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The topic of solitary confinement was the focus of a recent episode of John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight on HBO. Thanks to the hard work of activists organizing against solitary confinement for decades, awareness of the brutality of this practice has begun to enter the mainstream. Its history as a counterinsurgency tactic, however, has yet to be fully examined in the light of day. TRNN Editor-in-Chief Maximillian Alvarez joins Rattling the Bars to speak with Mansa Musa, who spent 48 years behind bars himself, a number of which were spent in solitary, to discuss the cruel truths about solitary confinement that people on the outside need to know but rarely hear about.

Report: Time-In-Cell: A 2021 Snapshot of Restrictive Housing Based on a Nationwide Survey of U.S. Prison Systems

Studio Production: David Hebden, Cameron Granadino
Post-Production: Cameron Granadino


Mansa Musa:  Welcome to this edition of Rattling the Bars. I’m Mansa Musa.

Maximillian Alvarez:  And I’m Maximillian Alvarez, editor-in-chief here at The Real News. Recently on his wildly popular weekly news and entertainment show Last Week Tonight, host and comedian John Oliver spent an entire segment analyzing and exposing the practice of solitary confinement in America’s prisons. As usual, John Oliver and his staff did a pretty thorough job of exposing one of the many horrifying practices that are commonplace in the US. Solitary confinement in the prison-industrial complex is very much a practice that we should all be horrified by.

Having said that, there are many other facets to the practice of and the experience of solitary confinement, particularly the experiences of those who are locked up in solitary confinement that are worth unpacking at greater length than Last Week Tonight was able to do in a 20-minute segment. I wanted to sit down with Mansa once again in The Real News studio to get your thoughts on this segment, and to walk viewers and listeners through your perspective on the practice of solitary confinement, how widespread it is in the prison system in the US, your own experience with solitary confinement, and what the hell experiencing something like that is like.

A lot of people watching and listening to this will have no idea of what that’s like, how frequently it’s used, and what damage it does to human beings in the long term. Given that we have the incredible fortune to get to work with you, someone who was locked up for 48 years but never stopped organizing while you were incarcerated, and now that you’ve been released continue to organize and raise awareness. So I figured what better opportunity than for us to sit down and get your thoughts on this John Oliver segment and the practice of solitary confinement writ large. So first things first, I was curious what you thought of the segment.

Mansa Musa:  It’s ironic that a comedian would be doing this and bringing this to national attention. The reason local governments, state governments, the federal government, should be the one addressing it is they’re the ones responsible for implementation of it. But overall, I thought he did a good job in terms of observation, because that’s really what it was about. He was making an observation about how ridiculous the policy-makers are when they talk about these types of things, people not staying in their cell for more than 24 hours, people being let out frequently. All of those things were suspected and didn’t exist at best, right?

So overall, he did a good job in terms of bringing it to the attention of the public and opening the door to have conversations about it. I know most people that watched it probably would respond to his comedic behavior, but at the same time he wasn’t making light of that; he was making light of how idiotic the policymakers are when they come out and they get to talking. They’ll say anything that comes to the top of their head that they think is going to come across and sound intelligent, but really it’s ignorance.

Maximillian Alvarez:  Right. Like New York Mayor, Eric Adams, saying, oh, we don’t do solitary confinement, we do punitive segregation. Motherfucker, that’s the same thing. Pardon my French. 

One of the things that John Oliver talked about in the beginning of that segment when he was trying to give the history of solitary confinement, is that this is a practice that was developed by Quakers hundreds of years ago as a form of punishment that was, at least in theory, supposed to isolate prisoners to give them time to sit and reflect on their misdeeds, their wrongdoings, become more penitent before the eyes of God. Which is where we get the name of penitentiary.

Then in the narrative that John Oliver lays out in that segment, he says that the practice was ineffective and was more or less abandoned until around the 1970s, when the period of mass incarceration, the new Jim Crow, really started to explode. This is what I mean when I say we’re incredibly fortunate to get to work with you and talk to you, because that is essentially where your timeline in the prison system began. So you have firsthand knowledge of that system and you can tell us how accurate that narrative Oliver laid out was. 

But I guess let’s start there. When you first entered the prison system, was the practice of solitary confinement widespread? Explain to people how and why prisons started using this system more.

Mansa Musa:  That’s a good point, Max. When I got locked up and went into Maryland Penitentiary in ’73, they had what they called “the hole”. And the hole probably would have been consistent with the concept of solitary or isolation because they basically had made about four or five cells and they would isolate people in them that they deemed to be unruly. But overall, you had punitive segregation, which was when you stayed locked in your cell, but you were in an environment where you had access to people, you could talk to the person in the cell next to you.

But solitary confinement reemerged and when they started locking up radical elements – They started locking up the Black Panthers, the Weathermen, Puerto Rican Nationalists, anybody who was fighting, anybody who was anti-establishment, anybody who would stand up for human rights and self-determination – That’s when it became a tool and a mechanism to be used to suppress that. George Jackson talks about that in his essay, “Toward the United Front”, how this massive prison population exists and in its existence it creates a threat. The threat being the potential for organization and organizing to combat and fight fascism, racism.

So that’s where it started taking shape. When I was locked up, you had tools for segregation. Maryland hadn’t got to the point where they had developed what they call Security Housing Units. But on the West Coast, in the Adjustment Center, that’s where you see the development of that concept, of what we know to be solitary confinement today and what they called SHUs, Security Housing Units. That came out of San Quentin and probably Angola, Louisiana. Places like that, where in the Southern part of the country – Alabama prisons – Where they could get away with it with impunity. But Maryland developed the concept when they created supermax in the ’80s. That’s where I ultimately wound up.

Maximillian Alvarez:  Yeah. Speaking of Angola, and we’ll get to this in a minute, but that’s where Albert Woodfox – Another lifelong activist, Black Panther – Was wrongfully imprisoned for over 40 years and spent 44 years in solitary confinement in Angola, and was released, I believe, in 2016 and died only a few years after that. The thought of 44 years in solitary confinement breaks my brain a bit. Like I said, we’ll talk in a second about how to possibly try to communicate to people what it’s like to be in that situation.

But two things I wanted to underline for people, because you already gave us a really crucial detail that was not in the Last Week Tonight segment: John Oliver and his team of writers, they talk about the re-emergence of solitary in the 1970s, coinciding with the explosion of the prison population. So we’re entering the age of mass incarceration, more people are coming into the prisons. The way that they explain it is there’s overcrowding, there’s fighting, and then solitary emerges as this punitive weapon to try to get this prison population under control.

But what you’ve already added to the conversation is that, like you, like our dearly departed brother Eddie Conway, like so many other radicals that we’ve talked to on this show and that you knew when you were on the inside, when they started coming into the prison they were targeted for solitary confinement because they are these radical elements coming in. They’re going to organize, they’re going to talk to other inmates, they’re going to build and develop that revolutionary consciousness as we talked about the last time we did one of these episodes on May Day. 

We talked about the organizing you and Eddie did on the inside. So for a prison warden, they’re like, well, we don’t want that, so let’s isolate these guys. So that was a really crucial additional context to the John Oliver segment. Then I wanted to clarify for folks watching and listening, before solitary really became the weapon of choice in the prison system, there were other proto solitary confinement mechanisms. So the punitive segregation that you’re talking about, you’re still in your regular cell, but you’re not allowed to leave. So you’re still restricted, but you’re not as isolated.

Mansa Musa:  Right. The thing about solitary confinement that’s separate from punitive is, in punitive you might get an infraction, you get 30 days on punitive segregation, you’re released back into the jail population. In solitary confinement, you have no way of knowing when you’re going to be released, ergo 44 years in solitary because now you’re in there indefinitely. In there the design is to break you, because now you’re in an environment where you’re totally isolated, you have no contact with anybody, the guard is the only person you have contact with. 

When they come in everything is like, handcuff you, come to the back, put your hands behind your back, in some institutions you come to the slot, kneel on the ground, put your hands behind your back. You’ve got to literally stick your arms all the way up so they can put the handcuffs on you, then they tell you to stay right there. They hit the door, when they open the door they come in and raise you up and then move you. 

Now, imagine that practice for 44 years and you find yourself in a situation where you’re supposed to get an hour out of your cell. I know when I was in supermax, mind you we’re in a highly secured environment – They had these sensitive sensors on the roof so whenever the wind blows it set off the alarm – You’d be getting ready to come out for your shower and they’d say, now the jail’s locked down. That’s an oxymoron, the jail is always locked down. 

So now you’re telling me that I can’t come out because the sensor went off on the roof, but the reality is it’s 12 people in a pod with very little to no contact, and you’re going in there indefinitely. So that’s what they call a Security Housing Unit, and that’s where Hugo Pinell was in Pelican Bay. That’s where Ruchell Magee is now in Pelican Bay, that’s where Jalil Muntaqim was in Pelican Bay. Then you had Conrad, George, and the San Quentin Six, and they were in the Adjustment Center in San Quentin, which was 120 people in one area.

They still use it today. So this is the reality that, when we talk about the John Oliver piece, he raised a conversation, a subject matter. But when you go delve down into it, when we were talking about New York, New York passed a law called HALT Solitary Confinement because of the amount of people that were dying as a result of being isolated and not having human contact and losing their mind, that they now say that it creates PTSD, but they qualify it by saying “prison post-traumatic stress disorder”. The disorders that come from being housed in these types of environments are so inhumane that the person’s ability to function after they get out of them is hard.

I know this to be a fact because when I went to supermax – I went there in 1997 – And went in the pod, the average person in the pod had been there three years prior to me getting there. I did four-and-a-half years before I was let out of it, and the people that were in there prior to me being there were still in when I left, and had been in there an indeterminate amount of time, years. No programs, no real interaction with anybody, everything is restricted, they didn’t have a library, they didn’t have any books. The things that you could probably get and that your family could send you, depended on what the attitude was of the administration, on whether you got them or not.

So when I left, I knew that I was damaged. There was no doubt in my mind. I knew that because I had to really dial down, how was I going to deal with this day in and day out, not having human contact? The conversations that you’re having are so narrow at times, and you become frustrated real fast, that when I got out of prison the first thing I did was went and saw a mental health [professional] to unpack the damage that, not only the 48 years did, but the periods that I spent in supermax did. This is what they’re talking about today, the impact of it. This is one of the reasons why they’re trying to abolish it and eradicate it completely, because of the impact it has on a person mentally.

Maximillian Alvarez:  Yeah. That was one thing that the John Oliver segment did really well was emphasizing that solitary confinement isn’t something that is done to people in prison, it’s done to them for their whole lives. So if you go into solitary, the impact that it has on you is going to traumatize you in ways that are going to stay with you long after you’re released from prison. 

Which really does beg the question, if our whole justification in this society for the prison-industrial complex that we have and the brutal practices that go on there, if the whole reason that we keep that system going and the whole justification for it is that it’s meant to rehabilitate people, how can we possibly say this is a rehabilitative practice when it’s clear it’s torture that damages people and probably makes them more likely to die or hurt or harm them when they get out of prison? That’s not rehabilitation, that is pure torture and punishment, regardless of what the consequences are to the individual or to the society that they’re released to afterwards.

Mansa Musa:  That point you raise, that’s exactly what it is: torture. Because I remember I was in supermax with one guy, and it was a young guy, and the whole entire time we were in there, he kept on complaining about his stomach. They told him he had gas, so when we get out and we wind up in another environment together, I don’t see him so I ask, where is he? They said he’s over at the hospital for a bleeding ulcer. You don’t get a bleeding ulcer overnight. 

So all that time he was in there, the stress from being in isolation, the stress from being in solitary confinement and not knowing when you’re going to get out had caused him to get cancer. Because of that, they misdiagnosed him. It’s not a misdiagnosis really, what they do is they ignore the symptoms because it’s expensive to treat. So it’s easy to ignore it to the point where it becomes irreversible, and then you give him some medication until they die off.

This is what happened with this guy, he literally died. That’s what they talk about in pushing them to abolish and eradicate solitary confinement and not have another person be confined for more than three days, no more than two days. If their behavior is that egregious where it calls for you to put a person in an environment for 44 years, what did he do to put him in that environment for 44 years, other than have an independent thought? 

He was a threat that educated the population to stand up for themselves. So that threat was so severe to the establishment that they said, well, we’ve got to keep him isolated. Then as a result of that, when he got out he passed on because of what they did to him while he was incarcerated. This is where it’s torture, and it’s inhumane, and it’s criminal.

Maximillian Alvarez:  I want to follow up on that, because one thing that I’ve heard repeatedly from reading testimonies of people who have experienced solitary confinement, like yourself, one of the most common things they say is it’s impossible to communicate what it’s actually like to people who have never gone through that. So let’s take that as a given here, that me and the people watching who have never experienced this are only going to be able to understand so much of what you and others have gone through. But as best as you can, can you try to communicate to people what a day, a week, or more in solitary is? What does your life look like in, what I can only imagine, is the most hopeless place imaginable?

Mansa Musa:  Imagine: lock yourself in the closet and wait for somebody to open the door. Put a tray in there, shut the door, open the door. Tell you that you can go out in the courtyard, that you don’t have any contact with anybody. You go out there for an hour, maybe, then put you back in the closet. Open the closet up again, tell you to go to the shower, put you back in the closet. Everything is controlled, all your movement is controlled. We talk about passable conditioning. This is a perfect example because everything is designed around what they’re going to do for me, what am I entitled to?

Okay, they’re going to bring the tray at 7:00 in the morning, that’s breakfast. They’re going to bring the lunch tray at 10:00, that’s lunch. They’re going to bring the dinner tray at 4:00, that’s dinner. So now I’m anticipating that. Every other day I’m supposed to get out and get a shower, so I’m anticipating that. Everything is designed around me anticipating what you’re going to do for me next. I don’t have any individuality. So it stands to reason that I’m not going to have any social skills. I’m not going to be able to communicate unless I take the initiative to educate myself, unless I take the initiative to get something to read, unless I take the initiative to exercise, unless I take the initiative to not allow these four walls to close in on me like a vice grip then I’m going to break.

That’s the design, and it doesn’t have nothing to do with how strong you are mentally, it’s the relentless pressure like waterboarding. It’s really like that. Day in and day out you don’t have any control over what’s going on with you. If they feel like they want to come to your cell, strip you like a pancake, take all of your stuff and leave you in there by yourself with nothing, with the jumpsuit you’ve got on, no mattress, no sheets, no nothing. If they want to do that, they can do that and they have done that. To find yourself in that situation, how do you hold onto hope in that situation?

Then the breaking point is you don’t know how long you’re going to be there. So it would be something different if you could say, well, okay. I’ve got a year. Half of the time I tried to focus on, okay, I’ve got a year of this. I can hold out. No. 44 years, Albert, and he held out. The reason why he held out was because he knew he was in there for his thinking, and so he held onto his thinking. My thinking got me here and my thinking is going to get me out. My thinking will make me survive when I get out, because if I relinquish that, I’m relinquishing my right to my own humanity. The whole purpose of it is to dehumanize you to the point where you don’t have any more individuality. Now you become what they call you, a number.

Maximillian Alvarez:  Jesus, man. I genuinely can’t wrap my head around it. I remember saying this at one point during the first year of COVID-19, something like this hadn’t happened in my lifetime, at least on this scale, where we went into crisis mode. As many people who could socially distanced and locked themselves away in their houses, and so people were going a bit stir-crazy with their kids and their spouses. So they got a tiny, tiny taste of what it’s like to be socially isolated, and people freaked out about it because human beings are not meant to live like that. We are social creatures who depend on our relationships with other people to be ourselves.

When you take that away, I can imagine it’s like the features of the human being start to get erased, they start to drip, and melt off, and disappear until you’re basically a number. That’s such a cruel and inhumane thing to do to people. Like John Oliver said, we all understand that there are times when, if a person is a danger to themselves or others, you maybe have to get them out of that situation so that more violence doesn’t happen, but this is all taking place in the context of a prison-industrial complex that is violence, that is a violent institution.

I wanted to ask one more personal question on that front. As you’re isolated, you’re socially cut off, everything revolves around what the guards are going to give you at what time. When you’re in solitary, you do not know when that period is going to end. It could be 30 days, 60 days, a year, three years, four years, or like Albert Woodfox, 44 goddamn years. I genuinely can’t imagine what it takes to survive that and still have some of yourself intact afterwards. What did you do? How did you think? How did you pass the time, or what did you hold on to when you were locked up in that situation?

Mansa Musa:  See, because I had been back and forth on lockup – And lockup is nowhere near what solitary confinement at supermax is – But I had been accustomed to being locked behind the door, so I always had a routine. I would basically schedule myself out. I would work out, I would study, I would draw. Whatever I could develop as far as an outlet, that would become my routine. I would do it in and out. When we were in supermax, me and a guy, because we were in the proximity to talk, I had got my family to send me two Spanish books. So every day we would get up and outside the door we would teach each other Spanish. It was bastard Spanish, but it’s a new language. We would talk about people on the tier, in the area. This was our way of having an outlet. 

What it did, it made me have to get a routine. So in that routine I would create vocabulary mechanisms. Those are things that you find most people do, but at the end of the day what it still comes down to is here: the breaking point is you don’t know when you’re going to get out. So in your routine mentality, you’re holding on because that’s what your fortitude tells you to do. But you’re not being given any encouragement. I’ve seen men, I’ve seen them lose it. I’ve seen guys hang themselves, I’ve seen people commit suicide in this environment, primarily because of the inability to cope. I’ve seen them get to the point where they medicate and that becomes an outlet. So now I went from being a human being in a cage to being a vegetable in a cage, because now I’m depending on medication.

That’s why they have this thing in New York called HALT Security Housing, this is why you got ADX in Florence, Colorado, where it’s ultra-max. This is the environment you have there. This is what you have in most major institutions now, you have Security Housing that’s primarily designed to isolate you and dehumanize you to the point where you will go crazy, or you’re such a shallow individual when you get out that you don’t have the ability to function anymore.

Maximillian Alvarez:  Right. There was a study that came out last year – Spearheaded by the Yale Law School, which we’ll link to in the show notes for this episode – Showing that around 50,000 people a year are subjected to extended solitary confinement. That is crazy. It’s crazy that tens of thousands of people are locked away in solitary confinement, a box the size of a parking space, basically, living like this, not knowing when they’re ever going to get out, if they ever do get out. 

We’ll round off in a second by talking about what we could do about this and what a better option is. It feels like anything’s a better option than solitary confinement. But I wanted to pick up on two points real quick. One thing that the John Oliver segment noted was that prison officials, politicians, people in the media, people who’ve never experienced what you’ve experienced, will talk confidently about how and why we need solitary confinement, and how it’s only used in the most extreme cases. 

But that’s obviously not true. As John Oliver mentioned, people can get sent to solitary for looking at a guard the wrong way, or not tucking their shirts in, so on and so forth. So I wanted to ask if you could comment on that? But also if you can say a little bit about what it was like the day that you got out of that. What the fuck was that like?

Mansa Musa:  They started out by utilizing it to stop political prisoners from having access to the population, but it started growing, so you’re right, John Oliver’s observation was correct. So now you put somebody in solitary confinement under the pretense that they’re a gang member, that’s the big one that they use, they put you in solitary confinement because you’re a gang member. Then they put you into solitary confinement because you have mental health issues. So they know I’ve got a mental health issue but they’re going to put me in solitary confinement, and it’s going to do no more than exacerbate the problem.

Therein lies the problem. It should be outlawed, and there’s a push to outlaw it. But I remember when I got out, when I was going back and forth to court, the warden of the supermax knew us from when he was a correctional officer in the penitentiary when we first came there. So he knew me and he knew Eddie, he knew all of us, and he knew pretty much where we stood. So I was sitting in the hold waiting to go back to my cell and I saw him walk by and I said, hey, hey, look at me. The door opened and he came in there and he said, man, you think I’m going to walk by and see you and not say anything?

So he, because of the years we had been locked up and the fact that we stood up, he respected that. So we’re talking, he asked about my situation, I told him, I said, yeah, I don’t know when they’re going to let me out. I saw the board, I’m waiting for them to tell me. That’s another thing they do, you go up to see the board and two years later you’re still waiting for them to come back and tell you no. They might in two years, three years later, come and tell you no. So all that time that you went from I don’t know when I’m going to get out, to I don’t know when they’re going to tell me no.

First I didn’t know when I was going to get out. Then I went up in front of the board and the board said, okay, we approve you to come off, we’ve got to send it to somebody, they’ve got to approve it and they’ve got to send it to somebody, and they’ve got to approve. You wait three years and they say the third person said no. So now you’re really jaded. But when they came and got me, they came and got me abruptly. The warden had called there and told them to let me off, he helped me get off. So when the guard came to my door he said, look, pack up, you’ve got to go. Hurry up.

I’m like, I want to give all this stuff that I’ve got, I don’t want to take it with me. Somebody asked me for the mattress, hey, let me get your mattress. Let me get your blankets. You want to leave that stuff to people. Anything extra that you’ve got that’s going to help them. I was taking my time. I said, man, look, you shut my goddamn door. I’m not rushing. Because I already knew that if he’s rushing me, he’s rushing me because he’s thinking that the warden’s saying get me out right away. But I already knew that at some point in time, somebody must have said something that got him like this, but it ain’t that serious.

When I finally got out and got to the general population, I had issues because I wasn’t comfortable with people being around me. So it took me a minute. Like when the crowd’s going to chow I’d always stand on the outskirts because I wasn’t comfortable. I hadn’t had people around me, I hadn’t had people walking behind me, I hadn’t had people walking in front of me. Every time I came, I came up by myself and I came up with handcuffs and shackles on. So I wasn’t accustomed to not having that. Like when you stand on the tier and you wait for them to hit the doors and lock you in, I wasn’t accustomed to standing in the middle of the tier, socializing. I always had my back on the wall.

It took me a while to, not so much not do that, but to understand why I did it. Because it didn’t really dawn on me that I did it until I started seeing other people that came out of supermax that were in there with me doing it. When I looked and said, damn, as soon as you go on the tier you put your back on the wall, everybody else is moving around freely. Because now you’re in an environment that you’re not accustomed to. So at the end of the day, the push to abolish it is necessary. You’ve got your tax dollars paying for the prison-industrial complex and the military-industrial complex. Your tax dollars are paying so you should write on your tax form, “I want my money to go to torturing people.” Because that’s what your tax dollars are going to.

Or you should take a conscious effort to find out what this is and make a concerted effort to get it eradicated, because this is inhumane. There’s nothing humane coming out of this, a person goes into solitary confinement because they can’t cope with the general population, so they lose their mind, they have a breakdown. Instead of you trying to help them and treat them for that, you put them in solitary confinement and that ain’t doing no more than exacerbating their problem and driving them further into their insanity. That’s why they were talking about the amount of deaths that come out of that. The amount of deaths that come out of it is a result of the torture that comes from that environment.

Maximillian Alvarez:  Even now do you feel there are lingering effects from that time you spent in solitary?

Mansa Musa:  Yeah, because you ain’t going to spend 48 years in prison and a portion of that in isolation, or the uncertainty of the environment, and not be damaged. That’s not a reality. It’s really what I do and how I manage it, how I deal with it. Like I told you, I’ve got somebody to help me unpack and understand it. I don’t have a big thing about being like, I like to hang out. I’m sociable, but then I can also be comfortable sitting in a chair in my house not doing anything. No TV on, no radio on, not reading, just sitting still. Because I’ve done that repeatedly in prison; sat in a cell and did nothing.

When I got with Eddie and I saw Eddie doing puzzles, when we were locked down in prison, I got them to get us puzzles and I would do puzzles for 17 hours. I would get the most complicated puzzle. Wouldn’t do anything but a puzzle all day long, because that’s solitude. So yeah, I see lingering effects, but at the end of the day, and I want our audience to know this, that when you look at this right here you need to understand what it is and take a stand on it.

This is what we’re doing here at Rattling the Bars and The Real News. We’re talking about John Oliver, but who else is going to come and editorialize John Oliver? Who else is going to come behind events like [what’s happening in Palestine]and give context to the murder and the genocide that’s taking place? No other news media, no other outlet is doing it. This is why it’s important that you, as an audience and our listeners, support The Real News and Rattling the Bars. We are, in fact, and I know this comes as a surprise to a lot of people, actually, really, the news.

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Mansa Musa, also known as Charles Hopkins, is a 70-year-old social activist and former Black Panther. He was released from prison on December 5, 2019, after serving 48 years, nine months, 5 days, 16 hours, 10 minutes. He co-hosts the TRNN original show Rattling the Bars.