The concrete abyss

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Essays

The concrete abyss

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

by Lisa Guenther

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

3,000 words

Edited by Brigid Hains

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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.

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.

Topics: Law & Justice Mental Health Philosophy of Mind Technology & the Self

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