Solitary Confinement's Darker Cousin


The horrors of solitary confinement are now common knowledge to anyone who has paid attention to such things over recent years -- used for administrative purposes ranging from punishment to overall prison and prisoner safety, those forced into it are housed for 22 to 23 hours per day, sometimes for months, or even years, on end. Mental and physical collapse is a common biproduct. Prisoners literally leave solitary confinement a changed person, only in a traumatic sense, as opposed to a rehabilitative one.

There is another version of solitary confinement that may be less known, however. It is one that is condoned by virtually every prison system in the U.S. It is often the precursor to long term solitary confinement, but it is also used when traditional solitary confinement just is not working.

This form of confinement is most often referred to as the 'hole' or the 'bucket,' in prison parlance. It is most often used when the prisoner has done something that so threatens the safety and security of the institution that the prison supposedly has no choice but to clamp down as tightly as possible on the inmate's freedom. It means stripping them of everything they own, even their underwear, and placing them in a much more restrictive, often dirtier, more graffitied, more sensory deprived box. In this box they'll have only the bare essentials, at least for the first part of their stay -- a comb, a toothbrush (sans toothpaste), a bar of hotel-sized soap, a roll of toiletpaper, a towel, a few sheets of paper, the guts of a bic pen (since the rest of it could be used as weapon), and an envelope or two, to inform loved ones that they are now housed in one of the worst places in America. There is no access to a phone, shampoo, deodorant, family photos or sanity.

The one or two hours out of your box in solitary confinement is a luxury when compared with its cousin, the hole. Many days go by where getting out of your cell is not an option. On days when you do get out, it is generally for forty minutes, at most, per day. The average time spent in your cell in the hole: 23.5.

This time is spent in an environment that is not unlike an extreme zoo, only the human prisoner version is much noiser, smells worse, and finds their entertainment, not in the visitors -- of which the zookeepers in this case would only allow for an hour to visit per week anyway -- but in making the lesser animals, the neighbors around them, feel as miserable as possible, generally through threats (known as cell-banging), or just an overwhelming amount of nonstop noise. Doing anything productive in this environment, writing, reading, studying, or even sleeping, is about as possible to accomplish as it would be if there was a jackhammer in your office.

For those who are especially troublesome to the facility, many prisons have an even darker spot, this one a throwback to castle dungeon days, known as the 'black box'. The black box is essentially a cell that is shortened to accommodate a double entrance. The entrance is essentially what photographers use to ensure that no light gets into the developing darkroom. The cell is completely light deprived, used a place to shut out all stimuli from the especially stimulated prisoner. It is used in extreme cases to break the worst of the unruly among the prison population.

While the black box is a rarely utilized tool, at least in the prison I am writing this from, the hole is used with regularity. The reader might assume that if those housed there are deemed by the prison system to be 'threats to the safety and security of the institution,' they must be dangerous people who cannot possibly be housed among the rest of the inmate population. It's prison after all, an already dangerous place. If they are too dangerous for that environment, they must be animals, the most brutal examples. 

In part, that assumption is accurate. The hole certainly contains an unhealthy amount of gangbangers and others there for violent offenses against neighbors and staff, whom the hole was likely designed for. Others are there for introducing or distributing illicit drugs or intoxicants, which prison administration would certainly want to get a handle on before loosing them back on the prison community. But there are others subjected to this dark cousin of solitary confinement for reasons that seem incongruous with the hole's intent.

I am currently writing this post from the hole, fighting through the noise of the zoo, because I was helping other prisoners with their legal appeals. Is this really the sort of thing that requires removal from the rest of the inmate population? Is the safety and security of the institution really that threatened by my actions? Wouldn't simple confiscation of the offending material suffice? Oh, and did I mention that I was already housed on death row, in a solitary confinement setting?

Perhaps I'm a bit biased, so I'll remove myself from the equation. Take the infraction of one of my neighbors housed in the hole near me. He will not cut his hair to comply with prison regulations. This particular prison system has relatively liberal hair policies. They permit long hair, long dreadlocks, even long beards. But evidently hair that is closely cropped on the sides and long down the middle -- sort of a hippie mohawk -- crosses the line. He claims it's for religious reasons, part of his Asatru beliefs. But the prison isn't buying it and has thrown him in the hole until he gets a haircut. 

Granted, the prison must keep order, which includes guidance on grooming, attire, and even hairstyles. But does a long stripe of hair really threaten the safety and security of the prison population so fiercely that it requires complete removal from it? At worst, I suppose some inmates may die, merely from laughter. But can't the prison authority simply take away some privileges, as they do with many such infractions, until he either complies or can prove his religious right? Instead, he is in the hole for up to the next 6 months (the maximum amount of hole time allowed in this state), after which he may be sent to the other solitary confinement. 

Prison administration has a tough job, one of balancing prison and prisoner safety with the rights of prisoners and their humane treatment, despite whatever heinous acts the incarcerated one did in the past, or continues to do. This particular prison system and its staff seems to do a fairly good job at that when compared others. (Did you read the New Yorker article a couple of months ago on Florida prisons?) But occasionally they seem to miss.

From an inside perspective, the hole has a place in prison society. But from that same inside perspective, it is often abused and utilized for reasons that far less extreme alternatives would just as easily, if not more quickly, cure. Perhaps this is an inherited flaw of solitary confinement in general -- overuse, abuse, and unnecessary implementation where alternatives would suffice. 

There is currently positive light being shed on the dangerous and dark practice of solitary confinement in this country. While attention is being given to utilizing alternatives, it is hoped that the prison administration will also be able to see that the worst form of solitary confinement, the hole, should be used as sparingly as possible, and never for reasons that don't actually constitute a serious threat. Otherwise, submitting those to the hole that don't need to be there are the only ones being threatened, and it's the prison that is causing the threat. 




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