Voices from Solitary: Holler with Haiku

by | June 9, 2022

Last month was Mental Health Awareness Month. For those in solitary confinement, access to mental healthcare often is restricted to what can be provided through a tiny slot in their cell door. In solitary units, visits from psychiatric professionals are infrequent and, when they do occur, brief. Often these visits are limited to the time necessary to prescribe medication or determine if someone poses an immediate risk to themselves. 

Solitary confinement itself is extremely detrimental to people’s psychological well-being. For individuals with no prior history of mental health issues, living in solitary confinement can cause psychological distress from anxiety and depression to auditory and visual hallucinations. Additionally, it’s been shown that solitary confinement exacerbates symptoms of existing mental illness. The damaging psychological effects of solitary are so common and consistent that Dr. Stuart Grassian, one of the first medical professionals to study people in solitary, created the term “SHU Syndrome.”

This May, members of Keystone DBloc, an offshoot of the Pennsylvania advocacy group Straight Ahead, wanted to use Mental Health Awareness Month to highlight the psychological damage caused by solitary. Several months ago, Keystone DBloc created the initiative “Holler with Haiku” to educate and “engage all members of our community of Decarceration activists: incarcerated, formerly incarcerated, family members, and supporters.”  

According to Jennifer Black, an organizer at Straight Ahead, the team “began by putting the call out to all our channels of information which included networks of incarcerated folks all over the state of PA.” By the end of May, they had received more than 200 responses. The poems were posted on Twitter, often with vivid images. “It is amazing the breadth of emotion and sentiment that can be conveyed in such a short written piece,” Black continued. “They capture the depth of the experience, the confusion, the terror, and the gross injustice, and also offer practical solutions on how to deal with the experience.” 

The following haiku were selected from the poems posted during May. More can be found on Twitter @KeystoneDBloc. —Sara Rain Tree

• • • • • • • • • • • • • • •

Pen in hand
tender, tired, cramping, bleeding
I must push on. 
—Lori Lassiter #0A4963 CBS

My head hurts so much.
These lonely walls keep talking.
Quiet I can’t sleep. 
—Abimael Casiano-Fernandez #GK-8608

Pepper spray and screams
Along with nightmares and dreams
And showers aint clean
—Wayne P. Johnson, SCI Benner

In Solitary
Removed from the human world
Removed from myself
—Scott F., The Writing Circle 

Refused an order
Sent away to be alone
Going on two years
—Anonymous

Restricted release
A diabolical beast
On the soul it feast
—C.S. Daniels

I forgot again 
Could you remind me once more?
What the sky looks like?
—Cas Miller (they/them), SCI Muncy 

The walls consume me
The walls are killing me slow
The wall all I see
—Dakota K., The Writing Circle

Clang Clangity Clang
You can’t get it out of your head
All day, every day
—David Garlock 

I”m human, see me
Common sensibility
Not an animal 
—Anonymous

Only place I can go
I am free inside my mind
Otherwise, I die
—Anonymous

Hope on life support
Mentally, I’m pronounced dead
I was once a man
—Zane Colbert, SCI Albion

Can you imagine
Invisible roots in soil
Reach for each other
—Sarah E.

One day at a time. 
Slowly you will lose your mind. 
Welcome to the hole. 
—Kristopher M. Heggins #EK-7139, SCI-Frackville

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