The dark tale of a life in isolation…

Hannah talks about this dark, and twisted relativity facing a forgotten class…

Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fine impose, nor cruel and unusual punishment inflicted – Eighth Amendment to the United States of America Constitution

 

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(Photo credit: Dave Hunter)

 

“I am feeling hurt. I am feeling lonely”. These were the words the controversial, and some might say political, prisoner Chelsea Manning uttered after she was sentenced to 14 days in solitary confinement in Fort Leavenworth as punishment for a suicide attempt. Yes, you read that right. A punishment. For a suicide attempt. The cruelty of a penalty for despair remained unmitigated when Manning, after “mercy” was handed down, was released after seven days of the sentence. “I’m ok” she tweeted.

The brutality applied to Manning, a transwoman, at the hands of her jailers deserves a full article at a later date. Here, Manning was just a tragically high profile and typically American case of a punishment so cruel, so unusual, that it has been described as ”unconstitutional  torture”. Inmates are forced into bare cells alone for 22-24 hours a day with little to no social interaction. This staple punishment of the US legal system is not only a violation of the eighth amendment but disgustingly vindictive.

Take Albert Woodfox. Albert is 69. Albert is in poor health. Albert was in solitary confinement for 43 years. Albert spent just an hour of each day around other people. Albert has never been convicted of the crime for which his confinement was punishment.

While serving time for armed robbery in Louisiana State Penitentiary in 1972, a guard was murdered. Albert and a fellow member of the Black Panther Party were accused, perhaps framed. Both of Albert’s subsequent convictions were overturned due to racial discrimination at trial. He remained in solitary confinement until February 2016 when, due to the work of Amnesty International, he was released. Woodford says he wishes to be “a voice for those who have no voice, a shield for those who cannot protect themselves”. May he achieve both aims.

The fact that Mr Woodfox was still of sound mind on his release is nothing short of miraculous. 3-5% of prisoners are in solitary confinement and yet make up half of all suicides and a recent report by American legal expert Craig Haney indicts solitary confinement as “psychologically damaging”. The evidence was clear as far back as 1951. McGill University paid a group of students to take part in a study whereby they were shut in rooms, empty but for beds. They were allowed to leave only to use the bathroom. The experiment was scheduled to continue for six weeks. It lasted seven days. The students lost the ability to think clearly and some even began to hallucinate, a haunting demonstration of the mental health effects of confinement.

Those in solitary confinement in America’s prison system fare no better. A study by Stuart Grassian, of Harvard Medical School states that one third of solitarily confined prisoners are actively psychotic or suicidal. Grassian concluded that solitary “can cause a specific psychiatric syndrome, characterized by hallucinations; panic attacks; overt paranoia; diminished impulse control; hypersensitivity to external stimuli; and difficulties with thinking, concentration and memory”. That a punishment that causes its own type of mental illness is still routinely used is a debasement of the American Constitution and a violation of the human rights of the twenty five thousand inmates currently in solitary.

 

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(Photo Credit: Caleb Kerr)

 

American advocates claim solitary confinement as a necessary evil. It keeps those that are violent and destructive away from the general population, they say, and if they didn’t want to be isolated they should behave better. When inmates refuse to follow rules, punishments must be available to the wardens in order to prevent further violence, promoters state. And yet a study of three US state prisons in 2003 concluded that increased use of solitary did not decrease the amount of prison violence which was, in fact, largely caused by overcrowding rather than a few bad apples.

The folly of the solitary approach is further revealed when one looks at the example the UK gives. In the 70’s and early 80’s, we perpetrated the most appalling atrocities against prisoners, particularly members of the IRA. Prison violence was at an all time high. Something had to give. Changes had to be made.  As Atul Guwande reports, the government decided to adopt a strategy of prevention rather than punishment. Observing prisoners, they noticed that those most prone to violence were those who most cared about their social standing and about saving face. Therefore, when the guards were doling out strict punishments and creating an atmosphere of humiliation they were more likely to respond with violence. But what if these prisoners were allowed to have more control? What if they were allowed opportunities for work and education, opportunities perhaps denied to them in their outside life? The results spoke for themselves. These prisoners showed reduced violence and greater social cohesion both in prison and out. The use of long term isolation in the UK is now, thankfully, almost unheard of. And yet the US, so similar to the UK in many ways, refuses to follow the evidence.

When it happens in the developing world to an “honourable” member of society they call it torture. Terry Anderson, Middle East correspondent for the Associated Press, was kidnapped in Beirut in 1985. For seven years, on and off, he was kept in solitary confinement.  His diary displays the misery he experienced: “The mind is a blank. Jesus, I always thought I was smart. Where are all the things I learned, the books I read, the poems I memorized? There’s nothing there, just a formless, gray-black misery. My mind’s gone dead. God, help me.”[8] His kidnapping and solitary confinement, similar to Senator John McCain’s experience in Vietnam, was condemned on the national stage as torture. Why then, is this torture used in a country that prides itself on the infallible rights enshrined in its constitution? Why then, do inmates lose their rights at the prison gates?

Perhaps, this double standard can be explained by the apparent disconnect many Americans have when it comes to seeing prisoners as human. Prison rape is seen as a punch line, a deserved punishment for the dregs of society. Prisoners are stripped of their right to vote, in a country that fought a war in order to become a democracy. Inmates, many in prison for minor infractions, are brutalized by guards in a manner that would make the participants of the famous Stanford Prison Experiment think twice. All this, and barely a peep from the American establishment.

It is time for America’s perceptions to change. For a country that has fought so hard and honorably for human rights to turn a blind eye to its prisoners’ is intolerable. Prisoners, though they may have committed the most heinous crimes, deserve to have their human rights maintained. Watering down the rights of inmates to the point where their mental health deteriorates debases the constitution the Founding Fathers fought so hard to create. Solitary confinement is torture. Emphatically. Give prisoners back their human rights. Give them back their sanity. Get involved by signing Amnesty International’s petition HERE.

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