The Dart Society, which supports journalism “covering trauma, conflict and human rights,” has published an essential new article and accompanying video on solitary confinement in U.S. prisons. The story, called “The Gray Box,” is by Susan Greene, who as a columnist at the Denver Post often wrote about the widespread use of solitary in Colorado’s prisons and at the federal supermax, ADX Florence.
This is one of the most comprehensive articles ever written about solitary confinement in the United States, and is particulary noteworthy for including the voices of prisoners, obtained through correspondence with those buried in isolation. It is also passionate and personal. The opening follows–but this piece needs to be read in full.
A few weeks ago, on the fifteenth anniversary of his first day in prison, Osiel Rodriguez set about cleaning the 87 square feet he inhabits at ADX, a federal mass isolation facility in Colorado.
“I got it in my head to destroy all my photographs,” he writes in a letter to me. “I spent some five hours ripping each one to pieces. No one was safe. I did not save one of my mother, father, sisters. Who are those people anyway?”
Such is the logic of the gray box, of sitting year after year in solitude.
Whether Rodriguez had psychological problems when he robbed a bank, burglarized a pawn shop and stole some guns at age 22, or whether mental illness set in during the eight years he has spent in seclusion since trying to walk out of a federal penitentiary in Florida – it’s academic. What’s true now is that he’s sick, literally, of being alone, as are scores of other prisoners in extreme isolation.
Among the misperceptions about solitary confinement is that it’s used only on the most violent inmates, and only for a few weeks or months. In fact, an estimated 80,000 Americans — many with no record of violence either inside or outside prison — are living in seclusion. They stay there for years, even decades. What this means, generally, is 23 hours a day in a cell the size of two queen-sized mattresses, with a single hour in an exercise cage, also alone. Some prisoners aren’t allowed visits or phone calls. Some have no TV or radio. Some never lay eyes on each other. And some go years without fresh air or sunlight.
Solitary is a place where the slightest details can mean the world. Things like whether you can see a patch of grass or only sky outside your window – if you’re lucky enough to have a window. Or whether the guy who occupies cells before you in rotation has a habit of smearing feces on the wall. Are the lights on 24/7? Is there a clock or calendar to mark time? If you scream, could anyone hear you?
In the warp of time and space where Rodriguez lives, the system not only has stripped him of any real human contact, but also made it unbearable to be reminded of a reality that has become all too unreal. It’s ripping him apart.
“Looking at photos of the free world caused me so much pain that I just couldn’t do it any more,” writes Rodriguez, 36. “Time and these conditions are breaking me down.”
This is what our prisons are doing to people in the name of safety. This is how deeply we’re burying them.