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Solitary Confinement

Social Death and Its Afterlives

2013
Author:

Lisa Guenther

Solitary Confinement

Why the living death of solitary confinement is both a form of political and racial violence and an attack on the structure of being itself

In this profoundly important and original book, Lisa Guenther examines the death-in-life experience of solitary confinement in America from the early nineteenth century to today’s supermax prisons. Documenting how solitary confinement undermines prisoners’ sense of identity and their ability to understand the world, Guenther demonstrates the real effects of forcibly isolating a person for weeks, months, or years.

In an unusually vigorous interrogation of philosophy and the social sciences, Lisa Guenther addresses one of humanity’s greatest inhumanities and its perversely long, extensive history in America. Guenther offers a compelling critique of solitary confinement, in the course of which she pushes phenomenology beyond its classical limits, revealing our inherent inter-subjectivity, our need for both interaction and anonymity, and the moral imperative that America end this cruel and barbaric form of punishment. An urgently needed, powerfully argued study of one of the nation’s gravest moral and socio-political failings.

Orlando Patterson, Harvard University

Prolonged solitary confinement has become a widespread and standard practice in U.S. prisons—even though it consistently drives healthy prisoners insane, makes the mentally ill sicker, and, according to the testimony of prisoners, threatens to reduce life to a living death. In this profoundly important and original book, Lisa Guenther examines the death-in-life experience of solitary confinement in America from the early nineteenth century to today’s supermax prisons. Documenting how solitary confinement undermines prisoners’ sense of identity and their ability to understand the world, Guenther demonstrates the real effects of forcibly isolating a person for weeks, months, or years.

Drawing on the testimony of prisoners and the work of philosophers and social activists from Edmund Husserl and Maurice Merleau-Ponty to Frantz Fanon and Angela Davis, the author defines solitary confinement as a kind of social death. It argues that isolation exposes the relational structure of being by showing what happens when that structure is abused—when prisoners are deprived of the concrete relations with others on which our existence as sense-making creatures depends. Solitary confinement is beyond a form of racial or political violence; it is an assault on being.

A searing and unforgettable indictment, Solitary Confinement reveals what the devastation wrought by the torture of solitary confinement tells us about what it means to be human—and why humanity is so often destroyed when we separate prisoners from all other people.

Solitary Confinement

Lisa Guenther is associate professor of philosophy at Vanderbilt University and the author of The Gift of the Other: Levinas and the Politics of Reproduction. She facilitates a weekly discussion group at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville, Tennessee.

Solitary Confinement

In an unusually vigorous interrogation of philosophy and the social sciences, Lisa Guenther addresses one of humanity’s greatest inhumanities and its perversely long, extensive history in America. Guenther offers a compelling critique of solitary confinement, in the course of which she pushes phenomenology beyond its classical limits, revealing our inherent inter-subjectivity, our need for both interaction and anonymity, and the moral imperative that America end this cruel and barbaric form of punishment. An urgently needed, powerfully argued study of one of the nation’s gravest moral and socio-political failings.

Orlando Patterson, Harvard University

Guenther provides a solid foundation for contemporary policy-making and a compelling case for re-thinking the use of solitary confinement.

Chapter 16

Solitary Confinement

Contents

Acknowledgments

Introduction: A Critical Phenomenology of Solitary Confinement

I. The Early U.S. Penitentiary System
1. An Experiment in Living Death
2. Person, World, and Other: A Husserlian Critique of Solitary Confinement
3. The Racialization of Criminality and the Criminalization of Race: From the Plantation
to the Prison Farm

II. The Modern Penitentiary
4. From Thought Reform to Behavior Modification
5. Living Relationality: Merleau-Ponty’s Critical Phenomenological Account of Behavior
6. Beyond Dehumanization: A Posthumanist Critique of Intensive Confinement

III. Supermax Prisons
7. Supermax Confinement and the Exhaustion of Space
8. Dead Time: Heidegger, Levinas, and the Temporality of Supermax Confinement
9. From Accountability to Responsibility: A Levinasian Critique of Supermax Rhetoric

Conclusion: Afterlives


Notes
Bibliography
Index

Solitary Confinement

UMP blog - Social death and the criminalization of resistance in the California prison hunger strikes

On July 8, more than 30,000 prisoners across California launched the largest hunger strike in state history. Now, three weeks later, more than 600 prisoners continue to refuse meals, in spite of direct acts of retaliation by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR).

Hunger strikers report being locked in their cells 24 hours a day, blasted with extra-cold air conditioning, and denied medication on the grounds that it must be taken with food. At least 14 hunger strikers have been forcibly relocated from the SHU or Security Housing Unit (a prison within the prison) into an even more isolated Administrative Segregation Unit. Others have had sandbags placed by their cell doors to prevent “fishing” or passing notes and other items between cells.

Read the full article.