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Buried Alive: Solitary Confinement in a Louisiana Prison

By Nick F. Barber

“He is a man buried alive; to be dug out in the slow round of years; and in the meantime dead to everything but torturing anxieties and horrible despair.”

—Charles Dickens,“American Notes”, 1842

This past Sunday—Feb. 19, 2017—marked the one-year anniversary of Albert Woodfox’s release from prison; he was the last member of the Angola 3 to be released from Louisiana’s infamous Angola prison. Woodfox, who will be speaking at Harvard next month, “walked through the gates of hell into freedom.

He has been free for 366 days. He spent the prior 15,695 days in solitary confinement. Those forty-three years marked the longest that any man had ever spent in such conditions.

Woodfox and other Angola 3 members Robert King and Herman Wallace were held in solitary confinement for a combined total of more than a hundred years. The reason for their unfathomably long stay in solitary can be traced to a very simple explanation: They were political prisoners, held in solitary for decades to discourage others from organizing with the Black Panthers. In 1972, a year after the three started the first recognized chapter of the Black Panther Party on prison grounds, a prison guard was killed; prison officials had no suspects. So, the three political agitators became the obvious fall-men, convicted in a mockery of a trial.

Woodfox, King, and Wallace were not deterred, however. They refused to give up teaching, organizing, and learning with their fellow prisoners, even after decades of solitary. Woodfox knew that his values and principles would keep him alive and sane: “I know how many times they offered that if I gave up my party they’d let me out of solitary. Each time I told them, get out of my face.”

The six-by-nine foot solitary box is smaller than the typical horse stable. Inmates in solitary spend 23 hours per day in these cells. Between 80 and 120 thousand Americans on any given day are, as Shaka Senghor described, “squeezed into a coffin,” treated as “dead to everyone in the general prison population.”

The public has no control over solitary confinement’s frequent and discriminatory application. Solitary confinement is not a sentence handed down by a judge or jury; it is a classification that prisons are allowed to unilaterally impose on inmates, for “walking too slowly” or too fast – it can be imposed on inmates “for talking too much”. Just ask Woodfox and his fellow Angola Black Panthers.

To this day, black and Hispanic prisoners are held in solitary at immensely disproportionate rates. Black and Hispanic prisoners constitute 60 percent of all arrests, but 95 percent of those held in solitary confinement.

Three hundred and fifty thousand of those held in our jails and prisons have serious mental illnesses, more than ten times the number held in our country’s mental institutions. Of those in the general prison population, it is estimated that one-third to one-half of prisoners in solitary confinement suffer from mental illness. The implications of this are stunning: We have, for all intents and purposes, eschewed real mental health treatment altogether. Instead, we are inflicting upon vast swaths of our mentally ill population a punishment that is universally regarded by health professionals as detrimental to mental health. It is the healthcare principle of "out of sight, out of mind."

In “Hell is a Very Small Place: Voices from Solitary Confinement”, Judith Vazquez described the feeling of solitary as tantamount to being buried alive; she resorted to scraping at the rubber seal on her window frame for any small amount of fresh air: “I needed some air … I believe it took about six months of scraping and bleeding before I finally made a tiny little hole.” The hole was big enough for just one nostril.

“It gave me a sense of being human again,” Vasquez writes.

In his own words, Woodfox, like Judith and countless others, has known “more pain and suffering than any human being should be asked to suffer.” Solitary confinement is a punishment that completely outstrips our ability to comprehend it. Virtually anyone would struggle with a few hours of solitary. Woodfox gave 360,985 hours of his life to it.

Just last week, the New Yorker reported on the devastating loss of Lonnie Hamilton. Like Kalief Browder and countless others before him, Lonnie found the effects of solitary confinement too much to bear. He took his own life.

The work of ending this barbaric torture has never been more urgent. It is a punishment, as Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave Beaumont described in their 1833 treatise on US penitentiaries,“beyond the strength of man; it destroys the criminal without intermission and without pity; it does not reform, it kills.”

Albert Woodfox and Robert King are coming to Harvard on March 8th. They have dedicated their post-incarceration lives to fighting for “the abolishment of solitary confinement and freedom for political prisoners.” “I choose to use my anger as a means for changing things,” Woodfox said after his release.

“Everybody has fear,” Woodfox continued. “Fear is the soul telling the body that it’s in danger. Some people overcome that fear. I overcame it by having a cause.”

We hope you will join us.

Nick F. Barber 17, is a senior in the Dudley Co-op concentrating in History. He is part of a working group at the law school that is bringing the two surviving members of the Angola 3 to Harvard.

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