by Jacob L. Davis
Jacob Davis is currently incarcerated in a Tennessee prison with a 51 year life sentence. He wrote the following story about his experience in solitary confinement at Riverbend, before being shipped to a different facility. This story was presented at Tenx9 by a friend, reminding all in attendance the dire importance of hearing the voices of insiders. The movement to reshape and re-imagine social separation is guided by the minds and mouths of men and women confined inside these institutions of carceral slavery. If we want to know how to abolish slavery, we must listen to the slaves. Here is one slave’s story.
After 16 years of living as a model prisoner in minimum security honor units, I discovered that my efforts and struggle for dignity and community meant nothing when I was found guilty of a Class B disciplinary offense. I did nothing violent or threatening to anyone, certainly nothing to justify being treated as dangerous. My infraction, rather, was perceived as a threat to the system itself, and so I was held in solitary confinement for two weeks and then banished to another penitentiary, away from the community and family I love. Yes we have family and community in prison, and those already in hell can be further exiled into deeper hell. My sojourn into solitary confinement left me with the surest deepest understanding that we as prisoners today are engaged in a struggle for our very humanity.
In my two weeks in solitary confinement, I learned that a stripped-down, burned-out concrete box with a steel door and a toilet without toilet paper are all that are required to bring me to the point of kicking the door and screaming to get attention in desperate frustration. This type of outburst is a behavior I had witnessed before from the other side of the door as a minimum security inmate. Back then I was comforted by the thought that I could never be brought that low. The brute fact is that had I not acted out this way, the man in the cell next to me and I would have remained soiled with our own feces. I had to throw a fit to receive toilet paper. Aside from shoving food through the double-locking pie flaps that eliminate human contact, the guards ignored our cells, as if they were empty. And I might have used my hand or shirt and held on to my dignity out of sheer stubbornness, but the man in the cell next to me was my best friend of 14 years, and I knew he would not act out that way. It was my fault he was there, and I could not bear the thought of him being reduced to having no toilet paper.
I tried every manner of normal, polite behavior, confident that the officers would respond in kind to someone making the effort to remain civilized in the midst of the hammering cacophony. But what I learned instead was that polite, normal requests almost never receive a response. Only those willing to act out in the most vile, inhuman, animalistic ways could even get the slightest attention from the staff for the things they needed or wanted.
Confined in that kennel, listening to the supernaturally loud noise of all the other animals competing for what they could only receive from the officer milling around and ignoring them outside in the dayroom, the bare facts of the situation reduced my humanity to a simple choice: kick and scream like an animal, or do without the necessities of civilized life. Either way felt like a most bitter defeat.
I struggled over such choices the entire time I sat in that hole. Every moment I imagined all the people who know and love me – my family, friends, the good people that attend church services with me, both free and inmate, my spiritual mentors, my professors and allies in the community – and what they would think or feel if they could see me in this situation, squatting like an animal, held captive by my own body’s functions in a concrete box that still bore marks on the walls where a previous inhabitant literally tried to destroy his confines. He went so far as to tear the metal out of the walls, set the place on fire, and covered the walls and ceiling with feces.
The literal function of these cages is to ignore and degrade the humanity of those placed within them. The authorities who claim solitary confinement is necessary contend that the cages are required for prisoners who display a lack of humanity, who are a danger to others and to the system itself. I, however, found that the use of the cage very quickly and effectively functioned to diminish my humanity.
The threat of this power continues to loom over me. Recently my entire world has suffered apocalypse, but I will not return in anger. I know that some people celebrated a job well done when they destroyed my life and gutted a whole community. Some people have lived in the one-sided cartoon world of cops and robbers for a long time now. But I remain dedicated to the principles of reconciliation and live with hope for a better day precisely because, other than the humanity which they may one day take by force, hope and the bonds of love which cannot be broken by a tragically ignorant system defending itself are all I have left.
Those 15 days come back to me now months later in waking moments and in my dreams. There are many ways to confine an animal, to try and break its spirit. The efforts are more subtle in my new surroundings in a different prison, but the more subtle technologies of dehumanization are no less effective than cages and feces, torture takes many forms.
Days ago the unit manager stands outside my cell during morning inspection. “Good morning,” he said to me in front of my cell when he went in. “Good morning,” I replied while I suppressed the basic human instinct to resist having one’s only personal space casually violated, judged, and raked over, after just the promise of it happening in the future had been enough that morning to cause me to rearrange every single possession I own in a way not intuitive or convenient. Then I also suppressed the question which naturally arose in my mind as a man who has served sixteen years already and faces the need to live permanently somewhere on this earth, whether my basic human dignity will endure the Chinese water torture effect of such daily assaults for the rest of my long life, or whether I and everyone else will simply go mad long before then.
Two minutes later the unit manager emerged with a rolled piece of maroon upholstery fabric in his hand, about six inches wife and twenty-four long, which my cellmate uses to cover the cell window when he uses the toilet.
“See this?” He holds it out to me, and I nod.” “Not good. It’s not good to have colored pieces of cloth like this in your cell!”
At that moment, an elaborate response played out in my head, and I suppose I may be the worst kind of coward for writing about it now instead of just saying it out loud. This is how it went in my head:
“But Mr. B____, how can a piece of upholstery cloth be good or bad? Is God looking down upon us right now and declaring ‘BAD!’ The human race struggled for millennia to produce the technology to manufacture such embroidered cloth, but now there are a trillion shreds of such material in our landfills. Nobody cares. And you’ve been around longer than me, so you remember just as I do only fifteen years ago all over the state men in our prisons had bits of carpet on their floors, cushions on their toilets, bedding from Wal-Mart, and even wall hangings to warm the walls. Nobody cared. Why would they? We were still the poorest, most pathetic people you knew, barely scratching out an existence on the planet, merely trying to take some pride in our hovels. And the thought of holding up a bit of cloth and calling it ‘bad’ would have seemed ridiculous to men such as you and me. What has happened to us? Why this obsession with the way things look instead of the way they really are? Why not inspect the inmates themselves instead of their uniforms? How about that guy with the cuts all over his face? What happened to him while the inspectors weren’t watching?”
Instead, I said nothing and looked at him and looked at the piece of cloth and nodded. I know it does no good to protest to the person who has a job to do. After all, he is also following orders. “Look, I hear what you’re saying,” he would say, “but you know I’m just doing my job. I’ve got people watching me and they expect me to get it done or they’ll find somebody else who will. I got mouths to feed. So let’s make this as painless as possible, okay?”
As painless as possible. But for whom?
In the movie Saving Private Ryan, there’s a scene in which a German soldier kills one of the American heroes by driving a knife slowly into his chest. “Shhh,” the German urges as the American’s strength fades and the blade slowly sinks deeper. “Shhh. Shhh.”