Is solitary confinement a form of torture?
It is a style of punishment used in prisons around the world. A style of punishment coming under increased criticism as a form of "torture." Now, the Yale Law School has honored an inmate's essay on spending a quarter century in solitary confinement. In the first of two reports on the new debate, YNN's Bill Carey says the essay hits hard in the Syracuse area, where its author's name still stirs anger.
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NEW YORK STATE -- The narrative stretches across 19 handwritten pages. The author is an inmate at Elmira State Prison. His name is notorious in Central New York.
Billy Blake, who, 26 years ago, opened fire during an escape attempt from DeWitt Town Court, killing one sheriff's deputy and wounding another. It is a crime that Blake has now apologized for, saying his conscience was prodded by pictures from Deputy David Clark's funeral, showing his widow and two young sons.
“I took their Daddy away from them and I didn't have a good reason to do it. It was selfishness and that's how I was, basically, back then. I was a selfish scumbag,” Blake said in March 2012.
Blake is not eligible for parole until the year 2060.
In the first third of his sentence, he has won the distinction of being the New York State inmate held longest in what is called "special housing." What most of us would consider solitary confinement. He is virtually cut off from the world, allowed a few books and some writing material.
Blake said, “Twenty-three hours a day and I can go outside into an empty yard by myself for an hour. It's not too lovely of an existence. Death, for me, would be an outlet, an escape from that. You know?”
In his essay, Blake rails against the system saying it pushes men to madness.
"The nighttime," he writes, "is when tough guys cry not-so-tough tears, forced out of them by the unrelenting stress and strain..."
He is not immune, saying, "...it felt like it was choking me, trying to squeeze the sanity from my mind, the spirit from my soul, and the life from my body..."
Cases like Blake's have prompted a new debate over the use of solitary confinement for long periods of time.
The debate is not new. Back in the 1830s, Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville toured America, taking notes for a landmark work on the experiment in democracy underway in the New World. Among his stops was Auburn Prison in New York, where he found a harsh system of solitary confinement in place.
Tocqueville's assessment of solitary confinement? He wrote, "...it destroys the criminal without intermission and without pity. It does not reform. It kills."
Blake says he continues to resist what he views as the coward's way out: Suicide. For now he'll remain behind bars by himself, waiting for the next chapter in his story.
“I'm just biding my time until my time in this world is over. Until I get to the next life. And I ain't going to screw up as bad as I've done this one,” Blake said.
The Blake case is now at the heart of new efforts to put an end to lengthy use of solitary confinement, efforts launched by the New York Civil Liberties Union and the United Nations.