Years ago, when we were down in Louisiana working on a story about the notorious plantation prison called Angola, a man who had served nearly 20 years shared with us what he thought to be a common misconception about prisons. He knew that most people looked at the wall around the perimeter of a prison, and believed its purpose was to keep the incarcerated from escaping. But the wall “isn’t there to keep prisoners in,” he said. “It’s to keep the rest of you out.”
This has nowhere been more true than in solitary confinement units, the “prisons within prisons” that are kept strictly off limits to the public and the press, where tens of thousands of people have suffered in silence for years or even decades. That silence has been broken only by individuals with the fortitude to reach out—and to risk retaliation from prison staff—in order to share their stories of life in solitary.
Over the last eight years, we have been privileged to receive more and more of these stories—most of them sent to us by handwritten letter—and to develop relationships with hundreds of people in solitary confinement. Their writing has informed our reporting, and has been published on our site in the series we call “Voices from Solitary.” Last year, some of them were compiled in the first anthology of writing from solitary, Hell Is a Very Small Place: Voices from Solitary Confinement. Today, we feature the five stories that you have chosen as the most compelling—the ones most read, most shared, and most commented upon.
The work we do—shining a light on one of the darkest corners of the U.S. criminal justice system, and connecting with the people who experience it first-hand—is made possible only through the support of our readers. If you believe this work is important, we hope you will consider making a gift to Solitary Watch this year—perhaps tomorrow, on #GivingTuesday. Through December 31st, every donation you make up to $1,000 will be doubled through the News Match program, funded by the Democracy Fund, Knight Foundation, and MacArthur Foundation. So please read these stories, share them—and donate what you can to ensure that they keep coming across the prison walls.
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5. WHERE COLD, QUIET, AND EMPTINESS COME TOGETHER by Cesar Villa
Cesar Villa wrote this essay in 2013 while in his twelfth year of solitary confinement in the Pelican Bay Security Housing Unit (SHU). Like thousands of others in California prisons, Villa had been placed in solitary indefinitely after being “validated” as a gang member on questionable evidence. A longer version of this piece, which traces the gradual breakdown of the mind and spirit in isolation, appears in our 2016 book Hell Is a Very Small Place.
Nothing can really prepare you for entering the SHU. It’s a world unto itself where cold, quiet and emptiness come together, seeping into your bones, then eventually the mind. The first week I told myself: It isn’t that bad, I could do this. The second week, I stood outside in my underwear shivering as I was pelted with hail and rain. By the third week, I found myself squatting in a corner of the yard, filing fingernails down over coarse concrete walls. My sense of human decency dissipating with each day. At the end of the first year, my feet and hands began to split open from the cold. I bled over my clothes, my food, between my sheets. Band-aids were not allowed, even confiscated when found. My sense of normalcy began to wane after just 3 years of confinement. Now I was asking myself, can I do this? Not sure about anything anymore. Though I didn’t realize it at the time—looking back now—the unraveling must’ve begun then. My psyche had changed—I would never be the same. The ability to hold a single good thought left me, as easily as if it was a simple shift of wind sifting over tired, battered bones.
4. A DAY IN THE LIFE OF A WOMAN IN SOLITARY by Sarah Jo Pender
While most individuals in solitary are men, women are not immune from being placed in long-term isolation. Some, as we have reported, are sent to solitary in retaliation for exposing abuse and sexual assault by prison staff. And because incarcerated women are even more likely than incarcerated men to have a history of trauma and underlying mental illness, they often break down in solitary. Sarah Jo Pender, who spent five years in solitary at the Indiana Women’s Prison after a nonviolent prison escape, wrote a detailed account of a typical day in the prison’s isolation unit.
Women who enter sane will become so depressed that they shut down or hurt themselves. I watched a woman claw chunks of flesh from her cheeks and nose and write on the window with her blood. My neighbor bashed her head against the concrete until officers dragged her to a padded cell…Right across from my cell, a woman slit her own throat with a razor and was wheeled out on a gurney. Two others tried to asphyxiate themselves with bras and shoestrings. Now no one has shoestrings and we shuffle around in floppy tennis shoes with loose tongues…Another woman cut her wrists using the metal band around a pencil eraser. Now, all our pencils are stripped naked. It is always the poor prisoner porter who is forced to clean up the blood puddles and shit smears left behind when someone’s mind spirals down the rabbit hole.
3. THE WAR OF ALL AGAINST ALL by Thomas Bartlett Whitaker
Writing from Texas Death Row, where he has been held in solitary confinement for more than 12 years, Thomas Bartlett Whitaker describes the impact of living in isolation while awaiting execution. The title of his piece comes from the description that 17th-Century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes gave to human existence in a state of nature. The founder of a blog for prison writing and winner of several awards for his own writing from prison, Whitaker also contributed a (different) essay to Hell Is a Very Small Place.
It’s not always easy to see how this place creeps up on you…It twists you up in contradictions. I have to stalk myself almost constantly, to make sure that I don’t say or do anything dishonorable. I was messed up when I came here, and in many ways I have far more self-control. But at the same time, I feel frayed, like I’ve been living in the face of this sandstorm for 11 years, and it’s worn my soul down to a pathetic little nub. They don’t really kill you when they give you a date. You are pretty much already dead by that point…This place ruins people. Some it makes insane. Some, like me, it forces to go so deep that they aren’t ever able to crawl back out again. Some people get so hard that discipline simply can’t ever imprint on them again…The irony is that they built these places to house a theoretical super-predator that didn’t really exist at the time, and ended up actually building that very individual…[The men on death row] have seen through that to the truth, that it’s just one group applying power over another, and this just makes them laugh. Once you truly see the world as bellum omnium contra omnes [the war of all against all] you don’t ever really come back from that.
2. AMERICA’S MOST ISOLATED MAN DESCRIBES 10,220 DAYS IN EXTREME SOLITARY CONFINEMENT by Thomas Silverstein
Thomas Silverstein (who created the drawings above) has been held in solitary confinement under a “no human contact” order for more than three decades. He is currently at ADX Florence, the federal government’s notorious supermax prison in the mountains of Colorado. Earlier, he was housed at the U.S. Penitentiary in Atlanta, where he was placed in a windowless underground cell measuring 6 x 7 feet and denied any possessions, including reading materials or clothing other than underwear. The following comes from a lengthy declaration written for a 2011 federal lawsuit, in which Silverstein argued that his record of prison violence more than 20 years earlier did not entitle the state to subject him to torture. The suit was dismissed by the court.
The cell was so small that I could stand in one place and touch both walls simultaneously. The ceiling was so low that I could reach up and touch the hot light fixture. My bed took up the length of the cell, and there was no other furniture at all…The walls were solid steel and painted all white…Shortly after I arrived, the prison staff began construction, adding more bars and other security measures to the cell while I was within it…It is hard to describe the horror I experienced during this construction process. As they built new walls around me it felt like I was being buried alive…Due to the unchanging bright artificial lights and not having a wristwatch or clock, I couldn’t tell if it was day or night. Frequently, I would fall asleep and when I woke up I would not know if I had slept for five minutes or five hours, and would have no idea of what day or time of day it was…I now know that I was housed there for about four years, but I would have believed it was a decade if that is what I was told. It seemed eternal and endless and immeasurable.
1. A SENTENCE WORSE THAN DEATH by William Blake
First published in 2013, this shattering account of 25 years spent in continuous solitary confinement in New York has received more than half a million hits on Solitary Watch alone, and was republished on dozens of other sites around the world. Thousands more have read it as the lead essay in Hell Is a Very Small Place. Blake sets out to convey “what year after year of abject isolation can do to that immaterial part in our middle where hopes survive or die and the spirit resides”—and succeeds, as few others have before or since, in describing the visceral experience of living for decades in the Special Housing Unit, or SHU. Nearly five years after the essay’s publication, Billy Blake is still in solitary—and still writing.
I’ve experienced times so difficult and felt boredom and loneliness to such a degree that it seemed to be a physical thing inside—so thick it felt like it was choking me, trying to squeeze the sanity from my mind, the spirit from my soul, and the life from my body. I’ve seen and felt hope becoming like a foggy ephemeral thing, hard to get a hold of, even harder to keep a hold of as the years and then decades disappeared while I stayed trapped in the emptiness of the SHU world. I’ve seen minds slipping down the slope of sanity, descending into insanity, and I’ve been terrified that I would end up like the guys around me that have cracked and become nuts. It’s a sad thing to watch a human being go insane before your eyes because he can’t handle the pressure that the box exerts on the mind, but it is sadder still to see the spirit shaken from a soul. And it is more disastrous. Sometimes the prison guards find them hanging and blue; sometimes their necks get broken when they jump from their bed, 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 have witnessed the results.
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