Isolation Harms: The Furnace, The Prison/Industrial Complex, and Solitary Confinement
I’m terrified of being alone. ‘Being’ in the sense of ‘living’. I’ve never actually lived alone; after college, in which I had roomies, I moved in with my girlfriend, who is now my wife. We have three kids. Privacy is a pearl of great price when you have adolescents under your roof. But for all that—for all the hubbub, the vying for bathroom time, the shouting over the dinner table—I’m terrified of being alone. The word for it is monophobia. Possibly my monophobia (if that’s what it is) stems in part from a regrettably common experience I had as a child in the ‘70s. On any number of occasions I was abandoned in public—at shopping centers, zoos, public parks—in any case, we were quickly reunited, everyone’s hangin’, no harm done, right? Probably everyone reading this knows first-hand the unique terror a child feels upon being separated from his or her parents—most of us had one or two little incidents like this when we were kids. And a subset of those reading will know the unique terror a parent feels when separated from their child—a mind-numbing terror in which moments bloat into eternities, each longer than the last. The point is: isolation harms—and depending on its duration and intensity, and the life-stage of the person on whom it is inflicted—it can be the most harmful thing there is. As a former child and a current parent, I’m pretty damn sure that isolation is never, ever a ‘no harm done, right?’ scenario. In the US we use isolation as a tool for penal rehabilitation, which probably makes about as much sense as using a very expensive sheet of radioactive uranium to patch a leaking roof. And (as we’re all suddenly painfully aware) we are now very much in the business of separating illegal immigrants from their own children at the border. Setting aside the unconscionable hideousness of the pain inflicted in the short term, God only knows what harm is being inflicted by this practice in the long term. If Harlow’s maternal-separation experiments on rhesus monkeys are any indication, the harm that we’re doing to the children of these immigrants is stark and undeniable. But the separation of families at the border is a more recent exercise in isolation at the hands of the US government. According to most experts, at any given time about 80,000 prisoners are being held in solitary confinement in US prisons, though it’s almost never called by that name. Instead, we hear the terms ‘Security Housing Units’ or ‘Intensive Management Units’ or ‘Restricted Housing Units’ or even ‘Administrative Segregation’ (or the more Orwellian ‘Adseg’).
The United States Penitentiary Administrative-Maximum Facility (aka ADX), the nation's most secure supermax prison, in Florence, Colorado. Whatever you call it, it generally amounts to 23 hours alone in an approximately 80 square-foot concrete cell, one hour of solitary exercise in a slightly larger enclosure, meals served through an opening in an iron door, severely (almost always arbitrarily) restricted access to TV, radio, reading and writing materials, visitations. Sentences in Adseg can be days, months, years—sometimes decades. Thomas Silverstein, the longest-serving solitary confinement prisoner in the US, has been in solitary since 1983. At any given time, the United States has about as many prisoners in solitary confinement as the United Kingdom has prisoners period. The US, by the Federal Government’s own statistics, has the highest number of prisoners incarcerated in this way of any democratic country in the world. It costs about $75,000 taxpayer dollars to house a prisoner in solitary for one year (about as much as to send a kid to Harvard)—two to three times what it costs to house a prisoner in the general prison population.
(From The Furnace: Random Americans discovering a deceased GARD prisoner.) Speclative fiction, to the extent that it can be assigned any purpose beyond pure entertainment, ought to make us think critically about the world as it is, and as it ought to be. Often it does this by taking some current state of affairs, extrapolating to what it might evolve into, and thereby reducing it to absurdity, or showing its danger or promise. The Blade Runner films succeed so well as sci-fi precisely because they prompt us now, during the birth pangs of AI, to contemplate the moral problems and obligations we’ll face in a world peopled with sentient, rights-endowed androids (which will very likely one day be the case). There’s a venerable American tradition of genre fiction being used to reveal the hideous plight of some segment of the people being mashed up in some societal machine or other—Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, and The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck leap to mind. Nothing quite galvanizes the American mind, it seems, like a story (it’s reported that foreign and domestic sales of American beef and pork declined by half in the wake of the publication of The Jungle). My graphic novel The Furnace imagines a near future in which the United States (very true to form) throws money at the suppurating national ulcer that is separation of detainees and solitary confinement, and the result is The GARD Program. Supermax prisons are shut down, and the inmates are ‘released’ back into society—that is to say: each ‘freed’ prisoner is assigned his or her own GARD, a hovering drone which renders the convict invisible, inaudible, and untouchable. In short, the convicts are reduced to the status of living ghosts. And, in the fullness of time, this results in an even greater human catastrophe. I don’t mean to put myself in league with the writers of these classics and I don’t have the foggiest idea what to do about our current Adseg or immigration problemsthe supermax/Adseg problem. Legislators and judges (particularly those concerned with upholding the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment) will have to hash it out, as they are currently struggling to hash out the border separations issue. What I am certain of is that it is unsustainable, and immoral (there’s a deep connection between those two things). I do hope that The Furnace provokes thought about another too-little discussed problem in America. Even better: I’d like it if The Furnace helped us to reflect upon the unique American genius for treating people—especially the ‘bad’ ones, and increasingly the weakest ones—as numbers and statistics. The prison-industrial complex positions itself as being for our protection and betterment—but it’s driven by commerce and profiteering just as surely as the ‘Beef Trust’ Upton Sinclair dragged into the light of day. Meanwhile, A prisoner molders, slowly losing what’s left of his mind in a gray concrete box. A toddler (whose crime is having parents desperate enough to get into the US illegally) stands screaming for her mother, who won’t come. Neither demanded to be born, and neither has any more or less innate right to exist than you or I. The fact that both are tucked away in government-run facilities, and that the toddler will (probably?) be reunited with her mother (hey, no harm done, right?) will never lessen this eternal fact. How we treat these people, the so-called worst and most certainly the weakest—and how comfortable we are visiting upon them the nuclear option of isolation—is a pretty telling gauge of how bad, or good, we are.
Much of the information presented here was culled from ‘Solitary Confinement: Inside America’s Dreaded Isolation Cells’, By Joanna Walters, The Telegraph, October 17, 2017, and ‘What is Solitary Confinement?’ by Jean Casella and Sal Rodriguez, The Guardian, April 27th, 2016.