This post is about 1200 words and can be read in 5-6 minutes.
This post was provided by a former prisoner who wishes to remain anonymous. In light of the current controversy around solitary confinement in Canada, a first-hand account of it seems useful.
I spent nearly three weeks in solitary confinement in an Ontario provincial jail in 2015. This occurred following sentencing and prior to my transfer to a federal prison. (This is standard practice; any prisoner with a federal sentence – two years or more – will spend a week or more in a provincial jail first.) I was placed in solitary due to fears for my personal safety. However once placed in solitary you are exactly the same as everyone else there, considered to be ‘the worst of the worst’.
Although I was told several times that my transfer would occur very quickly, in fact it took nearly 3 weeks, for reasons that were never explained to me. But when you are a prisoner you can assume that nothing will be explained to you about why things do or don’t happen. As a prisoner you are generally treated with disdain, as someone of no account, whose needs and wishes are immaterial to the institution and those who work there. On the other hand, knowing that my time there was limited did make each day easier to get through.
In solitary confinement you are basically cut off from human contact and deprived, largely for no good reason, of most of the things that make life worthwhile, such as meaningful activity. On the other hand, ‘regular’ life in jail is no bed of roses, subject to overcrowding, violence, and also deprivation of many of the things that matter most to people.
Using time and getting sleep
The main problems in solitary for me were how to occupy my time and how to get a decent sleep. To take the second issue first, sleeping in solitary is very difficult. Instead of a proper bed there is a plasticized mattress with a built-in pillow-like structure all of which is very uncomfortable. It was very cold all the time; I usually slept with all my clothes on plus the sheet and blanket in order to stay warm. And most importantly, the lights are never turned off in a solitary cell; the overhead light is turned down somewhat at night, but it continues to shine all night directly into the sleeping space. So I never got a proper night’s sleep, which is an additional risk to psychological health.
The bigger problem is what to do for all the hours in a day. In that regard I had the advantage of a good education which perhaps gives me a broader range of interests and ideas. Prisoners in solitary do not have access to a television or radio – although prisoners in provincial jails generally only have access to a single TV which is on the range outside the cells. Access to reading material is very limited; at first I was given two small books about people who had discovered God while in jail – not my usual reading material. I later requested and got a Bible – the only book readily available in jail – which I read from cover to cover. After a few days I was able to get guards to give me one or two of the very few books that happened to make their way onto the segregation range (there was no organized reading or library service in this large jail) and, a couple of times, copies of the local tabloid newspaper, which was the only newspaper available in that jail.
Nothing to do all day
Also after a day or two I was able to get a guard to give me a pencil (the only writing implements available are the very small pencils golfers use to record scores) and some paper. After that, I spent a considerable amount of time writing – mostly letters to family and friends. And here I note that prisoners are supposed to be able to send two ‘free’ letters per week, but the letters I sent in this category never arrived, unlike those for which I was purchased stamps. This lack of predictability was a feature of all jails I was in.
Another problem is that there are no clocks so no way of knowing what time it is other than by meals being served or by looking out the small, sealed window that I was fortunate enough to have to follow the progress of the sun. I made a chess board from a page ripped out of one of the religious books, and later made a small deck of cards from a blank piece of paper I obtained. I paced back and forth and did various exercise, counted things I could see out the window, made notes on paper of various things I might do in the future, and had structured mental dialogues with myself and others.
Lack of human contact
One of the great challenges of being in solitary is lack of human contact. You might go several days without saying a word to anyone. I tried to telephone someone I knew twice each day, though this depends on a guard being willing to bring the phone to your cell – where you have to crouch in order to use it through the slot in the door. And phoning is extremely expensive, as all calls are collect and charged at a rate vastly higher than anyone ‘on the outside’ would ever pay. After a few days I started to get letters from family and friends. These were immensely important; I reread each one many times. All of these contacts were crucial to my ability to manage while many prisoners did not get letters and had nobody they could call. Still, time often moved very, very slowly. I told myself each day that I would be moved tomorrow so I could get through today.
During my nearly 3 weeks there I had a total of 6 showers – about one every 3 days. I had exactly two 20 minute periods of exercise in a ‘yard’ – a space open to the sky but with a concrete floor and high walls all around – very far from what anyone would call ‘being outside’. As far as I could tell – I was never given any explanation nor were any of my questions on this ever answered – this small number of exits from my cell were primarily because the various shifts of guards simply did not know (and did not seem to care) what had happened to me previously.
Solitary confinement isn’t the only problem
One important factor about solitary that is seldom recognized is that it is part of a larger continuum of punishment. When are you are in solitary you are not just thinking about today, but about what you have to survive in the future, whether in solitary or in some other form of imprisonment. Fears and fantasies about the future, coupled with regrets about the past, are constantly present and powerful because of the lack of human contact. It’s easy to see how one’s thinking could get badly distorted.
During my travels through the prison system I met many men who had spent far longer in solitary, under worse conditions. But it’s hard to see any justification for the way this system works other than the desire to punish coupled with bureaucratic lethargy and indifference.
However it’s also important to say that while eliminating or curbing the use of solitary confinement is a worthwhile objective, nobody should think that achieving this end will solve or even substantially address the many serious problems of Canadian jails and prisons. Moving people from being alone in a cell to being confined with others but still under bad conditions, with ignominious treatment, fears of personal safety, and little or no opportunity to better oneself is not much of an improvement.