“Cruel and Too Usual”

Lisa Guenther argues isolating prisoners doesn't help rehabilitate them:

When we isolate a prisoner in solitary confinement, we deprive them of both the support of others, which is crucial for a coherent experience of the world, and also the critical challenge that others pose to our own interpretation of the world.  Both of these are essential for a meaningful experience of things, but they are especially important for those who have broken the law, and so violated the trust of others in the community. If we truly want our prisons to rehabilitate and transform criminal offenders, then we must put them in a situation where they have a chance and an obligation to explain themselves to others, to repair damaged networks of mutual support, and to lend their own unique perspective to creating meaning in the world.

The Torture Of Isolation

James Ridgeway argues against the absurd over-use of solitary confinement in America's jails:

Adam Cohen chimes in:

Rather than reserving solitary confinement for the most vicious, unrepentant criminals, American prisons dole it out in heaping portions – and often for no good reason. Some inmates are put in solitary confinement for repeated violations of minor prison rules. There was a report at the congressional hearing of a prisoner who was caught with 17 packs of cigarettes and given 15 days for each pack, or eight months. Worse still: many inmates are put in solitary not because they have done anything wrong, but for their own protection. This includes victims of in-prison attacks and sexual assaults, gay inmates, and children.

Human beings are social animals. To deprive someone of any human contact for long stretches of time does seem to me to be a form of torture – as psychologically disturbing as sleep deprivation, although not as punishing. I don't believe it should be abandoned tout court. In some rare circumstances, it may well be appropriate. But routine? As unthinkable to me as keeping prisoners in effective temperatures above 120.

“The Moral Scandal Of American Life”


That's Adam Gopnik's view of mass incarceration in the US:

Every day, at least fifty thousand men—a full house at Yankee Stadium—wake in solitary confinement, often in “supermax” prisons or prison wings, in which men are locked in small cells, where they see no one, cannot freely read and write, and are allowed out just once a day for an hour’s solo “exercise.” (Lock yourself in your bathroom and then imagine you have to stay there for the next ten years, and you will have some sense of the experience.)

Prison rape is so endemic—more than seventy thousand prisoners are raped each year—that it is routinely held out as a threat, part of the punishment to be expected. The subject is standard fodder for comedy, and an uncoöperative suspect being threatened with rape in prison is now represented, every night on television, as an ordinary and rather lovable bit of policing. The normalization of prison rape—like eighteenth-century japery about watching men struggle as they die on the gallows—will surely strike our descendants as chillingly sadistic, incomprehensible on the part of people who thought themselves civilized. Though we avoid looking directly at prisons, they seep obliquely into our fashions and manners. Wealthy white teen-agers in baggy jeans and laceless shoes and multiple tattoos show, unconsciously, the reality of incarceration that acts as a hidden foundation for the country.

(Photo: Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)

A Fate Worse Than Death Penalty? Ctd

A reader continues the ever-expanding thread:

I think the line between people who are for or against capital punishment can be drawn between those who believe humans can transform themselves from bad to good, and those who believe the opposite.  I believe that no human has the right to steal another human’s right to redemption.  People make choices.  Just as a convict once made wrong choices, it is entirely possible that one day, he/she will realize their mistakes and choose to be a better person.  There is always a chance for an internal repentance – just between them and their conscience (and if they believe, between them and God).  By executing a human, however heinous their crime, we take away this chance. And that according to me, is an unconscionable act.  

Maybe this shift in conscience will never occur, and the convict remains violent – and as others have suggested, in solitary confinement – till the end of their days.  But I am sure there are many whose lives have taken a turn while serving a life sentence, and they have gone on to be better humans while behind bars.  (Life in prison doesn’t necessarily have to be a “waste to nothing”.  Haven’t prisoners earned degrees and done great works of art while behind bars?) It’s too bad that this internal transformation is not quantifiable, and cannot be used to decide which “life without parole” convict should and should not be released from prison.

Another writes:

One of your readers responded: “What’s more humane about imprisoning a human being for their lifetime instead of killing them? This has always baffled me.” The difference, of course, is the scenario where evidence comes to light after conviction that casts doubt on that conviction.  If the suspect is still in prison, there is a remedy – you can consider the new evidence and, if it shows that the suspect was wrongly convicted, that person can be released from prison.  If the suspect has been executed, there is no remedy.  That’s the fundamental problem with the death penalty.

A Fate Worse Than Death Penalty?

A reader writes:

The comparison one of your readers made between euthanizing a person and euthanizing a dog fails to consider one of the most prominent differences between man and dog: self-awareness.  If dogs are self-aware, it is to a significantly lesser degree than humans, and that is what makes the death penalty such a feared, and inhumane, punishment. If execution is a kindness compared to life in prison, as this reader asserts, why do so many alleged criminals agree to pleas just to get execution off the table, and why do so many death row inmates continue to press to have their sentences commuted to life in prison?

I watched an episode of some crime drama – I cannot recall which one – in which a young criminal was executed by lethal injection. As he lay on a steel table, with the tubes hooked up to his veins, the criminal tapped his fingers on the metal, as though he could will himself to resist the deadly effects of the drugs he was receiving. While fictional, I found the perspective credible. I find it difficult to contemplate no longer being part of the world – being nothing. Why else would so many people describe a good death as one where the deceased passed away "peacefully" in their sleep other than our recognition of how disturbing it is to realize that your death is imminent?

Many people who have spent a long time in prison – who no longer cling to any hope of a miraculous release – decide to do some good with their lives. Others strike up new relationships through correspondence, and still others learn to live this new, severely restricted version of their life. I imagine that just as many people not in prison get up at least five days a week to spend 8 or 10 or more hours at a job that they find personally unfulfilling, lifelong prison inmates make it through the daily drudgery of their lives and learn to enjoy the time they have to choose their own pursuits, whether it is reading, working out, socializing, or watching television. Punishment for these prisoners is often solitary confinement.

The world is replete with examples of people who want to live despite what many of us would consider horrible circumstances – the woman in Austria, locked away in a basement by her deranged father; Stephen Hawking, left only with the use of his brilliant mind; the woman whose face and hands were destroyed by a chimpanzee; the hiker who cut off his own hand, rather than perish. Prison sounds like an awful place, but I'd rather be there than dead.

For more on solitary confinement, read Atul Gawande's excellent piece exploring whether the practice is torture. Dish discussion here and here. Another reader:

I am sympathetic to one of your reader's comments that capital punishment can sometimes seem more "humane," or ultimately less painful/vengeful than, say, life in prison.  I still don't think it's our place as citizens to take the life of other citizens without their permission.  (My only exception to this would be figures that instill fear in the overall populace and whose death brings security and cohesion to the general populace, e.g. Osama bin Ladin.)

Here's the thing though.  We can't automatically say that life in prison is way worse for human beings or that capital punishment is way worse.  If someone has an answer to that, he or she is working off of his or her own biases.  Odds are, I imagine, that some people would prefer life in prison while others would prefer to die.  So why don't we make capital punishment a legitimate option?  

Keeping people alive in prison for decades is expensive anyway, and maybe this voluntary procedure would cut back on all of those appeals costs for those on death row, because people would not need to fight against choices they made themselves.  It could also be the most compassionate as it upholds our values of the choice of the individual and rationally demonstrates that keeping the populace safe is more important than vengeance or the generation of suffering.  Also, wouldn't we save money? That's the death penalty I could support.


Apropos of all the death penalty discussion: The author of this post, a law professor specializing in sentencing, has been on a crusade for more people to pay attention to Life Without Parole sentences, either explicit ("I sentence you to life without the possibility of parole") or implicit (e.g., 160-years-to-life.) These sentences are nearly as barbaric as the death penalty, and imposed by the tens-of-thousands, rather than by the dozens as with death. Yet they get almost no attention.

Alone For 28 Years

Jean Casella and James Ridgeway reprint the declaration of Thomas Silverstein, a prisoner "held in an extreme form of solitary confinement under a 'no human contact' order for 28 years":

I was not only isolated, but also disoriented in the side pocket. This was exacerbated by the fact that I wasn’t allowed to have a wristwatch or clock. In addition, the bright, artificial lights remained on in the cell constantly, increasing my disorientation and making it difficult to sleep. Not only were they constantly illuminated, but those lights buzzed incessantly. The buzzing noise was maddening, as there often were no other sounds at all. This may sound like a small thing, but it was my entire world. …

Nearly all of the time, the officers refused to speak to me. Despite this, I heard people who I believed to be officers whispering into my vents, telling me they hated me and calling me names. To this day, I am not sure if the officers were doing this to me, or if I was starting to lose it and these were hallucinations. In the side pocket cell, I lost some ability to distinguished what was real. I dreamt I was in prison. When I woke up, I was not sure which was reality and which was a dream.

“This Is Wrong”

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The president's dismissal of PJ Crowley for defending core American values is a teaching moment for me. My take here. Transcript of Frontline's interview with Manning's father here. The full video here. The Pentagon responds:

“The circumstances of PFC Manning’s pretrial confinement are regularly reviewed, and complies in all respects with U.S. law and Department of Defense regulations.

“In recent days, as the result of concerns for PFC Manning’s personal safety, his undergarments were taken from him during sleeping hours. He was not made to stand naked for morning count, but on one day, he chose to do so. There were no female personnel present at the time. PFC Manning has since been issued a garment to sleep in at night. He is clothed in a standard jumpsuit during the day. None of the conditions under which PFC Manning is held are punitive in nature.”

Solitary confinement 23 hours in a 12' x 6' cell a day not "punitive in nature"? For a model prisoner not even convicted of anything yet? Money quote from Wiki:

Manning's lawyer released an 11-page letter from Manning on March 10, 2011, written to the U.S. military in response to their decision to retain his Prevention of Injury status. In the letter, he described having been placed on suicide watch for three days in January, and having had his clothing removed, apart from underwear, as well as prescription eyeglasses; he said the loss of the latter forced him to sit in "essential blindness." He wrote that he believed this was done as retribution for a protest his supporters had held outside the jail the day before; he alleged that, just before the suicide watch began, the guards began harassing him and issuing conflicting orders, telling him to turn left, then not to turn left.

He also described being required to sleep without clothes and stand naked for morning parade: "The guard told me to stand at parade rest, with my hands behind my back and my legs spaced shoulder width apart. I stood at "parade rest" for about three minutes until the DBS [duty brig supervisor] arrived. … The DBS looked at me, paused for a moment, and then continued to the next detainee's cell. I was incredibly embarrassed at having all these people stare at me naked. …" He wrote that he was later given a smock to wear at night, which he described as coarse and uncomfortable, and said he regarded the decision to remove his other clothing at night as unlawful pretrial punishment.

The Pentagon has described this as "poppycock", a dimissal agreed with by the president – indeed so passionately he has fired PJ Crowley.

I wish I could believe the Pentagon any more about this kind of thing. They have repeatedly lied – and been caught doing so – in this war, especially when it comes to prisoner treatment. What I do know is that the president needs to do more when such reports emerge than merely ask the people responsible for Manning's treatment if he was being mistreated. And that, it appears, is all he has done:

"I have actually asked the Pentagon whether or not the procedures that have been taken in terms of his confinement are appropriate and are meeting our basic standards. They assured me that they are."

If you believe that, you'll also believe we're winning in Afghanistan. One wonders: does this president take everything the military tells him at face value? Is he that deferent to them? He's the commander-in-chief.

Our Own Private Bagram

But without the torture. This is a description of a prison in Mississippi:

Inmates were locked in permanent solitary confinement. In the summer, the cells were ovens, with no fans or air circulation… The cells were also sewers, thanks to a design flaw in cellblock toilets that often flushed excrement from one cell into the next. Prisoners were allowed outside — to pace or sit alone in metal cages — just two or three times a week. Inside was a perpetual dusk: One always-on light fixture provided inadequate light for reading but enough light to make it hard to sleep. Then there were the bugs… Worst of all, though, was the noise. Psychotic inmates screamed through the night.

And this is the story of how the ACLU and prison administrators successfully joined forces to reform it.

Quote For The Day


"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 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 the more I denounce it, as a secret punishment which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay," – Charles Dickens on solitary confinement, 1842.

(Photo by Ximena Izquierdo)

All By Yourself

Isaac Chotiner responds to Atul Gawande:

Gawande never considers the idea of punishment as an end in itself, and it is here, I think, where liberal  writers tend to miss a major motiviating factor in our crime policy. There are numerous historical and religious reasons for this belief, and without getting bogged down in too many details, it is worth pointing out that many people believe wrongdoers “deserve” punishment for bad deeds. Others like, I would assume, Gawande, see no value in punishing people unless it serves distinct ends (keeping criminals off the street, deterring crime, etc.). Now, I happen to agree with Gawande, and I see no value in punishment for punishment’s sake, but it is probably safe to say this is not a majority opinion in America. It also might help explain the sad state of our criminal justice system and prisons.

Ross responds here.