The Word: From the Deepest Shadows, So Much Light: Solitary Confinement and the Human Spirit

The Word from Solitary Watch for April 2023

by | April 27, 2023

In our society we’re taught to exile the “dark” or “shadow” side of our human nature even farther into the darkness. We push the hurt, wounded psyche into the depths of our shame, where we hope to hide it from everyone at all costs.

Prisons are a form of collective exile, a place where we banish the shadow people—sometimes because we need someone to blame, and sometimes because we don’t want to be responsible for our collective failures.

Within prisons and jails, we have an even further ring of exile in the form of an even harsher punishment and an even smaller box: solitary confinement.

We’re told that it’s the most dangerous people that end up in solitary confinement, and I imagine that misrepresentation makes a lot of people feel better. But those of us paying attention to the widespread psychological torture in our prisons know that people put in solitary for a violent offense are in the minority. The majority of the 80,000 to 100,000 people in “the hole” on any given day are the most vulnerable: victims of crimes by guards or other prisoners, LGBTQ individuals, people with untreated addictions or mental illnesses—people whom prison staff are at a loss to deal with because they shouldn’t be there in the first place.

And apart from the most vulnerable, many in solitary are the most brave. The practice is designed to intimidate, crush, and “disappear” people who are deemed a threat to the prison status quo.

Saleem Robert Holbrook, who went to prison in 1990 in Pennsylvania, was put in the “hole” for “disruptive behavior,” which in his case meant filing grievances on behalf of other Black men for being harassed by racist guards. He also led a dining hall boycott when the prison cut people’s food calories in half.

“Solitary confinement.” Saleem says, “is not about getting people in prison to conform to the rules. It’s about containing prisoner resistance to their inherent human rights being violated…which are dignity, self-expression, cultural expression…freedom.”

This practice, Saleem adds, “is the norm, not the exception.” There has been no formal study done on how many people in solitary confinement on any given day are there for political dissent, so I can offer you no statistic. In my own ten years of investigating this practice and interviewing survivors as a trauma-informed journalist, I have heard countless examples: Craig Waleed went to solitary in North Carolina for silently protesting; Laura Nicks in Arkansas for refusing to have an abortion after being raped by a correctional officer; Kaleem Nazeem, also in Arkansas, for refusing to pick cotton.

Though we must rely on personal accounts for now, it’s still worth exploring the implications of our prisons using torture to suppress political dissent, which are enormous.

For millions of Americans the COVID-19 pandemic might have been the closest they would ever come to directly experiencing the immense suffering and danger of isolation: an exhausted nurse alone in a hotel room; a grandfather touching fingers with his grandson through the glass window of a nursing home; a depressed teenager trapped in her room.

The pandemic also showed us that no matter what gets in the way—be it governments, pandemics, or carceral systems—people have an incredible desire to break out of isolation when it is imposed. Against all odds, we find creative and meaningful ways to connect.

I’ve heard a lot of incredible stories about how people in prisons manage to communicate from solitary despite the incredible obstacles and the herculean effort to keep them apart. Perhaps the most common is kite-flying, also sometimes called “fishing.” This is a way that incarcerated people can pass notes and send items between their cells. The sender ties a weight (often a piece of soap) to the end of a rope made of torn fabric (usually a bedsheet or underwear). The sender uses the weight to shoot the “line” under their door and across the corridor. It lands in front of the desired cell and the recipient then does the same, sending out their line, hooking his weight to the sender’s weight, pulling both lines back under the door into their cell, and finding a note or object tied to the end of the sender’s line.

Incarcerated people also pass notes through guards, talk through their vents, and tap code through their adjacent walls.

Why do humans go to such great lengths to connect? Because we need each other: As much as we need food, air, and water, we need meaningful human contact to survive.

Saleem started communicating in solitary by “exchanging books and political tracts.” “We had to get them smuggled,” he says, “sometimes we paid someone to photocopy for us, or in some cases we hand-copied an entire book.”

“The principal task,” they would write back-and-forth at the top of each tract, quoting George Jackson, “is to turn the theoretical into the political.”

Historians often explain the extreme and rapid rise of solitary confinement in the 1970s and 1980s, then even more precipitously in the 1990s, as a result of the prison overpopulation created by the “War on Drugs” and “War on Crime.” Solitary was seen as a control mechanism to create order among an increasingly dangerous prison population. But what threatens prison administrations most is not prisoner-to-prisoner or even prisoner-on-staff violence; it’s political organizing.

“Before the seventies, solitary was a dying practice,” says Saleem. “The rise happened because of the social upheaval in society. We were part of a larger movement that seeped into the prisons…uprisings across the country. The state had to suppress these movements.”

From the Soledad Prison hunger strikes in 1970 to the Attica uprising in 1971 to the California prison hunger strike in 2013—the largest in history—rebellions inside prisons have always been empowered and inspired by rebellion on the outside, and vice-versa.

Had there not been widespread suppression of this dissent—through deadly force and above all through solitary confinement— would we have mass incarceration today? Or would the reasonable demands of incarcerated people have been heeded, resulting in a far more humane system?

As a person who believes that collective struggles for justice and liberation are the checks-and-balances of a healthy democracy, I blame the use of psychological torture not just for increasing widespread suffering in our prisons, but for blocking human progress that would have benefitted us all.

Ironically, in the deepest shadows of our society’s shame is where we must look for hope. Using torture to suppress dissent changes the nature of that dissent. Sometimes, it makes it more visionary, and even harder to contain.

Many of the most powerful incarcerated organizers around the country—the truth-tellers, the hunger-strikers, defenders of themselves and others—continue to be powerful organizers and healers in their communities when they get out.

“We were cutting our teeth,” says Saleem, who is now executive director of the Abolitionist Law Center in Pennsylvania. “After I correct myself, hold myself accountable for harm I’ve done, now I’m ready to correct society—to hold the state accountable. This is an example of transformative justice. I wish we didn’t have to go through that experience, but some of us emerge transformed.”

Craig Waleed (Disability Rights North Carolina), Laura Nicks and Kaleem Nazeem (DeCarcerate Arkansas) are all anti-solitary and anti-prison activists now, too.

From the deepest shadows, so much light.

— Sarah Shourd, Contributing Writer

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Sarah Shourd

SARAH SHOURD is a playwright, trauma-informed investigative journalist, author, and former Stanford John S. Knight Fellow based in Oakland. A survivor of solitary confinement, her work exposes the impact of mass incarceration and explores alternatives. Her writing has been published by The Atlantic, New York Times, Mother Jones, San Francisco Chronicle, CNN, and Reuters. In 2022 she is working with The Pulitzer Center on The End of Isolation Tour: or

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