Wednesday, June 2, 2004

USA: On Solitary Confinement

There has been much written about solitary confinement by some of the world's leading psychiatrists, but very little written by victims of solitary themselves. I believe that the 32 years I have spent in solitary qualifies me for the task.

On April 17th, 1972, Brent Miller, a security guard here at Angola was murdered. His death had a radical impact on every prisoner at Angola, regardless of their housing assignment.

Men all over the prison, who held any form [of] 'militant' view were all placed in administrative segregation. Albert Woodfox and I were part of the 'round-up' on April 17th, 1972 and shortly thereafter were joined by Robert Hillary King (aka Robert Wilkerson).

We were placed in the cells called Closed Cell Restriction (CCR) pending investigation. These were the same cells occupied by death row inmates. We were held in the same conditions, but under a different status.

Administrative segregation is a room, cell or cage set off from the rest of the prison population. In most prisons, as here in Angola, it is the dungeon. Men who have been cited for rule violations are sent to the dungeon.

Those who have been sentenced to the dungeon are not allowed to have dessert on their food trays. However, men who occupy these same cells pending investigation while waiting to go to disciplinary court, these men are given dessert and as foolish as it sounds, it surreptitiously changes the status of one prisoner from that of the other as they live in cells adjoining each other.

In November 1972 a "Cell Block Review Board" was created to review the status of prisoners so that they could either be released or maintained in Administrative Segregation. Men like Albert, Robert and myself -- because of our political views -- have been maintained in Administrative Segregation. Because of the duration of our stay, the name of our status was changed from Administrative Segregation to Administrative Lockdown.

These different names have been created in order to disguise the fact we are in what amounts to solitary confinement and to gloss over all the ills that spring from this practice.

I have been asked on many occasions how I've managed to maintain my sanity throughout these 32 years of torture, when so many others in solitary bring harm to themselves or others.

In 1971 I dedicated my life to the struggle for the liberation of my people. I'm guided by the principles and ideology of the Black Panther Party. Along with my two comrades, I understood what the system was doing to black men and women around the country as J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI launched his 'counter intelligence program,' COINTELPRO, to imprison or kill black militants. To us, it has been a struggle every step of the way.

There have been several attempts on our lives by prison officials. One of those attempts was documented by prison officers in detailed form, but learning of it only strengthened our passion to survive. We relied upon each other in confidence and trust. When one was down the other two gave him strength to pull through.

We understand the prison authorities' objective to mentally destroy us as much as physically destroy us, but we discovered freedom in our will to resist. When a prisoner yields his or her will to his captors, there is an eventual conflict with what is necessary for the prisoner's life and the interests of the prison officials.

Prison rules are often changing and the prisoner is expected to accept these rule changes and roll with them. This robs the prisoner of any sense of control and poses a dangerous mental conflict that often times drives the prisoner into psychological deterioration.

Dr. Stuart Gassian, Harvard psychologist, world renowned for his life-long work on solitary confinement, visited Albert and I in 2003. He focuses his attention on the hyper-responsiveness of prisoners confined in solitary. He uses examples of prisoners who describe their experience as being sensitive to noise, like dripping water, the sound of footsteps; this hypersensitivity wrecks the prisoner's nerves and yet there is nothing he can do about it. The inmate is unable to escape the noise and feels psychologically trapped. After an extended period of time, the torture of incessant noise is transformed from, "I can't stand the noise" to, "I can't stand the quiet." Chaos takes control and eventually the prisoners mental state becomes permanently imbalanced.

I have witnessed prison guards from 2002 to 2004, while I was in Angola's even more restrictive punishment unit, who have thrown buckets of ice water (in winter) on men who were in 4- point restraints, wearing only paper gowns. I've seen guards snatch food trays out of prisoner's cellbars and throw the tray against the wall, then call SWAT teams to gas and beat the prisoner for throwing his food. After the SWAT team is done with the prisoner, they take him to the infirmary and then the prisoner goes to court, is found guilty, sentenced to begin the punitive program from the beginning all over again, as well as pay for his medical treatment and restitution for damaging the paint on the wall.

Women guards are forced to lie by claiming that inmates have exposed themselves and masturbated in front of them. This is not to say that some prisoners don't do this, but it is because of this small group that security uses this to frame other prisoners who would never even think in terms of behaving in such a disrespectful way. There have been some female guards who refused to comply with the psychological games and they usually are framed themselves and eventually fired.

I honestly don't think I could have survived this many years in solitary had it not been for the structure of the Black Panther Party's Ten Point Program. You have to have a belief structure to survive and the strength and truth of the Ten Point Program has kept Albert and myself strong enough to withstand the unremitting torture of 32 years in solitary for a crime we did not commit.

The system in this prison and to the best of my knowledge, most other prisons, is designed to destroy any thoughts of freedom or independence. It is the direct response of a fascist government that fears the demands of poor people and people of color seeking freedom and the right to determine their own destiny. A reactionary response to the platform to possess full employment, reparations, decent housing, education, health care, an end to police brutality and the murder of poor and oppressed people worldwide.

We want freedom for all poor and oppressed people held in prisons, we want land and more than anything we want justice and peace. This is the belief system I cling to, it is my survival. Everything that is done to me makes me conscious of the fact that it is being done to undermine my thinking in the same manner that this government is presently undermining the Muslim world by attacking and occupying Afghanistan and Iraq, and by ending two centuries of struggle for independence in Haiti.

White supremacy is the problem and I fight that problem wherever it raises its ugly head and fight it with every breath in my body. Prisoners who live under these conditions fall under the scope of the 8th Amendment. Behind these walls of shame, we are not simply experiencing punishment as ordered by the court, via contemporary standards, we are experiencing punishment of a criminal nature that is shielded by the Prisoner's Litigation Reform Act (PLRA). Either the Congress is simply unaware of what is going on or it is in their political interest to turn a blind eye. The courts can only interpret what Congress and State legislative bodies enact into law.

In order to maintain one's sanity while trapped in Administrative Segregation, Administrative Lockdown or Solitary Confinement, prisoners must never allow themselves to adopt habits. If you smoke -- quit! If you drink coffee, tea or have an eating disorder -- challenge yourself. Beware of prison privileges which are designed to manipulate and control your lives. Watching television or listening to radio is acceptable only if it doesn't preoccupy your mind or prevent mental growth. As soon as you begin to think you need anything, the prison authorities will use this need against you. Give them nothing to use against you that you are unable to mentally control and you can survive. A high level of self-discipline, self-denial and self-pride are the key to surviving solitary.

Keep in mind, placement in solitary does not in itself trigger an 8th Amendment violation. The courts' position is that if the prison furnishes inmates with reasonable food, clothing, shelter, sanitation, medical care and personal safety, there is no violation of the ban on cruel and unusual punishment. In my opinion, punishment that endangers one's sanity is unconstitutional. For the past 32 years, I've experienced and witnessed both physical and mental punishment that seeks to destroy sanity which is far more harmful than physical abuse.

By Herman Wallace posted 2 June 04


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