Lisa Guenther writes: I first met Five Omar Mualimm-ak at a forum on solitary confinement in New York City. He wore track shoes with his tailored suit. ‘As long as the Prison Industrial Complex keeps running, so will I,’ he explained. After hearing him speak about the connections between racism, poverty, mass incarceration and police violence, I invited Five to speak at a conference I was organising in Nashville, Tennessee. He arrived, as always, in a suit and track shoes. As we walked across campus to a conference reception, I worked up the courage to ask him how he got his name. He told me: ‘I spent five years in solitary confinement, and when I came out I was a different person.’
In an article for The Guardian last October, Five described his isolation as a process of sensory and existential annihilation:
After only a short time in solitary, I felt all of my senses begin to diminish. There was nothing to see but grey walls. In New York’s so-called special housing units, or SHUs, most cells have solid steel doors, and many do not have windows. You cannot even tape up pictures or photographs; they must be kept in an envelope. To fight the blankness, I counted bricks and measured the walls. I stared obsessively at the bolts on the door to my cell.
There was nothing to hear except empty, echoing voices from other parts of the prison. I was so lonely that I hallucinated words coming out of the wind. They sounded like whispers. Sometimes, I smelled the paint on the wall, but more often, I just smelled myself, revolted by my own scent.
There was no touch. My food was pushed through a slot. Doors were activated by buzzers, even the one that led to a literal cage directly outside of my cell for one hour per day of ‘recreation’.
Even time had no meaning in the SHU. The lights were kept on for 24 hours. I often found myself wondering if an event I was recollecting had happened that morning or days before. I talked to myself. I began to get scared that the guards would come in and kill me and leave me hanging in the cell. Who would know if something happened to me? Just as I was invisible, so was the space I inhabited.
The very essence of life, I came to learn during those seemingly endless days, is human contact, and the affirmation of existence that comes with it. Losing that contact, you lose your sense of identity. You become nothing.
Five’s experience of solitary confinement is extreme, but it’s not atypical. His feeling of disconnection from the world, to the point of losing his capacity to make sense of his own identity and existence, raises philosophical questions about the relation between sense perception, sociality, and a meaningful life. Why does prolonged isolation typically corrode a prisoner’s ability to perceive the world and to sustain a meaningful connection with his own existence? The short answer to this question is that we are social beings who rely on our interactions with other people to make sense of things. But what does it mean to exist socially, and what is the precise connection between our relations with others, our perception of the world, and the affirmation of our own existence?
My response to this question is shaped by the philosophical practice of phenomenology. Phenomenology begins with a description of lived experience and reflects on the structures that make this experience possible and meaningful. The main insight of phenomenology is that consciousness is relational. [Continue reading…]