All I notice is the crack in the wall, where the soft blue paint chips ever so slightly. I stand in the cell, counting the seconds in my head until it is over and I can open the door back to normalcy. A tape of sounds one is likely to hear in prison — people banging on doors, yelling — plays on repeat. It has only been five minutes. I don’t know what to do. On the left side of the cell, I notice a toilet, and a small worn out bench. I wonder, how could someone live here for years, cut off entirely from the outside world?
“Solitary confinement is just something that no one should have to endure,” said Keishar Tucker, a survivor of solitary confinement who was placed in a box at the age of 17. According to the United Nations’ Juan Mendez, Special Rapporteur on Torture, holding a person in solitary confinement for more than 15 days constitutes torture. Still, around 80,000 people in the United States are being held in solitary confinement on any given day. Time spent in solitary confinement can range from a few weeks to several years.
“Inside the Box,” an interactive project that ran from Jan. 30 to Feb. 18, allowed members of the Yale and New Haven communities to visit replica confinement cells at the New Haven Free Public Library, Sterling Memorial Library and Law School Library. The product of collaboration between Yale Law School, ACLU Connecticut and several other local activist groups, “Inside the Box” aimed to raise awareness of the torture of solitary confinement and advocate for legislative change.
The project launched with a press conference featuring Mayor Toni Harp, William Ginsberg of the Community Foundation of Greater New Haven, solitary survivor Keishar Tucker, Steve Lance and Sameer Jaywant of the Yale Law School, and Connecticut Senator Gary Winfield. Each discussed the implications of “Inside the Box,” especially at a moment in history when national legislation is targeting people on the margins of society.
“We are called upon to consider how we’re going to treat one another, what the standards of this nation are going to be going forward, and how history will remember this suddenly critical period in time,” Mayor Toni Harp said. Senator Winfield pointed to “Inside the Box”’s power to force people to empathize with experiences they cannot truly understand. He hopes that people will come to see that solitary confinement is a humanitarian issue more than it is a question of policy or punishment. “People use conditionals, saying ‘if that person hadn’t committed a crime, then he or she wouldn’t be in solitary.’ But my humanity is not a conditional,” Winfield said.
Winfield explained that prisons are designed in a way that damages the prisoner psychologically. The colors and slant of the floors are carefully thought-out details that the prison designer uses to mentally break the prisoner. Even the configuration of solitary confinement cells in prison contributes to the reduction of a prisoner’s humanity. There are about 42 cells laid out diagonally, one after another, and around 100 people per floor, sometimes with six or seven floors. In solitary confinement, people spend 23 hours of the day on weekdays and 48 hours straight on weekends in one of these tiny cells ranging in size from 45 to 128 square feet. The average sentence for those in solitary is 19.5 months, which would mean about 13,500 hours spent in a space that resembles a box. In a corner, there might be a toilet, a bunk bed, a swivel chair and a side door “that lets you into another cage,” — another cell — said Five Mualimm-Ak, a speaker at a Yale Law School anti-solitary advocacy panel who spent five years in solitary confinement in New York. There are children and people over the age of 60 in solitary, and even children, and according to Mualimm-Ak, “These are the categories of people that exasperate faster.”
In the cell, prisoners have nothing other than two pairs of underwear, socks, t-shirts, and maybe reading material. Mualimm-Ak said that meals were meager and unappetizing — the bare minimum to survive. Many prisons across the United States serve Nutraloaf — otherwise known as “disciplinary loaf,” consisting of tomato paste, beans, and potato flakes — to punish prisoners who have misbehaved. In New York, a new solitary confinement policy prohibits cruel and unusual food like Nutraloaf in prisons.
The conditions are brutally inhumane, and purposefully so. Solitary confinement is characterized by immense sensory deprivation. In the cell, one is overcome with crippling blindness and nothingness, Mualimm-Ak explained. “Suddenly, the crack in the wall becomes so fascinating; you start to have a conversation with it, and maybe, one day, you think it’s Tarzan.”
However, Mualimm-Ak said that this sheer isolation of a human being and the subsequent destruction of a person’s humanity were the worst parts of solitary. The lack of contact with other people leads the mind to deteriorate quickly, Mualimm-Ak explained, and the psychological damage that living in a cell causes is irreversible and lasting. “I still suffer from anxiety attacks,” Tucker admitted at the “Inside the Box” press conference.
Every person needs human validation, and, in solitary confinement, people do not even receive validation of their existence. They are trained not to interact with other prisoners — they do not make eye contact or carry on conversations. In the external world, Mualimm-Ak noted, if you bump into someone on the streets, they at least say “sorry” and keep walking, and you know that you are there, that you exist. In solitary, you start to ask yourself, “Am I invisible?”
The momentary exchange of food through the food slot and the sound of a cart slamming against the wall might be the only signals of others’ existence — and of your own.
One day in the cell, Mualimm-Ak wanted to talk to someone else so badly that he considered self harm. Maybe, he thought, if I cut my hand, the guard will see that I’m bleeding, and he will get me medical attention. “You never really know why people do the things they do,” he said.
Because of this, Mualimm-Ak said that the term “survivor of solitary confinement” is inherently wrong. “It is not a question of survival,” he said, “it’s how much have you deteriorated, because nobody survives.”
Despite the bleak reality of solitary confinement, many organizations in Connecticut are working to better the situation. “Torture is always wrong,” William Ginsberg of the Community Foundation of Greater New Haven, said. “We need to work towards being the welcoming community that we aspire to be with populations that are on the margins.”
The problem, Winfield points out, seems to be that most people don’t relate to this issue. They don’t see how it directly affects their lives. Although people who have not been inside the box cannot completely understand the experience, Winfield explained, everyone should try to empathize with the issue. Further, there is a financial consideration; people pay taxes — to the tune of $75,000 per inmate in maximum security prisons — to maintain solitary confinement. The purpose of “Inside the Box” is to translate the emotional and monetary impact of solitary confinement to a wider group of people.
Patrick Sullivan, co-president of Yale Undergraduate Prison Project, which helped organize “Inside the Box,” recounted his experiences going to the Manson Correctional Facility each Friday to tutor students who are his age or younger. “We have conversations every week about going to the box, or, as it is sometimes called, SHU [special housing units]. People who are our age are isolated for weeks in a cage,” he said. “That’s just unfathomable to me. These are people who are very similar to you or me; we, as people who are able to speak and be heard, need to amplify their voices so that they can be heard outside the walls of Manson or Cheshire or Northern.”
The Yale Law School is currently working with ACLU Connecticut to bring the issue of solitary confinement to the forefront of state politics. Sameer Jaywant LAW ‘18, who spoke at the press conference for “Inside the Box,” explained that solitary confinement is nothing more than “the systematic stripping of a person’s dignity and humanity.”
ACLU Connecticut and the state’s Department of Correction Commissioner Scott Semple are drafting a bill to change the use of solitary confinement in Connecticut prisons. The bill should include a cap on the number of days people can be in solitary and limit the use of solitary for mentally ill prisoners or those with developmental disabilities. “We are using an opaque system, with a data-driven, results-oriented framework,” David McGuire, Executive Director of ACLU Connecticut, said. “When used judiciously, prisons are safer and have better outcomes.”
Still, Connecticut has more work to do to before the law can further limit the practice of solitary confinement. Senator Winfield confirmed that the ACLU’s solitary confinement bill surfaced at a recent meeting and will soon receive a hearing.
After Senator Winfield spent some time in the “Inside the Box” replica confinement cell, he remembers a number of colleagues in the state department asking him why he would choose to submit himself to that.
Perhaps the answer comes when one steps into the cell herself, and stands there for a while listening to the tape on repeat, trying to hear all the voices of those who cannot open the door.