The afternoon before James Burns was first placed in isolation, his mother took him to see Jurassic Park. He was only six but remembers it like a dream gone horribly wrong: Mom was addicted to drugs at the time, and spending a day with her one-on-one was a special treat. But within hours of catching the movie, his mother voluntarily left Burns—whom child services in Denver had decided was in serious trouble after he acted out in school—at a mental health facility.
Burns still remembers the latex gloves worn by staffers who pulled down his pants and injected him with thorazine to knock him out cold that day. He was left in a "quiet room," which is not the same thing as solitary in prison, but is nonetheless a traumatic experience for a child.
Watch James Burns explain why he's going into solitary confinement voluntarily for 30 days.
That day marked the beginning of a more than 15-year relationship between a tough kid and America's criminal justice system. At his lowest point, Burns says, he robbed local drug dealers and committed violent crimes, even though he was hardly the most sadistic or volatile member of the crew he ran with. And as much as anything else, Burns's time inside was colored by repeated stays in isolation, at various times as a child and again in state prison.
All of which might make it seem strange that, beginning Monday, Burns plans to voluntarily spend 30 days in solitary confinement in the La Paz County Jail in Parker, Arizona, livestreaming his every moment behind bars on VICE.com. But he's hoping this experience will help shine a light on the darkest corner of America's criminal justice system.
"I don't want to put poison in anyone's ear—I want to start a conversation," Burns says. "Is this something as a society that we should continue to do? Everything suggests that it doesn't make facilities safer, doesn't make our community safer, and that people are developing mental and physical ailments because of this practice. So knowing all of these things, why are we still doing this? I want people to really think about that."
At its core, solitary generally consists of spending "23 hours a day alone in a small cell with a solid steel door, a bunk, a toilet, and a sink," as the ACLU put it in a 2014 report on the practice. It is marked by a total or near-total lack of human interaction and natural light, and often includes a ban on reading materials. Unlike most of the rest of the planet, America embraces this practice at almost every level of the system—local jails, state and federal prisons, mental health facilities, you name it. By most estimates, solitary ensnares 65,000 to 100,000 people at any given time in the United States. Just this past month, a study from Yale Law School carried out in coordination with the heads of state prisons across America suggested nearly 6,000 of them have been in solitary for three years or longer. And like most layers of the American criminal justice system, solitary disproportionately impacts people of color.
It'd be one thing if this practice of confining people in cramped, isolated cells worked—if all the loneliness and human misery had a point. But report after report (and study after study) suggests solitary brutalizes the incarcerated and in some cases may even make them more likely to hurt others when they get out.
"It scarred me deeply," Burns explains. "There's a part of me that is afraid of touching a door that I've closed a long time ago, that took years for me to figure out and understand."
This time around, Burns's stint in solitary will be special, to be sure—he will be able to ask for and receive release at any given time, VICE staffers will be monitoring him via video 24/7, and various emergency provisions are in place should he have medical problems. But he hopes that by showing people the day-to-day (and hour-to-hour) reality of solitary confinement, the sometimes muted conversation about the forlorn and forgotten will be advanced in a real way. It's an especially important quest now that Donald Trump, whose enthusiasm for law and order was a central campaign message, is measuring drapes at the White House.
Burns is hopeful that everyone from civil liberties advocates to criminal justice reformers to proponents of solitary take notice.
"We at the La Paz County Sheriff's Office take great pride in our adult detention facility and the work our officers do," Lieutenant Curt Bagby said in a statement. "Having cameras in our facility showing any part of the process is an easy thing for us to agree to because we take great care to follow the rules set forth for us by the Arizona guidelines on dealing with our incarcerated population. We are happy to show the general public the way we operate as we have nothing to hide. We understand VICE wanted to highlight the practice of solitary confinement, and we are willing to show how it is done here.
"We realize the feedback won't always be positive towards law enforcement and that other law enforcement agencies would consider this to be counterproductive," Bagby added, "but if assisting VICE means helping start a conversation, then we would like to be involved.
Here, in his own words, James Burns describes his time in the system, how he's (mostly) succeeded in getting past it, and what this project is all about.
Watch the solitary confinement livestream above or check out the standalone site here.
I think it's important to note that I don't want to paint myself as a victim here. I take responsibility for my actions, because we all have a choice. And as flawed as the system may be, I did make some very poor decisions that landed me in my situation. The two biggest things I regret are, first, the crimes that I committed, the armed robberies. And that's because of the people who were victims. And secondly—most important—what I regret is paving the way for younger people like my siblings and other kids in the neighborhood who may have looked up to us and thought it was OK to follow in my footsteps.
When it comes to solitary, there's this idea that people are thinking of like a dark dungeon, where nobody sees the light of day for all this time. And actually it's kind of the opposite. When I think about it, it is a very bright hell. A very sterile, bright hell. And more than anything, solitary is a mind fuck. The way that things move in there is very efficient and mechanical, and if you really want to break it down, your darkest fears of mind control and sensory deprivation and all of those things come into play. Even the sounds—it's like you're in your own coffin, basically, just unraveling.
People make mistakes, but that doesn't mean we should outcast them for the rest of their lives.
Solitary is perpetual monotony. Think about a miserable day where you are just bored out of your mind, and multiply that by 100. In there, your thoughts go and go and they don't stop firing and they don't calm down. In fact, they become heightened. And then you try to go to sleep. I think people can relate to this: They try to go to bed at night, and they are driving themselves crazy because they can't fucking go to sleep. Well, that starts to happen, you can't sleep and the noises become louder and the shouting and the madness happening outside of your door sounds gargled, and it's strange.
Solitary confinement also affects parts of the brain—physically shrinks parts of the brain. The science is out that it causes problems, people are riddled with mental illness and even physical ailments after coming out of solitary confinement. I just don't think that solitary has a place in modern society—we should be getting passed that, we should be talking about mental health, we should be talking about reform and how to make people better, not worse.
Almost all of the people who are in prison today will be released at some point, and those formerly incarcerated people are going to be our neighbors. We are releasing some people from maximum-security prisons where they have been sitting in solitary confinement for 15 years, and they are absolutely fucking bonkers when you let them out. That creates unnecessary danger for many communities.
Not everybody who commits a crime or has been in bad circumstances are mutants or animals or monsters or the boogieman—they are human beings just like us. They can change. People make mistakes, but that doesn't mean we should outcast them for the rest of their lives. And there are very few people who make it out of solitary and live a normal life. I'm not saying that I'm special in any sort of way. I got into this industry thanks to a combination of luck and hard work, but in the end, the criminal justice system as it's structured today doesn't work for the majority of imprisoned people—it doesn't set them up for success.
I was a kid the first time I went in, so I didn't understand the true gravity of what was happening to me. I'm afraid that this time around there will be situations that are going to trigger me, but my hope is that I can look this thing in the face again and finally close the door on it forever.