The deeply rooted American notions of individualism and self-reliance are shadowed by complicated feelings on time spent alone. The thin line between solitude and loneliness serves as a fulcrum of sorts for two recent books by law professor Robert A. Ferguson that don’t immediately present themselves as having much common ground. In one, Ferguson investigates the nature of loneliness in American fiction, while in the other he gives us a humanistic understanding of our massive, out-of-control punishment regime. Solitary confinement figures prominently in the latter, as it does in American prisons, and so we asked Ferguson to help us connect the analysis of isolation running through these two books. His response is below.
“We live as we dream—alone,” Joseph Conrad wrote in Heart of Darkness. The comment is famous because more complicated than it first appears. When we dream, we do so in a social milieu that we think is real even though we are by ourselves. No life is complete without its attachments. Pundits and scholars respond by trying to define what percentage of ourselves are ours and what percentage comes from the cohort to which we belong.
My own recent books from Harvard University Press, Alone in America: The Stories That Matter (2013) and Inferno: An Anatomy of American Punishment (2014) wrestle with these questions from opposite directions. The first takes up the startling fact that a quarter of the people in the United States now live alone—an unprecedented situation fueled by the collapse of families, technological capacity, a country on the move, and the attritions in existence. This book targets a painful psychological truth: most people will admit to almost anything before revealing that they are lonely.
The second book, Inferno, gives considerable space to the problem of solitary confinement or enforced isolation. Current debate over the punitive impulse in our criminal justice system has led reporters and legal experts to deplore what Jeremy Bentham proved in The Rationale of Punishment as early as 1830: namely that enforced isolation causes psychological damage when prolonged. Already in 1830, “the best authorities” knew that solitary confinement causes “madness, despair, or more commonly a stupid apathy.”
This lesson is one we have been slow to learn. Even those protesting against the practice of solitary confinement in prisons today can ignore the established fact. For example, the columnist David Brooks, writing on March 7, 2014 for the New York Times, says “some prisoners who’ve been in solitary confinement are scarcely affected by it.” Scarcely? Everyone is affected by enforced solitude, and the danger grows as we keep more than 100,000 inmates in solitary confinement for months and even years on end, a punishment that most liberal democracies do not use or allow.
Even so, Joseph Conrad is also right. We get nowhere in life without time spent alone and some of that time is enforced. As Alone in America indicates, our literature is full of stories where protagonists come into their own only when pushed into an isolation that requires them to take stock of their situation and themselves. In perhaps the most powerful philosophical novel ever written by an American, Moby-Dick; or The Whale, Herman Melville’s ship, The Pequod, sails with “each Isolato...on a separate continent of his own. Yet now, federated along one keel.” Ishmael, who enters the novel with “splintered heart and maddened hand,” comes into his own as the teller of the tale of his lost companions when left adrift on an open sea “for almost one day and night.” His story thrives on a biblical exclamation: “And I only am escaped alone to tell thee.”
Alone! When must we be that way and when not? The opposing stances that describe the overall situation are “solitude” and “loneliness,” and it is possible to go from one psychological state to the other in a mental minute. Alone in America deals with the swinging pendulum in these possibilities to raise the lost value in solitude. One definition of an educated person calls for the ability to spend time alone in a room profitably. Our thoughts can save us, but in order for that to happen we must first accomplish something else. As Montaigne observes, “to compose our character is our duty,” and for that to happen we must do it on our own.
How does one compose one’s character in prison, given that convicted people enter already in distress and in an unbalanced psychological state? We break people down in prison instead of building them up. As Inferno: An Anatomy of Punishment in America relates, a harsh spirit of retribution controls the country’s punishment regimes. A combination of elements—social, economic, historical, political, religious, philosophical and legal in scope—has produced a perfect storm of punishment in America, and the question to ask is frequently ignored. How do we turn an inmate into a successful “outmate”?
David Riesman showed more than half a century ago that one can be lonely in a crowd. Prisoners endure the starkest loneliness while under a level of surveillance that allows no privacy or the possibility of a separating dignity from swarms of people all around them. Prison in America breeds deliberate cruelty, degradation, and almost unimaginable levels of personal discomfort from noise, smell, dirt, disease, and physical deprivation. Overcrowding, gang activity, endemic rape, unchecked further crime, and overly long sentences have twisted our jails and prisons into war zones where violent predators govern as much as authority. The lowest common denominator dictates the rules that prisoners set for themselves against prison guards who regulate with indifference and sometimes with open malice.
Inferno: An Anatomy of American Punishment uses law, literature, sociology, psychology, religion, and history to show why the imprisoned must be treated differently if we are ever to break the recidivism in criminal activity—a level of recidivism that exposes the criminal justice system and turns society into a culture of fear. Every life must find worth, and it will do so in deviant ways if not given the opportunity to grow in some positive way.
If we are to change what we are doing, we must remember that even prisoners remain members of human society with minimal rights in putting a conviction of crime behind them in and out of prison. How can we help these modern isolatos? How do we encourage more of them to rejoin society as citizens capable of living a healthy and enjoyable life? These are the crucial questions that penology in the twenty-first century has to answer.
One way to think about such questions involves the difference between solitude and solitary confinement, called “solitary” by those already confined. Solitude enables reflection. It encourages understanding of what has happened or what might happen. Consider what thought requires in this context. Solitude needs time, and it relies on development, whether in recognition of the self or in subsequent interaction with others. Solitary robs its victim of just these elements. Anyone in solitary loses track of time and development.
How often have you said “I need time to think”? The assertion implies that someone is waiting for an answer. Prisoners are left alone with no one waiting. Time stands still. They live with devastating boredom: a clock ticking against a lock permanently closed. Solitude strengthens us in the opportunity that it presents. Solitary makes us less than we were. The ultimate loneliness is a life degraded without engagement. Punishment is nothing but retribution when it denies the mental adventure that solitude can bring—even in prison.