Picture a box measuring roughly 6.5 by 9 feet. Imagine sitting in that box, 23 hours a day, for 40 years. For most, that describes a claustrophobic nightmare. For Albert Woodfox, 64, and Herman Wallace, 69, it describes their everyday lives. The two have been held in solitary confinement, with limited outside communication, at the Louisiana State Penitentiary since 1972. Their crime? Murdering a prison guard nearly four decades ago.
Woodfox and Wallace aren't the only ones outraged by the prolonged isolation. As AFP reports, the cases are ruffling some international feathers. Amnesty International has called for the immediate termination of the prisoners' isolation.
According to Guadalupe Marengo, Amnesty's Americas deputy director, the organization believes the treatment to be "cruel and inhumane and a violation of the US's obligations under international law."
As the organization's investigation into the cases shows, both men have been denied any "meaningful review of the reasons for their isolation." Four hours a week they are allowed to leave their cells to shower, or take a walk along the corridor. The men’s lawyers told the human rights organization that both are suffering from serious health problems caused, or aggravated, by their years of solitary confinement. They also claim that the two men may not have been guilty in the first place:
"No physical evidence linking the men to the guard’s murder has ever been found; potentially exculpatory DNA evidence has been lost; and the convictions were based on questionable inmate testimony. Over the years of litigation on the cases, documents have emerged suggesting that the main eyewitness was bribed by prison officials into giving statements against the men and that the state withheld evidence about the perjured testimony of another inmate witness. A further witness later retracted his testimony."
In April of 2010, National Geographic aired a documentary which explored the psychological effects of prolonged solitary confinement. They found that the brain processes loneliness in the same location as physical pain, and that being cut off from others can be so painful that prisoners are prone to extreme actions (such as self-mutilation and extreme violence) in order to connect with those outside their cells. Moreover, they found that it doesn't simply cause temporary impulsivity, but actually changes how their brains function entirely.
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In 1913, solitary confinement was ruled in the US as ineffective and cruel and was abandoned by the Eastern State Penitentiary as well as most of the world. However, in reaction to increased prisoner violence at a federal prison in Marion IL, it quickly made a comeback in the 1970's. Currently more than 80,000 Americans are in solitary confinement, which usually includes a 15 minute computer-controlled shower, and an hour exercising alone as their only release from their cells.
After 40 years of their similar routines, both Woodfox and Wallace have entered lawsuits against the penitentiary, claiming that their treatment qualifies as "cruel and unusual punishment" and therefore violates the US constitution.
Until the cases are reviewed, Amnesty International urges authorities to make sure the treatment of the prisoners complies with international standards.