William Blake on Solitary Confinement: “A Fate Worse than Death”

William Blake has been held in solitary confinement for almost 26 years. Currently he is in administrative segregation at Elmira Correctional Facility, a maximum security facility located in south central New York State. In 1987, Blake, then 23 and in county court on a drug charge, murdered one deputy and wounded another in a failed escape attempt. Sentenced to 77 years to life, Blake has no chance of ever leaving prison alive, and almost no chance of ever leaving solitary—-a fate he considers  “a sentence worse than death.” In this gripping essay, he describes his experience of solitary isolation and spending time in the Special Housing Unit (SHU):

I’ve experienced times so difficult and felt broken and loneliness to such a degree that it seemed to be a physical thing inside so thick it felt like it was choking me, trying to squeeze the sanity from my mind, the spirit from my soul, and the life from my body. I’ve seen and felt hope becoming like a foggy ephemeral thing, hard to get ahold of, even harder to keep ahold of as the years and then decades disappeared while I stayed trapped in the emptiness of the SHU world. I’ve seen minds slipping down the slope of sanity, descending into insanity, and I’ve been terrified that I would end up like the guys around me that have cracked and become nuts. It’s a sad thing to watch a human being go insane before your eyes because he can’t handle the pressure that the box exerts on the mind, but it is sadder still to see the spirit shaken from a soul. And it is more disastrous. Sometimes the prison guards find them hanging and blue; sometimes their necks get broken when they jump from their bed, the sheet tied around the neck that’s also wrapped around the grate covering the light in the ceiling snapping taut with a pop. I’ve seen the spirit leaving men in SHU and have witnessed the results.

The box is a place like no other place on planet Earth. It’s a place where men full of rage can stand at their cell gates fulminating on their neighbor or neighbors, yelling and screaming and speaking some of the filthiest words that could ever come from a human mouth, do it for hours on end, and despite it all never suffer the loss of a single tooth, never get his head knocked clean off his shoulders. You will never hear words more despicable or see mouth wars more insane than what occurs all the time in SHU, not anywhere else in the world, because there would be serious violence before any person could peak so much foulness for so long. In the box the heavy steel bars allow mouths to run with impunity when they could not otherwise do so, while the ambient is one that is sorely conducive to an exceedingly hot sort of anger that seems to press the lips on to ridiculous extremes. Day and night I have been awakened to the sound of the rage being loosed loudly on SHU gates, and I’d be a liar if I said I haven’t at times been one of the madmen doing the yelling.

Powerful narrative about solitary confinement being worse than death.

An Investigative Look into Solitary Confinement

The mission of the Dart Society is to connect and support journalists worldwide who advance the compassionate and ethical coverage of trauma, conflict and social injustice. In the latest issue, Susan Greene goes in depth reporting on solitary confinement in this country. The investigative piece paints a grim view of solitary confinement. It is difficult for the prisoners, but the reporting was a challenge as well:

Covering solitary is an exercise in inaccessibility.

Reporters’ visits and phone calls are out of the question.

State and county prisoners usually can be glimpsed only by their mug shots. The federal system makes no photos available of the people it locks up or the spaces they inhabit.

Family members can pass along information – if a prisoner chooses not to shield them from what isolation is really like.

“My philosophy is, I don’t care if you have a knife stuck in your back, you tell your mom that you’re okay,” Sorrentino writes. “Seeing how they looked at me on visits, handcuffed, shackled, chained to the floor and behind glass, killed me inside.”

Prison officials don’t help much with transparency or public accountability. They cite pending lawsuits and security risks for refusing to be interviewed. They have scoffed when I’ve asked if they’d consider passing a disposable camera or hand-held recorder to a man who hasn’t been seen or heard from in years. (“What do you think we are — bellhops at the Hyatt Regency?”) Officers are dispatched to berate journalists, even off grounds, for aiming lenses toward their prisons.

And a brief history of solitary confinement:

Solitary confinement was largely unused for about a century until October 1983 when, in separate incidents, inmates killed two guards in one day at the U.S. Penitentiary in Marion, Ill., which had replaced Alcatraz as home to the most dangerous federal convicts. The prison went into lockdown for the next 23 years, setting the model for dozens of state and federal supermaxes – prisons designed specifically for mass isolation — that since have been built in the name of officer safety. “Never again,” promised Reagan-era shock doctrinarians who set out at great cost to crack down on prison violence.

Administered by corrections officials, not judges, solitary confinement is a punishment beyond incarceration, removing prisoners not only from the rest of society, but also from each other and staff. It’s now practiced routinely in federal penitentiaries, state prisons and local jails under a number of bureaucratic labels: “lockdown,” “protective custody,” “strip cells,” “control units,” “security housing units,” “special management units” and “administrative segregation.” Federal justice officials say the different classifications prevent them from keeping track of how many people are being isolated. What is acknowledged even in official records is that the vast majority are men and that rates of pre-existing mental illness exceed the higher-than-average levels in general prison populations.

I loved this excerpt of how one prisoner, Jack Powers, spent his time writing to pass the time:

“I miss being around people. I miss being able to run on the track or walk on grass or feel the sun on my face…One time I kept a single green leaf alive for a few weeks. And one time I had grasshopper for a pet. And one time I made a dwarf tree out of yarn from a green winter hat, paper and dried tea bags. I made a guitar out of milk cartons, and it played quite well. I invented a perfect family – mom, dad and sister – so that we could interact and love one another. One time I wanted to take a bath, so I got into a garbage bag and put water in it and sat there. For a while I made vases out of toilet paper and soap and ink from a pen. I have done a thousand and one things to replicate ordinary life, but these too are now gone.”

Overall, a must-read piece.