There are flowers in vases on tables and bartenders pouring wine near an open bar in the courtyard. There are also crumbling walls, broken toilets, and petrified insects in display cases. It is the opening night of the season’s art installations at Eastern State Penitentiary, home of the United States’ first experiment in solitary confinement—and I have only just begun to sense the paradoxes of this place.
I bow into a cell that is already crowded: a new exhibit called “Photo Requests from Solitary,” which has invited a fraction of the 80,000 people held in long-term isolation across the country to request a photograph of anything they desire, real or imagined. The artists have enlarged the inmates’ request forms and hung them around the cool, damp cell for visitors to read.
Sonny Boy in California requests “A face-shot of a woman with a smile that shines as bright as the sun. Not a model type but an everyday ordinary woman who, perhaps, enjoys every moment of life. Who is not bias or judgmental towards anyone but full of love & compassion for everyone & everything.”
Keith in New York wants to see “An African American family at a Thanksgiving/Christmas dinner,” with a “background of kids graduation, sweet sixteens, grandchildren being born, family reunion, birthdays, hardships/funerals, church attendance, aspects of a family tree—Grandparents (Great Grands too) mother father, and sons and daughters, cousins, wives and husbands, etc.”
Gerald in Pennsylvania doesn’t want a picture at all: “If you really want to help, just try talking to me.”
The requests are too diverse, too rooted in unique experiences and imaginations, to categorize—beloved people and places fading from memory by the day between motionless, colorless walls. Many echo a common need for companionship, through requests both concrete and abstract. These men and women are made in the image of a relational God.
And between the handwritten lines of every aspirational description, each seems to whisper: “I was not made for this.”
The modern practice of keeping men and women in isolated cells with minimal human interaction began with religiously motivated reformers. It was a Calvinist European prison reformer named John Howard who in the eighteenth century popularized the idea that solitude would make prisoners repentant, and Quakers in Philadelphia who in 1829 opened the first “penitentiary”—or place of penance—for rehabilitating prisoners. It was intended to be a humane antidote to overcrowded prisons teeming with diversions that kept prisoners from wholeheartedly seeking God. The solitary experiment was soon an example to the world: Visitors from Europe toured the complex, and other prisons soon adopted components of the innovative “Pennsylvania model.”
But it didn’t last: Reformers soon discovered that instead of becoming penitent, prisoners developed serious mental health issues and became even less prepared to navigate social life outside prison. But confronted with new challenges in the 1980s—overcrowding and larger prison populations with mental health issues—many prisons in the United States reintroduced solitary confinement. It offered guards a disciplinary tool and freed up space.
The public backlash against solitary in recent years has been fierce, notably from interfaith groups like the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. The number of prisoners held in isolation has declined. But in a small minority of cases, alternatives have been elusive.
“Solitary Nation,” a 2014 PBS Frontline documentary, follows five inmates held in the Maine State Prison’s segregation unit. They call out to each other and devise a way of passing notes and small objects between their doors. For all their neighborly affection and laudable ambitions, these prisoners are described as the most dangerous in the state.
Peter Gibbs, an inmate who has been in and out of solitary confinement for more than thirty years, tells the camera, “I strangled a correctional officer and hid him under my bed. And then another one came in the pod, and I knocked him out and dragged him into a utility closet and beat his head in with a mop wringer.” He goes on to tell the warden, “I will assault, attack, stab, do whatever I have to do to get out of your facility. […] I will kill one of your inmates. I don’t have nothing to lose.”
At the end of the documentary, Gibbs remains in the segregation unit. Meanwhile, another prisoner released from solitary in the same prison has stabbed another inmate eighty-seven times.
Despite the dangers, the warden keeps trying to move more prisoners out of the unit and send fewer in. He wants to take the reforms as far as possible. The warden’s challenge seems impossible: Deep capacity for love coexists with terrible capacity for destruction.
And these capacities are not the prisoners’ alone.
A separate, permanent exhibit at Eastern State invites visitors to consider how easily they could land in prison themselves. “Have you ever broken the law?” asks a sign at the entrance. If you follow the arrow that reads “no,” you learn that you are in a very small minority. On the “yes” side, you are invited to recount a time when you got away with a crime. Anonymous, shocking, responses are displayed for all to read. Another interactive exhibit helps visitors understand how their early life experiences matter—how likely it was, based on their income, race, education, and early exposure to violence, that they would evade incarceration.
The whole experience at Eastern State is a stark reminder that my own sinful nature is no different than that of the prisoners who once occupied these cells, or those now requesting photos of the beautiful world in motion that I often take for granted. That inmates and ex-convicts are my neighbors, deserving of love. That they are, in some ways, our modern-day Jeremiahs, Daniels, Peters, and Pauls in chains.
Exploring the exhibits, I consider possible solutions. I am struck by how a human tendency toward extremes ruins even the best intentions: An over-emphasis on penance, at the expense of mercy, shaped a system that drove people mad.
Like the Quaker reformers, like the warden in Maine, we who yearn to mend broken systems struggle to strike a perfect balance. In the case of imprisonment, our minds can hardly conceive of mercy and justice in perfect coexistence. It is a paradox of the faith. As G. K. Chesterton writes, “Those underrate Christianity who say that it discovered mercy; anyone might discover mercy. In fact, everyone did. But to discover a plan for being merciful and also severe—that was to anticipate a strange need of human nature. For no one wants to be forgiven for a big sin as if it were a little one.”
I’m reminded that God’s ways are ultimately more expansive, more restorative, than anything we could conceive on our own. But he does not intend for us to be bystanders. Perhaps our task, as Christians eager to help end solitary confinement and champion rehabilitation, is to prayerfully eschew one-sided solutions while loving tangibly, in ways we ourselves would want to be loved.
In “Photo Requests from Solitary,” Chris from Pennsylvania says he wants a photo of an old, “larger than life” man with thick clouds of smoke emanating from his nostrils and an angry expression on his face—an image of God, he writes, from Isaiah 65:5, should the photographer wish to reference the verse.
It is a stark description of a stern, fuming God, bent on justice.
Yet impossibly, equally true—and necessary—is the image that Robert requests from his cell in California: “I would really like to have a picture of Jesus with his hands held out and of him weeping—I’d like to have any real nice picture of Christ—a 9 by 11 would be nice.”
Just beyond the heavy entry doors to Eastern State, a lone patch of flowers are in full bloom. I notice them only as I leave. After a long, bitter winter, spring will stay a few weeks.
As part of the “Photo Requests from Solitary” project, interested readers may browse inmates’ photo requests and register to fulfill them at photorequestsfromsolitary.org.
Cover image by Kevin Jarett.