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Prison cell block
Photo by Gustavo Gandía Rivera on Unsplash

Boom! Boom! Boom! “I’m tired!”

That noise startled me awake at 5 a.m. Five hours later, the sound continued. Sweat ran down my neck and soaked my shirt. I had been pacing for hours, and each time my neighbor banged on his door, desk or bunk, my adrenaline spiked.

Boom! Boom! Boom! “I’m tired!”

It was June 2012, two years into my incarceration, slightly more than six months after I was sentenced to serve eight to 20 years in a Pennsylvania prison. And only four months after I turned 20 years old.

I had been in the hole, or solitary confinement, for three days.

Boom! Boom! Boom! “I’m tired!”

Eventually my anger got the better of me, and I yelled into the vent: “Well, lay down! I’m tired of hearing you!”

After a brief silence, he said in a hoarse and barely audible voice: “I’m sorry.”

My anger dissipated. Now I was curious, and I asked my neighbor why he was banging. Rah-Rah — as he told me to call him — began to recount that he’d been in solitary for 13 years. He wasn’t receiving treatment for his mental illnesses, which he said were only compounded by his circumstances.

There were 122,000 people locked in solitary confinement in the United States on any given day in 2019, according to a recent report by Solitary Watch and the Unlock the Box campaign. That number amounted to roughly 6% of the total U.S. prison and jail population during that time.

A prolonged stay in solitary confinement, which the United Nations has called a form of psychological torture, can often last longer than a month. People who spend time in solitary are at greater risk of experiencing adverse psychological, emotional and behavioral effects — and research has shown that the hole can shorten lives, even after release. About half of prison suicides are suffered by those in solitary confinement.

Back then — when I heard Rah-Rah’s cries for help — I didn’t understand that my neighbor, like most human beings, just needed the mental and emotional stimulation that comes from social interaction. I didn’t understand that our conversation through the air vent was an escape from years of isolation.

More than a decade later, I am six years into my own indefinite bout of solitary confinement. Sitting in this tiny cell, I have reflected a lot on that day talking to Rah-Rah. I don’t know how I’ve kept my sanity.

Some days the silence becomes too loud. I’m tempted to bang, to make noise so loud it drowns out the deafening silence — not to disturb others, but to feel alive.

I understand now better than ever how my old neighbor felt. This mental exhaustion is more draining than any physical fatigue I’ve ever felt.

I’m tired!

(Additional reporting by PJP)

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Global Forum Online has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Antoine "Indy" Walker is a certified paralegal and writer incarcerated in Pennsylvania. His work has been published in In the Belly, #PrisonsKill and Hearts on a Wire.