The abomination of solitary confinement


Albert Woodfox was released from Louisiana prisons after 43 years of almost continuous solitary confinement in a six-by-nine-foot cell for a crime he denies committing.

For the duration of that time, Woodfox was held in the cell for 23 hours a day. In the single remaining hour, he was allowed out of the cell to go to the “exercise yard” – a small area of fenced concrete – but was shackled and kept alone there as well.

Last November James Dennis, a judge with the federal fifth circuit appeals court, described the conditions of Woodfox’s confinement. “For the vast majority of his life, Woodfox has spent nearly every waking hour in a cramped cell in crushing solitude without a valid conviction,” he said.

His cell “had a solid steel door that enclosed Woodfox entirely as if in a tomb. The only view out of the concrete cell was a tiny slit of window that presented a sliver of sky.” Solitary confinement is widely condemned as a form of torture. It is incredible that Woodfox didn’t go insane.

In 1951, scientists at McGill University conducted an experiment in which they subjected male graduates to solitary confinement in a simulated prison cell, to see how they would cope with prolonged isolation. The study was intended to run for six weeks but was abruptly terminated after only seven days because several students began hallucinating and suffering from severe mental breakdowns.

Albert Woodfox has been held in such conditions of extreme isolation in Louisiana prisons and jails not just for seven days, but for 15,000.

So how did he do it? How did Albert Woodfox remain sane for more than four decades in the bleakest and most inhumane of circumstances, which have been denounced by the United Nations as a form of torture and have broken the will of lesser mortals in a matter of days?

He said that he and two others in his situation made a vow to not let themselves be driven insane and decided on a daily regimen to keep their minds active, and “kept his brain engaged, avidly reading newspapers and magazines for at least two hours each day and watching documentaries and current affairs programmes on the small TV he was allowed in his cell.” But he saw those prisoners who were not literate lose their minds.

What does it say about us that we deliberately try to make people go insane? What possible purpose can it serve other than demonstrating how cruel, barbaric, and vindictive we are as a society?

The now 69-year old Woodfox says that he will use his new freedom to campaign against this inhumane practice, showing that he is better than those who kept him in captivity.

Comments

  1. says

    The real purpose of such punishments is not justice – it’s to make sure that people fear the state. Of course, nobody talks about that because doing so forces us to confront how deeply and thoroughly we are trapped by the powers that oversee and control us.

    “The real power, the power we have to fight for night and day, is not power over things, but over men.” He paused, and for a moment assumed again his air of a schoolmaster questioning a promising pupil: “How does one man assert his power over another, Winston?”
    Winston thought. “By making him suffer,” he said.

    Even the dialogue about this issue is deliberately warped and couched in misdirection. Oh, there’s talk about “Torture doesn’t work” etc., from pundits. But that’s fucking bullshit: Torture works great It’s one of the ways that the state is able to tell people “you really do not want to fuck with us. Pay your taxes. Vote for the candidates we give you. Shut up and do as you’re told.” Stand up to the police and see what it gets you.

    Government always functions on the fear of violence (which means: torture) and the more extreme and pointless the violence, the more subservient the population is expected to be. That’s why protests are met with overwhelming – even ridiculous – force: it’s to discourage everyone else. Sit down. Shut up. Pay your credit card bills. Vote in the rigged election.*

    (* Remember the election Saddam Hussein had, where he won with 100% of the vote? Well, he had one fewer candidate on the slate than the US two party system but it’s the same fucking idea.)

  2. doublereed says

    @2 Marcus Ranum

    I’m not sure if what I’m going to say is more cynical or less, but I think torture serves a much more simple purpose of bloodlust. Torture mostly goes on behind closed doors, and there’s always a lot of secrecy about it. I don’t think we torture for deterrent reasons. I think our brazen shows of force, the ones in public, are for deterrence and oppression, but not torture.

    I think we torture people because we want to torture people. We’re bloodthirsty and sadistic. We’ll come up with bizarre justifications that we know are bullshit, because people just want any excuse they can take. I think attributing it to some larger strategy isn’t necessary or accurate.

  3. doublereed says

    Does Scalia’s death mean that we might be able to rid the country of the death penalty and solitary confinement?

  4. says

    I’m not sure if what I’m going to say is more cynical or less, but I think torture serves a much more simple purpose of bloodlust. Torture mostly goes on behind closed doors, and there’s always a lot of secrecy about it. I don’t think we torture for deterrent reasons. I think our brazen shows of force, the ones in public, are for deterrence and oppression, but not torture.

    I’m still not sure. It’s certainly got to be a great deal of bloodlust. I was thinking more in terms of ‘primitive’ tribes, where torture was public and prolonged and was clearly intended more to scare the onlookers than to teach the victim anything.

    Khalid Shayk Mohammed was repeatedly waterboarded and the information about it was leaked – see how scary we are? We ‘disappear’ people into deep dark dungeons and break them like matchsticks. Yeah no doubt there were some warped fucks who got off watching the pain and suffering but I very much doubt the people who ordered the torture were watching it. So then what does “bloodlust” even mean? If they weren’t down there getting off over it, they were elsewhere, thinking what an effect it would have on the other ‘terrorists’ – terrorizing the terrorists, as public policy.

    I remember reading somewhere about the relationship between torture and pride in native american tribes; it was truly horrific. Your enemy tortured you to show how cruel and creative they could be, and you withstood as much of it as you could to show how tough and badass you are. Neither of those dynamics works unless, you know, Hollywood makes movies like “Oh Dark Thirty” (Haven’t seen it) that show “our unstoppable resolve.”

    The argument that “torture doesn’t work” doesn’t seem to carry much weight with you, then, either: it works, it just doesn’t actually do anything other than scare people, or give your sickos something to wank over, or both. That’s quite a bit if you’re a heartless monster who wants scared people, or a sicko. You don’t get useful information, though. The church didn’t do what they did to Giordano Bruno as a way of convincing him he was wrong – they did it to convince all the onlookers that 2+2 does equal five if they fucking say it does. And, in retrospect, it worked pretty well for a long time.

  5. doublereed says

    I don’t think bloodlust necessarily has to refer to the person actually being there. Much of the proponents for the death penalty proponents have arguments that are essentially just pure sadism. They like the idea of it. Look at the people cheering for Trump’s advocating of torture, for instance. It seems like obvious bloodlust to me, even if none of those people have ever been the ones carrying out the cruelty (although I’m sure many of them would love to do so).

    They like the idea of torturing people. Like in the case of Khalid Sheik Mohammed. The people torturing were like “but we’ve already tortured him so we don’t need to continue” and the higher-ups were like “yea but keep doing it anyway.” Even from a deterrence perspective, that seems rather pointless.

  6. doublereed says

    But yea “torture doesn’t work” seems just as hollow to me. It’s just that to me, torture’s purpose is a sadistic wank.

  7. says

    It’s just that to me, torture’s purpose is a sadistic wank.

    I’m certainly not disagreeing with you!

    To tie it back to solitary confinement: what does it accomplish? It doesn’t make the confinee more likely to behave; they’ve already “misbehaved” so badly that they’ve been locked up. It’s just not locked up enough so let’s make them even more locked up. I remember the debate a few years ago where some assbag congressman was fulminating the prisoners have color televisions!! OMG the luxury!!! Someone had to tell him that you’d have to have black and white panels made at considerable expense if you were so desperate to ruin the prisoners’ life experiences.

    Solitary confinement certainly puts paid to the shallow lie that the justice system exists to “reform” prisoners. If that were the case you’d have a promise extracted not to do (whatever) again and a work release program – putting people in a cell for a long time doesn’t make them reform at all.

    I remember when they were so sadistic that they took away Chelsea Manning’s blanket. And, yeah, I didn’t read about that and think “I am going to be on my best behavior” I just thought “I wish Manning had screwed them harder.”

  8. sonofrojblake says

    The reasons for any judicial imprisonment are four:
    1. security – protect other people from a repeat of the perp’s behaviour.
    2. rehabilitation – get the perp to change their behaviour to avoid a repeat
    3. deterrence – prevent others from similarly offending for fear of similar punishment
    4. retribution – satisfy the public’s desire to see a perp punished, to see “justice” done.

    Solitary “works” very well as (4), probably less well as (3) and is probably actively counterproductive for (2).

    But it will always be necessary for (1). There will always be a minority of prisoners who, after imprisonment, continue to represent a risk of violence to prison staff and to any other prisoners they may be allowed contact with. It is immoral to expect prison staff and other prisoners to continue to be exposed to this risk. Since you can’t simply release the problematic prisoner, the only option is to isolate them completely. Murdering a prison guard is precisely the kind of activity one might expect would get someone placed in that category of risk.

    The solitary confinement is not the issue here. The issue here is the slow and tortuous justice process, the two overturnings of the murder conviction with no result, and the apparent political motivation behind punishing this man.

    Solitary remains a valid and necessary practice, for a tiny minority of otherwise unhandleable prisoners. But it must be accompanied by regular risk assessments and the justice system should move more quickly.

  9. EigenSprocketUK says

    Hard to imagine that 43 years’ solitary was, in this case, anything other than retribution: “we will be seen to protect our own, and fiercely too”.

    Bit disconcerted by sonofrojblake’s assertion #10 that Woodward was somehow, for 43 years, a direct threat to prison staff and therefore needed to be kept in solitary confinement (1). I doubt that any of the guards were fearing for their lives from someone who claimed not to have murdered a guard, and who claimed to have been framed for the murder of the guard in the first place. Doubly cautious, yes: in fear, no.

    I agree that it’s a disgrace that the state dragged out justice for 43 years, failed to make its first two prosecutions stick, and in the end abandoned its third attempt to make it stick.

    I agree that Prison may well be used to protect society by incarcerating people who are a danger to society. But that doesn’t justify solitary confinement for all violent offenders and alleged violent offenders just because they might kick off. I imagine evidence shows solitary confinement to increase the likelihood of violence. A well-run prison has lots of ways to manage behaviour, and should only use solitary confinement as a last resort when also assessing the consequential increase in risk.

  10. sonofrojblake says

    Bit disconcerted by sonofrojblake’s assertion #10 that Woodward was somehow, for 43 years, a direct threat to prison staff

    I asserted no such thing.

    that doesn’t justify solitary confinement for all violent offenders and alleged violent offenders just because they might kick off

    I asserted no such thing.

    I imagine evidence…

    What? No, seriously – what? You imagine evidence shows something convenient to your argument? Do you realise how that sounds?

    should only use solitary confinement as a last resort

    I did assert that.

  11. sonofrojblake says

    Also: “we will be seen to protect our own” is rather along the lines of deterrence rather than retribution, if you think about it.

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