U.S. — Solitary confinement – arbitrary and racist punishment -By Mohamed Hamaludin

U.S. — Solitary confinement – arbitrary, racist punishment that breaks the body and the mind

 -By Mohamed Hamaludin – Commentary

Few survival stories can equal that of three African American men who spent a total of 114 years confined in small concrete boxes, subjected to mental and physical torture, and emerged with their spirit unbroken.

Alfred Woodfox spent 43 years and 10 months in solitary confinement and Henry Wallace, 41 years, both convicted in 1972 of killing a police officer. Robert King, convicted of killing a corrections officer, spent 29 years in isolation. The courts eventually overturned their convictions. King was set free in 2001 and Woodfox in 2016. Wallace was freed in 2013 but by then he was dying of liver cancer.  All three were members of the Black Panther movement.       

The story of the so-called Angola Three, named after the location of the Louisiana State Penitentiary, has never really captured the public’s attention. That could change with the publication this month of “Solitary,” Woodfox’s account of his experience. The Guardian published an excerpt last week.

“The cell was 9 feet long and six feet wide. I could take four or five steps up and down the length of the cell,” Woodfox wrote. “We were locked down 23 hours a day. There was no outside exercise yard… We couldn’t make or receive phone calls. We weren’t allowed books, magazines, newspapers, or radios. There were no fans… there was no access to ice, no hot water in the sinks in our cells. There was no hot plate to heat water… Needless to say, we were not allowed educational, social, vocational, or religious programs; we weren’t allowed to do hobby crafts (leatherwork, painting, woodwork). Rats came up the shower drain at the end of the hall… Mice came out at night. When the red ants invaded they were everywhere all at once, in clothes, sheets, mail, toiletries, food.

“Our meals were put on the floor outside our cell doors. We stuck our hands through the bars to pull the trays underneath the door into our cell. Anytime we were taken off the [block]… we were forced to strip, bend over, and spread our buttocks for a ‘visual cavity search’, then after we got dressed we were put in full restraints.”

That was the physical side.

“There are two kinds of solitary confinement in the United States. One starves a prisoner’s senses. The other overwhelms them,” wrote Nathaniel Penn, who interviewed prisoners in isolation for a GQ magazine article. He wrote that “a prisoner has virtually no contact with other human beings. Locked behind a slab of steel into a cell smaller than a parking space, he smells and touches only cement. He hears only the incessant hum of a dim fluorescent light that never goes off. If he’s fortunate, he’ll have a window.”

The effects of isolation on the human psyche were no secret. The Guardian’s Ed Pilkington reported that, back in 1951, McGill University in Canada conducted an experiment in which male graduates were kept in a simulated prison cell to determine how they would cope. It was due to last six weeks but was called off prematurely because “several students began hallucinating and suffering from severe mental breakdown” – after only seven days.

Solitary confinement, GQ’s Penn explained, is not meted out by the courts: “A convict can be banished to solitary at a correctional officer’s whim, for nearly any reason: assault, gambling, mouthing off, failing to clean his cell, singing, filing grievances, even (incredibly) attempting suicide.”

Woodfox told Pilkington shortly after his release that he survived because: “I would not let them drive me insane.” He, King and Wallace “made a conscious decision that we would never be institutionalized. As the years went by, we made efforts to improve and motivate ourselves.”

He writes in “Solitary” that he adopted a positive attitude, reading, performing a daily routine, transforming his cell into a livable space which he used “to educate myself… to build strong moral character… to develop principles and a code of conduct… for everything other than what my captors intended it to be.” He looked for inspiration to the words of Malcolm X and Whitney Young.

Reports vary as to how many prisoners are subjected to this punishment — there is no formal tracking — from 50,000 to 100,000. A Yale University study put it at just under 60,000, of whom 1,458 are women. More than 4,000 suffer from severe mental illnesses.

Prisoners placed in isolation are disproportionately African Americans, who are 12 percent of the U.S. population but 37 percent of those in isolation. Whites, 61 percent of the population, are 31 percent of those in solitary confinement, according to the study. Hispanics, 17 percent of the population, are 21 percent. Louisiana is the chief offender, at 15 percent, with Florida ninth, at eight percent.

President Barack Obama described solitary confinement as “an affront to our common humanity” and GQ’s Penn reported in 2017 that several states had started restricting how it is used but a bipartisan approach centered not on humanitarian concerns but on the cost.

The House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime should move swiftly to hold hearings and end this racist and inhumane practice long dubbed a form of torture by the United Nations.


Mohamed Hamaludin is a Guyana-born journalist who worked for several years at The Chronicle in the 1970s and on publications in the Cayman Islands and Turks and Caicos Islands before emigrating to the United States in 1984 where he worked at The Miami Times, the Miami Herald and the South Florida Times.  Though now retired, he writes a commentary every week or two for The South Florida Times (sfltimes.com) in which the above column first appeared. He may be reached at hamal1942@gmail.com.

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  • Trevor  On 03/16/2019 at 2:46 pm

    White supremacy is built on the foundation that the world owes them everything, and those who are not white aren’t deserving of life.

    White supremacy is growing in the ABC countries:


    Who would like to bet that this racist Australian white supremacist will live a way better life than all of the victims that he murdered in his rampage?

    The Quebec masjid shooter shot several of my brethren who converted to Islam, and the shooter is living rent free while immigrants have to clean streets, toilets and offices for minimum wage.

    • Emanuel  On 03/16/2019 at 3:10 pm

      You can be sure that the Australian shooter warms the cockles of the bigoted President’s heart. If it was the other way around he would have been seeing red. In the idiot’s mind , ‘he’s just a fine young man.’ In Charlottesville there were “very fine people on both sides.”

      • Trevor  On 03/16/2019 at 5:28 pm

        European domination has been responsible for the genocide, slavery, plunder and strife of the world.

        It’s appalling how many young white men are becoming radicalised and very racist that they feel numb when shooting up hundreds of innocent civilians because of their race (Dylan Roof) or their religious faith (Canada and New Zealand).

        And Guyanese here are confident that they will not become targets of anti-migrant racism when they escape from the clutches of Exxon Mobil and the upcoming civil unrest in Latin America.

        Guyana, and the entire CARICOM is like what? 18 million people? Indo Guyanese will be labelled as Arabian terrorists and we (Afro-Guyanese) will be called the n-word and have police harassing and shooting us because of some racist white man or woman.

        I’d rather stay here in Guyana than to migrate to those growing racist countries. Exxon wouldn’t put a bullet to my head, but a white man with racist tendencies might do that to me in USA, Canada or Europe.

    • Emanuel  On 03/16/2019 at 3:10 pm

      You can be sure that the Australian shooter warms the cockles of the bigoted President’s heart. If it was the other way around he would have been seeing red. In the idiot’s mind , ‘he’s just a fine young man.’ In Charlottesville there were “very fine people on both sides.”

  • wally n  On 03/16/2019 at 3:56 pm

    lawd help us WHAT!

  • Trevor  On 03/16/2019 at 8:01 pm

    [quote]”The suspected Christchurch mosque shooter claimed he was just one of “millions” of people holding the beliefs that inspired the massacre of 49 people.

    Brenton Tarrant said only Anders Breivik’s Knights Templar group knew of his plan but said he had “donated to many nationalist groups and interacted with many more”.

    He claimed he decided to carry out an attack two years ago, while on holiday travelling in western Europe in early 2017.

    Security sources have told The Independent Tarrant may have met extreme right-wing organisations during his visit, which coincided with increased tensions over Isis-inspired terror attacks and the French presidential election.

    His “manifesto” was posted to messaging board 8chan with a plea for anonymous users to spread his message around the world, and they did.

    But nothing in the 16,000-word document is new – the ideas, ideologies and memes used have long been spread by far-right groups and figures across the US, UK, Australia and Europe.”[/quote]

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