Watching Herman's House

Derek S. Jeffreys

Derek S. JeffreysIn Herman's House, we hear Herman Wallace's extraordinary voice. With deep insight, he describes conditions in solitary confinement. He exhibits remarkable spiritual resilience and an astonishing capacity to transcend brutal circumstances. Wallace's case is extreme because he has lived in solitary confinement for so long. However, thousands of other inmates also endure long sentences in isolation. Currently, the United States holds 50,000 to 80,000 people in solitary confinement. Most states operate supermax prisons that hold people in solitary.

Psychologists document how punitive isolation unleashes psychological damage. Solitary confinement should also alarm anyone who values human spirituality and inherent dignity. Some religious traditions locate dignity in a person's relationship to God or a higher power. Secular human rights traditions and international law also acknowledge this dignity. Philosophically, inherent dignity is grounded in our spiritual nature. Through cognition, we transcend our circumstances, and we are never confined to one restricted environment. For example, Wallace imagines a house that differs from the horrible cell he inhabits. His detailed plan for it beautifully illustrates spiritual transcendence. Relating to others, we also develop self-possession, an awareness of our character and habitual actions. Finally, we are creative beings, combining immaterial and material realities to create artistic, architectural and musical objects. These spiritual qualities distinguish persons from things. They accord them a dignity that exists regardless of their behavior. Someone cannot lose that merely because she is incarcerated.

Solitary confinement systematically assaults human dignity. For at least 23 hours a day, inmates remain in small, drab cells. They communicate with corrections officers through slots in their cell doors. Their cells may be continuously lit and bereft of windows, television, radio or books. When they are released for showers or exercise, their cells are often opened remotely. Inmates frequently shout at each other or scream incoherently, creating a cacophony that drowns out thought. If granted visitation privileges, inmates see visitors through Plexiglas windows or remote videoconferencing. They enjoy little access to educational programs and cannot attend religious services. Many people in solitary are guilty of only minor disciplinary violations. Administrative hearings rarely work in inmates' favor, and challenging prison authorities brings brutal retaliation. As in Wallace's case, wardens or prison disciplinary boards can decide to extend solitary sentences for years.

In punitive isolation, a person experiences intense spiritual anguish. Some extraordinary people like Wallace manage to survive. Others suffer a slow psychic disintegration, go mad or take their own lives. Because inmates confront environmental uniformity, their spiritual capacity to transcend an environment diminishes. Their world becomes narrowly defined by the walls of their cells. Those in solitary also describe a fracturing of their identities and self-possession. The sense of self they develop in personal relationships fragments. For example, in a moving moment in Herman's House, Wallace describes how his sense of his body changed during his short stint in the general population. He began to regain parts of his self, only to lose them again when he was thrown back into solitary. Many inmates also experience a profound temporal dislocation that undermines the narratives of their lives. Often lacking clocks or calendars, they feel that days melt into each other with little change. Finally, the person's creative powers find no outlet in solitary confinement. Inmates inhabit a world without beauty, one that is unimaginable to people with music, art and books in their lives.

In a sad historical turn of events, contemporary prisons revive a 19th-century practice without its higher spiritual aspirations. In 19th-century England and the United States, Quakers and others designed brutal solitary confinement prisons. Their purpose was to produce spiritual transformation in the inmate. For example, in the famous Eastern State Penitentiary in Pennsylvania (opened in 1829), all inmates occupied solitary cells. They were forbidden to speak, forced to work in their cells and provided with religious materials to read. This was supposed to induce pangs of conscience that would then lead to repentance. Prison authorities insisted that solitary confinement was a positive form of punishment. However, they quickly discovered that many inmates went mad in their solitude. Those who survived showed few spiritual gains. Solitary prisons were also too costly to maintain. Consequently, authorities abandoned the widespread use of solitary confinement. Rather than seeing it as the primary means of punishment, they used it selectively to discipline recalcitrant inmates.

Today's prisons make little pretense of spiritually transforming people though solitary confinement. Instead, isolation is entirely punitive and seeks to debase rather than help. Many people who work with inmates understand that solitary is an assault on human dignity. We are witnessing a growing movement to end it. Grassroots organizations and films like Herman's House alert people to solitary's horror. In Mississippi, Maine and Illinois, authorities have modified or ended solitary confinement. Nevertheless, it remains firmly entrenched in many state prison systems. Cash-strapped states and counties may eventually abandon solitary confinement because of its prohibitive cost. In the meantime, opposition to it is sure to increase as Americans recognize its spiritual and ethical horror. Solitary confinement seeks deliberately to dismantle and degrade the personality. No society that values human dignity can support such an unjust policy.

Derek S. Jeffreys is professor of humanistic studies and religion at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. He is author of Spirituality in Dark Places: The Ethics of Solitary Confinement.