Culture | Room without a view

Lisa Guenther explores effects and implications of solitary confinement

We humans are peculiar creatures. Many of us now live in cities, where we often choose to isolate ourselves in rooms and offices, forgetting we are immediately surrounded by thousands of fellow humans. If you take this isolation a step further, and lock an individual alone in a room for a few months with nothing more than food and water, they begin to display a shocking range of symptoms. “Anxiety, fatigue, confusion, paranoia, depression, hallucinations, headaches and uncontrollable trembling,” are chief among them, according to Professor Lisa Guenther, philosopher at Vanderbilt University, in her latest book, Solitary Confinement, Social Death and its Afterlives. It is hard to understate how awful solitary confinement is for those who are subjected to it. 19th century New York prisoners preferred to be whipped than inflicted with solitary; whipping didnít leave permanent damage.

The fact that some 20,000 to 80,000 prisoners in the U.S. prison system, including juveniles, are in solitary confinement at any given moment should raise more than an eyebrow, and it is in response to this cruelty that Guenther has written her book.

Guenther traces the history of the U.S. prison system, up to the present day, divided into three distinct stages. The very first prisons were called penitentiaries, owing to the desired response from those held within. Solitary confinement was inflicted wholesale post-independence by the U.S. government with the rather Christian belief that, left to their own company, the guilty person would have no choice but to reflect upon their crimes and undergo some kind of personal, spiritual, and redemptive experience. It was believed the prisoner would emerge a restored person, but instead they came out damaged and depleted. Solitary confinement in all its incarnations has worked against any kind of attempt at prisoner rehabilitation.

It became clear then that solitary confinement had a severe effect on the prisoner, but in the second stage of the U.S. prison system its effects were more deliberately exploited. In the wake of Cold War era CIA experiments on behaviour alteration and sensory deprivation, the prison system looked to appropriate these techniques for their own ends. They attempted, a la A Clockwork Orange, to wipe the minds of their prisoners clean of all the criminal tendencies in the same manner scientists had tried to condition animals. It turned out that all behavioural alteration did was force prisoners to respond pathologically to the pathological circumstances they were subjected to ñ the prisoners coming out of solitary had difficulty re-engaging with society, building relationships, and being around large groups of people.

The contemporary prison system has abandoned all pretense to rehabilitation of the population, using solitary confinement almost automatically as a means to exert control. The Secure Housing Units that prisoners now find themselves in are designed for large-scale solitary confinement. Prisoners can be indefinitely isolated for obscure reasons and with no means to defend themselves against the charges that put them there.

Solitary Confinement, Social Death and its Afterlives is more than a history lesson; the effects of solitary confinement pose some troubling philosophical questions, including how the lack of human contact unhinges the prisoner from a coherent sense of reality. We often casually imagine that we perceive the world as individuals, and through our own senses, yet a great deal of our consciousness is shaped by our interactions with others. If it were true that we could experience the world in isolation, why would otherwise healthy prisoners locked in solitary report experiencing hallucinations and losing control of their senses?

Guenther, who facilitates a weekly discussion at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville, Tennessee, approaches these questions with a series of phenomenological critiques examining how reality is a construct of how we perceive the world, both taking a hard look at the shortcomings of the existing literature and also the ethical implications for a society using solitary as punishment. These sections are, frankly, a trial for a reader unfamiliar with this branch of philosophy. Which is a shame, because this seems to be exactly the kind of contribution that philosophers should be bringing to our public discourse. And, moreover, it really seems that Guenther is getting to the heart of the what is being inflicted on prisoners. In short, the classic existential questions, about living and trusting our own senses, become existential realities that those locked in solitary have to endure.

It is an unsurprising, but troubling, avenue that the book explores when it considers how the U.S. prison system exists as a legacy of slavery. It immediately exposes an overlooked point: slavery was never completely abolished. The very amendment that set out to prohibit the practice left an explicit exception for those who are convicted of crimes. Southern states that were forced to free their slaves simply criminalized them, often by making vagrancy and unemployment criminal offenses. Prisoners could find themselves working on the same plantations that they worked on as slaves. Today, there are more black men in prison than there were enslaved in 1850.

In the most accessible of the critiques that Guenther offers, she questions the rhetoric of human rights that is used by prisoners and their defenders. While it sometimes seems that she is viewing solitary confinement as a thought experiment rather than a fact of the criminal justice system, Guenther makes a few cogent points. It is clear, she remarks, that what is done to prisoners isn’t adequately described by the word “dehumanizing.” It is, in fact, “de-animalizing.” What is inflicted damages not what makes a person human, but what makes them a living creature. Let us hope Guenther’s critiques, and those of her fellow activists, are taken to heart.


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