Tuesday, April 28, 2009

There's a Fire Truck on My Ceiling: Windi Earthworm Remembered

Windi Earthworm was an institution of the radical anglo left in 1980s Montreal. A crossdressing openly gay street musician who took it upon himself to educate the public about the Vancouver 5, the genocide of Indigenous peoples, the destruction of nature, and the miseries of life under capitalism, Windi was a frequent performer at benefits put on by the scene. Indeed, generally he was by far the most popular act.

Michael Ryan has written the following for my new webpage memorial to Windi, who died of AIDS in 1993:

There's a Fire Truck on My Ceiling

In 1978, the first time I met Windi Earthworm, he was sweeping (there’s no other word for it) out of the apartment of a mutual friend as I was entering, his grinning face framed by a flaming bush of hennaed red hair, wearing a loose-fitting shirt and a skirt your mama would’ve died for. A quick introduction and he was gone.

It wasn’t the first time I had seen Windi, mind you. I was familiar with him as the most idiosyncratic and mesmerizing of Montreal’s legion of buskers. Among the Dylan and Beatles covers, the occasional tasteful jazz or classical and the many traditional Latin American bands playing for quarters, Windi stood out. Aggressive, frenetically in motion, chiding, cajoling, even baiting his audiences – sometimes in drag, not feminine drag, no one would have mistaken Windi for a woman, this was a guy in a dress. His lyrics were hard and real and torn from his own life: drug deaths, homophobic attacks, militant resistance, street youth suicides, slumlords, ravaged prostitutes. But Windi wasn’t just some street poet of the underbelly, and his relationship to the street wasn’t reserved for his riveting performances. Many were the frightened young people who ate his food and slept on his couch, or perhaps you’d see him on the street dressed in his nun’s habit, so realistic that I once heard the cops address him as sister, handing out condoms or clean syringes. Never as part of a movement. Windi didn’t do movements – movements had rules – Windi wasn’t very good at rules.

Eventually, Windi and I became good friends. Brought together by the Vancouver 5 defence campaign. Windi had known some of the 5 well during the period he had lived in Vancouver. But again, Windi didn’t join the Free the Five Defence Committtee – groups and all that. The Vancouver 5 simply became part of his act. When AIM activist Gary Butler was transferred to a Montreal area prison, some of us set up a support group; Windi developed a rant that became an overall lesson in the oppression of Native people in North America. How many people read the leaflets we so painstakingly created? How many people stopped to listen to Windi’s rant? I’m pretty sure Windi wins.

Then, when I was living in West Germany in 1985, a letter came from Windi. He’d been diagnosed HIV-positive, still a death sentence at the time. By the time I got back to Montreal a year later, Windi had moved to the country. He was living in a shack with no electricity or running water – and trust me, Quebec winters suck. He was raising chickens, had a few goats, a garden and a sheep dog named Taj. For the next few years, Windi was my source of eggs and occasional fresh vegetables.

When Windi’s health started to noticeably deteriorate, he left Quebec for the West Coast, settling in Victoria, B.C. He knew his time was short, and he had a daughter in B.C. he wanted to be closer to. Windi died in 1993; I had visited him in Victoria a few weeks before. The disease had ravaged him; his once long red hair was cut short, gray and wispy. He slept most of the time I was there. From Victoria, I went to Colorado to visit friends. Shortly after I left, Windi was hospitalized for the last time. Every couple of days, I would call the hospital and we’d make small talk – what really was there to say – he was dying, and we both knew it.

The last time I spoke to Windi, he was less than 24 hours from death and in the grip of dementia. The last thing he said to me was, “there’s a fire truck on my ceiling.” Of course there was.

Unlike Michael, i never knew Windi very well - by the time i left home and joined the anglo anarchist scene in Montreal in 1986, he had the somewhat unreal quality of being well-known and well-loved by almost everyone i met, and yet he just wasn't around so much any more. So apart from a few casual conversations in friends' homes, at the Café Commun/Commune, at the Art dans la Rue anarchist arts festival, i never really knew him.

So i guess like many others, my relationship to Windi was a relationship to his music. And of course to stories of his exploits - stories that he himself would recount as he performed - the mental image i have constructed of his chaining himself to Anita Bryant is as real as if i had seen it with my own eyes. But over time he became to me someone who existed as his music, recorded on tapes that slowly degraded as they were played year-in-and-year-out. (Don't believe what anyone tells you: the advent of mp3s was a very good thing as far as recorded music was concerned!) And then finally, most likely in the fire that gutted the apartment i was living in back in the early nineties, the tapes themselves were no more.

So when my pal loaded up my usb key with music earlier this year, and i saw folders full of Windi's music, it was a both very pleasant and surprising! i'd just assumed those old bootleg tapes were the only form the music had existed in, while in fact people had been translating them into mp3s and sharing them around, quietly and low-key, amongst his friends and family.

These mp3s of Windi's music were recorded in the 1980s, one set live at the Café Commun/Commune - a collectively run restaurant that was cornerstone of the anglo radical left at the time - the other, Alive!, was a collection of some of Windi's favourite tunes, assembled as a demo in the hope of drumming up potential shows or possibly even a recording contract.

They are made available here with the permission of Windi's daughter.

Windi Earthworm -
Live at Café Commun/Commune

Windi Earthworm

click on the above links to play the song - right-click to download or else click on the following to download all of the above in a great big zipfile (203mb)

Working on putting up the Windi Earthworm Remembered webpage, i googled Windi to see if there was anything up on the net i should be aware of. While there are a few mentions, as of this writing it's not much.

i did find two articles mentioned at the National Archives, which i went down and photocopied. They're both from Montreal gay newspapers from the 80s, and both are in French. Each in their own way, they both recount the constant harassment Windi endured from the Montreal police, who would routinely arrest him for playing on the street - and this despite the fact that he paid to have a permit to do so. As he explains in the audio news report accessible here, "I draw a large crowd, I sing anti-socially I suppose as far as the police are concerned, I am a transvestite at times and that does stir up the police's blood I think..."

You can read these two articles here:

With the help of google, i learned that there is also a brief entry in Lesbian and Gay Liberation in Canada: A Selected Annotated Chronology , 1964-1975, that in May 1975 one John Windi "a.k.a. Windi Earthworm" was the first chairperson of the newly established Gay Information and Resources Calgary, a group that offered "weekly meetings, a speakers' bureau, political action, and a library."

Enticingly, i also learned that in 1986, Claude Ouellet produced a short film about Windi, entitled Ragged Clown, which was presented at the Gay Film Festival that year. (This film will hopefully be made available on the internet soon!)

More recently, Viviane Namaste has mentioned Windi in two of her books (C'était du spectacle!: l'histoire des artistes transsexuelles à Montréal and Invisible lives: the erasure of transsexual and transgendered people). Both times she refers to the same incident: in 1980 Windi (who had trained as a nurse) was refused employment by the Montreal General Hospital because he wore the "female" nurse's uniform. Seeking support for a human rights complaint, Windi approached l'Androgyne, Montreal's gay/lesbian/feminist at the time; but the bookstore collective refused to write a letter of support, citing the criticism that transsexuality was "sexist". (Note that by today's definitions, Windi clearly was not trans - he liked to be referred to as "he", he made no effort to pass, he stated that he would not perform at a women's festival "because that's for sisters" - but back in the day of course the term could easily have been used by and for someone who liked to dress in drag.)

Windi Earthworm lived at a time where it was still true that to be openly gay was to put yourself in opposition to the way the world was, no ideological hidden agenda required. And the leap to being not "just gay", but to seeing through the other lies of capitalist culture, was not so great as it is now. It was certainly a leap that more than one person made. It may be a different world today, but the lessons of our past, the joys and power of being yourself, of saying what you think, of sailing away from cookie-cutter America and not just hoping to recreate it, all these are worth remembering if not rediscovering.

And while you're at it, enjoy the music.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Homocide in Iraq

From Gaywired by way of IntelligentaIndigena:

Iraq is one of only nine countries in the world where homosexual people are executed simply for being gay. While the New York Times reports that Iraqis are now able to “enjoy freedoms unthinkable two years ago,” – women are able to walk the streets unveiled and families can now gather in parks – the atrocities committed against gay men demonstrate that the country is far from achieving acceptable human rights standards.

As the Times notes, “The relative freedom of a newly democratic Iraq and the recent improvement in security have allowed a gay subculture to flourish here. The response has been swift and deadly.”

The months of February and March saw the bodies of 25 gay boys and men turn up in Sadr City. Most were shot, some many times, and several had notes attached to their bodies that read “pervert” in Arabic.

Towleroad recently provided a translation of a story from one UAE-based media network, which details a new horrific form of torture used against gay men. “Iraqi militias have deployed an unprecedented form of torture against homosexuals by using a very strong glue that will close their anus.” The substance “is known as the American hum, which is an Iranian-manufactured glue that if applied to the skin, sticks to it and can only be removed by surgery. After they glue the anuses of homosexuals, they give them a drink that causes diarrhea. Since the anus is closed, the diarrhea causes death. Videos of this form of torture are being distributed on mobile cell phones in Iraq.”

Thursday, April 23, 2009

10th Montreal Anarchist Bookfair: May 16-17 2009

Montreal's 10th Annual Anarchist Bookfair
MAY 16-17, 2009
at the CEDA, 2515 Delisle
(a short walk from Lionel-Groulx metro)

The Montreal Anarchist Bookfair -- and month-long Festival of Anarchy -- brings together anarchist ideas and practice, through words, images, music, theatre and day-to-day struggles for justice, dignity and collective liberation.

The Bookfair is as much for people who don't necessarily consider themselves anarchists, but are curious about anarchism, as it is a space for anarchists to meet, network and share in a spirit of respect and solidarity. All are welcome.

The Bookfair is organized in a spirit of openness towards the different traditions, visions, and practices of anarchism. Together we share a commitment to promoting anarchism through the values of mutual aid, grassroots democracy, direct action, autonomy and solidarity, while opposing oppression in all its forms. The Bookfair principles are linked here: http://www.anarchistbookfair.ca/en/node/4

The Bookfair is one of the largest anarchist events in North America, and for the past decade, an important gathering and reference point for anti-authoritarian ideas and practice. This year marks an important milestone for the Bookfair: our tenth anniversary.

For a list of workshops being presented at this year's bookfair: http://www.anarchistbookfair.ca/en/node/57

Accessibility Statement: http://www.anarchistbookfair.ca/en/node/6

If you have other ideas for the Bookfair or Festival of Anarchy, don't hesitate to get in touch with a proposal! Contact us to receive regular updates and announcements by e-mail.

Montreal's Anarchist Bookfair
1500 de Maisonneuve Ouest, Suite 204
Montréal, Québec, H3G 1N1

e-mail: info@anarchistbookfair.ca
web: www.anarchistbookfair.ca

Nous parlons français.
Se habla español.

May 2009: Montreal's Festival of Anarchy!

Every year May is "Festival of Anarchy" month in Montreal, a series of events orbiting the annual anarchist bookfair) this year held the weekend of May 16-17).

The following is a list of the events planned so far:

-> Friday, MAY 1, 5:30pm

Demonstration Against Capitalism
Parc Cabot (corner Atwater and Ste-Catherine – métro Atwater)

As part of the growing worldwide demonstrations against the crisis, a demonstration against capitalism is being organized as part of the May 1st workers holiday. Gathering at 5:30pm, march at 6:30pm. The demonstration will march to the main offices of the Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec in the heart of the business district (1000, place Jean-Paul-Riopelle, in Vieux-Montréal). We will not pay for their crisis! Info: 1ermai2008@gmail.com

-> Friday, MAY 1, 8:30pm
Spectacle anticapitaliste
Petit Café Campus, 57 Prince-Arthur East

With: Paul Cargnello and the Frontline, Fred Dubonnet, Chaotic insurrection ensemble, members of Nomadic Massive, Micros Armés, Son un poco politicas. Doors at 8:30pm; suggested donation: $5. Info: 1ermai2008@gmail.com

-> Friday, MAY 1 to Sunday, MAY, 31
Exhibition of the art of Tournesol Plante
Divan Orange, 4234 St-Laurent, corner Rachel

Throughout the month of May, during the Festival of Anarchy, local anarchist artist Tournesol Plante’s works will be on exhibit. The vernissage takes place on May 1 from 5-7pm. Info: anartiste1984@yahoo.ca

-> Monday, MAY 4, 7pm
Piracy and the Anarchist Movement: Between Myth and Reality
Carrefour d'éducation populaire, 2356 rue Centre (métro Charlevoix)

Today's anarchist movement often makes reference to the piracy of the 17th and 18th centuries, in its discourse, its lifestyle and its symbolism. However, what was the reality of this piracy? Do the egalitarian practices amongst pirates justify the references of today's anarchists? This workshop aims to provide a quick overview of the interesting and less interesting historical elements of piracy for today's anarchists. Organized by the popular education committees of the Autonomous Social Center and the People's Global Action (PGA) Bloc. Info: www.centresocialautogere.org

-> Tuesday, May 5 & Wednesday, May 6, 7pm
Anarchist Poetry Nights
at Quai des Brumes, 4481 rue St-Denis (métro Mt-Royal)

Each evening will have two parts: the first with invited poets, the latter with an open-mic. Free. Info: amouranarchie@live.ca

-> Tuesday, MAY 5 to Sunday, MAY 31
JUSTSEEDS Visual Resistance
Cagibi, 5490 St-Laurent

This month-long print show will cover the walls of Cagibi with over a hundred print works by members of the JUSTSEEDS Visual Resistance Artists' Cooperative. Info: www.justseeds.org

-> Saturday, MAY 9, 5:30pm
Immigrant Workers Center Mayworks Dinner
Parc Extension Community Center, 419 St-Roch (métro Parc)

Join the IWC and allies as they celebrate one year of immigrant worker struggles. Food, performances and presentations. Free. Info: iwc_cti@yahoo.com

-> Sunday, MAY 10, 8pm till late.
Vernissage, Art Appreciation and Dancing
Cagibi, 5490 St-Laurent

The official vernissage of the JUSTSEEDS exhibit at Cagibi. A coming together of artists, anarchists and friends. Welcome to all! Info: http://www.anarchistbookfair.ca/en/node/12

-> Monday, MAY 11, 5-7pm
Book Launch: “Lunch for Insurgents”
Casa del Popolo, 4873 boulevard St-Laurent

Author and performer Norman Nawrocki's newest collection of poetics in his 'Brain Food Trilogy'. Info: www.nothingness.org/music/rhythm

-> Wednesday, MAY 13 & Thursday, MAY 14, 7:30pm
The 4th Annual International Anarchist Theatre Festival
D.B. Clarke Theatre, 1455 de Maisonneuve West (métro Guy-Concordia)

The fourth annual Montreal International Anarchist Theatre Festival proudly presents two nights with New York’s legendary “The Living Theatre”. Wednesday night’s program also includes Maikan, the Innu giant puppet theatre troupe from Mali-Utenam (Québec). Thursday night’s performance includes Geneviève Letarte and La Chorale de la Maison La Virevolte et ses musiciens et musiciennes. Tickets are $15 at the door or in advance at L’Insoumise, 2033 boul St-Laurent (tel: 514- 313-3489). Info: anarchistefestival@yahoo.ca

-> Thursday, MAY 14, from 6pm
"Living as anarchists": From the "free milieux" to current practices
Rhizome, 1800 Létourneux, coin Lafontaine (métro Pie-IX)

At the close of the 19th century anarchists in France -men and women- "individualists", "communists", "naturists", created collective spaces, "free milieux" or anarchist colonies. Putting into practice communism, getting rid of all forms of authority, opting out of work, but also overturning different aspects of daily life: family, love, education, contraception, nutrition. These practices elicited a lot of questions on the ways and possibility of in the immediate, "living as anarchists". Workshop given by Céline, a French anarchist activist. Organized by la Mauvaise Herbe. Info: mauvaisherbe@riseup.net

-> FRIDAY, MAY 15, 8pm
L’Alizée, 900 Ontario est

Featuring anarchist stylin's from Montreal and abroad, including Benoît Tremble, Micros Armés, Testament, the Outspoken Wordsmiths, Willow and Mishka, FIE, and Don’t Put Charles on the Money, and many more still to be confirmed. The space is wheelchair accessible. Info: info@salonanarchiste.ca or 514-679-5800.

-> SATURDAY, MAY 16, 10am-6pm
CEDA, 2515 rue Delisle (métro Lionel-Groulx)

The Bookfair includes: films, art exhibits, introductory workshops, as well as over 100 distributors and tables from all over Montreal, Quebec & North America (and elsewhere). Free and welcome to all! What happens at the Montreal Anarchist Bookfair?: http://www.anarchistbookfair.ca/en/node/3

-> Saturday, MAY 16, 7pm
Party and BBQ after the Bookfair
behind 2033 St-Laurent (métro St-Laurent)

An after-Bookfair gathering for food, discussion and other festivities. In the courtyard of the Independent Media Center and the DIRA Anarchist Library. Info: http://www.cmi-imc.info

-> SUNDAY, MAY 17, 10am-5pm
CEDA, 2515 rue Delisle (métro Lionel-Groulx)

A full day of anarchist-themed workshops, panels and presentations. Confirmed topics and presentations include: The Crisis in Anarchist Publishing * Polinizaciones: Pollinating the North & South (with the Beehive Collective) * Anarchism and Ableism: Moving Towards Inclusion and Accessibility * Strategizing queer insurgency!: Re-centering marginalized queer issues from an anarchist perspective * Women and political violence: Assata Shakur and Ann Hansen

French workshops (with translation towards English): Résistance populaire et autogestion: Une stratégie pour les libertaires * Luttes urbaines et changement social * Économie politique d'un capitalisme en crise * Comprendre la criminalization de la contestation politique à partir des expériences au Canada, en Colombie et ailleurs * Organisation anti-capitaliste en milieu étudiant

Info: www.anarchistbookfair.ca

-> Sunday, MAY 17, 10pm
Glamarchist Lookfair: Q-Team Party and Fundraiser
Il Motore, 179 rue Jean-Talon Ouest
info: qteam@riseup.net

-> Monday, MAY 18, from 9am onwards
Jardin de la Liberté: Guerrilla gardening
Rendez-vous: at the end of rue Island
(beside the Lachine Canal in Point-St-Charles)

Guerrilla gardeners are gathering in Point-St-Charles, for a third direct action. The action will happen from 9am until the evening, with lunch served during the day. Info: http://www.lapointelibertaire.org/jardindelaliberte

-> Monday, MAY 18, 7:30-10pm
JUSTSEEDS Slideshow Presentation
Cagibi, 5490 St-Laurent

A multi-media slideshow presentation of radical and engaged print practices as well as the work of JUSTSEEDS Visual Resistance Artists' Cooperative, with presentations by Josh McPhee, author of Stencil Pirates: A Global Survey of Street Stenciling, and Erik Ruin, member of JustSeeds. Prints will be on sale. Info: http://www.anarchistbookfair.ca/en/node/12

-> Wednesday, MAY 20, 6pm
Roundtable: Research and Resistance
Cagibi, 5490 St-Laurent

A roundtable discussion on grassroots knowledge and struggle. Join us for an evening of short presentations by members of le Collectif de recherche sur l’autonomie collective (CRAC), the Community-University Research Exchange (CURE) and other groups, followed by a group discussion. Info: www.crac-kebec.org

-> Friday, MAY 22, 6pm.
Solidarity Across Borders (SAB) Community Dinner
At the Maison d'amitié, 120 Duluth East (métro Sherbrooke)

Welcome to all friends, allies and supporters of Solidarity Across Borders & migrant justice struggles in Montreal. Our community dinner will include a menu of tasty foods (both meat and vegetarian) prepared by members and supporters of Solidarity Across Borders. Don't hesitate to bring food to share. Dinner is served at 6pm (sharp!). Party and discussion to follow. Bring your kids! Kids activities planned on-site. Free. Info: 514-848-7583, www.solidarityacrossborders.org

-> Saturday, MAY 23, 7pm
Polinizaciones: Pollinating the North and South
Bar Populaire, 6584 St-Laurent (métro Beaubien)

A multimedia workshop on collective struggles in the North and South, with Projet Accompagnement Solidarité Colombie and the Beehive Collective. Info: www.pasc.ca

-> Wednesday, MAY 27, 8pm
Political documentaries under the stars
2033 St-Laurent (métro St-Laurent)

A presentation of two politically charged, locally produced full-length documentaries: “Myths for Profit: Canada's Role in Industries of War and Peace” and a sneak preview of 'H2Oil' about the Alberta Tar Sands. The screening will take place outside under the stars. Bring your blankets and enjoy two brand new critical and engaging films, both of which examine Canadian political and economic policies and realities. Rain or shine. Info: www.wideopenexposure.com , http://h2oildoc.com/home/

-> Friday, MAY 29, 5:30pm
Demonstration in support of the Autonomous Social Center
Rendez-vous: Parc-St-Gabriel, at métro Charlevoix

The Autonomous Social Center (Centre social autogéré) will be occupied and opened in an abandoned building in Pointe-St-Charles. A child-friendly demonstration. Info: www.centresocialautogere.org

-> Saturday, MAY 30, 8pm
Opening Party of the Autonomous Social Center
Location tba!

Various revolutionary musicians and artists will be performing at the newly opened Autonomous Social Center. Come and support the opening of a squat! Info: www.centresocialautogere.org

For more info about the Montreal Anarchist Bookfair and the Festival of Anarchy:
www.anarchistbookfair.ca - 514-679-5800 - info@anarchistbookfair.ca

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Financial Appeal for Robert Seth Hayes' Lawyer

Robert 'Seth' Hayes is one of the longest-held political prisoners in the USA.

A former member of the Black Panther Party and the BLA, in 1973, following a shootout with police, Seth was arrested and convicted of the murder of a New York City police officer, and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison. Seth has always maintained his innocence. Jailed for over 30 years, Seth has long since served the time he was sentenced to and while in prison he has worked as a librarian, pre release advisor, and AIDS councilor. He has remained drug and alcohol free throughout his entire period of incarceration and has maintained a charge free record in prison. Seth first came up for parole in 1998, but prison officials have refused to release him, and are effectively punishing him for having been a member of the Black Panther Party, and of having remained true to his ideals after 30 years behind bars.

As many of you know, this is an increasingly serious threat to those imprisoned during the 1960s, 70s and 80s. As these revolutionaries from the "sixties" cycle of struggle reach the end of their sentences, many (especially but not only in New York State) are being denied parole despite having had no disciplinary infractions while in prison for the past decades, but simply because of their continued commitment to radical politics.

Seth has recently retained the services of Attorney Cheryl Kates to address his parole appeal. It appears that her services will cost around $2,500.00 outside of unforeseen expenses; as a result we are launching this appeal to all supporters to send funds so that the operation of appeal can begin. Anything you can offer, in whatever amount will be greatly appreciated.

Please send donations care of Nate Buckley
438 Massachusetts ave. buffalo, NY 14213.

To learn more about Seth, visit http://www.sethhayes.org/

Literate Frequencies

i was chatting with an anarchist comrade at the recent bookfair in New York City, when he turned to my table and spotted one of my more in-your-face Marxist-Leninist books, a history of relations between white and Black revolutionary organizations in the united states, specifically of the mutually parasitic dynamics that can occur when people get lost in the forest of (false) nationalism/internationalism.

This comrade laughed when he spotted the book, shaking his head. "I love that book," he said. "Though you know I disagree with every single thing in it."

& i understood exactly what he meant, and didn't thing this was a silly statement.

While perhaps not as strongly, i have found myself feeling the same way about various books over the years, so i enjoyed the forthright manner in which the statement was made. It got me thinking: how can one love a book, while disagreeing with its arguments?

Books present arguments in a layered fashion. Normally the argument is couched in the form of a story, depending for its integrity on a number of facts spun together by the authors' words. There are honest and dishonest ways of weaving this web, and instructive and destructive ways of leading our minds to follow an argument.

Rather than thinking of this using the metaphor of layers - which in the material world we normally encounter one at a time - i think books actually reveal themselves to us more like sound, or perhaps music. Different instruments play at the same time in music, just as these different aspects of an author's message present themselves at the same time in a book.

Many of my favourite books became my favourites not because of the arguments made - which i often couldn't judge right away - but rather because of the author's implicit suppositions. It's as if behind the loudest noise there's another frequency, maybe one you can only pick up on slowly, more a method than a subtext, a way in which facts are chosen and related to each other.

An author shares not only what they think they see, but also how they see. You can end up disagreeing with the argument while learning a lot from the method, just as even a correct argument can be perverted by a dishonest method.

Authors tend to use the same method in their different works, which is probably why you can know you like or dislike a particular author without reading every one of their books. Method is more specific than genre (though i suppose the latter may form a grouping of a variety of related methods).

There is a point to this, that texts have these multiple aspects, that they communicate with us on multiple frequencies (to stay with the metaphor of sound) and that as such what we learn from them is... complex. Politically, i would say that normally the method by which an argument is presented is more important than the actual argument itself.

There is a disagreement i have had, again and again, over the years regarding what is and is not sectarian in terms of the literature i promote. i certainly won't promote just anything on the left, but there is no clear ideological guide to what arguments i will or will not be into. Two authors can make the same claim, and one will strike me as worth reading and the other one not. Multiple authors can make competing and disagreeing claims - take a look at the various leftist and anarchist newspapers for instance - and yet underlying these opposing views is often a unity of method - and more often that not, not a very good method at that!

So to identify a few aspects of method that i find useful, and that can occur (or be negated) in any kind (M-L or circle-A or left communist) of texts:

  • that the oppressed (not their vanguards or organizations or liberators, though these may exist no sarcasm intended) are themselves central to the story - indeed, the oppressed are the story;
  • that things look different with time, so to grasp what's really going on we need to unearth the commonalities while not descending into nowism;
  • reality is not teleological, i.e. it does not unwind like a didactic morality play - there may be "good guys" and "bad guys" in retrospect, but you can't assign these roles a priori;
  • that nothing and no one is perfect;
  • better to tell the truth than to lie.
Telling a story is in and of itself an act for which we must take responsibility; our storytelling, our development of analysis, can be corrupt or it can be honest. The method in which a text is built can be authoritarian or antiauthoritarian - far more so than the argument which emerges from the same text.

Developing an antiauthoritarian method of telling our stories is a necessary part of developing a revolutionary praxis.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Dead Cops & Spin

The following excellent article about killing cops in Oakland is from the radical queer Back Back News blog :

Lovelle Mixon, Police, and the Politics of Race/Rape
by Raider Nation Collective
( raidernationcollective [at] gmail.com)
Monday Apr 13th, 2009 3:40 PM

In short, there are those who are automatically guilty and those who are automatically innocent, those who are automatically heroes and, to use a term frequently applied to Lovelle Mixon in recent days, those who are automatically “monsters.”

The Ambivalent Silences of the Left:
Lovelle Mixon, Police, and the Politics of Race/Rape

We began discussing this on a day dripping with hypocrisy. Local Fox affiliate KTVU is among many television channels broadcasting live and in its entirety the funeral for four Oakland Police officers who were killed in a pair of shooting incidents a week ago. News anchors speak at length, and with little regard to journalistic objectivity (a commodity which, dubious in general, disintegrates entirely in times such as these) about the lives of these “heroes,” these “angels,” and the families they leave behind. Trust funds for fatherless children are established, their existence trumpeted loudly at 6 and 11; one can only assume with such publicity that donations are rolling in. There is not a dry eye in the house, it would appear: the “community” has rallied around its fallen saviors.

Or so initial press coverage would have us believe. But while the press was on the streets pushing the message of unity in mourning, live shots from the scene found somber and serious reporters disrupted by words and gestures suggesting little sympathy for the police, and reports emerged (notably in the New York Times) that bystanders had been mocking and taunting police after the shooting. When the local Uhuru House hosted a vigil not for the fallen police, but for the other victims, Lovelle Mixon and his family, the press was forced to abandon its tune of unity, deploying instead outrage and shocked disbelief (especially by Bill O’Reilly), only to later realize that such sympathy was rather widespread and worthy of discussion.

Liberal Hypocrisy

The hypocrisy should be clear, but for some reason, it has gone largely unmentioned, with those suggesting anything of the sort booed and hissed into anguished silence. Any and all mentioning, however quietly, the name “Oscar Grant,” with reference to the young black man murdered in cold blood by BART police in the first hours of the New Year, have been made to regret it, but it is Grant above all others whose case shows this hypocrisy in all its clarity. After all, Grant was not deemed a “hero” or an “angel” by the mainstream press when he was gunned down by BART officer Johannes Mehserle, and despite all of the outrage at the shooting, liberal or otherwise, we have seen how the press and local officials were bending over backwards to justify or at least understand Mehserle’s actions. Oscar Grant’s funeral was not carried live on local television, and what meager trust fund was established for Grant’s daughter exists thanks to a small group of sympathizers, most in the local black religious community, and not thanks to the state, the media, or BART.

This hypocrisy began with Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums, whose rapid reaction to the deaths of the four police speaks volumes in and of itself, since Dellums’ own week-long silence following Oscar Grant’s killing played a role in sparking the January 7th rebellion. In this case, however, Dellums was on television within a few hours preaching the inherent equality of all human life. But this was a magnificent display of liberal doublespeak, as Dellums’ declaration was meant to silence, not encourage, comparisons to Oscar Grant. But even this would not be enough to earn Dellums the support of the police union or the families, and the mayor was even refused permission to speak at the police funeral that had become the year’s must-attend political event, featuring such state political powerhouses as Governor Schwarzenegger, Attorney General Jerry Brown, and Senators Feinstein and Boxer. The reason remains unclear, but it is possible that even Dellums’ tepid sympathy for the life of Oscar Grant was too much for the families of the police, and it has even been suggested that Dellums’ equally tepid opposition to Blackwater-style privatizing policing in East Oakland is to blame. However, since no other black elected official was allowed to speak either, it seems that race was the deciding factor.

Kristian Williams, author of Our Enemies in Blue and American Methods, who was recently invited to give a public talk on the subject at the historic Continental Club in West Oakland, insisted that police funerals “have less to do with the grieving process of individual families, and everything to do with legitimizing past and future police violence.” According to Williams, policing is the only occupation which regularly exaggerates its own dangerousness (which statistically comes in just below garbage collectors). But constant reference to the danger and heroism of policing has the effect of stifling any and all criticism: police funerals as a public spectacle, according to Williams, “tell the public to shut up.” And shut up they have.

Farewell To the Spineless Left

Historically speaking, there is always a point at which the liberal and white left loses its nerve. As Ward Churchill demonstrates in his Pacifism as Pathology, it was a moment such as this one at which the white left abandoned the Black Panthers,

"When [Black Panther] party cadres responded (as promised) by meeting the violence of repression with armed resistance, the bulk of their “principled” white support evaporated. This horrifying retreat… left its members nakedly exposed to “surgical termination” by special police units."

Under the cover of pacifism, the spineless left paradoxically cleared the way for the violent extermination campaign that the Panthers would face. Certainly, the case of Lovelle Mixon and OPD is not the same as that of the Panthers, but the response on much of the left has been the same: silence. And this at a time when speaking and acting and questioning are more necessary than ever, when the police have been granted a political carte blanche to step-up attacks on the black and brown community in Oakland. Fearing association with a “cop killer” (a phrase which itself betrays the unequal value placed on different lives) or a “rapist” (an allegation the OPD’s PR machine was quick to deploy), fearing being inevitably painted as supporting Mixon’s actions, much of the local left has refused to even ask the most basic of questions. In what follows, we will address the most pressing of these.

A “Routine Stop”?

We recently had the opportunity to see some of OPD’s so-called “routine stops” alongside members of Oakland’s nascent Copwatch organization. We spoke with two young, black men on the 98 block of Macarthur Boulevard who had been cuffed and detained for “matching the description” of subjects suspected to be in possession of a firearm. That is to say, they were young and black, and wearing black hoodies and jeans, just like everyone else around that night. Five minutes after Copwatchers arrived to document the stop, they were released.

We also observed more “routine stops,” in the guise of illegal DUI checkpoints by California Highway Patrol running the full length of International Boulevard and targeting largely Latino men. Several tow trucks were lined up to line their pockets with another’s misfortune, as CHP officers would stop vehicles, run their licenses and registration, perform on-the-spot DUI tests, and impound vehicles. We spoke with a young woman who was abandoned on the street at 2am after officers arrested her sister-in-law, towed their car (with the keys to her apartment inside) and sped off after telling her they would get her a ride home.

Such are the status of “routine stops,” and in a country where racial profiling is all but accepted practice among police, we should be wary of any claim to “routine-ness.” The only thing “routine” about such stops is the harassment that the black and brown community suffer at the hands of the police every day.

What Happened? Who Was Mixon?

What little we know is this: it was at a “routine stop” that Mixon allegedly shot officers Mark Dunakin and John Hege, before taking refuge in his sister’s nearby apartment. We also know that it was when the OPD SWAT team stormed into said apartment that Mixon, now allegedly armed with an AK-47, killed Daniel Sakai and Ervin Romans, wounding as well Patrick Gonzalez. We also know, thanks to interviews with Mixon’s family, the circumstances he was facing at the time: released from prison after serving time for a felony and previous parole violation, unemployed and unable to find work as a felon, and increasingly frustrated with his slim prospects for the future. According to his grandmother, equally frustrating was the shabby treatment Mixon received from his probation officer, who she claims had missed several appointments. Mixon, she says, had even volunteered to return briefly to prison if it would mean he could change probation officers.

In the face of such frustration, according to his grandmother, Mixon had himself missed a probation appointment, and so was facing a no-bail warrant and some jail time. Also, if it is true that he was carrying a gun, he would have been facing even more. These are the circumstances that Mixon faced when stopped, circumstances common to all too many under the regime of “Three Strikes” and the structure of policing in general. As Prisoners of Conscience Committee Minister of Information JR puts it: “To all the Three Strikes supporters, police sympathizers and prison industry businessmen, how does it feel when the rabbit has the gun? Welcome to East Oakland.”

Fast forward to his sister’s Enjoli’s apartment, where there is an additional question that needs to be asked: what was the SWAT team thinking when they stormed in, tossing stun grenades which injured 16 year old Reynete Mixon in the process? What seems to have clearly been a bad decision in retrospect brings us back to where we started: their fury at the news of dead police led them to risk the lives of many others rather than attempting to de-escalate. In all likelihood, the SWAT team expected to meet Mixon with the same handgun that had been used against Dunakin and Hege; in all likelihood, they expected to be at a tactical advantage in firepower terms, and to have an excuse to kill Mixon in response.

An Occupying Army?

Despite the efforts by the mainstream media, in close alliance with OPD, to paint a picture of a community unified in mourning four cops and equally unified in its hatred for Lovelle Mixon, this image of unity has been inevitably cracked, forcing a discussion of the very real divisions that exist in Oakland and the central position of the police as an instrument of that division. This position is best summarized in two words, drawn from the logic of colonialism: “occupying army.”

This certainly is the perception of many who were at the scene, telling police to “get the fuck out of East Oakland.” What is most striking is the fact that such spontaneous reactions by young black men in East Oakland are, in point of fact, quite true, because here is something else the press isn’t saying: not one of the officers killed lived in Oakland; all were residents of the suburbs. It’s difficult to find out exactly what percentage of OPD actually live in the city (the Uhuru House puts the number at only 18%), but with salaries beginning at $87,000 and often exceeding $200,000 with overtime, we could assume that the percentage is very low. It’s difficult to argue with the claim that OPD functions as an occupying army, since even the younger members of the black and brown community know full well that they are, as Fanon defined the colonizer, “from elsewhere.”

If this recognition of the role played by OPD was clear in the “taunting” at the scene, it has also played out in the more generalized racial breakdown of responses to the deaths of the four officers. A friend who works in the Eastmont area, but a block or two from the shootings, recently told us that:

"I have seen that white co-workers are speaking about it as if they were heroes, even ones who were pissed and annoyed by cops were suddenly sympathetic. Social workers of color, on the other hand, were talking about the 40-ish black youth killed in the last few years, and how suddenly, a few cops die (none of whom live here), and people act like their grandpa got shot."

Rape and Race?

As the press discourse of community outrage began to disintegrate, it now appears as though OPD found it necessary to reinforce its waning sympathy. To do so, the police turned to the most traditional of means: accusing a black man of rape. These rape accusations have provided liberals and even so-called radicals a convenient excuse to distance themselves from the case of Lovelle Mixon, and the irony of the “discovery” of a “probable” (read: inconclusive) DNA link the day before the shootings provides a fulfilling belief that the shooting was tragically unnecessary as, supposedly, Mixon would have soon been arrested and taken off the streets. But it is here that we find the most disturbing of maneuvers by the police and the most infuriating silences on the left.

This is because few have felt the need to wonder aloud about this alleged “DNA evidence” which has miraculously circumvented indictments and jury trials. This begs a clear question: was Lovelle Mixon guilty until proven innocent? Even if there was “DNA evidence,” most in our society at least pretend to believe that the job of evaluating evidence belongs to the district attorney, judge, and jury, and not to the police and media. And it begs a further question: if OPD was so devoted to the safety of women in East Oakland, why were neighbors never notified that a serial rapist was possibly on the loose? Quite simply because OPD does not protect poor and marginalized women: the record speaks for itself.

One woman who attended the Uhuru vigil and rally last week describes her outrage and disgust at how white reporters treated the many women present at the march, essentially insinuating they were there in support of a rapist:

"The fact that many people were at the vigil to show support for Mixon’s family and community--who are largely women--did not cross any of the reporter's minds… The serious issue of rape does not nullify the issue of a failed prison system. If we think historically, protection against sexual violence is a key reason often given to escalate the most racist and oppressive policing practices, yet violence against women continues unabated. We need to stand against violence against women and a racist police system equally, and not let one get used as an excuse to justify the other. The Mixon hysteria is going to be used to put East Oakland, women and men, on police lockdown and justice for the most vulnerable women who live there is NOT going to be a priority."

As Angela Davis reminds us, “In the history of the United States, the fraudulent rape charge stands out as one of the most formidable artifices invented by racism. The myth of the Black rapist has been methodically conjured up whenever recurrent waves of violence and terror against the Black community have required convincing justifications…[Black women] have also understood that they could not adequately resist the sexual abuses they suffered without simultaneously attacking the fraudulent rape charge as a pretext for lynching... In a society where male supremacy was all pervasive, men who were motivated by their duty to defend their women could be excused of any excesses they might commit.” Painting black men as inevitable rapists represents a historical response to the sublimated guilt of white society, a society which for more than a century participated in the systematic rape of enslaved women. This much was recognized in a chant at the Uhuru rally:

Thomas Jefferson was a rapist!
George Washington was a rapist!
Let’s get that shit straight!

Who Were the Officers?

This question certainly feels taboo in a context in which the press refers openly to the “angels” that protect the community, who were in the words of a San Francisco Chronicle cover story (words cited verbatim from acting OPD Chief Howard Jordan) “Men of Peace.” But here again hypocrisy is palpable: we are told it is disrespectful to wonder aloud who the involved officers were, and yet racist slander directed at a dead man is somehow acceptable and expected. And while a couple of weeks ago, anyone would have told you that the OPD was a corrupt, inefficient force that routinely broke the law and brutalized city residents, such sentiment has faded into the background.

As (very limited) records from Oakland’s Citizen’s Police Review Board and the grassroots organization PUEBLO indicate, the officers involved are not the “angels” and “men of peace” that many have been suggesting. Officer Hege, for example, was listed in a 1995 CRPB complaint that involved breaking down a door less than 10 blocks from where Mixon was killed, and assaulting a resident who was kneeling on the ground, leaving him with a detached retina, broken ribs, a concussion, and missing teeth. Officer Romans is among those named in a pending lawsuit (docket #C 00-004197 MJJ) for assault and battery, civil rights violations, and conspiracy. Further, as JR puts it, Dunakin “long patrolled North Oakland, wreaking hell on young Black males,” and records indicate that he was implicated in a 1999 false arrest lawsuit which the city settled, and was more recently involved in the shady practice of towing cars under the city’s “sideshow ordinance.”

But perhaps even more interesting than the records of those officers who died is the record of the one who survived, and who has been only communicating with the press through his lawyer (with good reason): Patrick Gonzalez. Those paying attention will recognize the name instantly, since his rap sheet is far longer than was Lovelle Mixon’s: it was Gonzalez who murdered Gary King in 2007, shooting him in the back as he fled after being assaulted and repeatedly tased (King was suspected of being a “person of interest” in a case, nothing more, and his father suspects that the tasing would have killed him if the bullets didn’t). It was Gonzalez as well who shot another young black man dead, and left another paralyzed and in a wheelchair (all of these victims being under the age of 20).

But as a local community activist told me, “everyone focuses on the shootings, but he did some messed up shit with his gun holstered, too.” Specifically, Gonzalez has had a long list of complaints against him, and in one notable incident he was accused of assaulting 18 year old Andre Piazza in 2001. As the San Francisco Bay Guardian described the incident at the time:

"Piazza said that Officer Gonzales next turned to the front of Piazza's body and “lifted and was looking under my sacks and stuff.” Piazza confirmed that what he meant was that the officer lifted and felt around under his testicles… During the search, Piazza asked the officer if he was “fruity.” Shortly thereafter, Gonzales reportedly smacked him in the face, dislocating his jaw. Docs in Highland Hospital had to put it back in place. The photos of Piazza taken in the ER aren't pretty. Despite the photographic proof, charges against the cop were eventually dropped because of a lack of corroborating witnesses – it
was Piazza's word versus that of the cops."

These are the men paraded as “angels” in times such as these.


In short, there are those who are automatically guilty and those who are automatically innocent, those who are automatically heroes and, to use a term frequently applied to Lovelle Mixon in recent days, those who are automatically “monsters.” If the mainstream press was unwilling to make Oscar Grant a monster, it certainly did its part in digging up his police record and cultivating sympathy for Mehserle. The rest is left to the public, and as a recent commenter on the San Francisco Chronicle website puts it: “Mixon and Grant could interchange lives and there would be no difference. The only difference in their end is that Grant was taken out (however accidental) before he got a chance to murder someone.” And this comment, which has since been removed, was more than the ranting of an individual: by the time I saw it, it had received 250 votes from readers, more than any other response to the article.

As Crea Gomez has shown, even the Columbine shooters, who engaged in a premeditated massacre of fellow students, garnered more sympathy than has Lovelle Mixon, with a host of commentators struggling to grapple with what went wrong with these poor boys and to blame prescription drugs and bullying, while the very simple desire of someone like Lovelle Mixon to not spend one’s life in prison makes someone a “monster.” Interestingly, a similar effort to explain the inexplicable is currently being deployed to explain the massacre of immigrants in Binghamton, whose deaths have not led to their killer being labeled a “monster.”

To the inevitable accusation of disrespecting the dead, we must respond with a simple question: Where were you when Oscar Grant was murdered? There are some who are automatically respected in their death; there are others who are automatically disrespected and, in the case of Lovelle Mixon, demonized by a racist police department and press complicity. While some see moral equivalence, there was a difference between Grant and Mixon: the latter was able to foresee his impending death and fight back, so as to not meet Grant’s fate of catching a bullet in the back.

Raider Nation is a collective located in Oakland, California and the Bay Area more generally. We can be reached at raidernationcollective@gmail.com.

Pass the Roti on the left hand side

Just like to quickly give props to this blog, which i just had pointed out to me: Pass the Roti on the left hand side - a good source of progressive and antifascist news and analysis from and about South Asia.

Check it out!

Isolation-Torture in the u.s.a

The following is an important article by Dr. Atul Gawande, on the subject of isolation-torture as it is practiced in u.s. prisons. The article appeared in the March 30, 2009, edition of The New Yorker, and is available on their website here.

One of the most striking things for me, when doing research for the book Projectiles for the People, about Germany's Red Army Faction, was the way in which isolation was viewed as a new and utterly terrifying form of torture by the European radical left in the 1970s. There the use of strict isolation, as well as sensory deprivation, was pioneered as part of the state's strategy to destroy the minds of political prisoners. [i have just uploaded to the german guerilla website the chapter on isolation torture and the RAF prisoners' resistance to it: Staying Alive: Sensory Deprivation, Torture, and the Struggle Behind Bars]

What struck me about this was the fact that the conditions they were protesting - conditions that they experienced as the nightmarish cutting edge of a new form of fascism based in the prison system - have now become so widespread, at least in North America. Whereas at the time isolation torture inflicted on a few dozen captured members of the RAF shocked the consciences of wide segments of the population, as some radicals predicted even then, today this form of "clean torture" (clean because it leaves no visible wounds) has been generalized and inflicted upon tens of thousands of people.

This article is well worth reading, if it strikes you as too long to read on the screen you can print it out from The New Yorker website here.

Hellhole: The United States holds tens of thousands of inmates in long-term solitary confinement. Is this torture?
by Atul Gawande March 30, 2009

Human beings are social creatures. We are social not just in the trivial sense that we like company, and not just in the obvious sense that we each depend on others. We are social in a more elemental way: simply to exist as a normal human being requires interaction with other people.

Children provide the clearest demonstration of this fact, although it was slow to be accepted. Well into the nineteen-fifties, psychologists were encouraging parents to give children less attention and affection, in order to encourage independence. Then Harry Harlow, a professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, produced a series of influential studies involving baby rhesus monkeys.

He happened upon the findings in the mid-fifties, when he decided to save money for his primate-research laboratory by breeding his own lab monkeys instead of importing them from India. Because he didn’t know how to raise infant monkeys, he cared for them the way hospitals of the era cared for human infants—in nurseries, with plenty of food, warm blankets, some toys, and in isolation from other infants to prevent the spread of infection. The monkeys grew up sturdy, disease-free, and larger than those from the wild. Yet they were also profoundly disturbed, given to staring blankly and rocking in place for long periods, circling their cages repetitively, and mutilating themselves.

At first, Harlow and his graduate students couldn’t figure out what the problem was. They considered factors such as diet, patterns of light exposure, even the antibiotics they used. Then, as Deborah Blum recounts in a fascinating biography of Harlow, “Love at Goon Park,” one of his researchers noticed how tightly the monkeys clung to their soft blankets. Harlow wondered whether what the monkeys were missing in their Isolettes was a mother. So, in an odd experiment, he gave them an artificial one.

In the studies, one artificial mother was a doll made of terry cloth; the other was made of wire. He placed a warming device inside the dolls to make them seem more comforting. The babies, Harlow discovered, largely ignored the wire mother. But they became deeply attached to the cloth mother. They caressed it. They slept curled up on it. They ran to it when frightened. They refused replacements: they wanted only “their” mother. If sharp spikes were made to randomly thrust out of the mother’s body when the rhesus babies held it, they waited patiently for the spikes to recede and returned to clutching it. No matter how tightly they clung to the surrogate mothers, however, the monkeys remained psychologically abnormal.

In a later study on the effect of total isolation from birth, the researchers found that the test monkeys, upon being released into a group of ordinary monkeys, “usually go into a state of emotional shock, characterized by . . . autistic self-clutching and rocking.” Harlow noted, “One of six monkeys isolated for three months refused to eat after release and died five days later.” After several weeks in the company of other monkeys, most of them adjusted—but not those who had been isolated for longer periods. “Twelve months of isolation almost obliterated the animals socially,” Harlow wrote. They became permanently withdrawn, and they lived as outcasts—regularly set upon, as if inviting abuse.

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The research made Harlow famous (and infamous, too—revulsion at his work helped spur the animal-rights movement). Other psychologists produced evidence of similarly deep and sustained damage in neglected and orphaned children. Hospitals were made to open up their nurseries to parents. And it became widely accepted that children require nurturing human beings not just for food and protection but also for the normal functioning of their brains.

We have been hesitant to apply these lessons to adults. Adults, after all, are fully formed, independent beings, with internal strengths and knowledge to draw upon. We wouldn’t have anything like a child’s dependence on other people, right? Yet it seems that we do. We don’t have a lot of monkey experiments to call upon here. But mankind has produced tens of thousands of human ones, including in our prison system. And the picture that has emerged is profoundly unsettling.

Among our most benign experiments are those with people who voluntarily isolate themselves for extended periods. Long-distance solo sailors, for instance, commit themselves to months at sea. They face all manner of physical terrors: thrashing storms, fifty-foot waves, leaks, illness. Yet, for many, the single most overwhelming difficulty they report is the “soul-destroying loneliness,” as one sailor called it. Astronauts have to be screened for their ability to tolerate long stretches in tightly confined isolation, and they come to depend on radio and video communications for social contact.

The problem of isolation goes beyond ordinary loneliness, however. Consider what we’ve learned from hostages who have been held in solitary confinement—from the journalist Terry Anderson, for example, whose extraordinary memoir, “Den of Lions,” recounts his seven years as a hostage of Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Anderson was the chief Middle East correspondent for the Associated Press when, on March 16, 1985, three bearded men forced him from his car in Beirut at gunpoint. He was pushed into a Mercedes sedan, covered head to toe with a heavy blanket, and made to crouch head down in the footwell behind the front seat. His captors drove him to a garage, pulled him out of the car, put a hood over his head, and bound his wrists and ankles with tape. For half an hour, they grilled him for the names of other Americans in Beirut, but he gave no names and they did not beat him or press him further. They threw him in the trunk of the car, drove him to another building, and put him in what would be the first of a succession of cells across Lebanon. He was soon placed in what seemed to be a dusty closet, large enough for only a mattress. Blindfolded, he could make out the distant sounds of other hostages. (One was William Buckley, the C.I.A. station chief who was kidnapped and tortured repeatedly until he weakened and died.) Peering around his blindfold, Anderson could see a bare light bulb dangling from the ceiling. He received three unpalatable meals a day—usually a sandwich of bread and cheese, or cold rice with canned vegetables, or soup. He had a bottle to urinate in and was allotted one five- to ten-minute trip each day to a rotting bathroom to empty his bowels and wash with water at a dirty sink. Otherwise, the only reprieve from isolation came when the guards made short visits to bark at him for breaking a rule or to threaten him, sometimes with a gun at his temple.

He missed people terribly, especially his fiancée and his family. He was despondent and depressed. Then, with time, he began to feel something more. He felt himself disintegrating. It was as if his brain were grinding down. A month into his confinement, he recalled in his memoir, “The mind is a blank. Jesus, I always thought I was smart. Where are all the things I learned, the books I read, the poems I memorized? There’s nothing there, just a formless, gray-black misery. My mind’s gone dead. God, help me.”

He was stiff from lying in bed day and night, yet tired all the time. He dozed off and on constantly, sleeping twelve hours a day. He craved activity of almost any kind. He would watch the daylight wax and wane on the ceiling, or roaches creep slowly up the wall. He had a Bible and tried to read, but he often found that he lacked the concentration to do so. He observed himself becoming neurotically possessive about his little space, at times putting his life in jeopardy by flying into a rage if a guard happened to step on his bed. He brooded incessantly, thinking back on all the mistakes he’d made in life, his regrets, his offenses against God and family.

His captors moved him every few months. For unpredictable stretches of time, he was granted the salvation of a companion—sometimes he shared a cell with as many as four other hostages—and he noticed that his thinking recovered rapidly when this occurred. He could read and concentrate longer, avoid hallucinations, and better control his emotions. “I would rather have had the worst companion than no companion at all,” he noted.

In September, 1986, after several months of sharing a cell with another hostage, Anderson was, for no apparent reason, returned to solitary confinement, this time in a six-by-six-foot cell, with no windows, and light from only a flickering fluorescent lamp in an outside corridor. The guards refused to say how long he would be there. After a few weeks, he felt his mind slipping away again.

“I find myself trembling sometimes for no reason,” he wrote. “I’m afraid I’m beginning to lose my mind, to lose control completely.”

One day, three years into his ordeal, he snapped. He walked over to a wall and began beating his forehead against it, dozens of times. His head was smashed and bleeding before the guards were able to stop him.

Some hostages fared worse. Anderson told the story of Frank Reed, a fifty-four-year-old American private-school director who was taken hostage and held in solitary confinement for four months before being put in with Anderson. By then, Reed had become severely withdrawn. He lay motionless for hours facing a wall, semi-catatonic. He could not follow the guards’ simplest instructions. This invited abuse from them, in much the same way that once isolated rhesus monkeys seemed to invite abuse from the colony. Released after three and a half years, Reed ultimately required admission to a psychiatric hospital.

“It’s an awful thing, solitary,” John McCain wrote of his five and a half years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam—more than two years of it spent in isolation in a fifteen-by-fifteen-foot cell, unable to communicate with other P.O.W.s except by tap code, secreted notes, or by speaking into an enamel cup pressed against the wall. “It crushes your spirit and weakens your resistance more effectively than any other form of mistreatment.” And this comes from a man who was beaten regularly; denied adequate medical treatment for two broken arms, a broken leg, and chronic dysentery; and tortured to the point of having an arm broken again. A U.S. military study of almost a hundred and fifty naval aviators returned from imprisonment in Vietnam, many of whom were treated even worse than McCain, reported that they found social isolation to be as torturous and agonizing as any physical abuse they suffered.

And what happened to them was physical. EEG studies going back to the nineteen-sixties have shown diffuse slowing of brain waves in prisoners after a week or more of solitary confinement. In 1992, fifty-seven prisoners of war, released after an average of six months in detention camps in the former Yugoslavia, were examined using EEG-like tests. The recordings revealed brain abnormalities months afterward; the most severe were found in prisoners who had endured either head trauma sufficient to render them unconscious or, yes, solitary confinement. Without sustained social interaction, the human brain may become as impaired as one that has incurred a traumatic injury.

On December 4, 1991, Terry Anderson was released from captivity. He had been the last and the longest-held American hostage in Lebanon. I spoke to Keron Fletcher, a former British military psychiatrist who had been on the receiving team for Anderson and many other hostages, and followed them for years afterward. Initially, Fletcher said, everyone experiences the pure elation of being able to see and talk to people again, especially family and friends. They can’t get enough of other people, and talk almost non-stop for hours. They are optimistic and hopeful. But, afterward, normal sleeping and eating patterns prove difficult to reëstablish. Some have lost their sense of time. For weeks, they have trouble managing the sensations and emotional complexities of their freedom.

For the first few months after his release, Anderson said when I reached him by phone recently, “it was just kind of a fog.” He had done many television interviews at the time. “And if you look at me in the pictures? Look at my eyes. You can tell. I look drugged.”

Most hostages survived their ordeal, Fletcher said, although relationships, marriages, and careers were often lost. Some found, as John McCain did, that the experience even strengthened them. Yet none saw solitary confinement as anything less than torture. This presents us with an awkward question: If prolonged isolation is—as research and experience have confirmed for decades—so objectively horrifying, so intrinsically cruel, how did we end up with a prison system that may subject more of our own citizens to it than any other country in history has?

Recently, I met a man who had spent more than five years in isolation at a prison in the Boston suburb of Walpole, Massachusetts, not far from my home. Bobby Dellelo was, to say the least, no Terry Anderson or John McCain. Brought up in the run-down neighborhoods of Boston’s West End, in the nineteen-forties, he was caught burglarizing a shoe store at the age of ten. At thirteen, he recalls, he was nabbed while robbing a Jordan Marsh department store. (He and his friends learned to hide out in stores at closing time, steal their merchandise, and then break out during the night.) The remainder of his childhood was spent mostly in the state reform school. That was where he learned how to fight, how to hot-wire a car with a piece of foil, how to pick locks, and how to make a zip gun using a snapped-off automobile radio antenna, which, in those days, was just thick enough to barrel a .22-calibre bullet. Released upon turning eighteen, Dellelo returned to stealing. Usually, he stole from office buildings at night. But some of the people he hung out with did stickups, and, together with one of them, he held up a liquor store in Dorchester.

“What a disaster that thing was,” he recalls, laughing. They put the store’s owner and the customers in a walk-in refrigerator at gunpoint, took their wallets, and went to rob the register. But more customers came in. So they robbed them and put them in the refrigerator, too. Then still more customers arrived, the refrigerator got full, and the whole thing turned into a circus. Dellelo and his partner finally escaped. But one of the customers identified him to the police. By the time he was caught, Dellelo had been fingered for robbing the Commander Hotel in Cambridge as well. He served a year for the first conviction and two and a half years for the second.

Three months after his release, in 1963, at the age of twenty, he and a friend tried to rob the Kopelman jewelry store, in downtown Boston. But an alarm went off before they got their hands on anything. They separated and ran. The friend shot and killed an off-duty policeman while trying to escape, then killed himself. Dellelo was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. He ended up serving forty years. Five years and one month were spent in isolation.

The criteria for the isolation of prisoners vary by state but typically include not only violent infractions but also violation of prison rules or association with gang members. The imposition of long-term isolation—which can be for months or years—is ultimately at the discretion of prison administrators. One former prisoner I spoke to, for example, recalled being put in solitary confinement for petty annoyances like refusing to get out of the shower quickly enough. Bobby Dellelo was put there for escaping.

It was an elaborate scheme. He had a partner, who picked the lock to a supervisor’s office and got hold of the information manual for the microwave-detection system that patrolled a grassy no man’s land between the prison and the road. They studied the manual long enough to learn how to circumvent the system and returned it. On Halloween Sunday, 1993, they had friends stage a fight in the prison yard. With all the guards in the towers looking at the fight through binoculars, the two men tipped a picnic table up against a twelve-foot wall and climbed it like a ladder. Beyond it, they scaled a sixteen-foot fence. To get over the razor wire on top, they used a Z-shaped tool they’d improvised from locker handles. They dropped down into the no man’s land and followed an invisible path that they’d calculated the microwave system would not detect. No alarm sounded. They went over one more fence, walked around a parking lot, picked their way through some woods, and emerged onto a four-lane road. After a short walk to a convenience store, they called a taxi from a telephone booth and rolled away before anyone knew they were gone.

They lasted twenty-four days on the outside. Eventually, somebody ratted them out, and the police captured them on the day before Thanksgiving, at the house of a friend in Cambridge. The prison administration gave Dellelo five years in the Departmental Disciplinary Unit of the Walpole prison, its hundred-and-twenty-four-cell super-maximum segregation unit.

Wearing ankle bracelets, handcuffs, and a belly chain, Dellelo was marched into a thirteen-by-eight-foot off-white cell. A four-inch-thick concrete bed slab jutted out from the wall opposite the door. A smaller slab protruding from a side wall provided a desk. A cylindrical concrete block in the floor served as a seat. On the remaining wall was a toilet and a metal sink. He was given four sheets, four towels, a blanket, a bedroll, a toothbrush, toilet paper, a tall clear plastic cup, a bar of soap, seven white T-shirts, seven pairs of boxer shorts, seven pairs of socks, plastic slippers, a pad of paper, and a ballpoint pen. A speaker with a microphone was mounted on the door. Cells used for solitary confinement are often windowless, but this one had a ribbonlike window that was seven inches wide and five feet tall. The electrically controlled door was solid steel, with a seven-inch-by-twenty-eight-inch aperture and two wickets—little door slots, one at ankle height and one at waist height, for shackling him whenever he was let out and for passing him meal trays.

As in other supermaxes—facilities designed to isolate prisoners from social contact—Dellelo was confined to his cell for at least twenty-three hours a day and permitted out only for a shower or for recreation in an outdoor cage that he estimated to be fifty feet long and five feet wide, known as “the dog kennel.” He could talk to other prisoners through the steel door of his cell, and during recreation if a prisoner was in an adjacent cage. He made a kind of fishing line for passing notes to adjacent cells by unwinding the elastic from his boxer shorts, though it was contraband and would be confiscated. Prisoners could receive mail and as many as ten reading items. They were allowed one phone call the first month and could earn up to four calls and four visits per month if they followed the rules, but there could be no physical contact with anyone, except when guards forcibly restrained them. Some supermaxes even use food as punishment, serving the prisoners nutra-loaf, an unpalatable food brick that contains just enough nutrition for survival. Dellelo was spared this. The rules also permitted him to have a radio after thirty days, and, after sixty days, a thirteen-inch black-and-white television.

“This is going to be a piece of cake,” Dellelo recalls thinking when the door closed behind him. Whereas many American supermax prisoners—and most P.O.W.s and hostages—have no idea when they might get out, he knew exactly how long he was going to be there. He drew a calendar on his pad of paper to start counting down the days. He would get a radio and a TV. He could read. No one was going to bother him. And, as his elaborate escape plan showed, he could be patient. “This is their sophisticated security?” he said to himself. “They don’t know what they’re doing.”

After a few months without regular social contact, however, his experience proved no different from that of the P.O.W.s or hostages, or the majority of isolated prisoners whom researchers have studied: he started to lose his mind. He talked to himself. He paced back and forth compulsively, shuffling along the same six-foot path for hours on end. Soon, he was having panic attacks, screaming for help. He hallucinated that the colors on the walls were changing. He became enraged by routine noises—the sound of doors opening as the guards made their hourly checks, the sounds of inmates in nearby cells. After a year or so, he was hearing voices on the television talking directly to him. He put the television under his bed, and rarely took it out again.

One of the paradoxes of solitary confinement is that, as starved as people become for companionship, the experience typically leaves them unfit for social interaction. Once, Dellelo was allowed to have an in-person meeting with his lawyer, and he simply couldn’t handle it. After so many months in which his primary human contact had been an occasional phone call or brief conversations with an inmate down the tier, shouted through steel doors at the top of their lungs, he found himself unable to carry on a face-to-face conversation. He had trouble following both words and hand gestures and couldn’t generate them himself. When he realized this, he succumbed to a full-blown panic attack.

Craig Haney, a psychology professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz, received rare permission to study a hundred randomly selected inmates at California’s Pelican Bay supermax, and noted a number of phenomena. First, after months or years of complete isolation, many prisoners “begin to lose the ability to initiate behavior of any kind—to organize their own lives around activity and purpose,” he writes. “Chronic apathy, lethargy, depression, and despair often result. . . . In extreme cases, prisoners may literally stop behaving,” becoming essentially catatonic.

Second, almost ninety per cent of these prisoners had difficulties with “irrational anger,” compared with just three per cent of the general population.* Haney attributed this to the extreme restriction, the totality of control, and the extended absence of any opportunity for happiness or joy. Many prisoners in solitary become consumed with revenge fantasies.

“There were some guards in D.D.U. who were decent guys,” Dellelo told me. They didn’t trash his room when he was let out for a shower, or try to trip him when escorting him in chains, or write him up for contraband if he kept food or a salt packet from a meal in his cell. “But some of them were evil, evil pricks.” One correctional officer became a particular obsession. Dellelo spent hours imagining cutting his head off and rolling it down the tier. “I mean, I know this is insane thinking,” he says now. Even at the time, he added, “I had a fear in the background—like how much of this am I going to be able to let go? How much is this going to affect who I am?”

He was right to worry. Everyone’s identity is socially created: it’s through your relationships that you understand yourself as a mother or a father, a teacher or an accountant, a hero or a villain. But, after years of isolation, many prisoners change in another way that Haney observed. They begin to see themselves primarily as combatants in the world, people whose identity is rooted in thwarting prison control.

As a matter of self-preservation, this may not be a bad thing. According to the Navy P.O.W. researchers, the instinct to fight back against the enemy constituted the most important coping mechanism for the prisoners they studied. Resistance was often their sole means of maintaining a sense of purpose, and so their sanity. Yet resistance is precisely what we wish to destroy in our supermax prisoners. As Haney observed in a review of research findings, prisoners in solitary confinement must be able to withstand the experience in order to be allowed to return to the highly social world of mainline prison or free society. Perversely, then, the prisoners who can’t handle profound isolation are the ones who are forced to remain in it. “And those who have adapted,” Haney writes, “are prime candidates for release to a social world to which they may be incapable of ever fully readjusting.”

Dellelo eventually found a way to resist that would not prolong his ordeal. He fought his battle through the courts, filing motion after motion in an effort to get his conviction overturned. He became so good at submitting his claims that he obtained a paralegal certificate along the way. And, after forty years in prison, and more than five years in solitary, he got his first-degree-homicide conviction reduced to manslaughter. On November 19, 2003, he was freed.

Bobby Dellelo is sixty-seven years old now. He lives on Social Security in a Cambridge efficiency apartment that is about four times larger than his cell. He still seems to be adjusting to the world outside. He lives alone. To the extent that he is out in society, it is, in large measure, as a combatant. He works for prisoners’ rights at the American Friends Service Committee. He also does occasional work assisting prisoners with their legal cases. Sitting at his kitchen table, he showed me how to pick a padlock—you know, just in case I ever find myself in trouble.

But it was impossible to talk to him about his time in isolation without seeing that it was fundamentally no different from the isolation that Terry Anderson and John McCain had endured. Whether in Walpole or Beirut or Hanoi, all human beings experience isolation as torture.

The main argument for using long-term isolation in prisons is that it provides discipline and prevents violence. When inmates refuse to follow the rules—when they escape, deal drugs, or attack other inmates and corrections officers—wardens must be able to punish and contain the misconduct. Presumably, less stringent measures haven’t worked, or the behavior would not have occurred. And it’s legitimate to incapacitate violent aggressors for the safety of others. So, advocates say, isolation is a necessary evil, and those who don’t recognize this are dangerously naïve.

The argument makes intuitive sense. If the worst of the worst are removed from the general prison population and put in isolation, you’d expect there to be markedly fewer inmate shankings and attacks on corrections officers. But the evidence doesn’t bear this out. Perhaps the most careful inquiry into whether supermax prisons decrease violence and disorder was a 2003 analysis examining the experience in three states—Arizona, Illinois, and Minnesota—following the opening of their supermax prisons. The study found that levels of inmate-on-inmate violence were unchanged, and that levels of inmate-on-staff violence changed unpredictably, rising in Arizona, falling in Illinois, and holding steady in Minnesota.

Prison violence, it turns out, is not simply an issue of a few belligerents. In the past thirty years, the United States has quadrupled its incarceration rate but not its prison space. Work and education programs have been cancelled, out of a belief that the pursuit of rehabilitation is pointless. The result has been unprecedented overcrowding, along with unprecedented idleness—a nice formula for violence. Remove a few prisoners to solitary confinement, and the violence doesn’t change. So you remove some more, and still nothing happens. Before long, you find yourself in the position we are in today. The United States now has five per cent of the world’s population, twenty-five per cent of its prisoners, and probably the vast majority of prisoners who are in long-term solitary confinement.

It wasn’t always like this. The wide-scale use of isolation is, almost exclusively, a phenomenon of the past twenty years. In 1890, the United States Supreme Court came close to declaring the punishment to be unconstitutional. Writing for the majority in the case of a Colorado murderer who had been held in isolation for a month, Justice Samuel Miller noted that experience had revealed “serious objections” to solitary confinement:

A considerable number of the prisoners fell, after even a short confinement, into a semi-fatuous condition, from which it was next to impossible to arouse them, and others became violently insane; others, still, committed suicide; while those who stood the ordeal better were not generally reformed, and in most cases did not recover suffcient mental activity to be of any subsequent service to the community.

Prolonged isolation was used sparingly, if at all, by most American prisons for almost a century. Our first supermax—our first institution specifically designed for mass solitary confinement—was not established until 1983, in Marion, Illinois. In 1995, a federal court reviewing California’s first supermax admitted that the conditions “hover on the edge of what is humanly tolerable for those with normal resilience.” But it did not rule them to be unconstitutionally cruel or unusual, except in cases of mental illness. The prison’s supermax conditions, the court stated, did not pose “a sufficiently high risk to all inmates of incurring a serious mental illness.” In other words, there could be no legal objection to its routine use, given that the isolation didn’t make everyone crazy. The ruling seemed to fit the public mood. By the end of the nineteen-nineties, some sixty supermax institutions had opened across the country. And new solitary-confinement units were established within nearly all of our ordinary maximum-security prisons.

The number of prisoners in these facilities has since risen to extraordinary levels. America now holds at least twenty-five thousand inmates in isolation in supermax prisons. An additional fifty to eighty thousand are kept in restrictive segregation units, many of them in isolation, too, although the government does not release these figures. By 1999, the practice had grown to the point that Arizona, Colorado, Maine, Nebraska, Nevada, Rhode Island, and Virginia kept between five and eight per cent of their prison population in isolation, and, by 2003, New York had joined them as well. Mississippi alone held eighteen hundred prisoners in supermax—twelve per cent of its prisoners over all. At the same time, other states had just a tiny fraction of their inmates in solitary confinement. In 1999, for example, Indiana had eighty-five supermax beds; Georgia had only ten. Neither of these two states can be described as being soft on crime.

Advocates of solitary confinement are left with a single argument for subjecting thousands of people to years of isolation: What else are we supposed to do? How else are we to deal with the violent, the disruptive, the prisoners who are just too dangerous to be housed with others?

As it happens, only a subset of prisoners currently locked away for long periods of isolation would be considered truly dangerous. Many are escapees or suspected gang members; many others are in solitary for nonviolent breaches of prison rules. Still, there are some highly dangerous and violent prisoners who pose a serious challenge to prison discipline and safety. In August, I met a man named Robert Felton, who had spent fourteen and a half years in isolation in the Illinois state correctional system. He is now thirty-six years old. He grew up in the predominantly black housing projects of Danville, Illinois, and had been a force of mayhem from the time he was a child.

His crimes were mainly impulsive, rather than planned. The first time he was arrested was at the age of eleven, when he and a relative broke into a house to steal some Atari video games. A year later, he was sent to state reform school after he and a friend broke into an abandoned building and made off with paint cans, irons, and other property that they hardly knew what to do with. In reform school, he got into fights and screamed obscenities at the staff. When the staff tried to discipline him by taking away his recreation or his television privileges, his behavior worsened. He tore a pillar out of the ceiling, a sink and mirrors off the wall, doors off their hinges. He was put in a special cell, stripped of nearly everything. When he began attacking counsellors, the authorities transferred him to the maximum-security juvenile facility at Joliet, where he continued to misbehave.

Felton wasn’t a sociopath. He made friends easily. He was close to his family, and missed them deeply. He took no pleasure in hurting others. Psychiatric evaluations turned up little more than attention-deficit disorder. But he had a terrible temper, a tendency to escalate rather than to defuse confrontations, and, by the time he was released, just before turning eighteen, he had achieved only a ninth-grade education.

Within months of returning home, he was arrested again. He had walked into a Danville sports bar and ordered a beer. The barman took his ten-dollar bill.

“Then he says, ‘Naw, man, you can’t get no beer. You’re underage,’ ” Felton recounts. “I says, ‘Well, give me my ten dollars back.’ He says, ‘You ain’t getting shit. Get the hell out of here.’ ”

Felton stood his ground. The bartender had a pocket knife on the counter. “And, when he went for it, I went for it,” Felton told me. “When I grabbed the knife first, I turned around and spinned on him. I said, ‘You think you’re gonna cut me, man? You gotta be fucked up.’ ”

The barman had put the ten-dollar bill in a Royal Crown bag behind the counter. Felton grabbed the bag and ran out the back door. He forgot his car keys on the counter, though. So he went back to get the keys—“the stupid keys,” he now says ruefully—and in the fight that ensued he left the barman severely injured and bleeding. The police caught Felton fleeing in his car. He was convicted of armed robbery, aggravated unlawful restraint, and aggravated battery, and served fifteen years in prison.

He was eventually sent to the Stateville Correctional Center, a maximum-security facility in Joliet. Inside the overflowing prison, he got into vicious fights over insults and the like. About three months into his term, during a shakedown following the murder of an inmate, prison officials turned up a makeshift knife in his cell. (He denies that it was his.) They gave him a year in isolation. He was a danger, and he had to be taught a lesson. But it was a lesson that he seemed incapable of learning.

Felton’s Stateville isolation cell had gray walls, a solid steel door, no window, no clock, and a light that was kept on twenty-four hours a day. As soon as he was shut in, he became claustrophobic and had a panic attack. Like Dellelo, Anderson, and McCain, he was soon pacing back and forth, talking to himself, studying the insects crawling around his cell, reliving past events from childhood, sleeping for as much as sixteen hours a day. But, unlike them, he lacked the inner resources to cope with his situation.

Many prisoners find survival in physical exercise, prayer, or plans for escape. Many carry out elaborate mental exercises, building entire houses in their heads, board by board, nail by nail, from the ground up, or memorizing team rosters for a baseball season. McCain recreated in his mind movies he’d seen. Anderson reconstructed complete novels from memory. Yuri Nosenko, a K.G.B. defector whom the C.I.A. wrongly accused of being a double agent and held for three years in total isolation (no reading material, no news, no human contact except with interrogators) in a closet-size concrete cell near Williamsburg, Virginia, made chess sets from threads and a calendar from lint (only to have them discovered and swept away).

But Felton would just yell, “Guard! Guard! Guard! Guard! Guard!,” or bang his cup on the toilet, for hours. He could spend whole days hallucinating that he was in another world, that he was a child at home in Danville, playing in the streets, having conversations with imaginary people. Small cruelties that others somehow bore in quiet fury—getting no meal tray, for example—sent him into a rage. Despite being restrained with handcuffs, ankle shackles, and a belly chain whenever he was taken out, he managed to assault the staff at least three times. He threw his food through the door slot. He set his cell on fire by tearing his mattress apart, wrapping the stuffing in a sheet, popping his light bulb, and using the exposed wires to set the whole thing ablaze. He did this so many times that the walls of his cell were black with soot.

After each offense, prison officials extended his sentence in isolation. Still, he wouldn’t stop. He began flooding his cell, by stuffing the door crack with socks, plugging the toilet, and flushing until the water was a couple of feet deep. Then he’d pull out the socks and the whole wing would flood with wastewater.

“Flooding the cell was the last option for me,” Felton told me. “It was when I had nothing else I could do. You know, they took everything out of my cell, and all I had left was toilet water. I’d sit there and I’d say, ‘Well, let me see what I can do with this toilet water.’ ”

Felton was not allowed out again for fourteen and a half years. He spent almost his entire prison term, from 1990 to 2005, in isolation. In March, 1998, he was among the first inmates to be moved to Tamms, a new, high-tech supermax facility in southern Illinois.

“At Tamms, man, it was like a lab,” he says. Contact even with guards was tightly reduced. Cutoff valves meant that he couldn’t flood his cell. He had little ability to force a response—negative or positive—from a human being. And, with that gone, he began to deteriorate further. He ceased showering, changing his clothes, brushing his teeth. His teeth rotted and ten had to be pulled. He began throwing his feces around his cell. He became psychotic.

It is unclear how many prisoners in solitary confinement become psychotic. Stuart Grassian, a Boston psychiatrist, has interviewed more than two hundred prisoners in solitary confinement. In one in-depth study, prepared for a legal challenge of prisoner-isolation practices, he concluded that about a third developed acute psychosis with hallucinations. The markers of vulnerability that he observed in his interviews were signs of cognitive dysfunction—a history of seizures, serious mental illness, mental retardation, illiteracy, or, as in Felton’s case, a diagnosis such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, signalling difficulty with impulse control. In the prisoners Grassian saw, about a third had these vulnerabilities, and these were the prisoners whom solitary confinement had made psychotic. They were simply not cognitively equipped to endure it without mental breakdowns.

A psychiatrist tried giving Felton anti-psychotic medication. Mostly, it made him sleep—sometimes twenty-four hours at a stretch, he said. Twice he attempted suicide. The first time, he hanged himself in a noose made from a sheet. The second time, he took a single staple from a legal newspaper and managed to slash the radial artery in his left wrist with it. In both instances, he was taken to a local emergency room for a few hours, patched up, and sent back to prison.

Is there an alternative? Consider what other countries do. Britain, for example, has had its share of serial killers, homicidal rapists, and prisoners who have taken hostages and repeatedly assaulted staff. The British also fought a seemingly unending war in Northern Ireland, which brought them hundreds of Irish Republican Army prisoners committed to violent resistance. The authorities resorted to a harshly punitive approach to control, including, in the mid-seventies, extensive use of solitary confinement. But the violence in prisons remained unchanged, the costs were phenomenal (in the United States, they reach more than fifty thousand dollars a year per inmate), and the public outcry became intolerable. British authorities therefore looked for another approach.

Beginning in the nineteen-eighties, they gradually adopted a strategy that focussed on preventing prison violence rather than on delivering an ever more brutal series of punishments for it. The approach starts with the simple observation that prisoners who are unmanageable in one setting often behave perfectly reasonably in another. This suggested that violence might, to a critical extent, be a function of the conditions of incarceration. The British noticed that problem prisoners were usually people for whom avoiding humiliation and saving face were fundamental and instinctive. When conditions maximized humiliation and confrontation, every interaction escalated into a trial of strength. Violence became a predictable consequence.

So the British decided to give their most dangerous prisoners more control, rather than less. They reduced isolation and offered them opportunities for work, education, and special programming to increase social ties and skills. The prisoners were housed in small, stable units of fewer than ten people in individual cells, to avoid conditions of social chaos and unpredictability. In these reformed “Close Supervision Centres,” prisoners could receive mental-health treatment and earn rights for more exercise, more phone calls, “contact visits,” and even access to cooking facilities. They were allowed to air grievances. And the government set up an independent body of inspectors to track the results and enable adjustments based on the data.

The results have been impressive. The use of long-term isolation in England is now negligible. In all of England, there are now fewer prisoners in “extreme custody” than there are in the state of Maine. And the other countries of Europe have, with a similar focus on small units and violence prevention, achieved a similar outcome.

In this country, in June of 2006, a bipartisan national task force, the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons, released its recommendations after a yearlong investigation. It called for ending long-term isolation of prisoners. Beyond about ten days, the report noted, practically no benefits can be found and the harm is clear—not just for inmates but for the public as well. Most prisoners in long-term isolation are returned to society, after all. And evidence from a number of studies has shown that supermax conditions—in which prisoners have virtually no social interactions and are given no programmatic support—make it highly likely that they will commit more crimes when they are released. Instead, the report said, we should follow the preventive approaches used in European countries.

The recommendations went nowhere, of course. Whatever the evidence in its favor, people simply did not believe in the treatment.

I spoke to a state-prison commissioner who wished to remain unidentified. He was a veteran of the system, having been either a prison warden or a commissioner in several states across the country for more than twenty years. He has publicly defended the use of long-term isolation everywhere that he has worked. Nonetheless, he said, he would remove most prisoners from long-term isolation units if he could and provide programming for the mental illnesses that many of them have.

“Prolonged isolation is not going to serve anyone’s best interest,” he told me. He still thought that prisons needed the option of isolation. “A bad violation should, I think, land you there for about ninety days, but it should not go beyond that.”

He is apparently not alone among prison officials. Over the years, he has come to know commissioners in nearly every state in the country. “I believe that today you’ll probably find that two-thirds or three-fourths of the heads of correctional agencies will largely share the position that I articulated with you,” he said.

Commissioners are not powerless. They could eliminate prolonged isolation with the stroke of a pen. So, I asked, why haven’t they? He told me what happened when he tried to move just one prisoner out of isolation. Legislators called for him to be fired and threatened to withhold basic funding. Corrections officers called members of the crime victim’s family and told them that he’d gone soft on crime. Hostile stories appeared in the tabloids. It is pointless for commissioners to act unilaterally, he said, without a change in public opinion.

This past year, both the Republican and the Democratic Presidential candidates came out firmly for banning torture and closing the facility in Guantánamo Bay, where hundreds of prisoners have been held in years-long isolation. Neither Barack Obama nor John McCain, however, addressed the question of whether prolonged solitary confinement is torture. For a Presidential candidate, no less than for the prison commissioner, this would have been political suicide. The simple truth is that public sentiment in America is the reason that solitary confinement has exploded in this country, even as other Western nations have taken steps to reduce it. This is the dark side of American exceptionalism. With little concern or demurral, we have consigned tens of thousands of our own citizens to conditions that horrified our highest court a century ago. Our willingness to discard these standards for American prisoners made it easy to discard the Geneva Conventions prohibiting similar treatment of foreign prisoners of war, to the detriment of America’s moral stature in the world. In much the same way that a previous generation of Americans countenanced legalized segregation, ours has countenanced legalized torture. And there is no clearer manifestation of this than our routine use of solitary confinement—on our own people, in our own communities, in a supermax prison, for example, that is a thirty-minute drive from my door.

Robert Felton drifted in and out of acute psychosis for much of his solitary confinement. Eventually, however, he found an unexpected resource. One day, while he was at Tamms, he was given a new defense lawyer, and, whatever expertise this lawyer provided, the more important thing was genuine human contact. He visited regularly, and sent Felton books. Although some were rejected by the authorities and Felton was restricted to a few at a time, he devoured those he was permitted. “I liked political books,” he says. “ ‘From Beirut to Jerusalem,’ Winston Churchill, Noam Chomsky.”

That small amount of contact was a lifeline. Felton corresponded with the lawyer about what he was reading. The lawyer helped him get his G.E.D. and a paralegal certificate through a correspondence course, and he taught Felton how to advocate for himself. Felton began writing letters to politicians and prison officials explaining the misery of his situation, opposing supermax isolation, and asking for a chance to return to the general prison population. (The Illinois Department of Corrections would not comment on Felton’s case, but a spokesman stated that “Tamms houses the most disruptive, violent, and problematic inmates.”) Felton was persuasive enough that Senator Paul Simon, of Illinois, wrote him back and, one day, even visited him. Simon asked the director of the State Department of Corrections, Donald Snyder, Jr., to give consideration to Felton’s objections. But Snyder didn’t budge. If there was anyone whom Felton fantasized about taking revenge upon, it was Snyder. Felton continued to file request after request. But the answer was always no.

On July 12, 2005, at the age of thirty-three, Felton was finally released. He hadn’t socialized with another person since entering Tamms, at the age of twenty-five. Before his release, he was given one month in the general prison population to get used to people. It wasn’t enough. Upon returning to society, he found that he had trouble in crowds. At a party of well-wishers, the volume of social stimulation overwhelmed him and he panicked, headed for a bathroom, and locked himself in. He stayed at his mother’s house and kept mostly to himself.

For the first year, he had to wear an ankle bracelet and was allowed to leave home only for work. His first job was at a Papa John’s restaurant, delivering pizzas. He next found work at the Model Star Laundry Service, doing pressing. This was a steady job, and he began to settle down. He fell in love with a waitress named Brittany. They moved into a three-room house that her grandmother lent them, and got engaged. Brittany became pregnant.

This is not a story with a happy ending. Felton lost his job with the laundry service. He went to work for a tree-cutting business; a few months later, it went under. Meanwhile, he and Brittany had had a second child. She had found work as a certified nursing assistant, but her income wasn’t nearly enough. So he took a job forty miles away, at Plastipak, the plastics manufacturer, where he made seven-fifty an hour inspecting Gatorade bottles and Crisco containers as they came out of the stamping machines. Then his twenty-year-old Firebird died. The bus he had to take ran erratically, and he was fired for repeated tardiness.

When I visited Felton in Danville last August, he and Brittany were upbeat about their prospects. She was working extra shifts at a nursing home, and he was taking care of their children, ages one and two. He had also applied to a six-month training program for heating and air-conditioning technicians.

“I could make twenty dollars an hour after graduation,” he said.

“He’s a good man,” Brittany told me, taking his arm and giving him a kiss.

But he was out of work. They were chronically short of money. It was hard to be optimistic about Felton’s prospects. And, indeed, six weeks after we met, he was arrested for breaking into a car dealership and stealing a Dodge Charger. He pleaded guilty and, in January, began serving a seven-year sentence.

Before I left town—when there was still a glimmer of hope for him—we went out for lunch at his favorite place, a Mexican restaurant called La Potosina. Over enchiladas and Cokes, we talked about his family, Danville, the economy, and, of course, his time in prison. The strangest story had turned up in the news, he said. Donald Snyder, Jr., the state prison director who had refused to let him out of solitary confinement, had been arrested, convicted, and sentenced to two years in prison for taking fifty thousand dollars in payoffs from lobbyists.

“Two years in prison,” Felton marvelled. “He could end up right where I used to be.”

I asked him, “If he wrote to you, asking if you would release him from solitary, what would you do?”

Felton didn’t hesitate for a second. “If he wrote to me to let him out, I’d let him out,” he said.

This surprised me. I expected anger, vindictiveness, a desire for retribution. “You’d let him out?” I said.

“I’d let him out,” he said, and he put his fork down to make the point. “I wouldn’t wish solitary confinement on anybody. Not even him.”

*Correction, April 6, 2009: Three per cent of the general population had difficulties with “irrational anger,” not three per cent of prisoners in the general population, as originally stated.