Spirituality in Dark Places: The Ethics of Solitary Confinement

Spirituality in Dark Places: The Ethics of Solitary Confinement

Author: Derek S. Jeffreys
Publisher: London; New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013. 218p.
Reviewer: Keramet Reiter | September 2014

In July of 2013, 30,000 prisoners in the California prison system began refusing food. A few dozen prisoners continued refusing food for a medically dangerous 60 days. Prisoners initiated the hunger strike to protest the state’s expansive use of indeterminate terms in total solitary confinement. More than 500 prisoners in the state have been in solitary confinement – locked into eight-by-ten-foot, windowless cells for twenty-three or more hours per day, every day – for more than ten years. California’s hunger striking prisoners attracted national and international media attention; the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture announced that California’s isolation policies violated international legal principles. The hunger strike touched off a conversation about the ethics of modern, long-term solitary confinement in the United States. Senator Durbin (Illinois) has held two Congressional hearings about U.S. uses of long-term solitary confinement in the last two years. Leading pundits have weighed in on the practice in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and other major news outlets. State legislators have considered (and in some cases even adopted) reforms in eleven states, including Texas, New York, and California.

Derek S. Jeffreys’ book, Spirituality in Dark Places: The Ethics of Solitary Confinement is well-timed to enter this conversation. Although Jeffreys believes solitary confinement is unequivocally immoral and impractical, he provides a robust analysis of the debates for and against the policy. In his introduction, Jeffreys says that he is not going to engage with the social science of solitary confinement, but rather with the ethics of it: “I offer no original statistical or empirical research on solitary confinement, nor do I use questionnaires or interview techniques to capture the attitudes of inmates and correctional officials” (3). However, this statement undersells the breadth of historical, legal, and social science data Jeffreys incorporates into his analysis as backdrop and evidence to support his argument about the fundamental immorality of solitary confinement. Indeed, one of the book’s major contributions is as a resource summarizing many perspectives on the increasing use of long-term solitary confinement in the United States over the course of the 1980s and 1990s. Chapter Two provides a historical overview of the tactics that have been deployed over time in the United States to control prison disorder and violence; Chapter Three describes the basic conditions of solitary confinement, the correctional justifications for these conditions, and the ways prisoners experience these conditions. These two chapters would provide useful introductions, for instance, in introductory criminology courses, to some of the major issues underlying mass incarceration in the United States.

Chapters One, Four, and Five relate the empirical descriptions of solitary confinement to Jeffreys’ philosophical critique of the practice. Although Durkheim is mentioned only once in the book by name (p. 86), the philosophical analysis of solitary confinement relies heavily on Durkheim’s concept of punishment as an emotional expression of shared social values. This framework allows Jeffreys to acknowledge why solitary confinement is appealing, as an expressive punishment, but also to argue that solitary confinement fails to affirm the value of individual people, whether victims, offenders, or community members. Jeffreys argues that solitary is immoral, because it fundamentally “destroys people.” Solitary confinement undermines and negates the inherent value of individuals – by destroying individuals’ sense of temporal order, which allows people to interact with each other, and by destroying all possibilities for human creativity, which “expresses … embodied spirituality” (p. 81). However, the destructiveness of solitary confinement satisfies a fundamental desire to express outrage against the worst offenders in society, and this expressive satisfaction impedes reform. Jeffreys suggests that greater attention to our shared human personalities, especially the dignity inherent in humanity, might resolve this impasse between the desire to punish and the destructiveness of the punishment. Acknowledging human dignity would justify ameliorating harsh conditions of confinement, even for the worst offenders. To those cynics among us, who think this shared belief in the fundamental dignity of all humans, even rapists and murders, is elusive, Jeffreys says: “I can only think that cynicism is an immature spiritual attitude” (138). Although painstakingly logical, Jeffreys’ insistence on dignity and rejection of cynicism seem like idealistic remedies for the pervasive abuses Jeffreys himself carefully describes throughout the book. Debates over the ethics of cynicism aside, Spirituality in Dark Places provides a thorough overview of the history of solitary confinement and careful philosophical critiques of the justifications for its widespread use in the United States today.

At a few discrete points, Jeffreys raised interesting philosophical questions, which begged for further analysis. First, Jeffreys argued that spirituality depends on human experiences of time and creative expression. But is “spirituality” for Jeffreys a purely philosophical concept, or does it relate in some way to specifically religious conceptions of existence? And how does Jeffreys’ concept of spirituality complicate Durkheim’s theory of expressive punishment? The idea that, even in punishment, human beings need creative outlets might have intriguing philosophical implications for the idea that punishment is fundamentally “expressive.”

Second, Jeffreys left a few philosophical contradictions unresolved. For instance, in acknowledging the challenges of permitting those being punished to engage in creative activity, Jeffreys describes paintings made and sold by a serial murderer named Gacy, before he was executed in Illinois. Jeffreys describes the paintings as “products of a perverse imagination,” which “remain a visible insult to the relatives of Gacy’s victims” (75). But Jeffreys never explains why Gacy’s creative activities are somehow less meaningful or worthwhile than those of other prisoners on death row or in solitary confinement; Jeffreys’ other descriptions of the importance of creativity would suggest that other killers’ paintings would be indications of their fundamental spirituality, ethical proof that they should not be isolated in total, soul-destroying solitary confinement. Is the spirituality of a given offender defined by some mysterious combination of the quality of the offenders’ creativity and the severity of the offenders’ crime?

Third, Jeffreys critiques Foucault for failing to acknowledge the “extraordinary unofficial brutality” in modern American prisons and argues that Foucault engaged in “facile historical generalizations” (43-44). While this argument is provocative, it is perhaps unfair. Foucault does not deny that punishment in the form of imprisonment might be extremely unpleasant, or even abusive; rather he argues that punishment becomes less visible and physical violence less common as power loci shift from monarchs to institutional bureaucracies. Jeffreys’ argument that solitary confinement is soul-destroying, rather than physically torturous seems, in fact, to support Foucault’s historical generalizations about the decreasingly physical nature of punishment. Perhaps Jeffreys think that physical violence and spiritual violence are less separable than Foucault would imply? In sum, Jeffreys did a phenomenal job identifying a number of unresolved philosophical questions about the ethics of solitary confinement – from the role of spirituality, to the ethical possibilities and obligations to cultivate creativity even in the course of punishing, to the question of whether spiritual violence can exist without physical violence.

Spirituality in Dark Places is an important compliment to two other recent books, one released nearly simultaneously with Jeffreys’ work, and one forthcoming later in 2014: Lisa Guenther’s Solitary Confinement: Social Death and Its Afterlives (University of Minnesota Press, 2013) and Jonathan Simon’s Mass Incarceration on Trial: A Remarkable Court Decision and the Future of Prisons in America (The New Press, 2014). Where Jeffreys’ book provides a philosophical critique of solitary confinement, primarily through application of Durkheim’s ideas to the practice, Guenther’s book provides a new philosophical framework for understanding solitary confinement, as a practice that defines the outer boundaries of human experiences. Guenther deploys empirical experiences of solitary confinement to argue that solitary confinement constitutes social death and an assault on human existence itself. Where Jeffreys argues simply that solitary confinement should not exist, because it violates ethical principles, Guenther demonstrates the ongoing logical and ethical harms of solitary’s continued existence. Likewise, Simon and Jeffreys agree that recognizing dignity is critical to improving prison conditions, and both remain hopeful that this recognition is possible, if not inevitable. Whereas Jeffreys brings a philosophical perspective to bear on his argument for the importance of dignity, Simon brings a socio-legal perspective, analyzing prisoners’ rights litigation in California, and arguing that dignity is fundamental to legal recognition and enforcement of prisoners’ constitutional rights.

A few years ago, the widespread use of solitary confinement in the United States was virtually invisible, and popular analyses of the subject were limited to one New Yorker article, written by Atul Guwande, entitled “Hellhole” (2009). Derek Jeffreys’ book represents an important contribution to an expanding, vibrant dialogue that is engaged with the possibilities for reforming an increasingly visible, increasingly unsustainable, increasingly criticized American archipelago of prisons.

Keramet Reiter, Assistant Professor of Criminology, Law & Society and of Law at the University of California, Irvine.

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