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What's It Like? Experiencing Solitary Confinement In A New Haven Exhibit

Feb 2, 2017

A traveling exhibit, now in New Haven, aims to give people the opportunity to experience solitary confinement and learn about its effects. It includes a replica of a prison cell and people are invited to go "Inside the Box."

The door closed behind me as I walked into a grey cell that’s 10 feet by 12 feet. It had a toilet, sink, and a wooden box for a bed. There was an overhead fluorescent light and recorded sounds from an actual prison.

Reverend Allie Perry, board president of the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, explained that it's actually a sound track from a supermax prison in Maine.

"People who have been in solitary have reported when they sat in the replica and heard these sounds that the sounds are familiar," she said. "It’s what they experienced and their only criticism is that they’re not being played loudly enough in the replica."

Perry wants people to understand how solitary confinement feels and what it sounds like.

"Think about having no fresh air, no visual stimulation," Perry said. "To have your eyes not be able to focus on anything more than, say, eight feet away. But mostly to be deprived of any human contact and to be left entirely to yourself -- it really can drive people crazy."

Perry also wants to teach the community about the long-term effects of solitary confinement, also called segregation. The United Nations considers it torture after 15 days. It’s been linked to lifelong mental health problems including anxiety, paranoia, and depression.

Perry said on any given day, around 80,000 people in the United States are being held in solitary confinement. But to be clear, she is not suggesting that people who commit crimes shouldn’t be punished.

"They should do their time, but they should not be doing it in a way that is really damaging their humanity -- that is a form of torture," Perry said. "That’s the kind of punishment that’s not mandated by the courts by the way. Solitary is, as I understand it, entirely at the discretion of correctional officers."

Perry would like to see solitary confinement abolished -- or at the very least restricted.

"Inside the Box" exhibit
Credit Lori Mack/WNPR

Reaction to the exhibit has been mixed. Perry said the relative of a prison guard felt it was critical of correctional officers. Perry cited a study suggesting that segregation actually increases violence and makes conditions more dangerous for prison staff.

But other reactions have been less critical and more emotional.

John Green, a New Haven resident, stood outside the cell.

"I don’t want to go in there," he said. "I know what it’s like in there. I don’t want to go in there. Nope. Nope."

Green said he was in solitary confinement after getting into a fight in prison. He said he has mixed emotions, as he stood in front of the exhibit, and still struggles with anxiety.

Raymond Shri Haogun is visiting from China. He went into the cell for five minutes.

"Madness," he said. "Absolutely madness."

Haogun said he’s never experienced a jail cell before and was unnerved by the sounds.

"The jail makes me nervous at first," he said. "There’s lots of noises like the criminals hit iron bars. The temperature inside is really cold and I feel hopeless and kind of crazy."

There are several events connected to the exhibit including expert panels, a dance performance, and a documentary film screening. "Inside the Box" will be at the New Haven Free Public Library until February 4. From there it moves to the Yale University campus until February 18.