I should have been writing about the solitary confinement of prisoners in America long before this and I have been prompted to take pen to paper by the gratifying news that at long last this most cruel but unfortunately usual form of punishment in America is at last on the political agenda.
(A note of explanation to Irish readers: IRA and Loyalist prisoners regularly experienced solitary confinement in places like the Maze but nothing like what exists in America; paramilitary prisoners could face a few weeks ‘on the board’ and consider themselves hard done by. In America it is not unusual for terms of solitary confinement to last for years; in California the average is 6.8 years; 78 prisoners there have spent more than 20 years in solitary. In Louisiana, the Angola Three have spent between 29 and 40 years in solitary. The federal jails can be worse: one prisoner has spent 28 years in solitary. Compared to this the Maze was a Butlin’s holiday camp!)
That the reform of solitary is being discussed seriously and with a view to reform is due in no small measure to the heroic efforts of a couple of friends of mine, Jim Ridgeway, who is something of a legend in American journalism, and Jean Casella who a few years back created the website ‘Solitary Watch’ to highlight this uniquely American form of prison torture which at the most recent count, in 2005, had over 80,000 prisoners in solitary confinement.
American prisons, as Jessica Mitford wrote four decades ago, are a business, except nowadays a huge and very profitable business which relies on a steady stream of mostly African-Americans being incarcerated, often for extraordinarily lengthy terms to generate income and dividends for the corporations that own and run America’s prisons.
Many are convicted on drugs charges that are disproportionately leveled at Blacks rather than Whites; for example recommended sentences for possession white powder cocaine, the drug du jour of Wall Street are considerably less than for crack cocaine, widely regarded as the drug of the ghetto.
In the antebellum South, Black slaves were exploited for huge profit in the cotton fields of Mississippi and Alabama; thanks to America’s draconian drug laws, their offspring perform the same function for the likes of the Corrections Corporation of America in 2014. It’s not called slavery any more but it might as well be.
At the last count some two million people were incarcerated in America; to put that in perspective, that is twenty-five per cent of the world’s jail inmates from a country that has only five per cent of the globe’s population, the largest per capita prison population in the world, a captive and cheap source of labour.
I know that Jim & Jean will not welcome being singled out for their role in highlighting the horrors of solitary confinement but the fact is that when they started their website, it was one of those subjects that was so far down the agenda in this country that it seemed, at least to me, very unlikely to make an impact.
It was a bit like campaigning for gay rights in the 1950’s; laudable and worthy but marginal.
The sad truth is that this is a law and order country which elevates its police and security agencies to an unreal status. There is also a disturbing toleration of cruel punishment in the criminal justice system which ranges from obscenely long sentences to solitary confinement, sometimes for decades. And of course there is capital punishment.
The conventional wisdom always was that tampering with the system of solitary confinement was a political taboo. Inflicting such punishment was so popular with the voters that no politician would dare suggest changing it.
But the winds of change are gently blowing through parts of America. Fewer and fewer States execute prisoners for instance and now New York has announced a major reform of the solitary confinement system while the US Senate is holding hearings that are so well attended they have had to move to a larger room. Other States are debating change. The mainstream media has also started to show an interest and coverage is widening. It is as if Americans are beginning to realise the shame such practices bring upon their country.
None of this was happening when Jim & Jean started their work. They saw the change coming before others and then helped speed it up,. They say that for mountains to move, thousands of pebbles must first roll down the hillsides. As pebbles go, ‘Solitary Watch’ has done one hell of a job.
Below is a fascinating if disturbing video interview with Sam Mandez who spent over 15 years in solitary. His story is an awful indictment of the American prison business.