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Our System’s Shameful History of Solitary Confinement

Our System’s Shameful History of Solitary Confinement

Albert Woodfox, one of the well known “Angola 3”, was just released Friday after spending 43 years in solitary confinement in the Louisiana State Penitentiary known as Angola. His release brought to the forefront how the United States prison system still uses solitary confinement as a form of excessive punishment, and it provides a needed human face for the case against solitary confinement. Woodfox’s situation, although shocking, is not an isolated incident. A New Yorker article reported that “[a]n October 2015 Justice Department study found that, on an average day in 2011-12, approximately 660,000 state and federal prisoners and 201,000 jail inmates were held in administrative segregation or solitary confinement.”

What has drawn intense attention to the plight of Albert Woodfox is the fact that he reportedly spent more time in solitary confinement than any other U.S. prisoner. Many wonder how he even managed to survive the ordeal. The New York Times published an interview with him where he described solitary confinement as a place where “grown men turn into babies — you know, they just lay in their bed in a fetal position and don’t talk,” Mr. Woodfox said. “I’ve seen guys who can’t stop talking. I’ve seen guys that scream all day.” He also explained, “[y]ou play this game: ‘I’m Superman, there’s nothing you can do to hurt me.’ Then at night time when the lights are out and everybody’s sleeping, you sit down and cry or whatever and you realize, ‘I’ll survive another day.’ ”

Listen to an interview of Woodfox on Democracy Now here .

Disturbing reports about another inmate, Russell Maroon Shoatz, have fueled the vocal and growing debate over the use of solitary confinement.  Shoatz spent nearly 30 years in solitary, and he filed a law suit in September 2013 requesting damages as well as release from solitary confinement. By February 2014, prison officials moved him to the general population. Currently, his case is still awaiting a trial before a jury, and some have speculated that the outcome of the trial could forever change the rules for solitary confinement.

Recently, President Obama, as part of his sweeping prison reform, announced a ban on solitary confinement for juvenile offenders in federal prisons. He acknowledged the frequency of use by the prisons and the psychological effects of confining individuals in this manner. Although the President’s actions are a start, they simply are not enough.  

The use of solitary confinement in jail and prison populations is a deplorable practice that must be stopped. I just can’t reconcile how prison employees can rationalize to themselves watching a human being treated like this for even a year, let alone 43 years. Those of us fighting in the trenches know how hard it is to witness injustice day in and day out.  Sometimes it feels like you can’t take it anymore, and you dream of doing anything but this kind of work. But when I listen to Woodfox’s chilling account of spending 23 hours a day in a 6-foot by 9-foot cement cell – and talk about surviving a day at a time – I am both inspired and lifted up by these words that yet again remind us why we do the work we do.

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