Voices from Solitary: I Need to Be Alone

by | November 7, 2023

Tony D. Vick has served 28 years in prison on a double life-with-parole sentence in Tennessee. During that time, he was in solitary confinement on and off for three years. A prolific writer, Vick has been published in magazines such as Filter and Truthout. Hopeful of the current prison reform movement, he writes about the realities of captivity in order to shorten the distance between those inside and outside of prison walls. In his most recent book, Locked In and Locked Out: Tweets and Stories on Prison and the Effects of Confinement, Vick sheds light on how confinement affects a person’s ability to be successful while incarcerated. He has also begun book clubs, writing workshops, and prisoner-led elder care programs. Follow Tony Vick on Twitter: @cellsecrets. —Kilhah St. Fort

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I need to be alone,

Please don’t leave me…

With nearly three decades of incarceration under my belt, I’ve experienced long periods of solitary confinement as well as times of general population living. Solitude and community is not an either/or for sustaining emotional and physical happiness. In prison where both are experienced in the extremes, I find myself longing for one, then the other, sometimes within the same day.

In the cold, clammy chamber of solitary confinement, I feel isolated from life. I welcome a roach crawling across the floor and pray that it too doesn’t desert me. But in the chaotic violence of the general population prison yard, where all angles lurk danger and prevailing predators, I pray for the moment when I can breathe again, be safe again, back in my isolated cell.

In solitary, I read the graffiti scratched into the concrete walls. Words written by great poets before me. A few words scratched with fingernails or etched with blood can reveal the urgency and desperation of the writer. “K-Dog was here,” are letters pressed into the wall as evidence of life, and where blood, sweat, and tears are shed. And the words, “Fuck Prison,” yell out like a harmonious hymn echoed by all inhabitants of this hallowed space.

In community space, the smiles and words from friendly folk are received like answered prayers being kissed on my ears and eyes and remind me that I’m part of humanity. But not all folk are friendly. PTSD from past memories of stabbings and blood spatter remind me that violence is constantly possible and even probable. I have dreams of homemade shanks being thrashed into the flesh of close bystanders and their frightened expressions and screams for help.

I often go back to my cell from the yard and inspect my clothes, searching for blood spots from victims and wonder what they felt, were they still alive, and when will it be my time to see my blood flow from a puncture wound? Will the audience of on-lookers fade into the shadows with heads down and mouths shut as prison culture demands?

The Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer warned us about the risk of choosing only solitude or community in his classic, Life Together: “Let [the person] who cannot be alone beware of community. Let the [person] who is not in community beware of being alone.” When I am experiencing one, I often long for the other. It would be almost impossible for me to reflect and make sense of the chaotic culture of community, if I didn’t have time in serious contemplation found in solitude. In solitude, I discover a meaning of life that I’ve never considered, creating a space for self-reflection, a time to sort it all out.

The moments I find myself void of other humans and left alone to my own imagination is the time to remember the joy people bring to my life, the stuff that makes life worth living. Hearing old man Jack tell one of his wild stories about catching a catfish as long as his leg, in his deep baritone voice, and his bright blue eyes sparkling with enthusiasm, are moments that can only be experienced in person with Jack. Those memories can sustain me for days and days in solitary.

Having my friend Ryan take my hands and pray with me when my mother died, spread my heavy burden between two people, creating a larger force better equipped to carry such sorrow. That comfort finds me in the depths of despair after days in solitary, when a hand to hold is all I crave. These thirty years of captivity have taught me how to settle into my space, to find the center, and to fully experience the moment. To constantly be in longing for “the other” is torture to my soul and cannot be sustained. I must be willing to surrender to the call, pack my small bag of things, and travel to the space to dwell. It’s a peace that I have found and it has changed my life from merely existing to actually living and experiencing.

I find my own words scratched into the wall in Solitary 203, “Tony was here,” reminding me that I am human, I’m alive, and to settle into my space for a spell.


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