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  • Doug Tjapkes

Speaking of solitary confinement, Albert holds the record for life in the hole!

The problem with writing about a subject like solitary confinement is that sometimes I can’t let it go. Just a few days ago I posted a piece exposing shameful solitary confinement numbers in Michigan, now I’m back again, like a bad penny. I bumped into a story in the Guardian US, an on-line British newspaper. It told about an old guy who spent almost 40 years in solitary confinement! And this happened in Louisiana’s notorious Angola Prison where, for years, some religious leaders touted how Christianity was making a difference in improving the lives of prisoners. Former Warden Burl Cain had invited the New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary to set up a Bible college in the prison. Other states, upon hearing Warden Cain’s claims of success, followed suit. Right here in western Michigan, Calvin Theological Seminary has been sending students to Angola for more than a decade. Calvin University and Calvin Seminary now operate a for-credit college program in Ionia, Michigan. But back to Angola... Ed Pilkington, chief reporter for Guardian US, wrote a compelling piece about a former prisoner named Albert Woodfox who, for almost 44 years, lived alone in a 6 by 9-foot concrete box: America’s longest-serving solitary confinement prisoner! It’s all told in his book, Solitary, published just two years ago and now a Pulitzer finalist. Woodfox was released 5 years ago this month, on his 69th birthday...43 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit. What I really want to stress, as I did yesterday, is that Solitary confinement is torture. Writer Pilkington says that, in his book, Woodfox explains how he preserved his sanity: He immersed himself in prison library books by Frantz Fanon, Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey. He studied law for his appeals. He organised math tests and spelling bees, played chess and checkers, shouting quiz questions and board moves through the bars of his cell to fellow solitary prisoners down the tier. His proudest achievement was teaching another inmate to read. “Our cells were meant to be death chambers but we turned them into schools, into debate halls,” Woodfox told me. “We used the time to develop the tools that we needed to survive, to be part of society and humanity rather than becoming bitter and angry and consumed by a thirst for revenge.” Well, thankfully, Albert Woodfox survived, and I hope he wins the Pulitzer. But you just know there’s some damage to the man’s mind. He says he’s feeling long-term damage inflicted by those conditions...conditions the UN have denounced as psychological torture. Citizens for Prison Reform is to be commended for efforts to reduce solitary confinement in Michigan prisons. We may not treat people this way. As for Angola, I’m in no position to say that Christianity did or did not make an impact on lives of prisoners. It certainly didn’t on the life of Albert Woodfox.

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