After 41 years living in a 9x6 foot cell (imagine the size of a parking space) for 22-23 hours a day, Herman Wallace was released this past October from a Louisiana prison.
Three days later Wallace died of liver cancer.
Wallace was one of three men known as the “Angola 3” who were sentenced to solitary confinement after being convicted of killing a prison guard in 1972. One of the three, Robert King, was exonerated and released in 2001 after spending 29 years in solitary. The third remains in solitary to this day.
While there are variations by state, solitary confinement is an extreme form of isolation - inmates are cut off from human contact as a punitive measure. Before the 1980s solitary confinement was rarely used in the states but has since become common, justified by an increase in prison gangs and as a way to control violence.
While in solitary, inmates receive their meals through slots in solid metal doors. There is often little to no daylight. Human contact is limited to prison guards dropping off meals and the sound of inmates in adjoining segregation cells going insane (described by an ABC News investigative reporter who spent “the two worst days of [his] life” in solitary confinement).
Here’s an account from Thomas Silverstein, a prisoner who has been in solitary since 1983.
“I was completely isolated from the outside world and had no way to occupy my time. I was not allowed to have any social visits, telephone privileges, or reading materials...I was not allowed to have a television, radio, or tape player. I could speak to no one…
Due to the unchanging bright artificial lights and not having a wristwatch or clock, I couldn’t tell if it was day or night. There was no air conditioning or heating. During the summer, the heat was unbearable…the bright, artificial lights remained on in the cell constantly, increasing my disorientation and making it difficult to sleep…those lights buzzed incessantly. The buzzing noise was maddening.”
Read any writings from prisoners subjected to long-term solitary and you may have a hard time sleeping as well. The letters describe descents into madness – and after decades of subjection to conditions of extreme isolation many inmates can’t find their way back.
In the New Yorker piece “Hellhole: Is Solitary Confinement Torture,” Craig Haney, a psychology professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz who was granted permission to study 100 randomly selected inmates at California’s Pelican Bay supermax prison observed that “after months or years of complete isolation, many prisoners ‘begin to lose the ability to initiate behavior of any kind—to organize their own lives around activity and purpose,’ he said.”
In a statement tied to Angola 3 man Herman Wallace’s death, the United Nations human rights official Juan E. Méndez said “the use of solitary confinement in the U.S. penitentiary system goes far beyond what is acceptable under international human rights law,” – and we agree.
Our increasing use of indefinite and extreme isolation of prisoners (with 25,000 inmates in the U.S. currently being held in solitary confinement and another estimated 50,000-80,000 in other forms of segregation) is inhumane and is an embarrassment to the American judicial system.
Study after study shows that solitary confinement doesn’t kill anger and violent tendencies, it enflames them. Solitary also increases the chances that a prisoner will commit another crime when released – and beyond the gross ethical problems we have with the barbaric practice, construction and maintenance of supermax prisons are a siphon on American taxpayers. A prisoner inside a supermax facility costs an average of 50 percent more a day than at a regular prison.
We aren’t excusing criminals’ actions and we believe there should be appropriate consequences. We also agree that prison officials need a tool to control the inmate population - but long-term mental torture isn’t it.