Newsweek: Solitude's despair

By Alexander Nazaryan

guenther_solitary coverWhen the tabloids splash a gruesome crime across their pages—"Suburban Lawyer Stabs Children, Eats Wife"—I yearn for the days of justice dispensed cruelly and unusually, not as a corrective hand but a lick of purifying flame. Put a gallows in Times Square, a crucifix on Capitol Hill, bring back what the philosopher Michel Foucault called "the gloomy festival of punishment." The awesome power of the state revealed in fatal violence upon sinful flesh, the citizenry frightened into probity as a felon is disemboweled, pulled apart, hanged, burned, just as in medieval Spain.

We are too humane for anything like the above, or at least too clever. Today, we keep the felon's privations well out of view and shroud them in so much anodyne rhetoric of the bureau-democracy that the ordinary American thinks nothing of the 80,000 individuals wasting away in solitary confinement across the land. These are, the thinking goes, society's dregs: killers, rapists, terrorists. May they rot in hell and, prior to that, rot for a slightly shorter forever in the blank confines of a prison cell. At least a few of them would prefer the guillotine to this endless tundra of time. Some have said so.

The arguments against solitary confinement are legion, but none are quite as intriguing as that found in Lisa Guenther's recent book, Solitary Confinement: Social Death and Its Afterlives. A young philosopher at Vanderbilt who also volunteers at the Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville, Guenther argues that while solitary confinement may be a failing of criminal justice and a psychological abomination, it is, above all, a flagrant offense against the idea of personhood.

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