It’s far easier to wrap your head around torture when it involves the infliction of active pain. That doesn’t make passive pain, the infliction of often unbearable psychological punishment, any less torturous. And it happens regularly, and many times arbitrarily, as explained in an op-ed by Wilbert Rideau, who served 44 years for manslaughter in Louisiana.
Before you dismiss Rideau as a killer who deserved whatever he got, bear in mind that stories from the inside aren’t told by saints. Every once in a while, a former inmate emerges with the erudition necessary to put into words the world that most of us never knew existed. When this happens, it’s a window through which we need to look. Rideau offers a view of solitary confinement, the hole.
I know something about solitary confinement, because I’ve been there. I spent a total of 12 years in various solitary confinement cells. And I can tell you that isolating a human being for years in a barren cell the size of a small bathroom is the cruelest thing you can do to a person.
Deprived of all human contact, you lose your feeling of connectedness to the world. You lose your ability to make small talk, even with the guard who shoves your meal through the slot in the door. You live entirely in your head, for there is nothing else. You talk to yourself, answer yourself. You become paranoid, depressed, sleepless. To ward off madness, you must give your mind something to do. In 1970, I counted the 358 rivets that held my steel cell together, over and over. Every time the walls seemed to be closing in on me, I counted them again, to give my mind something to fasten on to.
Without having been there, it’s likely inconceivable to understand what happens to a mind in isolation. Some of us have trouble being alone for an hour, an evening, a day. Add day upon day, year upon year. But not the way it is for us, where we still have access to television or internet, even if there is no other living person around. No, this is completely different.
But to add insult to injury, don’t leap to the assumption that if a prisoner ends up in the hole, he must have done something pretty bad to deserve it.
In a world where authorities exercise absolute power and demand abject obedience, prisoners are almost always going to be on the losing side, and they know it.
The typical inmate doesn’t want trouble. He has little to gain and too much to lose: his job, his visits, his recreation time, his phone privileges, his right to buy tuna, ramen and stale bread at inflated prices in the commissary. The ways even a bystander to the most peaceful protest can be punished are limited only by the imagination of the authorities.
Punishment can be deserved or not. There’s no due process in prison. There’s no one to complain to about being punished based on a false accusation, a trumped up allegation, a guard pissed off by an attitude. Authorities own the lives of prisoners, and can be as harsh as they want to be, as arbitrary as they feel like. And there isn’t a damn thing you can do about it.
Rideau explains that the prison protests in California are an outgrowth of a system run amok and no other means of addressing their grievance.
And yet, sometimes things get so bad that prisoners feel compelled to protest, with work stoppages, riots or hunger strikes. On July 8, some 30,000 inmates in the custody of the California Department of Corrections went on a hunger strike to demand improvements in prison conditions. Their biggest complaint was the runaway use of solitary confinement, the fact that thousands of prisoners are consigned to this cruelty indefinitely, some for decades.
While prisoners are sentenced to incarceration, no judge sentences them to isolation for decades. There is no requirement that any neutral party review the decision to inflict this torture on another human being. It can be imposed for a sound reason or no reason at all. Who is to disagree? But no matter what the reason or nonreason, to put a person in the hole for years, for decades, is to impose psychological torture of a terrible kind on a human being. And there is nothing, absolutely nothing, the prisoner can do about it.
In California, inmates did the only thing left for them to do, protest. Not too many of us care about what happened to “criminals.” After all, bad dudes who did bad things to other people. A pox on them. They get what they deserve and their out of sight, out of mind. But there is good reason to give them just a little bit of though. For one thing, they are still people, and we are still purportedly a civilized society that doesn’t condone the needless brutal treatment of people. But if you lack anything remotely resembling empathy, than do it for your own sake:
Why should you be concerned about the inhumane conditions of prolonged solitary confinement, with all the social, emotional and mental deterioration that it entails? Well, every year men from California’s Pelican Bay and other supermax prisons around the nation are released directly from the vacuum of their cells into free society, to live and work among you and your loved ones. As a matter of self-preservation, maybe we should all join the prisoners’ request for rehabilitative opportunities that will improve the mental health of those in solitary.
Go say “hi” to the guy who moved in down the block kids. So what if he spent the last two decades in the hole and seems a bit odd. I’m sure he’ll get over it.