October 2, 2022

Literary and Political Genius on Solitary Confinement

Charles Dickens

That compassionate novelist, Charles Dickens, in his ‘American Notes and Pictures from Italy’ describes the congealing cruelty of ‘solitary confinement’ in a Pennsylvania Penitentiary (p. 99):

“I am persuaded that those who devised this system of prison discipline, and those benevolent gentlemen who carry it into execution, do not know what it is that they are doing. I believe that very few men are capable of estimating the immense amount of torture and agony which this dreadful punishment prolonged for years, inflicts upon the sufferers; and in guessing at it myself, and in reasoning from what I have seen written upon their faces, and what to my certain knowledge they feel within, I am only the more convinced that there is a depth of terrible endurance in it which none but the sufferers themselves can fathom, and which no man has a right to inflict upon his fellow-creatures.

I hold this slow and daily tempering with the mysteries of the brain, to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body; and because its ghastly signs and tokens are not so palpable to the eye and sense of touch as scars upon the Flesh; because its wounds are not upon the surface and it extorts few cries that human ears can hear; therefore, I the more denounce it, as a secret punishment which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay. I hesitate once, debating with myself whether, if I had the power of saying “Yes” or “No”.

I would allow it to be tried in certain cases, where the terms of imprisonment were short; but now, I solemnly declare, that with no rewards or Honours could I walk a happy man beneath the open sky by day, or lie down upon bed at night, with the consciousness that one human creature, for any length of time, no matter what lay suffering this unknown punishment in his silent cell, and I the cause or I consenting to it in the least degree.”

Oscar Wilds

Viewing cellular isolation from a human angle, that literary genius, Oscar Wilds, who crossed the path of the criminal law, was thrown into prison and wrote De Profundis, has poetized in prose, with pessimism and realism, the lonely poignancy of the iron infirmary. It quote:

“A great river of life between me and a date so distant. Hardly, if at all, can you see across so wide a waste . . . suffering is one very long moment. We cannot divide it by seasons. We can only record its moods, and chronicle their return. With us time itself does not progress. It revolves. It seems to circle round one centre of pain. The paralysing immobility of a life every circumstance of which is regulated to the inflexible laws of an iron formula: this immobile quality, that makes each dreadful day in the very minutest detail like its brother, seems to communicate itself to those external forces the very essence of whose existence is ceaseless change. ….. For us there is only one season, the season of sorrow.

The very sun and moon seem taken from us. Outside, the day may be blue and gold, but the light that creeps down through the thickly-muffled glass of the small iron-barred window beneath which one sits is grey and niggard. It is always twilight in one’s cell, as it is always twilight in one’s heart. And in the sphere of thought, no less than in the sphere of time, motion is no more.”

Jawaharlal Nehru

And Pundit Jawaharlal Nehru has recorded in his Autobiography[1]:

“Some individuals, sentenced for revolutionary activities for life or long term of imprisonment, are often kept in solitary confinement for long period. But in the case of these persons-usually young boys-they are kept along although their behaviour in gaol might be exemplary. Thus an additional and very terrible punishment is added by the Gaol Department to the sentence of the Court, without any reason therefor.

 This seems very extraordinary and hardly in conformity with any rule of law. Solitary confinement, even for a short period, is a most painful affair, for it to be prolonged for years is a terrible thing. It means the slow and continuous deterioration of the mind, till it begins to border on insanity; and the appearance of a look of vacancy, or a frightened animal type of expression. It is killing of the spirit by degrees, the slow vivisection of the soul. Even if a man survives it. he becomes abnormal and an absolute misfit in the world.”

Nehru on Naini Prison

naini prison at present

 Nehru wrote about the Naini Prison, which retains its relevance for many prisons even today, speaking generally: –

“Interviews are only permitted once in three months, and so are letters-a monstrously long period. Even so, many prisoners cannot take advantage of them. If they are illiterate, as most are, they have to rely on some gaol official to write on their behalf: and the latter, not being keen on adding to his other work, usually avoids it. Or, if a letter us written, the address is not properly given and the letter does not reach. Interviews are still more difficult. Almost in variably they depend on a gratification for some good official. often prisoners are transferred to different gaols, and their people cannot trace them.

I have met many prisoners who had lost complete touch with their families for years, and did not know what had happened. Interviews, when they do take place after three months or more are most extraordinary. A number of prisoners and their interviewers are placed together on either side of a barrier, and they all try to talk simultaneously. There is a great deal of shouting at each other, and the slight human touch that might have come from the interview is entirely absent……. For years and years many of these ‘lifers’ do not see a child or woman, or even animals. They lose touch with the outside world completely and have no human contacts left.

They brood and warp themselves in angry thoughts of fear and revenge and hatred; forget the good of the world, the kindness and joy, and live only wrapped up in the evil, till gradually even hatred loses its edge and life becomes a soul less thing, a machine like routine. Like automations they pass their days each exactly like the other, and have few sensations; except one fear from time to time the prisoner’s body is weighted and measured. But how is one to weigh the mind and the spirit which wilt and stunt themselves and wither away in this terrible atmosphere of oppression?

People argue against the death penalty, and their arguments appeal to me greatly. But when I see the long drawn out agony, of a life spent in prison, I feel that it is perhaps better to have that penalty rather than to kill a person slowly and by degrees. one of the ‘lifers’ came up to me once and asked me. “What of us lifers? Will Swaraj take us out of this hell?”

The curse of the system is, in Nehru’s words:

“Not the least effort is made to consider the prisoner as an individual, a human being, and to improve or look after his mind. The one thing the UP administration excels is in keeping its prisoners. There are remarkably few attempts to escape. and I doubt if one of ten thousand succeeds in escaping.”

My Years in an Indian Prison-Mary Tyler

A sad commentary on the die-hard ‘solitary’ in some Indian Jails is gleaned from a book, “My Years in an Indian Prison-Mary Tyler[2]. The author, a young British, Mary Tyler, was in a female ward, kept solitary as a nasality, and deported eventually. She writes:

“By ten o’clock that morning I found myself locked in room fifteen feet square and completely bare except for a small earthen pitcher and three tattered, coarse, dark grey blankets stiff with the grease and sweat of several generations of prisoners, which I folded to make a pallat on the stone floor My cell formed one corner of the dormitory building and looked out on to a yard at the end of the compound farthest from the gate. The two outer walls were open to the elements; instead of windows, there were three four-foot wide openings barred from the floor to a height of eight feet.

The door was fastened with a long iron bolt and heavy padlock; the walls covered in patchy whitewash, wear pock-marked high and low with holes of long-removed nails. In one corner a rickety waist-high wooden gate concealed a latrine, a niche with raised floor, in the centre of which was an oblong slit directly over a cracked earthen tub. My latrine jutted out adjacent to the one serving the dormitory where the rest of the women prisoners slept. The open drains from both these latrines and Kalpana’s ran past the two outer walls of my cell, filling the hot nights with a stench that made me wretch he crevices between the broken concrete and crumbling brickwork of the drains were the breeding grounds of countless flies and giant mosquitoes that, as if by mutual pre- arrangements, performed alternate day and night shifts in my cell to disturb my sleep and rest.”

Morarji Desai

Moraji Desai

The great problems of law are the grave crises of life and both can be solved not by the literal instruction of printed enactments, but by the interpretative sensitization of the heart to ‘the still, sad music of humanity. The humane thread of jail jurisprudence that runs right through is that no prison authority enjoys amnesty for unconstitutionality, and forced farewell to fundamental rights is an institutional outrage in our system where stone walls and iron bars shall bow before the rule of law Since life and liberty are at stake the gerontocracy of the Jail Manual shall have to come to working terms with the paramountcy of fundamental rights.

A valuable footnote to this approach may be furnished by recalling how Mahatma Gandhi regarded jails as social hospitals and Shri Morarji Desai, while he was Home Minister of Bombay way back in 1952 told the conference of Inspectors-General of Prisons:

“it is not enough to consider a prisoner merely as a prisoner. To my mind a prisoner is not a matter of contempt. Even the worst criminal, as you call him, is after all a human being as good or bad as any other outsider: whatever remedies you can find out to treat prisoners, unless your attitude changes, and you consider that the prisoners inside the jails are really human beings equal in self-respect to your self-respect, you will never be affective in whatever you do, because you will affect them only in so far as you extract from them the same respect for you and also good feeling for you and that cannot come unless you behave on equal terms with them …”


[1] Jawaharlal Nehru, An Autobiography, p. 222

[2] Victor Gallantz Ltd. London 1977