America’s Invisible Inferno

Albert Woodfox (right), accompanied by his brother Michel Mable, leaving West Feliciana Parish Detention Center in Louisiana after forty-three years in solitary confinement, February 2016
Billy Sothern
Albert Woodfox (right), accompanied by his brother Michel Mable, leaving West Feliciana Parish Detention Center in Louisiana after forty-three years in solitary confinement, February 2016

If you look inside a solitary confinement cell such as the ones I have visited in New York’s Sing Sing prison, you’ll see a gray-walled, eight-by-eight-foot room with a concrete slab bed; it’s underground, more like a tomb than a cell. The light is always on. Usually there aren’t any windows, but there is a toilet (no toilet seat or paper) and a shower.

The solitary cell is home to a single prisoner, twenty-three or twenty-four hours a day; the extreme isolation and sensory deprivation imposed by the cell can last for days, months, years, or decades on end. Someone who visits a solitary cell might not notice the feces or the urine that leaks from the cells above, down the walls into a puddle on the floor. He or she would not be shown prisoners mutilating themselves or fighting guards or one another to the death, or men in their underwear, or naked, shackled by their hands to the bottom of bunks, deprived of books, paper, radio, pens, or pencils. I have represented a range of defendants in constitutional and criminal cases during the last fifty years, and my clients who have spent time in solitary consistently testify to having witnessed, or been subjected to, these abuses.

They describe being shackled to their bunks by their feet and hands, and moved from place to place like animals. They report being fed slop and also left without food in a state of extreme hunger. They tell me that hooded guards, armed with tasers and bats, in body armor and riot gear, extract prisoners from their cells and leave them lying on the floor, beaten, bruised, and unexamined by doctors. Once you see—and smell—a solitary cell, you will never forget it.

I first saw a solitary cell at Sing Sing in 1963, when I went to visit Fred Wood, an inmate there. (Mr. Wood, who had the odd distinction of being the next-to-last man executed by New York State, laughed as he sat down in the electric chair and said, “You are about to witness the damaging effect electricity has on wood.”) Since then, I have had many occasions to visit clients and talk with inmates in solitary cells in federal and state facilities throughout the country. Each of the many solitary cells I saw was an abomination.

Hell Is a Very Small Place: Voices from Solitary Confinement is a collection of seventeen essays by men and women who have been held in solitary confinement in American federal and state prisons. They were collected by Jean Casella,…


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