Caged Beasts: The Insanity of Solitary Confinement

By Charles Patrick Norman

I accompanied my grandparents on a visit to the Houston Zoo when I was twelve years old. There I saw for the first time insanity brought on by long-term isolation, sensory deprivation, and solitary confinement. Little did I know that it would not be the last, or that I would have personal experience with the solitary confinement.

Reflecting on that time, the memories are clear. What insight I’ve gleaned pertains to how easy it was for me to realize that the eyes that stared from that cage were so obviously insane. It’s like the judge said about obscenity—you know it when you see it. If a twelve-year old can see it, why can’t responsible adults? Perhaps they don’t want to.

The huge gorilla sat on the floor of a small room—three bare walls fronted by a clear thick glass pane comprising the front wall. Besides a car tire and the gorilla, a male, the box was empty. The box—that’s what it was—a plain box with a viewing window for the parade of humans gawking at the passive beast, a term that would take on added meaning to me in years to come, in prison. When you go to “the box,” that’s where they confine you—in a box. Like the gorilla, long-term confinement in a box, deprived of outside contact, sometimes results in insanity in humans, too.

I’d watched the original “King Kong” movie starring Fay Wray on “Creature Feature” TV show, but that didn’t prepare me for an up-close look at the real thing. Hands like mine—only on a much larger scale—clenched and unclenched. The gorilla sat splayed on the floor of his cage, leaning against the wall, face expressionless, seeing nothing. The eyes—brown, clear—stared out at space. I willed him to look at me. No change.

Let’s not argue about Darwin, the origin of the species, the descent of man, chromosomes or genetic mapping. Those who insist that they are superior beings unrelated to any other creature, including their black, white, or yellow-skinned neighbors, have never stared into the eyes of a chimpanzee, bonobo, orangutan, or gorilla from a few feet away. I have, many times, and I saw souls staring back. In the instance of the Houston Zoo gorilla, it was a lost soul. Insanity, obscenity—you know it when you see it.

How many years had that gorilla sat in that bare cage, I wondered, and how many years would his solitary confinement drag on? I never found out. We did not return. My grandmother took me by my arm, snapping me out of my reverie, onward to the baboons. I could not get the madness I saw in that gorilla’s eyes out of my mind, though. I still see him.

Some years later, in my first glimpse of personal incarceration, I sat on a bench in the Reidsville, Georgia, jail, waiting for an airplane ride to Florida. An elderly deputy brought in a man in a convict-striped uniform, who sat down next to me. I’ve never seen a whiter person, before or since. The man wasn’t “white” so much as he was translucent. It was like I could almost see through the man—ghostly-white skin, blue eyes, squinting in the light, pink, inflamed eyelids, scabby shaved head. I could see the blue veins in his hands, resting on his knees, and could almost imagine the corpuscles coursing toward his fingertips. Was this an albino, a mutant?

“What happened to you?” I asked.

He slowly turned his head and looked at me, as if realizing for the first time that someone else was sitting next to him. I saw his eyes, his expression, and immediately flashed back to the Houston Zoo. His eyes were not filled with the same level of insanity as the gorilla’s had been, but it was clear to me that something was definitely wrong with that picture, as they say.

He opened his mouth to speak, and I saw the brown, rotting, gapped teeth like so many pieces of bark stuck behind his lips. The rancid breath repelled me, and I leaned away from him. He didn’t appear to be much older than I was, early thirties, perhaps, but it was hard to tell. He had a cowed, browbeaten look, and it took a moment for him to form a response.

In stops and starts he told me that he was being released from prison that day, Georgia State Prison at Reidsville. I didn’t even know they had a prison there. Years later I learned that Burt Reynolds had filmed the original “The Longest Yard” movie at Reidsville, and heard many horror stories from fellow Florida prisoners who’d previously vacationed there. A human zoo.

I never learned his name. I didn’t ask, and he didn’t volunteer. He’d spent the past fifteen years in “the box,” solitary, and had not seen the sun until that day, when it blinded him. I wondered what he’d done to deserve such treatment. That’s often the first thought people have when meeting someone like him or me—what did you do? It must be his fault, right? He must have brought this onto himself. In my prison education I eventually learned that you don’t have to do anything, sometimes, to unleash the weight of God, the Devil, and the prison system onto yourself, like the falling buildings of the Haitian earthquake, burying people alive. Sometimes it takes years to be dug out of the rubble of imprisonment. Many never make it out alive at all. I still await my rescue.

In the half hour we shared the same bench I discovered that he’d left others behind at the state prison who’d been in lockup years longer than he had been. Where was he going? Back to his hometown. Did he have any people, family? No. They were either dead or gone. He’d not received a single letter the entire time. Visits were not allowed to those in solitary. What was he going to do? Where was he going to stay? He didn’t know. He expected someone would tell him when he got to where he was going. He would be on parole—screw up and come back.

The deputy brought a tee shirt, trousers, and a pair of cheap shoes for him to change into. They threw the convict stripes into the trash can. He still looked like a deathly-ill person when he’d changed into the “street clothes.” The deputy told him to come on, he had a bus to catch. As he shuffled out I wished him luck. He said nothing and didn’t look back.

Little did I know, that day, that the wheels of justice were already turning toward me, and I would be ground exceedingly fine during thirty-two years of continuous incarceration, for the record, for a murder I did not commit. Didn’t matter. And off and on during that time, I would experience varying lengths of solitary confinement, though never to the destructive ends of the Houston Zoo gorilla or the Reidsville ghost. I had the benefit of their experiences to draw on, and the determination to never allow “them”  to break me, to become less than human.

To this day solitary confinement is a “corrections tool” that is known by euphemisms like administrative or disciplinary segregation or “close management,” a.k.a. “C.M.,” in Florida. An ordinary person can get a good idea of what solitary confinement is like by walking the rows of cages at a local animal  shelter and observing the dogs held there, not only the living conditions, but also the behavior of the caged animal and how it has adapted to confined living.

There are more safeguards than there once were, but it’s only a matter of degree. Depending on the length of confinement and the conditions, some prisoners I’ve known have claimed to like C.M., a year or two in a one-man cell, their own TV, reading material, no hassles from predatory prisoners in open population. Within the past year, I knew a prisoner who planted a knife on himself, under his mattress, then told on himself, guaranteeing a few years in solitary, since he’d been there before. He was caught up in homosexual intrigue and just wanted to get away from it all for awhile. He got his wish. He’ll be numbed out on psychotropic medications, will sleep for most of each twenty-four hour day, will have his trays of food brought to him, will become progressively more mentally disturbed until he dies. With a mandatory life sentence, he has no hope for release. Such despair would seem to be unbearable. Sadly, it is a common story.