Having sufficiently vexed the powers that be by participation in protests, I have experienced the discomfort of handcuffs in police cars, as well as the dreadful silence of cold, steel encasement in a prison cell. As the hours pass, the knowing that one will sooner or later be released provides relief, but confinement does give way to the question. What would it be like to be kept in this windowless space for months or years, or life?
I recommend the experience as measure of what, on the average day in this country an estimated eighty thousand men, women and children are experiencing - a length of time, determined by others, being kept in a small space, out of touch with the world. And, no, you can’t have a cell phone for company You’re condemned to be in this maddening small space for months, for years, or for the rest of your life
No matter what you did that has caused authorities to put you in this circumstance, such “cruel and unusual punishment” is barred by the 8th Amendment to the Constitution. Without exceptions, solitary confinement should be outlawed at once. In “Hell is a Very Small Place: Voices from Solitary Confinement,” researchers Jean Casella, James Ridgeway, and Sarah Shroud assembled the experiences of some victims of the practice.
Following a troubled youth, William Blake was in a New York state court on a drug charge when he tried to escape by grabbing a deputy’s gun. In the scuffle that followed, a deputy was killed. In subsequent trial and sentencing, the judge said Blake “deserved an eternity in hell” and lamented New York didn’t allow him to apply the death penalty. Reading and writing, Blake says, have sustained him through 29 years in solitary confinement. The experience of isolation becomes physical, he says, as if someone is choking him. He’s known of sane men quickly going insane. It is a practice far worse than death.
Accused of a murder in New Jersey, building trades worker Judith Vasques was held in solitary confinement for three years during trial proceedings. Although maintaining her innocence, she was sentenced to 30 years. She reports repeated rapes by guards, terminating a pregnancy alone in her cell, and repeated periods of solitary confinement.
Herman Wallace was convicted of bank robbery and locked up in Louisiana’s infamous Angola prison. Wallace and fellow inmates Albert Woodfox and Robert King launched a chapter of Black Panther Party with a goal of ending the system of sexual slavery run by Angola prisoners and permitted by prison staff. On dubious evidence, Wallace and Woodfox were charged with the murder of a guard and each were placed in solitary confinement. After having served 29 years at Angola, King’s sentence was reversed and he was released.
Correspondence led Wallace to describe a dream house he would build, and to an 2013 Emmy-winning film, “Herman’s House” being produced. That year, after 41 years in Angola in solitary, Wallace’s conviction was overturned. He died three days later.
Harvard Medical School psychiatrist Dr. Stuart Grassian reminds us the origins of US innovations in incarceration, actually promoted as a model for the world, were around deliberate social isolation. The 19th Century Philadelphia System of social isolation. The outcome, he writes, was “paradigmatic psychiatric disturbance … agitated confusional state … the characteristics off a florid delirium … (with) paranoid and hallucinatory features, and intense agitational and random, impulsive, often self-directed violence.”
As early as the 1890 Medley petition, the Supreme Court held there were serious objections to solitary confinement, that even for brief periods prisoners fell into “condition from which it was next to impossible to arouse, and others became violently insane, others still committed suicide.”
There is widespread public attitude that those convicted of a crime deserve no further heed. A starting place for shaking this misguided attitude is that our justice system, bottom to top, is deeply flawed. For example, the Innocence Project has, to date, used DNA to exonerate 375 wrongly convicted persons who were serving long sentences in our prisons. Twenty-one were on death row. Those released had served an average of 14 years away from life, family, and friends.
The 13th Amendment prohibits involuntary servitude, that is, “slavery.” After the Civil War blacks in the South were routinely convicted of crimes in order to be made slaves again. Today our private prisons are factories producing goods with slave labor.
Upon deep reflection, we must be compelled to believe that all living things deserve humane treatment.
Barnet resident Carl Doerner is an author and historian currently at work on a re-examintaion and challenge to the “American narrative.”