Cell. The word was first used in the medieval era to denote a small room for monastic contemplation. It also has a scientific meaning as the basic building block of life, and of course in the context of imprisonment. There is plenty of time for contemplation in the latter kind of cell. But the basic unit of the correctional system has little to do with life when it's used to isolate a person for months or years at a stretch. It's a kind of living death for the imprisoned.
Certainly there are violent offenders who require cooling off for their own protection
or that of others. Yet the issue of extended solitary confinement as a form of torture is getting more press these days, in large part because of public awareness of Iraq war whistleblower U.S. Army soldier Bradley Manning, who has spent most of his time in solitary confinement since his arrest in 2010 for submitting classified material to WikiLeaks.
On July 8, 30,000 prisoners in California began a peaceful hunger strike to protest the inhumane conditions of long-term solitary confinement, and the National Religious Campaign Against Torture called for religious leaders across the United States to sign a petition against the state's use of it.
As I wrote last week, Herman Wallace has spent 41 years in solitary confinement at Louisiana State Prison, also known as Angola Prison and the "Alcatraz of the South." What happens to a human being confined so long, and so inhumanely, in a cage little bigger than the back of a pickup truck? I would think that there are very few options; you either become batty or a Bodhisattva. I suspect Wallace and the other remaining member of the Angola 3 in Angola solitary, Albert Woodfox, took the latter option.
Woodfox has clocked 40 years in the hole. In February, Federal Judge James Brady, presiding in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana, agreed that racial bias tainted the grand-jury selection in his prosecution. The judge granted Habeas Corpus to Woodfox, compelling the state of Louisiana to release him. It was the third time his conviction has been overturned, yet astoundingly, he remains in solitary.
"If a cause is just noble enough, you can carry the weight of the world on your shoulders," Woodfox was quoted in Mother Jones magazine. "And I thought that my cause, then and now, was noble. So therefore, they could never break me. They might bend me a little bit, they might cause me a lot of pain. They might even take my life. But they will never be able to break me."
This issue isn't irrelevant to Canadians. Even while most countries around the world are retreating from the use of solitary confinement, our nation is going in the other direction, following the American gulag model. Admissions to segregation cells in federal penitentiaries "grew to 8,600 prisoners per year from 8,000 since 2010 - and correctional experts anticipate another substantial jump as tough sentencing policies expand prison populations in the years ahead," according to a March 2013 report in the Globe and Mail.
Out of sight, out of mind. Solitary confinement is the part of the criminal justice system least accessible to media awareness and public accountability, although there are occasional chinks in the walls. Former federal inmate Bobby Lee Worm, who won a settlement with the government for her treatment after spending three and half of her six-year sentence in solitary, described her experience in a May press conference in Vancouver. "Solitary confinement does one thing. It breaks a person's will to live. Being locked up like that you feel like you're losing your mind. The only contact with another human is through a food slot. Days turn into nights and into days and you don't know if you'll ever get out," Worm said.
Correctional Service of Canada had a protocol of prolonged and indefi-nite solitary confinement for female prisoners deemed to be "high risk." After Worm posted her lawsuit, the federal government abandoned the segregation of women for indefinite periods. Hopefully this indicates that the part of the criminal justice system least amenable to public accountability can still be nudged into modern times. Considering the Harper government's enthusiasm for American models of penal servitude, continuing pressure will be required to keep them from building a bridge to the 16th century.