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Solitary Confinement

Solitary Confinement: Social Death and Its Afterlives

Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 368
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  • Book Info
    Solitary Confinement
    Book Description:

    Prolonged solitary confinement has become a widespread and standard practice in U.S. prisons-even though it consistently drives healthy prisoners insane, makes the mentally ill sicker, and, according to the testimony of prisoners, threatens to reduce life to a living death. In this profoundly important and original book, Lisa Guenther examines the death-in-life experience of solitary confinement in America from the early nineteenth century to today's supermax prisons. Documenting how solitary confinement undermines prisoners' sense of identity and their ability to understand the world, Guenther demonstrates the real effects of forcibly isolating a person for weeks, months, or years. Drawing on the testimony of prisoners and the work of philosophers and social activists from Edmund Husserl and Maurice Merleau-Ponty to Frantz Fanon and Angela Davis, the author defines solitary confinement as a kind of social death. It argues that isolation exposes the relational structure of being by showing what happens when that structure is abused-when prisoners are deprived of the concrete relations with others on which our existence as sense-making creatures depends. Solitary confinement is beyond a form of racial or political violence; it is an assault on being. A searing and unforgettable indictment, Solitary Confinement reveals what the devastation wrought by the torture of solitary confinement tells us about what it means to be human-and why humanity is so often destroyed when we separate prisoners from all other people.

    eISBN: 978-0-8166-8624-7
    Subjects: Law, Philosophy, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. INTRODUCTION A Critical Phenomenology of Solitary Confinement
    (pp. xi-xxx)

    There are many ways to destroy a person, but one of the simplest and most devastating is through prolonged solitary confinement. Deprived of meaningful human interaction, otherwise healthy prisoners become unhinged. They see things that do not exist, and they fail to see things that do. Their sense of their own bodies—even the fundamental capacity to feel pain and to distinguish their own pain from that of others—erodes to the point where they are no longer sure if they are being harmed or are harming themselves. Not only psychological or social identity but the most basic sense of...

  5. I. The Early U.S. Penitentiary System

      (pp. 3-22)

      Solitary confinement first emerged as a standard technique of punishment with the establishment of the penitentiary system in the early nineteenth century in the United States. The penitentiary was devised as a humanitarian response to the penal customs of public humiliation, torture, and execution inherited from English colonial rule. In the latter system, punishment was largely based on retribution—an eye for an eye, a life for a life—and its purpose was not to reform the individual criminal but to demonstrate the glory of the sovereign to the entire community, both for its own sake and as a deterrent...

    • 2 PERSON, WORLD, AND OTHER: A Husserlian Critique of Solitary Confinement
      (pp. 23-38)

      Dickens paints a vivid picture of living death at Eastern State Penitentiary in the early nineteenth century. Taking this description as my starting point, I now develop a phenomenological analysis of what personhood must be like in order to be affected in this way by prolonged solitary confinement. What are the conditions for the possibility of such a radical physical, emotional, cognitive, and social deterioration of the prisoner in isolation? How must concrete personhood be structured in order to be diminished so radically by the prolonged deprivation of the bodily presence of other people? To explore these questions, I turn...

      (pp. 39-62)

      The black experience of incarceration during the first wave of the U.S. penitentiary system was not, by and large, an experience of (failed) redemption through solitary confinement in the penitentiary system but, rather, one of forced labor, bodily pain, public humiliation, and isolation to the point of social death. Slaves were punished for not working, for not working hard enough or fast enough, for disobeying orders, for stealing, for fighting, for “sassing,” for trying to see loved ones at neighboring plantations, for attempting to escape, or just for being in the path of a master or overseer who was drunk...

  6. II. The Modern Penitentiary

      (pp. 65-100)

      Almost one hundred years separate James V. McConnell from Alfred H. Love, and there is a vast ideological chasm between Love’s Christian humanism and McConnell’s scientific antihumanism. And yet their conclusions are strikingly similar: criminals must not only be punished or reformed but also treated and cured of their criminal behavior. The desire to diagnose and treat criminal offenders as if crime were a disease is as old as the Philadelphia prison reform movement, but from the 1950s to the 1970s it was the hallmark of a second wave of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons, which took behavior modification rather...

    • 5 LIVING RELATIONALITY: Merleau-Ponty’s Critical Phenomenological Account of Behavior
      (pp. 101-124)

      Cold War research on thought reform and behavior modification provided a scientific foundation and an intellectual justification for a set of practices ranging from the coercive interrogation of enemies of the state, to coercive “therapy” for domestic prisoners, and even to voluntary forms of therapy and self-improvement based on similar principles. These researchers shared a set of basic assumptions and methods that have not altogether disappeared neither from contemporary behaviorist psychology nor from domestic prisons. In this chapter, I develop an alternative to the behaviorist model by drawing on Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological account of behavior. My aim is threefold: (1) to...

    • 6 BEYOND DEHUMANIZATION: A Posthumanist Critique of Intensive Confinement
      (pp. 125-158)

      In 1971, the Attica Liberation Faction demanded an end to the dehumanization of prisoners in its “Manifesto of Demands and Anti-Depression Platform”:

      We, the inmates of Attica Prison, have grown to recognize beyond the shadow of a doubt, that because of our posture as prisoners and branded characters as alleged criminals, the administration and prison employees no longer consider or respect us as human beings, but rather as domesticated animals selected to do their bidding in slave labor and furnished as a personal whipping dog for their sadistic, psychopathic hate. . . .

      We are firm in our resolve and...

  7. III. Supermax Prisons

      (pp. 161-194)

      The third wave of solitary confinement in the United States is the era of the control prison. Its implicit, and often explicit, aim is to control, contain, and incapacitate prisoners. Gone is the rhetoric of rehabilitation or spiritual redemption. It has been replaced by a neoliberal rhetoric of risk management, security, efficiency, accountability, and public–private partnerships. Even the official names of supermax-level prison cells reflect the aim of control, along with a desire to represent this aim as a legally acceptable administrative tool rather than as an instrument of outright punishment. Among the most common names on this seemingly...

    • 8 DEAD TIME: Heidegger, Levinas, and the Temporality of Supermax Confinement
      (pp. 195-220)

      What does it mean to serve time? To be at risk of having time do you, or even do you in? Every prisoner must face this question on some level. But time is an especially pressing issue for the supermax prisoner who is isolated from others and confined to a tiny cell for weeks, months, or even years. Just as security doors chop up supermax space, so too does the prison schedule chop up supermax time; the supermax inmate is subject to a rigid schedule of feedings, showers, and short sessions in the “dog run.” Rather than multiplying differences, this...

    • 9 FROM ACCOUNTABILITY TO RESPONSIBILITY: A Levinasian Critique of Supermax Rhetoric
      (pp. 221-252)

      Supporters of supermax confinement often justify policies of extreme isolation and control through an appeal to safety, efficiency, and accountability (Riveland 1999, 6; Mears and Watson 2006, 251–56). Inmates who disrupt prison life with violence or other forms of disobedience create an unsafe environment for other inmates and for prison staff. Such prisoners must be isolated and removed from the general prison population so that the facility can continue to operate in a secure and efficient manner. This is how most prisons hold inmates accountable for their actions: they make the rules known to inmates in advance, and they...

  8. CONCLUSION: Afterlives
    (pp. 253-256)

    The social death of prisoners in solitary confinement does not just affect the individual or the family or the local community; it affects all of us who live in a society in which black, brown, and poor people of all races are criminalized and isolated in prisons for the sake of someone else’s security and prosperity. Urban centers across the United States have been “securitized” through policing strategies that compound the violence of mass incarceration while rendering this violence invisible (Glazek 2012; Wacquant 2009a, 2009b). The U.S. prison system works both to perpetuate the social death of racialized subjects and...

  9. NOTES
    (pp. 257-294)
    (pp. 295-314)
  11. INDEX
    (pp. 315-321)
  12. Back Matter
    (pp. 322-322)