What’s it like to spend time in solitary?
“The very essence of life is human contact,” says Five Mualimm-ak, who spent 12 years in the New York State prison system. “Losing that contact, you lose your sense of identity.”
In sobering first-person testimonies, several former inmates who spent time in segregation are speaking out about the psychological impact and, in the process, puncturing some of the myths about why prisoners get sent there in the first place.
While many outsiders assume that solitary confinement is reserved for egregious acts of violence—or to protect prisoners’ physical safety—a minor disciplinary offense can sometimes land an individual in a tiny isolation cell.
Like having too many pencils in your possession, or refusing to eat all the food on your tray.
Those infractions and a string of others sent Mualimm-ak into repeated bouts of solitary confinement.
Mualimm-ak, now a prison-reform activist, told an audience earlier this week at Open Society Foundations in New York that he spent a total of five years in solitary for such infractions—nearly half his prison time.
His story was echoed by two other former inmates at the session who contributed essays to a recently released anthology, “Hell is a Very Small Place: Voices from Solitary Confinement,” edited by Jean Casella, James Ridgeway and Sarah Shourd.
The book includes 16 essays by current and former inmates, some of whom are still in solitary confinement. They emphasize that segregation is often used to punish non-violent offenses, such as breaking prison rules.
Whatever the reasons, solitary takes a huge toll, Jean Casella, co-founder of Solitary Watch and one of the anthology editors, told the meeting.
“It’s a sad thing to watch a human being go insane,” she said. “This reminds us that solitary confinement really is a matter of life and death.”
About 100, 000 inmates in the U.S. are currently serving time in units that range from 6 by 9 feet to 8 by 10 feet, with no one to interact with except prison guards, according to Solitary Watch. The length of time served can range from days to decades.
Once in isolation, Mualimm-ak said, the loneliness and boredom are so agonizing that inmates will go to great lengths to interact with one another—including making so-called “fishing” lines they toss between cells to pass notes and other objects to each other.
Editors Note: For a sample of Mualimm-Ak’s earlier writing about his time in the ‘box’ please click here. Mualimm-ak was arrested by NYPD officers as he was leaving the event Tuesday and began videotaping officers confronting a man on the street. He has since been released.
To ease the boredom and help inmates regain a sense of hope, Solitary Watch has been sending newsletters, letters and cards to inmates through a program called Lifelines to Solitary. The organization plans to expand the project to include the first pen pal program for inmates in solitary confinement.
But sometimes, there is no guarantee that correspondence will reach its intended recipient.
When Solitary Watch attempted to send a copy of the recently released book to William Blake, one of the anthology contributors who is beginning his 28th year in solitary confinement, it was blocked by guards, said James Ridgeway, another co-editor of the book and co-founder of Solitary Watch.
The reason given—with no further explanation—was only that 14 pages in the book had “volatile writing.”
This is an excerpt from Blake’s essay:
Nothing much and nothing new ever happen to tell you if it’s a Monday or a Friday, March or September, 1987 or 2012. The world turns, technology advances, and things in the streets change and keep changing all the time. Not so in a solitary confinement unit, however… Indeed, there is probably nothing different in SHU (Solitary Housing Unit) now than in SHU a hundred years ago, save the headphones. Then and now there were a few books, a few prison-made clothing articles, walls and bars and human beings locked in cages… and misery.
Dolores Canales, a 2014 Soros Justice Fellow and co-founder of California Families to Abolish Solitary Confinement who spent time in solitary confinement decades ago, is now a prison reform activist calling for the abolishment of solitary. She described the conditions under which her son was confined for more than a decade in California’s Pelican Bay State Prison.
“All he can see is the cement wall across from his cell,” Canales told the audience. She recalled his stoic reaction after he and other inmates at the prison began organizing hunger strikes to protest solitary confinement, beginning in 2011. “What else are we supposed to do?” he said to her.
In Galen Baughman’s experience, solitary confinement seemed to be a device used by prison authorities to prevent him from speaking out.
“They only used it as a mechanism to destabilize me,” said Baughman, a 2015 Soros Justice Fellow who works with the Human Rights Defense Center, speaking via Skype. Even several years after his release, he added, “the trauma that comes from solitary confinement never goes away.”
Alice Popovici is deputy editor of The Crime Report. She welcomes readers’ comments.