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Solitary Confinement

In response to:

In Prison from the June 26, 1980 issue

Note: the following is from a recent letter to the editors from Jack Henry Abbott, whose piece “In Prison” appeared in the New York Review of July 17, 1980.

One thing I meant to convey in my piece and that may not have come through was the alienating power of solitary confinement. The body communicates with its environment. Place something in an environment in which possibilities of communicating are next to nil—that “something” is annihilated to that degree.

A prison cell—let alone a solitary confinement cell—is not constructed to complement human existence. Punishment cells in fact are constructed intentionally to alienate (exclude) men.

Being in a strip-cell, for example, is identical to being in a sink. It is a square “room” with a hole in the center. The floor inclines like the bottom of a sink. The hole in the floor is the “toilet.” It sits flush with the concrete floor. It is exactly two inches in diameter. A mysterious hole at first.

There is nothing else in the room—except a bare light bulb on the ceiling, well out of reach.

The “toilet” is flushed by an apparatus outside the cell (at a guard’s whim). There is no water facility nor even the semblance of a bed rack—there is nothing.

Nothing but the smell of shit and piss and the glare of a light that is never extinguished. You become superfluous in a strip-cell.

I do not believe I went “overboard” when I wrote in a sentence you did not publish: “Solitary confinement in prison can alter the ontological make-up of a stone.”

Any sane person would wonder what terrible crime a man would have to commit to be thus treated. The answer: In prison, anything at all. Any “indiscretion.” A contraband book. A murder. A purloined sandwich…

When punishment bears no relationship to the crime, it ceases to be punishment and becomes torment for its own sake—itself an anti-human crime.

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