Who are you if you have no purpose? If every day you woke up only to realize there is no routine to follow, nowhere to go, or nothing meaningful to do? What if your schedule consisted of staring at the same beige brick walls in a 10-by-6-foot cell for 23-hours a day for an undetermined period of time? Imagine you are straining to hear the muffled voices of correctional guards who are having a conversation 30 feet away. You crave human interaction so deeply that by silently witnessing their conversation, you can close your eyes, and pretend that you’re a part of it.
Your eyes are open, but you’re not looking at anything. You’re floating in a black hole of negative thinking when, after what seems like hours, the knock on the door hammers you back into reality. A guard, doing his job, walks by to make sure that you’re still alive and you’re reminded that you exist. Although, in solitary confinement, existing is all that you are doing. There is no living here.
As quickly as the guard came, he left, and you’re hit in the gut with the painful realization that only 30 minutes have gone by since the last walk-through. You’re unsure about what time it is, but you know the guards have walked by twice since breakfast was slid into your room through the slot in the concrete door. You purposely didn’t drink the coffee because you didn’t want to be awake for longer than you need to be, and you didn’t want to aggravate your anxiety by being fully caffeinated while confined in such a small space. You lay in your bed for a while daydreaming about the faces of your loved ones, only to open your eyes with the brutal awareness that you’re still here. Sadness suffocates your body because they’re not with you. No one is with you. You are all alone.
Since you know no visitors are coming to see you due to the new COVID protocol, you holler back at the guard through the small window to ask to use the phone. You choose to spend your one free hour in a 24-hour day on the phone rather than in the yard because even though fresh air feels nice, the loneliness is unbearable. The yard isn’t really a yard, though. It’s a tiled deck without any grass or trees, and you struggle to see past the barbed wire. When you’re nonchalantly told, no, you turn back to face your cell and realize the walls look much closer together than they did before. You don’t bother begging for basic privileges anymore because you’ve accepted that in segregation, you just don’t matter.
You’ve felt sadness before, but never like this. This sadness is foreign. You feel it deep inside your joints, eyes, and gut. You try to sleep away the rest of the day, hoping that tomorrow comes faster than yesterday went. It doesn’t. You pick up the rubber pencil they gave you when you first got in here — however many days ago that was — and stab it into the wall. The rubber bends effortlessly, but it doesn’t break. You contemplate for a second and decide that what you thought you might use this pencil for, won’t work.
Tears start to fall down your face and all you can think about is the letter you were given from Classification, saying you’ll be in here for even longer. You don’t agree with the reasoning, and you’ve asked to speak to someone about it, but it’s been more days than you can remember, and no one has come yet. The reoccurring sense of false hope reminds you that, in here, you don’t matter. You’ve been in administrative segregation since the day you were convicted. You’re told it’s for your own protection, but as someone clinically diagnosed with severe mental health challenges, you wonder how this is true. Maybe it doesn’t need to be true. You committed a crime and it doesn’t matter if it was accidental or that you’re sorry. You. Don’t. Matter.
Afraid of losing yourself in here again, you pick up the pencil and start writing words on the wall. Phrases like, “I am mentally strong”, and “This is only temporary” make themselves seen as you lay in your bed. You read everything you wrote over and over again, forcing yourself to believe it to be true. Mentally exhausted, you close your eyes just as a guard taps on your door. It’s only been 30 minutes since the last check. Yes, I exist, you think as that foreign sadness grows stronger inside of you.
As a first-time offender, you didn’t know what to expect when you were sent to serve, but the thought of solitary confinement never crossed your mind. You thought segregation was a severe punishment that was meant only for the worst type of criminals, and in the past, you might have agreed. You were told that you would have access to classes and rehabilitative programs, but in solitary confinement, there is nothing available to you, except for time. You have more time than you’ve ever had before, but you have nothing to do or to focus on.
The thought of strangling yourself to death or bashing your head against the wall as hard as you can is starting to sound more freeing and rehabilitative than having to wait another unknown amount of days before you can see the grass or stimulate your mind. They gave you a book, but the graphic nature of the story makes you feel sick. It’s about a violent kidnapping and the thought of someone being kept from their loved ones makes your body hurt. You can relate. You are away from your loved ones. You are alone.
Every page stings where that foreign sadness lives inside of you, but you force yourself to read this book anyway because you so desperately need something to do. Eventually, the lights dim, and you feel relief because, for once, you know the time. It is 9:30 on the dot, and lockup has begun. The only thought in your mind right now is what keeps you sane enough to pull through. Maybe tomorrow you will get to use the phone.
Borrowed from real inmates inside of segregation, these types of thoughts and feelings only scratch the surface of the problem. It is not beneficial for correctional facilities to place human beings inside of a box with minimal stimulation. In other parts of the world, this method is used as torture. It is argued that small amounts of time in solitary confinement is not that difficult because humans are generally adaptable. However, I disagree. When your mind and body are suffering, your instincts trigger your innate survival mode. Surviving is not adapting.
It is also argued that solitary confinement is a necessary punishment to correct unacceptable and dangerous behaviour. However, again, I disagree. Mentally breaking and deflating a human being for days, months, or years at a time is not rehabilitative. By doing this, we are creating severely unstable individuals. How is it expected that a person will come out of this type of environment better and ready to grow? Nothing can grow without being watered.
After spending even one day in segregation, special attention must be given to undo the psychological damage that is born from this type of environment. The psychological challenges connected with an inmate’s time in segregation must be carefully rectified before expecting such individuals to proceed with regular correctional programming. Is this not counterproductive?
If we took a page from the books of Nordic countries and accepted prison as the punishment and then focused entirely on rehabilitating inmates, perhaps we would have a much lower crime rate. There is no need to over-punish. The focus should be on having an accused person leave prison better than when they arrived. This can be achieved by assessing an inmate’s needs, developing customized programming, building collaborative relationships between guards and inmates, and using reinforcement methods to alter behaviours. Why is this not a priority in BC? Why are we following parts of a broken system that was created over 300 years ago? Setting inmates up for success only heightens their ability and desire to be functioning and contributing members of society, while breaking them down and stripping them of their basic rights only leaves them more psychologically unstable than before they came in.
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