A Cell of One’s Own

Molly Kellogg

THE ROOM is painted an off-white. Four walls. 3,057 bricks, but you’ll never stop counting. There aren’t any windows, so you can’t see the sky. But when it rains, the smell seeps in through the bricks. The AC broke months ago, so the sweat just layers and re-layers on your skin. When you stretch out your arms, you can feel your fingertips graze the chipping paint. There are drawings sketched out all over the walls, and you can almost make out KKK. Looking down, you notice you aren’t wearing your own clothes, but a ripped rag of a jumper, torn at the crotch. You hear your neighbor shout for his mother, and you think briefly of yours — you realize you can’t remember her face. The slot in the door opens, and a hand shoves a plate through. The slot shuts promptly. On the plate lies something that looks like meatloaf and a slice of over-toasted bread. A cockroach scutters across the floor, and the plate goes ignored. You don’t know how long you’ve been here, and it’s growing more and more impossible to tell. You have begun to see things you think aren’t truly there. It frightens you that you can’t begin to calculate the month or year or the last moment you saw another human face besides the prickly, fat guard who watches you bathe. You’re let out for one hour a day – they say it’s safer for everyone involved. You are now past longing for the touch of another, you have retreated into yourself. You start to feel like you have died, or at least the part that made you you. What else is one supposed to do?

Thousands every day live their lives in solitary. No one to keep them company but their own minds and memories. And even those have their own shelf-life. One man, named Marvin, writes in the Louisiana on Lockdown survey, “have you ever seen how a dog becomes afer [sic] being locked up for a while? When you let that dog out on society what usually happens? Trouble, right? Well being in segregation for long periods of time have the same efect [sic] on a man. When let out, anxiety is high, fear is through the roof. Tis [sic] leads to antisocial behavior, substance abuse to self medicate the new mental anguish acquired from being caged like an animal. Tis [sic] in turn leads to destructive sometimes criminal behavior, which in turn can lead back to the same cage the man just lef [sic]. Isn’t this the definition of insanity? If so then it begs to differ that the system is INSANE!”

Solitary Watch is a non-profit watchdog organization that strives to get the word out on the extensive and unchecked use of solitary confinement in the US prison system. Jean Casella, the co-director of Solitary Watch, describes the long-term impacts of solitary confinement as “a kind of death – a civil death.” Once someone is in solitary, they are completely removed from human society. When in prison, you still have traces of humanity – friends, foes, and activities. Casella elaborates, “It was a weird and unpleasant world but it was a world. When you’re alone in a cell it’s like the world is gone. Everything is gone.”

In June 2019, Solitary Watch collaborated with the ACLU and the Jesuit Research Institute of Loyola New Orleans in conducting the most extensive survey on solitary confinement to date. They zeroed in on nine Louisiana prisons and looked to the people who had experienced it firsthand, the individuals in solitary themselves. (According to the Vera Institute of Justice, this year a whopping 17.35% of the state’s prison population lives in isolation.)

The report, Louisiana on Lockdown, included responses from 709 out of 2400 individuals held in solitary, a sample Casella describes as “everyone in solitary at the time, whose names we could get, which was about half of the total people in solitary in the state.” Nonetheless, the evidence is overwhelming.

“These first-hand accounts confirmed how solitary confinement inflicts devastating physical and mental harm on those who experience it,” explains Katie Schwartzmann, the legal director for the ACLU of Louisiana. “Solitary confinement denies people the basic human activity and socialization… essential to mental health and stability.” It takes away everything that makes you human. One man from the survey, named Caleb, explains, “solitary in reality is like being a dog in a concrete kennel/ cage covered by a roof.”

“I tell people all the time, solitude breeds thinkers, you know if you’re in there and reading books and keeping the mind active, you can come out a genius. Likewise, you can be in that cell and the walls start to close in, ” Norris Henderson explains. Henderson, a longtime proponent of Louisiana criminal justice reform, is the director of the organization, VOTE, which works to spread the word on the legal rights of former inmates, specifically in regards to voting. Henderson, himself, spent 27 years in jail for a crime he did not commit; he has seen many go in and out of solitary.

Henderson adds, “I’ve seen folks that have literally come from death row, which is another form of solitary confinement, come into the general population and you can see the paranoia. It’s primarily because for years they [were] in a room by themselves.”

Casella explains that “putting all these people, burying them that deeply inside the system, and cutting them off from all human contact is like a kind of death.”

Henderson agrees. “Yeah, that’s what it becomes because you lose all your social skills. If you’re not talking to people daily, then you know, those social skills you had when you went in will diminish because of the conversation shifts.”

According to the Louisiana on Lockdown report, 743 people had been released right onto the streets from isolation, and 163 more had gotten out of jail a mere three weeks after returning to the general population from isolation. “In the morning – they’ll be in a solitary cell that they’ve been in for a couple years. And then they hand them forty dollars and a bus ticket,” Casella explained. “One guy ended up in the psych ward because he collapsed in the bus terminal.”

Imagine living in a room by yourself for years, a room in which you knew every sound and image like the back of your hand. You had studied it every day. Now imagine, abruptly facing the hustle and bustle of a busy bus station. Picture trying to adjust to the commotion, the sound, and the press of the crowd. Suddenly, there’s not enough air in the room. Can you feel the walls closing in?

Norris Henderson has “seen folks that have come out and literally have asked to go back in … because they just couldn’t adjust. They would go back to extended lockdown to be in a single man space by themselves.”

A recent new study from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill states that inmates held in isolation have a higher chance of suicide or overdose after getting out. “This only goes to show how lasting the impact is,” Casella explains. Others end up violating parole and, fearful of the general population, ask to be put back in the box.

Isolation is designed to crush a human being. Only a very few make it out alive and well. One of Henderson’s friends, Alfred Woodfox, “was the longest-serving person in solitary confinement in this country, and you know when you hear Albert talk about that deprivation, and what it does…I’m truly amazed …. to see how ….well he functions, because I’ve seen folks that hadn’t been in solitary confinement for as long as him and they come back and are batty … It depends on what you do with the time you’re in the cell,” Henderson explains.

Nevertheless, Casella notes that the Louisiana State Department of Corrections, though “traditionally …resistant to reform” is taking steps to improve its criminal justice system. Still, Casella doesn’t fully trust DOC statistics, given that Louisiana doesn’t have enough room for all its inmates. This means about half of the state’s prisoners are “farmed out” to local jails. “We basically have no data from those jails,” she explained. “It is kind of easy to skew the numbers by assuming no one is in solitary in the local jails, and I’m sure that isn’t true.” It is difficult to promote transparency in such a hidden part of the criminal justice system.

Nonetheless, on a recent visit to Angola’s death row, Henderson saw changes with his own eyes. “I saw all the guys out in the yard together. I was taken aback, like what was happening here? They explained they just started a new program that allowed the guys to spend time with each other out of their cells. It shocked me.” This new policy allowed the men to spend time with one another, and socialize – actually having some human contact. As Henderson explained, “it’s not like I’m playing chess with you, chessboard sitting between the bars or you three cells down, and I’m hollering out my chess move to you on the board, and you hollering yours back.”

Yes, profound change comes from within the Department of Corrections, but it also comes from outside the DOC: from families of inmates, friends, and activists combined. Profound change comes when we start to question policies, instead of seeing them as fact.

Norris explained a story about a mother in a low-income family who always cut the Thanksgiving turkey in half, roasted one half, then roasted the rest. When her daughter was grown and married, the daughter’s husband went to his mother-in-law, very confused, to ask a question. “Every year I buy this 20-pound turkey”, he said, “and your daughter cuts it in half. I can’t figure that out.” All the mother could do was smile, said Henderson “She never told her daughter why she cut the turkey in half – she cut the turkey in half because it didn’t fit the stove.” The girl never thought to ask why her mother cut the turkey in half, it was never talked about. It was simply a pattern of practice that was never reexamined. It was a tradition, taken as fact.

Solitary confinement has played a major role in the history of Louisiana prisons, largely due to the fact that nobody in the Department of Corrections questions policies already in place. “In corrections, you see policies, procedures, …. that nobody questions because when you showed up, you found it that way,” Norris explains. “How did that policy come about? Half the time I couldn’t even tell you.”

ACLU legal director Schwartzmann explains, “We as a society should …be rethinking what a just and effective criminal justice system should look like… including a robust examination of who we incarcerate, why and how.” Casella agrees. “Pressure has to come from outside. The vision has to come from outside.”

In Schwartzmann’s view, there is no place for solitary confinement in the penal system. It simply “costs too much, does nothing to prepare people for re-entry to our communities, and exacerbates mental illness – or even causes it in people who were healthy when they entered solitary.” Ultimately, there is no sound argument in which solitary confinement’s benefits outweigh the costs of a prisoner’s mental deterioration. As Chester writes in his survey, “Depression, I be feeling like nobody cares about me. Hallucinations, I be building me a friend who jumps out my brain. Outburst, I be yelling because the silence gets me nervous. Paranoid can’t communicate with others.”

Although the Louisiana on Lockdown report offers practical alternatives to solitary, only the Department of Corrections has the power to execute them. Then again, each of us has a role to play. Change will come when we do our part. As Henderson put it, people have to “get in where [they] fit in, if we’re over here painting and you [are] not a good painter, but you’re good at sweeping, then grab a broom.”

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