Opinion: Sartre Had it Wrong - Orange Is The New Black Week


By Timothy Dillon

Photo courtesy of Allissa Richardson.

“Hell is other people.” This is the pinnacle line in Jean-Paul Sartre’s “No Exit,” which depicts three strangers doomed to a room in hell for all eternity. Over the course of the play, we learn that these people have likely been selected to be each others form of torture, since they are all so undesirable to each other. By the play’s end, the audience gets to leave, but the thought of the three characters, Garcin, Ines, and Estelle, being trapped with each other is one that lingers long after the theater seats have cooled.

It’s a look at what Hell could be, and how the people around us can really shape our mood, experience, life, and even afterlife. Now, here in the real world, people are inevitably forced to deal with other people they find distasteful. It’s not a sad truth, just a fact of life: not everyone is going to like you and vice versa.

Now the closest thing we have to classical hell (while living) is incarceration, and in prison, your fellow inmate can certainly be part of your punishment, but it’s mainly the bars, lack of resources, and well, freedom that really takes its toll. So, perhaps the maxim of hell being other people is a bit hyperbolic, especially considering what happens when you take everyone away.

The Hunger Strikes

Earlier this summer in California prisons, nearly 30,000 inmates refused their state-issued meals. This was not a new tactic, as in Pelican Bay State Prison in southern California had successfully tried this in 2011 to catalyze the California Department of Correction and Rehabilitation in reforms.

Again, in 2012 we saw lawmakers begin a review of solitary confinement. One testimony was given by an exonerated death row inmate who had spent nearly 18 years in prison, the majority of those years in solitary.

“I lived behind a steel door that had two small slits in it, the space replaced with iron and wire, which was dirty and filthy,” said Anthony Graves to The New York Times. “I had no television, no telephone and most importantly, I had no physical contact with another human being.”

While this has been a reoccurring issue debated in government, inmates are still unsatisfied with the crude practice of solitary confinement.

On Sept. 6, the most recent set of hunger strikes ended, and while it started with tens of thousands of participants, by the end, only around 100 men were still striking. By now inmates have resumed their scheduled meals and California officials announced open hearings to discuss prison policies. So what does this mean for solitary confinement?

Part of the reason solitary confinement is such a problem is because leaving the mentally ill alone with their thoughts is, well, bad for their mental health. In a 2002 survey of jail and prison facilities, 56.2 percent of state prison inmates suffer from a chronic mental illness. That number drops slightly to 44.8 percent in federal prisons but launches to 64.2 percent when you consider local jails.

With such a prevalence of mental instability among prison populations and the fact that solitary confinement IS used as the punishment within prisons, it is no wonder that inmates were striking. A 2005 study suggested that over 80,000 inmates are held in solitary confinement of is some sort of “restricted housing“. With more than half of those inmates likely to have a mental illness they are likely to drive themselves and even those who are mentally sound insane in just a matter of time. There is no way to be sure though, and that is part of the problem as well. While this humanity of this practice is being debated, the necessity for it sometime is self evident.

Necessary Evil?

There is no denying the effects of isolation on the psyche. Researchers have documented numerous symptoms and condition that can arise, even going as far as to give the condition it’s own name: Special Housing Unit Syndrome, or rather, SHU syndrome.

What’s worse is that SHU syndrome can present in vastly different ways: rage or fear, insomnia or hypersomnia, hallucinations that depart reality, and even PTSD which is all too aware of their current circumstance. Besides just being a way to exacerbate mental illness, the isolation also serves to compromise an inmates psyche. But what if it’s necessary? What if a person truly is a danger to themselves and others?

Charles Bronson is known for being the the most violent and uncooperative inmate to ever be housed by Britain’s prison system. There was also a critically-acclaimed film made about the history of Bronson, detailing his violent outbursts, hostage situation, and sheer brutality. While solitary is almost certainly responsible for perpetuating his violent behavior, what were authorities to do? He would assault, wound, and maim fellow inmates and prison guards almost indiscriminately.

For a sad truth, some people are beyond help, and this is by choice. What most 12 step rehabilitation programs try to tell you is that you need to accept that there is a problem in order to solve it. Bronson was resistant to letting his time serve him, to better himself, and for the safety and security of his prisons, he needed to be removed from social interaction. Bronson, in his autobiography stated that, “I’m a nice guy, but sometimes I lose all my senses and become nasty. That doesn’t make me evil, just confused.” Now in Viking times, they called this going berserk and unfortunately this has no place in modern society.

Perhaps the problem really lies in the UK prison system; that they lack the appropriate care to deal with people who are so mentally disturbed. While prisons and jails have become more efficient at identifying those with disabilities who are in need of treatment, they are still stagnant on how to help treat and care for these people.

Reclaiming Rehabilitation

You can look to Molly Freeman’s article later this week on the subject of prison alternatives, because what I want to talk about is more personal. For two years I was part of a program that went to Jessup Correctional Institute, a medium security prison outside Baltimore Maryland. I would meet with inmates, men who were seeking a refuge. What always kept me coming back was that of all the pass times in prison, the pursuit of knowledge was perhaps the most wise decision I thought these incarcerated souls could make.

We were a small group of student teaching what I called “gooey philosophy” because Eckhart Tolle was an idol to our professor who led the group. It was a class aimed at helping inmates find a way to experience and live life to the fullest, even while inside. Part of what made Bronson such an unruly inmate was his unwillingness to find things to better his circumstances. These were men who wanted to better themselves, even though some of them had consecutive life sentences.

Having a compounded, worse punishment within prison ought be only for people who truly pose a threat to fellow inmates and to the security of the prison. There are those who want to better themselves, and sometimes, they are not fortunate enough to have an outlet like a college philosophy class. “Corrections” facilities, and “rehabilitation” centers, ought do what their title implies instead of causing irreparable damage to inmates’ minds.

Even though someone like Bronson was able to create a fitness regime out of solitary confinement while incarcerated, he wasn’t exactly bettering his mind or finding stability for his emotions.

What the system needs is not just a reconsideration of these tactics, but instead, a remaining of what the states role is in the health of those they intern. Because hell isn’t other people, it is having no one else to share the brutality of life with.