a voyage to the moon


This story was first published in the UK’s Catholic Herald newspaper on September 11, 2010.

a voyage to the moon

When I opened my eyes it was still pitch black. Feeling in the darkness I knocked the alarm clock off the table. From somewhere overhead there came a low refrain, the words barely audible:

“Holy Mary Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.” The green digits of the clock read 5:36 A.M.

I dressed and went up to the chapel where the monks were finishing the Liturgy of the Hours. Out of the window in the grey light of dawn the silver skyscrapers of the downtown were growing out of the horizon.

Directly below, a telegraph poll had a mustard yellow sign on it that read ‘Slow.’

The Little Brothers of Saint Francis are a community of contemplatives based in Boston. They were set up by James Curran, an opera singer who turned his back on the musical world after experiencing a moment of epiphany during a reception at the White House.

Taking the life of Saint Francis of Assisi as his inspiration, Brother James founded a contemplative order in the late sixties in the working class suburb of Roxbury. I stayed a weekend with them recently.

They live in two plain wood-board houses painted dark brown. On each house a simple cross and a small sign above the doorway are the only indications of the occupants. Even so, their years of service and the distinct blue denim cassocks they wear mean they are well known locally.

According to its charism, the order “bears witness” to the plight of the city’s homeless. They offer no charity beyond their presence but as Brother James explained later at breakfast, that alone was a source of consolation for individuals isolated on the streets.

Round the table he told the story of Bob, a rough sleeper he met in the early seventies. He used to buy him breakfast at a nearby diner, and listen as Bob talked about baseball. Ignorant of the game, the monk bought the daily papers to keep up with the conversation but the scores Bob was quoting did not seem to tally with what he read. He discovered eventually that Bob was quoting scores from two decades before.

“It was then that I began to realise it was more important to listen than to speak,” he said. Later on, he would see him wearing a sandwich board prophesying the end of the world. Bob died alone and — like many of the men they come into contact with — it was left to the brothers to organize both his funeral and a small wake.

After mass we continued our conversation in the Little Brothers’ common room. On the wall behind him were maps of Assisi, including a medieval drawing showing the friary created by St Francis. On another wall hung Brother James’ portrait. (“Probably when I am gone they will throw darts at it.”)

Brother James spoke in a voice as light and grainy as his Celtic skin, gripping one hand in the other to stop them shaking – a result of the Parkinson’s disease he was diagnosed with ten years ago. His fine white beard wrapped his face like a chinstrap.

A good listener, he was also a good storyteller and was fond of name-dropping. He talked about the time Mother Theresa came to stay (she insisted on sending coffee and donuts out to the police car assigned to look after her) and his encounters with Pope John Paul II and John F. Kennedy.

He was raised alone by his mother after his father died in the war. Growing up he revealed a talent for singing and after a short career he became a publicist for an opera company.

It was at Lyndon Johnson’s White House in the late sixties that his life changed. He had gone there to stage a performance of Jacques Offenbach’s “Voyage to the Moon” for the astronauts taking part in the space program. As glasses clinked and the hum of conversation drifted to the Apollo 11 lunar mission just two years away, Brother James heard what his spiritual director later termed “an interior voice” ask him: “What are you doing here?”

“I began to realise that perhaps God was calling me towards a downward mobility rather than an upward one. That’s hard to explain, because most people think you are wasting your life.”

Choosing to heed the call, he turned his back on the rarefied world of opera and became a monk.

In the last four decades he estimates around 300 men have passed through the doors of the Little Brother house, and only a handful have stuck around.

When one of these longer-term residents decided to go, he said, it was like “going through a divorce.”

Of the five other little brothers that share the house now, one is an ex-teacher and another a former construction worker. Brother James acknowledged a monotony to the life, comparing his vocation to the responsibilities of the married man who must get up for work each morning though he might rather lie in bed.

“Living the Gospel means living with the people God has thrown you in with,” he said. “That’s a real challenge. It means nothing to say ‘I’m going to go out and love the forgotten and rejected people’ if you can’t love the brother that’s sitting across your cornflakes.”

That evening, after Brother James had gone to bed, I talked with Brother Anthony, who takes care of the day-to-day running of things since illness has forced the founder to take a back seat. A former barber, he joined the order over 20 years ago.

He said many people came to them with a deluded idea of the lifestyle. “A few years ago we had to turn away this young man,” Brother Anthony said. “He had this vision of himself ambling through the fields in his habit doling out alms to the poor from a wicker basket. I remember thinking, ‘does he not realize we’re in the city.’”

After just one day I had no such illusions that the monastic life might be for me. I have a mortal fear of early mornings, and those dawn liturgies were more than I could take. With that in mind I turned in early, preparing myself for a last bruising encounter with the guest room’s alarm clock.




hermits, poems

This poem was given to me by my friend Vanessa. She photocopied it from an anthology she found in San Francisco public library so I don’t know the author. I tried looking online but drew a blank. I suppose it’s fitting in a way that the authorship should remain anonymous given the title. Still, I prefer to credit the talent behind such a delightful piece.



A hermit is said to be living on the far

side of the lake, but no one has ever seen him.

They say he lives in a cave a little ways up

the mountain. They say he used to be a school-

teacher of some kind, and then one day he had

had enough. He’s not a holy man or anything

like that, he just got tired of people’s ways.

They call him Invisible Tom, though in truth

no one knows his name. He’s just their last,

best hope, but I don’t think he exists. These

same people, one minute they’re digging furiously

in a corner of their backyard, the next minute

they’re flat on their backs watching a television

program on marital impotence. I tell you, you

can’t believe a word they say. And yet I’ve

seen the sunlight glint on a bronze flagon from

over there and I’ve wondered what that life would



america in lockdown

journalism, solitary confinement

This story was first published on the website openDemocracy on September 6, 2010.

solitary confinement

For Nelson Mandela it was the most forbidding aspect of prison life. When he looked back on the 27 years he spent as a political prisoner in his memoir, The Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela remembered solitary confinement as the experience that came nearest to breaking him.

“There is no end and no beginning; there is only one’s mind, which can begin to play tricks,” he wrote. “Was that a dream or did it really happen? One begins to question everything.”

The harmful effects of locking someone up in isolation have long been known about. As far back as the mid-19th century medical reports observed the impact. Between 1854 and 1909 there were nearly 40 reports in Germany alone, all of which identified solitary confinement as the major factor in the development of psychotic illness among prisoners.

In 1850, doctors in England were noting the high proportion of inmates that had to be removed from cells in Pentonville prison on the grounds of insanity – 32 out of every 1,000.

It was this body of evidence that played a key role in the gradual unravelling of the system of large-scale solitary confinement in the late nineteenth century. In America too, where the system had its roots among the Quaker communities of Pennsylvania, who believed that silent reflection in separate cells was the best way for criminals to do penance (hence, the penitentiary), it came to be recognised that isolating prisoners for long periods was both inhumane and ineffective. In 1890, the United States Supreme Court came close to declaring the punishment to be unconstitutional.

A century on and the lessons from history have either been forgotten or they are being wilfully ignored. In America, its use in a burgeoning prison system has increased dramatically in the last 20 years.

This increase has coincided with the growth of the so-called supermax prisons, a new generation of high security jails designed to keep social contact between inmates to a minimum.

The US now holds more people in solitary than anywhere else in the world. An accurate figure is almost impossible to come by, since the population within the punishment blocks of general prisons, known as Special Housing Units (SHUs), is too transient to monitor. Even so, observers estimate the numbers somewhere between 25,000 and 80,000.

At the Federally-run supermax prison in Florence, Colorado, inmates considered to be the greatest security risk are kept in conditions of extreme isolation that would leave even the Pennsylvania Quakers in awe.

High profile prisoners like Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, and Arab terrorists convicted of arranging the 1993 World Trade Center bombing are kept in rooms constructed of poured concrete and steel for 23 hours a day. The windowless cells are illuminated day and night and are heavily insulated so that the inmates are denied either the sight or sound of other human life.

One inmate held in Florence is Tommy Silverstein. He has been kept in solitary for 27 years now, longer than anyone else in the Federal prison system. Silverstein was made the subject of a “no-human-contact” order by a judge after he murdered a prison guard in 1983. For much of his isolation he was held in a specially built unit — known as the Silverstein Suite — at a prison in Kansas where he had his own exercise yard. This meant his only human contact was with the guards or via the occasional visit, where a thick layer of plexiglass maintained his isolation. He has referred to his existence as “a slow, constant peeling of the skin.”

Laura Rovner, a law professor at Denver University, represents Silverstein, 58, in his case to have his isolation ended. Rovner wants the courts to recognise his treatment as “cruel and unusual punishment,” and therefore unlawful under the eighth amendment of the US constitution.

It is the same argument put forward by activists in Louisiana on behalf of the Angola three, a trio who between them have spent over a century in solitary. Two of the men, Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox have been nearly 38 years in isolation. A third man, Robert King was kept there 29 years before he was released in 2001 after a series of appeals.

Much of Rovner’s case is concerned with laying bare the harmful psychological effects of Silverstein’s condition. There are a number of contemporary studies of inmates in isolation and, just like their 19th century predecessors, most express grave concern.

“What you see when reading these studies is the same constellation of symptoms coming up in different cases, and they’re simply too common not to be a pathology arising from the isolation,” said Rovner.

That constellation of symptoms includes agitated and self-destructive behaviour, anxiety and hypersensitivity, auditory and visual hallucinations and, in some cases, a permanent intolerance to being around others.

Rovner said the impact of his lone existence was evident during legal visits with Silverstein. “At the start of our meetings with him just an hour spent with us would send him into a tailspin for a couple of days, needing to sleep for 15 or 16 hours at a time.”

Professor Craig Haney, a psychologist at the University of California who evaluated over a hundred supermax prisoners and who has compiled a report for Rovner on Silverstein, wrote that “many of those subjected to it (solitary confinement) are at risk of long term emotional and even physical damage.”

The only one of the ‘Angola three’ at liberty, Robert King, said his ability to see distance was permanently altered by his years alone in a cell. “I had no concept of how you actually looked further, as a result of living in such a small space,” he said.

King now campaigns for the release of Woodfox and Wallace. The men’s isolation stems from their conviction for the killing of a prison guard, found stabbed to death in the early seventies in Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola.

Wallace, 68, and Woodfox, 63, have always denied the killing and insist their convictions and continued isolation are punishment for their political views. At the time they had started a chapter of the Black Panthers at the prison.

The men’s case gained international recognition in recent years thanks in part to the efforts of Anita Roddick, the late Bodyshop founder. Roddick’s involvement inspired her friend, British filmmaker Vadim Jean to make a documentary about the case called In the Land of the Free, and released earlier this year.

Rovner said the publicity surrounding the Angola three was part of a growing clamour for the US to change its approach. The legislature in Maine recently considered an amendment aimed at abolishing the use of solitary in the state. Meanwhile, a ruling in July in the European Court of Human Rights upheld a complaint by four British nationals facing extradition to the US on terrorism charges that they faced having their human rights violated if, as was likely, they were transferred to solitary at the supermax unit in Florence.

Yet in spite of this, there is no end in sight for Silverstein, as well as Woodfox and Wallace. All of whom had their recent appeals turned down.

“Sadly, the overwhelming public sentiment here is that they are getting what they deserve,” said Rovner. “The irony, however, is that if you asked anyone in long-term lockdown they would freely tell you they’d prefer the death penalty to what they’ve endured.”

‘after 29 years, I never really left solitary’

* robert king, journalism, solitary confinement

This story first appeared in London’s The Guardian newspaper on 28 August, 2010.

A solitary cell at Angola from the early 1970s

Robert King

I first entered Louisiana State Penitentiary in the early 60s, at the age of 18. I was in and out of that place for the rest of the decade. Back then, if you were young, black and had a record, police in New Orleans would come looking for you when they had a backlog of unsolved cases: it was called cleaning the books.

In 1969, I was locked up for a robbery I didn’t do and, while inside, I joined the Black Panthers. Three years later, an inmate was stabbed to death on my prison block and, because of my politics, the authorities saw a chance to pin it on me. In 2001, I was cleared of this killing but, by then, I had spent 29 years alone in a cell.

It was a dimly lit box, 9ft by 6ft, with bars at the front facing on to the bare cement walls of a long corridor. Inside was a narrow bed, a toilet, a fixed table and chair, and an air vent set into the back wall.

Some days I would pace up and down and from left to right for hours, counting to myself. I learned to know every inch of the cell. Maybe I looked crazy walking back and forth like some trapped animal, but I had no choice – I needed to feel in control of my space.

At times I felt an anguish that is hard to put into words. To live 24/7 in a box, year after year, without the possibility of parole, probation or the suspension of sentence is a terrible thing to endure.

I was kept in the closed cell restricted (CCR) wing of the penitentiary, which is also known as Angola, after the slave plantation that was on the site prior to the prison. Three times a week I was let out for an hour to go to the exercise yard, where I was kept separate from other prisoners by razor wire.

The wardens tried to discourage us from talking, but we defied them. We were beaten up and prisoners were found hanging in their cells. Whenever I was disciplined, it was for talking. I didn’t care, I refused to let them dehumanise me.

The worst punishment was the “cold box”, our name for the cell within Camp J. It was down a long hallway through three sets of secure doors, and when they pushed me inside, the isolation was total. They would keep me there for a month, in blocks of 10 days, shoving food through a slot in the door. I went for days without speaking to anyone. That kind of sensory deprivation was torture for me – to survive I knew I had to keep my mind active.

One pastime I had was smuggling out praline candies that I made on my cell floor. I traded tobacco to get the ingredients of sugar, peanuts and powdered milk. I made them using a cold drink can for a pot and burning toilet paper to melt sugar.

Another thing I did was to fold up toilet paper into squares and stick them to the floor with toothpaste to make a chessboard. I would call out moves to other inmates. When we were in nearby cells I played with Herman Wallace or Albert Woodfox. Like me, they were Black Panthers kept in solitary because they were seen as a threat. They had started a chapter of the Panthers, which had helped mobilise inmates to curb some of the abuse going on inside Angola at the time.

They are still in solitary after nearly 38 years – more than any other inmate in the American prison system. They were convicted of killing a prison guard in 1972, but there’s a lot of evidence that they’re innocent.

Since my conviction was overturned in 2001, I have travelled constantly, educating people about the widespread use of solitary confinement in America. The words of the US Constitution prohibit what is called “cruel and unusual punishment”, and yet that phrase could have been written to describe solitary confinement.

When I walked out of Angola, I didn’t realise how permanently the experience of solitary would mark me. Even now my sight is impaired. I find it very difficult to judge long distances – a result of living in such a small space. Emotionally, too, I’ve found it hard to move on. I talk about my 29 years in solitary as if it was the past, but the truth is it never leaves you. In some ways I am still there. I made a statement when I was released that although I was free of Angola, it would never be free of me. Until Herman and Albert can join me on the outside, I have to make good on that promise.

As told to Paul Willis

To learn more about the Angola Three go to this Website.

a slow, constant peeling of the skin (part 3)

* tommy silverstein, solitary confinement

The United States holds tens of thousands of people in long-term solitary confinement, but the case of Tommy Silverstein is perhaps the most extreme. He has been kept in isolation for the last 27 years, more than anyone else in the federal prison system. Laura Rovner, a law professor at Denver University, represents Silverstein, 58, in his case to have his treatment recognised as “cruel and unusual punishment” under the US constitution. (All the drawings here are by him.)

a slow, constant peeling of the skin (part 3)As part of your information gathering you conduct interviews with clients about their condition. Do you have ethical concern about making them reflect on a situation that is so obviously traumatic?

Rovner: I can see it going both ways. It varies from person to person. We have other clients in Supermax prisons in conditions of solitary not as extreme as Tommy, but they are still extreme. For some it’s a strategic mechanism that they’ve adopted to get through this, to not focus on it. So to be put in a position of talking about it can be painful, it can be unraveling, it could disturb whatever balance they have struck.

For others it’s helpful to talk. One of the things that Professor Haney discusses is the idea of “meaning making” in the world, of how a lot of people need others to do that. You know, you need to be testing out your reactions against others — do you hear that, did you see that –, and without that things fall apart.

How have you addressed this with Tommy?

Rovner: We have to talk about his condition because it’s relevant to his lawsuit. We have built up a relationship of trust with him but it’s not always easy for him.

What are the most common reasons for prisoners being isolated?

Rovner: There are two main ones: Either it’s because of violence within the prison or it’s for inmates convicted of terrorist-related crimes, and most of this second group are Arabs and Muslims. Three of our clients were convicted of crimes related to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and were serving sentences in regular facilities and, basically, two hours after the second tower came down on September 11 all of them were rounded up from their respective facilities and ultimately transferred to the Supermax. There’s no indication that they had any involvement with September 11 or anything else but it was just this idea that the terrorist threat needed to be contained somehow, and this was the way to do it.

In some other rare cases they are isolated because of their original convictions: the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski, for example.

How many inmates are currently being held in solitary in the US?

Rovner: The range that I’ve seen is from 25,000 to 80,000. Part of the reason it’s so difficult to figure out is because inmates who are subject to further discipline are sent to Special Housing Units (SHUs), which are sort of prisons within the prison. Inmates can be placed in these units for a few days or for half a year and the movement in and out of the SHUs is very fluid. So it’s hard to collect accurate data. But certainly within Supermax prisons you’re talking about 20,000 plus.

How obstructive are the prison authorities towards your work?

Rovner: They are fighting the case very hard. They believe very strongly his case does not constitute a violation of the eighth amendment. In terms of justifying their treatment of him, they say that this was a person who was convicted of some very serious crimes – one of which was the killing of a correctional officer. So from their perspective he’s simply too dangerous to release into the prison population. But the question of how they are making this assessment 25 years later to a man who is nearly 60 years old, that is a question to which we’ve not received a satisfactory answer.

What drew you to this work?

Rovner: When I was a law student there was a death penalty lawyer who came to talk to us. He made the point that we are all much more than the worst thing we’ve done, and that idea has always stayed with me. I think that as a society, what we do to the terrorist or the child-molester, says a lot about us.

Sadly, the overwhelming public sentiment here towards people like Tommy is that they are getting what they deserve. The irony, however, is that if you asked Tommy or anyone else in long-term lockdown they would freely tell you they would have preferred the death penalty to what they have endured.

a slow, constant peeling of the skin (part 2)

* tommy silverstein, solitary confinement

The United States holds tens of thousands of people in long-term solitary confinement, but the case of Tommy Silverstein is perhaps the most extreme. He has been kept in isolation for the last 27 years, more than anyone else in the federal prison system. Laura Rovner, a law professor at Denver University, represents Silverstein, 58, in his case to have his treatment recognised as “cruel and unusual punishment” under the US constitution. (All the drawings here are by him.)

a slow, constant peeling of the skin (part 2)

As his lawyer, what contact are you allowed to have with Tommy?

Rovner: Because he’s our client we are allowed both to be with him in person, talk to him on the phone, as well as have written correspondence with him.

When we meet with him in person though our visits are non-contact. What that means is we sit with a piece of glass between us. He’s shackled, and there are little holes in the glass for sound to pass through.

When he was first put into isolation he wasn’t allowed any visits at all. Our constitution requires that he be allowed to meet with a lawyer, and in theory there are no limits on how many times that can happen. He’s permitted to see his family but with the same type of limitations put on those visits. There’s never any physical contact. He can meet other people cleared by the prison but those have to be people he knew before his incarceration generally, and he’s been incarcerated 35 years.

Can you describe going to visit Tommy?

Rovner: The Federal Supermax has in large part denied reporters the ability to see it, the ability to talk to prisoners. We were allowed in by virtue of this piece of litigation. We were shown the cells where Tommy was held originally in the more isolated part of the prison and another cell like the one he is held in at the moment.

But when you go to see him it’s very anxiety-producing. You don’t meet him where he lives. The visiting area looks like an office building, there’s a receptionist. You are taken down some stairs and there are various gates that are clanging behind you as you go through.

They take you to a very narrow booth and he is in another booth facing us. He’s in a white jumpsuit.

When we first started visiting him they would lock us in. There are cameras in both of the booths and guards behind him and down the side. So you have a real sense of surveillance.

Some of his artwork has appeared on websites and blogs. I understand he was being denied access to drawing materials for a while. Is that still the case?

Rovner: He has his art supplies now. For a long time he was being denied it. That was very painful for him because art is a real form of therapy and he is very talented. In my office I have a drawing he did for me with just the inside tube of a Bic pen, since the staff take away the plastic shell. It’s really extraordinary.

Visiting with Tommy, do any of the characteristics associated with prolonged isolation come across in his behaviour or demeanour?

Rovner: Certainly memory loss and a difficulty with concentration. There’s also quite a lot of evidence to show that those subjected to prolonged isolation eventually become intolerant of human contact. For example, with Tommy’s they couldn’t get accurate blood pressure readings because just the physical contact of someone touching him to take the reading once a year would cause his blood pressure to skyrocket.

Equally, at the start of our meetings just an hour spent with us would send him into a tailspin for a couple of days, needing to sleep for 15 or 16 hours at a time, that kind of thing.

What contact is he now able to have with other prisoners?

Rovner: For the longest time he had none. Even the exercise yard he went to was in an adjacent cell where he couldn’t see anyone else. Now when he’s taken out for his hour a day he goes to a ten by ten feet cage where there are cages alongside and he can see and chat with other inmates. He’s at least aware of other human life. Some of the places he was kept in before were completely soundproof. If someone was taking a shower overhead or a toilet was flushing or someone was shouting down the range, you wouldn’t hear it.

Reading some of the measures to isolate Tommy and listening to your own descriptions, it’s hard not to think that there is a deliberate attempt to test the sanity of prisoners held in solitary.

Rovner: I have to be careful about what I say. But yes, it’s hard to believe that some of the stuff done to them is by accident.

letters from hermits (2)


Steve wrote after seeing a short notice I posted on a newsletter sent to religious hermits across the world. He gave few personal details and no return address, but offered some memorable quotes that brought a smile.

letters from hermits (2)

He writes: So, am I hermit? Not particularly. Am I reclusive? At times. A disappointed idealist? Not really; I voted for Obama! Solitude – loneliness – freedom from constraints? At age 62 I do my best to stay balanced in the third.

Amongst the things I’ve been/done, the most notable is “failed artist.” As for visual artist, my best efforts were in printmaking. In addition, I spent many years writing a novel, got various rejections and it remains unpublished.

Briefly put, it’s a tale of two brothers; one goes to war, the other doesn’t. The title is Louise, Louise and here are the highlight quotes:

“I don’t know but I been told, the streets of heaven are paved with gold!”

“Whoever has the Americans as allies does not need enemies.”

“No Viet Cong ever called me nigger.” (Muhammad Ali)

“We skipped the light fandango, turned cartwheels across the floor” (Of course, Procol Harem)

“Let the airwaves flow.” (Moonlight Mile by the Rolling Stones, the Sticky Fingers album)

Signing off with a favourite Leonard Cohen lyric: “They say there was a secret chord that David played to please the Lord, and all that I can say is: