In his search for the truth beyond all doubt, the seventeenth-century philosopher René Descartes posited that the fundamental source and constitution of human personhood is the thinking mind, not the body: cogito ergo sum, I think, therefore I am. Descartes argued that “I am really distinct from my body, and can exist without it.”1 But bodies, too, are fundamental to personhood. Indeed, bodies, in all their materiality, are indispensable sites of knowledge, meaning that knowing is and can only be a thoroughly embodied activity: what and how one knows are inseparable from the concrete, material, and relational dynamics of one’s lived reality and context. To be human might be to think or to know, but one cannot know without a body. Thus, to be human is to be embodied.

And yet, for people living in especially fragmented and fragmenting material contexts, such as Tennessee’s death row, embodiment is often much more complicated. To be embodied on death row is to be thoroughly delimited—materially, spatially, and relationally—under another’s control, destined for death strapped to a gurney. As a result, men here have few options but to center their subjectivity beyond the purely material: to be human inside a death machine demands being more than just a body; it demands soulfulness. To understand what it means to be human on Tennessee’s death row, we must look at the material and relational nature of life on death row, the theological frameworks that guide life there, and, finally, the soulful resistance that rehumanizes life in this dehumanizing environment.2

The Materiality of Death Row

Over the course of multiple visits throughout 2012 and 2013, I conversed with five prisoners facing death sentences at Riverbend Maximum Security Institution in Nashville, Tennessee. “Paul,” a forty-five-year-old black male, was twenty when he first entered prison; “Dan,” a sixty-one-year-old white male was thirty-three; “Kurt,” a forty-three-year-old black male, was twenty-six; “Jacob,” a thirty-eight-year-old black male, was twenty-four; and “Thomas,” a fifty-year-old white male, was twenty-one.3 During my first two visits, I engaged my interviewees on a range of subjects regarding their bodily experience of everyday life on death row, as well as the theological frameworks by which they make sense of their world. On my third visit, I gave each of my interviewees a previous draft of this essay and asked them to read it so that they might see how I translated, synthesized, and interpreted their stories and perspectives. On my fourth visit, we gathered around a table and talked about the essay; my interviewees critiqued, refined, and finally affirmed the content of the essay, resulting in the present version.

Located among beautiful rolling hills and inside a major bend in the Cumberland River nine miles west of downtown Nashville, Riverbend sits on 132 acres of land categorized by the Davidson County Metro Planning Department as both a floodplain and an industrial area.4 Inside Riverbend, death row is referred to euphemistically as “Unit 2,” the literal name of the building in which death row inmates are housed. From the main entry point of the prison, where I removed my shoes, emptied my pockets, walked through a screening device, and was patted down by an officer, I passed through ten heavy steel or razor-wire-fence doors to reach the center of Unit 2, and then I passed through four more such doors to reach the room in which I conducted my interviews.5 All of the doors are observed through surveillance cameras and can only be unlocked (a loud buzzing sound that lasts about two seconds signals that they are unlocked) by an unseen operator.

Each of my interviewees is classified under security level A, which means they are subject to the lightest level of restraint on Unit 2. Whereas prisoners from level A are allowed outside their cells for up to eight hours a day without escort by a guard, prisoners on level B are allowed outside their cells for only one and a half hours a day. Unlike the prisoners from level A, prisoners on level B are handcuffed upon exiting their cells and are escorted by one officer at all times. Prisoners on level C are the most isolated on Unit 2, with only one hour a day outside their cells; during this time their hands and feet are shackled, and they are escorted by two officers at all times.6

While cells in each pod feature slight variations, nearly every cell on Unit 2 is about eight feet by ten feet wide and eight feet tall. The cells have concrete floors and walls and a tall but narrow window (about five inches wide) looking onto the outside grounds. Cells are equipped with a steel-framed bed, a single mattress, a stainless steel toilet and sink, a painted steel shelf and desk, and a small mirror. A heavy steel door bears a four-inch-wide window and an additional narrow opening through which inmates receive food and can have their handcuffs removed. Inmates are allowed a limited number of belongings inside their cells, including books, an alarm clock, notepads, letters, photographs, and so on. Every prisoner on Unit 2 is given, at minimum, four identical T-shirt tops (white, with each prisoner’s number in small type on the front), four identical bottoms (white denim, with “Tennessee Department of Corrections” written down the pant leg), and a denim jacket with the same words and numbers. There is, nearly without exception, no clothing that a prisoner wears that is not issued by the prison. In the small amount of time that each death row prisoner has outside his cell each day, he has the option to exercise in a designated area that is closed in on all sides by layers of razor wire and fencing—what one interviewee called a “large cage.”

Inmates eat three meals a day. According to my interviewees, meals on Unit 2 are conducted as follows: every other day, inmates eat breakfast (around 6:30 a.m.) together in an eating area; on opposite days, inmates eat alone in their individual cells. Every single lunch (around 11:30 a.m.) is eaten alone in one’s cell. And dinner (around 4:30 p.m.), like breakfast, is eaten one day together as a group and the next alone in one’s cell.

Like those living on the outside, life on Unit 2 often includes bouts with illness. Regarding health care on death row, Paul said, “Sometimes you have to be persistent—you gotta follow up if you wanna be heard.”7 Jacob described health care on death row with one word: “Tylenol.” Three of the five men I interviewed have undergone surgery since they’ve been on Unit 2, and for each of them, the experience was much the same: after a long, drawn-out scheduling process, departure for surgery occurred without warning. It included waiting in various cells for hours on end before finally being transported, with officers following behind in a separate vehicle, to a hospital. My interviewees were then shackled to the bed during surgery, with officers standing guard inside and outside the room throughout.

When I asked my interviewees to reflect generally upon their relationship to their material surroundings on death row, Dan, who has been incarcerated for twenty-eight years, said immediately, “Whenever my feet hit the floor, they hit concrete.” Dan’s response provoked nods from the other interviewees present, and it reminded Kurt that he—and every other prisoner on Unit 2—has not felt grass under his feet since he first arrived, which in his case was seventeen years ago. With the exception of the glass in their small windows and the wooden tables in the open area in which we met, my interviewees said that the materials they touch and are surrounded by are made of either concrete or steel. As Thomas, who has been incarcerated for twenty-nine years, put it, “Everything is cold, hard, and flat. Everything is sterile. There’s no personality.” I asked my interviewees if they ever, under any circumstance, stand beneath an open sky; the answer was a resounding and immediate “no.”

Clearly, life on Unit 2 is characterized by significant material, spatial, and temporal delimitations. What philosophical sense might we make of human embodiment under such extreme enclosure? In his book The Meaning of the Body, philosopher Mark Johnson seeks to reconceive the body, in its encounter with the world, as the fundamental site of the process of “human meaning-making.”8 Integrating cognitive science and phenomenological analysis, his thesis is that “what we call ‘mind’ and what we call ‘body’ are not two things, but rather aspects of one organic process.”9 As such, Johnson attempts to develop what he calls an “embodied theory of meaning” in which meaning itself arises most essentially in relationship with one’s surroundings.10 Johnson argues that meaning making is so constant a process (because we are always in an environment that shapes us in one way or another) that we are seldom even aware it is going on. For Johnson, then, this means that in order to discern the material sources of meaning, we must look to our “mostly nonconscious bodily encounters with our world.”11 This leads him to hone in upon the significance of movement as a fundamental site of meaning, and he quotes Maxine Sheets-Johnstone to illustrate his argument: “We literally discover ourselves in movement.”12 The selves we discover in movement, Johnson argues, are fundamentally situated selves—selves whose movements are made meaningful in relation to the particular world within which they move. Thus, for Johnson, not only does a body “know” by becoming muscularly attuned to the material and spatial contours of its environment, but our sense of self-in-the-world forms out of our engagement with our material context, too.13

For the twentieth-century phenomenologist Maurice Merleau-Ponty, as for Johnson after him, human personhood is constituted not by the disembodied thinking self, as Descartes posited, but by one’s concrete, bodily, situatedness. As he writes in Phenomenology of Perception, “to be a body is to be tied to a certain world, and our body is not primarily in space, but is rather of space. . . .  The spatiality of the body is the deployment of its being as a body, and the manner in which it is actualized as a body.”14 In other words, a body—and a subject—only exists in and through the spatial contours of the material context through which it moves.

If it is true that meaning making takes place most fundamentally through a body’s interaction with its particular environment, then what sort of meaning is made and what sort of knowledge is acquired by a body confined for years on end by concrete, steel, and razor wire? And if it is true that one “discovers” oneself in movement, then what do persons whose movement is limited to an eight-by-ten-foot cell for sixteen to twenty-three hours a day discover? And if a body is not merely in space, but is, more fundamentally, of space, as Merleau-Ponty suggests, then what sort of body is constituted by a world where “everything is cold, hard, and flat,” where one does not feel grass under one’s feet or stand under an open sky for decades, where one is thoroughly enclosed, waiting to be killed by the state? What, in short, does a nondualistic embodiment look like when one’s body is always already outside one’s control, limited by rules and procedures and architecture that are constructed entirely for the purpose of closing one off from the outside world and from the possibility of any other future at all?

Following Johnson’s and Merleau-Ponty’s insights, we might posit that material conditions like those of Unit 2, which so severely fragment the spaces humans need to be fully human, are conditions that risk fragmenting personhood itself. If human personhood is constituted in part by the material spaces through which it moves, then to so thoroughly constrict a person’s space risks constricting his or her capacity for fully integrated, nonfragmented experience and expression. It is in this sense that prison may be understood as essentially dehumanizing.

Relationality on Death Row

In terms of their relations with others, it quickly became clear from our interactions that human touch is very important for many of the men on Unit 2. When I entered the room where our first set of interviews would take place, the three men I knew previously and the two who I met for the first time all extended their hands for a handshake that turned into an embrace with the other arm. When I asked them about the extent and nature of physical contact for prisoners on death row, Dan responded, “Not everybody embraces around here, but most of us do. You can’t force it on anyone, but for those who do embrace, it creates communal harmony.” Likewise, Paul said, “Hugs bring about fellowship. It’s more than just coexistence—it’s brotherhood. Our love is unconditional.”

When it comes to the nature of relations between Unit 2 prisoners and guards, Kurt said, “Well, you definitely can’t hug officers—no matter what. You can shake hands though—and we do with lots of them.” Dan added that “Some officers don’t allow any positive interaction whatsoever,” and Kurt responded again: “Yeah, some officers think they have to be tough, but later they let their guard down, relax. Some of ‘em even like to come to Unit 2 now.” When I asked my interviewees about any other times touch occurs between guards and prisoners, they raised the issue of frisks and strip searches. Paul says that frisk searches happen multiple times every day, including every time they exit and enter their cells, whereas full strip searches occur when they leave the prison for surgery or court or when they visit with outsiders. For most of my interviewees, these kinds of searches are simply a part of life on Unit 2, which means it is better to get used to them than to physically resist them. As Dan put it, “You have to get acclimated to searches. You have no choice. It’s up to you to make the best of the situation you’re in.”

Finally, I asked my interviewees about physical touch with “outsiders,” meaning family and others who come to Unit 2 to spend time in the visiting room. Unlike time that is spent with other prisoners on Unit 2, time spent with outsiders is closely monitored. Prisoners are allowed to meet with visitors in the same room, but at least one guard stands at the edge of the room throughout the entirety of each visit. Dan also says that outsiders and insiders can hug, but only when they arrive and when they depart from one another. Throughout each visit, insiders and outsiders can hold hands, and sometimes, depending on the guard, a prisoner can even keep an arm around his visitor’s shoulder.

After inquiring about my interviewees’ relationships with both their material surroundings and other human beings on Unit 2, I asked them to consider the aggregate message these material and relational realities communicate to their physical bodies—What does this institution want you to know in your body? How does it tell you? How do you hear it? Dan responded first: “They want me to know that they have this body.” After prodding him further to get at how the institution communicates this message, Dan said, “I have to walk through eight locked doors to get from here [open gathering room] to my cell.” Kurt echoed Dan’s response: “They tell you when you can do everything.” And Paul added a similar perspective: “What they tell [my body] is ‘control.’ They tell me how long I can visit with my family and how often.”

As Johnson and Merleau-Ponty argue, relation to one’s material environment is only one part of the constitution of a self. Relationality—intersubjectivity—with human others is also constitutive of a bodied self in the world. As Johnson suggests, humans, at their deepest level, are not “solitary” creatures.15 And yet, life on death row is very much a solitary existence, and as such, it has the potential to disassemble the subjectivity of subjects that are fully human only through relation to others. Philosopher Lisa Guenther argues in her book Solitary Confinement that the practice of solitary confinement constitutes a form of living death. She writes:

Solitary confinement works by turning prisoners’ constitutive relationality against themselves, turning their own capacities to feel, perceive, and relate to others in a meaningful world into instruments of their own undoing. This self-betrayal is only possible for beings who are complicated, whose subjectivity is not merely a point but a hinge, a self-relation that cannot be sustained in absolute solitude, but only in relation to others.16

As Dan summarized at one point during our conversation, “Metal doors and walls enhance mental instability . . . these cells close in on some of these guys,” meaning that it is all too easy, when one is so thoroughly cut off from others and from the outside world, to eventually become cut off from oneself.

Indeed, according to Guenther, the spatial design of the contemporary supermax prison fragments meaning and often precludes the possibility of a healthy, fully formed subjectivity: “The space of the supermax is structured in a way that tends to exhaust a meaningful sense of space; it pushes experience to the point of collapse. Stuck in the same routine, within the same rigid walls, one’s own corporeal and intercorporeal Being-in-the-world risks being evacuated as a site of mattering and care.”17 Concretizing the perspectives of Johnson and Merleau-Ponty, Guenther thus suggests that an environment which deprives fundamentally relational and spatial beings of both relation and space is an environment that forces a kind of “living death”—a fact doubly onerous for people already destined for execution by the state.18 For my interviewees, while some human touch occurs in day-to-day life on death row, it is nevertheless a severely limited tactile relationality. And while prisoners on Unit 2 have the freedom to relate to one another through embrace and have the ability to show some mutuality with guards through the shaking of hands, guards also have the right to touch prisoners at any given time in thoroughly dehumanizing ways. Thus, as creatures who are constituted as persons only through meaningful, mutual relation and touch with other humans, an environment that both limits mutual touch and imposes unwelcomed touch significantly challenges one’s ability to keep a sense of self—both body and mind—integrated and intact.

Editor’s Note: Click here for part two of Krinks’s essay.

1. Quoted in Mark Johnson, The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 4.

2. My operative assumption undergirding this essay is that the US prison system and the institution of capital punishment are fundamentally unjust and broken beyond repair and therefore must ultimately be abolished and replaced by more restorative and transformative forms of justice and accountability. However, I do not explicitly consider the many dimensions of the US criminal justice system, the alleged crimes of my interviewees, or the tragic impact that those crimes may have upon their victims and their families and communities. Instead, I focus on the material, spatial, relational, and theological realities that constitute everyday life inside the walls of Tennessee’s death row, all in order to consider what selfhood and resistance in one dehumanizing environment looks like. For two helpful critiques of the US prison system, see Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York, NY: New Press, 2012) and Angela Y. Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete? (New York, NY: Seven Stories Press, 2003).

3. The feedback and perspectives offered by my five interviewees represent only a small cross-section of the seventy-five or so death row prisoners at Riverbend and are not necessarily representative of all persons on Tennessee’s death row. From my interactions with a number of others facing death sentences in Tennessee, however, I would posit that while others may articulate their experiences and perspectives differently, there are parallels in the ways these men experience life on death row. Note also that I have opted to use pseudonyms to protect the identity of my interviewees. However, my interviewees requested that it be noted that they stand behind all that they have said as recorded in this essay, and that it is my choice, not theirs, to use pseudonyms. One additional note: I had interacted with three of these five interviewees previously during unrelated gatherings on death row. I also exchanged a series of letters with one of the interviewees.

4. For more information on Riverbend, see Riverbend is located within one mile of, among other industrial company headquarters, Advanced Plastics, Aramark Uniform Services, Choice Food Distributors, American Paper & Twine, and Material Handling Resources. That approximately seven hundred men are warehoused in an industrial area surely says something about how the prison perceives both the men it confines and the function it fulfills.

5. I met with interviewees in an open library area in which inmates spend some amount of time during the day engaging in art projects or taking classes offered by the prison or outside volunteers. A guard was stationed above this area in an upper-level observation.

6. All male prisoners sentenced to death in Tennessee are first placed on level C for eighteen months. Then, if they receive no write-ups, they are placed on level B for one year. After a year, if they have still avoided receiving any write-ups, they are placed on level A.

7. I recorded my interviews using a notebook and pen. Direct quotations in this essay thus represent accurate records of my interviewees’ responses, though they are not necessarily verbatim. I have opted to represent the speech of my interviewees as closely as possible by using nonstandard spellings. All quotations from inmates on Unit 2 from this point forward in the essay come from one of four sessions conducted over the course of 2012 and 2013. All my interviewees have read and confirmed the accuracy of the quotations.

8. Johnson, The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2007), xi.

9. Ibid., 1.

10. Ibid., 10.

11. Ibid., 17.

12. Quoted in Johnson, The Meaning of the Body (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 20. Italics are Johnstone’s.

13. Ibid., 20–27.

14. Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Donald A. Landes (New York, NY: Routledge, 2012), 149–50.

15. Johnson, The Meaning of the Body (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 51.

16. Guenther, Solitary Confinement: Social Death and Its Afterlives (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2013), xiii. It should be noted that, technically speaking, solitary confinement is a term that applies, on Tennessee’s death row, to the men on security levels B and C who spend between 22.5 and 23 hours a day in their cell. The men I interviewed, each of whom is classified under level A, spend up to 8 hours outside their cells every day; thus, they are not technically under solitary confinement. Nevertheless, 16 or more hours a day in a small cell most certainly constitutes a solitary existence, relatively speaking.

17. Ibid., 194.

18. Ibid., xi-xxx, 3-22.