Voices from Solitary: A Letter to Kalief Browder

by | December 28, 2021

Henry Messenger is a writer incarcerated at Great Meadow Correctional Facility in New York. He has spent 35 years in prison, and is currently serving a five-year sentence for larceny. Messenger says he has dedicated himself to self-education, and he has written for Truthout as well as several prison newspapers.

In this open letter, he addresses Kalief Browder, who was sent to Rikers Island as a teenager and remained there for three years awaiting trial. Browder was repeatedly sent to solitary confinement during his years on Rikers. In 2015, two years after his release, he died by suicide. As Messenger notes, Kalief Browder’s story helped give rise to a successful campaign to close Rikers Island, and also fueled the battle to end solitary in New York City’s jails, which is still being fought today. 

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Dear Kalief,

You don’t know me and chances are we wouldn’t have found anything in common had we ever met, a black teenager from the Bronx and an old white guy who has spent his whole life in the penitentiary.

Let me tell you what I imagine we do have in common: we have both spent the longest nights of our lives inside an empty solitary confinement cell, the walls covered in the scribblings of the others before us, who also battled the loss of their sanity. It felt like the nights would never end, feeling forsaken and wondering if there was anyone left in the world that really cared if we lived or died.

No one wants to believe that torture happens in America. But solitary won’t end until the public wakes up to the fact that thousands of people are being tortured in this country every day. You died tragically, but your death was not in vain, as it helped to wake people up about what has been happening.

•  •  •

I want to be clear about one thing: The authorities always knew exactly what they were doing and in fact they built a system to torture people.

For many decades, prison authorities, legislators, and the judiciary have known that solitary confinement does not effectively serve the goals of rehabilitation or public safety. A substantial body of work has been published establishing that solitary confinement has extremely damaging side effects. The United Nations’ Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (the Nelson Mandela Rules) adopted in 2015 include a prohibition on its use beyond fifteen consecutive days. The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture called for a complete ban on its use on juveniles and persons with mental disabilities, as well as its use as punishment and during pretrial detention. As far back as the 1890s, the United States Supreme Court recognized the harms of the practice. 

As the prison populations rose in the late 1970s, the concept of rehabilitation in prison was replaced with punishment and retribution. The type of solitary confinement that the Supreme Court critiqued in 1890 was made even harsher as a new type of restrictive housing was designed (called “supermax” prisons), where the entire housing unit consisted of single cells. (In some cases, people in solitary are placed two to a cell, but being in constant, close quarters with only one other person doesn’t make the isolation any less real, and only adds other problems.)

In the 1980s and 90s, supermax prisons were built in almost every state. Isolation and sensory deprivation had been refined and scientifically perfected. Using modern techniques and facilities designed to destroy men from the inside out without leaving a mark, solitary confinement became a widely used form of torture.

•  •  •

After your death, suddenly everyone wanted to weigh in about the harmful effects of solitary confinement and the need for reforms. They spoke as if countless lives had not been lost already. As if there weren’t thousands of people currently living with the mental side effects of isolation. As if the research about solitary was not already out there. Yet it still took your death to wake people up.

Sometimes I wonder why some people survive years in solitary and some people don’t. I’ve spent 12 years of my life in every form of solitary confinement that exists, from dark and dirty dungeons to clean and well-lit supermaxes. These are bloodless torture chambers. And there are thousands of people just like me. 

Most of us who spent our lives in solitary had been groomed for prison since we were kids. The youth facilities were called “reform” or “training” schools back then, but by the 1980s, any pretense at reform was thin at best. The only real training going on was training us for prison.

When I was first introduced to solitary as a juvenile it was for shorter periods than it would be in adult facilities, usually a day or two. I cried like a baby the first time I ever had a door locked behind me from the outside. I was 14 years old and I knew that I could never get used to this. I felt like I was dying inside. But a day would come when I could reel off years in isolation, and I would feel more comfortable in lock down than out of it. This wasn’t an accident. You can become used to very horrible things, even comfortable with them, especially if you were intentionally trained to be. 

You were a good kid. You didn’t get sent away and therefore you didn’t get the same kind of incremental adjustment to solitary I had as a juvenile. You were thrown right into Rikers as an introspective, shy kid, and told to survive.

Perhaps you tried to describe what it was like to someone after they finally let you out of Rikers. But we both know that solitary causes a feeling of loneliness and abandonment so intense that it is nearly indescribable. People think you are exaggerating and you quit trying to tell them what it’s like. That is when you feel the most alone even though you are no longer in a cage.

It is a feeling I have never been able to shake, even in a room full of people. A feeling that has led me to the brink of suicide several times.

•  •  •

Your death was a catalyst for change. The push to reform solitary started in 2010, but it was an uphill battle, with only incremental and hard-won reforms. Your story changed everything. No longer could people ignore that men and women were being tortured at the hands of the state nationwide.

Finally, in April 2021, The HALT Solitary Confinement Act was signed into law in New York. This is the most progressive bill in the country and it outlaws solitary for members of vulnerable groups and limits solitary to 15 consecutive days for anyone else.

I am sincerely sorry that you lost your life as a result of the unchecked power of the state. I commiserate with your family for the loss they have suffered. But I want them to know, and for you to know, that you did not die in vain. Your sacrifice has great meaning for those of us hidden behind walls and wire.

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