*Editor's note: the following reflection was written by Isaac E. of Lewis and Clark College early in his Inside-Out course. The names in the piece have been changed to protect the anonymity of Isaac's classmates. Isaac's powerful writing is personal and is shared here to present the perspective of an individual, but not necessarily typical, Inside-Out student. Isaac's views do not represent those of the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program or Inside-Out Oregon.*
Fifteen months alone. Warm handshake through a food hatch Thaws a frozen heart.
Near the end of class we were discussing punishment and contrasting the most obvious manifestation of it–corporeal and physically painful–with a seemingly less-severe form, that of solitary confinement. Some people in the course had voiced the opinion that perhaps some silent time alone would be preferable to the daily routine of normal prison life and might even be pleasant.
Almost immediately, the hands of a slew of inside students shot up. The first man who spoke did so quietly, a deep sadness noticeable behind his eyes. He was usually one of the most outspoken members of the group–very intelligent, funny, and energetic. I will call him Noah. Noah told us a about the time he was sent to solitary confinement. He didn’t tell us the reason he was sent. It was a sentence totaling fifteen months.
As most know, solitary confinement means spending weeks, even months, alone in a small and quiet cell. There was little light, talking wasn’t allowed, and human contact was strictly prohibited. The only time he ever left the cell, he told us matter-of-factly, was when the guards chained and leashed him and took him on a short walk. He noted that the guards were able to do this without ever having to touch him. Noah would put his hands through the small hatch on the door so that the guards could handcuff him. After drawing his hands back inside, the guards would unlock the door and lead him outside, where they would shackle his ankles and attach him to a leash. When he walked, he wasn’t allowed to touch or speak with anyone. Most dogs are treated better, he remarked.
One day, the guards accidentally left the food/handcuff hatch on his door open. When he looked through it, he saw that the guards had done the same to that of his neighbor. They quickly began to talk with one another. The other man was actually a good friend he had met years before in the same prison. After a while, the other man asked if he would like to shake hands before parting. They shook hands warmly. Noah told us that he was immediately flooded with emotion. It was then that he first “remembered” how long it had been since he had touched another human being. Not touch in the sexual sense, he reminded us, but just human touch. At that moment he realized how important human contact was and how much his fifteen months in the cell had taken from him. Deprivation of human contact, he said, was deprivation of life.
Other men in the group quietly agreed, saying it was worse than any kind of physical torture and that it was inhumane and terrible. The heaviness that his story evoked was clear on the faces of everyone in the class. It is hard to describe how the story affected me. All I can say is that something deep inside me knows that this sort of treatment is wrong in the most basic sense of the word. Whatever the crime that sent him into that dark place may have been, it feels irrelevant to me. Noah’s story settled into my chest and draped over my shoulders, and I still feel it weighing me down as I write this.
Concerning silence and the deprivation of human contact, Dickens wrote the following:
“I believe that very few men are capable of estimating the immense amount of torture and agony that this dreadful punishment, prolonged for years, inflicts upon the sufferers…. I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain, to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body.”
- Isaac E.
Current 'outside' student
Lewis and Clark College