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Christoph Gielen, a photographer known for his aerial views of American suburbs has chosen as his next subject super-maximum security prisons — the most controlled spaces in American prison industrial complex. Supermaxes are of particular interest as they are designed specifically for solitary confinement.

As I wrote for, today, America has an unusual thirst for putting people in total lockdown.

In consideration of “the severe mental pain or suffering” it can cause, Juan Mendez, United Nations Special Rapporteur on torture, said that solitary confinement amounts to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. Mendez recommended that prisoners never be confined in solitary for more than 15 days.

However, in US prisons, stints in the hole can be longer. Much longer. The California Department of Corrections self-reports the average stay on an inmate in the Pelican Bay State Prison Secure Housing Unit (SHU) is six-and-a-half-years. Many have been in the SHU for a decade or more. In Louisiana, Herman Wallace and  Albert Woodfox of the Angola 3 have been in solitary for over 30 years.

I’ve also written previously about how images of solitary confinement – despite its widespread use – are difficult to come by.

“The opportunity to visually examine these restricted locations is significant, especially at a time when journalists access is increasingly curtailed,” says Gielen.

Gielen noticed concentric patterns of equivalent interest in the Supermax prisons of Arizona whiel working on his suburbs photo series Ciphers.

American Prison Perspectives is a simple and effective presentation of these design forms. Are gated communities and caged facilities are our preferred housing solutions for the late 20th and early 21st centuries?

With 1 in 100 adults behind bars, America incarcerates more people than any other modern society. Of the 2.3 million men, women and children locked up in the U.S., 80,000 prisoners are in solitary. That number includes hundreds of children.

The rapid adoption of solitary by prison authorities as a means to discipline and segregate has led Jeremy Travis, president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice, to call it one of the “greatest social experiments of our time.” For some sociologists, the parallels that Gielen drew between housing and prisons go beyond visual similarity. Columbia University’s Spatial Information Design Lab goes so far to ask, “Have prisons and jails become the mass housing of our time?”





The debate on solitary confinement is timely. To quote myself, again:

The Illinois campaign spurred Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) to chair the first-ever congressional hearing on solitary confinement last summer. Durbin showed up on Capitol Hill with an actual-size solitary-cell replica.

While for many, the discussion of prisons and segregation can revolve around human rights and legal justice, the issue is particularly relevant today for its economic implications. There was a successful grass-roots campaign to shutdown Illinois’ Tamms Correctional Facility, due largely to the fact that it costs more than $60,000 a year to house a prisoner in solitary confinement in Tamms, compared to an average of $22,000 for inmates in other Illinois prisons. The closure is currently stalled — held up in court following opposition from the AFSCME labor union with prison guards in its ranks.

“In America, particularly, the long view is hardly ever considered. Fiscal views are considered for on a yearly basis,” says Gielen. “Economically, the widespread use of solitary is unsustainable.”



American Prison Perspectives doesn’t end with the images. In 2014, Gielen plans launch a website devoted to the series and host a public online forums. Furthermore, Gielen foresees symposia across the U.S. with former prisoners, prison architects, legal experts, activists, correctional officer union-reps and prison administrators, along with firsthand accounts of solitary confinement and the perspectives of mental health experts on the effects of isolation.

American Prison Perspectives will illustrate how prison design and architecture reflect political discourse, economic priorities, cultural sentiments, and social insecurities, and how, in turn, these constructed environments also become statements about a society.

American Prison Perspectives is supported by Blue Earth Alliance, the Fund For Investigative Journalism and Creative Time Reports and others. You too can help spread the potential reach of the work with your own donation.

I wish Christoph the very best in this ambitious project.


Hansen, Bettina

The Seattle Times reports some enlightened thinking at the WA DOC:

Washington state is at the forefront of a national re-examination. Instead of facing nothing but forced solitude, Washington inmates in solitary units — called Intensive Management Units, or IMUs — are increasingly being let out for hours to attend classes, see counselors or hit the gym.

It is a clear move to the left in prison management, but one that Washington prison managers say is rooted in data. More emphasis on rehabilitation appears to calm behavior in the prison, and cuts violent recidivism on the streets, experts say. It is also a cost-saver: Solitary confinement costs about three times as much as keeping a prisoner in general custody.

Let us hope other states follow the example.

Photo by Bettina Hansen/Seattle Times. Caption: Earnest Collins says he’s open to change after fights twice landed him in the Intensive Management Unit at Clallam Bay. “If you’re not mentally strong, it’ll drive you crazy,” said Collins. “You hear a lot of crazy things in IMU.”

Request: “I would like to see the downtown Chicago or the lake of Chicago it will bring me happiness to see a real nice picture of the downtown. Please! A good place to eat! Nice cars! I been locked up for 17 long years!”

Last week, I asked Where Are All The Photographs Of Solitary Confinement? In terms of evidential imagery, the question still stands. A very different but equally interesting angle to take in the inquiry into images from within solitary is to consider the imagined and idealised images that persist within the minds of prisoners.


Tamms Year Ten (TY10), a Chicago-based activist group campaigning to close down the controversial Tamms Supemax in Illinois, is not only finding out what the precious images are in the minds of men in solitary, they are going out into the world and making those images a reality – making files, prints to be mailed to each man, and prints for awareness-raising exhibitions.

TY10 asked scores of men in solitary, “If you could have one picture, what would it be?” The requests can be anything in worlds real or imagined. Once made, the images are opportunities for prisoners to see what they want to, what they used to, or perhaps what they may never see again.

Tamms prisoners never leave their cells except to shower or exercise alone in a concrete pen. Meals are pushed through a slot in the cell door. There are no jobs, communal activities or contact visits. Suicide attempts, self-mutilation, psychosis and serious mental disorders are common at Tamms, and are an expected consequence of long-term isolation.

The U.N. Committee Against Torture considers such conditions to be cruel, inhuman and degrading, and when the isolation is indefinite – as at Tamms – to be form of torture. Last year, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on torture Juan E. Méndez called for a global ban on solitary confinement in excess of 15 days.

This year, Governor Pat Quinn announced his plans to shut down the prison but closure has been halted because of lawsuits by the prison guards’ union, AFSCME.


Below are a selection of the requests and resulting images. They are a hodge-podge collection of styles and approaches and clearly many of the images do not meet the standards of fine art aesthetics. But, those standards are not by which these images should be judged.

The images originate from the minds of men who exist in environments of severe sensory deprivation. Each image is conjured from the absence of imagery.

Process trumps product in the TY10 Photo Requests From Solitary project. These images connect and educate people across supermax divides – the most opaque divides of prison regulation. The Photos From Solitary Project – one of the many TY10 efforts to engage the public on the issue of cruel and unusual detention – was conceived of to capture the eyes and ears of people and draw them in to protest and resistance.

The processes in making these images buttress, and spread, committed social justice activism; that is their worth.

Active in the project are artists and photographers Greg Ruffing, Oli Rodriguez, Jeanine Oleson, Rachel Herman, Claire Pentecost, Colleen Plumb, Tracy Sefcik, Harry Bos, Chris Murphy, Billy Dee, Lindsay Blair Brown, Karen Rodriguez, Sue Coe, Danny Orendorff, Lloyd Degrane and others.

Requests remain open and you can get involved too. Contact


Request: “If you please, send me photographs of laser-printed image on white paper or the 10 most-dangerous land animals in the world. If you do not find it onerous and unreasonable, send me pictures of the land animals too, with a description of each animal.”
Photo montage by Mark Cooley; research and text by Stephen F. Eisenman.

Request: “I want a photo of the whole block of 63rd and Marshfield, on the south-side in the Englewood community – the 6300 block of south Marshfield is where I’m from. I would like it taken in the day time, between two and four o’clock p.m. It’s a green and white duplex-like house – the only green and while house on the block – that my Auntie “Gibby” lives in. I want the picture taken from the sidewalk (that leads to the T-shape alley going towards Ashland and 63rd) in front of the alley, facing slightly towards 64th Marshfield. But, make sure majority of the west-side of the block gets pictured.”

Request: “I would like my own picture done with an alternate background from the IDOC picture. I have no pictures of myself to give my friends and family. This would mean a great deal to me. If this is not able to be done. Then I’ll leave the picture for you to decide. If you can place my picture on another background. Nothing too much please. Something simple like a blue sky with clouds or a sunset in the distance would be fine.”

Request: “I would like to see a picture of a beach with the clearest water, and palm trees and birds with colorful plume, and maybe with the sun setting low on the horizon. The only instruction I have would be for you to create this photo with imagination and serenity.”

Request: “It’ll be great to get a picture of the chicago skyline at night, with all the big buildings (Willis Tower, etc) and lakefront. really I would just like pictures of the city, the x-mas tree down town, mag-mile, Mill park the places people come to chicago to see. Hey, you’re the photographer, just do what you do!”

Request: “Jennifer Lopez music videos with her ex Ben Affleck on the boat with her butt showing. I will like to see her butt.”

Request: “I would love a photograph of a woman setting by a lake fishing, with an empty chair next to her, with a cooler of beer. And in the empty chair have a sign with FreeBird on it! And have a Harley Davidson motorcycle in the background! I’d prefer the photographer take the photo from a boat out in the lake! Also, I’d prefer a woman that’s over 40!”

Request: “At 66 yrs. of age I try to use a little humor. I want a picture of a trash-can with the lid half off, with two eyes peeking out of the half-open lid. The trash can is rolling down the hill toward an incinerator with the caption: ‘I seem to be picking up speed I must be headed towards a bright future.’ I was in Florence, CO. So if you could get a picture of me in the Feds and in the state Max joints you could caption both: ‘From Max to Max and no end in sight’.”

Request: “A lovesick clown, holding a old fashioned feathered pen, as if writing a letter. From the waist up, in black and white. As close up as possible with as much detail as possible, and with the face about four inches big.”

Request: “I would like this picture drawn my ID as is. Don’t add a thing. Just the face will do. Thank you for this blessing. I don’t have any pictures of myself; they all were confiscated, years back, when I was at Pontiac. So I would like to know if you could get a picture of me off the internet or the ID photo that I believe you have. Don’t worry I still don’t smile or laugh it’s been years since I smiled, but thanks to your offer I will be smiling if I get the picture your offering. I believe you could get my mug shot off the internet. The picture is to be sent to my mother in Puerto Rico.”

Request: “Cast of the Kidd Kraddick in the Morning Show: Kelly Rasberry; Big Al Mack; Jenna; Psycho Shannon; Kidd Kraddick; JS.” [This is the cast of the radio show he listens to every day. He has been in isolation for 12 years.]

Request: “A picture of the stone archway in the back of the yard’s neighborhood located at 40th and Exchange St; between Halsted and Racine Streets on the South Side. It’s the last remaining thing from the Union Stockyards. I used to climb up on this structure as a kid; a few angle’s of it taken from different directions. I am not limited to any photo amounts.”

Request: “I would like a photograph of Madison and Ashland looking West towards the United Center, and if you could, I would like a full frontal view of the Michael Jordan statue in front of the United Center. THANK YOU!”

Request: “A photo of my deceased mother standing in front of a mansion, or big castle with a bunch of money on the ground and a black Hummer parked in front of it. I truly appreciate this a lot. I have been trying to get a picture of this, for a long time now. Please send the picture back when you are finished. We can’t receive Polaroids, just regular pictures that is 15 pictures, but 10 per envelope. I’m sending you two poems I wrote. I would truly appreciate it a lot from you helping me out, especially as I don’t have nobody out there. Now I know somebody out there in the world cares about us in here.”

Request: “I would like to receive a photograph of a “8×10″ Puerto Rican Flag. Thank you in advance! This could be taken in the Humboldt Park neighborhood in Chicago.”

Request: “I would like a picture of downtown Waukegan, IL located in Lake County, IL. The best place to photograph would be Genesse St.”

Request: “Photographs of Tamms Year Ten – that is, if they are not prohibited. :< I’d just like to be able to put the faces to the names we’ve seen over the years so the humanity of each can shine forth – a name on paper at the end of the day is still just a name on paper!”

Request: “The Bald Knob Cross in the Southern area of Illinois with someone of the Christian faith going there praying for me with the Grand Cross in the picture praying that I am released from Tamms and that I make parole. I’ve been locked up 36 long years, and time in Tamms is hindering my chances of making parole. I am asking for intercession prayers for my release from Tamms by this personal Bald Knob Cross and the chain will cause my family and others to go there too. Be sure to include the Bald Knob Cross in the picture and to pray for my release from Tamms and to make parole. My family and church will also finish linking the chain of this event. Persistently offering prayers combined with solemn earnest efforts and devoted work to change things. God + Tamms Year Ten + dynamic team!”
TY10 note: We coordinated with the management at Bald Knob Cross, gathered his family members and others, drove six hours to Bald Knob Cross and held a beautiful litany with prayer, song and verse and every family member speaking. The next day we took family members to visit Tamms. Willie was transferred from Tamms the day before the prayer vigil! This summer  – after 37 years in prison – he got parole. Willie was put on a Greyhound bus and was back in Chicago the next day. We had a Welcome Home party for him and he talked about this photograph.

Request: “A photograph within a photo of me + the lake front. A photograph within a photo of me + Navy Pier. A photograph within a photo of me + wild lions. A photograph within a photo of me + wild wolves. A photograph within a photo of me + Chinese Dragon. For next Christmas mailing of cards. Please place me in the right, upper corner of the photo within a photo and make copies of them 5 each. Thank you very much and many blessings. Get my photo off the Tamms, prison profile website.”

Request: “A photo of the Christmas tree downtown.”

Request: “I don’t know if this like an artist drawing a picture if so I got into the whole superhero thing and I had this idea where two major comic Marvel/DC. It’s a mural with Thor, Captain America, Wolverine, Venom, Iron Man, Hulk teamed up with Superman, Green Arrow, Flash, and Batman against Two Face, Joker, Magneto, Dr Doom, Saber Tooth, Kingpin, and Green Goblin. A battle of good-vs-evil theme.”

Request: “I would like to receive an image laser-printed on regular white paper photograph a myself off the internet without my criminal convictions or other information attached to the photo. I would like the three photographs I am sending to you copied onto digital paper that can be used in a computer enhancement. If someone can do this for me, I will appreciate it very much and thank you. If you can not do it send my photos back, please. “
TY10 Note: We completed this one and the IDOC censored it and returned it to us.

Request: “I would like a photographer to capture the image of a little boy and girl, sitting side by side, on a piano bench, the two of them playing together, with a single bright red rose on the piano keys. If possible, make sure the kids are anywhere from 3-7 years old, dressed in sunday best. It shall be a romantic photo, which I hope to give to my wife. 8×10 copy of the completed photo.”


The exhibition Photo Requests From Solitary is on show until the 21st December, at the Tamms Year Ten Campaign Office, Sullivan Galleries, School of the Art Institute of Chicago, 33 S. State St., 7th Floor, Chicago IL 60603.

The Tamms Year Ten Photos Requests From Solitary is supported by an Open Society Documentary Photography Audience Engagement Grant. In partnership with the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, the project is to expand to supermaxes in California and Virginia.

Tamms Year Ten is a grassroots coalition formed in 2008 to persuade Illinois legislators and the governor to reform or close Tamms supermax prison. Follow them on Facebook.

Isolation exercise yard, Security Housing Unit, Pelican Bay, Crescent City, California, a supermax-type control, high security facility said to house California’s most dangerous prisoners. © Richard Ross

Solitary confinement is in the news … for lots of reasons – a lawsuit brought by prisoners against the Federal Bureau of Prisons; a lawsuit brought by 10 prisoners in solitary against the state of California; a June Senate hearing on the psychological and human rights implications of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons (which included the fabrication of a replica sized AdSeg cell in the courtroom); an ACLU report pegging solitary as human rights abuse; a NYCLU report showing arbitrary use of solitary, a NYT Op-Ed by Lisa Guenther; the rising use of solitary at immigration detention centres; and the United Nations’ announcement that solitary is torture.

Recently, journalists from across America have contacted me looking for photographs of solitary confinement to accompany their article. I could only think of three photographers – one of whom wishes to remain anonymous; another, Stefan Ruiz is not releasing his images yet; which leaves Richard Ross‘ work which is well known.

Stefan Ruiz’ photographs of Pelican Bay State Prison, CA made in 1995 for use as court evidence. (See full Prison Photography interview with Ruiz here.)

With a seeming paucity, I went in search of other images. I found an image of a “therapy session” by Lucy Nicholson from her Reuters photo essay Inside San Quentin. A scene that has been taken to task by psychologist and political image blogger Michael Shaw.

Shane Bauer took a camera inside Pelican Bay for his recent Mother Jones report on solitary confinement.

Rich Pedroncelli for the San Francisco Chronicle.

Pelican Bay has been hosting media tours and welcoming journalists in the past year – partly due to public pressure and partly through a strategic shift by the CDCR to appear to be responding to public outcry. Maybe the courts have had a say, too?

© Lucy Nicholson / Reuters. Prisoners of San Quentin’s AdSeg unit in group therapy. (Source)

© Shane Bauer. Pelican Bay SHU cell. (Source)

© Shane Bauer. CA CDCR employees show investigative journalist Shane Bauer the Pelcian Bay SHU “Dog run.” (Source)

Correctional Officer Lt. Christopher Acosta is seen in the exercise area in the Secure Housing Unit at the Pelican Bay State Prison near Crescent City, Calif., Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2011. State prison officials allowed the media to tour Pelican’ Bay’s secure housing unit, known as the SHU, where inmates are isolated for 22 1/2 hours a day in windowless, soundproofed cells to counter allegations of mistreatment made during an inmate hunger strike last month. Photo: Rich Pedroncelli, AP/SF (Source)

The amount of visual evidence still seems limited. It’s not that reporting on solitary confinement is lax or missing. To the contrary, I’ve listed at the foot of this piece some excellent recent journalism on the issue form the past year. We lack images.

Look Inside A Supermax a piece done with text and not images is typical of the invisibility of these sites. National Geographic tried a couple of years to bring solitary confinement to a screen near you. ABC News journalist Dan Harris spent the “two worst days of his life” in solitary to report the issue.

Why do we need to see these super-locked facilities? Well, depending on your sources there are between 15,000 and 80,000 people held in isolation daily (definitions of isolation differ). My conservative estimate is that 20,000 men, women and children are held in single occupancy cells 23 hours a day.

Gabriel Reyes, prisoner at Pelican Bay SHU writes about his experience for the San Francisco Chronicle:

“For the past 16 years, I have spent at least 22 1/2 hours of every day completely isolated within a tiny, windowless cell. […] The circumstances of my case are not unique; in fact, about a third of Pelican Bay’s 3,400 prisoners are in solitary confinement; more than 500 have been there for 10 years, including 78 who have been here for more than 20 years.”

Solitary confinement is a “living death”; an isolating “gray box” and “life in a black hole.” Imagine locking yourself in a space the size of your bathroom for 23 hours a day. As James Ridgeway, currently the most prolific and reliable reporter on American solitary confinement, writes:

“A growing body of academic research suggests that solitary confinement can cause severe psychological damage, and may in fact increase both violent behavior and suicide rates among prisoners. In recent years, criminal justice reformers and human rights and civil liberties advocates have increasingly questioned the widespread and routine use of solitary confinement in America’s prisons and jails, and states from Maine to Mississippi have taken steps to reduce the number of inmates they hold in isolation.”

The over zealous and under regulated use of solitary confinement to control risk and populations within U.S. prisons is a cancer within already broken corrections systems. I’m posting a few more image that Google images afforded me – but I urge caution – these are just a glimpse and may not be indicative of solitary/SHU conditions. Windows are a rarity in solitary despite three images below showing them.

The main reason I’m posting here is to ask for your help in sourcing all the photography of U.S. solitary confinement we can. Please post links in the comments section and I’ll add them to the article as time goes on.


© Alice Lynd. Front view of cell D1-119. Todd Ashker has been in a Security Housing Unit (SHU) for more than 25 years, since August 1986, and in the Pelican Bay SHU nearly 22 years, since May 2, 1990. “The locked tray slot is where I get my food trays, mail.” (Source)

A typical special housing unit (SHU) cell for two prisoners, in use at Upstate Correctional Facility and SHU 20.0.s in New York. Photo: Unknown. (Source)

Bunk in Secure Housing Unit cell, Pelican Bay, California © Rina Palta/KALW. (Source)

Solitary Confinement at the Carter Youth Facility. Since the arrival of the girls’ program at Carter, the administration has created a new seclusion cell. This cell contains no pillow, sheet, pillow case or blanket. In fact, there is nothing in the cell other than a mattress, which was added after numerous requests from the monitor. Girls are routinely placed in this room for “time out.” Photo: Maryland Juvenile Justice Monitoring Unit. (Source)

© Rina Palta, KALW. “More than 3,000 prisoners in California endure inhuman conditions in solitary confinement.” This photo, taken in August 2011 of a corridor inside the Security Housing Unit (SHU) at Pelican Bay State Prison, illustrated Amnesty’s report. (Source)

© National Geographic. In Colorado State Penitentiary  756 inmates are held in “administrative segregation” alone in their cells for 23 hours a day. 5 times a week they are allowed into the rec room where they can exercise and breath fresh air through a grated window. (Source)


Eddie Griffin, prisoner in s Supermax prison in Marion, IL writes about “Breaking Men’s Minds” [PDF.]
Boxed In NYCLU campaign and report with resources and video against use of solitary confinement. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
The Gray Box, an investigative journalism series and film about solitary across the U.S., by Susan Greene. (Dart Society) HIGHLY RECOMMENDED
ACLU – Stop Solitary Confinement – Resources – HIGHLY RECOMMENDED 
ACLU _ State specific reports on solitary confinement
Andrew Cohen’s three part series on “The American Gulag” (Atlantic)
Atul Gawande’s take on the psychological impacts of solitary confinement (New Yorker)
Sharon Shalev, author of  Supermax: Controlling Risk Through Solitary Confinement, here writes about conditions. (New Humanist)
The shocking abuse of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons (Amnesty)

Solitary confinement policies in California revised yet again as inmate leaders promote end to racial hostilities


Interview with Isaac Ontiveros, Director of Communications with Critical Resistance, about Pelican Bay solitary and community activism.
The invention of solitary confinement.
RIGO 23, Michelle Vignes, the Black Panthers and Leonard Peltier
Chilean Miners, Russian Cosmonauts and 20,000 American Prisoners
Robert King, of the Angola 3, writes for the Guardian

Photo: Roger May. (Source)

You’d think after 26 months in an Iranian prison, Shane Bauer would not be interested in seeing the inside of another cell. Think again. As I’ve noted before, Bauer is a journalist with human rights at the core of his stories.

Since his return to the U.S. he has been increasingly involved in describing the real problem we have with our approach to corrections. From Bauer’s Mother Jones feature piece:

I’ve been corresponding with at least 20 inmates in SHUs around California as part of an investigation into why and how people end up here. While at Pelican Bay, I’m not allowed to see or speak to any of them. Since 1996, California law has given prison authorities full control of which inmates journalists can interview. The only one I’m permitted to speak to is the same person the New York Times was allowed to interview months before. He is getting out of the SHU because he informed on other prisoners. In fact, this SHU pod—the only one I am allowed to see—is populated entirely by prison informants. I ask repeatedly why I’m not allowed to visit another pod or speak to other SHU inmates. Eventually, Acosta snaps: “You’re just not.”

Bauer excavates the policy and the logic, if you can call it that, used by the CDCR in their categorisation of prisoners and how those policies lands individuals in solitary. Pelican Bay State Prison, the oldest state-built Supermax, is Kafkaesque in its imprisonment of prisoners classified as gang affiliated. Bauer describes the *evidence* used by the CDCR in its case tying Dietrich Pennington to gang activity.

In Pennington’s file, the “direct link” is his possession of an article published in the San Francisco Bay View, an African American newspaper with a circulation of around 15,000. The paper is approved for distribution in California prisons, and Pennington’s right to receive it is protected under state law. In the op-ed style article he had in his cell, titled “Guards confiscate ‘revolutionary’ materials at Pelican Bay,” a validated member of the Black Guerilla Family prison gang complains about the seizure of literature and pictures from his cell and accuses the prison of pursuing “racist policy.” In Pennington’s validation documents, the gang investigator contends that, by naming the confiscated materials, the author “communicates to associates of the BGF…as to which material needs to be studied.” No one alleges that Pennington ever attempted to contact the author. It is enough that he possessed the article.

Getting out is a Catch-22 that is best described by Bauer than I.

For the longest time, there was a media blackout in California prisons and very few journalists got in to the SHU. I have heard from a few reporters and photographers this year who have visited Pelican Bay’s SHU but on a very tightly controlled media tour. Ultimately, Bauer wants to decode what purposes are served by solitary confinement. The CDCR argues it keeps prison violence down, but …

Prison violence fluctuates for myriad reasons, among them overcrowding, gang politics, and prison conditions. It’s impossible to say for certain what role SHUs play; what is clear is that in states that have reduced solitary confinement — Colorado, Maine, and Mississippi — violence has not increased. […] Since Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman released 75 percent of inmates from solitary in the mid-2000s, violence has dropped 50 percent. CDCR officials claim California is different because the gang problem is worse here, though they don’t have data to confirm this.

Bauer goes on to compare the correspondences he received as a prisoner with the letters he receives from Californian prisoners during his investigation. He describes the extreme psychological stress of solitary confinement and possibility of less labyrinthine regulation of SHUs with forthcoming CDCR policy changes (which may or may not transpire.)

He also offers readers to chance to contact the prisoners in the article.

Recommended read.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – — – – – – – – –

UPDATED: Oct 23rd, 2012

See Shane Bauer’s two-part conversation with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now – one and two – and his support for California Hunger Strikers alongside Sarah Shourd and Josh Fattal in Oakland, Oct, 2011.

I feel I’ve tried and fallen short in elucidating the core of the matter as regards solitary confinement. When I watched The Gray Box, by freelance journalist Susan Greene and DAX Films, I knew it was something I had to share.

The Gray Box speaks as I never could; it has voices of experience. You’ll be awed by the psychological terror they describe and by the activities isolated prisoners employ to remain sane.

Of all the many battles at hand for prison reformers, it is felt that the campaign against the over-use of solitary confinement in American prisons is an issue that currently resonates enough with the public to effect some policy change.

The anti-Solitary bloc has simplified its message saying that solitary confinement does permanent damage to the mind of he or she imprisoned; a view backed up by medical science.

Publics are also more educated about isolation – and the manipulation/interrogation techniques associated with it – because Guantanamo prison has been regularly discussed in the media for over a decade.

Essentially, the knowledge that solitary destroys people is knowledge that anyone on the political spectrum can understand and oppose. From the hardcore secular ACLU to coalitions of churches, the voices in opposition to solitary confinement are wide and varied. Even so, we do still see some prisons such as Rikers Island which are bucking the trend and pushing for the to use of more solitary confinement.

Furthermore, the few actions of what we might refer to as prisoner resistance include calls to curtail the use of solitary confinement. (This is something Isaac Ontiveros covered when we discussed the California hunger strike).

Solitary confinement is not an issue I feel I’ve adequately discussed here on the blog. I’ve brought up it’s historical genesis; I’ve discussed isolation in and out of prisons; and I’ve referred you to stories about infamous U.S. prisoners such as Robert King and Leonard Peltier who served and are serving time in isolation.

Truly, if you want to know about the abusive use of solitary confinement in US prison’s follow James Ridgeway’s vital journalism at Solitary Watch.

Ridgeway, a voice you can rely on, says about the film and of Greene’s article The Gray Box: An Investigative Look at Solitary Confinement:

This is one of the most comprehensive articles ever written about solitary confinement in the United States, and is particularly noteworthy for including the voices of prisoners, obtained through correspondence with those buried in isolation. It is also passionate and personal.


Susan Greene is a former-columnist at the Denver Post who often wrote about the widespread use of solitary in Colorado’s prisons and at the federal supermax, ADX Florence.

James Ridgeway was interviewed by the Dart Center and talked about the murky statistics and exchange of (mis)information about American prisoners in solitary.

Joseph Rodriguez alerted me to this film. Joseph’s own work Re-Entry in Los Angeles appears among the Spring 2012 Dart Society Reports.

The Dart Society Reports distributes journalism about trauma, violence and human rights.

3 Years out of a Death Row Sentence (river)

It may have been her family member sucked into the U.S. prison system or it might be Amy Elkins‘ curiosity about the darker undercurrents of humanity that led her to pick up a pen and write to Americans on death row and serving life without parole.

Four years ago, Amy opened up communication channels with seven prisoners. “My original fascination was with the idea of being pulled away from society and how that affects people; how it affects memories,” said Amy during a sun-drenched interview in the garden of a Portland coffee shop.

“The whole project has been about searching,” says Amy. “I searched out these men on the internet, then I had to search my motives as to why I write these.” Later, Amy searched news clips and court transcripts to piece together the stories of the persons to whom she’d reached out.

26/44 (Not the Man I Once Was). Portrait of a man having thus far served 26 years in prison (18 of which were out of a deathrow sentence), where the ratio of years spent in prison to years alive determined the level of image loss.

13 Years out of a Death Row Sentence (river)

Unlike the fates of her condemned correspondents, Amy’s project Black is the Day, Black is the Night has no prescribed end-point.

As she has got know her pen-pals, collaborations have developed; common cell-house objects constructed, photographed and bought; portraits made from the last words of the executed; obscured quotes from the poems of her pen-pal friends; pixelated portraits of dead men walking, whose stories are dominated by the narratives of courts and institutions. Black is the Day, Black is the Night contributes new chapters … in some cases they might ultimately double as eulogies.

Of most interest to Prison Photography are Elkins’ composite landscapes. The catalyst for each is the description of a memory by one of Amy’s pen-pals – childhoods spent under cloudless skies, a born-again fascination with baptism rivers of the South, and wide open desert. Inmates had no access to images and Amy had only access to these scenes through their words. If reality exists for them or us, it’s a feeble reconstruction several steps removed. Searching again, this time through Google images.

To create the distorted landscapes and pixelated portraits, Amy uses a couple of mathematical formulas driven through photoshop. The numbers involved in each formula relate to the age of the pen-pal and the numbers of years they’ve been incarcerated. Amy wants to keep the algorithm under her hat, but it appears the longer they’ve been locked-up the more vague the visages become.

13/32 (Not the Man I Once Was)

12 Years out of a Death Row Sentence (Dying Wish Retama Tree)

14 Years out of a Death Row Sentence (Dying Wish Retama Tree)

Currently, there are approximately 1,500 American citizens on death row.

“To be honest I’d never considered that this country has such a huge population of people on death row,” says Amy.

She began her research by signing up to one of the many online prison pen-pal services. The prisoners are categorized; one option ‘DEATH ROW INMATES’. “I clicked it and it was 50 pages; a sea of faces looking back at me. […] to click on one button and get hundreds of people looking for contact with the outside world. […] it’s difficult to describe. Nerve-racking and unnerving?”

Simultaneously engrossed and “freaked out”, Amy was conscientious in how she progressed. “It was never a photo project! I was just writing. I wrote with them for a year before I did anything with it. […] Part of that had to do with creating my own comfort levels,” explains Amy. “I deliberately contacted people who’d been in for 13 years or more. I didn’t want to write with someone who was angry. I wanted to be in touch with people who were at some sort of peace with the situation, who could look back and have some perspective.”

Of her seven original corespondents, three remain.

One was executed. The letters stopped coming and the news was confirmed through internet news stories. “No one went to his execution – no one from his family, no one from the victim’s family. He was poverty stricken. There was doubt in his case. He very well could not have done any of the things he was accused of. Every letter he wrote said ‘I am innocent’.”

Another pen-pal was released after serving 15 years, “He never contacted me [post-release]. He’s getting on with life. I hope he’s doing well,” says Amy.

A third pen-pal in Nevada wrote to explain that he was working on a novel and had developed a romantic writing relationship with another woman. He broke it off. “I was fascinated by that. It’s weird to be out here free and have them in there with relatively nothing and see them decide not to write. I respect that. They have so little, but they are careful about their time,” says Amy.

Amy’s pen-pal at San Quentin is erratic in his letters, writing after long periods of silence and often emerging from one [mental health] crisis or another. Amy has never felt that they’ve been able to develop a sustained relationship.

Her pen-pal in Mississippi writes on the 10th of every month but his letters are shorter now as he presses his last remaining options for appeal against execution. “From his letters he’s describing that it’ll be up before the year is out,” sighs Amy.

The sixth is in Georgia.

17/35 (Not the Man I Once Was) Portrait of a man having thus far served 17 years out of a deathrow sentence, where the ratio of years spent in prison to years alive determined the level of image loss.

7 Years out of a Death Row Sentence (forest)

9 Years out of a Death Row Sentence (forest)

The most sharing, personal and colorful letters are from a lifer in the renowned Secure Housing Unit (SHU) at California’s Pelican Bay State Prison. Pelican Bay was America’s first SuperMax and currently the focus of the California Prisoners Hunger Strike. Of all her pen-pals, Amy can predict most this man’s future “The guy in Pelican Bay is going nowhere.”

On any given day in the U.S., there are 20,000 people held in solitary confinement.

“In California, solitary is a 6’x9′ cell with no windows and a steel door. I don’t think anyone would do well in that situation. People are extracted [from general population] and placed into these cells already upset and then they left to themselves. I don’t think prisoners are going to read the bible 30 times and then be okay,” speculates Amy, “I go stir crazy if I’m in my house for a day without going outside.”

Amy describes the Pelican Bay prisoner’s letters of unusual “formal British” tone. Unusual because he is originally from Tijuana, Mexico. “He must have been reading a lot of books?” wonders Amy.

“His first letter was 15 pages long and he said, very poetically, that he sits in his cell 23 hours a day. Once a day, he is shackled, walked down a corridor, on his own, and let into a concrete pen with 25 foot walls and a metal grate over it. He doesn’t describe it like ‘this is all I have, I can’t stand it here.’ He says he has 60 minutes of freedom, where he just gazes up at the sky; the only aspect of the outside world he can have. And even still, he watches the sky through a metal grate so it is not a pure version of open sky.”

Amy put out an open call for people to send her pictures of the sky. “I started making composites and sent them to him,” says Amy. “He didn’t understand the computer or photoshop. He hung them all up in his cell and wrote me back about how excited he felt being surrounded by skies. That was the first person I made something for and got feedback on. It felt like a collaboration. I started pulling images from other people’s letters. Other guys shared things about past experience, in some case decades prior. I’d repeat the process, make composites and send them.”

The prisoner at Pelican Bay has been in prison for 21 years, in solitary for 16 years. He has experienced another of Amy’s intrigues – juvenile offenders sentenced as adults.

“He went to Juvie, and he’s had no break in his incarceration,” says Amy.

“His mugshot was of him as a 13 year old boy. His profile read ’34 year old man, Pelican Bay State Prison’. But that was the last photo taken of him in the system. I’ve never been politically driven or hugely into criminal law. I’m just a portrait photographer interested in psychology and cultural anthropology. There is something about someone in that level of isolation, I just wanted to reach out. If that makes any sense.”

15/30 (Not the Man I Once Was)

4 Years Out of a Deathrow Sentence (ocean). A penpal 26 years into his sentence in a landlocked prison, described an early childhood memory that haunted him, of walking further and further into the ocean during low tide until the sudden depth and darkness before him overcame him with fear.

26 Years out of a Death Row Sentence (ocean)

Questions of whether or not Amy’s project in some way exploits these men have been floated before. She worked on the Black is the Day, Black is the Night “obsessively” during her Lightwork residency earlier this year.

“During my exit interview, the director expressed concern. How could I be this person in the world, who is fortunate enough to live a nice life, have a gallery, have nice things and focus on these individuals? He wanted to make sure I was ready for those types of questions. But, those question could be asked of all documentary work. It’s not about that; it is about getting the stories out in the world and having people think. I don’t know what people have in their minds [about me]. I’m not some “privileged girl” writing to “savage men”. No. I didn’t come in the project with any type of judgement. I like that I can talk about their stories in a way that’s not conventional. I think it’s correct that we can write; be trusting and share. […] I always write them back and I’m pretty open about my life as well.”

And the pen-pals reactions? “I don’t know if it’s that they’re bored or genuinely fascinated, but they’ve always expressed that they find it intriguing,” says Amy. “They’ve been sought out and they’re being interacted with. I’m not a housewife or someone for a church reaching out in those ways. I am their age and I’m reaching out with mail that’s perhaps a little more interesting than the average.”


To date, Amy has never profited from the project, but if – in the future – someone wanted to pay $10,000 for a landscape? “I’d sell. I’d send them the money. I have sent money to my pen-pals in the past. I have become friends with these men.”

The title, Black is the Day, Black is the Night, derives from a quote in a poem Amy received. “It spoke about that environment so well. The idea of being pulled away from anything. Experiencing no variance. Everything is the same; everything is dark. The poem is mind-blowing. Better for him to describe the situation than me.”

As the afternoon sun waned, and Amy and I squinted at the sky, that much was obvious.

All images © Amy Elkins

“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.


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