The ugly brutality of prison sensory deprivation

Photo of a row of prison cells

Photo courtesy of user vhines200 / flickr

The 13th Amendment states that slavery is abolished unless one has been arrested for a crime. In other words, if being incarcerated seems like a form of slavery, that’s because it is.

Sensory deprivation, usually imposed on prisoners through solitary confinement, is a form of punishment. These deprivation cases alone are worth billions and many landowners get government grants from big banks to buy land to build prisons. I still talk to people today who tell me how hilarious it is to think that the prison system has changed. With the COVID-19 pandemic, sensory deprivation has only gotten worse. 

Picture living in a human cage about the size of a bathroom. You are placed in this cage in a human warehouse where you will eat, sleep, wash, read, think, and take care of bodily functions. You are there 24 hours a day, day in and day out, year in and year out, with no end. The prisoners say that the silence is eerie. 

There is a steel door between you and the rest of the world. You may be allowed out once every other day for an hour and a half in a concrete yard. You may be allowed one 15-minute call a day and that call is monitored. In some of the units you get one call every three months. Your mail and reading material is censored. If for some reason you have to leave your cage, you are strip-searched, which often includes a pointedly humiliating anal probe. 

You are shackled around your waist and handcuffed. You are entirely under the control of prison guards who carry long, black clubs they refer to as “n***** beaters.” You remain constantly on the alert for your own mental and physical deterioration. In a letter from one of these brothers, he asks me, “how does one go about articulating desperation to another who is not desperate? How does one go about articulating the psychological stress of knowing that people are waiting for me to self-destruct?” 

There is no question in my mind that this is an acute form of torture that is being carried out deliberately. Sensory deprivation and isolation are brainwashing techniques. This is no accident.

The world of control units and supermax prisons is a world in which isolation and segregation for long and indefinite periods of time has led to a psychological brutality of ugly proportions. The expanded use of these units has led Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the World Organization Against Torture/USA to criticize the United States’ practices. The use of isolation in this country breaks the United Nations Convention Against Torture, which the U.S. has signed.

One of the conditions that hasn’t changed at all throughout my years monitoring prisons has been the brutality. I don’t think it is possible to hold such power over another human being and retain one’s humanity. I get reports on a daily basis of beatings, cell extractions, hosings, and worse — the most horrible kind of treatment that one human being can inflict upon another. 


Pierre Johnson is an artist and vendor with Street Sense Media.

Issues |Incarceration|Political commentary

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