How Does Solitary Confinement Alter Prisoners?

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After 41 years in solitary confinement, Herman Wallace was freed last week. Three days later, he died from complications from liver cancer in his sleep.

Wallace, 71, was one of the “Angola Three” convicted of the 1972 murder of a prison guard at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, also known as Angola. He maintained he was innocent. On Oct. 1, a federal court judge said he had not received a fair trial, overturning Wallace’s grand jury indictment.

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Regardless of the politics of the case, Wallace’s death shows that years of isolation have a profound effect on the body and mind.

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“Consider Herman Wallace's liver cancer,” said Dr. Terry Kupers, a psychiatrist at the Wright Institute with a background in psychoanalytic psychotherapy, forensics and social and community psychiatry.

“I understand he had lost over 40 pounds in the months prior to the diagnosis of his cancer, and by the time it was diagnosed it was untreatable and his prognosis was very grave. With adequate medical care, for example in the community, liver cancer would be diagnosed very much earlier and treated intensively so it would much less likely become fatal.”

Common physical effects include cardiovascular and gastrointestinal issues, migraine headaches and profound fatigue.

While in solitary confinement in Louisiana prisons, Wallace probably fared better than most prisoners in isolation, experts said, because of his political awareness.

“What impresses me repeatedly is how little anger many prisoners express about their situation,” Kupers said. “I think this is especially true of very bright and politically sophisticated prisoners like Herman Wallace.

"I discussed this issue with (freed Angola Three member) Robert King, who agrees with me that when prisoners understand the social dynamics and injustice of their harsh treatment in prison, they don't feel as much anger as they do resolve to survive and change the system that is so abusive and discriminatory. This must explain why someone like Herman Wallace can survive (almost) 42 years of torture in solitary confinement and remain ... clear-headed, politically aware and committed to justice.”

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