In 1972, Herman Wallace was an inmate in a Louisiana state prison when he and two other inmates were accused of killing a prison guard in what may have been a politically-motivated prosecution. (But that never happens, right?) By many accounts, the case against the men had problems, and last week, a federal judge reversed Wallace’s conviction, ordered him released, and granted him a new trial. By then, however, Wallace was dying of liver cancer, and he had spent the last 41 years in solitary confinement, longer than anyone in modern U.S. history. He was not the only one, though. According to the most recent statistics from the Justice Department, the United States holds about 81,000 inmates in solitary confinement at any given time.
Herman Wallace died a free man on October 4, three days after his release. He had called solitary confinement “the cruelest thing one man can do to another.” His story gives us another reason to reconsider its use, especially its long-term or indefinite use, except as necessary to combat serious, imminent security risks.