The inside of a replica solitary confinement cell inside Yale Law School’s library. (Credit: Yale Law School)
Yale Law School’s Lillian Goldman Library is housing more than just legal tomes and bleary-eyed students this week.
In between the stacks stands a replicated solitary confinement cell, with gray cinder block walls, fluorescent lights, and a prison toilet-sink combo. The 10-by-12-foot cell was installed in the library for seven days as part of an anti-solitary confinement campaign arranged by a consortium of Connecticut churches, civil rights organizations and Yale entities.
“It’s almost an assault on your senses,” said Sameer Jaywant, a second-year Yale law student who helped bring the cell to campus through the school’s Allard K. Lowenstein International Human Rights Clinic.
“The light is very reminiscent of correctional institutions, or even mental institutions. The sounds — the audio is taken from a real jail — are very striking. There’s an echoing sound of people banging on metal, and yelling and screaming. There’s also a feeling of claustrophobia. You’re penned in. There’s nowhere to go. The longer you sit in there, the more it feels like the walls are closing in on you a little bit.”
The Inside the Box campaign aims to raise awareness about solitary confinement and generate support for its elimination by letting the public experience the practice — albeit in small doses. In addition to the replica cell, which was displayed at a public library in New Haven and another Yale library before heading to the law school, organizers have held film screenings, panel discussions and other events centered on solitary confinement.
It’s particularly important that law students, who may go on to careers in public interest, as prosecutors, defense attorneys or lawmakers, are exposed to the realities of the prison system, said Hope Metcalf, the executive director of Yale Law’s Orville H. Schell Jr. Center for International Human Rights.
“We talk a lot about the rule of law, but it’s very rare that folks understand what that actually means in a day-to-day way,” she said. “Solitary, in particular, is a symptom of a justice system run amok. The whole theory behind solitary is to break people down. It’s very good at doing that.”
Sitting inside the cell was eye-opening for Yale undergraduates as well, said sophomore Katherine Soderberg, who staffed the exhibit on campus. “I would see everyone’s reaction when they came out, and people were shell-shocked,” she said. “But even that didn’t fully prepare me for the three minutes I spent in the cell. It just felt so dehumanizing.”
The cell has drawn a wide swath of visitors, Jaywant said. A few former inmates who spent time in the real thing have stopped by the replica and reflected on their experiences, he said. Staffers offer to hold onto visitors’ watches and cell phones when they enter the cell, and will also time the visits on request. Ten minutes in solitary confinement can feel much longer, Jaywant said.
“What really gets you is the ability to assess time starts to slip away and your brain starts to become an unreliable narrator,” he said. “You can’t figure out if it has been five minutes or 30. You feel like your brain plays tricks on you.”
That’s a common reaction from visitors, who are asked to write down their thoughts when they emerge from the cell. Staffers also direct them to additional information about solitary confinement. According to the Inside the Box campaign, about 80,000 people in the United States are being held in solitary confinement — defined as spending 22 hours or more alone in a cell — at any given time.
Yale’s Human Rights Clinic has been working with the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut to end solitary confinement in the state since 2010.
“We want people to go in there and to experience what it’s like for themselves,” Jaywant said. “But we also recognize that being in there, even for 15 minutes, will never accurately convey the depth of what people go through when they’re placed in there for five or 10 years. The fact that it’s such an extreme form of isolation — and we would say torture — means that for all these visitors, five or 10 minutes is enough for them to say, ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe we do this to people. How can I get involved in my community to make a difference?’”