Moving From Me To We BlogMoving From Me To We Blog

Way Down in the Hole by Himself

What’s the difference between solitary confinement and torture? Atul Gawande, a doctor and popular medical essayist writes of one prisoner who thought time in the hole would be “a piece of cake.”

“After a few months without regular social contact, however, his experience proved no different from that of the P.O.W.s or hostages, or the majority of isolated prisoners whom researchers have studied: he started to lose his mind. He talked to himself. He paced back and forth compulsively, shuffling along the same six-foot path for hours on end. Soon, he was having panic attacks, screaming for help. He hallucinated that the colors on the walls were changing.

He became enraged by routine noises—the sound of doors opening as the guards made their hourly checks, the sounds of inmates in nearby cells. After a year or so, he was hearing voices on the television talking directly to him. He put the television under his bed, and rarely took it out again.”

We may hole up by ourselves sometimes but we are ultimately social animals.  I think of this, knowing that San Quentin, where a friend spent six years in solitary, is ten minutes away.  And the high-security fortress, Pelican Bay sits isolated on our North Coast. Solidary confinement, concludes Gawande, “is the dark side of American exceptionalism.”

So much of our life is lived by comparison.  The bad economy, for example, has made me more frugal and sometimes nervous. Yet, by comparison, I look out my window at glimmering Richardson Bay, pick up my phone to hear a friend’s news and will walk along that bay tonight with three other friends.

The U.S. holds tens of thousands of inmates in long-term solitary confinement, making thousands psychotic. Here’s a situation where what’s ultimately most economic is also moral.

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