by Eric Martin
“The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.”
Glenn Greenwald has unearthed some disturbing accounts of the five month (and counting) detention of Army Private Bradley Manning, the suspect accused of leaking classified material to WikiLeaks. Again, he is a suspect who is accused of a crime:
From the beginning of his detention, Manning has been held in intensive solitary confinement. For 23 out of 24 hours every day—for seven straight months and counting—he sits completely alone in his cell. Even inside his cell, his activities are heavily restricted; he’s barred even from exercising and is under constant surveillance to enforce those restrictions. For reasons that appear completely punitive, he’s being denied many of the most basic attributes of civilized imprisonment, including even a pillow or sheets for his bed (he is not and never has been on suicide watch). For the one hour per day when he is freed from this isolation, he is barred from accessing any news or current events programs. Lt. Villiard protested that the conditions are not “like jail movies where someone gets thrown into the hole,” but confirmed that he is in solitary confinement, entirely alone in his cell except for the one hour per day he is taken out.
In sum, Manning has been subjected for many months without pause to inhumane, personality-erasing, soul-destroying, insanity-inducing conditions of isolation similar to those perfected at America’s Supermax prison in Florence, Colorado: all without so much as having been convicted of anything. And as is true of many prisoners subjected to warped treatment of this sort, the brig’s medical personnel now administer regular doses of anti-depressants to Manning to prevent his brain from snapping from the effects of this isolation.
Just by itself, the type of prolonged solitary confinement to which Manning has been subjected for many months is widely viewed around the world as highly injurious, inhumane, punitive, and arguably even a form of torture. In his widely praised March, 2009 New Yorker article -- entitled "Is Long-Term Solitary Confinement Torture?" -- the surgeon and journalist Atul Gawande assembled expert opinion and personal anecdotes to demonstrate that, as he put it, "all human beings experience isolation as torture." By itself, prolonged solitary confinement routinely destroys a person’s mind and drives them into insanity. A March, 2010 article in The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law explains that "solitary confinement is recognized as difficult to withstand; indeed, psychological stressors such as isolation can be as clinically distressing as physical torture."
While his status as innocent until proven guilty renders this treatment exceedingly reprehensible, it should be noted that even subjecting the guilty to such inhumane punishment is beneath the principles of the United States. Or at least, it should be.
For those unfamiliar with the harrowing effects of prolonged solitary confinement and why there is little doubt that excessive use is the equivalent of a very severe form of torture, in addition to the links and descriptions provided in Greenwald's post, Hilzoy's masterful three part series on the treatement of Jose Padilla (Part III, with links to prior parts, here), as well as this follow up piece, is highly, highly recommended.
In particular, Charles Dickens' words from Hilzoy's follow up are heart wrenching:
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.
John Cole captures the troubling sadism that this country has reverted to in the face of a terrorist threat and, predictably, how this warped mindset has begun to pervert the entire criminal justice system - not just the system putatively reserved for a certain class of supsects (not that such selectivity provides an excuse or justification):
There is absolutely no reason for this whatsoever, other than the fact that the United States has morphed into a brutal and repressive regime that is terrified of dissent. The only difference between this treatment and what we imagine third world nations do is that we have cleaner and more modern facilities. Hell, at this point Manning would probably welcome physical torture- it would be a welcome diversion.
And yet, this goes on every day in the greatest nation in the world, the home of the free and the land of the brave. Brought to our collective knees in terror of a rosy-cheeked private who had the balls to allow our lies to be published. And for that, we must emulate those great men who have gone before us- Stalin, Pol Pot, Idi Amin, and other great human rights leader, and publicly make a show of our ability to crush one man. Because that is what this is- a message to every one else. There is no other reason to be subjecting Manning to this behavior, as he could be safely secured at any county jailhouse in this nation. Hell, he could be returned to his unit and confined to quarters, and nothing would happen.
The treatment of Bradley Manning is microcosmic of a broader trend that does not speak well for the degree of civilization in our society. And yet we continue to lecture the world as if we were somehow exceptional.