Today I attended Should You Ever Happen to Find Yourself in Solitary. The reason for the event was to spread awareness and concern regarding the inhumane practice of putting American prisoners in solitary confinement for years sometimes. It was presented by the New York Institute for the Humanities and the Institute for Public Knowledge of NYU. An all day event, it is still going on now, I think; I could only stay for the morning talks. The Vera Institute for Justice estimates that there are currently over 80,000 American prisoners in solitary confinement at this moment. The journalist Lawrence Weschler posed the questions to the participants, including the playwright Tony Kushner, poet Alastair Reid and scientist Stuart Firestein, what would they do if they found themselves in solitary confinement? Every speaker was extremely thoughtful. It is a sad and frightening reality to think about. I was grateful to them for sharing with us.
Talks went on tangents. Alistair Reid read a moving poem called “The Thousand and One Nights” by Juan Carvajal. He translated it as part of a Mexican/American poetry exchange. The first five lines:
I told the genie of the lamp: “I have only one wish,
I would like, before dying, to see the aurora borealis,
and hear the music that precedes its coming
gallop with the Tartars across the infinite plains of Mongolia
be shipwrecked for nights and days, lashed to a flimsy plank
Catherine Chalmers showed us amazing short films of cockroaches, ants and beetles. She posed the question would bugs not normally welcome in our homes be a welcome company for one in solitary confinement? She seemed to think not for most people. It is an interesting question. One would have to grow to like bugs in such a situation I would think. Meanwhile, a story Weschler told involved a political prisoner he met as a journalist (I regret I didn’t get the name, but he was a playwright, I believe). The man said while in solitary confinement he imagined he took long walks on the beach to pass the time and had deep discussions with a rooster about the philosopher Hegel. When Weschler asked if the rooster he saw was real or hallucinated—the man’s cell was underground and exposed to the out of doors—the man said “I don’t know.”
While understandable a society might want to seek revenge on violent criminals, it is inhumane to put anyone in solitary confinement. To be a dangerous person—I can’t imagine a worst fate than to possess the type of rage or impotency that you would actively seek out people to harm. What a burden to commit a terrible crime. Solitary confinement is a form of torture. It will only destroy attempts of prisoners to figure out what led them to their heinous acts. As citizens, we have the right to ask that our judicial system be set up to rehabilitate people who get in deranged states of minds, yet not deemed mentally insane. We all get in dark states of mind to one degree or another. It is important we feel supported by our society to get out of them and support involves how we treat people put in public institutions. Think about elderly people too–how isolated they are in our society and often with medical problems–another unkind form of solitary.
Back to the question of the day, if I were in solitary confinement I would repeat the chants I am currently learning to energize my chakras: they are Lam, Vam, Ram, Yam, Ham, Om and mmm. Seven chants for seven chakras. I thought I could at least feel connected to my chakras if not to another person. I could imagine their colors as they revolve in my body. It is said these sounds related to the chakras were revealed to yogis during meditation. It is wonderful to think they had such profound realizations through self discipline. The thing is, chanting is about freedom and mental health and meditation a choice. Honoring mental health is why I think it is a public duty to speak out against solitary confinement in prisons. It is must be very depressing for the people who work in the prisons as well.
Weschler spoke of solitary confinement in terms of waste—to lay waste to a person. Waste brings to mind increased awareness since Hurricane Sandy that global warming is a real problem. If we treated prisoners with the assumption they can rehabilitate and return to society as productive citizens, we build on potential for lives saved in terms of criminals and their victims. It might seem unrelated to global warming, but a broad perspective is important to finding the right solutions to our profound societal problems. Solitary confinement for 80,000 prisoners today is a staggering statistic–more use of solitary confinement than anywhere else in the world. I don’t see how the United States is going to get through its economic mess unless we start to connect these deep problems and do something to change them.
I may be remembering some of what was said at the talk slightly wrong. I wasn’t planning to write about it. The subject just got to me. Like I said, I am grateful to have been there. It was a beautiful day in New York City today. There were a lot of children around.