Way Down in the Hole: Race, Intimacy and the Reproduction of Racial Ideologies in Solitary Confinement
Angela J. Hattery & Earl Smith (2022)
Based on ethnographic observations and interviews with inmates, correctional officers, and civilian staff that we conducted in solitary confinement units, Way Down in the Hole explores the myriad ways in which daily, intimate interactions between those locked up twenty four hours a day and the correctional officers charged with their care, custody and control produce and reproduce hegemonic racial ideologies. Specifically, we explore the outcome of building prisons in rural, economically depressed, “Trump” communities, staffing them with white people who live in and around these communities, filling them with Black and brown bodies from urban, diverse communities and then designing the structure of solitary confinement units such that the most private, intimate daily bodily functions take place in very public ways. Under these conditions, and in the current political climate, it shouldn’t be surprising, but is rarely considered, that these daily interactions serve to produce and reproduce white racial resentment among many correctional officers and fuel the racialized tensions that inmates often describe as the worst forms of dehumanization. Way Down in the Hole concludes with recommendations for reducing the use of solitary confinement, reforming its use in a limited context, and most importantly, creating an environment in which both inmates and staff co-exist in ways that recognize their individual humanity and reduce rather than reproduce racial antagonisms and white racial resentment.
Way Down in the Hole is unique because it’s the ONLY book that focuses on race in solitary confinement. Despite the fact that Black men are disproportionately present in solitary confinement and that the correctional officers charged with guarding them are overwhelmingly white, no other book examines racism in solitary confinement. Way Down in the Hole focuses specifically on the structures of solitary confinement that serve to produce and reproduce white racial resentment. The arguments set forth in this book are based on the premise that the United States was founded on white supremacy and that each and every institution is built on this foundation. As such, racism exists everywhere, in our educational system, in our governance system, in the labor market, in housing, in the military and sports, and in healthcare. Racial disparities are exceptionally present in our criminal legal system where Black men make up just slightly less than half of the entire incarcerated population. As we argue in our book Policing Black Bodies: How Black Lives are Surveilled and How to Work for Change, policing has its very roots in slave patrols. The first prisons were built on former plantations as a mechanism to police and control recently emancipated slaves. To suggest, let alone argue, that race is not a significant factor in solitary confinement, is either naive or absurd.
Way Down in the Hole is unique because it’s one of only two books that is written by a team of social science scholars who had direct access to solitary confinement units in a state prison system. Most books on solitary confinement are written either by mental health professionals, or people who researched solitary confinement using records or interviews of people formerly in solitary confinement. We spent many days over three summers inside solitary confinement and the book is based on our ethnographic observations and in-depth interviews.
Way Down in the Hole is also unique because it’s one of only two books that focuses on the experiences of both the incarcerated and the staff in solitary confinement. We personally conducted 100 interviews, 75 with inmates and 25 with staff. Way Down in the Hole tells the stories of solitary confinement from both sides of the bars.