Solitary confinement: a phenomenological perspective

Philosopher Lisa Guenther speaks with students, faculty, and activists about prisoners’ rights

Lisa Guenther, Vanderbilt University associate professor and former Winnipegger, was in town last week to discuss solitary confinement – an issue touching on notions of class, race, and gender.

Guenther gave two talks on Thursday, both co-sponsored by the University of Manitoba faculty of law.

During the afternoon, Guenther presented a talk, entitled “Social Death and Collective Resistance in the California Prison Hunger Strikes,” to law students and faculty. She argued that California’s management of striking prisoners constituted a refusal to acknowledge the political underpinnings of their imprisonment, and the “criminalization of resistance.”

“They want to be recognized as political prisoners,” Guenther told the Manitoban, referring to hunger-striking inmates in California’s Pelican Bay State Prison.

“Even if they came into the prison system as gangbangers [ . . . ] they also became aware, either before or during their incarceration, of the social character of their incarceration and became increasingly political in their own identifications as a prisoner class.”

During that talk, Guenther also analyzed the legal ramifications of California’s “refeeding” orders for prisoners refusing nourishment.

In the evening Guenther presented at the Millennium Library’s Carol Shields Auditorium, this time drawing upon her academic background in phenomenology to explain the curious physiological effects of solitary confinement, and also to advance the position that it is akin to “a living death sentence.’”

According to Guenther, prisoners kept isolated for long periods of time frequently report visual and auditory hallucinations, as well as symptoms of anxiety to varying degrees of severity. The condition is referred to as SHU syndrome. The moniker comes from the “Special Housing Units” used to isolate prisoners in the United States.

Guenther told the Manitoban that while the term does not show up in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, it is “used and taken seriously in class-action lawsuits.”

“You could imagine people being bored or anxious because they are not in relation to other people, but why would the borders around things start to waver? Why would a mesh door start to seem like it’s moving just because you’re alone? Phenomenology helps us to see how the sensory and the social interconnect, and how we draw on our perceptual relation to other social beings to make sense of our own experience,” Guenther explained.

“When we are deprived of that sensory social contact, then the everyday supports for our experience are diminished.”

For Guenther, the ability of solitary confinement to cut off the person’s meaningful relations to the world around her is also what makes it so intolerable – again, a concept she says is best explained through the language of phenomenology.

“It is akin to murder in the sense that murder extinguishes a life, but solitary confinement attacks the conditions under which life becomes meaningful. That is a form of violence against the sense of living being,” argued Guenther.

Beyond the strictly philosophical, Guenther also spoke with the audience about how the differing social contexts of Canada and Nashville (her place of work and residence) influence solitary confinement.

“When you have the death penalty as this absolute irreversible punishment, all other extreme punishments start to look relatively moderate in comparison. The fact that the U.S. has the death penalty helps it to normalize other forms of extreme punishment like life without parole and solitary confinement,” said Guenther.

She proposed that the legacy of slavery in the United States has played a role in the country’s continuing acceptance of not only solitary confinement, but also the death penalty.

“Even the 13th Amendment abolishes slavery for everyone except convicted criminals,” mentioned Guenther, referring to the work of Angela Davis, who discussed the topic at length in her book, Are Prisons Obsolete?

Currently on sabbatical in Montreal, Guenther was brought to speak in Winnipeg stemming from a connection with Debra Parkes, a U of M associate professor of law also interested in prisoners’ rights. During her time in Winnipeg, Guenther also appeared on Black Mask, an anarchist radio show on the University of Winnipeg’s CKUW 95.9 FM.

1 Comment on "Solitary confinement: a phenomenological perspective"

  1. To download part two of the discussion with Lisa Guenther on Black Mask, right click and save-as:

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