Since learning about the use of solitary confinement in our USA prison systems, mostly through television programs and films, I have struggled. I have struggled to see it as human and a form of humane restorative punishment for those inside.

For the Inside Out class before my sabbatical journey I had to read an essay by Dr. Janet Wolf, sharing the story of a young man inside who was severely depressed and placed in solitary confinement due to his depression. When Dr. Wolf and another minister went to visit with him, they talked through a small hole in through the thick bar of a door. Eventually he was even denied human contact with his spiritual mentors, as a result of an attempt to cause his own exit.

In that particular moment in time for me, my struggle became holy disgust and belief became fact for me. This was not a humane restorative act. Nothing about it seemed right.

The statistics and stories from insiders of the mental and physical health care provided for those inside our correctional systems of punishment, rehabilitation and restoration, are overwhelming and at times damning.

I understand the temptation to turn the other cheek and ignore their existence once they are behind those wires & walls dismissing it as part of what is deserved for their criminal act. I was fascinated and unsettled by the correctional centers located in the heart of downtown Houston, begging those with eyes to see to remember.

I understand.

However I also understand a few other things.

Community is essential to the process of healing. Punishing someone to a cold four walled box empty room, without real access to sunlight and loving human contact is cruel and inhumane. Though we all do quiet a job of breaking the bonds of community we share, some worst than others, the need for community and the power it has to restore remains.

The last thing someone severely depressed needs is lack of access to good medication, to be confined to four empty walls and denied access to people and things (the young man in the story was denied access to his Bible) who can remind him of his humanity… remind or maybe even teach him for the first time who he is and do the difficult work of speaking, both verbally and physically, hope and newness into his life song.

As I have re-entered into life back in Nashville for the last days of my sabbatical journey, I have thought a lot about the young man’s story and my 700,000 brothers and sisters in the USA who experience re-entry after serving time in our federal and state prison systems. I have wondered if our systems prepared them well for their first, hundredth and millionth step out.  Have we cared for them well holistically, which ultimately is one of the main determining factor of if they kill another 32 year old man on the streets of our city for his car or

abuse the person they love or

operate a drug ring that leads to the decaying of so many lives or

cause their own exit from life?

Last night I googled “solitary confinement poems.” I found this one below. It is inspired by a visit to Port Arthur, Tasmania. The author writes:

When physical punishment such as flogging (with a whip called the cat-o-nine tails) on a wooden triangle failed to reform rebelling convicts, a ‘Separate’ prison was built to psychologically break and ‘reform’ the convict using total sensory deprivation. Convicts were imprisoned in total isolation; 23 hours a day in pitch black, sound-proof cells. They had to adhere to a strict code of absolute silence 24 hours a day. Not a sound and any act of communication was given to them and not allowed by them. As a result of this, convicts often went insane and an asylum was eventually built beside the prison. To maintain sanity, some convicts were known to continually count the buttons on their uniform…This poem is dedicated in memory of those individuals that suffered greatly.

Solitary Confinement (Poem) by Esther SP. Buhrman

My callused fingers fumble in the dark
Prying the ten buttons from my grimy uniform
A lost soul
To hang from the last vestiges of a crumbling mind
Blindly I lay them down and voiceless

One… Two… Three…
I laughed when the cat-o-nine tails took its aim
And ate my flesh on a rough wooden platter
So they cast me from the sight of the burning sun
And upon the mercy of a silence
Reigning in mocking smile
Condemned me to eternal night
And a choking gag of darkness
Within these thick sandstone walls

Four… Five… Six…
Silence my mad companion to enforce
Not a sound in this anechoic chamber
No whispered word
Or prayer for a boon to trail the musty air
Nor tap of finger on numb stone
Feet encased in felt slippers
To maintain the quiet
And defeat a fading existence

Seven… Eight… Nine…T…
Loneliness pounds a dirge in my head
Weeps in a shadowed heart
Aching for things that can never be
The darkness closes in and silence
Claims my fallen soul
Weary I rest
Blindly I see
What once was wise
And collapse
Within me