“I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body”

– Charles Dickens, American Notes, (Harper & Brothers, 1842) p. 39

If we are to understand how and why prisons function in modern America, it is helpful to know their history. As many of you will be aware there was a time in Western societies when prisons were not the primary form of punishment; instead jails were used for short sentences for disturbing the peace, debt, being poor and as a means to hold people before trial.

Likewise, prisons have not always used solitary confinement. Solitary today is used to punish (sometimes minor) infractions within a prison or to isolate inmates during an investigation/following an incident. Its use differs institution to institution.

Needless to say, on any given day in America 20,000 people are held in solitary despite scientific proof it damages the psyche and regresses basic functioning.

With that in mind, the origins of the practice are pause for thought. In the above video, Sean Kelley, Program Director at Eastern State Penitentiary outlines the history of the famed prison in Philadelphia, and its evolution of the practice of solitary confinement.


The Invention of Solitary‘ was produced by Muralla Media Works headed up by Chris Bravo and Lindsey Schneider.

Bravo and Schneider are involved in several projects and as such I’d describe them both as media activists. They’ve produced advocacy video for incarcerated women and for the mentally ill in prisons. They were also videographers at the ‘Fighting Prisons’ panels at the 2010 US Social Forum.

Their largest current project is CONTROL, a feature-length documentary that tells the story of youth whose lives have been caught in the web of the criminal justice system. View the trailer.

With audio-visuals as their material, it is interesting that they also muse – through the SILENCE OPENS DOORS webzine on the history and philosophy of silence & noise.

Which brings us full circle – read the SILENCE OPENS DOORS blog post about The Invention of Solitary.