Even the Vile
On providing a filament of hope for the men and women in the horror of long-term solitary confinement.
In July of 2019 Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán Loera was sentenced to life in prison plus thirty years to ensure that he would spend the rest of his life incarcerated.
If Guzmán doesn’t immediately come to mind, know that he was the notorious drug lord of the Sinaloa Cartel, directly responsible for countless assassinations, mass killings and beheadings. He famously escaped from prisons in Mexico, including an escape in 2015 through an elaborate tunnel dug beneath his prison. Netflix created a series glorifying him called “El Chapo.”
Given his notoriety, his sentencing was highly publicized. Generally speaking, I have next to zero interest in celebrated criminals or their stories, but I caught a news story the night of his sentencing that haunts me.
It might not have been one of the prosecutors that promised it, but it was someone with direct control over the man’s penal fate. Grandstanding or otherwise, this person promised that El Chapo would be buried so far down in the hole he’d never see light again. In short, he promised the man Guzmán would be psychologically tortured until his death.
When I heard that, I almost threw up. I don’t mean this figuratively.
“The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”
The architects of the supermax (super maximum) prisons have engineered a functional hell, and anyone who informs you otherwise lacks the will or imagination to picture themselves hallucinating into industrial brick, smashing their head into a metal toilet, or eating their own feces. Or they can’t picture the gateway to insanity of being trapped in a six foot by nine foot box of “forever.” Or they are contaminated by the inclination for dark punishment. Or hardened through the tragedy of their personal histories. There are other “forever” prisons that can’t be escaped either.
You don’t need to recall the Stanford experiments to conceive what takes place in the secret cells outside the range of cameras. A clarifying example: when there is nothing left to take away from a prisoner, and even solitary confinement has been exhausted, desperate guards have been known to tape the men to chairs. These judicial and extra-judicial claustrophobic punishments make madmen of the convicts, devils of their jailers, and a travesty of the Eighth Amendment.
But even the vilest of the vile, the Guzmáns of the world, currently caged in the bowels of the Colorado ADX Florence Supermax, have minds and memories, as do their jailers. In the end, everyone associated with the madness of long-term solitary confinement becomes a victim of these devilish psychological architectures — schemes designed in the quietly air-conditioned, open plan offices of Louis Berger International.1
To honor the physical instinct that almost led me to vomit, I became a pen pal.
Through a program called Lifelines to Solitary, I exchange letters with convicts. My task is simple: I write a handwritten note to be poked through the slot into their cell. Then I respond to theirs. Last week it took me only fifteen minutes to write a note, find an envelope and stamp, put my shoes on, and tuck my letter into a slot at the postbox.
You can bet the time spent reading my letters is longer than the time it took to write them. The pen pal letters are a chance for them to discuss opinions, books, movies, and sports teams. Something. Anything. In my first letter to a new pen pal a few weeks ago, I offered to read any book or watch any movie recommended by him. It was a place to start.
In the comments below or in a private not to me add a note as tiny as a single adjective — “terrifying” for example — that describes what you feel about long-term solitary confinement, and I will forward it to him.
I’m inviting you to join me. Instructions to learn more about becoming a pen pal are at the bottom.
Here’s what it looks like in practice.
I communicate through an alias. I use my actual first name and an anonymized last name. The letters to me are routed through Solitary Watch, an organization in Washington, D.C. that is fighting to put an end to the nightmare of solitary confinement.
I hope that what our communication lacks in depth, it will make up in duration over time. I will continue to write letters to my pen pal until I drop or he stops returning them. This is the unspoken arrangement. That no one should be abandoned heart and mind in that hell is at the core of all of this. The correspondence connects a filament of hope between us, for each of us in our own way. It affirms their dignity, and treating others — and everything — with dignity may be the only moral obligation I’m entirely sure of. We all fail miserably. My God, even look at the industrialization of our animals.
We should want dignity not to mention sanity for even the vilest of the vile, for the “El Chapos” of this world. And, yes, as long as we’ve trapped him in the mental hell of long-term solitary confinement, we should correspond with him, too.
My new pen pal’s name is Damien.
If you send me something offline or add a note below — even a single adjective that describes what you feel about long-term solitary confinement — I will forward it to him, anonymously of course.
It’s a step to protect someone from madness.
I invite you to be part of this effort. There are many ways to get involved.
If you are interested in participating in this program, please contact me for additional information: or Solitary Watch’s Lifelines to Solitary program.
If you are interested in learning more about the conditions of the men and women in solitary and the legal efforts to protect them, visit Solitary Watch and consider making a financial contribution.
Feel something. Twice a week.
A bitter footnote on Louis Berger International: their website informs us that a career with LBI promises to “nurture the individual with respect, support and passion.”
We should rest assured, Louis Berger International “looks at complex problems from different angles, delivering solutions that break paradigms.”
To be “close to the communities they serve,” LBI can be contacted in France or at their regional offices in Benin, Cameroon, Ivory Coast, India, Guinea, Romania, and Serbia.
They are mired in corruption charges from one side of the globe to the other. Look them up.