This interview was published in partnership with The Appeal.
Survivors of solitary confinement say it’s a living tomb, hell, worse than death, and torture. Someone can land in solitary—for days or decades—for any number of reasons, or no reason at all: a fight, having too many stamps, a positive COVID test, yelling, a death sentence, self-harm, protesting.
Solitary confinement is a punishment that correctional officers wield freely, and its harms are catastrophic. The practice—confinement in a cell for up to 24 hours a day—can lead to psychosis, self-mutilation, and suicide. A study of people incarcerated in North Carolina found that those subjected to solitary were almost 80 percent more likely to die by suicide within a year after their release than those not placed in solitary.
Many of its victims are Black. Approximately 11 percent of all Black men in Pennsylvania born between 1986 and 1989 experienced solitary confinement by age 32, according to a study published last month in the peer-reviewed journal Science Advances.
“It’s a quiet war of attrition,” Shearod McFarland said in a phone call from a Michigan prison. McFarland was sentenced to 25 to 40 years when he was 18, for a crime that occurred three days before his 18th birthday. For 11 years, from 1995 to 2006—from the ages of 25 to 36—he was held in solitary confinement.
“It’s a way the institution has of wearing you down, intellectually, emotionally, spiritually, physically,” he said. “It’s like a slow war, like a slow burn. Like a slow, quiet form of torture.”
McFarland, now 52, is the founder of The Capstone Group, a revolutionary cadre of political thinkers, in and outside of prison. His group worked with the advocacy organizations Open MI Door Campaign, Zealous, the Unlock the Box Campaign, and the American Friends Service Committee to create a digital archive that includes handwritten letters, audio, and artwork from people held in solitary confinement. (Disclosure: Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg previously worked for the Unlock the Box Campaign.)
McFarland is the narrator of “Silenced,” a short film on solitary confinement in Michigan. Last month, the film was screened at a virtual event on solitary confinement.
In an interview with The Appeal, McFarland spoke about his time in solitary and why he’s working to end the torturous practice. Below is an excerpt of the conversation, which has been edited for clarity and length.
“If my experience in those 11 years can help anyone else out and can help challenge this very destructive, oppressive form of institutional control, I’ll do that in whatever way I can,” McFarland said.
Q: If you feel comfortable, can you tell me about your time in solitary?
A: I had been to segregation before, but for that extra long period of time, 11 years, I was 25 when I went in and I was 36 when I was finally released from segregation.
It all stemmed from an incident on a prison yard where myself and a few other individuals got into a big clash with some other prisoners, and the situation kind of spins out of control, and some officers ended up getting injured as well. I want to make it clear—I don’t want to make it seem like I’m a victim.
In truth at that time, I think I needed to be punished and the institution had to exercise some kind of control over me because I was rebelling against my incarceration. My issue is not that the Michigan Department of Corrections sought to exercise some sort of control over my behavior. My issue is the form of that control.
I think that solitary confinement can be extremely—I don’t think, I know that it can be extremely destructive to people.
During my 11 years in solitary, I’ve literally seen people go from being fairly healthy normal mental functions to madmen. People just going crazy. Playing with their feces, yelling and screaming all day, banging on walls all day.
It literally reminds you of the images of insane asylums back in the 1800s. It’s madness all around you, and that in itself—that madness—works on your mind, on your psyche outside of the fact that the facility itself imposed a certain level of constraint on you that produces the madness in the first place.
Q: When you were in solitary all those years, did it feel like you weren’t going to get out?
A: That is kind of difficult to explain, not talk about, but it’s—I mean, I used to despair all the time. I used to always think about suicide. I’ve actually never attempted suicide, but I used to just imagine myself dying.
And I just think for me, just the thought of it almost gave me a sense or a feeling of relief. Just from the pain and hardship of being so separated from free society—so separated from everything.
The loneliness of being in solitary for a long period of time. That in itself is enough to really cause a person’s personality to unravel. It’s the fact that you are completely vulnerable. You are really at the mercy of an institution, a system that really doesn’t care about you.
When I went into segregation, I didn’t have any problems with my eyesight. When I left, my distance sight, my ability to see long distances, it had really deteriorated from being in segregation all those years. You’d never use those muscles or those nerves that are responsible for your long distance sight so they kind of deteriorate after a while. They atrophy. And so to this day, I can see great close-up, but long distances I don’t see very well.
Q: If you could sit down with the governor of Michigan or the state legislators in Michigan and tell them what needs to be done about solitary confinement, what would you say?
A: I do understand there has to be levels of accountability. All levels of society, there has to be accountability. I get that. But the government should not come up with forms of accountability that only perpetuate the problems that they’re seeking to hold people accountable for in the first place.
I don’t have a model in my mind for what should replace segregation, but I do know that segregation is very harmful to people. If human beings can find a way to land men on the moon, I’m sure we can come up with some healthy way to replace administrative segregation, a.k.a. solitary confinement.
Q: Is there anything I didn’t ask about that is important for people to know?
A: I would just say don’t give up on people in prison. There’s a lot of potential in prison. A lot of talented people. There are also a lot of people who have been severely traumatized, and segregation just perpetuates that trauma.
America’s idea of prison is based on a 500-year-old model of accountability. That model no longer fits with what we know about human nature and human development and human mental health. So putting people in here, it just makes people worse. So that’s just what comes to me right off the top of my head.