How Solitary Confinement Reproduces Racial Ideologies

An Excerpt from the Book “Way Down in the Hole”

by | October 13, 2022

What follows is an excerpt from the groundbreaking new book Way Down in the Hole: Race, Intimacy and the Reproduction of Racial Ideologies in Solitary Confinement, by Angela J. Hattery and Earl Smith, with a foreword by Dr. Terry Kupers. Way Down in the Hole is the twelfth book authored by Hattery and Smith, professors at the University of Delaware. The book’s official release date is tomorrow, and it is available to Solitary Watch readers from Rutgers University Press at a 30% discount with free shipping by going to this link or calling  800-621-2736 and using the discount code RFLR19. (The book is also available for purchase, without the discount, on and on Amazon.)

The book excerpt is preceded by an introduction by the authors.

The mental health impact of solitary confinement has been well-researched as have the gross violations of human rights that many in the activist community have documented and which serve as the basis for the majority of the lawsuits that have sought to reform solitary confinement and restrict its use in the United States. And, though it has been widely noted that Black people are disproportionately over-represented in solitary confinement, little research has focused on the racial antagonisms that arise from filling solitary confinement cells with Black and brown bodies in jails and prisons that are located in predominantly white, working-class communities, where the vast majority of the staff overseeing the confinement are also white. Based on hundreds of hours of observation and interviews with both those who are incarcerated and those who work in solitary confinement, in our book Way Down in the Hole: Race, Intimacy and the Reproduction of Racial Ideologies in Solitary Confinement, we uncover the ways in which specific structures of solitary confinement, including the close and intimate contact between the incarcerated and the correctional officer, serve as a petri dish that fuels the production and reproduction of white racial resentment.

When we sat down in the summer of 2017 with CO Travis who has worked for twenty-five years in the Department of Corrections and twelve years in solitary confinement, the first thing he said was: “We [the COs] are Trump’s ‘left behind.’”

How can correctional officers, who have all of the power in prisons and especially in solitary confinement, come to believe that the people they lock up in cages 24-hours a day, and who they treat like animals, have a better life than they do? How can correctional officers who get to leave every day and go home, come to resent the meals and the TVs and the mental health treatment that people locked in solitary confinement receive? How can correctional officers like CO Travis come to see themselves, and not the incarcerated people, as the “forgotten?”

Prisons and jails are rife with racism and dehumanization. And yet, what we observed in solitary confinement was stunning. Not only are people locked in cages 23 hours a day, allowed out only to shower and go to the yard, eating and sleeping just feet away from where they defecate, all while under the surveillance of officers, but it is physical structure of their confinement that produces the conditions in which white racial resentment brews. Confined to a space some have described as the size of a parking space at the mall, the incarcerated individual is dependent upon the CO for nearly every daily need, including food, toilet paper, menstrual supplies, and an escort to the shower or yard, preceded in every case by a strip search. As a result, COs spend 8-10 hours a day, in their view, engaged not in the work of punishment but rather waiting hand on foot on the incarcerated.  ─Angela J. Hattery and Earl Smith

• • • • • • • • • • • • • • •

One of the intended or unintended consequences of the twenty-three-hour lockdown in solitary confinement units is the requirement that all meals be eaten in the prisoner’s cell. In practice this means that correctional officers must hand-deliver trays to the people who are incarcerated there three times a day, and pick them up after each meal. Each tray must be passed through a wicket in order to safeguard the CO from the possibility that the inhabitant may “hold their tray hostage” or throw urine or feces at the CO, putting the CO in danger during this exchange. As a result, “passing trays” is a labor-intensive, time-consuming task that some people we interviewed who were incarcerated in solitary confinement ranked as a “benefit” because they didn’t have to walk in the rain or cold weather to the chow hall. This otherwise simple and straightforward task was one many correctional officers, on the other hand, came to resent. Trays, for example, are contested terrain not only because their passing is considered a dangerous or high-risk activity but also because they are an instance of “flipping the script” of racialized roles in the United States.

In the Free World, Black people serve white people. But in the hidden world of solitary confinement the script is often flipped: COs, who are almost always white, serve prisoners, who are disproportionately Black. Through the lens of men who already feel like they are “forgotten” and “left behind,” solitary confinement comes to be viewed not as a place of punishment but rather as a place of service. Service by the COs to the people incarcerated there. Not only must trays be delivered, but mail must be delivered. Shampoo and toilet paper must be dispensed. Razors must be handed out, a tedious process because all razors must also be collected or there

is the risk someone will get cut or cut themselves. When the book cart comes, COs must supervise the distribution of reading material. TV channels must be changed in response to the collective wishes of the prisoners locked in the cages in the pod. In specialized mental health units, COs must escort “students” to therapy sessions and classes, which from the perspective of the COs are disguised as “programming.” Every thirty minutes, a CO must walk the entire pod to ensure everyone there is still alive.

These duties often take up nearly an entire eight-hour shift and must be repeated day after day after day, for years. A CO working in solitary confinement in SCI-Wannabee [the pseudonym for the prison where we observed for dozens of hours and conducted more than 100 interviews with prisoners and staff] will deliver thousands and thousands of meals, pick up thousands and thousands of trays—all while at risk for having urine or feces thrown at them, all while insults are hurled by the people incarcerated there, who are often relentless in their requests: “Where’s my property?” “Change the channel!” “Flush my toilet!” COs’ only mechanism for retaining power and control in this social structure is to arbitrarily enforce rules that deny people who are incarcerated access to the things they desire or believe they are entitled to. COs burn [the term they use for denying] prisoners on showers and meals when they are not standing at their cell doors, paper off their windows, light on in their cell at the precise moment the CO walks on to the pod. People who are incarcerated view this as a human rights violation. COs view it as a punishment strategy. We are left pondering the importance of such arbitrary rules. Why do cardboard toilet paper rolls have to be turned in before an incarcerated person can get a new roll of toilet paper? Not because toilet paper is a matter of national security, but because COs view burning people who are incarcerated as one of their only strategies for leveling the playing field, for holding on to their place in the hierarchy. A place they feel they are slowly losing. Despite the fact that prisoners are locked in their cells twenty-three hours a day and the COs get to go home at night, COs see the hole as a place that rewards the worst of the worst, while the COs and their families and neighbors struggle, where the victims get nothing.

Sometimes COs witness situations in which they truly believe that people incarcerated in solitary confinement get more than they and their families do. For example, as CO Travis emphasized over and over again, he feels that he needs mental health treatment, but he can’t get it; he can’t afford to pay for it; he would have to take time off from work to utilize it; but every day he is required to escort prisoners, the worst of the worst, to therapy sessions with Dr. Emma, a therapy session he would like to have, albeit minus the strip search and the cage. CO Porter adds: “I have an elderly family member who had to give up their house to get a medical procedure and the inmates get the best medical care for $5. . . . I knew a guy on death row that got chemo. Imagine that . . . paying to keep a guy alive just to kill him!”

Between 2017 and 2019, when we were conducting research in Larrabee County [the pseudonym for the location of SCI-Wannabee], though the unemployment rate was relatively low, the median household income is $10,000 lower than the national median ($51,000 compared with $61,000 nationwide). Larrabee County is a county of the working poor. People in Larrabee County struggle to pay their bills and send their kids to college. The COs at SCI-Wannabee are stuck working in a job they hate, and every day they see prisoners who are not working hard, some of whom committed horrible crimes, get access to things they don’t have access to or can’t provide. Quite literally, CO Porter sleeps in his car. In the winter. Sure, maybe it’s only two nights a week, but he spends all day serving men who sleep in a cell that has heat in the winter.

But, as we and others argue, their resentment is misplaced. The COs are not, in fact, falling behind the Black men they lock in cages twenty-three hours a day, or any other Black people for that matter, no matter how many $5 medical appointments they attend, or sessions they have with Dr. Emma. No matter how many candy bars they earn for coming out for programming. No matter how many rolls of toilet paper they use or how many Superbowls they watch through their cell doors on the pod TV. Yet this is where the COs focus their white racial resentment.

White racial resentment is fueled by the lies that white people, including COs, tell themselves so that they can get up each day and go to work and get on with the practice of enforcing laws, policies, and practices that are built on the foundation of white supremacy. White racial resentment is produced by the specific structures of solitary confinement, and it reproduces the belief that a Black man locked in a cage twenty-three hours a day, fed through a wicket, who eats next to his toilet, exercises in a dog kennel, showers in a cage, and has extremely limited human interaction, is better off than you are.

That you, and not he, is the one who is forgotten.


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