Stories of survival in solitary have a message for the prison system
Opinion: The adverse health consequences of prolonged separation are well documented
A prisoner in solitary confinement has his hands shackled before his cell door is opened at a penitentiary in California. Photograph: New York Times
The US prison system has marked a grim anniversary. This is of the decision, 30 years ago, to impose a state of indefinite lockdown at Marion penitentiary, Illinois. In essence, this involved the creation of a regime of virtually total solitary confinement.
For 22 or 23 hours each day, prisoners were confined to tiny cells. When allowed out, for exercise or a non-contact visit, their ankles and wrists were shackled and they were escorted by several guards.
The lockdown followed the murders of two correctional officers in separate incidents on the same day in October 1983. The perpetrators were two prisoners, Thomas Silverstein and Clayton Fountain, men with fearsome reputations for violence, both of whom had killed before.
The regime was widely imitated in what became known as supermax prisons. When the lockdown was eventually lifted, after almost a quarter of a century, the US rural landscape was pockmarked by hugely expensive facilities where those deemed the worst of the worst were isolated for periods previously considered unconscionable.
What became of the Marion protagonists? The subsequent careers of the individuals to whom an epidemic of penal austerity can be traced repays scrutiny. All prison systems, including the Republic’s, contain people who have done awful things, and there is often pessimism about their capacity for change. This, however, may be exaggerated.
Silverstein was transferred to another institution, where he was placed in a tiny, “no human contact” cell. He began to study the Bible and Buddhism and concentrated on yoga and his artistic endeavours insofar as this was possible. In 2005 he was moved to the supermax in Florence, Colorado, where he remains. Few prisoners have been so isolated for so long.
Craig Haney, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who has written authoritatively about the mental health consequences of solitary confinement, interviewed Silverstein and remarked upon his psychological resilience under these circumstances.
Given his age, it is scarcely credible that Silverstein poses the physical threat he did 30 years ago but the authorities have been unyielding in their response to his pleas for an amelioration of conditions and a return to congregate living.
Fountain was moved to an isolation chamber in the medical centre for federal prisoners in Springfield, Missouri, where he remained until his death in 2004. Out of loyalty to their murdered colleagues, the staff ensured the solitude of his confinement was as complete as they could make it.
Fountain fundamentally recast his situation. Under the guidance of Fr W Paul Jones, who later wrote a book about him, he followed a daily regime of prayer and study. His cell became a hermitage and within tight physical constraints he attempted to pursue a monastic lifestyle. He was accepted as a family brother by the Cistercian community at nearby Assumption Abbey on the basis that he would live in prison under the rule of St Benedict, wearing a monk’s habit and hood.
As it transpired, the vote to accept him was taken posthumously: Fountain had died of a heart attack the previous week. A white cross bearing his name was placed in the abbey cemetery in his memory.
Silverstein and Fountain have enhanced our understanding of how men cope with protracted, involuntary solitude. Denied meaningful human interaction for decades, they were thrown back on their internal resources. When they brought their murderous careers to a dreadful culmination they forfeited human contact as well as any prospect of liberty.
The adverse mental health consequences of prolonged solitary confinement are widely acknowledged. Anxiety, lethargy, insomnia, rage and hallucinations are common. To carry on day after unchanging, lonely day requires steely determination and a radical reappraisal of the situation. Silverstein chose yoga, art and litigation as his props for life. Fountain opted for Christian monasticism. Both refrained from violence.
These were men who, however warped by external circumstances, however barbarous their prior conduct and however compromised they may have been psychologically, managed to retain a vestige of humanity.
The lesson is that people can survive harsh treatment, some- times damaged, bitter and terrifyingly angry (as Fountain and Silverstein were at Marion) and sometimes damaged but anxiously reconciled to their lot (as Silverstein and Fountain became).
There is a redemption story to be heard here if those charged with prison policy are prepared to listen.
Ian O’Donnell is professor of criminology at University College Dublin. He is writing a book about how prisoners cope with isolation.