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Torture in Our Nation's Prisons

Setting aside Jack Bauer, the United States does not engage in torture, right? Just last night on "60 Minutes," President Obama reaffirmed that. "I think that Vice President Cheney has been at the head of a movement whose notion is somehow that we can't reconcile our core values, our Constitution, our belief that we don't torture, with our national security interests," Obama said. "I think he's drawing the wrong lesson from history." Our new attorney general, Eric Holder, has said the same: The United States does not condone torture.

Surgeon and writer Atul Gawande might beg to differ. The torture Obama and Holder condemned was of terrorists and took place, if anywhere, in foreign locations. But thousands of prisoners are subjected to torture daily in prisons throughout the United States, Gawande suggests. What torture? The torture of solitary confinement. In an article that appears in the March 30 issue of The New Yorker, Gawande's article, "Hellhole," examines the routine and rampant use of solitary confinement in U.S. prisons and concludes, "all human beings experience isolation as torture."

In much the same way that a previous generation of Americans countenanced legalized segregation, ours has countenanced legalized torture. And there is no clearer manifestation of this than our routine use of solitary confinement—on our own people, in our own communities, in a supermax prison, for example, that is a thirty-minute drive from my door.

We are, after all, social creatures. To be deprived of society is to be deprived of our humanity, Gawande suggests. We know this from the stories of long-distance sailors and of hostages held in foreign prisons in solitary confinement. The former AP correspondent Terry Anderson detailed this in his memoir, "Den of Lions," recounting seven years as a hostage of Hezbollah in Lebanon. "I find myself trembling sometimes for no reason," Anderson wrote. "I’m afraid I’m beginning to lose my mind, to lose control completely." John McCain had similar memories of his two years of solitary confinement as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. "It's an awful thing, solitary," McCain said. "It crushes your spirit and weakens your resistance more effectively than any other form of mistreatment."

We understand the horror of isolation when it happens outside our borders but we routinely overlook its horror here at home, Gawande argues. He tells the stories of several inmates who were confined to solitary, such as Bobby Dellelo. Captured after an escape from a Massachusetts prison, Dellelo was ordered to spend five years in solitary confinement. After just a few months, he began to lose his mind.

He talked to himself. He paced back and forth compulsively, shuffling along the same six-foot path for hours on end. Soon, he was having panic attacks, screaming for help. He hallucinated that the colors on the walls were changing. He became enraged by routine noises—the sound of doors opening as the guards made their hourly checks, the sounds of inmates in nearby cells. After a year or so, he was hearing voices on the television talking directly to him. He put the television under his bed, and rarely took it out again.

If isolation is, indeed, torture, then its victims are many. U.S. prisons now house at least 25,000 inmates in isolation, Gawande says, and another 50,000 to 80,000 are in restrictive segregation units that include isolation. The argument for its widespread use is to reduce prison violence. But Gawande contends that most inmates in isolation are not dangerous and that it fails that purpose in any event. He points to the U.K. model as an effective alternative, where dangerous prisoners are pushed into enhanced social settings rather than be deprived of society. "The results have been impressive," he says. "The use of long-term isolation in England is now negligible."

Posted by Robert J. Ambrogi on March 23, 2009 at 11:14 AM | Permalink | Comments (6)

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