“What is the experience of isolation?”

An Interview with Lisa Guenther

In this second interview in a series of three on issues of criminal justice, incarceration, and solitary confinement in the United States, I speak with philosopher Lisa Guenther about what solitary confinement does to bodies and minds. Her forthcoming book, Social Death and Its Afterlives: A Critical Phenomenology of Solitary Confinement, shows simultaneously why solitary confinement should be considered cruel and unusual punishment (even though, as we learned from Colin Dayan in the first interview in this series, the Supreme Court keeps refusing to make that ruling) and how what happens to prisoners subjected to isolation reveals to us something about what it means to be a person. In other words, what is wrong about solitary confinement matters in an institution of justice, of course, but it also speaks, on a more existential level, to our understanding of ourselves as creatures who must live together with others. Isolation is not punishment; it is destruction of personhood. As such, it does not belong in a correctional system.

Guenther is associate professor of philosophy at Vanderbilt University. She also facilitates a reading group in a prison in Nashville, and recently authored a New York Times op-ed on solitary confinement, as well as submitting testimony in June 2012 to the first-ever Senate hearing on the subject. Her first book, The Gift of the Other, explored the ethical significance of birth. This interview began when I visited Vanderbilt during the March 2012 tornado season (more exciting than planned!), and then continued over email.

—Jill Stauffer

THE BELIEVER: What, specifically, is wrong with solitary confinement as a form of punishment, and why would a philosopher write a book about it?

LISA GUENTHER: The practice of solitary confinement raises all sorts of philosophical questions for me. First of all: why do we tend to think that isolation is a more “humane” punishment than physical torture? What view of personhood and of justice would you have to hold in order to think that someone could be rehabilitated or even redeemed by prolonged solitary confinement? In the early penitentiary system, solitary confinement was seen as a civilized alternative to physical punishment. The idea was that if you separated the prisoner from “criminal influences” and locked them away with nothing to do but reflect on their crime, you could force them to undergo a spiritual, moral, and political conversion. But already in the first years of the penitentiary system, critics like Charles Dickens observed that solitary confinement was far more likely to drive people insane, or to make them withdraw into themselves to the point of being unable to reconnect with others, than to turn them into upstanding citizens. So why do we continue to practice solitary confinement, almost a century after the first prisoners started going mad? What myths does this practice allow us to indulge? And what is the experience of isolation like for those who have survived it? Many survivors of isolation continue to experience nightmares, insomnia, anxiety, and paranoia many years after their release. Even if they crave a connection with others, they often find it difficult to sustain close relations with others or even to be in the same space with too many people for too long.

BLVR: Why? What is it about isolation that has such lasting negative effects?

LG: I think it’s because personhood is formed relationally. Take away those relationships and we become unmoored. We have this fantasy, especially in the U.S., that we exist as separate individuals who enter into relations with others by choice, but that we could just as easily get along without them. We think: Stick me in a solitary confinement cell and I’ll just listen to my iPod, or read a good book, or take up a new hobby. No problem! It might even be relaxing. We don’t expect that our most fundamental sense of identity could come unraveled in the prolonged absence of others—but this is because we rely on the support of others at such a basic level that we can take them for granted.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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Jill Stauffer is an assistant professor of philosophy and the director of the concentration in peace, justice, and human rights at Haverford College. She is currently working on a book called Ethical Lonelineless, about the difficulties and possibilities of political reconciliation.

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