Locked Up, Locked Down
When hominids first stood up it was to extend their vision and see farther afield, increasing their operational space, and modifying their brains in the process. While safety required shelter at night, daytime activities were devoted to nomadic survival in the outdoors. Small bands formed to sustain livelihood, offer protection, cooperate in the hunt, until farming and sedentary living caused them to stop roaming and build compounds–– if I may be permitted such radical shortcuts in our prehistoric narrative. The point is that such is our heritage: we are social animals and we live in interdependent groups.
In 2020-21, the established order went topsy-turvy for many: no longer together, confined indoors, with drastically changed activities. The distancing from others seemed to go against nature and for children and adolescents, unattached people, the unemployed, prolonged confinement magnified the unease and misery generated by the initial isolation. Those who suffered the most have been the elderly, locked down in long term care homes, unable to receive visitors and see their families, unfamiliar with electronic communication systems, often kept under conditions that have long be the shame of our society and its institutions. Many––the overwhelming majority of the national death toll–– have died painfully and alone, not understanding why it had to be so.
The consequences of isolation varied, although there was general alert to the mental health problems it may cause or intensify, particularly for those who often bear the brunt of familial, social, and economic changes. In Japan, for instance, during this last year of the pandemic suicides grew by 14 percent among women. It is true that the Japanese have a different cultural view of suicide than we do in the West: rather than being deemed a sin or experienced as a heartbreaking stigma for the family or a tragic failure for the individual, it is more likely to be accepted as an honourable way out of a situation deemed unbearable. We are slowly rallying around this notion when seeing it as an end of life choice, but still balk at accepting it as a solution for the burden of life. In this case, the Japanese Prime Minister saw the increase important enough to create in February 2021 a Ministry of Solitude and Isolation.
The hierarchical part of our system took over and regulated our responses to the coronavirus, with variances from place to place. In Europe particularly, some countries went into early lockdown and sporadically returned to it throughout 2020 and early 21. Passes were issued to allow designated ‘essential workers’ to circulate, unlike those only permitted short breaks from total confinement to shop for food and walk their dogs. Warnings and even fines were issued to those who transgressed their limits. In Asia, official control was sometimes stricter but whatever measures were taken everywhere had the same intent: keeping people apart to stop contamination. Many saw these measures as intended to put an end to individual freedom and resisted them. They remained unmasked, defied physical distancing, and helped spread the disease accordingly. We could see ourselves falling into two groups: those who privileged community over self and those whose egocentric concerns ruled their behaviour.
The history of isolation is as old as man’s understanding of contamination. For instance, as contagious diseases were often introduced through ports, ships were routinely isolated for chronic dysentery in Venice. In Marseilles, plague victims had been kept out of bounds for forty days (quarantaine or quarantine) since the fourteenth century. Modern science only confirms that isolation is still the surest way to contain epidemics. The consequences for not observing it could be tragic. In England, during the 1545-46 plague epidemic eleven British vessels were infected and spread the disease into the coastal garrisons with horrific loss of life. The authorities then decided to demobilize the men who had not yet succumbed: the seamen returned home, spreading the plague even farther. Today, holidays celebrated without restrictions routinely follow a similar pattern and strain once more hospitals’ ability to respond to new coronavirus cases.
Confinement and isolation have always been the methods of dealing with outside threats to the welfare of the community. Thus, they also apply to people deemed dangerous to the community because of the crimes they have committed and may commit again: we segregate them from us. French philosopher Michel Foucault in his seminal work on the birth of the prison system (Surveiller et punir/Discipline and Punish, 1975) describes how, by the sixteenth century, the organization of cities in times of pestilence already resembled the model of penal institutions.
We go even further and sometimes segregate inmates from one another: ‘solitary confinement’ is what we commonly call this Russian-doll experience of being further imprisoned while already in jail. It is this extreme version of confinement––the solitary one––we consider here as it bears a strong resemblance in its effects to epidemic isolation. The term ‘solitary confinement’ is too loaded for modern sensitivities and was first replaced by ‘dissociation’ or ‘adjustment units’ under three categories: ‘punitive dissociation,’ ‘administrative segregation,’ and ‘protective custody.’ With today’s theoretically more liberal regulations, it is also known as ‘structured intervention units.’ To the inmates, it is more likely to be known, as it always has been, as the Hole.
When a British Columbia penitentiary closed its doors in 1980, I was allowed to take three people with me to collect graffiti from the walls of solitary confinement cells. We spent the day collecting proverbs, inscriptions, drawings, insults. The cells had been used successively by several inmates who thus engaged in a conversation of sorts, where questions may be asked by one man, answered by another, but never read again by the first man. It was a continuous linear series of statements that could only progress in one direction.
The passage of time is a jail leitmotiv. We all sense our tenuous hold on it: tempus fugit––and is like water or sand running through our fingers. An inscription on an Italian church steeple goes further: it reads, tempus volat, valet, velat and implies that time has the triple function of flying, being valuable, and hiding things. It is the measure of life. But in the graffiti, time was dead time and only meant purposeless waiting.
A sixteenth-century notation on the wall of a cell in the Tower of London already describes its author as “a close prisoner 8 months, 32 weeks, 224 days, 3576 hours.” People do time while in jail. They are not passing it, spending it, or wasting it. They measure it in two ways: the time already spent and the years, months, or days still to come. Going to the Hole, however, seem to have interrupted this longitudinal measure, like time taken out of time. On the walls we examined in 1980, one man had, for instance, created an improbable sentence for himself: “1000-1 year.” Another had organized the passage of time through the repetition of recorded menus, real or imaginary, as the only variant in the monotony of his days: “8 Sunday Pork chops - 9 Monday Roast Beef - 10 Sausages - 11 W. Stew - 12 T. Liver - 13 F. Sandwiches - 14 S. Steak - 15 S. Turkey - 16 M. Steak - 17 T. Chicken- 18 W. Liver.”
By their very nature, graffiti are solitary pronouncements to which is added the freedom of anonymity. Yet, they also intend to elicit a response, thus creating a community of sorts, even if the initial writer will never read the succession of reactions his graffito may have elicited (unless he goes back to the same cell). It is only later readers who, reading both the initial statements and the responses, detect a powerful sense of similar values and beliefs. The graffiti express the abomination of the “System” and its perceived injustice, the men’s hatred of “pigs” and “rats,” their post-prison plans, revealing a strikingly collective coherence.
Solitude and isolation are not always the evils evoked in the graffiti. They are often the tests through which we dig deeply into our inner resources and are transformed, such as in tribal quests and rites of passage or in the form of religious and monastic contemplation. But undergone under duress, they are seen as torture. The graffiti we collected were clear on this point: ‘SOLITARY CONFINEMENT IS TORTURE,’ or ‘Using an atonom [sic] for the word torture we can say the Canadian Penitentiary System.’ In total agreement almost two centuries ago, Charles Dickens wrote about solitary confinement, “Very few men are capable of estimating the immense amount of torture and agony which this dreadful punishment… inflicts upon the sufferers. (American Notes for General Circulation, 1842).
Such are also the conclusions of today’s close observers of the prison system, in a more modern and humanistic approach influenced by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Recently, a measure was introduced to extend to four hours a day the time prisoners could spend out of isolation. Two unexpected factors have interfered in its application. The first is the advent of COVID19 and the need to isolate people (in a context where close proximity is the rule unless prisoners are already in punitive or protective solitary confinement cells). The second is the reluctance of many inmates, institutionalized in the prison’s isolation system where mental problems are rife, to leave their cells for the four hours now allowed.
While it would be otherwise inappropriate to compare the living conditions of convicted inmates and those of elderly residents of long-term care homes, solitary confinement in one case and COVID19 quarantine in the other have brought them together through a common link of even greater isolation. The COVID19 pandemic will come to an end and people will cope with its economic, social, and psychological aftermaths because it is in our nature to do so. The John Howard Society and many jurists and humanists are pushing for changes to the prison system and the abolition of solitary confinement as we know it today. For the time being, I am only reminded of a very small line I noticed above the door as we were leaving one cell in 1980. I dragged the stool we had been using for the higher inscriptions, climbed on it, and read in minuscule letters,
“If you read this, you must be very lonely.”