“There is no glory in punishing” –Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison
Find yourself here: alone, in a room, barely bigger than a closet, no wider than the span of your outstretched arms. There is no window to the outside, no day, no night. A world in which fluorescent lights perpetually flicker, 24/7/365. The only way you can discern the time of day is by the character of your meals, such as they are. The day of the week? Meaningless, a construct that doesn’t apply to you, as day after changeless day melds into a conglomeration of sameness. You have no one to talk to, no one look at, no one to see you, to verify your existence. How long would you like to stay here? What if no one cared about your answer, because it wouldn’t matter anyway? This is life in solitary confinement.
United States, with the largest prison population in the world, subjects approximately 80,000 – 100,000 Americans to solitary confinement. The exact number may be even higher. The mental and psychological toll from prolonged isolation are innumerable. While many social justice advocates are working for criminal justice reform, those in solitary need attention now.
Sending Hope to Someone in Isolation
Enter the Village Zendo Prison Letter Writing Program, founded by Shuka, member of the Village Zendo. For three years, Village Zendo members have been corresponding with people in solitary confinement, in a project called Lifelines to Solitary. It began with a workshop and presentation led by Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara, Abbot of the Village Zendo, and by the director of Solitary Watch, a web-based organization that addresses the issues of solitary confinement.
The program creates a bridge of communication from those ‘on the outside’ to those living in confinement. With its genesis in September of 2016, most of the original participants still keep in touch with their ‘prison pen pals.’ Some of the original participants in the program shared excerpts from letters and even artworks drawn and sent to them from those sitting in solitary long-term.
The program has been so successful that on Saturday, April 23, the Village Zendo held its 2nd Prison Letter writing workshop. Miyhosi Benton, the guest speaker, shared her experience in solitary confinement. She emphasized that life in solitary affects every aspects of one’s humanity: psychological, physical, mental and spiritual.
“I was processed and immediately sent to solitary, because I was pregnant.” Her placement in solitary was the first she learned that she was even pregnant.“ Here I was in in solitary, after just finding out I was pregnant, and I had no one to talk to about it, no way of processing it.“ Miyhosi spent her entire pregnancy in solitary confinement. “They told me it was for my own protection,” she said. Despite being pregnant, Miyhosi was shackled anytime she was moved out of her cell.
Moreover, Miyhosi was not able to hold her baby right after giving birth, nor was she afforded the opportunity to nurse her baby. Breast feeding, one of the most vital forms of nourishment, imparting irreplaceable forms of anti-bodies and nutriment to a newborn, was denied the child. Many might see this as a human rights violation on the newborn child, who herself committed no crime.
After her experience, Miyhosi spoke out publicly against the shackling of pregnant women and was instrumental in the passing of a 2015 bill banning the practice in New York. An advocate for incarcerated mothers, Miyhosi said of the newly passed legislation, “This bill protects the women and babies who cannot speak for themselves.”
Loneliness is a Destroyer of Humanity
The conditions of solitary confinement are such that any person would experience severe distress. Individuals with mental illness are particularly vulnerable to the stresses of solitary confinement. Additionally, violations requiring solitary vary from prison to prison. Infractions as minor as possessing too many postage stamps can send one to solitary confinement for periods of 30 days or more.
Even though prisoners are protected from ‘cruel and unusual’ punishment, one has to ask, “Who defines what’s cruel or unusual?” According to a report by the Human Rights Watch, anywhere between 200,000 and 300,000 offenders imprisoned have mental illness, cruel on its face.
Further, solitary confinement itself induces a psychiatric disorder characterized by hypersensitivity to external stimuli, hallucinations, panic attacks, cognitive deficits, obsessive thinking, paranoia, and a litany of other physical and psychological problems. Studies in New York, California and Texas show that those in solitary confinement commit suicide at rates significantly higher than in general population.
In This Very Life . . .
Others are welcome to participate in the prison letter writing program with the Village Zendo. For your safety, prisoners will send letter to you via the Village Zendo, and you may pick up your letters from their office. For more information on how you can become involved in alleviating the suffering and loneliness of one living in solitary confinement, email the program’s coordinator, Shuka, at email@example.com.