How to Survive Supermax

Inside the Hell of Solitary Confinement

This week, The New Republic published a long essay by Arthur Longworth, which was written with the support of a grant from the Solitary Confinement Reporting Project, managed by Solitary Watch with funding from the Vital Projects Fund.

Longworth has been incarcerated for 35 years and has spent long stretches in solitary. He is a 2019–2020 PEN America Writing for Justice Fellow and 2018 Pushcart Prize nominee whose essays have been published by the Marshall Project, VICE News, Medium, and Yes! Magazine. Longworth is also the author of the 2016 book Zek: An American Prison Story, which was nominated for the Washington State Book Award. The following is a brief excerpt from the essay, which can be read in full on The New Republic‘s site.

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…When you’re in a supermax—or an Intensive Management Unit, as it’s dubbed here in Washington state—your field of experience contracts. It is wholly contained within your closet-size cell; the world outside prison, the prison itself, and the rest of IMU may as well not even exist. Your struggle to survive your stay in solitary is waged within the bounds of that cell.

You have to train yourself to make it through your time in IMU reasonably intact. There’s no instruction book—just as there are no manuals on how to endure the wheel or the rack. You either develop the ability over time, or you don’t. There are plenty of prisoners who don’t, or can’t, condition themselves to the environment. They’re the ones you hear screaming and pounding as hard as they can on the steel door of the cell all hours of the day and night. Or they’re the ones you don’t hear at all.

The pulse of IMU is the unremitting sound of madness. It pervades every part of the facility, reverberating through the concrete walls of the cell, the soles of your bare feet, your bones, your teeth. There is no time without the jarring slam of steel doors, screaming. You can hear the riot-suited guards with batons and Taser shock shields enter cells to “extract” prisoners. A guard passes through the block every 30 minutes with a heavy rubber mallet he uses to strike every wall, door, and cuffport to ensure the cells are all secure.

There is the blinding light that’s on 24 hours a day in the cell, and the constant exposure to institutional-grade capsicum spray, known familiarly in riot-control settings as pepper spray. The cellblocks are connected by air vents, so even if it isn’t you who the guards are spraying, the effect is nearly the same.

You have to dissociate yourself from the experience—to withdraw a part of yourself and keep it at a distance from the world at large. You start by deadening your senses to what’s happening around you. All that you see and hear in IMU would still happen whether you were there or not. You can’ t change any of it, and none of it is happening because of you. So you turn your attention away.

You have to protect that part of yourself from your feelings: the helplessness, the anger, the hopelessness that washes over you in an unebbing tide. Those are the feelings that arise inside you in that place. You can’t stop them. But if you stand back—if you don’t allow the separated part of yourself to wander out into the storm of those feelings—you can get through it….

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Please read the full essay on The New Republic website, where it appears in the new “Sold/Short” section, focusing on inequality, justice, and labor. 

Illustration by Clay Rodery for The New Republic.
Illustration by Clay Rodery for The New Republic.


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