Talking to the Walls

U.N. Special Rapporteur Juan E. Méndez thinks that there should be an absolute prohibition on holding a prisoner in solitary confinement for more than two weeks. Beyond that, “the practice could amount to torture.” It certainly was torture in the case of African-American Albert Woodfox. He has spent the majority of the last 43 years in solitary confinement in Louisiana State Penitentiary. Twenty-three hours a day, seven days a week. In what mental state can one survive such an incarceration?

Thrown into prison for armed robbery in 1971, Mr. Woodfox was at the time a member of the radical Black Panther Party. In prison, he mobilized the inmates to protest against the inhuman conditions in which they were held. In 1972, a riot broke out, during which a white guard was killed. Woodfox was convicted of murder, along with two fellow inmates, who were later released. His conviction has been overturned due to evidence that the trial had been rushed and that the accused had been the victim of “systematic discrimination.” He was subjected to a second trial, in which his conviction was again overturned. Last Monday, a federal judge ordered his immediate and unconditional release, once again establishing his innocence. The attorney general of Louisiana is unrepentant and has launched an appeal. Now aged 68, Woodfox will, perhaps, be freed on Friday.

The way the state of Louisiana and the prison authorities have pursued this man is staggering. It is also an extreme illustration of a problem which has reached serious proportions in the United States, and moreover in Canada too. Solitary confinement should be used as a very last resort, but it has become the disciplinary tool of the moment and is used indiscriminately.

In his recent report, Canada’s “Correctional Investigator” found it alarming that nearly 50 percent of some 15,000 people detained in federal prisons have been placed in isolation and that the practice is increasing. The average length of confinement is 27 days and native peoples are particularly susceptible to finding themselves in “the hole.” Furthermore, in the United States, as in Canada, studies have shown that improper use is made of solitary confinement to manage prisoners’ mental health problems.

Fortunately, it seems that in some American states there is the beginning of a wake-up call about this form of institutionalized torture. In Maine, California, Mississippi and South Carolina, among others, the authorities have significantly reduced their use of turning to solitary confinement. This is partly for ethical reasons, but also for financial reasons, given the fiscal millstone that penal institutions are for governments.

Perhaps one day the state of Louisiana and the Harper government will follow in their footsteps.

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  1. Not only is solitary confinement institutionalized sadism -worthy of the Dark Age-but way back in 1973 the famous American psychiatrist Dr. Karl Menninger was writing with great moral and intellectual passion against ” the crime of punishment “. The good doctor believed that the entire American prison system was an abomination and should be ” outlawed “.
    Dr. Menninger clearly understood that the American gulag serves the ruling class. Most prisoners , he wrote, have committed non-violent crimes against private property-a serious matter in the capitalist system.
    A Socialist America will see the greatest prison breakout in human history.
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