What I Learned from My Time in Solitary

By Phil Haslanger 1-21-2015
Phil Haslanger in the solitary confinement cell. Photo courtesy Phil Haslanger

I started this year in solitary confinement.

It’s not that I am regularly in prison or that I had behaved so badly. I was simply in a mock solitary cell located in the sanctuary of a church. I was only there for an hour. I knew I would be getting out.

But that hour did offer a glimpse into the world of how solitary confinement is used – and abused – in our nation’s prisons. And it offered a glimpse at the reform efforts that are gaining steam all across the country, including in my home state of Wisconsin.

When Kate Edwards, a Buddhist chaplain who has worked in the Wisconsin prison for the past five-and-half years, closed the door behind me, I was alone, but hardly in silence.

One of the dominant experiences is the noise, the unrelenting noise. Edwards had a tape playing from a Frontline documentary of sounds inside solitary confinement in Maine. The intensity varied, but the noise veered from inmates banging on doors and kicking walls to their screaming and howling. (You can hear it on this three-minute video.)

Edwards, who has spent a lot of time ministering to inmates in solitary confinement in Wisconsin prisons, said they tell her that the noise goes on around the clock – except for the 10 minutes after their food is served.

The sense of night and day disappears. The light in the cell is on all the time (although in some prisons, it can be dimmed to 60 percent). I thought I had figured out a way to outsmart the light overhead. If my head was at the far end of the bed, I would be looking right into the light. If I put my head closer to the door, I was looking away from the light.

That won’t work, Edwards told me after I was “released.” You have to keep your head at the far end where the guards can see you, she said. And you can’t pull the covers up over your head.

One of the first things I did was to try to get a sense of the cell. It was six steps in length, two steps across. Since I had lots of time, I paced it off forward — and then backward.

I tried to figure out how to pass the time. I could walk back and forth, and I did that a lot. I could lie on the bed and stare at the light. I could sit on the bed. I was allowed to bring in a Bible, two sheets of paper, and the refill for a pen. I read a passage from the Bible about the imprisonment of Paul — it seemed appropriate.

I thought maybe if the noise stopped, I could concentrate a bit more. And the noise did stop for a few minutes, so I started to read again. But I kept waiting for the banging and the shouts to resume and could not concentrate. It was easier to read in the midst of the clamor.

I began to think of the banging as a kind of prison percussion, looking for patterns in the rhythm – but, of course, they did not really exist. I counted the bricks on the wall – there were nine across. I paced, feeling like an animal in a cage at the zoo.

Now, keep in mind that I am not normally a belligerent person, and I am generally in good mental health. And I knew this was a very short-term stay. But it did not take long for the affects of solitary confinement to creep up on me. And my experience was pretty benign.

In reality, suicides and attempted suicides are part of the solitary experience. The sink and toilet are even advertised as “suicide proof.” People going into solitary with mental illness do not come out with any improvement and studies show the harmful effects of extended stays in solitary.

Rick Raemisch is the head of the prison system in Colorado, replacing a man named Tom Clements who was shot by an inmate who had just been released into the community after being held in solitary for a long time.

Raemisch’s roots are in Madison, Wis. – he was the sheriff for the Madison area and later headed the Department of Corrections in Wisconsin. He decided he should get a taste of the solitary experience, so he had himself locked for 20 hours in a real solitary cell in Colorado. He wrote about his experience and his commitment to reform segregation policies last February in The New York Times.

And here in Wisconsin, the current head of the prison system, Ed Wall, has written eloquently about the need to reform policies around solitary confinement – or “disciplinary segregation” as it is called here. In a memo he wrote last April, he said, “simply locking inmates up with little consideration for programming, corrective instruction or positive reinforcement may really just be helping to create a worse behavioral problem and habitual threat.” But how effective he will be in reforming those policies is still an open question.

The cell I was held in is part of an effort by faith groups and other prison reform advocates in Wisconsin to push the state to cut way back on the use of solitary confinement, both in terms of why prisoners are put there and how long they are kept there. (Here is a video about the cell and the use of solitary.) Roughly 4,000 prisoners a year spend some time in solitary in this state and, according to a 2013 study by the Association of State Correctional Administrators, 118 inmates in Wisconsin were kept there for more than two years.

That makes my hour in a fake cell seem like the blink of an eye. But it did help open my eyes to the overuse of solitary confinement and the need for all of us to keep our eyes on the need for change.

Phil Haslanger is pastor at Memorial United Church of Christ in Fitchburg, Wis.

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