Nautilus

How to Survive Solitary Confinement

With a sigh, Johnny Perez rises from his plastic chair, unfolds his lanky frame and extends his wingspan until the tips of his middle fingers graze the walls. “It was from here to here,” he says. “I know because I used to do this all the time.” Until recently, these measurements—10 feet by 6 feet—fit his entire life.

Two years ago, Perez was released on parole after serving 13 years at Rikers Island penitentiary and prisons in upstate New York, three of which he spent in solitary confinement.1 Sitting across from Perez, you wonder how he feels in this space, a tiny, harshly lit conference room at the Urban Justice Center on Wall Street in Manhattan. Whether it brings back traumatic memories, or feels like home, or both.

While there is no universally agreed-upon definition, modern solitary—also called supermax, isolated segregation, and “the box”—is commonly understood to involve confinement to a small cell for 22 to 24 hours a day. Prisoners are not allowed to participate in leisure activities, have hobbies, or speak to others. They are often handcuffed and shackled when they leave their cells—if they ever leave. Perez says he eventually stopped even wanting to.

JOHNNY PEREZ: Clothes are near and dear to his heart, says Perez, because for years he was told what to wear. “Nowadays I am very intentional as to what I wear.”Allegra Abramo

Solitary confinement has been linked to a variety of profoundly negative psychological outcomes, including suicidal tendencies and spatial and cognitive distortions. Confinement-induced stress can shrink parts of the brain

You're reading a preview, sign up to read more.

More from Nautilus

Nautilus6 min read
The Mystery of Human Uniqueness: What, exactly, makes our biology special?
If you dropped a dozen human toddlers on a beautiful Polynesian island with shelter and enough to eat, but no computers, no cell phones, and no metal tools, would they grow up to be like humans we recognize or like other primates? Would they invent l
Nautilus5 min read
What Ancient Romans Used Instead of Toilet Paper
We’ve all been caught unawares by our digestive tract at one time or another. It happened to the Nash family several months ago. We were nearing the end of an extended road trip, driving down a secondary highway through a sparsely populated area of C
Nautilus10 min read
Yes, Determinists, There Is Free Will: You make choices even if your atoms don’t.
It’s not just in politics where otherwise smart people consistently talk past one another. People debating whether humans have free will also have this tendency. Neuroscientist and free-will skeptic Sam Harris has dueled philosopher and free-will def