I hallucinated words coming out of the wind. They sounded like whispers. Sometimes, I smelled the paint on the wall, but more often, I just smelled myself, revolted by my own scent.
There was no touch. My food was pushed through a slot. Doors were activated by buzzers, even the one that led to a literal cage directly outside of my cell for one hour per day of ‘recreation’.
Even time had no meaning in the SHU. The lights were kept on for 24 hours. I often found myself wondering if an event I was recollecting had happened that morning or days before. I talked to myself. I began to get scared that the guards would come in and kill me and leave me hanging in the cell. Who would know if something happened to me? Just as I was invisible, so was the space I inhabited.
The very essence of life, I came to learn during those seemingly endless days, is human contact, and the affirmation of existence that comes with it. Losing that contact, you lose your sense of identity. You become nothing.

Five’s experience of solitary confinement is extreme, but it’s not atypical. His feeling of disconnection from the world, to the point of losing his capacity to make sense of his own identity and existence, raises philosophical questions about the relation between sense perception, sociality, and a meaningful life. Why does prolonged isolation typically corrode a prisoner’s ability to perceive the world and to sustain a meaningful connection with his own existence? The short answer to this question is that we are social beings who rely on our interactions with other people to make sense of things. But what does it mean to exist socially, and what is the precise connection between our relations with others, our perception of the world, and the affirmation of our own existence?

My response to this question is shaped by the philosophical practice of phenomenology. Phenomenology begins with a description of lived experience and reflects on the structures that make this experience possible and meaningful. The main insight of phenomenology is that consciousness is relational. As the German philosopher Edmund Husserl put it at the turn of the 20th century, consciousness is consciousness of something; the mind is not a thing but a relation. Meaning is not ‘located’ in the brain like a message in a mailbox; rather, it emerges through an ever-changing relation between the act of thinking and the objects of thought.

Husserl’s student, Martin Heidegger, expanded this notion of relationality into an account of existence as Being-in-the-world. For Heidegger, it is not enough to reflect on the structures of consciousness in a theoretical way. We need to grasp how the meaning of our lived experience arises through a practical engagement with the world, in projects such as hammering a nail or baking a loaf of bread. For Heidegger, as for Husserl, we do not exist as isolated individuals whose basic properties and capacities remain the same in every situation. We are not in the world ‘as the water is “in” the glass or as the garment is “in” the cupboard’, he wrote in Being and Time (1927). Rather, we exist as Being-in-the-world, in a complex interrelation with the situation into which we have been thrown. The work of phenomenology is to make this web of relations visible, so that we can appreciate the complexity of even the most simple, everyday experiences.

Solitary confinement presents a challenge to my practice of phenomenology, both because I have not had this experience myself, and also because the testimony of survivors suggests that the experience of prolonged isolation is also an unravelling of experience: a deterioration of the senses, a becoming-invisible, an annihilation. If the task of phenomenology is to show how we make sense of the world through lived experience, then what should a phenomenologist make of prisoners’ accounts of a living death that no longer makes sense? Consider these excerpts from the prison journal of Shane Bauer, an American who was taken hostage in 2011 and spent 26 months in an Iranian prison, four of them in solitary confinement:
The more one is utterly alone, the more the mind comes to reflect the cell; it becomes blank static…
Solitary confinement is not some sort of cathartic horror of blazing nerves and searing skin and heads smashing blindly into walls and screaming. Those moments come, but they are not the essence of solitary. They are events that penetrate the essence. They are stones tossed into an abyss. They are not the abyss itself…
Solitary confinement is a living death. Death because it is the removal of nearly everything that characterises humanness, living because within it you are still you. The lights don’t turn out as in real death. Time isn’t erased as in sleep…

Upon returning to the US, Bauer visited Pelican Bay State Prison in California and was shocked by what he saw in his own country. More than 80,000 prisoners are held in some form of ‘restrictive housing’ (read: extreme isolation) in US prisons and jails. They spend up to 24 hours a day in a grey box with little or no contact with anyone but the guards whose job is to incapacitate them. The prisoners might enter the SHU with good hearing, 20/20 eyesight, and stable mental health, but the longer they remain in isolation, the greater the chance that their sensory awareness, cognitive clarity, and emotional stability will erode. This is because, as relational beings in an individualist society, a good deal of what we take to be our own, intrinsic properties and capacities are in fact social practices that rely for their coherence and vibrancy upon interactive feedback loops with other social beings in a shared situation.

Take, for example, the perception of a teapot. If I’m asked to describe my teapot while off-duty as a phenomenologist, I will probably start by listing its qualities: blue, ceramic, Japanese, and so forth. But as a phenomenologist, my task is not to describe the teapot as if it were a totally a separate entity from me, but rather to reflect on the way that the teapot appears to me. One of the first things I notice when I reflect in this way is that the teapot appears in profiles, one side at a time. It is impossible to see the entire teapot all at once; as I move to bring hidden sides into view, the previously visible sides become hidden.

The other people with whom I share space give me an objective location in the world – they anchor me somewhere

This observation might seem banal, but it’s crucial for understanding the feeling of unreality that many prisoners in solitary confinement describe. To perceive a teapot as such – as a three-dimensional object, rather than a constantly changing bundle of visible sides – I must supplement my actual, immediate sense impression of this side with a virtual, mediated anticipation or retention of the object’s hidden sides. I can do this on my own, but in a world shared with other people – or, more broadly, with other conscious beings – my experience of three-dimensional objects acquires another layer of significance and substance. All of the little ideas my mind has about the teapot, and the wider world, are confirmed by the interactions of others with it.

My body plays a special role in this triangulation of experience. My body is my central perspective on the world, the ‘here’ from which I encounter every ‘there’. In the words of the French phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty, my body ‘gears into’ the things that draw my attention; my toes feel for the edge of the last step, my hands dig into a backpack searching for my keys. And likewise, the world gears into my body, warming my face with sunshine or moving me to tuck my nose into my scarf. But the main thing that my body gears into is not a thing at all; it is the body of another person, another ‘here’, another starting-point for the experience of a world. My own sense of objective reality, and even my sense of myself as an objectively existing person rather than an abstract capacity for awareness, depends on the co-ordination of my here with your there, and vice versa.

When I sit across a table from you, for example, I implicitly perceive you as both ‘there’ in relation to my ‘here’ and as another ‘here’, with your own unsharable perspective on the world, in relation to which I too am ‘there’ for you. The other people with whom I share space both give me an objective location in the world – they anchor me somewhere, and they also hold open the virtual dimensions of my own experience by reminding me that, no matter how hard I try, I can never directly experience another person’s stream-of-consciousness. The other confirms, contests, enriches, and challenges my own experience and interpretation of things.

When we isolate a prisoner in solitary confinement, we deprive him of this network of perceptual and existential orientation. He might still have an experience of the table that is bolted in place in his cell, and he might still have the memory of what tables mean for other people. But the lived experience of these objects as both for-me and for-another is, by and large, denied to him. The ‘there’ that would otherwise anchor his experience of the world from ‘here’ has been pulled up, casting him adrift without a clear view of the horizon.

How do people cope with this loss? In her book Total Confinement (2004), Lorna Rhodes, professor of anthropology at the University of Washington, describes a scene she witnessed on her first visit to a Washington State supermax prison. A prisoner, Jamal Nelson, is in the solitary exercise yard, swinging his arms from side to side in widening circles until his knuckles start hitting the concrete walls. He continues to swing, splattering the concrete with blood, relentlessly marking the limits of the space allotted to him, as if oblivious to the pain and even to the walls themselves. What would drive someone to do this?

Recall Shane Bauer’s description of solitary confinement as an ‘abyss’. An abyss is a chasm without edges. It’s an emptiness that has become palpable and insistent, like a black hole that sucks everything into itself. As a phenomenologist, I would say that the abyss is an experience of space unhinged from the world and from the sense of an ‘elsewhere’ or ‘otherwise’. It is an experience of space without horizon, without the basic coordinates of ‘here’ and ‘there’ by which we orient ourselves in everyday life.

The prisoner who bashes his own body against the walls of a rec yard is both refusing and confirming the abyss of solitary confinement. The self-battering body makes a statement of sorts: these walls might confine me absolutely, but I absolutely refuse to be confined! There is a world out there – a ‘there’ to which my ‘here’ is correlated – and I will find it, even if I have to hurl myself against it, or destroy myself in the process. This kind of resistance might be self-defeating, but it remains an eloquent expression of the depth of emotional and ontological harm that prolonged solitary confinement can inflict on a person.

Some prisoners find other ways of coping with the exhaustion of spatial horizons. Robert King, who was convicted of robbery in 1969 and spent 29 years in solitary confinement in Louisiana, writes:
Some days I would pace up and down and from left to right for hours, counting to myself. I learned to know every inch of the cell. Maybe I looked crazy walking back and forth like some trapped animal, but I had no choice – I needed to feel in control of my space.

Like the act of bashing one’s body into walls, the habit of pacing both resists and reinscribes the limits of extreme isolation. But pacing develops a more sustainable coping mechanism, a way of feeling in control of your space even if you don’t have the power to change places. The prisoner who paces both refuses to sit still within his allotted space, and refuses to destroy his bodily integrity by bashing against the walls. He affirms himself as a living, moving being, even though the world has been diminished to the point where he is no longer able to live and move freely.

if our ‘here’ is intertwined with their ‘there’, it cannot help but affect our own capacities to see, hear, and make sense of our lives

Pacing does not express an acceptance of limits, but rather a nervous retracing of them, a habit formed around the impossibility of habituating oneself to what is an intolerable situation. In this sense, it is a way of coping, but even this coping mechanism is still a pathology that can become its own compulsive trap. Many prisoners find that their time in confined space and solitude expands the amount of personal space they need after they get released; at the same time, some retreat into a bathroom or closet when the pressures of life on the outside become too intense. It is as if their sense of personhood had expanded to fit the narrow constraints permitted to it, and even though the cell walls were a barrier to freedom and connection, they had adjusted to them, and maybe even identified with them in order to form a zone of comfort or safety. As Robert King told The Guardian in 2010: ‘I talk about my 29 years in solitary as if it was the past, but the truth is it never leaves you. In some ways I am still there.’

But if the phenomenologists are right, and a meaningful sense of one’s position in the world, or one’s ‘here’, is correlated to the ‘there’ of other embodied beings, then it’s not just the prisoner who is affected by solitary confinement. So too is the public’s capacity to see and hear the damage that is done in our name, for the sake of our own apparent safety. Solitary confinement is most clearly and immediately a form of violence against the experienced world of the prisoner. But if our ‘here’ is intertwined with their ‘there’, it cannot help but affect our own capacities to see, hear, and make sense of our lives.

On the outside, we are free to undervalue the role that our relationships with others play in supporting our own capacity to think and perceive. We can indulge in the myth of individual self-sufficiency, without having to live that myth. Only the prisoner in solitary confinement is forced to occupy the position of an isolated individual, and to bear the full weight of his existence alone, without the support of others, taking the blame for his own collapse should others prove unable or unwilling to do so. But as long as our own freedom is secured through the segregation of others, into concrete abysses – even, or especially, if these others remain invisible to us – it is a false sense of freedom, and it diminishes our own capacities for critical awareness.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in Nature: Addresses and Lectures (1849): ‘The health of the eye seems to demand a horizon. We are never tired, so long as we can see far enough.’ The practice of solitary confinement threatens to exhaust the world’s horizon; it turns space into an abyss and exposes the mind to blank static. But prisons are part of our world; like it or not, they are on our horizon. More than 80,000 Americans are being held in solitary confinement right now. Hundreds of thousands more are being held in similar conditions elsewhere. The health of our own eye demands that we see them.

Read more essays on law & justice, mental health, philosophy of mind and technology and the self


  • Dustin Salzedo

    I relate to this almost perfectly. I am a former whistleblower of no consequence who has been completely ostracized. Every aspect of my life is destroyed and it is entirely peopleless. It's an agonizing despair that has left me unable to speak, have emotions, or be human. I described it as living while already dead and being untethered from the world. I wrote about the lived experience of ostracism, and of course, ironically, it received no response. The work of C Fred Alford, Whistleblowers: Broken Lives and Organizational Power, is a work of the narratives of everyday, forgotten whistleblowers. It, too, reads parallel to the experiences of people tortured in solitary confinement. It might be of interest to you. Thank you for writing this.

  • lewlorton

    I agree that this is a serious issue but there is another point that must be solved. Penal authorities will argue that there is a selection of inmates that are so dangerous to others that to keep them in any other situation but in solitary essentially condemns other members of the prison population to either injury or death.
    How would you deal with that set of prisoners who are ineed that dangerous to others.

    • Gyrus

      I don't see why even the most dangerous person should be utterly isolated - if the safety of others is really the concern here. Bars and plexiglass remove physical danger and allow a modicum of contact.

      I assume that of the small fraction of prisoners who are actually too dangerous to be given unrestricted contact with others, only a very small fraction of them would be dangerous in the way Hannibal Lecter is - the power of psychological manipulation overcoming even physical barriers. (And by "very small fraction" I'm being a bit sarcastic, as in - isn't this sort of thing pure fantasy?)

      Truly solitary confinement is punishment, pure and simple. If that's what you're in favour of, it's another issue - but at least the conversation is clear.

      • Roy Niles

        "Truly solitary confinement is punishment, pure and simple."

        Actually it's punishment that was meant to be a deterrent. The process is neither pure nor simple. For example, it's supposed to beat burning at the stake, or beheading, but considering how much more it costs, who knows.

        • Gyrus

          Granted, it is complicated by the fact that many believe it's a deterrent. I'm not sure where things stand in terms of research on its effectiveness as a deterrent - I've not read those studies you mention about burning at the stake.

          My sense is that "punishment as deterrent" fits nicely with free market economics. There's a certain truth to both, but it's a quite limited truth. They both assume that everyone's a solitary individual acting in rational self-interest. Now, here's something that's not quite as simple as it seems!

          • Roy Niles

            You say,"They both assume that everyone's a solitary individual acting in rational self-interest"
            They assume the probability that most individuals will take a deterrence seriously. For those that they know won't, they know to have the prisons ready.

        • Gyrus

          I suppose what I was thinking of with the phrase "punishment pure and simple" is the fact that I think Nietzsche pointed out: whatever the professed motives for and effects of punishment, the driving force behind it is almost always vengeance. I don't recall Nietzsche's full analysis, but I've retained the idea from him that revenge is something for the weak, that we should be strong enough to renounce. Seems like an idea worth exploring.

          • ApathyNihilism

            I don't imagine that Nietzsche would recommend letting loose the violent and dangerous criminals.

          • Gyrus

            No, he wouldn't. That's why I never said he would.

            Not punishing doesn't mean not imprisoning. You're arguing on falsely binary premises (enacting cruel vengeance vs. letting criminals loose). Imprisonment can be necessary. But if, as a society, we're able to be clear about our motives for doing this, we can avoid excesses that only serve to exacerbate the cycle of violence. Protecting society and enacting vengeance can overlap, so this is difficult to be clear about (your comments seem to demonstrate this). I'm not saying it's easy, just important to address.

            In other comments here you also talk as if our only alternative to extreme solitary confinement is letting criminals loose - and yet you accuse the author of being simplistic! I never read anything in this piece that suggested that all criminals should be set free - just that we shouldn't needlessly brutalize criminals (I've not seen anyone here offer evidence that these kind of extreme "deterrents" actually work as anything other than extreme punishments, i.e. acts of vengeance).

            Even within prisons, where highly violent individuals are a danger to other inmates, physically protecting others never necessitates the kind of extreme isolation specifically addressed here.

        • Claudia Rice

          How can sadism and brutality be a deterrent? In my mind ignoring the spark of humanity in anyone is the worst kind of crime.

          • Roy Niles

            How can they not be? In any case sadism refers to a purpose, and deterrence can be for completely opposite purposes. Have you deterred your children from touching a hot stove sadistically?

    • Brad

      Maybe those crying about the solitary confinement of savage convicts would bring back flogging. More likely though, they would prescribe "counseling".

      • Tom Dollard


  • Xbillion

    I was just noticing gender is often not pointed out when discussing trapped miners, rescue workers, combat soldiers... prisoners. It's weird, to me anyway. It seems relevant here when discussing who forms the vast majority of the prison population and those in solitary confinement if we really want to see them.

  • Xbillion

    Thanks for censoring my comment, aeon.

  • five

    sad to say my story is just one of thousands who face further abuse at the tax payers expense,even with the small changes that has recently taken place to remove certain populations from the torture of extreme isolation, lately in some states , like new york ; we have to come to the realization that no human being deserves the torture along with punishment of the community exile called prison/slavery.

    • ApathyNihilism

      "we have to come to the realization that no human being deserves the torture along with punishment of the community exile called prison/slavery."

      Who is this "we"? Count me out. I, for one, believe that certain individuals have forfeited their rights to partake of human society.

  • Jessica Nicole Arnold

    No man is an Island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were; any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.

    John Donne, Meditation XVII

    • Roy Niles

      John Donne may have never been involved with a violent psychopath.

      • Jessica Nicole Arnold

        He probably wasn't involved with women, people of color or the indigent either but he's a writer and therefore subject to interpretation ...

  • sam

    While I agree with that forced solitary confinement could be very inhuman and oppressive to people, I feel this cannot be taken in such as black and white manner. It is not some universal evil either. This may be the only way to detox the indoctrinated and hardened criminals. Then there are people who take such solitary confinements as spiritual discipline. I am aware of at least two persons (in India) who are staying in an underground cave for more than 15 years without any human interaction except for food which is thrown inside from a small opening. Many Christian sects too have tradition of such confinements as disciplines. No doubt it affects the consciousness of person, but this consciousness is not existential but ego-dependent and ego driven. The problem with psychology or science is that its assumptions, frameworks and tools bring consciousness to crass superfluous level; bereft of subtlety, depth and catholicity. Science also fails to provide any value universe precisely due to this reason.

    • Gyrus

      ... forced solitary confinement could be very inhuman and oppressive to people

      It is inhuman and oppressive, I don't think anyone thinks there are exceptions to this.

      The key word is "forced". There are of course many instances of isolation being used as a spiritual discipline, probably all the way back to Palaeolithic shamanism. And sometimes the very, very lucky among those forced into the condition may emerge with some kind of salutary spiritual insight. But most won't. And this factor cannot be used to justify isolation being forced on anyone in this way.

      This may be the only way to detox the indoctrinated and hardened criminals.

      Could you point to some studies that highlighted the effects of solitary confinement on rehabilitation?

      There's all manner of things people do to themselves to for spiritual purposes, and most have correlates in the world of torture and punishment. But in the former case, it's voluntary, in the latter, it's not. That's the difference - sometimes the only difference, but it's a radical difference.

    • Gyrus

      I would add that the other large difference between penal and religious solitary confinement, apart from choice, is preparation. Any monk who undertakes serious isolation will have been thoroughly prepared for the ordeal by years of meditation and instruction. If what you're suggesting is to put hardened criminals through a lengthy religious training (perhaps non-denominational, informed by pragmatic Buddhist traditions), you might be onto something. However, you'll be stepping straight into arguments with right-wingers about the use of taxpayer's money. You might be better off looking at the sparse but promising literature on inducing rehabilitative experiences in prisoners with psychedelics - much quicker and more cost-effective.

      But for the most part you'll be stepping into arguments with people who don't want hardened criminals to get better in any sense whatsoever. They just want them to suffer, whatever the cost to society.

  • Sam

    @ Gyrus. Thanks. I feel to a truly penitent person punishment would be an opportunity of expiation. If some criminal doesn't find any wrong his conduct/crime and keeps repeating them, justice demands punishment for deterrent and retribution; something which can uphold the moral/legal order the society. We have seen that experiments of prisoner correction, based on modern psychology fables have not succeeded any better than previous punishment regimes. BTW I don't have any studies to substantiate my stand either.

    May be a sequel to this essay could be - How criminals felt about their crimes in solitary confinements? How they saw at their guilt and harm to the victims during those moments of darkness and so on. and they should not be allowed to lapse into some defense mechanisms, their explanations should be probed to bare the truth.

    I feel accepting this superficial ego as core human consciousness is degrading human beings. By divorcing man from moral order science has taken us nowhere. What Man needs today is a conception of true Self, right connection with other/universe... this would be far less anthropomorphic. Nor it would look to animal behavioral studies to understand human society or for that matter consciousness. Such a sense of Self might emanate from feeling like the soul of earth and emulating its connection with the cosmos... Such an order would be far more fluid and true to the spirit. It would have little fixation to letters and definitions...

    • Gyrus

      If the solitary confinement was intended "constructively" - to precipitate a moral, personal crisis that results in repentance - I'm sure it would be done very differently to the descriptions offered in this article. It wouldn't be easy, and it would be hard to separate it from vindictive motives (quite separate from any practical effect of punishment) that society channels through the people inflicting it.

      I question your characterization of the "self" that is dismantled by solitary confinement as "superficial". I agree there are vital facets of our being that are exposed through disconnection from society. But I think the societies in which these practices have become intensified as "spiritual" practices are not necessarily crucibles for objective thinking about reality. We evolved as intensely social creatures, and while I accept that some kind of shamanic isolation in nature may go very far back, for most of our existence our primary way of being has been social - in societies that are themselves embedded deeply in nature. I think that the more extreme type of "spiritual" deprivations took on a new character in civilized societies, where society itself was beginning to cut itself off from nature. More extreme isolation from society became necessary in order to contact the "true self" (which I would see as the self in inextricable relationship to nature and society - but right away, you can see, this becomes difficult if nature and society are themselves split apart).

      We think of early Christians starving themselves in the desert, but for the most part early Christians were living in very close-knit, non-propertarian small communities - actually, a much more faithful, and probably more effective return to the "true self".

  • Ted Schrey Montreal

    It seems to me that society 'objectifies' ,e.g. treats people as if they are objects.
    Solitary confinement is an extreme form of this and only this makes it an exception.
    The death penalty is the most extreme manifestation of this societal essence, i.e. this objectification. It is repugnant in the extreme and all of society is necessarily affected by it.

    • ApathyNihilism

      What do you recommend as the alternative?

  • Everyone Else

    I feel an urge to be picky because the author conflates philosophy (phenomenology) with moralizing (locking people away is bad).

    The author says "no matter how hard I try, I can never directly experience another person’s stream-of-consciousness". Well ... it's not a fact that we directly experience our own stream-of-consciousness either. We can't be in the stream and watch it at the same time, since these are two different points of view, and one precludes the other.

    • ApathyNihilism

      "experience" is not the same as "watch".
      One can experience one's own experience directly as subject. Watching it is another, optional, detached view on oneself as object. One can indeed have a dual perspective simultaneously, both as experiencing subject and watched object.

      • Everyone Else

        I don't think so.

        Anyway you want to define "experience" it would involve experiencing and having some kind of reaction. Without the reaction, no matter how mild, there would be no experience. Similarly, watching also involves experiencing in one way or another. Experiencing and watching are active processes.

        We can have alternating experiences, but not two at the same time. Nature has designed us quite linear in that way.

  • Jacob Arnon

    What is the point of this article?

    • Tyler Michael

      well, i can only speak for myself, but i was very impressed with the way it served to condense without simplifying a view within philosophy that a lot of people see as fairly esoteric (phenomenology) and then apply it to an important contemporary issue. we need more of these kinds of analyses of social/political/economic issues from people like the author, in my opinion, to expand the political imaginations of individuals living with a public discourse that can get awfully narrowly focused on more quantitatively driven disciplines (not that i necessarily value paradigms like those of the author more, just that i think they need more representation).

      • Jacob Arnon


        Phenomenology is one of the less esoteric and more accessible 20th philosophies. If you are interested in how it's been applied to concrete situations there are thousands of books on that subject.

        This particular article with its tendentious political subtext is not a very good example.

        In fact it's a terrible example.

        If you are interested you can read books, by Alfred Schutz, or Richard Zaner's "Way of Phenomenology," or James M Eddie's Edmund Husserl's Phenomenology, or many others.

        I also would not confuse Husserl with his fascist student Heidegger.

        • Tom Dollard

          At least Heidigger's heart was in the right place, he did sympathize with policies not dissimilar with your apparent weltanschauung, ridding society of people like you. "tendentious political subtext" nonsense.

          • Jacob Arnon

            Right, just you wish to rid society of people like me, so did Heidegger wish to rid society of people like me.

            You and him do have something in common: a hatred of people like me. Happy?

            What you gonna do after your get rid of people like me? Who is next on your list?

            btw: that's Heidegger, not Heiddiger.

    • ApathyNihilism

      Presumably to encourage us to question the morality of solitary confinement.

      • Jacob Arnon

        "Morality of solitary confinement?" What morality is that?

        Solitary confinement is misused is illegal and those responsible should be punished.

        You don't need phenomenology to figure that out.

  • rameshraghuvanshi

    Solitary confinement is cruelest punishment ,what is intention impose this punishment to accused is byond my understanding.Can accused will be better citizen suffering this kind of punishment? or government want punish him with this kind of tourer so he suicide himself.?Simple punishment let him hang? I never understand the real cause s of this kind of punishment

    • ApathyNihilism

      There are certainly crueler punishments.

  • Al_de_Baran

    "The very essence of life, I came to learn during those seemingly endless days, is human contact".

    I understand the seriousness of the context, but this silly over-generalization sets a poor tone. While I am certain that no one wishes to to endure involuntary solitary confinement, or confinement of any kind, this sort of essentializing generalization is ridiculous. Those who doubt me should ask hermits, monks, and other isolati, or even those for whom work that is not undertaken directly to enhance one's visibility in the "human aquarium". When last I checked, these persons also partook of the "essence of life", albeit on their own terms.

    • Gyrus

      The context is a little more serious than you seem to be aware. The words you quote aren't the words of the author, but those of Five Omar Mualimm-ak, who spent five years in solitary confinement. I know there's a serious intellectual issue with "essentialization", but I'm prepared to allow someone who's been through such an experience a little leeway with how they choose to emphasize their feelings and thoughts.

      Beyond that, while a staunchly absolutist concept of "human nature" is obviously problematic, if we're going to generalize at all, we can do no better than to say we are social animals. Such a statement isn't calling for a ban on the spiritual practice of isolation. In fact, I think such practices are powerful and interesting precisely to the extent that they do go against our ingrained tendencies (to me, this is best expressed in the alchemical notion of the opus contra naturam).

      If we are social animals, there are deep insights to be gained by removing ourselves from social contact and exposing the "wiring under the board". However, when we look at spiritual isolation in tribal cultures living close to nature, the return to society is crucial. Those "solo" insights are brought back for the good of the community. What is more, that "isolation" is, for the most part, a chance to connect to the wider social network of spirits, and then relate that network to human society. Obviously, as civilization progressed, this aspect atrophied, and monkish isolation became more of an end in itself - sometimes, I would argue, associated with the pathological self-denial attendant upon most monotheism, rather than with the socially-positive exploration of unnatural states.

      Needless to say, dragging religious practices into this particular debate is of course highly superficial unless we emphasize that "other isolati" (1) choose to do this, and (2) prepare for this with years of meditation and instruction.

  • Claudia Rice

    The "prison-industrial complex" is not the only institution in our
    society to have entrenched aspects of brutality and sadism- but maybe
    it's the worst. To organize the virtual extinction of personal identity
    sounds like something from a sci-fi novel- but of course it's not, it's
    everyday for thousands of people.

    Are the rest of us decent and conscious enough to bring this horror to an end?

  • Ted Schrey Montreal

    Are the rest of us decent and conscious enough to bring this horror to an end?", asks Claudia Rice.
    I think "No!"
    Now what.

  • ApathyNihilism

    Phenomenology is fascinating. However, the assertion that those who are not in solitary confinement harm themselves by allowing others to be in solitary confinement is questionable. Those who remain free still retain relationships with the world; those who are placed in solitary confinement, within a just legal system, are those whose presence in the world would be otherwise destructive to others. The omission of this critical point and reason for incarceration is bizarrely left of out this entire essay. It is impossible to fairly judge the system of solitary confinement without considering all relevant aspects, including the reasons that prisoners are placed in such an extreme state: punishment, reform, and protection of others.

  • MCope

    Why not say it straight? Solitary confinement is torture.

  • Ted Schrey Montreal

    Do those who are not in solitary confinement harm themselves? It is doubtful, according to ApathyNihilism. (Oh! How one dislikes responding to oddly named folk; is there really no confinement available for them, beyond the prison of their own mind?)
    MCope gives one possibly proper reply. Another might be to point out the (many) differences between common sense (in which I happen to be an expert) and philosophies of all sorts.
    My own favorite comment would be that solitary confinement (and all other human atrocities) reminds one of the fact of one's own individuality and all its potential faults and risks--which must certainly interfere with one's optimal existence.

  • 1bar1

    Inmates generally must "earn their way" into a SHU, by being a gang leader, assaultive to staff or fellow inmates, possessing a weapon, etc.
    How did Mr. Mualimm-ak earn his?

    And further, how else can the public be protected from those who continue to orchestrate murders from inside the walls?

    • Gyrus

      Mr. Mualimm-ak says, "I never committed one act of violence during my entire sentence." ( He also references a "a 2012 study by the New York Civil Liberties Union found that five out of six of the 13,000 SHU sentences handed out each year are for nonviolent misbehavior, rather than violent acts."

      The faith that many people here seem to have in the moral rectitude of prison staff is amazing, bordering on naive. Mr. Mualimm-ak may have been convicted of a crime, but at least he bothers to deal with actual evidence.

  • Ted Schrey Montreal

    The contributor whose silly moniker shall remain unmentioned here asks me what alternative I have, presumably to isolation while incarcerated.
    I did not suggest any alternatives, not merely because I have fewer solutions than 'silly moniker', but mostly because I do not believe philosophy is meant to do so. The best it can do, I suspect, is to describe the nature of a problem as clearly as possible.
    A rotten situation won't get better via philosophical profundities. At best it might highlight a certain nihilism, apathy and ignorance in a population, incl. those who are victims of the treatment.
    It is human, all too human, to see and treat one another as 'objects', while it is much more accurate to say we are 'symbolical reality' in our individual nature. If it weren't so, no meaning of any kind could be ascribed to our lives; we would all be in effect in a state of permanent incarceration.

  • Crispin Sartwell

    there are some important differences between solitary confinement and death.

  • rebecca

    wonder to what extent prisoners kept in solitary confinement's previous experience of isolation affects the outcome with regard to diminished sensory perception and cognitive deterioration.

  • vikingz2000

    I thought prisons where about 'rehabilitation,' not revenge, or so-called punishment for the sole sake of punishing or dehumanizing someone.

  • Don DeHart Bronkema

    Detonate prisons, rehab denizens [hospitalize sikopaths, crank in mirror-neurons when avail].

  • MsCarol420

    It was interesting to read the few comments. I can only blame ignorance for opinions like ApathyNihilism and sam who justify the cruel and inhumane practice of long term solitary confinement. America used this system 200 years ago, the Pennsylvania System. It was abandoned because it was too expensive and inmates become more mentally unstable, leads to aggression, and increases suicides. 42% of inmate suicides are committed by those in solitary confinement and solitary confinement makes up only 2% of the prison population. Solitary confinement is not a deterrent to crime and inmates released from these facilities are more likely to hurt people when they are released even when they do not have a prior history of violence.

    In California the cost for solitary confinement is $175 million tax dollars a year, $28 million in Illinois, Colorado $20 million, Texas $63 million.

    In recent news Obama lied to the UN stating there is no systemic use of solitary confinement in US prisons. The ACLU won a case against the state of Arizona for its use of solitary confinement for mentally ill inmates. Solitary confinement may have some value for short term punishment but it is torture and long term solitary confinement should be abolished.