I've written about this subject here before, as have other writers, but there are days and weeks and months that I conclude that many people just don't give a damn. There are far too many people who think that people convicted of anything deserve what they get. I've read too many comments like that made not only by those on the right, but from those who purport to be liberal.
The frenzy of fear swirling around and ramped up about "crime" and "criminals"—and the stereotyping of black men in particular as thugs—has perpetuated a total disregard for what is practiced by prison guards, with the knowledge of so-called corrections officials. The good people of America can go to sleep at night knowing they are safe, and if those "animals" are punished or abused ... well, they deserve it.
Case in point, is the torture of Albert Woodfox.
Woodfox, is member of the "Angola 3," who have a regular diary series here at Daily Kos, usually read and recommended by the same handful of people. He has spent the last 42 years in solitary confinement in prison in Louisiana under tortuous conditions. While the news media and social activists are all fired up about the CIA torture report, let us look at his torture—cruel and inhuman treatment—right here at home.
It isn't like no high profile people have paid attention. In 2010, filmmaker Vadim Jean directed In the Land of the Free, a documentary narrated by Samuel L. Jackson.
The New York Times covered the death of Herman Wallace—Herman Wallace, Freed After 41 Years in Solitary, Dies at 71—but did not mount a campaign for his freedom:
Herman Wallace’s world for much of the last 41 years had been a solitary prison cell, 6 feet by 9 feet, when he left a Louisiana prison on Tuesday, freed by a federal judge who ruled that his original indictment in the killing of a prison guard had been unconstitutional.
Democracy Now has covered the case for many years.
Robert King's story is told in Hard Time:
“Hard Time” is a 40 minute documentary about the personal evolution of a man, from a life of poverty in rural Louisiana, through the state corrections system, to becoming a political activist who has devoted his life to the plight of political prisoners in the United States. In 1970, a jury convicted Robert King of a crime he did not commit and he was sentenced him to 35 years in prison. He became a member of the Black Panther Party while in Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, successfully organizing prisoners to improve conditions. In return, prison authorities beat him, starved him, and gave him life without parole after framing him for a second crime. He was thrown into solitary confinement, where he remained in a six by nine foot cell for 29 years as one of the Angola 3. In 2001, after years of legal battles, he was set free. King’s story is one that makes people everywhere think about what how the justice system works and what happens to men and women who are incarcerated. King’s is a story of inspiration and courage, and the triumph of the human spirit. “Hard Time” is his story told in his own words.
Then there's Herman's House
Herman Wallace may be the longest-serving prisoner in solitary confinement in the United States—he's spent more than 40 years in a 6-by-9-foot cell in Louisiana. Imprisoned in 1967 for a robbery he admits, he was subsequently sentenced to life for a killing he vehemently denies. Herman's House is a moving account of the remarkable expression his struggle found in an unusual project proposed by artist Jackie Sumell. Imagining Wallace's "dream home" began as a game and became an interrogation of justice and punishment in America. The film takes us inside the duo's unlikely 12-year friendship, revealing the transformative power of art. Premiering on PBS's POV July 8, 2013.
You can view the full film
A recent post here pointed to CIA torture methods that should be called rape, and I would argue that the anal cavity searches Albert Woodfox is subjected to each and every time he leaves his cell, though forbidden by the courts, are much the same—degrading and dehumanizing:
These are conditions of prolonged solitary confinement, years in a cage with little meaningful human contact and no access to rehabilitation programs. This treatment is cruel, inhumane and degrading. Since March, the Louisiana corrections department has compounded this nightmare by subjecting Mr. Woodfox to invasive strip and cavity searches every time he leaves his cell - when he goes to see the doctor, gets a haircut or uses the phone to call his lawyers. These searches are not only degrading, they're illegal - and in a strange twist of irony, it was Mr. Woodfox's previous lawsuit against the state that set this precedent.
In 1978, he sued the state and successfully put an end to the humiliating strip searches that he was forced to endure in the mid-1970s. Judge Daniel W. LeBlanc's ruling established a precedent that holds these searches to be illegal, unconstitutional and against internal prison policy. According to Judge LeBlanc's ruling, the prison "must curtail, and in certain instances cease, the routine requirement of anal examinations." The court's order clearly delineated the nuances of the ruling: Searches may be required before an inmate enters a segregation area or following unescorted contact with general population inmates, but those searches must cease if a segregated inmate is moved within the segregation area or while in the prison and under escort or observation. That precedent, which lasted more than 30 years, came to an abrupt end when Judge LeBlanc died in March, and the strip and cavity searches quickly resumed both for Mr. Woodfox and others housed on his tier at David Wade Correctional Center. Mr. Woodfox endures strip searches as often as six times a day. He and his attorneys tried to resolve this without litigation for months to no avail. Now they have turned to the court to step in.
In most states, the law lives longer than the judge, but in this case, his lawyers are requesting a restraining order against the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections. Every day, corrections officers strip and search Mr. Woodfox and the other prisoners held in solitary confinement. He is searched despite the fact that he is shackled in wrist, ankle and waist chains when outside of his cell, is under constant observation or escort and typically has no contact with individuals other than correctional personnel.
Because the "Angola 3" were/are Black Panthers, they have had strong and fervent supporters, though that did not prevent years of abuse and torture. So if all of this information is, and has been, available about their case and America has ignored it, what chance do those men and women who are invisible have?
No one but his few friends give a shit about the horrid torture of "King Blood," Luis Felipe, whom I wrote about here two years ago. Most of the responses to that piece were very supportive, others were hostile and appalled that I would choose him to write about.
My feelings are still clear—there are plenty people who are incarcerated who are not saints. Many are not innocent of the crimes for which they are —many for life—sitting in prison. What gives us the right to torture them, or to applaud that torture?
Tim Wise commented:
I think many commenters are missing the point...
And this often happens in convos about criminal punishment, whether execution or harsh incarceration.
It isn't really a question of whether Felipe "deserves" to die, or be locked up for a long time. Perhaps he does in some strange cosmic sense, although I certainly don't agree with the first of these and am not convinced about the second. The real question for progressives and a just society is this…
Does the state deserve to kill, or, alternately, does the state deserve to torture and dehumanize? And by "the state" please know that I mean US…Do WE deserve the right to kill, and not just the right but that power? Do WE deserve the right to torture and dehumanize?
And even if you conclude that the answer is yes, please know that there will be consequences for your assent. And among them is simply this: when you decide that human beings are disposable you ratify the very mindset that creates murder in the first place, and frankly, much gang violence. And I am not sure how you can ever manage to create a just society while ratifying the very mentality that every killer uses to justify to him or herself, their own crimes.
Yes, some small changes are taking place ... baby steps, driven by vocal community activism. The mayor of New York made an announcement this week, detailed in De Blasio, on Rikers Island visit, announces end of solitary confinement for teen inmates
The city has ended Rikers Island's use of solitary confinement for adolescents, and all 16- and 17-year-old inmates have been moved to transitional units as part of efforts to fix a "dehumanizing environment" at the trouble-plagued correctional complex, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Thursday. The teenagers will instead receive support and therapy, and may be eligible for "second-chance housing," de Blasio said after a tour of two facilities on the island....
There were 91 adolescents in punitive segregation on Jan. 1, and none as of Dec. 4, city officials said. An investigative report released in August by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara revealed a "culture of violence" against young detainees at Rikers and accused correctional officers of relying too excessively on solitary confinement as a punitive tactic. Bharara has threatened a lawsuit to force reforms.
If you are 18 or older, you can still get placed in solitary, although the city is now capping the amount of time in the hole.
It's a step. Let's keep pushing for more.
For more information, and fact sheets about solitary, the Center for Constitutional Rights has several pages on Torture: The Use of Solitary Confinement in U.S. Prisons:
What is Solitary Confinement?
In the early nineteenth century, the U.S. led the world in a new practice of imprisoning people in solitary cells, without access to any human contact or stimulation, as a method of rehabilitation. The results were disastrous, as prisoners quickly became severely mentally disturbed. The practice was all but abandoned. Over a century later, it has made an unfortunate comeback. Instead of torturing prisoners with solitary confinement in dark and dirty underground holes, prisoners are now subjected to solitary confinement in well-lit, sterile boxes. The psychological repercussions are similar.
Today, tens of thousands of individuals across the country are detained inside cramped, concrete, windowless cells in a state of near-total solitude for between 22 and 24 hours a day. The cells have a toilet and a shower, and a slot in the door large enough for a guard to slip a food tray through. Prisoners in solitary confinement are frequently deprived of telephone calls and contact visits. “Recreation” involves being taken, often in handcuffs and shackles, to another solitary cell where prisoners can pace alone for an hour before being returned to their cell.
Ever since solitary confinement came into existence, it has been used as a tool of repression. While it is justified by corrections officials as necessary to protect prisoners and guards from violent superpredators, all too often it is imposed on individuals, particularly prisoners of color, who threaten prison administrations in an altogether different way. Consistently, jailhouse lawyers and jailhouse doctors, who administer to the needs of their fellow prisoners behind bars, are placed in solitary confinement. They are joined by political prisoners from various civil rights and independence movements.
You can do something immediately for Albert Woodfox:
TAKE ACTION – Operation "Give Albert a Hug for the Holidays":
Please take a moment today to remind the State that they can’t just continue to torture Albert and violate their own policies on our watch. Print out this letter, sign and fax or mail to the Secretary of Corrections Jimmy LeBlanc and help us give Albert the gift of a hug from his loved ones this holiday season.
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