Prolonged solitary confinement is torture. Just ask John McCain. He was confined by the Vietcong for two years, but there are men in American prisons confined for nearly forty.
Amnesty International has renewed its campaign for Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace who have been held in solitary confinement for that long, mostly in the Louisiana State Penitentiary (known as Angola prison).
Both men have suffered severe mental impacts.
Under U.S. law (18 U.S.C. § 2340 : US Code – Section 2340):
“torture” means an act committed by a person acting under the color of law specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering (other than pain or suffering incidental to lawful sanctions) upon another person within his custody or physical control
Woodfox and Wallace have endured very restrictive conditions, including 23 hour cell confinement. They have limited access to books, newspapers and TV and throughout the years of imprisonment, they have been deprived of opportunities for mental stimulation and access to work and education.
Over 39 years, Louisiana prison authorities have never reviewed the men’s continued isolation, they have just continued to rubberstamp the original decision to confine them. They were originally sent to prison for armed robbery, back in a time when corruption and abuse was even more rife in Louisiana’s justice system. They say they did not commit that crime.
They became involved in the Black Panther Party. Then in 1972, a prison guard called Brent Miller was murdered and they were accused and confined.
Both men have always maintained their innocence , saying that grave questions were raised about an inmate being secretly rewarded for his incriminating testimony, and pointing to the lack of forensic evidence linking them to the murder.
Angola warden Burl Cain says they must be kept in isolation because they are “still trying to practice Black Pantherism” and he does not want to “have the blacks chasing after them.”
Nick Trenticosta, the lawyer for Wallace and Woodfox, told the BBC:
“I have interviewed a number of of people who’ve spent 10-12 years in solitary confinement. Almost all of the people are severely damaged. They’re potted plants. Their will to live really doesn’t exist any more.
“They become shells of their former selves. If I take them to the visitors’ area, it’ll be two hours before I can get an answer to my questions, and then I might just hear gobbledygook.”
John McCain wrote:
“It’s an awful thing, solitary. It crushes your spirit and weakens your resistance more effectively than any other form of mistreatment.”
Woodfox and Wallace are two of what are believed to be thousands held in solitary. No one keeps figures and we don’t know for how long they are held. The best guess is 25,00 – 50,000 are in long term solitary confinement.
Advocates say that some present a threat to others but far more have committed minor disciplinary infractions. Many of them suffer from mental illness, and are isolated for want of needed treatment; a growing number are elderly and have spent half their lives or more in utter solitude.
Children in adult prisons and jails often end up in solitary because there is simply nowhere else to put them to prevent them being victimized.
In doling out months or even years in solitary, the warden and prison staff usually serve as prosecutor, judge and jury, and unsurprisingly, they often abuse that power.
Environmental activist Tim DeChristopher is being so punished right now. Michelle Ortiz, jailed for fighting off her abusive husband, was sent to solitary confinement as punishment for reporting her molestation and subsequent rape by a male guard at the Ohio Reformatory for Women. She eventually won her case before the Supreme Court.
Amnesty International has taken up Woodfox and Wallace’s cause, campaigning for their removal from solitary confinement. And the former Chief Justice of the Louisiana Supreme Court, Pascal Calogero, suggests there could be room for a legal challenge to the practice as use of extended solitary is not, he argues, provided for in law.
“It is beyond what the legislature has directed should be imposed for a felony conviction. And excessiveness in this regard cannot be in accordance with the law,” Calogero told the BBC.
Watch prisoners describe solitary and what prolonged confinement does to a person: