A clean version of hell

Imagine being contained in an 8-by-12 foot “cage” surrounded by white concrete walls and unnatural florescent lighting for 23 hours a day.

It may not sound so bad for a day, but turn that day into months, years, decades, and even lifetimes, and it seems unfathomable. With nothing to do -- often no books to read, television to watch, letters to write -- or even worse, no human contact, a person in this predicament, in solitary confinement, has no way to pass the time. And that’s exactly how the United States Federal Bureau of Prisons intended for it to be: Those imprisoned for the worst offenses -- murder, terrorism and rape -- have time to think about what they did and why they are now in solitary confinement. It has been deemed by some a “clean version of hell.”

On June 19, I, along with other Prison Fellowship interns, had the privilege of attending the first congressional hearing about solitary confinement in American history. Testimonies from researchers, experts, lawyers, and even ex-prisoners made the psychological torture of “supermax” prisons come to life as startling statistics were revealed. I was shocked to hear that there are about 80,000 people in solitary confinement in the United States, that two thirds of the prisoners in solitary confinement reenter prison within three years, and that half of prison suicides are people who are in solitary confinement. Yet what stunned the audience the most were not the facts, but rather the story of a man who faced the emotional torture, a pain he described as worse than physical abuse, and came out alive, but not without severe consequences.

Ex-prisoner Anthony Graves spent much of his 18-year prison time in solitary confinement, a place that he characterizes as "inhumane.” “It breaks a man's will to live and he ends up deteriorating,” Graves said. Graves could hear his fellow inmates commit suicide or throw tantrums because the confinement was driving men toward insanity. He said that normal people would walk into those 8-by-12 foot cellars and, years later, walk out (if they were lucky enough to survive), completely changed, having developing mental disorders from the trauma. He was one of those people, now having trouble sleeping and being around large crowds of people, two years after his release. What kept Graves’s hope alive? Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) was curious to know. The answer was his faith in God, and the fact that he was innocent.

That’s right. In 2010, Graves was exonerated of all charges.

The senators' mouths dropped open and the audience went silent. How could a man spend 18 years in prison and time in solitary confinement when he was, all along, innocent?

Thus, what was supposed to be a relaxing day in the city with fellow interns turned into a day of realization and shock. But, most of all, it turned into a day that I could experience firsthand the legacy of Chuck Colson and why his mission was so important.

The prisoners in solitary confinement are the ones who no one wants to deal with. They are too dangerous, or they are too hard to upkeep, especially with a third of them suffering from mental illnesses. Society looks away from the torture that occurs in these cells. And for a long time, even Congress turned their heads from the forced feedings, the pepper spray torment, and the psychological devastation that occurs.

Yet when everyone else turned away, Mr. Colson looked the problem right in the eye. Guilty or innocent, mental handicapped or sane, violent or peaceful, everyone, he recognized, needs hope; everyone needs Jesus. “For ALL have fallen short of the glory of God—whether they stand at the heights of political power or the depths of prison confinement,” Mr. Colson acknowledges in his book Born Again. He didn’t stop at the signs that said “solitary confinement”—no, he continued onward, praying for, and even with, these “forgotten” inmates. His encouragement resonated in supermax cells. "Never give up,” he once said. “At your lowest moment, God might be preparing you for the greatest thing you'll ever do."

Those words also resonate in the hearts of Prison Fellowship employees and volunteers. While Mr. Colson may not be in the prisons any longer, his legacy, Prison Fellowship is. Through the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT), PF is taking a stand against solitary confinement. But what’s even more significant is that its volunteers are still holding the hands of those in solitary confinement, showing Mr. Colson’s love, and most importantly, Christ’s love. As we move forward, we remember Hebrews 13:3: “Remember those in prison, as if you were there yourself. Remember also those being mistreated, as if you felt their pain in your own bodies.” As we remember Chuck Colson, let’s also remember those he touched, those whose lives he changed forever, and strive to do the same.


I think Mr. Colson would have been proud of this column.

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