The Politics of Solitary

I met a man last month who has spent more than 30 years in solitary confinement. When I returned home to tell of my visit to Angola, friends and colleagues shook their heads sternly, muttering about African nations torn apart by civil war and chaos. They reminded me how hard it is for Westerners to grasp the traditions and political realities of the Third World. Thank God, they added, for Amnesty International.

But, I said, I wasn't in Africa. I wasn't in the Third World. I was in Louisiana, at Angola prison.

Inside that prison, in the belly of the so-called Land of the Free, two men -- Albert Woodfox, whom I met, and Herman Wallace -- have been languishing in solitary confinement for more than three decades for a crime they almost certainly did not commit.

These men -- along with Robert Wilkerson, who was himself proven innocent and released in 2001 after 29 years in solitary -- are known as the "Angola Three". They are former Black Panthers and prison reform organizers who have suffered appalling retribution at the hands of a racist and corrupt system that they had the courage to challenge from within. They are, in short, political prisoners.

Yet Amnesty International wasn't there in Angola, Louisiana, and I wondered why. It's true that for most people, the idea of political prisoners left to rot for years in solitary confinement conjures images of countries like China, Russia, Colombia, Iran, Pakistan, Iraq, North Korea, Nigeria and Indonesia -- certainly not America. The political prisoners whose cases spring to mind are in places where such abuse is a well-documented fact of life:


- Jigme Sangpo, a Tibetan freedom activist, was recently released after 41 years in prison under the Chinese regime, much of that time spent in solitary.

- Mordechai Va'anunu, the Israeli whistleblower convicted of treason and sentenced to 18 years for exposing Israel's illegal nuclear weapons manufacture, spent almost 12 years of his sentence in solitary confinement.

- Abbas Amir Entezam, the former spokesman for Iran's moderate provisional government in 1979, was captured, jailed, tortured, and thrown in solitary for most of 16 years after the Islamic revolutionary government took over.

- Woo Yon Gak, a 70-year-old, stroke-enfeebled North Korean, has been held in solitary confinement in South Korea for 40 years on charges of espionage. His is believed to be the longest sentence served in solitary confinement anywhere in the world.

- Shin In Yong, another prisoner in South Korea, was recently freed after serving 31 years in a cell barely larger than a coffin for his sympathies for North Korea.
Surely, I once thought, that sort of bald retribution against people of conscience is not permitted, let alone practiced, in a freedom-loving country like America. Unfortunately, I wasn't alone in my naïveté. The Americans I spoke to after my visit to Angola seemed more shocked than anyone to discover that their fellow citizens are spending decades in solitary -- political prisoners or not, guilt or innocence aside. Most Americans still believe that solitary confinement is what it once was: a troubling but necessary tool used sparingly to keep order among the incarcerated. The subtle change in its use in recent decades seems to have slipped in under the popular radar.

Indeed, solitary confinement, at least in Western countries, was originally a tool of last resort for jailers who could not otherwise control unruly or violent inmates who violated prison rules. Even then, it was used for days or weeks at a time. But now it's becoming a routine ingredient in particularly harsh sentences handed down by judges, notably in the United States. Instead of weeks in "the hole," convicts face years and even lifetimes there. Human rights advocates are understandably concerned.

A case in point: In 1998, Ramzi Yousef, the man convicted of masterminding the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, was sentenced by an American judge to more than 250 years in solitary confinement. Drug kingpins and gang leaders have since been sentenced in increasing numbers to similarly long stints in solitary, sometimes denied permission to communicate with any other human being other than a lawyer.

The new fad of "supermax" prisons in the U.S. has further institutionalized solitary confinement. In these super-maximum security facilities, all inmates are held in isolation at least 23 hours a day, every day, for their entire terms. Convicts sent to these soulless places are in solitary by default. And because America has built so many of these supermax facilities, some prisoners who would otherwise have served their time in more traditional prisons are shipped to supermax instead, in order to keep enough bodies in cells to justify these prisons' continued existence.

Many prison reform activists and human rights groups agree that not only is extended solitary confinement effectively cruel and unusual punishment, its effect is the very opposite of rehabilitative. It makes prisoners angry, psychologically unstable and antisocial. In effect, it spits out monsters where mere criminals came in.

The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit charging that the Angola wardens' decision to hold the Angola Three in solitary for so long violates their constitutional protection against cruel and unusual punishment. The suit, now pending before a federal court in Louisiana, calls for Woodfox and Wallace to be released into the general prison population at Angola, and for all three men to be financially compensated for their suffering.

What's missing here, however, is the kind of international outcry that we would surely see if the Angola Three were in a Serbian or an Iraqi prison -- fueled by the outrage we reserve for blatant abuses of power by governments against their people.

Anita Roddick is the founder of The Body Shop and a lifelong activist. Her latest book, "Take It Personally" is an in-your-face challenge to corporate globalization. Email her at anita@anitaroddick.com.

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