The missing question in solitary confinement
In the BBC documentary Solitary confinement, an incarcerated man puts it like this: Monsters. This is what they create in here. Monsters. And then they drop you into society. And say: go ahead. Be a good boy. You can’t conduct yourself like a human being, when you are treated like an animal!
Another man in segregation says: If you don’t have a strong mind, this place can rape you clip. A lot of guys, they don’t even have reasons why they just snap out. That’s what this place does, it makes you mean. It makes you violent, and it’s a lot of people’s heads up. This is solitary confinement.
Solitary confinement began in the USA in the 1800s as a progressive experiment by the Quakers. They wanted to see if isolation would reform criminals. But it was soon abandoned by the United States, because it was doing terrible damage to the people who were placed. Instead of reforming, the incarcerated people lost their minds. However, in the 1980s, solitary confinement really merged as a way to stamp out prison violence.
The United States began to put unprecedented numbers of people in prison and so you had terribly overcrowded conditions. And prisons look like they were about to become out of control. The response to a large riot in one of the overcrowded prisons was to employ very large-scaled solitary confinement. Put a ton of people in solitary which takes away opportunities for programming, opportunities for social interaction, and utter total control and harsh punishment. That took off in the United States, so that over time, more and more supermax prisons were developed, where everyone’s in solitary confinement. It seemed the only answer to the violence of the imprisoned men.
Reducing violence by solitary confinement, and trying to press superficial behavior on people, won’t change anything, because the underlying patterns stay unconscious. What is happening here, is that the emphasis is on superficial change, or in other words, socially appropriate behavior. There was no attention for the authentic person. Nobody asks this simple question: Who Are You? The absence of this question makes the situation hopeless. Staff don’t have a feeling that there is another solution than solitary confinement. Because their only job is protecting the staff and the men, and to allow people to get to their time and to go out as respectable citizens. They seem to not understand that one cannot become respectable by being locked up in solitary confinement. There is no social medicine or magic wand, that can be used for the transformation of an incarcerated man. One can only become a respectable person when he first is able to answer the question, Who Am I?
The other thing that happens is that there are increasing numbers of mentally ill prisoners coming into the prison system. Their behavior is harder to understand and it is harder to control. Prison systems don’t have the resources to properly deal with them.According to doctor Stuart Grassian, in the film Solitary Confinement, it is toxic to mental function. There’s a particular illness that results from being in solitary confinement. It’s a delirium. It’s a neuropsychiatric, almost a medical and neurologic disease. What we see in humans, we also see in animals. It is the same as you can see in mammals.
In the 1950s there were some experimentation with monkeys, studying the effect of social isolation. One experiment involved taking monkeys who had been raised with other monkeys. So, they were socialized and okay. They were put in what was amounted to a solitary confinement chamber. It showed distress. One saw them repeatedly rocking and shaking. This went on and on.
They also showed a sort of ritualistic compulsive behavior and after some period of time, they brought them out and put them into a cage with other animals. These monkeys were massively impaired. They were frightened, hiding, and then they would have sudden aggression, while attacking each other. One saw very different and abnormal behavior. There was no recovery from this! One of the important clinical findings with thought requirement is, that people deprived of an adequate level stimulation become intolerant of stimulation. They overreact because they have become hyper responsive to it, they can’t stand it.
That’s why men getting out of solitary just hide in their room. They can’t stand stimulation. There has also been a study that showed that this is a reality in the brain. It was a study from the Balkan conflict, in which was looked at prisoners released from confinement. They studied on their brainwaves. Some of these men had hyper responsive reactions as spiked reactions to the visual stimulus. There were only two things different. One was the head trauma to the point of consciousness. The other was a period of time in solitary confinement. So, what we see clinically is actually confirmed by EG funder.
The documentary shows different incarcerated men who talk about the way they experience solitary confinement. However, one demonstrates very clear what it means to be isolated, without being able to get into the deeper justice process. Important here is that Sam didn’t know Who He Was and there was nobody to go with him through that process to himself. He lived a way of non-existence, without the possibility to do deeper justice to himself. His name is Sam Caison and he explains about solitary confinement:
You lose all feelings. You become immune to everything. You are not the same after spending so much time by yourself and those conditions. You don’t get who you are, you don’t come out the same person. I did eleven months in the segregation unit. And I went from there straight home. I tried to tell my mom and everybody else that I didn’t want anybody around. I got home, and there were five people there. And I felt like, there were five thousand people living. And ultimately for my first couple of months, I walked myself and my camper. I stayed in the mountains all by myself. Until my mom and everybody tried to explain to me that I wasn’t in solitary confinement anymore. And that I shouldn’t live like that. I ultimately tried to force myself to live like I was supposed to, but I didn’t know what to do. And then, when I stopped I was out of control. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I went from the most restrictive place I’ve ever been, to no restrictions at all. And ultimately, I ended up shooting somebody and coming back in prison.
Then Sam gets released again. He is hopeful and wants to make it this time. He hits the streets straight out of solitary confinement. He is supposed to survive in an existing world, from his position of non-existence. That hasn’t changed, because still nobody asked him the question: Who Are You? The system in the USA has programs but no questions. Sam only followed programs which were focused on socially appropriate behavior by community. In fact, one can say, he only learned to play a role, instead of becoming the person he is. He never learned to asked himself the question Who Am I. And nobody asked him this question either.
One morning I’m getting released to the free world. This sentence is the first sentence that I haven’t spent 90% of my time in and say, I have done a lot of programming, I’ve got a wife and kids out there. This is the first sentence where I realized that this isn’t the life that I want to live. I’ve been in and out since I was nine. Sometimes I wish I wasn’t going home. Because the anxiety is so bad. For somebody like me, who spent most of my life locked up, it’s easier to say alright, I am going back to prison, for however many years. It’s not easy to go back to the streets. I definitely think that all the solitary time I’ve done has changed me. Maybe not permanently, but it won’t be easy to change back. I mean, as far as functioning in the real world, I think it has affected me in extreme ways. You know, it’s held for six months and I still couldn’t go in the Walmart without either being high or having a panic attack. It may just be because I’ve spent so much time out of the real world. But my honest opinion is, because I’ve spent so much time in a cell all by myself. I feel like I still carry it. But I don’t feel like it’s going to affect me as much as it has in the past. I don’t want to come back here again. All I can do is take it one at a time. Try to do the right thing, and hope that it works.
I got arrested and been sitting here in Max. thing unraveled fast and they have a half. I mean, I don’t know if it is just my segregation time, or all the time I spent locked up. But maybe I am destined to rot in a cage. I am not somebody they shouldn’t ever be left to his own thoughts. Addicts feel that the drugs call their name. I feel that that raiser calls my name. I still think that the best thing for me is treatment some kind of over, because I overanalyze everything. And I think everybody is out to get me. And then I start cutting up. I am not normal. People normally don’t dream about cutting themselves. Normal people don’t feel normal in jail.
Albert Woodfox, 73, is an activist and the author of “Solitary,” a 2019 National Book Award finalist. Known as one of the Angola Three, along with Robert King and Herman Wallace, Woodfox served nearly 44 years in solitary confinement at the Louisiana State Penitentiary. He was released in 2016.
No other person has spent such a long time in solitary confinement. Woodfox compares it with a bathroom, where one spends 23 hours a day. The other one hour one spends in a cage outside. I try to imagine the size of my bathroom, and sitting there day to day, week to week, month to month, year to year, decade to decade. He calls it a horrible experience. But in fact, there are no words to describe the experience. The experience transcends language. Still, he kept his sanity and even was able to maintain hope.
Woodfox felt an internal strength to endure by his mother. And he dedicated his life to the Black Panther program to better his life. That gave him a purpose. The party gave him an awaking, as he calls it. He got a sense of self-worth. The Black Panther brothers asked him the question: Who Are You? This question of the Panther Brothers, made it possible for Woodfox to ask himself: Who Am I? Through this question, he discovered that he was not the person who he had been taught he was, throughout his entire life. They made him realize that he was a decent human being, who could achieve things if given the opportunity. Woodfox discovered that in life, an event or an individual can raise one’s level of consciousness.
According to Woodfox, once your level of consciousness is raised, then you can no longer continue to be the person you were.These are interesting words from Woodfox, because they contain the same message as deeper justice does. Because, when consciousness is raised, there is no recidivism anymore. Or, as Socrates mentioned; “It is impossible to not do good when you have become conscious about it.” This shows that the process of deeper justice is the only right road. Woodfox was lucky to have his Panther brothers, who gave him the opportunity to become aware of his real Self. But this path of deeper justice has to be accessible for every incarcerated human being.
This raised consciousness made Woodfox forming schools inside prison, where he taught men to read and write. He passed through his consciousness. He says:” we taught men history, we worked to teach ourselves the law because we knew our struggle couldn’t continue to be physical, that our bodies just wouldn’t survive the constant beatings and gassings that we were going through. So, we had to take our struggle to another level. We figured the court would be the best place. And so, we had to teach ourselves the law.”
While incarcerated, Woodfox was convicted of the murder of correctional officer Brent Miller. The wife of this correctional officer had been lied to for a long time. Woodfox, now familiar with law, made her aware of facts that she had never known. It brought her to the awareness of him being innocent, and that she had been lied to.Woodfox shows that knowledge leads to true power. He doesn’t use this power to overpower other people. But he uses his knowledge in order for justice to be done. This also leads to deeper justice, because he stands for himself, takes his place in the world, and get the acknowledgement he deserves. He did this to himself, in the first place.
Standing for oneself and resisting the established order, in this case the prison system, means dealing with a lot of resistance. Woodfox underwent this resistance because he and his partners organized all kinds of strikes against unfair rules. It is amazing how they did that while being in solitary confinement. He and his fellow men were organized through letters, other kinds of messaging and examples of not being broken. Woodfox and his friends understood the words of Nietzsche, who said: “The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it, you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.”
Although he feels anger, Woodfox managed to stay out of a feeling of bitterness. He uses his anger now as a motivating factor for what he is accomplishing now. He continues to be a social advocate, and speaks about the horrors of solitary and other issues of the prison system. In this, Woodfox follows the foodsteps of his mother, who never became bitter throughout the years. Instead, she kept convinced that whatever situations one is given, one can make it into something better.
However, the main reason why Woodfox didn’t become bitter, is that he went through a process that made him a better man and a better human being. When people ask him what he would change, when he could do his life all over again, he simply wouldn’t change anything. The years in solitary confinement gave him the opportunity to reeducate himself, an opportunity to develop the qualities of endurance, that he never realized he had. He took the opportunity to find something that he loves to the point that he was willing to sacrifice his life. Woodfox understands that he walked the deeper justice path, and that this path can be walked independent from the circumstances.
It means that he not went to the process of consciousness because he was in solitary confinement. But he did it despite being in solitary confinement. During his time in there, there were no programs or treatments from the state or the prison. He was simply put in a cell for one reason, namely breaking his spirit. His cell was meant to be a death chamber. But he and his fellow men turned these cells into schools, debate halls and law schools. So, everything he did was on his own initiative, his own determination, his own strength. It had nothing to do with the prison.But it had everything to do with the question Who Are You.
Woodfox is not a religious person, but he is very spiritual. He believes that there was a reason for him to survive the system and its horror. He sees that he survived to build a better humanity. He wants to make other human beings aware of what is happening. Woodfox: “Every time that I give a speech, when I wrote my book, when I get an award, they lose; I win.” Woodfox knows the importance of the quest
- Last days of solitary. BBC documentary. https://youtu.be/sZfcW8f2BXo
- Washington post. Magazine. By KK OttesenMarch 31, 2020.
- Last days of solitary. BBC documentary. https://youtu.be/sZfcW8f2BXo
- Bryan Tarnowski/for The Washington Post