I gave an update last week on the case of Barrett Brown, about whom I have written before, and linked to his posts about life in prison where he was incarcerated after exposing government misdeeds. Unfortunately, a few days ago he was sent for 30 days to ‘the hole’, one of the many synonyms for the ‘solitary housing unit’ or SHU that prisons in the US use as a form of punishment.
He had been sent to the hole before when ‘hooch’ (illicit liquor distilled by the prisoners) was found in his locker. It is not known what the latest offense is, and whether it might due to his latest article published by The Intercept where he again points out the absurdities of prison. Or it may be that his views are perceived as dangerous and subversive for the other prisoners.
The Center for Constitutional Rights says that solitary confinement is a form of torture that has seen a recent revival in the US.
In the early nineteenth century, the U.S. led the world in a new practice of imprisoning people in solitary cells, without access to any human contact or stimulation, as a method of rehabilitation. The results were disastrous, as prisoners suffered severe psychological harm. The practice was all but abandoned. Over a century later, it has made an unfortunate comeback. Instead of torturing prisoners with solitary confinement in dark and dirty underground holes, prisoners are now subjected to solitary confinement in well-lit, sterile boxes. The psychological repercussions are similar.
Today, tens of thousands of individuals across the country are detained inside cramped, concrete, windowless cells in a state of near-total solitude for between 22 and 24 hours a day. The cells have a toilet and a shower, and a slot in the door large enough for a guard to slip a food tray through. Prisoners in solitary confinement are frequently deprived of telephone calls and contact visits. “Recreation” involves being taken, often in handcuffs and shackles, to another solitary cell where prisoners can pace alone for an hour before being returned to their cell.
Ever since solitary confinement came into existence, it has been used as a tool of repression. While it is justified by corrections officials as necessary to protect prisoners and guards from violent prisoners, all too often it is imposed on individuals, particularly prisoners of color, who threaten prison administrations in an altogether different way. Consistently, jailhouse lawyers and jailhouse doctors, who administer to the needs of their fellow prisoners behind bars, are placed in solitary confinement. They are joined by political prisoners from various civil rights and independence movements.
Brown reminds me of the title character played by Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke, someone who despises arbitrary exercises of authority and cannot help but thumb his nose at those who try to exercise that petty power. What worries me is that those same authorities tend to be cruel and vindictive and do not take kindly to being mocked and that Brown might suffer a fate similar to Luke.