“Nothing stirred in the air”

A snow-white room. Humming lights. Dead air. Eleven cameras. Decades ago a high security prison for women deployed banal architectural elements to intensify a new regime of carceral terror.

The Federal Medical Center in Lexington, Kentucky, where the High Security Unit, a secretive prison for women, was in operation from 1986 to 1988.
The Federal Medical Center in Lexington, Kentucky, where the High Security Unit, a secretive prison for women, was in operation from 1986 to 1988. [via Google Earth]

In the essay “Reflections on Being Buried Alive,” Susan Rosenberg describes her first time entering the Lexington High Security Unit for Women. Rosenberg, a White lesbian and member of several feminist and anti-racist revolutionary groups, writes:

We stood at the electronically controlled metal gate under the eye of one of eleven security cameras, surrounded by unidentified men in business suits. We were wearing newly issued beige short-sleeved shirts, culottes, and plastic slippers. We were in handcuffs. An unidentified man had ordered us placed in restraints while walking from one end of the basement to the other. The lights were neon fluorescent burning and bright, and everything was snow-white — walls, floors, ceilings. There was no sound except the humming of the lights, and nothing stirred in the air. Being there at that gate looking down the cell block made my ears ring, and my breath quicken. 1

What is remarkable about Rosenberg’s writing from Lexington is how it elucidates the material banality of carceral violence. A snow-white room. The humming of lights. Eleven cameras. Dead air. Her ears rang and her breath quickened, not at the spectacle of what was before her, but at its normality, its routineness, its technological perfection. The unimaginable violence of the Lexington High Security Unit was cloaked in a new visual episteme. It was clean, quiet, modern, rational, and orderly — men in suits, burning lights, plastic slippers. Lexington helped inaugurate a variety of psychological and physical contortions of the mind and body that are now so routine they remain invisible. Confronting the logics behind the unit would necessitate an epistemology able to see the rationality and mundaneness of contemporary carceral terror and its reproduction in walls, floors, and ceilings.

Most prisoners in control units will never see the horizon or night sky; they will never smell fresh air, hear trees rustling in the evening wind.

The Lexington High Security Unit embodied a new type of penal rationality that, even once Lexington was shut down in 1988 after Amnesty International declared it “deliberately and gratuitously oppressive,” has spread to over 60 prisons across the country and the world. 2 These “control units” — prisons within prisons — instituted a more permanent and more enduring form of solitary confinement and sensory deprivation, which in the mid-1980s would come to be called “super-maximum security” or “supermax” prisons. 3 In these units people are confined to six-foot by eight-foot cells for 23 hours a day, often indefinitely. There are no congregate exercise, dining, or work opportunities; no religious services; no relief. Most prisoners in control units will never see the horizon or night sky; they will never smell fresh air, hear trees rustling in the evening wind; they will never touch another human being. Many prisoners have lived in these “breathing coffins” for decades. 4 Prison administrators argue that control units assist with the management, control, and security of people who have been designated “violent” or “disruptive” — people who pose a threat to the safety and security of traditional high-security facilities and whose “behavior can be controlled only by separation, restricted movement, and limited access to staff and other inmates.” 5

Anti-racist, feminist, and queer activists were subjected to this new form of state violence before it rose to dominance in the 1990s. We can turn to their writings from prison as a critique of how carceral space was animated anew in the aftermath of the radical and revolutionary movements of the 1960s and ’70s, as well as how it began to target the feelings, senses, and affects of imprisoned people, which were believed to be potentially insurgent by the racial state. New forms of penal design thus targeted these feelings, senses, and affects in the name of counterinsurgency. When Rosenberg looked down the cellblock, she saw something she couldn’t yet describe — something prisoners continue to say is indescribable. She knew something was coming. And what she saw made her senses fail.

The Architecture of Counterinsurgency

The first control unit in the United States emerged as a direct response to the revolutionary movements of the 1960s and ’70s, which intensified anti-prison activism both within and outside prison walls. This moment, which Alan Eladio Gómez calls “the prison rebellion years,” connected the organizing efforts of prisoners to the underground and aboveground leftist movements sweeping the world from Oakland, Cuba, China, and Chile to Puerto Rico, Paris, Germany, and Angola. 6

Activists increasingly saw the prison as the core of the racial state. The control unit was designed to render revolutionary possibilities impossible.

In 1972, just one year after the uprising and massacre at Attica in New York, there were over 40 prison rebellions in the United States. 7 The prison became a key site of struggle in larger national and international struggles against racism, colonialism, and war. Activists involved in Civil Rights, Black Power, Indigenous, Chicano, feminist, Asian-American, anti-capitalist, and anti-imperialist organizing were frequently arrested and incarcerated. This meant that radicals and revolutionaries were inside prisons in large numbers. In addition, imprisoned people began their own organizing aligned with the revolutionary politics that were gaining local, national, and international power. Their work was also bolstered by various organizations involved in Black, Chicano, Native American, and Puerto Rican liberation movements, which understood the prison as the space that would ignite a new struggle for revolutionary transformation after the Civil Rights reforms of the mid-1960s. But if the goal of the prison in this period was to suffocate anti-racist revolution, its architecture was understood by imprisoned people as a key site of insurgent, and sometimes utopic, possibilities. Activists increasingly saw the prison as the core of the racial state, and ending incarceration as a means of ending the U.S. empire and, perhaps, the United States itself. The control unit was designed to render these revolutionary possibilities impossible, unthinkable, and insensate.

Screenshots from Through the Wire, the 1988 documentary about the Lexington High Security Unit, directed by Nina Rosenblum.
Screenshots from Through the Wire, the 1988 documentary about the Lexington High Security Unit, directed by Nina Rosenblum.

In April 1972, the Federal Bureau of Prisons transferred over 100 prisoners involved in organizing and activist work around the country to Marion Federal Penitentiary in Southern Illinois. 8 By isolating “problem” inmates within one institution, the FBP sought to control prison activism by subjecting prisoners at Marion to a new regime of behavior modification: brainwashing, sensory deprivation, medication, and prolonged isolation. 9 James Bennett, the director of the FBP for most of the mid-20th century, believed that criminality was a biological, permanent, yet treatable disease. Under his direction, Marion became a research lab for psychiatrists at the Center for Crime, Delinquency, and Corrections at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale. 10 Designed to cure criminal deviants, programs at Marion attempted to change prisoners’ behavior, beliefs, and thoughts.

In response to this punishment regime, prisoners wrote and submitted a report to the United Nations and began working with the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the People’s Law Office in Chicago. Prisoner organizing at Marion peaked after the beating of a Chicano inmate by guards and the subsequent formation of the Political Prisoners Liberation Front — a racially diverse organization that led a series of labor strikes and work stoppages that shut down entire sections of the prison. Marion’s administration responded by beating and gassing organizers and confiscating their legal materials. What followed next would change incarceration models for the next four decades: Authorities isolated members of the Political Prisoners Liberation Front in special cells called “steel boxcars.” 11

The goal was to manage not revolutionary action but rather radical dispositions. The control unit aimed to annihilate feeling revolutionary.

Despite discourses about security and safety that attempt to legitimate and naturalize solitary confinement, Ralph Arons, a former warden at Marion, articulated the goal of the control unit more honestly: “The purpose of the Marion Control Unit is to control revolutionary attitudes in the prison system and in the society at large.” 12 Critically, the goal of the unit was to manage not revolutionary action but rather radical and revolutionary orientations and dispositions. The unit aimed to annihilate feeling revolutionary. Marion targeted the body but also the knowledge, senses, feelings, and affects that were seen as threats to the prison and the security of the racial state more broadly. The control unit was designed to inhibit and abolish the epistemological and affective formations of the Third World left that undermined the naturalness of the prison and the racial state. Moreover, the effects of the unit were aimed at not only prisoners but also “society at large.”

Arons observed what imprisoned people and scholars of incarceration have argued for decades: the prison’s power is not insulated from the free world. The prison’s violence disparately and asymmetrically shapes the experience of freedom for all people. He argued that the control unit’s abolition of feelings inside would also alter and eradicate feelings on the outside. It was designed to send a message to prisoners and free world activists alike: anti-racist and anti-imperialist forms of organizing would be met with new forms of punishment, a “prison within a prison,” a space beyond human contact and concern. Rosenberg would come to call the control unit “existential death,” like being “buried alive.” Other captives described it as a “white tomb,” like being “in the grave.”

Disappearing insurgent and rebellious people was a way to efface and erase the new ways of knowing, feeling, and sensing created by the many social movements of the period. In this way, we can understand the control unit as a new manifestation of carceral space — a regime of “living death” — that sought to manage what could be known, felt, and sensed. The unit attempted to repress, contain, and preempt the forms of disobedience and insurgency inherent in the structural position of the prisoner. 13 In this logic, the prisoner was assumed to be already rebellious — already trying escape whether through contraband, writing, reading, touching, speaking. Seeing the stars, smelling the first thaw, feeling the sun on one’s face — these become radical acts of freedom as the prison seeks to render them impossible. In other words, the prison is a form of war against bodily, affective, and collective freedom in all its racialized, gendered, and sexual lines of flight.

Disappearing the Senses

The U.S. Bureau of Prisons announced the completion of the Lexington High Security Unit, a sixteen-bed facility at the existing federal penitentiary in Lexington, Kentucky, in the fall of 1986. The unit, self-contained and underground, was the first maximum-security prison designed specifically for women in the federal system. Although it could accommodate sixteen prisoners, it never held more than seven at any one time. 14 Susan Rosenberg, Alejandrina Torres, and Silvia Baraldini were the unit’s first and longest held prisoners. Rosenberg and Baraldini had been involved with new left, Black liberation, and Puerto Rican liberation movements, and both had been charged with helping Assata Shakur escape from prison. Torres was part of the Puerto Rican liberation movement and in 1983 was charged with conspiring to overthrow the U.S. government along with Edwin Cortes, Jose Alberto Rodriguez, and Jose Luis Rodriguez.

All three women understood themselves to be political prisoners, or, in the case of Torres, a “prisoner of war.” 15 All three women reported being told they were placed in the unit due to their political affiliations — though nowhere were the goals, rules, and regulations governing their captivity officially recorded. Rosenberg was told, “You know, you’re going to die here.” 16 And yet, a few weeks into their incarceration, the warden also told her and Torres, “You can be transferred out of here if you renounce your associations, affiliations, and your … uh, er, uh … views. You can have the privilege of living out your life in general population.” 17

Alejandrina Torres, Susan Rosenberg, and Silvia Baraldini, in the Lexington High Security Unit.
Alejandrina Torres, Susan Rosenberg, and Silvia Baraldini, in the Lexington High Security Unit. [The Freedom Archives]

The control unit at Lexington had no natural light, no fresh air, no color, no sound. It was an environment of total isolation.

The unit’s countless intuitional and legal contradictions and inconsistencies worked in tandem with its spatial dimensions, which destroyed the women’s ability to think and feel. The control unit at Lexington had no natural light, no fresh air, no color, no sound. It was an environment of total isolation designed to “demoralize the prisoners” and also their friends, families, communities, and movements in the free world. 18 Contact between control unit prisoners and general population prisoners was an affective threat with material consequences — a glance, a wave, a nod, a soft smile, the sharing of information were all terrifying to the prison, all potentially destabilizing. In her memoir, Rosenberg describes an event that captures the power and perceived danger of affective connections between imprisoned people, and which helps contextualize the sensory deprivation and isolation central to the unit at Lexington. After her sentencing, Rosenberg was taken to a transport plane. It was winter and the plane was surrounded by prison guards, police, and U.S. marshals armed with shotguns and automatic rifles. According to Rosenberg, there was “a line of sixty men standing perpendicular to the plane.” She continued:

All of them were dressed in short-sleeved khaki shirts and pants and blue prison-issue slip on sneakers. They were handcuffed and chained. It was below freezing. Many were stamping their feet, jumping up and down and blowing air that formed frost. Almost all of them were young African Americans. They had been removed from the plane so I could be put on. 19

As Rosenberg looked at the Black men standing in the cold surrounded by White men with weapons, “time stopped,” images of slave ships, shackles, and the “middle passage” flashed before her eyes. Her “sadness turned to fury” and she thought of John Brown for strength. Rosenberg recounts that despite the “divide between us” she felt “unity with the men.” 20 As she was dragged from a car to the plane, she “found her voice” and yelled to them, “I’m sorry these police made you stand in the cold, brothers! I’m sorry! They didn’t need to do that!” For a moment the guns, the fear, the chains, the cold, the agony, the isolation halted in a silence.

A man on the line called back: “Aren’t you Susan? I was with Ray at MCC!”
“Yes!” I shouted. “I am!”
He turned to the others and said, “She is ours! She’s Black Liberation Army!”
Another man called out: “Thank God for the BLA! Don’t worry, baby! The more they fear you, the more they respect you!”
“We will win one day!” I yelled. “Maybe not now, but one day!”
A third man said, “I know about Assata! Don’t worry!” 21

After these gestures of humanity and solidarity, the guards and police pointed their weapons at Rosenberg and the men. They dragged her to the plane. Once on board, Rosenberg was surrounded by marshals “whose duty it was to ensure that no one communicated with me.” 22

Human rights groups were often denied access to the unit. The women were barred from work, education, and rehabilitation programs. These policies were a form of social death.

The affective isolation that was enforced on the transport plane extended to the unit itself. Whenever the women were taken from the control unit to a part of the larger prison they were shackled at the ankles and handcuffed at the wrists with a black box over them. During these transfers, the entire prison was locked down so that contact between control unit prisoners and the general population was impossible. Only a single prisoner could have one outside visitor at any one time. Guards often scheduled these visits for the same time and then canceled visitations once family and loved ones had arrived after traveling long distances. Phone calls were only allowed twice a week in short intervals. 23 Human rights groups were often denied access to the control unit because another visitation was already under way. 24 The women were barred from the work, education, and rehabilitation programs offered to most prisoners in the general population. 25 The only work available to them was folding army shorts for six-and-a-half hours a day in a small, poorly ventilated room that used to be a utility closet. These policies constituted a form of social death. 26

Fluorescent lights were kept on at all times. Every inch of space, including the showers, was surveilled by cameras.

Central to the control unit’s extreme isolation was an expansive system of monitoring. Fluorescent lights were kept on at all times. Every inch of space, including the showers, was surveilled by cameras. To block the cameras, the women hung sheets over the shower entrance, or refused to shower, or showered fully clothed. 27 All activities and conversations were recorded in written logs. Reading material and written correspondence were limited and always screened. Amnesty International wrote that if a prisoner wanted to see anything outside, “one has to put one’s eye close to the mesh to get a fuzzy view of the limited view [due to a perimeter fence] beyond.” 28 This meant that one was watched but could not see. They were assigned prison-issued clothing designed to ensure they looked “feminine.” 29 Anytime they left their cells or the outdoor “recreation” cage, the women were strip searched by male guards. 30 The tactical deployment of sexual violence and the production of statist conceptions of gender colluded with isolation and sensory deprivation to turn insurgent women into shadows of their former selves. In other words, gender violence was a weapon in the racial state’s war on anti-racist liberation movements — it worked to disappear the women as activists and political prisoners at the same time as it enforced statist visions of gender that rendered them hyper-visible as women.

Gender Violence and the Politics of Truth

One of the challenges of mounting legal battles against the control unit, and indeed of writing about it now, is that very little is actually known about its origins or the details of its daily operation. In 1988, Rosenberg and Baraldini filed a lawsuit, Baraldini v. Meese, which alleged that the FBP violated their First, Eighth, and Fifth Amendment rights. The lawyers for both the defendants and the plaintiffs failed to discover any documentation outlining the unit’s planning objectives or commissioning procedures. Given that the prison cost over one million dollars to build, the judge found it astounding that there were no documents on long-term planning objectives or goals. In its report on the unit, Amnesty International confirmed, “Nothing … is known about the origins or planning of HSU.” 31 Most of what is known was either recorded by the women themselves or discovered in a handful of letters between Amnesty International and the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

The women believed the unit was intended to hold female political prisoners, even though the federal government recognized no such category.

A central question throughout the case was why Rosenberg, Baraldini, et al. were imprisoned in the control unit. Was the FBP holding them because they were dangerous flight risks or because they were revolutionaries? Based on statements from several FBP directors, the official position was that the Lexington control unit was intended to hold high-security prisoners subject to “rescue attempts by outside groups” and to confine “females who have serious histories of assaultive, escape-prone, or disruptive activity.” The women and their lawyers contested the FBP, insisting instead that the unit was designed as a “behavioral experiment in the control and [possible] breaking of women who may have constituted a security risk, but more importantly, held firm political views to justify their criminal actions and response to imprisonment.” They believed the unit was intended to hold women political prisoners, even though the federal government recognized no such category. In letters back to Amnesty International, the FBP denied the women’s allegations. Lexington, in their view, simply operated according to “normal FBP policy.” 32 This question was finally answered when, after two years of operation and three months before it was shut down, a federal judge ruled that the government had unlawfully placed the women in Lexington because it found their political beliefs “unacceptable.” 33

The lack of documentation about the control unit structured what could be known about the conditions endured by women held there. Even simple details, like the size of cells, could not be confirmed. No one disputed that each cell contained a bed, a metal toilet, a metal shelf, a chair, a small metal cabinet, a notice board, and a color television. But according to Rosenberg, every cell was a different size, and the one she was detained in measured eight feet by ten feet. Lawyers for the FBP claimed that every single cell was 100 square feet. These and other discrepancies concerning what was real and what was imaginary were central to the unit’s goals.

Part of the difficulty and uncertainty was architectural — the physical attributes of the unit produced hallucinations, memory loss, blindness, and other forms of mental and physical debility and incapacity. The women held at Lexington experienced chronic rage; claustrophobia; heart palpitations; depression; dizziness; visual disturbances; weight loss; insomnia; panic attacks; obsessive thoughts about dying or being killed; the forced reliving of past forms of sexual violence caused by “humiliating and physically injurious body search procedures”; non-stop hallucinations; and fear of mental breakdown. 34 They became unhinged from reality — objects moved, walls melted, and space contracted. 35

Part of the difficulty was architectural — the physical qualities of the unit produced memory loss, hallucinations, and blindness.

Working for Amnesty International, Dr. Richard Korn stated that the unit was deliberately designed “to undermine their physical and mental wellbeing, that is, to destroy them physically and psychologically.” 36 In an ACLU report on the health effects of the control unit, one woman said, “I feel violated every minute of the day.” 37 Amnesty International described the unit as “deliberately and gratuitously oppressive.” 38 In the 1989 documentary Through the Wire, Rosenberg maintains, “I believe this is an experiment being conducted by the Justice Department to try and destroy political prisoners and to justify the most vile abuse to us as women and as human beings, and [to] justify it because we are political.” 39 For Rosenberg, the control unit at Lexington was a specifically gendered penal technology, one that destroyed gendered subjectivities by deploying material yet incomprehensible regimes of violence. The philosopher Lisa Guenther describes this instrumentalization:

In nonincarcerated space, walls tend to function as supports for embodied personhood: constitutive limits that carve places out of pure depth, both stabilizing and continuing the dynamics of stable embodied consciousness. Walls offer protection and privacy; they mediate between inner and outer space. But what is the experience of walls like in a supermax unit, where the walls have no windows and the door does not open from the inside — where the white or gray ganzfeld gives the eyes almost nothing to “gear” into, just a smooth homogeneous surface or, in older prisons, a pockmarked surface carved with traces of other inmates, now absent. 40

At Lexington, the white walls stood to support not “embodied personhood” but an intellectual and affective nothingness aimed at undoing and erasing non-normative ways of being, thinking, and identifying. Walls were weapons in the war between the racial state and the flow and flight of rebellious affects. While one of the unit’s stated goals was to contain “escape-prone” inmates (even though all three women discussed here had perfect disciplinary prison records), one of its other goals was to discipline, manage, and control non-normative epistemologies, feelings, and affects. Korn testifies to the deprivation of knowledge and affect that is central to the unit’s function:

For three of these women, whose ideology is an intrinsic part of their identity, the denial of a personal library is an unmistakable assault on their identity and their right to decide who they are. It is, additionally, an attack which is in itself ideological and violative of their rights as intellectually free and mature human beings. For people such as these, their books are a statement of who they are — a statement made by minds which instruct and respect them. These books are, in effect, their only other society, their only unfailing friends, and to deny them this companionship is as perverse as it is vicious. … The point cannot be stressed too much. The officials who imposed this limitation are not unsophisticated, illiterate, provincials in some penological backwater. They are nothing if not carefully deliberate, in every detail. They know what they are doing, and why they are doing it. The prisoners know it too — and their inability to convey their understanding of this intellectually murderous limitation is part of the pain of it. 41

By segregating the women from the general population, from their families and loved ones, from the sociality of books, and even from their own minds, the unit created a type of social and civil death that not only delegitimized subjugated forms of knowledge and feeling but also sought to eradicate them. Through its design, the unit worked to discipline and erase forms of knowledge that epistemologically undermined the racial state, the naturalness of incarceration, and the dominance of new ways of ordering economic and social life under neoliberalism. Indeed, memory loss was intrinsic to living in the unit, which meant the women’s histories, convictions, politics, and feelings dissolved into the concrete around them.

This deprivation is not only evident in how knowledge was regulated within the unit but also in how the FBP shaped what could be known about it. It is worth quoting the Deputy Director of the FBP in order to understand the epistemological dilemma represented by Lexington for the women and their lawyers as well as scholars studying the history and design of prisons:

The unit is not a control unit nor a disciplinary unit and sensory deprivation is not practiced nor condoned there. … We have ensured that inmates in the unit have access to educational, religious, medical and mental health programs and we have established a small industries program there. … All walls in the unit have been painted in soft, earth-tone graphics. … The industries work area is well ventilated and has an outside window… It is not true that the women in the unit are subject to systematic strip searches whenever they leave or enter their cells. In fact, they are not subject to any search, including pat search, when they enter or leave their cells. Likewise, it is untrue that male guards accompanying Ms. Torres to a medical examination were allowed to watch her undress through an open door. There is no formal nor informal policy wherein security searches of inmates at Lexington are designed to humiliate prisoners. … I assure you that the prisoners at Lexington are being confined in a humane and proper manner. 42

According to the FBP, then, the prisoner’s world and truth were fictions. The control unit was not a control unit; walls were not white but earth-toned; a closet was not a closet but an “industries work area”; pat-downs and strip searches were figments of the imagination. Reconstituting our understanding of the function and design of the prison means embracing prisoners’ fictive facts, hallucinations, obsessions, fears, and theories produced in states of absolute panic.

Rosenberg countered state violence and terror with writing, documenting a bodily and affective terror that would soon expand exponentially.

Rosenberg countered state violence and terror with writing. “I found a new way to survive by reading and writing and thinking with purpose.” 43 Her lawyer told her to write down the forms of violation, pain, and horror that were too numerous to catalog during their visits, were so unimaginable they could not be conveyed by speech, or were simply unspeakable. Rosenberg’s lawyer framed this process as building an archive that would contradict the state’s account of Lexington and thus would produce a different conception of the truth: “Write it down, for the record. I half believed that keeping a record was a futile effort, and she half believed it would be of use in fighting for justice, but that sentence became a signal between us, a way to reference acts of violence too difficult to discuss.” 44 The “record” in this formulation was a legal account that could potentially contest the state in court, but it was also an alternative record of events that could live on in places and times beyond the state’s determination of what is real and true. Writing became a way to document the violence of the law and the terror of the unit — violence that the law itself could not register and a bodily and affective terror that would exponentially expand in the coming decades.

When Rosenberg first entered the unit, she noted its architecture — the walls, the lights, the floor, the ceiling. Her first reaction was affective — her ears rang and her breath quickened. Later in the passage that opened this essay, she describes a haunting that takes hold of her, a haunting that challenges the control unit’s exceptionality:

As I looked down the hallway, my mind filled up with images of other places that were centers of human suffering: death rows in Huntsville, Angola, and Comstock; white cells and dead wings in West Germany where captured enemies of the state experienced the severest effects of isolation; the torture center on Robben Island in South Africa and the La Libertad in Uruguay. All these images rose and fell, my ideas and goals — my whole life — passed before me, I began to disassociate from myself. 45

The unit at Lexington was part of a carceral assemblage of containment and immobilization spanning time and space — from the apartheid cages of South Africa, to the execution chambers of the southern United States, to the control unit prison that held members of the Red Army Faction in West Germany.

Solitary confinement was used against the Black freedom movement, from South Africa to Alabama.

We can add to Rosenberg’s list — the sweat box of the plantation, the train cars of the convict-lease system, the prison at Guantanamo, the camp, the gulag, the basement prisons in Chile and Argentina, the administrative segregation cells that “protect” transgender prisoners, the caged children at the U.S.–Mexico border and on and on and on and on and on and on and on. Rosenberg alerts us to an international continuum of carceral counterinsurgency that sought to eliminate leftist radical and revolutionary futures. Solitary confinement was used against the Black freedom movement in South Africa and Alabama. It also targeted anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist insurgencies in Uruguay and West Germany.

Yet, as Rosenberg and so many people held in a state of living death make clear everyday through their writing, art, and organizing, other possibilities live on inside this carceral continuum that bleeds across the fictions of liberal conceptions of time and space. The global rise of solitary confinement as a form of counterinsurgency was a response to the threat of international movements in defense of racialized life, and thus, all life. While walls and lights and bars sought to render human beings dead to themselves and the world, these same people modeled a new world inside the terror of the old. Even as it tried, the prison’s steel and concrete could not kill the senses, dreams, desires, affects, and feelings of its captives.

Left: A 1986 issue of the newsletter of the Committee to Fight Repression. Right: In 2011 Susan Rosenberg published An American Radial, about her time in the Lexington High Security Unit.
Left: A 1986 issue of the newsletter of the Committee to Fight Repression. Right: In 2011 Susan Rosenberg published An American Radical, about her time in the Lexington High Security Unit.

We can turn to a poem written by political prisoner Katya Komisaruk, “They Are Searching,” to see the struggle between the architecture of the prison and the affects of the prisoner. 46 The poem was published in the 1990 collection Hauling Up the Morning: Writings and Art by Political Prisoners and Prisoners of War in the U.S., which includes writings by Rosenberg and other women held at Lexington as well as dozens of other U.S.-based political prisoners. In June 1987, Komisaruk hiked onto Vandenberg Air Force Base and destroyed a NAVSTAR computer designed to guide nuclear missiles. She was sentenced to five years in federal prison. Written during her incarceration, “They are Searching” highlights the relationship between captive feelings and the failure of architectures of capture:

The officer puts out his hand as I leave building C.
I give him my jacket
And he checks the pockets.

The walk to my housing unit
is one hundred yards.
I keep my back straight, my head high.
Cameras, mounted on poles and walls
relay my progress to monitoring screens in Building A.
More guards watch through the mirrored windows of
Building B
as I approach.

At the door, another cop waits to explore my jacket again.
Finishing, she gestures with one hand,
indicating that I should turn my back to her.
Now I stand with feet apart,
arms stretched horizontally.
As she explores my thighs,
I stare into the distance,
demanding that my feet stay
disinterested and undisturbed.

Do they think it is so easy to find?
Do they imagine I will surrender it,
simply because they force me to spread my legs
while they investigate?

I’ve never hidden it.
I carry it openly all the time.
And their kind attentions simply make it larger.

Cameras, guards, and doors work together to keep this unnamable something from getting inside the prison. For the guards, it appears to be something visible and tactile — a weapon, a note, a cigarette. They are looking for something to confiscate — something threatening, something whose presence could upset the security and stability of one of the most powerful institutions in human history. The jacket and the pocket are so threatening they must be checked twice. The search involves an assault — “they force me to spread my legs,” “as she explores my thighs.” In this scene of institutionalized sexual assault, the body itself is conceptualized as a site of rebelliousness or insurgency that must be investigated, watched, and surrendered. These routine moments of assault and surveillance are pedagogical performances — moments when the prison attempts to teach the prisoner the order of things. This includes an attempt at total dominion over the captive body.

Like the routine strip and cavity searches at Lexington, this assault, Komisaruk makes clear, is also aimed at her feelings and beliefs. Yet she refuses to surrender — “I keep my back straight, my head high.” The assault and regulation only “make it larger.” Komisaruk has something that can’t be seen or felt or taken. And one purpose of the poem, and of Hauling Up the Morning more broadly, is to make “it” contagious so the reader is touched by how Komisaruk is touched and moved by how she is moved to survive and resist. The book and the poem show how the prison can’t contain the affects of the prisoner. The unnamable “it” that ends the poem escapes the prison through the poem itself.

It is not enough to change the spatial politics of the prison — larger cells, bigger windows, longer chains. The prison itself must become unimaginable and the prisoner with it.

Through their writing, Komisaruk, Rosenberg, and imprisoned people generally reach out for connection that challenges their social death. They posit a relationality where there is only supposed to be antagonism — prisoner or free, criminal or innocent, dead or alive. Rosenberg made clear that Lexington was a sign of things to come. In fact, once it was shut down, a similar high security unit for leftist women opened in Marianna, Florida. 47 The warnings embedded in Rosenberg and Komisaruk’s writing embody what the sociologist Avery Gordon calls “the prisoner’s curse.” As Gordon writes, “The curse delivers to you a vision of your own deathly existence laid bare”; this is because the “prisoner’s fate is always bound up with those of us who are not yet captured, regardless of whether this relation is acknowledged.” 48 The prisoner’s curse, for Gordon, is a type of subjugated knowledge that can alter the course of events. The prisoner’s curse can send reality reeling in a direction no one expected, underscoring the constitutive relationship between the prison and the free world — between imprisoned space and space we imagine to be imbued with freedom. As Rosenberg writes, “Our lack of freedom does affect how free you are. If we can be violated, so can you.” 49 It is not enough to change the spatial politics of the prison — larger cells, bigger windows, longer chains. The prison itself must become unimaginable and the prisoner with it.

Editors' Note

This essay is excerpted from Paths to Prison: On the Architectures of Carcerality, edited by Isabelle Kirkham-Lewitt, and just published by Columbia Books on Architecture and the City. It appears here with the permission of the author and publisher.

  1. Susan Rosenberg, “Reflections on Being Buried Alive,” in Cages of Steel: The Politics of Imprisonment in the United States, ed. Ward Churchill and J.J. Vander Wall (Washington, DC: Maisonneuve Press, 1992), 128.
  2. Mary O’Melveny, “Portrait of a US Political Prison — The Lexington High Security Unit for Women,” in Churchill and Vander Wall, Cages of Steel, 119.
  3. See Jean Casella, James Ridgeway, Sarah Shourd, eds., Hell Is a Very Small Place: Voices from Solitary Confinement (New York: New Press, 2016); Alan Eladio Gómez, “Resisting Living Death at Marion Federal Penitentiary, 1972,” Radical History Review, no. 96 (Fall 2006): 59, https://doi.org/10.1215/01636545-2006-004; and Colin Dayan, “Due Process and Lethal Confinement,” South Atlantic Quarterly 107, no. 3 (Summer 2008): 496, https://doi.org/10.1215/00382876-2008-003.
  4. Gómez, “Resisting Living Death at Marion Federal Penitentiary,” 61.
  5. Jerry R. DeMaio, “If You Build It, They Will Come: The Threat of Overclassification in Wisconsin’s Supermax Prison,” Wisconsin Law Review (2001): 208.
  6. For an overview of this era, see Dan Berger, Captive Nation: Black Prison Organizing in the Civil Rights Era (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014); Stephen Dillon, Fugitive Life: The Queer Politics of the Prison State (Durham: Duke University Press, 2018); Heather Ann Thompson, Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy (New York: Pantheon Books, 2016); and Emily Thuma, All Our Trials: Prisons, Policing, and the Feminist Fight to End Violence (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2019).
  7. Gómez, “Resisting Living Death at Marion Federal Penitentiary,” 65. See also Tom Wicker, A Time to Die: The Attica Prison Revolt (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2011).
  8. Gómez, “Resisting Living Death at Marion Federal Penitentiary,” 59.
  9. Bill Dunne, “The U.S. Prison at Marion, Illinois: A Strategy of Oppression,” in Churchill and Vander Wall, Cages of Steel, 38–82.
  10. Dunne, “The U.S. Prison at Marion, Illinois,” 63.
  11. Dunne, “The U.S. Prison at Marion, Illinois,” 75.
  12. Fay Dowker and Glenn Good, “The Proliferation of Control Unit Prisons in the United States,” Journal of Prisoners on Prisons 4, no. 2 (1993): 5.
  13. Dylan Rodríguez, Forced Passages: Imprisoned Radical Intellectuals and the U.S. Prison Regime (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2006), 188.
  14. Jan Susler, “The Women’s High Security Unit in Lexington, KY,” Yale Journal of Law and Liberation 1, no. 1 (1989): 35.
  15. Gilda Zwerman, “Special Incapacitation: The Emergence of a New Correctional Facility for Women Political Prisoners,” Social Justice 15, no. 1 (Spring 1988): 31–47.
  16. Susan Rosenberg, American Radical: A Political Prisoner in My Own Country (New York: Citadel Press, 2011), 78.
  17. Rosenberg, An American Radical, 79.
  18. O’Melveny, “Portrait of a US Political Prison,” 113; and Susler, “The Women’s High Security Unit in Lexington, KY,” 35.
  19. Rosenberg, An American Radical, 42–43.
  20. Rosenberg, An American Radical, 43.
  21. Rosenberg, An American Radical, 44.
  22. Rosenberg, An American Radical, 45.
  23. Susler, “The Women’s High Security Unit in Lexington, KY,” 36.
  24. National Prison Project of the ACLU Foundation, “Report on the High Security Unit for Women, Federal Correctional Institution, Lexington, Kentucky,” Social Justice 15, no. 1 (Spring 1988): 3.
  25. National Prison Project, “Report on the High Security Unit for Women,” 1–2.
  26. See O’Melveny, “Portrait of a U.S. Political Prison.”
  27. Rod Morgan, “Report for Amnesty International, International Secretariat RE: High Security Unit for Women at Lexington Federal Prison, Kentucky, USA,” appendix to Amnesty International, International Secretariat, United States of America: The High Security Unit, Lexington Federal Prison, Kentucky (London: Amnesty International, 1988), 7.
  28. Morgan, “Report for Amnesty International,” 6.
  29. Richard Korn, “The Effects of Confinement in the High Security Unit at Lexington,” Social Justice 15, no. 1 (Spring 1988): 10.
  30. Morgan, “Report for Amnesty International,” 7–8.
  31. Morgan, “Report for Amnesty International,” 5.
  32. Morgan, “Report for Amnesty International,” 5.
  33. O’Melveny, “Portrait of a U.S. Political Prison,” 118.
  34. Korn, “The Effects of Confinement in the High Security Unit at Lexington,” 14–16; and Richard Korn, “Follow Up Report on the Effects of Confinement in the High Security Unit at Lexington,” Social Justice 15, no. 1 (Spring 1988): 25–26.
  35. Lisa Guenther, “Subjects Without a World? An Husserlian Analysis of Solitary Confinement,” Human Studies 34 (2011): 259.
  36. Korn, “The Effects of Confinement in the High Security Unit at Lexington,” 16.
  37. O’Melveny, “Portrait of a U.S. Political Prison,” 116.
  38. O’Melveny, “Portrait of a U.S. Political Prison,” 119.
  39. Nina Rosenblum, dir., Through the Wire (New York: Daedalus Productions and London: Amnesty International, 1989), quoted in Rodríguez, Forced Passages, 243.
  40. Lisa Guenther, Solitary Confinement: Social Death and Its Afterlives (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), 182.
  41. Korn, “The Effects of Confinement in the High Security Unit atLexington,” 11.
  42. J. Michael Quinlan to Ian Martin, letter, June 12, 1987, appendix to Amnesty International, International Secretariat, United States of America: The High Security Unit.
  43. Rosenberg, An American Radical, 86.
  44. Rosenberg, An American Radical, 87.
  45. Rosenberg, An American Radical, 76.
  46. Katya Komisaruk, “They Are Searching,” in Hauling Up the Morning: Writings and Art by Political Prisoners and Prisoners of War in the U.S., ed. Tim Blunk and Raymond Luc Levasseur (Trenton: The Red Sea Press, 1990), 32–33.
  47. Susler, “The Women’s High Security Unit in Lexington, KY,” 40.
  48. Avery F. Gordon, “Methodologies of Imprisonment,” PMLA 123, no. 3 (May 2008): 652 and 655, https://doi.org/10.1632/pmla.2008.123.3.651.
  49. Linda Evans, Susan Rosenberg, and Laura Whitehorn, “Dykes and Fags Want to Know: Interview with Lesbian Political Prisoners by the Members of QUISP,” in Imprisoned Intellectuals: America’s Political Prisoners Write on Life, Liberation, and Rebellion, ed. Joy James (Lanham: Rowan and Littlefield Publishing, 2003), 270.
Stephen Dillon, ““Nothing stirred in the air”,” Places Journal, October 2020. Accessed 01 Jun 2023. https://doi.org/10.22269/201015

If you would like to comment on this article, or anything else on Places Journal, visit our Facebook page or send us a message on Twitter.