An Interview with Lisa Guenther

“What is the experience of isolation?”

An Interview with Lisa Guenther

“What is the experience of isolation?”

An Interview with Lisa Guenther

Jill Stauffer
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In this second interview in a series of three on issues of criminal justice, incarceration, and solitary confinement in the United States, I speak with philosopher Lisa Guenther about what solitary confinement does to bodies and minds. Her forthcoming book, Social Death and Its Afterlives: A Critical Phenomenology of Solitary Confinement, shows simultaneously why solitary confinement should be considered cruel and unusual punishment (even though, as we learned from Colin Dayan in the first interview in this series, the Supreme Court keeps refusing to make that ruling) and how what happens to prisoners subjected to isolation reveals to us something about what it means to be a person. In other words, what is wrong about solitary confinement matters in an institution of justice, of course, but it also speaks, on a more existential level, to our understanding of ourselves as creatures who must live together with others. Isolation is not punishment; it is destruction of personhood. As such, it does not belong in a correctional system.

Guenther is associate professor of philosophy at Vanderbilt University. She also facilitates a reading group in a prison in Nashville, and recently authored a New York Times op-ed on solitary confinement, as well as submitting testimony in June 2012 to the first-ever Senate hearing on the subject. Her first book, The Gift of the Other, explored the ethical significance of birth. This interview began when I visited Vanderbilt during the March 2012 tornado season (more exciting than planned!), and then continued over email.

—Jill Stauffer

THE BELIEVER: What, specifically, is wrong with solitary confinement as a form of punishment, and why would a philosopher write a book about it?

LISA GUENTHER: The practice of solitary confinement raises all sorts of philosophical questions for me. First of all: why do we tend to think that isolation is a more “humane” punishment than physical torture? What view of personhood and of justice would you have to hold in order to think that someone could be rehabilitated or even redeemed by prolonged solitary confinement? In the early penitentiary system, solitary confinement was seen as a civilized alternative to physical punishment. The idea was that if you separated the prisoner from “criminal influences” and locked them away with nothing to do but reflect on their crime, you could force them to undergo a spiritual, moral, and political conversion. But already in the first years of the penitentiary system, critics like Charles Dickens observed that solitary confinement was far more likely to drive people insane, or to make them withdraw into themselves to the point of being unable to reconnect with others, than to turn them into upstanding citizens. So why do we continue to practice solitary confinement, almost a century after the first prisoners started going mad? What myths does this practice allow us to indulge? And what is the experience of isolation like for those who have survived it? Many survivors of isolation continue to experience nightmares, insomnia, anxiety, and paranoia many years after their release. Even if they crave a connection with others, they often find it difficult to sustain close relations with others or even to be in the same space with too many people for too long.

BLVR: Why? What is it about isolation that has such lasting negative effects?

LG: I think it’s because personhood is formed relationally. Take away those relationships and we become unmoored. We have this fantasy, especially in the U.S., that we exist as separate individuals who enter into relations with others by choice, but that we could just as easily get along without them. We think: Stick me in a solitary confinement cell and I’ll just listen to my iPod, or read a good book, or take up a new hobby. No problem! It might even be relaxing. We don’t expect that our most fundamental sense of identity could come unraveled in the prolonged absence of others—but this is because we rely on the support of others at such a basic level that we can take them for granted.

BLVR: So we are formed relationally, which means that we can’t become our own selves in the absence of others. We even start to unravel without their presence in our lives. How can we know this? What I mean is: what is your evidence?

LG: I rely on the phenomenological method to—

BLVR: Wait! You’re going to have to explain what phenomenology is and why it matters in this context.

LG: [Laughs] Right. Phenomenology is a philosophical method that begins with a description of first-person experience and then looks “underneath” that experience for the essential structures that make it meaningful.

BLVR: Rather than having us seek out scientific facts about what human beings are and what the objects around us in the world are, phenomenology asks us to pay heed to what the experience of the world is like for the kind of being we are (endowed with consciousness, vulnerable to injury, covered with sense organs, and so on).

LG: Yes. The aim is to understand what makes experience possible as experience rather than as just a barrage of stimuli.

BLVR: Can you offer an example of how this would work— walk us through it a bit?

LG: Sure. So here I am sitting at my desk. My favorite blue teapot is to the right, steeping some oolong tea. In order to get into the “phenomenological attitude,” I need to bracket out my assumption that the teapot actually exists, in order to shift my attention to how it shows itself to me, how I grasp it as a teapot.

BLVR: You get rid of your preconceptions.

LG: Yes. When I make this shift, I notice that the teapot is given to me in “profiles,” one side at a time. I can never see the teapot (or any spatial object) all at once; each side that is revealed implies other sides that remain hidden. My perspective is always partial and shifting; it depends on where my body is situated in relation to the teapot, as well as to other subjects and objects in the situation as a whole. The basic point is that perceptual experience involves a relationship between perceiver and perceived. And it also implies a relationship among different perceivers, each of whom experiences the same object from a different perspective, within their own first-person stream of consciousness.

BLVR: That sounds like a solitary endeavor.

LG: Well, this is where the rubber hits the road. On the one hand, no one can experience the world as someone else; we all have our own unique flow of mental processes that no one else can access directly. In this sense, each consciousness is absolutely singular and unsharable.

BLVR: Solitary.

LG: And yet not. Because, on the other hand, consciousness is always consciousness of something—it’s relational. And some of the “objects” that we experience are other subjects, persons with their own singular perspective on a world shared in common. Our experience of reality depends on this common world, this overlapping of perspectives.

BLVR: Not solitary!

LG: Right. Ask yourself: how does the sense of reality arise within my own first-person experience? How do I experience the teapot, not just as blue and square-ish and full of oolong tea, but as real and objective? For this, I need to experience the teapot as there for others, not just there for me—which means that I need an experience of others as subjects with their own perspective on a shared world.

BLVR: And that is what is taken from prisoners sent into isolation.

LG: Exactly. When we lock prisoners away in solitary confinement, we deprive them of a sustained experience of others (which is bad enough as it is), but we also undermine their experience of the world as being there for others, as part of a shared realm of experience. This is why so many prisoners hallucinate or lose their grip on reality: they have been cut off from an intersubjective network of support for the experience of the world as real and objective.


BLVR: I know that you have never had the first-person experience of being locked up. What has helped you understand solitary confinement phenomenologically?

LG: Testimony of prisoners—there is so much out there. One of the first accounts of solitary confinement that I ever read was an article by Stuart Grassian, a psychiatrist who interviewed prisoners at the Walpole penitentiary in 1982. I have spent the past three years trying to unpack the implications of this testimony, and I still feel like I’m only scratching the surface. One of the prisoners says:


I went to a standstill psychologically once—lapse of memory. I didn’t talk for fifteen days. I couldn’t hear clearly. You can’t see—you’re blind—block everything out—disoriented, awareness is very bad. Did someone say he’s coming out of it? I think what I’m saying is true—not sure. I think I was drooling—a complete standstill.


BLVR: Wow.

LG: What is going on for this person? He describes a feeling of standstill and memory loss, as if he were frozen in time and has lost his connection to the past. His ability to speak, to hear clearly, to see, and to orient himself in space has eroded. Even his attempt to give an accurate report of his experience is undermined by uncertainty; he’s not sure if someone spoke in his presence (who? a doctor, a guard?) or if he just imagined it. Even his own body’s self-betrayal remains an uncertainty: was he drooling or not? How could he know in the absence of anyone to ask or to care for him?

BLVR: He needed someone to help him confirm the reality of his experience.

LG: He also speaks in fragments rather than full sentences, referring to himself as “I,” “you,” and even “he.” This prisoner’s testimony seems to confirm the phenomenological insight that the sense of objective reality, and even the subject’s relation to time, depends upon the experiential support of others in a shared world. This prisoner seems to have lost his access not only to the world and other people, but also to himself, his own memories and perceptions, and his own relation to time.

BLVR: That sounds like the kind of “cruel and unusual” that punishment is not allowed to be in this country.

LG: You’re right, of course. And yet in the testimony I just quoted, the prisoner is being interviewed by a psychiatrist and expert witness in a class-action suit, Libby v. Commissioner of Correction, in which prisoners claimed that their treatment amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. Their claim was denied.

BLVR: Ugh.

LG: While Grassian does not mention the race or class of the prisoners, a disproportionate number of people in prison and in solitary confinement are impoverished people of color. We cannot understand the experience of this prisoner apart from this context in which some acts are criminalized and others are not, some criminal acts are punished with prison time and others are not, some prisoners are isolated within prison and others are not, some groups of people are subject to intense surveillance and others are not, and so forth.

BLVR: So, in addition to the unfairness of solitary confinement in general, we face the hard reality that poor and dark-skinned people are more likely to end up in prison, and in solitary confinement within prison. This is about multiple practices of isolation or exclusion.

LG: Right. One thing that I learned in writing about solitary confinement is that isolation comes in many forms. Racism is a form of isolation (and exposure). Poverty is a form of isolation (and exposure). These and other forms of oppression render certain people both invisible and hypervisible, systematically removing them from the space of public encounter and engagement. That is what I call social death, following Orlando Patterson’s book Slavery and Social Death. Even prison overcrowding is a form of isolation (and exposure); if there are too many people in a confined space, you cannot relate to them in an open-ended, mutually enriching way. You have to block them out, create a distance, just to get a bit of breathing space. In this way you get recruited as an instrument of your own isolation.

BLVR: Can phenomenology tell us why so many poor and dark-skinned people end up in U.S. prisons, or do we need a social scientist to do that?

LG: Phenomenology is not in the business of explaining why something happens, but rather in describing how it is experienced and how it comes to mean something. We need social scientists to track the connections between slavery, its (incomplete) abolition, the convict lease system, the Black Codes, Jim Crow, the persecution of black and brown activists in the 1960s and ’70s, feedback loops between U.S. geopolitical interests and the treatment of domestic prisoners, the growth of private prisons, and so forth. I outline these connections in my book, but my account depends heavily on the work of anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists, and historians. My contribution to this research is to engage with these connections in a phenomenological way, and to reflect on the meaning of prisoners’ testimony in relation to this social-political context.

BLVR: And this contributes to our larger understanding of what punishment and accountability mean in the U.S.

LG: I hope so. Lorna Rhodes offers a stunning critique of the rhetoric of “accountability” in supermax prisons in her book Total Confinement: Madness and Reason in the Maximum Security Prison. For example, the idea that prisoners must be held accountable for their actions seems reasonable enough, as long as you exclude the perspective of the prisoner. But this kind of reasoning becomes a cruel joke if you consider all the inequalities and absurdities that shape people’s lives, both in prison and beyond. What does accountability mean in solitary confinement, where there is no one to whom to give an account of oneself? What does it mean when a group of prisoners is punished for the acts of a few, or when some prisoners are punished in advance for being labeled (correctly or incorrectly) as gang members? Or when you have to fight another prisoner to protect yourself, even though your “choice” to break the rule against fighting may land you in solitary?

BLVR: So how should we think about accountability?

LG: I think we need a new vocabulary of responsibility and of transformative justice. Phenomenology can help with this in a number of ways. First, by drawing our attention to the lived experience of people who are most directly affected by the penal system: the prisoners themselves, and the communities most ravaged by mass incarceration.

BLVR: We need to listen to what prisoners say about imprisonment.

LG: Right. Our theories of justice are groundless and even insidious if they are not engaged with these perspectives. Even restorative justice is too modest a goal. We need a revolutionary approach to justice as a process of social transformation that is grounded in a relational understanding of persons as being in the world.

Secondly, phenomenological accounts of relational selfhood offer a powerful challenge to classical liberal models of individual autonomy, while allowing us to see what is so attractive in these models, both for the privileged and for the marginalized or excluded. But it will take more than phenomenological reflection to transform the criminal justice system. There will be no justice for prisoners or for victims of crime without a social movement to transform the very terms of justice, equality, and freedom. Most prisoners are not bad people in need of rehabilitation; they are smart, resilient people who have been through some very hard times and have found themselves stuck in a corner— sometimes for decades. The solution to this problem is not simply to punish or rehabilitate the individual, but to work with this person to renovate the corner!

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