“A Nightmare for the Spirit”: Solitude and Silence as Punishment

By | February 11, 2016

Guest Post by John Biguenet

On January 25, 2016, The Washington Post published an op-ed by President Obama explaining his decision to ban solitary punishment for juveniles in federal prisons. A related article by Juliet Eilperin, the Post’s White House bureau chief, outlines the recent history of this issue, noting that “As many as 100,000 state and federal prisoners are held in solitary confinement in the United States at any given time.”

In Silence, my new book in Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons series, I examine—among many aspects of silence—its relationship to solitude and, thus, to solitary confinement. In so doing, I briefly trace the history of a punishment that Charles Dickens protested as “immeasurably worse than any torture of the body.”

    . . . the introduction of solitary confinement [was] first implemented, at least in the United States, in 1829 at the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. A similar regimen, but including complete silence, was introduced about the same time at the Auburn Prison in New York.
    As Michel Foucault notes in Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison, the Philadelphia model depended upon the isolation of the prisoner for reformation, and the Auburn model allowed communal activity with other prisoners but only in absolute silence. Foucault goes on to remark that “solitude is the primary condition of total submission.” But he recognizes that silence is the fundamental weapon wielded against the recalcitrance of the inmate, whether through solitary isolation and “the silent architecture that confronted” the prisoner or the complete silence of the Auburn system, “which was guaranteed by surveillance and punishment.”
    The disastrous results of these practices prompted U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Freeman Miller to find in Medley, 134 U.S. 160, the following: “A considerable number of the prisoners fell, after even a short confinement into a semi-fatuous condition, from which it was next to impossible to arouse them, and others became violently insane; others still, committed suicide; while those who stood the ordeal better were not generally reformed, and in most cases did not recover sufficient mental activity to be of any subsequent service to the community.” (Hans Christian Anderson visited in 1851 a Swedish prison modeled on the Philadelphia experiment; he noted that “a silence deep as the grave rests over it. . . . It is all a well-built machine, a nightmare for the spirit.”)
    Despite such criticism, as of 2005, forty states in the U.S. were found to operate more than sixty “supermax” prisons with isolation units that lock prisoners in their cells in solitary confinement 23 hours a day with no communal yard time. California, alone, incarcerates 12,000 inmates in long-term isolation. Following a Justice Department report that New York City’s Rikers Island kept up to 25 percent of adolescent prisoners in solitary confinement — some for more than six months — the City of New York in 2015 banned solitary confinement for prisoners twenty-one years old and younger. About the same time, members of the American Institute of Architects petitioned the organization to censure architects who design cells for solitary confinement or death chambers; the petition was rejected. Despite growing awareness of the actual effects on inmates, prison authorities continue to rely on solitude and silence as the most extreme forms of punishment, short of execution, to reform behavior.


SilenceJohn Biguenet is Robert Hunter Distinguished University Professor at Loyola University, New Orleans, USA. His publications include Oyster (2002), The Torturer’s Apprentice: Stories (2001), Theories of Translation: An Anthology of Essays from Dryden to Derrida (co-editor with Rainer Schulte, 1992), and Foreign Fictions (1978). He served as the first guest columnist of The New York Times (2005-2006). His latest book, Silence, is part of Bloomsbury's Object Lessons series.

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