My playwriting student wrote a scene — about his year in solitary confinement

An excerpt from Chris Hedges' "Our Class," about teaching a playwriting workshop at a New Jersey state prison

Published November 8, 2021 5:40AM (EST)


This is an excerpt from "Our Class: Trauma and Transformation in an American Prison." Copyright © 2021 by Chris Hedges. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Steph wrote a scene about being locked in Ad Seg — administrative segregation — in Trenton. He was sent to Ad Seg for 365 days in 2009 after being found in possession of a contraband cell phone he had bought from a guard for $200 while he was in Newark's Northern State Prison. There are guards willing to sell prisoners contraband items from cell phones to drugs, including heroin.

Nearly every student in the class had spent some time in solitary confinement — what are known euphemistically as control units. Those accused of committing an infraction are first sent to "the hole," a prehearing control unit, until they are found guilty or innocent, which is almost always determined by the statements submitted by the corrections officers. Prisoners in the hole are not permitted to have any personal property or phone privileges. They are held there for between five and thirty days before being returned to the general population, or, if found guilty, transferred to Ad Seg. Prisoners can remain there for many years.

The prolonged isolation is psychologically damaging, fostering aggressive and self-destructive behavior. Prisoners can receive up to ninety days in Ad Seg for even minor infractions. It is not uncommon to spend a year, sometimes longer, in Ad Seg, especially since a single infraction — say, a fight — can cause prisoners to be charged with numerous infractions such as an assault charge, a fighting charge, and a disruption of the institutional movement charge. Prisoners who engage in only one fight can violate in that one instance so many infractions that they spend as long as three to five years in Ad Seg. It was banned by a law on Isolated Confinement in New Jersey in August 2020, but it has been resurrected in the New Jersey prison system under a new name, Restorative Housing Unit.

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Ad Seg cells are six feet by eight feet. They include a bed, sink, and two small shelves. There are no windows. In the summer, it is so hot the metal walls sweat, and temperatures can rise to ninety-five degrees. Steph had a small fan in Ad Seg. He could purchase a small bag of ice for seventy-five cents. He would rub the ice on his face as it melted quickly. In the back wall was a depression that was three feet tall, two feet wide, and eighteen inches deep. That was his toilet. It did not flush. It was cleaned out every few days. The stench of feces and urine filled the tiny cell. He was locked in for twenty-three hours a day. The noise of the voices reverberating off the walls and down the corridors was deafening and constant. The cell was infested with mice. The meals were often rancid, and all portions were so small that he was constantly hungry. Another prisoner kept a mouse on a string as a pet, a detail that Steph wrote into the play. Steph was strip-searched every time he left the cell, forced not only to stand naked but also to open his mouth, run his fingers through his mouth, lift up his genitals, and bend over and cough. Guards, to belittle him, often forced him to repeat the process from the beginning so that he would be putting his fingers in his mouth after having handled his genitals.

"I saw inmates losing their grip on reality while in Ad Seg and how it damaged their mental health," reflected Steph, who would go on to graduate summa cum laude from Rutgers University. "They would play with their own feces, and even tried to kill themselves. The psychiatrist would walk through a tier once a week, slow down without stopping by each cell, and ask through the bars: 'Are you okay in there? Do you feel like harming yourself?' Inmates would never answer affirmatively. This was because one's neighbors could hear this inquiry, and not being able to deal with Ad Seg was a sign of weakness, which one should not display in prison.

"I became antisocial. I felt uncomfortable around people once I got out. I became more callous and had difficulty holding a conversation for some time. It made me angrier. I hated those in authority by the time I got out of solitary. To me, any person who could live with subjecting a human being to such dehumanizing conditions was evil. Ad Seg was the most savage moment of my life."

It was eleven o'clock at night, and everyone was locked in their tiny cells in the Ad Seg in the scene Steph wrote. The prisoners were yelling up and down the hall for things they needed. Steph shouted out that he wanted a newspaper.

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Items were passed up and down the corridor by "fishing," in which seven or eight narrow strips of cloth, ripped from a sheet down its length, were tied together in a line. A bar of soap was tied to the end of the line. The prisoner wrapped the end without the soap around his left hand and lay down on the floor facing the bars. Then he reached between the narrow opening in the bars and began tossing the long cloth line out of the cell. Once it was out, he grabbed the end with the soap. Lying on his stomach, with his right arm reaching out of his cell through the bars, he lifted his left arm in the air. He let the soap dangle on about ten inches of line. He twirled the line in a lasso motion, with the soap swinging in midair, and tossed it down the hall until the soap slid as far as the line allowed. Steph had attached a laundry bag to the end of the line. When the line was returned and the laundry bag came back, he took out the newspaper and read a story about an eighteen-year-old named Amir, the same age and name of his son, being shot dead in Newark. But even then, it did not fully register. "It's a common name. It's a common name," he desperately repeated to himself. He called home the next morning.

"I was readin' the paper ..." he said to his daughter.

"Yeah, that was him," she said.

"That must have been hard," I said to Steph after he had read the scene.

"It was a trying time," he conceded.

Steph did not attend the viewing for his son. The cost was prohibitive. Prisoners get fifteen minutes to visit a dying family member or a deceased family member in a funeral home. No one else, other than the corrections officers, is allowed to be present. The prisoners are charged the overtime pay for the corrections officers that accompany them, which costs hundreds of dollars.

More on mass incarceration and the new Jim Crow: 

By Chris Hedges

Chris Hedges is the former Middle East bureau chief of the New York Times, a Pulitzer Prize winner and a columnist at ScheerPost. He is the author of several books, including "America: The Farewell Tour," "American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America" and "War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning." He previously worked overseas for the Dallas Morning News, the Christian Science Monitor and NPR, and hosted the Emmy-nominated RT America show "On Contact."

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