Life in the hole: Solitary confinement is a cauldron meant to destroy

Solitary confinement.

The hole. 

Administrative segregation. 

The box. 

The names are numerous, and the experience is known to be harrowing. Over the past few years, the horrors of solitary confinement have entered the public’s consciousness. A prisoner-led hunger strike that changed policies at Pelican Bay was nationally reported. 

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The Yale Law School’s Liman Program and the Association of State Correctional Administrators released a report numbering those in administrative segregation as exceeding 100,000.

 

And GQ has recently published a lengthy article by Nathaniel Penn using the words of men who have experienced the hole to chronicle its horror’s. 

The point: the story has been told and is being told.

And yet, there has still not been enough work to guarantee that the tragedy that Kalief Browder and his family experienced is avoided.

Browder was incarcerated at 16 in New York City, forced to experience the bleakness of a solitary cell, tortured with seeming impunity. 

The damage of his time in the box at Rikers haunted him, as if there was a part of himself that was left behind. When we first heard about Kalief, we recognized it all: being tried as an adult, being sent to the hole, being expected to shoulder the remarkable weight of all that loneliness.

This is a story that we know, intimately.

Nearly 20 years ago, at the ages of 15 and 16, the two of us (Dwayne and Marcus) entered the Fairfax County jail. Luck of the draw had Marcus there first, by weeks. He was given the spot in the juvenile wing. 

Fearing the two of us together, the jail’s administration moved Marcus to the hole and Dwayne went to another isolation cell. Marcus stayed in the hole for a couple of months prior to his sentencing. Dwayne also lived in a cell with no windows and ten-foot ceilings. We slept on a cold slab of concrete, without a mattress, a blanket, or a pillow.

One afternoon, an empty laundry bag tied around the gridiron cell door served as a punching bag for Dwayne.

A guard came back and asked him, “Are you asking for a padded cell.” The bag, hanging that way, suggested a suicide attempt. 

Years later, again in the hole, he’d attempt to push his fist through a brick wall. Years after that, he would listen to a man having the kind of mental breakdown that the hole courts — the screaming and the incoherence, the brokenness.

Everyone who does a bid knows the hole. Marcus is no different, even spending time in solitary for something as little as an argument over a cookie. 

The hole became a rite of passage. A cauldron meant to destroy. And of course, the loneliness that seeps into your bones does not leave — regardless of what follows. Like us, Kalief Browder is not alone.

Between us, we know hundreds who have been trapped in cells without knowing when they will be released to general population.

Two decades after our first stints in the hole and a decade after our releases from prison, we both remember counting the markings on the wall. 

The smell. 

The flickering lights.

Marcus continues to talk about the discomfort that he still feels whenever he is in a small room by himself. In prison, we learned to believe that being broken by what a cell does to your mind made you weak. 

What else could we think, with no one to turn to for help or support?

Freedom, what we have made of it despite the memories of prison, reminds us of what we left in those prison cells.

We write to support the voices of men, women, and children who have been in the hole; we write for those whose voices have been stolen by long stretches in the box, by silence, by death. 

That there are better ways to ensure institutional safety is undeniable. For example, Colorado dramatically reduced its reliance on solitary confinement while removing all prisoners with mental illnesses from the hole.

We recognize the struggle. 

First, we must increase awareness. 

Then, we must encourage action. 

Our hope is simple: that when people walk away from these words, from watching the documentary on solitary confinement at Red Onion State Prison, from watching “TIME: The Kalief Browder Story,” they will support the Stop Solitary for Kids campaign and help end this wretched practice.

Marcus Bullock, is on the board of directors of the Justice Policy Institute and is the chief executive officer and founder of FlickShop, which helps inmates to stay in touch with families and friends. Dwayne Betts, is a poet, memoirist, and teacher and a 2010 Soros Justice Fellow. He is the author of “Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison.”


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