The Angola 3: 100 years of solitude

I wrote about Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace, two-thirds of the notorious “Angola 3” USA solitary confinement trio last June, and re-reading the post (“Punished for Black Pantherism?”) … I don’t think I have a lot to add to what I wrote back then. It’s a shocker, pure and simple. Do check it out if you haven’t come across the case before.

However, a quick update is in order because tomorrow it will be exactly 40 years since Woodfox, Wallace and Robert King were first put into “Closed Cell Restriction” units at the Louisiana State Penitentiary. Yes, 40 years. Forty years of dehumanising isolation (23 hours a day in 2m x 3m cells, no work or education, no interaction with other inmates). Forty years of perpetual punishment above and beyond even a life sentence. The mind recoils at the very thought …

Tomorrow Amnesty USA will be delivering a petition with over 65,000 signatures to Louisiana’s Governor Bobby Jindal demanding the two men’s removal from this scandalous and vindictive incarceration regime. (Thank you if you were one of the 11,000 or so people who supported Amnesty UK’s contribution to this petition. Stay tuned for developments…).

Meanwhile, a question. Why, I wonder, is the US penal system so prone to using these extreme and pernicious techniques of isolation? Recently I blogged on the super-max prisons in Arizona, where nearly 3,000 inmates are kept in isolation. This is the worst state in the USA for its use of isolation units, but “super-maxing” prisoners is common throughout the USA. In fact, the country’s believed to have the highest number of inmates in isolation of any country in the world (into the tens of thousands). Way to go, USA ….

So, why? It’s always difficult to hypothesise on these kinds of things and I don’t profess expertise, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s something to do with what Elizabeth Vasiliades describes as a “an extraordinary emphasis on repressive control” among those who run US state jails. An extreme “people management” technique is one that prison bosses feel able to justify on safety grounds while also knowing that US courts have traditionally been mostly deferential to the arguments of prison managements compared to individual prisoners claiming ill-treatment. The most startling thing about Vasiliades’ article though, is the fact that observers and mental health experts have been warning of the physical and psychological dangers of extreme segregation for decades, indeed as far back as 1826 and Alexis de Tocqueville. Referring to an isolation regime in an 1820s New York prison, de  Tocqueville said it “devours  the victims  incessantly  and  unmercifully;  it  does  not  reform,  it  kills.” Nearly two centuries later, what have we learnt …?

So Woodfox, Wallace and King (now released) between them have racked up a staggering 100-plus years in solitary confinement at Angola. Racism and hatred of the Black Panthers might have kept these particular men in lockdown for some of this time, but it’s also true that the land of the free is unduly inclined to lock people up in isolation cells. The Angola 3’s 100 years of solitude is a reminder of the USA’s long, disgraceful history of resorting to extreme isolation as a tool of discipline and punishment. Michel Foucault would have had a lot to say about Angola prison …

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