The Word: The Art of Changing Hearts and Minds on Solitary Confinement

The Word from Solitary Watch for July/August 2022

by | August 3, 2022

One week ago, the New York Times featured as its weekly “Op Doc” a short film called “Tuesday Afternoon,” directed by Pete Quandt and co-produced by Solitary Watch. It follows Jack Powers—who spent 33 years in federal prison for bank robbery—on his first day in the free world, traveling from a prison in Pennsylvania to a halfway house in New Hampshire, with stops along the way to visit his mother and scatter the ashes of his son, who died while Jack was behind bars.

More than two decades of Jack’s incarceration were spent in solitary confinement after a failed escape attempt. For 12 years he was confined in the federal supermax prison known as ADX Florence, which is notorious for holding men in extreme isolation and was dubbed “a clean version of Hell” by a former warden.

As Pete Quandt succinctly describes it, during his time in solitary Jack Powers “committed serious self-harm, wrote prolifically, lost his son, educated himself and participated in a monumental civil case regarding the abuse and neglect of inmates. Today, he is a reflection of all of his life experiences—a profoundly changed man, an author, a mourning father and a loving son, and a critical voice in the anti-solitary confinement and prison reform movements.”

Jack was at ADX when Solitary Watch first made contact with him by letter. We published several of his essays and his wonderful yoga guide for people in solitary, and once he was released from isolation, he spoke with our late co-director James Ridgeway nearly every week. We are proud to have been able to introduce Jack to the filmmaker, and to support the production of this powerful work.

A glance at the comments on the New York Times site shows that the film has left many readers profoundly moved, and also stunned by the disconnect between the supremely gentle and thoughtful man they see on the screen, and the merciless and barbaric treatment he endured at the hands of the federal prison system.

It is in that space—the chasm between justice and reality—where understanding and outrage are born.

The feedback to “Tuesday Afternoon” confirms what we’ve known for years: if the story is told well, it doesn’t take long (13 minutes, in this case, with Jack Powers) to grasp the atrocity of solitary confinement.

People who learn about solitary confinement often want to do something about solitary confinement. Which makes ours a mission not only of changing minds, but also of changing outcomes. Changing lives.

A sweet, sad surprise found at the end of “Tuesday Afternoon” (@13m24s)

This is why the work we do at Solitary Watch is rooted in journalism, but not confined to it. Because sometimes a more visceral, personal experience is needed to encourage people to think and feel in new ways, and to support and demand change.

In addition to the release of “Tuesday Afternoon,” the last month alone witnessed work in a number of other forms that would not have been possible without Solitary Watch.

Sarah Shourd’s gripping and transformative play about solitary confinement, The Box, embarked on a cross-country “End of Isolation Tour.” Solitary Watch introduced Sarah to several of the people in solitary whose words make up much of the play’s script, and we have served as a National Partner for the tour.

At the same time, Photo Requests from Solitary, a collaborative art project sponsored by Solitary Watch that spans prison walls, is being used by activists from the group Straight Ahead in Pennsylvania, in their campaigns to educate and motivate the public to ban solitary confinement in county jails by local referendum.

Finally, this past month, the arts and politics magazine Guernica featured a long, deeply reported essay called “Secret Solitary” by the brilliant incarcerated writer Thomas Bartlett Whitaker, who narrowly escaped execution in 2018 after 11 years on Texas death row only to face life in endless solitary confinement. The piece, a searing indictment of the torture that takes place routinely in our prisons, was written with a grant from Solitary Watch’s Solitary Confinement Reporting Project.

At Solitary Watch, we know that film, theater, art, and writing can all be powerful agents of change. If you agree, support us if you can, share our work, and stay tuned for more stories like these.

—Jean Casella, Director

Read earlier dispatches:

June 2022: In Prison, We Face Epidemics of Isolation and Neglect on Top of COVID-19

May 2022: The “Voiceless” Do Have Voices. Are We Listening?

April 2022: The Myth of Safety Through Punishment


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