Solitary: A Sentence Worse Than Death

Or, why I now find myself an even stronger supporter of the death penalty:

There is always the misery. If you manage to escape it yourself for a time, there will ever be plenty around in others for you to sense; and though you’ll be unable to look into their eyes and see it, you might hear it in the nighttime when tough guys cry not-so-tough tears that are forced out of them by the unrelenting stress and strain that life in SHU is an exercise in.

I’ve read of the studies done regarding the effects of long-term isolation in solitary confinement on inmates, seen how researchers say it can ruin a man’s mind, and I’ve watched with my own eyes the slow descent of sane men into madness—sometimes not so slow. What I’ve never seen the experts write about, though, is what year after year of abject isolation can do to that immaterial part in our middle where hopes survive or die and the spirit resides. So please allow me to speak to you of what I’ve seen and felt during some of the harder times of my twenty-five-year SHU odyssey.

I’ve experienced times so difficult and felt boredom and loneliness to such a degree that it seemed to be a physical thing inside so thick it felt like it was choking me, trying to squeeze the sanity from my mind, the spirit from my soul, and the life from my body. I’ve seen and felt hope becoming like a foggy ephemeral thing, hard to get ahold of, even harder to keep ahold of as the years and then decades disappeared while I stayed trapped in the emptiness of the SHU world. I’ve seen minds slipping down the slope of sanity, descending into insanity, and I’ve been terrified that I would end up like the guys around me that have cracked and become nuts. It’s a sad thing to watch a human being go insane before your eyes because he can’t handle the pressure that the box exerts on the mind, but it is sadder still to see the spirit shaken from a soul. And it is more disastrous. Sometimes the prison guards find them hanging and blue; sometimes their necks get broken when they jump from their bed, the sheet tied around the neck that’s also wrapped around the grate covering the light in the ceiling snapping taut with a pop. I’ve seen the spirit leaving men in SHU and have witnessed the results.

Had this exchange with a friend on Facebook and thought it was relevant:

Her:

I just wanna say I think it’s important to note that the death penalty and solitary confinement can’t really be compared in the same way. You get sentenced to the death penalty in a courtroom, you are given solitary confinement when you have already been given your prison sentence and have violated a rule while in prison. Therefore, it’s not just the most violent hardened individuals who end up in the SHU, it can be any inmate. But both systems are abused by law enforcement and both have irreversible effects.

Me:

They’re comparable in that both are a punishment. Ideally, prison would be a place where criminals would go to reform, to find a new place for themselves when they return to society. The death penalty is a punishment – once it’s done, you’re done. The same can be said for solitary over a life sentence – you have no more connection to humanity for the rest of your life.

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