Prompted by a letter from lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana, officials at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola have transferred Hymel Varnado to a shared cell after forcing him to endure 12 years of solitary confinement for no legitimate reason.
"For over a century, it's been clear that prolonged isolation has severe medical consequences, and in 1890 the US Supreme Court found that it can cause mental illness and that it is often too severe a punishment," said Marjorie R. Esman, Executive Director of the ACLU of Louisiana. "It shouldn't have taken over a century for the Warden of Angola to recognize that no one should be isolated from human contact without a very good reason."
Varnado, who has no record of escape attempts, assaulting staff or harming himself or others, was transferred to a shared cell on Dec. 30, 2009, after ACLU lawyers wrote to Angola's Warden Burl Cain urging that Varnado be placed in a less restrictive setting and explaining the many medical reports and court rulings showing that prolonged isolation is dangerous and cruel.
Since his arrival at Angola in May 1997, Varnado has spent almost his entire time in an individual cell 23 hours a day. He was allowed to exercise alone in a fenced yard three times a week. His isolation caused him to experience psychological torture on a daily basis, including sleep deprivation and acute psychological pain.
Varnado was placed in solitary confinement not because of his behavior while in prison, but because he was young – 21 – at the time of his incarceration. In fact, he was released from solitary into a dormitory for several months last year and although he did well there and his health improved, he was returned to solitary when the dorm was closed.
"Logic, as well as human decency, demand that we allow people to interact with others," said Esman. "The evidence has been clear for long enough that isolation causes illness. Hymel Varnado did not need to be isolated from other prisoners, and he spent years deprived of his ability to function for no reason other than that he was young when he committed his crimes. We're delighted that Mr. Varnado will now be able to have human companionship."
The United States holds tens of thousands of inmates in long-term solitary confinement. Louisiana subjects a disproportionate number of prisoners to isolation despite the extensive evidence of harm of solitary confinement. Some, such as the Angola 3, were forced to endure more than three decades of isolation in solitary confinement.
"We are honored to help Mr. Varnado usher in the new year in more humane conditions," said Jim Swanson, an attorney with the law firm Fishman, Haygood, Phelps, Walmsley, Willis & Swanson, L.L.P. "He can now regain his health, and we hope this will serve as a reminder that long-term use of solitary confinement is contrary to the law and, more importantly, to human decency."