The Word: The “Voiceless” Do Have Voices. Are We Listening?

The Word from Solitary Watch for May 2022

by | May 31, 2022

This is the second in a new series of monthly dispatches from Solitary Watch.

It isn’t uncommon to hear people who have traditionally been excluded from the public discourse—and who, more broadly, lack political and economic power and visibility—described as “voiceless.” 

This vast group of Americans includes individuals and entire communities who are people of color, are migrants, have disabilities, live in poverty, or are unhoused, among others. 

For us at Solitary Watch, it most often means people who are incarcerated, have been incarcerated, have loved ones behind bars, or have otherwise been directly affected by the ruthless punishment system that touches—and damages—so many millions of American lives. It especially means people in solitary confinement, who live buried in concrete and steel.

Jesse Wilson, one of the hundreds of people who have written for our Voices from Solitary series, described the feeling of voicelessness in a 2012 essay, “Loneliness Is a Destroyer of Humanity,” written from inside the notorious federal supermax, ADX Florence.

“I refuse to embrace the solitude. This is not normal. I’m not a monster and do not deserve to live in a concrete box. I am a man who has made mistakes, true. But I do not deserve to spend the rest of my life locked in a cagewhat purpose does that serve?… Our country has thousands of its people confined to concrete cages. Years pass, lives pass. The suffering does not…And we the inmates are voiceless. Our voices are not heard. If they are heard, they are thought of as lies.”

Wilson illuminates the true meaning of voicelessness in our society: a failure not of expression, but of reception. What most people in solitary lack is not a voice or a will to be heard, but rather a way of transmitting their words to the world outside their cells, and a conviction that anyone is listening. 

Like trees falling in the forest, human voices need to be heard—and amplified, and believed—in order to achieve their full meaning and power and resonance. Part of the base cruelty of solitary confinement lies in its determination to silence thousands of voices by means of isolation.

But this mass silencing does not go unchallenged. In our experience, people in solitary are eager, and often desperate, to share their words, and to own them—so much so that they will overcome myriad practical obstacles and risk retaliation from prison staff to see their writing published. 

Increasingly, their courage is being met on the outside by organizations and publications dedicated to amplifying their voices. Solitary Watch has been doing so since our founding more than 12 years ago. More recently, others—including Empowerment Avenue, Minutes Before Six, and the Prison Journalism Project—have also made it their mission to welcome, nurture, and publish incarcerated writers.

What’s needed to complete the circuit is a similar growth among the people who are heeding these voices and reading these words—in newsrooms, in statehouses, and among the public. If you would like to support Solitary Watch in pursuing this goal, please read on. Most of all, please keep listening.

•  •  •

Our late founder, James Ridgeway (1936-2021), whose memorial service took place recently (quite appropriately, on May Day), was at the heart of Solitary Watch’s dedication to the voices of incarcerated people—as sources, as writers, and most recently, as journalists reporting from inside prison walls. After Jim’s unexpected passing, Solitary Watch created the James Ridgeway Memorial Fund for Incarcerated Journalists, which is being overseen by our first incarcerated staff member, Contributing Writer Juan Moreno Haines. 

To support this work, which was so close to Jim’s heart, please consider donating to the fund. 

To make an online donation, please go to and designate your donation for the Ridgeway Memorial Fund. To donate by check, please make your check payable to Social & Environmental Entrepreneurs and indicate “Solitary Watch/Ridgeway Fund” in the memo. Send to: SEE, 23564 Calabasas Road, Suite 201, Calabasas, CA 91302. All donations are fully tax-deductible through Solitary Watch’s 501c3 nonprofit fiscal sponsor, Social & Environmental Entrepreneurs. Thank you for your caring and generosity. 

This is the second in a new series of monthly dispatches from Solitary Watch. Subscribe to receive our monthly and weekly emails.



Jean Casella

Jean Casella is the director of Solitary Watch. She has also published work in The Guardian, The Nation, and Mother Jones, and is co-editor of the book Hell Is a Very Small Place: Voices from Solitary Confinement. She has received a Soros Justice Media Fellowship and an Alicia Patterson Fellowship. She tweets @solitarywatch.

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