The following essay comes from Brian Nelson, who spent 12 years in solitary confinement in Tamms supermax prison in Illinois. Released in 2010, he now works at the Uptown People’s Law Center, which has been instrumental in the battle to close Tamms–a battle that has at last proved successful. Some prisoners have already been moved out of Tamms, while others await transfer, and the supermax is expected to be empty by January 4, 2013. For more of Brian Nelson’s descriptions of his time in solitary, click here.
I was raised as a Catholic at St. Benedict Church in Chicago. Throughout my life I have maintained my beliefs. While confined in prison I was able to continue to practice my faith: Going to Mass, celebrating the Sacrements. I was also able to celebrate the Holy Days as prescribed by the Catholic Church. Celebrating the birth of Our Lord Jesus Christ was a high point each year. At the beginning of Advent I was raised to begin to prepare myself for the Christmas celebration that was shared by the Communion of Saints (this means celebrating Mass together on Christmas Day). The joy of seeing the love on each others face as we celebrate the birth of Our Lord, giving the sign of peace to each other, was a highlight of the season. Even as I was held in prison, I had free access to the chaplin everyday and our priest was at the prison regularly.
In March of 1998 that changed, as I was placed in a supermax prison. When Tamms opened it was designed strictly for sensory deprivation, solitary confinement and as a tool to break all family ties as well as brainwash men into believing they have been abandoned by everyone. Needless to say, I was shocked by the attack upon my religious beliefs upon arrival at Tamms. No longer would I be allowed to attend Mass. No longer would I be granted privacy to say confession to the priest without a correctional officer listening over the speaker in every cell. At times I was even denied my Holy Bible and my Breivary ( prayer book). I was told I was not allowed to fast, nor abstain from eating meat. For months I was denied a Rosary. All this regardless of what the Catholic priest told the prison was proper. Sadly he was ignored by Tamms administration.
Surprisingly, this made my faith stronger and, yes, more meaningful. I spent hours studying the history of St. Benedict and began to study the Order of Cistercian of Strict Observance. These are followers of the Rule of St. Benedict. I copied the Rule of St. Benedict three times as the work in the Rule prescribes. I read the Holy Bible completely numerous times, and regardless of what prison officials did to stop me, I fasted, and followed the teachings to the best of my ability. I spent hours praying every day.
Yet I have to admit, at times during the Christmas season I felt depressed and unconnected to other Christians. The Tamms mail room intentionally withheld mail until after Christmas so men felt abandoned and alone. There was no Mass or celebration. Yet my loving mother would do all she could to make Christmas special. I would receive an Advent calender weeks ahead of time. She would send religious books and she would visit. Other members of the Christian community would also try to reach into the dungeon and share the Word with me. Every man at Tamms would receive Christmas cards from Uptown People’s Law Center as well as The Tamms Year Ten Committee, to try to demonstrate that even though we were in solitary confinement we were not alone. But Christmas would come and there was no feast, no Mass, no Communion of Saints; there was no family gathering.
I was alone in a Gray Box as are thousands of men and women held in solitary confinement in America. Not even allowed a simple phone to tell of families we love them and Merry Christmas. As children we were raise with the joyful expectation of Christmas morning. Of being with family and loved ones and celebrating our Lord’s birth. Yet in solitary you don’t have these hopes of these loving moments. What you have is raw faith and depression in solitude, and never can you express this to those you love and who care about you, because then you would spoil the Christmas celebration for them. To express the loneliness would to become the Grinch that stole Christmas.
Yet at times, praying, I felt all the love of Our Lord Jesus Christ and all the Christians celebrating. At other times I felt the affects of the Gray Box and complete abandonment. Also I felt the anger at those Christians that treated other Christians as I was being treated. How could they be Christians and treat other human beings so evilly? Then I would pray and pray for and end to such barbaric treatment and for the guidance to be able to help to end the madness of solitary confinement. Christmas is a time of joy yet so many men and women are being tortured in solitary confinement on Christmas day! What would Our Lord Jesus Christ say about this?