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Closed and bolted door to a prison cell
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This article was first published by the Chicago Reader, a newspaper in Chicago, Illinois. Aside from the headline, it appears as it was published and has not been edited by PJP.

Solitary confinement has long been the punishment of choice for prisoners who draw the ire of prison officials. Its roots are at Cherry Hill, the world’s first penitentiary, built in Pennsylvania in 1829. It was founded by Quakers who believed that locking a prisoner away for months or years would reform them. Solitary confinement is the seminal philosophy of the criminal justice system in America.

After touring American prisons in 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote that solitary “devours the victim incessantly and unmercifully; it does not reform, it kills.” 

In 1890, the Supreme Court found in the case In re Medley that many prisoners “fell, after even a short confinement, into a semi-fatuous condition, from which it was next to impossible to arouse them, and others became violently insane.” More than a century later, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, “Years on end of near-total isolation exact a terrible price … common side effects of solitary confinement include anxiety, panic, withdrawal, hallucinations, self-mutilation, and suicidal thoughts and actions.” Justice Sonia Sotomayor noted in 2018 that between 80,000 to 100,000 prisoners were held in some form of solitary confinement, the terms of which can range from a few days to decades.

In 2011, the United Nations declared solitary confinement to be torture. In 2014, the Committee Against Torture (which the U.S. is a member of) expressed concerns about America’s use of solitary confinement and recommended the U.S. limit the use of solitary confinement to “a measure of last resort and for as short a time as possible.” Other organizations followed suit, including the World Health Organization, the Association of Correctional Administrators, the American Bar Association, and the American Civil Liberties Union.

But in practice, solitary is not a measure of last resort, nor is it solely used in response to violent or predatory actions by prisoners. Jailhouse lawyers and politically active or vocal prisoners are frequently targeted by staff. The retaliation often manifests in fabricated disciplinary charges and months or years of solitary confinement.

Prison policymakers claim not to use solitary confinement anymore, disguising it behind a plethora of euphemistic terms: administrative detention, close management unit, control unit, disciplinary segregation unit, intensive management unit, involuntary protective custody, punitive segregation, restricted housing unit, security housing unit, special management unit, and supermax.

In Illinois, the preferred euphemisms are restricted housing, administrative detention, and indeterminate segregation.

I spent more than five and a half years in isolation, and I know what it can do. They threw me in a steel-fronted cell that had a box on the door and a small window. When it was time to eat, they unlocked the box, put my tray inside, closed the box, then opened the slide so I could grab my tray. They always covered the window so I had no human contact at all. These cells were reserved for those they especially wanted to hurt.

In solitary, you don’t notice it, but pretty quickly you begin to unravel. You pace the small cell, back and forth, back and forth. When I was a kid, I went to the zoo a few times. I used to see the tiger, who was always pacing back and forth. I used to wonder why he did that. Now I know. I felt like that animal, pacing back and forth. It almost became a compulsion.

You also begin to count. You count everything: the holes in the door, the bricks in the wall, the cracks, your steps, everything. This becomes compulsive. Your brain doesn’t stop; it’s looking for stimulation where there is none. Counting gives your mind something to do. When there is nothing, your brain invents things. It’s sensory deprivation taken to the extreme.

I became severely depressed and very paranoid. I convinced myself that the prison administration was trying to poison me. I didn’t eat for 25 days. Finally, I was told if I didn’t eat, I would be taken to court and force-fed. I said I would eat only if a nurse brought me my tray. I didn’t trust anyone else.

I realized I had to get ahold of myself or I wouldn’t be able to come back. Isolation is full of severely mentally ill people. IDOC does not have the staff or the patience to deal with such prisoners. They usually get written disciplinary reports and are buried in isolation. Unable to understand what’s going on or why, they end up spending years or decades there. I’ve seen friends who were sane lose their minds in isolation.

I talked to myself a lot. There was no one to talk to, so I had to become both sides of the conversation. I became my own best friend. I had nobody else. I was the only one there for myself.

I was able to get hold of the paranoia but not the depression. I thought about killing myself more often than I care to admit. The loneliness was unbearable. I felt like I didn’t matter. I began to question if I was even real. Was I a figment of my own imagination? Did I even exist? I began to cut myself, reasoning that if I bled, then I must exist. I bear those scars to this day. They remind me of when I was tortured and of just how little holds our minds together.

I came out of isolation a much different person. I didn’t talk; I was afraid of social situations. The paranoia I fought so hard to control came back. I was afraid people were going to hurt me. I didn’t know how to interact with people, and I didn’t understand social cues.

It’s been many years since I got out of isolation. Over time, and with a lot of difficult work, I was able to lose the paranoia. I know that I am real. I’m still socially awkward, and I get anxious around a lot of people. I’m quiet. When I get upset or stressed out, I start counting. When I catch myself doing it, I force myself to stop. All these years later, counting is still a coping mechanism. I may have left isolation, but isolation has never left me.

The toxic combination of social isolation, sensory deprivation, and enforced idleness results in many psychiatric symptoms, including anxiety, depression, anger, impaired impulse control, paranoia, visual and auditory hallucinations, cognitive disturbances, obsessive thoughts, post-traumatic stress disorder, psychosis, self-harm, and suicide. Solitary confinement causes these things—imagine how much it exacerbates pre-existing mental illness!

Humans are naturally social beings, and the social pain that isolation inflicts can be the most torturous and damaging, affecting the brain in the same regions and manner as physical pain. This social pain can actually cause longer-term suffering than physical pain, due to the ability of humans to relive social pain months or even years later.

Multiple studies suggest that solitary confinement can fundamentally alter the brain’s structure in profound and permanent ways. The harm caused by solitary confinement can culminate in a complete breakdown of one’s identity. Even after a brief period of time, a prisoner is likely to descend into a mental fog in which alertness, attention, and concentration are all impaired.

This is a lasting trauma. This is torture. This is what is done in your name. We torture people and call it justice.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Anthony Ehlers is a writer and 2022 graduate of the Northwestern Prison Education Program. He is incarcerated in Illinois.