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A lens flare creates a blinding light
Photo by CribbVisuals on iStock

My mornings start between 5 or 5:30 with oppressively bright cell lights that penetrate my two-sock-thick sleep mask, which I made myself out of a gray fleece blanket. That’s accompanied by a piercing wake-up call over the PA system, which in turn is followed by a guard blowing a shrill whistle, screaming “Count time!” 

It’s enough to cause instant discomfort, pain and anxiety, especially for someone like me who suffers from a traumatic brain injury. Sometimes I feel a searing pain in my head as if someone poked it with a hot needle. 

In my prison, lights are on for 18 hours a day. Guards are barking some kind of command over the PA system every 15 minutes, sometimes at different levels of volume. Cell doors open and close at least every half-hour, and the mechanical clatter is loud enough that we have to pause any conversation. The whirring of the hurricane fans or the frequency of the heating system drives through me from my ears to my spine. All the noise makes the 80 people in the building talk even louder than they already were. The sonic debris is overwhelming and there is no way to get away from it. 

I have not had a night of uninterrupted sleep in years.

It has been shown again and again that the excessive sound and light in prisons is psychologically and physiologically damaging. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, known as the Nelson Mandela Rules, specifically cite both as human rights concerns. It is considered by some to be a form of torture

It is all the more so for those who suffer from head injuries, and there are many of us in prison. Estimates vary widely, but at least one credible study suggests that between one half and two-thirds of incarcerated people have had at least one traumatic brain injury. 

Light and sounds exacerbate a wide range of symptoms of traumatic brain injuries. 

Chronic headaches are one prime example. These headaches can range in intensity from a constant, permanent dull ache to a head-splitting, vision-blurring pain that causes nausea and leaves a person curled up in a ball. 

Imagine yourself suffering from these symptoms and not being able to turn off the glaring bright lights and the ever-buzzing din of sound. You are in your cell doing your best to cope and a guard screams your name over the intercom in the cell, ordering you to do something somewhere. You finish whatever you had been told to do and arrive back at your cell. Now your cellie wants to do his thing, which could include repeatedly flushing the vacuum toilet, amid other persistent racket. 

There is nothing you can do to stop any of it. You just lie there in pain, praying to all the gods and goddesses to end your suffering. 

You are helpless, not because of apathy or laziness, but because you are not allowed to manage a few small things in your life. We can’t turn off a light or leave a noisy room. 

This is what I endure every day. Some days are worse than others. Every day is painful. I’m breathing, but I’m not living. 

This is what psychological violence feels like.

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.

David Annarelli is a father, musician, activist and writer. He is incarcerated in Virginia.