The torture of isolation

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 characterizes 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…

That is the only scrap of Shane Bauer’s diary that made it out with him when he was released after 26 months in solitary confinement. In Iran. Remember him? He’s the guy who was arrested by Iranian authorities along with two other Americans and charged with espionage or some such nonsense. The first was released after 13 months, Shane and another after 26. The above quote comes at the very end of a lengthy piece written by him in MotherJones about his experience visiting and investigation into California’s living, breathing torture experiment: the Segregated Housing Units.

Initially designed to isolate disruptive inmates for up to 18 months, the SHUs are now long-term, indefinite torture chambers, and the longest an inmate has been kept in isolation is forty-two years. I’m willing to bet that’s longer than many readers of this blog have been alive.

Bauer makes this stunning comparison between the conditions at SHU at his in Iran:

“So when you’re in Iran and in solitary confinement,” asks my guide, Lieutenant Chris Acosta, “was it different?”

I want to answer his question—of course my experience was different from those of the men at California’s Pelican Bay State Prison—but I’m not sure how to do it. How do you compare, when the difference between one person’s stability and another’s insanity is found in tiny details? Do I point out that I had a mattress, and they have thin pieces of foam; that the concrete open-air cell I exercised in was twice the size of the “dog run” at Pelican Bay, which is about 16 by 25 feet; that I got 15 minutes of phone calls in 26 months, and they get none; that I couldn’t write letters, but they can; that we could only talk to nearby prisoners in secret, but they can shout to each other without being punished; that unlike where I was imprisoned, whoever lives here has to shit at the front of his cell, in view of the guards?  “There was a window,” I say.

Here, there are no windows.

(Click here to view an interactive graphic of a representative cell at Pelican Bay. Note the lack of windows.) The secretive, illusory and disingenuous policies that lead prisoners into solitary in California are shameful and horrifying. From possessing the wrong picture, to being in a picture with someone who was only confirmed to be a gang member later on, inmates have no recourse to their being sent into isolation for 6 years at a time. The flimsiest of evidence can renew that condemnation for another 6 and so on, in perpetuity.

While the body might make it that long, the human mind absolutely cannot. Shane again:

As I read the medical literature, I remember the violent fantasies that sometimes seized my mind so fully that not even meditation—with which I luckily had a modicum of experience before I was jailed—would chase them away. Was the uncontrollable banging on my cell door, the pounding of my fists into my mattress, just a common symptom of isolation? I wonder what happens when someone with a history of violence is seized by such uncontrollable rage.

A 2003 study of inmates at the Pelican Bay SHU by University of California-Santa Cruz psychology professor Craig Haney found that 88 percent of the SHU population experiences irrational anger, nearly 30 times more than the US population at large.  Haney says there hasn’t been a single study of involuntary solitary confinement that didn’t show negative psychiatric symptoms after 10 days. He found that a full 41 percent of SHU inmates reported hallucinations. Twenty-seven percent have suicidal thoughts. CDCR’s own data shows that, from 2007 to 2010, inmates in isolation killed themselves at eight times the rate of the general prison population.  In the SHU, people diagnosed with mental illnesses like depression—which afflicts, according to Haney, 77 percent of SHU inmates—only see a psychologist once every 30 days.

Anyone whose mental illness qualifies as “serious” (the criterion for which is “possible breaks with reality,” according to Pelican Bay’s chief of mental health, Dr. Tim McCarthy) must be removed from the SHU. When they are, they get sent to a special psychiatric unit—where they are locked up in solitary. Some 364 prisoners are there today.

Dr. Karen Franklin has a further explanation on the horrifying effects of isolation:

[P]risoners who have spent a mind-boggling one to two decades in solitary confinement describe an inexorable descent into hopelessness and despair, with crippling loneliness and a constant struggle to stave off psychosis. They report pervasive insomnia, anxiety, hallucinations, mood swings, violent nightmares, panic attacks and a profound rage that they attempt to stifle by numbing all feeling. One prisoner described feeling like “walking dead,” while another said he hears disembodied voices and feels like he is “silently screaming 24 hours a day.”

Over time, prisoners can barely recall what it feels like to experience physical contact with another human being. Luis Esquivel, for example, has not shaken another person’s hand in 13 years and fears that he has forgotten the feel of human contact; “he spends a lot of time wondering what it would feel like to shake the hand of another person,” according to the class-action lawsuit.

That is what we’re doing: we’re stripping these people naked. Naked of the very things that make them human. We are experimenting on our own kind; turning people into lab rats, to see what happens when reach deep into our core and wrench out that very thing that makes us a step higher on the evolutionary chain: our soul. And we do this without batting an eyelid; we justify this with preposterous excuses about retribution and safety, when in essence this is nothing more than an abuse of power and a manifestation of a God-complex. We have turned on each other in ways that animals never would. We are not only destroying the souls of those we seek to punish, but foregoing any hope for the redemption of our own.

The idea of solitary confinement is frightening. The experience itself must be nothing short of torture. And yet this is considered acceptable in this most civilized of nations in the world; the gold standard in the treatment of human beings; the foremost finger-pointer at the inhuman activities of others.

We may be the world leader in capitalism; the land of opportunity and economic progress. But when it comes to that which happens within our borders, where our real soul is exposed, we are no better than those who we regularly condemn. From out treatment of minorities, to our treatment of children and the mentally ill, our hypocrisy is palpable. The rosy, shining and pristine exterior that we present to the world has come at a terrible expense: our core is rotten. We have willingly turned a blind eye to the torture of our own humanity.

March 27, 2012

…Like you, I know what it is like to have our very existence internalized to the point of kissing Siren on the lips while she guided us to the rocks of insanity. Then, wondering if we’d ever escape her spell. Fortunately we both did. But as you will learn about you and me, we did not come out unscathed. At times…I mourn the solitude of days gone past. Days where time lost all meaning; to the point where I knew not if I was alive or dead; and where sometimes I did not care either way…

—Steve Castillo

I have no more words; only tears.

[I’ve written about solitary confinement before: here and here.]


8 thoughts on “The torture of isolation

  1. Miranda

    When I was working with inmates, one of the first things I was told was to be very mindful of their personal space. So many of them hadn’t been touched by another human being, besides being handcuffed or strip-searched, in years or decades. They could be very jumpy about being touched. The solitary confinement cases are so sad. In Texas, being labeled a gang member (or members of certain gangs, not all) will get you in solitary – nicely called “administrative segregation.” And those gang members go straight from ad. seg. to release.

  2. ElSuerte

    This is really interesting, thanks for posting it. I’ve had to deal with few serious very lengthy episodes of depression in my life, so I always figured I could handle solitary confinement.

    At the very least, I thought life in solitary would be better then life in the general population.

  3. Tamar Birckhead

    Thanks for posting — and for your earlier posts on the subject. Your readers may be interested in a recent report from Human Rights Watch and the ACLU on the confinement of youth in America’s prisons. It may be accessed here along with a short video of interviews with kids who describe the experience of being held in isolation:

  4. Nullifidian

    What’s even more infuriating, if anything could be, is that we’ve known about the horrific effects of solitary confinement for centuries. The first penitentiaries, which were intended in their literal, etymological sense as places where the penitent sinner would be alone before God, reflecting on his crimes, drove people insane from the sense of isolation. Alexander Berkman’s masterpiece, Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist was published 100 years ago, and it recounts people losing their minds from the effect of isolation and persecution. Even Berkman, who managed to hold on to his sanity, experienced the kind of rages and suicidal ideation that Shane Bauer did and other prisoners in solitary do.

    Thoughts of suicide and escape, wild fancies of unforeseen developments in the world at large that will somehow result in my liberation, all struggle in confusion, leaving me faint and miserable. My absolute isolation holds no promise of deliverance; the days of illness and suffering fill me with anguish. With a sharp pang I observe the thinning of my hair. The evidence of physical decay rouses the fear of mental collapse, insanity…. I shudder at the terrible suggestion, and lash myself into a fever of irritation with myself, the rangeman, and every passing convict, my heart seething with hatred of the Warden, the guards, the judge, and that unembodied, shapeless, but inexorable and merciless, thing—the world. In the moments of reacting calm I apply myself to philosophy and science, determinedly, with the desperation born of horror. But the dread ghost is ever before me; it follows me up and down the cell, mocks me with the wild laughter of “Crazy Smith” in the stillness of the night, and with the moaning and waking of my neighbor suddenly gone mad.

  5. cranky

    Want to add Charles Dickens criticism of isolation in American prisons. He felt that English prisons for all their flaws were more humane.

    His observations on isolation in a Pennsylvania prison are in chapter 7 of his book American Notes, published in 1842. The book is available free online

    Isolation then was far less systematic and high tech than it is now, and so isolation now is even more severe.

    I am glad you wrote about other countries as well, because it is a pet peeve of mine that we Americans entertain such naive stereotypes about other countries or about particular unjust practices in other countries.

    For instance, in the case of a regular police encounter, in some cases I would rather be an Iranian haggling with the average Iranian cop than an American haggling with an American cop. It seems there are many situations where many Iranian cops are more likely to let their detainees go without charges. They are less likely to be dripping in confrontational gear either — the vest, guns, tasers, baton, the nasty attitude etc etc.

    I would rather run a blog here though, than in Iran, because Iran is harsher on Free Speech. Just one example

  6. Pingback: The disparity in the criminal justice system isn’t wealth, it’s what we’re willing to stand up for | a public defender

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