For nearly three years now, Jewish Currents has had the pleasure of working with the journalist Christopher Blackwell, whose moving dispatches on life as an incarcerated person in Washington state have enriched our magazine. This past fall, Chris told me that he had started a program to mentor writers at the prison where he lives, Washington Corrections Center, and asked if Jewish Currents would be interested in working on a project with the group. After tossing a few ideas back and forth, we soon settled on solitary confinement as the subject of our collaboration, with each writer in Chris’s group—Aaron Edward Olson, Antoine Davis, Jonathan Kirkpatrick, and Raymond Williams—focusing on a different stage in the ordeal of isolation, from the first day to the echoes of trauma years later. All of the men in his group had spent time in solitary, Chris said, and they were passionate about ending it as a practice in American prisons.
As is customary when working with incarcerated writers, we had to get creative in our communication. Prisoners don’t have access to typical internet programs like GoogleDocs, so once I edited the pieces and threaded them together, I transposed my suggestions and clarifying questions into the prison email system JPay for Chris, Aaron, Antoine, Jonathan, and Raymond. Sometimes, if we couldn’t fully understand each other via messages, I’d ask a writer to give me a call—new tablets they received last month made it easier for them to call me from their cells—and we’d talk about what details to include in the revision. Chris, an experienced and widely published writer, helped the others revise their work from the inside. He also introduced me to Hector Ortiz, an incarcerated artist who provided illustrations for the piece. I communicated with Hector via JPay about a vision for the illustrations, and when he finished, Chris mailed me the drawings. I had to wait a couple of weeks for them to arrive so that I could scan them.
At the end of this process, we’re proud to present “In the Hole,” a composite narrative that explores the horrors of solitary confinement in the first person. The accounts here may be hard to digest, but I believe they are essential reading in a country that, as Chris writes in his introduction, holds tens of thousands of people in solitary confinement at any given time. Prison administrators often use isolation to punish prisoners, “manage” their mental health crises, and even supposedly protect them from other inmates. The effects, as you can read below, are devastating. It is crucial, then, to navigate around the barriers that incarceration places on communication with the outside world and publish the work of writers who have experienced it firsthand.
In 1829, at Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary, commonly known as Cherry Hill, descendants of Pennsylvania’s Quaker founders conceived the barbaric practice of isolating humans in cold concrete cells, the first experiment in a punitive practice now known as “solitary confinement.” They thought that isolation might sever those subjected to it from their deviant behaviors by giving them time to reflect, study, and pray. Cherry Hill’s administrators learned almost immediately that the practice did not reform men but instead drove them crazy. In 1842, upon visiting Cherry Hill, Charles Dickens said, “I believe that very few men are capable of estimating the immense amount of torture and agony which this dreadful punishment, prolonged for years, inflicts upon the sufferers.”
Yet today, solitary confinement persists as a common tactic in US prisons. It can be difficult to get an accurate sense of just how widespread this practice is, due to shortcomings in available data. But the numbers we do have are staggering. The most recent prison census, released in 2021 by Bureau of Justice Statistics, found that more than 75,000 people were being held in solitary confinement—defined as being confined to the cell for 22 hours a day—when the census was taken in 2019. (These numbers included state and federal prisons but not jails—which hold people awaiting trial or serving some short sentences—likely making the real number much higher.) A more recent study, released in 2022 and co-authored by the Correctional Leaders Association and the Arthur Liman Center for Public Interest Law at Yale Law School, suggested that the number of people held in solitary seemed to have declined to roughly 41,000–48,000 when they collected their numbers in July 2021. But clearly, tens of thousands of incarcerated people are still regularly forced to endure the grueling experience of solitary almost 200 years after it proved to be a failed experiment. The consequences are devastating: Just last week, newly released footage from an Indiana jail showed that 29-year-old Joshua McLemore died of malnutrition there during a schizophrenic episode in summer 2021 after being left in solitary confinement for 20 days without mental health treatment.
After spending years of my life caged in solitary confinement, beginning at age 12, I felt the stories of those subjected to solitary had to be shared. So I encouraged participants in the writer development program I created at the prison where I live in Washington State to write about it, with each of them examining different aspects of the experience. Our narrative takes you chronologically from the moment of being taken away to solitary, to the slog of bearing the isolation itself, to the aftermath of seeking healing amid persistent trauma. All of the men who participated in this piece have spent portions of their lives, some short and some long-lasting, in solitary confinement, some as adolescents and others as young adults. All of them have experienced life-altering moments while trapped behind that thick steel door. The process of constructing these short stories left each of the men in a troubled state, forced to dredge up some of the bleakest moments of their lives—times where feelings of hope, belonging, and love were pushed deep down and walled up, while feelings of depression and loneliness reigned. But they wanted to write about it anyway. Only through sharing our stories and educating the public can we work to end the practice that caused us all this harm.
— Christopher Blackwell
It was a half-mile walk to solitary confinement, stretching almost the entire length of the compound from my living unit. One guard led the parade, with another in the back, holding a video camera. I was flanked by six others, three on each side. They could have just asked me to report to solitary, and I would have complied, knowing that refusal would only get me pepper-sprayed, gang-tackled, and tased. But the message intended by my perp walk was clear: We can crush you whenever we want.
— Aaron Edward Olson
Boom, boom, boom! The loud noise echoed down the hallway as the two prison guards escorted me to the cell I had been assigned. It was a summer afternoon, and the sunlight coming through the gray-coated windows reminded me of the freedoms I couldn’t reach. The oversized orange jumpsuit draped over my body felt like a metaphor: This place didn’t fit; I didn’t belong there. As we moved past one cell door after another, I could feel the eyes of some of the men watching me through plexiglass windows behind paint-chipped bars. Solitary confinement felt like a place for animals.
— Antoine Davis
My family doesn’t understand when I explain that my memories of that time are blurred. They have months or years of distinct memories. In solitary, I only had one. Each day was the same, and began with the worst part: waking up. “Nothing” happens each moment of every day. Yet in those moments of nothingness, the absence of life, happiness, and experience gives birth to misery and despair—the torture of knowing that your life is worth nothing, that it holds nothing: no casual conversations with a neighbor or coworker, no hugs from friends and family, no kisses from a spouse. There is nothing left but bare survival.
— Aaron Edward Olson
The door slammed behind me. I looked across the room in confusion. This wasn’t a cell; it couldn’t be. There was no bed, no sink, and no toilet. There was a mattress thrown on the ground at the far end of the cell. And there was a smell. Sewage?
— Raymond Williams
I was cuffed and brought to the solitary visit room, where I sat for a while. Finally, a guard arrived. He told me to strip; my body was inspected from top to bottom, not missing a crack or crevice. They had to make sure I didn’t take anything from the bare cell I had just left, as if there was anything to take. I got dressed and waited for an escort to take me back to the main prison. Twenty more minutes, then the escort arrived, and I was again cuffed tightly with my hands behind my back. The door opened and we proceeded through three sets of large steel doors. The last one exposed me to the fresh open air, crisp and inviting. Standing there, cuffed, in a bright orange jumpsuit many sizes too large, I pulled deep breaths into my lungs, as if the air would cease to exist at any moment. It felt like I hadn’t been outside for years, though it had only been weeks.
— Christopher Blackwell
Now that I was back in my general population unit, I was having a hard time sleeping. It wasn’t the noise; our tier was generally quiet. The problem was I was having a hard time winding down. The days were filled with so many sights and sounds that I wasn’t used to. When people tried to talk to me, I just heard meaningless babble, like the adults in a Charlie Brown cartoon. Everything seemed so large and oppressive: A walk to the chow hall was an ordeal that required the preparation of a road trip. I would lay in my bunk at night just trying to catch up with the day. A few minutes of conversation could take me hours to process, as I tried to figure out what everyone wanted. And so I couldn’t sleep.
— Jonathan Kirkpatrick
Six months in, the isolation and loneliness started to eat me. As a former foster youth, I had no family to call and no one to write me, and I grew desperate for support and friendship. When I gained access to a phone I started dialing random numbers collect. I hoped someone would answer and I would make a friend. But people rarely answered, and when they did, I didn’t find what I was looking for. Eventually I stopped calling out. I turned inward, and I have never been the same. I cannot forget the years in solitary I endured as a youth. I can’t shake the sense of loneliness that lingers to this day. The long term effects of solitary live on in me.
— Raymond Williams