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Sign Me Up For Solitary: How TV and Film Fail in Portraying Prison

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | January 27, 2015 |

By Steven Lloyd Wilson | Think Pieces | January 27, 2015 |

I’ll start out by clarifying that I am not planning on going to prison. And while I suppose no one really does, I don’t have any urge to join a motorcycle gang or become a debonair art thief, which according to television decreases my chances quite substantially. Of course, there’s always an outside chance for anyone, and I’d count the most likely reasons in my case would be if a high-ranking member of the revolution betrays me, if I kill someone who needed killing, or most likely if I’m arrested just for being so damned awesome.

But if I do, a large chunk of my brain would make it its mission to do something to get me tossed in solitary confinement. The choice of what brain thinks day-to-day prison life must be like, and being locked alone in a room is like asking if I’d rather be kicked in the jewels or hugged. My brain has agreed to disagree with its antisocial sub-ganglia.

Here’s where television and movies and reality really break suspension of disbelief for me. Solitary confinement is represented as the absolute worst. Piper goes there and starts painting the walls with powdered eggs, Ava is warned that being shivved is one thing, but solitary is just dying in a different way, legislation is being passed in the real world to limit the use of solitary confinement. Think about that, we’ve got an American public who for the most part shrugs at the idea of regular rape being part of the punishment of prison, but who is willing to campaign to not put people in cells by themselves.

I get that long term solitary confinement is demonstrated to be universally and psychologically devastating. But I get that with the rational part of my brain and not the gut reaction part which is that solitary confinement sounds at first blush like an introvert’s wet dream. A different way of dying? Fuck that, I’m INTJ baby, hook that solitary confinement right up to the veins, let’s party.

Look, of course being in an eight by eight cell with no human contact is hell. There’s a reason it’s used to savage people and a reason it’s condemned as inhumane. But the fact that the joke is so easy, and that I cannot convince the antisocial part of my brain that solitary confinement wouldn’t be a vacation for all intents and purposes, is a signifier of a deficit of emotional explanation. There’s a problem with a lot of our popular fiction, with the visual mediums of movies and television, and their inability to tell stories that have to do with the internals of the human mind. Oh sure, they can do so indirectly, but those are generally the movies that I can’t wrap my mind around to caring about anyway.

Put someone on screen going insane in solitary, show Piper half-catatonic, half-hallucinating with her food pictures, and no matter how horrible you make their condition, it does nothing to change my gut response of “silly extrovert, solitary is for introverts”.

Books can make that jump a lot better, they can illustrate step by step how the mind breaks down and why it does so. But it’s such an internal process that movies and television just can’t cope, they can’t show and can only tell.

Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at You can email him here.

Steven Lloyd Wilson is the sci-fi and history editor. You can email him here or follow him on Twitter.

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