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On Soul-Killing Solitary

by Abby Zimet

Belatedly, inadequately, the issue of solitary confinement has been seeping into the news - with the Pelican Bay hunger strikes, the story of Herman Wallace and the Angola Three, the willingness of the U.N. to declare such long-term isolation - from time, touch, speech, light, all human contact - torture, and legislative attempts to curb it. More searing testimony from Five Omar Mualimm-ak, a prison reform activist who served almost 12 years in prison, over five of them in solitary, "out of sight and invisible to other human beings - and eventually, even to myself," for "offenses" like having too many postage stamps, eating all an apple, or not eating enough - "refusing to eat."

"Yet neither a judge nor a jury of my peers handed down this sentence to me. Each of the tormented 23 hours per day that I spent in a bathroom-sized room, without any contact with the outside world, was determined by prison staff... I never committed one act of violence during my entire sentence. Instead, a series of "tickets", or disciplinary write-ups for prison rule violations, were punished with a total of more than five years in "the box". In New York, guards give out tickets like penny candy... I received an endless stream of tickets, each one more absurd than the last....One day, I ate an entire apple – including the core – because I was starving for lack of nutrition. I received a ticket for eating the core, since apple seeds contain arsenic, as spelled out in the prison handbook. The next time I received an apple, fearful of another ticket, I simply left it on the tray. I received a ticket for "refusing to eat."