Recently the PBS program "Frontline" aired an updated documentary about the overuse of solitary confinement in the United States prison system. You can watch the documentary here.
Having recently spent about two weeks locked in exactly the same kind of cage, and pondering a system in which even a moderate dissenting voice arguing for reconciliation instead of exile and slavery is not tolerated by a fearful, totalitarian regime, I watched the program with the definite sense that we as prisoners today are engaged in a struggle for our very humanity.
I did nothing violent or threatening to anyone, certainly nothing to justify being treated as dangerous. My infraction, rather, was perceived as a threat to the system itself, and so I was held in solitary confinement for almost two weeks and then banished to another penitentiary, away from the community I wrote about in a previous post.
In my two weeks in solitary confinement, I learned that a stripped-down, burned-out concrete box with a steel door and a toilet without toilet paper are all that are required to bring me to the point of kicking the door and screaming to get attention in desperate frustration. This type of outburst is a behavior I had witnessed before from the other side of the door as a minimum security inmate. I was comforted by the thought that I could never be brought that low. The brute fact is that had I not acted out this way, the man in the cell next to me and I would have remained soiled with our own feces. I had to throw a fit to receive toilet paper. Aside from shoving food through the double-locking pie flaps that eliminate human contact, the guards ignored our cells, as if they were empty. And I might have used my hand or shirt and held on to my dignity out of sheer stubbornness, but the man in the cell next to me was my best friend of 14 years, and I knew he would not act out that way. It was my fault he was there, and I could not bear the thought of him being reduced to having no toilet paper.
I tried every manner of normal, polite behavior, confident that the officers would respond in kind to someone making the effort to remain civilized in the midst of that hammering cacophony. But what I learned instead was that polite, normal requests almost never receive a response. Only those willing to act out in the most vile, inhuman, animalistic ways could even get the slightest attention from the staff for the things they needed or wanted.
Confined in that kennel, listening to the supernaturally loud noise of all the other animals competing for what they could only receive from the officer milling around and ignoring them outside in the dayroom, the bare facts of the situation reduced my humanity to a simple choice: kick and scream like an animal, or do without the necessities of civilized life. Either way felt like a a most bitter defeat.
I struggled over such choices the entire time I sat in that hole. Every moment I imagined all the people who know and love me - my family, friends, the good people that attend church services with me, both free and inmate, my spiritual mentors, my professors and allies in the community - and what they would think or feel if they could see me in this situation, squatting like an animal, held captive by my own body's functions in a concrete box that still bore marks on the walls where a previous inhabitant literally tried to destroy his confines with anything at hand. He went so far as to tear the metal out of the walls, set the place on fire, and covered the walls and ceiling with feces.
The literal function of these cages is to ignore and degrade the humanity of those placed within them. The authorities who claim solitary confinement is necessary, authorities that are even now preparing to christen the first "supermax" unit in Tennessee at Riverbend, these authorities contend that the cages are required for prisoners who display a lack of humanity, who are a danger to others and to the system itself. I, however, found that the use of the cage very quickly and effectively functioned to diminish my humanity.
The threat of this power now looms over me even as I write these words. I began writing for this blog with certain goals in mind, as set forth in the original post "Who We Are and What We Want." I affirm now my absolute dedication to the ideals expressed there. Recently my entire world has suffered apocalypse, but I will not return in anger. I know that some people celebrated a job well done when they destroyed my life and gutted a whole community, a community which is still under senseless attack. Some people have lived in the one-sided cartoon world of cops and robbers for a long time now. But I remain dedicated to the principles of reconciliation and live with hope for a better day precisely because, other than the humanity which they may one day take by force, hope and the bonds of love which cannot be broken by a tragically ignorant system defending itself are all I have left.