Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Solitary confinement cell at Alcatraz Prison
Photo by teachandlearn (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

The first thing I noticed in solitary was the stench: an assault of humidity mixed with urine, feces, steel and sweat. A sense of gloom overcame me and a cold chill ran down my spine as I took in my surroundings for the first time. 

The second thing I noticed was the constant noise. Then I noticed the “Cadillacs” strewn about the wing. Cadillacs are how people in solitary transport items to one another’s locked cells — these could be anything from cigarettes and lighters, to small food or hygiene items or notes. Cadillacs are usually made by tying a long piece of string (made from the stitching of boxers, shirts or sheets) with a piece of soap or some other small weighted item tied to the end. The receiver pulls on the string to get the item. 

All of this was an eye-opener, but what really caught me off guard was the older man who sat shackled and chained to a steel bench right inside of the wing the staff had just walked me into. 

He looked like he was in deep distress, and it seemed like he was on display for the rest of us to see. His wrinkled skin, thinning gray hair and matted beard grabbed my attention. But it was his eyes that took hold of me. They seemed to hold a story filled with pain and sorrow. 

“You’ll never leave here the same,” he told me, with a cold stare.

After I was placed in my cell, I was stripped down to my boxers and T-shirt. I was left with no soap, toothpaste, deodorant or writing material. For a week, I kept asking the guards to notify the caseworker or the staff, so I could get some of my necessities.

“Do your time like a man and get over it,” one guard responded. That was all I got.

Many people consider solitary confinement to be a form of torture. In fact, the United Nations says it should be banned in most cases. Many who are subjected to these methods of discipline are never the same. I know, because I’ve watched it happen when I was sent there for a physical altercation with another incarcerated person. I was in solitary for five months that first time. I got out for a week and then returned for almost two more years. 

There were times when we went hungry because we were denied food. The guards would tell the food service department that we had refused our trays. Some of my peers would scream through the night; it seemed like they felt the walls were closing in on them. Yet, no one came to check on us. 

I listened as guards taunted and tortured inmates psychologically and emotionally. I heard one say, “Just go ahead and kill yourself. Nobody cares about you in society anyway.” 

The solitary wing was shaped like a V — I could see eight of the cells across the V from me, but I couldn’t see any of my neighbors on the same side as me. 

Not long after arriving, I began to hear the man in the cell directly across from mine moaning and begging for the guards to turn the lights out. When this continued well into the night, I realized that the lights in the cells were never turned off. 

For two weeks I listened as the man, named Cory, pleaded. He became increasingly more irate, eventually yelling and kicking on the door to try to get their attention. When he refused to stop, the guards rushed in and wrestled him to the ground. After 15 minutes, Cory was stripped naked and everything was removed from his cell. 

A few minutes later, Cory appeared at his cell window. The sight of him broke me inside. His face was tremendously bruised; both eyes were almost swollen shut, and there was no sign that medical staff had been notified of his injuries. 

Cory started kicking on the door again, crying from anger and frustration. The guards then put a large fan directly in front of his cell and turned it on high. As I saw him cower away from the door, shivering and rubbing his arms, I realized that he was naked. 

“Hey, that’s against the law! That’s cruel and unusual punishment!” I yelled. But the guard just laughed at me. Alex, the guy next door to me said, “Antwann, keep quiet, man.” 

I yelled, “No, I WON’T keep quiet! That’s ILLEGAL!”

I tried to make eye contact with Cory; I could see he was starting to communicate through the window with someone I couldn’t see. Soon after, I saw a Cadillac slide across the floor into his cell. Cory held up a shoestring. 

I didn’t know what he wanted it for. But later, I saw Cory being carried out of his cell. The guards were attempting CPR, but one of them told me later he did not survive.

Then there was Alex, the man next door to me. I couldn’t see him, but we could talk to each other. 

“If you just lay down and keep quiet, you’ll be lucky to make it out with your sanity,” he said shortly after I arrived. 

But he too succumbed to the pressure. Over time, the guy who had once told me to keep quiet had mentally entered a different dimension. The devastating effect of 24/7 confinement on an individual will cause even the most strong-willed individuals to lose themselves.

As weeks turned into months, and months turned into three years, the once well-groomed 6-foot-2-inch, 230-pound man had given up. He looked like Moses now — down probably 70 pounds, with long, unkempt hair.  

Sometimes I thought he was talking to me. I kept talking to him even though I realized he had begun having conversations with himself. I knew the warrior was still inside of him deep down. Whether he was actually listening or not was unclear.   

Alex was eventually transferred, so I don’t know what happened to him. 

As I sat in my cell, I prayed to God to grant me enough strength to make it through my own ordeal without suffering like he did. 

I managed to cope through music. Songs like Michael Jackson’s “Will You Be There,” and 2Pac’s “So Many Tears,” helped. But what helps even more is sharing these experiences with society in the hope that one day change will come.

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.

Antwann Lamont Johnson is a writer incarcerated in Missouri.