Voices From Solitary: Edge of Mortality 

by | July 11, 2023

Michael Bankert has been sent to solitary confinement numerous times while serving the past 32 years of a life sentence in New Mexico. Despite the lingering fear that he could be sent back to solitary at any time, Bankert continues to write and make art about his experiences and is working to establish a writing group at Lea County Correctional Facility. Bankert’s essays were published by PEN America in 2020 and Iron City magazine in 2022. In a letter to Solitary Watch, he spoke of the ability of writing to give an incarcerated person a voice even if their body is locked away: “[It shows] I am, I exist, I am still a person who can contribute to society through writing.” What follows are two written pieces and a drawing that reflect Bankert’s experience of solitary confinement. —Sara Vogel

• • • • • • • • • •


Day 13: The administration must really be pissed at me. I’ve been here in segregation for almost two weeks, without even a book to read—just copies of my misconduct reports. There is nothing in this seven-by-eleven lockdown cell but me and my rag-filled mattress. The back wall has a window, at least; it is four feet high, six inches wide. I stand there for hours each day. There is not much to see but a chain-link fence, with rows of razorwire at the bottom and more twelve feet up along the top. The fence is right outside, six feet from my wall, and another six feet past that is the twenty-foot-high wall of another cement building with no windows or doors or people—nothing but bare wall. 

Day 22: The desert sun has been baking the fence outside, the sand, and the cement wall. The solitude continues baking my brain much the same. Today is a little different as outside there are shadows now and then from clouds passing overhead. Still no books, no writing material, nothing. But I have a new companion. Outside the window there has been a tiny cottontail rabbit coming by. He is so tiny he must be nearly newborn. And he must be lost. His mom might have been caught by the owls that raid the prison grounds for pigeons, squirrels, and careless rabbits. This little guy has appeared the past three days, several times a day but never at the same time. He scampers along, stops to nibble on some weeds that sprout near the razorwire at the bottom of the fence, then he moves out of my sight. When he comes, I am overjoyed, when he leaves, I am crushed. (Solitary confinement accentuates emotions, inflates them.) I love that little rabbit. 

Day 26: Thunderstorms pounded all night. Driving rain smashed onto the cell window while lightning flashed blue light into my cell. The thunder exploded so loud I shivered under my wool blanket. Other inmates scream back at the thunder with excitement now and then, as something has broken the monotony of lockdown time. 

When daylight comes, the storm weakens to a drizzling mist. As soon as it is light enough I go to the window to see what the rain deluge has left. The cottontail rabbit is wedged between the coil of the razorwire and the bottom of the chain link fence; his fur is soaked, matted, and his lifeless eyes stare up at me. Puddles of water stand vigil across the sandscape, water drips off the fence, teardrops from the storm that has passed. I wish I could shed some myself, but if I allow one teardrop to fall, it might turn into a flash flood that I cannot stop. Instead I stare at the friend I have loved most in the world these past days, at his wet little body lying in the water-soaked sand under the razorwire, and I wonder: How long does the suffering last when you drown? 

Day 32: After thirty days they let me have a book to read. I have already read it—twice. I am standing at the window, staring at the baby cottontail rabbit. Had he not drowned, he would have been adult-sized by now. So his carcass remains forever young, which seems peculiar, as daily I have been watching it shrink and shrivel as it decomposes under the hot desert sun. The eyes—the dark orbs that had stared back at me with, dare I say, returned affection as I monitored the rabbit’s weed-eating–those eyes were gone day one after the rain, eaten by birds when I wasn’t watching, I suppose. The body has been deflating steadily. Today I see only a flat patch of scruffy fur with four unlucky feet and two long ears splaying out from a fur-splotched skull. I have grown accustomed to the carcass, grotesque as it now appears, as it is still my only companion. I can’t say that I love it as much now as I did when it was still a baby (and alive), but I do appreciate its company, even though clumps of fur are beginning to break away from the carcass and drift across the sand when the wind blows. It is certainly loyal, always there for me. 

There remains an innocence to the little cottontail that neither the drowning water or the razorwire fence can conquer. 

I can’t say the same for myself. 

• • •

Endless Waves

When a wave of darkness comes crashing over you, it washes away your enthusiasm for life. The vanquished hope departs you, leaving behind an empty chasm where despair soon flourishes. An unreasonable hopelessness grows there, overpowering any remnants of the joy of living until the last kernel of will-to-live is clutched in suicidal impulse. Threatening tremors of deathwish come vibrating, a shivering impending finality.

There is no will to go on. No effort to live, to breathe, yet the primordial subconscious triggers the diaphragm and you pull breath in spite of yourself. The heart keeps a steady rhythm as it knows nothing different, all while you are drowning. But instead of sucking in a breath of desire-to-live, you gasp for watery pain that will fill your lungs and finally you can drown in your sorrow. 

But the sorrow doesn’t end you—it envelops you, and there you are suspended in life like a wretched specimen in a glass jar. And the merciless heart keeps beating and the callous diaphragm spasms methodically so, against your will, you are propelled through your ocean of despair like a partially gutted jellyfish. 

Then, finally for reasons unknown, the overpowering weight eases—just a bit. You pull in a breath of your own desire. It feels fresh, so you get another. Then you get a glimpse of sunlight through the murkiness that has been encompassing you, and you fling and flail until your mind clears. Clears enough to decide that maybe life is not so bad, really. Maybe you can go on, for a while. The water of hopelessness drains away like an outgoing tide, and you are left on the beach of normalcy, dripping but still breathing in, living. The wave is finally over. You have survived, yet again, as you have countless times throughout your life. 

You wish these down times would not happen, that you were normal, that the pills would actually work even though they haven’t all these years. Still, you are a survivor, of yourself, a perplexing enemy that can’t be vanquished or overcome—only endured temporarily. So the battle continues on, a constant facet of your life. The infatigable enemy within, the parasitic twin that resides somewhere in your mind that rises occasionally to demand your attention—to dominate your life—and can’t be amputated or lasered away because it is an integral part of you. This tragic behemoth rolls up in a tidal fashion to crash over you at times of its own choosing, randomly but regularly, without reason or justification, it just appears. It breaks as a wave on the horizon and comes cresting toward you when life is sunny on the beach. You watch, powerless to stop it. You can’t run because, of course, it is willing from inside you. So you sit with a quivering lip and monitor with morbid fascination as it grows and nears and swells and…

And crashed onto you yet again. 

As the emptiness arrives, the thoughts of ending it all come again, relentless as ever, as the waves that are infinite. You force a pragmatic assessment into the gooey emotional quagmire that is your depressed self, and here you reason that if only life would end, the suffering would be no more. Drastic prognosis. Unreasonable reason. A solution that is not proper, not even to be considered. Yet the voice of despair keeps up its morbid chanting as the sloshing of its waves echoes in your ears. Your energy has vanished; there is nothing left to fight the relentless foe. You curse yourself for even considering the aforementioned unmentionable, although as you do, the impulse persists. The only relief is the answer that offends your mind when it is normal. When the waves roll over you, you become devoid of any hope, vacated of normalcy, so the pragmatic reasoning becomes warped: you do consider the final solution. You are compelled by the unending pain of unreason, that is not real but certainly is real because you feel it deeply and continually whenever the waves arrive to overcome you. A feeling is only a feeling, no matter how strong and overwhelming and uncontrollable and undismissable, so why can’t it be eliminated? Why can’t life just be a sunny day on a beach? 

Reality offers its answer in the voice of a seashell; the crying murmur of the end.

• • •

Art by Michael Bankhert


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