Prison is far from pleasant, but things sink to an extra nasty level when prisoners are taken out of the yard and put into solitary confinement. Solitary confinement was originally a form of punishment practiced by Quakers and Calvinists who wanted to afford prisoners the quiet space to evaluate their actions, presumably while praying. Some religious sects, such as the Amish, still use forms of social isolation to punish offending members of their community, and it can wreck the psyche of those ostracized. Still, these practices don't hold a candle to the United States prison system, which takes solitary confinement to an inhumane level.
These days, solitary confinement goes by a more PC name - segregation - but it takes no less a toll on the prisoners unfortunate enough to be separated from the general population and subjected to total isolation for weeks, months, and even years. Various studies have shown that putting prisoners in SHU or other forms of isolation are not only incredibly damaging to the prisoner's psyche, but is also incredibly expensive and counterproductive to what prisons are supposed to be doing: rehabilitating prisoners to become functioning and contributing members of society.
You want to know what solitary is like? The best way to find out is to ask those prisoners who've been forced to live it firsthand.
In a 2013 essay, prisoner William Blake wrote about how much the sentencing judge wanted to "pump six buck’s worth of electricity into [his] body." According to New York State law, that was impossible - a fact the judge publicly denounced. For his part, Blake actually understands the judge’s ire; as a young man, the prisoner ended the life of one deputy and harming another during a failed escape attempt.
Blake was sentenced to 77 years in prison, 25 of which have been spent in solitary confinement, "a punishment," he writes, "that I am convinced beyond all doubt is far worse than any death sentence could possibly have been."
In addition to his 23-hour-a-day confinement to his cell, Blake explains that his "recreation" time is spent in a concrete yard by himself. While in his cell, he's allowed "ten books or magazines total, twenty pictures of the people you love, writing supplies, a bar of soap, toothbrush and toothpaste, one deodorant stick but no shampoo, and that's about it."
Thomas Bartlett Whitaker is a former death row inmate at the Polunksy Unit in Livingston, TX. Whitaker was convicted for hiring hitman Chris Brashear, who ended the lives of Whitaker's mother and brother in 2003. Whitaker was sentenced to death in March 2007, but on February 22, 2018 - 45 minutes before his scheduled execution - his sentence was commuted to life imprisonment without parole.
During his time in solitary confinement, he created a website, "Minutes Before Six," which refers to the hour at which executions take place in Texas. Whitaker and other inmates publish their writing on their prison experience on the site. In July 2016, Whitaker wrote about his experience in solitary confinement for Solitary Watch:
I was messed up when I came here, and in many ways I have far more self-control. But at the same time, I feel frayed, like I've been living in the face of this sandstorm for 11 years, and it's worn my soul down to a pathetic little nub. They don't really kill you when they give you a date. You are pretty much already dead by that point. The only ones that really bemoan their fates are the ones that were too dense to learn a lesson from this place. That's sort of the sad part. This place ruins people. Some it makes insane. Some, like me it forces to go so deep that they aren't ever able to crawl back out again. Some people get so hard that discipline simply can't ever imprint on them again.
Brian Nelson was only 17 when he entered the penal system. He was sentenced to 26 years for violent offenses. After bouncing around several prisons for a few years - including an escape from Stateville Correctional Center - he was transferred to Illinois's Tamms Correctional Center, a supermax facility that saw Nelson spend 23 years in segregation.
Nelson was released in 2010. These days, Nelson says that his time in solitary confinement is still with him even after all this time. In a 2012 interview, he told the ACLU: "I'm still in that box." In 2016, he told the Illinois House Committee during a review of the use of solitary confinement in the state's penal system, said: "Those four walls beat me down so bad." Nelson reportedly suffers chronic psychological and emotional trauma due to the extensive time spent in isolation.
Cesar Francisco Villa is a "gang-validated" prisoner incarcerated in Pelican Bay State Prison's Security Housing Unit (SHU), the only supermax state prison in California. Villa is not allowed to leave the SHU until he turns over information, but Villa claims he has no affiliation to the underground circuit, so he has remained in solitary confinement. During his time in SHU, Villa has developed arthritis in the spine, hepatitis, high blood pressure, and a thyroid condition.
In March 2013, Villa wrote an essay for California Prison Focus, and he outlines his chilling experience in solitary confinement. He admits that he went in determined and believed he could "beat" the experience. Since his confinement, Villa's attitude has shifted dramatically:
My sense of normalcy began to wane after just 3 years of confinement. Now I was asking myself, can I do this? Not sure about anything anymore.
Though I didn't realize it at the time - looking back now - the unraveling must've begun then. My psyche had changed. I would never be the same. The ability to hold a single good thought left me, as easily as if it was a simple shift of wind sifting over tired, battered bones.
There's a definite split in personality when good turns to evil. The darkness that looms above is thick, heavy and suffocating. A snap so sharp, the echo is deafening. A sound so loud you expect to find blood leaking from your ears at the bleakest moment.