Tuesday, July 05, 2016

Frontline: Solitary Nation



If you've been a regular reader of this blog for a while, you know that I've been going into prisons and talking with prisoners and ex-prisoners since 1970. The first in-depth conversation I had on the topic was in San Francisco where I was writing for an underground newspaper and wound up spending an afternoon listening to a guy named Popeye Doyle talk about life inside. I never saw him again and I read years later on the internet that he was ultimately stabbed to death in some kind of disagreement. But I bought a ticket on the Prison Express during that first conversation and, while it has stopped at many stations, I've never really gotten off the train.

The result of all this intensity: the letters, the phone calls, the transcripts, the cases, the courtrooms, the frantic mothers, the desperate girlfriends, the hollow-eyed children, all the stories I've heard about all the nightmares they've lived through never quite leave me. And I have been affected.  The pain prisoners have shared with me runs deeper than the stories they've told me. They bring it to me with their eyes or a certain quality in their voices. The pain burrows deep in my soul where I can't root it out. They can look in my eyes and they know it.

If you spend a lot of time around prisoners and ex-prisoners, as I have done, the subject of solitary confinement is liable to pop up casually, but with great portent. The first time I heard it mentioned, I said something offhand about never having noticed before a freckle or a mole or something on my arm. Instantly, the man I was talking to snorted, "Well, I can tell you've never been in the hole." And the stories that ensued were meant to prepare me to handle "hole time" should I eventually need to.

A couple of years later, as one member of a team going into a maximum security men's penitentiary by court order, the administration had to let me visit a man who had spent five years in a tiny cell alone in the basement of a building in the dark side of a hill. They took me down there and we had our visit in the semi-darkness with me standing directly in front of the cell and nothing but steel bars between us.

So I can't close out this series on criminal injustice without including a post on solitary confinement. I visited Black Panther Albert Woodfox -- who spent 43 years in the hole -- for seven of those years until he was released in February. I got a text message from him yesterday saying he's going to be in New Orleans soon, can we have lunch?  I had to laugh. He's taken well to being free, but I'm still doing what I do with my focus now on the others still inside, in court, in solitary.

I tried to watch the video above to make sure it's a good one. I know Frontline has the money to do it up right, but they also tend to try to be "objective" (which usually means making authorities look nicer than they really are and systems like they're simply unavoidable). But I couldn't get past the first ten minutes. If I put those images in my head, I won't be able to get rid of them. And I have work to do. I need my sanity, such as it is, as long as I can hold onto it.
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Note: For more on solitary confinement as torture, go to Democracy Now! for Amy Goodman's report on "A School for Suicide": How Kalief Browder Learned to Kill Himself During 3 Years At Rikers Island.

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