We cannot verify your location
Browse Book and Journal Content on Project MUSE

Solitary Confinement

Social Death and Its Afterlives

Lisa Guenther

Publication Year: 2013

Prolonged solitary confinement has become a widespread and standard practice in U.S. prisons—even though it consistently drives healthy prisoners insane, makes the mentally ill sicker, and, according to the testimony of prisoners, threatens to reduce life to a living death. In this profoundly important and original book, Lisa Guenther examines the death-in-life experience of solitary confinement in America from the early nineteenth century to today’s supermax prisons. Documenting how solitary confinement undermines prisoners’ sense of identity and their ability to understand the world, Guenther demonstrates the real effects of forcibly isolating a person for weeks, months, or years.

Drawing on the testimony of prisoners and the work of philosophers and social activists from Edmund Husserl and Maurice Merleau-Ponty to Frantz Fanon and Angela Davis, the author defines solitary confinement as a kind of social death. It argues that isolation exposes the relational structure of being by showing what happens when that structure is abused—when prisoners are deprived of the concrete relations with others on which our existence as sense-making creatures depends. Solitary confinement is beyond a form of racial or political violence; it is an assault on being.

A searing and unforgettable indictment, Solitary Confinement reveals what the devastation wrought by the torture of solitary confinement tells us about what it means to be human—and why humanity is so often destroyed when we separate prisoners from all other people.

Published by: University of Minnesota Press


pdf iconDownload PDF (64.5 KB)
p. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

pdf iconDownload PDF (63.2 KB)
pp. 2-7


pdf iconDownload PDF (38.0 KB)
pp. 8-9

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (47.6 KB)
pp. ix-x

This book would not have been written if not for Angela Davis. In my first year teaching at Vanderbilt University, I audited a graduate course on slavery with Dr. Davis, who was a visiting professor in the philosophy department at the time. This course, along with her written work on slavery, prisons, and torture, changed the course of my research and...

read more

Introduction: A Critical Phenomenology of Solitary Confinement

pdf iconDownload PDF (166.2 KB)
pp. xi-xxx

There are many ways to destroy a person, but one of the simplest and most devastating is through prolonged solitary confinement. Deprived of meaningful human interaction, otherwise healthy prisoners become unhinged. They see things that do not exist, and they fail to see things that do. Their sense of their own bodies—even the fundamental...

I. The Early U.S. Penitentiary System

read more

1. An Experiment in Living Death

pdf iconDownload PDF (164.9 KB)
pp. 3-22

Solitary confinement first emerged as a standard technique of punishment with the establishment of the penitentiary system in the early nineteenth century in the United States. The penitentiary was devised as a humanitarian response to the penal customs of public humiliation, torture, and execution inherited from English colonial rule. In...

read more

2. Person, World, and Other: A Husserlian Critique of Solitary Confinement

pdf iconDownload PDF (137.0 KB)
pp. 23-38

Dickens paints a vivid picture of living death at Eastern State Penitentiary in the early nineteenth century. Taking this description as my starting point, I now develop a phenomenological analysis of what personhood must be like in order to be affected in this way by prolonged solitary confinement. What are the conditions for the possibility...

read more

3. The Racialization of Criminality and the Criminalization of Race: From the Plantation to the Prison Farm

pdf iconDownload PDF (200.6 KB)
pp. 39-62

The black experience of incarceration during the first wave of the U.S. penitentiary system was not, by and large, an experience of (failed) redemption through solitary confinement in the penitentiary system but, rather, one of forced labor, bodily pain, public humiliation, and isolation to the point of social death. Slaves were...

II. The Modern Penitentiary

read more

4. From Thought Reform to Behavior Modification

pdf iconDownload PDF (285.5 KB)
pp. 65-100

Almost one hundred years separate James V. McConnell from Alfred H. Love, and there is a vast ideological chasm between Love’s Christian humanism and McConnell’s scientific antihumanism. And yet their conclusions are strikingly similar: criminals must not only be punished or reformed but also treated and cured of their...

read more

5. Living Relationality: Merleau-Ponty’s Critical Phenomenological Account of Behavior

pdf iconDownload PDF (203.2 KB)
pp. 101-124

Cold War research on thought reform and behavior modification provided a scientific foundation and an intellectual justification for a set of practices ranging from the coercive interrogation of enemies of the state, to coercive “therapy” for domestic prisoners, and even to voluntary forms of therapy and self-improvement based on...

read more

6. Beyond Dehumanization: A Posthumanist Critique of Intensive Confinement

pdf iconDownload PDF (271.4 KB)
pp. 125-158

In 1971, the Attica Liberation Faction demanded an end to the dehumanization of prisoners in its “Manifesto of Demands and Anti-Depression Platform”:

We, the inmates of Attica Prison, have grown to recognize beyond the shadow of a doubt, that because of our posture as prisoners and branded characters as alleged criminals, the administration and prison employees no...

III. Supermax Prisons

read more

7. Supermax Confinement and the Exhaustion of Space

pdf iconDownload PDF (258.1 KB)
pp. 161-194

The third wave of solitary confinement in the United States is the era of the control prison. Its implicit, and often explicit, aim is to control, contain, and incapacitate prisoners. Gone is the rhetoric of rehabilitation or spiritual redemption. It has been replaced by a neoliberal rhetoric of risk management, security, efficiency, accountability, and...

read more

8. Dead Time: Heidegger, Levinas, and the Temporality of Supermax Confinement

pdf iconDownload PDF (206.4 KB)
pp. 195-220

What does it mean to serve time? To be at risk of having time do you, or even do you in? Every prisoner must face this question on some level. But time is an especially pressing issue for the supermax prisoner who is isolated from others and confined to a tiny cell for weeks, months, or even years. Just as security doors chop up supermax...

read more

9. From Accountability to Responsibility: A Levinasian Critique of Supermax Rhetoric

pdf iconDownload PDF (259.2 KB)
pp. 221-252

Supporters of supermax confinement often justify policies of extreme isolation and control through an appeal to safety, efficiency, and accountability (Riveland 1999, 6; Mears and Watson 2006, 251–56). Inmates who disrupt prison life with violence or other forms of disobedience create an unsafe environment for other inmates and...

read more

Conclusion: Afterlives

pdf iconDownload PDF (59.2 KB)
pp. 253-256

The social death of prisoners in solitary confinement does not just affect the individual or the family or the local community; it affects all of us who live in a society in which black, brown, and poor people of all races are criminalized and isolated in prisons for the sake of someone else’s security and prosperity. Urban centers across the...


pdf iconDownload PDF (300.4 KB)
pp. 257-294


pdf iconDownload PDF (229.5 KB)
pp. 295-314


pdf iconDownload PDF (635.8 KB)
pp. 315-321

read more

About the Author

pdf iconDownload PDF (31.3 KB)
p. 353-353

LISA GUENTHER is associate professor of philosophy at Vanderbilt University. She is the author of The Gift of the Other: Levinas and the Politics of Reproduction.

E-ISBN-13: 9780816686247
E-ISBN-10: 0816686246
Print-ISBN-13: 9780816679591

Page Count: 368
Publication Year: 2013