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Summer 2023 articles

A Slow Death before Dying: Contemporary Stories from Solitary Confinement

Raluca Andreescu

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1As the ultimate spaces of invisibility and marginalization beyond the pale of respectable humanity, prisons engender the “mortification” of inmates, whether understood as a ‘civil death’, the stripping away of citizenship rights and of the legal protections deriving from them, or as a ‘social death’ triggered by the absence of any meaningful intercourse with society and crippling isolation at the margins of humanity. This is even more acutely the case for those subjected to protracted solitary confinement, which has been deemed by the United Nations a specific form of torture yet still marks the deep end of the American criminal justice system. Against this background, my paper explores the manner in which two recent collections of stories, Six by Ten: Stories from Solitary (2018) and Hell is a Very Small Place: Voices from Solitary Confinement (2016), offer glimpses into one of the most secretive and inaccessible spaces in contemporary society, the US prison. It is my contention that, aiming to render visible the covert practices and abuses fostered by the American criminal justice system, the (hi/her)stories in the two volumes under scrutiny offer humanizing perspectives of this deeply contentious and divisive contemporary issue of segregated incarceration.

1. Introduction

2Not only does the United States incarcerate more people than any other nation in the world, but it also relegates to solitary confinement a higher number of prisoners than other countries. And as the phenomenon of mass incarceration has been gaining momentum across the American states, so has the number of those placed in solitary confinement, a form of imprisonment also known as restrictive or segregated housing, administrative or disciplinary segregation, or, simply, “isolation” (Ahalt et al. 1). It entails housing inmates alone in very small cells for usually twenty-three hours a day, with limited access to the outdoors for recreational purposes and strictly devoid of any human contact, “except for the occasional touch of a guard’s hand as they are handcuffed and chained” (Dayan). These solitary enclosures are all concrete and steel, windowless, and the lights are on all the time. They have been labelled “prisons within prisons” (Knowles).

3Even though the systematic use of solitary confinement in US prisons in the last decades “has grown into one of the nation’s most pressing domestic human rights issues,” it has nonetheless “remained one of the most invisible,” with its occupants living “buried, nameless and voiceless, in the dark heart of the American criminal justice system” (Casella and Ridgeway 5). It is against this backdrop that my paper addresses the manner in which two recent collections of stories coming from behind bars, Six by Ten: Stories from Solitary (2018) and Hell Is a Very Small Place: Voices from Solitary Confinement (2016), are arguably trying to shed some light on the debilitating and dehumanizing practices systematically carried out in American correctional facilities which lead to the “mortification” of the incarcerated. One of the starting points of my analysis is this latter term, borrowed from sociologist Erving Goffman’s research (1961) on what he calls “total institutions.” Prisons constitute a notable example, alongside mental health facilities, nursing homes, and military barracks. The “mortification” and dehumanization of convicts dominates the accounts included in the two volumes under scrutiny here and will be explored more in depth throughout this paper. Moreover, I will also be looking at the manner in which the narratives aim to offer humanizing perspectives of this deeply contentious and divisive contemporary issue of segregated incarceration and add to the public and academic conversation and activism on legal reform in the US criminal justice system.

4Whereas the literature abounds in the effects of (prolonged) solitary confinement on the wellbeing of individuals and as a public health issue, and although there have been a plethora of studies urging reform in the field, especially given the wide-scale use of isolation in American correctional facilities, few firsthand accounts on the experience of solitary confinement in the US go beyond the dry statistics included in the aforementioned research. So far, the handful of such accounts include just the two anthologies that are analyzed in this paper, some individual narratives of (former) life in segregated housing, and scattered accounts on dedicated websites or other activist platforms.

5The most recent account is Ian Manuel’s My Time Will Come: A Memoir of Crime, Punishment, Hope, and Redemption (2021). It offers an insight into his eighteen years in solitary confinement as a counter-story to those by “highly regarded experts in their fields”—police officers, judges, and lawyers—who have been compiling “police files and court records, case notes and daily logs” (Manuel 3) about him almost ever since his birth to an imprisoned mother. Albert Woodfox’s Solitary (2019), a National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize finalist, details his over four decades spent in solitary confinement in the notorious Angola prison in Louisiana. In his Dedication, Woodfox confesses that “It has been my experience that because of institutional and individual racism, African Americans are born socially dead and spend the rest of their lives fighting to live.” This issue of systemic racism which underlies the American criminal justice system and leads to the “social death” of the incarcerated was addressed ten years before by Michelle Alexander’s seminal work, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (2010). Alexander argues that former prisoners become permanent second-class citizens and goes on to show how this is particularly true when it comes to African-American outlaws:

Once you’re labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination—employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, denial of educational opportunity, denial of food stamps and other public benefits, and exclusion from jury service—are suddenly legal. As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. (2)

6Robert Hillary King’s From the Bottom of the Heap (2008) similarly deals with his three decades in Angola prison’s solitary ward. King’s account speaks both to the dehumanization of inmates and to his and others’ resilience:

For me, being in prison in solitary confinement was terrible; it was a nightmare. My soul still cries from all that I witnessed and endured. It mourns continuously. Through the course of my confinement, I saw men so desperate that they ripped prison doors apart, and both starved and mutilated themselves. It takes every scrap of humanity to stay focused and sane in that environment. (177)

7Jimmy Santiago Baca’s memoir A Place to Stand: The Making of a Poet (2001) details his years spent in a maximum security prison, mostly in isolation, during which he learnt to read and write and went on to become a well-renowned American poet. Baca resorts to the same imagery of dehumanization and death, calling his prison experience “the most frightening nightmare I ever experienced,” which “stripped me down to nothing, until I huddled in the dark corner of a cell, sometimes shivering with fear, other times filled with so much anger and self-loathing that it would have been better to die” (5).

8Besides these individual narratives coming from former people who served time in segregation, there are also websites, such as that of the ACLU or of the Marshall Project, which publish stories from solitary to raise awareness, encourage activism against the segregated housing of inmates and push for reform in the American criminal justice system. GQ magazine also featured an editorial, “Buried Alive: Stories From Inside Solitary Confinement” (2017), which included interviews (mostly in the form of written correspondence) with forty-eight current and former inmates, corrections officers, lawyers and activists.

2. Solitary Confinement: an American Question

9Co-directors of the national watchdog Solitary Watch, Jean Casella and James Ridgeway have argued that “solitary confinement as a self-conscious, organized and widespread prison practice” has its roots in the United States and “was born soon after the nation itself” (5). Indeed, the seclusion of inmates gained ground in the nineteenth century as part of a movement to reform the American penal system and its initial advocates insisted that “silence and solitude would induce repentance and motivate prisoners to live a devout, socially responsible life” (Cloud et al. 19). However, its application in American prisons prompted Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont to observe in their treatise on US penitentiaries (1833) that the convicts’ complete isolation and uninterrupted solitude “is beyond the strength of man; it destroys the criminal without intermission and without pity; it does not reform, it kills” (qtd in. Casella and Ridgeway 7). Similarly, in his Prison Discipline in America (1848), Francis Calley Gray concluded that this “system of constant separation… even when administered with the utmost humanity produces so many cases of insanity and of death as to indicate most clearly that its general tendency is to enfeeble the body and the mind” (qtd. in Cloud et al. 19), far from the desired goal of achieving atonement and rehabilitation. Probably the best known critic of solitary imprisonment in the nineteenth century was Charles Dickens, who visited Eastern State Penitentiary during his great American tour and deplored the steady and absolute degradation of those being “buried alive” in utter isolation:

very few men are capable of estimating the immense amount of torture and agony which this dreadful punishment, prolonged for years, inflicts upon the sufferers;… there is a depth of terrible endurance which none but the sufferers themselves can fathom, and which no man has a right to inflict upon his fellow creature. I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body; and because its ghastly signs and tokens are not so palpable to the eye and sense of touch as scars upon the flesh; because its wounds are not upon the surface, and it extorts few cries that human ears can hear; therefore the more I denounce it, as a secret punishment which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay. (qtd. in Hawthorne)

10By the end of the nineteenth century, there was so much evidence accumulating about the crippling effects of solitary confinement and about its failure as the driving force of the penal machine that experts in both the medical and the legal field agreed that it should not be resorted to on a regular basis.

11Fast forward to the final decades of the twentieth century, when the practice was reinstated on a large scale across the American states as a result of shifts in penal philosophy, geared more towards punishment and entertaining a ‘tough on crime’ attitude rather than centered on the rehabilitation and social reintegration of (former) convicts (Cloud et al. 19). Ever since, but particularly over the final three decades, solitary confinement has been used not only to segregate dangerous criminals or extremely violent offenders, but it has been routinely administered for disciplinary proposes, mostly for minor infractions, such as “talking back (insolence), smoking, failing to report to work or school, refusing to return a food tray, or possessing an excess quantity of postage stamps” (Cloud et al. 20); and for administrative purposes, to protect individuals who are considered sexually or medically vulnerable (transgender inmates, pregnant women, people with infectious diseases or the mentally ill). Last but not least, the procedure has also been used for perceived gang affiliations, even in the absence of any wrongdoings. What has thus become obvious is that placement in solitary is rather discretionary and most times bears no connection to the inmates’ original sentences.

12In his dissenting opinion in McCleskey v Kemp (1987), Supreme Court Justice William Brennan noted that “[t]hose whom we would banish from society or from the human community itself often speak in too faint a voice to be heard above society’s demand for punishment.” Along the same lines, Rebecca Solnit has observed that “[b]eing unable to tell your story is a living death” and that stories, which “can be both prison and the crowbar to break open the door of that prison,” save our lives (19). And while it is true that reports on what actually goes on in solitary confinement come either from those who inhabit these carceral spaces or from those who survived them, theirs are usually the last voices to be listened to, given the (former) inmates’ status as outcasts living on the margins of respectable humanity.

13Nonetheless, these are the voices who make up the two collections of stories under analysis here. The two anthologies of life narratives from behind the grim walls of solitary confinement, I aim to show, construct a composite image of one of the most secretive sites in the United States, amplify the unheard voices of those committed to protracted isolation, bear witness to their mostly invisible plights, and in this manner manifest an ethical commitment to their representation as a possible form of social intervention.

3. Contemporary Stories from Solitary Confinement

14Edited by Taylor Pendergrass, who has been working as a civil rights lawyer for the ACLU, and by Mateo Hoke, an oral historian and writer, Six by Ten: Stories from Solitary consists of thirteen oral histories coming from people “who survived their solitary confinement experiences with their bodies and minds more or less intact” (location 161). The interviews were conducted between 2016 and 2018 as part of a Voice of Witness project and the interviewees come from facilities all over the United States and all sides of the gender and racial divide. They are people currently imprisoned, but also former inmates, their family members and one corrections officer.

15Hell is a Very Small Place: Voices from Solitary Confinement is similarly a collection of first-hand accounts about imprisonment in segregated housing, edited by Jean Casella (journalist and director of Solitary Watch), James Ridgeway (investigative journalist for over six decades and founder of Solitary Watch) and Sarah Shourd (investigative journalist, playwright, and former political hostage in Iran). The volume is divided into two main parts: the first one is dedicated to “Voices from Solitary Confinement,” whereas the second one focuses on “Perspectives on Solitary Confinement” by leading experts in such diverse fields as psychology, law, political science or philosophy. The sixteen narratives included in the first part of the collection—and which constitute the focus of my paper—are organized in three sections, suggestively titled “Enduring,” “Resisting” and “Surviving.” The authors of these essays are either currently or have been formerly serving time in solitary confinement, across the country. All the individual accounts in the two collections discussed here are prefaced by biographical details on their narrators.

16According to the ACLU’s briefing paper on the use of solitary confinement in the United States (2014), the impact of prolonged isolation is “similar to those of physical torture,” in that it triggers high-grade physiological and psychological reactions which include

hypersensitivity to stimuli; perceptual distortions and hallucinations; increased anxiety and nervousness; revenge fantasies, rage, and irrational anger; fears of persecution; lack of impulse control; severe and chronic depression; appetite loss and weight loss; heart palpitations; withdrawal; blunting of affect and apathy; talking to oneself; headaches; problems sleeping; confusing thought processes; nightmares; dizziness; self-mutilation; and lower levels of brain function, including a decline in EEG activity after only seven days in solitary confinement. (4)

17As a consequence of this ultimate form of punishment, in the United States there are arguably more people who suffer from debilitating mental illness in prisons than there are in psychiatric institutions and “the bizarre scenarios enacted in correctional settings today can make the ‘back wards’ of 1940s asylums look tame in comparison” (Kupers 203). Moreover, empirical studies suggest there is a direct link between continued solitary confinement and increase in suicidal thoughts (Knowles). It is no wonder, then, that the most recurrent images in people’s narratives about this form of imprisonment are those of dehumanization and death.

18Social psychologist Susan Opotow argues that we normally perceive “those outside [our scope of justice] as nonentities, undeserving, or expendable,” which means that any injury that might be brought to them “does not prompt the concern, remorse, or outrage that occurs when those inside the scope of justice are harmed” (qtd. in Oliver 87, emphasis mine). Her observation rests on the general public’s tendency to view criminals as less than human, as savages or beasts in some cases, and from this perspective the role the media play in perpetuating such images and discourses cannot be underestimated: “the media portrayals of crime are inextricably linked to public opinion, which in turn influences the stances taken by politicians that in the end are transformed into legislative changes” (Vasiljevic and Viki 164). According to eminent psychologist and originator of social cognitive theory Albert Bandura, the dehumanization of others, their portrayal as “degenerates and other despicable wretches” (84) contributes to moral disengagement, which allows people to justify their aggressive and abusive behavior towards individuals or groups. Once dehumanized, those subjected to maltreatment suffer even greater forms of punishment as dehumanization feeds on itself and “functions in a circular, self-reflexive motion by which the perceived in/sub-humanity of the victim(s) is both the effect of and the justification for acts of humiliation, degradation and instrumentalization,” while the “abject status of those degraded by exclusion serves in turn to justify the violence enacted upon them within a vicious circle” (Oliver 89).

19Various forms of indignity have been experienced first-hand by the interviewees in the two collections of narratives in this paper, Six by Ten: Stories from Solitary (henceforth SBT) and Hell is a Very Small Place: Voices from Solitary Confinement (henceforth HIAVSP), respectively. As these stories reveal, people in isolation are humiliated on a regular basis until their very humanity is corroded to a sub-human level or worse: “put yourself inside a cell or a cage where the trash and the garbage can has more regard than you as a human being, and then you tell me how you feel. I mean, even the trash gets out, but you don’t” (SBT location 476). Prisoners report they are consistently degraded and made to feel like animals, sometimes even demonized in order to justify their maltreatment by those in charge: “We’re supposed to be animals. We’re only here to die. The prison administration is paid to put us down. The undesirables. The malignant misfits who have no right to breathe” (HIAVSP 61). In prison, “you go to an animalistic level . . . never witnessed before” (SBT location 485) and inhabiting an isolation cell is akin to “being a dog tied to a pole with a ten-foot chain... For thirty days, two months. Eight months. Ten months. Imagine” (SBT location 1523-1525). Piché and Walby note that such “dominant stereotypes of prisoners as predatory animals in need of incapacitation” are pervasive when it comes to the general public’s perception of incarcerated individuals (qtd. in Graham 179). However, from the inmates’ point of view, in a free society animals benefit from better treatment than those criminally convicted, with the possible exception of laboratory animals used in experiments:

In society, they take animals and they build what you call reserves, or they build open areas like in the zoo, and they build habitats for them so they can live more comfortably, because they learned that animals being in a closed area is inhumane. But they treat human beings here in a worse way. They put people here is a six by nine cell; they are not going to put animals in a cage like that unless they are doing some experiment with the animals and trying to kill them. That is what they are doing to these men; they are killing them slowly and surely. (HIAVSP 128)

20Social psychologist Erving Goffman’s notion of “mortification” serves as a framework concept for his analysis of dehumanization in prisons as “total institutions” whose “encompassing or total character is symbolized by the barrier to social intercourse with the outside and to departure that is often built right into the physical plant, such as locked doors, high walls, barbed wire” (Goffman 4). Within these walls, he maintains, a “small supervisory staff” closely administers a “large managed group” and the relationship between the two groups is one based on “narrow hostile stereotypes,” restricted mobility, and formally prescribed social distance (Goffman 7). When entering a total institution, the inmate undergoes what Goffman identifies as a process of “mortification”: in the immediate absence of the support offered by the predictable social arrangements in the free world, the prisoner “begins a series of abasements, degradations, humiliations, and profanations of self. His self is systematically, if often unintentionally, mortified.” (Goffman 14) An integral part of this process of mortification is the inmate’s “role dispossession”: certain roles are lost to inmates as a consequence of their separation from society. This seals their “civil death,” as they “may face not only a temporary loss of the rights to will money and write checks, to contest divorce or adoption proceedings, and to vote but may have some of these rights permanently abrogated” (Goffman 16).

21The persistent mortification of inmates does not translate solely into crippling psychological traumas, which implode the subject and have a long-lasting impact on their perception of the world: “the truth is we’ve been undone, unwound. The inside of our plastic skulls raked and routed. A composition of cracks and fissures where nothing will ever be the same again” (HIAVSP 53). This “daily unmaking of human life, through its ritualized humiliations and physical violence” (SBT location 4102) also triggers physical changes and deformities, permanent visible markers of their experience. The incarcerated are belittled until they inhabit the bodies to show it, until contorted into animal shape and shrunk into submission: “Once you reach this inhumane way of living all you know is stooping. The curvature of the spine—remnants of ducking insults” (HIAVSP 58). The following excerpt, for instance, illustrates how daily deprivations lead to a gradual disintegration and ultimately to the annihilation of being:

Indignity. That choking filament that can cut air down to quarters and turn eyes purple, puffy and watery. Drown skin and soul in chemical agents, outrage, some post-traumatic flashing…. Sunburn blisters from two minutes’ warmth. Optical nerves damaged from light. Wrists that snap wringing clothes. Tendons that tear when reaching for a towel. Knees that don’t have a leg to stand on. Teeth caught in toothbrushes. Toenails that fall off into socks—rattle like loaded dice. Ankles that buckle jogging in place. (HIAVSP 57)

22Herbert Kelman argues that in order to understand the process of dehumanization, we need to look at what it is that makes us fully human, “in the sense of being included in the moral compact that governs human relationships” (48). He proposes that in order to be perceived as fully human, one must be accorded identity, understood as agency and uniqueness as an individual among others, with choices, values and objectives, and community, respectively, that is an “interconnected network of individuals who care for each other, who recognize each other’s individuality, and who respect each other’s rights” (Kelman 49). Sanctioned maltreatment and constant abuses become possible to the extent that human individuals are deprived of these two qualities: identity and community. When people are defaced and reduced to animal status by means of humiliating practices, as this paper has argued thus far, their very identity as human beings is questioned and ultimately denied. But being human also entails seeking the validation of peers and living in relation with the surrounding world, as “the most essential thing about us as a species: how we realize our potential as individuals and create meaningful lives. Without that, we shrink. Day by day, we slowly die” (Shourd 4). Prolonged solitude, expulsion from the meaningful society of like-minded individuals, lack of peer interaction and validation of one’s social worth, lack of care and of the to and fro of affection constitute the premises of this cruel type of punishment which mortifies the subject and which is not an exception, but commonplace in today’s isolation units across the United States.

23Within penal institutions in the United States which harbor this radical type of punishment, the dehumanization of inmates takes place concomitantly with that of their guards. Vasiljevic and Viki have posited that while the incarcerated are reduced to an animal-like state, being perceived as devoid of civility, moral sensibility and higher forms of cognition, the carceral climate similarly turns prison administrators machine-like. This form of mechanistic dehumanization regards the subject as lacking openness, empathy, warmth, emotionality (166). From this perspective, the guards are seen to embody a role that is assigned to them the moment they put on their uniforms, carry their weapons and start on their rounds. They tend not to be regarded as individuals, but rather as “tools in society’s arsenal to fight crime and combat criminals” and it is their very perception as dehumanized machines that “may inspire the public’s confidence in police officers’ ability to do their jobs and fight crime” (Hetey and Eberhardt 191), especially within a law-and-order, tough-on-crime social and political climate. The same will be true of prison guards, who, as the ultimate gatekeepers of this criminal realm at the fringes of society, are ostensibly expected to undergo the same transformations under cover of their own uniforms.

24Philip Zimbardo’s infamous Stanford prison experiment (1971) testifies to the power of uniform in overriding one’s identity and in enabling people to act in line with the expectations involved by their roles. Speaking about the controversial extent to which the “guards” in his experiment fulfilled their roles, Zimbardo added that “all the guards wore military uniforms and we had them wear these silver reflecting sunglasses. And what it does is you can’t see someone’s eyes and so that loses some of their humanness—their humanity” (qtd. in Hetey and Eberhardt 190). This “systematic influence of clothes on the wearer’s psychological processes and behavioral tendencies” has been termed “enclothed cognition” by Adam and Galinsky (2012) and seeks to explain how the embodiment of symbolic meanings associated with particular outfits triggers particular psychological processes. In a political climate heavily geared towards punishment and retribution, dominated by a perception of violent criminals as brutes and savage animals, the “uniforms” are expected to make the public feel safe and protected. Towards this goal, the “animallike criminals need to be hunted down, captured, and caged by the efficient, cold, interchangeable force of machinelike officers” (Hetey and Eberhardt 195). Former correctional officers Sunny Schwartz and Leslie Levitas consider the process of preparing prison guards akin to “training for the monster factory” and blame the very nature of the prison system for encouraging “each of us to take sides and dehumanize everyone on the other side” (qtd. in Graham 187).

25Not surprisingly, in solitary confinement there is little empathy for the guards, whom the incarcerated in the two collections consider “our oppressors of humanity, a breed apart from others” (HIAVSP 53). Reports coming from the isolation units at Pelican Bay, the Californian supermax facility, illustrate how prison guards “would help facilitate a person losing his mind” by enabling various forms of (self-)abuse:

We were issued razors during showers, and people would try to cut their wrists while in the shower. They would be taken over to the hospital and put on suicide watch in the suicide cells, strip cells that were freezing cold. Guards would keep the person in the suicide cell for about three days, provide him with a psychiatric consultation, and then put him right back in the same cell he was in before, give him a razor, and the suicide process would repeat itself. I’ve seen this go on with the same prisoner several times. (SBT location 3683-3687)

26Isolation at Pelican Bay, the most notorious supermax institution and one of the worst lockups in the United States, has long been regarded as one of the most disabling. In here, people’s only contact with the world outside their cells is through their “feeding slots” (Dawson) and “everything [is] geared toward destroying the humanity of the people housed there” (SBT location 3664-3668). Consequently, all one can do is endure and constantly witness pervasive misery: “you watch[] people being driven crazy and even if you [don’t] know the person, it affect[s] you. There were guys who would get so crazy they would throw feces and urine into your cell” (SBT location 3664-3668). Correction officers would routinely behave “like cruel children torturing fenced-in dogs,” and they would “emotionally torture the inmates, assault them, starve them, throw away their mail, tamper with the food of prisoners they didn’t like, all kinds of craziness” (SBT location 2048-2051). What is more, the supermax at Pelican Bay has been grounds for the staging of gladiator-type fights between inmates where guards place bets on the outcomes, which furthermore adds to the perception of the incarcerated as nothing more than animals thrown in the ring to the satisfaction of their guardians. Prisoners have often been shot during these fights or when refusing to partake.

  • 1 The third panel in Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych oil painting is a representation of Hell breaking lo (...)

27Another maximum security prison which stands out in the collected accounts is Ionia Correctional Facility in Michigan (ICF), in which each cell is an isolation cell and the whole facility is built for long-term segregation, supposedly for “the system’s ‘worst of the worst’” (SBT location 2039-2043). In here, “a significant number of its population was mentally ill in some way. Some were like that when they got there, and others were made that way by the prison. I-Max tortured your soul” (SBT location 2039-2043). The level of insanity in these maximum security institutions is actually hard to define, according to reports coming from the incarcerated. The experience has been compared to “the third panel of the painting Garden of Earthly Delights1 by Hieronymus Bosch. Surreal and grotesque” (SBT location 2109-2113). Or, as another supermax inmate poetically expressed his anguish at serving a natural-life sentence in this environment, “I’m in a sea of madness during an eternal perfect storm of despair and heartache for the duration of my breaths, constantly conscious of the fact that nearly the entire country despises me without knowing anything about me other than I am a prisoner” (HIAVSP 98).

28Images of death and dying are so common in people’s accounts from solitary confinement facilities that a sentence served in isolation seems harsher than a capital sentence. Even though the latter ends one’s biological life, solitary “prolongs their social, mental, and indeed biological death” (Eastaugh xiii) to the extent that it renders it worse than dying by any means, as the following interviewee laments:

If I try to imagine what kind of death, even a slow one, would be worse than twenty-five years in the box—and I have tried to imagine it—I can come up with nothing. Set me afire, pummel and bludgeon me, cut me to bits, stab me, shoot me, do what you will in the worst of ways, but none of it could come close to making me feel things as cumulatively horrifying as what I’ve experienced through my years in solitary.... I know that twenty-five years in solitary confinement is utterly and certainly cruel, more so than death by an electric chair, gas chamber, lethal injection, bullet in the head, or even immolation could possibly be. (HIAVSP 50)

29But besides the mortification of the incarcerated through systematic humiliation and punitive behavior sometimes amounting to torture, people literally die in isolation as a direct result of physical and psychological degradation, neglect by prison administrators, lack of access to appropriate and urgent medical care, or suicide. Almost every narrative in the two volumes analyzed in this paper details some form and context of physical death, and some stories abound in such horrific accounts. For instance, self-harm becomes too often the alternative to the unbearably restrictive segregated environment, especially for the mentally ill who do not benefit from targeted care: “Sometimes the prison guards find them hanging and blue; sometimes their necks get broken when they jump from their beds, the sheet tied around the neck that’s also wrapped around the grate covering the light in the ceiling snapping taut with a pop. I’ve seen the spirit leaving men in SHU, and I have witnessed the results” (HIAVSP 45).

30Another similar story finds its way out of the Eloy immigration detention center in Arizona, one of the deadliest in the country, which harbors a disproportionately high rate of suicides and a death rate that is twice that of any other American immigration detention facility. It has been the subject of media controversy and investigations over the recent years. This interviewee recounts his years in the institution and claims that immigration detention is even worse than being locked up in prison, mostly due to the indeterminateness of time served, which adds to the perception of timelessness inherent in any criminal conviction behind bars. He mentions countless deaths and deplores the utter lack of medical attention for those chronically ill or in pain, which leads some people to end their own lives:

People cut their wrists with razor blades. Hung themselves. There were mentally ill people who weren’t medicated. I saw two people straight up lose their minds in there and go crazy…. If you’re not strong-minded and you don’t have that strong will, you’re screwed. Eventually that cell is gonna get to you, is gonna start eating you up and making you crazy. (SBT location 1529)

31One of the most unnerving accounts comes from a mother whose son has spent years locked in isolation, only to be eventually found in a catatonic state: “Nikko just shut down, stopped eating, stopped talking, stopped moving. He was just lying there waiting to die.” (SBT location 3387) The image of her son is haunting, his experience both painful to process and illustrative of the level of degradation that is arguably endured by tens of thousands of individuals living in similar circumstances—that is, more dead than alive—at any given moment in the United States:

His bones were protruding. He could barely stand up. Three guards had escorted him from his cellblock to the visiting area in death row. He could barely walk. And they’re having a hard time getting the shackles off him because he’s having a hard time keeping his balance. He’s blinking his eyes like the light’s affecting them. He looked like a Holocaust victim. That’s all I thought, that he looked like a Holocaust victim. It looked like rigor mortis had started to set in around his eyes, his cheekbones—everything was set back. And he had that daunted look, like a beaten dog. He’s blinking and looking around. I stand up and I’m waving my arms and I’m saying, ‘Nikko! Nikko it’s me! It’s Mom.’ He looks and he kind of says yes, but doesn’t really say anything and keeps looking around. And I realize he doesn’t know who I am. (HIAVSP location 3408-3414)

32The description above is evocative of the Supreme Court’s observation in their decision in re Medley (1890) that the “caging” of prisoners triggers their profound mental impairment and brings them to a “semi-fatuous condition from which it was next to impossible to arouse them” (Find Law). It seems that even two centuries later, just like back then, the utter isolation of inmates for years on end slowly turns them into the living dead of our times. This Dickensian “dark shroud, an emblem of the curtain dropped between him and the living world” (Dickens 241) which is apparent in Nikko’s daunted look and frozen demeanor is yet more evidence that what goes on behind bars in solitary confinement is geared towards destroying the humanity of those imprisoned, of whom Nikko becomes an example and data point.

4. Conclusions

33Of his over five years spent as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, with more than two lived in isolation, former Senator and presidential candidate John McCain stated that “it’s an awful thing, solitary… it crushes your spirit and weakens your resistance more effectively than any other form of mistreatment” (qtd. in Gawande). Similarly, Nelson Mandela remembered solitary confinement as “the most forbidding aspect of prison life,” as “there is no end and no beginning; there is only one’s own mind, which can begin to play tricks” (qtd. in Jeffreys 1) when people lack anything else meaningful to focus their livelihood on in order to escape psychological meltdown. The two anthologies of prison narratives discussed here add to the panoply of voices from behind the grim walls of American isolation units. And while admittedly these voices come from lesser-known narrators, what they lack in visibility they make up for in number. Through vivid descriptions of how it feels to be dead, the stories represent immediate accounts by people inhabiting the fringes of humanity, in a perpetual state of living death as a result of complete isolation from meaningful social exchange and because of indignities suffered in silence. They also illustrate the manner in which the systematic dehumanization and mortification of the incarcerated flexes (and extends) the limits of what is considered “cruel and unusual punishment” in American legal culture.

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1 The third panel in Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych oil painting is a representation of Hell breaking loose.

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Electronic reference

Raluca Andreescu, A Slow Death before Dying: Contemporary Stories from Solitary ConfinementEuropean journal of American studies [Online], 18-2 | 2023, Online since 03 July 2023, connection on 19 April 2024. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Raluca Andreescu

Raluca Andreescu is assistant professor in the Modern Languages Department at the University of Bucharest, Romania. She holds an M.A. in American Studies and a Ph.D. in Philology from the Doctoral School of Literary and Cultural Studies, both with the University of Bucharest. Her main research interests are in the area of American Cultural Studies, American law and literature, Gothic literature, Women’s Studies. She is the author of a volume about Female Gothic in the American Century, with a focus on works by Edith Wharton, Shirley Jackson and Joyce Carol Oates, and the co-editor of a volume dedicated to contemporary storytelling across new media and disciplines.

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