And also lonely: With mass incarceration, the State becomes a factory producing loneliness

Umar Khalid

Umar Khalid, a political prisoner held in Tihar Jail, in India, wrote an open letter, which was published September 13, 2022. The letter was addressed to Rohit Kumar, a high school teacher and education activist. In India, “democratic rights” organizations, communities, and people observe September 13 as Political Prisoners Day, to commemorate the death of Jatin Das, 24-year-old independence activist and revolutionary who died, September 13, 1929, after a 63-day hunger strike. On September 14, 2020, student activist Umar Khalid was arrested under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, which allows for indefinite detention. Two years later, he is still in jail, still awaiting trial, still surrounded by State and media lies. As Umar Khalid notes, “Do people not see any similarity between the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) – under which we are languishing in jail – and the Rowlatt Act, which the British used against our freedom fighters? Should we not do away with these penal instruments – a continuing ‘legacy’ of colonial rule – that enable the violation of the people’s rights and liberties?” What is it called when history repeats itself? Halfway through his letter, Umar Khalid takes a slight turn and writes, “To be honest, Rohit, it makes me feel pessimistic at times. At times I also feel lonely.”

At times I also feel lonely.

We don’t talk enough, if at all, about the imposed, enforced and mandated loneliness that is part of incarceration. Why is that? Is it because loneliness isn’t grand enough, doesn’t fit into the register of tragic conditions? There’s talk of solitude, torture, resistance, all of which are critical components. But what about the conditions and feelings, the ways of being and becoming, that are `minor’? “At times I also feel lonely” is the invitation to enter into “minor literature”, the literature a minority constructs within a major language; the literature in which, because of its “cramped space”, everything connects to politics; the literature in which, because of the scarcity of talent in a confined, constrained space and community, “everything takes on a collective value.” This is how Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari describe Kafka’s project, the production of a minor literature: “We might as well say that minor no longer designates specific literatures but the revolutionary conditions for every literature within the heart of what is called great (or established) literature”.

Umar Khalid understands the revolutionary conditions of the minor literature of the incarcerated. He follows his `confession’ of loneliness with precisely the political and collective significance of his scarcity of talent: “The only thing I find succour in in such moments is the realisation that none of this is personal. That my persecution and isolation is symbolic of something larger – the persecution and isolation of Muslims in India right now.”

Prison is an architecture of loneliness, a structure and practice of estrangement, alienation, and then theft, by the State, of a person’s sense of belonging and of being. While loneliness is distributed and instilled across the carceral universe, it has its gendered particularities. How often must we wonder about the greater distances between women’s prisons and the women’s home communities? How often must we wonder about the absence of educational, cultural and social programs in women’s prisons and jails? Always, the State responds with budgetary alibis, but the real purpose is to render women lonely.

Lonely is not just being alone nor is it solitude nor solitary, although there are connections. Lonely includes dejection, sadness, absence, missing parts. Umar Khalid’s sometimes loneliness is a function of recognizing that something has been taken away, something is being taken away. That theft is part of the State policy and practice of mass incarceration. It is literally the State of Abandonment. As Umar Khalid notes, “It makes you feel unwanted. It makes you feel a stranger in your own land.”

In 1917, Rosa Luxembourg was in prison, in Berlin. On February 7, 1917, she wrote a letter to Mathilde Jacob in which she describes the cry of the chickadee, a cry she knows so well that she draws the chickadee to the bars of her cell. Then Luxembourg adds, “Despite the snow, the cold and the loneliness, we believe, the chickadee and I, that spring is on the way.”

In 1965, Dennis Brutus was in prison, on Robben Island, when he wrote “Letter 18”:


I remember rising one night
after midnight
and moving
through an impulse of loneliness
to try and find the stars.

And through the haze
the battens of fluorescents made
I saw pinpricks of white
I thought were stars.

Greatly daring
I thrust my arm through the bars
and easing the switch in the corridor
plunged my cell in darkness

I scampered to the window
and saw the splashes of light
where the stars flowered.

But through my delight
thudded the anxious boots
and a warning barked
from the machine gun post
on the catwalk.

And it is the brusque inquiry
and threat
that I remember of that night
rather than the stars.

20 December 1965”

In 1974, Assata Shakur was one month pregnant. She was taken to Roosevelt Hospital and shackled to a bed for 10 days. Then she was moved to Middlesex County Jail for Men and kept in solitary confinement for four months. She was then moved to New York, to Rikers Island, where `the treatment’ continued. On September 10, Assata Shakur went into labor, and, on September 11, gave birth to Kakuya Amala Olugbala Shakur. When Shakur returned to Rikers Island, she was shackled, beaten, put into solitary confinement for a month. Finally, she was released from `punitive segregation: “So I was no longer locked. Just in jail. And separated from my child.” And she wrote the poem, “Leftovers – What Is Left”, in which she wondered

“After the tears and disappointments,
After the lonely isolation,
After the cut wrist and the heavy noose,
What is left?”

On February 11, 1990, Nelson Mandela walked out of incarceration, hand in hand with his then partner Winnie Madikizela Mandela. He walked forth into the strong summer sun of Cape Town and addressed the nation and the world: “Friends, comrades and fellow South Africans. I greet you all in the name of peace, democracy and freedom for all.” He ended with an invocation of pain and loneliness: “I pay tribute to the mothers and wives and sisters of our nation. You are the rock-hard foundation of our struggle. Apartheid has inflicted more pain on you than on anyone else … My salutations would be incomplete without expressing my deep appreciation for the strength given to me during my long and lonely years in prison by my beloved wife and family. I am convinced that your pain and suffering was far greater than my own.”

Those who have been incarcerated, those who are presently incarcerated, they know. Loneliness is not just an afterthought, not an aside. Loneliness is a constitutive component of incarceration. A State that engages in mass incarceration is committed to the mass production of loneliness. 


(By Dan Moshenberg)

(Image Credit: Pariplab Chakraborty / The Wire)