Book Review of Terry Kuper's Book: Solitary: The Inside story of Supermax Isolation and How We Can Abolish It

Mathew Byrne

A partially blurred image of five claustrophobia-inducing cages arranged in a tight semicircle, the cover emblazoned on Dr. Terry Allen Kupers’ 2017 book Solitary: The Inside Story of Supermax Isolation and How We Can Abolish It suspends readers in a moment of collective confinement. It is only later in the book that Kupers captions the cover’s image: a group of “prisoners participating in group therapy in the administrative segregation unit at San Quentin Prison” (pp. 58-59). The (perhaps accidental) cognitive dissonance between a so-called “group therapy” session and euphemistically-labeled “therapy cubicles” or “programming nodules” –in which incarcerated individuals appear barely able to stand up in much less physically interact with others in a “group” setting– highlights a painful irony at the center of issues of solitary confinement, one that sets the tone for the book.

Indeed, the image seems an appropriate introduction to the text’s material and trajectory. A thoroughly documented book that not only traces the historical trajectory of solitary confinement but also offers strategies towards abolitionist futures, Solitary offers incarcerated folks, abolitionists, and scholars alike a concise look into the uses and abuses of solitary confinement.

With a career as a psychiatrist spanning decades, Kupers began his journey into research on solitary confinement and its effects on incarcerated individuals in the 1980’s when he began working as a licensed physician at the Black Panther-run Bunch Carter Free Clinic in South Central Los Angeles (pp. 3-5). Part of his work included visiting his incarcerated patients in the jail ward of the Los Angeles County Hospital where he was met with “a horrifying scene” that catalyzed his move to researching solitary confinement.

Solitary begins with a brief history of solitary confinement, starting with Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Jail in 1773: three years before the founding of the United States of America as a nation with the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Already a facet of early criminological thinking by the time of the nation’s founding, solitary confinement began as a Quaker-influenced attempt at more humane method of rehabilitation to facilitate “penitence: the origin of the term “penitentiary”. However, the “humane” alternative of solitary confinement showed itself to be a cruel style of punishment and social isolation for individuals already facing social death.

From this introduction, Kupers documents the normalization of both solitary confinement and supermax prisons before describing the racial disparities inside U.S. prison walls, a topic not often accounted for in mainstream media narratives of the criminal (in)justice system. Kupers, for instance, highlights an often ignored fact of life in prison: that when people of color are incarcerated, troubles with racism do not end. Rather, incarcerated people of color confront similar, if not more pronounced, racism inside prisons (pp. 77-84), which are highly segregated spaces.

A recurrent thread throughout Solitary also underscores the futility (in addition to the inhumanity) of methods of solitary confinement, which are often renamed as an effort to rebrand a patently torturous method (pp. 35-38). Not only do these methods not reduce gang violence –a justification for the measures– they often do lasting psychic damage to incarcerated individuals. Specifically in Part Two of Solitary, Kupers details the symptoms of what he calls “SHU [secure housing unit] syndrome”: a general term to describe the panoply of symptoms associated with time spent in solitary confinement (p. 54). SHU Syndrome –described in detail in Chapter 8 (pp. 151-167)– can affect incarcerated individuals in a range of ways and at a range of time frames after initial exposure to solitary confinement: from an immediate reaction to the confinement to post-release emotional issues. In this context, Kupers draws comparisons between SHU Syndrome and PTSD, while keeping a formal distinction between the two (pp. 162-163). On a related note, it is noteworthy that scholars who investigate the psychological consequences of torture point to a laundry list of afflictions suffered by survivors of torture, and many of these same symptoms are experienced by prisoners who spent time in solitary: “anxiety, fear, depression, irritability, introversion, difficulties in concentration, chronic fatigue, lethargy, restlessness, communication difficulties, especially in the expression of emotion, memory and concentration loss, loss of a sense of identity, insomnia, nightmares, hallucinations, visual disturbances, headaches, and suicidal crises” (p. 100).

Indeed, many of the symptoms associated with how prison officials carry out solitary confinement parallel torture methods used by CIA and FBI officials. Kupers draws out a clear connection between these methods of torture in U.S. prisons and the labored efforts by the Bush administration to contort the definition of torture of the Geneva Conventions, subsequently leading to the well-known scandal of Abu Ghraib (pp. 97-101). For example, keeping prisoners from sleeping for extended periods of time (p. 54) and the use of “stress positions” appear to be staples not only of CIA torture methodology, but also of solitary confinement strategy. In drawing these comparisons, Kupers critiques this “culture of punishment” in the United States, highlighting the direct consequences it has on the psyche of prisoners as well as on all Americans. For as Fyodor Dostoevsky presciently claimed, “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”

Writing in third and final part of Solitary towards an abolitionist’s praxis (actions taken to put one’s knowledge to work towards real change), Kupers offers a five-step guideline towards a “rehabilitative attitude” and away from the “culture of punishment” inside prison walls: end the cycle of hostility, create mutual respect, foster a sense of agency, expand connection with the outside world, and sustain a vision of a better future (pp. 172-184). Chapters 10 and 11 act as an advocacy text for the humane treatment of prisoners, calling for investment in mental health care and a novel, managed treatment plan for incarcerated folks labeled “disruptive” or violent. With a short Chapter 12, Kupers echoes the calls of well-known abolitionists to redirect energy away from imprisonment and towards education and health resources. “The supermax experiment has failed,” he proclaims; the “foolhardy attempt to “disappear” the most troublesome of our social problems” led us to “[create] the monsters we love to dread” (pp. 239-240). With this conclusion, Kupers leaves readers with tools not only to argue against the ineffective supermax prison, but also to continue dismantling the prison industrial complex.

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