For more than a month, and with no definitive end in sight, many Americans have been confined to their home because of shelter-in-place orders due to the novel coronavirus. Though health-care workers, service-sector employees, and gig laborers are running at a fever pitch to keep millions of people safe and functioning, the rest of us are stuck indoors without the fun of social gatherings or the routines of work and school to structure our time. That reality has brought scores of people face-to-face with how agonizing it can feel to be bored for days on end.
By now, most people have likely seen or made comparisons of this new normal to house arrest or detention. Comedians such as Ellen DeGeneres have even jokingly likened self-quarantining to jail. It is beyond a reach to compare our temporary state of health-advisory compliance to the condition of the 2 million Americans currently incarcerated. But if being bored and idle at home is starting to feel like your own personal prison, it may be time to consider a harrowing truth: Boredom within confinement is one of the harshest forms of punishment in existence, and a signature practice throughout the American penal system.
Many people believe that boredom within confinement is a measured, even sensible, form of punishment. Parents, for instance, often send their misbehaved kids to their rooms alone and deprive them of the phones and tablets that occupy their attention. Pop culture is riddled with images of after-school detentions where the offender is bored to tears by rewriting the same sentence on a chalkboard.
In this widespread acceptance of boredom as punishment, however, many Americans underestimate the degrees of severity between the restlessness of provisional idleness and the long-term boredom that comes with being imprisoned, specifically within solitary confinement. Isolated detainees routinely serve weeks, months, or years in a condition that is already cruel in denying them human touch and interaction. But the fact that solitary confinement is specifically designed to numb all of one’s senses and maximize suffering shows that boredom is an essential quality of one of the most severe forms of punishment.
Sociologists have described solitary as a “prison within a prison,” in which even minor infractions are punished with long-term stays in a four-walled room typically no larger than a parking space. Residents refer to it as “the SHU” (special housing unit), “the box,” or “the hole.” Jessica Simes, a sociologist at Boston University, who conducted fieldwork in a solitary confinement unit, told me: “Solitary confinement denies people access to their communities, to education and programs, even to regular physical movement and sometimes food.” In a study published in 2019, Simes and the economist Ryan Sakoda found that the practice discriminates against black prisoners, who, on average, spend two more weeks in solitary than their white counterparts. Its different uses and biases can be observed across various facilities (including juvenile and immigration detention centers), but universally the intention to exacerbate human deprivation is the same. Experts across the fields of psychology, medicine, public policy, sociology, law, and neuroscience have extensively argued that solitary has severe, lasting, and deleterious effects. More than 15 consecutive days in solitary meets the United Nations’ definition of torture.
For people whose “confinement” looks more like days on end in pajama bottoms, media outlets scramble to provide useful tips for combatting quarantine-induced boredom. Users’ social-media feeds are flooded with content that makes light of how people are responding to the drudgery and how hilariously creative they can be in their attempts to break up monotony. Yes, the boredom of sheltering in place can be stressful, but for incarcerated people, that stress can be deadly.
When isolation was first introduced into American prisons with the opening of the all-solitary Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia in 1829, the institution’s progressive Quaker founders thought it a humane way to invite quiet reflection and penance. But despite state-of-the-art cells with indoor plumbing and adjoining individual yards, Eastern State’s residents died at puzzlingly high rates. Once it was clear that solitary was not harmless, a new consideration of how it could be used punitively took root in the 20th century. With the tough-on-crime political rhetoric of the 1970s through the late 1990s, the use of solitary exploded when draconian sentencing policies tripled the number of federal and state prison facilities from 511 to 1,663—an expansion that increased capacity to place thousands in isolated cells. Today, in response to COVID-19, prisons and jails have ramped up solitary: More than 300,000 incarcerated people are being held in their cells or bunks on full or partial lockdown. Last month, lockdowns and visitation restrictions in response to the pandemic resulted in an Italian prison riot that led to a dozen deaths.
Survivors of solitary have spoken about how the boredom they experienced is immensely different from anything on the outside. Steven Czifra, who first experienced solitary when he was 13 and who served eight years of his 17-year sentence in solitary, told The Guardian in 2016 that “boredom in a solitary-confinement cell is not like boredom anywhere else. Because if you are bored in a solitary-confinement cell, it means you have exhausted all of your remedies … it’s not boredom, it’s despair because there is no hope of alleviating it.”
Just as those on social media pass the quarantine time by getting inventive, confined people use creativity and imagination to combat boredom when the stakes are as high as losing their mind or even their life. In the collection Six by Ten: Stories From Solitary, Maryam Henderson-Uloho recounts how she was thrown in “the tank” for refusing to remove her hijab. She was stripped naked and left with nothing but a blanket and a roll of toilet paper in a dank windowless room. “I kept my mind busy by making flowers out of the toilet paper,” she said. “My whole cell was filled with flowers.”
For Marcel Neil, who spent three years in confinement, the darkness of the solitary ward was pierced only by the terrifying noises of others nearby having manic episodes of kicking and screaming. He said he got through three years inside by daydreaming “to places where I didn’t think my mind could go.” Years after his release, he still struggles with anxiety attacks and bouts of paranoia when interacting with more than a few people at a time. It is common for those in solitary to self-harm, often as part of their mental will to feel any form of sensation. It is not uncommon for them to simply die from the circumstances.
The penal system doesn’t punish with boredom because it’s soft, but rather because those within the system know it’s extreme. The 19th-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer—a devout critic of Eastern State—argued that American penitentiaries did not intend to improve the heart of the offender, but merely set his head to the logic that good behavior was the safer course in society. “Boredom,” he wrote, “is certainly not an evil to be taken lightly.”
Those who are imprisoned survive solitary almost entirely due to their own indomitable humanity that wills them to endure. Most people can perhaps never truly appreciate how severe solitary confinement is for the imprisoned. Yet in this current state of uncertainty, vulnerability, and dependency on one another even when distanced, free Americans share with them the human determination to make it through the worst of times. Sheltering in our homes doesn’t compare to the inhumanity of punitive confinement, but it presents a unique opportunity to rethink the conditions to which no human being should be subjected.