Legalized Torture: A Solitary Confinement Experience

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As a young African-American, it is not anomalous to hear your professor or guest speaker tell you that more likely than not, you are going to end up imprisoned and disenfranchised at some point in your life — if not for the rest of your life. This is a future I would not wish upon anyone.

Unfortunately, the educators are not misinformed. And of those persons imprisoned, between 80,000 and 100,000 U.S. inmates were placed in some form of solitary confinement in 2014.

Georgia State University Associate Professor of Political Science Toby Bolsen, Ph.D., led some students in constructing a replica of a cell from the Richard Ross Studio in Santa Barbara, California. I volunteered as tribute to stay in it for a 24-hour solitary confinement observational study. At 8 p.m., on Tuesday, April 12, I was confined within the four plywood walls fashioned into an 8 by 8 hotbox.

After just 24 hours, I testify that solitary confinement is hell on earth. Solitary confinement is legalized torture. Solitary confinement is mental rape.

When I arrived at the replicated segregation unit in GSU’s Arts & Humanities building, I was under the impression that 24 hours would pass with ease. I vowed that my mental stability would be enough to preserve my well-being throughout. To my surprise, as I entered the cell, I immediately felt the psychological impact of feeling so big and monstrous in such a small confined space. The concentration of the light and the cyclic repetition of blocks constructing the walls hurtled me into a most sensitive level of vulnerability. From my sense of sound to my grumbling hunger, everything was intensified.

I believe that solitary housing units are designed to drive people insane. While confined, it felt as though I had no control of my thoughts, and the thoughts I did have were either irrational or memories of negative situations. Just as people reference their happy place to find peace of mind, for me, solitary confinement worked in the same way — but opposite: The setting inflicted a hellish thought process and mindset.

[Related: Youth Workers Need to Be Alert to Juveniles Placed in Solitary]

From the first hour to the last, my emotions transitioned from anxiety to sorrow, depression, irritation, anger and confusion, and finally to rage — until the point I was unexpectedly able to fall asleep.

The anger originated from a multitude of places: I felt fiercely mad when fathoming the legality of solitary confinement. I felt confused when attempting to understand who holds the justice system accountable in obeying the law. I felt outraged toward this legalized torture, by definition cruel and unusual punishment that people irreversibly suffer across the country. I felt empathy when thinking about the inmates currently confined.

I wanted to scream, cry and shout at the top of my lungs. The number of laps I took around that cell felt as though I had walked the distance from Georgia to California. Frankly, after counting the blocks constructing my cell a hundred times, I wanted to bang on the walls until they fell down.

Once I was able to return home, eat a meal of my choice and shower, I was able to maintain my sanity. My disapproval of solitary confinement remains unchanged. I participated in this observational study to bring attention to the practice of solitary confinement.

I am sympathetic toward the inmates incarcerated across our country who are victimized by this practice, and I pray that in my own legal career I will be able to make a difference to keep the next human being who made a mistake, as we all have, from such torment.

Anyssa Williams is a full-time student at Georgia State University, graduating in December with a bachelor’s degree concentrated in law and society.

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  • Zoe Wyse

    Thank you for this incredibly powerful article. I know you will do amazing things to help those who need someone to advocate on their behalf. A career in law is an incredible way to make a difference and I wish you the very best in your career.

    I agree with you that putting people in conditions of social isolation is incredibly destructive. I do not believe that many correctional officers or administrators have realized or thought about how harmful this practice is for so many. It is encouraging that many people in society, including correctional officers and administrators are now recognizing the problem and are working passionately to change.

    This practice is unbelievably destructive. It should be considered a form of torture. However, I truly do not believe that this is the intent of the vast majority of the people who have placed people in social isolation. Being willing to recognize that they may have unwittingly caused great harm to others and being willing to change shows great integrity and moral courage. It is much easier to just act like nothing has gone wrong and to continue to not see the problem. I have so much respect for the actions that correctional institutions are making towards implementing humane changes.

    I also believe that the harm that has been done to many is incalculable. People like Mr. Kalief Browder have died, likely largely as a result of what they suffered. This is no one person’s fault. It is no one group of correctional officers’ fault no matter what particular actions they did. This is not about blame. It is about changing behavior that is incredibly destructive.

    But his death, and the deaths and mental deterioration of so many others are tragedies. They could very likely have been prevented. We need to recognize what the stakes are here. This is a very much a life and death issue for some people.

    This practice needs to change. As a society we also need to offer people a real apology. No one institution, group of correctional officers, or particular correctional officer is to blame here. This is not about blame. The vast majority of people have done their very best. People can work hard and try to be compassionate and still inflict real harm.

    There are also likely correctional officers who have truly changed the lives of people living in prisons for the better. Some may have been role models and sources of hope and understanding for people in distress. Some may have placed people in isolation, but also have been sources of great compassion in other situations.

    I have a great deal of respect for correctional officers and their efforts. I believe the vast majority want to help create safe communities. Even when people make mistakes and harm others, that does not mean they are “bad” people. No one is perfect and we all just need to try our best to be of service to others and work for peace and safety each day. No matter what any particular correctional officer has done, if they are willing to try again and work for peace and understanding, they can be a wonderful source of hope and compassion for others. It is what we do with each new day that is most important. The past is behind us.

    Apologizing and changing does not mean that any of us are bad people or that we have not done the best we could. It recognizes that we are all good people who are trying and we have made mistakes. None of us want to torture other people or cause them grievous harm. If people do these things by accident, they can recognize that and recognize that this practice is just not us as a community.

    If people do things on purpose to hurt others, they can work through their issues and work on caring about themselves and valuing themselves more. When we care about ourselves and sincerely value ourselves, we are not moved to harm other people. People in prison who struggle with wanting to harm other people can in many cases use a similar approach. People who sincerely feel good about themselves overall are not moved to harm others. We can all work on making humane changes so that we can better about ourselves and live in peace. It is wonderful that so much of this is already happening or in progress.

    Thank you again so much for writing this beautiful piece about a practice that has caused so much harm to so many. I hope you will continue to speak up for those who are mistreated throughout your career and that you will be a voice of hope and protection for those who need it.

    • Tanvi Mongia

      I agree. When I started becoming more aware of the problem with solitary confinement it hurt me to my core. More than other social issue because this is definite human torture. Reading accounts of people from solitary makes you realize that it doesn’t matter what crime you commited, it doesn’t mean you are subject to eternal misery. Immediately I thought. What can I do? Each second and each minute and each day that another person spends in solitary is torture especially to those who are mentally ill. I think civilians, even those who are far from being incarcerated, should recognize this as the worst human rights violation that happens on American soil. It’s not just education, food, or abortion. It is your soul, your human spirt, your very will to be alive and we should not take that away from anyone.

  • Abelli

    Reason why such sort of culture must be brought to Third World by war. Mind Abu-Ghuraib or other hidden prisons.
    “Treat people as if they were what they ought to be and you help them to become what they are capable of being.” ~ Johann Wolfgang Goethe

  • Tanvi Mongia

    I am whole heartedly in support of the strictly limited use of solitary confinement. Someone commiting a crime is not justification for torture to be implemented on them. That is just state sanctioned torture. We all make mistakes, some more than others but when the price people have to pay for their mistakes is torture to the highest extent then it absolutely needs to be abolished. Thank you for your work for supporting incarcerated individuals. The more I look into the prison system the more I realized how barbaric it is. And the prison guards are just as guilty as the prisoners.