What it’s like to live in “the hole”

Journalist Barrett Brown has been spending time in prison and I have written before about how he ended up in this situation. I have also linked to his articles from prison and they are always fascinating because he is a really good writer. His latest missive gets into the nitty-gritty of what life is like in solitary confinement.

Partly as a consequence of my natural rambunctiousness, I’ve spent a total of five months over the past few years of incarceration being held in 23- to 24-hour-a-day Special Housing Unit confinement cells, collectively and informally known as “the hole,” at three different prisons and in stints ranging from six to 60 days.

The chief thing to keep in mind is that dungeons vary. The most fundamental division lies between those in which inmates are kept singly in cells along a corridor set off from the rest of the prison and purposefully denied human contact to one extent or another, and those in which two prisoners are kept together in such cells, usually with a window or metalwork grill on the door through which inmates can communicate with others in their corridor via the age-old medium of shouting.

Even within these two categories, one finds a great deal of variation from institution to institution, but day-to-day SHU life at FCI Fort Worth should make for a useful baseline. There, a weekday begins at 6 a.m. when the lights in one’s cell come on. A few minutes later the rectangular slot in one’s door is unlocked and a guard pushes in a plastic tray containing breakfast along with a couple of little plastic bags of milk. It’s rather dehumanizing, this matter of having to drink milk out of bags like a common Canadian, but getting breakfast in bed every day makes up for it. Fifteen minutes later the guard comes back and takes up the trays, and then one of his colleagues will walk down the hall jotting down the names of those who want to go outside for one’s permitted daily hour of weekday recreation. Having compiled the list, the guard goes back to his station and tries to arrange things such that incompatible inmates aren’t placed together in the same recreation cage. This sort of reminds me of the old riddle about the farmer who has a fox and a rooster and a bag of corn but can only take one at a time across the river in his boat and the fox will eat the rooster and the rooster will eat the corn if either pair is left together unattended (the solution, incidentally, is to shoot the fox, because it’s a fox).

And so on. It is quite funny. His ability to wring humor out of a bleak situation reminds me of P. G. Wodehouse when he was interned in France by the Germans during World War II, though of course their writing styles are very different.

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