Dr. Stuart Grassian, a psychiatrist who studies solitary confinement, visited the Angola Three in the early 2000s at Angola.
“The conditions there were particularly abhorrent,” he said. “I've been to many prisons, and I’ve never been scared except there. Camp J (an area of Angola reserved for solitary confinement) is a miserable dungeon, with small dirty cells, leaking water, mold, enormously hot in summer. The mosquitoes are unbearable. But these men were of tremendous strength and intelligence, and they never succumbed to some of the more dramatic symptoms of isolation.”
Those dramatic symptoms include one of the most common, which is rarely seen in the general population, which Grassian calls florid psychotic delirium. Symptoms include hyperresponsivity to noises and other stimuli, hallucinations, panic attacks, trouble concentrating and remembering, and paranoia.
Studies that use electroencephalography (EEG) to measure the brain’s reactions to stimulation show that after just a few days of solitary confinement, people experience more stupor and delirium. And one study found that the symptoms can last long after release from confinement.
Eventually, Kupers said, a general numbness often sets in.
“I find that prisoners who have spent decades in solitary confinement give up trying to communicate, for instance not even bothering to speak to the officer who delivers their food tray, or not saying good morning to the prisoner in the next cell,” Kupers said.
“Then, in order to suppress the anger that evolves, they start suppressing all feelings so they begin to feel numb, then lifeless, then dead. A large number of prisoners in many states have described this hyper-isolation, even in the context of solitary confinement, and this numbing into a dead state.”
Half of successful suicides in prisons are prisoners in solitary confinement, Kupers pointed out -- even though that’s only 4-6 percent of prisoners.
The United Nations lead investigator on torture, Juan Mendez, has urged the United States to ban the use of prolonged solitary confinement, citing its mental and physical toll.
Supporters of Wallace hope that his case will spark changes in the penal system.
"This was never just about Herman," friend Ashley Wennerstrom, told NOLA.com. "This is about a much larger movement to make the criminal justice system actually just."