“You’re in a grave and you’re trying to live. That’s how to best describe it: trying to live in a grave. You’re trying to live ’cause you’re not dead yet, but nobody hears you when you call out, ‘Hey, I’m alive!”
― Megan Sweeney, The Story Within Us: Women Prisoners Reflect on Reading
It is February in the land of homogenized milk and honey and all is disquieting on the western front. The U.S. sanctioned and taxpayer funded drones are flying fast and furious over Muslim skies and domestic law enforcement is doing it’s part to keep the homeland secure. Yet, there is still another level of barbarism spoken of only in impolite circles, whose members are not subservient to the corporate media juggernauts. It is in these furtive circles one hears whispers of a special circle of hell that even Dante could not have imagined, where cruelty is the theme and the state is the overseer of it’s minions. Here is where the doctrine of necessary evil meets the axiom of the slippery slope. Due to the American public’s willingness to allow pithy cliches to drive it’s criminal justice system, the “get tough on crime” and “zero tolerance” maxims espoused by officials at federal, state and local levels has morphed into a moral lawlessness recognizable to those familiar with the Soviet gulags. In this context, the rise in the use of solitary confinement is the logical outcome of such a punitive, arbitrary system.
The use of ad seg, or administrative segregation, has become an increasingly utilized form of social control within the sprawling, labyrinthine U.S. prison system. While most are held for hours or even days for disciplinary reasons, the number of prisoners being placed in “the hole” for years or even decades is growing. The American Psychological Association has testified to the Senate Judicial Subcommittee that, “Segregation over prolonged periods of time may produce harmful psychological effects, including anxiety, anger, cognitive disturbance, perceptual distortion, obsessive thoughts, paranoia, and psychosis.” Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions prohibits the “cruel treatment and torture” of prisoners of war. Many of the inhabitants of the prison system could be deemed prisoners of the unyielding wars on drugs, poverty, minorities, immigrants and political expression. Chelsea Manning, the Army private who disclosed diplomatic cables and video footage of U.S. soldiers gunning down journalists and civilians in Iraq, was subjected to such conditions during his pre-trial detainment.
The case of the Angola Three offers a stunning indictment of the use of solitary confinement by prison officials on a number of levels. In 1972, three inmates were found guilty of the death of a prison guard at the Angola prison in Louisiana. These men spent a combined 112 years in solitary confinement before their conviction was overturned. Herman Wallace, who was in solitary for 41 years, died within days of his release due to liver cancer. Robert King was released after 29 years in solitary and continues to campaign for the release of fellow prisoner, Albert Woodfox. The Louisiana Attorney General is still fighting the release of Albert Woodfox, who was in solitary for 42 years. Woodfox holds the dubious distinction of being the longest-serving prisoner in solitary confinement in the U.S. It was surely a mere coincidence that the three prisoners had helped to organize one of the first Black Panther Party chapters in prison history. It is this common thread that has earned the Angola Three international recognition as political prisoners for their time served at the hands of an unmerciful state.
In the summer of 2013, California’s largest hunger strike ever was undertaken to protest the inhumane treatment and conditions at the hands of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. The hunger strike began in Pelican Bay State Prison and the resistance spread to other prisons in California and even to other countries. The prisoners had five core demands including calling for an end to solitary confinement in the SHU (Special Housing Unit). One of the most telling aspects of the movement was the racial unity where rival gangs called truces in order to raise their collective voices in unity rather than as a fragmented whole. This is the ruling class’s worst nightmare come true as the policy of divide and conquer in the “national discourse” has been so devastatingly effective in neutralizing dissent outside of the prison walls. We have been thoroughly conditioned from the cradle to the grave to believe that the present structure is for our best interests and that we are shareholders and not sharecroppers. It is the prisoners who are finding their voices, despite the system’s best efforts.
For women in solitary confinement, the prospects are even more debilitating. It does, in fact, get worse…much worse. An American Civil Liberties Union report was released, in 2014, entitled “Worse Than Second-Class: Solitary Confinement of Women in the United States”, that documents the degrading effects of solitary confinement on female prisoners. The findings include high rates of preexisting mental illness, physical and sexual abuse among the women who are often retraumatized as a result of their prior histories of abuse. The humiliation begins upon intake to solitary for women who are strip searched and videotaped by guards who are typically male. A federal, class action lawsuit was filed in 2009 by a group of female inmates. Suicides and attempted suicides are prevalent for women held in the SHU. In yet another cruel irony, when women are placed in solitary, the children who are unable to visit and communicate with their mothers end up serving time with them. Once again, the state reminds women, in no uncertain terms, who wears the pants in the family.
Elementary teachers have long known that context is everything. Torture is about the breaking of a person’s will through physical and psychological means, no more and no less. The recently released and ridiculously redacted Senate report on the use of torture by the CIA of foreign citizens was meant to put the homeland on notice that the state is both willing and able to break us by any means necessary. As long as we believe that solitary confinement is a tool solely reserved for those prisoners, it will be difficult to put our ourselves in their marginalized shoes. Police states around the world have been historically established to protect the elite from the people they rule. Eventually, the velvet glove must come off to reveal the iron fist. Solitary confinement is, by definition, cruel and unusual punishment and a violation of a prisoner’s Constitutional rights and internationally recognized human rights. Every voice counts and every voice is needed in the struggle to right these wrongs.
This is the fourth installment of the nation at-risk series. Peace and solidarity to all readers.
A nation at-risk series:
American hustle (Part 1)
The hardest lesson (Part 2)
They ain’t heavy (Part 3)
A solitary life (Part 4)