USA - Window of Longing

Window of Longing

Roberto asked for a portrait of himself against a blue sky - so that he could send the photo to his family

Photo: Laurie Jo Reynolds, Courtesy: Photo Requests from Solitary

Toilet, sink, table, chair, mattress, 24 hours a day with minimal human contact, with the screams and noise of mentally ill inmates, slamming doors, orders, the steps of the guards in the corridor - all this means solitary confinement in the United States. Tens of thousands of prisoners live in a world made of concrete and steel, mostly without a look outside. The living space is roughly the same size as the parking space for a passenger car. Attempts at reform in a few states give rise to hope.

The popular belief: prisoners in solitary confinement must be the most dangerous. Many letters from these inmates to the human rights project Photo Requests from Solitary (German: “Requests for photos from solitary confinement”) paint a more complex picture. Those locked away write to the initiative what they would like to see in their desolation. You want images of hope, longing, something beautiful. Volunteers have been trying to make these wishes come true for years. One detainee from Pennsylvania wrote that he wanted a photo "of the natural world without people, of a world without pollution, without concrete, steel, hatred, bitterness, apathy and indifference".

Barefoot on the grass

A man named Roberto wrote that he would like a photo of himself, but with a different background than the one in his official prison photo, with a blue sky maybe. Because he has no picture of himself that he can send to relatives. An inmate at Pine Grove Prison in Pennsylvania requested a photo of a male lion with four lion cubs. He has four children.

The project, which has been running for more than ten years, is also meant politically, says employee Laurie Jo Reynolds. The photos would be shown at exhibitions around solitary confinement events across the country. When Amnesty International investigated the conditions of detention in the US federal prison ADX Florence in Colorado years ago, the subsequent report complained about the devastating physical and psychological effects it would have on people if they were incarcerated for between 22 and 24 hours a day without contact with the outside world . In the ADX Florence maximum security prison, this led to some prisoners injuring themselves or killing themselves.

Some inmates want a bit of everyday life that they don't have - Keith wanted a table full of fast food (see below)

Photo: Laurie Jo Reynolds, Courtesy: Photo Requests from Solitary

The desire for a picture shows the human nature of the blocked. “Hello, I'm writing because I heard about your photo program,” it says on yellow paper with the stamp of “Pelican Bay State Prison,” a prison in California. "I have been living in isolating conditions for 17 years." The ancestors of the prisoner immigrated from Donegal, Ireland. “I once had a dream about Donegal where I walked barefoot on grass. I could feel the cool stalks between my toes. When I woke up in my windowless cell, I felt a deep loss. "

Dan from New York asked for a picture of a black woman in leather black trousers in front of a powder blue Mercedes-Benz. Some inmates long for images from their childhood and youth, such as an aunt's house on 63rd Street between 14 p.m. and 16 p.m. in the afternoon. A letter writer wants a picture of “the Virgin Mary holding her Son Jesus Christ in his arms and he is holding the world in his hand”. Some motifs reflect the suffering in solitary confinement. "I want to see a 62-year-old man with a graying beard looking at the window of his cell, and life will go by." He has been in solitary confinement in the Pine Grove prison for 25 years. Some desires reflect the desire for freedom when it says, "I want to see a picture in which" police officers and politicians are being arrested by ordinary people. "The applicant was sent a montage of images to the Fayette State Correctional Institution in Pennsylvania, one of which young woman searched a police officer.

There are no reliable data on the men and women in solitary confinement. Human rights activists in the Solitary Watch association estimate that there are probably around 80.000. There are more than enough scientific studies available on the psychological damage caused by isolation and hopelessness. One can speak of torture. In civil lawsuits by detainees, the conditions in the isolation wing and a lack of medical care are denounced. Every state and the national penitentiary system operate isolation wards, which are intended for supposedly particularly severe cases. In almost every prison prisoners are threatened with isolation if they break the rules or do not “respect” the keepers: The decision is at the discretion of the respective prison system.

The pandemic has isolated even more prisoners. In a section of San Quentin Prison in California, "prisoners are locked in their cells 23 hours a day," wrote Juan Moreno Haines, editor of the prison newspaper San quentin news. 700 men are allowed 90 minutes out of the cell every other day "to wash themselves in shared showers according to skin color", to go out into the courtyard or to call someone on one of the twelve telephones. In a Washington prison for remand inmates and inmates with rather short sentences, the 1.500 men were only allowed to leave their cells for one hour a day for months.

Photo: Laurie Jo Reynolds, Courtesy: Photo Requests from Solitary

Laurie Jo Reynolds apparently has some hope. The extreme trend towards punishment and not rehabilitation in the penal system has declined in recent years. Reynolds sees a key reason in a 2008 study by the Pew Research Center, which shocked many Americans, according to which one in 100 adult US citizens is in custody. Several states have somewhat limited the isolation time. At the beginning of April, New York State passed a far-reaching law by US standards that limits such solitary confinement to a maximum of 15 days.

In US society, the need for humanity and the desire for harsh punishment face each other. Ex-cop Derek Chauvin, convicted of the violent death of George Floyd, is now in a cell in a maximum security prison in Minnesota for 23 hours a day, ostensibly for his safety. In the cells of this wing there was nothing more than a bench with a mattress, a toilet, a sink and a "tiny shower," she wrote New York Times.

Strict solitary confinement in the US dates back to the 19th century. At the time, some Christian thinkers advocated the idea that prisoners could be repented if they were locked up with the Bible and nothing else. The British writer Charles Dickens visited in 1842 what was then the "model prison" for solitary confinement in Philadelphia. The system was "cruel and wrong," he said. And what about the photos of the prisoners today? In many institutions, prisoners are not allowed to hang pictures or stick them on the wall. They therefore have to be kept inconspicuously somehow.