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Prison is like a stage set, with sub-human drama


Hell is a Very Small Place: Voices from Solitary Confinement

Edited by Jean Casella, James Ridgeway and Sarah Shroud

The New Press

226 pages, $17.95

Solitary confinement was the only thing they didn’t show me when I taught at Attica Correctional Facility. A no-nonsense sergeant told me how easy it would be to end up a prisoner if I didn’t play by the rules. Then he sent me on the grand tour. It was quite a show: the A, B, C and D blocks, the rec areas, the mess hall, the different types of cells, the well-equipped metal shops, the commissary where all the inmate transactions (legitimate and otherwise) took place, the law library, the laundry, the trailers in the yard between the inner and the outer walls where certain inmates were allowed to be with their families for short periods of time and “Times Square” a heavily barred cage at the center of the prison where the 1971 riot started.

But my guide wouldn’t show me solitary. Only specially trained guards were allowed, the guide said. Prisoners like Son of Sam were there. Anyone who killed one of them would be a hero. Inmates were there for their own protection, he claimed. Thinking back, I probably should have asked if I really looked like a killer. I believed that story then. I do not believe it after reading this book.

Written by prisoners who have been in solitary far too long, these stories describe men driven mad by cruel and unusual punishment. If you think people who do bad things deserve whatever they get, don’t read this book.

They are good writers, which is impressive when you consider that they are self-educated. Maybe a good writer is like a good athlete — two-thirds gift, one-third effort. Or maybe it helps to have a lot of time to perfect your art. Whatever the case, the piece by Thomas Bartlett Whitaker would fit seamlessly into a Celine or Dostoevsky novel. It’s about a man called Mad Dog.

“The first time I met Mad Dog, he nearly shot me with a Hepatitis C-infected blowgun dart.”

Prisoners in solitary use the weapons at their disposal. If you have Hepatitis C, you use it. Constant yelling at night and the throwing of excrement are other weapons of choice. Plugging the toilets and letting them run is another favorite. The guards have to come and clean up. There’s something wonderful about human resourcefulness under these circumstances.

Whitaker doesn’t mind showing off his literary muscles. “He was fighting them all the while, a Hegelian abstraction run amok in the real world: the indefatigable and uncaring essence of his era personified.”

Mad Dog defies the prison rules and manages to gain respect from the guards even as they beat him. By trying to understand what makes Mad Dog tick, Whitaker sidesteps the weakness of most prison writing — complaints about his own miserable condition. Sympathy is the last thing you’d expect in a prison story and it makes the place come alive.

Prison is like a perfect stage set. Nothing is unimportant. Everything resonates and is there for a purpose. Drama is everywhere but in this case it’s not human drama. It is sub-human.

Scholarly essays by psychologists and philosophy professors round out this collection, making strong arguments against solitary confinement. One points out that it’s hypocritical to feel good about the release of the psychiatric patients from their imprisonment in the '60s because those same conditions still occur in prisons with no professional supervision. Animals in zoos and shelters get better care than humans in prisons.

Perhaps the best argument against solitary confinement, however, is that it violates the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution which bans the use of "cruel and unusual punishment." The authorities have managed to dodge cases brought against them by playing dumb, saying they didn’t know the treatment they were inflicting on inmates was doing irreparable harm. Lawyers lacking first hand experience of solitary have trouble making their case. They should read these stories. They make the case beyond the shadow of a doubt.

When I took writers to Attica I knew what they anticipated and what they actually saw were two different things. I have to admit I felt a little superior watching their learning curve. But it turns out I had been shown a gussied up version of Hell. The real fate of those who have stepped out of line is much worse than I ever saw or imagined.

William L. Morris is a co-founder of the News Poetry Pages and a former teacher and a poet and critic. He now lives and writes in Florida.

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