Nashville author Lisa Guenther, an associate professor of philosophy at Vanderbilt University, studies penal issues in the U.S. Her own involvement with the prison system — facilitating a weekly discussion group at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution — has given her a close-up view of prison life and the effects of solitary confinement in particular. In her comprehensive new book, Solitary Confinement: Social Death and Its Afterlives, Guenther gives a historical overview of solitary confinement in the U.S. and discusses theories concerning its use, the role of race in its application, the treatment of animals in factory farms, and everything else that could possibly relate to a consideration of the topic.
The first penitentiaries in this country were designed for white men, Guenther writes, and their goal was redemption. Solitary confinement was regarded as therapy, to give prisoners uninterrupted time to reflect on the error of their ways. During the 19th century and through the Cold War, rehabilitation was the commonly expressed goal of imprisonment. As the prison population grew, however, and prison costs became a significant burden on all levels of government, the primary goal became control, especially in new supermax penitentiaries.
Inmates today are warehoused as efficiently as possible, provided with the minimum court-ordered conditions necessary to sustain life and avoid lawsuits alleging cruel and unusual punishment. According to Guenther, though, there is little or no interest in reformation or rehabilitation, much less in respecting the dignity of human life. Her book, she writes, is "an extended argument for the insight ... that an intercorporeal, ethical, and political relation to time and to others is the condition for the possibility of a meaningful life." As she puts it, "We find the meaning of our lives" in relationship with other people: "That is how the light gets in."
When those relations are denied, Guenther argues, as they are in solitary confinement, the prisoner experiences a kind of social death, which often results in "more than a mental illness afflicting individual subjects; it is a social, phenomenological, and ontological pathology, which neither the language of the clinic nor the logic of liberal individualism is adequate to express." Apart from moral and humanitarian considerations, the book asks, what is the point of confining prisoners in conditions that render them more violent and dangerous than they were when first incarcerated? Securing and controlling them becomes more difficult for the prison system that houses them; if they are ever released, they stand little chance of reintegration to society.
With the news full of prison protests and hunger strikes at Pelican Bay and Guantanamo, a rigorous understanding of the effects of confinement, especially the most extreme types, is a valuable contribution. In her thought-provoking book, Guenther provides a solid foundation for contemporary policy-making and a compelling case for rethinking the use of solitary confinement.
For a longer version of this piece, please visit Chapter16.org, an online publication of Humanities Tennessee.
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