A Pen Pal In Solitary

A reader writes:

I never imagined that I would someday be in a position where I personally know someone in solitary confinement, or that I would be able to confirm what Atul Gawande wrote in The New Yorker about solitary confinement: “Whether in Walpole or Beiruit or Hanoi, all human beings experience isolation as torture.” I have been writing to a long-term prisoner since September, 2004. In early 2009, she was placed into solitary confinement, where she remains today, four and a half years later. Our correspondence has continued throughout.

She is an outgoing, social person, and four-plus years of solitary confinement has been particularly hard on her.

For the first year or so, she was in a cell that had an inner door of bars, which remained closed all the time, and an outer solid door which she could slide open, allowing her to talk with other prisoners in nearby isolation cells. Then she was moved to a cell with a door that stays closed all the time. The lights in her cell are left on 24 hours a day. When she leaves her cell, it’s in full irons, with her ankles shackled and her wrists chained to her waist. The guards aren’t allowed to talk to her, except to give her commands. All her visits are non-contact. She loves long hugs, but hasn’t had a hug of any kind in almost five years. Even when her mom and dad visit, she only talks to them over a phone, through a glass window.

The effects of solitary confinement – especially depression and loneliness – are obvious from her letters. She spends much of her day sleeping, and only gets limited time outside her cell for exercise and a shower. Guards are not allowed to talk to her, except to issue commands. To me, the effects are obvious. She wrote regularly; she was optimistic and curious. Today she writes sporadically and fights a never-ending battle with depression. She deals with the depression with prescription drugs, prescribed by the prison psychologist.

Now that I’ve seen the effects of long-term solitary confinement on someone I know, I can say with certainty: it’s torture.