I spent twelve years in cells that were variations of solitary confinement, as I recount in my memoir, In the Place of Justice. The one in the old Calcasieu Parish jail, where I waited out the appeal of my 1961 murder conviction, was a small maximum security tier, segregated from the rest of the prisoner population. It saved my sanity that there was one other man, Ora Lee Rogers, in an adjacent cell. Our cells, like the one I later lived in on Louisiana’s death row, had three solid walls and a fourth made of bars, which permitted us to talk, easing somewhat the sense of being completely cut off from the world.
Still, I think I have never before or since felt the bone-cold loneliness that I felt on death row, removed from family or anything resembling a friend, and just being there, with no purpose or meaning to my life, cramped in a cage smaller than an American bathroom. The lonesomeness was only increased by the constant cacophony of men in adjacent cells hurling shouted insults, curses, and arguments – not to mention the occasional urine or feces concoction. Deprivation of both physical exercise and meaningful social interaction were so severe in the early days of Louisiana’s death row that some men went mad while others feigned lunacy in order to get transferred to the hospital for the criminally insane, where they had freedom of movement, interaction with others, and an escape from their date with the electric chair.
Far worse than the barred cages, though, were the isolation cells I endured in local jails as I waited out appeals of 1964 and 1970 re-trials for the same crime. At one point in the Baton Rouge jail, I was held in complete solitude, surrounded by solid cinderblock walls and a steel door with a small food hatch in it that could be opened only from outside the cell. Although the Calcasieu Parish jail cell allowed me a window that looked out on the street below, and although I was permitted reading material, the social and mental deprivation was so great that every day was a struggle to maintain my sanity and stave off the inclination to drift off into daydreams. This kind of solitary confinement, where you have only your thoughts for company, is the zenith in human cruelty.
The irony, of course, is that solitary confinement was originally envisioned as a kindness to save prisoners from the horrors of violence in Philadelphia’s overcrowded Walnut Street jail. It was a 1790 invention of the American Quakers, who thought that if criminals were given safety, solitude and a Bible, they would become penitent and reformed. Instead, it drove them mad. In 1842, the novelist Charles Dickens observed in “Philadelphia and Its Solitary Prison” that the “slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain” made solitary confinement a punishment “which no man has a right to inflict upon his fellow-creatures.” The U.S. Supreme Court in 1890 declared solitary confinement to be “an infamous punishment” because of the risk it carries for severe psychological damage to the inmate.
Nonetheless, solitary confinement is thriving in America today. No longer a misguided “kindness,” it is now deliberately used as the worst punishment penal authorities can get away with. The rest of the civilized world frowns upon it. Mark Donatelli, an attorney who has since the 1970s represented both state and federal prisoners suffering the harsh effects of solitary confinement, notes that “the abuse of solitary confinement by the United States has been so widespread and longstanding that the European Court of Human Rights has held up extraditions out of concern that prisoners might suffer torture in violation of international human rights standards.” The European Court is not alone in its alarm; the United Nations Committee Against Torture for the United States of America issued a written report in 2006expressing its concern “about the prolonged isolation periods detainees [in Supermax prisons] are subjected to [and] the effect such treatment has on their mental health…”
Louisiana, which locks up more of its citizens than any other state and imposes the longest prison terms in the world, also has the unhappy distinction of keeping two men in solitary confinement for 38 years, the longest in American history. Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace were placed in their disciplinary cells in April 1972, following the murder of a prison guard, Brent Miller. Although they were convicted of the murder, new and re-examined evidence has raised doubts about their guilt, adding possible injustice to injury. Pro bono attorneys from the New York law firm Squire, Sanders & Dempsey are challenging the constitutionality of the long-term solitary confinement of Woodfox and Wallace in federal court, on the grounds that it deprives the men of basic human needs.
In 2007, U.S. Magistrate Judge Docia Dalby issued an opinion saying that Louisiana State Penitentiary officials should have realized that the deprivations suffered in such extended lockdown made the punishment constitutionally infirm: “Not only has the jurisprudence consistently noted the severity and terrible deprivation associated with such confinement, it … is also a matter of common sense that three decades of extreme social isolation and enforced inactivity in a space smaller than a typical walk-in closet present the antithesis of what is necessary to meet basic human needs.”
Having devoted an entire chapter of my memoir to taking the reader inside the cruel and maddening experience of solitary confinement, I can only second Judge Dalby’s insight into the cumulative weight of solitary: “With each passing day its effects are exponentially increased, just as surely as a single drop of water repeated endlessly will eventually bore through the hardest of stones.”
I feel fortunate to have survived prolonged solitary confinement intact and hope my memoir will help educate the public about this cruel punishment.