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"Solitary" (The Survey)

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[page 3]

There are things about it that ought to be changed at once. Physical inadequacies exist that are a shame to the United States government. The machinery of repression is much in evidence, ever if the spirit is absent. The barrenness of the prisoners’ life defeats many of the better purposes of the institution. And instances of harsh and even brutal treatment have occurred, though these have been in defiance of, rather in accordance with, the administration’s policy.

Some of these general conditions of barracks life I shall attempt to describe in a second article. Here I propose to discuss a single feature of that life: the use of solitary confinement as a means of punishment.

[caption to photo] U. S. Disciplinary Barracks


It is true that prisoners are placed in solitary confinement on bread and water, for fourteen consecutive days and nights, and that this is a regular and prescribed form of punishment.

It is true that prisoners are frequently kept in these cells for second periods of fourteen days and nights, in addition to the first periods and following them without interruption. During such periods they are fed the regular diet.

It is true that third periods of confinement sometimes follow the second, during which prisoners are put back on bread and water.

It is true that three prisoners, whose experiences I verified, were within recent months confined in these cells for more than eight weeks continuously, and that one of them was so confined for ten weeks. That there are other instances I have no doubt.

It is true that these solitary cells, twenty in number, are closed cells, that is, they are equipped with heavy wooden doors that are shut the moment a prisoner enters. These doors are kept shut, day and night, throughout his confinement except at meal-times and daily count. The prisoner may not come out for exercise or for any other purpose except to take a bath, once a week. Light enters through two small screened transoms t the top and bottom of these doors. This light is sufficient, during the day, to enable the prisoner to distinguish the outlines of the bricks in his wall four feet opposite. It is not sufficient to read by and would do him no good if it were, since he is not permitted to have reading matter in his cell. The cell is four feet six inches wide, nine feet two inches long, and between eleven and twelve feet high. A small ventilator hole in the rear wall, near the ceiling, provides air that is usually fairly good, though occasionally it becomes stale and of bad odor. On one of my visits to these cells I counted seven out of sixteen that were occupied, in which the inmates had kicked out the lower screens in order to get a freer passage of air. Each cell is provided with running water, a stationary wash-bowl and toilet. For bed, the prisoner has only a large board and several blankets; he is entitled to six blankets under the rules, but sometimes the guard provides fewer. The prisoner places his board on the cement floor and puts as many blankets on top of it as he thinks he will not need for covering. There is a tin cup for drinking. Nothing else is in the cell, and here prisoners spend from two to ten weeks, with only bread and water to eat for a fortnight at a time, and with only their thoughts for company.

I spent one night in solitary confinement. This was trivial, of course, so far as an experience of the mental effects of solitary is concerned. Nevertheless, it gave me some idea of the physical aspects of such confinement. Captain Rousseau, an assistant in the executive office, supervised my descent into the “hole.” He issued careful instructions concerning the prisoner’s the prisoner’s outfit to be supplied to me, since I had decided to discard my civilian clothing. This outfit included a coarse but not uncomfortable undershirt and underdrawers [sic], socks, trousers, shirt, coat, shoes and cap. I was given also a bundle containing a toothbrush, a can of tooth powder, a comb, a towel, a piece of soap and two pairs of cloth gloves, all wrapped neatly in a blue bandanna. What the gloves were for I had no idea, nor do I know now. In spite of the carefulness of the instructions concerning my outfit, there was no belt for my trousers. In its place I used the heavy shoe string with which the bandanna was tied. This omission made it easy for me to believe the stories I had heard that sometimes, owing to the carelessness of employes [sic] in the store room, men in solitary are not given such desirable articles as toothbrushes and soap.

It was understood that my confinement was to be in all respects like that of a man sent to solitary for punishment and was to include bread and water for breakfast. After changing my clothes in the armory, I went to the solitary cells, accompanied by Captain Rousseau. These are in one of the so-called “basements” of the main cell building, though not actually underground. My worst fear as we crossed the prison yard was that I should pass an officer and forget to cross my arms in front of me, in the manner required of

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