Our prisons are a mirror showing the soul of America. It’s not a pretty picture.

Summary:  Among the many forms of pressure the government puts on Bradley Manning while awaiting trial (he’s not confessed and we have not seen the evidence) are isolation and sleep deprivation.  The last is an frequent ingredient of systematic torture, needing no explanation.  The widespread mockery (and even more common indifference) to Manning’s treatments shows that the effect of isolation is less well understood by the US public.  This is a brief review; links at the end provide more information.

The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.
— Attributed to Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1881); it’s often falsely cited as from House of the Dead

US courts have long evaluated the use of solitary confinement by law enforcement agents.  Perhaps the most often cited is U.S. Supreme Court opinion IN RE MEDLEY, 134 U.S. 160 (3 March 1890) .  It’s often described as “almost ruling torture cruel and unusual“, but in fact never used either word.  The text shows that over a century ago solitary confinement was considered an extreme punishment.

Solitary confinement, as a punishment for crime, has a very interesting history of its own, in almost all countries where imprisonment is one of the means of punishment. … {T}he first plan adopted … was the solitary prison connected with the Hospital San Michele at Rome, in 1703, but little known prior to the experiment at Walnut-Street Penitentiary in Philadelphia, in 1787. The peculiarities of this system were the complete isolation of the prisoner from all human society, and his confinement in a cell of considerable size, so arranged that he had no direct intercourse with or sight of any human being, and no employment or instruction. Other prisons on the same plan, which were less liberal in the size of their cells and the perfection of their appliances, were erected in Massachusetts, New Jersey, Maryland, and some of the other states.

But experience demonstrated that there were serious objections to it. A considerable number of the prisoners fell, after even a short confinement, into a semi- fatuous condition, from which it was next to impossible to arouse them, and others became violently insane; others still, committed suicide; while those who stood the ordeal better were not generally reformed, and in most cases did not recover sufficient mental activity to be of any subsequent service to the community. It became evident that some changes must be made in the system, and the separate system was originated by the Philadelphia Society for Ameliorating the Miseries of Public Prisons, founded in 1787.

American POWs during the Korean and Vietnam Wars reported horrific experiences with solitary confinement.  In Faith of My Fathers John McCain wrote of his  years as a POW in Vietnam, almost half in isolation in a 15×15 foot cell:

It’s an awful thing, solitary.  It crushes your spirit and weakens your resistance more effectively than any other form of mistreatment.  Having no one else rely on, to share confidences with, to seek counsel from, you begin to doubt your courage.

For a detailed analysis, citing some of the medical research about solitary confinement, see “Hellhole, in the Annals of Human Rights“, Atul Gawande (Assoc Prof of Surgery at Harvard; bio here), The New Yorker, 30 March 2009 — “The United States holds tens of thousands of inmates in long-term solitary confinement. Is this torture?”  Excerpt:

A U.S. military study of almost a hundred and fifty naval aviators returned from imprisonment in Vietnam, many of whom were treated even worse than McCain, reported that they found social isolation to be as torturous and agonizing as any physical abuse they suffered.

And what happened to them was physical. EEG studies going back to the nineteen-sixties have shown diffuse slowing of brain waves in prisoners after a week or more of solitary confinement. In 1992, fifty-seven prisoners of war, released after an average of six months in detention camps in the former Yugoslavia, were examined using EEG-like tests. The recordings revealed brain abnormalities months afterward; the most severe were found in prisoners who had endured either head trauma sufficient to render them unconscious or, yes, solitary confinement. Without sustained social interaction, the human brain may become as impaired as one that has incurred a traumatic injury.

… Craig Haney, a psychology professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz, received rare permission to study a hundred randomly selected inmates at California’s Pelican Bay supermax, and noted a number of phenomena. First, after months or years of complete isolation, many prisoners “begin to lose the ability to initiate behavior of any kind—to organize their own lives around activity and purpose,” he writes. “Chronic apathy, lethargy, depression, and despair often result. . . . In extreme cases, prisoners may literally stop behaving,” becoming essentially catatonic.

Second, almost ninety per cent of these prisoners had difficulties with “irrational anger,” compared with just three per cent of the general population.* Haney attributed this to the extreme restriction, the totality of control, and the extended absence of any opportunity for happiness or joy. Many prisoners in solitary become consumed with revenge fantasies.

… In the past 30 years, the United States has quadrupled its incarceration rate but not its prison space. Work and education programs have been cancelled, out of a belief that the pursuit of rehabilitation is pointless. The result has been unprecedented overcrowding … Before long, you find yourself in the position we are in today. The United States now has 5% of the world’s population, 25% of its prisoners, and probably the vast majority of prisoners who are in long-term solitary confinement.

… Our first supermax — our first institution specifically designed for mass solitary confinement — was not established until 1983, in Marion, Illinois. In 1995, a federal court reviewing California’s first supermax admitted that the conditions “hover on the edge of what is humanly tolerable for those with normal resilience.”

… America now holds at least 25,000  inmates in isolation in supermax prisons. An additional 50 to 80 thousand are kept in restrictive segregation units, many of them in isolation, too, although the government does not release these figures. By 1999, the practice had grown to the point that Arizona, Colorado, Maine, Nebraska, Nevada, Rhode Island, and Virginia kept 5 – 8% of their prison population in isolation, and, by 2003, New York had joined them as well. Mississippi alone held {12%} in supermax …

… Consider what other countries do. …The use of long-term isolation in England is now negligible. In all of England, there are now fewer prisoners in “extreme custody” than there are in the state of Maine. And the other countries of Europe have, with a similar focus on small units and violence prevention, achieved a similar outcome.

… In this country, in June of 2006, a bipartisan national task force, the Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons, released its recommendations after a yearlong investigation. It called for ending long-term isolation of prisoners. Beyond about ten days, the report noted, practically no benefits can be found and the harm is clear—not just for inmates but for the public as well. … Instead, the report said, we should follow the preventive approaches used in European countries. The recommendations went nowhere, of course.

For more information

Articles about solitary confinement:

  1. The Commission on Safety and Abuse in America’s Prisons
  2. Testimony by Stuart Grassian (psychiatrist) about the impact of isolation, Commission on Safety and Abuse in United States Prisons, 19 July 2005.
  3. The Psychological Effects of Solitary Confinement on Prisoners in Supermax Units“, Bruce A. Arrigo  (Prof Criminology, UNC at Charlotte) and Jennifer Leslie Bullock, International Journal of Offender Therapy and Comparative Criminology, December 2008 — Reviewing What We Know and Recommending What Should Change
  4. Torture in Our Own Backyards: The Fight Against Supermax Prisons“, Jessica Pupovac, AlterNet, 24 March 2008 — “In supermax prisons, 23 hours a day of solitary confinement is the norm. How did our prison system become so cruel?”
  5. Prolonged Solitary Confinement and the Constitution“, Jules Lobel (Prof of Law, U Pittsburg), Journal of Constitutional Law, December 2008
  6. “Preserving the Rule of Law in America’s Jails and Prisons: The Case for Amending the Prison Litigation Reform Act”, Margo Schlanger (Prof Law, Washington U in St. Louis) and Giovanna Shay (Asst Prof, Western New England College School of Law), Journal of Constitutional Law, December 2008
  7. Bad Bad Juju: Sensory Deprivation and Solitary Confinement“, G.I. Wilson (Colonel, USMC, retired), 31 March 2009 — “Research shows that extreme sensory deprivation and extended periods of solitary confinement lead to mental aberrations and manifestations such as hallucinations, perceptional issues, and dysfunctional cognitive missteps.”
  8.  “Solitary Confinement: The Invisible Torture“, Brandon Kein, Wired, 29 April 2009 — Interview with Craig Haney (Prof of Psychology, U of California, Santa Cruz; bio).

Some Research — studies by Daniel P. Mears (Prof Criminology, FSU):

  1. Benefit-Cost Analysis of Supermax Prisons – Critical Steps and Considerations, 1 August 2004
  2. Evaluating the Effectiveness of Supermax Prisons, May 2006
  3. Wardens’ Views on the Wisdom of Supermax Prisons, July 2006
  4. Assessment of Supermax Prisons Using an Evaluation Research Framework, March 2008
  5. Supermax Incarceration and Recidivism, November 2009

Other posts about our criminal justice system:

  1. An opportunity to look in the mirror, to more clearly see America, 10 November 2009 — About our prisons
  2. Nixon declared war on drugs, a major investment of America in itself – but one that’s gone bad, 21 May 2010
  3. The Feds decide who to lock up for life (not just at Guantanamo), another nail in the Constitution’s coffin, 2 June 2010
  4. Being a third world nation is a state of mind, as we will learn (about prison rape), 19 March 2011
  5. Our prisons are a mirror showing the soul of America.  It’s not a pretty picture., 28 March 2011
  6. The Collapse of American Criminal Justice System — Excerpts from The Collapse of American Criminal Justice by William J. Stuntz
  7. More about the collapse of the American Criminal Justice System – Studies and reports about our shameful system.
  8. Final thoughts about the American Criminal Justice System, 21 September 2011

Posts about torture:

  1. Something every American should read – about torture, 25 March 2009
  2. We close our eyes to torture by our government. The Brits are stronger., 9 April 2009
  3. So many Americans approve of torture; what does this tell us about America?, 30 April 2009
  4. Dispatches from the front lines in the war for America’s soul, 11 May 2009
  5. The Reverse Nuremberg Defense – “We were just giving orders“, 20 May 2009
  6. Our government does torture, but it is just like the treatment of young reporters by newspapers, 16 February 2010
  7. The US government at work, doing dark deeds in our name, 13 March 2010
  8. Reading about American torturers is a bummer. Let’s close our eyes and pretend it didn’t happen, and will not happen again., 22 March 2010
  9. An expert speaks to us about torture, 5 May 2010
  10. The long-term consequences to America of torturing Bradley Manning, 15 March 2011

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