What is the worst form of torture? I’ve been thinking about this subject for the past two weeks after reading an article written by William Blake, a New York State prisoner who has been housed in solitary confinement for the past 26 years because he murdered a sheriff’s deputy.

Although I read the article two weeks ago, I can’t shake it. For starters, Blake’s essay describes what solitary confinement is like better than any I’ve ever read. He writes:

There is always the misery. If you manage to escape it yourself for a time, there will ever be plenty around in others for you to sense; and though you’ll be unable to look into their eyes and see it, you might hear it in the nighttime when tough guys cry not-so-tough tears that are forced out of them by the unrelenting stress and strain that life in SHU is an exercise in.

Or this:

I have lived for months where the first thing I became aware of upon waking in the morning is the malodorous funk of human feces, tinged with the acrid stench of days-old urine, where I eat my breakfast, lunch, and dinner with that same stink assaulting my senses, and where the last thought I had before falling into unconscious sleep was: “Damn, it smells like shit in here.”

And before you think that Blake made some of this up, I would tell you that everything he says in the essay is exactly how I remember solitary. I had two stints, myself, and I felt and witnessed its demoralizing effects as a prisoner across the hall from me hung himself two weeks after I was released back to general population.

Solitary is so bad, so odious and dehumanizing, that on one occasion, I decided to take a chance on getting shanked with a homemade knife over a visit to “administration segregation,” which are the nice words for the hole. I had been called to the lieutenant’s office where I was told that I should “check in” to segregation because the prison had received some “kites” with death threats placed against me. Apparently, some of the inmates were angry that I was providing legal services to blacks and hispanics. (At the time, I thought it was the white supremacists who had made the threats, but I later found out that it was a black jailhouse lawyer angry that his friends were coming to me rather than him.)

I remember thinking that a shank in the back seemed preferable to spending six to eight months in solitary, waiting for the feds to come pick me up and transfer me to another prison. So, that kind of tells you how awful it is.

I am glad to see that people are starting to care about solitary confinement. Congress held hearings last year, and Mother Jones has had a series of articles (here and here), including one pictorial about living inside a solitary cell. And the practice of solitary confinement received some additional scrutiny because of its use during Bradley Manning’s pretrial confinement. All of that being said, however, this practice is still so ubiquitous in our country that everyday I feel shame because I’m not doing more to end it.

It is certainly debatable that other forms of torture are worse than solitary confinement, but I think you’d have a hard time telling that to William Blake, who writes:

If I try to imagine what kind of death, even a slow one, would be worse than twenty-five years in the box—and I have tried to imagine it—I can come up with nothing. Set me afire, pummel and bludgeon me, cut me to bits, stab me, shoot me, do what you will in the worst of ways, but none of it could come close to making me feel things as cumulatively horrifying as what I’ve experienced through my years in solitary. Dying couldn’t take but a short time if you or the State were to kill me; in SHU I have died a thousand internal deaths. The sum of my quarter-century’s worth of suffering has been that bad.

Why do we do this to people, for as long as we do? What is our justification for holding someone in solitary for decades?

These are just some thoughts I’ve had since reading William Blake’s illuminating piece.