What one man’s 40 years in solitary says about America’s criminal justice system
After his plane was shot down during the Korean War, CIA operative John Downey spent more than 20 years in a Chinese prison, much of it in solitary confinement. When he was finally released and repatriated in 1973, friends urged him to write a book, but Downey demurred: A book about his time in prison, he said, would consist of “500 blank pages.” This is the dilemma facing anyone trying to write about solitary confinement. How do you communicate to the fortunate, oblivious inhabitants of the outside world what it’s like? How do you describe days, years, decades behind bars, mostly in a small, dank, stinking cell? What is there to say? In prison, things are bad, and then they are worse; then they are unbearable, then merely awful again for a time, then unbearable again, then bad. As Harvard scholar Elaine Scarry has written: “Whatever pain achieves, it achieves in part through its unsharability, and it ensures this unsharability through its resistance to language. . . . Physical pain does not simply resist language but actively destroys it.” In “Solitary,” an account of his 40 years in Angola, one of America’s most notorious prisons, Albert Woodfox takes up the challenge Downey declined. The result is a book that is wrenching, sometimes numbing, sometimes almost physically painful to read. You want to turn away, put the book down: Enough, no more! But you can’t, because after 40-plus years, the very least we owe Woodfox is attention to his story, however agonizing we find it.
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Book / 9780802129086 / Albert Woodfox / March 5, 2019 / 4 / ..:::