Not So Solitary Confinement

Not So Solitary Confinement

Suzan Young is writing on her experience with one of the General Synod exhibit hall features, a structure made to match a typical American solitary confinement cell in dimensions and furnishings. Those within hear sounds recorded within an actual solitary confinement cell. The display, jointly sponsored by UCC Justice and Witness Ministries and the National Religious Coalition Against Torture (NRCAT), was set up to help delegates consider whether solitary confinement should be considered torture. See related article.

It’s day two of General Synod and I’ve not had a minute to myself since leaving home three days ago. Demands of traveling with a 15 year-old filled with questions that had no answers, I was physically and emotionally spent even before we accessed our hotel room prior to registration. So the thought of just two minutes of “alone time” seemed very inviting indeed.

I asked to be placed in “solitary confinement” for a period of two minutes. I sat on the rock-hard bed with my back against the wall and closed my eyes. Initially the quiet stillness stole over me in a calming, welcoming sense of peace. Then the banging and moaning started. I kept my eyes closed. Soon my heart rate matched the frantic pounding that surrounded me. There were mournful wails and far-off sounding screams – all adding to a growing sense of disquiet. But through all the sounds of confinement I could hear the familiar sounds of Synod going on all around me, reassuring me that I wasn’t alone and that life continued around me. Then out of nowhere an annoying beeping started, and I was told my time was up. The attendant came in as asked me about my experience – I told her about my heartbeat and the reassuring sounds of Synod – and then I asked for more…just 5 more minutes.

This time when the door closed I was determined to keep my eyes open and get a different, more sensually complete perspective of confinement. The space was larger than I had imagined – there was room to walk around – perhaps three steps from the bed to the toilet. The walls were institutionally cold and drab, and most likely way too free of dirt and grime. There was a single light offering a relentlessly stark feeling to the space. I remained seated on the bed with my back to the wall. I waited for the sounds to start. The banging started at first rhythmic and slow, then growing in frantic intensity. I listened with my eyes opened and realized that there was nothing in that space that I could use to bang with except my own body. I realized with a sickening certainty that the banging was being made by people throwing themselves against the walls of their confinement.

When the door opened after my five minutes I was shown a photograph of what solitary confinement looks like in our prisons. One long corridor with cell after cell after cell. Someone placed in confinement would have no escape from the sounds all around them. The reality of confinement was far worse than what I imagined it would be. I imagined unbearable silence and darkness, but I believe that being forced into confinement without escape from the pain, sorrow and suffering of those around you would be, for me, far more unbearable than a confinement of silence.


Suzan Young

Suzan is a member of South Congregational Church, UCC, Amherst.

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