Stories of Service: Illuminating the Invisible

Wednesday, Nov 5, 2014
by Margaret Wright '17

On the night of October 14, I left a friend’s room at 10:50 PM, dropped my backpack off in Frist, and walked outside and into the seven-foot by nine-foot taped square in front of Frist’s main entryway. For the next hour I sat, stood, and walked inside the space, leaving when another student walked into the square at 12 AM. I was one of 23 performers who occupied the square from 8 PM on October 14 to 7 PM on October 15 as a part of Students for Prison and Education Reform (SPEAR)’s second annual 7x9 event.

The event is intended to raise awareness about the use of solitary confinement in the U.S. by illustrating what a human body looks like in a seven- by nine-foot space, dimensions that approximate a typical solitary confinement cell. The square was occupied for 23 hours and left empty for the one hour each day that individuals in solitary are permitted to leave their cell. SPEAR, which initiated 7x9 last year, was joined in its efforts by seven other colleges this October.  

Currently, the United States holds more than 80,000 people in solitary, for reasons that vary from use of profanity to alleged affiliations with gangs to “protection” for victims of sexual abuse or violence.  While SPEAR’s 7x9 project does aim to bring the idea of solitary confinement to the attention of Princeton students, it is not intended to represent or recreate the experiences of an individual in solitary.

In fact, as I sat inside my taped 7x9 area, I became more and more aware of just how far my experience was from what the experience of an individual in solitary must be. Although I didn’t have my usual distractions (my phone, my textbooks, my friends), there was still a plethora of sensory stimulation – trees, buildings, changing shadows, people’s feet, etc. I could feel wind against the back of my neck and hear the voices of students walking out of Frist. I was able to think about what I had been doing the hour before and what I would do the hour after.  

The experience accentuated for me how many endless layers of stimulation exist for us in our day-to-day lives. Still, I felt oddly ill at ease with “nothing to do” but sit or walk the perimeter of the square for an hour. Trying to imagine that hour, already uneventful by my standards, stripped of every voice I heard, every movement I saw, and all the plans I made for when I would leave, is nearly impossible. Then multiplying that hour over and over and over and over – 23 times, then 23 more times - is something that is completely beyond my imaginative capabilities. All I can say is that I don’t think I would be able to endure it.

In the days leading up to 7x9, when I mentioned to other students that I would be taking part in the event, they often asked why. Some were asking why, of all the worthwhile causes in the world, I was choosing to spend my time on solitary confinement. Others were curious as to why, of all forms of activism, I was taking part in a performance art piece. These were both questions that came up over and over again in my mind as I sat inside the taped square outside of Frist during my assigned hour. The answer I came up with was that if someone had asked me five years ago how I felt about global warming, poverty, or sexism, I would have been quick to say that they were all problems I was troubled by, and thought about fairly frequently.

If they had asked me about solitary confinement, however, I probably would have said something to the effect of, “Well it seems pretty harsh, but it’s necessary, right?” Solitary confinement is an invisible issue in our nation. It’s all too easy to categorize it as a justifiable violation of human rights because it occurs inside prisons, within a stigmatized population that is hidden from the public eye. This is why I believe that events such as 7x9 are vitally important. While walking by Frist and seeing someone sitting inside a taped box may not give students a detailed or lasting impression of what solitary confinement is like, it serves as a simple reminder that this torturous practice exists, and that every day about 80,000 of our fellow citizens are being subjected to it. 

For more information about 7x9, solitary confinement, and SPEAR’s new correspondence program visit: princetonspear.com or view a time-lapse video of 7x9