The Imprisoned Self

Courtesy of Denver Public Library - Western History Museum; Female inmate in 1959 kisses a bird
Courtesy of Denver Public Library – Western History Museum; Female inmate in 1959 kisses a bird

Human societies have always addressed transgressive behaviors with punishment.[1]  Historically, correction has often affected both physical and mental aspects of the transgressive individual. Until the eighteenth century, serious offenders were typically punished for their crimes by execution; their torment was of short duration. In contemporary America, however, criminals are more generally removed from society, often for long periods. Whether by design or accident, incarceration acts on both the mind and body of the offender, ultimately controlling him and frequently damaging his ability to resume a socially acceptable and personally satisfying life after his sentence concludes—if it concludes. Despite efforts to professionalize the American prison system and rehabilitate inmates, incarceration typically undercuts inmates’ sense of self. This detriment, in turn, has serious implications for offenders’ reintegration into mainstream society. Instead of rehabilitating and rendering offenders again capable of normal social and economic participation, America’s prisons today often irreversibly damage incarcerated individuals, permanently impacting both their psyches and their lives.

An analysis of prisoners’ self-understanding in their condition as incarcerated persons requires attention to their letters, poetry, and essays during their confinement and thereafter. This generally unpublished literature offers only limited insight, however, into what actually happens behind the prison walls, because prisoner correspondence is carefully filtered: guards are required to read through all written material and eliminate anything that hints at escape plots, violence, or any form of threat. Such restriction allows correctional officers to censor any correspondence, as well, that they feel may give a bad impression of the prison or prison staff.[2] Consequently very few prisoners are able to articulate how they feel in an unrestricted way. Their mental anguish while locked behind walls still emerges in their written works with stunning clarity.


Inmate writing

On September 4, 2010, the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum on Main Street, Between Fences, opened in Cañon City at the Museum of Colorado Prisons. This exhibition exposed the creativity of inmates imprisoned in Colorado’s state facilities. Offering an essay contest to encourage participation, the exhibition asked inmates to contemplate the idea of fences in American society and to describe how fences have affected their lives.  Over one hundred entries were submitted. The first-place poem is excerpted below:


Can’t Breathe I think I’m suffocating

Can’t tell what’s real I think I’m hallucinating

Trapped between four walls surrounded by Fencez

Carry the weight of judgment and a prison sentence

It’s Another world, total reality shock

Tunnel vision provides little sight so I join the walk

Towards pain slowly becoming hate

It’s burning from the inside out I’m screaming, stop, wait

This can’t be life can’t be what I chose

Gotta be more than Just anger and prison clothes. . . .[3]

This poem is one of many among the Smithsonian-inspired collection that provides a raw insight into the mind and the soul of the prisoner in Colorado—and by extension across America. “Fencez is a moving work.  It eloquently captures the chaos, anguish, sense of punishment, and existential dread circumscribing an incarcerated person. Another contest entry titled “The Fence” emphasizes the impact of the prison wall, as a barrier between himself and his human connections outside, highlighting the judgment he feels as a labeled felon.

The fence keeps us far from the ones we love. . .

We’re kept here in stasis to look at our crimes on the daily

We are here because we are harmful to ourselves and others. . .

A lot of us feel we were not treated fairly

But most of us come back, because we change rarely

While we sit stagnant and the world moves on. . .

The anger inside us causes people to fear us

The fence keeps others safe from our corruption

Missing the lives we where meant to live

Hoping the rest of the world will start to forgive[4]

Given the opportunity, prisoners have thus used words to convey their hardship, detailing their life behind bars and emphasizing the influence prison has had on their lives, especially their mental states. Joe Rizza, a prisoner at Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility, started a prison journal he called Writing on the Walls in 1990.  Rizza wrote in the introduction, “We know there are talented people incarcerated in Colorado jails and prisons.” James Olds, one of those gifted inmates, wrote an entry in the first issue called “Iron and Ice.” In his story, he describes the atmosphere of his cell and its effect on his existence: “[C]oldness runs through the air. . . .[L]ife and spirit run through my body. . . .[L]ife is in a dormant stage.”[5] The words of the inmates contrast strikingly with the view of prison from the outside.  Stan Higgins’ “A Shadow Mountain Vacation” describes prison life, comparing it to a vacation: “Our world class facilities are complete with acres of supervised recreational options. Your every step is loving monitored by our armed, uniformed security staff.”[6]

While other entries in both the essay contest and Writing on the Walls express hope for a future filled with triumph and success, many of the works made public through these opportunities for inside-out connection are infused with despair. The depth of the emotion they express is striking. These writings provide insights into criminals as people—as individuals whose lives are meaningful beyond the event or events that landed them in prison stamped with identification numbers and stored away to keep society “safe.”  These people are more complex than the crimes that sent them on this path. Recognizing that offenders are more than agents of criminal activity does not dismiss or forgive their behavior, but validates their lives as human beings.


Cruel and unusual punishment

Isolation is fundamentally dehumanizing. When it treats criminals as failed members of society, the community justifies this dehumanization. Stephan, an offender put into the Solitary Housing Unit (S.H.U.) in a New York correctional facility, captures the misery of prison existence, telling us that “mentally, being here drains energy out of you. I feel like the walls are closing in on me. I get suicidal.”[7] These feelings are reaffirmed in many works by inmates, all of which emphasize that prisons as systems push the sane into insanity, forcing isolated individuals into unbearable forms of depression and despair.

The Eighth Amendment protects U.S. citizens from cruel and unusual punishment, but every day the prison system in our country violates this protection by inflicting physical and psychological punishments on inmates. Prison guards use a number of assertive methods to keep inmates in line while inside the prison walls. Small infractions are marked with “shots” or tickets, warnings verbalized with the prisoner and recorded in their individual files. If an inmate “collects” an unacceptable number of such shots, further punitive action ranges range from the seemingly minor—taking away “good behavior” time, confiscation of belongings, or transfer to a less desirable prison job—to the more severe, such as time in solitary confinement or transfer to a higher security prison, where inmates are statistically still more likely to spend time in solitary.[8] While these punishments are intended to change behavior and keep prisoners from misbehaving, correctional officers are subject to little oversight and, as the nineteenth-century British historian Acton put it, “[p]ower tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The guards’ position within the prison often leads them to abuse their power; it is alarmingly easy to accuse an inmate of violating prison rules and then severely punish him for his violations with little grounds and no recourse. Correctional officers have an immense amount of power within the prison, effectively running the entire facility.

Corruption within prisons seems to be endemic, but abuse of disciplinary power is most evident in respect to inmates in isolation. Human beings thrive on social interaction. Offenders incarcerated and separated from society experience anguish from their isolation to a degree proportional to that isolation’s extent. The anguish of social separation can cause mental deterioration and trigger erratic outbursts of violence. Isolation is recognized as a brutal form of punishment because it cuts the inmate off from the entire world. Daryl, another prisoner in an S.H.U in upstate New York, describes his response as “raw and helpless moments of overwhelming and unchangeable emotions exploding out of you. I couldn’t seem to function properly. . . .I know it wasn’t right but at the same time I couldn’t control it either.”[9] He describes isolation as living “in a void of nothingness.”[10] Inmates in solitary can be driven insane by idleness, experiencing severe anxiety, depression and emotional breakdowns. Kevin, another inmate at a New York correctional facility, explained his emotional experience by stating that “all the emotions you experience in fifteen years, you experience in one day.”[11] The S.H.U. is a mentally torturous and horrifying experience.

Solitary confinement is the most severe form of punishment in any type of prison. It places inmates in a seven by ten-foot cell (a regular parking space is eight by sixteen feet) for between twenty-two and twenty-four hours per day. Solitary confinement cells are furnished with a concrete slab bolted to the wall that acts as a bed, a shower on a timer, a steel sink and toilet unit, an immovable desk and stool, and a four-inch wide window (window size can vary slightly depending on the facility). Inmates in solitary confinement are served three meals a day through a twenty-four by six-inch-wide slit in their steel cell doors. Correctional officers who work within the solitary confinement unit use a tiered system to categorize infractions, with Tier I infractions being least severe and Tier III infractions most severe.[12] The Colorado Department of Corrections describes Tier III as “the most serious offenses, such as assault on staff or other inmates.”[13] A “review officer” is responsible for reviewing any misbehavior report submitted by a correctional officer; the review officer then assigns a tier rating to the report based on the severity of the behavior that occurred. The DOC provides no framework to guide review officers when matching an offense and a tier.

In 2012, a young woman named Mariposa was imprisoned at California facility for, then transferred twenty-seven times within her first six months.[14] Hers is a conspicuously grotesque case of cruel and unusual punishment behind the prison walls, made nationally known by the California Coalition for Women Prisoners. Mariposa had been sentenced at age seventeen to twelve years in prison. Twenty-seven months prior to her scheduled release, she was given fifteen months in the S.H.U. after guards found a pair of tweezers in her possession. When her fifteen months in solitary. had been completed, a correctional officer, instead of releasing her, told Mariposa she would have to finish the year in the S.H.U. because no space was available in the general population cells. Just as Mariposa was completing her final month of additional isolation and was preparing for release from prison, she intentionally dumped a cup of water on a male nurse attending her. For this infraction she was given an additional four years in solitary. As of 2015, Mariposa was serving her third out of four years in the S.H.U.

Mariposa is a prime example of brutality behind bars. The mental anguish she has suffered from being confined in isolation for many years had necessarily skewed her ability, or simply her ambition, to maintain any degree of emotional normality. She has experienced frequent and uncontrollable mood swings and outburst, one of which very well may have been responsible for her desire to throw water at the nurse. While this act was inappropriate it in no way justifies an additional four years in the S.H.U—the place that set the context for her initially disruptive behavior.[15] Mariposa has entered a dangerous cycle that she may never escape.

Trial attorney Martin Garbus has detailed the indifference, dehumanization and brutality that takes place within prisons, relating stories from his clients: “One prisoner described to me how he was handcuffed to the bottom of his bunk in his underwear day after day for months.  Another described how his cell was located directly beneath broken toilet pipes, which meant the cell smelled horribly of urine and excrement. I’ve heard how cells are unbearably hot or cold and how four prisoners are confined to spaces intended for two, with only one set of bunk beds.”[16] Garbus later emphasized prison brutality by telling the story of Jerome Murdough, a homeless, bipolar, and schizophrenic ex-Marine who was charged in February of 2015 with a misdemeanor and assigned bail of $2,500. Unable to pay the bail, he was placed in New York’s Riker’s Island mental observation unit. Less than a month into his sentence, Murdough, fifty-six, was found dead in his cell from hyperthermia. An autopsy revealed that his body temperature was 103 degrees Fahrenheit at the time of death.[17]

On April 3, 2015, a disturbing photo taken on a contraband cell phone in a Georgia prison was released onto the World-Wide Web. The photo depicted Cortez Berry, eighteen, who had been severely beaten by members of a prison gang, on his knees with a rope around his neck like a leash while two other inmates posed proudly over their victim. For his “own protection,” Corey was transferred to a maximum security prison—a prison that has seen seven violent inmate murders since 2010. Rather than punish the offenders, the gang members who initiated and participated in the violence, the correctional officers in this facility chose to transfer the victim. The horrors of a maximum security facility, where Corey will live in a solitary unit, are likely to make his initial pain seem petty.[18]

On June 3, 2011 at 8:17 AM, Samuel, a prisoner in yet another upstate New York correctional facility’s S.H.U., violated three prison rules: “failing to obey a direct order, interfering with an employee and failing to comply with mess hall policies.”[19] For withholding his food tray in his cell, Samuel was then assigned a Tier III rating. Prisoners being in solitary confinement who are given a Tier III rating for an infraction are automatically put on “The Loaf” for up to seven days while waiting for the disciplinary hearing that will determine guilt or innocence. “The Loaf” is a restricted diet that consists of “a brick of bread-and-vegetable matter, which comes with a wedge of raw cabbage and water.”[20] Most inmates refuse to consume “The Loaf” as it is nearly inedible, and creates unbearable constipation. Samuel, instead of eating “The Loaf,” fasted for twenty-one meals, feeding his food “to the birds outside.” On June 14, 2011, Samuel was summoned to a disciplinary hearing but refused to appear claiming that “[t]he hearings are unfair so I don’t care, the[y] need to be transparent, they don’t follow their own rules, they need more guidelines.”[21] This offender was then found guilty of violating prison rules and, as a result, he was given an additional six months in the S.H.U. Correctional officers justified their disciplinary action by explaining that Samuel’s punishment was “to act as a deterrent for any future misconduct which could result in a more serious disposition.”[22] Defeated and blunt, Samuel reflected “[t]hey gave me so much Box time for nonsense, I’ve become immune to it. . . .COs escalate situations, escalate drama, find a reason to give you tickets for little, simple things. They give you tickets because they are trying to justify the existence of this place.”­[23]


Power corrupts

The mental burden of prison life not only rests on the shoulders of the prisoner, but strains the lives of the guards and bleeds into the lives of both corrections staff and offenders’ families. Gresham Sykes’ important study of the sociology of prisons, The Society of Captives, is dedicated to “[t]he man in prison—both the prisoner and his guard,” reflecting and honoring this reality.[24] Sykes and other criminologists acknowledge that prison is a stressful, anxiety-inducing environment for any individual who finds himself behind the walls, whether for work or detention. People in a confined setting experience an apprehension and suffering that seeps into the soul of anyone within its reach, inducing corruption within the body of the prison. In 1971, the Stanford University Psychology Department under the instruction of Professor Philip G. Zimbardo simulated the inner workings of a prison using male college students as volunteers. One portion of the department’s basement area was sectioned off as ’the yard’—the only space where prisoners were able to walk, eat, or exercise.  Prisoners spent all of their waking time there except when they needed to use the bathroom, which they did blindfolded in order to prevent them from learning an escape route. The goal of the experiment was to simulate the reality of prison as closely as possible, including the presence of a solitary confinement cell for prisoners who misbehaved.  There were ten prisoners and eleven guards; the prisoners wore prison uniforms, chains, and hats, and were given identification numbers. Three prisoners were bunked in each makeshift cell and the guards worked in sets of three, shifting every eight hours. The simulation was set to last two weeks but ended after only six days.[25]

The men who “played” guards in the Stanford experiment became deranged with power. Corrupt and out of control, they both physically and mentally tortured the prisoners to breaking points. The prisoners suffered to such extremes that the experiment was deemed abusive, hence its early end.  Despite having been given strict orders not to inflict physical pain upon the inmates and to send a prisoner to the isolation cell for a maximum of one hour, guards repeatedly and excessively violated the rules. It quickly became evident that the role-playing game became real for the participants.  The guards were abusing their power and the prisoners were complying. Moments of hysteria, anger, and despair erupted frequently within the prison crowd. These moments were not manufactured. This experiment took well-educated young people and demonstrated what happens when one group is given unrestricted control over another.  One of the guards, Dave Eshelman, observed about the experiment, “When you have little or no supervision as to what you’re doing, and no one steps in and says, ‘Hey, you can’t do this’—things just keep escalating. . . .It was rapidly spiraling out of control.”[26] As this seemingly innocuous simulation demonstrates, prison changes people.  The carceral environment affects prisoners and guards alike. To say that guards walk into the American prisons every day with the hope of torturing our incarcerated citizens would be unfair, but acts of brutality are an inevitable consequence of the mental stress that comes with being in the prison environment. As Eshleman asked about the “pretend” guards, when you do not have someone to keep you in line, what is to stop you from pushing the envelope?[27] Prisoners are victims of the will of the guards and both parties know it.  A horrifying system of corruption is born of the control-compliance dialectic.

On the surface, while prisons appear to embody societal ideals of justice, the punishment that convicts suffer is far more dire than the greater community realizes. The emotional, physical and mental burdens of incarceration have deleterious long-term consequences for prisoners and former prisoners. While some form of punishment is essential for keeping our communities safe, the contemporary American corrections model valorizes punishment over rehabilitation. If we want a system of true justice and humanity, then drastic reforms are necessary to stop the corruption and cruelty rampant in U.S. prisons.

[1] Originally researched and drafted by Casey Pollard.

[2] Procunier v. Martinez, 416 U.S. 396 (1974).

[3] Fencez,” unattributed, 2010, Museum of Colorado Prisons.

[4] “The Fence,” unattributed, 2010, Museum of Colorado Prisons.

[5] Various prisoners’ entries in writing contest, Writing on the Walls, 1990.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Scarlet Kim, Taylor Pendergrass, and Helen Zelo, Boxed In: A Report by the New York Civil Liberties Union, accessed November 6, 2015, 34,

[8] Mark Binelli, “Inside America’s Toughest Federal Prison,” New York Times, March 26, 2015.

[9] Kim, Pendergrass, and Zelo, 32.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid., 18.

[13] Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, “Prison Safety in New York,” accessed November 6, 2015,

[14] Andrea Denhoed, “A Play that Confronts the Horror of Solitary Confinement,” The New Yorker, October 19, 2015.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Martin Garbus, “Cruel and Usual Punishment in Jails and Prisons,” Los Angeles Times, July 11, 2016,

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ernie Suggs, “Viral Beating Victim Transferred to Another Prison,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, April 2, 2015,

[19] Kim, Pendergrass, and Zelo, 31.

[20] Ibid., 30.

[21] Ibid., 31.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Ibid.

[24] Gresham M. Sykes, The Society of Captives: A Study of a Maximum Security Prison (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007), dedication.

[25] Alastair Leithead, “Stanford Prison Experiment Continues to Shock,” BBC News, August 17, 2011,

[26] Ibid.

[27] Ibid.