Who’s watching out for us? Where are our guardian spirits? And what are they guarding? And why?
The cruelest thing you can do is put me away. Is to forget about me. Don’t forget me. DON’T FORGET ME, PLEASE!!!! Please. I can’t survive if I’m the last, and it’s only me and no one knows or everyone has forgotten. I can’t be alive. Don’t leave me on the edge. Don’t LEAVE me on the edge of this world of THIS WORLD that has me forgotten. I’m so scared.
I’m not interested in telling you facts and figures about solitary confinement and what it does to an individual, how being in prison is designed to break you and solitary is designed to punish the spirit and dehumanize. It wouldn’t help anyone understand what solitary confinement is like unless you’ve been there. But we can gain glimpses into this fearsome realm. It’s not “spending time alone.”
There’s shades of disassociation. Depersonalization. States of mind where nothing seems real and everything feels slower or faster than it should. There is no time marker in the world. No gauge. No human contact. Memory of a walk. A voice. A hand. A bad meal. Maybe your own excrement and breathing; if you remember how.
People in solitary confinement suffer through the emptiness with a profound “‘ontological insecurity’—they are not sure that they exist and, if they do, exactly who they are,” says Craig Haney, a psychology professor at the University of California Santa Cruz studying the impact of incarceration.
How do we justify locking someone up, then locking them up further? My god – to push a person into a state where they are no longer sure whether or not they exist, and then leave them there?
Readers invariably relate to everything they read through their own experiences. It’s why stories connect us. I’ve spent some time in a prison of personal hell, a lockup of sense and reason. But it’s incomparable to the experience of Albert Woodfox, a 69-year-old man just released from Angola prison after spending more than four decades in solitary confinement.
Woodfox was sentenced for the murder of a prison guard in 1972. There was no physical evidence linking him to the crime. His conviction was completely based on what Amnesty International called “questionable” testimony of other inmates. Woodfox’s conviction had been overturned twice before due to allegations of poor legal representation and racial discrimination. Albert Woodfox has always maintained his innocence, but pled guilty to a lesser crime in exchange for his freedom after nearly half a century alone. He is believed to have spent more time in solitary than any U.S. prisoner in history.
What did Woodfox especially do that warranted 40 years alone on a conviction that can be described, at best, as tenuous? He was part of the Angola Three – a group of men who became the focus of an international movement to highlight the atrocity of their solitary imprisonment.
The United States is said to be shifting from solitary confinement as a practice, citing the devastating impacts and catastrophic psychological consequences. Right now there are estimated 80,000 prisoners in solitary confinement, but no official tracking. President Obama announced last month that solitary confinement is banned for locked-up juveniles. It’s too awful, basically, for anyone but especially for those with developing brains.
The brain rewires after trauma. Is this what prison was meant for? What else could Woodfox’s 40 years on Earth have been spent doing, even in regular prison lockup? Where does this human need to punish and break people come from? In a small shaft of a room with one narrow bed and nothing constructive to do for 23 hours … what universal agent have we served with punishment-punishment-no-reform?