Archive for April, 2009

090330_r18075_p233 In the March 30 issue of the New Yorker, Atul Gawande asks the question, “Is solitary confinement torture?” His compelling answer, supported by personal accounts from prisoners, is an unequivocal “Yes.” Gawande’s article mainly focuses on the stories of two American prisoners isolated for years with hardly any human contact, even from guards. The mental toll that solitary confinement takes on these men is readily apparent; one man sets his tiny cell on fire multiple times while the other becomes obsessed with revenge fantasies involving his captors. Gawande notes that locking people up in isolation for long periods of time makes them mentally unstable– they lose the ability to interact normally with others and often the will to live.

Today, solitary confinement is no longer limited to temporary punishment for unruly prisoners; it has influenced correctional design so fundamentally that entire institutions are built with the purpose of keeping inmates isolated from one another at all times.  These supermax prisons, or Special Housing Units (SHU), have become favored prison models in the United States.  Laura Sullivan of National Public Radio estimates that at least 25,000 inmates are currently serving their sentences in solitary confinement, locked up for 23 hours a day with only one hour allotted for exercise alone in a small concrete yard. In non-supermax prisons, suspected gang members are routinely thrown into solitary in a weak effort to dilute violence within the general population, while other times solitary is imposed arbitrarily or for minor offenses. The worst instance of solitary confinement nationwide comes from the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, where two men, Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox,  each spent 36 years in isolation, a situation Amnesty International declared “cruel, inhuman, and degrading.”

For more information about the history of solitary confinement, click here. Also, read NPR’s fascinating three-part series on solitary confinement, which highlights Pelican Bay Prison in California, one of the U.S.’s most notorious supermax prisons.


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20090204-steve-henley-executedThe Tennessean recently made an interesting journalistic decision: they ran an opinion piece from a staff reporter about her experience covering the February execution of a man named Steve Henley — from a prison witness room occupied by both Henley’s family members and several journalists. The witness room of the death chamber is a place that only prison officials, reporters, and loved ones of the condemned are allowed to enter; most stories reported from there focus on botched executions or grieving family members of the victims. Instead, Kate Howard’s article is a moving depiction of the suffering endured by Henley’s family as they watched him die via lethal injection, told from the fascinating perspective of a journalist in the difficult position of watching and documenting a human being’s final moments.

This article is only available via purchase from The Tennessean website for $2.95, but here are some of the particularly memorable parts:

I spent an hour, an extremely awkward hour, getting shuffled with Steve’s family from one concrete, clockless conference room to another while they counted down the minutes. The warden of Riverbend Maximum Security Institution had brought us into the room himself and let us know right off the bat there were no interviews on these premises. There were six of us intruding on those sacred moments, media witnesses who were told to stay silent…

His pastor, a staunch anti-death penalty advocate, said she couldn’t believe this was really happening after all these years. His son Greg, who said he didn’t comprehend reading that well, was repeating over and over the statement he planned to give later to the press, trying to commit it to memory.

“I forgive the state of Tennessee for executing my daddy. I forgive the state of Tennessee for executing my loving daddy. I forgive the state of Tennessee for executing my loving daddy, and I want you to know he is an innocent man.”…

The blinds were lifted, and Henley was strapped to the gurney. A microphone was coming down from the ceiling for his last statement. He raised his head, turned to see his family, and stuck out his tongue. With his hands strapped down, he tried to blow a kiss. He made his statement. He said he was sorry for what Fred and Edna went through, but he didn’t do it. He said he hoped this procedure would give some peace to them and their family, although he didn’t believe death brought anything but pain. He said he was an innocent man.


His family began to sob. They stood by the window, shouted to him. He told them to quit crying, called them a pitiful bunch. He told them – perhaps his pastor especially – to never quit. “I feel it coming,” he shouted from the death chamber. His head was already down, he snored a few times and went silent. In the witness chamber, it was chaos. They were screaming, sobbing. His daughter began to throw up. His sister and his pastor joined together in the Lord’s Prayer, so impassioned that even the pastor stumbled over the words.

I bit my lip and furiously wrote, knowing my notes were never going to match my memory or capture what was happening in that moment. The color drained from his face. He started to turn blue. And slowly it grew quiet in the witness chamber, too.

Don’t cry. Don’t cry.

I looked at the other reporters. They were still writing. Soon Henley’s sister turned and stared me and the others straight in the face. “Not a tear in anyone’s eye back there,” she said to nobody in particular. “Don’t human life mean nothing to you? You’re like a pack of dogs.”

Not surprisingly, Howard’s piece drew significant public response, including many criticisms for sympathizing with a man who allegedly killed two people. But in an interview with 1 in 100, Howard expressed that she was glad she wrote the story, though she won’t discuss any personal views on capital punishment in order to remain as objective as possible. Her words on the experience:

After a long night and filing my story at 4 a.m. after the execution, I went home and crashed. I took the next day off, but I sat down and wrote mostly because I had spoken with so many colleagues about covering the execution beforehand and thought I’d answer everyone’s questions at once. So I wrote my recollections and posted it to Facebook, where it was read by my executive editor.

He said he wanted very much to publish it as a first-person opinion piece on Sunday’s Issues page. The intention was to put another, less formal version of the events and to essentially allow readers where they’re likely to never go: inside the death chamber.

The public response was tremendous and extremely varied. I got calls and emails in the hundreds. Some were extremely vitriolic, and thought it insensitive to the family of the man’s victims or a piece vilifying the death penalty. Many anonymous commenters said that I’d feel differently if it were my loved ones who were killed by Mr. Henley. But many readers read it as I intended it to be: a heart-wrenching account of a family who killed nobody, watching the death of a father they still loved from behind a glass. I have never heard from Mr. Henley’s family or from the family of the victims, Fred and Edna Stafford.

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jim-webb2Jim Webb, a first-term Democratic senator in Virginia, announced new legislation this week that would create a National Criminal Justice Commission tasked with rigorously analyzing the criminal justice system and making recommendations for reforms in sentencing and prison policy.

Inspired by his experiences as a lawyer and journalist, Webb’s push for change has been described by many politicians and experts as nothing short of courageous.  Glenn Greenwald, a civil rights lawyer, wrote on Salon.com that “there are few things rarer than a major politician doing something that is genuinely courageous and principled, but Jim Webb’s impassioned commitment to fundamental prison reform is exactly that.”

Webb’s legislation is wide in scope– it addresses overcrowding, prison gangs, community safety, rehabilitation, prisoner health, and sentencing for nonviolent offenses, to name a few. Here are the main concerns that the National Criminal Justice Commission will tackle, according to Webb’s website:

  • With 5% of the world’s population, our country now houses 25% of the world’s reported prisoners.
  • Incarcerated drug offenders have soared 1200% since 1980.
  • Four times as many mentally ill people are in prisons than in mental health hospitals.
  • Approximately 1 million gang members reside in the U.S., many of them foreign-based; and Mexican cartels operate in 230+ communities across the country.
  • Post-incarceration re-entry programs are haphazard and often nonexistent, undermining public safety and making it extremely difficult for ex-offenders to become full, contributing members of society.

Webb will face a difficult road in both assembling the Commission and implementing the policy reforms it suggests. Contact Senator Webb and express your support for his brave approach to prison reform:

Senator Jim Webb
1501 Lee Highway
Suite 130
Arlington, VA 22209
Toll-Free 1-866-507-1570

Contact your own senators and urge them to publicly endorse Senator Webb’s legislation by clicking here.

Listen to an NPR interview with Jim Webb, read a fact sheet about the legislation, or read his upcoming article in PARADE magazine.

**Update: In the June 15 issue of Newsweek, Dahlia Lithwick argues why focusing on prison reform in the United States is more important than the issue of Guantanamo. Features a nice summary of Jim Webb’s proposed legislation.**

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