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Solitude and Solitary: Transcendence vs. Torture

getting out of prison

Shakyamuni Buddha (born Siddhartha Gautama) is said to have attained enlightenment sitting alone, under the bodhi tree. In an individualistic culture like here in the U.S., this part of the story might appeal to a sense of glory surrounding the lone seeker. The pioneer. The One.

The romantic sheen of hyper-individualism can lead us astray from valuable lessons of sangha and spiritual community (so much to unpack there). Still, there are understandable reasons why some of us might want to cut ourselves off for a while.

As Kate Johnson recently wrote in Tricyclereaching out to fellow practitioners can be scary.

Maybe a culture of overwork makes us miss the slowness of alone time. Or, on the opposite end of the productivity spectrum, maybe we think: If I could only get some time to myself, in total solitude, THEN I could really make some progress.

But there is a horrifying side to solitude when administered as a form of punishment.

Today we speak with Anne Weills and Dan Siegel, two Buddhist Peace Fellowship supporters and attorneys helping to wage a legal battle against the use of solitary confinement in California prisons. To celebrate some of the recent victories, we asked them about their involvement in the case, what moves them about this issue, and why solitude is so very different from solitary.

end solitary

Photo via Prisoner Hunger Strike Solidarity

Turning Wheel Media:

Anne, can you briefly summarize your role in the landmark settlement ending indefinite solitary confinement in California?


Anne Weills:

I am co-counsel with Jules Lobel and the Center for Constitutional Rights and have worked on the case since the beginning when I met many of the lead plaintiffs during the hunger strike of 2011. We had division of labor among co-counsel and I worked on the discovery, sent letters/documents, took depositions of defense witnesses and defended the depositions of several of our named plaintiffs and experts. We made tons of visits to Pelican Bay and other prisons that housed our plaintiffs, exchanging documents with them and making sure that they were in the loop and consistently involved in both tactical and strategic decisions in their case.



What would you like Buddhist Peace Fellowship members to know about the importance of ending solitary?



Juan Mendez, former United Nations Rapporteur on Torture, and other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment made a very strong case that over 15 days in solitary is torture, let alone decades and decades in California’s Security Housing Units. [Solitary cells, or SHUs.]

We could prove with our extraordinary experts that not only is solitary confinement torture, it does permanent damage to the human psyche and causes “social death.” In order to survive in these horrible conditions, a person must disconnect from himself in order to not go insane.

Imagine not being able to touch another human being for decades, except by the guards when being handcuffed, un-cuffed, etc.

Imagine not having any exposure to natural light, or air, or real face to face conversations, with guards clanging doors, loudly speaking on intercoms, stomping up and down the tiers with their heavy boots, never letting one sleep, no phone calls with family and often terrible abuse, harassment and intimidation by guards, sometimes on a daily basis, with Black prisoners always getting the worst treatment.

Solitary confinement, let alone indefinite solitary confinement, should be outlawed for both juveniles and adult prisoners!

prisoner hunger strike torture


What has moved you the most in your time working on this case? Was there a specific moment that touched you deeply or surprised you?



It’s the prisoners themselves, in particular our named plaintiffs that I’ve become close to in these last four years.  I consider them family.

It started with the 2011 hunger strike when Jules, Carol Strickman and several other lawyers, including myself, started to discuss how and if we could go into federal court and assist the men on strike.  We wanted to try and get them some kind of injunctive relief to help advance their protest and protect them from further retaliation, but by the time we came to a consensus of what to do, the strike was over.

prison-hungerstrike-posterDuring the 2011 hunger strike, Carol Strickman and Marilyn McMahan were banned from visiting Pelican Bay and cut off from visiting the hunger strike representatives.  I was asked to take their place and on my first visit to meet with the reps, they had been moved from their SHU cells and transferred to more isolated and stark Administrative Segregation (AdSeg) cells. Starving and weak, they were being subjected to further punishment with freezing air blasted into their cells while wearing only underwear.

Meeting with the strikers and hearing about their experience was mind blowing.  I was confronted with horrible stories of clearly torturous treatment. I was moved and impressed with their staunch, courageous and sincere demeanor.  It became very clear that they were deeply wedded to their non-violent protest to win improved conditions for all the men in solitary confinement in California, whatever the personal costs to themselves.  This was my first meeting with Todd Ashker and the other reps, some of whom became our plaintiffs.

After several more trips and much research, our legal team began to understand in more detail what degrading and unconstitutional conditions the men in the Pelican Bay SHUs were forced to experience — the Kafkaesque practice of placing prisoners indefinitely in solitary confinement unless they snitched or died.

Jules, and others of us who ended up on our legal team, began to more clearly comprehend how California’s prison system operates: specifically, how prisoners are validated as gang affiliates, placed in SHU and AdSeg, and kept there indefinitely.  The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) uses arcane practices that had been hidden from most California taxpayers until the men in Pelican Bay’s SHU couldn’t stand it anymore and initiated their hunger strikes. (Including the one in 2011 and again in 2013, in which 30,000 men went out on strike on July 8th.)

Nearly 80 men went 60 days without food and yet remained nonviolent, committed and cared for one another throughout the strike.

ca prisoner hunger strike logo


Dan, you’ve had a meditation practice for many years. There’s a popular iconic idea (often romanticized, but also connected to real dharma practices and traditions) of a lone meditator seeking extreme solitude in a cave or pagoda cell.

This might lead some people to believe that solitary confinement is “not that bad,” or even an opportunity for deep spiritual reflection and transformation. Certainly many famous political leaders have experienced spiritual awakenings in prison.

Can you tell us why it’s important to keep fighting against solitary confinement, and recognizing it as “cruel and unusual punishment” as you argued in this case?


Dan Siegel:

There is a world of difference between a monk or other lone meditator who voluntarily seeks isolation to engage in deep spiritual practice and a prisoner forced to spend his life in a small metal box. The prisoners at Pelican Bay and San Quentin speak frequently of hearing the anguished cries of their fellows driven mad by their long-term isolation.

The former United Nations Raconteur on Torture describes solitary confinement for longer than two weeks as torture. Expert psychologists have testified that solitary confinement causes serious mental, psychological, and physical harm to prisoners subjected to it. On the other hand, those prisoner leaders who committed themselves to working together to change their conditions have thrived due to their solidarity and mutual commitment under conditions where such collaboration is almost impossible.

strike the prisons


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