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Solitary Confinement: A Philosophical Exploration

Professor Lisa Guenther
Vanderbilt University

In this class, we will explore some of the philosophical and political questions raised by solitary confinement: Why was solitary confinement first proposed as a method of incarceration in the US, and what did it hope to accomplish?  How has the theory and the practice of solitary confinement changed over the past two hundred years?  To what extent does the legacy of slavery and the convict lease system continue to shape incarceration patterns in the US? Furthermore: What must subjectivity be like in order for prolonged solitary confinement to affect our capacity to think clearly and to perceive the world in a stable, coherent way?  How is individual agency and personal identity supported by concrete relations with other people in a shared world?  To what extent can we disentangle the effects of social deprivation and sensory deprivation in the penitentiary cell?  What strategies have prisoners developed to resist the pathological effects of solitary confinement, and why do they work? To engage with these questions, we will draw on the philosophical resources of discourse analysis (Foucault) and phenomenology (Merleau-Ponty) to interpret primary texts in the history of solitary confinement from the early penitentiary system, through the cold war, to the current supermax prison.

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