The Box: Solitary Confinement Takes Center Stage

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The Box , a play directed by Michael John Garcés and written by Sarah Shourd.

A white supremacist with a swastika tattooed above his left eye addresses the audience: “People without hope are fucking dangerous.”
One of six characters in The Box, a play that debuted at Z Space theater in San Francisco in July, Jake Juchau (played by Clive Worsley) presents one image of life in long-term solitary confinement. The play was written by Sarah Shourd, an American journalist who spent 410 days in solitary in Iran after being accused of espionage, and then returned to the U.S. and began conducting research about the domestic uses of solitary confinement.
“Years of research went into this play,” Shourd notes in the playbill. “I traveled to visit prisoners in solitary confinement in 13 facilities across the country.” Shourd also explains that the six prisoners in her play are fictional combinations of the real life stories she gathered. “The characters in The Box won’t allow us to sit comfortably in our own skins,” Shourd writes. “They force us to ask questions: Why are we torturing people in lieu of rehabilitation? What are we going to do about the violence plaguing our society? How does change happen? How do we connect our own suffering to something larger?”

It has been well documented that the U.S. criminal justice system is in desperate need of sweeping reform. The U.S. houses 25 percent of the world’s prisoners but has only 5 percent of the world’s population, and its prisoner population contains a disproportionately high percentage of people of color and people with mental illnesses. The Box goes deeper, beyond the problems inherent in the prison system to examine a specific subsection of the prison population – those in long-term solitary confinement.
According to Solitary Watch there are currently over 25,000 prisoners living in long-term solitary “supermax” prisons in the U.S., and there could be as many as 80,000 total prisoners in isolation housing on any given day when solitary prisoners at all of our nation’s correctional facilities are combined. Some prisoners are held in solitary confinement for months or years at a time, despite a report presented to the United Nations by Juan E. Méndez in 2011 which revealed that after 15 days prisoners in solitary confinement sustain irreversible mental damage. This is due in part to lack of human contact since prisoners in solitary spend 23 hours a day alone in their cell.
The Justice Department officially recommends that solitary confinement be used rarely and fairly and not as a “default solution.” Solitary confinement is supposed to be used to ensure everybody’s safety – guards might place an inmate in isolation if they are in danger or putting others in danger. Many reports, though, indicate that since corrections officials make the call to put prisoners in solitary confinement, the decision can be arbitrary, unfair, or because prisoners broke nonviolent rules.

Rehearsal for The Box. Source:

Earlier this year there was some movement in the right direction when Obama gave a series of executive orders that made it illegal to hold juveniles in isolation or to put people in solitary confinement for minor infractions, according to the Washington Post. He also lowered the maximum solitary sentence for first time offenses from 365 days to 60 days, which is still four times what Mendez recommends as the most time an inmate should spend in isolation.
The origins of solitary confinement in the U.S, according to NPR, can be traced back to 1829 when an experiment was conducted in Pennsylvania guided by the Quaker belief that prisoners isolated in a room with only a Bible would repent. It was discovered that prisoners held in isolation experienced severe psychological trauma and the practice was mostly discontinued. The emergence of solitary confinement in its current form occurred in the ’90s after the Pelican Bay State Prison opened in California in 1989, at which point many other states began to build prisons exclusively to house long-term solitary prisoners.
The Box puts human faces and emotions on many of these startling statistics and treats solitary as a “second sentence” on top of the original prison sentence. The actors spend both acts in solitary cells – 3 on top, 3 on the bottom – which are realistically seven feet by ten feet. Because of the narrow parameters enforced by the set, the plot is inherently limited to what can happen in the cellblock, a poignant metaphor for the limited lives prisoners lead in solitary confinement. The story contains a lot of soliloquies the characters deliver to the audience revealing their backstories or speaking poetically about how it feels to be locked in a small cell.
The play shows how psychologically damaging solitary confinement can be, and how it affects everybody differently. The audience can see how being held in isolation takes its toll on the prisoner’s relationships, mental states, and physical bodies. They see “Looneytunes,” a mentally ill prisoner, scream and attack the walls of his cell. They see Ray, a former Black Panther and activist, clutch his head and shout, “the voices ain’t real, the voice ain’t real.” They see Victor struggle to maintain a connection to his daughter on the outside with minimal visitation rights. And they see Rocky Ashbury, an eighteen-year-old man, hold out hope that he can fight the system that landed him with a sentence he feels he does not deserve.
Shourd also includes a plot line inspired by a real hunger strike conducted by prisoners in California in 2011. In the play the characters strike to end long-term solitary confinement, and in real life the prisoners issued a series of additional demands including ending group punishment, modifying the criteria that qualifies a prisoner as a gang member, and providing adequate food and personal enhancement opportunities. (To see Tikkun’s coverage of the hunger strike when it happened and read testimonials from solitary survivors click here or here.) The real strike began in Pelican Bay where some prisoners have been held in solitary for over 30 years. The effort originally included 30,000 prisoners across the state, according to Rolling Stone. Two hunger strikes have followed in the years since, and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitations has proposed and started implementing several new programs and initiatives that will help reduce the number of prisoners in solitary and/or reduce the length of the time they spend there. One of the most successful elements of the 2011 hunger strike was it drew national attention to the issue of long-term solitary confinement, which is what The Box tries to do as well.
The Box gave a voice to inmates who are traditionally voiceless in our society. The effects of solitary confinement are devastating and sometimes irreversible. The playbill for the show lists some frightening statistics about solitary confinement: In a one-year period 29 percent of mentally ill prisoners will spend time in solitary. It costs an average of $75,000 a year to keep a prisoner in solitary confinement, while it only costs $25,000 a year to keep somebody in regular prison. Individuals held in solitary display a 10-25 percent increase in criminal violence. Half of all prison suicides take place in isolation, and in the juvenile justice system youths are 19 times more likely to commit suicide in solitary than adults. The play explores the multitude of ridiculous, inhumane humiliations that make up life in isolation and how far people will go to feel human again, no matter the circumstances.
For those who would like to help incarcerated youths, the cast and crew of The Box recommend donating to, or volunteering at, Each One, Reach One, a one-on-one, detention-based mentoring program that provides creative arts, education, life skills, and health and wellness for juveniles behind bars. For more information on how to get involved, click here.
Sarah Aschis a summer editorial assistant atTikkun and a lover of words in general. She is a sophomore at Middlebury College in Vermont where she is a staff writer for the school newspaper and is considering an English Literature major. Before working atTikkun, Sarah was the Editor-in-Chief of her high school paper, theTam News, and she interned atHot English Magazinein Madrid. Sarah loves being outdoors, swimming, traveling, reading, and writing.