Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be stuck in solitary confinement? To be in a cell no wider than your wingspan with nothing but a bed and a toilet? Inmates reveal the brutal conditions of being alone for up to 23 hours a day, and the toll it takes on your psyche. Prisoner Talib Akbar did 10 stints in solitary, and said it did irreparable harm to his mental health.
"Nine times out of 10 you'd play with [an insect] because it was something to do. [...] [At one point] I thought the fly was dead… (then) he popped up, and I said, 'My friend!' I had a fly that was my friend [...] A frickin' fly."
Sarah Jo Pender was told she'd receive one year in solitary for attempting to escape, but wound up serving for five years. She wrote,
"Despite knowing that isolation can drive people insane, the mental health care here is woefully inadequate. Once a month, a mental health staff comes to ask us if we are hallucinating, hearing voices, or are suicidal. More frequent meetings can be requested, but they offer no coping skills, no therapy, no advocacy. The luckiest among us are prescribed anti-depressants to numb us from the hardest parts of being alone.
Acutely psychotic women who refuse medication are frequently locked in a cell where they bang and talk and argue with voices, scream about God and demons, and/or refuse to shower or eat for fear of being poisoned. This can go one for weeks until some invisible threshold is crossed and E-Squad officers dressed in full riot gear come in, hold her down, and a nurse injects her with an anti-psychotic medicine. This scene gets repeated every two weeks until she cooperates."
Chandra Bozelko spent a month in solitary and says that as if the conditions aren't bad enough, the guards add to the psychological torture.
"When I spent a month there in 2008 during my six-year sentence at York Correctional Institution, the staff thought it was funny to push the white, take-out style boxes that my meals came in off the tray slot before I could catch it, causing food to spill on the floor. And there was nobody to tell that I was starving.
Nobody could see the guards' behavior either. If you get abused in solitary, the only person to whom you can report the abuse is the abuser. Or the abuser's colleagues."
Robert King spent 29 years in solitary confinement, and says he's all but blind now as a result of it.
"It was in 1983, and I couldn’t see really six feet in front of me. What had happened was my eyes had become acclimated to smaller distances. The thought dawned on me, that being in a small cell like that, you could be impacted."
Cesar Francisco Villa was a "gang-validated" prisoner who thought he could "beat" solitary. But after over 11 years in isolation, he realized he was wrong, saying,
"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."
Solitary confinement is oftentimes isolating for family members of prisoners as well. Many prisons don't offer updates on the well-being of those segregated from the general population, and some outright refuse to respond to requests from loved ones.
Billy McCarthy, singer and songwriter of We Are Augustines last saw his brother James McCarthy before he went into solitary confinement. After five years living in isolation, James took his own life. We Are Augustines have songs reflecting the mindset of a family member dealing with the aftermath of this.
One inmate who'd been in solitary for over 10 years said he hadn't seen the sunlight in so long, it overwhelmed him.
"One time I was going to the hospital... and we were riding the ferry and the sun was coming up and it was the only one I'd seen in years. [...] I'm a pretty tough guy, but it brought tears to my eyes."
Chelsea Manning was thrown in solitary confinement in 2016 after attempting to take her own life. Mental health advocates decried this decision, saying isolation will only make issues worse. Sure enough, Manning quickly attempted suicide again in solitary. Her legal representation says she's been subjected to "demoralizing and destabilizing assaults on her health and her humanity."
Comparative psychologist Harry Harlow conducted the Monkey Love Experiments in 1970, which showed that when infant monkeys are put in isolation, they quickly become immobile and seem to lose hope. This shows how mammals are social creatures, and being alone for extended periods of time are physically and emotionally harmful to them. This experiment has been cited as a reason for better ethics in prisons, but mostly to no avail.
Andrea May Darlene Weiskircher suffered from mental illness before going to prison. But according to her, the three years spent being segregated from other humans made things much, much worse
"I'd beg the janitor who came over to clean to bring me coffee, and you're not allowed to have coffee in Seg. I fought with the guards all the time, and once I dumped my tray on one of them. I'm not normally like that, but being in there you feel like you don't have anything left to lose, so why try? It wasn't good for anybody that was inside. Nobody was ever happy.
Every time I went in front of the Ad Seg board they denied me. I went from having my whole life to having nothing, and I think I maybe just lost my mind a little bit. I started getting sadder and sadder. I actually ended up slitting my wrists inside of there."
Social psychologist Craig Haney has spent over two decades studying the psychological effects of social isolation in prisoners. He says they experience something he calls "social death," which is where they've been alone for so long that they are so emotionally withdrawn and lonely they no longer are capable of carrying on even basic conversations.
Anthony Graves, who was wrongly convicted and spent 12 years on death row said,
"I did not know it would mean 12 years of having my meals slid through a small slot in a steel door like an animal. I did not know it would mean 12 years alone in a cage the size of a parking spot, sleeping on concrete steel bunk and alone for 22 to 24 hours a day. All for a crime I did not commit. The injustice."
Former prisoner Joe Giarratano said that some prisons even inflict sense deprivation on inmates.
"I was told that I would cooperate or be broken. I was placed in a small cell, 8' x 10', at best, with low ceiling. There was no window. Bar door, and then a solid steel door that was closed to cut off any contact with others. Once locked in, with steel door closed, the overhead light was turned off. The cell became pitch black. I could not see my hand in front of my face, nor see the toilet/sink combo. I stayed like that for 10 days. Twice a day a bag meal would be tossed into the cell through a food hatch that would slam shut behind it. The mice had a field day."
According to researcher Peter Scharff, being sedentary in isolation for 23 hours a day can lead to "chronic headaches, heart palpitations, oversensitivity to light and noise stimuli, muscle pain, weight loss, digestive problems, dizziness and loss of appetite."
Thomas Bartlett Whitaker, a former death row inmate, wrote:
"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."
The judge who convicted William Blake wanted to give him the death penalty, but since it was in a state that abolished that punishment, he was sentenced to 77 years, 25 years of which must be spent in solitary. Blake wrote,
"I am convinced beyond all doubt [solitary confinement] is far worse than any death sentence could possibly have been."
Recreation time is spent by himself, and the only items he's allowed are "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."
According to Illinois Senator Dick Durban, "The United States holds more prisoners in solitary confinement than any other democratic nation in the world." But how much does that cost?
It costs three times as much to keep someone in isolation than it does general population, nearly $78,000 a year. There are nearly 80,000 inmates in solitary, and that adds up to nearly $6.4 billion dollars annually.