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date: 19 April 2018

Solitary Confinement in American Popular Culture

Summary and Keywords

With its long and storied history, solitary confinement has fascinated Americans since the birth of the penitentiary in the late 1700s. Once a practice that loomed large in literary representations of a distant and mysterious institution, solitary confinement has more recently been brought to the forefront of public discourse through its many representations across mediums of popular culture. Today, given popular culture’s global reach, the mystique of solitary confinement has diminished sharply, and conversations about this controversial practice are no longer limited to college classrooms, textbooks, and peer-reviewed journals. What many once referred to as a mysterious hole reserved for the worst of the worst offenders and covered for decades primarily through literary formats, is now commonly discussed in the comment sections of investigative reports and YouTube videos depicting footage from actual solitary confinement cells. The comments accompanying such popular culture representations in many ways reflect current debates about the efficacy of the practice. Today, for example, it is easy to come across representations of solitary confinement that showcase its necessity as an effective prison management tool and it is equally easy to find representations that highlight the anguish and burden of solitary confinement. Today, popular media have become one of the most effective mechanisms for disseminating information regarding important social issues, including solitary confinement.

Keywords: solitary confinement, public policy, media representation, reform, segregation, television, history

The scene opens with yelling, howling, banging of cell doors, and a wave of other sounds. Quickly it pans over to an inmate repeatedly punching the shatterproof fiberglass section of his prison cell door. Next there is a shift to the full unit view of the walkway to the prison cells, which appears to be flooded from the overflow of toilets and sinks in one or more of the cells. Toilet paper, urine, human feces, and other trash cover the unit hallway. These harrowing details are from the opening scene in “Solitary Nation,” a 2014 Frontline documentary (see Figure 1) about the segregation unit at the Maine State Prison (Edge & Jones, 2014). In one of the most unnerving exposés of prison conditions televised to the general public, “Solitary Nation” takes the viewer into the prison, providing unprecedented visual access to what life looks like in the most secure type of unit within an American correctional facility.

Solitary Confinement in American Popular CultureClick to view larger

Figure 1. Advertisement for the PBS documentary “Solitary Nation”

(Source: Edge & Jones, 2014).

This type of unrestricted visual access provided the public an inside view into conditions and experiences that were once found only in written descriptive form across the pages of newspapers, magazines, and books. These images rendered traditionally insulated and inaccessible institutions across the American landscape no longer shrouded in mystery and no longer revealed to the public only through secondhand storytelling. Instead, today, people have become all too accustomed to exposés that offer relatively unrestricted visual access to areas that were once rarely ever considered. Although the American public’s fascination with visually witnessing punishment dates all the way to the colonial period, when punishment was a public event and the public literally came out to see what Spierenburg (1984) described as the “spectacle of suffering,” the modern version of the fascination really began with documentaries on the appalling conditions within institutions, like Titicut Follies (Wiseman, 1967). Today, reality television shows, such as the popular show Cops (Langley, 2015), which has been following and capturing the daily toil of policing in America for almost three decades, and televised docudramas like HBO’s Oz, or Netflix’s Orange is the New Black, proliferate and boast large popular followings. The public today demands, and in many ways expects, transparency across almost all facets of society—and the criminal justice arena is particularly of interest.

As a result, popular culture and criminal justice intersect more deeply today than ever in U.S. history. This intersection matters tremendously, because legislative bodies across the country are tasked with representing and advocating the public’s chief concerns and researchers have long reported that much of the public’s knowledge about crime and criminal justice issues is inaccurate, given that it derives primarily from an overreliance on media representations (Barak, 1995; Dowler, 2003). Cecil (2015) and others (Beale, 2006; Surette, 1990) have written extensively on the implications of the public’s overreliance on popular culture as its main source of information on prisons and prison life. In their recent work, Ogletree and Sarat (2015) make the argument that popular culture has permeated most aspects of law and its fundamental processes. With regard to punishment, for example, Rosenberger and Callahan (2011) found consumption of crime-based news and television programming to be positively correlated with punitiveness and with increased support for incapacitation as a purpose of punishment. Relatedly, the use of solitary confinement today is highly controversial and some have credited the growing influence of popular culture in bringing strong critiques of the practice to the forefront of public, political, and academic discourse (Brown, 2009; Frost & Monteiro, 2016; Reiter, 2016).

Although it is difficult to directly link legislative or correctional policy decisions to media representations, popular culture functions as one of the most influential agents for social change and social justice (Bird, Curtis, Putnam, & Tickner, 2012; Hall, 1993), so it is not farfetched to suggest that representations in popular culture, particularly the flood of crime and criminal justice news due to the advent of 24-hour cable news programming, have in many ways driven both public perceptions and criminal justice policy in a way that would not have been possible in earlier eras (Frost & Phillips, 2011).

Exploration of the intersection of popular culture with the correctional practice of solitary confinement, an aspect of the criminal justice system that was largely kept from the public for well over a century, requires surveying popular culture’s role in creating much of the mythology of the prison experience and in shaping the discourse around prison policy and the practice of solitary confinement. The survey focuses particularly on the eras in which popular culture turned its attention quite specifically to matters of punishment. This article limits its focus to an understanding of the intersections of solitary confinement and popular culture in the United States. The discussion begins with a brief overview of the origin and history of solitary confinement as a practice in the United States. Next, the discussion turns to major shifts in the practice and in policy developments that have been made over different periods of reform. Although solitary confinement is a global and centuries old practice, information regarding this controversial correctional strategy is scant and was for many years kept out of public discourse. Thus it can be argued that the recent emphasis on solitary confinement in popular culture led to investigations exposing the realities of the practice in the context of U.S. prisons and led ultimately to President Obama’s focus on ending solitary confinement toward the end of his second term (White House Office of the Press Secretary, 2015).

A case-study approach is used to concentrate on the major cases involving solitary confinement that captured public attention throughout its years of use in the United States. Recounting these dominant historical experiences of solitary confinement allows for a clearer illustration of the role popular culture has constantly played in guiding discussions about change and reform.

Solitary Confinement in American Penology

Solitary confinement has been a staple of the American correctional repertoire since it was initially introduced in the late 1700s by the Pennsylvania Quakers and was first implemented in the Walnut Street Jail (Rothman, 1971). With the help of reformers and other concerned parties, the details of deplorable conditions in prisons made their way to the public forum. In 1786, Quaker reformer and founding father Benjamin Rush wrote a pamphlet titled “An Enquiry into the Effects of Public Punishment upon Prisoners,” which offered a scathing critique of prison conditions and contained one of the first arguments for widespread prison reform. Motivated by his writings, a group of men concerned about the state of affairs inside the prison in Philadelphia formed the nation’s first prison reform group, called “The Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons” (Pennsylvania Prison Society Records, 2006). The group ultimately became an oversight committee reporting on conditions within Walnut Street Jail and investigating the effects of confinement on the morals of inmates.

In the late 1700s, the Quakers of Pennsylvania were leading efforts to distance the country from the cruel and retributive ideals of early colonial penal codes, and through these efforts, a new set of ideals emerged and a new vision for a penitentiary system was adopted.1 The goals of penance and reformation became the foundation of a Quaker-inspired strategy for social control, with the early “Pennsylvania system” of punishment relying heavily on social isolation, silence, productive labor, and religious instruction to achieve these goals. The ideals took shape in 1790 with the passage of new penal legislation that allowed the Quakers to repurpose a section of the existing Walnut Street Jail into a penitentiary house for the solitary confinement of criminal offenders (Rothman, 1971). More commonly known as the separate system, the Pennsylvania system of punishment and social control attracted worldwide attention, and solitary confinement as a practice was in many ways born in this “penitentiary house.”

Solitary Confinement in Design and Context

The modifications to the three-story Walnut Street Jail included construction of a total of 24 single cells, 6 feet long by 8 feet wide and 9 feet high (Gardner, 1955). Each cell included a small window, strategically located high up on the cell wall so as to be inaccessible to the offender (Skidmore, 1948). The cell walls were made thick and dense enough to prevent inmates from communicating with others in neighboring cells. “There was no provision for convenience of bench, table, or even bed. A privy, consisting of a leaden pipe leading to the common sewer, was placed at one corner of each cell. These cells were finished with lime and plaster and whitewashed twice a year. In the winter, stoves were placed in the passages to keep the cells warm” (Condie, 1798; Skidmore, 1948, p. 169). From the outset, the structural and functional changes to the Walnut Street Jail proved to be effective.

The solitary confinement experiment seemed promising during the early years, because disciplinary problems decreased, health conditions improved, and prison industry achieved some moderate success (DePuy, 1951). However, over time, overcrowding at the Walnut Street Jail became a concern and the separate confinement system transitioned to Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia in 1829 (Teeters & Shearer, 1957). In addition, the Pennsylvania legislature also approved the construction of Western State Penitentiary, which was built to follow the same concept of penitence through solitary reflection pioneered by the Quakers at Walnut Street Jail (De Beaumont & De Tocqueville, 1833).

Considered a technological marvel (Woodham, 2008), Eastern State Penitentiary quickly became a must-see destination for travelers visiting the United States who sought to reform their own correctional practices (De Beaumont & De Tocqueville, 1833). While Eastern’s design, including its 30-foot-high walls, its radial architectural layout resembling a wheel with spokes, and its modernized single-person cells (see Figures 2 and 3), was acclaimed for its imposing structure, its function is what drew global praise and recognition (Gardner, 1955). Although the separate system was built on the principles set out at Walnut Street Jail, with total isolation and solitary confinement as the chief modes of punishment, Eastern’s design allowed for a more complete application of the separate system. The system rested on silent contemplation, which was accomplished through a variety of features implemented throughout the prison. For example, prisoners were not allowed to communicate with anyone; they were forced to wear hoods over their heads if there was need to move them within the penitentiary (Dolovich, 2009). Another aspect of the separate system was the emphasis placed on decreased noise levels, which even included a policy requiring guards to wear socks over their shoes and that the wheels of the food wagon be covered with leather so as to cut down on the noise level (Kidd, 2014; Teeters, 1949). These provisions were employed to create an environment that was true to the idea of a penitentiary and to allow penance through solitary confinement to thrive as a mechanism for punishment and reformation.

Solitary Confinement in American Popular CultureClick to view larger

Figure 2. Eastern State Penitentiary.

Solitary Confinement in American Popular CultureClick to view larger

Figure 3. Eastern State Penitentiary: Toilet inside a single cell.

Historical accounts of the solitary experience center on the tactics used to segregate the inmate and highlight the extent of the isolation:

The person sentenced to solitary confinement is shut up in a kind of cell, whose floor is eight feet by six, and its height nine feet … Every precaution is taken to preserve health … The prisoner sleeps upon a mattress, and is allowed a sufficient quantity of clothing … He sees the turnkey but once a day, to receive a small pudding made of Indian corn, together with some molasses; nor is it till after a given time that he obtains, upon his petition, the leave to read. During his whole confinement he is never allowed to walk out of his cell, even into the passage.

(Skidmore, 1948, p. 176)

The separate system at Eastern State Penitentiary, led by its emphasis on solitary confinement, flourished in its early years, and its concepts were adopted and modeled in several states across the country and globally. Maryland (1809), Massachusetts (1811), New York (1816), New Jersey (1820), and Maine (1823) were among the many jurisdictions to experiment with the separate system (Gardner, 1955; Rothman, 1971). Globally, the separate system was also favored and implemented in Germany, Holland, France, and Belgium (Morris & Rothman, 1995).

The success and popularity of the separate system in the United States were short-lived, however, and its use became increasingly controversial as overcrowding, prisoner abuse, and some of the same other problems that had befallen Walnut Street Jail resurfaced at Eastern and at a number of the other institutions that had adopted the separate system. In New York, for example, the Pennsylvania system underwent its most important and most publicized assessment in 1819, when 83 inmates were placed in solitary confinement in the newly built Auburn prison (Fogel, 1979; Rogers, 1993). “In less than a year, five of them had died, one became an idiot, another, when his door opened dashed himself from the galley, and the rest with haggard looks and despairing voices begged to be set to work” (Rogers, 1993, p. 21). The short-lived experiment proved to be a failure, leading to a series of accounts of self-mutilations, suicides, and sickness, and was discontinued after five years (Henriques, 1972; Howe, 1846).

Literary Representations of Solitary Confinement in the Penitentiary Era

It is important to remember that, during this period, much of what the public knew came from literary accounts, such as those appearing in The Prison Journal, and from the writings of some of the more celebrated thinkers and writers of the time. Examples of popular culture’s intersection with social institutions, such as the prison, can usually be captured through these literary accounts. Okun’s (2002) study of prison reform and popular fiction examined the implications of fiction writing and its role in shaping Philadelphia’s penal reform movement. Okun used literary analysis to reveal the motives behind many of the works of the late 1780s and early 1800s, arguing that the popular literary fiction works of the 1800s began an infatuation with the criminal and with the idea of compassionate punishment that has not waned.

In a comprehensive investigation of prison life through popular culture, Cecil (2015) explored the evolution of prisons in America and the imagery created through media representations. For the most part, the works illustrated that prisons were restricted places, and the most common representations of these mysterious places were often inaccurate. While prisons were far removed from public scrutiny through most of the early developments across the U.S. penal system, prison images were featured in postcards, newspapers, and books. In charting the history of prisons and prison imagery, Cecil (2015) noted that the earliest representations of prisons during the 1800s were in newspapers and on penny postcards featuring sketches of different institutions (see Figure 4).

Popular Representations of Solitary Confinement

In addition to being one of the greatest novelists of the Victorian period, Charles Dickens is also well known for his social justice efforts, particularly in raising awareness about the harms of solitary confinement practices (Dickens, 1842). While Dickens is most recognized for his popular novels, his contributions transcend the literary. Dickens was a celebrity in North America, and perhaps his greatest and most lasting contribution was the way in which he used his talent and his celebrity status as a pulpit for exacting social justice (Hudson, 2011). Many of his works conveyed his interest in social justice issues. In The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, Dickens raised the issues of poverty and disease in children (Kryger, 2012). Dickens continued his efforts in his travelogue, American Notes, where he presented his sharpest condemnation of social injustices around the world, including slavery, poor public health, and poverty (Dickens, 1842). Dickens also demonstrates the impact of popular culture on solitary confinement. His travelogue documents his one-night stay inside the Quaker-inspired prison. After his one-day immersion, Dickens recounted his experience and discussions with several prisoners, writing:

In its intention I am well convinced that it is kind, humane, and meant for reformation; but I am persuaded that those who designed this system of Prison Discipline, and those benevolent gentleman who carry it into execution, do not know what it is that they are doing … I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body; and because its ghastly signs and tokens are not so palpable to the eye, … and it extorts few cries that human ears can hear; therefore I the more denounce it, as a secret punishment in which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay.

(Dickens, 1842, p. 86)

As the defining feature in the Pennsylvania system, the practice of solitary confinement drove much of the interest in the early penitentiaries. The institutions grew increasingly popular, becoming a main tourist attraction, complete with admission tickets sold for what would be daily tours of the facility (Cox, 2009). Although Dickens was one of the most well-known individuals to tour the facility and witness the practice of solitary confinement, other important figures, including Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont, as well as several world dignitaries, were also among the list of sightseers attracted to the world’s first penitentiary (Gardner, 1955). The interest level in the Pennsylvania system was great, but not all of the attention was laudatory. Debates regarding the merits and ethics of the Pennsylvania system carried on, but over time the solitary confinement aspect slowly faded as an important matter for public discourse and scrutiny.

During the mid-1800s the country’s attention turned to other social and political issues, including the Civil War and subsequent national rebuilding efforts. Over time it became clear that developments in the legal landscape were largely responsible for the shift in focus away from the concerns regarding prison conditions and the potentially damaging effects of solitary confinement.

The Hands-Off Era

In 1871, the Virginia State Supreme Court famously ruled in Ruffin v. Commonwealth that an inmate "has, as a consequence of his crime, not only forfeited his liberty, but all his personal rights except those which the law in its humanity accords to him. He is for the time being the slave of the state” (Wallace, 1992). Legal scholars often point to Ruffin as one of the most influential correctional cases in U.S. history because, for nearly a century, this case served as the directive for correctional practices in America (Friend, 1967; Gilmore, 2000; Wright, 1995). In the case, the court ruled that, upon conviction, an offender’s constitutional rights are forfeited and thus cease to exist for the individual.

Historians point to the Ruffin v. Commonwealth case as the precursor to the hands-off era in American corrections, a period characterized by judicial noninterference in matters involving prisons or prisoners (Alexander, 1994; Gutterman, 1992; Harding, 1998). In the aftermath of Ruffin, courts refused to consider cases involving prisoners or cases that could potentially affect the administrative practices within a prison. In essence, the hands-off policy limited the courts’ involvement to decisions regarding wrongful incarceration, and the policy prohibited judges from even hearing cases regarding the conditions of confinement within prisons or hearing individual claims of inhumane treatment by correctional staff, essentially making prisoners slaves of the state with no forum for their legal claims to be heard nor any mechanisms for legal recourse. For nearly a century, this important case directed correctional practices in America and created a barrier between the public and the events occurring behind prison walls.

The Ruffin decision effectively interrupted the flow of information between prisons and the outside world. During this period, information about the events and conditions within prison walls were largely kept from the public, turning what was once a spectacle and a potential model for correcting all sorts of social ills, into a distant, faraway place that few would ever see or experience. During the hands-off period, events taking place within prison walls were known only through second-hand accounts, thus escalating the myth and mysteriousness of prisons and solitary confinement practices.

The barriers created during the hands-off period had broad implications, particularly for a country that prides itself on being transparent and a champion of due process. Punishment and social control practices during the colonial era had been very public events, commonly held in the town square as a spectacle for all town members, often even including children. During the hands-off era, prisons and reformatories were built with imposing walls, far away from the town square, and the public spectacles that had been characteristic of the colonial era became a distant memory (Rothman, 1971). From the mid-1800s through the mid-1900s, the prisons’ massive walls helped to reinforce a sense of mystery and intimidation. Prisons were faraway places experienced by the unfortunate few. This created a vacuum of information on conditions of confinement and on the state of affairs within prisons. Accounts of prison life and conditions within prisons were few and far between and, over time, prisons became increasingly distant places to the average American. Access to prisoners and prison life became increasingly more difficult, and they became a rare experience restricted to very few members of the public. For the most part, this disconnection eliminated concerns about prison life from public discourse.

From Literary Accounts to the Big Screen

The judicial hands-off period, which persisted for almost a century, until the mid-1900s, effectively concealed many of the activities occurring behind prison walls. During this period of judicial nonintervention and extremely limited public access to prisons, understandings of the prison experience were shaped primarily by prison imagery depicted across popular culture media. At the turn of the 20th century, the first prison films emerged. The early 1900s, for example, saw the development of numerous films providing some of the first visual representations of the prison experience. Films like The Big House (Hill, 1930), I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (LeRoy, 1932), The Mayor of Hell (Mayo & Curtiz, 1933), Hell’s Highway (Brown, 1932), and others characterized prisons as deplorable places, where inmates were subjected to inhumane living conditions and cruel treatment. The 1930s also saw the opening of the infamous federal prison on Alcatraz Island in the San Francisco Bay. Better known as “the Rock,” the federal prison at Alcatraz became an iconic structure in popular culture. Alcatraz was built for the purpose of housing offenders deemed too dangerous, assaultive, or incorrigible to be incarcerated in other penitentiaries. The federal prison at Alcatraz shifted penal practices, becoming one of the only prisons in the country to reinstate solitary confinement as a defining correctional feature. While the opening of the infamous Alcatraz sparked a lot of public and policy discussions, it also marked the beginning of a unique association between popular culture and prisons, particularly with respect to solitary confinement.

In 1938, the Saturday Evening Post published the story of a former inmate who claimed that he knew of 14 inmates who became violently insane as a result of their experience on the Rock (Stuller, 1995). While the depictions were largely unverified, accounts of events occurring at Alcatraz slowly began to shed light on practices and conditions behind the prison walls. Over time, other exposés of the conditions in Alcatraz received broader distribution and offered the public insight into the alleged claims of inhumane conditions and cruel treatment. Some of the more popular literary accounts that focused on life inside Alcatraz include Hellcatraz: The Rock of Despair (Gardner, 1939), Alcatraz Island Prison, and the Men Who Live There (Johnston, 1949), and Alcatraz: 1868–1963 (Godwin, 1963). Roy Gardner’s Hellcatraz, for example, offered a first-hand account of his time inside the prison. Gardner was one of Alcatraz’s more infamous inmates, nicknamed “the king of the escape artists” after numerous escapes, including one particularly daring getaway from a moving train that was transporting him to a federal penitentiary in Washington.

In 1941, the well-known case of Henry Young delivered what would be a major blow to Alcatraz and its future (Aiken & Wizner, 2003; Loo & Strange, 2000). Attorneys for the 29-year-old Alcatraz inmate, on trial for the murder of a fellow convict, claimed that the inhumane conditions, including the frequent beatings and the use of solitary confinement, created significant psychological distress for their client, ultimately making him unconscious during the killing (Weinraub, 1994). Henry Young’s attorneys claimed, “It was Alcatraz that killed McCain. It was the cold, sadistic logic that some men call penology that killed him” (Bruce, 2012, p. 83). The controversial case received national press coverage, with headlines reading “The Trial of Alcatraz.” The Young case opened up Alcatraz to public scrutiny and eventually public outcry over the inhumane policies at the facility.

The case of Henry Young was also depicted in the popular 1994 Warner Bros film Murder in the First, starring Kevin Bacon and Christian Slater (Loo & Strange, 2000). Even though it was based on the Henry Young case, the mostly fictional film provided one of the darkest depictions of solitary confinement cells, which exist in some form across most U.S. prisons to segregate and isolate offenders deemed too incorrigible or disruptive to be held in general population cells (Frost & Monteiro, 2016). At Alcatraz, the term “the hole” was used to refer to one particular cell located in “D Block,” the prison’s solitary confinement wing (Eisenman, 2009; Thompson, 1979). Historic accounts note that the hole was a small, dark, and completely bare concrete cell, with no natural light, to ensure the inmate lost all track of time. Daunting to most inmates, this particular cell at Alcatraz only had a hole in the floor, and the inmates who were kept there were left naked and were fed only bread and water through a small partition in the door (Sullivan, 2015).

The Birdman of Alcatraz offered another popular depiction of D Block and the menacing conditions inside the solitary confinement unit (Frankenheimer & Crichton, 1962; Gaddis, 1976). This 1962 drama, the story of Robert Stroud, another infamous Alcatraz inmate, showcased his unique experience of life inside one of America’s harshest prisons (Frankenheimer & Crichton, 1962). Stroud, also known as the Birdman, spent six years in D Block (Sullivan, 2015). As Sullivan (2015) noted, the popular film and the subsequent media interest in the conditions on D Block helped shaped America’s imagination of solitary confinement for the first time.

The End of the Hands-Off Era

During the early 1960s, scattered reports of the harrowing conditions within U.S. prisons were accumulating and courts across the country could no longer turn a blind eye as public and political pressure for action intensified. While the 1960s were a turbulent period more generally, with civil unrest escalating in the midst of the civil rights movement, it was also a particularly important time for major reforms in penal practices across the country. Although it would be an overstatement to suggest that popular culture is solely responsible for the major changes in penal practices, it would also be imprudent to ignore the benefits of popular culture in informing the public and sparking conversations about important criminal justice topics. The public’s concern about criminal justice matters during the 1960s, including rising crime rates and the need for criminal justice reform, is well documented (Blumstein & Nagin, 1975; “Crime Rates,” 1953; Quinney, 1966; Tittle, 1969; Zimring, 1979). The hands-off era ended with two landmark cases (Cooper v. Pate and Jones v. Cunningham) that set the stage for the prisoner rights’ movement. In Jones v. Cunningham (1963), the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that inmates could apply for the common-law writ of habeus corpus, which allows inmates the right to challenge the legality of their incarceration (“Constitutional Law,” 1966). In addition, the Cooper v. Pate (1964) decision provided inmates with the first real opportunity to have their grievances heard in a courtroom and to hold state officials responsible. Although there were other important cases (e.g., Johnson v. Avery), the two landmark cases offered prisoners a landline to society beyond the prison walls. With the courts as an outlet, prisoners from across the many correctional facilities in the country lined up to speak their grievances and to raise awareness about the state of U.S. prisons. The convergence of widely read books, news reports, and films certainly played an important role in raising public awareness on issues of correctional reform.

Popular books by former inmates, such as The Autobiography of Malcolm X (Haley & X, 1965) and Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice (1968), began to inspire public conversations and to increase awareness about the state of U.S. prisons. Then in the late 1960s, Danny Lyon, the famed photojournalist, moved to Texas and was given unprecedented access to prisons across the state (Scott, 2015). In the resulting seminal classic of documentary photography, Conversations with the Dead (1971), Lyon documented the state of prisons through stark and compelling photographic images. In the introduction to the book, Lyon noted:

I’ve tried with whatever power I had to make this picture of imprisonment as distressing as it is in reality. The few times I doubted the wisdom of my attitude, I had only to visit someone in his cell to straighten out my mind. And the material collected here doesn’t approach for a moment the feeling you get standing for two minutes in the corridor of Ellis.

(Lyon & MacCune, 1971)

Lyon’s powerful images captured the attention of Americans in a time when civil unrest in the public sphere was frequently paralleled in prisons.

The news reports of increasing prison riots across the country also proved to be a major factor in ending prison administrators’ long and obstinate stance on excluding outside influence on administrative policies. Prison riots are not uncommon in correctional history; however, beginning in 1940s and 1950s, prisons across the country were struggling with outbreaks of violence, uprisings, and large-scale riots within their walls (Adams, 1992; James, 2009; McCleery, 1968). McCleery (1968), for example, reported that a total of 50 prison riots occurred in the United States between 1950 and 1953. Reid (1981) noted that 98 prison riots occurred between 1969 and 1970. Other prison riots include the nation’s deadliest uprisings, in Attica, New York, in 1971 and the particularly brutal 1980 uprising at the New Mexico State Penitentiary, both of which ended with violence and numerous fatalities (Useem, Camp, & Camp, 1996). Media coverage of these and other riots brought popular attention to the plight of prisoners and provided Americans with some of the most influential documentary-style footage related to the shocking conditions within American prisons.

Solitary Confinement in the Contemporary Era

While popular culture has commonly depicted solitary confinement as “the hole,” complete with all of the menacing features of a dark, bare, and unbearable dungeon, today’s versions of this controversial punishment practice are quite different from what existed in the original Walnut Street Jail or on the D-Block of Alcatraz. Today, the new and more popular term that is most commonly associated with solitary confinement is supermax or supermaximum security facilities. In reference to their often total or totalistic control, the first supermax facility, at Marion, Illinois, was developed in response to the void that was left when Alcatraz closed its doors in 1963 (Richards, 2008). Like Alcatraz, USP Marion emphasized enhanced security and total control procedures to isolate and segregate problematic inmates who could not be housed in the general population or in proximity to other inmates and staff.

It is important to note that, while there was very little mention of solitary confinement during the hands-off era, prisons have always maintained designated space for the purpose of segregating certain inmates or groups of inmates. Nevertheless, the resurgence of solitary confinement both in the public and practical spheres began in the aftermath of the brutal killings of two correctional officers at the federal prison in Marion, Illinois, a facility that was designed to replace Alcatraz in form and in function (King, 1999; Pizarro & Stenius, 2004). The 1983 killings at Marion ushered in a new model for ensuring total control of inmates in facilities across the country. Eventually, the supermax prototype, built as a stand-alone facility or a unit within larger facilities, became the model for correctional administrators across the country trying to control inmates in their care. The Marion history is significant in the solitary confinement discussion because of the chain of events that was triggered the moment Alcatraz closed down and transferred operations to Illinois.

With details reminiscent of a Hollywood plot, the Marion case began with the murders of two Black inmates (Robert Chappelle and Raymond “Cadillac” Smith) in an apparent feud with the infamous Aryan Brotherhood gang. The murderers, Thomas Silverstein and Clayton Fountain, strangled Robert Chappelle in 1981 and then, in an attempt to ward off revenge attacks, stabbed Smith 67 times, killing him and dragging his bloody body down the tier to serve as an example to other inmates (Peters, 2013). The two killers, who were then placed in more restrictive settings within the maximum security prison in Marion, Illinois, struck again on October 22, 1983, killing correctional officers Merle Clutts and Robert Hoffman (Federal Bureau of Prisons, 2016). Shackled and handcuffed, Silverstein was being escorted back to his control unit from the showers when he managed to break away and run to a nearby inmate’s cell, where he was handed an improvised knife with which he repeatedly stabbed and killed Officer Clutts (Federal Bureau of Prisons, 2016). Hours later, Clayton Fountain, Silverstein’s accomplice in the 1981 gang murder, killed another officer, Robert Hoffman, in a similar fashion (Childress & Mizner, 2014).

While solitary confinement has always been a fixture in U.S. penal practices, the brutal murders of the two inmates and correctional officers led to a modernization of total control units within correctional facilities reminiscent of the Quaker’s separate system. Immediately after the killings, a state of emergency was declared inside the federal prison at Marion, and additional guards, including a specially trained response team known as the A-team, from Leavenworth Prison’s tactical squad, were transferred in to help establish the total lockdown procedures that would create the new norm in the country’s earliest supermax facilities (Gómez, 2006; Olivero & Roberts, 1990). Beginning with the lockdown, inmates at Marion were confined for “at least 23 hours a day in their one-man cells and [were] not allowed any physical contact with other convicts” (Richards, 2008, p. 10). In his review of the history of USP Marion, Richards (2008) wrote:

Many prisoners are locked in their cells 24 hours a day for years and are rarely let out even to walk the “range” outside their cell door. They are fed in their cells and are subject to intense security procedures. The cells consist of concrete beds, concrete floors and walls, combination toilets and sinks, and heavy metal doors. They have no television and very few personal possessions. Most of the prisoners never leave their high-security cell blocks (called units), except for occasional no-contact family or lawyer visits or medical attention. (p. 10)

In 2007, after 23 years of operation, USP Marion was converted to a medium-security facility (King, 1999).

Contemporary Literary Accounts of Solitary Confinement

Similar to Alcatraz, the federal prison at Marion, Illinois, also has a storied history, one that was popularized in the media, with frequent news accounts and several books that brought it into the public spotlight. One of the most famous literary accounts of the solitary experience at Marion was written by Jack Henry Abbott, whose national best seller, In the Belly of the Beast, not only provided a detailed account of prison life, but also offered a gruesome insight into life in solitary confinement in modern prisons.

Abbott was incarcerated for over 25 years, 15 of which were spent in solitary confinement at Marion. Abbott’s literary interpretations of his time in prison, penned initially as a series of unsolicited letters to renowned author Norman Mailer, awed readers and quickly gained him a wide fan base (Michigan Law Review, 1983). On solitary confinement, Abbott (1981) wrote:

A prison cell—let alone a solitary confinement cell—is not constructed to complement human existence. Punishment cells in fact are constructed intentionally to alienate (exclude) men … Solitary confinement in prison can alter the ontological make-up of a stone … Any sane person would wonder what terrible crime a man would have to commit to be thus treated. The answer: In prison, anything at all. Any “indiscretion.” A contraband book. A murder. A purloined sandwich … When punishment bears no relationship to the crime, it ceases to be punishment and becomes torment for its own sake—itself an anti-human crime.

(Abbott, 1981, p. 43)

Abbott compared the experience of solitary confinement to a slow death, noting: “You sit in solitary confinement stewing in nothingness … Time descends in your cell like the lid of a coffin” (Abbott, 1981, p. 43). A state-raised convict, Abbott displayed literary skills that gained him celebrity status as his book was publicized across various mainstream media outlets, garnering him a People magazine feature and a nationally televised interview on Good Morning America. Abbott’s post-release experience, however, would once again fuel the solitary confinement debate. While on parole in 1981, Abbott stabbed and killed a 22-year-old restaurant employee for telling him that only staff were allowed to use the diner’s restroom, and he was swiftly sent back to federal prison, where he eventually died by suicide in 2012.

As noted in a Michigan Law Review’s (1983) analysis of In the Belly of the Beast, the case of Jack Henry Abbott illustrates the dilemma of prisons and solitary confinement in America particularly well: “A society with a better understanding of prisons probably would never have incarcerated Jack Abbott, and certainly would never have released him.” To this day, the dilemma captured in this quote continues to trouble policymakers, practitioners, and academics concerned about prison policy. The dilemma centers on the decision to continue housing inmates in solitary confinement despite the mounting questions surrounding its efficacy and utility, and its potential effects on inmates and others in the correctional field. Popular culture can certainly be credited for increasing the attention to solitary confinement. Stories of experiences like those lived and described by Jack Abbott have a tendency to saturate the media outlets (television, newspapers, and Internet). The stories have stimulated public discussions, generated large fan bases, and even led to legal cases challenging the constitutional status of solitary confinement.

In 2007, for example, a group of law students from the University of Denver filed a lawsuit on behalf of Thomas Silverstein, the convicted killer at the center of the 1983 killings at the federal prison in Marion, Illinois (DU Law Clinical Programs. Clinical Review, 2010; Ensslin, 2010). At the time of the appeal in 2007, Silverstein was America’s longest-serving inmate in solitary confinement, having had almost no human contact for 28 years (Gilna, 2015). Silverstein’s case initially received national attention when it was featured in the widely read book The Hot House: Life Inside Leavenworth Prison (Earley, 1992; Prendergast, 2007). Pete Earley, the author of the popular book, was a Washington Post reporter who was granted broad access by the Federal Bureau of Prisons to tour and explore the grounds at Leavenworth, and even to interview staff and inmates about their experiences and concerns (Earley, 1992). During his visit, Earley met with Thomas Silverstein for one of the only interviews ever recorded with the notorious inmate. In The Hot House, Earley (1992) wrote about the experience:

The secret cell where Thomas Silverstein was kept was sealed off from the rest of the Hot House by three steel doors. Once you passed through them, you entered a large room with a cage in it like those in which large zoo animals are kept. There was a cage within a cage: Silverstein was locked behind a double row of bars, with a five-foot gap between the rows. He looked wild. His shoulder-length hair and beard were unkempt. I learned later that the Bureau did not permit him to have a comb, brush, mirror, or razor. The guards opened the door to the outer cage and slipped a chair inside. I stepped in and the door was locked behind me.

(Earley, 1992, p. 14)

Earley’s account of prison life became a national best seller and seemed to only boost Silverstein’s story and following. Although no other reporter has since interviewed Silverstein, his plight continues to garner popular support. Currently, two websites2 created by his supporters are dedicated to informing the public about Silverstein’s experiences in solitary confinement (Chen, 2010). Silverstein’s solitary experience has even found its way into social media outlets, with several unofficial Facebook and Twitter informational pages.

Today, Silverstein is known as the most isolated man in America, having spent over 32 years in solitary confinement (Ridgeway & Casella, 2010). Despite his being held in the most restrictive prison in the country, information regarding his incarceration continues to find its way to media outlets. In 2014, Silverstein’s long legal battles with the federal government finally reached their end when the 10th Circuit Appellate Court ruled that, despite the lengthy period of solitary confinement, the conditions under which he was confined were within constitutional bounds and were justified given the plaintiff’s lengthy violent history (Bassett, 2016; Silverstein v. Federal Bureau of Prisons, 2014). Although the decision was a major setback for those arguing against solitary confinement, the initial lawsuit filed by law students at the University of Denver pressured the Bureau of Prisons into moving Silverstein to a more populous section of the supermax prison, where he would still be isolated but could at least see and hear other prisoners in neighboring cells (Ensslin, 2010; Prendergast, 2010).

In a similarly influential case, Albert Woodfox was released from the Louisiana State Penitentiary, the maximum-security prison known more commonly as Angola, on his 69th birthday, February 6th, 2016 (Robertson, 2016). While releases from incarceration are always emotional, Woodfox’s story is particularly important given the 43 years he spent in solitary confinement during his time at Angola. Woodfox’s story is told alongside those of Robert King and Herman Wallace, three men known nationally as the “Angola Three” (Berman, 2015). As inmates, the three men were convicted of the killing of Brent Miller, a correctional officer at Angola, despite the lack of any evidence tying any of the Angola Three to the murder (Allen-Bell, 2011). This story provides one of the clearest examples of the intersection of popular culture and solitary confinement.

Representations of Solitary Confinement in Media, Film, and Song

The stories of the Angola Three and others who were held in solitary confinement inside the infamous prison received a lot of media coverage, with newspaper articles, news features, and a 60 Minutes interview bringing it to the national spotlight. MSNBC’s The Melissa Harris Perry Show, once quite popular for its advocacy features and criticisms of the criminal justice system, aired a special episode on July 6, 2013, highlighting Herman Wallace’s story and detailing his 41 years spent in solitary confinement inside Angola (Smith, 2013). On February 20, 2016, ABC’s Good Morning America covered the long-awaited release of Albert Woodfox in a story titled “Last of ‘Angola 3’ Prisoners Released After 40 Years in Solitary Confinement” (A. News, 2016). In lockstep with the other networks, CBS’s 60 Minutes also discussed the story of the Angola Three in a segment, which aired September 4, 2016, and focused on Glen Ford, who also spent 30 years on death row and solitary confinement inside Angola State Penitentiary (C. News, 2015).

The individual stories of inmates like those of Glen Ford, Jack Henry Abbott, Thomas Silverstein, and the Angola Three attract public attention to the plight of prisoners because of their alarming nature. Public consumption of such alarming stories often leads to public interest in prisoners and their rights as well as increases in representations in the forms of novels, documentaries, and Hollywood films that capitalize on trending public interest.

Today, accounts of solitary confinement in America continue to be told through popular culture and, as was the case during the Dickens’ era (Walnut Street Jail era), the accounts continue to shape discussions and concerns about the practice. The popularity of documentary series, Hollywood films, and other televised broadcasts about solitary confinement has grown substantially during the past several decades, along with the well-documented growth of reality television (Hill, 2005; Nabi, Biely, Morgan, & Stitt, 2003). Since the 1990s, prison-based shows have occupied a substantial portion of prime-time television airtime, with shows such as Locked Up Abroad, Oz, Prison Break, Orange is the New Black, and Wentworth leading the airways in ratings and popularity (Ogletree & Sarat, 2015).

Although there has been a marked increase in representations of solitary confinement in popular culture, the representations frequently (and quite intentionally) blur the lines between fact and fiction. The aim of such representations is to create melodrama, using the spectacle of punishment, which has a long history of public interest dating back to the colonial period’s town-square punishment practices, in order to offer a critique of modern institutions. HBO’s Oz (Loflin, 1997), which ran from 1997 to 2003, attempted to do more than simply fulfill the public’s voyeuristic instincts. The producers of Oz refused to shy away from the sometimes devastating consequences of incarceration and made legitimate attempts to confront the violence, anger, and negative effects of solitary confinement through drama. Showcasing images of solitary confinement through scenes focused on mental illness, suicide, correctional officer safety, rioting, and disciplinary processes within correctional facilities, Oz framed solitary confinement as a practice with broad implications.

In 2008, Britain was introduced to the biopic Bronson (Refn, 2008), a blended fictional and fact-based film about Charles Bronson, known more as Britain’s most violent prisoner. Bronson, whose original name was Michael Peterson, was initially sentenced to prison for seven years for armed robbery, but then was resentenced to a life term after kidnapping a prison staff member and holding her hostage for 44 hours (Page, 2016). The film, which focuses on Bronson’s life, dedicates a significant portion to highlighting his violent nature during the 29 years he spent in solitary confinement (Smith, 2009). The film producers sought out Bronson for help with the script and even went as far as to have Tom Hardy, the actor who portrayed Bronson, meet with him in prison. Bronson’s popularity, however, was established well before the film, as he wrote and published several books from behind prison walls, including Solitary Fitness (Bronson, 2007) and Loonyology (Bronson, 2011). Accounts of Bronson’s life and time in solitary confinement continue to be told, earning him the name Britain’s most popular prisoner. Today, although Bronson remains in solitary confinement inside Wakefield Prison, a high-security facility in Britain, his story continues to spread through popular culture (Erwin, 2015). Netflix, for example, recently began streaming the biopic Bronson, and on Facebook there are numerous pages and profiles dedicated to Charles Bronson.

Other popular depictions of solitary confinement in contemporary media include the new fictional drama series Orange is the New Black, which is unique in its focus on the stories and experiences of incarcerated women. The series is based on the memoirs and book by Piper Kerman, a wealthy Boston woman who served 14 months in a federal prison. As in HBO’s Oz, Orange is the New Black confronts a number of taboo subjects in prison culture, including the intersecting roles of gender, sexuality, and race. In the show, the protagonist is sent to serve 30 days in solitary confinement. Her experience, including the walk to the solitary confinement unit, the boredom and feeling of total isolation, and her release, all are showcased to represent the effects of being in the segregation unit. The Netflix show is currently in its fourth season and is scheduled for three more seasons (Poniewozik, 2016), evidence of how popular it has become since its launch in 2013.

One of the unique aspects of Orange is the New Black is its storyline. Unlike Oz, which featured a grittier, and perhaps more stereotypical, representation of the prison experience, Orange is the New Black covers important issues through a nontraditional cast and plotline. The show’s protagonist is a young, wealthy, White woman, which may certainly have had an effect on the show’s added popularity. There is great potential in having a popular show cover a topic as important as solitary confinement, particularly given the show’s ability to attract a broader audience base. The value of the show’s popularity was perhaps most clearly demonstrated in the testimony given by Kerman at the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee hearings on solitary confinement in 2014 (Committee on the Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, 2014). As an inmate, Piper Kerman never spent a day in solitary confinement and she was incarcerated for only 14 months, but without question, her invitation to testify before Congress was triggered by the popularity of her book and the television show that followed.

Orange is the New Black also has a major following in social media, such as Twitter and Facebook, with popular hashtags that are shared and that serve to increase viewership. The marked increase in popularity and viewership of shows like Oz and Orange is the New Black ultimately means that more people are exposed to the challenges of prison life. In terms of policy and social justice issues, such as concerns regarding solitary confinement, the shows have left the far-fetched fictional depictions of the hole as a relic of the past, and instead focus on providing a much closer and more accurate representation of the controversial practice. In addition to these efforts, some networks have even gone as far as to look at the lasting effects of solitary confinement. In 2017, PBS’s Frontline released the documentary “Last Days of Solitary Confinement,” a type of sequel to “Solitary Nation,” which first aired in 2014. In this follow-up investigation, Frontline examined the effects of solitary confinement (see Figure 5) and different strategies for reducing its use.

Solitary Confinement in American Popular CultureClick to view larger

Figure 5. PBS documentary “Last Few Days of Solitary.”

Another one of the more recent and controversial shows to hit prime time television was The Jail: 60 Days In, which offered a reality-TV version of Philip Zimbardo’s classic Stanford Prison Experiment (Haney & Zimbardo, 1976). In The Jail: 60 Days In (2016), volunteers from the public were sent into prison to see if they could last 60 days as inmates. The reality-TV series, which involved a partnership between Sheriff Jamay Noel of the Clark County Jail in Indiana and A & E Television, became the network’s top-rated show since first airing on March 10, 2016, with an average of 2.4 million total viewers, and stood as the number one reality series among adults (Kissel, 2016). The popular television show provided a glimpse of the intersection of popular culture and solitary confinement when one of the seven volunteers tampered with the surveillance camera inside the jail and was sentenced to 30 days in “2-D,” the facility’s segregation and solitary confinement unit. While the episode highlighted and discussed the purpose for solitary confinement, it also attempted to present solitary confinement in a manner that was in line with fictional representations of a dark and mysterious mode of punishment. The “inmate” was shown being handcuffed and put into a dark, empty cell, without any lighting, with an added dramatic soundtrack for greater effect in creating a sense of drama. This scene was fairly typical in terms of contemporary popular cultural representations of solitary confinement.

It is not possible to account for every example of the intersection between popular culture and solitary confinement. Thus far, this review has covered some of the more common outlets, including literature, film, media, and social media, and what is clear from this review is that popular culture continues to be used more and more as the major medium for reaching the larger society. However, what remains unclear is to what end. The effect of inundating the public with popular culture representations of important social issues is still unknown. Although it can be argued that Charles Dickens’ work had a direct impact on the fate of Eastern State Penitentiary, history has not provided many other clear-cut examples of popular culture’s ability to effect change. Jay Z, the famed hip-hop mogul, is not often mentioned in the same context as the novelist Charles Dickens, but his lyrical and entrepreneurial talents have arguably earned him even greater fame and fortune than Dickens and placed him in a highly influential position in popular culture. In November 2016, Jay Z undertook a task with aims similar to Charles Dickens’ goals in recounting the horrible conditions inside Eastern State Penitentiary.

Jay Z wanted to raise awareness of solitary confinement practices on Rikers Island and in other jails and prisons across the country. The rapper produced a six-part documentary covering the events around 16-year-old Kalief Browder’s incarceration at Rikers. Called Time: The Kalief Browder Story, the documentary focuses on the fact that the 16-year-old Browder was arrested for allegedly stealing a backpack and was incarcerated without a trial for three years, with two of the years spent in solitary confinement on Rikers Island (Grow, 2016). For Browder, the time at Rikers was filled with violence, as guards and other inmates victimized him physically and psychologically. Two years after being released, Browder took his own life. His story made national news and even captured the attention of former President Barack Obama, who wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post about Browder’s life and highlighting the need for changing how facilities use solitary confinement (Obama, 2016). The Kalief Browder story has been aired on SpikeTV and short promotion clips are constantly advertised on Facebook and other social media outlets. The extent of the consequences from the Browder story is immeasurable; however, it is worth noting that on January 13th, 2015, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio effectively ended the practice of housing any individual under the age of 21 in solitary confinement at Rikers Island. Moreover, on April 2, 2017, New York City officials announced plans to wind down the use of Rikers Island, with the aim of ultimately closing down the entire facility within ten years (Horn, 2017).

While popular culture attempts to capture and represent solitary confinement have arguably improved over time, a disconnect still persists between what is reality and what is fictional in terms of the practice of solitary confinement. From the early literary depictions, such as that in Dumas’ novel The Count of Monte Cristo (1816), where the main character was kept in solitary confinement and beaten and starved regularly for 14 years in the famous dungeon known as the Chateau d’If, to more contemporary accounts that also tend to focus on the extremes of isolation for extended periods of time, the realities of solitary confinement are only really known to those who directly live the experience.

Although increased access to correctional facilities has made the realities of incarceration more transparent, the practice of solitary confinement continues to be largely inaccessible to the media and other members of the public. Given concerns surrounding security and public safety, access to solitary confinement units and to the inmates housed in those units continues to be tightly controlled. Correctional officials frequently maintain that the individuals held in the cells are among “the worst of the worst”—the most dangerous inmates in the system, who need to be completely isolated, with minimal human contact (Butler, Griffin, & Johnson, 2013). As a result, with just a few notable exceptions (cf. Rhodes, 2004; Reiter, 2016), media depictions of solitary confinement most frequently appear in fictional representations based on first- or second-hand written accounts of life inside the confines of the units. Research studies on solitary confinement are also scant, and much of the research that does exist has been produced in the context of lawsuits filed by inmates contesting the conditions of confinement (Frost & Monteiro, 2016). These depictions also tend to focus on the most extreme version of solitary confinement and tend not to be representative of the experience for most. As a result, we know far less about solitary confinement than we should, and the vivid depictions that emerge through popular culture loom large, dominating our understanding of the controversial practice.

Popular Culture and the Potential for Policy Shifts

Popular culture plays an important educational role for the general public, particularly through the media. Although often very complex and almost always emotionally charged, important criminal justice issues—including racial profiling, police brutality, and prisoner abuse—tend to become social justice issues of broader concern when the media turn their lenses toward them. Contemporary portrayals of solitary confinement have certainly helped broaden awareness of its controversial nature. While we cannot definitively say that popular culture representations of solitary confinement have led directly to major policy shifts, popular attention to the issue has generated greater advocacy and garnered public support for policy shifts. Since colonial times, the American public has consistently been intrigued by the “spectacle of suffering,” and we expect that the focus on solitary confinement in popular depictions of prison life will persist until the practice is abandoned (Spierenburg, 1984).

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(1.) While the Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prison’s efforts led to the implementation of the separate system and solitary confinement as a practice, they are also credited with establishing the Journal of Prison Discipline and Philanthropy (which eventually became The Prison Journal). The goal of the journal was to keep the public informed of the conditions within Philadelphia’s early correctional system and it became one of the first real attempts at transparency around events occurring within the prisons (Pennsylvania Prison Society Records, 2006).