The Word: Prisons Are Where America Buries Its Problems. Solitary Confinement Is Where Prisons Bury Theirs.

The Word from Solitary Watch for March 2023

by | March 31, 2023

Nearly a decade ago, in a piece published by The Intercept, the late James Ridgeway wrote about U.S. prisons and jails as the locations for a new kind of “banishment,” in which long-term or permanent outcasts are sent to live apart from society—not in some distant land, but in walled-off enclaves not far from our cities and towns.

In ancient times, communities would often rid themselves of convicted criminals and other undesirables through the practice of banishment: casting unwanted people out into the wilderness. The Romans often employed banishment as an alternative to capital punishment, and indeed, considered it a fate nearly as terrible as death. Later, the British Empire liberally employed the punishment of banishment and transportation to colonies such as Australia, while the Soviet Union became known for its use of internal banishment to Siberia. The terms exile, outlaw and outcast all owe their origin to this once widespread practice.

As the world grew smaller, banishment, as a practical matter, virtually ceased to exist. Though it still remains on the books in a few Southern states, it is generally thought of as an archaic form of punishment, and one that cannot function effectively in the modern world.

Yet the impetus behind banishment—to permanently remove individuals from society, and subject them to a kind of “social death”—flourishes today in the American criminal justice system, where prisons and jails are the settings for a new kind of internal exile.

While Jim’s essay focused on the thousands of people serving life sentences, his concept also applies to everyone who is cast out of society and into the carceral system. Jails have been called the “front door” of the criminal justice system, and are a path into the wilderness from which many, once they enter, will never return. Prisons—many of them located in remote rural areas—remove people even further from families, communities, and society at large. 

While most of these people have committed a crime, they also reflect the problems that our society prefers not to deal with, even when that means paying a high price in financial costs, public safety, and human rights. Chief among these social problems are rampant poverty and racism. They also include inadequate medical and mental health care, housing, and a range of other social services, as well as misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia. 

The wages of inequality and injustice are hopelessness and desperation, sometimes leading to crime—and from there, to the carceral state, a parallel state coexisting within the United States. As Jim Ridgeway wrote:

A century ago, America purported to open its arms to the “wretched refuse” of other societies. Now we have “disappeared” our own underclass into permanent exile right in our own backyards. The philosopher Lisa Guenther has called all of these perpetual prisoners “stateless persons,” who have been “cast out of the common world and condemned to a kind of civil death.”

Guenther also wrote of solitary confinement as the ultimate “social death” doled out by the criminal punishment system—the deepest hole in which we can bury people who are difficult or vulnerable, to whom we are unwilling to provide the support and services they need. Unsurprisingly, Black and brown people are dramatically overrepresented in solitary, as are people with mental health, cognitive, and developmental challenges.   

After re-reading Jim’s essay, I was inspired to revisit another piece, this one written by Thomas Whitaker, who has spent more than 15 years in solitary confinement in Texas, eleven of them on death row. His “Secret Solitary” (written with the support of a grant from Solitary Watch) was published last year by Guernica

Thinking about how America “disappears” its problems into prisons and sometimes into solitary confinement—and about what that means not only for the people who are banished but also for the people left behind—I remembered the ending of Thomas’s brilliant piece. 

During the writing of this essay, I learned that Ursula K. Le Guin had passed away; she actually died in 2018, but news travels slowly in solitary. I recall reading her short story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” when I was an eighteen-year-old freshman. I had to write a paper on it. The basic outline of the story is that there is this perfect city, Omelas, where want has been eliminated and where everyone is intelligent and civil and free.

Le Guin spends pages describing how genuinely utopic Omelas is before taking the reader into a specific basement and mugging them with a disturbing proviso: Everything good and wonderful that has been witnessed—all the peace, all the prosperity—depends in some crucial way on the fact that in a tiny, wet, dismal closet in an otherwise unremarkable cellar, there is kept in isolation a small child. This little one does not understand anything about her imprisonment. She snivels and cries and begs to be released. Citizens from the world above are led into the room to view this misery. Most return to their perfect lives, troubled but willing to rest on the idea that the happiness of the many outweighs the torment of the one. Some, however, leave the basement, walk out of the city, and never return.

At eighteen, my focus was largely on utilitarianism. I argued that every society has tough decisions to make that inevitably lead to the dissatisfaction of certain subsets of the populace, but if the gains outweighed the costs, society and progress required these hard choices to be made. The ends justified the means, even if the means were particularly ugly.

Now all I can think about is the child. The story doesn’t mention what happens when the child gets older, but the administrators of Omelas must swap the kids out every four or five years. Where do they send them? Surely not back to the city, for whose sins they were martyred. I see them sent abroad, exiled, lonely teenagers, their eyes keyholes into worlds where light dares not tread.

— Jean Casella, Director

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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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