From today's Washington Post:
"Chinese Uighurs who have been imprisoned for the past month at a new state-of-the-art detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, are being held around the clock in near-total isolation, a circumstance their lawyers say is rapidly degrading their mental health, according to an affidavit filed in federal court yesterday. (...)
The Uighurs' (pronounced weegurs) detention by the U.S. military, after being sold for bounty by Pakistanis in early 2002, has long attracted controversy. The men had just arrived from Afghanistan, where, they said, they had received limited military training because they opposed Chinese government control of their native region. But they said they never were allied with the Taliban or opposed to the United States, and had fled to Pakistan only to escape the U.S. bombing campaign.
By 2005, U.S. military review panels determined that five of the 18 captured Uighurs were "no longer enemy combatants," but they continued to be held at the Guantanamo Bay prison until their release last year. The panels did not reach that conclusion about the other 13, though all had given similar accounts of their activities during the reviews, according to declassified transcripts of the sessions. (...)
Lawyers for the remaining 13 Uighurs say the men were moved in December to Guantanamo Bay's Camp 6, a high-security facility at the base completed last August at a cost of $37.9 million. The lawyers say the government provided no explanation for the move, which came shortly after they filed a court petition in Washington seeking the expedited review.
In Camp 6, the Uighurs are alone in metal cells throughout the day, are prohibited for the most part from conversing with others, and take all their meals through a metal slot in the door, lawyer P. Sabin Willett said in his affidavit, which was based on what he was told during his visit Jan. 15-18. They have little or no access to sunlight or fresh air, have had nothing new to read in their native language for the past several years, and are sometimes told to undertake solitary recreation at night, he said.
"They pass days of infinite tedium and loneliness," according to Willett's court filing. One Uighur's "neighbor is constantly hearing voices, shouting out, and being punished. All describe a feeling of despair . . . and abandonment by the world." Another Uighur, named Abdusumet, spoke of hearing voices himself and appeared extremely anxious during Willett's visit, tapping the floor uncontrollably, he said.
The account matches another offered by Brian Neff, a lawyer who in mid-December visited a Yemeni imprisoned in Camp 6. "Detainees in Camp 6 are not supposed to talk to others, they are punished for shouting, and if they talk during walks outside they will be punished," Neff said in an e-mail yesterday. "We are extremely concerned about the . . . conditions of Camp 6 -- in particular, the fact that the detainees there are being held in near-total isolation, cut off from the outside world and any meaningful contact.""
"In my opinion, solitary confinement - that is confinement of a prisoner alone in a cell for all or nearly all of the day, with minimal environmental stimulation and minimal opportunity for social interaction - can can cause severe psychiatric harm. This harm includes a specific syndrome which has been reported by many clinicians in a variety of settings, all of which have in common features of inadequate, noxious and/or restricted environmental and social stimulation. In more severe cases, this syndrome is associated with agitation, self-destructive behavior, and overt psychotic disorganization.
In addition, solitary confinement often results in severe exacerbation of a previously existing mental condition, or in the appearance of a mental illness where none had been observed before. Even among inmates who do not develop overt psychiatric illness as a result of confinement in in solitary, such confinement almost inevitably imposes significant psychological pain during the period of isolated confinement and often significantly impairs the inmate's capacity to adapt successfully to the broader prison environment."
And another (Hinkle, L. & Wolf, H. (1956), 'Communist Interrogation and Indoctrination of `Enemies of the States': Analysis of Methods Used by the Communist State Police.' Archives of Neurology and Psychiatry (Vol. 1956, pp. 115-174)., quoted in the document linked above (p. 27)):
"He becomes increasingly anxious and restless and his sleep is disturbed ... The period of anxiety, hyperactivity, and apparent adjustment to the isolation routine usually continues from 1 to 3 weeks. ... The prisoner becomes increasingly dejected and dependent. He gradually gives up all spontaneous activity within his cell and ceases to care about personal appearance and actions. Finally, he sits and stares with a vacant expression, perhaps endlessly twisting a button on his coat. He allows himself to become dirty and disheveled. ... He goes through the motions of his prison routine automatically, as if he were in a daze. ... Ultimately, he seems to lose many of the restraints of ordinary behavior. He may soil himself; he weeps; he mutters. ... It usually takes from 4 to 6 weeks to produce this phenomenon in a newly imprisoned man. ... His sleep is disturbed by nightmares. Ultimately he may reach a state of depression in which he ceases to care about his personal appearance and behavior and pays very little attention to his surroundings. In this state the prisoner may have illusory experiences. A distant sound in the corridor sounds like someone calling his name. The rattle of a footstep may be interpreted as a key in the lock opening the cell. Some prisoners may become delirious and have visual hallucinations.
Not all men who first experience total isolation react in precisely this manner. In some, the symptoms are less conspicuous. In others, dejection and other despondence earlier, or later. Still others, and especially those with preexisting personality disturbances, may become frankly psychotic."
Here is a table showing the prevalence of some psychiatric symptoms among prisoners in solitary confinement in a supermax prison:
Symptom % Presence Among Prisoners
Irrational anger 88
Oversensitivity to stimuli 86
Confused thought process 84
Social withdrawal 83
Chronic depression 77
Emotional flatness 73
Mood, emotional swings 71
Overall deterioration 67
Talking to self 63
Violent fantasies 61
Perceptual distortions 44
Suicidal thoughts 27
Think about that. Fully 41% of the supermax prisoners have hallucinations, as compared to 1.7% of the general population. Likewise, 84% report 'confused thought processes', as compared to 10.8% of the general population.
To convey what solitary confinement does to a person would take a truly gifted writer; luckily for us, a truly gifted writer made the attempt. Here is Charles Dickens, on his visit to a Philadelphia prison where people were kept in solitary confinement:
"There was a sailor who had been there upwards of eleven years, and who in a few months’ time would be free. Eleven years of solitary confinement!
‘I am very glad to hear your time is nearly out.’ What does he say? Nothing. Why does he stare at his hands, and pick the flesh upon his fingers, and raise his eyes for an instant, every now and then, to those bare walls which have seen his head turn grey? It is a way he has sometimes.
Does he never look men in the face, and does he always pluck at those hands of his, as though he were bent on parting skin and bone? It is his humour: nothing more.
It is his humour too, to say that he does not look forward to going out; that he is not glad the time is drawing near; that he did look forward to it once, but that was very long ago; that he has lost all care for everything. It is his humour to be a helpless, crushed, and broken man."
And here, finally, is Sabin Willett (pdf), the Uighurs' lawyer, on his clients:
"The January 15 meeting was my third meeting with Abdusemet. In previous meetings he had struck me as a kindly man, quite gentle, pleasant in affect, calm, and prone to smile and laugh. On January 15 he appeared extremely anxious. His foot tapped the floor uncontrollably. His affect was deeply sad. He refused offers of the food we had brought. He appeared to be in despair.
He said Camp 6 was "the dungeon above the ground." He said that when they led him into Camp 6, he recalled a movie he had once seen aout a Nazi concentration camp, "a place where, when they take you in, you never come out." (...)
Abdusemet asked us to communicate a message from one of the other Uighurs on his pod to his wife: "Tell her to remarry. She should consider me dead."
Abdusemet asked me, "What did we do? Why do they hate us so much?" (...)
Abdulnasser said he felt as though he were living underground, "in tunnels." He said he knew the building was above ground, but that it felt underground. He said our visit was "a single ray of light in a place of darkness." (...)
Abdusemet, Khalid and Abdulnasser said they had been visited by a "doctor," to ask, whether they were mentally stable. Following these visits, according to Abdulnasser (who understands some English), MPs taunted him with statements like, "Are you going crazy yet?" (...)
Abdusemet advised that one of the other Uighurs on his block was "hearing voices," and had been shouting out indiscriminately. Abdusemet said the man had been punished by being forced to wear the orange jumpsuit.
Abdusemet said, "I am starting to hear voices, sometimes. There is no one to talk to in my cell and I hear these voices.""
You can read the brief filed by the Uighurs' lawyers about their confinement here (pdf).
These men were captured by bounty hunters nearly five years ago. They are in all likelihood innocent of any crime, and of any act against the United States; they have certainly never been tried and convicted of any. We have held them in captivity since then, away from their wives and families. If they returned home now, their children probably wouldn't recognize them -- and as those of you who have kids will surely recognize, those are some of the saddest words there are.
And now, for some unfathomable reason, we have decided to lock them up in solitary, where we are driving them insane. Even if they were guilty, this would be wrong: having your mind and your spirit broken apart should not be the penalty for any crime. Our government is doing it to the innocent.
I'll leave the last word to Charles Dickens, who is a better writer than I am:
"I believe that very few men are capable of estimating the immense amount of torture and agony which this dreadful punishment, prolonged for years, inflicts upon the sufferers; and in guessing at it myself, and in reasoning from what I have seen written upon their faces, and what to my certain knowledge they feel within, I am only the more convinced that there is a depth of terrible endurance in it which none but the sufferers themselves can fathom, and which no man has a right to inflict upon his fellow-creature. I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain, to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body: and because its ghastly signs and tokens are not so palpable to the eye and sense of touch as scars upon the flesh; because its wounds are not upon the surface, and it extorts few cries that human ears can hear; therefore I the more denounce it, as a secret punishment which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay. I hesitated once, debating with myself, whether, if I had the power of saying ‘Yes’ or ‘No,’ I would allow it to be tried in certain cases, where the terms of imprisonment were short; but now, I solemnly declare, that with no rewards or honours could I walk a happy man beneath the open sky by day, or lie me down upon my bed at night, with the consciousness that one human creature, for any length of time, no matter what, lay suffering this unknown punishment in his silent cell, and I the cause, or I consenting to it in the least degree."