Sunday, 19 June 2016

Prisoners, Solitude and Time

On the evening of Tuesday 14th June, Professor Ian O'Donnell of UCD kindly stopped by The Differential Association, holed up in the Law School of Trinity College for a change, to discuss his new book, Prisoners, Solitude and Time (2014).

Prisoners, Solitude and Time represents the culmination of a decade of work. Ian spoke of an initial idea, in 2004, which he had worked on intermittently, including periods spent on research leave in the United States.

The book explores how prisoners experience, and cope with, prolonged periods of imprisonment, with a particular focus on how prisoners respond to solitary confinement. The work draws on a huge range of material to answer these questions; venturing beyond the criminological, it incorporates accounts of polar and space exploration, wilderness narratives, and tales of isolation and endurance from persons drawn from a diverse selection of backgrounds, to offer an expansive look at the human spirit in adverse conditions. The work also links to the experience of isolation for religious purposes and the solitude of many within religious vocations. In addition to these writings, Professor O'Donnell uses a great many prison memoirs to examine the lived experience of those who have spent long periods of time locked up without everyday human contact.

Prisoners, Solitude and Time offers a number of carefully researched subject-areas for consideration. The book begins with a revisionist take on the history of the separate and silent systems imposed during the 1800s at Cherry Hill and Auburn in the US. Ian writes that the effects of these systems were neither so total, nor so devastating, as critics demanded. In this vein, the book looks particularly at the excoriating account written by Charles Dickens following his visit to Cherry Hill, and notes the public outcry that ensued, and the eventual fall from favour of the separate/silent systems in the UK and the UK.

The book also offers a genesis of the use of 'administrative solitary', now an embedded feature of the US penal system. These chapters offer the fascinating history of 'supermax' (variously labelled depending on the state), tracing it back to prisoner zero, Thomas Silverstein, who murdered a prison officer while at Marion, Illinois, in 1983.

Finally, Prisoners, Solitude and Time, offers insights into how time can be theorised within a prison context and offers perspectives on the subjectivity of time from a range of disciplines. Professor O'Donnell, acknowledging his avowed admiration of alliteration, elaborated the 7 R's of 'doing time' in prison, or as he noted, the seven survival secrets of successful solitaries:

  • Rescheduling (live by prison time)
  • Removal (remain busy)
  • Reduction (e.g. prolonged sleep)
  • Reorientation (live in the extended present)
  • Resistance (including violence)
  • Raptness (absorption in skilled work)
  • Reinterpretation (imposing a greater meaning, e.g. religion/spirituality)

Prisoners, Solitude and Time offers examples of persons who have drawn on deep personal reserves of strength to withstand, and flourish, in the adverse conditions of solitary confinement. However, Professor O'Donnell is careful throughout to underline his belief that the use of solitary confinement remains an inhumane practice. Demonstrating the impact of the work, Professor O'Donnell was recently an expert witness in the extradition hearing in Ireland of Ali Charaf Damache, who is wanted in the US to stand trial for terrorism offences. Damache faces up to 45 years in prison if convicted. The book, therefore, does not offer a ground of argument for those in favour of solitary confinement, rather, it examines the experiences of those who have resisted its negative effects, while also offering a nuanced account of its development. The book concludes with the observation that while solitary confinement was initially envisaged as a means to an end (the salvation and moral recovery of the prisoner), it now serves as an end in itself, something which speaks to the cynicism of current US penal ideologies.

We'd like to thank Professor O'Donnell, and all those who came along, and contributed to the discussion afterwards!

Due to a failure in remembering to photograph the event, the below offers some idea of the baked good-goodness of the evening.
Lemon Drizzle cake, a la Colette

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