The Torture of Solitary

April marks the 40th year anniversary of solitary confinement of the Angola 3 (two elderly Black Panthers doing time in Louisiana). The Wilson Quarterly just published an essay I wrote about their plight, and the tens of thousands of other prisoners enduring this mental torture in the United States. Here is the opening segment:

Here is what I knew about Joe Loya before stepping into his car: During a 14-month stretch in the late 1980s, he stole a quarter-million dollars from 30 Southern California banks by donning a tailored suit and, occasionally, a fedora, striding up to bank tellers, and, in a low and smoky voice, demanding all their money. His panache earned him the nickname “The Beirut Bandit” because, he said, “no one could believe a Mexican from East L.A. could be so smooth.” He was finally bum-rushed by undercover agents while reading the newspaper at a UCLA campus café. (His girlfriend had tipped them off.) As he served out a seven-year prison sentence, he grew increasingly violent, once chomping off a chunk of an inmate’s ear for snaking his copy of Playboy. When his former cellmate was slaughtered in their old cell, Loya was pegged as a primary suspect and consigned to Security Housing Unit—otherwise known as solitary confinement—for two years, until cleared of the charges. He was released in 1996, at age 35.

All of this, I could handle. But when he started careening 77 miles per hour down the freeway, slicing in and out of traffic, I worried. Tall and husky with mocha-colored skin, Loya was wearing Ray-Bans and a pinstriped shirt untucked over jeans. His temples were flecked gray.

“There is something seductive about solitary confinement,” he mused, dodging from one lane into the next. “It is the myth of the American male: I walk alone. There is a sense that solitary is a kind of adventure, and men love adventure.”

We narrowly avoided sideswiping an SUV, which blared its horn.

“It sounds like you already had a lot of adventure,” I offered.

Maybe too much. Loya’s mother died of cancer when he was nine, leaving him with a little brother and a Bible-thumping father for emotional support. He sought comfort in an older female neighbor who repeatedly molested him. Meanwhile, his father tried to beat the demons out of him. After an especially brutal pummeling at age 16, Loya plunged a steak knife into his father’s neck. The old man survived, but Loya landed in county custody, embarking from there on a decade-long crime spree that included auto theft, larceny, fraud, and, finally, the bank robberies that landed him in prison.

“No adventure is like solitary,” he said, gliding into another lane. “It’s almost erotic, like—like masturbation. You don’t rely on anyone else to pleasure you. You just do it yourself. Solitary is just you creating your own universe with you at the center of it, to sleep, to read, to jack off, to think, to be with yourself.”

He glanced at me and grinned. “When you come out of solitary, you know that you’ve taken stock of yourself. You know who you are.”

In his case, that meant discovering a knack for the pen. Halfway through his sentence, Loya struck up a correspondence with the writer Richard Rodriguez, who emboldened him to pursue his literary tendencies. Six years after his release, Loya starred in a one-man show he’d written about his past called The Man Who Outgrew His Prison Cell, which HarperCollins later published as a memoir.

The exit for San Leandro loomed ahead. Loya zipped across three lanes, pivoted east, then doglegged through an upscale neighborhood. “Pretentious bullshit,” he muttered at a sign featuring the word “estates” in floral script. We pulled up to a cream-colored house with rust-brown trim. Inside, the living room radiated newness. Black and white photographs of sidewalk cafes in foreign lands were propped against the walls, waiting to be hung. Teddy bears, blankets, and teething toys scattered the floor. Just a few months earlier, Loya and his wife had been nesting in East Oakland, but they decamped after five shootings occurred within a few blocks of their home. The safety of their 16-month-old daughter trumped their desire to help “foster community.”

Loya motioned for me to sit. We stared at each other for a long moment.

“So, solitary,” I said.

“So, solitary,” he repeated, combing his fingers through his gel-spiked hair. “Rule number one is, you make your bunk in the morning and you don’t lie on it again. Not until lunch, and even then, just for a nap. Your bunk is like quicksand. Spend too much time on it, and your mind will grow sloppy. You have to be vigilant. You have to take control of your thoughts before they grip hold of you. Mind games help, because they keep you sharp.

“First, you sit on the edge of your bunk. Don’t lie on it. SIT. Find a spot on the wall. Okay, now—stare. That’s it. Stare. Don’t look away. Just keep staring at it, staring at it, at that same little spot, for a whole entire minute. Once you got that, stare at it for five minutes. Then 10. Then 20.

“That’s when things start to happen. Things like light. Panels of light will slowly open as your peripheral vision recedes into darkness. And then that spot on the wall, it will dance. It will become a dog or a horse and after a while it will become a man, and that man, he will start to walk. If you concentrate hard enough, deep enough, long enough, a little movie will flicker.

“Eventually, this will happen without you even trying. Faces will appear, but without you concentrating. You just open your eyes and a scene appears right in front of you. But then those faces, they start to morph, like in that Michael Jackson video. Only, they morph into people you don’t want to see. People you fucked over. People suffering. People in pain.

“And then you start hearing things.”

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