Broken: Solitary Confinement – Antwaan Johnson

Prison has been known to house some of the most dangerous individuals in the world. What’s known as Administrative Confinement (Ad-Seg) and Solitary Confinement have tested the toughest of them mentally. It is an experience that, once endured, one will never forget…and many who are subjected to these methods of discipline are never the same.


Solitary confinement has been considered by many to be a modernized concentration camp tactic, used as a form of mental and emotional torture. My personal experience with it began when I was sent to Ad-Seg for a physical altercation that I had with another inmate. As I entered the unit, the first thing that assaulted my senses was the pungently foul odor that had permeated throughout the area I was to be housed in. There was an unbearable stench that lingered of humidity mixed with urine, feces, steel and sweat. A sense of darkness and gloom overcame me and a cold chill ran down my spine as I took in my surroundings for the first time. It seemed as if this were a space where no forms of peace and happiness could penetrate or be allowed to exist in any form. I also noticed that there was an abundance of noise and “Cadillacs” (Handmade contraptions designed to transport things such as cigarettes, lighters, small food or hygiene items, or written messages from one locked cell to another, usually made of a long piece of string and a piece of a bar of soap or some other small item intended to add weight to the end of the “Cadillac” so that it can travel further once it is slid from under the cell door) strewn about the wing, forming a sort of life-sized spider-web across the dirty concrete floor. All of this was definitely an eye-opener, but what really caught me off-guard was the older gentleman who sat shackled and chained to a steel bench right inside of the wing they had just walked me into. As soon as I saw his demeanor, I could tell that he was in deep distress, on display for the other inmates to see. He had a cold stare – one that would capture the attention of any photographer – not only because of his dark, wrinkled skin, thinning grey hair and thick, matted beard, but because he had a look in his eyes that possessed an untold story. A story that was filled with pain, sorrow, and suffering: trying to hold on to life with every ounce of strength, but growing weaker by the day. Taking in his sight was enough to make an impression, but it was what he said next that would leave me mentally scarred. He told me, 


“You’ll never leave here the same”


After I was placed in my cell, I was stripped down to my boxers and t-shirt. For one week, I was left with no soap, toothpaste, deodorant, or writing material. I constantly tried to get the guards to notify the caseworker or the property rooms, but my pleas went unanswered. Then, one guard told me, 


“Do your time like a man, and get over it.”


It became clear that my real concerns pertaining to my well-being were nothing more than just mere irritancies in the eyes of prison officials, the equivalent of a fly buzzing around one’s head. There was a gentleman next door who asked me my name, and we became familiar with one another. He said, 


“If you just lay down and keep quiet, you’ll be lucky to make it out with your sanity”

Not long after I had been placed in my cell, I began to hear the inmate directly across the walk from me in cell 210 moaning and begging for the guards to please turn the lights out. After hearing his cries well into the night, I realized that the lights in the cells remained on 24/7. I listened for two weeks as he pleaded with the guards for them to turn out the lights. Over time, he became increasingly more irate; eventually yelling and kicking on the door to try to get their attention. When he refused to stop, the guards rushed in and wrestled him to the ground. After 15 minutes, he was stripped down naked and everything was removed from his cell. A few minutes later, he appeared at his cell door. What I saw through his cell window broke me inside. His face had been tremendously bruised and battered, both of his eyes were swollen almost shut, and there was no sign that medical had been notified. As he began kicking on the door again while shedding tears of anger and frustration, the guards placed a large fan directly in front of his cell and turned it on high. As I saw him cower away from the door, shivering and rubbing his arms, I realized that he was naked with nothing to wrap himself with. I began to yell,


“Hey, that’s against the law! That’s cruel and unusual punishment!”


But the guard just laughed at me. The guy next door to me said “Antwaan, keep quiet, man.” I yelled,


“No I WON’T keep quiet! That’s ILLEGAL!”


I attempted to look at the man in cell 210 square in the eye; and although he was struggling to see, he began communicating with another inmate through his window that I couldn’t see. Then I saw a “Cadillac” slide across the floor into his cell. The guy in 210 then held up a shoestring, but I didn’t understand right then what it was for. I began to look around the unit as I was trying to make sense of all that was taking place, then I came to the grim realization that he had decided enough was enough and that his only way out was to end his life.


There were times when we went hungry because we were denied food, but the guards told food service that we had refused our trays. As I listen to some inmates scream through the night, it was clear that it seemed the walls were closing in on them. Still, no one came to check on us. I listened as the guards continuously taunted and tortured inmates psychologically and emotionally. A few of them even went so far as to tell some of us,


“Just go ahead and kill yourself, nobody cares about you in society anyway.”


The devastating effect of 24/7 confinement on an individual is extremely traumatic, and will cause even the most strong willed individuals to lose themselves. 


Then, there was a sign of hope. An unfamiliar card was slid under several inmates doors. It was from a group called “Solitary Watch,” and for the first time in a long while I felt as if someone actually cared about me. As I called out to the guy in 210 and also to the inmate next door, it became obvious that the man in the cell next to mine had begun to succumb to the pressure because everything was different about him now. There were times when I thought that he was talking to me and I’d ask him to repeat himself because he’d be mumbling, but it turned out that he had begun having conversations with himself. The guy who once told me to keep quiet had now entered another dimension mentally. Weeks turned into months and months turned into 3 years. It became clear that the once well-groomed, 6’2” 230 pound militant in the cell next to me had been robbed of his spirit, had given up, and now had the appearance of Moses with his long, unkempt hair. He had also lost a tremendous amount of weight from not eating on a consistent basis. I continued to communicate with him anyway; because deep down, I knew the warrior was still inside of him. Whether he was actually listening or not was unclear. Then one day out of the blue he said


“Hey, next door…I’ll see you tomorrow!”

But tomorrow would never come for him, as he finally snapped and lost his mind. As I sat quietly in my cell, I dwelled over the thought that there would be no more screams to turn out the lights from cell 210, nor would there be any more wrestling with personal demons and self-bondage from the cell next door to me. I prayed to God in tears, asking that he would grant me enough strength to make it through my own ordeal without suffering the same fate. Because once you experience Solitary Confinement, you will be…



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