This piece was submitted as part of Michael’s BA thesis on the history and inhumanity of solitary confinement. The piece touches on the complexity of solitary confinement, its effects on the human mind, and its mundane nature. Ultimately, the reader is forced to ponder on the ramifications of solitary confinement especially its application in supermax prisons.
Flies, tiny cages with wings, buzz overhead, close to the concrete ceiling. They knock against it, helplessly hopeful, fighting with flyly-might for escape. Sometimes, exhausted, they stop, pause for a little while, then, restless, they spring back to action, hitting the ceiling, falling down, climbing back up, again and again. Trapped with you, these tiny creatures are relentless in their futile attempts to get out.
The ceiling drips droplets of acidic water, like an anti-riot police tank retaliating against the flies.
You are wearing a loose orange jumpsuit. Your face is shabby, your hair unkempt, has been so since you got here. You’ve been here for weeks, maybe months, witnessing similar flies in a similar fate, some die, some survive, but none leave unscathed.
The tiny cell you’re caged in, is dark, is drafty, is fetid.
You’re lying on your bed staring into the void, reluctant to get up because you’re scared of what you might step on, on the floor. You’re afraid your feet might meet liquid, water or blood, afraid that your feet might step on some sharp object. A caged humanoid fly, you are helpless, inside this dingy hellhole, this dark space. A disorienting feeling.
When you eventually muster the strength to get up, to dip your feet on the overflowing floor, you start your daily routine which you’ve religiously followed for what feels like eons: wake up, contemplate, exercise or at least try to, and then read, write, repeat.
You try to stay positive each time you write, to cultivate creative endurance, for your intellectual mojo to flourish, to bolster your grit. Whenever you write your journal, missives to your family, essays to publishers—melancholic lyrics of your endurance and suffering—you like to sit and reflect: are you living a magical, dystopian or apocalyptic life?
And above all, you miss the outside world.
Your only companions here are knickknacks, a single soiled sheet, a sink, a cot.
A thin mattress, an overflowing toilet and an unopened letter, received yesterday.
You can’t un-remember the unfortunate event which led you here. This is how you remember it. Five years ago, Drew, your long-time cancer patient, asks you to end his pain. You’ve watched Drew come for chemo. Encountered his body’s enduring pain. Encouraged him, he’ll be fine, as long as he follows your therapeutic advice. But then, there comes a time when the body defies medicine’s therapeutic effects, and the pain becomes unbearable.
You fill a syringe with life-ending drugs, place it on Drew’s bed. You don’t know what to tell Drew, so you say nothing.
Drew injects himself with the syringe, and dies. Did you kill him? Did he kill himself? Hard to tell.
Nothing really ever prepares you fully for the lived reality of patients experiencing years and years of chronic pain. What no one says, in med school, when they talk about the imperative to follow the Hippocratic oath, is how subjective this profession is, how you’ll meet patients who you care about, whose suffering is too much, such that when they give up, you can’t bask in any moral plenitude, you have no choice but to execute their wish for euthanasia. But the law thinks otherwise, thinks you have a choice to let them suffer, labels you a criminal for ending chronic pain, eternal suffering. Guilty in the eyes of the law, but in your own eyes it’s hard to tell.
Your impression is that others, who’ve done far worse, have escaped the blind-folded lady.
Now, you’re sequestered from the public eye, in this cage, this abyss. For performing your duty all too well.
You’ve been here for weeks, maybe months, watching time constricting and contracting, your body shrinking and shrinking and shrinking.
“Get me out of here,” a plaintive cry is heard next door, screaming blue murder. The cry is accompanied by yammering and shouting. You can’t quite make out what is being said, either it all fades away or you choose to ignore it because you have the attention span of a hummingbird.
You’ve grown oblivious to this inquietude and many more, the clinking of keys, the wailing, the constant shouting, the sonorous banging and banging and banging. Clang! Clang! Clang!…
It’s winter and the wintry winds attack you in your room. It gets crispy cold; you almost freeze to death. You are certain that during the summer it will get so hot that the floors, the walls and the cell bars, like you, will trickle rivulets of sweat.
This small, windowless cage is the size of a parking space: three-point-five by eight-point-five feet, a bleak and desolate world without human contact. The only source of light in this cage is a fluorescent bulb which flickers incessantly, casting harsh shadows on the walls. Rather than pierce the engulfing darkness, darkness leaches the light. Space embowering space. Darkness surrounding darkness.
You can’t un-remember the final moments with your family before ending up in prison. This is how you remember it. Five years ago now. Your daughter is eleven years old, and you are under the shade of a crabapple tree, eating lunch and drinking, not one, but two, glasses of elderflower lemonade. The air is soft and supple. Lizzie, your daughter, is running around the crabapple tree, playing catch with Rex, the family dog. The warm smile, hers, reminding you how much you miss your daughter. The fragrance emanating from the crabapple tree wafts through your nostrils, making them leap with joy, hurrah and the breeze is breezing, trees swaying, birds chirping, tweet! tweet! tweet!
What could ever possibly go wrong?
Dignity lost, your livelihood, too; no noon-day sun, no heart soothing music, no morning radio shows.
You get out of bed, are about to step on the floor, to get to your desk to journal, when you feel a sharp cold pain on your feet. The water is overflowing again. These cages are horribly built like that, they overflow frequently and when one cage overflows, all cages overflow.
But isn’t this what prison is? Humanity’s greatest invention for either cleansing or drenching societal misfits. A place where people are either soaked or pricked or washed clean of their failings—moral or ethical or genetic—and isn’t solitary confinement where those purportedly deemed in need of intensive care, a deep clean as it were, are taken?
You barely have enough to eat and, when you do, the food is often inedible: a ladle of cold soup, moldy sandwiches, and a paltry portion of grayish mush.
The architectural mistakes in these stuffy little rooms have cost lives. You remember Enzo, who was in solitary, too, but who, unlike you, did not survive. Died from smoke inhalation; a wire short circuited, and as there are no smoke alarms, Enzo was long gone before help arrived.
When you look at the floor you see speckled red blood spatter, which smells, the smell of pain. A sight like one out of a fatal crime scene.
Your mind is a prison within a prison, trapped in a cycle of isolation and despair. Fear floods the corridors of your heart. You don’t know if you’ll ever walk out of here alive, few do.
You’re scared, you’re scarred, you’re confused.
Past memories fade away, and hope for the future dwindles. Your mind is numb, emotions suppressed.
Days blend into each other, and time seems to experience some stasis, some standing still.
You can’t un-remember how you were taken away from the general prison population to solitary confinement. This is how you remember it. Like a tiny wasp, you protested against the book ban on George Jackson’s Blood in My Eye, said they wanted you to be illiterate so you couldn’t challenge them when they meted out flagrantly unconstitutional cruelties upon you, said they wanted you to be ignorant, oblivious of the state of other inmates in the country. Said you wouldn’t let them chain your brain in addition to chaining your arms and legs.
In retaliation for speaking up, you were sentenced to 90 days in disciplinary segregation, for “aggravated disobedience,” Charlie said. Charlie is the thickset prison guard with an aquiline nose, red-rimmed eyes, and an aggressively abrasive probing purple gaze, whose lower lip protrudes in a sulky pout. Charlie is the prison guard who locks you up in this cage for 23 hours each day.
The hue of Charlie’s eyes spells danger, front and back.
A few days inside the cage you got a slight sight problem which has now morphed into a seeping sight nightmare. Will I go blind? You ask yourself. You are acutely aware of every sound around you: your own breathing, your heartbeat’s rhythm, the paradiddling hearts of fellow inmates, who you’ve never seen, but who you’ve frequently heard, and with whom you share the same fate.
Solitary confinement. They call it “disciplinary segregation,” an anodyne name, anathema to the glaring bouts of cruelty minted in these cages. A mask to the sadism you observe everyday. You know what it is, a place for beastified men, so you call it the “hole.”
Since Charlie threw you in the “hole,” you’ve been regularly mocked and humiliated by him, through the demeaning strip searches, the condescending commands, he appears to take pleasure in your suffering. Charlie is the prison guard who is so rude that sometimes your tolerance of his intolerance runs out. Why are you so heartless, and why are you so cruel? You ask. And what would you lose by being a little kind, by giving a little benefit of doubt?
Charlie doesn’t explain; doesn’t say anything. Substantial.
‘‘You asked for this,’’ Charlie tells you, looking strange, or maybe it’s the way Charlie’s looking at you, strangely. Charlie fancies seeing you suffer; Charlie fancies seeing you demeaned.
Charlie is the prison guard who has hit you once, twice, thrice, countless times before. And you have no one to fight for you in this oppressor-oppressed dyad. You’re sequestered from the public eye, in this cage, this abyss. Space embowering space. Darkness surrounding darkness.
Your body is redolent of months-old sweat, you are rarely allowed to shower, a privilege granted only once in a red moon, and you are only allowed an hour each day for a constitutional. When you do, you do so adorned in an uncomfortable snap-up orange jumpsuit, with shackled feet, shackled arms, an obliterated gait and a heart in pain as if pierced by a mistletoe dart. Escorted by a guard whose hips hold a button, a gun, and a panoply of keys. All of which can be weaponized to demolish your docile, malnourished body.
Outside, you take a walk onto the meshed yard, another long-fenced cage you pace inside, like a lacerated Rilkean panther. The air stinks of nausea, the moon shines conspiratorially, the sun is deceptively stingy with its shine, fierce too, as if, for some peculiar reason, it holds a grudge against you. The sky has never looked good, sometimes it is dour and leaden, and other times it ominously pinkens with turbid clouds like overhanging withering blood. Nature seems to speak of its distaste of human violence. Your heart sinks as you gaze toward the horizon, across the tall prison walls, beyond the sinking sun.
You trundle in short, deliberately calculated steps, because, should you make any wrong move, you’ll be sniped to inexistence by the dozen sharpshooters whose guns are pointed at you, watching from the watchtower. Baying for blood, like thirsty vultures.
Earlier today, you read in the newspaper that a new BOP director has been appointed. Believes in humane treatment. Does not condone any unconstitutional violations of inmate’s rights. A voice of hope. But experience has shown that every new dog will bark, none will bite, you know this all too well.
Coming back from your walk, you see red tape on the walls. Like lipstick on a pig. An acute silence sweeps across the solitary block, and wind whistles through the hall, knowing what awaits you, a reprise of sorrow, pain, nothingness. You observe fresh flies flying, buzzing into the nothingness. Space embowering space. Darkness surrounding darkness.