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Archives for December 12, 2019

Alone: The Psychological Effects of Solitary Confinement

There are 80,000 prisoners held in solitary confinement in prisons across the country, all cut off completely from the outside world. These prisoners serve their long-term sentences with no human interaction whatsoever. Some serve sentences of a few months, others are isolated for years and even decades. Does the crime match the punishment? Read on to understand the physical and psychological effects of solitary confinement and join the conversation. 

As a Colorado native, tragedies such as those at Columbine High School and the Aurora Century 16 movie theater happened close to home. I read the articles, and I watched the desperate parents search for answers on the news. I attended local candle-light vigils for victims of these crimes. But never once did I question the fate of the people responsible for these atrocities. They carelessly and ignorantly took the lives of so many innocent people, and they got what they deserved. Right?

Are the physical and psychological effects of solitary confinement justified? Or are we dehumanizing prisoners to the point where they can no longer function in society? 

Colorado is Home to ADX Florence

South-bound I-25 is what some Coloradans think of as a special kind of hell. A two-lane highway peppered with construction and new developments that create more of a traffic halt than a jam at 4 o’clock on any given weekday.  

Commuters curse the engineers of the poorly designed road that has become an artery for Denver’s workforce. For the regular driver, I-25 is a mere side pain on their way to their destination. For others, those who society has deemed the “worst of the worst,” I-25 leads to Exit 140 and to the “Alcatraz of the Rockies,” their own special kind of hell. 

The United States Penitentiary, Administrative Maximum Facility known as ADX Florence, is located in Florence, CO. It is the country’s only federal supermax facility. The stunning southern Rocky Mountains are the last signs of life inmates see on their way through the gates. “We designed it so the inmates can’t see the sky, intentionally,” says former Supermax Warden Robert Hood in an interview with CNN.

ADX Florence is home to some of the most notorious and dangerous criminals in history. Men like the Oklahoma City bomber, the Boston Marathon bomber, and as of 2019, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán. These inmates serve their sentences locked in an 84-square-foot, soundproof, one-man concrete cell for 23 hours per day. Their meals are served through a slot in the steel door. They are allowed one hour of exercise per day, locked in a separate cage.

To some, the punishment of complete and total isolation seems like a justified fit for the heinous crimes some of the inmates at ADX Florence have committed. But what about the other prisoners and the physical and psychological effects solitary confinement has on them?

The Physical Effects of Solitary Confinement

Lauren Rovner is a civil rights lawyer who specializes in the constitutional rights of prisoners. Through her work at the University of Denver, she has studied the treatment of the prisoners in ADX Florence first-hand.

In her TEDxMileHigh Reset talk in 2018, Rovner explains the types of physical effects life in a closet-sized cell can cause. “Some people report that after years of looking at nothing further than 10 feet away, their eye-sight has deteriorated so much that they can’t focus on faraway objects anymore,” says Rovner. She also mentions that some of her clients are so deprived of human interaction that they lose their voice after an hour of conversation. 

Although the research is still in the early stages, psychologist Craig Haney mentions that there is a range of effects that can result from a lack of exposure to sunlight, fresh air, and access to adequate exercise.

Rovner covers several hard-to-imagine details about the lives of some of her clients in ADX Florence. She says that as time goes on, their bodies are impacted by the lack of human interaction and conversation. But even more profound are the psychological effects of solitary confinement.

The Psychological Effects of Solitary Confinement

“The isolation is so deep and profound that one of our clients would lie on the floor of his cell for hours just hoping to catch a glimpse of someone’s feet as they walked by his cell,” describes Rovner. “Another befriended a wasp that flew into his cell—feeding it and talking to it as a friend.”

Imagine being so desperate for any kind of interaction that you settle for the quick snapshot of someone’s feet underneath your door. Or imagine needing companionship so badly that a wasp will suffice as a friend. These instances are the realities for inmates in solitary confinement. They’re enough to mentally impact anyone.

Some inmates show obvious signs of insanity. Anthony Graves is a former death row inmate who served 10 years in solitary. In an American Psychological Association report in 2012, Graves states, “I would watch guys come to prison totally sane, and in three years they don’t live in the real world anymore.” He mentions that one inmate “would go out into the recreation yard, get naked, lie down and urinate all over himself. He would take his feces and smear it all over his face.”

Rovner explains that some men adapt to isolation. But while they may not show any outward signs of mental illness, “there is grave harm in the adjustment itself,” says Rovner. Such a prolonged amount of time deprived of human interaction paradoxically leads to social withdrawal. Inmates become overwhelmed and cannot handle the thought of having to interact with another person.

“So much of what we do and who we are is rooted in a social context,” says Haney in an American Psychological Association feature on solitary confinement

Isolation from any kind of society results in a slow social death. 

“The men at ADX are stuck in suspended animation. Not really part of this world, but not really part of any world that is tangibly human,” says Rovner. 

Is There Another Solution?

While some men serving solitary confinement sentences will never be reintegrated into society, some will. In fact, according to NPR investigative correspondent Lauren Sullivan in her 2012 interview, “Ninety-five percent of the people we have incarcerated in our supermax prisons in this country will be walking in our communities one day.”

Can we fully expect someone who has latched onto a wasp due to a lack of interaction to successfully reintegrate into society?

A 2007 study done at the University of Washington showed that prisoners released directly from solitary confinement committed new crimes sooner than those who were transferred to the general population first before their release. Solitary confinement is, in the eyes of civil rights defendants like Rovner, torture. But is there any other solution?>

In her TEDxMileHigh Humankind talk, Professor Shannon Sliva speaks on the impact restorative justice can have on prisoners and communities. She advocates for conversation rather than isolation. There may not be a place for every inmate in ADX Florence at the restorative justice table. Yet, some could be held more accountable for the pain they inflicted in less physically and mentally harmful ways.

Did They Really Get What They Deserved?

Yes, “El Chapo” committed awful, unimaginable crimes, and it is clear that there is no safe place in society for him. Does he really deserve to never see the sky again? Former Warden Hood says those in ADX Florence serve a sentence that is “far much worse than death.” For some, especially those directly affected by the crimes committed by these men, the punishment may seem justified. 

ADX Florence is a little more than a two-hour drive from my hometown, a lot more if you hit that dreaded I-25 traffic. Prisoners who have ignorantly taken innocent lives serve their time. But, in terms of serving a life of constant deprivation and complete isolation, did they really truly get what they deserved?

The Repatriation of the Vigango

Written by Chip Colwell and Stephen E. Nash

Pillaging, taking without asking, manifest destiny—stolen ancestors. These are all terms and actions that modern-day society must contend with on the path to reparation, toward righting harmful wrongs. To look honestly at our collective actions, as a nation, community, or even a state museum, is a necessary step in recovery from the harmful impacts of history. Often, inanimate things have meaning, to families, peoples, cultures, and countries. Here is the complicated journey home and repatriation of the vigango, the memorial statues of the Mijikenda peoples of Kenya.

Stolen Statues: From Sacred Memorials to Tax Deductions

The memorial posts seemed so permanent, a part of the sacred landscape like the ancient trees that surrounded them. They were carved from hard termite-resistant wood, shaped in an abstract human form. Erected to honor the venerated ancestors of a secret society, they are believed to embody the dead person’s soul. The memorial statutes protected the Mijikenda people and kept harm at bay. Who would think to steal them?

Starting in the 1980s, an art dealer in California did. He started to pay young, unemployed youth in Kenya to steal the vigango (singular: kikango): vigango are memorial statues some Kenyans believe are endowed with divine powers

Once they left East Africa, the memorial statues entered a legal limbo: at the time, it was not illegal to export vigango from Kenya, and in the U.S. it was not illegal to import them. The art dealer sold them to Hollywood elites and then arranged for them to be donated to small, unaware museums. In turn, the dealer’s clients would get a hefty tax break through the donations.

Through his actions, this art dealer transformed hundreds of vigango from sacred, living memorials into ethnographic curiosities and tax deductions.

The Repatriation of Ancestral Remains

Several years ago Chip Colwell, a curator at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science (DMNS), presented a talk at TEDxMileHigh on the removal and return of Native American ancestral remains and sacred objects. The United States has been a major focus of the repatriation battles—as hundreds of tribes have sought to reclaim tens of thousands of cultural items from museums. However, these issues go far beyond the United States.

In the case of artifacts, repatriation is the return of an item of symbolic value to its place of origin.

The work of repatriation has been needed because over the last several centuries museums have gathered the belongings of Native Americans. Most of these were collected through fair methods and honor Indigenous peoples. But, some objects were taken without the consent of communities. Sometimes objects were simply stolen.

Vigango: The Process of Repatriation

In 2008, Colwell attended a lecture by his anthropologist colleagues Monica Udvardy and Linda Giles about vigango and their sordid history in the United States. He realized that the DMNS, where he had just started work, curated 30 of the memorials.

By extension, and according to Mijikenda beliefs, we were, therefore, curating 30 dead souls.

After consulting with Steve Nash, Director of Anthropology and Senior Curator of Archaeology at the Denver Museum, as well as the museum’s senior leadership and trustees, the museum resolved to enter into consultations with Kenyan authorities.

We anticipated a quick resolution. The vigango were stolen. The museum did not want to possess stolen property.

But, we did not have contacts with the Mijikenda and many Kenyan authorities were unsure of how to proceed. Finally, we realized that one of Denver’s sister cities is Nairobi. Colwell called up his local councilman, Albus Brooks, who arranged a meeting with the head of Kenya’s parliament at the time. An agreement was struck.

Divine Powers Meet Red Tape

In January 2014, we held a return ceremony in Denver. It was attended by Mayor Michael B. Hancock and Kenya’s ambassador to the United States. The ceremony was covered by The New York Times. We agreed to return the 30 vigango to the National Museums of Kenya, which in turn, would do its best to ensure the memorials went to the appropriate Mijikenda communities. 

After the handshakes, and the agreement was signed, the museum staff packed up the vigango and started the paperwork to send them to Kenya. It was then that we were told since the vigango were considered art pieces, they would be subject to a Kenyan import tariff of $40,000 USD. That figure was way too much for the museum.

And so the vigango sat. Until last year, when Nash met Dr. Purity Kiura of the National Museums of Kenya. With her help, we were able to get the Kenya Revenue Authority to waive their tariff requirements. The vigango were sent and safely arrived at the National Museum in Nairobi on July 3, 2019.

The Vigango Return to the Mijikenda

In October 2019, Nash and his family traveled to Kenya to meet with Kiura and other representatives of the National Museums of Kenya to celebrate the repatriation. He also met with government officials in Kilifi County on the Kenyan coast, northeast of Mombasa, where most Mijikenda still make their home. Finally, Nash and his family met with Mijikenda leaders and elders to participate in a welcoming ceremony and celebration.


After the welcoming ceremony, Nash attended one more formal meeting with Mijikenda elders at a sacred forest called Kaya Fungo, for centuries their home and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its cultural and ecological significance. They sat on small wooden stools around the edges of a small clearing in the forest; each man spoke in turn. Dr. Jimbi Kitana of the National Museums of Kenya, who also happens to be Mijikenda, served as a translator.

As with any such gathering, personalities become apparent fairly quickly—some people appear naturally jovial and welcoming, others are not. Sitting to the right of Nash and Jimbi was a particularly stern man who did most of the talking for his group. Repatriations are serious business, and he seemed to lighten up as the meeting went on. On the way out of the sacred forest, Jimbi explained to Nash why the man was stern—thieves had taken no fewer than seven vigango from his homestead during the 1980s. How would you feel if seven of your stolen ancestors had just been returned? It might take a while for you to begin celebrating.

Vigango: Repatriated and Protected

The 30 vigango repatriated by DMNS will not go back to their original homesteads—it’s impossible to determine where they came from because their original carvers are long since dead. Instead, the National Museums of Kenya is working with the Mijikenda to find an appropriate location for the vigango, hopefully in a new center in one of the sacred forests, where they can be protected. When the time comes, Mijikenda elders will plan and perform a cleansing ceremony for the vigango and all the celebrants, so that the souls of the ancestors can once again rest peacefully.

Repatriation Requires Effort and Patience

The hard work of repatriation takes patience, effort, empathy, and resources; not all of these are in abundant supply at cash-strapped museums in this country, not to mention around the world. Repatriation is not all about celebration either—religious leaders may have to create new rituals and ceremonies in order to welcome their material culture, and in some cases their ancestors, back into their living cultures. A half-century ago, many museums feared that repatriation would empty their storerooms.

Now we know the opposite—repatriation has forced museums to engage in collaborative, reciprocal efforts that enrich everyone while trying to ensure the greatest good for all.

The next time you are in a museum, search labels to see where objects came from. Reflect on how objects often have lives that precede the museum and ask whether their might serve a purpose outside the museum. And if you’re a collector, ensure that the objects in your collection have been ethically and legally obtained. For more on the repatriation battle, read Plundered Skulls and Stolen Spirits: Inside the Fight to Reclaim Native America’s Culture.

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