Yesterday, Democracy Now had a single guest for the entire program, Dr. Atul Gawande, described as "associate professor at Harvard School of Public Health and... a practicing surgeon at the Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. He's also a staff writer at The New Yorker magazine. He is the author of three books; the most recent is The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right." What interested me most was a relative short segment, "Dr. Atul Gawande: Solitary Confinement is Torture". In the segment, they played a brief excerpt from yesterday's web-exclusive story, "Prisoners at Supermax Ohio Penitentiary Begin Hunger Strike to Protest 17+ Year Solitary Confinement", part of an interview with Staughton Lynd, who "wrote the definitive history of the 1993 Ohio prison uprising at Lucasville," for which the hunger-strking prisoners had been sentenced to death. They also played a brief excerpt from last month's interview with Glenn Greenwald about alleged WikiLeaks whistleblower Bradley Manning's pre-trial detention in solitary confinement, "under conditions that constitute cruel and inhumane treatment, and even torture".
Writing at Salon about Manning, Greenwald had cited Gawande's New Yorker article, "Hellhole", and thus guest host Sharif Abdel Kouddous asked about it, and why solitary confinement is considered a form of torture "in many places":
DR. ATUL GAWANDE: Well, I was interested in whether it really was torture, and I was interested because this has become, I think, a generationally defining question for us. In the 1980s, during the Reagan administration, solitary confinement was very unusual. Today, we have over 50,000 people in long-term solitary confinement in our American prisons now. You know, in states like New York- it's across every-red and blue states. We have-New York has over eight percent of its prison population in long-term solitary confinement. A large proportion-some think a majority-are not there for violent offenses, either. It's a method of control that we regard as increasingly routine. And so, what my puzzle was, is it torture, or is it not?
And what I looked back to was the experience and the literature, which is much richer, around what hostages and prisoners of war-our Vietnam veterans, for example-experienced when they went through solitary confinement. And what's found is that people experience solitary confinement as even more damaging than physical torture. Vietnam veterans who received physical torture-John McCain had two-and-a-half years in solitary confinement, had his legs and arm broken during his imprisonment, but described the two-and-a-half years that he spent in solitary as being the most cruel component and the most terrifying aspect of what he went under. You also look at studies that show that people held in isolation from other human beings-we actually need social, friendly interaction with other people to be sane, to be absolutely-
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Right. You document how people actually reach a level of psychosis.
DR. ATUL GAWANDE: That's right. Not everybody.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: They begin to lose their minds, right?
DR. ATUL GAWANDE: Not everybody. The people who become psychotic in solitary confinement are people who often have attention deficit disorder or low IQ or issues of prior mental illness. Well, guess who is in our prisons? And there's a very high rate of psychosis and people flat-out going crazy under the confinement conditions. And so, then what I puzzle over is, does it actually reduce our violence in our prisons? The evidence from multiple studies now is that not only that it has not reduced violence, it's increased the costs of being in prison. And my finding was that we have decided that when it is political-when it is a prisoner of war or a hostage, that it is absolutely torture when other countries do this to people, and that there is no discernible difference in the experience of what people go through in our prisons, when they're in solitary confinement for 14 years, in the case of one person who I documented, that this is torture.
If that disturbs you, or piques your interest, you'll defintely want to read "Hellhole", which covers a very wide range of ground, from the 1950s discovery of the devastating effects of isolation on infants (infant monkeys, that is) to the similar experiences of terrorists' captives and POWs to the explosion of solitary confinement in American prisons in recent decades, the successful alternatives discovered in Britain, and much, much more.
But what struck me most of everything that Dr. Gawande wrote about was the virtual impossibility of changing the practice of torture in American prisons, expressed by a state-prison commissioner who would like to see the use solitary confinement drastically reduced and limited to 90-days maximum, and who estimates that "two-thirds or three-fourths of the heads of correctional agencies" largely agree with him. Details on the flip.
I'm going to resist the temptation to quote extensively uncontrollably from this article, but I will quote some passages related to the experience of long-time hostage Terry Anderson, just to provide a vivid sense of how soul-destroying solitary confinement can be, even for someone of exceptionally strong character:
He missed people terribly, especially his fiancée and his family. He was despondent and depressed. Then, with time, he began to feel something more. He felt himself disintegrating. It was as if his brain were grinding down. A month into his confinement, he recalled in his memoir, "The mind is a blank. Jesus, I always thought I was smart. Where are all the things I learned, the books I read, the poems I memorized? There's nothing there, just a formless, gray-black misery. My mind's gone dead. God, help me."
After his initial period in solitary, he was moved a number of times, sometimes to situations where he was not isolated:
For unpredictable stretches of time, he was granted the salvation of a companion-sometimes he shared a cell with as many as four other hostages-and he noticed that his thinking recovered rapidly when this occurred. He could read and concentrate longer, avoid hallucinations, and better control his emotions. "I would rather have had the worst companion than no companion at all," he noted.
But then he was returned to isolation:
In September, 1986, after several months of sharing a cell with another hostage, Anderson was, for no apparent reason, returned to solitary confinement, this time in a six-by-six-foot cell, with no windows, and light from only a flickering fluorescent lamp in an outside corridor. The guards refused to say how long he would be there. After a few weeks, he felt his mind slipping away again.
"I find myself trembling sometimes for no reason," he wrote. "I'm afraid I'm beginning to lose my mind, to lose control completely."
One day, three years into his ordeal, he snapped. He walked over to a wall and began beating his forehead against it, dozens of times. His head was smashed and bleeding before the guards were able to stop him.
Just one more brief exerpt before turning to what a top prison official had to say, about how we got to where we are today:
Prison violence, it turns out, is not simply an issue of a few belligerents. In the past thirty 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, along with unprecedented idleness-a nice formula for violence. Remove a few prisoners to solitary confinement, and the violence doesn't change. So you remove some more, and still nothing happens. Before long, you find yourself in the position we are in today. The United States now has five per cent of the world's population, twenty-five per cent of its prisoners, and probably the vast majority of prisoners who are in long-term solitary confinement.
And now to the part I found particularly chilling--and illuminating. After explaining how the British found a different way--giving prisoners more control over their social environment, rather than less, because that proved to be the way to reduce violence-- Gawande writes:
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. Most prisoners in long-term isolation are returned to society, after all.....
The recommendations went nowhere, of course. Whatever the evidence in its favor, people simply did not believe in the treatment.
I spoke to a state-prison commissioner who wished to remain unidentified. He was a veteran of the system, having been either a prison warden or a commissioner in several states across the country for more than twenty years. He has publicly defended the use of long-term isolation everywhere that he has worked. Nonetheless, he said, he would remove most prisoners from long-term isolation units if he could and provide programming for the mental illnesses that many of them have.
"Prolonged isolation is not going to serve anyone's best interest," he told me. He still thought that prisons needed the option of isolation. "A bad violation should, I think, land you there for about ninety days, but it should not go beyond that."
He is apparently not alone among prison officials. Over the years, he has come to know commissioners in nearly every state in the country. "I believe that today you'll probably find that two-thirds or three-fourths of the heads of correctional agencies will largely share the position that I articulated with you," he said.
Commissioners are not powerless. They could eliminate prolonged isolation with the stroke of a pen. So, I asked, why haven't they? He told me what happened when he tried to move just one prisoner out of isolation. Legislators called for him to be fired and threatened to withhold basic funding. Corrections officers called members of the crime victim's family and told them that he'd gone soft on crime. Hostile stories appeared in the tabloids. It is pointless for commissioners to act unilaterally, he said, without a change in public opinion.
What struck me about this final passage I've quoted is how deeply at odds the political enviornment is with the actual reality. What we want above all is to make ourselves safer as a society. We also want to think well of ourselves as Christians, or according some other religious or ethical code with a very similar core ideal of wanting to act with care and benevolence in a manner modeled by figures such as Jesus or Buddha. The way to do this is actually available to us.
Although sporadically intuited throughout the ages, it was not known with anything like the degree of thoroughness that it is today. And yet, the dominant political attitude makes it virtually impossible for us to move in the direction of what works--not just for those imprisoned, but for us as a whole society, including those of us who have no personal connection or interest in those who are currently subject to solitary confinement.
This is an abominable state of affairs. We are, in effect, conducting ourselves like a nation of monsters, without really meaning to, or realizing what we are doing. Indeed, if anything we think we are protecting our loved ones--even though we are not. It is not any sort of inner monstrosity on our part that is responsible for this state of affairs. Rather, it is some sort of second cousin to Hannah Arendt's "banality of evil." The evil here is perhaps best thought of as the Biblical sin of sloth: we cannot be bothered to make the effort necessary to challenge our own assumptions, to disbturb our own ease with things as they are.
And what struck me next about this passage was how similar this situation is to many others that confront us today. Indeed, when the anonymous prison commissioner explains the reaction to even the slightest move toward sanity on his part, I though of how similar a response might readily be whipped up in so many different situations:
He told me what happened when he tried to move just one prisoner out of isolation. Legislators called for him to be fired and threatened to withhold basic funding. Corrections officers called members of the crime victim's family and told them that he'd gone soft on crime. Hostile stories appeared in the tabloids. It is pointless for commissioners to act unilaterally, he said, without a change in public opinion.
This is what the forces of fear and reaction have been able to normalize in our country over the past 30 years, not just with respect to treating prisoners with basic human dignity--a standard less than that required for salvation according to Matthew 25--but with respect to virtually any sort of truly progressive, compassionate action.
I have been as bitterly disappointed with Barack Obama's presidency as anyone else, but I have not always seemed that way to some, in part because I see things much more situationally than dispositionally. Yes, Obama is no FDR, or even an LBJ. But it's also true that the world he seeks to act within has been made far more inhospitable to progressive conduct, even as we now know far more certainly how much better the outcomes of such conduct will be. The example of everyday prison torture is just one case in point. It is, unfortunately, typical of entire political order.
Everywhere we turn, the deeply ignorant, but well-organized fearmongers have a decisive edge over those who understand how to actually solve the problems we face--from economic recovery to disarming terrorism and saving the planet from global warming. It's up to us, now, to take that power of understanding and focus it on the task of pushing back against scapegoating, fear-mongering, finger-pointing and demonization. This is the task we have before us. This is our great challenge. To turn back fear and darkness with the light of understanding.