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Questioning Solitary Confinement

October 25, 2010

Solitary Confinement: Is it Torture?

The French magistrate Alexis de Tocqueville, who studied America’s penitentiaries  during his 1831-1832 visit to the U.S., wrote that solitary confinement:

“…produces in the depths of [the prisoner’s] soul a terror more profound than chains or beatings…Here the punishment is simultaneously the mildest and the most terrible that has ever been invented. It is not only focused on the human mind, but it exerts an incredible dominion over it.”

A couple of years ago, I flew out to Tucson, Arizona, to film a demonstration at the Army’s Fort Huachuca. A group called Southwest Weekend of Witness and other local anti-torture activists have targeted the Fort because it’s where the Army trains interrogators. The annual demonstration is roughly timed to coincide with the much larger event held by School of the Americas Watch at the former School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia.
            Given my non-existent budget for this project, I was nervous about the possibility of my rental car being trashed by the expected counter demonstrators, so gladly accepted a ride with a local guy whose name, I’m sorry to say, I no longer remember. It was only about an hour’s drive, but we managed to work our way through a surprising number of issues (we agreed to disagree about gun control – though he reluctantly agreed that maybe open carry while intoxicated might justify some restrictions.)
            More importantly, he talked to me at length about his involvement in the campaign to end solitary confinement in U.S. prisons, arguing that isolation from other human beings is a particularly insidious form of torture – and perhaps the most widely practiced form in the United States today.
            That conversation came back to me recently, when I was interviewing a client of one of the torture treatment centers I’ve been working with for our film, Refuge: Caring for Survivors of Torture. D. is a soft-spoken, somewhat self-effacing guy, and throughout much of our meeting he had been downplaying his own experiences – repeatedly saying that worse things had been done to others. Maybe so, but D. had been beaten, hung by his arms for a month, and kept inadequately clothed in an unheated cell for three years – in solitary confinement. After telling us all this, he said again “It was not so bad. For others it was worse. It was not so bad…” And then he looked down at his hands and said, “…but it ruined me.”
            I’m sure I’ll be coming back to this issue, but for the moment, here’s a must-read article, along with some other important resources that I hope may generate discussion among our readers. Your comments will be welcome.

Must Read: Atul Gawande is a physician at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital and a Professor of Public Health at Harvard Medical School. He’s also a journalist who has written extensively about medicine and public health. In his 2009 New Yorker article, Hellhole  he argues that “Whether in Walpole or Beirut or Hanoi, all human beings experience isolation as torture.” He quotes Senator John McCain’s description of the experience:

“It’s an awful thing, solitary,” John McCain wrote of his five and a half years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam — more than two years of it spent in isolation in a fifteen-by-fifteen-foot cell, unable to communicate with other P.O.W.s except by tap code, secreted notes, or by speaking into an enamel cup pressed against the wall. “It crushes your spirit and weakens your resistance more effectively than any other form of mistreatment.”

Gawande points out that the United States, with five percent of the world’s population, has twenty-five percent of the world’s prisoners, “and probably the vast majority of prisoners who are in long-term solitary confinement.” And, he notes, “It wasn’t always like this. The wide-scale use of isolation is, almost exclusively, a phenomenon of the past twenty years.” You can listen to or read the transcript of an interview with Gawande on NPR.            

Writing on Counterpunch about the case of Syed Fahad Hashmi, Bill Quigley, legal director of the Center for Constitutional Rights notes: “Under international standards for human rights, extended isolation is considered a form of torture and is banned. The conditions and practices of isolation are in violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the U.N. Convention against Torture, and the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

“…In 1996, the U.N. special rapporteur on torture reported on cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment in U.S. supermax prisons.  In 2000, the U.N. Committee on Torture roundly condemned the United States for its treatment of prisoners, citing supermax prisons. In May 2006, the same committee concluded that the United States should “review the regimen imposed on detainees in supermax prisons, in particular, the practice of prolonged isolation.”

Other Resources:

Supermax, a recent book by Sharon Shalev, “examines the rise and proliferation of ‘supermax’ prison in the United States since the late 1980’s…It asks why solitary confinement, which had been discredited in the past, is now proposed as the solution for dealing with ‘difficult’, ‘dangerous’, or ‘disruptive’ prisoners.” (If ordering books or DVDs discussed in this blog from Amazon, please consider doing so through our website, which will help to support the work of The Refuge Media Project. Click on the title above to be redirected to our site.)

Psychiatric Effects of Solitary Confinement, a 2006 article by Stuart Grassian in the Journal of Law & Policy, is a detailed and informed study by a psychiatrist who has had extensive experience in evaluating the psychiatric effects of solitary confinement.

Istanbul Statement on the Use and Effects of Solitary Confinement In this statement, adopted on December 9, 2007, 24 international experts called  on States to limit the use of solitary confinement to very exceptional cases, for as short a time as possible, and only as a last resort.

Sourcebook on Solitary Confinement: “A comprehensive single point of reference on solitary confinement examining its documented health effects, and professional, ethical and human rights guidelines and codes of practice relating to its use.”

One Comment leave one →
  1. elana permalink
    November 17, 2010 10:02 PM

    i’ve been wondering for years. how many americans are living their lives in solitary confinement with no visible bars………this would be an impossible thing to count but i would love to know

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