Last Friday saw the release of Alfred Woodfox from the infamous Angola penitentiary, after serving four decades in solitary confinement. Here is Woodfox’s former fellow inmate Walter Rideau, writing in an essay for Mother Jones magazine: “Having spent 12 years like that, I’ll tell you: Life in the vacuum of a cell is spirit-killing, mind-altering, and the zenith in human cruelty. That Woodfox and others like him have survived their experience mentally and emotionally intact is nothing short of miraculous because an isolation cell is designed to break you.”
Lisa Guenther, summarizing her excellent book Solitary Confinement: Social Death and Its Afterlives, expands on how this breakage unfolds. The images are from a special exhibition sponsored by Architects/Designers/Planners for Social Responsibility, exploring the relationship between architecture and human rights.
Way back in 1842, after a visit to the panopticon-penitentiary in Philadelphia, Charles Dickens took note of the silent cruelty inflicted upon inmates inside the regime of total isolation, and its ghastly signs and tokens:
Though the prison itself may be in ruins, the ideas that it once so perfectly expressed within architectural space remain very much alive. The evidence of severe psychological damage is overwhelming; not acting in the fact of such evidence raises the question as to whether our grotesque regime of incarceration actually applauds such devastation to the mind and soul as a job well done.
We leave the last words to Albert Woodfox: “You go through this psychological self-analysis and then you start talking to yourself, telling yourself that you are strong enough. Just trying to push these walls back and the ceiling back with the force of mind.”