Torture In Your Own Backyard
Cell Block D, Alcatraz
If Dostoevsky was right, that "the degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons," the United States has ceased to be civilized. When a country imprisons more than 2 million people, and when it manages to be torturing more than 20,000 of those prisoners through long term solitary confinement, something is wrong. Very, very wrong. And remarkably, the torture is thoroughly overlooked.
Torturing? Yes. Not waterboarding. Not stress positions. No. I’m talking about long term, unrelenting solitary confinement. Solitary confinement not for days, but for years, even for decades. Solitary confinement that literally drives prisoners crazy. Solitary confinement that is torture plain and simple.
Join me in Special Housing.
As early as 1890, the US Supreme Court recognized the pernicious effects of solitary confinement. Justice Miller wrote In Re Medley, 134 U.S. 1 60 (1890):
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.
So we're not dealing with forecasts here. It was clear a century ago that solitary confinement was cruel, that it was hurtful, and that it would absolutely ruin the mental health of a person who was confined. These were not theoretical predictions of the results of solitary confinement; these were reported observations.
In 1934 the US Government opened Alcatraz to hold the worst of US, federal prisoners. NPR explained what solitary confinement at Alcatraz's D block (pictured above) was like:
Most inmates spend many hours outside in the yard and on required work details. But a few dozen are kept in "D Block," the prison’s solitary-confinement hallway. One cell in particular is called "The Hole" -- a room of bare concrete except for a hole in the floor. There is no light, inmates are kept naked, and bread and water is shoved through a small hole in the door. Although most inmates only spend a few days in the hole, some spend years on D Block. Conditions are better than in The Hole -- inmates have clothes and food -- but they are not permitted contact with other inmates and are rarely let out of their cells. The most famous inmate on D Block is Robert Stroud, known as the "Birdman of Alcatraz,” who spends six years there.
It's not a long jump from Alcatraz to the present. In 2005, Daniel P. Mears, an associate professor at Florida State University, conducted a nationwide study(big file, pdf) and found that there were then 40 states operating Supermax or control-unit prisons, which collectively hold more than 25,000 U.S. prisoners, in solitary confinement. This is a huge population. And every single person in it is being given the same toxic, dangerous, tortuous treatment.
What's it like to be incarcerated in such a place? It’s not much different now from how it was more than 75 years ago at Alcatraz. In Beard v. Banks, 548 U.S. 521 (2006) the US Supreme Court described Pennsylvania’s Long Term Segregation Units (LTSU), the current prison lingo for solitary confinement:
The LTSU is divided into two levels. All inmates are initially assigned to the most restrictive level, level 2. After 90 days, depending upon an inmate's behavior, an individual may graduate to the less restrictive level 1, although in practice most do not. ...
The [3 units] all seriously restrict inmates' ordinary prison privileges. At all three units, residents are typically confined to cells for 23 hours a day, have limited access to the commissary or outside visitors, and (with the exception of some phases of the SMU) may not watch television or listen to the radio...
Prisoners at level 2 of the LTSU face the most severe form of the restrictions listed above. They have no access to the commissary, they may have only one visitor per month (an immediate family member), and they are not allowed phone calls except in emergencies... In addition they (unlike all other prisoners in the Commonwealth) are restricted in the manner at issue here: They have no access to newspapers, magazines, or personal photographs.... They are nonetheless permitted legal and personal correspondence, religious and legal materials, two library books, and writing paper... If an inmate progresses to level 1, he enjoys somewhat less severe restrictions, including the right to receive one newspaper and five magazines... The ban on photographs is not lifted unless a prisoner progresses out of the LTSU altogether...
Is holding someone for a long period of time in these conditions torture? If that’s not already clear, it is. In a March, 2009 New Yorker article, Atul Gawande effectively argues that destroying people’s mental health through prolonged solitary confinement is torture plain and simple. Gawande note the evidence that solitary confinement drives prisoners into insanity:
It is unclear how many prisoners in solitary confinement become psychotic. Stuart Grassian, a Boston psychiatrist, has interviewed more than two hundred prisoners in solitary confinement. In one in-depth study, prepared for a legal challenge of prisoner-isolation practices, he concluded that about a third developed acute psychosis with hallucinations. The markers of vulnerability that he observed in his interviews were signs of cognitive dysfunction—a history of seizures, serious mental illness, mental retardation, illiteracy, or... a diagnosis such as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, signalling difficulty with impulse control. In the prisoners Grassian saw, about a third had these vulnerabilities, and these were the prisoners whom solitary confinement had made psychotic. They were simply not cognitively equipped to endure it without mental breakdowns.
You can, of course, read Grassian’s Report (pdf).
To be clear, driving prisoners insane through long term solitary confinement is torture.
In 2000, and again in 2006, the United Nations Committee Against Torture condemned the kind of isolation imposed by the U.S. government in federal, state and county-run supermax prisons, calling it "extremely harsh." "The committee is concerned about the prolonged isolation periods detainees are subjected to," they stated, "the effect such treatment has on their mental health, and that its purpose may be retribution, in which case it would constitute cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment."source
The usual “justifications” for solitary confinement cannot bear scrutiny. As Gawande writes,
The main argument for using long-term isolation in prisons is that it provides discipline and prevents violence. When inmates refuse to follow the rules—when they escape, deal drugs, or attack other inmates and corrections officers—wardens must be able to punish and contain the misconduct. Presumably, less stringent measures haven’t worked, or the behavior would not have occurred. And it’s legitimate to incapacitate violent aggressors for the safety of others. So, advocates say, isolation is a necessary evil, and those who don’t recognize this are dangerously naïve.
The argument makes intuitive sense. If the worst of the worst are removed from the general prison population and put in isolation, you’d expect there to be markedly fewer inmate shankings and attacks on corrections officers. But the evidence doesn’t bear this out. Perhaps the most careful inquiry into whether supermax prisons decrease violence and disorder was a 2003 analysis examining the experience in three states—Arizona, Illinois, and Minnesota—following the opening of their supermax prisons. The study found that levels of inmate-on-inmate violence were unchanged, and that levels of inmate-on-staff violence changed unpredictably, rising in Arizona, falling in Illinois, and holding steady in Minnesota.
And there are available, effective alternatives to solitary confinement. Gawande writes:
So the British decided to give their most dangerous prisoners more control, rather than less. They reduced isolation and offered them opportunities for work, education, and special programming to increase social ties and skills. The prisoners were housed in small, stable units of fewer than ten people in individual cells, to avoid conditions of social chaos and unpredictability. In these reformed “Close Supervision Centres,” prisoners could receive mental-health treatment and earn rights for more exercise, more phone calls, “contact visits,” and even access to cooking facilities. They were allowed to air grievances. And the government set up an independent body of inspectors to track the results and enable adjustments based on the data.
The results have been impressive. 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.
One would think that with 25,000 people in solitary confinement there would be a gigantic tidal wave of litigation about the subject. But that hasn’t happened. I can offer a few reasons for this.
First, the US Supreme Court has since Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78 (1987), given great, uncritical deference to prison administrator’s opinions about how their prisons should be run. You will note that it is their prison, not yours. This means in practical terms that the warden’s assertion that some people are so dangerous that they need to be in solitary confinement so that the prison can function, will be accepted, and contrary opinions and innovations will be rejected.
Second, the prison industrial complex has been booming for decades because of the excessive number of people confined in the US and the desire to isolate prisoners, something that requires more prisons and more guards and more administration and more spending.
Third, the Courts, even when confronted with massive, proven injuries caused by solitary confinement in a Supermax prison, have rendered themselves unwilling to intercede and powerless. In Madrid v. Gomez a federal judge found conditions at Pelican Bay Prison in California "may well hover on the edge of what is humanly tolerable. But, and this is the important but he ruled that there was no constitutional basis for the courts to shut down the unit or substantially to alter it. The Court had to defer to the state’s views about how to treat prisoners.
Prisoners, of course, don’t have any power to change these conditions. They have no money. They are routinely excluded from voting. They don’t have an alumni association. Prisoners’ families are mostly poor and disenfranchised. Prisoners cannot change these conditions.
And we? The prison’s walls keep the prisoners in, but they also keep us out. We don't know what's going on. We might not even care. We really need to have a serious discussion about what is going on behind the walls in our names. But we haven’t managed so far even to start that dialogue. That's a pity.