When Woodfox was eighteen, he was arrested for robbing a bar and sentenced to fifty years in prison.
Two weeks after Miller’s death, the four men were charged with murder. There was an abundance of physical evidence at the crime scene, none of which linked them to the killing. A bloody fingerprint near Miller’s body did not match any of theirs.
Woodfox often woke up gasping. He felt that the walls of the cell were squeezing him to death, a sensation that he began to experience the day after his mother’s funeral, in 1994. He had planned to go to the burial — prisoners at Angola are permitted to attend the funerals of immediate family — but at the last minute his request was denied. For three years, he slept sitting up, because he felt less panicked when he was vertical. “It takes so much out of you just to try to make these walls, you know, go back to the normal place they belong,” he told a psychologist. “Someday I’m not going to be able to deal with it. I’m not going to be able to pull those walls apart.”
Woodfox is reserved, humble, and temperamentally averse to drama. When he talked about himself, his tone became flat. He was scheduled to speak at a panel on solitary confinement the next day, and he felt exhausted by the prospect. “I get apprehensive when somebody asks me something I can’t answer, like ‘What does it feel like to be free?’ ” he said. “How do you want me to know how it feels to be free?” He’d developed a stock answer to the question: “Ask me in twenty years.”
At The New Yorker, Rachel Aviv profiles Albert Woodfox, a man originally sentenced to 50 years in prison for robbery. A member of the Black Panthers and the Angola 3, Woodfox spent over four decades in solitary confinement, despite a stunning lack of evidence against him in a prison murder.
Imagine you’re locked in the cell, and don’t know if you’ll ever get out.
Imagine a corridor flanked by closed, windowless cells. Each cell may be so small that, inside, you can extend your arms and touch both walls at the same time. The cell contains a bunk, perhaps a solid block of poured concrete, with a thin plastic mattress, a stainless steel toilet, maybe a small table and stool. A few personal possessions—books, paper and pencil, family photos—may be permitted, or they may not. The door to the cell is solid steel.
Imagine you’re locked in the cell, and don’t know if you’ll ever get out. Three times a day, a food tray slides in through a slot in the door; when that happens, you may briefly see a hand, or exchange a few words with a guard. It is your only human contact for the day. A few times a week, you are allowed an hour of solitary exercise in a fenced or walled yard about the same size as your cell. The yard is empty and the walls block your view, but if you look straight up, you can catch a glimpse of sky.
Imagine that a third to a half of the people who live in this place suffer from serious mental illness. Some entered the cells with underlying psychiatric disabilities, while others have been driven mad by the isolation. Some of them scream in desperation all day and night. Others cut themselves, or smear their cells with feces. A number manage to commit suicide in their cells. Read more…
In a perverse tribute to human endeavor, solitary confinement began as a reform. Thinkers in Britain, the Netherlands, and the United States in the late 18th and early 19th centuries imagined that it might be possible to induce criminals to change from within, especially if they could be kept isolated from one another and from the corruptions of the outside world. The philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s famous design for a Panopticon—a circular prison with a central “inspection house” that allowed authorities to look into any cell at any time—was predicated on the idea that the prisoner under constant surveillance would internalize authority’s gaze, and cease misbehaving.
The Panopticon itself was never built, but Bentham’s ideas of solitary confinement and penitent reflection appealed to Pennsylvania Quakers, who incorporated them into an idea for a new kind of prison that was built. Philadelphia’s huge Eastern State Penitentiary, completed in 1829 and still standing, deviated from the Panopticon by making no cell visible to any other; rather, cells were located in corridors that radiated like spokes on a wheel from a central hall. Each cell had a Bible, and each prisoner was given piecework jobs. Cultivators of silence, the Quakers believed that isolation would help criminals mend their ways. The Pennsylvania system was copied all over the world, and the word “penitentiary” became universal.
One reason for the rapid spread is that the new penitentiaries appeared to be an advance over capital and corporal punishment, which had been the main penalties up to that time. As Michel Foucault observed, the locus of punishment shifted from a criminal’s body to a criminal’s mind. Reformers in England believed they had found in solitary confinement the “most terrible penalty” short of death that a society could inflict—and yet, in their view, the penalty was also “the most humane.” It turned out that the therapeutic value of isolation was negligible; in fact, solitary confinement made prisoners worse, to the point of driving many of them mad. The penitentiaries were successful, however, in inflicting punishment and keeping prisoners away from society—which, people felt, was on the whole a bargain.
The writer, a former American prisoner in Iran, goes inside America’s prisons and examines the solitary confinement system. He discovers “a recipe for abuse and violation rights”:
The cell I am standing in is one of eight in a ‘pod,’ a large concrete room with cells along one side and only one exit, which leads to the guards’ control room. A guard watches over us, rifle in hand, through a set of bars in the wall. He can easily shoot into any one of six pods around him. He communicates with prisoners through speakers and opens their steel grated cell doors via remote. That is how they are let out to the dog run, where they exercise for an hour a day, alone. They don’t leave the cell to eat. If they ever leave the pod, they have to strip naked, pass their hands through a food slot to be handcuffed, then wait for the door to open and be bellycuffed.
I’ve been corresponding with at least 20 inmates in SHUs around California as part of an investigation into why and how people end up here. While at Pelican Bay, I’m not allowed to see or speak to any of them. Since 1996, California law has given prison authorities full control of which inmates journalists can interview. The only one I’m permitted to speak to is the same person the New York Times was allowed to interview months before. He is getting out of the SHU because he informed on other prisoners. In fact, this SHU pod—the only one I am allowed to see—is populated entirely by prison informants. I ask repeatedly why I’m not allowed to visit another pod or speak to other SHU inmates. Eventually, Acosta snaps: ‘You’re just not.’